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3.36

Day 49

 

My name is Laken Godart. I am blind. Also, I’m trapped in another world where reality seems to conform to the rules of some kind of game.

I could be a victim of some kind of elaborate prank or test, or a social experiment. I could see myself being an easy target for some kind of shady government project—if of course I’m not just crazy.

Right now, I’m not ruling out any options. The reason why I ended up in this world could be anything as simple as an alien abduction gone wrong to genuine magic. I’m leaning on the magic side, myself.

This place is just too…real. Too real, and I want to believe in it. In the short month and a half since I’ve been here, I gained sight. Of a kind, yes, but sight nevertheless. I found someone I loved, and I found something to fight for.

But I won’t forget to think about what I do. I’m no hero with a sword. I’m fairly certain I’d hurt myself just trying to pick one up. I can’t be a warrior.

But I can be smart. I can choose what I want to do and pick my battles, if there are any in the future. I have friends. I have a class.

I am an [Emperor], and I have responsibilities. That, more than anything, informs how I act. Even now, I’ve travelled to this place, this city, for the people under my protection.

“It really is a big city, isn’t it, Durene?”

I say that out loud and feel Durene laughing nervously through our connected hands. I can tell she’s next to me. I may be blind, but I have my other senses. Here is what I know. I’m holding Durene’s hand. Her palm is callused—rough. Almost like a shark’s skin? I touched one once at an aquarium—a small, non-threatening shark or so I was told. Durene’s skin is somewhat like that.

Her hand is warm. On this cold, brisk day, her hand is warm. And I can hear her every step. But I can also hear the voices.

Oh—the voices. I’ve been in huge cities before, heard cars passing by, honking, shouting, but there’s just something about a mass of people that seems large to me. Maybe it’s because I know each person has to be out there, each one an individual moving and talking and thinking on their own.

A hundred voices. A thousand, some shouting, others just talking as they pass by me and Durene. More still simply walk, and it’s that movement which really tells me that I’m in a city.

I can smell—dirt and stone. And sweat, musty odors coming off of winter clothing probably. But more strongly through the air, baked food. Hot tangy scents wafting towards me and making me hungry. Someone’s cooking food over to the left, and the wind’s blowing it towards me. Not a meat—something else?

They’re not the only ones. There are more food vendors all about. Smell, hearing—I’m being overwhelmed on both fronts by the sheer input.

However, I am used to it. I know better than to panic, and it’s hardly like I’m incapable of moving about. I let Durene lead me through the city at a good pace. I just wish—

I wish I could see all of this. Sound and smell only get me so far. But from what Durene tells me, this city is like nothing in my past world.

“Lizard people? Really, Durene?”

“They’re called Drakes, I think. I’ve never seen one before. Um, I think they live far to the south of here.”

“Amazing. Drakes. Draco. Are they related to Dragons, by any chance?”

“I don’t know? They um, have scales. And long tails. Some of them have green scales, others have red or blue or—that one’s yellow.”

Durene moves as if to point and stops herself. I nod to myself as we walk on. I’m trying to imagine what these creatures—these people might be like. But I don’t think in terms of sight, naturally. I have a rough image in my head, but I would love to talk to one of these Drakes, shake their…hand?

“Do they have hands?”

“Something like that. It uh, it’s more like claws. They look sharp.”

Claw hands. I try to fit that in and reconsider shaking hands. But if I could touch one—

And how would I do that? I’m assuming these other species have the same taboos and social norms—at least broadly—that Humans do. Durene didn’t think it was too strange for a city to have Drakes in it, for all she’s never seen one.

Maybe if I got to know one. Naturally I can’t just stop someone on the street—well, I could, but I have more pressing matters.

I am in this city for a reason. I speak to Durene, feeling her guiding me left to avoid something or someone.

“Would you say we’re close to that plaza you saw now?”

“I think so!”

She sounds excited and worried by turns. Excited, and overwhelmed by her first glimpse of a city, as I suppose anyone would be. I have to remember Durene’s never even left her village. This must be overwhelming for her. I have to keep the cool head.

And yet, I can’t help but feel like Durene’s the one who’ll be most useful in a pinch. She proved that when she stood up to those adventurers. All I could do was raise my voice and be useless.

Those adventurers…I sigh as I walk with Durene towards the plaza.

Bastards. Ditto for that lieutenant. But the insight into this city was helpful. There’s corruption here, or at least, casual racism against one type of species. Ironic, that. I guess in a city with countless races joining hands—or claws—there has to be some group that gets pushed out.

I have to understand the world around me to interact with it. That’s why Durene and I have been walking through the city this last hour, taking it in, finding the measure of it. Better that than rush off and make mistakes. And it was a very pleasant walk too—Durene described so many odd sights for me. And yet, I guess you step in dog shit at least once on the best of strolls.

“Ah, I can hear the adventurers shouting now.”

Yes, in my ears I can now pick out a different set of shouts, this one growing louder as Durene and I walk forwards. Adventurers.

“…the Storm Raiders will sell our axes to anyone in need of a strong arm! Make us an offer!”

“—the best, the mightiest! Our shields will block spell and fang alike! The Ironshield Vanguard!”

“We’re a group of [Soldiers] who fought in the Yelten-Grimmor conflict! We’ve over fifty kills between us! You want protection, turn to us!”

Ah, adventurers. Durene leads me forwards, and I can just tell she’s stopping to stare around.

“Do you see Gamel around?”

“No.”

Durene sounds worried, although she shouldn’t be. I can feel her shift—is she standing on her tiptoes? I imagine she would be able to see practically everyone in the plaza. Even these ‘Gnolls’ don’t sound as tall as she is.

“I don’t see him, Laken. Should I call out, do you think? Or—”

I squeeze her hand gently, reassuring her.

“Don’t worry, Durene. It was just a thought. I imagine he’s off in some other square. We did say we’d meet at midday. Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’ve a little bit of time before them.”

“Yeah. You did say—okay.”

“Let’s take a seat—if one’s available. I could use a few seconds to rest, and I’d like to listen to what all these people are shouting. You can describe them for me.”

“Okay.”

We make it a few more steps into the plaza, and then I feel Durene slow. She bends towards me and whispers something in my ear.

“Laken, I think that girl is still following us!”

I pause for only a microsecond, but then move forwards. Durene is stopped.

“I see. Keep walking, Durene. Don’t look back at her—or if you do, just glance past her, as if you haven’t seen her.”

“Okay, Laken. But what does she want?”

“You’re sure she’s following us and not going somewhere else?”

“I’m sure! We practically walked in a circle, and I keep seeing her!”

“Describe her for me again.”

Durene pauses. I can hear the nervousness in her voice when she speaks again.

“Um. Tall. Taller than you, Laken. A few inches taller? She’s…got black hair, darkish skin—I’ve never seen someone who looks like that. Is she a foreigner? Uh—she’s uh—beautiful.”

“Beautiful?”

It’s an alien word to me. Beautiful is a word I associate with a voice, not with faces or appearance. But Durene’s voice is filled with a longing that tells me all I need to know.

“She’s beautiful. Sort of scary-looking, but beautiful. And—she looks like a Runner.”

“Hm.”

Durene spotted the girl following us a few blocks back. She pointed her out to me—well, described her to me—as one of the oddities of the city. A foreigner, someone not native to this continent.

It’s a…hard thing for me to think of. I know there are ethnicities in my world, of course. Nationality, race, gender…that’s easy to understand. But skin color? I don’t know what the color blue is supposed to look like.

Apparently, the folk of Riverfarm and this continent look predominantly like the people of my home continent, Europe. That is to say, mostly fair-skinned. This girl isn’t. She could be black or Asian or Latino—Durene’s descriptions don’t help me think of her in that way. She’s just clearly a foreigner, and one who stands out in this multi-species environment. No—more so because she stands out among her own kind, Humans.

And she’s following us. What does that mean? I frown as Durene worries next to me.

“Let’s get to a seat, and you can tell me if she stays in the area. If she doesn’t—well, we’ll know then.”

“Got it.”

Durene’s palm is slightly sweaty in my hand. Or is it mine? Because I hate to imagine it, but this could be an issue.

Why would someone follow us? A thousand reasons come to mind. They might be a prejudiced asshole like the adventurers. Or they might be interested in Durene. Or maybe it’s something to do with me?

I’m in a gaming world. Is this just a random event? Is this a scripted NPC? I’m sure this isn’t that kind of game, but why else would someone follow us? Is she aware of Riverfarm’s plight? Is she simply curious about an interspecies couple?

I don’t know. But I think. That’s what I can do in this world. Think. Think, and try to understand. Who is this young woman? What does she want?

And what should I do about it?

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin gritted her teeth as she saw the half-Troll’s head turn. She slowed, but the tall girl’s head found her.

“She can’t have spotted me. She can’t.”

Ryoka muttered under her breath as the girl named Durene seemed to glance at her, and then hurriedly look past. It was the third time she’d done so in as many minutes. It made Ryoka worried.

And annoyed, because Ryoka really didn’t want to think she’d been spotted by a Troll. Half-Troll. Whatever. That would be embarrassing, and yet—

“She saw me. Damn, damn, damn…

In writing, it sounded easy. Follow a blind guy being led around by a half-Troll. How hard could that be? It was probably wrong to think, but Ryoka had the impression that the half-Troll girl wasn’t exactly the fastest brick on the block. She seemed simple, somewhat timid, and gentle. A giant, in short, easy to follow without being seen while Ryoka listened to what the two were doing.

But the Troll—Durene was her name, wasn’t it?—kept looking around. Ryoka felt the half-Troll girl’s eyes pause on her again and tried to meld with a group of laughing Drakes. But the problem was that becoming one with the crowd only worked if the crowd was the same species as you were. And for all her varied interests over the years, Ryoka had never tried espionage. To be more accurate, she’d never tried following someone who kept pausing every few minutes to stare about.

In movies or in books, the protagonist following the suspect had the advantage of darkness, or an unaware target, or some convenient plot twist which would help them complete their mission. And at the very least, they could blend with the crowd.

But Ryoka stood out. She knew she stood out. She was an Asian girl who didn’t look like the other native Humans to this land, and certainly not like the other species. So she’d been spotted with disgusting ease. The blind guy couldn’t see her, but his helper could, and she kept staring around—probably to tell him what everything looked like!

That was one side of the problem. The Troll-girl saw Ryoka. She saw Ryoka, but Ryoka saw the man following the pair. That was someone the half-Troll hadn’t spotted.

And no wonder—he was completely bland. He had flaxen hair, a nondescript face—his clothes weren’t anything to blink twice over. And yet, he was following the blind man known as Laken and the half-Troll Durene as well, Ryoka was sure of it.

He was following them, and Ryoka wanted to know why. She kept eying the man as she walked into the plaza with all the adventurers lined up. They were an odd bunch. It looked as though each one had their space to, well, show off. Teams of adventurers—Silver-rank at best by the looks of them—were doing tricks with swords or just trying to give off a certain amount of swagger as their teammates or hired help extolled their virtues, trying to get them a job.

It was an odd way of doing things, but Ryoka supposed it was needed advertisement if you wanted a lucrative contract. In a place with so many adventurers—Ryoka saw one every block it seemed—people with requests could choose their team, which meant competition had to be fierce.

Now the human and half-Troll seemed to be stopping. They were headed for some unoccupied benches sitting in the shade of some trees in the plaza. Ryoka bit her lip.

She hadn’t gotten close enough to hear more than a few snippets of conversation and she’d already been made. Should she try to get close, knowing she was exposed?

It had just been a few words. In German. Just a few words—why couldn’t there be some nation based off of Germany, or some culture with Germanic roots? But Ryoka had to know.

So she walked closer. She looked around—where was that man in plain clothes? He was a master at being invisible. Ryoka would never have spotted him if she hadn’t noticed him following the pair like she was.

There. He was strolling ahead of her, right next to the half-Troll. Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. She watched as he approached, and then cursed.

“Son of a—”

 

—-

 

It happened in a moment as we were walking towards the bench that Durene had found. I, walking by her side, felt her pause for a second.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!”

“My fault, Miss. Please excuse me.”

An unfamiliar voice. Male. Pleasant. I frown and hear him walk away.

“What was that, Durene?”

“Nothing, Laken. I just bumped into that man.”

“Huh.”

Durene sounds at ease, but my frown remains. Something feels wrong. Bumped into her. Why does that…

Who would bump into someone as big as Durene? From what she’s said, she gets a lot of room even on a busy sidewalk. Who goes around bumping into people ordinarily, anyways? And the way he said it—

“Durene! Check your money pouch!”

I snap as thoughts come together in an instant. I’ve encountered thieves and pickpockets before. I know the scam. I hear Durene gasp and then her anguished shout.

“It’s gone! He took it!”

“Go after him!”

“But—”

“Go, Durene!”

I shout, letting go of her hands. That’s not just her money that was taken—Durene had the entire pouch of coin and gems I found by her cottage! If that thief runs off with it—

To her credit, I hear Durene hesitate only for a second. Then I feel her turn and run away from me. Then her voice.

Stop! Thief!

It’s a shout that drowns out all sound for a second. Durene has an impressive pair of lungs, and I can practically hear the thief’s heart stop as she runs towards him.

I stand in the plaza, not moving, fishing in the small rucksack I’m carrying for something. I pull out my foldable cane and extend it fully.

I haven’t had to use it in a while. I decided not to use it when Durene was walking me around—I trust her completely and it might have gotten in the way of all the pedestrians about. But it’s a useful tool now.

A quick check—I tap carefully in a circle around me and find the bench we were about to sit at. I move over to it and sit down.

It’s not as if I’m not panicking right now. A thief, taking all the money Durene and I have—the money meant for Riverfarm? That’s a disaster. But what can I do in this situation? Panic?

Durene’s chasing after the thief. Either she gets him or she doesn’t. I can only make things worse by shouting and running about. So I sit and try to think.

If she fails to get him—we have to talk to the Watch. But can we get our money back? It’s not like I had a credit card—that gold and those gems are probably as good as gone the instant they’re lost. And would the local law enforcement help us? The way they treated Durene—

I wrench my mind off of that train of thought. Consider the worst when it’s over. The real question is—why target Durene? Who steals from a half-Troll? I haven’t ever really laid eyes on Durene, it’s true, but a girl who towers over the biggest Human and who can probably bench press a horse is not someone I’d expect pickpockets to normally go after.

Unless that’s normal in this world. No—it can’t be. Did that cutpurse realize how much money she was carrying? Or—

“Damn. A Skill. It must be that.”

Why didn’t I think of it? It’s a reasonable explanation. If you assume there’s a class for everything, and that’s what Durene seems to believe, then there’s definitely a [Thief] class. And what better Skill than one that allows someone to pick out an easy mark? Or a rich one?

I clench one fist as I hear Durene’s shouting and the commotion growing more distant. Pray. Hope. And think about what to do if she doesn’t catch him—

“Excuse me. Is your name Laken?”

I start. A voice—a female voice comes from above and to my left. I turn my head.

“Hello. Pardon me, but have we met?”

“Not before. But tell me—woher kommst du?

The pronunciation is terrible, and the words are stilted, spoken without fluency. But I stiffen nonetheless, because I know German when I hear it.

And I know that no one on this continent speaks German, as far as Durene or Gamel know.

So why is someone speaking it to me right now?

In the time it takes for me to clear my throat and respond, my thought process is simple. Who’s talking to me? It has to be the girl Durene spotted. Why?

Well, either she thinks I’m from her country or, more probably—

Aus San Francisco. Und Sie?

A sharp, indrawn breath is my only answer. But it’s the only one I need.

Dieu merci. I am not alone.”

Can you feel shock, amazement, relief, and confusion all at once? I’m sure there is one, even if it’s not an English word. There are words in other languages for feelings that are never fully translatable into English.

The Norwegian word forelsket for instance—I feel that towards Durene every time I touch her. I suppose in lieu of a word now, I think I’ll go with ‘relief’ as incomplete as it may be.

“I am not alone.”

I feel tears spring into my eyes, gathering behind my eyelids. As strange as it may sound, I really did think I was alone up until this moment. Alone, in a new world.

But there’s someone else. I stand up, and hear someone take a step back. There’s noise all around us—has Durene caught the thief? I can’t focus on that. Suddenly, I’m in a small bubble with this girl.

“You’re—from home, aren’t you? Earth?”

“Yes.”

“My god. Excuse me, but who are you? I’m blind—are you the young woman who was following us around earlier?”

A pause. I listen, heart beating, before the young woman replies in a low voice.

“I am. I’m—a friend. My name is Ryoka Griffin. Tell me, when did you get here? Do you know why you came to this world? Who have you talked to—who’s that girl who was with you?”

The questions are like a storm, tersely delivered. I hear in them echoes of all the things I want to know.

“My name is Laken. Laken Godart. I came here a little over a month ago. I don’t know how or why—the girl’s name is Durene. She’s my guide, my friend. She found me when I first came to this world.”

“I see.”

“Where is she, do you know? She ran off—”

“After the thief. I think she got him.”

“She did?”

I’m astonished, but there’s a flicker of amusement in Ryoka’s tone.

“Yeah. She picked him up and threw him on the ground. I think she broke some of his bones.”

Durene?

I can’t imagine it. Well, I can, but I can’t imagine her doing that. But this strange young woman seems focused. I hear her moving closer and resist the urge to reach out to try and touch her.

“Look, I don’t have a lot of time before your friend gets back.”

“Why would that—”

“Do you have a cellphone? Flashlight? Anything—anything from our world?”

The question catches me by surprise, but then I fumble at my pocket, and then remember and grab for my rucksack.

“I do. I have an iPhone—it’s practically out of battery, and there’s no signal obviously, but—”

“You can recharge it.”

Really?

“If a mage casts a [Repair] spell it’ll go back to full charge. Okay, listen. Did you get a call—no, you wouldn’t have if you were only here for two months…huh…”

I can tell she’s thinking hard about something. Myself, I’m just astonished. Mage? [Repair] spell? You mean I can charge up my phone in this world with magic? What possibilities might that unlock?

Then I hear Ryoka’s voice in my ears and jerk away. She’s so close! And she’s whispering, very urgently.

“Listen up. You’re not entirely safe with that iPhone. You might be tracked with it—there are people in this world who know we come from another one. If you get a call on your phone, don’t answer it. There are more of us in this world, but—”

“Hold on, hold on! More of us?”

I can’t process everything that she’s saying. Ryoka shakes her head—I know because her hair hits my face slightly as her head moves.

“I can’t give you the full details, not yet. Look, we need to talk. Why don’t we meet up later? I have something to do now, but I can meet you here in—an hour. Can you wait until then?”

My head is spinning, but I nod.

“I can. I’ll be here.”

“Good.”

She’s gone before I can give voice to the questions in my mind. At least, I think she’s gone. I tap around cautiously with my cane—she could be just out of range and I’d never know.

What was that? I sit back down on the bench; my knees are shaking. Before I can collect my thoughts, I hear a voice speaking to me again.

“Sir? Are you the friend of Miss Durene?”

For a second I think Ryoka has come back. But it’s not her—the speaker is different. There’s a bit of a growl to her tone that makes me think of a dog. And worry. Dogs scare me. I’ve been bitten three times while walking—I can’t tell where they are until I run into one, and if the owner’s not got a leash or isn’t attentive, some of them take objection to my presence.

But this is no dog. It must be a Gnoll! I stand up, turning my head in the direction of the speaker.

“Can I help you…Miss?”

“Yes, sir. My name is Raisha, and I am a [Guardswoman] on duty. I am told you are blind. Well, I would like you to know that I have recovered your lost belongings.”

“I got it, Laken!”

Durene calls out and I realize she’s standing with Raisha. I smile.

“You caught the thief?”

“Yes, your friend broke his arm and several ribs.”

An amused tone enters Raisha’s growling voice. She touches something which makes a metallic noise.

“He has been arrested and will be charged. However, I would like to confirm that this bag—”

She hefts something metallic with a strained grunt.

“—is yours. Is this so?”

I’m confused and say so.

“It is—but Durene, you were carrying it.”

“Yes, but…well, it is yours, Laken!”

That’s true, but I have to shake my head over Durene’s semantics. Raisha, the Gnoll [Guardswoman] doesn’t seem to care who owns what.

“I don’t need to know who was carrying what. The issue is simple, sir. I just need to prove that you are the owner.”

“How?”
Now I’m worried. It’s not as if I could prove anything. Raisha opens something with a snap and rummages around in some sort of purse.

“I have here a gem enchanted with a spell of [Detect Truth], sir. It will tell if you are indeed the owner of the stolen goods. Will you comply with this test?”

“Truth spell? Well—certainly. What do I need to do?”

“Place your hand out, palm up. Good—”

I feel something small and hard drop into my palm. It’s cold and I jump a bit. Raisha’s voice is calm.

“I will ask you one question. Please answer yes or no. Is this stolen pouch of coin yours?”

“Yes.”

I can’t help but feel worried. It’s technically mine by the uncertain rules of finders keepers, and it was on Durene’s property, which is to say, mine. And it was a byproduct of a Skill, but I can’t help but tense a bit. I wait for any reaction, but the cue must have been visual.

“You’re speaking the truth. Thank you sir, I just had to check. Your friend has your belongings now. Thank you for cooperating. I regret that you were the victim of this crime, and hope you will have a pleasant day.”

“Oh—thank you.”

Raisha leaves. Durene steps over, and bends down to talk to me.

“Laken, it was amazing! I ran after that thief—I thought I’d lose him, but I just kept on shouting and someone tripped him up for me! Then I grabbed him and threw him down—I didn’t mean to break anything, but I was just so worried he’d run away! And then Raisha ran over and said that she’d never seen a dumber [Thief]—trying to steal from me I mean, and—”

It’s too much for me. I sit back down hard. Unfortunately, I miss the bench and land hard on the paving stones in the plaza. That hurts.

Laken! Are you alright?”

“I’m fine, Durene. It’s just…something happened when you were gone.”

“What?”

I have to laugh as Durene helps me sit down on the bench. How can I tell her? It’s actually easy to say, really. I met someone from my world. Six words. The rest is just speculation.

“I can’t believe it.”

I say it again as we sit together. Durene is silent, thinking. I told her what happened. I wouldn’t keep a secret like this from Durene. I don’t think I’d keep anything from her.

“Do you know why she found you? I mean, how?”

“I have no idea. I just know that she must have been watching us—she was talking to me in German, so she must have heard my comment to that guardsman earlier. It might have been coincidence or—she knows about me some other way.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Magic? Or maybe—she mentioned my iPhone might be used to track me somehow. I wonder, can they use the GPS…? I’d imagine it has to be on, but…”

I trail off. After a moment Durene speaks.

“What are you going to do, Laken?”

“Do? Wait for her. But do it intelligently. Before she gets back, I want to just sit—sit and think, Durene.”

“Okay.”

She’s a good listener. I have to smile, and when I reach out, she takes my hand. For a few seconds we sit together, sitting together, not just on the same bench. I feel myself calm down and when I have my thoughts in order, tell her what they are.

“We learned a lot, and not just that there are other people like me, Durene.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think we had better find a bank—or some kind of moneylender. That thief didn’t go after you by chance. Also, I had no idea there were truth spells in this world.”

“You didn’t? I mean—of course you—but you have things like that in your world, right?”

“Nothing like that. Oh, we have something called a lie detector test—it can’t be trusted. There’s no certainty, no knowing if someone’s telling the truth like this.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. Truth spells, huh? If we had that where I come from, politics might be a lot different.”

I shake my head, thinking about what that might mean. Fact: that guardswoman had a truth stone. Even if that’s only because this is a prosperous city, it means that a truth spell isn’t out of the reach of an affluent member of society. So…

“Things just got a lot more complicated, Durene. I think we’d better wait for Gamel and Ryoka Griffin right here, but in the meantime, here’s what I think we should do.”

“Yes?”

Durene’s voice is quivering with…anticipation. She doesn’t seem scared, only focused and ready to act. It seems like when the chips are down, she’s not afraid to be bold.

I admire that—I’m completely scared spitless by recent developments. But—I smile.

“I smell good food. If I hold down the bench here, you can get us lunch. And something for Gamel too.”

“Really? Food?”

Durene is incredulous. I shake my head.

“There’s no use thinking on an empty stomach. And believe me, we’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

 

—-

 

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn—

Ryoka stalked down the street, cursing under her breath. She was upset. Not upset at what had just transpired, but she was—tense.

 

“Why are ye cursing? You spoke with the blind man while his protector was away, did ye not?”

 

Ivolethe piped up from her position in Ryoka’s belt pouch. The young woman paused and took a breath.

“I did. It’s just—hell, Ivolethe. Was that the right thing to do?”

The faerie’s answer was an eloquent shrug. She’d found a bug from somewhere and was holding the squirming insect as she pulled a leg off of it. Ryoka had to pause, with people passing by her from every side and giving her dirty looks, to admire that.

“You’re a monster.”

 

“Hah! You eat cows and sheep and birds! What’s a small insect to all that?”

 

“I don’t eat them live.”

Ryoka paled a bit as Ivolethe tore the twitching leg off and bit at the insect’s abdomen. She closed the belt pouch for a few seconds and collected her thoughts.

“He’s from another world. Fuck. Okay. He’s from another world. What do I do now?”

The Frost Faerie poked her head out and shrugged. She was licking something off her face—Ryoka looked away.

 

“Who says you have aught to do? ‘Tis not your business whether he lives or dies. Why not do what ye need to? You have duties. Your enchanted items, learning to run like the wind—”

 

“I know. I know, but—I can’t just ignore him. He could know something important. He could…I can’t just ignore someone else. It’s one thing to know about the kids Magnolia has, but she has no idea about Laken. I want to keep it that way, warn him.”

 

“A smart idea. Perhaps.”

 

Ryoka glanced down sharply at Ivolethe, but the Frost Faerie’s comment could have been just an offhand insult. After a moment, Ryoka nodded and resumed striding down the street.

“Let’s just find Reynold. I thought he’d catch up by now, but he might have had trouble parking that carriage. That was lucky.”

 

“Hm. Perhaps.”

 

Ryoka wondered if Ivolethe liked giving her ulcers, or if the faerie didn’t know what effect her words had on Ryoka’s paranoia. No. She had to know. Ryoka shook her head as she made her way out of the plaza—she saw as she went out, some farmer’s kid pleading with a group of adventurers.

“Sirs, please! My village is—it needs protection! We don’t have much money to spare, but—”

He got no further because the adventuring team—a rough-looking group of warriors led by a huge man armored like a Viking—turned away from him in disgust. The young man despondently hurried over to the next group as Ryoka shook her head.

Poor people, without money or friends. It was the same in every world; those who had neither got stepped on. She walked swiftly away, hearing him begin pleading with another group and hoping that he found someone who would listen.

After five minutes Ryoka did find Reynold, or rather, he found her. She was nearly back at the Runner’s Guild when she saw him walking towards her down the street. He…stood out.

A [Butler] walking down the streets of New York City would stand out, and Invrisil was close in nature to fit that analogy. Heads were turning as the trim and elegant Reynold proceeded down the street. He stopped and nodded politely to Ryoka; a grunt was his response

“Took you long enough.”

“My apologies, Miss Ryoka. I was unavoidably detained. May I escort you to your desired meeting with the [Enchanter] in charge of your artifacts now?”

“Lead on.”

The two turned and Reynold led Ryoka away from the business district, into an upscale area clearly occupied by the wealthiest individuals. It was still a place for work to be done, but these were clearly homes that doubled as working places. Ryoka was relieved that Reynold set a good pace; for a man who dressed like a Victorian-era servant, he certainly could move quick.

“I never asked, but you know how to fight, don’t you? Magnolia wouldn’t hire a normal [Butler]. Not her.”

“I do indeed have a few levels in, ah, auxiliary classes which inform my main class, miss.”

“Really? Were you a former adventurer?”

Reynold turned his head slightly. Ryoka met his gaze.

“No, Miss. Not an adventurer.”

There was a tone in his voice that shut down the conversation. Ryoka had used it countless times before. She debated pressing him further, but she couldn’t quite make herself be that rude. She sort of liked Reynold.

“Here we are, Miss.”

Reynold led Ryoka to a rather plain door. Ryoka blinked at the grey granite door and lion knocker. Reynold stepped up and rapped the knocker twice smartly. The Runner stared up at the building that looked like it had been carved completely out of a single block of granite and snorted. It stood out from the elegant facades and buildings covered in paint and architectural daring.

“I can’t say I admire this [Enchanter]’s sense of aesthetics. This building is an eyesore.”

“It is shaped to contain magic. Stone is a necessity to avoid leakage; and paint wears away in no time. My dwelling is plain because I have shaped it for function, not visibility.”

A calm voice came from the doorknocker. Ryoka jumped as she saw the lion’s stone eyes had shifted to stare at her.

“You are Ryoka Griffin. And you are Lady Reinhart’s representative? Enter.”

The door swung out, revealing a far more impressively-decorated interior. Ryoka blinked at the rosewood floor and well-lit entryway. Then she stepped into the [Enchanter]’s house.

The door closed behind Reynold as the two walked down the corridor. The inside of the [Enchanter]’s house was no featureless stone building. The flooring, walls, and hanging glass globes of mage light were all extremely costly. But Ryoka’s eye was drawn more to the decorations on the wall.

Wands, swords, a shield, a helmet on a stand or a single metal gauntlet adorned the walls of the [Enchanter]’s home. Ryoka realized in a few seconds that these were ornaments as well as the merchandise; she still had to blink as she entered a living room where a massive greatsword hung over the fireplace.

“I am in my work room. Please, take the door across from you and proceed left down the hallway.”

A voice echoed throughout the house. Ryoka did as instructed, and found herself in a large room filled with oddities.

The first thing she noticed was a circle drawn in the center of the room, a complex diagram of countless lines that formed…well, a circle was the rough shape, but the pieces that made it up were countless symbols joined together—

They glowed white-blue as Ryoka stared at them and she looked away, blinking as her head began to ache. When she could see again she saw a man standing along one wall of the room, holding a sword in his hands.

It was one of the swords that the Horns of Hammerad had recovered. As Ryoka watched, he lowered it into a tub, a wooden basin holding…what?

Dust? No—iron dust, small fillings as fine as powder. The man muttered a word and Ryoka saw the sword’s blade flash in the basin. When the man pulled the sword out, the iron dust had clung to the blade of the sword in a strange pattern. It was clearly a magical symbol, and it changed as Ryoka watched.

“Clever.”

The [Enchanter] turned and the dust fell back into the basin. He nodded at her. Ryoka was surprised to see this man was barely thirty years old. He didn’t seem old at all, but he had a pale cast to his skin that spoke of staying out of the light far too often, and he was missing the ring finger on his left hand.

He was clean shaven, had pale orange hair, a nervous tic where he would tap an object twice with his left finger, and a businesslike attitude. He nodded to Ryoka.

“Yes, the iron dust magnetizes when exposed to the enchantments under the right circumstances. Not with all enchantments, but it is a preferable alternative to other sundry materials.”

He gestured, and Ryoka saw there were other basins in the room containing similar materials. This man also had an anvil and hammer leaning against the wall. No fire though—he’d probably conjure that, wouldn’t he?

“You have quite the setup.”

Ryoka nodded at the anvil. The man didn’t turn his head.

“I do. Now, you have come to have the qualities of your magical items explained, yes? I assume the nature of these artifacts may be shared with the servant accompanying you? And the…thing in your belt pouch?”

“How did you—”

The [Enchanter] tapped the back of his right hand with his left hand’s finger.

“All transactions and words uttered within my abode are private. They will not be shared; rest assured, my wards will keep out even the most powerful of mages from listening in without my knowledge.”

Ryoka glanced behind her at Reynold, who had taken a position by the door. The [Butler] nodded politely at the mage.

“Mister Hedault’s services are recognized as the best in the city. He is extremely competent, and does not reveal any information passed to him in confidence.”

Hedault made no reaction to Reynold’s words. He stared at Ryoka with a fixed, off-putting, focused stare.

“I put a question to you. Will you share the information with the [Butler] and creature you are carrying?”

“Yes.”

Ryoka muffled the outraged shout from her belt pouch. She stared around and found the items she’d given Reynold to have appraised. A silvery circular buckler with a hairline scratch, a sword whose hilt was burnt but had little else wrong with it, the blade of a sword—the metal deformed in two places, and a dagger. The dagger was curved and sharp; Ryoka thought the tip was reddish, but aside from that the weapons appeared like normal, functional killing instruments. But not magical artifacts.

Then again, what did she know? Ryoka spotted two other small objects—a pack and a small bag that looked like it held only a few objects inside. An adventurer’s pack and bag of holding.

“Did you analyze everything?”

“Yes. I shall list the properties of each artifact first, and then inform you as to the nature of any damages that may have occurred and the probable cost of repair. Please, do not interrupt.”

“Hold on. Do you mean—”

Hedault turned and stared flatly at Ryoka. The girl rolled her eyes and closed her mouth.

“Very well. To begin with, this sword. It is worthless.”

The man walked over to the sword blade without the hilt and lifted it to show Ryoka. He pointed at the melted bits of metal.

“See how the blade has been melted from the heat? The enchantments are broken. Unable to be reconstructed. There is no merit to using the blade; the magic is defunct.”

“Can anything be salvaged? Could you study the enchantment—tell us what it does?”

Another flat look. Hevault tapped the blade twice with his finger and replied testily.

“If there were any use for it I would have stated. I asked you to remain silent.”

“Yeah, but I like asking questions.”

This time Ryoka saw the man’s eye twitch. Hedault placed the sword blade back on the table without another word.

“Next, this dagger. It is unharmed from the fire damage. Curiously, it was not affected despite the enchantment not being warded against magical damages. I can only surmise luck played a role in this—”

“Do you want to know where these weapons came from?”

Ryoka couldn’t resist breaking in, just to annoy Hedault, really. He looked at her and she saw Reynold covering his face out of the corner of her eye.

“I do not have to ask. I know. These came from Albez.”

“You could tell?”

“The enchantment style matches the other artifacts recovered from that location. Moreover, rumor points to the Horns of Hammerad having found magical items in that ruin recently. It matters not; the enchantment speaks for itself. Do not ask another question or I will silence you with a spell.”

Ryoka shut her mouth and raised her hands. Hevault sighed and tapped the blade of the dagger twice.

“Note the tip. The blade is common steel, but it is warded against physical harm and heat. When a word is spoken, the tip will ignite. However, the heat will be contained. Thus, when using it like so—Terith.

He spoke a word and Ryoka saw the tip of the blade began to glow red. But not a bright hot-red; rather, the color seemed almost illusory, a red overlay over the plain steel blade. Hedault turned with the blade extended away from him.

“Observe.”

There was a piece of firewood on the table. Hedault picked it up and touched the tip of the dagger to it.

The entire block of wood burst into flame. Ryoka recoiled and stared at Hedault’s hand, but the man had hurled the firewood away. It hung in the air, burning fiercely as he lowered the dagger.

Termas.

The color on the blade returned to normal. Hedault placed the dagger back on the table as the firewood burned in the air behind him. He waved his hand and the blaze ceased, leaving the wood charred but intact.

“As you can see, the flame enchantment is not for heat per se, but to spread fire. An important distinction. The contact radius of the flame is around…the volume of a tree, I should say. Or an Ogre. With it, it would be possible to immolate several targets at once, but the flames will be non-magical. Alternatively, it is possible to set fire to something like the surface of a lake, although the magical aspect of the flame will last for seconds—it will quickly extinguish if the material is not readily combustible.”

“Jeeze.”

Ryoka breathed the words, her heart still pounding.

That was magic.”

Hedault stared at Ryoka. She bit her lip, remembering his injunction. But he smiled, turning up his pale lips for the first time since she’d seen him.

“It was. A competent spell. Too often the blades I see with heat enchantments are simply hot. But this? A useful tool for a mage to distract the enemy, especially if used with telekinetic spells to strike at range, as the old [Battlemages] often did. Now—”

He turned to the sword. Hedault sighed as he picked it up.

“An intact blade of weight. The enchantment is finer than most, but it is unremarkable.”

He turned and raised a finger to forestall Ryoka’s question.

“This is a common enchantment favored by warriors. It amplifies the weight of the blade when struck with. So—”

He raised the blade and tapped it on the wooden table, using the flat of the blade rather than the edge. The table broke with a crash that made Reynold and Ryoka jump. Hedault blinked at all the weapons lying on the ground and tsked.

“Well, this blade is quite powerful I suppose, but otherwise uninteresting. A valuable weapon for a warrior, I suppose. With this grade of enchantment…you could very well fight a creature such as a Wyvern and cleanly slice through its hide with the right swing. Next.”

He put the blade on another table as he levitated the buckler out of the broken wood. Hedault seemed to grow morose as he touched it, showing Ryoka a hairline fracture on the center.

“A shame. This shield is damaged and requires repair. However, the enchantment is largely intact—it will emit a field around the buckler of around three feet in every direction. It is hard to describe to a non-mage—consider it a moving barrier extending the natural shield, with it as the focus. Such a barrier is practically impervious to most weapons, although a strong blow may destabilize it. And of course, the true benefit of such a shield is that it is practically weightless—”

“A force shield.”

Ryoka breathed the words. Hedault cocked his head and nodded.

“Crude, but accurate. This buckler is highly useful, not to mention original. But as I said, it must be repaired first. I will inform you as to the cost later. Now, these conclude the weapons recovered. But this—”

He turned to the adventurer’s pack and flicked his fingers at it. It rose and spilled out its contents into the air.

“Those who recovered this pack were wise not to disturb it. However, there was no trap spell on the bag, merely one to prevent it being opened by the wrong user and reinforce the materials. I have bypassed that; here are the contents.”

He showed Ryoka a sheaf of very cracked and faded papers, a broken inkpot whose contents had spilled over some other objects including flint and steel, waterskin, small brush—a toothbrush?—sealed jars, a small gold ring…

“Most objects were mundane and of little worth. There was also a quantity of rotten food which I disposed of.”

Hedault shuddered and tapped his hand against the bag before levitating something up to show Ryoka.

“—This is what is valuable. These four potions are, in order, a healing potion, a potion to provide sustenance, and two potions which prevent the user from needing to breathe.”

He held out a hand, forestalling Ryoka, but this time the girl didn’t speak. Hedault eyed the smiling Ryoka and explained.

“The potion to provide sustenance is a rare acquisition that [Alchemists] may pay well for. It is not a common discovery in adventurer’s packs however, as they generally fail to stopper said potions correctly and it is subsequently lost…this one is untouched. Drinking a small bit will forestall hunger for a day. Drinking the entire potion at once will provide sustenance for up to a month depending on the level of exertion, and the user will find it difficult to imbibe any other foods in the meantime although it is possible…”

“And the breathing potions?”

“Exactly what they sound like. Generally such potions have the efficacy to provide their users to hold their breath for…two hours. Note that the creation of such potions differ…you may wish to consult an alchemist, but a majority of the potions were made to be held in the mouth rather than swallowed. Swallowing such a potion may result in extreme indigestion. Explosive effects tend to ensue.”

Explosive? Ryoka could just imagine what that meant, and wished she couldn’t. Hedvault placed the potions back in the pack dismissively.

“Next. The last items of value are this bag of pebbles and ball.”

He pulled out a bag filled with tiny circular, flat stones and a ball which was made out of leather. Someone had stitched an angry face onto the leather in red thread. Ryoka was tickled by it. Hedault gestured to the pebbles.

“Each one is enchanted to shed [Light] for twenty four hours before fading until exposed to sunlight for an equal amount of time. A useful tool I suppose. But this ball…is quite extraordinary.”

He had that look which told Ryoka it was more interesting than the rest. She stared at it. Hedault pointed to the face stitched in the leather.

“Note the symbol. This one is meant to provoke an opponent. If it is touched here, and then thrown—”

The instant his finger touched the ball, Ryoka saw the stitching contort. The face contorted, and then began to scream.

Instantly Ryoka clapped her ears to her head. Reynold did the same, but Hedault just tossed the ball. It immediately shot out of the room and rolled down the corridor, emitting that same ear-piercing shrieking of noise. After a few seconds in which Ryoka shouted and Hedault calmly shook his head, the sound ended and to her surprise, the ball rolled back into the room. It sat at the enchanter’s feet, calm and inactive.

It took a few minutes before the ringing had died down in Ryoka’s ears to hear again. When she did, Hedault calmly picked up the ball and showed her where to press.

“It takes a rather strong force from a living hand to activate it. However, when used it will aggressively seek out any living creature in the nearby area, excluding those in a general radius of activation…if no quarry is found it will return.”

“Useful!”

Ryoka shouted the words. Hedault nodded and smiled.

“Innovative. That is all of worth in the pack.”

Ryoka put her finger in one ear and winced, wondering if she’d lost some of her hearing for good. She saw Reynault shaking his head and turned to Hedault.

“All of this…is this a good haul for a group that went through a dungeon? In your experience?”

He stopped and considered that, hand on the last item, the bag of holding.

“No. Some of these artifacts are indeed valuable—the shield and sword I suppose are most useful—but they are hardly impressive finds. Given the risk, I would say that this recovery is rather mediocre.”

Ryoka’s head lowered. Hedault smiled.

“—If you do not count the contents of this bag, that is.”

Her head snapped up, and Ryoka saw a smile flash over the enchanter’s face.

“You do have a sense of humor. Huh.”

He turned away from her and carefully opened the bag.

“Given the quality of the items recovered, I had assumed the Horns of Hammerad had broken into a competent but average mage for the era, perhaps an intermediary mage in their craft. However, when I finally managed to open this bag…it is clear now that the fire trap spell that triggered consumed many powerful artifacts. Yet this bag was completely unharmed; an appropriate measure given the artifacts contained within.”

Ryoka and Reynold held their breath as the enchanter reached into the bag. The room went silent as Hedault fished around inside and then pulled out…

Three rings and a wand. Ryoka exhaled hard as she stared down at the items in Hedualt’s hand.

“Tell me looks are deceiving.”

Hedault appeared annoyed as he placed the items on the table.

“Always. These artifacts are all exceptionally valuable. Let me impress the reasons why upon you now.”

Ryoka gestured for him to go right ahead. The enchanter muttered to himself a bit and then tapped the table as he pointed to the bag.

“Firstly, the bag. It is superbly enchanted. By which I mean to say there is no magical leakage whatsoever. Do you understand the concept around magical interference between artifacts?”

“I get it from context. Leaky magical items conflict? Can’t have a sword and a shield if the enchantments are bad?”

“Yes. Such a combination would lead to a reaction in the worst cases, or a clash of magics which would unleash the spells, alter them in adverse ways, or simply break one or both of the enchantments. But this—this bag is perfect.”

Hedault sighed as he held it up.

“Despite the limited size—you may be able to fit twenty pounds of weight inside at most—it is stellar. A mage practicing magic may carry it without fear of any kind of magical interference.”

“Huh. Twenty pounds? Doesn’t sound that great.”

The look Hedault gave Ryoka said he was considering fitting her head in the bag and giving it a good kick.

“Bags of holding rarely contain more than a hundred pounds of weight—and those bags are very magically unstable, let me assure you. This is the work of an artisan above my ability. You would be lucky to find another bag so well made.”

“Oh really?”

On a hunch, Ryoka pulled out her bag of holding, the one Teriarch had given her.

“This one holds a bit more than twenty pounds. I’d say fifty five is the upper limit. Mind telling me how good this one is?”

“Hah. This is…this…”

Hedault’s voice trailed off as he took the bag from Ryoka. He peered at it, and then his eyes bulged. Ryoka snatched the bag back and smiled.

“Good to know.”

It was just a hunch, but why would a Dragon ever have a bag of holding that was less than perfect? Hedault stammered as he stared at her.

“Who made—where did you…?”

“What does this ring do?”

Ryoka lifted a ring up. Hedault had to visibly compose himself for a second—in the corner of her eye Ryoka could see Reynold writing something down. She turned with a frown, but he had tucked it into his waistcoat before she could see.

He was recording all of this down—not just the artifacts, but what she had as well! Ryoka bit her lip and made a note to have words with him afterwards. Hedault shook his head and turned back to the ring Ryoka was holding.

“It is inadvisable to touch something until an [Enchanter] has identified it. In this case, the danger is to me. Please hand it to me.”

Ryoka did. Hedault slipped the ring onto his finger and sighed, going back to his business-like self. Nevertheless, his eyes still glittered as he showed the ring to Ryoka.

“Note the circular diamond in the center.”

“It’s large. Flawless. My g—wow. And perfectly cut.”

“Yes.”

Hedault nodded, acknowledging Ryoka’s insight into the gem itself. Ryoka had seen valuable gems—she was aware of the difference between cheap cut stones and the really important stuff. The diamond was the later kind.

“Pure. Without faults. And large—yes. This gem acts in tandem with the metal—it is not, in fact, silver but platinum.”

“You’re kidding me. People knew how to work platinum back then?”

“Oh yes. Platinum is a very powerful metal when used for enchanting or spells…in this case, it acts as a conductor for the spell with the gem. When the ring is put on the finger and the hand is flicked like—”

Hedault paused as he put the ring on his finger. Ryoka saw Reynold duck out of the way, and she herself felt uneasy the instant she saw it go on his finger. The enchanter stared around the room and shook his head.

“…If I used it, my walls would suffer damage. I shall avoid demonstrating it now. Know that this ring can be activated and deactivated. But when activated, a flick—”

He demonstrated after taking the ring off. It was a quick snap of the wrist.

“—will send a piercing spell flying at the target. I believe it would be…difficult to aim without practice, but let me assure you that this spell far surpasses any Tier 2 or Tier 3 spell of a similar nature. It would be…around Tier 4 in potency.”

“Blood on my grave, that’s nasty.”

Reynold muttered out loud and clapped a hand to his face as both girl and mage turned to him. He colored, but Hedault nodded.

“A powerful spell, designed to cut past any quick defense. A perfect tool for an assassin—or a mage disinclined to fight fairly in a magic duel. Very powerful.”

“So I see. And this ring?”

Ryoka pointed to one made out of wood. Hedault shrugged, losing interest.

“Very powerful. Very common. [Barkskin].”

“Do you mean literally bark for skin, or…”

“There may be some physical alterations given time, but only temporarily. The skin will indeed grow tough—not as strong as armor, but certainly far more durable which would be invaluable against daggers and to an extent, swords…but [Barkskin] also provides the wearer with a degree of cold resistance due to the thicker exterior, and of course, some users simply prefer it when travelling outdoors as the sun will provide them with energy…”

“Wait a second, you mean you’ll literally have bark for skin, as in, you can take in light like a plant?”

Hedault gave Ryoka a confused look.

“That is the implication with the spell, is it not? In any case, it is a valuable item, especially given that it is a permanent spell. Again, I impress on you the difference between temporary and permanent. [Stoneskin] is a powerful enchantment, but I have heard of only a handful of cases where it was ever successfully imbued into an artifact.”

“Good stuff. Got it.”

“Yes, well, this ring is far more interesting.”

Hedault shook his head as he pushed the other two rings back and picked up the third. Ryoka’s eye was caught instantly by the way this one was clearly magical. It looked like it was made up of air. That was to say, it was practically invisible, but for shifting…waves in the air. It looked a lot like the shimmering that came off of pavement in the heat, only twisted into a band.

“A ring that allows the user to jump up to six times their height without consequence. Weight will affect the spell naturally, but this…”

The enchanter breathed the words out loud, eyes shining. Ryoka and Reynold blinked.

“Oh come on. That’s your powerful enchantment?”

Ryoka glared at Hedault. The mage looked insulted.

“This enchantment is splendidly made. And though it is not a physical enhancement, the use of gravity magic is—”

“It’s a ring of jumping. Tell me how that’s as useful as a ring that turns your skin into bark or shoots missiles?”

“Well, you could crush a man in armor with your foot if you put it on.”

Ryoka paused with her mouth open.

“Explain.”

“This ring does not simply allow you to ‘jump higher’. It allows you to jump higher and maintain the weight of your fall while protecting the user. To put it in simpler terms, this is not a ring that has a simple [Featherfall] and [Lightfoot] dual enchantment. This ring uses gravity. Thus, if a warrior in plate armor were to jump twenty feet into the air and land, the impact would—”

“Holy crap.”

“Quite. Do you understand? This is no ordinary ring. In fact, a ring of jumping completely misses the point. With it, a user could grab hold of say, a team of adventurers and leap to safety, or use it themselves to travel up a cliff without fear of falling.”

“But there are limits, right? You couldn’t just jump off a cliff and…”

Hedault raised his eyebrows. Ryoka gulped.

“Seriously?”

“The ring will come into focus the more its energies are exhausted. See, it is practically opaque? It will slowly stabilize and its true form—I believe it is a brass band—will emerge. Thus, a user will be able to calculate if it is becoming drained from usage. Although I doubt it would be drained from anything other than a powerful impact. And it will recharge within days at most…”

It was odd. Throughout her talking with Hedault, Ryoka had just marveled at the magical items, wanting to try one or the other, but without any real desire to use any of them. What was she going to do with a sword? Well, it would be fun to chop a few things apart, but…

But now she couldn’t stop staring at the ring Hedault held. She wanted it. Ryoka Griffin wanted it more than anything she’d ever seen in the world. She wanted to climb a cliff with it. Or a mountain. She wanted to jump. She wanted to fly.

“Okay, that one’s good.”

“Relatively speaking, it is the second-most powerful item discovered. But this—”

Hedault sighed and picked up the wand. Ryoka’s eye fixed on it. It wasn’t a wand made of wood. It was metal. Iron? The dark grey—almost black metal was twisted like it had been alive, though. It was fashioned as though it were a bit of wood taken from a tree, ending with a blunted tip.

The [Enchanter] looked at Ryoka as he cradled it in his hands.

“Before I inform you as to this item’s usage…I don’t suppose you would consider my offer? I realize it is completely unconventional, but I feel compelled to make it.”

“Which is?”

“Allow me to pay you eighteen thousand gold pieces to purchase this wand from you. I will not make this offer again, and if you desire to accept you must not ask what this wand’s usage is.”

Reynold sounded like he’d inhaled his tongue. Ryoka blinked a few times and put her hand to her ear.

“Eight…eighteen? Not just eight?”

“It is the number for silence, for not inquiring. The wand may be worth less, but this is my price. Will you take it?”

Ryoka gulped as she met Hedault’s eyes. She looked at Reynold—the man was blinking rapidly as his eyes fixed on the iron wand. There was quill and inkpot balanced on his hand as he held a small book in front of him.

The young woman turned back to Hedault and sighed.

“Damnit, if you knew me…I have to know what the hell that wand is. Sorry, no deal.”

Hedault nodded. He looked visibly disappointed—Ryoka supposed that was crying and weeping on anyone else. He stroked the wand and then looked at Ryoka.

“Very well. Then, an explanation first. This wand is not metal as you might surmise. It is iron wood—it comes from a rare tree that is extinct as far as I know. But inside the wand…there is something. A core.”

“You mean, the thing that gives it magic?”

“Yes. I do not know what it is.”

“You can’t tell?”

Hedault shook his head.

“It is something I have never seen before. Something…powerful. This wand is powered by the core—it is a classical wand. I suppose you do not know the difference between a classical wand and variation designed for spellcasting…? No, I see not.”

“Let me guess. One’s better?”

“Substantially.”

Hedault nodded. He indicated the wand he held.

“This wand has no spell attached to it. It is…well, I suppose you could call it an aid to spellcasting, but an aid hardly encompasses…it will boost any mage’s ability to cast spells immensely. Not like the modern wand. Those have cores of course, but these are almost invariably small mana stones. They are consumed with every cast of the spell embedded in the wand—you understand?”

“One’s temporary and helps cast a certain kind of spell, the other one’s good at everything and doesn’t run dry?”

“Exactly.”

Hedault nodded as he reluctantly let Ryoka inspect the wand. It was heavy she found—and the iron wood did indeed feel like wood. Cold, metallic wood.

“Such a wand is…valuable does not begin to describe it. Consider, please, the limits of modern construction. A—a wand made today would have to be of some high-quality wood. Perhaps meltwood, or cerabark? And the core might be unicorn hair or unicorn horn if you were so unimaginably lucky—it would be inferior to this wand by a substantial degree.”

Ryoka whistled as she held the wand.

“Ceria and Pisces are going to tear each other apart over this thing.”

“Any mage would. In fact, I advise you to take care in transporting it—it is not magically significant so a casual [Detect Magic] spell would not identify it immediately if concealed correctly, but any mage worth their salt would do almost anything to obtain such an object.”

Ryoka eyed Hedault.

“Why didn’t you lie about what it was, then? Seems odd you’d just tell me what it is after making one offer.”

The enchanter glared at her, outraged by the suggestion.

“I make my living based on my trustworthiness. I would not lie—even when sorely tempted to.”

“Sorry, sorry. It’s just—wow, this is the big one, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

Hedault grew silent as Ryoka turned the wand over in her hands. He sighed.

“Congratulations, Ryoka Griffin. I am told there are two mages in the Horns of Hammerad. One of them will benefit greatly—assuming the other does not attempt to kill them to possess this wand, that is.”

“We’ll see.”

Ryoka put the wand down and turned to Hedault. She felt lightheaded—possibly because she’d listened to him chatter on about magical artifacts for the better part of an hour. Or was it more? She couldn’t tell how long she’d been standing here.

“Was that it? You said something about repair costs…”

“Ah, yes.”

Hedault flicked his fingers and levitated the buckler up.

“This is the only object in need of repairs to function. The hilt of the sword enchanted with weight could use touching up, but that is a minor cost. Now, I estimate that this buckler can be fixed with a modicum of effort and time—say, five days? I could do it myself for a small reduction in fees.”

Ryoka nodded.

“And the price?”

Hedault tapped the buckler twice as he thought.

“I would think that the least I would ask is…one thousand and six hundred gold coins for the buckler, and four hundred…and fifty for the hilt. Now, understand that an error might occur in the repair process in which case the fee will be refunded, but the enchantment will in all likelihood be completely lost.”

He looked up and saw Ryoka had gone dead white.

“If you like, I can offer you a very good price if you would consider trading the wand—”

 

—-

 

Outside, quite a number of streets away, Laken sighed impatiently. He was sitting with Durene and Gamel, both of whom were flicking crumbs from their lunch and snack at some inquisitive birds who’d flown down to look.

Laken knew he should be at the inn they’d found, feeding Frostfall. And he had business at the Merchant’s Guild—and the Runner’s Guild—and the Adventurer’s Guild. But he was waiting here for Ryoka Griffin.

“Where is she? I wonder if something’s happened?”

 

—-

 

Across the city, one of the overworked [Receptionists] in the Mage’s Guild sighed long and hard as he got another message in. This one was addressed to a name he’d had cause to curse in the last few days.

He neatly took note of it, recording the sender and the addressee.

To: Ryoka Griffin

From: Erin Solstice.

This was the first message from this sender, but he had messages from…the [Receptionist] consulted the sheet out of idle curiosity.

Ah yes. From Krshia Silverfang, Selys Shivertail, Klbkch (no last name given), Lyonette (no last name given), Ceria Springwalker, Pisces (no last name given), and now Erin Solstice.

He wished she would turn up.

 

—-

 

And last, but certainly not least the female [Receptionist] at the Runner’s Guild grimly stopped talking with one of the Runners who’d come in. She was going off-duty for the day, but she left a message for all [Receptionists] on duty. She had a message for Ryoka Griffin too, and she was sure the girl wasn’t going to like it.

And outside, the snow began to fall. The winter was more than half-over. It had been a long one, but the longest day of the year was fast approaching. After that, the snows would linger for a while, but then melt.

Winter was ending. But there was a lot to do first. And much of it turned on a young woman who was currently talking about payment plans with an [Enchanter].

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.35

In the city of Esthelm there was a slime. It oozed along the ground, leaving a trail as it went. It was a slime, a round little pebble of liquid with no real defining features besides its dark greenish brown insides, which pulsated as it moved.

But it was a slime, and as of such it attracted a young woman who followed it as it slowly roamed across the broken rubble of the city. Erin Solstice stared, captivated by the tiny slime. It was like a small puddle come to life, and it looked incredibly cute to her, even if she was inhaling a noxious odor from the nearby sewer.

She wanted to touch it. Erin was vaguely aware that even the cutest of monsters could be dangerous, but she assumed that a truly dangerous creature would have been destroyed on sight. So a touch wouldn’t hurt, right? She reached out to touch it.

Above the city of Esthelm there was a herd of faeries. They held their breath as Erin reached out.

“Erin! Don’t touch that!”

Someone shouted at the girl and the faeries released their breath in a collective sigh of disappointment. They watched as a half-Elf ran over to Erin, scowling. Erin turned, looking hurt.

“What? Why not?”

“Erin, you can’t just go around touching monsters—especially slimes!

“Why? It doesn’t look that dangerous! What, is it acid or something?”

“Don’t be insane. Acid slimes? Dead gods, Erin, what a thought! No, this one is…look, do you know what slimes are? How they’re made?”

“Noooo….”

“It’s very simple.”

Ceria took a step back, pulling Erin away from the slime. It had begun rolling towards them, more inquisitively than with any real hostility. The half-Elf made a face.

“Look, slimes are…well, they’re closer to Golems than anything else, although they are alive. Actually, they’re closer to jellyfish. Um. Do you know what those are?”

“Of course I do!”

Erin looked insulted. Ceria shrugged.

“Some people have never seen the sea before. Anyways, slimes breed or spawn in bodies of liquid when the conditions are right. I guess some mana potions broke, or there were some already but—Erin, they take on the properties of their original liquid, get it? And this one clearly came from the sewer.”

The watching faeries saw Erin take a second to piece this together. Then they heard her horrified exclamation.

“Wait, you mean this is a poo slime? Aw!”

They laughed as she practically ran away from the small slime. It wasn’t as satisfying as if she’d stuck her hand in it—or if she’d fallen and put her face in the slime—but it would have to do.

The faeries flew across the city, pointing out more amusing sights for each other as they went. Esthelm was full of activity and four different species all trying to work together, which was a highly amusing sight for the watching fae.

That they didn’t swoop down and cause havoc or play tricks was perhaps the only sympathy the fae had to the people of Esthelm. At the moment they were content to simply be amused at mortal antics. What truly revealed their soft hearts though, was the fact that it had stopped snowing over Esthelm, even though fat snowflakes were falling several hundred meters away.

The fae loved children, sweets, mortal fools and heroes, and tricks. Other things too of course, but those were fairly universal aspects among their kind. Only a few, the old or the odd, liked actually interfering with the fates to any real degree.

Ivolethe didn’t like to meddle in mortal affairs, let alone Human, but she was of the mind it had to be done. And while she could watch Erin throwing rocks at the sewer slime forever, she reluctantly decided it was time.

She chattered to her fellow faeries and flew off. She had a mission, or rather, a cause. It wasn’t necessarily fun, but she knew it was important. The reason and end was important, even if the doing of it was a pain.

So the faerie flew away from Esthelm to a far more boring place. She flew up and up, and then sideways, and then in a direction not describable by words. Ivolethe flew through part of the world, and then flew through the air in the world and out of an empty bit of space behind a few books in a bookshelf. She sneezed and grumbled, brushing off dust from her wings as she circled the room.

It was a very large room, and very grand too, although decorations had been forgone for a more austere, solemn appearance. This was a library, and the towering bookcases were imposing, despite the rich wood that made up their frames. The books were all first-edition, spotless, and magical too. Ivolethe flew by them, seeing the spells worked into the bindings to keep the pages from dirt or harm.

And in that room sat a girl. She was Asian, dark haired, slightly darker of skin than most Humans on this continent, and taller than most Human females, if not Drake or Gnolls. She was athletic, her body toned, and could be considered attractive. Ivolethe personally thought Ryoka looked far too Human, but she had some affection for her ugly friend.

But that affection ended when she saw Ryoka was still reading. The girl was sitting in a chair, knees drawn to her chest, flipping through a large and rather heavy tome whose pages looked like they had been gilded with gold. The girl did not notice Ivolethe flying towards her at all.

 

Stop reading, ye daft cow!

 

Ivolethe screamed in Ryoka’s left ear. The girl jumped and tried to get out of the chair and twist simultaneously. The chair rocked backwards and she hit the ground.

“Ivolethe! Damn it, don’t do that!”

Ryoka swore as she picked herself up. She reached for the book and made sure it wasn’t damaged before she glared at the faerie. But the little Frost Faerie was full of far more wroth than Ryoka; she buzzed around the young woman, shouting angrily.

 

“Put down that book, fool! Go outside and do something! ‘Tis been forever and a day since you decided to stay here; stop dawdling and act!”

 

Ryoka scowled. She put the book back on the table and turned to it.

“It’s been only a few days. Two, Ivolethe. That’s not forever. Leave me alone and let me read, will you?”

 

“Forever is a thought, not a number, fool. And I will not let ye waste away! There are things to be doing! Anything is better than staring at dusk and dead leaves and ink of the past!”

 

Ivolethe sneered at Ryoka as she hovered in front of the girl’s face, getting in the way of the text. Ryoka swatted at her; Ivolethe danced aside and flew back in the way, impossible to touch.

“Fine. Let me just finish this passage and I’ll go. Happy?”

The faerie scowled and crossed her arms. She blew a stream of icy air upwards, but then acquiesced less than gracefully.

 

“If ye must. But promise to put aside the book! Promise it!”

 

Ryoka rolled her eyes, but she did promise. It was an oath made to a faerie, and she would not break that lightly.

“I will be done in thirty minutes. Is that enough?”

Ivolethe shook her head.

 

“One!”

 

“Twenty.”

 

“One!”

 

“Ten minutes, okay?”

 

“Well…fine. But hurry up!”

 

Ryoka sighed as Ivolethe floated back over to the bookshelves, to go see if Erin had found the dead raccoon corpse that was bobbing in the open sewer main. The young woman turned back to the book, frowning as she lost herself for a few more minutes in the tightly-written scrawl of words.

It had been two days since the attack on Magnolia’s mansion. Two days and Ryoka had not left yet for Invrisil. Because she had had a thought. And that thought was…

 

—-

 

I really don’t like faeries. I mean, okay, they’re nice to be around sometimes, and they’re wondrous beings of nature and otherworldly marvels and yadda yadda, etc. But they don’t read. I don’t even think they keep written records; they were around far before the invention of such things, after all.

So they have no patience at all with reading, except I guess if it’s about them. I can imagine a bunch of faeries finding a book about King Arthur or the fae. But they are like children in some respect.

Noisy, angry children who can turn a library into a blizzardy hell if they get bored.

Yes, I’m in Magnolia’s mansion. Yes, it’s been two days since she was attacked. The assassins are all dead, everyone’s patched up—hell, all the damage in the courtyard was gone the next day and I’ll just bet her sitting room is as perfect as it used to be. Magnolia and Ressa left the day after the attack, heading farther north to her estates.

She left me with promises of assistance, subtly dire threats, and Reynold. Apparently he’ll be my guide in Invrisil, which will open some doors I guess. I could go check out the city and get all I need done at any time; hell, I can even take the carriage since I’m going with Reynold. Apparently that’s the second-hand one; Magnolia went off in her personal vehicle which can probably fly and shoot lasers. There’s no one stopping me from leaving.

And yet, I’m still here. Yeah, that’s sort of surprising, but the reason I stayed is simple enough. Or rather, it’s a mix of reasons.

One. I don’t have to go to Invrisil…at least, not to get some good work done. The best thing about being in a mansion full of [Butlers] and [Maids] and [Manservants] is that you can get them to do things. Like haul a bunch of artifacts over to the most reputable [Enchanter] in the city to get them appraised. Magnolia even suggested that bit; she’s willing to foot the not-inconsiderable bill to get them looked at, although I’ll have to be the one to pay for any repairs or what have you. I guess she wants to know what Ceria and the others found.

As for all the deliveries, well, they can wait. Two days of waiting for their delivery is still a lot faster than you could ask for, especially since they’re coming all the way from Ocre.

Right, so I don’t have to leave the mansion. But why would I want to stay? The answer’s simple for me, and I realized it the moment I saw Magnolia heading off in her carriage. When the cat’s away, the mouse has got to play*. Or in this case, the runner girl gets to poke around in her private home and find out all of her dirty little secrets.

 

*Damnit, I don’t want to be a mouse. How about a rat? I could live with being a rat.

 

…Anyways. I failed on that venture. Polite servants get less polite the more intrusive you get, it seems. And while Ressa the ninja-maid is gone, Magnolia’s got some scary maids. The Gnoll one is especially intimidating.

So I failed to pry, but then I remembered that Magnolia has something else which is priceless: books. Frickin’ books. To be more accurate, a library, which is not a common convenience in this world.

And she’s one of the most powerful women in the world. And this is her personal library. How could I not spend some time here figuring out, well, everything? My god, there’s probably more pieces of the puzzle of this world in this room than anywhere else. And…

Yeah. It’s sort of boring trying to do research here. I won’t lie. Ivolethe has a point. It’s been two days. I’ve skimmed through over a hundred books at least, and read from dawn till dusk. I want to burn down this entire library and never read a word of cursive again. If I find the asshole who thought curly writing was a good idea…

At least I have a way to read the books. I push back the pair of bulky lenses over my eyes as I peer at the book in front of me, trying to make the script out. I need these glasses, as ill-fitting and heavy as they are; they’re magical and can translate the multitude of languages in these books.

But somehow, they still don’t translate weird handwriting. I swear, this was written by someone with two left hands. Which, considering the species in this world, might not be too far off.

‘In the fall of the Strygian Empire we find peace for a time. And yet, the dead still rise from every grave and haunt the few souls still living. Something still calls them back, and Ghouls are but the least of the undead who continue to reanimate. Fifteen Wraiths wiped out a village in one night, and I fear that the curse of the Untombed One still lingers on our land…’

Heavy stuff. I’ve got a pile of history books around me, and I’m currently reading through an account of some empire which fell a few thousand years back around these parts. I flip past that section. As fascinating as the history might be, I’ve read countless stories like this one.

The history of this world is…vast. As far as I can tell, some accounts claim that civilization was flourishing even twenty thousand years ago. That’s incredible. You’d think that such a world would have entered into a modern or post-modern age, or at least come up with some sort of industrial revolution by now. And yet—

When you read through the accounts of histories, skipping past the triumphal bullshit and the rewritten bits that make out each [King] as the one true savior and so on, it’s a simple picture.

War dominates this world. War, and little else. Each record is the same. War. Peace. War again, after a few decades or just a year. A border conflict between two grand nations escalates; proxy wars break out in five different nations. War drags in an entire continent into war; a second continent begins to fight that one. War. An armistice is declared. More war.

War.

Few nations have the time to develop properly, I guess. Well, they might reach new technological heights, but that’s by this world’s standards, which means it generally comes in the form of mage-powered inventions, not science and steel. But in time, each nation or city will eventually find themselves fighting a battle to the death with someone else.

It’s not Human nature. It’s the nature of all these species. That’s the issue, as I see it. There are countless species in this world and while one species might be content with peace, the others are angry, touchy, prideful, jealous bastards who’ll attack if they think things are unfair, which is, of course, always.

And yet, by the same token, there’s never an end to the cycle, never a victor because it’s too hard. This world is far larger than our own; huge nations the size of the United States or Russia are normal countries around here, or even small. Forging a large empire that would put an end to wars by conquering everything in sight always fails due to a number of factors.

The first is size. It’s too hard to expand and keep supply lines going. Too, a larger nation faces a much greater risk of internal strife or dissent from within. And even if a nation gets a proper transport system and bureaucracy running, such empires usually fail simply because the [Emperor] or [Warlord] gets old and dies.

You can’t conquer the world in one lifetime, not here. And that’s the rest of the twist of this world; nations live and die by their rulers, not like the ones back at home. All the power of a high-level [King], well, once it’s gone a country is easy pickings.

The second factor, then, is probably levels. No nation can ever stay on top just by being bigger. They might have better gear, better training, better economy, but once a high-level individual pops up, even a tiny nation can turn into a powerhouse. Small rebellions that are easily suppressed turn into full-scale revolts as some [Peasant] becomes a [Hero].

Yeah. There were heroes, once. It’s a rare class, but apparently it does exist. I’ve read countless books, pored through them for useful details. One of the things I learned? There is a [Hero] class, even if none of the historians writing the books knows how it can be obtained.

And third? Technology in this world is not the same as in mine. In mine, people build industry and create ideas and inventions that can be built upon, permanent infrastructure like assembly lines and the technology to build steam engines. In this world?

Magic rules. But the problem with that is when an empire dependent on magical innovations loses all of its high-level mages, everything goes right back to the start. If they built huge factories and used machines perhaps the world would change. But I see how easy magic is to use. You can create a carriage that can outrun any vehicle from our world with magic. Hell, it could probably outrun anything but the Shinkansen bullet trains. But you can’t create a hundred, or a thousand. And once the mage who made it dies, so too does the means of creating it.

Stagnation.

The other things I’ve learned? I push the book back and sigh. Ivolethe’s coming back any time now and I’m not feeling too keen on hearing how the Strygian Empire crumbled away. Let’s do a refresher.

“Important things…important things? One. There are no gods. Ever.”

No mention of them. Not one, in over ten thousand years of history, as far as I can tell. It’s hard to figure out the chronological order of the books; they use a dating system based on events, so eras come and go fast. It’s damn annoying, and finding a reference book to make sense of it all is a challenge in itself.

But like I said, no mention of gods. Not once, in thousands of years. Oh, there are hints—references to someone trying to bring back the [Cleric] class, a faded relic here and there, but no gods are ever referenced directly. They’re dead. I wonder why no new ones were ever made? It’s such a discrepancy I can’t quite believe it.

“But that aside—Rhir. It’s always at war. And the Antinium are new.”

Really new. In this millennium new; in this century new, in fact. They just popped up out of nowhere, and that’s odd for Rhir.

Or not. Rhir is a scary place. The more I read about it, the more it seems it’s always been at war. There’s always a Blighted King or Queen, or Blighted Princes…it’s always fighting against some threat or other.

“But it changes. It damn well changes. The Demons are new, too.”

Five thousand years back they emerged, catching a prosperous set of kingdoms off-guard. But they should have expected it, even though they had several hundred years of peace to grow complacent. Because Rhir is always at war.

Sometimes they fight off the enemy—it can be races of any kind. There’s a reference to a Blighted Princess holding off a marauding army of twisted horrors with no real name, but there’s always something. The kingdoms of Rhir, or kingdom in this case, is always fighting a battle. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose and the horrors spread across the world.

Huge armies from every corner of the world have come to take back Rhir. They slaughter the monsters, take back the lands, put a nation back there. Everything is peaceful. And then…

I go back to one of the open books on the table, find the passage.

“‘The continent is secure. The last of the tide of Crelers has been purged, although the other nations report infestations in their lands from time to time. Yet Rhir remains safe, apart from a few disturbances reported in underground mining incidents each year. However, infestations of monsters are put to the sword the instant they are uncovered…’

And then? Black slime pops out, begins mutating everything around it, and this kingdom gets destroyed. I wish I could say I’m making this up. But there’s something in Rhir that keeps creating new things to destroy with.

Something. A dead God. Like Klbkch said.

I shiver. How could no one have known? Well, they did know. People can figure out when something’s wrong. After they fought back the evil slime stuff, a huge army made up of soldiers from three damn continents went underground, searching for the root of their problems. None of them made it back, but one year later a bunch of abominations made from parts of people came out and slaughtered everyone.

What’s the lesson here? Avoid Rhir.

I push the book back, feeling vaguely sick. Ivolethe is right. There are no answers here. Just more things to keep me up at night. If there’s any consolation I have, it’s knowing a bit more about the world.

I knew a lot, or enough, rather. Five main continents. Rhir, Izril, Terandria, Chandrar, and Baleros. Each one with different species, although Humans are on all the continents in some form or other. But it’s the major world powers that are interesting. Aside from the various nations, there are some standouts, some big players.

One of the ones I didn’t know about are the Slave Traders of Roshal. It’s apparently a city, or an empire that keeps itself neutral. It’s based in Chandrar and it’s about as powerful as Wistram, although it’s actually neutral, rather than political like the mages.

Also, the Minotaurs have an archipelago. They feud with other nations—hell, they tried to take over the world a few times, although almost every species has done that over the course of the world. They usually go to war with a bunch of mysterious foreigners—I never found a book about them, but they might be like my world’s version of Japan, or the Philippines. They live at the ‘edge of the world’.

So this world has an edge? Or have people still not figured out that the earth is round? Is it round? I can assume nothing here.

What else? There are Dwarves. Good to know. They live on Terandria, although they used to be everywhere. There used to be harpies, actual intelligent ones with a nation of their own. They’re dead. There used to be a people like djinn—highly magical, part spirit. They’re dead. There used to be undead kingdoms. They’re gone.

There used to be Elves, but every reference in the books I’ve read only talks about half-Elves. When did the Elves die out?

Don’t know. But the Dragons are mostly dead, too. Every few thousand years one gets slain, but the occurrence of such entries grew less and less the more I read. I guess, in a sense, this world is stabilizing. In that species are dying. Perhaps someday, after countless thousands of years, it might be only one or two species left.

Maybe it’ll be Goblins. Because no matter how many times they get wiped out, they always come back. And the reports of what happens when a Goblin King emerges…

I read the book Magnolia told me about, the one about the Second Antinium Wars. Yeah. There were no winners in that war, but it was clear that it was more like the ‘Goblin wars where the Antinium, Az’kerash, and everyone else barely manage to beat him while fighting with each other’.

So much for historical accuracy. I rub at my temples. I have a headache. Is there anything else…?

 

“You said you would stop reading!”

 

The accusatory voice makes me look up. Ivolethe glares at me. I push the book back.

“I’m done.”

The faerie glares and points. A bit of frost covers the pages of the books. Just a bit; Ivolethe’s magic is apparently very weak inside, even if the library doesn’t have much iron in it.

 

Now ye are. Come on! Time to leave this stuffy place! I crave adventure!”

 

“I crave a sub sandwich.”

I mutter as I leave the room. I feel old as I walk through Magnolia’s grand estate, passing by servants who make way for me. I feel old, out of place.

Like an intruder.

It’s still only been a few days since the attack. I’m the only other person in the mansion not in Magnolia’s employ—I did ask about the other people from our world that Erin met, but I got no answers. I’m the odd one out, and I feel it.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a bevy of maids and a man in a black suit coat hurry into the library. They’ve got a lot of reshelving to do. Do I feel guilty about that?

Only slightly.

Ivolethe flies happily through the corridors of the mansion, making people duck out of the way or hurry to one side. She seems to feel safe inside here, so long as Magnolia isn’t around, that is. And she quite enjoys terrorizing the people here.

In fact, one of her favorite targets is just up ahead. Ivolethe smiles widely as she spots him eating through one of the glass windows. I try to stop her, but it’s too late. I sigh and head outdoors. As I do, I smile, just a bit. Today I will go to Invrisil. Reading’s all very well, but I guess I’m just an active sort of person.

And I wouldn’t mind a bit of adventure myself, come to that.

 

—-

 

Reynold the [Butler] was eating outdoors, despite the nip in the air. That was because eating indoors where he could get crumbs on the floors would get him in quite a bit of trouble with those assigned to cleaning. Right now he was enjoying a skewer of meat, still steaming in the cold air.

It wasn’t a very Human dish, but the people of Izril had adopted the foods of other species. This was a favorite food of Drakes, and it had spread across the continent. The kebab could have used some vegetables for flavoring, but Reynold had been late to lunch and only managed to snag one of the extras.

Still, the meat was hot, juicy, and Reynold was content to eat as he stood against one wall in the mansion. He was happy in life. That was, until he spotted the blue patch of indistinct light coming towards his face at speed.

Reynold ducked as the Frost Faerie flew past his head. But it wasn’t him that the faerie was after. He felt a tugging at the skewer in his hand and to his dismay, saw two chunks of meat disappear upwards into the air. Reynold watched in silent misery as the faerie began to devour a good bit of his meal.

“Ivolethe! Damn it, I told you not to steal food from people! Or at least don’t make it obvious when you’re doing it!”

An angry voice rang out in the small courtyard. Reynold sighed. So much for enjoying his lunch in peace. He turned and put on a polite smile as his profession dictated.

“Good evening Miss Ryoka. I trust this day sees you well?”

“Hey Reynold.”

The tall young women jogged over, pausing to stop in front of Reynold. She glared at the orb of blue light Reynold thought of as a Frost Faerie, a force of nature rather than an actual being. But Ryoka could apparently see such creatures, and talk to them. Reynold had spotted this particular faerie indoors, and he had been flabbergasted to see the true identity of these beings.

That still didn’t make him any less wary of them, though. Reynold eyed the fuzzy patch of light as it swooped closer to his meal. He would have given it up rather than risk the faerie’s wrath, but Ryoka swiped at the Frost Faerie, making it dodge away.

“Stop that. Leave the poor man to his meal. I’ll buy you something to eat when we get to Invrisil, okay?”

“Ah, so you are planning on visiting the city today?”

Reynold straightened up as the faerie flew back towards Ryoka. She nodded towards him, distracted. She stared at the faerie and scowled.

“What? Why do I…? He can’t even see you properly, why the hell should—okay, fine, fine. Shut up.”

She turned back towards him with a resigned look on her face. Ryoka pointed towards the hovering faerie’s indistinct form.

“Ivolethe is here. She wants to be acknowledged.”

“Of course. My deepest apologies, Miss Ivolethe.”

Reynold bowed in the direction of the faerie, according her the respect and proper tilt of the back due to a member of an aristocratic house. He couldn’t hear her of course, but Reynold got the impression the faerie was pleased.

“Glad you enjoyed that. Okay Reynold, I’m ready to go. One or two questions before we go, though. You said you brought all of the artifacts to an [Enchanter]. Any word on whether it’s done?”

“The estate has not received any communications to that effect, Miss. However, I am sure you could visit the mage in person to ask.”

“I might do that. Okay, next question. Are your orders to show me around the city, or can I only count on you for the ride back?”

Reynold answered carefully, remembering all the things Ressa had told him to say—and not to say.

“I am at your disposal, Miss Ryoka. I will accompany you as long as is needed—within Invrisil. I am not permitted to escort you anywhere outside of the city and my help is limited to an, ah, advisory role.”

“Meaning you don’t step in if I’m in trouble?”

Reynold winced.

“That is broadly correct, Miss.”

“Well, that’s fine. Okay, last question.”

Ryoka stepped forwards and was suddenly uncomfortably close to Reynold. She narrowed her eyes.

“Where are the others? The other people from my world.”

The unfortunate [Butler] swallowed.

“I don’t—”

“Don’t lie to me. I know they were here. Erin told me. Where did they go?”

The man let the silence go on till the count of five. That seemed like enough time—Ressa had told him to pretend to be reluctant to tell Ryoka.

“They…are learning to become adventurers, Miss. I believe they have been escorted southeast of here to—to train.”

“Train? You mean Magnolia’s hauling a bunch of kids to—damn, that sounds just like her. Are they going to get killed?”

“I don’t believe so, Miss. They have competent escorts.”

“But knowing Magnolia, they won’t step in unless someone’s about to die.”

Ryoka shook her head. She eyed Reynold and he wondered if she was going to ask him where they were—that was something he couldn’t reveal. To his relief, she seemed to abandon the idea.

“I don’t need to see them anyways. The city’s what I’m concerned about. Why don’t we head over there?”

He nodded, relieved.

“I will have the carriage prepped and ready to go within five minutes, Miss. If you will follow me?”

“I don’t need a carriage. I’ll run to the city and meet you inside. At the Runner’s Guild, say.”

The [Butler] hesitated.

“I’m not sure that would be the most efficacious use of time, Miss Ryoka.”

She stared at him.

“First, stop calling me Miss Ryoka. I’ve told you that. I don’t care what your [Butler] protocol says. Second, why would that take a long time?”

“The [Guardsmen] at the gates do a thorough check of all visitors entering the city, Mi—ah, Ryoka. The queue moves fairly quickly, but it would be easier to take Lady Reinhart’s carriage. Her servants and associates are never stopped on their errands.”

“The privilege of power, huh?”

Ryoka snorted and shook her head.

“It doesn’t matter how long the line is, Reynold. I’m a Runner. I skip the waiting around at the gates.”

“Not in Invrisil. Customs apply to all people entering, even Runners. There is a separate line, but…”

“What, they check Runners too? Why? Don’t tell me they’re at odds with their Runner’s Guild.”

“Not as such. But Invrisil sees far more magical artifacts and potentially dangerous items entering and leaving the city than most locations. Prudence is necessary.”

“They really get that many deliveries that could be dangerous? What about the Runner’s claim to confidentiality? Don’t tell me they’d open all of my packages.”

“I believe they have spells for that. As for the rest, well, Invrisil is slightly…larger than you might be used to, Ryoka.”

Reynold smiled slightly and stroked his trim mustache to hide it. Ryoka gave him an arch look while Ivolethe flew around her head.

“We’ll see. Let’s take the carriage, then.”

 

—-

 

Invrisil, the city of adventurers. It was one of the features of Izril, a place that would appear on any map of the world. Ryoka and Erin had both heard the city’s name during their stay in this world. It was a place of adventurers, the heart of the northern half of the continent, where Humans would come to find the strongest of adventurers, undertake the most dangerous of requests. And of course, visit one of the most prosperous cities on the continent.

After all, where adventurers thrived, there had to be a city of equal size and resources to support them. Inns and food to feed countless mouths, [Mages], [Alchemists], and [Blacksmiths] to supply warriors with any number of aids in battle, and [Merchants] to buy and sell goods looted, [Guardsmen] to break up fights between rival parties, brothels, gambling pubs, enchanters and healers, trackers and cartographers, bards and laborers…

It was a city to rival any modern city from Ryoka and Erin’s world. If the buildings weren’t as tall as skyscrapers, well, many of them were far higher than normal architecture would allow thanks to magically reinforced walls. And if there were no cars or planes, there were enough carriages, coaches, wagons, and carts to make up for that.

But the rest was the same. In fact, the rest was even more than Ryoka had seen in places like New York City. For while that city could boast over eight million souls, each one was Human. Not so in Invrisil.

String People walked down the street, chatting, poking at loose threads in each other’s bodies right next to Drakes, who strode around, keeping their tails from being trodden on by impatient Minotaurs who towered even over the heads of the Gnolls in the crowd. Humans dominated the scene, but they walked cheek-by-dead flesh with Selphids, did business with Drowned Men and Women, and argued hotly with bird-people, coughed as dusty travelers whose bodies seemed part sand walked past them—

Ryoka stared as the carriage drove down the streets, making good time despite the huge amount of people. Ivolethe, sitting on Ryoka’s head, stared around in delight, laughing and pointing at individuals in the crowd. But Ryoka couldn’t focus on any one thing.

The buildings! Some were made of wood and stone yes, but many had colored roofs in every shade, and still more had been painted or given artistic fronts. When magic could easily make any relief permanent, the most prosperous buildings paid for [Painters] and [Muralists] to create wondrous images. Ryoka saw a group of adventurers battling a hideously large Troll adorning three buildings, each one showing part of the complete relief. Then her eyes turned and saw the lights.

There was no electricity in this world. But who needed that when magic provided an even steadier, softer glow? The hanging orbs of crystal shone even in the day, and some had been enchanted to shift color steadily, to catch and bewitch the eye.

“See the guards on patrol, Miss Ryoka? They’re fine warriors, all of them. As fine as you’d see in any Drake city! Some of them are retired adventurers, and but for a few old wounds they’re as dangerous as they were in their youth.”

Reynold pointed out a group of men and women marching smartly down the street. They certainly did look older than normal, but Ryoka saw the confident way each one walked. She saw them pass by as the carriage moved onwards.

That was another thing. The city had a street and sidewalk. There were no wagons mixing with pedestrians here—there was a separate route for vehicles such that they could keep moving despite  the flow of foot-traffic. Ryoka saw a [Guardswoman] directing traffic and wondered if there were street lights too. That would be too surreal.

 

“I smell goat meat! And cow meat! And rat meat! And spices! Thyme and rosemary and paprika and qerix and bablyous!”

 

Ivolethe shouted and leapt from Ryoka’s head. She skimmed to an open stall and laughed as the vendor swore and tried to protect his wares on display. Ryoka passed by one of the open markets in the city and saw countless stalls like the ones in Liscor, all open, all filled with [Merchants] and [Traders] doing business with people there.

“How many people live here?”

She shouted at Reynold as he drove the carriage up a street. He had to raise his voice to reply.

“I couldn’t say how many, Miss! This city is so vast—and there are countless towns and villages only a stone’s throw away!”

It couldn’t be a million. Ryoka was sure…but well, why not? She knew cities like Paris and London had boasted over a hundred thousand people in the middle ages. This city was surely as large—no, larger than they were. If you counted the suburbs and outskirts, why not?

“Unbelievable.”

She whispered the words as the carriage rode on. Now Reynold was taking her into the heart of the business district, as far as she could tell. Shops passed by on the right and left and she heard people calling out to her as she passed.

“Milady, a moment, please! Would you be interested in the latest wares from Baleros? A shipment has come in from T’vault, please see!”

“I have the latest treats from Terandria, right here! Try our fabulous new treat, a frozen delight! You won’t be able to say no to another lick!”

The man was talking about ice cream! Ryoka saw it being served in a shop—the man there was putting it on little gold platters for people to sample. She looked over to the other side of the street and saw a huge plaza pass by. The people shouting there seemed to be aiming for warriors, judging by the calls.

“Want a Shield Spider? Invaluable protection—don’t fear it turning on you! An expert [Beast Master] has trained it to fight and obey your every command!”

“Our group is seeking work! A [Jarl] and [Raiders] are willing to fight at your command!”

“I have a pot of Everburning Flame here! Make me an offer, quickly!”

“The Windfrozen Riders are available for commission—”

“Hire the Celestial Trackers and we will find your quarry or your coin back—”

The voices were swept away as Ryoka passed by. She turned her head to look and spoke to Ivolethe.

“I might have to get an Everburning Flame while I’m here. It could be seriously useful, especially if I can build a primitive steam engine or something. Hell, I could probably find a [Blacksmith] to make me the parts.”

The Frost Faerie laughed.

 

“Hah! Yon fool lies. That pot is filled with naught but oil. ‘Tis an alchemist’s trick—it will burn for a week before running out.”

 

“Damn. How can you tell?”

 

“‘Twas not magic. And I caught the odor of the burnt oil as we passed. How could you not tell?”

 

Ryoka stared at Ivolethe, impressed.

“I’m going to take you when I go shopping.”

 

“After you buy me meat! You promised!”

 

“I need to take care of business first. Reynold, where’s the Runner’s Guild in the city?”

“We’re arriving at the largest branch now, Miss Ryoka.”

Reynold pointed, and Ryoka saw a large building to one side. It was painted like most of the buildings in the city—a light blue color, and she saw there were three sets of doors that were constantly in use as citizens came in to claim a package or have one delivered, and Runners went out to make said deliveries.

“Looks like that’s my stop. Should I wait for you there?”

“I’m afraid I will have to park this carriage at a spot designated for Lady Reinhart’s vehicles. Please do not wait for me. Instead, if you will accept this seal, I will locate you.”

Reynold produced one of Lady Magnolia’s iconic seals, half-gem, half-silver. Ryoka eyed the translucent sapphire melted together with shining silver metal into a single disc.

“Expensive. Are you sure I need it?”

“It will allow you unfettered access to many establishments, I think you will find, Miss Ryoka. Of course, Lady Reinhart asks that you not make any claims against her name with her token—lending it to you is an act of great trust.”

“And it has a tracking spell, doesn’t it? That’s how you’re going to find me.”

“Yes, Miss. This is most convenient in such a large city.”

Ryoka sighed, but took the token reluctantly.

“Find me as soon as you can and we’ll go visit that enchanter.”

“Yes, Miss Ryoka.”

“And stop calling me Miss!”

Ryoka shouted as she leapt out of the carriage and Reynold drove off. She sighed as Ivolethe flew down and landed on her shoulder.

 

“Are ye going to take long in yon building?”

 

“Not too long if I can get past the receptionists without too much fuss. But they’ll have to tally all the deliveries I’ve got…look, just get inside my pouch and wait, alright?”

 

“Ach, the things that friendship requires.”

 

Grumbling, Ivolethe flew into Ryoka’s pouch. The Runner adjusted her belt, and then strode into the Runner’s Guild.

Whatever she had been expecting, Ryoka hadn’t quite expected the scope of this Guild. She stared around for a second, blinking, as her eyes took in the main Runner’s Guild of Invrisil.

“Wow. That’s a lot of Runners.”

There had to be over a hundred people in the building. That was three times as many as Ryoka had ever seen in Celum’s guild at any one time, and this was only the main building? She saw Runners coming and going, people of all species. A Gnoll with a package tied to a sling around her chest brushed past her, and Ryoka realized there was a steady stream going in and out the doors.

Quickly, the young woman stepped towards the receptionists. There were quite a few of them, and they were dealing with Runners quickly, changing seals for coin, handing out deliveries, and so on. Ryoka stepped into line and found herself advancing in the queue at startling speed.

There was no waiting long in a Runner’s Guild it seemed. Ryoka could already see the brisk [Receptionists] talking with Runners at the front. They seemed older than the normal group of young women, and there were men in the mix as well.

Ryoka fidgeted as she reached for her Runner’s Seal and bag of holding carrying all the deliveries from Ocre. She still hated talking to new people, especially when it came to Receptionists. They were so chatty—

“Next! Over here, Miss.”

Two receptionists finished with their Runner at the same time. Ryoka walked over to a woman in her mid-thirties. She was a String Person, although interestingly, she had pale skin, rather than Octavia or Revi’s dark tone. She held out one hand where all the fingers had stitches where they met the hand.

“Your seal, please.”

Ryoka placed her personal Runner’s seal on the counter. The [Receptionist] snatched it up and produced a magnifying glass to study it in an instant. She only gave it a brief look before sliding it back towards Ryoka.

“Ryoka Griffin? You’re a long way from Celum. Are you transferring, or doing a delivery? We didn’t receive word you were heading this way.”

Ryoka blinked. This receptionist was far more business-like than Ryoka was accustomed to. She hesitated a bit on her reply.

“I’m not transferring. I—was in Ocre and had the chance to come here. I’ve got a bunch of deliveries from the guild there.”

“Really? May I see them?”

Ryoka produced her bag of holding. The [Receptionist]’s gaze sharpened and she held out a hand.

“Wait. Are any of the packages marked confidential or otherwise uniquely addressed in any way?”

“Not that I was told.”

“Very well then. Proceed.”

Ryoka carefully took wrapped item after item out of the bag of holding, piling it up on the desk. In the end the receptionist had to call for a bin—she began transferring each package into it with quite deliberate movements.

“Well, that accounts for every package we had coming this way. I suppose we’ll get less on the weekly delivery.”

The [Receptionist] idly commented as she peered at the bin full of deliveries. Ryoka had to smile a bit; she could see some of the other Runners staring jealously at her. The [Receptionist] nodded as she tallied up each delivery on a receipt and stamped it.

“Not bad. But a Courier could have done it just as quickly. If you’re going to make a long-distance trip in the future, please inform the Guild so they can send a message, Miss.”

The smug smile on Ryoka’s face vanished. The woman at the desk looked only vaguely impressed with Ryoka’s feat. She handed the receipt to Ryoka.

“You may exchange that for coin now or at any guild, as I’m sure you know. Now, was there anything else, Miss?”

Caught off-guard, Ryoka thought quickly.

“…There is one thing. Do you happen to know if the Courier Valceif Godfrey is in the city?”

The woman at the desk raised her eyebrows.

“Valceif? His usual circuit is closer to First Landing, but he comes here regularly for deliveries…I haven’t seen him of late, which is unusual, but I will ask about his location. If you return here later, I, or another receptionist at the desk will know more.”

“Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Miss Griffin. Next!”

Bemused, Ryoka wandered away from the desk, seeing a rather battered-looking Dullahan step forwards. She heard him beginning to complain about being attacked by dogs again before she stepped out of the guild.

“I guess a big city means the Runners here are that much better.”

 

“Bah, ‘tis not as if they can run that fast.”

 

Ivolethe poked her head out of Ryoka’s belt pouch as the young woman stood in the street. Ryoka shook her head; she thought the Runners in that building might all be at Fals’ level, or better. If that was the case, they were all nearly as fast or faster than she was.

“I’m starting to really feel like a country yokel seeing the city for the first time. Until Reynold finds us, how about we go look around? You can get something to eat, and I’ll…take in the sights, I guess.”

Ivolethe happily agreed, and so Ryoka set off down the streets. At first she was uncomfortable, but she quickly got used to the flow of the city.

This place reminded her a lot of New York. There wasn’t any stopping and chatting here, not with such a press of people. If you didn’t walk fast you got dirty looks—or pushed. The sidewalk was crowded, and when the wagons on the street halted to let pedestrians cross you moved fast or you got shouted at.

Ryoka had the insane urge to shout ‘I’m walking here!’ just for the hell of it. But that would probably get something hurled at her head by one of the drivers. They certainly traded insults with the foot traffic in a refreshingly familiar way. Although, Ryoka had to admit, she had never seen a pedestrian throw a ball of magic at a driver who shouted obscenities at him.

But aside from the city press, the city of Invrisil was still a city. And Ryoka had grown up in the urban sprawl. There were places to get food on the sidewalk, and in no time she was eating her own hot skewer and quickly sliding off hot chunks of meat to cram into her belt pouch from another.

Her pouch was going to get greasy and disgusting, but Ivolethe seemed only concerned about the food. Ryoka could feel her rustling around and making happy noises as she ate. And a happy Frost Faerie was one that wasn’t freezing your stomach and giving you horrible bowel movements.

“Where to next, I wonder?”

Ryoka stopped in a busy plaza, looking around for signs, perhaps to the market, or maybe to a specialized store specializing in magical artifacts. She had coin after all—a lot of it. It might not be enough for a powerful magical artifact, but it was time to buy a ring or—or enchanted clothing perhaps. What about a wand—

“Watch where you’re going, Troll!”

An outraged shout made Ryoka’s head turn. She saw a group of armored men and one woman—adventurers?—standing in front of…

Ryoka had to rub her eyes. It was a Troll. Or—no, not a Troll maybe, but a half-Troll?

There was no other word for it. Ryoka hadn’t seen a Troll before, but she imagined they’d be a bit bigger, a bit rounder and more…monster-like. But while this…person wasn’t a full Troll, they definitely had some Troll blood in them.

It was hard to describe. Ryoka’s first impression was that someone had taken this poor young woman—a young woman with far bigger bones than even Garia—and painted her a greyish color. But that alone wouldn’t account for her tough, almost pebble-like skin and towering height. She was over seven feet tall and she looked like a goliath. Not like a tall and lanky basketball player, no, Ryoka thought she looked more like a walking tank. Broad-shouldered didn’t even begin to cover it, and her arms were thick.

She was wearing rough, simple clothing that looked hand-stitched. The half-Troll was trying to step away from the angry adventurer she’d apparently run into. He wasn’t letting her go. He was angry, and, Ryoka thought, overly hostile towards her.

“Of course. Racism at its finest.”

 

“What is?”

 

Ivolethe poked her head out of Ryoka’s pouch, cheeks bulging. The second she saw the scene she went still. Ryoka shook her head as the adventurer began insulting the half-Troll girl.

He looked like he wanted a fight. Briefly, Ryoka considered stepping in. She had no patience for bullies. And she had a pepper potion and the other items Octavia had given her ready to be used. Except that this adventurer had a group of his friends backing him up. Ryoka eyed them and shook her head.

“Not my business.”

That was what Ryoka decided in the end. She could imagine what would happen if she picked a fight with real adventurers. She’d not only lose, but probably get hurt and maybe get thrown in jail. It wasn’t worth it.

 

“Don’t go! Stay! I want to watch!”

 

Ivolethe shouted as Ryoka turned to leave. The young woman frowned down into the pouch.

“Why? Do you want to help? I won’t stop you, but be careful. If they think that half-Troll girl is doing it, they’ll attack her.”

 

“What? Not the half-child, ye daft fool! I want to see what he does!”

 

Ivolethe pointed, and Ryoka saw to her surprise that the Troll girl wasn’t in fact alone. She hadn’t even seen the young man standing by her side; she sort of dominated the scene. But he was standing in silence, listening to the adventurer get angrier and angrier.

The adventurer was trying to pick a fight, Ryoka could tell. He had a sword and this half-Troll didn’t. He was a piece of crap, and she would have loved to drop-kick him and stomp on him a bit. But she had a feeling he’d kick her ass if she tried.

She didn’t want to stay and watch this unfold. And yet, she watched the adventurer continue to pick on the half-Troll with narrowed eyes, unable to just walk away.

“Enough. Please stop bothering my companion.”

The young man spoke up at last. He seemed to be talking to the entire group, rather than the belligerent adventurer in front.

“She did nothing wrong. If she walked into you while escorting me, I apologize on both our behalf. But you have no reason to attack her like this.”

The other members of the group seemed to accept this, but the man who’d been knocked into seemed to find this apology too weak, or perhaps he just wanted to cause more trouble for the pair. He swaggered up to the young man, glaring.

“Is she your bodyguard? In that case, you should apologize to us directly! Don’t you know who we are?”

The young man turned his head towards the adventurer, and Ryoka blinked as she saw his eyes were closed.

“I don’t know, or particularly care. Please move aside—we are trying to go about our business and you should do the same.”

“What, are you too good to look me in the eye?”

Outraged, the adventurer seized the young man’s arm. Immediately the half-Troll reacted. She reached for the adventurer to push him back. He immediately leapt back and his friends grabbed for their weapons. Protectively, the Troll girl moved in front of the young man.

“Don’t do that! He’s blind!”

A blind guy? Ryoka had seen few people with disabilities in this world. She wondered if that was because of a lack of pollution or other genetic factors—or if such people died out because they couldn’t defend themselves or contribute.

Either way, the young man’s lack of sight didn’t stop him from being a target. The adventurer began mocking both him and the half-Troll girl, much to Ryoka’s distaste.

“A blind man and a half-Troll! Hah! I suppose that’s the only person who’d put up with something like that!”

The gigantic young woman glared at the adventurer.

“Go away. If you bother Laken, I’ll protect him. I’m his—”

She got no further, because the man interrupted her with a sneer.

“Protect him? You couldn’t protect a fly! I’ve seen real combat, not like some half-monster country bumpkin.”

The half-Troll said nothing, but there was an unfriendly look in her eye, and one of her hands clenched into a fist. A big fist. Ryoka eyed it and wondered what would happen if she hit the adventurer with it. His buddies looked a bit worried, but the man in front was drunk on bravado.

“Do you know how many Trolls I’ve killed with this sword? I could etch another notch right here, and no one would care.”

The man put a hand on his sword as he stepped forwards. The half-Troll girl flinched, but then to Ryoka’s surprise the young man moved. He took a step forwards and turned his head towards the adventurer. He was clearly angry, and when his mouth opened the word he spoke echoed across the square.

Enough.

Ryoka felt something press at her chest and had to force herself not to react. The adventurer stumbled back as if something physical had hit him. He put his hands on his sword with a snarl and the half-Troll girl raised a threatening fist. Before the conflict could escalate into bloodshed, Ryoka heard a shout and thumping of boots.

“What’s going on here!?”

The Watch had come, and remarkably quickly too. Ryoka wondered if it had to do with the half-Troll being there—and then corrected her thought. Of course it did. She watched as the two sides explained what had happened from their point of view.

Predictably, the adventurer claimed that the half-Troll had nearly knocked him down and he had simply reacted to the provocation. The blind young man and the half-Troll claimed the opposite. The young man—he was named Laken apparently—was explaining things to the Lieutenant, who didn’t seem too inclined to listen to his side of the case.

“She did nothing wrong. Durene was guiding me through the streets when this man decided to take objection to her existing.”

“So you say, sir. But this adventurer and his friends—a Silver-rank team—claim otherwise.”

The young man’s brows drew together as he snapped.

“I may be blind, but I know what I heard. And other people saw what happened too. Why not ask them? Or better yet, use a truth spell?”

“I hardly think that this situation calls for that.”

The man in charge dismissed the idea as if it were silly. He glanced at the adventurer, who looked pretty damn confident for someone who was probably lying, in Ryoka’s opinion. The lieutenant glared up at the half-Troll, who was looking chastened as well as upset.

“I’ll let it go with a warning—for both of you. Be on your way sir, and you, Miss—”

He hesitated, made a face, and then went on.

“—Cause no problems in my city while you’re here. If I hear of any more disturbances, there will be trouble.”

The adventurer took that as his cue to go and swaggered off. Ryoka glared at his back, but the young blind man was still irate.

“You have got to be kidding me. Is this really fair, officer? You and I both know that Durene did nothing wrong. Is it because she’s a half-Troll that you’re blaming her? Or do you simply not care about justice?”

The lieutenant did not like being told off. His cheeks reddened and he put a hand on his sword until he realized the blind man couldn’t see the motion.

“I apologize if you’ve been inconvenienced sir. Now, move along.”

“Come on Laken, let’s go.”

The half-Troll pulled gently at the young man’s shoulder. He clenched his fists, and then relaxed his hands. His fury seemed to wash away in an instant and he looked resigned, rather than upset. Laken nodded and patted Durene’s hand.

“Very well, I suppose this guardsman is just doing his job. As we say in my homeland, fahr zur Hölle du Bullenschwein. Ah entschuldigung, SIE Bullenschwein. Good day, officer.”

The blind man spoke the words directly to the lieutenant, and then smiled at him as if what he’d said had been a compliment. It clearly wasn’t, but no one knew what he’d said. The lieutenant frowned, but didn’t make an issue of it.

But standing across the street, Ryoka Griffin’s eyes suddenly went wide. She felt as if her entire body had suddenly been shocked. She knew what had been said. But more importantly, she knew in what language that had been said. That was no foreign tongue from this world. That was German!

Ryoka’s heart beat rapidly in her chest as she saw the group of guardsmen stride away, leaving the duo behind. That had to be just a coincidence. Or was it? There weren’t any people who spoke German in this world, were there? Well, if everyone here spoke English, why not? Another country could have adopted other languages. And yet—Ryoka’s gaze fixed on the blind young man standing next to the upset half-Troll.

“Ivolethe. Why is that guy so special?”

The faerie’s voice was tiny in Ryoka’s ear.

 

“I see it on him. The mark of command. The old destiny of leaders.”

 

That made no sense to Ryoka. But she was distracted by the Troll-girl. Durene? She was bending and whispering to the young man, although her voice was quite audible to anyone listening. Ryoka glanced around. Not many people were. They were hurrying around and away from her, rather than stopping to listen.

“What did you say, Laken?”

He turned his head towards her and Ryoka saw him smile. She heard him clearly whisper to the half-Troll as she stepped closer.

“I’ll tell you later, Durene. Let’s just get to that Runner’s Guild first, hm? We can see about adventurers later.”

Hesitantly, the half-Troll took the young man’s hand. She cast around, and then began to set off through the street, easily clearing a path for him to walk by her. Ryoka hesitated.

She could ignore that and go to the enchanter. She couldn’t believe she’d find someone else from her world right here, just like that.

And yet—Ryoka glanced down at her belt pouch. Ivolethe had poked her head out, and she was chewing the last bit of meat. And her eyes were fixed on Laken. The Frost Faerie glanced up at Ryoka, and then away.

Coincidence? Or fate? Was she being led, or was this all some huge chance event? Ryoka didn’t know. But as the half-Troll and blind young man walked through the crowds, Ryoka slowly walked after them.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.34

It was still dark, still quiet, when the door of the inn opened. It was not night. But it was not day either. This was the brief moment before dawn, the quietest, most empty time. The sun had not risen, but the sky was no longer quite as black.

The door to the inn slowly opened, and someone came out. They moved very slowly; the rest of the inn was completely asleep at last, an hour after all the magic had occurred. As it turned out, even something as dramatic as an inn becoming a magical inn couldn’t keep people awake that much longer.

But the lone figure was still up. It closed the door and then peered upwards at the side of the inn.

This is what someone would have witnessed if they were waiting outside. A slight scraping sound, the sound of indrawn breath, scuffling. The figure climbed up onto the roof of the inn, muttering as snow cascaded down around them. But in the end, they were on top, and then quiet crunching followed their slow movement across the top of the inn.

A small flurry of snow swirled downwards as a small patch on the rooftop was cleared. After a few more seconds, the figure sighed as she took a seat, letting her legs dangle over the edge of the roof. Only then did she speak.

“Oh, hey Klbkch. I didn’t see you down there.”

Klbkch stepped out of the darkness and away from the wall he’d been standing next to. He nodded up at Erin Solstice.

“Good morning, Erin. I hope I did not alarm you?”

“I was about to scream, or throw something. I nearly had a heart attack. But why are you out here?”

“As a matter of fact, I was hoping to speak with you. But I did not anticipate you coming out here so early in the day. Or rather, late at night.”

The two spoke very quietly, their voices swallowed up almost immediately by the snow and night. But now Erin’s voice was filled with quiet amusement and astonishment.

“What, you were going to wait outside all night? That’s so weird. Why were you waiting? Come on up!”

It took Klbkch only a few moments to leap upwards and pull himself onto the rooftop. He was far more agile than Erin and stronger, too. She moved over and he sat next to her. Erin was still warm from the inside; Klbkch seemed like a cold block of ice.

“Was it something really important? You could have just woken me up.”

“No. That would be discourteous. And my issue was not so pressing…I simply found talking to you last night to be difficult, so I decided to wait outside while I determined what exactly I should say.”

“Oh.”

Erin fell silent. She turned her head and looked at Klbkch. He sat still, not shivering, more like a statue than a living thing.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk. I really am glad to see you. It’s just I had so much to do…”

“I understand. And the fault is mine for expecting complete attention.”

“No it’s not. We’re friends.”

“…It is good that you are well, Erin. Your departure was alarming as it was mysterious.”

“Yeah. It was.”

Erin exhaled slowly, letting a small trail of vapor fly upwards. Klbkch watched it dissipate.

“I am told your skeleton was the cause.”

“Yeah. He was.”

“That is regrettable.”

“Yeah.”

Klbkch was used to maintaining both sides of a conversation. He had worked with Relc for years and was used to the Drake’s moodiness. But with Erin, he found it was easiest to wait. Or rather, he wanted to wait and hear what she had to say rather than talk.

“You know, I was surprised by Lyonette. She really changed while I was gone.”

“It was dramatic, certainly. I was not aware of her transformation until this point.”

“She really did do a whole lot. She helped save Mrsha, took care of the inn—she even learned how to steal honey from those evil bees. By herself! And she got me new guests to stay at my inn.”

“The Gold-rank adventurers are certainly a boon.”

“Yeah. I’m glad they’re my guests. But that Zel Shivertail guy? He’s important too, isn’t he?”

Erin’s face turned to Klbkch. He couldn’t see her exact features in the dim light, but he saw her eyes meet his. He knew what question was coming, or thought he did. If it were anyone else, Klbkch might have hesitated or considered an untruth or partial truth. But with Erin he just nodded.

“Yes. He is a Drake [General]. A famous one.”

She shrugged as if that made no difference. Erin stared out at the walls of Liscor to the west. They were gray, imposing, a darker blob of color amid all the snow.

“He doesn’t like me. He thinks I’m irresponsible, silly, and sort of a jerk. Which is fair. But he hates you, Klbkch. I mean, really hates you.”

Klbkch stirred, looked at Erin.

“You could tell?”

She just smiled a bit.

“It was obvious. I saw him look at you a lot while I was serving food and chatting. The innkeeper sees everything, after all. Just like the butler, the maid, and the kids. It was obvious he didn’t like you—or Ksmvr or Pawn. And you—were the two of you enemies? In the war, I mean?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

The two paused, and then the conversation moved on. Klbkch looked at Erin, but saw very little behind her calm, somewhat tired expression. He didn’t know how she felt and was…afraid…to ask.

“There were many guests in your inn. I take it these were all acquaintances?”

“From Celum, yeah. It was good to see them, although they did get a bit crazy and trash Octavia’s shop. I was happy to see they were all doing well.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes. Jasi’s doing well. So is Grev, which is great. I mean, he’s not stealing anymore and he looks halfway cute now that he’s cleaned up. Even if he has a big nose.”

“I see. Will you tell me who Jasi and Grev are?”

“Oh—right. You don’t know.”

Erin looked sideways at Klbkch. He stared back. She smiled, and the night lit up a bit.

“There’s so much that happened. I mean, I know there’s a lot that happened with you over here—adventurers and dungeons and new Antinium and stuff. But would you like to hear what I did?”

“I believe I would.”

The two sat on the roof and talked for a while. It was the first conversation they’d had that was really between the two of them just catching up. Talking. Briefly, Erin told Klbkch the story of how she’d started putting on plays in Celum. Klbkch listened, nodding a few times and trying to imagine this strange activity Erin was performing.

“Such performances sound quite extraordinary, not to mention profitable. I would like to witness one if the occasion permits. Indeed, the city of Liscor may be receptive to such activities as well.”

“Would your Queen like it, do you think? Would that be one of the things which helps your Hive—putting on a play for her?”

He paused. And then he shook his head.

“I do not believe she would care to view a play. And if she did, I do not think she would understand it.”

“Really?”

Klbkch nodded.

“There are many things my people do not understand.”

“Like what?”

“Friendship. Laughter. Happiness. Ambition. Joy. Tears.”

“Really? You don’t understand tears? I mean, I know the Antinium don’t cry, but you don’t understand them?”

“I understand it is an action meant to express sadness. I do not understand why those who weep feel better after having done so.”

“I guess it’s because being sad helps. And crying is very sad.”

“Intriguing.”

“Isn’t it? Us Humans are so intriguing. Except that I think Antinium are way more interesting.”

“That is a rare perspective.”

“I know. A lot of people don’t like the Antinium. Well, everyone, really. When I was in Celum I heard terrible things. And I’ve been told you guys are evil by all kinds of people. You know Lady Magnolia?”

“I know her, yes.”

“She doesn’t like you.”

“I am aware.”

Klbkch felt Erin looking at him again.

“Klbkch, will you promise me to tell the truth if I ask you an important question?”

“…Yes.”

The Antinium closed his mandibles slowly. He gripped the tiles on top of the roof, hard enough to crack one slightly as Erin stared at him. At last, she asked.

“What do the Antinium want? Really want, I mean?”

“To live. We want to live.”

“Oh.”

The two sat in silence as the sky grew a bit brighter. Just a bit. Erin shivered and mumbled about bringing a blanket. Klbkch sat in the cold, feeling it chill his entire body.

“If you guys want to live so badly, do you think you could live in peace? Not go to war, I mean? Be…nice to other nations?”

“It is doubtful.”

“Why?”

Klbkch shifted in his seat, dislodging more snow.

“Understand I speak of all the Hives, not just my own. I may be unfamiliar with recent events that have transpired, but I understand the way the Queens think. For them, peace is a strange concept. We do not think in terms of peace and war. We simply build up to wars, the next conflict. We have only known war, never peace.”

“So this isn’t peace. You’re really planning on going to war?”

“Some Queens are. Others think we should ally against our true enemy.”

“Who? Wait, what about your Queen? Would she be friends with the Drakes and Gnolls and Humans?”

“I do not believe she knows how.”

“Really?”

“Yes. She does not understand friendship any more than I do.”

“But you’re friends with Relc, aren’t you?”

“I am his partner. And I have been so for years. I have accompanied him on many occasions, and yes, I consider myself his friend. But I do not understand how I came to be one. And my Queen has no friends.”

He heard Erin take in a slow breath.

“Not even you?”

“Not even me. What we have is different.”

It was more than five minutes before anyone spoke next. Klbkch could see Erin’s eyes and head drooping. She was tired. So was he, but neither moved to get out of the cold. At last, as the sky grew brighter, foreshadowing the dawn, Erin stretched. Then she stood up. She stood on the roof of her inn and stared around the wide, open plains filled with snow. Everything was motionless, as if she was looking at a painting rather than reality.

“The world’s gotten a lot bigger, Klbkch. I know it’s usually the opposite way around, but I feel like every time I think I understand things, it turns out I don’t really get anything at all.”

Erin paused, and stared at the cold, pale snow stretching in every direction around her.

“…Or maybe it’s that I was looking at the wrong things to begin with. Does that make sense?”

Klbkch shook his head.

“Not at all. Your statement was quite incomprehensible to me.”

“Well, good. I don’t think I understand it well myself. What I’m trying to say is—did you know I leveled up last night?”

“I noticed an odd phenomenon around your inn and surmised this was the case, yes.”

“I got to Level 30. I’m a [Magical Innkeeper] now. My inn is also magical, or it has a lot of mana in it.”

“Congratulations. This is a great accomplishment.”

Klbkch inclined his head to her. Erin smiled a bit, and then grew serious.

“Yeah. It’s great. But—it’s strange.”

“How so?”

She spread her arms wide, turning to take in her inn and everything around it.

“Just look, Klbkch. I’ve got so much now. A new inn, a magical inn, a helper, friends, guests, a lot of money—even a magical portal door. And that’s great, it really is. But it’s not as important anymore as it used to be. Money’s just…money, now. What’s important is something else.”

“And will you tell me what that is?”

“People. We went past Esthelm on the way here, did you know? It was attacked by Goblins.”

“I am aware. But the city repelled them and retook the walls, did they not?”

“They did. But they’re hungry, Klbkch. Hungry. A lot of people died and they’re afraid the Goblins will come back. They’re going to fight to the death if they do, but this Goblin Lord is hurting everyone.”

“Yes. Over fourteen villages have been destroyed and a Drake city took heavy casualties fighting off a Goblin army to the south.”

“I didn’t know about that.”

“It is not a pressing concern. Such occurrences are common during calamitous events.”

Erin frowned at the sitting Antinium.

“No, you don’t get it. I didn’t know, but I wanted to know. I need to know.”

“Why? It does not impact your life here.”

“But people died. People are suffering. What happened to the survivors? Did anyone survive?”

Klbkch paused.

“I did not inquire. Such information would be obtainable I believe. Again though, I must ask why you wish to know.”

“Because I care.”

“You care about Goblins.”

“I care about a lot of people. I’d like to help them, if I can.”

“Why?”

Erin stared at the distant mountaintops, where something bright was rising.

“Before I went to Celum, I was really only concerned about surviving. But now—now I care about my friends. I care about people, Klbkch. I care about whether they live or die. I care that Jasi couldn’t find work and that Grev felt he had to steal to survive. I care about Rags and why people hate Goblins. And I care about the people in Esthelm, how they’ll do, and about Krshia and her shop, about Mrsha and Lyonette and you—”

“Why?”

“I guess because we’re friends? Or—no. Because they’re people. Because caring is important. Because I think I can help. Look at my inn. I’ve got money, friends…why shouldn’t I help?”

Klbkch stared at the young woman standing on the roof of her inn. He stood up and tried to see from her perspective.

“I do not understand, but I find myself admiring your perspectives. And yet, I must point out that aiding strangers has no benefit.”

“That’s a very Antinium thing of you to say, Klbkch.”

“Thank you?”

“Who cares if it doesn’t help me? If it helps them then I’m doing a good job. And then we might be friends.”

“Friends. How are friends created? How does friendship work? How do you make friends?”

Klbkch stared at Erin, wishing there were an easy answer. Something he could tell his Queen, tell the others, so he could change them. He did not expect a reply. But to his astonishment, Erin Solstice smiled and laughed out loud in pure amusement.

“Friends? That’s easy!”

“Really?”

She reached out and tapped Klbkch on the chest, right where his heart would be if he were Human. Erin smiled as dawn broke.

“All you have to do is give.”

“Give? Give what, precisely?”

“Something. Anything. Give your time to someone else to talk, give a bit of trust, or a helping hand. Give them a second, and maybe you’ll get something back.”

“But what if you do not?”

“Then you don’t. Maybe you’ll never get anything no matter how much you give. Maybe you’ll never be friends. That’s how it works. But to make a friend, you have to try. Just try.”

The Human and the Antinium stood on the rooftop for a while staring at each other. Klbkch stared at Erin, and then nodded.

“I believe I understand. If that is the case, anyone may be your friend. So then you care about everyone.”

“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because they’re people too. Because I can.”

“I have not heard that perspective before.”

“Really?”

Erin turned and looked around. She walked towards the edge of the roof and stared back at Klbkch, perplexed.

“Why wouldn’t you think like that? Where I come from—well, some people think like that. We’re all people, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we help each other?”

“I have heard it said Humans help only Humans. I have seen Drakes help only their relatives. Gnolls help their species, but seldom others. Each race has their enemies, their rivals. The Antinium see nations and politics as a competition for resources.”

“Well, I don’t.”

Erin stepped off the roof. She landed on the ground and looked up at Klbkch.

“Come on. I’ll make breakfast, and then you can help me.”

He leapt off the roof and landed next to her.

“Do what, exactly?”

Erin smiled. It was a big smile, open and without guile. It was her smile, and it lit up the world.

“Something awesome.”

 

—-

 

Lyonette woke up as dawn broke. She got out of bed, feeling her muscles aching and exhaustion on every line of her body. Mrsha was sound asleep next to her, snoring gently. Lyonette would have liked nothing better than to go to sleep, but she had to get up now. She had to feed all her guests, get ready for the day.

She trudged downstairs, automatically reciting the list of chores for the day when she heard the pop and sizzle of meat frying. She poked her head into the kitchen and saw Erin, frying and cooking away a storm in her kitchen while Klbkch sat on a stool next to her and peeled potatoes.

“Morning, Lyonette! I’ve got breakfast started and Klbkch got us a lot of water already. Do you want to bring in the rest of the dishes and help me wash them before everyone gets up?”

Lyon blinked at Erin a few times. Then she nodded and got to work.

 

—-

 

“I can’t believe it. Can you sense the ambient mana in the air, Pisces?”

“I can and do, Ceria. It is simply astounding—when I consider the ramifications of such a Skill—”

The next morning, the inn was in an uproar. Well, a quiet uproar. Mainly confined to all the mages, really. The other adventurers just stared at their magic-using comrades when they exclaimed over Erin’s new Skill. Ulrien blinked constantly as Typhenous raved about the mana in the air, Halrac ignored Revi, and Yvlon plugged her ears rather than listen to Ceria and Pisces discuss what had happened.

To show solidarity, Ksmvr put two of his hands over his earholes. Jelaqua and Seborn listened to Moore out of politeness, but the Selphid’s eyes kept wandering in different directions.

In the end, the mages congregated at one table where they could properly express their amazement and get back more satisfactory responses.

“So? What’s the verdict? Is my inn cool or is it magical?

Erin smiled as she brought over a basket of rolls to dip in the honey. Typhenous levitated the soft butter up and sliced some off. He accepted a roll with a smile for Erin.

“My dear, your Skill is nothing short of extraordinary. Why, I consider it quite an achievement to have created for all intents and purposes a magical leyline in your own inn. When I think of the positive applications…”

“Yeah, it’s cool, but I can’t do magic. Does this mean all your spells are super-powerful now?”

Erin propped her hands on her hips as she regarded the mages with amusement. Ceria shrugged.

“It’s not as if they’ll become that much more powerful, but we could cast the same spell almost twice as many times here. And like Lyonette found out, if no one else is using the magic here, it can accumulate and boost a low-level spell to a great degree.”

“That’s super-powerful. Well, I’m glad it helps. I just hope it’ll recharge my door faster.”

“At the very least it will!”

Pisces seemed outraged by Erin’s lack of enthusiasm. He ripped one roll apart and dipped both ends in the honey, glaring at her.

“Do you understand—mph—what this—nmf—could mean? You could use the mana supply here to power any number of enchantments—”

“Ew. Don’t talk when you’re eating. You mean, like the [Field of Preservation] Skill?”

“It certainly seems that way.”

Moore smiled as Erin presented him with a roll that was more like a loaf. She thought about this as the mages’ conversation about what they might use the mana source for devolved into an argument over who would get how many rolls. But their conversation had given Erin an idea.

“Hey, Lyonette! Want to try an experiment?”

She called the young girl over and brought out an apple. It was a small one, and slightly wizened—not to mention expensive! Erin sliced it open and both she and Lyonette stared at the pale slice of apple.

After a while Lyonette coughed.

“Um, shouldn’t we come back later?”

“Right…”

Erin slapped her head and left the apple. She bent down to catch Mrsha before the Gnoll could leap onto the table and grab the apple for herself.

“Hey there Mrsha, how are you doing on this fine day? Do you think my new Skills are cool?”

Mrsha licked at Erin’s face frantically, making the young woman laugh and let go.

“Hey! Stop that!”

“Mrsha, don’t bother Erin! You can play after breakfast.”

Lyonette pulled Mrsha back. As she put the reluctant Gnoll on the ground, she saw Erin giving her an appraising look, far different from yesterday.

“You’re pretty good at handling Mrsha, aren’t you?”

“Well…I suppose I have had practice.”

“Good! Actually, that’s great.”

Erin smiled at Lyonette, and the girl flushed with pride. Erin turned and frowned around her busy inn.

“Last night you told me you stole something else from those evil bees, right? Honey, dead bees, and…uh, what was it? A larva? Where is it?”

“Oh! I put it in my room so it wouldn’t bother anyone. I can go get it—”

“Why don’t you show me?”

The two Humans went up the stairs, Mrsha right on their heels. Erin peered at the fat, yellowish-white grub sitting in the bowl of slightly congealed liquid and shuddered.

“Aw. It’s so…gross.”

Lyonette giggled.

“Isn’t it? I was going to feed it to Klbkch, but then I got a [Beast Tamer] class! Um…”

“You want to keep it?”

Erin gave her the fish eye. Lyonette nodded.

“It grows on you. And it’s not hard to feed—I keep adding more royal jelly to the bowl. Actually, I’ll need a bigger bowl; it keeps getting bigger.”

Erin studied the slowly wriggling grub. She frowned at it pensively.

“Have you named it?”

“What?”

“You’ve gotta give it a name. How about Pudge?”

“Pudge?”

“Well, it sort of looks like Pudge, don’t you think? No? Okay, what about a bee name? It’s going to turn into a bee someday, so how about…Buzz?”

Lyonette frowned at Erin.

“I don’t know. Those names sound a bit…”

“Wait, I’ve got it! Beeyonce. That’s perfect! No—wait, that’s horrible. Let me try again…”

“It’s just a grub. You don’t have to name it yet.”

“Apis? That’s the word for bee in uh, Latin. I think. Buzzana? Buzzany? Is it a boy or a girl bee?”

Lyonette just stared. Erin tried out several more names, and then realized she was getting a funny look from Mrsha as well. She threw up her hands and walked away.

“Fine! You can name the bee whatever you want when it gets big. But for now I’m calling him Mr. Ugly Fat Worm. It is a him, right?”

Lyonette and Mrsha exchanged a glance. The Gnoll reached out to poke the big larva and Lyonette smacked her paw away.

“What are you planning on doing now that you’re a Level 30 [Innkeeper]?”

Jelaqua asked as Erin went around the room with a pitcher, refilling cups. Erin paused and then shrugged.

“I’ve got some ideas. I mean, I’m not going to expand or anything; this is plenty for me as it is. But I might do more with what I have.”

The Selphid raised her eyebrows.

“Oh? Such as?”

“You’ll see. In fact, you’ll see in five minutes if you wait. I might need your group’s help for something I have in mind.”

“Really now. In that case, I think I’ll have a refill.”

Jelaqua smiled and leaned back in her chair as Erin filled her cup and moved on. Seborn leaned over to her.

What do you think she has in mind that involves us?

“No idea, but I’m curious, aren’t you? I heard stories all over Liscor about the crazy innkeeper, but we missed all the action. I want to be up close and personal for this one.”

One table over, Zel turned his head to frown at Erin’s back. He wasn’t so positive as the Selphid, and his premonition only got worse when Erin marched back over to the table full of mages.

“Hey, can I ask you guys to do an estimate for me?”

“Of course. About what?”

Ceria frowned as Erin pointed to the door.

“Now that I’ve got mana coming out of the walls and stuff, how much do you think I’d be able to transport through the door? I mean, in pounds? Or is it kilograms?”

The mages glanced around the table and began to speak. Pisces was the first person to come up with a response that wasn’t immediately shot down.

“I would wager the door could transport, oh, sixteen to thirty bodies between Celum and Liscor on a daily basis. I say sixteen as a lower estimate given the increased costs based on weight and mass, you see. If you had a group of armed warriors, sixteen would indeed be…”

“Okay, that’s not bad. But what if you all added your mana to it? How many then?”

Pisces broke off, looking confused. Revi exchanged glances with Typhenous.

“Well, we could add a lot. If you mean like last night, to bring a lot of people through—”

“No, I mean as much as you can. What if you drank mana potions, and put in everything you had into the door? How many people could you transport then?”

Ceria frowned.

“At least a hundred. But why? Erin, you aren’t planning on actually turning your door into a big shortcut between the cities, are you? Because mana potions aren’t cheap, and neither are mages. We could do it once or twice, but adding our mana to the door isn’t that easy.”

“No problem. You’d only have to do it once. And I guess one hundred people is good, but not enough. What if you went and got more mages?”

What?

Erin leaned forwards and put her hands on the table as she stared at the astonished mages. The other Gold-rank teams had stopped eating and were listening closely. Klbkch, sitting alone at his table, raised his head and waited, uncertain of what was coming next, but certain that it would be ‘awesome’.

“Mister Typhenous and Miss Revi—can I call you guys Typhenous and Revi? You’re big shot adventurers, right? And so are you, right Moore?”

“I’d say so.”

“By some standards, yes.”

“Among local adventurers, we are somewhat well known.”

Erin turned to look at Pisces and Ceria.

“And you two guys are Wistram mages, right? That’s important too, isn’t it?”

The two Silver-rank adventures fidgeted. Ceria coughed, blushing slightly.

“Not as important as Gold-rank, Erin—”

“That’s fine. But if I asked you to, could you get all of the mages in Celum and Liscor to come here and charge the door?”

“Why?”

Everyone looked astounded, but Erin just grinned.

“I want to bring in supplies. And people! Adventurers, [Guardsmen], [Guardswomen] too—I know there are some in Celum, food, clothing, blankets, pillows…I want as much of it as this door can teleport, today.”

“Why? What is this all for? And where would you put it?”

Revi looked exasperated as she asked. Pisces’ mouth formed an ‘o’ of comprehension as Erin smiled at the Stitch-mage.

“Esthelm.”

The room fell silent. Halrac blinked, and Ulrien sat up at the same time Jelaqua nudged Seborn with an elbow. The Selphid’s whisper was quite audible.

“See? What did I tell you? Isn’t she great?

“You want to send aid to Esthelm?”

“That’s right.”

Erin turned and met Zel’s eyes confidently. Revi frowned.

“No offense Erin, but why would you want to do that? Esthelm isn’t your home, is it? Why would you waste your coin and energy helping them out? I heard they already had control of the city, anyways.”

“But they need food. I went through there the other day—they might be in control, but their walls aren’t great, and they need blankets, supplies—more people. If Celum and the other cities are too afraid to send help down the roads, why not come up from Liscor instead?”

“There’s still danger on the roads, though. The area around Liscor isn’t safe from Goblin attacks.”

“Yeah, but what if we sent a huge Antinium army and a bunch of Gold-rank adventurers with all the wagons to protect them?”

“What?”

Halrac and Jelaqua said it at the same time as Zel. At opposite ends of the room, Ksmvr and Klbkch sat up.

“My Queen would never allow—”

“Erin, I do not believe I could persuade my Queen to—”

Both Antinium broke off. Ksmvr shrank down in his seat while Klbkch stared, until the Antinium looked away. Erin stared around the room, frowning slightly.

“Well, why not?”

“Erin, you can’t just ask an Antinium army to go marching—and you want Celum to just hand over all the goods? Your idea is…I mean it’s crazy…”

Ceria shook her head, frowning. But to her surprise, Yvlon stood up.

“Why not?”

Everyone looked at her. Yvlon looked at Erin.

“I think it could work.”

Revi raised her eyebrows incredulously.

“You do? Because I think it’s crazy too, like Miss Half-Elf said.”

“I think it can be done. Celum has the supplies and manpower to send—it’s just a matter of convincing their leaders to act. And if Ksmvr and Klbkch talk to their Queen—”

“Um. I am technically banned from entering my Hive—”

“And I do not know if I can convince my Queen.”

Erin stared at Klbkch. He was giving her an odd look. She walked over to him.

“Are you sure?”

He stared into her eyes. Klbkch’s face was inexpressive, but Erin could tell by the way his mandibles opened and shut repeatedly that he was troubled.

“I…could try. But I do not have high hopes of convincing my Queen.”

“And are we just going to ignore the part where you get an army of wagon drivers to take everything to Esthelm? Where are you going to get that? And are you going to pay for all of this, or do you expect Celum to foot the bill? I don’t think Liscor would pay to help Humans.”

Revi kept talking, determined to point out the obvious. She indicated Typhenous, Ulrien, and Halrac with one hand.

“And what’s this about volunteering us to guard the wagons? We might be guests here, Erin, but we don’t work for free.”

“I’ll let you stay for free if you help. And I can pay.”

Erin turned back to Revi, putting her hands on her hips. She stared challengingly around the room.

“Why can’t this work? Okay, it’s sudden, and okay, it’s crazy, but so what? There’s a city that needs help, thousands of people that could starve if someone doesn’t do something? Why not us?”

“Why should we do it?”

That came from Ulrien. Jelaqua glared, but Ulrien’s face wasn’t hostile. He was impassive, questioning. Erin stared at the big man without flinching.

“Because it’s the right thing to do. And I’ll make you a huge lunch for the road. Plus, you’ll be famous if you help.”

Ulrien thought about that for a few seconds, and then glanced at Halrac. The [Scout] nodded. Ulrien looked back at Erin and gave her a slight smile.

“We’re in. We’ll help—free of charge.”

What?

Revi cried out in shock, but Typhenous smiled and stroked his beard.

“Don’t fuss, Revi. This is for a good cause. Besides, I think this might prove to be quite an entertaining diversion.”

“We’re in too!”

Jelaqua shot to her feet, visibly disappointed not to be the first to offer. Moore stood up as well.

“This is a big undertaking for one day. Are you sure we can do it in the time given?”

Erin smiled up at him. Moore’s lips curved upwards in reply.

“I think we can do it. And if we split up, why not? All we have to do is get someone to yell at the Mage’s Guild in Celum—why not Revi and Typhenous and you? I bet you could scare the socks off of them. And if Halrac, Jelaqua, Ulrien and Seborn all go to visit the Council—”

“Do you think they’d listen to a few Gold-rank adventurers?”

Jelaqua frowned, but Ulrien nodded confidently.

“We’ve talked with city leaders before. It can’t be worse than persuading them to evacuate a neighborhood or muster the local army.”

Halrac was decisive. He seemed to be the most passionate, if his scowl was any indication.

“We can do it. Gold-rank adventurers have the pull, and this is an issue that the city-states agree on. They support one another or they all fall.”

“Huh. Using our authority and good name to influence others. Well, it’s never worked for our team, but I’ll try and help.”

Jelaqua grinned as she pushed her plate back. Erin turned to Klbkch.

“Can you go and talk to your Queen? If she can send, I dunno, some Soldiers and a lot of Workers to help, that would be great. And if your Hive has supplies they can spare like wood and stuff…”

Klbkch seemed torn. At last, he nodded.

“I will speak with her. I cannot promise you she will agree, but I will try, Erin.”

Erin smiled at him.

“Thanks, Klbkch.”

He stopped, wavered. And then Klbkch nodded firmly.

“Forget my last statement. I will obtain what is needed.”

“Thanks. And uh, I hate to ask, but I guess we need to talk to someone in Liscor. Do you know if Watch Captain Zevara could…?”

“Leave the Watch Captain—and the city leaders—to me, Miss Solstice.”

Zel Shivertail walked forwards. He didn’t look at Klbkch as the Antinium stood aside, but he smiled a bit as he stared down at Erin. He seemed bemused, but he too was smiling.

“I think I can get them to pay for a few wagons, at the very least. I’ll head down and talk with them now.”

“Oh, would you really? Thanks so much!”

Erin was full of gratitude, but Zel just shook his head slowly.

“I—it would be my pleasure, Erin. This is a good idea, and a good cause.”

He headed towards the door, catching Lyonette’s eye on the way over. Zel shook his head as she beamed at him.

“What about us, then, Erin?”

Ceria stood with Yvlon, Pisces, and Ksmvr. Erin turned to them, full of excitement and energy as the adventurers began to argue about how best to approach things.

“I need you guys to coordinate Liscor’s Mage Guild. They do have one, right…? Okay, so you guys can charge the door up as much as you can here—Pisces and Ceria, you know how to do that, right? And Yvlon and Ksmvr can help me organize the wagons. There’ll be goods coming through that door fast, so we need a lot of people to haul stuff away—”

“What about us?”

Lyonette came over, excited, Mrsha leaping from table to table as she did. Erin laughed as Moore snagged Mrsha out of the air and put the Gnoll gently down on the ground.

“You can help me clean up and cook more food!”

“Cook? But what about helping…?”

Lyonette’s face fell. Erin shook her head.

“We’ve got to feed everyone, right? All the people hauling food through from Celum and the wagon drivers—not to mention the Antinium and adventurers—we need to make food for all of them!”

The [Barmaid] paled at the thought and Erin laughed again. She turned to the others.

“Okay, let’s get to work! Spread the word if you can—we need all the help we can get! I mean, these are a lot of wagons, right? Even with the Antinium Klbkch can get, we need protection in case of monsters or Goblins or…Rock Crabs.”

Jelaqua raised her hand.

“Why don’t we go to the Adventurer’s Guilds instead of the city leaders? We could probably talk a good number into some easy guard duty, especially if the cities will hire them for a day.”

“Good idea!”

Yvlon nodded towards the door.

“And I’ll go find Termin. He’s sure to know all the wagon-drivers in the city.”

“In that case, why don’t I go find Garia and Fals? A few dozen [Runners] could carry quite a bit, especially if they made several trips.”

Ceria nodded towards the already open door as Halrac, Ulrien, Revi, and Typhenous walked through. Erin spotted Octavia trying to intercept the Gold-rank adventurers and nearly ran the [Alchemist] over. The Horns of Hammerad headed towards the doors, the Halfseekers split up and in moments, the inn was empty save for Lyonette and Mrsha.

The girl and Gnoll stood together, staring around the room. Lyonette stared at Mrsha; Mrsha stared at the open portal door, and then at Lyonette.

“I guess we’d better get to work, huh?”

Mrsha nodded, and stood up on two legs to help carry plates. Lyonette smiled, and stared towards the door Zel had walked out of.

“I told you she’s weird. In a good way.”

 

—-

 

The city was in an uproar. Which city? Well, Celum was mainly full of chaos, as all the normal day-to-day foot traffic and vehicles found themselves blocked off by [Guardsmen] who escorted rumbling wagons down the street. There was a lot of shouting and confusion. What was happening?

Word spread throughout the city. Apparently, aid was being sent to Esthelm! That news amazed all those who heard it. So soon? Of course, Esthelm needed help, but the roads were not safe! Had something changed?

But the wagons weren’t going towards the gates. Rather, they were going to a small but well-known [Alchemist]’s shop that looked like it was under siege. Countless people were going in and out of the doors, [Laborers] bringing in bag after bag of grain and crates of goods and [Runners] going into the shop but never going out.

In fact, as the day wore on someone created a second door in the shop, and then just knocked the entire wall in, much to Octavia’s displeasure. People streamed towards the shop, not just adventurers and workers, but [Mages] as well!

Something was happening. Something big. People could feel it. Why else would the newly famed [Actors] all rush over to the shop and disappear there? Why would Miss Agnes suddenly throw open her doors to her inn and announce drinks were on her for all the people helping to unload the wagons?

And what, in the name of the Five Families, did an [Alchemist] have to do with sending aid to Esthelm?

Some people knew, but most were out of the loop.

And that was only in Celum. In Liscor, the uproar was more like a furor in truth. The city had not turned out its warehouses to support a Human city, but it had commandeered every Runner, [Wagon Driver], [Rider], and transportation-based class that could be spared, all under the orders of the legendary Zel Shivertail himself.

Mages, drivers, runners, and a gaggle of adventurers milled about outside the city, shouting and being shouted at by a young woman who had developed quite the reputation in the city by now. A lot of the Drakes and Gnolls just resigned themselves to it; it was that crazy Human doing something weird again. But more stopped their work to watch the fun, and more still found themselves joining in when they heard what was going on.

Some were friends of Selys or part of Krshia’s clan, and found themselves lending a paw, claw, or hand to help. Others were more impressed by the legendary Gold-rank adventurers and Zel Shivertail, and helped because he was lifting supplies effortlessly into wagons. Some just cared about Humans, as odd as it was.

But all that was a backdrop, meaningless babble to what was going on below. The Queen of the Free Antinium under Liscor sat in her throne room, staring down at the strangers standing before her.

The Antinium of four Hives stood before her, each one in their own group. The Prognugator Tersk, leading the three Armored Antinium who had come with him. Revalantor Pivr of the Flying Antinium and his cohort of six. Two soldiers of the Quiet Antinium, almost invisible in the darkness. And Xrn, of the Centenium, now a Prognugator to the Grand Queen with her six bodyguards.

Of this group, it was only Xrn that the Queen of the Free Antinium was interested in, and only her that she respected. But annoyingly, it wasn’t Xrn who was speaking right now.

“…And after my extensive surveying of your Hive, I have found only four of these so-called Individuals who have obtained formal designations. Moreover, they have not obtained any significant levels, Skills, or classes as of yet. In my role as Revalantor for my Queen, I must ask whether this is truly an accomplishment that merits the attention of the Hives.”

Pivr’s voice echoed throughout the Queen’s chambers as all the Antinium stared at him. It was hard to read the other’s expressions, but the Queen felt they were getting annoyed by him. She certainly was.

His voice was higher in pitch than the other Antinium, and he moved about restlessly, fanning his wings when he stood still. Was he showing them off? The Queen had seen the true winged soldiers of the Antinium, long ago. She wasn’t impressed by the Queen of the Flying Antinium’s half-baked copies.

“So you have said. Repeatedly. But my achievement is extraordinary regardless of number. In fact, the rarity of such Individuals proves their worth. How many Prognugators does your Hive have, Pivr? How many Individuals has your Queen created?”

He ignored that question, as he had the ones before. Pivr seemed uniquely gifted at ignoring things he or his Queen didn’t want to see. As the Queen, so followed the Prognugator.

“I must simply ask how feasible the use of these Individuals is. Surely, if their creation is a workable method, you would seek to convert the entire Hive thusly? I ask, on behalf of my Queen, what formal plan you would put before the Hives.”

She had no formal plan, just this one accomplishment as the Queen of the Flying Antinium very well knew. The Queen of the Free Antinium tried to keep her temper, but it was hard.

She was angry the other Queens could not understand what they were doing, that they doubted her commitment to the Hives. She was angry that not all of them had sent their Prognugators to witness what she had done, that they questioned, or at least, didn’t trust that what she was doing was significant. She was also angry that Pivr was a pus-filled sack, and she was trying to restrain herself from ordering him killed—or just picking him up and crushing him herself.

The Queen tried to come up with a reply that didn’t include some form of violence, but she was distracted by another matter as well. Klbkch. Why wasn’t he here?

She knew he had returned to the Hive thirty minutes ago, but he had not come directly here, despite her mental summons. What was so important that he would not help her get rid of Pivr, preferably by shoving a sword through the other Antinium’s head?

To mask her irritation, the Queen turned her massive head towards Xrn. The female Antinium—the only one in the room besides the Queen—was standing still, her blue carapace shimmering slightly from the swirling lights reflected in her eyes. How beautiful.

The Queen knew she was the height of creation, an untouched remnant of the original Centenium forms, but she couldn’t help but feel envious. She was so graceful, so perfect. She had been created to embody true perfection, not the flawed shells all the other Antinium here wore.

“What say you, Xrn of the Centenium? What opinion do you have of what has been created here?”

Pivr make a choked clicking sound from the side. But the Queen had addressed Xrn by her old title. It wasn’t exactly correct, but that definitely put her authority far above a Revalantor’s.

Xrn nodded slowly.

“I believe my Queen, the Grand Queen, will wish to explore what you have created a great deal further, oh Queen of the Free Antinium. At the very least, we will request one of the Individuals accompany us back to the Grand Hive to be appraised there. There is significance in this, even if the Individuals cannot be replicated on a large scale as of yet.”

That sounded quite nice to the Queen of the Free Antinium. But she could sense Pivr getting ready for another comeback, probably to discredit her. She was just about ready to tell him he could go back to his Queen and tell her to eat all her eggs when she felt Klbkch approaching. She cut off Pivr with one feeler.

“Ah, I sense my Revelantor returns. Klbkchhezeim will answer any questions you may have, Pivr.”

All heads turned towards the entrance. The Queen waited, hearing the faint footfalls growing louder. Klbkch strode into the room, twin sheathed swords swinging at his waist, light on his feet, slim.

So close to how he used to be. And yet, indescribably far away. The Queen watched Xrn react to Klbkch’s presence. Tensely, and then relaxing. Yes, she felt it too.

This was more like the old Klbkch, the Slayer. But ah, it could never be him, not fully. His form was lost. Lost…

But he was hers, now. The Queen felt satisfaction in that. Klbkch stopped in front of the gathered Antinium and bowed to his Queen first, before nodding to them.

“My Queen, Antinium of the Hives, I must render you all my apologies. I was unavoidably detained last night, and was not able to meet with you as I had hoped.”

She could never be angry at him, not for long. The Queen waved a feeler graciously.

“Your absence was noted, but as always you work for the Hive’s greater good, Klbkchhezeim. All of the Hives.”

The Antinium nodded. He looked up at his Queen, and she felt the slightest thought pass between them. The Queen went still. What was he….?

“This is so. And I am aware of the scrutiny of the other Hives at this instance, so I have attempted to reveal much of where the true effort of our Hive has gone. In fact, I hope you will join me on a small expedition to demonstrate the true value of the Free Antinium of Liscor.”

What was this? The Queen didn’t speak to contradict Klbkch, but her mind was awhirl. Pivr turned to Klbkch, ready to pounce on any imperfections.

“Indeed, Klbkch? Your absence speaks to a lack of resources in the Hive. Could not an Individual have performed such tasks? What is this errand which will occupy a Revalantor of the Hive when he is needed elsewhere?”

Klbkch gave Pivr a look that made it clear the other Revalantor was not worth the syllables in his name. He turned to face the others, especially, the Queen thought, Xrn.

“The nature of the upcoming mission at hand is simple. I, as well as a group of one hundred and fifty Soldiers and twice that number of Workers, are travelling north to the Human city of Esthelm, escorting a convoy of supplies. We will be staying in the city for several days to provide aid to the citizens there.”

The Antinium did not waste time on shocked silence. Instead, they all spoke more or less at the same time. Pivr was the first. He exclaimed, spitting a bit of venom in surprise.

What?

Xrn next. Her voice was flat.

“What.”

Tersk, spreading his arms, open, honest.

“I do not understand.”

And the Queen. She couldn’t help it. The word slipped out.

“What?”

Fortunately, no one noticed. Tersk addressed Klbkch, speaking for the others.

“Revalantor Klbkch, I would ask that you explain your Hive’s reasoning for sending aid to this city. I see no immediate merit in such an action.”

Klbkch nodded. He ignored his Queen’s furious mental probes and explained to the other Antinium calmly.

“It is true that the benefits of such an act will not provide us with any immediate benefits. However, there are intangible benefits to such an act, and it costs the Hive very little in terms of resources. What we give will be repaid in the form of goodwill, trust, and friendship. Concepts which mean little to the other Hives, but which I…and my Queen…have grown to understand.”

She could sense the Workers and Soldiers in the Hive moving already! So that was what Kblkch had done! The Queen fumed, but she couldn’t gainsay him, not in front of the others. Why was he doing this? She didn’t understand, not one bit. Rendering aid without reward to a Human city not affiliated with the Hive? Why?

“I see. In that case, I will follow and observe, if you will permit it.”

Tersk nodded. The Queen supposed that was a victory, but she dearly wanted the Antinium to clear the room so she could have Klbkch explain to her what was going on. But Pivr was already talking again, refusing Klbkch’s offer.

I will not. I will stay and observe this Hive, and perhaps see what dangers lurk in this dungeon which consumes so many resources. An expedition is not what I came here to witness.”

A pity. But, the Queen thought to herself privately, she might be able to organize it so a monster broke through and slaughtered Pivr by accident. The Crypt Worms were quite lethal, even when she deployed many Soldiers to counter them.

“I will go as well.”

Xrn spoke up, and the Queen saw Klbkch’s mandibles part and raise in an Antinium smile. She really didn’t like that, but it was too late to stop any of them. She stared down at Klbkch.

“I wish you success on your task, Klbkch. Do not take too long, however. We have much to do…and discuss…when you return.”

He didn’t so much as flinch at the tone in her voice. Well, he wouldn’t. Klbkch bowed and left the room, leaving the Queen in the darkness to think.

And wonder.

 

—-

 

“So tell me, is this what made you abandon our discussion last night and not return?”

Xrn’s tone was slightly acidic as she and Tersk—and their escort of lesser Antinium—followed him through the Hive. Klbkch nodded.

“There is merit in this, Xrn.”

“I understand that, even if your Queen and the others did not seem to. But I do not understand why you of all beings would see it.”

Klbkch made no answer. He clicked his mandibles together in embarrassment, the Antinium version of clearing his throat—although he could do that too.

“We will join up with the Antinium escort shortly. I have been specially approved by Liscor’s Watch Captain to take the force out of the city.”

“Oh? How exciting.”

“Yes. It is, in fact. As you will soon see. For this mission, I have chosen one of our newest Soldier units to escort the convoy. They are…uniquely prepared to foster goodwill and reduce alarm among the other species.”

That made Xrn pause, but she followed Klbkch out of one of the secret tunnels in the Hive and onto the snowy plain. The instant she and Tersk entered the sunlight they stopped and gasped.

All of the Antinium did. For a second, they paused and stared. Not because they hadn’t ever seen Soldiers before, but because they had never seen Soldiers like this.

Painted. Colorful. Some with every color of the rainbow—and several colors not of the rainbow—on their bodies, and some with only a few markings. But each one was unique. Distinct.

Individual.

Klbkch stopped next to Pawn, Belgrade, Anand, and Bird. They stood at attention, nervous, silent, in front of the ranks of Soldiers and Workers. Tersk and Xrn came forwards to inspect them.

“These are the Individuals? Well met.”

Tersk greeted the four. Belgrade, Bird, and Anand didn’t speak, but Pawn opened his mandibles until Klbkch shot him a look.

“These are Anand, Belgrade, Bird, and Pawn.”

“You did not introduce me to this Pawn before.”

Xrn spoke as she observed the Soldiers. Tersk had already moved past the Individuals, much to Klbkch’s relief. The armor-wearing Antinium’s voice was puzzled as he turned to Klbkch.

“Revalantor Klbkch, I am uncertain as to the reason behind decorating these Soldiers so. It seems to be a waste of resources.”

“Are you? I would assume the reason is obvious. They are Individual. Unique.”

Klbkch nodded to the Soldiers, not sure if he was lying or only telling a partial truth. Tersk’ breath caught and he closed his mandibles slowly.

“I see. I see. This changes much.”

“Everything.”

Xrn walked past the Soldiers as they stood in perfect ranks. Klbkch knew their attention was on her; the azure body of the Small Queen was as striking as their paint. She too was like them; completely separate from the nameless mass of other Antinium.

“I take it you approve?”

“I love it.”

She turned to him, and Klbkch saw the swirling colors in her eyes grow brighter. He opened his mandibles in a smile.

“I shall appraise you of the decision to paint the Soldiers as we march. We shall proceed, unless there are objections?”

She shook her head.

“None. Let us go see what defines the Free Antinium.”

 

—-

 

Later that day, the road leading from Liscor north to the Human lands was empty. Empty, that was, except for one vehicle.

The lone wagon rumbled slowly down the road. It was a familiar group sitting in it. Ceria, Erin, Yvlon, Ksvmr, and Termin all sat, eating a quick mid-day lunch as they headed north through the snowy landscape. Well, Erin, Yvlon, Ksmvr, and Termin sat. Ceria and Pisces were more comatose bodies slowly chewing their food at they lay in the back of the wagon on some crates.

“I’m just saying, it makes no sense! Why wouldn’t you want to go see your brother at all? I get that you don’t want him to be annoying and fuss over you, but you don’t ever want to see him?”

Yvlon sighed and brushed away some crumbs Erin had accidentally spat on her.

“The instant he finds me, he’ll try to take me back to our home, no objections. He’s not just protective. He’d never accept me being—crippled and continuing to adventure like this.”

“Oh. But he’s got your best interests at home. What if your family could help? I mean, with your arms…?”

Erin gingerly indicated the fused metal and flesh on Yvlon’s forearms, but the woman shook her head.

“If our family had a potion or artifact that could regenerate bones or limbs, we wouldn’t be a minor house in Izril. We’re known for having an adventurer or warrior in each generation—and having the first letter in our names be ‘y’. That’s all.”

“Well, I guess I understand. But you can’t run from your brother forever.”

“I don’t need to. As soon as he gets word of a village in trouble he’ll drop everything and run off. He is a [Knight].”

“Huh.”

“Hold up, you lot. There’s something on the road ahead.”

Termin suddenly called out in alarm, and Erma and Fox stopped in their tracks as he halted the wagon. All the adventurers immediately sat up, but they relaxed when they saw what it was.

“That’s not a monster!”

Erin chortled as she pointed at the creature that had caused Termin to stop his wagon. It was a beaver, sitting in the middle of the road.

“It’s a beaver. Why are you afraid of a beaver, Termin?”

Termin glared at Erin as he pointed to the beaver.

“That’s no ordinary beaver, Miss! It’s a Fortress Beaver, not one of your cute little rodents. See how large it is, even from here? It could bite my wheels in two in one go and probably take your leg off if you angered it. And where there’s one, there might be more. I’m not risking my wagon or my horses if I accidentally agitate it.”

Erin looked again, frowning. Now that she thought about it, the beaver certainly did look…big from so far away. It would be up to her chest—maybe up to her neck if she got close. She gulped.

“Okay, don’t pet the beaver. Well, can’t we get rid of it?”

Both she and Termin turned to look at the adventuerers. Yvlon shook her head.

“I’m not killing a beaver.”

“I volunteer—”

“No, no.”

Erin hastily pushed down Ksmvr’s hand and turned in her seat. She poked the person lying behind her.

“Ceria. Hey, Ceria.”

“Wuh?”

One of the two comatose bodies raised its head. Ceria looked pale and exhausted, drained from using up all her mana, but she managed to get up to stare at the beaver.

“Can you get rid of it? You can talk to animals, right? Can you get it off the road so Termin can keep going?”

The half-Elf glared in outrage at Erin.

“Dead gods. Erin. Just because I’m a half-Elf, doesn’t mean I…well, I do, but why do you always turn to me to—”

She looked around the wagon. Everyone was staring at her. Termin cleared his throat.

“Well, do you or don’t you? I don’t speak beaver.”

Ceria growled, and pushed herself up. Grouchily, she stood up and moved to the front of the wagon, grumbling under her breath.

“It’s not like I want to learn this stuff. Fine, I’ll get it to move.”

She cupped her hands and took a deep breath. Erin was expecting her to chitter to the beaver, or make whatever sound they made, but Ceria just started shouting. The beaver’s head turned as she yelled at it.

Hey you! Yeah, you! Piss off!

The Fortress Beaver stared as Ceria shouted at it. It seemed to think about what the half-Elf had said, and then waddled off of the road.

“There. Done.”

Ceria let her hands fall and turned. Everyone was staring at her, Erin with a betrayed look in her eyes. Ceria shrugged defensively.

“What? That’s how you talk to animals if you want them to move.”

She sat back down and Termin flapped his reins, shaking his head. Erin felt a rumbling on the ground and looked around.

“Hey, hurry up Termin. I think the others are catching up.”

The Fortress Beaver, which had considered going back to take a bite out of the wagon anyways, felt the rumbling and made itself scarce. A good thing too, because the army of marching Antinium would have squashed it flat if the sea of wagon wheels didn’t do that before them.

As Termin got his cart moving, carts appeared in the distance behind him. Carts driven by Humans, Gnolls, Drakes, and in one case, driving itself since the driver had fallen off but the horses kept going. Each one was loaded to the brim with food, supplies, and people. There were more than a hundred adventurers, [Guardspeople], and other experts such as [Healers], [Masons], [Hunters], and more who had come to aid Esthelm.

And marching to one side of the road came the Antinium. Rows upon rows of Workers, dragging primitive wooden sleds loaded with materials of their own—nails, wood, hammers, but no food since what they ate was disgusting—led by a group of Antinium including Pawn at the front.

Erin beamed as the massive group began to catch up. Termin had left with a good lead on the others, but everyone was moving fast. It wasn’t evening yet, and they were nearly at Esthelm!

“You’re lucky so many of these wagon drivers have movement Skills.”

Pisces commented to Erin as he raised his head from his bed in the wagon. Termin cackled.

“Luck’s got nothing to do with it, necromancer. Around here you either move fast or you get eaten by something sooner or later. A Skill like [Continuous Rolling] is common for all us folk.”

The necromancer sniffed.

“Well then, she was lucky you all decided the roads were safe. Why did you decide to take the journey, pray tell Mister Termin? Surely you are aware such a convoy would be at risk of being attacked? Why not travel with an army from Celum?”

“Hah! Any army the Human cities could put together wouldn’t be half as powerful as an army led by Zel Shivertail himself! Add two groups of Gold-rank adventurers to the mix, the famous Horns of Hammerad—not to mention the Antinium Soldiers, and the Goblin Lord himself would look twice before taking us on!”

Before Pisces could open his mouth again, Erin leapt up in her seat and nearly fell off the wagon.

“Oh look, look! I can see the city from here! Wow, it still looks terrible!”

Esthelm came into view, and as soon as their wagon approached, Erin heard people on the walls shouting. But as more wagons were spotted, the shouting grew confused, and then jubilant. People began cheering and streaming out of the gates before Termin’s wagon had gotten close—then they saw the Antinium and ran back into the city.

In the end, Erin drove up to the gates. The people of Esthelm didn’t exactly shut the gates, but they met her and the wagon at them. The [Soldier] who had met Erin and the Horns of Hammerad two days ago was there, with a group of armed men who looked incredulously at the approaching force. Erin waved down at Umbral excitedly.

“Hi! Remember me? Well, I came back and I brought a lot of stuff to help! And a lot of people!”

His jaw dropped.

“You? You’re that [Innkeeper]! But how did—”

“It’s supplies and a relief force! From Celum and Liscor! And the Antinium! They’ve come to help fix your walls and guard your city!”

“The Antinium? Here?

He seemed unable to process it all. Erin jumped down from the wagon and then sat down hard. Her legs had gone to sleep.

“Ow. Um. Well, it’s a long story, but these Antinium are really nice. They’ve brought a lot of stuff, and we have food, blankets, pillows, and so on. We even have—”

She got no further, because Umbral pulled her up and into a hug. Erin heard the cheering begin again as word began to spread.

“Aid has come to Esthlem!”

“Liscor! The Drakes have come to help us!”

“Esthelm is saved!”

Everyone was being thanked, except perhaps the Antinium. But Pisces summed it up best. He smiled, perhaps arrogantly, but with genuine pleasure at Umbral as the man let go of Erin. He nodded to the huge convoy and then at Erin.

“You may attribute this delivery to Erin Solstice, proprietress of the Wandering Inn.  We can discuss remuneration for goods and services rendered at a later—”

He got no further then that, because Erin kicked him.

 

—-

 

The city of Esthelm was saved. Only, it had already been saved. In a sense, you could say it was saved again, at least from the pressing needs of hunger, thirst, and the need for shelter. Pawn considered that this was less glamorous than saving the city from invading monsters, but no less necessary.

He stood in the ruined center of the city with his group of painted Soldiers, staring in awe at the buildings, the people, and the broken sewers that stank beyond belief. It was all new to him. He had never gone beyond Liscor, never seen so many Humans, or seen a city this badly destroyed. He knew his Soldiers hadn’t seen anything like this either, and he was glad to have shown it to them.

And yet, Pawn was also uncertain. Because while the others who had come seemed to know what they were doing, he did not. And that was a problem, because he was in charge of the Antinium here.

Klbkch had explained it to him quickly, which was to say confusingly, a few moments before they had left. Pawn was in charge because Klbkch had to deal with the Antinium from the other Hives. He had to speak with the Antinium in armor and the beautiful blue, female Antinium for reasons unknown to Pawn. Thus, Pawn was in charge.

Which again, would be fine if Pawn knew what to do. But he didn’t. Oh, the Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans seemed well-organized enough. They were already unloading the wagons, the soldiers and guardspeople keeping order while carpenters, masons, and other groups split off to help aid the city. But Pawn was standing with over a hundred Soldiers and three hundred Workers in the middle of the city with not a clue of what to do now.

He badly wanted to go find Erin and ask, but Pawn realized that might not be an option right now. He had to do something. So he cleared his throat and looked around.

What could be done? Well, what couldn’t be done? Pawn was no expert on cities, but he felt sure that walls shouldn’t be falling down, there shouldn’t be exposed sewers, and that Humans preferred a roof over their heads as they slept. He pointed randomly at a particularly bad section of the wall and turned to his sub-leaders, Belgrade and Anand.

“Our job is to assist in repairing this city. Thus, I think that wall is…a good place to start? Belgrade, Anand, if you will take that wall and uh, effect repairs on it? Reinforce it? Make it taller or something?”

“Certainly, Pawn.”

“It will be done.”

The two [Tacticians] nodded immediately and began walking towards the wall. Workers and Soldiers both streamed after them, making Pawn jump. Belgrade and Anand needed no spoken instructions to command the Soldiers. Somehow, they’d learned the trick of Prognugators, to command without speaking, mind-to-mind.

Well, that was easy. Pawn turned and nearly had one of his hearts stop when he found Bird standing right in front of him. The Antinium seemed…focused as he held a bow in his hands. An arrow was already nocked.

“There are many birds here. I must go hunt them.”

“Oh? Certainly, Bird. Go ahead. Ah, be sure to bring the birds back so they may be eaten, alright?”

“Yes.”

Bird hurried off, already staring at the sky. Pawn turned around, and then around, and realized everyone had left. Belgrade and Anand were already having Soldiers clear the rubble while Workers moved about preparing tools and forming neat rows to expedite the work flow.

Now Pawn felt lonely. He thought about what he should do next, and remembered something Erin had told him last night. He looked around, saw a familiar tail, and hurried towards it.

 

—-

 

“I see what you mean. I see it.”

Zel Shivertail muttered to himself as he walked through the city of Esthlem, gazing at the destruction. He felt a small pang in his heart as he saw how much devastation had been done, but the rest of him just felt mystified.

Why was he here? How had he come to be here, in Esthelm, helping to distribute aid to the citizens? He could have sworn he was eating rolls with honey just this morning.

It was all because of that girl. Erin Solstice. It hadn’t been a unique idea, to help Esthelm. Anyone with at least one heart would have thought of that. And it wasn’t hard to think of a door being used to transport things like goods. That was an obvious use. But convincing two cities to send supplies and help, and asking the Antinium, the Antinium no less to render assistance?

“…Who is she?”

That was what Zel Shivertail asked himself. He could admit when he’d misjudged someone. He’d done that with Erin Solstice. He still kept part of his original opinion, but now he revised the rest. Something was off about that girl. Something was extremely off, in a way he could only attribute to one other Human before…

“Excuse me, General Shivertail?”

Zel turned. He expected to see one of the Drakes, asking for him to sign his tail or something silly like that, or a Human, asking for help. But he froze when he saw the Antinium standing meekly in front of him.

Instinct told Zel to rip the Ant’s head off. He restrained himself—with effort. Zel growled as he took a few steps back.

“What do you want?”

The Antinium nodded politely.

“My name is Pawn.”

“You have a name?”

Zel was incredulous. But he caught himself—this was one of the new Antinium, the ones all the damn Drake politicians and leaders were telling him to find out about. Pawn nodded.

“I am. I ah, have been sent to aid in restoring Esthelm.”

“Good. For you.”

Zel didn’t want to talk with any Antinium, even a new one. But Pawn clearly wanted to talk with him. The Antinium cleared his throat nervously.

“I was hoping I might converse with you, General Shivertail. I understand you are a famous General among the Drakes—”

“I fought in the Antinium War. Both Antinium Wars.”

“I know.”

The two stared at each other. Zel forced his fist to unclench. Pawn studied him carefully.

“I am not hostile towards you, General Shivertail. I do not wish to offend you either. I simply wish to talk.”

“Yeah? Well, I don’t want to talk to you.”

Zel forced himself not to shout. Pawn tilted his head sideways.

“May I ask why?”

“You’re an Antinium. I saw your kind ravage my continent. You still do. You infest part of my home. I saw your Soldiers slaughter thousands of innocents.”

“Yes. They did. But I was created long after those wars. I am not like my people. I am not like anyone.”

There was something in the Antinium’s eyes—Zel looked away. He controlled his voice, spoke levelly.

“Look, An—Pawn. I came here to help the Humans here, because it was the right thing to do. Because it was a good cause, understand? And I tolerated your Hive sending an army here, though I’d rather kill you all, because you lot are helping too. I won’t pick a fight with your kind, but it doesn’t mean I have to like you, or talk with you. I lost too many friends, too many comrades to your species to ever think of you as anything but the enemy. Understand?”

Silence. And then Zel saw Pawn nod out of the corner of his eye.

“I understand. But I did not come here to be friends. I came to ask—you see, I have been placed in command of my own force. I am a…leader. But I do not know how to lead.”

“So? The Antinium lead themselves, or the Queens do, don’t they?”

“Yes, but she has entrusted that role to me. I must lead, but I do not know how. That is why I have come to you. You are a Drake [General], one of the greatest leaders on this continent.”

Zel Shivertail stared incredulously at Pawn.

“You want me to give you…advice on how to lead an army?”

Pawn nodded.

“Yes.”

“Why in the name of the Ancestors would I do that?”

The Antinium shrugged. He seemed at a loss in front of Zel’s questioning stare.

“I do not know. I simply hoped you would. Because you understand the burdens of leadership.”

Zel turned away in disgust.

“I’ve never taken on a pupil. If you want to ask for training, go find Niers Astoragon, or some Human [Lord] like Lord Tyron Veltras.”

“They are far away.”

“I don’t care.”

Zel turned to go. Pawn called out behind him.

“One question, please. Answer me one question, General Shivertail.”

General Shivertail gritted his teeth and lashed his tail.

“If I do, will you go away and stop bothering me from now on?”

“Yes.”

“Fine. Ask.”

Pawn was silent for a moment. Zel was about to snap when the Antinium spoke.

“What do you tell a soldier under your command when he is dying?”

The world paused. Zel turned back. Pawn went on.

“You see, I do not know what to say. I can only hold them, but I do not know what is supposed to be said. But there must be something. What do you say?”

The Drake stared at the Antinium. Down at the Antinium. He realized that Pawn was small. He wasn’t a Soldier. He was a Worker, no fighter. He didn’t even have a weapon at his side. For a second, Zel wrestled with himself, and then one part won. He sighed, and gingerly beckoned Pawn.

“Come on. Walk with me.”

Pawn hesitated, but then followed Zel. The Drake stared up at the sky, at the Antinium swarming over a wall and putting it back together bit by bit, and at the Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls all working together in this city. Because of a girl. Because of an innkeeper. And he walked side by side with an Antinium and told him what to say, what you could say, what you had to say when you held a soldier in your arms.

“You tell them this. You tell them they did a good job, that they can rest. That you’ve never seen anyone fight that hard, that it’s only a scratch. That it’s going to be okay—”

“Even if it is not?”

“Especially then. You tell them what they need to hear. And sometimes, what they need to hear is nothing. Sometimes you just hold their claw and say goodbye. Sometimes…”

 

—-

 

Klbkch saw Pawn walking next to Zel Shivertail and couldn’t believe his eyes. He almost didn’t believe Xrn’s, but she had seen it too.

“What a strange thing.”

That was all she said. She hadn’t said much, just taken in everything on the march to Esthelm. Klbkch got the impression Xrn was saving up all her words for when she’d sorted out her feelings. Guiltily, he was looking forward to her reaction when it all came out.

But for now, Klbkch just walked with Tersk and Xrn through Esthelm, explaining things for the other two Antinium, but Tersk mainly. Klbkch kept having to pause and stare at the people working, though. He felt a little twinge in his chest every time he saw a Human look up, jump at the sight of him, and then gingerly wave, or at the very least, not flee screaming.

They came to an open square, where the smell of cooking was making Klbkch long for dinner already. He had already explained to the others that they would be eating Human, Drake, and Gnoll foods on this expedition—this seemed to have raised their morale quite a bit.

But now Klbkch saw Erin, standing in the center of the square, next to a grave blooming with flowers and a rather tall stone marker, speaking energetically to a small group of Humans, two Gnolls, and a Drake. She had found a [Flautist], a man with a crude bell that was probably used to sound the alarm, a man holding a harp, and a group of people who could sing.

“Revalantor Klbkch, what is that group of people doing?”

Klbkch paused. He was unsure, although he thought he knew.

“I think they’re—”

All at once, Erin broke into song. She sang loud and clearly, startling everyone around her. They stared at her as the girl started singing a song that Ryoka Griffin would have recognized instantly.

Dashing through the snow, in a one-skeleton open sledge, o’er the fields we go, screaming all the way! Bells on Gnoll-tails ring, making spirits bright…

She gestured, and the man with the bell began hitting it rhythmically. The Antinium watched as Erin tried to teach the rest of the appropriated lyrics to the others. He could hear her shouting.

“Come on, you don’t know this song? It’s famous! Don’t tell me you guys don’t have Christmas!? I’ve got so much to teach you all! Alright, on three, okay? One, two…”

“Revalantor Klbkch, I do not understand. What is the purpose of this?”

Tersk whispered it to Klbkch as the group began to sing. Klbkch heard the melody drifting throughout the city, caught by a breeze of wind. It was such a simple song, and yet it had a power of its own. People began to hum the song, or join in after a few repetitions.

“What confuses you, Prognugator Tersk?”

“What is the purpose of such an activity? Could not these people aid in some other task to better effect?”

“Perhaps. But this is important too. It will inspire others to work faster. And…it has a value of its own.”

“Which is?”

Revalantor turned his face up to the sky as the music began to spread. He smiled, and wished he could close his eyes. He could not, so he just said one word.

“Listen.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.33

Erin Solstice had returned. That phrase meant little to most people living in or around Liscor. The vast majority of Drakes, Gnolls, and newly arrived Humans did not know this young woman. They would not have cared about her returning if they did.

But it was curious that in a city that housed over ten thousand souls above ground and almost the same number underneath how many people did know of Erin Solstice. And yet, that knowledge wasn’t consistent among species. Few Drakes knew. And of those that did, only a handful were friends with Erin.

More of the Gnolls knew of the girl, if only by name. But most had never met her. They simply understood of her existence in the larger framework of ambitions, triumphs, and failures that was part of their tribe’s struggle to justify their place in the city. The Silverfang Gnolls heard the howl,  but they let their leader decide what would happen next. She was still the one in charge, even if much of her authority had been lost.

And the Humans? It could be said that of all the adventurers, the ones that mattered knew Erin. Two Gold-rank teams heard the news. One group was merely interested and wondered if their place in the inn would be compromised. But the others were surprised to see one of their members, Halrac, smile.

Less than a hundred people above ground knew Erin’s face. But below the earth, the Antinium knew her name. Even if they had never seen her before, every Worker, and now every Soldier knew her. Because she was significant. She had spoken to the Queen. She had made some Individual, and she was known to the Hive’s Revalantor. She was special.

But Zel Shivertail knew none of that. All he had were his eyes, the few things he had heard about Erin, and the things he had seen. The things that she had left behind. His understanding of her was formed by absence, by seeing what she had not done and the people who knew her.

So he stopped in the center of the inn, the Wandering Inn, and saw Erin Solstice return. He heard her laughing, and then her exclamation as Lyon rushed at her.

“Whoa! Hey, Lyon! Lyonette? It’s good to see you but—are you crying?”

“You’re back!”

“I am, I am. But could you let me go? And Mrsha—”

The innkeeper was caught between the young Gnoll with white fur who was climbing all over her, and the young woman who was almost beside herself with emotion. Fear, relief, surprise—

More people crowded the doorway. A half-Elf helped pry the Gnoll off of Erin while Lyonette let go and sheepishly stepped back.

“I’m sorry. It’s just—you’re back!”

“Yeah, I am. Thanks, Ceria. And—wow, who’s this?”

The girl came further into the inn and saw Zel. She looked at Lyon and the girl hurriedly explained.

“That’s one of my—your guests! He’s staying here.”

“Guests? I have guests? You mean people are sleeping upstairs? Who?”

“Not right now—there’s actually two groups of adventurers sleeping upstairs at the moment. Every room is full—”

“What? You mean there’s no space for us?”

A male voice shouted from outside the inn, sounding outraged. The speaker stomped into the room, a Human young man in dirty robes.

“Calm down Pisces. There might be space—we could sleep in the common room. And even if there’s not, there’s plenty of room in the city. Probably.”

A female Human, a warrior by the looks of her, wearing light leather armor walked in after that. Zel noted her gear—worn material, but ill-fitting on her. Probably a new purchase. And the young man and half-Elf’s robes marked them as mages. Adventurers?

Then someone else followed the group into the inn. An ant-like creature with an armored blackish-brown carapace and three arms. Zel’s claws clenched together before he made himself loosen his grip.

Antinium. The thing made Zel want to leave, or start a fight. But he held himself back. Why was one here?

“Pardon me Captain, Erin, but Termin is asking where his horses can be rested. Is there a stable nearby?”

“A stable? Why would I have that?”

“Most inns have a stables, Erin.”

“Really? Oh yeah! Um. No, I don’t have one Ksmvr. I guess Termin’s going to have to put his horses in the city. Sorry!”

“I will convey that to him with tact.”

The Antinium walked back out. Zel couldn’t believe what he’d heard. That Antinium had a name? And it was—an adventurer?

Nothing made sense. But now the young woman was approaching him with a smile. Zel took a few steps and met her in the center of the room.

“Good evening, Miss. My apologies, I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is Zel Shivertail.”

Erin stared up at the tall Drake, blinking a few times at him.

“Whoa. You’re tall. Um. Hi. I’m Erin Solstice. I sort of own this inn, but I’ve been gone…wait, did you say Shivertail? Are you related to Selys?”

Zel’s nonexistent eyebrows rose.

“You know my niece?”

“Yeah, she’s one of my friends! That’s so weird!”

Erin stared round-eyed at Zel for a moment, and then came back to the topic at hand. She coughed a bit nervously. Zel realized he was looming a bit and tried not to. This young woman seemed, well, a lot like what he’d expected.

That was unfortunate.

“Well, I’ve been gone for a little bit. There was an uh, accident, but I’m back now! I hope Lyon—I mean, Lyonette’s been treating you well? Getting you food and cleaning the inn and stuff?”

It was a question, not a statement, and Zel noticed that too. He made himself smile at Lyon as the girl looked nervously at Erin.

“I couldn’t have asked for better hospitality while I’ve stayed here. Your employee has done an excellent job, Miss Solstice.”

“Call me Erin! And that’s great! Good job, Lyon. Let me just look around…um, make yourself at home, Zel! Ceria, Pisces, I guess put your stuff over there—I just want to check…”

She passed by Zel and he saw her enter the kitchen. Lyon followed after her, looking suddenly very anxious. Mrsha ran after both Human girls and Zel heard Erin exclaiming as he eyed the adventurers. They seemed to be discussing this new revelation near the doorway—the Human [Mage] was giving Zel the fisheye, although the Drake [General] doubted any Human would recognize him without an army at his back.

“Hey, nothing’s broken! And the inn isn’t burned down! Everything’s alright! Good job, Lyonette!”

Zel’s eyes narrowed fractionally. He glanced towards the kitchen and saw Erin come out of it. Lyon looked relieved. The girl was chattering to Erin as the young woman poked around the rest of her inn.

“I tried to keep everything like it was, but I had to put the blankets and…stuff on the ground somewhere else. I’ve been purchasing food, but I tried not to spend too much coin! Um, I kept it—”

“Yeah, cool. Did you make food? By yourself?”

“I did. It’s not very good…”

“See, I tried to teach you! Did anyone get sick? And wait—”

Erin stopped and stared at one part of the room. She hurried over and then exclaimed in horror.

“Hey! What happened to my flowers?

She rushed over to the boxes of dirt standing at the windowsills. Zel saw Lyon grew pale. The girl hurried after Erin, wringing her hands as she tried to explain.

“I forgot. I’m so sorry. I just didn’t think of them until recently. But when I did I tried to water them, and some have started to sprout. But I found out something about the flowers. You see, when you were gone I was looking for food for the Antinium and—”

Erin interrupted the other girl brusquely. She  fussed over the small yellow flowers, not looking directly at the girl. She was clearly upset, but she only bit her lip as she turned to face Lyonette.

“It’s okay, Lyon. I guess…you know what? It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have gone. I can save some of them, I think. And I mean, I shouldn’t have expected you to…well, it’s too bad. That’s all.”

There was a tone of condescension in Erin’s voice that irked Zel. She was treating Lyon as if the girl were completely incompetent. Zel remembered Lyon saying she had been a fool before, but that was not her now. And Erin didn’t see that.

“I’m really, really sorry. But I managed to use some of the dead flowers! I have more honey—I can show you!”

Lyon wanted to get Erin to follow her back into the kitchen, but the girl had turned back to the flowers.

“Honey? I’ll go see in a moment. Why don’t you uh, well, why don’t you help out, Lyon? You can get some water or something. I’ll make dinner in a bit, and then I’ll talk to all these guests…you’ve been feeding them and making beds and stuff, right?”

“But I—”

Erin turned back to face Lyon, frowning now. She took a deep breath as Lyon went still, looking uncertain.

“Look, Lyon, I’m really glad you’re not being a jerk anymore, but let me finish with this, okay? I can see…whatever it is you’ve done in a bit.”

With that, Erin went back to her flowers, checking each one for damage. Lyonette stepped back and Mrsha ran around her legs. She opened her mouth, and closed it before looking at her feet.

She looked hurt. And that was what made Zel act. He walked over, wondering if he’d regret this when he got kicked out. But he had to say it. Erin was too busy fussing over her flowers, so Zel tapped her politely on the shoulder with one claw.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

 

—-

 

Erin felt the tap on her shoulders and turned. Her heart jumped a bit in her chest as she saw the huge Drake, Zel Shivertail, Selys’ uncle, staring down at her. It wasn’t that he was a Drake, or really big that bothered her. It was more the expression of displeasure on his face.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

“Um. Hi. Can I help you?”

He was slightly scary. Maybe it was the scars, the places where his scales didn’t join together quite naturally, or Zel’s huge, muscular body. He wasn’t quite as…thick as Relc, but he was clearly a warrior as well. His green scales were tinted a bit grey, but what really distinguished him was his aura. In that, he had one.

He seemed like a rock. Or maybe it was a pillar? He projected something solid that made him hard to ignore, or forget. He wasn’t the kind of person you’d want angry with you.

But he was angry or upset with Erin, for some reason. She tried to smile at him, but he wasn’t smiling back.

“Is…something wrong?”

He was probably upset, even though he’d said those nice things about Lyon. Erin worried the girl had made a ton of mistakes while she’d been gone. True, the inn was in one piece and everything looked good, except for the flowers, but Lyonette had to have screwed up something. Had she borrowed money to keep the inn supplied? And why wasn’t Mrsha with Selys? Erin had countless questions she wanted to ask the girl in private. She had no idea why Lyonette had been silly enough to take in guests when she couldn’t cook or…or Erin wasn’t here.

“How should I put this?”

Zel stared down at her, frowning at Erin as she shifted uncomfortably. She saw Ceria looking up from her side of the room with a frown, but Erin waved a hand at her friend.

“What’s the matter? If it’s something Lyon did—I can fix it!”

“That is precisely my problem, Miss. I would ask you to please stop dismissing Miss Lyonette so casually. You do not understand what she has done, and you are acting quite rude to her.”

Across the room, the Horns of Hammerad went silent. Erin froze.

“No I’m not.”

“Yes, you are.”

The Drake’s eyes bored into Erin’s.

“I realize it isn’t my place to lecture you, but I cannot sit still and say nothing here. It is my understanding that you own this inn, isn’t it?”

“Um, yes—”

“In that case, why did you leave this young woman alone, without any guidance? You have been absent from your inn for weeks. While you have been gone, this young lady has had to do everything without you, and with barely more than a handful of coins. If she had not been so resourceful, she might have starved or been hurt. I trust you know she was banned from the city?”

“I—I do, but—”

There was no getting a word in edgewise, Zel rolled on, staring hard at Erin as he continued speaking.

“Lyonette took matters into her own hands. Yes, she made mistakes, but you owe her respect, not condescension. She took care of your inn in your absence. She obtained food, even stole honey from Ashfire bees. She looked after this young Gnoll—and she even rescued her when Mrsha was in trouble. She offered me a place to stay and she has kept this inn in business. I don’t suggest she has taken your place, but she deserves your respect and acknowledgment.”

When he was done, no one could speak. Erin’s gaze had gone past Zel’s—she couldn’t meet his eyes. She looked over, and saw Lyonette standing to one side, and lower down, Mrsha staring reproachfully up at Erin.

Lyonette’s face was beet red and she was avoiding looking at Zel or Erin. For her part, Erin felt her cheeks igniting. Because, although it stung and she felt a bit angry at being lectured, she knew Zel was right.

He was like a grampa, although he wasn’t as old as one. But he was like a grampa in the sense that he was reassuring, oldish, and calm—until he got mad. Then it was like Erin was a kid again, being scolded by an adult. Because she’d made a mistake and she had to be told off.

But what did she say now? The uncomfortable moment dragged on, no one speaking. Zel had folded his arms, and Erin felt like she had to speak.

But what could she say? Now that she thought about it—now that the exhilaration and relief at returning had worn off and she was thinking, she could really see that this inn was fine. Great. Extraordinary, even.

The tables were clean. The floor was clean. There was a fire in the fireplace. The dishes in the kitchen had all been washed, and the pantry and larder were full. In fact, everything was more organized than Erin had left it. Lyon had no Skills, in cleaning, but she’d kept the inn clean, and found guests. And one of them had just told Erin off because she was treating Lyon like a nuisance.

Erin’s face felt way too hot. She looked at Lyon, and saw the girl glancing away. Embarrassed. They were both embarrassed.

“You’re totally right.”

Erin said that at last. She looked at Zel, and then at Lyonette.

“I’m sorry, Lyonette. I guess I thought—”

“No, no. It’s my fault. I was horrible before you left. I didn’t—you have every right to think I’d have messed things up.”

The girl interrupted hastily. She seemed so different, almost like another person. Erin had a hard time believing it. She hadn’t believed it before, which is why she hadn’t noticed. But Lyon wasn’t haughty, she wasn’t rude. She was thinner, and she looked tired, but happier than Erin had ever seen her.

And Mrsha was sitting by Lyon, clearly attached to her. Erin took a deep breath.

“I’m still sorry. You did a great job. Mister Zel here is right. I shouldn’t judge. And I’m sorry for leaving. I didn’t want to, but…you did a great job, and I’m glad you kept the inn—and Mrsha safe. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

She trailed off. Lyon looked close to tears and Erin felt a bit emotional herself. She spread her arms.

“Hug?”

Lyonette hesitated, then hugged Erin. The two girls laughed a bit, and Zel turned his head, scratching at one scaled cheek. Across the inn, Erin thought she heard Pisces make a comment, but that was followed by a yelp as Ceria kicked him.

Mrsha ruined the moment by leaping from a table and onto the two girls. She made small sounds as Erin and Lyonette yelped and laughed. The Gnoll seemed wound up by Erin’s return, and she couldn’t stop sniffing at Erin, licking her, and running about.

“Okay Mrsha, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I left you too—how have you been?”

The young Gnoll stared up at Erin. She opened her mouth, paused, and then touched Erin’s leg with one paw. Erin bent down, and the Gnoll nuzzled her face. She was no dog, and there was something deep in her eyes that told Erin she understood.

“Sorry.”

Erin cuddled Mrsha, and then stood up. Zel was watching her.

“Thanks for saying that.”

He smiled, showing a few teeth.

“If you kicked me out for saying that, I wouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t my place, but I had to say something.”

“No, it’s—”

Erin cleared her throat, embarrassed. She had to get the conversation away from this. She looked back and saw Ksmvr helping Yvlon carry the door in. Lyonette and Zel turned to stare as the door came through the doorway.

“Is that…a door?”

Erin laughed. She smiled at Lyonette and Zel.

“I’ve got some crazy stuff to show you all. Come on, Lyon. We can help everyone get the stuff off the wagon—there’s not much—and you can tell me all about what happened while you were away.”

“And the door?”

“It’s so cool!”

Lyonette caught Zel’s eye as Erin eagerly went over to the door and the adventurers. He was staring at the door and giving her a quizzical look. She shrugged, helplessly. That was Erin. But Lyonette had to smile too. She felt that same sense of strangeness around the other girl. Strangeness, yes, but also excitement, adventure, new thoughts and energy. If she had just one word for it, it would be—

Change.

 

—-

 

It was by coincidence that the Halfseekers met Griffon Hunt on the way back towards the inn. It wasn’t dinner time yet, but the Halfseekers were done with their efforts surrounding the dungeon today. Griffon Hunt on the other hand had returned early, due to Halrac hearing the news about Erin.

The two groups of adventurers nodded to each other when they met, but they were hardly inclined to strike up a conversation. They were allies for the purposes of taking the dungeon on and associates in the same line of work, but still strangers for the most part.

“I hear there’s a new innkeeper. Or rather, the old one’s come back.”

“So it seems.”

Revi nodded somewhat coldly to Jelaqua. The Selphid smiled and the Stitch-girl turned to Halrac.

“Is she really that important? Why are we returning now? Don’t tell me you like this Erin Solstice.”

Halrac looked irritable.

“No. I just want to see.”

“Fine, so long as we don’t have to pay more.”

Revi threw up her hands and walked back to talk with Typhenous and Ulrien. Jelaqua turned to the two members of her group.

“Hm. This Erin Solstice. Do we know her?”

“She’s the one who had that skeleton, remember? The one who punched that Gnoll warrior?”

Moore smiled a bit, and Jelaqua’s eyes widened in recollection.

“The one with the skeleton, right? Well, if she’ll tolerate us I’m fine with the undead wandering around. I really hope she doesn’t kick us out.”

Hm. You did make her faint by opening your chest up, Jelaqua.

“Damn. Was that her? Sorry, Moore, but you might not be able to get as comfy here as you hoped.”

“I’m sure she won’t be so prejudiced. Have faith.”

The adventurers reached the top of the hill, the Halfseekers arguing about what might change, Revi complaining and Ulrien and Typhenous listening. Halrac ignored the discussion and paused in front of the door. He pushed it open, and blinked.

“Hey there! Halrac!

A young woman turned in the middle of the room, and a trio of struggling adventurers stopped wrestling with the thick wooden door to turn and look at the newcomers. Erin half-ran across the room and beamed at Halrac.

You’re staying at my inn? Lyonette, you didn’t say Halrac was the one staying here!”

“You said you wanted it to be a surprise!”

Lyonette hurried over, smiling at Halrac and the other adventurers. They paused.

“Miss Solstice? We haven’t formally met. My name is Ulrien. I lead the team of Griffon Hunt.”

“Oh! Pleased to meet you!”

Erin started shaking hands. Revi came forwards, and Typhenous. Halrac grunted.

“My team. We’re staying at your inn.”

“I know, and that’s great. Come on in—sorry, I was in the doorway, wasn’t I? Come on in! There’s no food yet, but…oh! Are you the other Gold-rank team?”

Somewhat apprehensively, the Halfseekers stepped forwards. Erin was busy staring at Moore and Seborn, both of whom were used to the scrutiny, but the real test was Jelaqua. Erin smiled at the woman and then blinked and frowned as she saw the other woman’s deathly pale face.

“Hi, I’m Erin. Haven’t we met?”

“I believe so. My name is Jelaqua Ivirith. I lead the Halfseekers, who you see before you.”

Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“Wait a second…you’re that chest-bursting lady! The Selfad, right?”

Jelaqua nodded, not bothering to hold her breath because she didn’t need to breathe that much unless she was talking. But she was nervous, until Erin stuck her hand out, beaming.

“Good to meet you!”

Bemusedly, Jelaqua blinked at Erin’s proffered hand. She hesitated; touching a dead body’s hand was not fun for any species. But there was no way to say that in a moment, so she gingerly shook Erin’s hand. The girl shivered, but not in disgust.

“Whoa. That’s cold. Oh wait, your body is dead, right? That’s so…well, weird, but I guess Humans are weird too, right? Sorry, am I being rude? Wait, was what I said racist? Sorry!”

She smiled at Jelaqua, and then turned to Seborn and Moore.

“And you’re a half-Giant? And a…Drowned Man? Are there Drowned Women, too? Come on in! Lyonette says she makes a ton of food for you, Mister Moore. I’ll see if I can buy bigger plates. And bigger knives and forks, too! Oh, and do you need a bigger bed? I can probably get one made…”

The Halfseekers blinked as Erin talked them into the inn, showing not a hint of fear, suspicion, or even awkwardness around them. She just seemed curious and excited by the adventurers.

“Oh! And here’s my friends. That’s Ceria, Pisces, over there is Yvlon, and that’s Ksmvr…they’re the Horns of Hammerad, an adventuring team like the rest of you!”

Both Gold-rank teams turned to look at the others. The Horns of Hammerad froze, suddenly thrust into the spotlight as they fussed with the wooden door. Ceria turned red as she realized Erin was putting them on the same rank as Gold-rank adventurers, and Yvlon looked like she wanted to swallow her tongue. Only Pisces and Ksmvr seemed at ease—Pisces staring back at the other adventurers appraisingly, and Ksmvr nodding politely.

“You’re an adventuring team now? And you’ve reformed your old party, is that it?”

Jelaqua went over to Ceria, smiling as she greeted the half-Elf. Ceria nodded somewhat warily.

“That’s right. We’re a Silver-rank team. We uh, escorted Erin back to Liscor.”

“From where?”

Halrac frowned at Erin. It was Pisces who answered.

“Celum.”

“How’d you get all the way there?”

Erin debated telling Halrac, but decided to wait until she had more time.

“It’s a long story. But I’m back, and so…these are my friends. They’re going to be staying here.”

“Where? All the rooms are full.”

Revi pointed that out, glancing idly at the other adventurers. She didn’t say anything else, but the implication was clear. The rooms were full, and she wasn’t sharing with anyone. In terms of pecking order, she and the other Gold-rank adventurers far outranked a new team of Silver-rank adventurers.

Erin frowned, vexed. Already problems were popping up! She knew Lyonette had done well to get the other adventurers to stay here, but where were her friends supposed to sleep?

“I guess you guys can sleep in the common room, maybe. I mean, it’s not very private…”

Pisces looked very unhappy at the idea, and Ceria and Yvlon nodded slowly. Lyonette bit her tongue, then spoke up.

“What about the basement?”

“Basement?”

The young woman nodded, blushing as Erin stared blankly at her.

“You do have one.”

“I have a basement?”

Erin thought about this. She vaguely remembered…hadn’t the Antinium built it? She followed Lyon over to the room and blinked as the girl pulled up the trap door. Erin walked down the steps and shouted in surprise.

“I have a basement!”

She came back upstairs, shaking her head in wonder.

“The things you learn…hey Ceria, do you think you guys could sleep in a basement?”

Ceria glanced at the others and nodded.

“Probably.”

“What? It will be cold down there! And what about privacy? I object!”

Pisces complained as he stomped over to stare at the basement in disgust.

“No problem. We can totally make this work. All I need are some blankets, a mattress, curtains—I bet we could even buy some bed stands in Liscor!”

“Or we could sleep in the Frenzied Hare. Isn’t that a far simpler solution?”

Pisces sniffed as all eyes turned to him. He gestured at the door.

“The Frenzied Hare—or a more reputable inn, perhaps? It would be far more effective than sharing elbow room down there.”

“I’m afraid you won’t find many rooms, even if you do know the owner of this inn.”

Typhenous called out to the others. He gestured towards the city through one of the windows.

“There’s far too many people here. Every building, loft, and apartment in the city is getting more crowded by the minute.”

Erin laughed, making the old mage frown.

“The Frenzied Hare isn’t here! It’s in Celum!”

Everyone stared at her. Revi spoke slowly.

“Are you planning on heading north right away, then? Because if you’re going a hundred miles to sleep at a different inn…”

The other adventurers chuckled, but Erin’s eyes just sparkled. She turned to the Horns of Hammerad.

“We’ve gotta show them. Come on Pisces, is the door ready?”

He sniffed.

“The door hasn’t stopped being ready. It’s merely placement I was concerned with—”

Erin brushed past him and ran over to the door, which had been leaned against one wall. She beckoned Lyonette, Mrsha, and Zel over. The Drake stopped playing ‘catch the claw’ with Mrsha and walked over to stare at the door.

“What is it, Erin?”

The adventurers sitting or standing at the room stared in bemusement at the plain wooden door—all that is, except for Typhenous and Moore. Revi was openly yawning until Typhenous nudged her and pointed. Then she sat up straight in her chair.

The rest of the Gold-rank teams picked up on the cue, and stared harder at the door. Erin stood in front of it like a circus conductor about to unveil the biggest trick of the night.

“Alright, brace yourselves, everyone. A little bit ago, Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon, Ksmvr—they’re the Horns of Hammerad—they went into Albez with this map thing. And they found this. Well, they didn’t find this, but—”

Erin broke off as she realized she was losing her audience. She shook her head.

“Never mind. But they got this magical door. Look what it can do!”

She flung the door open, and spread her arms wide.

“It’s a portal door!”

There was no wall, behind the door. There should have been, but instead the amazed room of people stared straight into a second room, one filled with racks full of glowing potion bottles, workbenches with powdered ingredients and empty class containers—

And sitting at one table, humming a song under her breath and putting a label on one bottle, a young woman with dark skin. She looked up, frowning at the sound of the door hitting the wall in Erin’s inn.

Octavia froze, potion bottle in hand as she saw the room full of people all staring at her. She stared at the beaming Erin, at the open-mouthed Jelaqua, at Moore, blinking down at her, and then yelped as a white shape bounded towards her.

“Mrsha, no!”

Lyonette grabbed for the Gnoll. She caught Mrsha a second before the young Gnoll could cause havoc in Octavia’s shop. The Stitch-girl slid off her seat.

“What in the name of exploding cauliflower is this, Erin?”

“Octavia! I’m back in my inn!”

The room—both rooms—erupted into sound as everyone began talking.

“Extraordinary! I can’t believe it!”

“A magical door?”

“In Celum?

Everyone started clustering around the door. Erin stepped through and beamed at the others as Pisces tried to explain.

“Isn’t it so cool? I can go all the way to Celum just like that! And if I step back—”

She walked back through and spread her arms.

“I’m in Liscor!”

She hopped through again. Ceria frowned and opened her mouth.

“Hey Erin, that’s not the best—”

“In Celum! In Liscor!”

Erin jumped back and forth in rapid succession. Pisces turned and snapped.

“Don’t do that! You’ll exhaust the mana supply!”

“What? Oh—”

Erin half-turned to look back as Pisces as she jumped through the door again—

And the portal closed. One second the other room was there, full of noise, people—Erin could even smell them from Octavia’s shop—and then she was staring at a blank wall. Erin paused and then slowly poked the stone behind the door. Hopefully, she closed the door and opened it again.

Nothing happened. Sitting at her counter, Octavia smacked her forehead and groaned.

“You idiot.

 

—-

 

In the minutes after the door’s mana supply ran off, there was a lot of shouting. But adventurers being used to sudden changes, no one panicked too much. Except for Mrsha. Lyonette had to lift the howling Gnoll away from the door, and reassure her all was well.

Zel sat with her at a table as Lyonette coaxed Mrsha into sitting with her. The other adventurers were still standing around the door, although now an effort was going on to bring Erin back.

“Erin’s just gone for a little bit, okay Mrsha? It’s all okay. It was just an accident—no one’s hurt!”

“That was startling, though.”

Zel remarked as he stared back at the door. He eyed it, and the adventurers who were beginning to split off, leaving only the five mages to talk about what should be done. Lyonette thought his eyes lingered for a long time on Ksmvr.

“It’s a magical door. It must be incredibly powerful if it can teleport someone so far.”

“Yes. It’s an artifact worth—I can’t imagine. But it clearly has its limits, as your boss seems to have discovered.”

He did not look impressed. Zel turned to Lyonette.

“She has a very scattered personality.”

“It was an accident. She was—um.”

Lyonette stared at the door as the mages began to argue loudly. She saw Pisces standing protectively over the door as he and Typhenous began raising their voices.

“And what, pray tell, do you have to object to in the way I altered the enchantment? You will note I barely altered the matrix—”

“By creating a portal? That’s the element of the trap, don’t you see?”

Typhenous looked irritable as he poked the door with one finger, glaring at Pisces.

“It was clearly meant to open and reveal another room—thereby teleporting the incautious to another place entirely. But such a spell isn’t meant to safeguard the user! If it had closed on that young woman’s hand or leg she might have lost it entirely!”

Pisces turned red and Ceria interjected quickly.

“It was a mistake, but the key now is fixing it. If we work together we can probably—”

“We? Let Typhenous fix it. He’s the highest-level out of all of us.”

Revi interrupted, folding her arms. Lyonette winced as Mrsha turned to look. She knew conflict when she saw it, and this was the kind of battle she was used to back home. Not physical, but social, a battle of willpower and hierarchy.

“Oh, is that so? And I take it you are an expert in enchanting magic?”

Pisces drew himself up as Ceria let out a hiss of exasperation. Typhenous stared back archly.

“Not a master, but I am well-versed in it from years of practice and time spent in dungeons. I was educated in the college of magic in the capital city of Pheron for twelve years. And you are…?”

“Pisces. I, and Ceria here, are graduates of Wistram.”

Revi and Typhenous blinked. Revi looked frankly incredulous—Typhenous muttered what looked like a spell under his breath.

“You two?”

“Correct.”

Pisces stared unflinchingly back while Ceria mumbled something in agreement. Typhenous nodded slightly to Revi, and her demeanor changed.

“Well…we might not be Wistram mages, but I was tutored by an expert. We’ve got the experience here—we’ll alter the enchantment on the door before we draw the girl back.”

Pisces’ eyes flashed.

“I am fully capable of doing any needed configuration myself. Your assistance would be useful—”

“It needn’t be a competition.”

The deep voice came from Moore, making all the other mages pause. He had been quiet, but now he looked disapprovingly around at the other four mages.

“We are all experts in some way, aren’t we? I have never been to Wistram, although I have dreamed about studying there. But since none of us specialize in enchantments, let us pool our knowledge.”

“It’s not a question of pooling, Moore.”

Typhenous looked unhappy as he glared at Pisces.

“AS I was saying, the enchantments need reworking. If you look at how much magical energy this door drained from just a few moments of being active—”

“My spells did nothing to inhibit the costs! Ceria, back me up here.”

“Let’s all calm down and—”

Across the room, Ulrien and Halrac sat together with Jelaqua and Seborn. They were used to mages, and as such, gave them room. Jelaqua stared at Ceria and Pisces, looking thoughtful.

“Wistram mages?”

Seborn nodded.

It seems as though they are. Typhenous was surprised. I wonder why?

Ulrien spoke quietly.

“Probaly because he didn’t believe it. I’ve heard Wistram mages are a cut above most other mages, even at lower levels.”

“Well, we knew Springwalker was good. Her team might be important to watch. More importantly, where the hells did they find that door? I heard them mention Albez, but I heard that ruin was tapped out decades ago!”

Why not ask?

Lyonette saw the Gold-rank adventurers get up and begin talking with Yvlon, who looked overwhelmed to be speaking with so many higher-ranking adventurers. She turned to Zel.

“It looks like there’s a lot of competition.”

The Drake nodded.

“Adventurers work together, but they also compete for the same things. These groups seem pretty mellow, actually. I’ve seen things get ugly fast, although it might come to that if the mages don’t cooperate.”

“I’ll do something about that.”

Determinedly, Lyon stood up, letting Mrsha hop off her lap. Erin might be back, but Lyon could still be useful. The Gnoll followed her into the kitchen and in a few moments, came out chewing something in her mouth.

Lyon came out a few moments after that, holding a platter with cut cheese, some sliced bread, and sausage all sliced up. She approached the angry mages, holding the smorgasbord out in case someone cast a spell. They ignored her until she raised her voice tentatively.

“Excuse me. Would anyone like something to eat? Or drink?”

The bickering mages looked up. Like magic—a different kind of magic than was being argued over here—they stopped fighting as all fives mages eagerly grabbed the snacks off of the plate. Moore, who hadn’t really been that confrontational to begin with, smiled gratefully as Lyonette handed him a block of cheese she’d sliced into two parts and half a sausage on a plate of his own.

“Hm. Oh, thank you, my dear.”

Typhenous smiled at Lyonette, and Ceria and Pisces remembered they hadn’t eaten since breakfast as they shoved food into their mouths. Lyonette hurried back into the kitchen, and in a few minutes everyone was sipping from mugs and speaking far more calmly to each other.

“Yes, I see. I suppose we can simply concentrate our mana together to reactivate the doorway until a better solution can be found.”

Typhenous brushed some crumbs off his beard and nodded at Pisces. The young man inclined his head as well.

“How would you like to focus it? Neither Ceria or I have a focusing agent—”

“My staff would work well. Allow me.”

Moore gently raised his staff and touched the door as he put his plate on one table. Typhenous nodded. He reached out and grasped Moore’s other hand. Revi stood by Typhenous’ side; she linked hands with him.

“A good old fashioned link-up, is it? I haven’t done one of these in ages. Do they do these in Wistram?”

“Not much. They have fancy crystals that let mages link up at a distance. I once saw a mage eating in the banquet hall while he helped power a spell two floors up.”

Revi snorted as Pisces took her hand. Ceria offered her skeletal hand to Pisces, he took it, giving her a bemused look. She shrugged.

“Better conductivity.”

“Just so long as you don’t expect the rest of us to do a blood link.”

“Hah!”

The other adventurers, Lyon, Zel, and Mrsha all watched as the mages grew silent. Lyonette had to pick up Mrsha to keep her from wandering over; she had a feeling serious magic was being done.

If it was though, it only took moments and, disappointingly, had no colorful effects or sounds to accompany it. The mages let go and Moore carefully pulled the door open.

“I’m telling you, you’re not going to get it open even if you pour a thousand mana potions on it. Put that down!”

“How do you know? It might work. Let me try one!”

Octavia’s shop appeared in the doorway again, as if nothing had happened. Erin and Octavia were caught in the center of the shop, fighting over a green bottle. They paused and turned to the door.

“Oh hey, the door works.”

“You did it!”

Erin leapt through the door and beamed at the mages. They stepped back, looking slightly weary.

Revi flicked a bit of sweat off her forehead.

“That thing’s a mana sponge. No wonder it can’t run for more than a minute at best.”

“Thanks, guys!”

Erin beamed at the others, and then pointed at the door.

“Will this thing last for a while?”

“Longer than last time, if you don’t exhaust it by moving back and forth again.”

Pisces sat back into a chair and reached for another piece of cheese. Typhenous nodded.

“You have a wonderfully powerful artifact here, Miss Solstice. I would love to talk to you about it—and with you adventurers, if you have the chance. Perhaps over dinner?”

“Dinner! That’s right!”

Erin turned to the window in horror as she realized how late it was getting. She called out to Lyonette as the girl hurried over.

“Lyon, we’ve got to start making food! Tons of it!”

“I’ve got a bunch of it in the pantries, but there’s more in the basement. Should I…?”

“Great! Bring up whatever you need—I’ll start cooking! I’ve got [Advanced Cooking]!”

That made all the adventurers in the room, and Zel sit up. Mrsha’s ears perked and the young Gnoll crept towards the kitchen to wait.

“Aw, you’re making food? Close the door before I smell it!”

Octavia groused to Erin as the girl began listing food for the appreciative crowd and accepting suggestions for what she should cook. Erin turned and smiled at Octavia.

“Why don’t you join us?”

“Join you?”

“Why not? Come on, lock up your shop and have a meal! You can talk to these guys while you wait—did you know everyone here’s an adventurer? Well, besides Zel and Mrsha and Lyonette—but these guys are Gold-rank adventurers?”

Gold-rank adventurers?

Octavia didn’t exactly teleport, but she was through the portal door in a flash. She offered a brown bottle filled with liquid that looked like it had tiny glowing fragments swirling around inside of it to Revi.

“Mana potion?”

“What? No, I don’t need—”

Revi tried to decline, but Octavia pushed the bottle into her hands.

“Free of charge. Complimentary. In fact, let me throw a stamina potion in as well. Have you tried my wares? Octavia’s the name. Please consider using my products if you’re ever in the area. I’d be happy to custom-brew anything you happen to need. In fact, I have a new line of defensive potions and items you might be interested in. Are any of you [Rogues]? I have this wonderful Smoke Sack—that’s what I’m calling it—that has incredible potency for the price. Let me just find you a sample…”

She began her sales pitch and Erin laughed as she walked into the kitchen. The night had gotten off to a bumpy start, but now? Now she felt like everything was beginning to be right.

More than right, in fact. Perfect. Lyonette was in the kitchen, already spreading out food on the countertops. She turned to Erin, looking pleading.

“Can I help? Or at least watch? I’ve got the [Basic Cooking] skill now, actually. I’m still no good, but—”

Erin smiled at the other girl and put a hand on her arm. She grinned, and after a moment Lyonette smiled back. In her corner, Mrsha smiled too, and stared at the food as she waited for the right moment to pounce.

Erin grabbed a knife. She had a feeling she’d need to make a ton of food tonight.

“Let’s get cooking.”

 

—-

 

Klbkch walked up towards the inn on the hill outside the Liscor, ignoring the cold snow that crunched around his uncovered feet. The Antinium didn’t have much use for clothes, but they were aware of their bodies’ inability to regulate extreme temperatures. Thus, Klbkch kept moving and only stopped in front of the door.

He hesitated. It would be good to see Erin again. But there was so much to talk about! What should he say?

Greetings first. Klbkch knocked and then wondered if he should have brought a gift. Wasn’t that customary after a long time?

Too late now. The Antinium waited, hearts pounding a bit faster. He had so much that needed to be said, but perhaps it was Ryoka he should talk to? And yet, Erin was vital in so many ways…

After a moment, Klbkch realized no one had come to answer the door. He listened, and realized there was noise coming from inside. A lot of it.

Cautiously, Klbkch opened the door. A wave of sound, heat, and movement nearly overwhelmed his senses.

The inn was packed! Or at least, it was fuller than he had ever seen it. Klbkch walked into the room and saw Lyonette going from table to table with plates, carrying mugs, and Mrsha skulking between table legs, searching for scraps and occasionally stealing some from plates.

The room was filled with people Klbkch knew, and many people he didn’t. Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, and the Horns of Hammerad were occupying one section of the room, talking, arguing, laughing loudly. Across from them, a group of Humans and one Drake were eating, laughing and occasionally getting up to make some kind of speech. Klbkch was sure he’d never seen them in Liscor. Why was there a child with them? He was sitting with the female Drake.

And then—there was Selys, Krshia, a dark-skinned young woman he didn’t know and…Pawn? The Antinium looked up and paused when he saw Klbkch. He was sitting with the Gnoll and Drake—and Ksmvr, of all beings. Klbkch knew he shouldn’t have been surprised to see Ksmvr, but he hadn’t expected the two Antinium to be sitting together.

Ksmvr froze when he saw Klbkch, but Klbkch ignored him. He saw Zel Shivertail, making his way over to the table with the adventurers. The Drake froze when he saw Klbkch, and then kept walking, stiffly.

So many people. But where was Erin? Klbkch looked around and then saw her. She was coming out of the kitchen. He made towards her instantly.

“Erin.”

“Klbkch!”

She greeted him the instant she saw him. Erin beamed and hugged Klbkch—he hugged her back, gingerly.

“How have you been? No, wait—it’s good to see you! Do you want something to eat? Let me find you a place to sit!”

“Actually, Erin. I was hoping to converse with you about—”

“Sure, sure! But later, okay? I’ve got to keep serving—”

“Hey Erin!”

Some raised his voice. Klbkch saw a man get to his feet unsteadily. He waved in Erin’s direction.

“You have to give—show us again how to do the chant! The one with the [Witches]! We can’t decide how it should be performed.”

“Oh, that one? Just a second!”

Erin called out and smiled at Klbkch, looking distracted.

“That’s from Macbeth. It’s a play. Oh, wait, you don’t know what a play is. I’ll explain it in a bit—just wait and I’ll get Lyonette to bring you some fried bee!”

She ran off before Klbkch could say another word. Forlornly, the Antinium stood in place, staring around the room.

“Hey, Klb. Over here.”

Someone addressed him by name. Klbkch turned, and saw Relc sitting by himself at a table. The Drake grunted as Klbkch sat down. He had a huge bowl of corned beef in front of him, and three tankards. He drank from the fourth as Klbkch stared at him.

“Noisy, isn’t it?”

“It is unusual. I did not expect to see you here.”

“Why? Because I’m a Goblin-hating jerk?”

“Yes. Did Erin react negatively towards your presence?”

“I think she was too busy to get mad.”

The Drake stared moodily at his food.

“She said hi. And she didn’t kick me out. I guess that’s good, right?”

Klbkch nodded. There was so much sound here! He was used to noisy taverns and inns—it was practically their only state of being. But not here. This was different. And he wasn’t sure he liked it.

“Bee? Someone wanted—oh, hello Klbkch!”

Lyonette bustled over, a bee on a plate. She handed it to Klbkch and turned back to the kitchen. The Antinium stared at the bee, and realized he was hungry. As he ate, he spoke to Relc.

“You seem morose. Why? You being allowed to stay here seems to be a positive thing.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Relc picked at his food. Klbkch crunched one of the bee’s legs in his mandibles, savoring the honey and butter coated onto the insect.

“It’s just…I feel like we’re not her guests, anymore, y’know? I mean, we’re guests here and we pay and get fed—and this is good grub, but we’re not her guests anymore. We’re just guests.”

“I see.”

Klbkch looked around the room. He looked at countless faces, all of whom knew Erin by name, and felt a sense of isolation in his chest.

“I feel the same way.”

“See? It’s not just me!”

Relc drained his mug. He waved for Lyonette to bring him another—and had to keep on waving because Lyonette was busy.

“I guess we didn’t know what we had. But remember when Erin was just by herself? We could come in at any time and she’d be sitting with us…”

“It was pleasant.”

Klbkch nodded as he tore pieces off of his bee. Relc smiled.

“Hah. Remember the pasta?”

“I do.”

“And now—well, now I can look over and see old man Zel sitting right there. Zel Shivertail. The Tidebreaker himself. Eating in this inn. It’s crazy.”

Klbkch nodded silently. He knew that Relc knew of his past history. Klbkch was as famous as Zel. More famous. At least among his own kind. But the extent of that fame was diluted among other races. Relc had only known him as Klbkch the Slayer at first. It was not the same.

“And over there—two teams of Gold-rank adventurers. Gold-rank. You barely see them in the best inns in big cities, and there are two staying here. I could take any one of them on by myself, of course—”

“Of course. Understand I merely say this to act as a friend, not because I believe your combat skills are that advanced.”

“—Shut up, Klb. But I mean, look at them.”

Relc lapsed into silence. Then he dug into his bowl with a spoon and munched down some beef. He wiped at his mouth, looking dispirited.

“Reminds me of when I was back in the army. It reminds me…nah, never mind. I just sorta feel like I’m out of shape, y’know?”

Klbkch nodded.

“I understand your sentiments.”

I don’t. But I feel out of place and very worthless.”

The two looked over as Olesm collapsed into a seat next to them. The smaller Drake looked despondent as his light blue trail curled up around his chair leg. He slumped forwards onto the table, holding a nearly-empty mug in one claw. Olesm stared at the two guardsmen.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead.”

“You appear to be sitting already.”

“Thanks.”

The Drake sighed, long and loud. Relc poked him with a claw.

“What’s eating you?”

“I wanted to talk to Erin, but she’s busy. And there are so many people here—I feel like I’m not important anymore. I mean, to her. Not that I thought I was—I just want to talk to her, okay?”

“Join the club.”

“Indeed.”

The three sat in silence. The food was good, the company was acceptable, but Erin wasn’t here. Or rather, she was close, but too busy.

After a while, Klbkch spoke.

“It is unseemly to sit and be depressed because of Erin’s good fortune. I believe we should mingle and enjoy ourselves. We will be able to converse with her in time.”

“Mingle? And do what?”

Relc looked annoyed. Klbkch stood up.

“Let us find out.”

Relc exchanged glances with Olesm, but then they stood and entered the party. And it was a party.

“Look at this door! Look at this door!

Five minutes later, Relc was drunk, laughing, and having the time of his life. He was throwing pieces of bread through the door—which had been laid flat on the ground—into Octavia’s shop, trying to land it in Wesle’s mouth. Thus, he was actually tossing the bits of bread down onto the door’s entrance, whereupon they flew out of the doors sideways, aiming for Wesle as he lay on the floor in front of the enchanted door.

The physics involved created a far trickier game than normal, and the others crowded around the door were laughing.

“Stop getting making a mess in my shop!”

Octavia was shouting at Relc, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“You play so well! Have you been practicing?”

Olesm was dueling Pawn in one corner, and Typhenous, Ulrien and several other people were busy learning the game or playing it as well. Klbkch, standing to one side and eating his sixth bee, saw Erin move over to the game as if attracted by a magnet.

“Hey, I didn’t know you wanted to learn how to play, Lyonette!”

The girl blushed as she carefully placed pieces on the board. Her opponent, Krshia, was thinking hard as she scratched Mrsha by the ears. The Gnoll sat next to her, nibbling on some cheese, her belly round and full.

“Why don’t I teach you all how to play Go sometime? It’d be great!”

Erin was talking to Olesm and Pawn as Klbkch came over. Olesm looked confused.

“Go?”

“It’s a board game! Even more complex than chess! And it’s simple to make—well, sort of simple! I bet we could get a [Carpenter] to fix up a board for us in less than an hour!”

Erin shouted as she tried to explain the game. Olesm and Pawn crowded around Erin, and Klbkch couldn’t help but draw closer to listen too. Erin tried to share the general details of the game, but it was impossible to share everything in the noisy room.

“Later! We can do it later! I know how to play Shogi too…but I can’t remember what all the kanji on the pieces looks like so it’d be weird. But right now—does anyone want to play a game?”

“Me! Oh, me!”

Olesm practically begged Erin for the first game, and Pawn the second. Klbkch found himself playing Erin—but at the same time as she took on Typhenous and Olesm again.

And then—the party kept going. Some people had to sleep earlier, like Mrsha who was carried upstairs by Krshia, and others, like Jasi, left with her younger brother Grev because it was late. But no matter how many people left, Klbkch found that Erin was always talking to someone.

It was true, what Relc had said. Erin was no longer just his friend. Klbkch found that knowledge slightly painful.

He ran into Zel just once. The Drake had avoided him and all the other Antiniium, choosing to hang out with the Humans, or other drakes in the room. But they bumped into each other while going to the bar for another drink.

“Zel Shivertail. Please excuse me.”

The Drake [General] stared at Klbkch with open hostility.

“Why do you know a Human [Innkeeper], Slayer?”

“I could ask you the same question. Coincidence, perhaps?”

“She seems like a decent enough Human, as they go. Foolish, young…but we were all young once. At least, I was. What I don’t understand is why she’d ever befriend the Antinium.”

Klbkch shifted. He was armed with his swords of course, but he had no desire to fight here. Especially because he would die in an instant. Well, it wasn’t the death that bothered him, but the time it would take to revive.

“I do not wish to engage in hostilities here.”

“I won’t break the truce. But I don’t have to pretend to like you.”

Zel turned and walked away. Klbkch let him go. After a while, the Revalantor walked out of the inn, leaving some coins behind on a table for Erin. He stood outside on the snowy hilltop and decided to wait.

 

—-

 

Lyonette had never been busier, and in a way, never been happier than tonight. She was running about, serving tables, acting like a common peasant in short. But this peasant was leveling. And this peasant was liked.

By Drakes. By Gnolls. By the Antinium, even. Some part of Lyon still thought of Drakes as warmongering monsters, and Gnolls as overgrown dogs. But it was a part of her that Lyon knew was stupid. When she had been starving, a Drake, Olesm, had brought her food. And she loved Mrsha.

And she also loved this inn. There was electricity in the air that night, a charged room that kept everyone up long, long into the night. In fact, it was closer to morning when the last people staggered out and the adventurers went upstairs—or down into the basement—to sleep.

Lyonette found herself dozing at one of the tables, trying to pile dishes while her eyelids drooped. Erin yawned as she made her way over.

“You sleep. I sleep. Tomorrow we’ll…”

The sentence never finished. Erin just sort of wandered off.

“Here.”

Someone took the plates away. Lyonette looked up and saw Zel smiling at her.

“You’re awake?”

She said it stupidly. Zel grinned.

“What can I say? I like parties, and I’m used to staying up days without sleep.”

“Oh.”

Lyonette turned and looked upstairs. It seemed like a long way to go. Zel chuckled.

“Need a tail? Or—claw? What is it you Humans say, a hand?”

“Something like that.”

The girl grinned at Zel as she saw, out of the corner of her eye, Erin wandering into the kitchen. The Drake frowned as he looked in that direction.

“Is she going to sleep there?”

“She used to.”

Sure enough, the two heard a thump and then faint snoring as Erin immediately fell asleep. Zel shook his head and Lyon grinned.

“She’s a good…good…”

“So you say.”

He started helping Lyonette towards the stairs. But she paused as she put her foot on the first step.

“Something’s happening. Something is…weird…”

Zel paused. Then he frowned.

“Yes. I can feel it too.”

He turned. Lyonette shivered, and looked towards the fire. But it was still hot—and she realized she wasn’t shivering in cold, but rather trembling. The room was shaking.

“What…?”

“Earthquake?”

Zel looked around, ushering Lyonette towards a table. She stumbled towards it, but then realized something was wrong.

“No—look!”

She cried out as she pointed towards the walls. Zel turned and swore. The walls were trembling as well, and—glowing.

“What in the name of the Ancestors is happening?

Lyonette held onto a table as she heard voices from above. People were waking back up, and stumbling around. She turned, and tried to run for the stairs.

Mrsha!

The light grew stronger. Lyonette cried out in fear, and then, suddenly, everything stopped. It was as if the world had been pushing, shaking as it moved towards something. But now the world had reached its conclusion. The inn returned to normal. The walls grew dark and still.

But it was not the same inn of a moment ago. Lyonette’s legs shook as she steadied herself on the staircase railing for support. She stood up, and stared around the room. Zel stared back.

“What—what happened? I feel…”

Something was different. It was in the air, in the walls, even in the ground. The atmosphere in the inn suddenly felt charged to Lyonette. Zel just stared at her, uncomprehending.

“Why did the shaking stop?”

“I don’t know. But can’t you feel that?”

He shook his head.

“Feel what?”

Lyonette stared at him. He couldn’t feel it, but she could. Untrained as she was, she could feel it in every particle she breathed, every step she took as she walked across the floor of the inn. She raised her hand and concentrated.

“[Light].”

An orb of light drifted upwards from her hand. It glowed deep blue, and then shifted to a murky green; the color of the ocean depths that she had seen only once before. It was just an orb of light—

But it was far larger than it should be. As the ball of light flew upwards, it expanded, turning into a sphere, a tiny blue planet of its own. And more orbs of light rose upwards as well, from the ground, the tables, hovering in the air, a constellation of slowly shifting lights.

“What is it?”

Zel stared wide-eyed at the lights. He looked back at Lyonette, but she was pale-faced too. She had never cast a spell like this before. This—was closer to [Illumination], a spell far beyond her. But all she had cast was [Light].

“What is it? How is this happening?”

“I don’t know. But I can feel it. It’s…everywhere.”

“What is?”

Lyonette held one of the softly glowing orbs out. It turned pure white, and she breathed the words.

Magic.

 

—-

 

And she woke up, in the moments before the sun rose. Erin sat up as Lyonette and Zel stood in the common room. She stared at the glowing lights floating in her inn, and heard the words, the words that thundered in her mind.

 

[Innkeeper Level 30!]

[Conditions Met: Innkeeper → Magical Innkeeper Class!]

[Skill – Inn: Magical Grounds obtained!]

[Skill – Inn: Field of Preservation obtained!]

 

“Wow.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

3.32

The half-Elf walked off into the darkness, leaving Wistram behind. After a moment, Pisces stepped off the ship as well. He looked back towards the ocean where Wistram could no longer be seen, but where he knew it lay. Then he turned and was gone too.

 

The story ended. Ceria looked up from the depths of her mug and saw two watery eyes staring back at her. She blinked and leaned back a bit. There was a bit of snot mixed with the tears.

“Um, Erin? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine! I’m fine, it’s just—”

Erin reached for a handkerchief and wiped at her eyes. She had another one for her nose. Three, actually.

“And you never went back? Ever? You never heard from any of your friends, or—or sent a letter?”

“Never.”

Ceria shook her head, feeling the small gap in her heart aching a bit. But it was only a small rift, a faded scar that time had patched over. It had been a long time since she’d dared think about the past, but it had helped to tell someone at last.

“And so that Golem—Cognita is still in Wistram? And your friend Beatrice is all alone, and Montressa too? That’s so…sad.

Erin blew her nose again and Ceria smiled crookedly. It wasn’t really a smile.

“That’s life. I wouldn’t be surprised if Montressa is a fully-fledged mage by now and far more experienced than both me and Pisces combined. But I don’t know. I never heard from them.”

“But it’s not fair! You weren’t the one who killed Calvaron! And neither was Pisces! I mean, it was his fault, but he couldn’t have known about the trap spell! And it sounds like the other mages treated him horribly!”

“He did practice necromancy.”

“Yeah, but still—he only became a jerk after everyone started being a jerk to him, right? I understand so much more about him now!”

“I—wouldn’t take all of what I said to heart, Erin. Pisces did change thanks to how people treated him later on, but he was always a necromancer. He always kept secrets. Even from me.”

“I get it. But it’s still so tragic. It hurts just to hear it.”

Erin put down the soggy handkerchief and Ceria drank down the last dregs in her mug. Around them, a few late-night drinkers were being shepherded out of the inn by Maran, but Erin and Ceria were safe at their table in the corner. After all, Erin practically ran the inn even when Miss Agnes was around and Ceria didn’t have anywhere to be.

Of course, many miles away a lonely cart was rumbling down the road where three other adventurers were probably trying to sleep, but Ceria didn’t have to join them. Not tonight.

It had been Pisces’ idea. Fed up by sleeping on the wagon each night, despite the hand-delivered food and copious amounts of blankets and pillows, the mage had demanded one member of the group be allowed to sleep in the Frenzied Hare each night.

Ksmvr hadn’t cared, but Ceria and Yvlon weren’t entirely immune to the allure of the idea themselves. So the three of them had drawn straws to see who would go back the first night.

It had been Ceria who’d won the straw pick. She’d come back and been feasted by Erin while she watched a new play—something about a girl with a thick accent learning to speak correctly—being put on.

But that wasn’t the important part of the night. The important part had come when Erin sat with Ceria and they had talked about the incredible mage they’d met. Ceria had asked Erin how she knew him, or rather how Ryoka knew him, and somehow that conversation had led back to the past.

To the past, and a story Ceria had never told anyone. How she and Pisces had first met, how they had become friends—

And how they had lost that and left Wistram. Now, in the quietest hour of the day, just past midnight, Ceria listened to Erin snuffling.

“It’s history now.  If I could go back I’d do everything differently. But time travel is one of the things even the greatest of mages can’t do. My master, Illphres, died in the academy. I left because all that I respected and aspired towards died with her.”

“You didn’t want to stay? Even though…”

“Maybe.”

Ceria stared into the embers of the fire.

“Yes. I did. I regretted saying what I did to the Council. But—I still left because of what she said before she challenged Cognita.”

“What?”

The half-Elf shrugged, uncomfortably.

“It was just a comment. If she had been an adventurer, perhaps she would have known the danger she was walking into. That’s…one of the reasons I decided to become an adventurer. Illphres was far more powerful than most mages, far more powerful than I can dream of right now. But she died because she wasn’t used to fighting, not like adventurers are. We fight dirty and learn to run away. She and the other mages were proud. Too proud. I see that now.”

“But they sounded amazing.”

A sigh escaped Ceria’s lips.

“They were. I wish you could have met them.”

“But it sounds like Pisces was incredible too, wasn’t he? Before people knew he was a [Necromancer]—they really liked him, didn’t they?”

“Yes. They did.”

“I can’t really imagine that.”

Something like a laugh escaped Ceria’s lips. She turned to Erin, smiling in the dim light.

“It is hard to see, isn’t it? But just imagine Pisces without the sneer. Without any rude comments or—or his dirty robes. He is a genius at magic and Cognita herself acknowledged his skill. If we hadn’t fought those pirates at sea, if he had never been found out, he might be a powerful mage rising higher in Wistram right now.”

“Wow.”

More silence. Ceria saw the light in the room dim further, until Erin was just a dark silhouette in front of her. She could have cast a spell to light up the room, but this suited their conversation. After a while, she spoke out loud, confessing one last thing to Erin.

“That day, I think Cognita was speaking to Pisces, not me. He was the one who truly deserved to graduate from Wistram like that. I—I’m just a dropout. A failure. But I used the name of Wistram because it meant I could get work and it opened doors for me.”

“You’re not.”

Ceria shook her head.

“I am. A true acreddited Wistram mage is a rare thing, with far more experience and a deeper understanding of magic. What that old mage said—you saw him trash us in moments. Regardless of whether the quality of mages has declined since Archmage Zelkyr, we’re still far below that standard. I am.”

Something touched Ceria’s hand. She jerked, but it was Erin’s hand. The girl squeezed Ceria’s hand gently. Her good hand.

“I don’t think you’re a failure. You went into Albez, didn’t you? And you came out.”

“Huh. I guess we did.”

Ceria smiled as the last light disappeared. She couldn’t see Erin’s face, but she knew the other girl was smiling too.

 

—-

 

The next day, Erin treated Ceria to a huge breakfast. Not the usual kind either—she’d made spiced porridge seasoned with a bit of fruit to go with mulled wine. It was hot, filling, and it made Pisces stop complaining when they brought it to the cart to be eaten on the road.

Erin sat next to Ceria as they ate from bowls on the bouncing wagon. Pisces and Yvlon looked cold but awake and Ksmvr seemed happy to wolf down the gluten-rich food with no side effects.

“I appreciate the effects of this magical charm. I wonder if it may be duplicated?”

“Probably. It’s such a low-grade enchantment even Springwalker could do it.”

Pisces remarked testily and got a kick and a glare for it. He rubbed his leg as he continued.

“It is possible, but why would you need a second artifact, Ksmvr? My understanding is that you are exiled from your Hive. Unless you have plans to join one of the Antinium Hives in the south?”

Ksmvr went very still as Ceria glared at Pisces. He shrugged insolently. At last, the Antinium spoke quietly.

“It is true that I have been removed from my position due to my incompetence. But I would never join another Hive. My true place—and my Queen—is in Liscor. I hope to return some day, bringing gifts such as this charm to prove my worth. But until I can prove myself useful, I will adventure with you. If I may.”

Ceria nodded.

“Of course, Ksmvr. You’re a valuable member of The Horns of Hammerad.”

“And far better company than Pisces.”

“Hah. While Ksmvr’s presence may be more appealing, may I remind you that my abilities are unique within this group? No one can provide the unique skills and insights that I have at my—”

“Shut up, Pisces.”

“Yeah, shut up, Pisces! You were nicer back when you were in Wistram.”

“What?”

Pisces blinked. He stared at Erin as she frowned at him. Ceria sighed. She didn’t quite meet Pisces’ eyes.

“I told her about our time in Wistram last night.”

“Oh.”

Ksvmr’s head swiveled from Pisces to Ceria as the young man blinked at Ceria and then went red. The Antinium opened his mandibles but Yvlon nudged him.

“Why did you nudge me, Comrade Yv—”

She sighed, pulled him over and whispered into Ksmvr’s earhole while Pisces cleared his throat a few times.

“Ah, Ceria told you about our shared history?”

“She did. She said you were a really nice guy, once. What happened?”

Pisces’ eyes flashed.

“Well, if she told you the truth, you would know that it was because of the unfounded prejudice and intolerance—”

“Because other people were jerks to you. I get it. But you still became sort of a jerk yourself, you know.”

Pisces had nothing to say to that. He just looked at Ceria, angrily, as if she’d given away a precious secret. She stared silently at him, meeting his eyes, until he remembered and looked down. Remembering the past made it harder to sit across from Pisces so easily for Ceria, though she’d made her peace with it all.

Erin glanced between the two, seeing the tension. She raised her voice.

“Um. I do have a few questions. I didn’t ask last night Ceria, but…you know, I think you made some of your story up.”

Ceria frowned at Erin.

“I did not.”

“I dunno…Pisces, you were there. Did Ceria’s master—Illphres—did she really destroy six ships all by herself? And did you and Ceria really fight two Trolls during the entrance exams?”

Pisces’ eyes flicked to Ceria. The half-Elf colored and looked over the wagon’s side.

“I…may have exaggerated some details.”

“Clearly. However, Miss…Erin, I would impress on you one thing. If, that is, Ceria told you how it ended?”

Pisces grew serious. He looked at Ceria as if to ask her what she’d told him. She raised her hand and a fiery creature drew a simple message in the air, in the code only they could read.

Everything.

“—Mages aside. Pirates aside. The Sea Serpent—assuming Springwalker told you there was only one? Yes, that might be exaggerated. But there is no description that can truly convey the power of Wistram’s true rulers. The Golems. Cognita was, and remains, the most powerful being I have ever encountered in the world.”

The wagon grew silent as everyone thought of that. Erin looked back down the frozen road.

“Even that crazy old man with the iPhone?”

“Well, we saw very little of his power. But…yes. The quality of his magic is meaningless against the Golems of Archmage Zelkyr. They were built for war. Mages may cast spells of incredible destruction, but few are suited to combat.”

He met Ceria’s gaze and then looked away again. After another second, Erin piped up.

“You took the bones of the [Archmage], didn’t you? You put them in Toren.”

Yvlon’s head snapped up. Ceria winced, and Pisces drew in his breath sharply.

“I did.”

“Does that mean he was powerful as an [Archmage]?”

“Hardly. And I didn’t use many bones. I only used four.”

Four?

Ceria stared at Pisces. He nodded fractionally.

“Four. I carved the spell into the bones, to restore the form I gave Toren no matter how badly he might be broken. They are…what makes him unique. But they consume too much mana for him to survive without a source.”

“I get it.”

Erin sighed. She sat back down in the cart and pulled a blanket over herself. She stared at the grey sky as no one said anything for several minutes.

“You sounded really cool, you know.”

“Excuse me?”

“You. Ceria told me about how you used to duel people, and cast magic. You sounded cool.”

Pisces opened his mouth. He closed it, swallowed, opened it again, and closed it once more. He closed his eyes. Then he spoke quietly.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The cart rumbled onwards, taking the Horns of Hammerad down the road. Occasionally they passed by wagons and called out greetings or asked about dangers on the road. But the adventurers just sat in silence, mainly, along with Termin who was used to just having the company of his own head.

It was a cold day, but they were warm enough. And so Ceria and Pisces sat on opposite sides of the wagon and remembered.

 

—-

 

When the sun hit midday, the cart stopped to let the horses rest for a while.

“Even with a Skill they need a break, if only to eat.”

Termin explained as Erin happily patted one of the horses, Erma, on the head and she chewed her oats. Fox was busy trying to eat the food Erin had brought—warm bread and a spicy dip as a snack with cold meat and cheese for toppings.

“Shoo! You damn horse.”

Pisces waved it away as Ksmvr sliced cheese, cutting with little regard for the sharp blade of his dagger. Fox wandered away and Erin happily accepted a sandwich from Ceria before nearly dropping it.

“It’s hot!

“Really? Sorry. I tried to tone down the heating spell, but it’s hard when one hand’s…”

Ceria waved her skeletal hand. Erin shook her head as she juggled the hot sandwich.

“No, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting it. Magic is really useful, isn’t it?”

“Best thing on a road.”

Yvlon smiled as she accepted a second sandwich from Ceria. She peered at Ceria’s hands as the half-Elf warmed another sandwich for Termin, trying not to scorch the bread.

“I thought you were a specialist at ice-magic, Ceria. Is it hard to cast flame spells?”

“I used to be quite good at earth and fire magic. It’s my master who taught me a bunch of ice spells.”

Ceria shrugged as she tossed Termin a sandwich. He bowed slightly to her and she grinned and waved a hand in reply.

“I have a few Skills that improve my ice magic, but it’s not like I can’t cast any spell I learn, Yvlon.”

“I see. Magic’s a mystery to me, so I wondered.”

“You never tried to learn?”

Ceria sat with Yvlon on the wagon, the only non-snowy surface as Ceria and Termin clambered on top as well. Yvlon shook her head.

“Not my thing. I had a tutor of course—most rich families have tutors who teach their kids all sorts of skills and find what they might be good at. I couldn’t figure out how to cast [Light] and neither could my older brother or my sisters. Swinging a sword works well enough for me.”

“But it’s magic. If I could learn it, I’d be so thrilled!”

Erin sighed as she chewed her warm food. There was something special about eating in the cold and on the road, she decided. It gave her food…character. Then she remembered something else and slapped her head.

“I forgot! I was going to give you all some of my Corusdeer horn soup! My blue soup!”

The others eyed Erin.

“Your what?”

“Hang on! I’ll show you!”

Erin opened the door lying on the back of the wagon and crawled through it into Octavia’s shop. One of the [Alchemist’s] customers had a very nasty scare when he saw Erin crawling into the shop—from his perspective, it looked like Erin was crawling out of the sky, down through the doorway. But in a few seconds she had some of the soup she’d kept in a glass jar and was showing it triumphantly to the others.

Ceria and Yvlon stared hard at the soup adhering to the walls of the glass. It certainly looked blue, but that wasn’t a good thing. Blueberries were edible, and so was blue cheese, but there was something about blue soup that made it look particularly nasty.

The wagon driver shook his head the instant Erin uncorked the bottle and offered the soup around. All the ingredients had become a gelatinous mess from sitting in the bottle for so long, and the fact that it was still steaming didn’t make it any more appealing.

“I’m not eating that.”

“Aw, come on!”

Erin tried to get him to take a bite, then Yvlon. At last Ceria tried it, but only after Erin had taken a few bites and not immediately thrown up.

“It’s…dead gods, it’s not bad, Erin, but it doesn’t taste that great either.”

Ceria mumbled around the mouthful before she swallowed. The soup was hot going down, and that too felt wrong. But after a few moments, the half-Elf blinked and gasped.

“It’s hot!

“See?”

Erin beamed around as the others stared at Ceria. The half-Elf’s cheeks had flushed and she was starting to sweat.

“It’s way too hot. Erin, is that soup magical? I have cold protection spells on—I feel like I’m in an oven!”

“Oops. Sorry.”

Ceria shook her head as she examined the soup with renewed interest.

“You made magical soup? I can’t believe it.”

“It’s great! And I think I can make an actual dish next time, not just soup. But this stuff is going to be a huge hit—you can drink it and you won’t feel the cold even if you’re naked!”

“Tested it out, have you?”

Yvlon sighed but took a few bites. Termin did too, and in a few moments everyone was walking around and shedding clothes, standing in the snow and remarking at the way it melted on their bare skin.

“You’ll make a fortune off it—assuming you can sell a lot before the winter ends. Is it expensive?”

“Not too much. But I’ve got other soups and stuff as well! Funny—I always have to make it into a soup first. After that I can figure out how to combine stuff, but soup is easiest to experiment with.”

Erin offered Pisces the last bit of the blue soup. He declined, letting Ksmvr consume the rest of the enchanted food.

“Enchanted cooking is a rarity even in Wistram. I suspect your products will do very well, especially given the difficulty in reproducing a recipe such as this from taste alone.”

The innkeeper smiled wickedly.

“Yeah. No one’s stealing this recipe.”

“I feel like I could lie about in the snow all day. But I suppose I’ll settle for a nice breeze while riding. Time to be off!”

Termin clambered aboard the driver’s seat and called to the others. Erin, Ceria, and Yvlon got on top, but Pisces declined.

“I will walk.”

Everyone stared. Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr had all walked to stretch out, but up till this moment Pisces had refused to expend one bit of energy more than necessary. Termin just shrugged and shook the reins lightly.

“Your choice. Just don’t fall behind, necromancer.”

Erin laughed. Erma and Fox began pulling the wagon, faster than a walk but so slowly that Pisces would be able to catch up quickly.

But the mage didn’t immediately walk after the wagon. Instead, he stayed where he was. Sitting on the wagon back, Ceria frowned. She was about to call back at him when Pisces took one step.

Snow whirled. It flew up into the air in a gust, following the mage. He blurred forwards—too fast to really be called movement at all—and appeared right next to the back of the wagon.

Erin gasped.

“[Flash Step]! That’s the spell, right?”

“It is.”

Ceria watched as Pisces stood still next to the wagon, letting it continue onwards for about five seconds. Then he took a step and appeared next to it in a moment. He looked up, and his eyes met Ceria’s. Both mages looked away.

From her seat, Yvlon frowned at Pisces before looking at Ceria.

“I saw Pisces using that spell in the ruins and in the battle with that old mage. I didn’t know there was a spell like it until now. It looks incredibly useful. Do you know it?”

Ceria shook her head.

“It was one of his specialties. It’s a good spell for movement, but very hard to use. One bad step and you can break your foot or your toes.”

“Ah.”

Pisces continued to follow the wagon. At first Erin kept staring at him, gasping a bit as he blinked forwards with each step, but quite soon she grew tired of the spectacle. Ceria didn’t, though. She knew what Pisces was doing.

He was training.

With each step, Pisces kept pace with the wagon. It was slow, monotonous, and, Ceria knew, had to be mentally draining. But the fact that Pisces could keep performing the spell over and over was a sign of the skill she’d told Erin about.

What was amazing was the accuracy. At first it was off—Pisces would teleport too far ahead and spook the horses, or end up a few feet behind the wagon—but as time went on he eventually started appearing right at the back of the wagon, each and every time.

That was unusual, and Ceria knew both Yvlon and Ksmvr could tell how impressive that feat was. The wagon didn’t move at a uniform pace and the road wasn’t always straight. Pisces had to calculate how far to step at a distance in order to land precisely where he wanted to go.

After a while, Pisces added to the exercise. He drew his rapier from its sheathe and walked slowly forwards with it on the balls of his feet. Each time he stepped now, it was into a thrust, as if he were stabbing an opponent in the heart.

Now Pisces would step forwards into a slow lunge, fully extending his back leg while all the weight rested on the front. He kept his arm still as he held the rapier extended as far as he could go. Pisces slowly stepped out of the lunge, blurred forwards and moved into it again.

Slowly. Ceria could see his arms shaking the fourth time he did it, and he began to sweat despite not having had any of Erin’s soup.

After thirty minutes Pisces had to stop. He could barely raise his arms, despite alternating them while lifting the rapier. He collapsed onto the back of the wagon, panting as he pulled a blanket over to wipe his forehead.

“Wow. That looked really hard.”

Erin offered Pisces a pillow and he sank his head onto it, exhausted. He nodded, too tired for sarcasm.

“I am out of shape. It has been a long, long time since I last…”

“Not bad. You have excellent form.”

Yvlon handed Pisces a water flask. She looked at him with a touch of respect. He nodded wordlessly as he drank deeply from it.

“It is a shame the Antinium cannot learn magic. I believe I would benefit greatly from mastering such a spell.”

Ksmvr remarked as he stared at Pisces’ rapier. Ceria shook her head and saw Yvlon and Termin both doing it as well. For all she liked Ksmvr as a person, the thought of thousands of Antinium using [Flash Step]—or a basic spell like [Stone Dart]—was a nightmare.

Pisces shook his head as he handed the water flask back to Yvlon.

“Your species has a distinct absence of any kind of magical affinity, Ksmvr.”

The Antinium nodded calmly.

“Yes. This has been well observed and is a deliberate factor of our creation. Moreover, since the Antinium do not level greatly, magic has not been seen as a viable field to explore for our species.”

“Good. The last thing Wistram needs is Antinium mages running around.”

“I don’t know. I suppose seeing a few Antinium sitting in Rievan’s class would be quite amusing, don’t you?”

Pisces glanced sideways at Ceria. She couldn’t help but grin.

 

—-

 

After a few hours Termin called out to the half-dozing adventurers and Erin sitting in the back of the wagon.

“There’s the city. I heard it was abandoned and then retaken. Should we go around, do you think?”

“What city? Oh—”

Erin gasped as she stood up on the wagon. Ceria reached to steady her, but then stopped as well. Yvlon sighed softly as she spotted the distant buildings. Familiar, and yet alien now.

“Esthelm.”

It was more of a whisper. Erin peered at the walls, clearly damaged from a distance, and the way many buildings were only partly standing.

“Whoa. It looks messed up.”

“Well? Go around or go to it?”

“I heard my brother had helped retake the city. I’d like to ask about him, if we can.”

Yvlon turned to the others. Ceria nodded.

“To the city then, Mister Termin. We can probably rest there for the night.”

“So long as they don’t look too hungry. The last thing I need is a bunch of starving folk trying to eat Erma and Fox…”

Termin grumbled as he drove them onwards. The closer they got, the more Erin could see the damage that had been done to Esthelm. The damage, and just as notably, the repairs.

“Looks like they’ve patched up the wall pretty well. And it’s manned.”

Ceria noted the Humans standing on the battlements with bows. Their wagon had already been spotted and she could tell people were eying her back as well. Esthelm was vigilant after two Goblin attacks it seemed.

“Not only that. Look—they’re reinforcing it.”

Yvlon pointed down the wall, where work was clearly being done to expand the fortifications and add onto them. Pisces sighed as he stared at the burnt and ruined buildings.

“I suppose we won’t be resting in luxury here. It might be best to camp outside of the city if all the buildings are in such a state of disarray.”

“We’ll see when we get in. But at least we can eat at Erin’s inn.”

“True! And we can stay there if Termin finds a place to put his horses for the night.”

“Oh no.”

The wagon driver crossed his arms firmly.

“I won’t sleep anywhere away from Erma and Fox. They get agitated if I’m not close by and I won’t risk them being stolen. One of you’s got to stay here at least.”

“I volunteer.”

“Good for you, Ksmvr.”

“Thanks, Ksm!”

“You are a valuable member of the team. Exceptionally useful, I must say.”

Ksmvr nodded modestly as the others thanked him warmly.

“I volunteered for the position because I believed I was most suitable for the job. Guard detail is a position of merit, but I will understand if anyone wishes to trade places with me.”

Soon, the wagon was in hailing distance of the walls. Termin shouted up at the people shouting at him and after much shouting and arm waving, the gates were opened and the wagon rolled in.

Yvlon spoke to the others before they got out of the cart. She’d tugged a cloak around her head, covering up her bright hair and covering her face.

“When we talk to people, let’s just mention we’re adventurers passing through on guard duty. If we can avoid using my name—or our group’s name—I’d appreciate it.”

“Why? Is it because of your brother? Ylawes?”

Ceria frowned at Yvlon. The young woman nodded, looking unhappy.

“I’d prefer not to meet him at the moment if we can. He could be troublesome.”

“Define troublesome, if you please. Dangerous?”

Yvlon shook her head, frowning at Pisces.

“No. He’s not a threat—so long as he doesn’t meet Ksmvr for the first time alone I guess. But he’s…”

Erin nodded.

“I understand. Lips sealed, right everyone?”

They looked at her. She sighed, exasperated.

“Don’t you get it? This Ylawes guy. He might be a nice guy and all, but he’s still her older brother.”

“So?”

“So he’s going to be an older brother.

“Oh.”

Ceria and Pisces nodded in understanding, despite Ceria not having any siblings to speak of. Ksmvr just tilted his head.

“I do not understand. Pisces, please explain—”

 

—-

 

“So this is Esthelm.”

Erin stared around at the ruined buildings, at the people in dirty clothes, helping to lift timber, board up buildings, repair, dismantle, clear rubble and make weapons. There were men and women and children helping to fletch arrows amid the confusion, and more still coming in with game they’d hunted.

“It’s a mess.”

Yvlon kept her voice low as she glanced with sympathy at the citizens. Many looked hungry, but none looked as if they were starving. If they had, Erin would have given them what she could, or gone to Celum for food, but the people here were…strange.

They were ragged yes, hungry, yes, and dirty. But they weren’t beaten. They worked together with purpose, helping to rebuild their city as the wagon trundled into the center of the city.

A man bustled up to the wagon with a few armed citizens following them. Ceria was worried how they’d react when they saw Ksmvr, but the man in charge—some former [Soldier] by the look of him, wearing thick leather armor—didn’t blink more than once.

“Adventurers? Are you escorting the wagon?”

“That’s right. Is the city…safe?”

Termin asked nervously. The men were inspecting the wagon, staring at the single door on the back of the wagon and the blankets and pillows in some confusion. The man in charge nodded.

“That’s right. We fought off the last Goblin army that attacked this place and we’re not going to let a third one get past our walls again. We’re surviving, but we need supplies. We’ve asked for help from the other cities, but Celum, Wales, Remendia…they’re all claiming the roads are unsafe to send supplies down. So until we can get help we’re on our own.”

“Oh. Is it bad?”

The soldier turned his attention to Erin. She was staring at some children hauling nails in a bucket to some carpenters. He shook his head.

“Not bad, Miss. But I’m afraid that we might have to confiscate your wagon’s cargo if you’ve got anything we can use. We’re in dire need of food, blankets—”

“There’s nothing in here, Umbral!”

One of the men shouted to the man in charge. He frowned and looked at the empty back of the wagon.

“You don’t have any food or supplies? Where’s your cargo?”

“It’s her.”

Ceria pointed to Erin and the young woman waved.

“We’re escorting her to Liscor. She’s an innkeeper, so she doesn’t have much coin. It’s a favor—”

“But we do have food! I can get some—and you can have all the blankets and pillows! I’ll get more as well!”

Out of the corner of her eye, Ceria saw Erin pointing at the door and hoped that Umbral didn’t understand what Erin was saying. Fortunately, the man just looked confused. He tried to stop Erin when she started handing pillows and blankets down.

“We wouldn’t want to take your only supplies, Miss. We’re not robbers—we’ll pay a fair price—”

“Take it, please!”

“A place to sleep would be payment enough, sir.”

Ceria interrupted Erin and she saw Yvlon pull Erin back and whisper to her. The blankets and pillows disappeared fast, and Umbral directed them to some of the sturdier buildings in the city.

“Don’t worry about your horses, or your wagon. I’ll see to it that no one tries to make off with either. You can rest assured—we’re past thievery and attacking each other here.”

He waved them on. Ceria sat back with a sigh as Erin drooped into the wagon seat beside her.

“I can’t give them clothing and food and stuff? But they need it!”

“If they knew we had a door that could open a portal back to Celum, they’d take it, Erin. I’m sorry, but we’re not going to be able to use it tonight. It’s too risky.”

“I almost want to give it to them.”

“That would be an unforgivable waste.”

Pisces glared at Erin, outraged at the very idea. She sighed, but nodded in agreement.

“Too bad. I guess I’ll stay with you. Maybe we can help fix stuff? I can clean—I’ve got a Skill. Or maybe I can cook? I guess we can’t go sightseeing. Everything’s in ruins!”

“It wasn’t once. There used to be quite a lot of buildings here.”

Ceria looked around at the ruined facades, wondering if she could see where the Adventurer’s Guild had stood. Yvlon was silent too. The last time they’d been here was an age ago, when they had all met to debate going into Liscor’s dungeon. Back then Calruz and Gerial had been alive and…

In the end, the Horns of Hammerad found themselves staying in a former inn now housing citizens alongside visitors. They had to sleep three to a room and Pisces found himself sharing a space with Termin and Ksmvr, much to his distaste. Termin opted to sleep in the stables, though, and Ksmvr agreed to go with him.

For the rest of the night Erin helped the innkeeper—an overworked, balding man who had a big scar on his right shoulder that was still healing—manage the inn. He nearly cried when he realized she could cook better than he could and happily surrendered his kitchen to her.

There wasn’t much Erin could make with what few supplies were available to the city, but she made some potatoes and deer meat into a filling stew for everyone and found herself serving a vast number of people. When word got out she could cook, more food came in with requests that she make it for this group of people, or feed this family.

In the end, Erin only got to rest with the others when it was long since dark. She sat on a table, wishing there was a place to take a bath or shower in the city and knowing there was not.

“I can’t thank you for your help. Your stew went down excellent and you fried that meat to perfection.”

Umbral complimented Erin. She raised a thumb up and smiled weakly.

“Happy to help. How have you all managed to survive like this?”

He looked tired, but determined.

“It hasn’t been easy. We had a lot of help, mainly from our city’s savior. Ylawes Byres and his Silver Swords.”

“Really?”

Erin saw Ylvon sit up a bit. The woman cleared her throat carefully.

“Will you tell us what happened?”

Umbral was only too happy to, and once the other citizens realized he was retelling the story they had to add their own accounts of what had happened, arguing with each other over the details.

The story was simple. After the Goblin attack, Esthelm had fallen into chaos. People had killed each other over scraps in the city and bands of thugs had fought with each other. The undead began rising since they hadn’t been buried and a second Goblin army had come to use them in some twisted scheme.

And then, Ylawes had come in, a literal knight in shining armor. He’d rallied the hearts of the people in the city and helped them fight back both undead and Goblins. With his help—and a timely rescue by a group of adventurers led by the other two members of his Gold-rank group, the Silver Swords, they’d fought the Goblin army off and begun rebuilding the city.

“Wow! Your brother is a hero!”

Erin whispered that to Yvlon as the citizens led them to a monument in the center of the city. It wasn’t a statue—that was coming, according to Umbral, but there was a plaque celebrating Ylawes and his party.

Yvlon stared at the plaque silently. She seemed…distant, to Erin. Not unhappy, but not aglow over her brother’s success either.

“He’s always been a hero. I admire him greatly, Erin. Although I wish he’d not risk his life like this.”

“I guess I understand that. But he did save everyone. And—hey, what’s that?”

There was a second monument next to the one for Ylawes. This one was a grave of all things. Erin didn’t know how she felt about someone being buried right in the center of the city, but she was struck as she stared at the plain tombstone.

“Flowers?”

The grave was blooming with flowers despite the hard soil. Erin stared at it, wondering who it was for. There was no inscription.

“Yes. It’s the strangest thing.”

Umbral explained when Erin and the others returned to the inn and asked about it.

“It marks, well, a young woman. A…hero, I suppose. She fought and died fighting the Goblins. And she was…Human. I think. That’s what Ylawes said, and so we buried her as such. Her and the Goblins who fought for her.”

“Goblins?”

“They fought against their kind. And the undead. Don’t ask me why. But if it hadn’t been for them killing that damned skeleton with the purple eyes, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Umbral didn’t notice the way all the adventurers and Erin went quiet at this. He shook his head after Yvlon asked him whether Ylawes was still in the city.

“He went north, after leaving a group of those adventurers to help guard the city. Lazy pigs they are, too, not helping at all unless there’s a monster about. Not like Sir Ylawes.”

“Did he say why he went?”

“He was looking for his sister. Some adventurer—Yvlon Byres. Apparently he heard she was wounded and came south looking for her.”

Erin bit her lip, but Yvlon just thanked Umbral and changed the topic.

“Do you think we’ll get to Liscor tomorrow?”

Erin asked Termin before they all went to sleep. The wagon driver nodded, yawning and grinning at her.

“We’ll get there before nightfall, don’t you worry. I plan on having myself a good rest before heading back north. Maybe I can supply these folks with food and supplies? I reckon I could make a good profit. I don’t suppose you have room for me and my horses in your inn, do you?”

Erin smiled widely at Termin. She gave him a quick hug, making the old man blush.

“Of course I’ve got room! You’re welcome to stay as long as you want! I can’t wait to get back.”

As everyone retired to their rooms, Erin wondered if she should ask Yvlon about her brother. But Yvlon wasn’t in the mood for talk, and so Ceria eyed the bed, trying to figure out if she and Ceria and Yvlon could all squeeze in or if someone was getting the floor.

As they all squeezed in together, Erin whispered to Ceria.

“Ceria?”

“What is it, Erin?”

“Are the people here going to be okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Ylawes is gone. What if the Goblins come back?”

“They’ll fight.”

That came from Yvlon. Her voice was calm, distant, bordering on the verge of sleep.

“They survived two battles with Goblins. Every citizen in the city will have levelled from that. People will have gained classes, levelled up, learned to fight…if a city doesn’t fall, it gets stronger from each disaster.”

“Oh. That’s good.”

After a while Ceria spoke to Erin.

“Do you think Lyonette survived without you?”

Erin shifted uncomfortably—sleeping with someone else in the bed was not normal for her, but the other two women were used to company when necessary. She started to shrug and stopped before she shouldered Ceria in the face.

“She might. I just hope all the walls are standing when I get there. Oh well. Once I’m back, everything’s going to be a-okay!”

With that in mind, Erin went to sleep. The next day, the Horns of Hammerad set out for Liscor. They arrived just before evening as the sun was beginning to set.

 

—-

 

When Lyonette woke up, she knew today was going to be a busy day. That was because all of her days were busy now. But she didn’t groan or stay asleep. She just got up, smiled as she pulled the blanket over Mrsha and the Gnoll curled up into a ball, and got to work.

Now that the Wandering Inn was busy, Lyonette found that being an innkeeper, or standing in for one, was a ton of work. Rather, she’d realized how hard just keeping an inn afloat was before now, but now she worked from dawn to dusk without pause just to keep everything running.

The first thing Lyonette did was haul water from the stream. She did it before the sun had risen in the sky, swearing as she hauled the heavy buckets up the slippery, snowy hill into the inn. And then she went down and did it again.

Her new guests drank a lot of water. And while Lyonette could melt snow, it was faster to haul buckets up to get a good supply going. Then she had to rekindle the fire before she could start cooking and that took time too.

And then of course there was actual cooking. Lyonette sweated over food for the morning, but eventually made a big pot of pasta and sausage to go along with the assorted eggs, ham, and fried potatoes and boiled greens for breakfast.

It was a lot of food, but she now had many guests. And as Mrsha thumped down the stairs Lyonette saw the first of her guests come down now.

“Good morning, Mister Shivertail!”

“I told you to call me Zel. Mister and Shivertail aren’t my name at all.”

Zel Shivertail smiled at Lyonette. He sniffed the air and his tail twitched appreciatively. Mrsha’s was thumping the floorboards.

“Is breakfast ready? Don’t hurry on my account.”

“No, it’s ready! We’ve got pasta, fried potatoes, ham, eggs—Mrsha! Stay out of the kitchen!”

The Drake laughed.

“I’ll have some pasta for breakfast, why not? But first I need to use the restroom. Excuse me.”

“Oh—sure!”

Lyonette half-turned as she grabbed Mrsha to stop the Gnoll from running into the kitchen. Mrsha looked disappointed as Lyonette sat her at a table and got plates, utensils, and cups for both her and Zel.

“You sit, understand? You can eat with Zel—after you wash your paws!”

The young woman put no plate out for herself. She knew her other guests would be coming down the stairs soon, now that the smell of food was in the air. She just hoped she’d made enough!

Zel walked back into the inn with a gust of fresh air. Lyonette realized she’d forgotten to refill a bucket with water to wash with, and hurried to do that. She no longer questioned Erin anymore—

Lyonette corrected herself. She no longer questioned Erin just for being someone not born of royalty, but she had to wonder if the other girl had ever anticipated actually having guests in her inn.

Erin had a wonderfully large inn, magnificently crafted with glass windows no less, but it was missing some essential parts.

For instance, more than one outhouse. If there were more than four people living in the inn, having at least two seemed essential to Lyon, but Erin had never mentioned it. Plus, the outhouses were hardly big enough for some of her guests!

Poor Moore the half-Giant had had to find his own place to do his business for the first day, until Lyonette had talked to Pawn. The second outhouse was no bigger, but the third, temporary one was and Moore was quite happy with it.

There were nine private rooms in the inn, a very large number, but just enough for all the adventurers plus Zel, Lyon and Mrsha to sleep in if Mrsha and Lyon shared the same bed. Now that Lyon’s inn was full of guests, she found that once one person woke up, they’d all be up within the hour.

“Good morning!”

Lyonette called out as the first sleepy person tromped downstairs, lured by the food Zel and Mrsha were happily devouring together. Jelaqua Ivirith smiled slowly at Lyonette, and the girl smiled back, despite the slight chill she got when she saw that the Selphid’s host body had a bloodless open gash on her cheek.

“Good morning, Lyonette. Please don’t mind the injury. I know it’s distracting, but I didn’t have time to fix it last night.”

“Oh—it’s no problem! Would you like to have something to eat? We’ve got pasta, eggs, bacon, bread, potatoes, ham—”

“All that? I’ll have a portion of ham, then. With potatoes on the side. And can I get some of that honeyed milk? And some more honey on the side?”

“Right away!”

Lyonette bustled into the kitchen, calling out greetings as more adventurers descended. Some, like Seborn, and Ulrien greeted her quietly, but others were grumpier in the morning. Revi, and Typhenous looked upset to be awake; Halrac just looked grumpy.

“Good morning, Miss Lyon.”

Moore was always polite. Lyon smiled up at him and told him what was on the menu.

“Anything you can have the most of, Miss Lyon. I try not to be picky.”

That was one of the reasons why she needed so much food. Moore being half-Giant meant he ate three times as much as any of her other diners, hence her extensive preparations. But he never complained no matter what he ate; indeed, he was always polite, always seemingly grateful for the care Lyonette took to make sure he was fully fed.

Another thing Lyonette had noticed was each one of her guest’s personalities, their likes and dislikes, but also how they functioned as a group.

Griffon Hunt reminded her of the groups of elite soldiers she’d seen relaxing off duty in the palace or on the streets. Halrac and Ulrien were professionals, Halrac grumpy, Ulrien quiet and serious. Revi and Typhenous were typical mages in a sense, somewhat arrogant and condescending, not to mention picky when it came to relaxing, but equally competent at their job.

They argued a lot. Revi usually had a different opinion than Halrac, and the other two members had their own opinions. But Griffon Hunt settled their arguments by collective vote and for all their dysfunction, they were one solid team when it came to fighting.

The Halfseekers on the other hand were more like friends, and far more accepting of each other’s opinions. They had to be, Lyonette supposed. They were all outcasts in some way.

Thank you for the food, Miss Lyon.

Seborn nodded to her as she brought over his plate of eggs and bacon, and two pitchers of water. He drank as much as Moore ate, to keep his aquatic parts hydrated.

“No problem. Would you like more honey?”

“Please!”

Revi and Jelaqua raised their hands and then stared at each other. Jelaqua smiled and Revi looked away.

Honey was a very popular treat among all of Lyon’s guests. With Lyon too as well; sweet things were a luxury and she loved a bit of honey with bread, or in her milk, or with almost anything, really. But Jelaqua liked honey more than anyone but Mrsha and Revi. She claimed Selphids loved the stuff on Baleros.

Revi just had a sweet tooth. Lyonette came over to their table with a small gravy boat full of honey and smiled at the four adventurers.

“Everyone doing okay?”

“We’re quite happy, thank you.”

Ulrien gave her a rare smile which made Lyonette beam. Halrac just grunted and Typhenous blinked and scowled at his plate. Lyonette hesitated, and then asked a question that had kept her up last night.

“I hate to ask, but…is it Griffin Hunt or Griffon Hunt?”

“Huh?”

They looked at her. Lyon blushed a bit.

“It’s just—I’ve heard your name several times, but I kept wondering if it was spelled, uh Griffin or…”

It was Halrac who answered, with an even rarer smile. His was ironic.

“You have a good ear. We’re Griffon Hunt. Not Griffin as in the beast. We’re named after a breed of dog used for hunting, which is what we specialize in.”

“Really? I didn’t know that.”

Revi leaned over the table, staring at Halrac.

“But you and Ulrien used to hunt actual Griffins.”

“Yeah. But we’re named after the dog?”

“Why in the name of silk would you do that? No one I know thinks you’re named Griffon Hunt!”

“It’s a play on words. I didn’t come up with it.”

All eyes turned to Ulrien. He raised his hands.

“Not me. It was another member of our group.”

“Who?”

“She’s dead. It doesn’t matter.”

Halrac scowled, and that was it for the conversation for the day, Lyonette knew. She let the adventurers talk and troop out of the inn while she went over to the Halfseekers with a jug of milk.

“Anyone want more milk? Or honey with that? How about seconds?”

“I think we’re good, thank you Lyon.”

Jelaqua smiled again, and Lyon beamed. It made her happy that the adventurers actually smiled while staying here. She knew she had never smiled during breakfast when she was young, only complained about the food.

But both groups of adventurers were happy here. Halrac especially—he and the team of Griffon Hunt were pleased not to be spending so much coin—she’d heard him talking about how they were getting better service for a fraction of the cost ‘that damned Drake’ had charged. And the Halfseekers were happy to find an inn where they weren’t treated with suspicion or fear.

But a good inn was in the end just a place where they could be safe and sleep. Within twenty minutes of sitting down, all the adventurers were ready to go. They trooped out the doors, headed for the city or the dungeon and Lyonette cleaned up. Mrsha carried some plates too—mainly to lick them when she thought Lyon wasn’t looking—and Zel carried his dishes and Mrsha’s to the kitchen, despite Lyonette objecting.

“I’ll be heading into the city too. Would you like me to drop off a list of anything you need bought?”

“Thank you, but I think I’m good for today!”

He nodded and went out into the cold. Lyonette shivered a bit, and then got back to cleaning.

Washing dishes and getting the kitchen ready was another exhausting task. At least she only had to make food for Mrsha and herself for lunch. Sometimes she had to feed everyone then as well, which was very tiring.

Lyon had a moment to spare around midday, which made her pause and sigh in relief. Normally she’d be sorting the things she’d had bought from the city—the Gnoll Runner usually carried it up on a sled about now.

Since that fateful day when Mrsha had fallen into the dungeon—the day Lyonette thought of as a near disaster and the rest of the city thought of as a momentous occasion where a new route into the dungeon had been found—she’d been sort of unbanned from entering the city.

It was tricky. Lyonette was fairly certain that if she went through the gates, no one would stop her. The Drake [Guardsmen] certainly wouldn’t, although she wasn’t sure if the Gnolls would. Zel Shivertail’s influence had granted her some kind of pardon, but Lyon didn’t want to test it unless totally necessary, so she just sent shopping lists into the city with coin when she needed food or supplies.

Now she bought directly from Krshia, and the Gnoll came over sometimes to talk with and teach Mrsha. She rarely said much to Lyon, but she had taken a greater interest in the young Gnoll, although she’d said that she didn’t have time to teach the young Gnoll much. And as Lyonette had learned, none of the other Gnolls were willing to get near Mrsha, much less teach her.

After a little while spent resting and then more time outside, playing  catch with Mrsha and letting her run about after a small ball like a dog—although this one threw the ball back—Lyonette went back inside to fix a small problem she had.

It was that she had too much food. Ironic, that. Lyon bought in bulk now, in order to feed her guests. She had the funds for it—the adventurers and Zel paid a lot to stay here and none of them were tight with their coin. But there was a finite amount of room in the kitchen pantries to accommodate all the things Lyon bought, and she wondered if there was other space in the inn.

Zel found Lyon as she was opening a room she barely knew existed. He peeked over her shoulder as she stared into a supply closet.

“What’s that?”

She whirled, jumping in surprise.

“You scared me!”

“Sorry.”

He smiled at her without exposing his teeth. Zel sat down tiredly as Lyonette peered inside the closet.

“I think this is some kind of…well, it’s too small to be a proper storage place. I wonder why it’s here. Oh, are you done with your tasks in the city?”

“For today. But there’s going to be a lot more, if all the [Message] spells I’ve been receiving are any clue. I’ve had to talk with Zevarra, the local heads of all the Guilds…it’s a mess.”

Zel sighed. Lyonette wanted to go get him some tea or something stronger, but she’d spotted a small crack along the floorboards. She peered at it suspiciously.

“Is this…because of the Antinium? The new ones, I mean?”

Lyonette didn’t know much about the new Antinium that had sent Liscor into a frenzy, but she knew the one with the blue chitin had helped save Mrsha. That made Lyon trust her at least, but she had also heard the stories of the Antinium Wars and was uneasy about this sudden development. As was, it seemed, the continent.

“Yes. All the cities want to know what’s going on. They’re arguing, and it’s getting very political with Ilvriss around. But I’m also meeting to discuss the issue with the Goblin Lord and this dungeon.”

“Are you part of this city? I mean, do you live here or…?”

“No, but I feel responsible. And I try to help where I can, so I do. It’s a pain, though. Drakes can’t do anything without arguing over it endlessly, and like I said, when it gets political…”

“A lot of Human kingdoms are like that too. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hah! At least there they don’t declare war on each other when council member insults the Captain of the Watch’s tail. Or do they?”

“It can get pretty bad.”

Lyonette grinned ruefully as she shifted things aside. Yes, the hairline crack was there, and on purpose. She had a feeling she knew what it was and tried to pull things out of the way.

There was a sack of flour and other miscellaneous objects piled up on top of it. Zel came over and helped Lyonette shift everything out of the small space. She smiled at him.

“Thank you. Now, what’s this…?”

There was a trapdoor in the small closet. No, not a closet, but an entrance. Lyonette pulled at the ring and after a moment the trapdoor came up.

“What’s this? A basement?”

Zel and Lyon stared down the dark steps leading down into, yes, a basement of all things! Lyon was amazed—she took a few hesistant steps down and then had to cast the [Light] spell. It was one of the few she’d been taught as a child and it illuminated the very big, very empty basement.

“I had no idea this was here!”

“You didn’t?”

The Drake general walked down the steps, staring at the empty stone room. He pointed.

“Look, there’s places to store grain, shelves…this place is huge! Why hasn’t it been used?”

“I didn’t know about it! And Erin—I don’t know if she did either.”

“Erin? That’s the innkeeper who owns this place, isn’t it? Why didn’t she know about the basement?”

“I don’t think she knew. Or if she did, she might have forgot.”

“I can’t say I’m too impressed with this innkeeper of yours.”

Zel frowned as he stared around the basement. He looked sideways at Lyonette.

“She seems not to care about leaving you—and Mrsha—alone for so long, and with no coin or help, no less!”

“She does care! She’s just—distracted. And she gets into trouble, sometimes. I think she just found something—or got into a problem—and couldn’t come back. I mean, she cares a lot even if she does weird things…”

Lyonette tried to defend Erin, although she realized her arguments were less than compelling. Zel frowned, unhappy.

“I’d like to have a word with her when she gets back. She is coming back, isn’t she?”

“That’s what Selys said. Um, would you mind if I asked you to help carry some stuff down here?”

“I would be happy to help. And you can tell me more about this strange Human.”

In the end, Lyonette told Zel about Erin while they carried a good amount of foodstuffs and supplies down into the basement. He snorted when he heard about her antics with the sleigh, Toren, and all of the other incredible and insane things Erin had done.

“I’ve fought alongside people like that. Distracted geniuses, prodigies without common sense…they tend to win some battles spectacularly and get torn apart in skirmishes they should easily win. I try not to have them in positions of command if I can. They’re not reliable in a pinch.”

“Well…she did save me. And though I was horrible to her, she never gave up on me.”

“That’s a redeeming trait, not an excuse.”

Lyon didn’t have an answer to that. In the end, they closed the basement trap door and only opened it when they realized Mrsha was trapped down in there.

“I told you not to play around!”

Lyon scolded Mrsha as the Gnoll raced back upstairs. Mrsha flattened her ears, but then glanced towards the door and sniffed at the air. Lyon put her hands on her hips.

“Hungry? I guess I should start making dinner, then! Everyone’s going to be coming back and probably starving after fighting monsters in the dungeon for so long.”

“Stressed out, too. It’s a hard job they have. This dungeon is filled with traps and rooms that keep changing. Even if they can bypass some of that and get into a new area, the way down is treacherous and there’s no easy escape. They need to take things carefully and meanwhile a bunch of inexperienced adventurers are going in and getting themselves killed or finding trouble.”

Zel explained the issue to Mrsha and Lyonette as she brought him a mug of ale. He drank at it as Mrsha kept sniffing the air. Lyon was about to ask what was wrong when Mrsha suddenly sat up on her chair and howled.

It was sudden and made Lyon drop the mug. Zel was on his feet in a second. He stared out the window carefully, back against the wall.

“Mrsha, what is it, what’s wrong?”

Lyonette bent to Mrsha, but the Gnoll was suddenly filled with excitement. She hopped on the table and howled again, louder.

“It’s no monster. She’s not afraid.”

Zel relaxed as he observed Mrsha. Lyonette covered her ears—indoors the howling was insanely loud! Then he heard a distant howl from the city.

“Is that…Krshia?”

The other Gnoll had taught Mrsha how to howl, in some sort of Gnoll method of communicating. Lyonette didn’t know if it was the other Gnoll’s voice, but the instant Mrsha heard it she stopped howling.

“What was all that about?”

Lyon had no idea. She bent over the shards of the mug, picking them up gingerly, when she heard voices from outside.

“Oh? Are they back already?”

She started towards the door. But it was flung open before she could reach it. Mrsha leapt off the table and barrelled through it. Lyon heard a shout, a female voice, and then—laughter.

Her heart stopped and then began to beat faster in her chest. Lyon heard a female voice, a young woman’s voice, laughing, and Mrsha’s excited noises.

“Mrsha! Calm down. It’s good to see you! Please get off. Please?”

Lyonette saw a shape in the door. She walked forwards slowly, and then saw a young woman standing in the light. Erin Solstice beamed as she walked into her inn, holding Mrsha in her arms. She blinked when she saw Lyonette, and blinked twice at Zel, but then smiled at Lyon.

“I’m back! Hey Lyon, did you miss me?”

The girl, the [Princess] and [Barmaid] and single living employee of the Wandering Inn, stared at Erin in silence for a moment. Then her eyes filled with tears and she flung herself at Erin and hugged her fiercely. And as Erin yelped in surprise and the adventurers and wagon driver accompanying her exclaimed, and the Drake general inside laid eyes on the owner of the inn for the first time, word began to spread.

 

—-

 

At first it came with the howling outside the city. Few Drakes heard it, but the Gnolls raised their heads. And they heard the howl coming from Krshia, and knew.

One of the Gnolls on duty mentioned it to Relc, who flipped a table and upset the card game he was losing badly at.

“Erin’s back! Hey! Call the game off! Erin’s back! Where’s Klb?”

It spread to the Watch Captain, who sighed, put her head in her claws, and groaned.

“This is all I need.”

It was already in the marketplace. Selys jumped up and down excitedly as Krshia smiled.

“She’s back!”

Across the street, a young Drake nearly knocked over an entire display he was helping his uncle with.

“Erin’s back!? I have so much to show her!”

Lism grumbled as he watched his nephew sprint off.

“It’s just one more damn Human. Who cares?”

The Antinium cared. Pawn, Belgrade, Bird, Anand, and Garry all heard the news as one of the Workers delivered it. They unanimously elected Pawn, the only free member of their group, to go above and see her at once.

“And bring back food. Please?”

“I will. And I will be sure to petition Klbkch that we all might go visit her!”

Of course, Klbkch already knew Erin was back. He’d known the instant she passed into the floodplains around Liscor. He sighed as he stood in his small room and looked up towards the ceiling.

She was back.

“I take it this is good news?”

Xrn studied Klbkch as they sat across from one another. He nodded at her.

“Yes. Very good news. A Human girl—the innkeeper I had told you about—has returned to the city. I am afraid we must put off your discussion so that I might greet her.”

“You astonish me.”

The other Antinium’s voice was frankly shocked.

“You would put aside a conversation between us—the reason the Hives have sent their delegation here in the first place—for a single Human girl?”

“Oh yes. Because she is important.”

“Really?”

“Yes. And her presence here means…well, I believe things are going to become interesting once again.”

Xrn looked at him askance.

“You mean they aren’t already?”

“Not yet.”

“You have visitors from four Hives, a Drake [General]—Zel Shivertail no less—in the city, a Lord of the Wall and a new dungeon plus two Gold-rank teams and Humans streaming into the city while a Goblin Lord roams the countryside. And this Human is what you think will make things interesting?

“Yes.”

Klbkch smiled. He looked up towards the surface, and wondered, for the first time in a long while, what would happen next.

“She’s back. Erin Solstice is finally back.”

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Wistram Days (Pt. 7)

Her name was Cognita. That was what she told the people she met.

Her name was Cognita. She had once been shaped and given life by Archmage Zelkyr, the greatest expert in Golem creation of his era. Perhaps ever. Because Cognita was a Truestone Golem.

The word itself was a symbol of her authority. Truestone Golems or Truestone Constructs as they were once known were thought to be the pinnacle of artificial creation. For if Cognita was not the strongest Golem that could be made, she alone had what other Golems lacked. Personality. Thought. Feeling.

Perhaps even a soul.

But who could tell? Few people found Golems reassuring, despite their usefulness. And Cognita was feared for reasons beyond just her nature.

She killed mages. She had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands. And yet she was subservient, helpful, polite. So those who met her were both terrified and confused by her, because a monster should look and act like a monster.

But what Cognita actually thought was a mystery. At all times her carved eyes judged and saw, but never gave away anything. She had seen countless mages, seen their triumph and their end. She looked at two more now.

One was a half-Elf, the other a Human. Both were young by the standards of their species. Once, they had been friends. The Golem saw traces of it still, even as they argued.

“They won’t ever let you stay. Not after what you said.”

“They haven’t accepted me thus far, Springwalker. Why should those fools change their minds now?”

“Don’t call me Springwalker! And you know damn well there’s a difference between keeping your head down and poking the beehive!”

Pisces and Ceria were shouting in front of Cognita, a rarity in itself. Few people raised their voices anywhere around the Golem, but Pisces knew Cognita. He alone had sought her out, asked her questions, befriended her.

Ceria just didn’t care. She was close to kicking the mage—again. He hopped away from her, glaring.

“Those philistines that make up the so-called Council—they are blind to what I proposed, but you at least should be able to consider the implications of what I’ve said!”

“Implications? You want to create an undead that can level, Pisces! You’re an idiot! If you succeeded you’d destroy the world, but that won’t happen because it’s impossible!”

He raised a shaking finger. He was angry. He was always angry, and hurt, of late. So was the half-Elf. Together, Cognita saw fury and fear on both sides clashing together.

“It is possible. In theory! Didn’t you listen to my proposal? If I were to create an undead by weaving the spells into it on a much more in-depth level than normal—something closer to how a Golem is created than a body is animated—it might work!”

“It’s stupid.

“What’s wrong with that idea? I have all the pieces of the puzzle in my possession—almost. Cognita taught me the formula used for embodying Golems with sentience, don’t you see? That alone—”

“Only you would be stupid enough to ask! Cognita is—”

Pause. The half-Elf’s face shifted towards Cognita and the Golem saw her red cheeks pale slightly. She looked away rather than meet the Golem’s gaze.

“Sorry, Cognita. But Pisces—you’re a fool. It would never work. Why hasn’t a [Necromancer] done it before? Two reasons. One—it’s stupid and the second is that if the undead could level, they’d destroy entire nations!”

“I would only make one. And it is possible, but only with the correct base materials.”

Pisces’ voice was calm. He stared at his former friend, speaking with the conviction that was halfway into insanity. He glanced at Cognita too, but his gaze was burning. He looked at the Golem not as a threat or something to be feared, but as a challenge. A vision of what could be done.

“Golems require high-grade materials to be built. Mana stones, rock without impurity—Cognita, if I may refer to your construction, you are a product of both spellcraft and the superior base products from which you were given life. So why not apply that theory in the case of the undead? Most bodies are just that, bodies. But if there were a way to obtain superior parts—”

“Parts?”

Cognita turned back to look at the half-Elf. She was furious. And the Golem knew the conversation was over. Ceria pointed a shaking finger at Pisces.

“You’re—disgusting. And insane. And I don’t have time to argue with you. If you want to go spouting off crazy theories, go ahead. I’m going to practice real magic.”

She stormed off. Pisces called to her once as she left, but Ceria did not turn her head. He turned back to Cognita in frustration.

“I’m sorry you had to witness that, Cognita. Please, accept my apologies. I thought I could convince Ceria with your help, but she is unwilling to listen to reason.”

Cognita made no immediate reply. She could have told Pisces a thousand things, spoken from decades of observation. Some would help, others might shatter the young man. After a moment, Cognita made a decision and spoke while looking Pisces in the eye.

“She cannot accept what you do. And you cannot accept that she does not consider you a friend. Perhaps the question is then whether you value friendship or magic more.”

He was speechless. He opened his mouth to respond, but Cognita strode down the hallway after Ceria.

 

—-

 

“Ceria Springwalker.”

If it had been Pisces or anyone else, Ceria would have ignored them or shoved them aside. But Cognita’s deep, inflectionless voice made her tense in sudden fear. She turned, trying to conceal the fear in her heart.

“Yes, Cognita?”

“I believe Pisces would like me to express his apologies in his stead. However, I will not do so. I would merely like to speak with you for a few more moments if you have time.”

Ceria paused. She was still furious at Pisces, livid. His presentation to the Council had set Wistram in an uproar, and he was now more of a pariah than he had been before.

That wasn’t the only reason she was so angry, though. The day Illphres would challenge Archmage Zelkyr’s Golems was only two weeks away. And so Ceria was angry, frightened, and nervous. But she tried to hide all that from Cognita.

The Golem was the enemy.

“Talk to me? I—sure, Cognita. Why do you want to talk?”

“Hearing your reactions and thoughts intrigues me. I was created to think and learn, and this topic—and your discussion—is interesting to me in a way few things are.”

That was extraordinary. And unhelpful. Ceria stared at Cognita as if searching for a weak point. But the stone woman was flawless.

“I guess I can talk.”

“Very well. Thank you.”

The Golem fell silent. After a few seconds of awkwardness, Ceria realized Cognita was waiting for her to speak. Ceria didn’t know what to say. She’d said what she thought. Pisces was insane. His idea was insane. But Cognita—

She glanced up at the Golem. Cognita’s face seldom changed, but Ceria could remember her smiling just once.

“Cognita? Did you really teach Pisces one of Archmage Zelkyr’s spells?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The Truestone Construct—the thing that had a name and a mind—paused.

“He asked. And it was a an incomplete spell. I believe Pisces has a chance of completing it. In his own way.”

Another revelation. This one hurt Ceria’s heart. It was one thing to know Pisces was smart, acknowledge that he could do things Ceria could not. He was a genius, but this? Pisces had a chance to do what Archmage Zelkyr could not. Cognita had said so. It made Ceria doubt the angry words she had spoken to him.

“Do you support him doing necromancy? Do you even care?”

“I see in his magic something akin to what mages do when they shape Golems, but different. I care not if they are dead bodies or clay and stone that is shaped. I believe his ideas are intriguing. I wonder if he will be able to do as he claims. Even for Zelkyr, the only creation he was able to imbue with true intelligence was a Truestone Golem, my kind. What base material would be equivalent among the dead?”

Ceria had no idea. But she shivered again to think of a walking thing, some shambling zombie with rotting flesh that could grow stronger. What if it could talk? What if it could think, like Cognita? A talking, leveling undead was too close to an actual person, yet indescribably far away from life at the same time.

“I don’t know if Pisces can do it. But I feel like it’s wrong. That’s all I can say. I’m sorry. I have to go.”

She didn’t want to look at Cognita anymore. The Golem nodded.

“I will leave you to your business before mentioning one last issue. The day when your master and four other mages plan to challenge me is fifteen days away. I trust they are all prepared and aware of the consequences of failure?”

The breath caught in Ceria’s chest. She stared back at Cognita, eyes wide. How did the Golem know?

“That—that’s right. They know. My master knows.”

Cognita nodded once again.

“Please inform her that if she or any of the other mages desire to wait or change the appointed time, I would be happy to do so. Good night, Ceria Springwalker.”

She turned and began to walk away. Ceria took one look at Cognita’s back and fled.

 

—-

 

“You told Cognita when you’d be challenging her?”

Illphres looked up with a frown as Ceria slammed the door behind her and stormed into the room.

“Told who?”

Cognita!

Ceria clutched at her hair. She’d run all the way to Illphres’ room. The mage shrugged.

“Oh, yes. We told her.”

Why?

“It’s convenient. It means she knows and won’t be busy, and it means we can’t back out.”

“But if she knows, she could set traps. Prepare—”

“She won’t. She never has and never will. But this way we won’t alert the entire academy when Cognita goes striding up to the top floor.”

Illphres was too calm. She was always calm. She held a book with a light blue bound cover in her hands, glancing at the page and at Ceria as she spoke. It was her personal spellbook.

“Calm down. Stop pacing. It’s annoying.”

Ceria stopped. She whirled and looked at her master.

“Tell me you can do it.”

Illphres sighed and closed the book. She stared at the ceiling, and then looked at Ceria.

“We have a chance.”

“How do you know?”

“Because it was nearly done once.”

“Really?”

Ceria’s ears perked up. Illphres nodded.

“A group of mages nearly succeeded. So we can too.”

“But how do you know? Is there a history or—”

“A few records of challenges, but no. We can tell just from the Golems in the room. Sit. Think about how we can tell.”

Ceria sat unwillingly. She fidgeted, and then came up with the only explanation she could think of.

“The missing Golem. The one replaced by the metal one.”

“Exactly. That’s proof.”

“But that’s only one of the five Golems—”

“No, it’s a sign. Think.”

Illphres sighed as her tone grew waspish. She hated explaining things when she thought Ceria should understand.

“Any idiot could figure it out. Archmage Zelkyr made this challenge for any mages trying to reach the higher floors, didn’t he? He designed it to be challenged over and over again, which meant that he would expect his four guardian Golems—plus Cognita—to never be destroyed. They would fight in tandem and overwhelm their opponents without sustaining enough damage to be destroyed.”

“So the missing Golem—”

“It’s a sign that someone broke their formation. And nearly won, too. Because if they could isolate one of the Golems long enough to destroy it, it meant they could hold off the rest. None of those Golems would be easy to disassemble with any one spell.”

“And that means you can all do the same. Easier, especially if one of the Golems is weaker…”

Ceria sat up, eyes shining. Illprhes nodded calmly.

“We can do it. There is a possibility.”

“That makes me feel better. I was talking with Cognita—”

Slowly, Ceria explained her argument to Illphres. The mage rolled her eyes when Ceria was done.

“I heard about that. Levelling undead? I don’t see why everyone’s so upset. ”

“But—”

“It’s no different from anyone else leveling up. A half-Elf can live for centuries if they want, how’s that different from an undead? It sounds like it would be hard to make more than one or two. If they get out of hand you can destroy them. The real reason you’re upset is because you hate necromancy.”

Ceria bit her lip and made no reply. Illphres sighed.

“Necromancy is magic. I don’t fear your friend. He reanimates the dead. I freeze people. And I hardly look better than the undead. You have seen beneath my mask. You know that.”

“It’s not the same.”

“No?”

Illphres raised an eyebrow.

“Magic is magic, and that boy Pisces was your friend, once. Does knowing he practices necromancy change all that?”

“Yes!”

“I suppose you weren’t good friends, then. Enough.”

Illphres waved away Ceria’s objections and levitated the book in her hands over to the half-Elf.

“Study the [Glacial Spear] spell. I want you to make at least some progress before the challenge day.”

“I’d learn more if you let me keep the book! Or made me a copy!”

Ceria complained as she bent over the pages of tightly-written text. Illphres laughed sardonically.

“Copy the book? I don’t know how to write magical spells down. That’s a specialist class, [Magical Scribe] or some such. And it would take a Level 40 one to write that spell down.”

“Really?”

Ceria looked up with a frown. Illphres nodded. She began lecturing as Ceria listened with one ear and read with both her eyes.

“Spellbooks are rare because they can’t be copied without extensive study by a powerful mage, or a class with similar Skills. And scribing a spell is only possible for someone of an equal or higher level than the spell itself. So a Tier 4 spells might be rare but findable in a given collection of spellbooks, but Tier 6 would be extremely difficult to locate. And Tier 8—”

“How would anyone learn the spells, then?”

“By piecing together clues left by other mages, following instructions in languages other than magic to come up with it. Or by leveling and obtaining it or coming up with such a spell themselves.”

“So this spellbook—”

“Is mine.”

“Can you let me borrow—”

“No.”

 

—-

 

Two weeks was too long and too short for Ceria. She went through each day emotionally and mentally exhausted, and tossed and turned each night with nervous, physical energy.

That also led to her actively avoiding her friends, and them avoiding her. Ceria was waspish, irritable, and prone to snap at anything and everything. She confined herself to her room when she wasn’t with Illphres or the other mages.

Three days before the challenge, Ceria was in her room, almost out of her mind with the agony of waiting. She heard a knock at the door and snapped.

“Come in already!”

Pisces entered. Ceria snapped again.

“Get out!”

“Please, just listen!”

His eyes were sparkling and Pisces was rubbing his hands together. He looked like he had in the past, full of life and enthusiasm. Ceria couldn’t bear to see it, not now, not when she was so anxious.

“Pisces, I’m not in the mood—”

“Hear me out, hear me out I implore you! I was just talking with Cognita—”

It was the last name Ceria wanted to hear right now, but Pisces couldn’t know that. She tried to stare a hole in his face as he talked excitedly onwards.

“She and I were discussing intelligence, cognizance and how only she among all the Golems has it. I opined that it was a mystery why Zelkyr would have failed with other Golems when she revealed this to me! Archmage Zelkyr only imbued Cognita with the capacity for thought. But over the years the other Golems have achieved a low level of intelligence, at least communally.”

Ceria just stared at Pisces, arms crossed, trying to decode his words. He stared at her, practically shining with energy.

“Don’t you see what this means? The Golems in Wistram can think! They can learn to think, that is! And if there’s a possibility of them learning, why not in a creation designed for that capacity? Why, we know that feral Ghouls can think in a primitive hunter-predator sense, and other undead like Crypt Lords, Liches, and Revenants can all—”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Ceria cut Pisces off flatly. He looked astonished. She stared at him.

“I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear about Cognita—I want you to get out!”

Pisces stopped. He stepped back, looking hurt and offended. He half-turned towards her open door as if he was going to storm out, and changed his mind. Instead, he turned towards her, and spoke pleadingly. She didn’t want to hear, but his words washed over her.

“Ceria, I don’t understand why you’re not giving me a chance to speak. I’m trying to prove a point. I know you have objections to my—to what I do, but please, listen! My goal isn’t to destroy the world or create armies like Az’kerash. When I practice necromancy, the reason I started was—”

It was too much. Ceria interrupted Pisces with the only thing she could use. The truth.

“They’re going to challenge her.”

He stopped, frowning.

“Who?”

Ceria knew she shouldn’t tell him. But now the dam had burst and she let it out. It was a relief and terrifying to say it out loud.

“Illphres. Jurix. Bastam. Ophelia. Qum. They’re all part of a group—they’ve been training all year and they’re going to challenge Zelkyr’s Golems to go to the higher levels.”

The half-Elf stared down at her hands, at her bitten fingernails. She saw Pisces sit down hard on the side of her bed out of the corner of her eyes.

“When?”

“It’s going to be three days from now. Right before lunch.”

Her breath caught in her chest at the words. It was out. The secret was spoken, and now Ceria felt it pressing down on her harder than before. Pisces spoke quietly.

“Illphres and four others? They’re serious?”

Ceria nodded. Pisces went still. She could feel him close to her. A familiar presence. Comforting.

“I would advise you to stop them. If I thought they would listen. Cognita is—an unknown quantity. I believe she is more than a match for any of the Archmages of today by herself.”

“Yeah. She probably is.”

Ceria hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth a bit. She nodded and then shook her head.

“But they’re going to do it. Illphres is going to fight. I can’t stop her. I wouldn’t dare try. She has to do this, don’t you see, Pisces? If we can’t go above, we can’t be true mages. Wistram is stagnant. We don’t have real Archmages, just fakes! Don’t you see—”

“I know.”

Pisces cut her off shortly. Ceria looked and saw he was staring at his feet as he sat on her bed.

“I know. Wistram is decaying. Magic is not as powerful as it was before Zelkyr. Powerful, yes, and one could argue there are more mages being produced by the academy as a result of the Golem’s presence, but—I know. And I believe Cognita knows this too.”

“She does?”

“We have spoken about it. On occasion.”

Ceria grabbed for Pisces. He jerked, but she yanked at his dirty robes. Part of his shoulder and chest became exposed as he fought to loosen her deathgrip.

“Ceria—”

“Don’t warn her. I mean, she knows, but don’t tell her anything. She’s—”

“I won’t. It wouldn’t matter if I did. Cognita wouldn’t cheat. She’s waiting for a mage to—Ceria, please. I won’t tell anyone.”

Slowly, Ceria let go. Pisces adjusted his robes and the two fell into silence. After a few minutes, Pisces spoke again.

“Thank you for telling me. I won’t reveal a thing. I promise.”

“Thank you.”

“And I hope—I most sincerely hope Illphres and the others defeat Cognita. I would like you to know that, Ceria.”

“I do.”

They stared at each other. It had been a long time since Ceria really met Pisces’ eyes. He looked older, she realized. In a few short years he’d grown older, from a late teenager into a young man. Older, more tired, more bitter.

But still him.

Pisces looked away first. He stood up, brushing himself off and then realizing he was in Ceria’s room and stopping.

“I’ve got to go. I’ll leave you to—we can talk later, Ceria.”

He began to leave but stopped. Ceria was holding on to the back of his robe.

“Don’t go.”

He looked back at her, eyes wide. Ceria stared at him. Slowly, Pisces sat back down.

“The door’s open.”

“Yes.”

Ceria said it without really caring. She and Pisces sat together with the open doorway leading out into the corridor. Part of her told her she was an idiot for blurting out all those secrets, but Ceria knew few people ventured down this hallway, especially at night.

She didn’t stand up to close the door. And neither did Pisces. Eventually, the door did get closed, by magic. But no one left the room until the next morning.

 

—-

 

The day of the challenge Ceria couldn’t eat. Everything leading up to this day seemed like a brief dream, something someone else had experienced. But what was worse was the day itself.

It was too normal. It was too quiet. It was too—

Peaceful.

It wasn’t a holiday. Classes went on like normal, and mages gathered in the corridors, gossiping. They ate in the banquet halls, and walked about as if they had not a care in the world.

Ceria skipped all her classes. She’d skipped the last eight days in truth, spending all her time with Illphres and the other mages. Now she ate breakfast with them, or rather, watched them eat with her stomach trying to shove itself back out her mouth.

“Eat something, Ceria. We can’t have you fainting when we walk out of there.”

Jurix pressed an apple into Ceria’s hand. She looked at it and turned green. He snatched it away.

“Okay, don’t eat. I’ll do it for you.”

“Watch it, Jurix. Don’t eat too much. We’ll probably be moving around a lot.”

Bastam warned the Dullahan as he ate sparingly from a bowl filled with oats and honey. His tail was wagging back and forth faster than normal, but he appeared calm. So did the others. They were far too calm compared to Ceria, who looked as pale as a Selphid by now.

“I think I’ll pull out my stomach before we go in. I’ll be lighter that way.”

Ophelia murmured as she spooned some gravy sparingly over her breakfast of eggs and bacon. Did her hands shake a bit? She smiled at Ceria and the butterflies danced in the girl’s stomach.

“Bah. You lot don’t know anything. Dullahans know to eat a big meal the day of a battle and a small one later. Isn’t that right, Qum?”

Jurix stared across the table at the other Dullahan. He preferred to eat with his head on his shoulders, an oddity for a Dullahan. Qum nodded and spoke softly.

“Proper intake is key.”

Illphres glared at the two. She was eating sparingly as well.

“Just so long as you pass it before noon. If you think I’m fighting a battle alongside two constipated Dullahans—”

Everyone laughed. It was a rare joke—actually, not a joke since Illphres said it. But it was what they needed. Ceria tried to smile and failed. She fidgeted in her chair, and checked the position of the sun through a window. When it was right overhead, the challenge would begin. But it felt like it was frozen in the air! She looked back at Jurix as the Dullahan made a joke.

And then—it seemed to Ceria as if she remembered walking around with the others in a blur, listening to them talk. But suddenly, disconcertingly, she was standing in front of the two doors that led into the challenge room, as if the day had gone in an instant.

It was time.

The hallway was simple. Long and straight, it let people come up either stairway at both ends of the corridor. In the middle of the hallway, two double doors sat in the stone wall, the only entrance to the upper floors.

The five mages and Ceria gathered there, but not in silence. Each one was nervous now, and Ceria could sense it. But none of them gave voice to that worry. They joked instead, or stood calmly, or shooks hands or claws. They formed up in front of the door, but not before stopping to speak to Ceria of all people.

She was their lone witness. The mages had told no one else that today was the day, and none of them had apprentices. Ophelia was the first to hold Ceria’s hand, smiling warmly. The stitches around her mouth pulled as she kissed Ceria on the cheek, to the half-Elf’s shock.

“Once this is over I might have to teach you a bit as well. It’ll all be different, Ceria. I promise. Mages will change. This place will change.”

“I’ll be waiting for you to shake my hand. So don’t go anywhere—this won’t take long.”

Jurix grasped Ceria’s hand tightly as he looked her in the eye. She nodded, throat too constricted to speak.

Bastam was next.

“You know, I saw your exam. I thought that you had courage then, courage and daring. I thought to myself, that’s what we’ve forgotten, all the older mages. I’ll show you we have it today.”

He passed her by and Qum was there. The Dullahan bowed his torso to Ceria and then held up his head. He regarded her solemnly.

“Luck to us all.’”

Illphres was last. She and Ceria stood apart from the others as the mages began casting spells. Ward spells, spells to increase their physical condition or protect against attacks. Illphres cast no spells. Hers was already active.

The walls of the corridor were already frosting over with ice. Ceria began to shiver and shake uncontrollably as the temperature around Illphres lowered and lowered again. The other mages weren’t affected—they all had artifacts to protect them against her cold, but Ceria didn’t have any.

Illphres looked at Ceria without an expression on her face, but then she let the ice reshape her lips into a smile.

“Seems like I need to increase your training if you’re cold from only this much. Remind me once I’m out.”

Ceria tried to smile, but her lips couldn’t move. Illphres stared at the double doors, and Ceria felt the chill around her grow deeper. It was so cold. But the mage’s voice was light when she spoke next.

“If I was an adventurer, if I had gone out into the world and fought monsters and gone into dungeons for a few years, maybe I wouldn’t be so scared now.”

“What?”

The woman turned back to Ceria, smiling.

“I grew up in Wistram. I spent my life here. But perhaps if I’d gone out into the world and gained more experience—well, I’d probably be scared all the same. There are wonders and horrors in this world, Ceria, remnants from the ages when gods still lived, memories of empires long gone. This is one of them. And today we will challenge the power of one of the true [Archmages] of Wistram.”

“I know you’ll succeed. I know it.”

Illphres just smiled. She put a hand on Ceria’s shoulder and the half-Elf shivered. Illphres looked deep into Ceria’s eyes as she whispered to the young half-Elf.

“Remember this, Ceria. For good or bad it matters not. In tragedy or triumph it is the same. Today you will stare into the heart of it.”

She smiled at Ceria. Her hand was cool on the half-Elf’s shoulder. Cold to the touch, but not freezing. The ice thickened on the walls around Illphres. She looked into the half-Elf’s eyes.

“This is magic.

Then she turned away. Jurix stepped up to the doors and glanced to his left and right. Illphres stood next to him on his left with Qum further down, Bastam and Ophelia on the right.

“Ready?”

They nodded. Jurix took a breath, and then put his hands on the double doors. He pushed, and they flew open.

As one, the five mages stepped into the room that lay beyond. Ceria took a step towards their backs, but dared go no further.

The Golems of Zelkyr waited in the room beyond. She caught a glimpse of five figures, standing on the other edge of the room. A golem made of burning rock. A metal reaper standing tall and silent. A behemoth knight made of metal. A dark thing already bounding across the room, quiet, panting.

And Cognita, standing tall and proud against the obsidian doors, arms outstretched.

Welcoming the challengers.

Then the doors slammed shut and Ceria saw nothing else. Heard nothing else.

The challenge had begun and she could only wait. If there were any gods, Ceria would have prayed. But she could only hope.

 

—-

 

It felt like time stopped after the doors closed. Ceria stared at them, and then wondered what she should do. Sit down? No—she wanted to be standing when everyone came out.

But how long would it take? Suddenly, Ceria was consumed by that question. She shivered in the freezing air as she stared at the double doors. Not a sound passed from the room beyond. She couldn’t tell what was happening. She could only imagine.

What would happen first? Would Cognita speak before the battle began, give the mages one last chance to turn back? Would Illphres or the others speak? She wasn’t one for speeches, but Jurix might say something, or Bastam.

How long would that take if they did that? Or—what if the fight began the instant the mages stepped into the room? Would it be over in seconds?

Surely not. Either way—Illphres would slow them down with ice. She’d create barriers. It would be impossible to kill her and the others in an instant. They were already warded and prepared for battle.

So how long would it take to destroy the Golems? Ceria guessed as she shivered in front of the door. The ice generated by Illphres’ field of cold was still coating the walls, overwhelming Ceria’s own ability to nullify the chill.

When would it be over? No—when would the mages come out? Because, surely, they might rest after the battle. Ceria tried to calculate the time it would take.

Magical battles were rarely long, but this one was different. So…five minutes? That was far too short. Ten? Twenty?

Ceria waited. She knew the minutes were passing as she tried to put a number to her fear. After five minutes she felt relieved. Or told herself she was relieved.

Five was too short. If it was over in five, it would mean they were—

No, no. Not five. Obviously not. Ten, then? It still felt too quick. Or was it too long? Ten minutes, with every mage in there throwing their best spells at the Golems?

After ten minutes, the fear in Ceria’s belly turned into spikes that tried to push themselves out from within. A little thought in her head began to whisper to Ceria. It was too long. They were taking too long. Wouldn’t she have noticed something, seen some change if the Golems were falling? If it was silent like this for so long, it would mean…

No, no! Illphres was an expert at drawn out battles. This was just playing into her hands. Ceria kept telling herself that. She’d be locking down the Golems with ice, creating fortifications they had to battle past. A long wait was good—they might have to wear down the metal knight Golem, or Cognita. It didn’t mean—

Drip.

It was a faint sound, but the only one in the corridor. Ceria whirled. She saw a single tear of water fall from the ceiling. It splashed with the faintest of noises in the corridor. She looked up.

The ice on the walls was melting. Illphres’ ice was beginning to melt, slowly gathering condensation into droplets that fell down around Ceria. A few fell around her, and then one landed on her neck.

She jumped as if she’d been struck. Ceria turned her attention back to the door, trying to ignore the melting ice. But it kept melting, more and more of it, as the chill lessened and the walls became slick.

The melted ice puddled on the stone floor, wet, cold. Ceria stared at the door as the last of the ice turned to water. Minutes passed, too many. She felt the water touch her shoes.

And she knew.

But she told herself she didn’t. Ceria lied to herself, promising her rapidly beating heart that the doors would open at any moment and Illphres and the others would come out, beaming, battered, but alive. They couldn’t be dead. They couldn’t be.

But soon the fear in her heart turned to a suppressed panic in her chest. Ceria wanted to scream, but didn’t dare to. She wanted to run, but there was no one to run to. The lie in her mind became something else. So long as the doors didn’t open they were alive. So long as the double doors were closed, they were still fighting. They were still—

The doors opened. Ceria stepped back from them and nearly slipped. She blinked her eyes, willing the figures to be Illphres, Jurix, Ophelia, Bastam and Qum—

Cognita walked out of the double doors, her stone body whole and undamaged. Ceria stared at her.

And her heart broke.

The Golem saw Ceria standing by herself in the corridor and stopped. She stared down at Ceria, and said not a word. At last, Ceria looked at the doors.

“Are they—are—”

She had to ask, though she knew the answer. Cognita nodded. She spoke softly.

“They failed the challenge. They are dead.”

“It’s not true.”

Ceria started towards the doors. She couldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be. Cognita could not be here, undamaged. She had to be injured, destroyed. She couldn’t be—

“Ceria Springwalker. I would advise you not to go within.”

“Let go of me!”

Ceria tried to push Cognita’s hand away, but the Golem was immovable. The half-Elf squirmed out of the grip and ran for the doors as Cognita let go. She pushed desperately on them, felt them give.

Ceria flung open the doors and stared at what lay beyond.

 

—-

 

Pisces heard the scream and knew. In truth he had known thirty minutes ago what the outcome would be. It wasn’t anything the mages had shown him.

It was the look in Cognita’s eyes.

It was a small clue, but one the young man understood. He alone had talked to Cognita. He had seen how her face changed. Very little, but she too had expressions. She felt. And ironically, Golems were bad liars.

Cognita had feelings. She could feel passion for something, and he had seen her eyes change when he spoke of his ambitions, of what might be done with magic that had never been attempted before. He had seen the spark in her eyes.

But he hadn’t seen it as she strode into the chamber. She had known how the battle would end. She had taken the measure of her opponents and seen what would occur without fail.

If Pisces could have, he would have stopped the five mages. He nearly broke his spell of [Invisibility] to try, but one look into their eyes told him they wouldn’t be stopped. They didn’t care that he was there. They’d seen him, all of them, he was sure. And they’d known from his face what their chances were.

But they’d gone anyways. Because they couldn’t turn back. Because they were true mages.

And now they were dead. And Ceria—

He saw Cognita carrying the half-Elf out of the room. She fought the Golem, punching her, casting spells, but Cognita ignored her. Pisces heard Cognita’s voice as she told Ceria that if the half-Elf entered the room and fought the Golems she would be killed. And he saw her head turn and knew that was meant for him as well.

Pisces couldn’t look at Ceria as she collapsed on the ground. Instead, he slipped away when he saw the group of five lesser Golems enter the room and exit with bags of holding. He knew what they were doing.

He knew where they carried the dead.

Mages died in Wistram. Not as often as one might think, but enough so that it was not rare. Failed experiments, duels gone wrong, simple suicide or accidents like slipping down stairs—

And of course, those who failed the challenge. Pisces walked after the Golems, noting how other students passed them, oblivious to what the Golems carried. They were just things to most of the mages.

But the Golems had purpose, and they fulfilled all manner of tasks. Such as finding a place for the dead.

The catacombs of Wistram were extensive, dark, and off-limits for Pisces. For all students, really, but especially him. Two suits of armor stood guard on the entrance at all times, a hallmark of another time when the remains of one mage might be destroyed by an enemy.

But the remains of the recently deceased went to another room, where the process of decomposition was initiated by Golems. Only the bones would go below.

Pisces slipped into the room, unseen by the five Golems. He saw them emptying the bags of holding onto the stone slabs. The room was empty save for one dead student. Pisces saw a dead body with too pale skin and realized one of the Selphids must have evacuated it for whatever reason.

Six bodies, then. Pisces sighed softly when he saw the remains of the mages that had been alive not an hour ago.

Illphres, Bastam, Jurix, Ophelia, and Qum. Not all were recognizable. Not all were in one…piece. The Golems bent over their bodies, hands raised. Pisces realized with morbid fascination that they would disassemble the bodies without tools, only brute strength and unyielding fingers.

For a moment, the young man hesitated. He was uncertain, but he stood up as one of the Golems reached down for Bastam’s face.

“It is not right. It is not fair. But it must be done. So. Rise.

The bodies jerked and came to life. The Golems paused, not comprehending as two of the six corpses in the room slowly stood up. Pisces felt the magic leave him and staggered. He drank a small potion at his side, cast the spell again. The mana in him burned as it left, but then six corpses were standing.

Not zombies. Not Ghouls, or any of the lesser undead. Burning eyes and flames in empty sockets stared back at Pisces as he looked at the six Liches, mages claimed by undeath to roam the earth.

Liches, yes, but more powerful than their skeletal counterparts. That was just magic used to reanimate long dead bodies. So close to death, these six fallen mages were stronger than Wights, more powerful than common Liches. They were as close to Revenants as he could make them.

The Golems turned towards the undead. They didn’t understand what had happened, but they had their orders. One reached for the thing that had been Illphres.

“Fight.”

The Golem fell backwards as a fist struck his chest. Pisces heard the stone crack and saw Illphres’ frail hands moving. She leapt at the Golem, faster than he had ever seen her move. Pisces saw the other Golems fighting now, reacting to the threat.

Too slow. Pisces let the undead knock the Golems down but didn’t bother trying to finish them off. Instead he turned and ran towards the door.

“Follow!”

 

—-

 

Wistram was in uproar. Pisces ran down the steps, shouts and screams echoing behind him. The six dead mages followed closely, making no sound as they ran behind him.

He had hoped they wouldn’t be seen as he ran down the corridors, but there were too many students and mages about. But they’d made it. Pisces leapt down the last flight of stairs and gasped for air.

Ahead of him, a tunnel lead up towards a gate, guarded by two huge shapes. Armored knight Golems. They blocked the way. Pisces pointed a finger and his undead leapt towards the Golems. They reacted swiftly, raising their swords and shields and charging into the battle.

Pisces ignored both sides. He ran on, using [Flash Step] to evade one of the Golems who tried to cut him as he passed. He had only one goal in mind as he broke the lock on the gate and ran through it.

The catacombs were dark. Ward spells shone in Pisces’ eyes, enchantments designed to prevent the dead from rising by siphoning the mana away. He ran past sarcophagi, alcoves in the wall, coffins and burial urns, searching frantically.

It had to be here. He knew it was here. All the books said—

There. Pisces stumbled into an open corridor and saw the tomb. It was a dark, thick stone slab covering a stone bed. There was only a single glowing line of text, written in an ancient language on the cover. Pisces couldn’t read it, but he knew what it said.

The grave of Archmage Nekhret, one of the true [Archmages] of Wistram. And the only one to be buried in this place. The others had died elsewhere, or left no bodies to bury, or at least no bones.

But Nekhret—Pisces stumbled over to the stone lid and heaved at it with all his strength. He couldn’t budge the heavy stone. Only when his four remaining undead ran towards him and pushed did the lid fall to the ground with a crash.

Pisces knew he had to hurry. He knew he had only minutes before the mages would come, or the Golems to protect this place. But his breath caught as he saw the yellowed bones and the grinning skull of the former archmage. It was just a body. Just a body.

But the bones still glowed with power. Pisces reached out with trembling fingers and then remembered. He took out the small bag of holding he’d stolen from the Golems and reached out to take the bones.

The instant Pisces’ hand touched the first bone he felt the world shift. He cursed, looked around wildly. Then he realized the magic was coming from the stone coffin itself.

Something was growing out of it. Pisces cried out in terror and shoved the rest of the bones into the bag of holding. He stumbled away, his undead forming a wall around him as something appeared in the air.

A shadow blacker than color pulled itself out of the darkness. From underneath the coffin, more…things appeared. They drifted upwards, taking forms that were vaguely like real shapes and at the same time not.

Dark night made the blade one of the apparitions drew. The blade glowed in the darkness, or rather, made the darkness shine around it. It was the antithesis of light, the darkness in every ray of light.

Slowly, the other summoned creatures drew weapons as well. They were undead, or perhaps something greater. Pisces knew it as he ran, leaving the bodies of the former mages to buy him a second of time. Nekhret’s last curse on those who would plunder her tomb.

He should have expected it. But Pisces hadn’t thought. He’d only known this was his chance. Now he ran as the apparitions flew after him, screaming with voices that made him throw up as he used [Flash Step] to dash up the stairs.

The undead stormed out of the catacombs as evening drew into night. The students of Wistram and mages heard their screams and turned to fight. Golems and mages alike battled the dark apparitions in the hallways, classrooms, and banquet halls, fighting to save their lives.

 

—-

 

Ceria sat in front of the doors leading to the room with the Golems, staring at it. Holding herself back from going in. She wanted to. She wanted to die.

Her master was dead. The other mages were dead. They had died, and the Golems remained. All of them. Each one was intact, each one whole. Ceria couldn’t remember—she had seen them lying on the floor—

The memory was too horrible for her mind to actively remember, but Ceria knew she had seen the four Golems before Cognita had pulled her back. Damaged, maybe, but all intact.

They were all still there. And the mages—her friends—Illphres.

Were dead.

Ceria wanted to go in that room. She wanted to cast her spells, fight for the few seconds she could. She knew she’d die. But she wanted to prove that Illphres had taught her. Prove she’d been right. Not that she’d done all this for nothing.

It was impossible. Ceria was just dreaming. She’d wake up and—and wake up in her bed. This was just a bad dream.

But it was reality. And although Ceria sat in the corridor for hours, wishing, praying, reality would not change for her.

In the end, it was someone else who made Ceria look up.

“Ah. You’re still alive?”

It was a voice Ceria had never heard, not once. She looked up and saw Amerys standing over her. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield. One of the King’s Seven.

“Go away.“

The woman stared down at Ceria as the half-Elf clutched at her arms, hard enough to bruise her skin. She looked at the doors.

“Well, Illphres is gone now, is she? Too bad. I’ll miss her for morning practice. She was always the best at making barriers.”

That casual sentence, the simple acknowledgement of everything Ceria was denying, was too much. She leapt to her feet.

Shut up! Shut up!

Amerys looked at Ceria, calmly. Not with amusement or scorn, but with something as cold as Illphres’ ice in her eyes.

“She’s dead.”

“No, she’s—”

Ceria couldn’t lie. But she didn’t want to say it. Amerys studied her and shook her head.

“You know, she told me she was challenging the Golems tonight. She asked me to stop you from killing yourself if she failed.”

“She what?”

Ceria stared at Amerys in shock. The woman nodded.

“I would have come earlier, but I figured that you’d either be in that room by now, dead, or wallowing in misery out here.”

“But she—she didn’t think she’d—she was going to—”

“Change Wistram?”

Amerys snorted softly. Ceria choked. Now tears were falling from her eyes again. Amerys looked back at the doors and sighed softly.

“Perhaps she would have. But Cognita was too strong, wasn’t she? If I’d agreed to help, we probably would have died. Then again, maybe not. We’ll never know.”

“She asked you?”

“Oh yes.”

The woman nodded, meeting Ceria’s horrified stare.

“I told her no.”

“Why? She asked you and you said no? You—you coward! If you’d been alive, if you’d helped her—”

Ceria began screaming at Amerys. The woman shook her head, ignoring Ceria’s helpless fury.

“It was too risky. If there was a chance of me dying—I told Illphres I wouldn’t risk it. I told her to wait, even if it was for another decade, to challenge the Golems with ten times their number if they could. It turns out I was right.”

“She was brave! She was a true mage! She and Jurix and Bastam and the others—they had courage. You’re supposed to be a famous mage! Why didn’t you go?  Are you afraid? Are all of the King of Destruction’s servants such cowards?”

It was only when Amerys’ eyes flashed with fury that Ceria realized who she was talking to. A living legend, the equivalent of any Named Adventurer. Amerys spoke softly, but her voice was filled with controlled…passion.

“Coward? I suppose that’s fair. But if I am a coward, it is for my King. Do not misunderstand me, half-Elf. I would go in that room and challenge the Golems alone if it were not for Flos, my liege.”

“Why?”

The woman turned away from Ceria. When she looked back over her shoulder, her eyes were shining with something similar to the look Ceria had seen in Illphres’ eyes.

“Because he is a king worth being a coward for. Because someday he will return. Make no mistake; someday I will be at his side and we shall challenge the Golems together. We will walk beyond those doors and see for ourselves the heights of magic. But until then I will do all I can to live until the day he calls for me.”

Ceria could say nothing to that. She let the tears run down her eyes as she stared at Amerys. The woman looked away and shook her head.

“Until that day I wait. Hah, it is hard to wait for him for so long. But he is worth it. My lord Flos is…and it isn’t as if there aren’t other dangers to fight in that time.”

“What do you…”

Only now that she was standing, looking at Amerys fully did Ceria see the cut on the woman’s leg. It had gone through her magical robes, cut into her flesh. It was bound tightly with gauze.

“You’re injured.”

“Yes, I am.”

“What happened?”

The Human woman looked at Ceria, not without a trace of pity. But only that. A trace. She pointed to the stairs.

“See for yourself.”

 

—-

 

There were less than sixty dead in truth. Less than sixty, but over half as many wounded, some critically. To Ceria, descending the steps and walking through the hallways in numb silence, it was as if the rest of Wistram were a reflection of the death above.

The shades called by Nekhret’s spell had flown through Wistram, not hunting Pisces but setting upon every living being they could find with death and cold fury. The mages and students, unprepared, had fought back, but many of their spells had failed to affect the magical creations.

If it were not for Cognita, if it were not for the Golems and the Archmages and senior mages, Ceria later learned, the casualties would have been far higher. Most of the shadows and phantoms had flown into the banquet hall during dinner, and it was there the battle had been fiercest.

Only sixty had died. But one of those sixty lay on the ground of the banquet hall, amid the overturned tables and trampled food and drink. He had fallen mid-gallop, hands raised, a wand still held tight in one of them.

His face wasn’t calm. It was desperate, fierce. Ceria stared down at Calvaron’s body and looked into Beatrice’s eyes as the Dullahan held him.

“This is your fault.”

She told Ceria that, as Mons sat on the ground next to Calvaron. Ceria didn’t know what to say.

“What happened?”

“Pisces.”

Beatrice turned away. Ceria stared at Calvaron until the Dullahan screamed at her. She wandered away, mumbling to people who asked if she was hurt. At some point she saw Cognita, organizing Golems as they helped tend to the dead.

She saw Pisces just once. He was imprisoned in a cage of magic, guarded by Golems who were there to protect him from the angry mages and students. He stared down at the ground, face pale. He didn’t see her.

The trial began that night and lasted well into next day. The charges were simple. Pisces had stolen the bones of one of the Archmages. He had plundered Archmage Nekhret’s tomb and unleashed her spell of retribution on the academy. All the dead were his fault.

The punishment was equally simple. The Council was split, many calling for banishment. Wistram had no jail. The others called for death.

Ceria watched the trial taking place, saw the outrage on the faces of the people around her. But she was numb to it all. News of what had passed above had spread, especially after it came to light how Pisces had reanimated the five fallen mages to break into the catacombs. That was a tragedy on its own, but the mages channeled their shock into anger against Pisces.

Many voices spoke up that night, all for killing Pisces. The mages that held out argued against the death penalty because it would tarnish Wistram’s image, because it was wrong in this day and age, because they didn’t have the stomach for it. None because they felt sympathy for Pisces. He kept his head bowed as students and mages hurled accusations against him, screaming.

Beatrice spoke, and then Mons. She didn’t plead for Pisces’ innocence. She just told the Council she had no idea what was happening, and asked that Pisces be punished. She didn’t say what that punishment should be. Montressa stared at Pisces as if he were something she had never seen before.

Ceria was the last one to stand. When she did, the room went quiet. The mages knew she had been Illphres’ student. They knew she had been there when they had challenged Cognita and the other Golems, and when the doors had opened. It was Illphres’ body and the others Pisces had used to reanimate. They waited for Ceria to attack Pisces. She wondered if they would stop her if she tried to kill him.

There was nothing in Ceria’s heart. She looked inside her for her soul, but found it missing. It lay back above, in a corridor frozen in time where the frost clung to the walls. And as Ceria stood before the Council she spoke what was in her heart.

“Ceria Springwalker.”

Archmage Feor, the hero of her people, stared down sympathetically at Ceria. She stared back blankly.

“You have known the mage known as Pisces the longest. He has wronged you perhaps most of all. Is there anything you would like to tell the Council regarding his fate?”

Ceria stared around at the august assembly of faces staring down at her. She nodded slowly. When she spoke, her voice was quiet, but magnified by the spell so it filled the room.

“There is something. If my master—if Illphres knew what Pisces had done with her body…she would have laughed. She would have laughed, and she wouldn’t have cared at all.”

The room fell silent. The mages murmuring to each other grew quiet as Ceria continued.

“Pisces? I know him. He was my friend. Once. I hate him for what he did to my master—for what he did to the others. I hate him so much I think I might kill him. But I hate the rest of you even more.”

She looked around the room, eyes burning.

“You knew they were going to challenge the Golems. You knew. They asked you—each one of you to join them. You all said no. So they had to go by themselves, only five of them. If there had been six, or ten—they might have lived. But they went alone, because the rest of you are cowards.”

Shock. Anger. It was all the same to Ceria. She stared around the room and addressed the Council of Wistram to their faces, called them what they were.

“You are all cowards. Fearful, small people, living in the shadow of the Golems. You won’t ever find true magic, not here. Not while Cognita and the Golems are the true rulers of this place. I’m leaving—I won’t stay here, hiding from the truth. So long as the Golems live, there are no true mages in Wistram. None, except for the dead.”

She turned and walked away. Voices shouted after her, but Ceria was deaf. She sat down and saw the Council restore order, begin to vote.

One more person strode into the room, unannounced. But she brought silence with her.

Cognita. She stood in front of the Council, the death of mages on her hands yet no trace of it marring her smooth exterior.  Perfect, wrought of stone. Immortal. And she spoke for Pisces.

“I would ask you not to vote to execute this young student.”

“Why?”

The answer came from Feor. Ceria looked at him, and saw a trace of that fear in his eyes. In all the mages’ eyes. They looked at Cognita and saw something they could not surpass, did not dare to challenge. She addressed them calmly, her voice booming throughout the room unaided.

“Because it would be unjust. There have been other mages whose failed experiments have killed far more. There have been other students here who have committed greater crimes and been expelled for it. The death sentence has never been passed down for a true mistake made by a student. I argue for exile, not death. If you pass judgment, let it be for what he has done, not what he is. Necromancy is not a sin.”

Feor stared hard at Cognita.

“And what will you do if we vote to kill him?”

She replied calmly.

“I will do nothing. My role is to protect and serve Wistram and those who live within. But if you do decide to execute him, I will expect you to kill every student who errs thusly from now on.”

The mages murmured as she left. Pisces raised his head to stare after her. He saw Ceria staring at him and looked away.

In the end, the Council argued for hours, but voted. It was close, but those who voted for exile were slightly more numerous than those who voted for death. Feor stood on the podium, staring down at Pisces with contempt.

“For your crimes, we exile you. You will never set foot on Wistram’s shores again, under penalty of death. And this shall be spread across the world—no true mage of Wistram shall treat with you, Pisces.”

The young man didn’t look up. Feor’s gaze turned to Ceria’s and softened.

“As for you, Ceria Springwalker. You must leave as well. Pack your belongings. You will leave Wistram with the next ship.”

 

—-

 

One thing happened in between the time Ceria spent wandering Wistram. The half-Elf was attacked by Beatrice for defending Pisces as the Dullahan saw it, only saved by Mons. She was an exile among the other mages, none of whom spoke to her.

But one mage thought of her, or rather, her master. Amerys stood in front of the door that was still covered with frost and tried the handle. It didn’t work.

In the end Amerys gave up on waiting for a key to be brought and blasted the door open. The thunderous sound drew other students to her room. They backed away when they saw her exit the room, holding something in her hands.

“Here. Give this to Ceria Springwalker.”

“Me?”

“Do it. Or I will find out.”

Amerys thrust the ice-blue spellbook into the hands of one of the students in the crowd. He recoiled, but after she glared at him, took the book with trembling hands. Amerys strode away without a backwards glance.

The unfortunate Drake held the book in his hands, hesitating. He started down the corridor, but never got to Ceria’s room.

A young man stopped him in the hallway with some of his friends. The Drake and he argued. Gold was offered, then secrets. In the end the book was traded and it went with the young man.

Charles de Trevalier walked through Wistram, upwards, onto a balcony where Ceria had sat with Illphres once before. He stood on the edge over the open, looking down into the sea. Then he let the book drop down into the sea.

It splashed when it hit the water, and Charles saw the book freeze the ocean around it. It disappeared beneath the waves, encased in ice.

He turned around, smiling, and saw the Dullahan staring at him. Charles’ smile disappeared, but Beatrice said nothing. She turned and walked away.

 

—-

 

Two days later, Ceria found herself standing in the entrance hall, waiting. The ship was here at last, ready to take them to Izril. It wasn’t her choice. This was the first ship and so she had to be aboard it.

Someone else stood in the entrance hall, far away from her. Pisces kept his head down as he clutched the few things to his name. A spellbook, and a small bag. Ceria stared at him but he didn’t raise his head.

No one had come to see her off. Montressa had stopped by her room. Beatrice had not. Ceria had seen a few other students as well, but the rest of the mages had avoided her as well as Pisces.

This was it. Ceria stared numbly at the doors and realized it was time. She was leaving Wistram, a failure. With nothing to her name but a few coins and memories.

“Hold.”

The word caught Ceria as she started towards the doors. It came from a tall figure, Cognita. She strode towards Ceria and stopped before the young half-elf. Ceria stared up blankly. Cognita inclined her head.

“Ceria Springwalker. I regret the death of Illphres and the other mages.”

“Do you really?”

Ceria said it numbly. Cognita nodded.

“I do. But I was created to protect and so I shall.”

“In that case, I hate you. I’ll hate you forever and I think you’re a slave. You don’t have will. You’re just a thing that pretends to sometimes be alive.”

“That is your choice.”

Cognita accepted Ceria’s statement without a hint of displeasure. She bent down to Ceria. Her eyes were intent on the half-Elf’s face.

“But I see in you something worthy. So I ask that you accept what comes next, and know that it is a sign of respect, not mockery.”

“What?”

Cognita didn’t answer. She strode towards the doors and threw them open. Ceria and Pisces shielded their faces from the sun’s glare.

“Step forwards, you two. Side by side.”

Unwillingly, Ceria did so. She stared at Pisces and he looked down. Cognita looked at both students and raised her voice.

Her words echoed throughout Wistram. They weren’t loud, not a shout, but they travelled through the corridors, into rooms, making mages stand up and go to the windows. Those that were already watching were joined by other mages as Cognita spoke to the academy.

“Today Wistram will see two students depart from its shores. These two mages leave, one exiled, the other in contempt. They leave as failures by the reckoning of the Council. But the Golems of Wistram disagree.”

She swept an arm out. Shading her eyes, Ceria heard Pieces draw in his breath. She looked out, down the winding stone staircase that led to the stone harbor and gasped.

Golems stood on the staircase. Hundreds of Golems. Stone ones carved to look like Humans or other races, suits of animated armor, creations Ceria had only seen once or twice. A Golem made of pure emerald stood next to one that seemed to be made of the wind itself. It stood next to a being of wood with moss and flowers growing out of its body. It held a sword out, saluting the air.

Cognita’s voice rang out again, and Ceria saw students and mages appearing on the stairwells and bridges above the entrance hall. They stared down at her as the Golem kept speaking, stared at her and Pisces.

“I am Cognita, greatest of Archmage Zelkyr’s creations. Though I am no mage, I hold his authority, which supersedes all others so long as I remain. Thus, it is within my power to graduate you two on this day. Ceria Springwalker, Pisces, you have shown the qualities of a true mage of Wistram, both of you. Neither of you will fall behind any other mage nor disgrace Wistram’s name. I hereby name both of you full mages of the academy.”

Ceria stared up at the Golem, barely able to comprehend what was happening. Pisces’ face was pale as he looked up at the Golem. Cognita smiled slightly, and motioned them forwards.

It was a dream. Ceria slowly began walking down the steps, Pisces at her side. She looked at the rows of impassive Golem faces, and saw how they were turned towards her. Watching her. As if they were alive.

“Golems of Wistram! Salute these young mages as they go forth into the world! Though they may leave these shores, they pass from here not as students, but as true mages!”

Step by step, the two descended. Ceria’s ears were roaring, and she saw the ship ahead of her, drawing closer. She stopped with Pisces only once and looked back towards the citadel. The doors were thrown open and a tall woman made of stone stood there. She raised her hand and her voice carried clearly to the two down below.

“Go, Ceria Springwalker and Pisces. Walk proudly as true mages of Wistram.”

Then she turned and the Golems began to file back into the academy or walked into the sea. Ceria turned and caught Pisces’ eye for a brief moment. Then she turned and boarded the ship and sailed away from Wistram.

 

—-

 

This is how the story ended. Ceria and Pisces took the ship for several days to Izril, seldom speaking, and not at all to each other. For their part, the [Captain] and [Sailors] treated the two mages with great respect. They had seen the Golems lining the stairs for the two mages—they were surely some of Wistram’s best.

The irony was not lost on Ceria, but she could only think about Illphres, about Calvaron, and felt the emptiness in her vanishing day by day. Not because she wanted to feel again, but because life was going on. It was as if she left that part of her with Wistram.

She knocked on Pisces’ door on the last day of their voyage, when land had been spotted. He let her in and she sat on a chair while he sat on the bed.

“I’m sorry.”

He said that at last, looking up at her. Ceria just stared back until he looked down again. There was nothing he could say, and nothing she wanted to hear. She eventually said what was on her mind.

“Once we reach the shore, we’ll part ways. I never want to see your face again, understand?”

“Yes.”

They heard sailors calling out overhead, guiding the ship in to dock. Pisces shifted, wiped at his eyes. Ceria saw tears. She had none herself.

“It truly—it truly was a wonderful place, wasn’t it?”

She looked at him. Pisces was crying.

“It was just like my dream at first. It was everything I had hoped for. It was the place where I wanted to be forever. It was worth waiting for. Worth giving everything up for.”

Slowly, Ceria nodded. She stared past Pisces, seeing friends and memory, stone corridors, magic and sadness and happiness in the moment before she blinked. Then she did and it was gone.

“It really was.”

They sat in silence as the rocking ship slowed and they felt it stop. Ceria stood up and looked down at Pisces.

“Goodbye.”

She walked away, carrying the rucksack filled with the few things she had to her name. Ceria walked away from the ship that had taken her from her hopes and dreams, away from the young man who had once been her best friend.

But never would Ceria forget. In her dark dreams, in the moments when she sat around campfires with the new friends she made, in the days spent walking, footsore and tired, searching for a place to rest, she’d always think back on it.

An isle in the sea. A citadel of dark stone, standing in a bubble of calm while storms raged around it. Hallways full of magic, impassive stone golems, students and mages of every race. A place of wonder, of magic.

The place where mages gather. The home of sorcery.

Wistram.

The half-Elf walked away, and was lost in the night. And after a moment, the young man, the necromancer, stepped off the ship. He looked back once, and then he was gone too.

 


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