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Death. Ryoka felt its hand on her throat. She rose, suspended from the ground by the thick arm made of bone. She looked into two burning yellow flames embedded in the sockets of the undead woman made of bone.

Venitra.

She was as perfect as a sculpture, as tall and armored as any knight. And she was smiling.

No time for thought. No time to wonder how or why Venitra was able to pretend to be the Named Adventurer known as Regrika Blackpaw. Ryoka kicked at Venitra’s face as hard as she could.

Her foot connected. It felt as though Ryoka had kicked a rock. Venitra didn’t budge an inch. Nor did her grip waver.

“You will not escape me this time, Ryoka Griffin.”

She could barely breathe. Ryoka’s hands scrabbled at her belt pouch. She had to use—where was Ivolethe? Had to—

Venitra’s hand shot out and tore away Ryoka’s belt pouch. She tossed it to the ground. Her grip tightened on Ryoka’s throat, cutting off air. There were black spots.

Not so quickly, Venitra. Didn’t you wish to torture her first? And we must ask her our Master’s question.

Another voice. The crushing grip loosened just a fraction. Ryoka choked, and saw the Drake [Mage] was gone as well. The being that had called itself Ikriss shed the illusion disguising it.

A black skeleton, bones polished and gleaming like metal stood beside Venitra, holding the magical staff. Her eyes were blue, flickering lights and she was grinning. It wasn’t just her skeletal head. There was true malevolent joy in the way she looked at Ryoka.

Let’s ask her first. And then hurt her.

Venitra dropped Ryoka. The girl fell, twisted to get up and run, and sat down. A cold, boney hand was on her shoulder and the black metal bones shone a bit in the light filtering down into the alleyway.

“She is paralyzed, Venitra. I have already put up an eavesdropping barrier; let me deter attention away from this place before continuing.”

“Do it, Ijvani.”

Venitra waited a moment as the black skeleton twisted her staff and spoke silently. Ryoka tried to move. She tried to shout, but she was a little ragdoll lying on the ground. Helpless, until Ijvani nodded. Only then did Venitra lean down and Ryoka could speak.

“Look, I—”

“Quiet.”

Venitra’s voice was deep, beautiful. She was manufactured to be perfect both as a weapon and as a piece of art, of that Ryoka was certain. She was Az’kerash’s servant. How was she here? Ryoka stared up at Venitra. There was emotion in the undead woman’s eyes. Hatred. Or—no, hatred was too strong somehow. It was more like disdain, the same look Ryoka had given the insect that crawled on her toothbrush that very morning.

“You have taken us a long time to track down. A very long time, Ryoka Griffin. For that you will pay.”

Not too long. We’d have found her far sooner if you didn’t keep getting us lost.

The echoing, hollow voice that was somehow feminine came from the black skeleton. Ijvani. Ryoka saw Venitra’s eyes narrow and she glanced at her companion with irritation.

“That was not my fault.’”

Was too.

“We found her. That is all that matters.”

Is that why you lied to our master yesterday?

“Be silent, Ijvani.”

The dialogue between the two undead would have been hilarious if Ryoka weren’t so terrified. They spoke like—like bickering kids, or like two comedians doing a bad routine. She held her breath as Venitra turned back to her. The lips carved of bone moved like they were real.

Venitra’s face was expressive, lifelike. Ah, but the eyes. Her pupils were filled with the dancing flames, and they stared at Ryoka with nothing but malice.

“Ryoka Griffin. Who have you told about our master?”

Ryoka worked her mouth, and found she could talk. She spoke shakily, grateful that she could tell the truth.

“I haven’t told anyone anything about your master. I swear it. No one knows I met Az’kerash or where he l—”

“Do not say his name. You are not worthy of saying his name.”

Venitra’s hand shot out. She grabbed one of Ryoka’s fingers. Her pinkie, on her good left hand. Ryoka stared at Venitra.

“I didn’t mean—”

“Suffer.”

The undead woman smiled. Then Venitra snapped Ryoka’s pinkie finger. Ryoka doubled over. She screamed—silently. Ijvani twisted her fingers and Ryoka’s mouth clamped shut. Her throat moved, but no sound came out.

She’s telling the truth. I have cast a truth spell and she doesn’t appear to have any artifacts on her that would allow her to lie.

“Good. Then our job is nearly done.”

Nearly, but not enough. You aren’t precise enough, Venitra. This is why our master sent me with you.

Ryoka was doubled over. Pain was filling every part of her, but she could see, dimly, Venitra turning to Ijvani, gritting her teeth.

“He told me to pick my choice of tracker. You came because I decided it.”

The black iron skeleton nodded calmly.

Yes. And if I hadn’t come, Oom would have come with you. We are both the eldest of our master’s creations. You are the youngest, for all you are first in his eyes. You lack experience. So he has said.

I am his favorite.”

So I have said.

Ryoka was trying to get up, to run. She was on her knees and pushing herself up when a hand picked her up. Effortlessly. Venitra tossed Ryoka into a wall. Ryoka felt a flash of pain, and the world spun.

“Ask your questions, Ijvani.”

I shall. Observe, Venitra.

Another face bent down into Ryoka’s line of sight. Two pale blue lights burned in black sockets. Ijvani spoke.

Have you left any notes, spells, or other measures to inform others of my master’s identity in case of your death or disappearance?

“No.”

Ijvani paused, looked over at Venitra. The giant bone woman nodded in satisfaction. She knelt by Ryoka and grudgingly spoke to Ijvani.

“Good.”

Then Venitra smiled and reached out for Ryoka’s hand again. She broke another bone. On the same finger. She grasped the pinkie finger, ignoring Ryoka’s frantic blows to her arm and face, and broke the already broken bone in a different place. This time Ryoka’s silent scream was long.

The two undead stared at the curled up human on the ground. Not dispassionately; there was a great deal of satisfaction on Venitra’s face. Ijvani was harder to read for her lack of features, but her voice was pleased.

She has told no one. I suppose we can kill her, then. But perhaps it would be better to let her live? Her disappearance would be noted.

Venitra turned her head towards Ijvani, clearly displeased.

“Our master gave me the authority to make decisions, Ijvani. This Human is not worth keeping alive.”

The skeleton shrugged.

The [Strategist] in the council meeting knew of her.

There was a flash of yellow light in Venitra’s eyes. She shook her head.

“Inconsequential. I want her dead.”

As you wish.

Ryoka got up. The two undead looked at her as she cradled her left hand. She glared at them.

“People will come looking for me.”

“Let them. I told you I would kill you. I will kill your friends and family too, Ryoka Griffin.”

Venitra smiled down at Ryoka. Ryoka hesitated. She looked at the ground and then dove for her belt pouch. Venitra missed as she swiped for Ryoka, expecting her to try to run around her.

She had one hand in her belt pouch, reaching for one of Octavia’s bags. Ryoka rolled, tore out a sealed bottle, and then sagged against the wall. A skeletal hand was on her shoulder again.

She’s certainly quick. No wonder you failed to catch her before. I wouldn’t have failed of course, but you were not built for speed.

There was an audible grinding as Venitra stepped over to Ryoka.

“I will rectify that error now. Give me her hand, Ijvani. I’ll start with that.”

She couldn’t move. Ryoka lay, helpless, as her left hand was offered up. Venitra inspected Ryoka’s fingers. She smiled as she looked into Ryoka’s eyes. She delicately pinched Ryoka’s twice-broken pinkie and—

Someone shouted from the alleyway. It was distant, but it broke through the bubble of horror around Ryoka. She saw both Ijvani and Venitra look up. In an instant they changed.

Regrika Blackpaw stepped away from Ryoka and Ikriss, the Drake [Mage] with dark purple scales, looked towards the alleyway. Both looked annoyed, but their features, voices, and the smell they gave off had changed in an instant.

“I thought you had put up a spell to keep others away.”

Venitra, now looking like a Gnoll with black fur, growled at Ijvani. The Drake lashed his tail and replied testily.

“I did. Someone must be coming through this alleyway for a reason. My spell deflects attention, not trespass. Kill whomever it is quickly and get back to business.”

Ryoka tried to get up. She had to run, warn whomever it was—but she still couldn’t move a muscle. She lay on the ground, and now she heard a voice. A distinctive voice. She recognized it, and heard pounding footsteps.

“Come back here you damn Winter Sprite! I’ll teach you to pour snow over my—oh hey, what’s going on here?”

Relc charged down the alleyway, following Ivolethe as she flew past him. He blinked as he saw Regrika Blackpaw, Ikriss, and Ryoka, lying on the ground.

The words that passed between the two undead were quick.

“Guardsman. We can kill him—”

“Too suspicious. Drakes value their soldiers too highly. Venitra, wait.”

Suddenly, Ryoka could move. Ikriss knelt and pulled her to her feet. Regrika smiled at Relc and approached.

“Hello, guardsman. We were on our way to visit an inn, but we seem to have gotten lost, yes? It is my fault. I thought this alleyway was a shortcut.”

“You okay?”

A clawed hand helped Ryoka up and she stared into two innocent, Drake eyes. Ikriss guided Ryoka past Regrika and Relc blinked at her.

“Oh hey! I know you! You’re that Human, right? You lot sure are clumsy, falling all over the place. This is what happens when you don’t have tails!”

“Uh.”

Ryoka stared at Relc, and then looked over her shoulder. Regrika’s paw came down on Ryoka’s shoulders.

“You know Miss Ryoka Griffin, guardsman? This is a surprise, yes? I was seeking her aid, which is why we have met. But we have not been introduced. I apologize. I am Regrika Blackpaw, and this is Ikriss Southwing, my companion.”

“Oh! Hey, you’re those famous adventurers!”

Relc’s eyes widened and he snapped his fingers together. He looked at Ryoka with a great deal of surprise.

“You know these people? Wow. Wow. Hey, this is great! We can all go to Erin’s party! I heard it was for a bunch of Gnolls and I figured that was too much hair, but I’m in the mood for a drink!”

Regrika and Ikriss exchanged glances. The Gnoll smiled.

“We would be honored, Mister…?”

“Oh, I’m Relc. Senior Guardsman in Liscor!”

“Very important, Regrika.”

“Hrr.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Why did you come down this alleyway, Guardsman Relc? And why are you covered in snow?”

The Drake [Guardsman] was covered in a layer of snow. He shook it off his scales like a dog and grinned.

“Funny story. I was minding my own business when one of those damn Winter Sprites came out of nowhere and hit me with a bunch of snow! Bastards. They do that all the time. Anyways, if you’re looking for Erin’s inn, you’re going the wrong way. Follow me!”

He waved the others down the alleyway and set a quick pace. Ryoka stared at Regrika and Ikriss, afraid to move. Should she run? Then Regrika slapped a paw on her shoulder and grinned at her.

“Let us not delay, Miss Griffin. I would like a drink, and to visit this inn so many seem to know of.”

She leaned down as Ikriss walked after Relc and whispered in Ryoka’s ear.

“You cannot run. If you cause trouble, we will kill the Drake and everyone we must.”

Ryoka had no doubt she would. Mechanically, she began walking down the alleyway as Relc began to chatter with Regrika and the Gnoll responded cheerfully. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ivolethe flying around her. The Frost Faerie’s face was worried as she flew by Ryoka’s side.

She flew right past Regrika’s face. The Gnoll blinked and batted at the Frost Faerie with a paw, missing her easily. She frowned, but then shook her head as Relc cursed at Ivolethe. The Frost Faerie disappeared into Ryoka’s reclaimed belt pouch. Ryoka walked out of the alley and out of the city, the two undead right beside her. And all the while as Regrika was called out to Gnolls and greeted the ones who came up to her, she wondered what she was going to do.

She was afraid. Ryoka’s head was a maelstrom of thoughts, fears. She was ready to run, but understood she’d be dead the instant she tried. So flight was out. Ivolethe was vibrating in her belt pouch? Could she do anything? The Frost Faerie wasn’t allowed to interfere, though. Bothering Relc was probably all she could do and that might have been pushing it as well.

They were going to Erin’s inn. The undead had to be stopped. Mrsha was there, and Lyonette. And Erin. But—there was a bit of hope in Ryoka’s heart as they trudged up the hill, Relc taking the lead. There were two groups of Gold-rank adventurers in that inn, and Zel Shivertail besides. Maybe, just maybe—

“I’m here! Where’s the food—hey, that’s a lot of Gnolls!”

Relc happily kicked open the door to the inn and paused as he saw a full room inside. Noise and light swept over Ryoka as she stumbled into the room, followed closely by Ikriss and Regrika. The two adventurers stared around the room and the laughter and conversation stopped as everyone spotted the Named Adventurer and her companion.

“Regrika Blackpaw.”

It was a susurration around the room. Ryoka saw a bunch of Gnolls look up and her heart sank. Krshia and her nephew Brunkr were here with a group of Gnolls. That was right—they were celebrating Brunkr’s new class! And they seemed both surprised and elated to see Regrika Blackpaw here.

“Honored Blackpaw, we are truly grateful for your presence. I am Krshia Silverfang. We did not think to invite you, but we would gladly offer the bounty of tonight’s dinner with you, should you desire it.”

Krshia hurried over with a group of older Gnolls, practically falling over herself to bow to Regrika. The Named Adventurer laughed and bent her head to politely sniff at Krshia as the other Gnoll did the same.

“I am not honored here, surely? We are all fellow Gnolls—I had heard of this inn from others and wished to visit. I would be delighted to share a meal with you, Krshia.”

She stepped away from Ryoka—out of necessity more than anything else. The other Gnolls practically stampeded over Ryoka in their desire to meet their hero. Ryoka used that opportunity to take a few steps away from Regrika, looking around cautiously. She spotted Halrac sitting at a table across the room.

Now would be the time to edge over to the Gold-rank adventurers and hint at…something. Ryoka could use a piece of paper maybe, or speak in code. She was about to move when she felt a clawed hand tug at her sleeve. She looked around and into Ikriss’ smiling face.

The Drake leaned over and whispered to Ryoka. For a moment the noisy inn grew silent, and it was Ijvani’s echoing voice that spoke in Ryoka’s ears.

Speak and die, Ryoka Griffin. We will destroy this inn and everyone within. If you do not resist, it will only be your death this night.

The Drake let go of Ryoka and stepped back. Ryoka stared, and Ikriss smiled.

“I regret that we cannot speak now, Miss Griffin. But I am sure we will have another opportunity later. Excuse me.”

He walked over to Regrika and began introducing himself as well. Ryoka stared at his back. No way out. They were still watching her. Listening to her? Could she do something covertly while they were busy?

She clenched her fists. Slowly, Ryoka took a seat at a table in the leftmost corner of the room, by the kitchen. She stared as Regrika and Ikriss sat down at a table in the center of the room, looking for all intents and purposes like famous celebrities dealing with the admiring Gnolls around them.

But Ryoka was sure they were staring at her. The girl looked around and took stock of the inn. It was crowded, again, mainly with Gnolls to celebrate Brunkr’s class, but there were the inn’s regulars as well.

Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, and the Horns of Hammerad were all occupying three tables next to the bar, laughing as Ceria stood on a chair and tried to mime something. The Horns of Hammerad looked…battered, as if they’d been in a fight. But they were all in high spirits.

That was her target. Ryoka glanced at Regrika and Ikriss. Now they were sitting down, the center of attention. They weren’t looking her way. Ryoka slowly got up—

“Don’t.”

A voice whispered in Ryoka’s ear. The young woman jerked in surprise and realized Ivolethe had left her belt pouch. The Frost Faerie hovered by Ryoka’s ear, lost in the noise of the room, speaking quickly and urgently.

“There is a listening spell on ye. I see it.”

“What?”

Ryoka glanced at Ivolethe. The Frost Faerie’s eyes were wide and serious.

“The black skeleton cast it on ye. She can hear all ye say. Not what I say—her magic cannot detect the fae. But she’ll know in an instant should ye try to tell anyone else. And the bone woman is ready to slaughter everyone in here.”

Of course. Ryoka closed her eyes. Of course they wouldn’t be that stupid! Idiot! She looked at Venitra and hesitated. So they’d know. They’d know the instant Ryoka said anything. What if she—

“They are watching you. Don’t mistake the illusion. The black skeleton seems to be looking elsewhere, but she is staring at you, Ryoka. She hasn’t looked away once.”

Ikriss was indeed chatting and laughing with Krshia, his head turned away from Ryoka. But at Ivolethe’s words, Ryoka immediately relaxed and pretended to be looking around the room again.

Trapped. That’s what she was.

Ryoka clenched her hands together, gripping the table. She felt her pinkie move and doubled over in pain. Her broken pinkie finger—the agony there was actually suppressed by the sheer fear and adrenaline coursing through Ryoka’s body.

The young woman shook as she stared at the undead, surrounded by laughing Gnolls. They’d kill everyone in seconds. But there was Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers in one corner, and the Horns of Hammerad were with them too. Maybe—

Speak and die.

She had to do it. She had to shout it. And then Ijvani or Venitra would kill her. So make it quick. How could she tell everyone what was happening in as few words as possible?

‘They’re undead pretending to be adventurers!’

No. Too slow.

‘They’re Az’kerash’s minions!’

Close.

‘Az’kerash sent them.’

Yes. That was it. Stand, shout as you point. And die. Obviously, try to roll away and duck, but she’ll come for you. Venitra. Can the adventurers beat them? There’s no choice. Ryoka hesitated.

“Ryoka? Hey, are you okay?”

A face appeared in front of Ryoka as Erin waved a hand in front of her face. Ryoka jerked.

“Gah!”

She nearly fell out her chair. Ryoka caught herself with her bad hand and choked on a scream. Erin steadied her and pulled her back upright.

“Whoa! That’s weird. What’s up, Ryoka? I haven’t seen you all day! Did you have a good chat with Krshia? And can you believe that Regrika Blackpaw person is here? I saw you come in with her and Relc! Do you actually know her?”

Suddenly, there was Erin. Ryoka cursed and tucked her left hand under the table as she tried to grin at Erin.

“Erin! Erin. I—what did you say?”

“I said…did you meet that Regrika Blackpaw person? Hey, are you okay? You look pale and sweaty.”

Erin frowned as she peered at Ryoka. The Runner girl could barely tear her eyes off of Regrika to look at Erin. She knew she looked terrible. Relc might not have noticed, but Erin would. But Erin couldn’t get suspicious. If she did—

The [Innkeeper] was frowning and about to slide into a seat next to Ryoka when something flew in front of her face. Ivolethe scowled at Erin and flicked a bit of snow into Erin’s eyes, making Erin shout in surprise.

“Begone, Erin Solstice. Ryoka Griffin is busy. With me. Your presence is not needed.”

“Well excuse me. Grumpy faeries…hey Ryoka, I’ll get Lyonette to take your order in a bit, okay? Sorry, but we’re really busy as you can see!”

Erin backed away, spluttering and wiping at her face. Ryoka breathed out and looked at Ivolethe. Then, conscious of Ikriss, she pretended to be brushing at some dirt. Ivolethe floated in front of Ryoka, eyes serious.

“What will you do? You have heard her threat. I…cannot interfere. Perhaps—no. I could try if it came to it, but there are consequences, Ryoka Griffin. Dire ones.”

She stared at Ryoka. The young woman looked at her, and then around the room. Griffon Hunt. The Halfseekers. The Horns of Hammerad. She took a breath and pushed herself up slowly.

“I’m going to do it. I have to—I—”

She saw Ijvani—now pretending to be the male Drake known as Ikriss—look up for a second. Ryoka clamped her mouth shut as the Drake looked over. Ivolethe made a hissing sound. She flew closer to Ryoka’s head.

“You will die. I see it.”

Ryoka stared at Ivolethe and slowly shrugged. The Frost Faerie stared into her eyes and closed hers. Then she looked at the door and grinned.

“Wait. There are others coming. Hold this moment for a few seconds longer. For here is—”

The door opened and two figures walked in. Zel Shivertail and Wall Lord Ilvriss. Zel immediately greeted Mrsha who came bounding over, and Ilvriss stared around the crowded room, sniffing with disdain. He looked around and saw Ryoka. She stared back.

Never in her life had she been so glad to see Ilvriss’ face in her life. The Wall Lord began to stride towards Ryoka until Zel pulled him back. The [General] dragged Ilvriss towards a table further away. But that was what Ryoka needed to see. She took a breath—

And Ivolethe slapped a hand over her mouth.

Wait, I said! The fates are not done with tonight yet.”

Ryoka froze. Two minutes passed as she paused halfway out of her seat, and Lyonette waved her hands and tried to get Ryoka’s attention before getting up and placing a beef casserole in front of her. Ryoka ignored both. Her eyes were on the door. And then it opened—

And Brunkr walked in. He’d come back from using the outhouse. Ryoka sagged. But then the Gnoll turned and held the door open for—

Klbkch. And Xrn. The two Antinium walked slowly into the room and caused a hush of their own. They turned and Klbkch met Ryoka’s eyes. They found a table, sat.

Now was the time. Ryoka’s heart was beating out of her chest. She could see Ikriss and Regrika staring at both the Drakes and Antinium. Were they enough? They had to be. Here were legends from the Antinium Wars. They had to be—

She didn’t want to die. Ryoka imagined a spell, a magical bolt blasting her to pieces, or Venitra just pushing her hand through Ryoka’s chest. She didn’t want to die, and she was sure she would. But they were here. They were going to hurt her friends. They’d sworn it. Venitra had.

No choice at all. When Ryoka spoke, it was shakily, to Ivolethe, her friend, as the Frost Faerie hovered in the air next to her.

“I’ll do it, Ivolethe. Just protect—make sure that when I do—”

She was shaking. The Frost Faerie looked at the two undead, narrowing her eyes. Ryoka choked on her words and tried again. She wasn’t prepared for Ivolethe’s smile.

“Hold a third time, Ryoka. Hold. Perhaps there will be no death tonight.”

“How do you…?”

“Their master calls.”

—-

Venitra could hear everything Ryoka said. She could see everything Ryoka did. It was all thanks to a spell Ijvani had cast. The two undead chatted and ate their food normally, and all the while, waited, impatient for this farce to be over so they could kill Ryoka Griffin.

Of the two, Venitra was the most impatient. She hated pretending to be Regrika Blackpaw. Her illusion was sophisticated enough to fool a Gnoll’s nose, but it still required her to laugh, speak, and worst of all, eat. She hated eating. The food was obviously tasteless to the undead, and she would have to wash it out of her body later. She hated the disgusting way in which living things ate.

But she did it for her master. She kept her disguise up for him, and she would laugh and smile at however many Gnolls it took to accomplish his wishes. However, part of her wished Ryoka Griffin would try and alert her allies. She would relish a battle here. The Gold-rank adventurers she’d spotted would be an enjoyable challenge.

However, it seemed like Ryoka was content to wait. Venitra looked up as the door to the inn opened, letting more worthless creatures come in. She frowned as she spotted one of them, a big Drake with green scales. Something about him triggered a faint memory and she leaned over to whisper to Ijvani.

“Ijvani, who is that Drake wearing armor? The big one? I feel as though I should know him.”

The black skeleton, disguised as Ikriss, was having a harder time eating than Venitra. She was only a skeleton, and as such, the food fell through her body, forcing her to subtly teleport it outside every time she took a bite. She looked up, spotted the Drake that Venitra was indicating, and froze.

That is Zel Shivertail.”

Venitra sat up, a bolt of comprehension and hatred going through her body. She stared at Zel as he took a table across from her and began arguing with his companion, a Drake wearing many magical artifacts.

“The one who defeated our master during the Second Antinium War? He’s here?”

Ijvani nodded, not taking her eyes off of Zel. Venitra gritted her teeth.

“We should kill him.”

Pretending to speak to a Human [Barmaid] named Lyonette and refusing a refill, Ijvani shook her head at Venitra. She spoke to Lyonette and her voice echoed in the other undead’s mind.

That is not our mission.

“No, but he is our master’s enemy. It is worth killing him here. If you immobilize him, I can run him through.”

Venitra, we cannot take such an action without permission from our master.

“Do not order me, Ijvani. I am going.”

Venitra’s eyes flashed. She stood up, smiling at the Gnolls around her and pretending to be stretching. She reached for the sword at her side—

And heard a voice.

Venitra. Ijvani. I am very displeased with you.

Venitra froze. Ijvani sat up. They looked at each other and Venitra sat down. She mechanically responded to the Gnoll named Brunkr who was asking her about her exploits, letting a lesser part of her functionality take over the conversation. But the whole of Venitra, the part that mattered, was now focused on the voice.

The voice of her master.

There were no words Venitra had to describe her master’s presence in her mind. If Venitra had learned of religion, she would have called it as being akin to a revelation. She worshipped her master, the Necromancer, Az’kerash without knowing what that word was.

It was bliss to hear his voice. But also—terror. Because his mental tone was not loving as it normally was. Instead, it was filled with anger. And Venitra feared her master’s wrath more than anything in the world.

“Master. We are overjoyed to hear your commands. What have we done to displease you?”

Venitra spoke through the link that connected her to her master. In her mind they were words. Inwardly Venitra cringed, because she thought she knew why he was angry.

Venitra. Yesterday I asked you whether you had found the Courier who delivered the letter to me. You informed me that you were in Liscor and had been for a week now, gathering information in my name. You lied.

There was no denying it. Venitra shrank in her seat, and she saw Ijvani wince. She had feared to tell her master the truth, but she should have. He had found out about her lies, and so quickly too! There was surely nothing he didn’t know, and now he was angry at Venitra for betraying his trust.

Hesitantly, Venitra spoke, pleading, beseeching.

“I—did not want to disappoint you, my master. There were complications on the road and—”

You lied.

The two words nearly shattered Venitra’s spirit. She bent over the table, causing the Gnolls around her to cry out in alarm. Ikriss assured them that she, Regrika, had only eaten too quickly. But the truth was that Venitra was writhing in agony inside.

“I beg your forgiveness, master.”

There was no response. Had her master left her? For good? Was he so disgusted that he wouldn’t reply to her anymore, only speak to Ijvani? Venitra felt despair, and cried out, grasping for some measure of redemption.

“Master! We have found the person you seek. We know her name. She is called Ryoka Griffin and she is sitting in this inn at this very moment! We were about to dispose of her as you ordered—”

You found her? Show me.

Venitra instantly turned her head, relieved to be the eyes of her master. He could see and experience what she did, and she showed him Ryoka Griffin, sitting tense at her table, not touching her beef casserole.

Ah. That is her. It seems you have not completely failed me, Venitra.

The woman made of bone sagged in relief. She wasn’t worthless. She looked back towards her plate, pretending to be eating the steak she’d been served with relish. On the way she saw a pair of Antinium, and the two Drakes. There was a pause and then she heard her master’s voice adopt a quality she’d never heard in it before.

Venitra. Why is Zel Shivertail sitting over there with one of the Lords of the Wall? And why are Klbkch the Slayer and Xrn the Small Queen sitting in the same room?

Klbkch the Slayer? Venitra twisted her head back and looked at the Antinium sitting at one of the tables. Surely that wasn’t—but if her master said so, it had to be. She gulped, and the steak went down smoothly. The rising trepidation in her soul did not.

“I…do not know?”

She stared at Ijvani. The skeleton sat up and pretended to be dabbing at her lips with a napkin. Her voice was very, very hesitant.

Master, we were unaware of the Antinium’s presence until now. We did not think to inquire—

They are staring at Ryoka Griffin, the very person you were about to kill. Both groups are staring at her. Why?

The two undead stared at each other in silence. Ijvani jerked her head towards Venitra. Venitra shook her head imperceptibly. She gestured at Ijvani with her fork. Ijvani froze and shook her head.

Venitra made a furious gesture. Ijvani sunk down lower. Her voice was a whisper in Venitra’s mind.

We don’t know.

There was silence. Both undead sank down at their table, ignoring the other Gnolls. At last, Az’kerash spoke in their minds, sounding weary, annoyed, and worst, resigned.

I suppose this is all that I can expect from you two. Perhaps my faith in you, Venitra, and you, Ijvani, was misplaced. Would Kerash have served me better, or Bea? I fail to comprehend…how you two can be so careless.

There was nothing worse in the world. Venitra hung her head low. She had to fight not to let the illusion of Regrika Blackpaw burst into tears. Ikriss was having the same struggle. Az’kerash’s voice spoke in her head after a moment, clipped, and calculating.

Is this Ryoka Griffin aware of your natures? Do not lie. Ijvani.

Yes, my master. We confronted her and questioned her. She has told no one anything of your nature. We were about to kill her when we were interrupted. We have told her that if she speaks, she will die—

A poor threat in this room. Tell the Courier that you will not harm her or her friends at this time. Tell her that if she seeks a fight, there will be unnecessary death. Ensure that she does not call out. The odds are not in your favor, my creations.

Shock. Venitra and Ijvani exchanged glances, but Ijvani obediently began speaking to Ryoka. The Runner jerked and stared at them. Az’kerash’s voice began a murmur in Venitra’s mind.

A Courier with links to Drakes and Antinium both? No—her presence may have to do with the group of soldiers who infiltrated my castle. If they managed to follow her through my defenses—

She had no wish to interrupt her master’s thoughts or draw more ire towards her, but Venitra had to correct him. She felt wrong doing it, but she spoke up out of duty.

“She is a Runner, master. A City Runner, not a Courier.”

A City Runner? You are sure?

There was shock in Az’kerash’s voice. Venitra sent a mental approximation of nodding, very worried. Another pause, and then Az’kerash spoke to both Ijvani and Venitra.

Will she take action, Venitra? No? Good. Now. Look around again. Ijvani, monitor Zel Shivertail and the other Drake. Venitra, inquire about the Antinium. Subtly. I wish to understand what is transpiring here.

Obediently, his servants did just that. Regrika Blackpaw suddenly became the center of the table as she inquired politely about the two Antinium. Ikriss casually turned his seat so he could stare at the two Drakes out of the corner of his eye.

And across the room, Xrn and Klbkch were talking. They glanced over at Ryoka, and Xrn shook her head as she waved at Lyonette for service. Meanwhile, Zel and Ilvriss seemed to be arguing, and the Wall Lord kept standing up and being yanked down by the [General].

And they were all looking at Ryoka. The Runner wasn’t aware of this at first. She kept staring at Venitra and Ijvani. But she couldn’t ignore the other’s attention for too long.

Thanks to the spell Ijvani had cast, they all could hear Ryoka as she looked around and spotted first Klbkch and Xrn, and then Zel and Ilvriss and noticed them staring. The Human girl seemed to speak to herself a lot.

Venitra, Ijvani, and Az’kerash all heard Ryoka’s muttered words as she realized that Klbkch, Xrn, Zel, Ilvriss, and the disguised pair of undead were all staring at her corner table in turns.

“Oh fuck me sideways.”

—-

Some people might have called it funny. Three different groups, all intent on the same person, all at odds with each other, even if some of them didn’t know it. It was a classic Balerosian Standoff, and an impartial watcher might see the humor in it. The participants did not.

Ilvriss leaned over to Zel, hissing at him as he stared daggers at Klbkch and Xrn. He glanced over at Ryoka, at the Antinium, and gripped the handle of his sword tightly.

“Shivertail. Why are the two Prognugators here tonight? Is this some kind of Antinium trick?”

“Calm down, Ilvriss. I don’t know why they’re here either. They might have been watching us, or they have business with Ryoka as well.”

“Tonight? This is no coincidence! Either there’s a leak or we are being spied upon.”

“Funny, I thought we were trying to spy on them.”

“Don’t make light of this! We have to know what they want with Ryoka Griffin. Watch them, Shivertail.”

“I am.”

“If they make a move, we must be ready—”

“I know. Just keep calm. Keep…calm…”

—-

A few tables away, the two Antinium sat and stared at Ryoka Griffin and the two Drakes. Xrn coughed gently.

“Klbkchhezeim, why are the two Drakes here today?”

“Ah. I trust you are referring to the presence of Zel Shivertail and Wall Lord Ilvriss? I am uncertain. Zel is generally present for dinners. Ilvriss is an unknown factor. I suppose it is simply an unfortunate coincidence.”

“I see. They are glaring at us, Klbkch.”

“Yes. I suppose we upset them.”

“Our aim is not to upset them. I’ll try waving at them and see if it calms them down.”

“Ah.”

“Hmm. They really didn’t like that.”

“No, they did not. Perhaps I should try, Xrn?”

“I believe that would be most entertaining, Klbkch. Wave at Shivertail. Or better yet, buy him a drink.”

—-

The first group to go over to Ryoka was Zel and Ilvriss. The Wall Lord got up at last, too furious to be restrained by Zel any longer. He marched over to Ryoka and took a seat at her table, uninvited. Ryoka blinked at him.

Az’kerash and his creations watched. The Necromancer mused quietly, his words heard by them and no one else.

Zel Shivertail and Wall Lord Ilvriss. They were the two who fought outside my castle a month ago. They clashed with my disciple and now end up here? Why? This is curious.

They heard the entirety of the conversation between them. It started out with threats, and insults. Ilvriss leaned over the table, making Ryoka lean back.

“You will tell me what I need to know. No more excuses! I demand—”

Zel pulled the Wall Lord back and smiled at Ryoka.

“You have to understand our position, Ryoka. When a group of soldiers goes missing, especially elites—”

Did you kill them or not? How did they die? How did Periss—”

Ilvriss pounded the table. Venitra could make no sense of it, but Az’kerash put the pieces together quickly.

Ah. The Drake and Gnolls that Kerash and Bea disposed of. It has attracted the Wall Lord’s attention. This is…unfortunate. Yet it seems that Ryoka has refused to tell either Drake anything, despite their pressuring her.

Indeed, the next image all three watchers saw was Ryoka offering a single finger in reply to Ilvriss.

“Runner’s code, asshole. I can’t tell you a thing, even if I wanted to! I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”

Ilvriss nearly strangled her, but Zel held him back. He was trying to argue with Ryoka, but his words weren’t that effective while Ilvriss uttered threats and tried to grab Ryoka over the table. However, the City Runner clearly had more on her mind. She glanced over at Ijvani and Venitra.

“Look, I’m really, really not looking to discuss anything tonight. Maybe later. In fact, why don’t you uh, turn around and piss off? That’d be helpful. Thanks.”

The two undead watched Zel forcibly pull Ilvriss away. Az’kerash’s tone was exasperated.

And you decided that the best course of action was simply to kill her? Why?

Ijvani and Venitra shuffled in their seats without saying anything. They heard a sigh in their heads.

You fools. This is why I ordered you to assess the situation before making any decisions! If this Ryoka Griffin disappears, this Wall Lord is sure to take interest. As for Shivertail—you are fortunate that your incompetence prevented you from taking her life earlier.

“Yes master.”

Yes master.

We shall speak with Ryoka Griffin now. I wish to know why the Antinium are here. They concern me—greatly. I was under the impression that Liscor’s Hive had produced nothing of value save for its strategic placement. I want to know what the Small Queen intends. She is dangerous.

—-

When Regrika Blackpaw walked over, Ryoka was prepared for the end. She was prepared for a fight, for threats, for anything and everything.

But she was not prepared for a smile. As Regrika sat down in front of Ryoka, she was smiling. She smiled and Ryoka stared. Perhaps it was just the illusion spell. But it was mimicking Venitra’s true expression, and for an instant, Ryoka saw nothing but simplicity in her smile. It was happy, guileless, and…innocent.

A child’s smile.

Ryoka had no idea why, until Regrika, or rather, Venitra, spoke.

“My master is here. He wishes to speak with you, Ryoka Griffin.”

Ryoka stared. She looked around and caught herself. She stared at Regrika.

“Here? In you?”

“I am watching and listening through my servant’s eyes, Ryoka Griffin. I am present. We have met before.”

The voice came from Regrika’s mouth, but it was neither the Gnoll’s voice, nor Venitra’s voice. It was male, educated, precise, and old. It was horrifically disturbing to see it come from the female Gnoll’s face. But it was Az’kerash’s voice.

The Necromancer’s.

Ryoka felt the floor open up. She saw Ivolethe flying towards her and tried to shoo her away. But the Frost Faerie alighted on Ryoka’s shoulder. She hissed and glared at Regrika. Ryoka saw the Gnoll’s eyes flick to her shoulder and frown, but oddly, the Necromancer didn’t seem to notice Ivolethe at all.

“Look straight at Ryoka Griffin, Venitra. Thank you. Now, Ryoka Griffin, I believe you know why my creations are here.”

“To kill me?”

“Perhaps. But not necessarily. They were sent with instructions to ascertain whether you had spoken of my existence to anyone else. They were not commanded to kill you outright. They have failed me and for that they will be…reprimanded.”

Something about the way he said it made Ryoka feel that Az’kerash wasn’t a very forgiving and nice master. Venitra certainly seemed frightened. The ears of the Gnoll sitting in front of Ryoka flattened, and her tail drooped.

“So I’m not going to die?”

That was all Ryoka could think to ask. She’d been prepared for death the instant she met Venitra. To suddenly hear that it was off the table was…disturbing. And relieving. She dared to hope, and because she was an idiot, she tried to take a gulp from her full mug for the first time that night.

With her left hand. The instant Ryoka tried to move it, she agitated the broken finger. Ryoka bent over the table, swearing, holding her left hand with the three fingers of her right hand. Why was her hand always getting injured? Oh, right. She’d shattered both her legs before too.

Her finger was swelling up horribly now. It was badly broken, and Ryoka was afraid to show it to anyone. Somehow, Az’kerash noticed it as Venitra stared at her. Maybe she’d told him, although Ryoka doubted it.

“What is the matter? Ah. Your finger. My servants are careless. Allow me to rectify the issue.”

Regrika raised her paw and pointed at Ryoka’s left hand through the table. Ryoka felt something shift in her hand and jerked. She stared as the bones in her pinkie rearranged themselves and snapped back into place.

It hurt like hell in those moments, but the sensations of her bones changing on her were more terrifying than the pain. And then it was all gone. Ryoka stared at her pinkie. It was still puffy and swollen, but it barely hurt now compared to before.

“A healing potion will correct the rest of the damage.”

Az’kerash’s voice was dismissive. Ryoka stared at him. She’d heard from Pisces himself that [Necromancers] couldn’t change around people’s bones unless they had direct physical contact. Apparently that didn’t apply to Az’kerash.

“I should say thanks. But your minion broke my finger to begin with. Does this mean you’ll leave me alone now?”

The look Venitra, or rather, Regrika gave Ryoka could have killed. Her big paws tightened on the table, but Az’kerash’s voice was cool.

“I am still determining the risk you pose. You claim to have kept my secret—”

“And I will. Totally. Runner’s Code and all that. I know what happens if I let anything slip.”

Ryoka raised her hands. Venitra growled at her.

“Do not interrupt my master!”

“Calm yourself, Venitra.”

Two voices, one body. Ryoka held still. Az’kerash’s next words were musing.

“Tell me, why did the Dragon choose you of all people? It seems odd that he would assign such a delivery to a mere City Runner.”

Ryoka gritted her teeth and forced a smile.

“He didn’t. He put up an open request and I took it because it paid well. Believe me, if I’d known it would have resulted in this, I wouldn’t have done it for all the gold in the world.”

“Hah. That is amusing. So much trouble over a Dragon’s whim.”

Regrika’s face didn’t change, but Az’kerash sounded like he was enjoying some dry humor. He paused.

“I understand both Wall Lord Ilvriss and Zel Shivertail are interested in you because of your delivery to me.”

“You killed Periss, his lieutenant. Or didn’t you notice?”

“They were disposed of by my creations. I had paid little attention until now. If the Wall Lord received the remains of his soldiers, would he be appeased?”

“Nope. Well, maybe. He wants to know why they died.”

“Ah. Inconvenient. However, it is a rectifiable situation. Hm. I have one more question for you, Ryoka Griffin. Why are there two of the Antinium in this inn?”

Ryoka hesitated.

“I’m good friends with Klbkch.”

“You are concealing the truth.”

“Get that from a truth spell? I’m not plotting against you, if that’s what you want to know.”

“That is part of what I wish to know, but it is…enough for now. For now, know this Ryoka Griffin. I do not desire my presence to be known. For that reason, I will guarantee your safety for now. My creations will not harm you.”

“And if you change your mind?”

Az’kerash paused. His voice was very cold.

“Give me no reason to. Understand, you have little say in this, Ryoka Griffin.”

No say. No choice. She was helpless. Perhaps that was true, but Ryoka’s temper flared. She leaned over the table, glaring at Regrika and not caring about how it looked.

“Oh yeah? What if I tell Zel Shivertail about you? You’re not here right now—this Venitra person and Ijvani are. If Zel kills them, what can you do about it?”

The voice that replied through Regrika’s mouth was icily unconcerned.

“What gives you the impression that would be an intelligent decision, girl?”

“He kicked your ass once in the Second Antinium War. He killed you, although I guess that part was wrong. What’s to stop him from doing it to your precious servants?”

Ryoka grinned at Regrika, and the Gnoll glared back. But it was Az’kerash who spoke again. His voice was impassive, and for that reason, terribly scary.

“If you wish to try, by all means speak. You and everyone in this inn with surely die. But if you think it is worth the cost, then allow me to give you this.”

A paw rose, reached out, and touched Ryoka on the lips. She jerked back, but it was too late. Something heavy gripped her tongue for a moment, and then was gone. Ivolethe cried out into Ryoka’s ear.

“Death magic! The executioner’s axe hangs over your head, Ryoka! Do not speak!

Az’kerash spoke as Ryoka held very still, afraid to open her mouth.

“[Word of Death]. Speak any part of my name, Az’kerash, or mention necromancy and you will die in that instant.”

She stared at him, all her confidence lost again. The second intelligence hiding behind Regrika’s eyes flickered, and then vanished. Regrika got up. Without a word, she left the table. Ryoka sat there, ready to puke. She wanted to run and realized suddenly that there was nowhere far enough she could go.

And then Ryoka realized that Regrika and Ikriss were sitting at their tables, joking, talking about sending Ryoka to scout the Goblin Lord’s army, acting like nothing was normal. But underneath the illusion the undead were still there. And so was Az’kerash. They were still watching her. And as Ryoka sat up and realized Klbkch and Xrn were still waiting to speak with her, she got really nervous.

—-

“Ryoka Griffin. May we sit with you?”

There had to be a way to tell people to go away without saying or doing anything to indicate that. However, Ryoka’s best ‘leave me alone’ posture and the glare in her eyes did nothing to dissuade Klbkch. He took a seat and the strange blue Antinium sat next to him.

Ryoka recognized her at once. She was Xrn, the Small Queen, a legend and one of the big players in the Second Antinium War. Normally Ryoka would have been freaking out about meeting her, but after speaking with Az’kerash, this seemed frighteningly normal.

“I believe we have not met, Miss Ryoka Griffin. I am Xrn.”

“Hi, Xrn.”

Ryoka stared at Xrn. Maybe if she acted weird or rude enough they’d leave. She really did not want to talk about dead gods here, or anything—anything, really. Az’kerash was listening.

“I have wished to speak with you for a good deal of time. However, issues in the Hive have necessitated me remaining below ground. Pawn may have informed you that our Hive experienced an attack by many monsters from Liscor’s Dungeon. They have been repelled—at cost.”

“Oh?”

Ryoka wished there was a way to tell Klbkch not to be so helpful at explaining things. But Klbkch only took that as a sign to keep going.

“Indeed. However, the development of the unique group of Antinium Soldiers under Pawn has led to—”

“Hey Klbkch, let’s not talk business right now. I think we should all just relax and—not discuss anything important.”

Klbkch paused. He looked at Xrn. The other Antinium stared at Ryoka.

“You told me that she was aware of everything, Klbkch.”

“She is.”

The Antinium cocked his head at Ryoka.

“I know you are busy, Ryoka, especially given Regrika Blackpaw’s offer to you. That is why I wish to converse with you and Xrn now. We may not receive another chance for a while. You see, Xrn is preparing to l—”

Ryoka gave up on subtlety and kicked him as hard as she could under the table. She heard one her toes crack and felt blinding pain. The Antinium paused and looked down at his undamaged shin as Ryoka leaned over the table, making incoherent sounds of pain.

“Hm.”

He wasn’t an idiot. He and Xrn exchanged looks, and then turned to stare at the two Drakes who were watching them. And Typhenous, who was also watching. And Pisces who was eying her warily and glancing at Regrika and Ikriss for some reason. And most of the other guests in the inn, who turned away and pretended to be doing something else.

“Ah, I believe I see Miss Ryoka’s objection, Klbkchhezeim.”

Klbkch shrugged.

“We are under a spell of silence, Xrn. They can’t tell what we are saying.”

Ryoka glanced quickly over to her left. Ivolethe shook her head definitively. Az’kerash’s spell was still in effect, silence spell or not. The young women thought quickly.

“This is not a good time, you two. I have that Wall Lord guy breathing down my neck. Let’s agree to not do or say anything with each other at all. Deal?”

This time both of the Antinium stared at Ryoka. Suspiciously.

“Have you been threatened, Ryoka Griffin? If you have, my duty as a Senior Guardsman and ally to you and Erin permits me to directly offer you the assistance of my Hive.”

“If she is being threatened, Klbkch, she wouldn’t say.”

Xrn reached over and prodded Klbkch in the head with one finger. She peered at Ryoka and the hearts of one Human and one Frost Faerie at the table stopped for a second. Xrn shook her head.

“I detect no magical enchantments on her. However, I agree with her desire for caution. I believe I have seen enough in any case. She knows what we plan to do. If she is an ally, she will prove herself as one. If not—”

The blue Antinium’s eyes swirled blackly for a moment. A wisp of yellow was extinguished by a shade of black that color had no words for.

“—If not, we shall see. Now, I wish to eat more of this innkeeper’s cooking before I leave. Tersk was telling me about it. Klbkch, let us eat. I have a spell I wish to try—[Stomach of the Cow]. [Powerful Digestion]!”

She cast the two spells as she walked away from the table. Ryoka watched her go.

“[Stomach of the Cow]? The hell’s that? Is that a real spell?”

Klbkch hesitated before nodding. He stood up.

“Xrn is a prodigy among spellcasters, Ryoka Griffin. I am unsure of her mechanisms, but she is able to create new spells based on ones she already knows. It is part of her class. She may have learned this spell before, or created it. I will now aid her in consuming Erin’s food supply and pay for her meals with my limited income as a [Guardsman]. Good night, Ryoka. We shall speak at some other time.”

He nodded to Ryoka and turned away. Ryoka watched him go and then collapsed onto her table. Ivolethe flew down beside her and shook her head.

“Hah! That one can’t spot magic to save her life! Although the spell cast is subtle. Yet she can see me, I think, and my sisters! When did mages become so useless?”

Ryoka put her head down and didn’t respond. The table was cool—until Ryoka found a sticky spot with her cheek. She sagged in her chair and desperately wished the night was over. Unfortunately, it was just getting started.

—-

Everyone had spoken to Ryoka, and gotten less than satisfactory answers out of her. That was true. But it didn’t mean they were about to leave. Indeed, all three groups were sitting in place. And unfortunately, Erin’s renovations to her inn hadn’t been completed yet, so there was a limited amount of space to put between all three parties.

Zel Shivertail glared at Klbkch across three tables, hand tight on his mug. Xrn and Ilvriss locked stares over Xrn’s raised fork filled with spaghetti. Venitra and Ijvani studied the two, as Az’kerash stared through their eyes, pondering, assessing.

The other diners in the room had certainly noticed the power plays and interactions. That was why they had cleared a space. No one wanted to be caught between the Antinium and Drakes. Indeed, the atmosphere was getting tenser by the minute. No one dared break it, not even the Gold-rank adventurers.

Silence fell over the inn as Xrn chewed at some spaghetti with her mandibles. Zel’s hand cracked on his mug. Ilvriss’s grinding teeth could be heard in the quiet. Regrika Blackpaw sat and watched.

And then there was Erin. She edged right through the staring contest, holding a big pan and shouting.

“Make way! Cake! Make way for the cake! Oh, hey Mister Zel and you. Do I know you? And hi Klbkch! You and your friend will want to eat this. Wait, do I know you?

Everyone stared. They stared at the fluffy pink frosting on the white background of the cake, the huge rectangular block of icing and cake, and at the letters on top. They formed a simple word.

[Knight].

The class was spelled out on top of the cake in pink, and set about with glowing candles. Erin gently put the cake in front of the bewildered Brunkr.

“Surprise! Krshia said this was a party for you, and I’ve been dying to make a cake! So…happy class day, Brunkr! Blow out the candles and make a wish! Wait! We’ve got to sing happy birthday first!”

Erin began teaching everyone the happy birthday song. It was surprising how many people she got to join in. Ilvriss was not one of them. Xrn and Klbkch were. So was Zel.

Ryoka did not sing. She was trying to alternatively stab her eyes out with her fork and hide under the table at the same time. She watched as Regrika Blackpaw got up and sang happy birthday, looking as happy as could be and wondered if Az’kerash could hear that. Then she wondered if he was joining in.

Brunkr gingerly blew out the mostly melted candles after that, and then there was cake. Cake.

“Have a slice, Ryoka! It tastes just like home! Go on!”

Ryoka stared down at the pink corner piece of cake she’d been given. She looked at Erin’s beaming face, took a bite, and tried not to puke. She managed to get rid of the cake, mainly by feeding it to Ivolethe and Mrsha. She could have probably just dropped it on any table and it would have been gone, though.

The inn had gone crazy over cake.

“This is the greatest thing I’ve ever had!”

Relc was crying as he gobbled down his piece of cake. He licked his plate and then began demanding to know how it was made, how much it cost, and where he could get more of it from Erin. He was joined by Revi, Jelaqua, and a hyperactive Mrsha who was practically vibrating in place.

If that were all, Ryoka would have gotten down on her knees and thanked the non-discriminate and blessed ways of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which was the only deity she was prepared to worship in this world. However, it seemed like Regrika’s fame meant that everyone wanted to speak with her, and Ryoka happened to be a fine way of introducing oneself via proxy.

“Hey Regrika. Let me introduce you to my friends.”

Ryoka’s smile twitched as she was forcibly prodded into place. The Named Adventurer looked up from her half-eaten piece of cake and saw the Horns of Hammerad clustering behind Ryoka, practically holding her in front of the famous Gnoll like a shield.

“Oh? Who is this? I am always happy to meet other friends of yours, Ryoka Griffin, yes?”

She smiled broadly at Ryoka. Ryoka gave her a return grin full of teeth.

“Great. These are adventurers. This is Ceria. She’s an ice mage. This is Yvlon, a [Warrior], Ksmvr, an Antinium [Warrior]—”

“I am pleased to meet you, Regrika Blackpaw. I understand you are famous. May I ask what your fame is derived from? I—why are you kicking me, Captain Ceria, Yvlon? I am only asking—”

“And this is Pisces.”

Ryoka ignored Ksmvr as the Antinium was dragged back. She smiled, and Ikriss raised his head.

“Ah, a fellow mage? What is his class?”

Everyone looked at Ryoka. She gritted her teeth. Why couldn’t he have asked Pisces that? She spoke slowly, conscious of the [Word of Death] spell prohibiting her mentioning the N word. [Necromancer]. Frankly, the other N word wasn’t really an issue at this moment.

“Pisces? He…likes dead bodies. Animating them, commanding them. He’s got a fetish for that. Magical.”

Everyone stared at Pisces. He turned bright red and glared at Ryoka. Erin looked blankly at Ryoka, and then laughed and leaned over the table to address Ikriss.

“He’s a [Necromancer]. I think Ryoka’s trying to be polite.”

“Ah.”

Ikriss inhaled his breath and exchanged a glance with Regrika. The Gnoll stared at Ryoka and she glared in a friendly way at her. Pisces was the one to break the silence. His face was beet red.

“Allow me to assure everyone present that my, ah, obsession with the deceased is in no way sexual, as Miss Griffin seems to have intimated. I am a [Necromancer] out of academic interest, nothing more.”

He stared at Ryoka. She didn’t look his way. Regrika spoke slowly, staring at Pisces.

“I take no offense. I am aware of the stigma [Necromancers] face, but I myself consider it a worthy class. All magics are equal in principle, and those who pursue the heights of power are to be commended no matter what route they take. So I believe…yes.”

The was a pause after that last ‘yes’. Ryoka glanced sharply at Regrika. She wondered if it was Venitra who’d said that. Or her master.

Regrika Blackpaw’s words caused a stir at the table, and made Pisces flush with pride. He introduced himself and the other Horns of Hammerad stepped forwards eagerly to talk more as well. He shook hands with both Regrika and Ikriss and paused for a second as he stared at Ikriss. Then he retreated and let the other Horns of Hammerad introduce themselves.

“Everything okay? You like the food?”

Erin popped by, oblivious to Regrika’s rank and fame. She looked more concerned about the two adventurer’ plates, which were mostly cleared. Regrika smiled up at her and patted her stomach.

“It is most delightful, yes? I have seldom had finer food and I am grateful for it after many days on the road.”

“Indeed. I’m quite impressed by your abilities, Miss Solstice.”

Ikriss smiled as well. Erin beamed in relief. Then Regrika looked down.

“However, I seem to have attracted a youngling around my feet. Who is this?”

Half of the Gnolls exclaimed and Krshia leapt to her feet as Mrsha’s head popped up next to Regrika. Lyonette rushed over, chagrin clear on her face, but Regrika only laughed. She peered at Mrsha’s white fur and stroked her head.

“Hrr. What a delightful child. Is she one of yours?”

Regrika looked around the table. The faces of the Gnolls froze over for a second and Erin coughed.

“Uh, that’s Mrsha, Miss Blackpaw. She’s—well, she’s part of the family at the inn, really. Her family was—uh—”

She trailed off, and Regrika took the hint. She smiled sadly down at Mrsha who hadn’t been listening to Erin’s words. Regrika offered Mrsha a bit of her steak and the Gnoll happily accepted it and sniffed at Regrika, smiling and wagging her tail.

Ikriss took that opportunity to slide half of the contents of his plate onto the floor while no one was looking. As the conversation started back up, the topic of chess was brought up.

“Oh? You play the game? I was unaware that the game had spread so widely across the continent. When I learned of it I was intrigued, but there are few partners for me to play on my travels.”

This time Ryoka was sure that it was Az’kerash speaking through Ikriss, not Ijvani. Erin grinned as she showed the Drake her magical chessboard and then her non-magical ones.

“You like to play? That’s great! I’m pretty good at the game myself. Want to play a game?”

“I should like that very much.”

There was no way for Ryoka to stop the game between Erin and Ikriss, or rather, Az’kerash without upsetting the table or tossing a pot of soup over everyone. She considered that, but decided it was better to let them play. After all, what harm could it do?

The first game was slow. Ikriss was white, Erin was black. They played a game through, attracting Olesm’s attention, Typhenous, Pisces, and Klbkch while everyone else wandered away. The audience wandered back when they heard Olesm screaming about how amazing it was.

“What a game!”

The Drake threw up his hands and danced about. Ryoka stared at the board. It had been…a damn good game. And it was even better because Erin had won. She grinned as she watched Ikriss sit back, a look of amazement on his face. Across the table, Regrika’s jaw looked like it was about to hit the floor.

“Every move I made was optimal. And yet I was defeated.”

Az’kerash spoke quietly. Erin laughed and slapped Ikriss on the back.

“You were great! How did you learn to play like that? It was a great match, like Olesm said. But the difference was that I had a different style.”

“Indeed. I have not encountered anything like it. You flanked my approach most spectacularly.”

Erin nodded and took on the lecturing tone of a hardcore fan of chess.

“It’s called the hypermodern play style. You had a really, really good control of the center at the start, but it was all pawns. But my strategy was all about controlling the center through indirect pieces, see? I keep telling Olesm it’s a really good style of play, but he’s stuck on pawns like Belgrade…”

Olesm turned bright red and Erin patted his shoulder. She turned and beamed at Ikriss.

“Want to play another game?”

“I should enjoy that very much. Please.”

They began to play. Ryoka stood watching the game. To be honest, she didn’t watch the game so much as Regrika’s expression. The Gnoll, or rather, Venitra, was watching the game with something like horror in her eyes. Because Erin won. She played Ikriss twice more, lost one game, won one—it didn’t matter that she didn’t win everything. When she beat Az’kerash, Ryoka saw part of Venitra failing to comprehend.

“That’s right. Your master isn’t flawless. Sucks, don’t it?”

Ryoka muttered to Regrika after the game was over. The Gnoll turned. There was pure fury in her eyes. She gripped Ryoka’s hand and squeezed. Just for a moment.

—-

Erin Solstice was having a good day. It seemed like a lot of days were good days recently, but today was excellent. She’d made a cake. She had important visitors, and she got to meet Xrn, who was really cool! And best of all—she got to play chess.

Why couldn’t all days be like this. Erin sighed as she pushed herself back from the game and shook Ikriss’ hand. The purple-scaled Drake smiled at her, his grip soft and light.

“You are a true master of this game. I am honored to play you and intrigued. Where did you obtain this level of skill?”

“Practice! Years of practice?”

Erin laughed until she remembered that chess had only been invented recently. She coughed.

“I play all the time. I’d love to play you again sometime if you’re up for it.”

“I believe I am.”

The Drake smiled slightly and turned away. Erin beamed, and then noticed Ryoka heading for the doors.

“Hey Ryoka, are you going out?”

“I—I’m going for a run.”

Ryoka’s hands were shoved deep in her pockets. She stomped towards the doors quickly, seeming to shield her right side. Erin frowned.

“At night? It’s dangerous—”

“Yeah. I’ll be back in a bit. I’ll see you—later, Erin. Have a good night.”

She left. Erin sighed, but let her moody friend go. She turned and saw Regrika was smiling and dining with all the Gnolls who loved her so much. She frowned as she saw the Gnoll bite with relish into a bit of her beef casserole. Erin stopped Lyonette as she went about the tables. She, Drassi, and Ishkr had been on their feet all night and looked beat. Erin made a note to pay them extra for tonight.

“Hey Lyonette, Regrika and that Ikriss guy like their food, right? Have they asked for anything changed or complained about the taste?”

Lyonette blinked at Erin and shook her head.

“No, they said they liked it. Why? Is something wrong?”

“It’s just a feeling. Eh, whatever.”

Erin shook off the odd sensation in her head and grinned.

“A Named Adventurer and a Gnoll party! We’re raking in the dough tonight!”

“Raking? I thought you kneaded dough. Or is that some advanced form of cooking I don’t know about?”

“No, it’s this expression see. I—you know what, forget it.”

Erin deflated slightly. She waved the comment off and then looked around. She spotted Brunkr sitting alone at a table and wandered over.

“Brunkr! Aren’t you going to go have fun with the others? This party’s about you, right?”

The Gnoll grinned down at Erin, looking slightly drunk and very happy.

“It is good of you to say, yes? But I know this is for my Aunt, and for Ryoka as much as anything. My class is wonderful, but it is not all of this party. And Regrika Blackpaw’s presence honors us far more than my class.”

“Yeah, but your class is still cool! [Knight]! Wow! How did you get it?”

Brunkr’s eyes flicked from Erin to something over her shoulder. He smiled.

“I cannot say. It is not my secret to give, yes?”

“Aw. Really? Well, maybe you could share it with Yvlon? She wants to be a [Knight] too, you know.”

“She does? Hrm.”

Brunkr glanced with interest over at Yvlon, who was sitting at a table and still talking about the Crelers they’d killed with the other Gold-rank adventurers. He smiled a bit.

“Perhaps I will talk with her or…others about such a thing. But my class was a gift, truly. I am unsure of what I will do with my new class, but perhaps such a life might be worth doing after all.”

Erin frowned.

“Do what? Be an adventurer? I hope you’re not going down into the dungeon!”

Brunkr shook his head instantly.

“Of course not. I am no fool, yes? I owe too much to you, my aunt, and…and to Lyonette to risk my life so easily. But when I see adventurers like Regrika or—or your friends, I remember that I too wish to become more than I am. The Horns of Hammerad—”

Erin’s eyes widened.

“Do you want to…?”

She glanced at her friends. Brunkr looked embarrassed and shook his head.

“I am no doubt rusty. And I have just recovered. A single level in a class is—”

“I could ask! I’m sure they’d be happy to have you!”

“No, no. I must practice first. There are other Gnolls I can join up with. I will—no, please Erin. This is not the time to talk of such things. I did not mean to bring it up. I wished to speak with you in private, if I am honest?”

“Me? About what?”

Brunkr paused. He rested his butt on the table where he and Erin were talking, and looked around her lively inn. His eyes lingered on Lyonette, and then on Mrsha as she curled up into a ball by the fireplace. A large bee crawled onto her head, fanning its wings by the flames.

“It is a strange thing, to believe you know someone and not know them at all.”

He looked at Erin, and nodded at her.

“You saved my arm.”

“Aw, that was—”

“Everything to me. I do not mistake it. You saved my arm, Erin Solstice. For that I cannot be more grateful. And I am more humbled, yes, to know how badly I misjudged you.”

Erin fell silent. She didn’t know what to say to that. She needed to say nothing, as it turned out. Brunkr stared at her, and then out a window at the snow, reflectively. He spoke quietly.

“I did not know you. I thought you were an enemy, a fool at first. I was consumed by an image of you that was wrong. Entirely wrong. When I realized how ignorant I was, I felt as though I had lost my legs, my balance, and was falling. The world changed for me. My arm—I am sorry for all I said when you first came to me. Yes. I am sorry, and grateful we met.”

He smiled at Erin, looking a bit embarrassed. Brunkr turned his head away quickly and Erin grinned in delight. Gnoll faces were too furry to see, but she was sure, absolutely sure that he was blushing.

“You’re so nice. Aw. You’re making me blush.”

“I just wished to say thank you, Erin. Thank you. It is not often enough that we give honest thanks for what is done, yes? I want to say that. So you know what I do from now is thanks to you.”

He reached out and offered Erin a hand. His right hand. She shook it and beamed at him.

“Want more cake?”

Brunkr paused. He glanced around the room and lowered his voice.

“You have more?”

She grinned and nodded. Brunkr’s tail began to wag and he followed her into the kitchen. It was just some extras, but he ate them with delight. Erin watched, happy and content.

A good day.

—-

It seems this gathering has ended. Venitra, Ijvani, attend to my words.

The two undead had never been more relieved to hear their master’s words. They quickly bade farewell and left the inn. It was dark and close to midnight as the Gnolls and other partygoers finally began to leave. The two undead walked towards Liscor in the snow, listening to their master’s words.

Venitra, you have disappointed me. I ordered you not to harm Ryoka Griffin.

“Master, I only—”

Silence. You are failing me.

There could be no worse words. Venitra hung her head in silence. Ijvani waited, terrified she might hear the same.

And yet, it seems your failures have brought me an interesting conundrum and information about the rest of the world. For that alone, I will forgive you.

Both undead raised their heads hesitantly. They dared to hope. Az’kerash was silent, and then he spoke authoritatively, calmly.

Here are your instructions for now. Observe. Keep your true identities hidden. Do not harm Ryoka Griffin. That is an order, Venitra. And learn more about her relationship with the Antinium—as well as the Drakes. As for this inn, inquire about it and the magical door as well. I sensed it—it is an enchantment of peculiar power which does not belong in this place. Neither does that chessboard, but this Erin Solstice…ah. Inquire, that is all. I will contact you again tomorrow.

Both Venitra and Ijvani nodded. They felt Az’kerash’s presence in their minds, reassuring them, filling them, and then he was gone. In the bleak world that followed, both recalled their failures.

“He lost a game of chess. Twice.”

Venitra stopped in the snow. She turned to Ijvani and blurted out the thing both had been obsessing over for the entire night. Ijvani nodded.

He beat the [Innkeeper] in the end, though.

“But he lost. Our master. She—defeated him.”

It was a game, Venitra.

“Yes. And he lost it.”

Ijvani looked down at the ground. Venitra stared back towards the inn. She shook silently. Her master had lost a game. Her master.

Lost.

A.

Game.

And what had Ryoka Griffin said? He was not perfect? Something broke inside of Venitra. She stared at the Gnolls leaving the inn, laughing, talking. She stared at one as he left alone, bidding farewell to his aunt.

—-

Brunkr was walking down the streets of Liscor, gently swaying, licking around his face for more of the sweet frosting he’d eaten, when he heard and smelled someone coming up behind him. He turned, and immediately bowed his head slightly. Regrika Blackpaw strode towards him.

She was his hero. Brunkr wondered if he should say something or just get out of the way, but it was Regrika who spoke to him.

“Do you have time to talk?”

“Of course!”

Brunkr’s ears perked up. He eagerly fell into step besides Regrika, wondering what she could want to talk about. She led him down a side path, down alleyways that were devoid of criminals, but still not places Brunkr would normally walk. He supposed Regrika feared no routes at all.

“I am told this party at the inn today was for you, young Brunkr. That is…good, yes? You must have had a good relationship with the innkeeper to have it there.”

The young Gnoll blushed. She knew about his class? He spoke up.

“Yes, Honored Regrika. We had it there because my Aunt, Krshia Silverfang, is a friend of the owner. I am…indebted to her as well.”

“Indeed?”

Regrika’s face was shadowed. The clouds were dark and the sky was dark, but it was warming, Brunkr felt. He nodded.

“She saved my arm, my life as a warrior. I owe her—and Lyonette much. I would help them in any way I could, yes.”

“She helped you. Then she cares for you. You are a person that matters to Erin Solstice.”

“I—hope so.”

Brunkr hesitated. He wished he could be someone like that. But Erin had so many friends. Many people helped her. He was just one. A small, nonentity compared to someone like Zel Shivertail, or even Relc. Krshia had told Brunkr about the famous Gecko and his prowess during war. Relc was a hero. Brunkr was just a child. But he wanted to be like Regrika.

“I would do much for Erin Solstice. I hope that in time she will regard me with a part of the esteem I hold for her.”

That was all he could manage after a few seconds of thought. Regrika nodded abruptly.

“That will do. Yes, that is…appropriate.”

She halted in the street in front of Brunkr. He paused uncertainly. Regrika turned to Brunkr and he backed up a step unconsciously. She was breathing heavily. Brunkr’s smile faded.

“Honored Regrika? Is everything alright?”

The Gnoll stared at him. Then her body changed. The Gnoll with black fur vanished. In her place, a giant made of bone stood, a woman carved of ivory. Brunkr backed up, eyes wide. He reached for a sword he didn’t have. He turned to run—

Venitra twisted his neck around with a snap.

Brunkr’s body jerked once. She held him up and stabbed her hand through his chest, breaking bone and skin. She dropped the Gnoll’s lifeless body. Brunkr’s open ribcage stared up at the cloudy night.

He lay on the empty street, motionless. Venitra stood over him, shaking. She struck the lifeless body. Then she threw it against a wall.

There was no voice in the silent street, only the crunch of heavy footsteps in the snow. Venitra picked Brunkr up and threw him again. He flew across the street and landed in a heap. Then Venitra gave vent to her fury. She stomped on the ground, pounded the walls, and kicked the motionless corpse, raging silently in the cold.

Like a child.

When she was done, Ijvani appeared in the shadows behind her. The black skeleton stared up at the woman made of white bone and at the body at her feet.

You did not need to do that.

She spoke cautiously and backed up as Venitra stared at her. There was blood on her body. Venitra spoke, her voice icy calm.

“No one disgraces our master.”

She paused, and Ijvani nodded slowly in agreement. She looked at the body and then at Venitra.

All done?

“Yes.”

In that case, I will clean up. We must find a spot to place the body. I doubt hiding it would be the correct move. Hmm. You may have to kill some other Gnolls. Adventurers.

Venitra smiled.

“Gladly.”

She strode past Ijvani. The skeleton mage stared at Brunkr’s body. She sighed and reached for him.

Temper. Why is she the master’s favorite?

Brunkr did not reply.

—-

The next day, Brunkr’s body was found in Liscor’s dungeon, at the bottom of the crevasse, surrounded by a group of Gnolls, a known Silver-rank team and a few other Bronze-rank Gnolls who’d disappeared the previous night as well. Their bodies bore wounds consistent with a monster attack.

They were discovered as the sun was beginning to set in the sky.

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A note from pirateaba

I hope this chapter did justice to it. I hope the way Az’kerash spoke made sense, and I hope all the intrigue fit together. I hope this chapter was one of my best.

I fear it’s not. But I hope, at least, that some part of it was strong. Especially the end. Because otherwise, what would be the point of anything?

Brunkr. I could write a lot here, but I won’t. What would you write? About my decision to kill characters, how I feel? What would you write?

Perhaps nothing at all. Thank you for reading the story.


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F1kkkkk @F1kkkkk ago

HOLY MOLY LUCKY CRASH, got first

 

Of course, all the good wishes go to the author for creating such a masterpiece as always

Eladar @Eladar ago

Wow, that was intense. Poor Brunkr, I hope Az'Kerash gets very, very pissed at his creations and destroys them, replacing them with some better ones. Thanks for the chapter.

Metool @Metool ago

I really hope princesses can tell when their knights die.

Sounour @Sounour ago

A very sad ending to the party. Before that the two minions were kind of harmless because they were so inept but now they are a real danger

mousefu @mousefu ago

Someone better kill them quick.

Orthan @Orthan ago

Very good chapter.......poor Brunkr

Jashabadger @Jashabadger ago

I liked brunkr, but I think killing him was the right choice in adding depth and showing consequences of characters actions.

    Aeoniam @Aeoniam ago

    Exactly. I love how that is a consistent thing on this story.

    CrimsonEclipse18 @CrimsonEclipse18 ago

    Indeed, goes to show that even the characters we come to love may still end up kicking the bucket. And even if they don’t they still don’t have an easy life. I mean, come on, people may cry foul and say that Erin, Laken, and Ryoka have plot armor, but they don’t have it easy unlike the other novel’s characters who’s every problems gets solved without consequences. They went through a lot of painful and dangerous situations to be where they are right now so I say they somewhat deserve to be here.

      Aeoniam @Aeoniam ago

      It's not even a question of deserving, just that their actions resulted in that outcome. Being that planned or not. Actions and consequences are a natural ocurrence on this story, not just a plot device.

    Jakaal @Jakaal ago

    I think this is also the start of how Erin comes to directly oppose Az'keresh.