It began with a quiet in the morning, a hush as the incessant rainfall ceased. Erin Solstice woke up and looked out into a soggy landscape at the crack of dawn. She heard shuffling feet and knew there were others who had woken up at the same time as her.
The door to her inn opened as Erin got up and blearily brushed her teeth and changed clothes.
“I should probably get my own room. Yup, yup. Why do I sleep down here anyways? Because the kitchen floor is soft? Well, it is, actually. But I need a dressing room, at least. The actors could use one and so could I.”
“Probably. Then again, I don’t mind the view.”
Erin whirled around.
The Selphid grinned at her, looking tired. She was up early. She eyed Erin as the young woman finished dressing.
“Hey Erin. Nice forearms.”
Only a Selphid would compliment someone about the state of their forearms. Or someone really concerned about body fitness. Erin sighed.
“Morning Jelaqua. Breakfast’s not ready yet so you can go back to sleep.”
“I know that. Normally I’d be in bed, but I couldn’t help it. I heard that lot getting up so…”
Jelaqua nodded over her shoulder. Erin walked out of the kitchen and stared out of one of her inn’s windows.
“What, the Goblins? They do this every day.”
“Every day since I gave them their rooms upstairs, yeah.”
“So they’ve done this today and yesterday is what you mean.”
The Selphid woman and Erin stared out the windows. The Redfang Goblins were standing outside in the dewy grass in that not-quite-darkness that was the sky before the sun fully rose. Actually, standing was a bad word. They were sparring.
Five Hobgoblins, each taller than Erin, each green, and each strong and fit. They kicked and punched at each other, sparring in pairs or two-on-one and then switched to swords in scabbards and calisthenics. That meant Headscratcher would wail on Badarrow with a sword as the other Goblin cursed and dodged while Rabbiteater did pushups and Shorthilt and Numbtongue sprinted up and down the hill.
Jelaqua shook her head as Erin readied breakfast. The Selphid stared hard at the Goblins as they performed a demanding workout. It wasn’t just physically tough—the Goblins hit each other hard and Erin had seen them draw blood with their swords while sparring.
“Plague corpses, that’s unnerving.”
The Selphid absently picked at the stiches around her crown. A bit of skin fell off around her skull and Erin made a note to bar Jelaqua from the kitchen. The Selphid was a bit smelly at close quarters and her body looked decidedly worse than it had when Erin first met her. Jelaqua noticed Erin flick the dead skin off the table and wipe the offending spot and grimaced.
“Really sorry about that. My body’s not doing too well right now. It’s time for a change, but I haven’t been able to find a fresh corpse for the life of me. No one in Celum or Liscor’s eager to sell a body to a Selphid, you see.”
“Not a problem. Just don’t uh, drop any part of yourself in today’s breakfast. You got hurt defending my inn, after all.”
“Huh. I suppose I did.”
Jelaqua scratched at her stitches again, seemingly surprised that Erin remembered. She stared at the Goblins and shook her head again.
“They’re like clones of Garen.”
“Who? Oh, that’s the Hobgoblin that betrayed…”
Erin broke off. Jelaqua nodded, her face unreadable.
“Yeah. I know I shouldn’t think they’re the same, but damn me if Garen didn’t teach them to fight and train like him. He learned those exercises from us. And seeing these Goblins do the same…”
Her fist clenched. Erin nodded slowly.
The Selphid paused.
“Nah. They’re different, in the end. That’s what I keep telling myself now, thanks to you. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the view. Look at those calf muscles! And the way those sweat glands are working!”
She licked her lips, staring avidly at the way Shorthilt’s pectoral muscles moved as the Goblin charged up the hill with Numbtongue right behind him. Erin stared at Jelaqua. The Selphid really did have the oddest interests in people. Namely, their bodies. There was a lot to look at as the Goblins sparred in their loincloths, and their sturdy big toes weren’t normally the subject of interest for most Humans.
Most Humans. Erin saw Jelaqua break off from ogling the Goblins to look at her with a grin.
“This doing anything for you?”
Erin stared blankly at the five Goblins as Badarrow began loosing arrows at the other four Goblins. The Hob was using arrows that had no arrowhead, but he was aiming at close range and the other Redfang Warriors were getting hit hard. She heard a yelp as Badarrow shot Rabbiteater in the groin and shook her head.
“Nope. But uh, I’m not thinking of the Goblins in any kind of intimate sense.”
“Mm. I could give it a shot. I mean, Goblin bodies are—well, it’s a bit daring if you get my meaning, but what Selphid would turn their tendrils up at one of these specimens? But I totally get that you’re not into having sex with Goblins.”
“Thanks for understanding?”
It was weird talking with Selphids. This wasn’t the first time either. Jelaqua knew more about the Human body than Erin did, and that was despite Erin’s education in biology. There was just something a bit off putting about someone who could tell you exactly what you felt like from the inside.
But Jelaqua was a good person. Erin leaned over the windowsill, watching the Goblins. The Selphid stared at them again.
“Funny though, they really do look sort of like Garen. Do you ever get confused by them? They look mostly alike to me.”
Erin looked at Jelaqua with a frown. The Selphid nodded.
“Oh, their bodies are different, but I can’t tell them apart. Can you?”
“Yup! They’re all unique. It’s easy to tell them apart when you know how. Here, let me show you. The easiest one to spot is Badarrow. That’s him with the bow.”
Erin pointed to the Hob who was shooting at the other Hobs, trying to keep them from attacking him while they ducked and tried to avoid his arrows. The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“He’s the bad-tempered one. He always looks grumpy and he’s always grouching to the others. He really likes bows and arrows so he sometimes stares at Bird’s bow. I think he’s jealous.”
“Huh. I do get that vibe from him. [Archers] love bows. The entire Gnoll species seems to love them too. We had a half-Gnoll that always—well, never mind. Who’s the Hob charging him?”
Erin saw a Hobgoblin charge up the hill, willingly taking an arrow in the shoulder to tackle Badarrow to the ground. There was triumphant shouting as the two Hobs rolled around, punching each other.
“That’s Headscratcher. He’s like the cool emotional leader guy. The other Hobs listen to him mainly and he’s always leaping into the fight. But he has a soft side.”
Jelaqua watched Headscratcher put Badarrow in an arm lock before the other three Goblins decided it was time for two-versus-three battle. Headscratcher and Shorthilt charged the other three with wild shouts, fighting ferociously. Erin nodded knowingly as she stared at Headscratcher walloping Rabbiteater.
“Oh yeah. Total softie. He cried during the play last night you know.”
“You’re joking. No? Okay, it made sense. Moore was blubbering on me and I would have cried, but my tear ducts are all clogged up. Seborn’s a cold-hearted bastard though. Who’s the other Hob with him?”
“Shorthilt? Weapon dude. He likes sharpening swords. He’s always maintaining that sword he has and he doesn’t let the other Goblins touch it. He’s like a snob-Goblin.”
Erin saw Shorthilt pirouette with his blade, warding off Badarrow and smacking Numbtongue with a fast cut to the shoulder. He was probably the best of the Hobs with his sword. Erin frowned, a bit vexed.
“I think he’s a good guy. Silent type. But he means too well, you know? He sharpened my knives one time and I nearly cut through my cutting board!”
“Huh. Okay, what about that Hob?”
Jelaqua pointed and Erin saw Numbtongue backing up, cursing loudly as he tried to flank Shorthilt and the Hob kept him and Rabbiteater at bay.
“Oh, that’s Numbtongue. Easy to spot too. See how he’s the only Goblin saying anything? He’s the only one who can really talk.”
“I have never heard one of the Goblins say more than five words together, Erin.”
“Yeah, but he could if he wanted to. Remember when I was singing? I swear he was singing the entire song with me after the first go round. He’s got a great memory, and I’m pretty sure he’s memorized both plays by heart.”
“A talking Goblin who doesn’t talk.”
“That’s right. And so we have our last Goblin. Rabbiteater.”
Erin stared at the Goblin, who looked grumpy as he and the three defeated Goblins watched the victors of their mock battle, Headscratcher and Shorthilt, celebrate. Jelaqua looked at Erin.
“So what’s his special feature?”
“Nope. He’s good at most things and he likes to eat. He’s a hard worker and the other Goblins like him because he doesn’t get on their nerves. He’s a Hufflepuff, poor guy.”
“That’s like…you know, someone who works hard but doesn’t have any defining features?”
“Oh, a loser?”
“No! They’re good people and Rabbiteater’s good in a lot of ways! He just doesn’t stand out. Hufflepuffs are nice! Okay, I was a Gryffindor, but…”
“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about, Erin.”
As the Selphid and Human girl talked and the Redfang Warriors trooped inside for breakfast—fruit and oatmeal with honey—more people began waking up and walking downstairs. The Wandering Inn woke up as Drassi arrived for her morning shift. But the small crowd would soon have some more visitors. A band of three Gold-rank adventurers set out from Liscor, walking through the wet grasslands, arguing as they headed to The Wandering Inn.
The Silver Swords were a group of three adventurers, known for their championing of just causes and for protecting those in need. They had grown famous in the north, enough so that their name was recognizable in most Adventurer’s Guilds across the continent. Rarely did they stray so far south, though, and while they were a solid team who had worked together for six years already, they were known for arguing. Mainly because each of the three members of the Silver Swords hailed from a different race.
Their leader, Ylawes Byres, was Human. He was a [Knight] who strode ahead of the group. Next to him walked the half-Elf Falene Skystrall, a [Battlemage] who had graduated from Wistram. Behind the two, stomping along and muttering into his beard was Dawil, a Dwarf [Axe Champion] dressed in full plate armor.
Such an unusual combination of species was rare to see, not least because half-Elves and Dwarves were known for their distaste for one another. That was a long-held stereotype at least and while it might not have fit in general, it seemed to fit with this group, for whom the word stereotype was sometimes understated.
It was Dawil who was complaining this morning, his deep voice loud in the morning hush. He stomped along, growling at Ylawes’ back. All three adventurers were armored up despite the early time—Dawil’s armor and Ylawes’ silver plate shone bright in the sunlight, as did Falene’s magical robes that caught and enhanced the light. None of that made the Dwarf’s mood any better.
“Bah! We had to get up early and for what? Breakfast in that inn? Hah! I’d rather have Drakes rubbing their tails all over my head and Gnolls shedding in my soup than have Goblins stinking up the place! And you! Why are you walking in front of me, you giant shining lummox? Bad enough that I have to get up at the crack of dawn when we’re not on an adventure. I’m not staring at a flashing mirror all day!”
He cut ahead of Ylawes, grumbling about [Knights] and polished armor. Ylawes sighed, but it was Falene who cut Dawil off. The half-Elf looked down her nose at the Dwarf.
“If you’ve stopped grumbling, I’ll present my findings, Dwarf. I was telling you about the group Ylawes’ sister has found herself with.”
“Oh good, the half-Elf has done some research. Let’s all applaud her woodsy majesty then!”
Ylawes’ tone was patient. The Dwarf grumbled, but let Falene go on as the Human [Knight] nodded to her.
“As I was saying. It seems the half-Elf, Ceria Springwalker and the [Necromancer] Pisces truly are Wistram graduates. I had my sincere doubts, but I received a brief note from a colleague in Wistram affirming their claims. However, it seems they left Wistram prematurely…I sense there was an incident that the academy is attempting to cover up. I’ve sent follow up letters and hope to know more soon.”
“Two [Mages] from Wistram, eh? And one’s a [Necromancer]? I didn’t know that the mages graduated [Necromancers]. And didn’t I hear you say that you’d never work willingly with someone who raised the undead, Byres?”
“The mages don’t let [Necromancers] join the academy. At least, they don’t encourage it. And my family has fought against the undead and those that command them for generations, Dawil. I don’t understand why my sister would work with this [Necromancer]. As for the Antinium—anything, Falene?”
Ylawes turned to Falene hopefully. The half-Elf hesitated and shook her head.
“Nothing. The Antinium are supposed to be a mindless mass. Why one of them would join an adventuring group—much less have a name—is a mystery to me. He could be a Prognugator, but those are supposed to be exceedingly rare. And why would he be exiled from his Hive?”
“Outcast, probably. So let’s see, we have a half-Elf with a missing hand and a [Necromancer], both of whom left Wistram under dodgy circumstances, and an Antinium from the Hives. Tell me again how your sister’s mixed up in all this, Ylawes?”
The tall [Knight] grimaced. Ylawes could have walked out of a painting of a knight fighting a Dragon. He frowned at the inn as he ascended the hill with his companions.
“I don’t know. Yvlon lost her team in Liscor’s crypts and I think she fell in with this group by accident. She knew the half-Elf—Ceria Springwalker—from the expedition. As for the [Necromancer] and Antinium…she refused to say. But I’ll take her back north safely regardless of whatever mess she’s gotten herself into.”
“If she’s willing to go. You’ve already committed us to finding a lost adventurer. In Liscor’s dungeon no less.”
Falene looked sideways at Ylawes. The man nodded grimly.
“It’s a just cause and if there really is a Minotaur down there who’s survived this entire time, he deserves rescue.”
“And we deserve a big bag of gold for finding him, but will we get that? No, it’s another one of your noble causes.”
Dawil grumbled. Ylawes gave him a stern look.
“If need be I’ll pay the reward out of my own pockets, Dawil. I told you that I was looking for my sister and we might not find work here. You were free to join another team—”
“And leave you to get killed? Hah! Maybe the half-Elf would do that, but we Dwarves understand loyalty!”
Dawil thumped his chest. Then he pointed at Ylawes.
“But mark me, Byres. I’ll gladly eat and fight monsters in this city so long as there’s pay to be had and food in my belly, but if you’re really trying to get your sister to come back with you you’ll take my advice. You’ve pestered your sister for a week now and for what? Nothing. Listen, I might be a Dwarf but I’ve lived for thirty eight years—”
“And I’ve lived for twenty seven. Dawil, if you’re trying to give me sage advice…”
“Just listen! Y’see, I’ve been around for a while. Not as long as Miss Snooty half-Elf I’ll grant you, but—”
Ylawes rolled his eyes and Falene looked resigned as Dawil stroked his beard knowingly.
“Women aren’t so easy to manage. Sisters either. In my opinion, women are like metamorphological magic theory.”
Ylawes, who’d been opening his mouth to tell Dawil his advice was unwanted, stopped. He stared at the Dwarf. Falene stared as well.
The Dwarf smiled.
“You see, it’s simple. Women are like metamorphological magic. I don’t understand it, and you don’t either. The half-Elf might, but if you go blundering about trying to tug your sister one way, it’ll do no good. Probably make things worse. Why not ask for advice before you keep prodding her with a stick?”
He looked up at his companions and saw them looking at him thoughtfully. Ylawes nodded.
“You know Dawil, you might be right.”
“Of course I’m right! Been around longer than you, haven’t I?”
Falene smiled drily.
“I suppose that sage advice comes from meeting women? You do seem oddly popular. Just the other day that Silver-rank adventurer was making passes at you. Remember? The part-Dwarf [Warrior] with the beard? She was quite handsome. Were you interested?”
“Her? Gah! Not on your life! Did you see that beard she had? It looks like she grew it with hair tonic and the way she talked! Tall folk this, us short folk that! She’s not Dwarfish at all. No, I’d rather make eyes at a Drake. False beards are really disgusting.”
Dawil shuddered and shook his head. The Silver Swords laughed as they climbed the hill. Ylawes pushed open the door for his comrades and they strode in. They paused as they saw the Redfang Warriors in the corner, and the inn stopped for a second in surprise.
Drassi was serving tables with Lyonette, Erin was chatting with the Halfseekers, and the Goblins were eating alone and massaging their bruises. The Silver Swords walked forwards and Ylawes cleared his throat as he looked around. He nodded slightly to Erin.
“Not here! She’s still out on her mission-request thing.”
Erin cut him off brusquely. Ylawes looked disappointed.
“She told me she’d be back today.”
“Yeah, well, she told me the same thing. Maybe they couldn’t find enough Corusdeer?”
The [Innkeeper] shrugged as she offered the adventurers a seat. The Horns of Hammerad had been absent for the last four days on a big contract for Esthelm. They’d been hired to provide meat for the city as Esthelm’s food supplies were low. To that end they’d been asked to slay Corusdeer, which was a task that seasoned [Hunters] might balk at due to the danger.
Late-season Corusdeer were dangerous as they migrated and Ceria had told Erin to expect them to take at least this long. Ylawes looked like he wanted to ask more, but Dawil was already sitting at the table and his stomach was rumbling loudly.
“Your sister’s not here, Ylawes! Too bad! Now let’s eat! I could eat a horse. What have you got?”
“Oatmeal! With fruit and honey!”
The Dwarf’s face fell. Erin smiled.
“I have ham and mayonnaise sandwiches and two fried steaks I could heat up if you wanted it.”
“What? You didn’t tell me you had steak!”
Jelaqua shot up at her table. Dawil chuckled.
“Steak? I’ll have one of those and that oatmeal mush. And what do you have to drink?”
Ylawes and Falene sat as Erin hovered over their table. Erin smiled as Lyonette hurried out with bowls of freshly chopped fruit and oatmeal for all three and began heating up Dawil’s steak on the pan. It was so easy to serve food! All you had to do was heat up something Erin had cooked twelve days ago and bam! Ready to eat! The only thing that didn’t last with her [Field of Preservation] Skill was soufflés.
“I just got some wine in today. I’m expanding my stock. So in addition to ale, mead, and whiskey, I’m now serving wines from Liscor and Celum! They’re local stocks, imported from Wales and uh, I think Sasil. That’s a Drake village south of the Blood Fields.”
“Hm. Wine, eh?”
Dawil looked interested, which surprised Erin since she’d expected Falene or Ylawes to want wine instead. The Dwarf nodded at the bottles Erin had put up against the bar.
“I’ve heard of the white wines that Drakes make, and I’m fond of a bouquet now and then. I could have a cup of the red and wash it down with that mead!”
That sounded weird to Erin, but she nodded agreeably. Falene smirked slightly at Dawil.
“Really, Dawil? Wine and mead? What happened to your Dwarfish pride?”
“A Dwarf can like both, you prissy snob! And don’t pretend to be all elegant and refined you hypocrite—I know you drink hard spirits when no one’s watching!”
Dawil pounded his hand on the table, making his bowl of oatmeal jump. Falene shook her head as she turned to Erin. The half-Elf’s smile was just a bit too knowing as Dawil growled under his breath about judgmental half-Elves.
“I would gladly have a small cup of the Walesian Red—do you have a recent vintage or an older one I could sample?”
Erin gave her a blank look.
“Um. We have red wine if you want it? Or did you mean the maroon wine?”
“I meant the Walesian Red. I assume that’s the bottle over there?”
Erin looked over her shoulder.
“Oh! Right. It probably is. I don’t use the names of wines. I just call them by how they look. I’ve got red, off red, sort of red, greenish yellow, maroon…hey, why do we call all those wines white if they look green? What about green wine? What’s wrong with calling it that?”
Falene stared at Erin for a long moment. Dawil roared with laughter as the half-Elf just stared at Erin, completely unsure of what to say. Erin gave Falene an innocent look of puzzlement. At last, the half-Elf coughed delicately and pointed.
“In that case I will have the second bottle to the left.”
“Sure thing! Coming up! And what about you, Mister Dawil?”
The Dwarf grinned widely and then his eyes widened as Erin turned away from Falene and gave him a conspiratorial wink. She returned with two cups of Walesian red, which met all expectations. The Silver Swords ate without further incident and Dawil was ready to admit that the oatmeal made for a filling breakfast—if you added a steak on the side that was.
The Gold-rank adventurers might not have quite fit in with the rest of the inn’s guests, especially given their wariness around the Goblins, but they were adventurers and the Halfseekers seemed at home with another experienced team nearby. Jelaqua leaned across their table and called towards them as she finished her bowl.
“Hey Ylawes, guess what? There was a Creler infestation near here.”
All three Silver Swords turned at once, interested and concerned in equal parts. Ylawes put a hand on his sword.
“How big is the nest? Did you see any adults?”
“Nothing so bad! We actually got tipped off when Mrsha here came in with a Creler egg!”
Jelaqua pointed at Mrsha, who was sitting tenderly and rubbing her bottom. The Gnoll looked up guiltily as Jelaqua went on.
“Turns out she’d found them in a cave not two miles away! Can you imagine?”
“I take it you cleared the nest then?”
Again, the Selphid shook her head.
“Nah, the place was clear when we got there. Lots of Creler bodies, no live ones. Looks like they invaded a Fortress Beaver colony and the beavers barely wiped them out. Cuddly little varmints must have been really lucky and fought only newborns or something. I thought about hunting a few of the beavers for their pelts, but Moore wouldn’t let us. He’s too fond of animals.”
She elbowed Moore and the half-Giant grunted. He placidly dipped a huge serving spoon into his bowl of oatmeal. Drassi, who’d been waiting the adventurer’s tables since she was still nervous around the Goblins, looked interested.
“Really? The Fortress Beavers killed them all? Why’s that? I thought they were really placid animals—unless you started breaking their dams, that was. They’re a real threat when it rains since they like to create huge forts but I’ve never heard of them being aggressive—hey, anyone want more oatmeal?”
Jelaqua and Seborn raised their bowls. Drassi moved over to them with the serving pot. The Drake was in her element with people to talk to. The more people the better. It was Falene who answered her, sipping her wine and speaking so the room could hear.
“Even non-violent animals will attack Crelers, Miss Drake. Animals hate Crelers as much as the thinking races and for good reason. A nest of Crelers will systematically wipe out all life in the area if left unchecked and then colonize a new location—or burrow underground to feed and reproduce.”
“So that’s why they have such huge bounties. Huh, Selys always talks about that and how it’s so hard to award coins to adventurers since they don’t collect trophies or all the Crelers are smashed to bits.”
Drassi looked interested. Ylawes nodded seriously.
“Crelers are a considerable threat. Hatchlings and baby Crelers are manageable for Silver or Bronze-rank teams if the nest is small, but larger nests and juvenile Crelers are a match for Silver-rank teams. Any larger and Gold-rank teams have to step in. And once Crelers pass into their adult stage they’re a threat worthy of any Gold-rank team on their own.”
“Not fun. The bounty on them is high but I’d rather kill sewer rats all day than fight one of those bastards! Gah, we used to send out suppression teams of three Gold-rank teams together to fight really big nests in Baleros!”
Jelaqua shuddered. Seborn raised his one eyebrow as he wiped oatmeal off his crab claw hand.
“Ever tried fighting them underwater?”
“Don’t joke, Seborn.”
“Who said I was?”
The day began in earnest. The Silver Swords ate breakfast and chatted with the Halfseekers as Erin, Drassi, and Lyonette got about the business of business. Erin actually got to relax for most of it—her [Barmaids] were good at their job and there wasn’t really that much to do. If it weren’t for her nightly performances Erin would have been seriously concerned with paying Drassi, but as it was she assured the Drake that she’d have a full load tonight.
“And I get to watch the play, right? I heard all about how it’s like a performance and a story in one. Selys says it’s amazing—she said you took her to a performance once and she’s dying to see another one. I can’t wait to see one myself. It’s already the talk of Liscor!”
“How is it the talk of Liscor? I haven’t even advertised it yet! Most of Celum just found out about the plays today!”
Erin frowned in bemusement and Drassi smiled.
“Well, I heard about the plays from Selys and then Lyonette told me that’s what I’d be doing today so I’ve been telling everyone about it all day!”
“Without having seen a play?”
The [Innkeeper] had to shake her head. Selys had warned her that Drassi was a gossip on an entirely different level. She even had that as a class! What happened if she got to a high level in that class? Did she turn into a [Chatterbox] capable of whispering around the world? Erin was listening to the Silver Swords quizzing the Halfseekers on the dungeon—hinting that they might want to join in today’s exploration it seemed—when the door to her inn opened.
Watch Captain Zevara strode in. Erin turned, surprised to see her. The Watch Captain looked busy as usual and she cut to the chase.
“I’m here on duty Miss Solstice. I won’t take much of your time—but I’ve just gotten an official message from Pallass. They’re ready to open the door to your inn and I’m told that the Assembly of Crafts had dropped all sanctions against our city. As far as they’re concerned your inn is off-limits.”
“What, really? That was fast!”
Erin stared at Zevara and hurried to get her mana stone. Her guests stared at her with interest as Zevara nodded.
“You can thank Wall Lord Ilvriss for the rapid response. He’s been in communication with his Walled City for days now—there’s been a political struggle going on between Pallass and Salazsar and it looks like Salazsar won.”
“Whoa, this was a big thing, then?”
“We’re just pawns in the larger conflict. But yes, this is meaningful. I’ll be making an announcement in Liscor later today—I’ll try to explain the limited capacity of your door, but you might get a lot of people wanting to walk through to Pallass. I’m here to tell you not to let them use your door. Celum’s fine, but you only have enough mana to send two people through, is that correct?”
“Without recharging, yeah.”
“In that case, we’ll be offering a request form to be filled out at the Watch’s barracks. Citizens and interested parties can sign up to travel to Pallass. If they’re approved—and most will be—I send a [Message] to Pallass and get confirmation. That way, they can clear individuals from their end and deny entry if they choose. And if no one from Pallass wants to return, we’ll send two people through. If they want to come back they need to follow the same protocol in Pallass or pay a [Mage] to charge up the door enough to let them return.”
Erin frowned as she placed the mana stone on the door.
“Wow, that’s so complicated. Official, too! Hey, thanks for doing this! I guess it would be bad if people kept trying to go to Pallass. This way it’s slow, but people can get on a waiting list!”
The Watch Captain nodded.
“It’s not ideal, but it will allow for a small bit of traffic per day. I’d like to ask you to expand the door’s capabilities if it’s possible—ideally Liscor would like to send five or ten individuals through and have the same number coming into our city per day. But I told the Council that might impossible.”
She looked quizzically at Erin and the young woman gnawed at her lip.
“Yeah…my inn’s already filled with mana apparently, but I have no idea if it’s all going to the door or what. Pisces might know. He was working on it with Typhenous or Moore. When he gets back I’ll ask him to get all his mage buddies together and do some more experiments, okay?”
“Just so long as it doesn’t cause another diplomatic incident.”
“Hey! That was—okay, that’s fair. Uh, the door’s ready. Are we supposed to wait?”
“Watch Captain Venim should be on the other side already. He’ll be making the same announcement on his end—he might have done so already. I can pull up some [Guardsmen] if there’s too much of a crowd from Liscor—I want to handle this calmly and without incident, Miss Solstice. You might also have a few members of the Council here to make a speech when the first person from Pallass arrives and we send our first visitor through.”
“Whoa! It’s going to be that big?”
The Drake nodded. Erin looked at her with round eyes and then opened the door.
“Okay then, let’s make my inn fam—oh. Hi, Watch Captain Venim.”
Sunlight poured through her doorway. Ylawes stood up in astonishment and the other guests in the inn stared in fascination as the blue skies and huge city of Pallass appeared in the doorway in front of Erin. A Drake was standing on the other side of the door, dressed in yellow armor. He had a helmet under one arm and saluted Watch Captain Zevara.
“Watch Captain Zevara, I’m pleased to see you.”
“Likewise, Watch Captain Venim. My apologies for the slight delay. I was just letting Miss Solstice know what to expect.”
Watch Captain Venim nodded. He was standing in the sun, and Erin saw to her great surprise that she was no longer looking into the alleyway! It looked like they’d been placed on some kind of side street. She stared at Venim in fascination.
“You moved my door! Hey! That’s so cool! I forgot I could do that! Maybe I’ll move my door out of Octavia’s shop!”
She peered around the street excitedly. There seemed to be a crowd behind Venim! She hoped they wouldn’t rush through the door. He didn’t seem to have many [Guardsmen] posted to keep them back. Zevara saluted, looking slightly worried as she eyed the gathering.
“Watch Captain Venim, a pleasure. Have you already made the announcement on your end? We’re not quite ready here for the ceremony although we could speed it up if there’s excitement on your side. I hope you haven’t had to keep the mob from the doors.”
The Drake in yellow armor looked blank and then stared over his shoulder at the crowd.
“Oh. Ah, no, Watch Captain Zevara, it’s peaceful here. I understand the door’s inactive until Miss Erin connects it so we’ve installed it here. It should be perfectly fine. We announced the doorway this morning with the regular morning news. I believe the [Belldrakes] have spread the word and there is some interest.”
“Good thing you opened the door now before a huge crowd appeared!”
Erin excitedly looked at the Drakes and few Gnolls in the crowd. She waved, expecting them to gasp or cheer in return. The Drakes stared at her with raised eyebrows. A little Drake child waved back and a few adults peeled away from the crowd and walked down the street.
Erin frowned. So did Zevara. Venim didn’t notice the confusion on the other side of the door. He was talking, waving a small sheet of parchment in front of Erin to get her attention.
“Watch Captain Zevara has informed you of the waiting system in place, Miss Solstice? We have our own sheet in the Watch Barracks. I don’t think we’ll get much interest at first, but we’ll inform you or the city of Liscor if any of our citizens intend to pass through your doorway. Otherwise we’ll arrange a time to open the doorway each morning, say, just past midday?”
“If your people want to come to Liscor? But—wait a second, don’t they all want to come?”
Erin pointed at the crowd of Drakes, dismayed. More were leaving. Venim hesitated.
“I believe they’re just looking, Miss Solstice. Pallass did have a deep interest in your door, but that was with the intent of moving large bodies of goods and people through. Since the Assembly of Crafts was appraised of the strict limits on your doorway—and that your inn was in fact a focal point of magic to begin with—they’ve lost interest in its economic viabilities.”
The Drake smiled as if it was good news. Erin and Zevara just stared at him.
“We may experiment with transporting a set number of objects through the door instead of people per day, but the [Merchants] are still arguing about how to set up such a system. They want a representative of their own on Liscor’s side to handle the influx of goods and none of their senior members want to cross over—”
The penny dropped. Erin stared at the disinterested Drakes, at Watch Captain Venim’s apologetic expression, and realized what he was saying.
“Wait, people don’t want to come to Liscor? Why not?”
Her incredulous question provoked a response from the crowd at last. A Drake with a slash of red across his blue scales raised his voice.
“What do you mean, why not? What’s Liscor got that Pallass hasn’t, Human?”
Erin stared at him. That was a silly question! Liscor had—Liscor had—she opened her mouth and drew a blank. Okay, Pallass was bigger…and a Walled City, but Liscor had stuff! It was different, wasn’t that enough?
Apparently not. Another heckler in the crowd raised her voice and drawled sarcastically.
“Wow, Liscor. I’d just love to see the…what do they have over there? Grass? Shorter walls? More smelly Humans?”
There was a laugh from the crowd. Erin stared at the Drakes, dismayed. Zevara looked dumbfounded.
“You don’t think Liscor’s cool? Come on, it’s another city! Four hundred miles north! There’s this new dungeon filled with monsters that just appeared and everything!”
“Oh yeah? So what? We have three dungeons in the area!”
“Exactly! What’s this about travelling? Who wants to do that? Do I want to spend a week in Liscor, home of the rain, the Antinium, and boredom? Your city is a border city! Maybe I’ll pop by to visit Celum, but only if I feel like talking to fleshy Humans all day! Pallass is six times larger than Liscor!”
“I thought it was eight!”
“With walls that short, how would you be able to tell? Hah! Got ‘em!”
The crowd laughed and joked as Watch Captain Venim leaned closer to the door. Zevara was just staring as Erin weakly protested and got ribbed for her trouble.
“I delivered your report to Pallass’ Assembly of Crafts, but they didn’t take it too seriously, Watch Captain Zevara. Monster raids from dungeons aren’t uncommon and you are due reinforcements soon. Liscor’s army sent a detachment of their forces north and Pallass spotted them over a week ago. They should be arriving soon if they’re marching at a steady pace. But as for Pallass sending aid to help guard the dungeon…”
He grimaced and spread his claws helplessly. Venim looked apologetic as he continued, nodding to the crowd that was breaking up behind him despite Erin’s best efforts.
“Well, we’ll approve your visitors and I’m sure some [Merchants] and perhaps some adventurers will be coming through from time to time on our end. Who knows, there might be some tourism your way, but we’ll approve both people you want to send through today. I uh, think we could get one or two of the senators to arrive for a small ceremony as long as it doesn’t last too long.”
He stepped back. The crowd of Drakes had grown tired of heckling and was breaking up. Venim saluted again.
“Just send a [Message] spell when you want to send someone through. We’ll have a small escort ready and a few [Guardsmen]. More if I can get one of the senators to show up.”
He nodded and eyed Erin and Zevara’s faces. Somewhat sheepishly, Venim closed the door. There was a faint thump, and the portal closed. Zevara and Erin stood in front of the doorway, staring. At last, Erin looked at the Drake. Zevara’s face was pale and she looked stunned. Erin shuffled her feet and then raised her voice.
“Wow. People in Pallass are jerks. They really don’t think Liscor’s cool?”
Zevara looked like she’d been stabbed. Her expression was the shock of someone finding out that their home wasn’t as well-respected as they thought it was. Erin could practically sense the thoughts running inside of Zevara’s head because they were parallel to her own. Of course Liscor wasn’t a Walled City, but wasn’t it a strategic landmark and all that?
Wasn’t Liscor famous for the Antinium, for defeating the Necromancer and…and more? But people thought it was just a rainy, boring place? That wasn’t fair! Okay, it wasn’t a major Drake city and it was far from the others, but—
She wondered what Liscor’s Council would say if Zevara told them what had happened. No, what would Liscor’s citizens say? They had a lot of pride in their home and they’d believe until now that their home was the best. Mainly because visitors who badmouthed a city got in trouble fast and because they’d never actually met a bunch of people from Pallass all at once before. But now…
There would be trouble. There would be anger, indignation, and hurt feelings. For now, Erin stared at the doorway with narrowed eyes. She kicked the blank wall with her foot.
“Whatta bunch of arrogant snobs.”
Zevara paused. The Watch Captain’s pale face returned a bit of color and she almost smiled at Erin.
“Absolutely. Well…thank you for your time, Erin Solstice. I have a report to deliver to the Council. And I’m sure they’re not going to like it.”
She walked off. Erin stared at the doorway. Pallass wasn’t all that great! All it had were huge walls, tons of cool things to see, magic elevators, about eight times as much horizontal landmass and about the same amount as much vertical space and…
“Darn it. Liscor’s cool.”
Erin scuffed away on the floor with her foot and walked away. The doorway remained closed. And underneath Liscor something, many somethings moved in the dungeon.
The warning signs began just after midday, as the Horns of Hammerad were returning from their long stay abroad. They were covered in muck, tired, sweaty, and currently sitting on a wagon. The wagon being pulled by undead bears.
It was not a smooth ride. Bears, unlike horses, moved with a loping gait and the wagon jerked along, making the occupants quite, quite uncomfortable. It had been a long four, no, five days and they were understandably unhappy. They argued as they rode over a hill, skirting the puddles of water. Another problem with undead bears was that if you didn’t pay attention to them, they’d drive you right through a pond. Or into a tree.
“All I’m saying is that it’s not our fault if we don’t see you when you’re invisible, Pisces! How was I supposed to know you were in the radius of my [Fireball] spell?”
“I told you I was going to attack one of the Corusdeer from behind, Springwalker! At what point does that not translate into my proximity to said creature?”
“I thought you were picking the ones off on the outskirts, not right in front of me! And Ksmvr, stop gnawing on the Corusdeer horn!”
Yvlon sighed as Ksmvr hunched over his horn. Her stomach rumbled. Loudly. She stared up at the grey skies, grateful it had stopped raining at least.
“I’m not blaming anyone, but how did we run out of supplies a day ago? We’re hunting for food for Esthelm; how did we not take our own supplies into account?”
Ksmvr looked shamefaced as he opened his mandibles.
“I take full responsibility for my actions, Miss Yvlon. I bought supplies in accordance to Antinium policy for this trip.”
The Antinium shifted guiltily.
“…Antinium policy is that we eat our foes on the march. Or our own dead. We are able to march most effectively with the reduced burden you see, and…”
He trailed off. The other three adventurers exchanged glances. Ceria covered her face with her good hand.
“Okay, Ksmvr doesn’t buy supplies next time.”
Pisces and Yvlon said it at once. Ksmvr deflated.
“I apologize for my continued failures.”
Yvlon patted him on the shoulder. When the Antinium looked up she gave him a warming smile.
“We all make mistakes. Don’t worry—it’s not like we’ve starved and we can eat as much as we want at The Wandering Inn. We’re nearly back.”
“About time too.”
Pisces sniffed. The [Necromancer] had, surprisingly, fared best out of all the four adventurers in the Horns of Hammerad. Despite Ceria being a half-Elf used to living in the forest, despite Yvlon Byres’ training to become a [Knight], despite Ksmvr’s hardiness, the [Necromancer] had endured the lack of food simply by the expedience of having a meal’s worth of snacks hidden away in his private bag of holding.
It had been the subject of much ire once it had been discovered. Ceria kicked him and the [Necromancer] glared at her, but didn’t dare retort back. His stomach growled noticeably less than his comrades and he devoted his attention to steering the undead skeletons of the bears he had summoned towards the inn in silence.
That was the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria the half-Elf, the [Cryomancer] with her skeletal left hand, Pisces, a [Necromancer] with a haughty attitude and a rapier hanging at his belt, Yvlon, a [Wounded Warrior] whose armor didn’t gleam like her older brother’s, and Ksmvr, a three-armed Antinium cast out from their Hive.
They weren’t the best team around, and they had only adventured for a few months but…well, that was about it. They were a Silver-rank team on the verge of ascending to Gold-rank, but they were new. They’d survived one literal trial by fire, but they had yet to adopt the camaraderie of the Halfseekers or the Silver Swords. But they were adventurers.
And they were nearly home. The inn was in front of them, warm and inviting. The wagon drove up the hill and the Horns piled out before it had pulled to a stop. Pisces wasted no time in ending the spell that held the skeletal bears together; the bones fell into a heap and he pushed them into his bag of holding as the rest of his team headed straight for the doors. Visions of hot food and warm beds assailed Ceria and she could smell the lunch being served within. She put her hand on the door handle and froze. Yvlon and Ksmvr stared at her, practically dancing with impatience.
“Ceria, what is it?”
“Hold up, do you feel that?”
The Horns stopped as one. Pisces, hurrying to catch up, stopped and looked around warily. A new team they might be, but they were used to heeding each other’s warning. Ceria looked around, puzzled.
“My [Dangersense] is going off. It’s faint, but I feel like something’s…coming.”
The Horns of Hammerad stared around but they saw nothing. Uneasily, Yvlon gripped the handle of her sword and Ksmvr reached for his weapons. Pisces, frowning, looked at the wet landscape and shook his head.
“Let us enter the inn, Springwalker. Inside will be safer regardless of what occurs.”
He made sense. Ceria nodded and opened the door. She walked into The Wandering Inn and saw the warm fire, people sitting around tables, five Goblins hunkering in a corner, a Drake serving drinks to a table of adventurers, and then a beaming face as Erin Solstice turned.
“Ceria! Yvlon! Ksmvr! And Pisces! Hey, how have you guys been?”
She strode over to them and Ceria saw a man in silver armor stand up. Yvlon, who had been distracted by the heap of waffles that Mrsha was digging into with a fork, froze for a second as Ylawes strode towards her with a welcoming smile. She managed one of her own.
Pisces muttered under his voice as Ylawes strode towards his mud-spattered sister. Ksmvr poked Pisces in the side.
“Comrade Pisces, why did you say that? He is not your brother, is he? Or is he?”
The [Necromancer] was saved from the intimates of language and Human genetics by Erin ushering the Horns of Hammerad to a table.
“Come in, come in! Ylawes, don’t bother your sister. Whew, you’re all covered in mud! Sit, sit. Hey, Pisces’ robes and Ceria’s are nice and clean. Can’t you get your armor to do that, Yvlon? Lyonette, drinks for everyone! Drassi—”
“Waffles, hot from the kitchen! You want honey and butter with that?”
The Horns of Hammerad could have cried. In between grabbing for plates and elbowing Pisces out of the way, they simultaneously said hello, explained where they’d been and why they were so hungry, and talked about Ceria’s strange episode at the door.
“What, you too, Ceria? I felt the same thing! I thought it was just a funny feeling until I realized it was my [Dangersense]. What could it be? Did you see any monsters about on the way here, Ceria?”
“Nothing worth mentioning. Has anything happened over here?”
Ceria talked with a mouthful of waffle, spraying crumbs onto the table and making Falene shoot her a disgusted glance. Erin shot a glance towards the door to Pallass and shook her head hesitantly.
“I…hm. Anyone want more waffles? I’m planning on a big dinner tonight—hey, you won’t believe what happened! I’ve got the [Actors] coming here to do a play each night, Ceria! Remember them? They’re going to put on a performance and I’m going to fill this inn with hundreds of people and earn tons of money!”
“Actors? You mean that play? That’s a brilliant idea, Erin!”
Ceria smiled and Pisces sat up at his table with interest. Ksmvr, about to poke, was stopped by Yvlon as she whispered in his earhole. Ceria frowned as she wiped dirt and food off her mouth.
“I can imagine you’ll have tons of guests. But—hundreds of people? Are you planning on holding the shows outside? It’s going to keep raining Erin, and unless you want to set up a second roof—”
“What, no! I’ll have them all in here of course!”
Erin waved at the common room of the inn. Ceria and the other adventurers stared around the common room. Jelaqua raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Uh, how? By packing them in like tadpoles?”
“No! I’ve got plenty of room! Wait—oh!”
Erin looked around the inn and slapped her forehead.
“Oh right, I disabled it. Of course you think I’m an idiot! Okay, watch this! I got this Skill two days ago and I totally forgot to show it to you all! Ready? [Grand Theatre]!”
She clapped her hands together. The eyes of everyone in the room were on Erin. They heard the clap, and then the echo. The sound was deeper, larger than it should be. The others looked around the room and gasped.
The perspective of the common room had changed. One second it had been small, still large enough to hold a crowd, but hardly enough for the hundreds Erin had described. But now, in the blink of an eye it was vaster. A dark, massive room stretched out behind the guests, barely lit by the dim glow of the fireplace. The common room had tripled in size and ended at a stage at the back of the room, clearly visible above the tables and chairs.
The extended common room was devoid of any furniture. The floorboards were of the same quality as the rest of Erin’s inn, as were the walls, but the windows hadn’t been copied further than the walls. The extended part of the common room was dark, like an indoors theatre, and the sound of Erin’s clap continued for a little bit in the silence. The room was waiting, welcoming, expectantly waiting for noise and drama to fill the room with life.
Erin’s guests stared. Pisces’ jaw was fully open. Yvlon’s eyes were wide. Moore was quietly choking on his waffles. Seborn looked around in disbelief and Mrsha was hiding behind Lyonette with Apista. Dawil fell out of his chair and Falene dropped her cup. It shattered with a crash in the silence as everyone stared around the gigantic common room.
Ceria looked at Erin. The young woman grinned at her. The half-Elf took one deep breath and then another. She left for five days. Just five! She looked at Erin and couldn’t help it. Ceria shouted.
“Erin! What in the name of trees is this?”
And the inn exploded into noise. Mrsha ran across the common room as the adventurers and other guests clustered around Erin. The Redfang Goblins, forgotten for a moment, stared at Erin as Badarrow and Shorthilt slapped Rabbiteater, who’d fainted. Erin grinned as she raised her hands and tried to explain over the shouting—
And that warning feeling in the back of her head twinged. Erin stopped smiling and looked towards the windows.
Something was coming.
Watch Captain Zevara had felt it too. She strode onto Liscor’s walls, shouting for the Drake officer on duty to find her. To her surprise and pleasure, it was Olesm who hurried up.
“Olesm! I thought you were off-duty today?”
“I was! But I felt my [Dangersense] go off and—you felt it too?”
Zevara nodded grimly. She surveyed the empty Floodplains around Liscor. She could see Rock Crabs on the ground, a few Razorbeaks and other birds in the air, but nothing else. But her [Dangersense] had interrupted her meeting with Liscor’s Council and Zevara did not ignore such warnings lightly.
“Have you seen anything?”
“Nothing, Captain. I thought about sending a message to you, but I knew you were in a Council meeting—glad to see you.”
Olesm smiled and Zevara’s heart leapt a bit in her chest. She still carried a small candle for the Drake [Tactician] and hoped they could be more than just fellow civil servants. But right now they needed to focus on business, and Zevara was just glad Olesm was here. He was the city’s best [Tactician] and if he wasn’t that high-level, he was sharp and good in a pinch.
“How many [Guardsmen] are on the walls right now?”
“Just the usual rotation. I’ve told them to be alert, but I didn’t want to make anyone nervous by requesting more.”
“Well, I’m already nervous. And I’d rather call the alarm now than be caught off guard.”
She bellowed, keeping her voice loud and deep as possible. Why was it that people said female leaders screamed while male Drakes could shout as much as they wanted? She wasn’t a shrinking flower! But raise your pitch just an octave and your men thought you were panicking. Zevara had worked hard to earn her reputation as a steady Watch Captain, and she’d be damned if she showed weakness now.
A Drake had heard her call and one of the Street Runners that hung out near the wall ran up the stairs swiftly. Zevara eyed the young Gnoll and pointed.
“Run to the Watch Barracks and have them send me every off-duty [Guardsmen] they have! If you find more in taverns get them! I want ten Street Runners getting [Guardsmen]. Go, now!”
The Gnoll’s eyes widened and he raced down the steps, already shouting at his friends. They scattered as Olesm turned back to Zevara. She tried to look calm and collected, like she knew what she was doing.
The [Guardsmen] around her had also heard her orders and they scanned the Floodplains with increasing alertness. Some looked to Zevara, but they were well-trained enough to keep their attention where it should be. Olesm looked at Zevara as his gaze flicked back into the city. She could tell he was calculating how long it would take them to have more [Guardsmen] on the walls. Five minutes if they were ready, ten or fifteen otherwise. They could have six hundred members of the City Watch on the walls soon, but would they need them? Zevara’s stomach ached.
“You’re not going to sound an all-call, Captain?”
The Watch could blast a horn throughout the city that would alert everyone to muster on the walls—or warn the citizens they were under attack. Zevara shook her head, keeping her voice calm though she didn’t feel that way inside.
“No reason to. Not yet. It could be that the danger’s not near us, or that we can handle it on the walls. Remember the Carn Wolves prowling the Floodplains three years back? That had everyone’s [Dangersenses] warning them not to go outdoors, but we were safe.”
Olesm tried to sound confident. Zevara tried to believe her own words. She scanned the landscape, waiting. She kept her eyes on four spots as she glanced around the landscape. The first was the raised rampart of dirt around the dungeon’s official entrance. Ancestors, was it the dungeon? It might be the dungeon. Zevara bet it was the dungeon.
“Damn those Pallass fools. They think this dungeon’s like their three dungeons? They’ve cleared all three of their spots, and I know those are Bronze and Silver-rank dungeons! That’s nothing like the one we have here! We have no idea how large it is, and how dangerous—we could use some of their soldiers!”
She muttered to herself anxiously. Olesm glanced at her.
“Pallass denied your request? I thought we’d settled things with them.”
“We did. But they’re still not going to help us in any way. Once they realized they weren’t getting Solstice’s magic door without a fight, they lost all interest in it—and us! All they want to do is ship goods to Liscor. No one in their scale-rotting city wants to visit Liscor. They think we’re a backwater city with nothing interesting to see!”
Zevara ground her teeth together. Olesm spluttered.
“Well that’s not—who thinks that?”
“All of them. And our dungeon’s not a concern to Pallass.”
She stared at the second landmark, the place where a rift led down into the dungeon from the Floodplains. That entrance should be partially flooded already, but it was another spot of worry. She’d considered having it filled with dirt, but hopefully the water should deter some of the monsters.
Zevara shifted her attention to the next spot—the road leading north. If the Goblin Lord had sent his forces south or a hostile group of monsters had come out of the High Passes, it would come from that direction. But Esthelm would have warned them, surely? Or did they not have enough [Mages] capable of casting [Message] spells anymore?
No way to know. Zevara would send a message to them if nothing happened in the next few minutes. She stared at the last spot of worry—Erin Solstice’s inn. It was the target of more strange happenings than Zevara had ever seen. Rogue Named Adventurers, undead skeletons, Hobs, portals to other cities—Zevara’s stomach clenched and did backflips at the thought of what the young woman might have done in the short hours since she’d seen her.
Dungeon entrance, rift, road, inn. Zevara alternated between then until she heard pounding boots and turned. The rest of the City Watch poured onto the walls. A Senior Guardsman stopped in front of her. The Gnoll saluted, his hand on his sword.
“What news, Captain?”
“Nothing yet. My [Dangersense] is going off and so is Olesm’s. Have everyone spread out along the walls—west side a priority and shout if you see anything!”
The Gnoll began ordering the [Guardsmen] around the walls. They spread out, and Zevara saw more marching down the street, called to action by the Street Runners. She heard a loud and familiar voice grousing as Relc climbed the stairs.
“What? We don’t know what’s out there? Come on, it’s my day off! This better not be like the time with the Carn Wolves or I’m gonna get mad!”
“Shut up, Relc! Get your fat tail moving or I’ll kick you off the walls!”
Zevara bellowed at him and the nervous [Guardsmen] laughed. She was privately relieved to see Relc as he grumbled and raised a single claw in her direction. The [Sergeant] was a famous [Soldier] when all was said and done, and there were far worse people to have at your back. She turned back to ask Olesm if Erin had mentioned anything, anything unusual when it happened. Her [Dangersense] blared an alarm into her skull and Olesm jerked. Zevara’s head spun wildly.
Inn, dungeon entrance, road, rif—there it was. The rift was hidden from her sight by a large hill, but Zevara clearly saw the geyser of water spraying into the air. It shot upwards as both she and Olesm watched, propelled into the air by a massive force. And then she saw a leg rise above the crest of the hill. It was long, insectile and—furry? Zevara only got a moment’s glimpse before it lowered and she saw water spraying down.
“What in the name of the Ancestors is…?”
Olesm never got a chance to finish his question. Something rose out of the rift, something massive. Zevara saw a head poke above the line of the hill, wet, covered with hair, a giant furry head and then a long, long body. A huge abdomen shook; gargantuan wings unfolded and exposed a staring pattern of black spots and brown chitin. Two fuzzy antennae swiveled and Zevara saw the jaws open.
The mouth, oh, but it shouldn’t have a mouth! But this species, this horrible offshoot was known for its mouth, infamous for it! The razor-sharp opening gaped wide as the gigantic moth shook its wings, spraying water everywhere. Zevara’s heart stopped as she saw its body rustle. Thousands of smaller moths were clinging to the adult, and as the mother spread her wings, they began to take off as well. The Drake stared at the moth as it fanned its wings, ridding itself of the water. Olesm’s voice quavered in the silence .
It was larger than Erin’s inn. The Face-Eater moth flapped its wings once and sounded like thunder. Its carnivorous children flew upwards searching for prey. The huge swarm covered the sun. Zevara looked up and screamed. Anyone would have screamed.
“Sound the alarm!”
Her voice snapped the [Guardsmen] around her out of their stupor. They stared at her and then rushed to the walls, some running to grab more bows, more arrows, others racing to the north and west walls. Zevara turned to Olesm and grabbed the Drake.
“Get the command spells for the wall! Prepare to activate Liscor’s defenses!”
He nodded and ran for the small box of scrolls that would operate Liscor’s enchantments. Zevara turned and found the nearest [Guardsman].
“You! I want all citizens indoors! Take a squad—get the Street Runners! Clear the streets!”
He nodded and ran for the stairs. Zevara looked around. The Face-Eater Moths were still flapping their wings, still drying them. Some were beginning to fly, and they were moving in a swarm. They would eat anything and everything in sight. One giant moth, countless smaller ones.
Smaller? Zevara could see some of the moths at a distance, as large as wagons. She saw the mother flap her wings and tried to count. They could hit the mother with spells, fry the storm with magic. They had arrows; they could hold the walls so long as they could keep the moths there! She kept calm. She kept calm until she saw the second leg coming out of the ground.
Zevara froze as another gigantic moth began worming its way out of the rift. She turned. The [Guardsmen] around her had gone silent. The Watch Captain screamed into the silence.
“Summon the Antinium!”
“Oh my god.”
Erin stood at the windows, staring. The second moth was just as colossal as the first. It crawled out of the rift, miles away from the inn and yet it still seemed huge. From her vantage point Erin could see it awkwardly pulling itself onto the grass, and she could see the thousands of smaller moths clinging to its body. She heard a faint sound behind her.
“Jelaqua? How bad is…that thing?”
“Bad. Very bad.”
The Selphid’s face couldn’t go whiter, but her hands shook as she gripped her two-headed flail. The Selphid stared at the giant moth as it opened its mouth again. Moths shouldn’t have mouths. Not like the gaping hole that opened and closed sharply. Were those teeth around the edges of the mouth?
“That’s a Face-Eater Moth.”
“A Face-Eater…that name’s a joke, right?”
“Nope. They do exactly what you think. Ever seen one bite someone’s face clean off? They won’t stop with faces either. They can bite through arms, tear flesh off—and they’re huge. Dead gods, the big one is larger than this inn.”
“And there are two!”
Lyonette hugged Mrsha to her chest. Her eyes were wide as the second moth extracted itself and began fanning its wings. The adventurers stood at the windows, nervous, holding their weapons. Erin looked from face to face, afraid. She’d never thought she’d see a monster that would actually scare her more than Skinner, but the two giant Face-Eater Moths made Moore look like a tiny puppy!
“Jelaqua? Ylawes? Are they going to attack?”
There was a pause as both captains stared at each other in silence. Moore was the one who answered. The half-Giant kept his voice low.
“There are a few things that could happen. In the best case scenario the moths go back into the dungeon. But that’s not likely. They’re mostly likely hungry. Something—or someone woke them up. And so they’ll probably search for food.”
“And that food’s us, right?”
Drassi’s voice quavered in the silence. Moore nodded. He didn’t take his eyes off the moths. There were thousands and they were beginning to fly in a huge cluster.
“But perhaps—perhaps they might go elsewhere. Or only a part of the swarm remains. That would be ideal.”
“And the not-ideal?”
No one answered Erin. She stared at the two giant moths. Each one was larger than her inn. She imagined them attacking Liscor, flying over the walls and—her eyes widened as she saw another head rising from the rift.
“Oh you have got to be kidding me.”
Another Face-Eater Moth was climbing out. This time Seborn swore long and loud. Jelaqua looked stunned.
“Three? How large is their nest? They were just sitting in that damn dungeon the entire time? Ylawes, have you or your team ever seen something like this?”
“Never. I didn’t think they got this large. The biggest one I’ve ever seen was mounted on a wall and it was only as large as a Troll.”
The [Knight]’s face was grim as he adjusted the straps on his shield. Erin stared at the moths. There had to be tens of thousands of them now. More were coming out of the rift. More and more. But they might fly away, Moore said. If—if—
If no one provoked them. Erin saw the smaller moths flying around in a widening circle. Their wing beats—it wasn’t like the deafening buzzing of bees. It was more like distant thunder, vast and terrifying. Erin saw the moths flying closer to the Walls of Liscor. She could see [Guardsmen] on the walls. She saw the future and held her breath.
Someone said it in the silence. Erin saw the [Guardsmen] raising their bows as a group of moths flew closer. They might have had orders. Or maybe one of them lost their nerves. Erin saw a single arrow fly, saw a Face-Eater Moth jerk and fall. The moths swirled in alarm; more arrows flew. The moths fell, landing on the ground and wriggling, some still alive. Erin saw the giant moths turn their massive heads. She saw their mouths open and their wings spread.
And then she heard chittering. It came from the moths. It was high-pitched, terribly loud. It almost sounded like laughter, loud and hysteric, coming from a thousand, ten thousand bodies. The moths flew. Erin heard a scream from inside the inn. The sky turned dark. The moths flew up and blotted out the sun. Then they came, all of them. They chittered as they flew towards Liscor. And towards the inn.
Erin’s voice was terribly calm as she turned her head. She felt like the world was moving in slow motion. She saw the [Barmaid] turn, her eyes wide. Mrsha was in her arms, holding onto the [Barmaid] tightly. The small Gnoll looked at Erin, trembling with fear.
Slow motion. And then fast. Erin grabbed Lyonette.
“The door! Now!”
She pointed. Lyonette looked. Not to the door of the inn, but the magic door. She stared at Erin. Erin shouted. Time went back to normal as the inn erupted into chaos.
“The door! Drassi, now!”
She ran to the door as the adventurers shouted and began racing about the inn. Erin ran to the door and tore the mana stone to Pallass away. She opened the door and saw Octavia look up.
The [Alchemist] paused.
“What’s that s—”
Erin practically threw Lyonette and Mrsha into the doorway. She rushed Drassi through and Octavia shot to her feet.
“Liscor is under attack! Get the Watch! Get help!”
Erin screamed at her and then slammed the door. She looked around her inn and ran for the kitchen. She should run, she knew. She should escape. Ceria screamed at her as Pisces, Ksmvr, and Yvlon began overturning tables, pushing them into barricades against the windows.
“Erin! Go through the door!”
“Not yet! Not yet!”
The [Innkeeper] ran into her kitchen. Knife, frying pan—she ran to her pile of blankets, threw them aside, pulled out a crate which clinked.
The inn was full of thumping, banging as the Goblins and adventurers raced to secure the building. They were shouting, and from the walls of Liscor blared horns. They screamed an alarm.
In the city Selys looked up, heart suddenly pounding.
“Those are siege alarms!”
The adventurers in the Guild stared at her. Many of them were Human. They had no idea what Drake warning signals sounded like. Selys sat upright and stared out the window. She heard Runners shouting as people screamed and fled into their houses. She turned and shouted at the staring Humans.
“Liscor is under attack!”
Then she raced to bar the doors of the Adventurer’s Guilds, shouting at anyone on the streets to come inside. The civilians hid as the horns blared onwards. And in the inn the adventurers waited. Erin stood behind a window she herself had boarded up with nails and spare boards, peering out the cracks. Everyone was indoors.
Bird stood in his watch tower at the top of The Wandering Inn, staring at the mass of Face-Eater Moths as they flew towards him. He stared. His bow felt suddenly very small. The Antinium looked up at the largest moth and then at the tens of thousands behind it. He reached for an arrow.
“That is a lot of birds. A very big lot.”
He drew the arrow to his chest and loosed. A moth fell. Bird drew a second arrow and just as swiftly a second moth fell. He stared at the endless swarm, so numerous that they defied counting. He looked thoughtfully at the quiver at his side.
“I might need more arrows.”
The moths had seen him. They flew at him as the Antinium began to loose arrows again and again. Protect the inn. Guard it. He shot moths down until they were right on top of him, swarming his tower. More and more. Bird had one thought, one desperate realization as the moths closed in around the inn and the city. Just maybe, just once…there could be a thing as too many birds.
The Face-Eater Moths were everywhere. They came, flooding the walls of Liscor, clawing at the glowing field of energy that sprang up around the Drake City, biting at the magic barrier, swarming over the inn. They chittered as the magics slowly began to fail. The noise—a fourth giant moth crawled out of the rift, and then a fifth. They chittered as they came. The noise filled the air, made the walls and ground vibrate. That chittering, that infernal squealing. It was everywhere, deafening. And worse—
It sounded like laughter.