There were about two hundred varieties of fish in the waters outside of her inn. Erin had been told at least a quarter of them were objectionable in some way, so she stared hard at the dead Quillfish’s insides.
“It doesn’t look poisonous. And my [Dangersense] isn’t going off. My [Advanced Cooking] says I can cook it—what do you think, Mrsha?”
She held up the Gnoll and let Mrsha eagerly sniff the fish, which had been carefully descaled and dequilled by Erin. She’d been wearing gloves. Now the fish was in fillet form. Mrsha sniffed it a few seconds longer and then gave Erin the nod.
Having passed three of her tests, Erin decided the Quillfish was safe to eat. So she cut the fillet into smaller pieces and found a lemon. She squeezed it, rubbed it into the fillet, and then found flour and put a pan on the stove. The fire was already going and Erin had put enough fuel in the stove to last her a while.
“Pass me an egg, Mrsha?”
Erin mixed the flour up with a bit of dried breadcrumbs and a tiny bit of powdery cheese. Then she pressed the fillets into the mixture. She took the egg Mrsha handed her, cracked it into a bowl, added some water, and then dipped the fillet in the egg before returning it to the flour. Soon she had a coating on each fillet and her pan was hot.
“Oil—thanks, Mrsha. Stay back from the pan, you might get hit by oil spatters!”
The [Innkeeper] ushered Mrsha back as the Gnoll greedily watched her place the first fillet on the pan. The fish pieces browned quickly and soon Erin had many little fried pieces of fish. They were mostly circular and looked sort of like potato chips. They were meant to be bite-sized and the result pleased Erin. She absently smacked Mrsha’s paw as the Gnoll reached for one.
“Not yet. It needs the finishing touch.”
So saying, Erin reached for a dark brown bottle of sauce filled with little seeds and dried spices. Erin tasted a bit. Her eyebrows shot up in approval.
“Mm. Gnolls make good sauces. This one’s spicy. Want some, Mrsha?”
She fed the Gnoll a spoonful of the spicy fish sauce, watching Mrsha lick her chops and then poured it over the fish pieces. Lightly—she could always add more. Erin thought for a moment and then found her mayonnaise. The condiment was hard to make, but she felt it had a place here.
“Chives? Where are…oh, there they are.”
Erin found a bunch of fresh chives sitting out in the open, ignoring all health codes or refrigeration standards. She checked them carefully before she began chopping them up.
“It’s not that they get bad, but now some of my veggies start growing! And bugs still love eating them. You tell me if you see any of them crawling in here, okay, Mrsha?”
The Gnoll nodded and snatched her paw back from the fish flakes as Erin turned her head. She watched as Erin mixed the chives into the yellow mayonnaise, her tail beating impatiently. When Erin added the bowl of chived mayonnaise to her plate Mrsha gave her a look that said quite clearly that she would die without food in the next moment.
“Fine. Here. You may have one piece.”
Erin let Mrsha carefully select the biggest flake and dip it in the mayonnaise. The two sauces mixed as Mrsha chewed the flake carefully. The Gnoll closed her eyes as she chewed and Erin waited. Mrsha’s tail started beating faster and a smile appeared on her face. Erin smiled too.
“That’s a good endorsement.”
So saying she took the food out of the kitchen and into the common room. Mrsha jumped off the kitchen counter to follow her.
“Experimental fish flakes are ready! Anyone want a bite? On the house!”
She approached two of her early-morning guests. They were sitting apart from each other, but both looked up at Erin’s voice. Selys, tail swishing idly, and Ylawes, sitting with perfect posture in his seat.
“What’s that, Miss Solstice?”
“Breaded fish…flakes. Fresh from outside! They look like flakes. It’s a snack. Or dinner if I find a bigger fish to cut up. Want a try?”
Erin offered the plate to him. Ylawes hesitated and she wondered if breaded fish were not a thing he’d ever tried before. But Selys clearly had and Mrsha’s leaping up on the table to peer greedily at the platter convinced him. He took a piece and bit into it. Erin watched him chew and swallow before the [Knight] smiled at her.
“Ah. That is delicious. May I?”
“Sure. Selys, you want in on this?”
“Sure. Hey Mrsha, do you want to eat with me?”
Selys smiled at Mrsha as the Gnoll realized she’d get a helping too. They began eating at Ylawes’ table. The [Knight] glanced sideways at Selys and then helped himself to another fish flake.
“Did you say this was freshly caught?”
“Yup. Bird shot it this morning. He says there aren’t enough birds so he practices on the fish when he’s bored.”
“He can’t swim. How did he fetch them?”
“Oh, I had one of the Goblins go pick it up. Actually, this fish isn’t the one I got. A bunch of Quillfish were nibbling at the one Bird shot so Headscratcher grabbed them all. With his bare hands.”
“Ah, the Goblins.”
Ylawes paused in eating. He looked around, but the Goblins weren’t here. Neither were most of Erin’s guests. It was a bit too early for that; both he and Selys had arrived at the early morning shift, before Erin’s usual crowd showed up. The Goblins were, in fact, busy sparring outside of Erin’s inn. If she listened she could sometimes hear a thud when one of them hit each other particularly hard.
As for her adventurers, neither the Halfseekers nor the Horns of Hammerad liked getting up early. Back when Griffon Hunt had been around they would come down early, but the other teams liked sleeping in.
You got to know your guests. Erin knew she had about thirty minutes before the adventurers would come down so she settled down at the table. She bit into her fish flake and smiled as the hot oil and spices made her mouth water.
“Yum. Spicy, though. Hey, try dipping it in the mayonnaise, Selys.”
“Mm. This is good too. But I like spices.”
“Drakes love spices. But I’ve gotta think about my Gnoll and Human customers. You want a drink, Ylawes?”
The armored man had gotten a hot pepper seed and was flushing slightly. He nodded.
“I would be grateful.”
Erin found a tankard and filled it with milk behind the bar. She passed it to him and Ylawes drank quickly. Selys looked around.
“No Lyonette today? Is she still having…issues?”
“The opposite, actually. She’s doing well. I sent her into Liscor to do shopping while we wait to test her Skill again.”
“Oh? She got a new Skill?”
“Yeah. Would you believe it? She leveled again. She won’t tell me what level she is now, but get this—she got a rare Skill! [Flawless Attempt]!”
Ylawes looked up with interest as he dipped a fish flake in mayonnaise. Mrsha looked up as well, her mouth stuffed. Selys frowned.
“That is rare. I’ve never heard of that variation before. I’ve heard of the flawless line of Skills of course—[Flawless Strike], [Flawless Dodge], uh—”
“[Flawless Defence]. That’s a [Knight] or [Warrior]’s Skill.”
Selys nodded gratefully at Ylawes.
“Exactly. They’re good Skills. You can perform a perfect attack once every few hours. But attempt? What does that do?”
“We’re not sure. Lyonette says it’s not like the others. She can’t do things perfectly, but she does it…to the best of her abilities? She made Mrsha an omelette with it this morning.”
Both Drake and Human immediately glanced sideways at Mrsha. She looked up, her face smeared with sauce. Erin handed her a napkin which Mrsha ignored. The Gnoll started licking her fur instead.
“Doesn’t sound too impressive.”
“You’d think so, but this was a great omelette. One of the best! It wasn’t perfect, but it was close! I think that’s what the Skill does. Anything Lyonette can do she does at her best. But we have to wait for it to recharge or something.”
“Right. You can’t use active Skills right away. There’s always a cool down. But that’s a nice Skill.”
“Isn’t it? We’ve been brainstorming how to use it best. The thing is, Lyonette doesn’t need to use it for most things. I can cook and I have [Advanced Cooking] so there’s really no point in her using it there. I was sort of hoping she’d use it to play chess with me.”
“Of course, you would.”
Selys rolled her eyes. Ylawes chewed his actual breakfast, a half-finished omelette and took another sip from his cup. Erin shrugged.
“What? She said it would be interesting and my magic chessboard’s been inactive recently. Besides, new opponents are always fun. I hardly get to play as much with all the plays going on every day.”
“I heard about that. A bunch of Drakes I know are talking about visiting tonight. Something about you putting on a new play?”
“Right. We put on the Triumph of Liscor and Othello, but now the Players of Celum want to really draw in an audience so they’re going to put on Juliet and Romeo for our audience tonight. I think it’ll be a hit!”
“I haven’t seen that one. I think. I saw the one with the angry Human who kills his [King].”
“Hamlet. Or maybe you’re thinking of Macbeth? There’s a lot of killing of [Kings] in Shakespeare’s stuff.”
“Well, I’ll watch the one tonight if I have time. But I’m really here just to talk to your Goblins. It’s my day off but Grandmother insisted so here I am.”
Selys twitched her tail as she reached for a fish flake and discovered only crumbs. Ylawes brushed at his clean-shaven face with his handkerchief and glanced at Erin.
“Have they been causing trouble? Your ah, security?”
Erin glanced at him.
“Not a problem. Why?”
The [Knight] glanced at Mrsha and then cleared his throat.
“No reason in particular. Forgive me, Miss Solstice. As an adventurer I worry. Hobgoblins are a far cry from regular Goblins, and ordinary Goblins are dangerous enough. I can’t help but feel as though the ones in your inn are similar to a group I met in Esthelm. Those were dangerous fighters. Although, they were honorable in their own way.”
He broke off, musing to himself. Erin paused as Selys rubbed Mrsha’s tummy. The Gnoll was happily stuffed and content to let the Drake comb through her fur with one claw.
“Well, you can listen to Selys lecture them about becoming adventurers.”
Ylawes nearly spat his drink out.
“Becoming—are you serious?”
“Mhm. Selys got her grandmother to approve the paperwork. They’ll be a Bronze-rank team. They won’t go into Liscor obviously, but this way they can earn money killing monsters.”
The [Knight] stared at Erin, aghast. He shifted his gaze to Selys and the Drake gave him a nod and a rueful grin.
“You are serious. Silver and steel. Miss Solstice, I must protest. Goblins are not—”
“Adventurer material? Funny, I bet people say the same thing about Antinium. And guess who’s on your sister’s team?”
Erin sat back at the table as Ylawes frowned. She glanced at her stairs. Yvlon was probably still upstairs. She always came down with her hair combed and her armor on. That was dedication.
“You’re here to see Yvlon, right?”
Ylawes frowned, caught off-guard by the change in conversation. He hesitated and then nodded.
“I’d like to talk with her, yes. I can’t help but feel she’s been avoiding me of late.”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
Erin rolled her eyes. Ylawes frowned.
For a second Erin wished she had a mug to polish. That was a very [Innkeepery] thing to do, she felt. She shrugged as she poked Mrsha’s stomach and made the Gnoll giggle silently.
“She’s your sister. You tell me.”
“Would that I could. But I’ve never been able to understand my sister’s mind. I would be grateful if you could advise me.”
Erin paused, frowning.
“I’m just an [Innkeeper]. I shouldn’t have to tell you. Although I could give you psychiatric help. The doctor is in!”
She grinned, struck by a nostalgic thought. Ylawes just looked blank.
“Advice. For five copper coins.”
Erin didn’t really expect Ylawes to bite. She was just teasing him and indulging herself. But when the [Knight] reached for his belt pouch and produced the coins, Erin had to find a mug to shake them in. Selys and Ylawes watched, although the Drake knew enough to know Erin was just being weird.
“Alright, I’ve had enough fun. You want advice, Ylawes? When your sister comes down the stairs, don’t ask her to come back to your home or tell her your family misses her. In fact, don’t tell her what to do. Just say hi and have a nice chat.”
“I wasn’t going to—”
Ylawes broke off, and Erin nodded knowingly.
“See? That’s honesty. Which is good! You were going to ask her if she wanted to return home, weren’t you? She’d hate that. That’s why she doesn’t want to talk to you. That, and she resents you being here.”
“She resents me being here? Why?”
This time both Selys and Erin sighed as one. Mrsha copied them happily. Ylawes looked at them, confused. Erin looked at him, exasperated and amused.
“Why do you think? You’re her big older brother, coming to tell her what to do and ‘protect’ her when she’s a grown woman! Plus, you’re the thing she wants to be. A [Knight], a Gold-rank adventurer…all the things she failed to become. I just bet she always got compared to you growing up, didn’t she?”
“She did. I never gave it any thought. But how could you know that?”
Ylawes looked stunned, which greatly pleased Erin. She gave him her most mysterious smile.
“Let’s just say I had a feeling. Do you trust me now?”
The [Knight] had to nod. Selys gave Erin an admiring look.
“You’re pretty good at this advice thing, Erin. Is it because of your class? Or a Skill?”
“Nah. I mean, maybe it is but this kind of story was really common back in my—uh country. In any…country, I bet. But you’re right, I am good at this! Hey, maybe I should open up a side business!”
“Before you do that—”
Ylawes coughed and all three females turned their gaze back to him. Mrsha, Selys, and Erin—three races, alike in their exasperation for a brother’s lack of understanding. Well, maybe not Mrsha. She was just pretending. But she was having fun, which was the key. Ylawes stroked his chin, frowning.
“You say Yvlon’s trying to get out of my…shadow. But then why did she agree to let me help her explore the dungeon? And why hasn’t her team entered the dungeon yet? I know they’re prepared. But every time I ask Miss Springwalker I get only evasive answers. That was why I came to talk to them today, actually.”
Erin’s smiled faded a bit. She took a deep breath.
“Hoo boy. Um…that’s a different reason altogether.”
“Would you explain it? My teammates are growing tired of waiting. As am I.”
Again Ylawes reached for his belt pouch but Erin stopped him. She chewed her lip and threw a quick glance up the stairs. No one was coming down yet.
“Alright, but this is secret.”
“You want me to leave?”
“Not that secret, Selys. It’s just—okay, here’s why. Ylawes, I know Calruz might be alive in the dungeon. Even though the odds are like a thousand to one.”
“Quite. The idea of someone surviving down there is remote. But there is a possibility, which makes it imperative to act now. I cannot understand why the Horns hesitate.”
Erin toyed with the empty platter.
“Maybe because of the past. If I told you that Ceria casts [Silence] on her and Yvlon’s room every night, would you understand?”
“Not in the slightest. Why would that be all important?”
Ylawes looked mystified. Erin sighed. Again she looked towards the empty stairs and then lowered her voice.
“It’s because Ceria wakes up screaming every other night. And Yvlon too. Pisces tells me they did it while they were exploring Albez, too.”
“Because of the dungeons, Ylawes.”
The [Knight] paused. His furrowed brows unknit and he sat back. He closed his eyes.
Selys looked at the two Humans and then stroked Mrsha’s head. She shook her own sadly.
“Nightmares about the crypt?”
“They still remember it. Obviously. Both of them lost their entire team—Yvlon was in charge. And they fought Skinner and Ceria was trapped for days inside a coffin with nothing to eat. I think Olesm has nightmares too, but he doesn’t talk about them.”
“I can’t imagine he wouldn’t. Even the best adventures have to deal with trauma. We’re told to prescribe sleeping potions and get them to good [Healers], but most never go.”
Selys looked sadly at her claws. Lines appeared around Ylawes’ eyes as he grimaced.
“I should have recalled. Yvlon didn’t talk long about it, but of course—of course she remembers. And fears going into the dungeon again.”
He shook his head bitterly.
“If that’s the case, I should go in with my team and tell her—“
Erin cut him off forcefully. Ylawes stared at her. She frowned, vexed.
“Haven’t you been listening? The worst thing you could do is bring that up. Leave them be, Ylawes. Let them enter the dungeon when they’re ready. It won’t be long.”
“But if they fear it—”
“Ceria won’t abandon Calruz. She’s going to enter the dungeon.”
“And if she waits longer?”
“Then the Halfseekers or Griffon Hunt will get in there. They’ve been untrapping the dungeon’s entrance for nearly a month now. Either way, someone will find Calruz if he’s alive. But telling them not to enter, telling them you’ll handle it? Don’t do that. How would you react if someone said that to you?”
Ylawes was silent. Caught, perhaps, with the novel idea of introspection. At last he raised his head.
“I see. Thank you for your advice, Miss Solstice. The best course would be to handle matters…differently.”
She eyed him.
“Planning on entering the dungeon without telling Yvlon?”
The golden-haired adventurer jumped. Erin sighed again. He really was easy to read. Like an open book with big letters and pictures.
“I won’t stop you. If Calruz is alive, someone has to save him. Just promise me—”
She broke off as she heard a creak from the stairs. Everyone looked up as Ksmvr marched down the stairs.
“We are arriving at breakfast approximately two minutes later than average, Captain Ceria.”
A dark brown Antinium descended the stairs, followed by a bleary half-Elf, a yawning [Necromancer], and a woman with gold hair and bright metal armor. Behind them, Moore edged down behind the pale-scaled Jelaqua and Seborn appeared at the foot of the stairs, scratching at the crustacean half of his face with his claw. The Horns of Hammerad were up, as were the Halfseekers. Jelaqua sniffed the air happily and wagged her tail.
“Hey, what’s that smell? Isn’t it great to have a working nose? Well, nose holes. Hey, if it isn’t Ylawes.”
Yvlon nodded cautiously at Ylawes. Erin shot him a quick glance, but the [Knight] only smiled.
“Good morning, Yv. I was just stopping for the morning. Erin treated me to her latest creation. I won’t be stopping long.”
A look of relief flashed by Yvlon’s face and Erin mentally raised Ylawes’ subtlety score a few points in her mind. She hurried towards the kitchen as the adventurers took seats nearby and saw the door open. Lyonette stumbled into the inn, drenched. Mrsha ran over to her and Erin saw a bee take wing. The young woman was holding several bulky bags filled with food and supplies.
“Lyonette! Good timing! Need a towel?”
The [Barmaid] already had one, courtesy of the towel rack and Mrsha. She wiped her face, smiling happily. And then the front door opened and the Redfang Goblins, wet, sweaty and bruised, trooped in. They paused when they saw the crowd. Erin made a face. Her inn had a habit of getting busy real fast. She counted heads.
“Alright, who wants fish flakes and who wants omelette? Hands?”
Everyone looked at her. They exchanged glances. Jelaqua leaned forwards, excitedly.
“What’s a fish flake?”
The rest of the Silver Swords and Griffon Hunt appeared for breakfast not ten minutes later. They trooped into the inn. Neither team of Gold-rank adventurers was wet—the three [Mages], Revi, Typhenous, and Falene had seen to that. They were just in time to try Erin’s new fish flake snack and get some regular food of their own. The inn was noisy with conversation as the adventurers began a strategy meeting for the umpteenth time. Selys listened with one earhole as she sat in front of the Redfang Goblins.
“So. I’m uh, a [Receptionist] for the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. Erin asked me to talk to you. Well, my grandmother did. She’s the [Guildmistress] and we—we need to make a few things clear.”
She was trying not to babble. But Selys had somehow forgotten how scary five Hobs could be, especially when they were sitting right in front of her. She wished Erin was here. Or Mrsha. But Erin was busy cooking and the traitorous Gnoll had left to go play tag with Apista, which mainly involved her leaping from table to table as the bee flew away. Selys cleared her throat again.
“Erin proposed this, not me. But I agreed to it. The thing is, you’re Goblins.”
The Goblins stared at Selys. They exchanged glances as if this was news. Selys went on.
“And you’re…good fighters. In fact, you went into the dungeon. And came back with treasure. That’s phenomenal. Really. So—and Erin proposed this—we thought you’d be able to earn the city money. And yourselves money. Fighting monsters. As adventurers. We’re going to make you a Bronze-rank team.”
The Redfang Warriors’ jaws dropped. Selys, who had been nervously expecting their reaction, blinked in gratified surprise. The Hobgoblins stared at her and one of them—Numbtongue?—croaked.
“That’s right. We’ll grant you the rank and let you turn in bounties. Uh, by proxy. But you’ll be paid for certified monster kills and turning in useful parts—you could even do a request. If anyone agrees to work with you, that is.”
The Redfang Goblins exchanged glances. They looked dumbstruck. Adventurers. It seemed to matter greatly to them for reasons Selys didn’t understand.
“Does this sound like something you’d want?”
Instantly all five Goblins nodded energetically. Erin, who’d been hurrying to their table with a plate of fish flakes, beamed.
“Did they say yes? Selys, you should have waited! Congrats, guys! I thought it would be a cool thing to do!”
The Goblins stared at her, and then at Selys. The Drake nodded, feeling less nervous than before.
“It is good, Erin. They’ll be able to earn money and they’ll be sanctioned—even if I doubt Watch Captain Zevara would ever open the gates for them. But they can still earn money. They just have to know the rules. There are things adventures have to do. For instance, there is a yearly fee as well as an entrance fee which Erin paid on your behalf—”
The Goblins shifted their attention to Erin. She smiled at them as she sat. The Goblins looked back at the [Receptionist] sitting across from her. Adventurers? Like Garen Redfang? They were agog. They listened with rapt attention as Selys went over their obligations, many of which Erin had never known about.
Adventurers were bound by more than just a varied interest in treasure. There were many small rules that varied between Adventurer’s Guilds, but a few common ones united adventurers universally. They were subject to the Guild’s authority and while that usually depended on the [Guildmaster] for enforcement, it also depended on the city they worked from.
“In times of crisis any city with an Adventurer’s Guild can demand for you to aid in its defense. You can refuse, but you stand to lose your rank and even be expelled from the Guild, especially if your reasons for refusing are bad. Generally if the request is reasonable and you don’t believe you’ll be in mortal peril, you’re required to lend your assistance. And the city is also required to compensate you for your time and effort.”
“Like with the moths, right?”
“That’s a good example, Erin. Also, a city collects a fee on any artifacts recovered within its jurisdiction. As does the Adventurer’s Guild. I think that’s why Grandmother agreed to making you adventurers, really. Next time you recover treasure or anything from the dungeon, you’ll have to pay a small tax on that to the guild.”
The Goblins exchanged a glance. One of them looked worriedly towards a table. There were three mages sitting around it. Typhenous, Pisces, and Falene. All three were inspecting the artifacts the Redfang Warriors had recovered.
A white bundle of cloth. A bell made of two types of metal. And a necklace with a glowing symbol etched on the black stone. All three mages were taking extreme care not to touch any of the artifacts directly and that went double for the bell. Selys noticed their anxious looks.
“Don’t worry. Those don’t count. But if you get items next time—did I mention you could earn money through bounties?”
The glowing red eyes swung back towards her. Selys nodded carefully.
“There’s bounties on all kinds of monsters. Sometimes because they’re a nuisance—you can earn money by turning in dead Quillfish, although it’s not much.”
“Just give them to me and I’ll make food. That’s more profitable.”
“Right. But there’s stuff that’s worth a lot more! Shield Spider shells for instance. An unbroken shell is worth a lot so the Guild will pay you for any you recover. You can earn money from killing the new Raskghar—the city’s put a bounty on them—killing Lurkersnatch Fish, turning in enchanted armor which is good for melting down, and so on. There’s all kinds of stuff you can earn money from collecting! Even low-level monsters can be worth a lot. There are slime cores, Dropbat teeth, Corusdeer horns—”
Numbtongue spoke softly. Selys gulped. Erin sat up.
“That’s right. Only no one’s attacking you. It would be a crime to attack another Bronze-rank team. Isn’t that right, Selys?”
The Drake nodded.
“They would have to identify themselves. But yes, it is illegal to attack an adventurer. So…”
She looked at the Hobgoblins. They stared at each other and made a few gestures she could’t explain. Then they stood up. Selys scooted her chair back as the Hobgoblins looked at her. Headscratcher spoke.
“We do it. We be adven—”
He stumbled over the word. He was a lot less fluent than Numbtongue.
The word was almost reverential. Selys nodded and saw some heads staring her way. Revi shook her head slowly.
“So much for standards.”
Erin glared at her. The Stitch-Woman didn’t so much as blink. The Redfang Goblins stared at her, and then seemed to put her out of their minds. They looked at each other and patted each other on the shoulders. Then their heads turned as Pisces pushed his chair back from the table. He looked around importantly.
“I am positive that the necklace is cursed.”
All the side conversations in the inn went quiet. Ceria looked up as she chewed on her second plate of fish flakes, extra spicy.
“You sure, Pisces?”
“Positive. The enchantment is simply too suspicious. The intent of casting, the gripping spell that would keep it from being removed—I can categorically state that it is cursed.”
“What an astute observation. Which I had made ten minutes ago.”
Falene smiled cattily at Pisces. He flushed and narrowed his eyes.
“You brought up the speculation. I am making a definitive statement.”
“I note the difference. The real question is, are the other two cursed? Or do they exude harmful effects?”
“That is uncertain. And I am getting a headache trying to puzzle it out. Neither artifact is straightforwards—the cloth is certainly not spelled as a simple protective garb, if it is clothing at all.”
Typhenous rubbed at his eyes, frowning into his white beard. Pisces looked around, annoyed.
“Well, we have identified one of the possible dangers. It is entirely likely the other two are beneficial—the dungeon makers would have had to hide their treasures somewhere.”
“Assuming they didn’t make everything cursed.”
Revi muttered under her breath. Jelaqua nodded.
“Identifying the scary artifacts is good, kids, but even if you’re fairly certain the other ones aren’t trapped, who’s going to test them out? Any volunteers? I can replace my body and I wouldn’t do it if you paid me. This needs a real [Enchanter].”
All eyes swung towards the Redfang Goblins. They stared at the artifacts. Rabbiteater picked at his nose. Instantly, all eyes swung away in disgust. Erin sighed. It looked like there would be more trouble still. She wondered if she should see about making food in preparation for tonight—there would be a crowd from Liscor for the play! Then she glanced over her shoulder and swore.
“Damnit—Lyonette! When did we last check the door?”
Lyonette rushed over to the magic doorway. She checked it—the bright green mana stone told her it was attuned to Celum. The [Builders] still hadn’t finished the bridge to Liscor so the only means of getting to the city was via the doorway. But that meant that if they didn’t check it, no one could get through via Celum or Liscor.
Normally they had Ishkr or Drassi or one of the new helpers change the door every ten minutes. It was a royal pain, but they’d gotten a system working. Unfortunately the help only arrived at lunchtime and until then Erin and Lyonette had left people hanging. Lyonette fumbled with the little bowl beside the door.
“We’re late for our daily check in with Pallass!”
“Don’t worry. Venim just gives us a list of people going through and it’s normally no one. He’ll just be mad is all, but I bet a [Guardsman] will have it if we ask—”
Erin broke off as Lyonette put the yellow mana stone on the door and opened it. She heard the voices.
“—do you think we must wait? Should we perhaps keep one of us here while the others—”
The door opened, bringing in sunshine, a cool breeze without a trace of rain, and an open street. Erin saw through the doorway to Pallass a group of furry people, armed with bows and light leather and hide armor, clustered in front of the doorway. They looked up and gaped as the door opened.”
“By the tribes!”
One of them exclaimed. They stepped forwards as Lyonette backed up. Erin stared as the Gnolls clustered in front of the doorway.
“Greetings! Are you in charge of the doorway? We are requesting entrance to Liscor. We have paid for transport, yes? The [Mage] will—what is the phrase? Supply the door with mana?”
A Gnoll with light grey fur called cautiously to Lyonette. She looked at Erin for instructions. Erin hesitated.
“Uh—sure! Come on in! Yeah! Just…step through!”
Cautiously, the Gnolls did. They came through in single-file, looking around, sniffing the air. Not just one or two of them. Not just three or four. Nine armed Gnolls came through, their pelts in every color from the light grey of their leader to a Gnoll with russet red fur and dark black stripes across his chest and ears. They all had bows of differing style—Erin identified some as composite bows from her crash-course in bows from Krshia, while other Gnolls had different versions. They also carried shortswords, clubs, and in one case, a nasty looking barbed spear. When all the Gnolls were through Erin saw a Drake [Mage] step back.
“Yes. Thank you.”
The Drake nodded abruptly and walked away. Lyonette hesitated by the door and then closed it. Erin stared at the Gnolls.
They regarded her with curious brown eyes. Even the shortest of them was taller than Erin by a good bit. They were lean and muscled and as they looked at the other silent adventurers, Erin got a definite sense that they weren’t here for a social visit. She knew from the way they stayed together, even the way they deferred to the grey Gnoll. These were adventurers.
And they clearly recognized the others. Some of the nine Gnolls pointed surreptitiously at Halrac and another looked straight at Ylawes.
“That is him, yes? The one who fell?”
The other adventurers exchanged glances as the Gnolls looked around as if they were spectators at some kind of show. Erin still had a lot of questions, but she put on her best smile.
All the Gnolls immediately looked at her. Erin waved at Lyonette covertly and the young woman started.
“Sorry about the delay. Really sorry. We were a bit busy and uh, forgot to check the door. Welcome to my inn! My name is Erin Solstice. I’m the [Innkeeper]. Can I get you something to drink? Something to eat? Where are you all from? You’re adventurers, aren’t you?”
The Gnoll in charge blinked down at Erin. He looked younger than some of his companions, but Erin guessed he was around her age. Younger? He bared his teeth and then seemed to realize that wasn’t socially polite in Human culture. He changed his smile to a more restrained, toothless one.
“Greetings, Miss Solstice. I am Nailren of the Fletchsing Tribe. We are adventurers. I am leader of my team—The Pride of Kelia. We thank you for your hospitality and allowing us use of your door.”
“Oh! It’s no problem. Sorry again for waiting. Wow, you’re a Gnollish adventurer team? I’ve never met an all-Gnoll team before!”
Nailren grinned proudly.
“No? Ah, it is not common in Liscor I suppose. But Gnoll adventurers are a common sight further south. We came north to tackle Liscor’s dungeon. We would be grateful to speak of it to you, yes? And to reach Liscor. We understand this inn is not part of the city and it is raining. Is there a route or boat we may hire?”
“Boat? We have something better! A magic door! But hold on—before you go to the Adventurer’s Guild why not stay for breakfast? Er—brunch?”
Erin tried to usher the Gnolls to a seat. They looked at Nailren and one of them, a female Gnoll with yellowish fur and a feather behind one ear, muttered.
“Look at the teams, Nailren! And this inn was the one in the moving pictures, yes?”
“Yes. That is, we would be honored to stay. Please, may we put our gear somewhere for a moment? We are armed for travel. I would not want to offend.”
“Oh no, I’m not offended! Please put them anywhere! Uh—how about that wall? Don’t mind the bee. That’s Apista. Lyonette, let’s get some drinks for our guests! Everyone else, move back!”
Shooing the other adventurers back, Erin scrambled to get food and drinks ready. Gnolls! They sat after putting their gear away. The other adventurers hadn’t yet spoken but as Erin and Lyonette rushed into the kitchen Jelaqua moved forwards.
“Adventurers from the south? Good to meet you. My name’s Jelaqua Ivirith! I lead the Halfseekers—don’t mind the smell. It’s a new dead body I’m using.”
She grinned at them, showing her teeth. One of the Gnolls sniffed her and audibly murmured.
Nailren didn’t miss a beat. He stood up and shook Jelaqua’s clawed hand, baring his teeth in a welcoming Gnoll smile.
“I am honored to meet a Gold-rank adventurer! And one of recent fame! May I ask who else is gathered here?”
The Gnolls in his team murmured agreement, looking at the other teams appreciatively. The adventurers preened a bit at that and began coming forwards to introduce themselves. As the ice broke, the mood instantly warmed and Erin saw them standing around the table, asking exactly how far the Gnolls had travelled, what their team specialized in, and so on. She saw Mrsha pad forwards, her tail wagging as she stood up on two legs to see the new Gnoll team.
For a second the Gnolls didn’t see her, but one sniffed and looked down. His gaze focused on Mrsha and his eyes widened. The Gnoll leapt up from the table with a shout.
The other Gnolls looked around. They stood up instantly, staring at Mrsha. She fell onto all fours and her ears and tail went down. Instantly she ran backwards and hid behind Moore. Erin stopped, hands filled with her plate full of fish flakes. Nailren was growling at the Gnoll who’d shouted.
“Hush, Bekr! It is a child!”
“But the fur—”
Nailren turned, saw Erin staring and reached back to cuff his teammate on the shoulder.
Erin put the plate carefully on the table. She saw some of the Gnolls sniff as the scent of the hot fish flakes reached their noses, but they didn’t take their eyes off of Mrsha. Erin folded her arms.
“She’s a survivor of the Stone Spears tribe. They were attacked by the Goblin Lord. She lives here. Is that a problem?”
Nailren replied instantly and authoritatively, although some of his teammates seemed less than sure. He glanced around, growled quietly, and they all sat down. Nailren lowered his head to Erin.
“My deepest apologies Miss Solstice. We are not as…traditional as our tribes. We do not bear hostility or fear towards those with white fur, but it is a surprise.”
“I understand. But Mrsha is friendly. Isn’t that right, Mrsha?”
Erin tried to coax Mrsha out from behind Moore’s back, but the Gnoll child was scared now and refused to budge. Nailren looked at his companions and then growled something softly. Erin had no idea what he said, but he seemed to repeat himself after a second.
Another Gnoll, the female with the feather and yellow fur, echoed the growl and Mrsha slowly came out from behind Moore. She approached slowly as everyone watched and her tail wagged a bit. She stood up and waved a paw at them. Nailren looked confused. He glanced at Erin and she realized the second miscommunication.
“Mrsha can’t speak.”
That second piece of information did its round across the Gnoll faces. Nailren looked at his companions and shook his head.
“Forgiveness. Again. We are glad to see a Gnoll child, especially after travelling the Drake cities. Please ignore our rudeness.”
He glanced at the others and then quite obviously changed the subject.
“Is this Deki paste that I smell? On fried fish it seems? But what is the yellow-white things? And why do the fishes smell of flour and bread?”
Erin smiled, relieved, as Lyonette gathered Mrsha into her arms and Moore sat back so the Gnoll could watch with him.
“These are fish flakes! Here—try some.”
Crisis averted, the Gnolls sat and the other adventurers found themselves hungry for a snack after breakfast. Erin rushed back into the kitchen and paused.
“Oh damn, I forgot. Lyonette? Check if anyone’s in Celum. Octavia might be starving to death. Again!”
The [Barmaid] put down Mrsha and stood up. Eager to help, Mrsha raced to the door and removed the yellow stone herself. As the others watched she put another mana stone on the door and swung it open. Instantly, Erin heard another voice, a woman’s, speaking loudly and with great irritation.
“For the last time Miss [Alchemist], we are not buying one of your potions. We already bought something out of courtesy. No, we don’t need another healing potion. Or a stamina potion. Or a mana potion. We have plenty! Please take that bottle away before I shove it up—”
There were more people standing in Octavia’s shop. A woman was arguing with the Stitch-Girl, poking her finger at Octavia who was giving her a desperate smile and holding a glowing yellow potion. The adventurer was flanked by five teammates, all Human, and as they turned they stared.
One of them exclaimed. Erin saw the woman arguing with Octavia shift and the weapon on her back, a sledgehammer of all things, caught the light. Her companions were decked out with other fighting gear including ropes slung across shoulders, crossbows, swords, and even a net! They were adventurers too. And they stared into Erin’s inn.
“It really is a magic doorway! Look at that, Earlia!”
“I see that! Hallo there! Is this inn open?”
Earlia, the woman with the sledgehammer, called at Mrsha, who was the one she could see. Mrsha immediately ran for it and hid behind Moore again. Erin hurried into view.
“Hello! Hello! We’re in! Come on through! Anyone want food? I’m Erin!”
The adventurers stared at her and then Earlia grinned.
“Alright then! Pile on through you lot!”
They hurried into the inn with a bit too much eagerness. Erin saw Octavia sigh and peered at her suspiciously. The [Alchemist] waved and then the door closed. Suddenly the inn was full of people! Erin saw the adventurers gaping at the huge space behind her and was acutely grateful for her [Grand Theatre] Skill.
“Sit anywhere you like! Put your stuff anywhere you like! Hi, I’m Erin. This is my inn. I’m terribly sorry for the delay—you’re the second band of adventurers who’ve come through this morning! These are all other adventurers—want food?”
“Dead gods, what a lot of teams! Is this some kind of inn that caters to adventurers?”
Earlia stared around at the other teams. She shifted her warhammer and then caught sight of one of the Redfang Goblins standing at the back of the inn. She immediately changed grips.
Her teammates instantly grabbed for their weapons. Erin waved her hands frantically.
“Wait, wait, wait!”
She needn’t have shouted. As soon as Earlia had exclaimed she was shouting at her teammates.
“Hold! Hold, damn it all! They’re not attacking!”
She’d made the obvious conclusion that if the Hobs were in the inn with the adventurers, they couldn’t exactly be rogue monsters. Still, half of her teammates refused to put down their weapons. Erin saw some of the Gnolls shifting uneasily too. She waved her hands for everyone’s attention.
“Excuse me! We have an important rule in this inn! Please read that!”
She pointed to the sign she’d put on the wall right by the doorway. The adventurers read it.
“No killing Goblins?”
They exchanged incredulous looks, but Earlia nodded as if she’d expected it. She whistled softly as she glanced at Erin and then looked around the giant common room.
“So the rumors are true after all.”
The adventuress nodded. She stowed her warhammer against a wall and held out a hand. Erin shook it, feeling her rough calluses. Earlia gave her a cocksure grin.
“Sorry about that, Miss. Yes, the rumors! I didn’t believe it myself—though we’d have to travel for another four days to get to Liscor! But we heard all manner of talk the closer we got to Celum. People say there’s a crazy inn just outside of Liscor with Hobgoblin security and a magic doorway. They say the inn’s guarded by Hobs and Hollowstone Deceivers, and that the innkeeper can melt folks with her eyes!”
Erin was flattered. Earlia laughed.
“Not just that! We heard for a fact that the inn’s got more than a few tricks up its sleeve. This place fought off hundreds of moths during the Face-Eater Moth attack on Liscor! It’s famous! Uh, what’s the name of it?”
“The Wandering Inn!”
She didn’t know whether to be indignant or happy. Erin propped her hands on her hips.
“And I’m Erin! Erin Solstice! I told you that. Do people talk about me?”
Rumors had already spread about the attack on Liscor? That made sense—Wistram had broadcast the images of the battle across the world. But to Erin’s great disappointment Earlia bit her lip.
“Uh—no. We heard there’s a crazy Human living here—that you?”
“That’s me! They don’t even mention my name? What about me during the battle? What about the city?”
The adventurers were seated now and Lyonette was running from the kitchen to the common room. They were out of fish flakes so she brought out Erin’s other snacky foods. Earlia grabbed some bread and soft cheese and bit into it as she spoke, talking around her mouthful.
“Not much, honestly! Everyone’s talking about the battle for Liscor, but only how intense it was. We heard all about it as we were headed this way. Second-hand. Apparently there are recordings, but no one had a scrying orb to show us so we got it out of a [Mage] who’d seen most of it.”
“Recordings of the battle?”
Erin saw a stir among the adventurers. It was Nailren who nodded and replied.
“Pallass is selling the recollection. It is an expensive thing. A playback of events. Apparently Wistram has created many minor magical artifacts that replay the battle in its entirety. They call them…what was the word? Movies, yes? We paid to see the battle. The price was dear, but worthwhile, yes?”
Erin’s jaw dropped. Pisces glanced at her face and his eyes narrowed. The other team of Humans looked envious.
“You saw it? I heard it was a hell of a fight! Of course, some adventurers lived it. Real badasses helped hold the line I heard! Took down a moth as tall as the walls of the city themselves!”
At her words some of the aforementioned badass adventurers turned red. Earlia glanced at them. Her eyes widened.
“Five Houses! Look you lot!”
She pointed straight at Moore. The half-Giant blinked. Earlia’s jaw dropped. Her eyes found Seborn and then, swung to Jelaqua as she identified the Selphid. She got to her feet in amazement.
“You must be the Halfseekers! And are you the Silver Swords?”
She’d spotted Ylawes, Falene, and Dawil as well. The adventurers nodded or bowed or in Moore’s case, waved a gigantic hand. Earlia’s team exclaimed and all stood up. They wanted to shake hands but a loud sound interrupted them.
“There’s another famous team here as well, you know.”
Revi and Typhenous looked disgruntled at not being identified. The Stitch-Woman folded her arms and Earlia’s team of Humans exchanged looks. The young woman stared at Revi and Typhenous and then looked at Halrac. His answering scowl made her eyes flicker.
“Halrac the Grim? Griffon Hunt?”
They nodded and Earlia’s team was star struck all over again. One of them exclaimed as they turned to shake hands.
“I heard you were a team of four!”
And like that, the good mood in the inn went out. Erin looked at Halrac sadly and guiltily and then clapped her hands. Everyone turned towards her.
“Alright, let’s get this sorted so I’m not confused! We have Goblins! Yes! We have Mrsha! Wave, Mrsha. She’s cute. I’m Erin! This is Lyonette! And we have six adventuring teams in here so far! Griffon Hunt! The Halfseekers! The Silver Swords! The Horns of Hammerad! The Pride of Kelia and…”
Erin looked expectantly at Earlia. The adventurer stood up.
“Sorry you all! Should have done that sooner. We’re Gemhammer! A Silver-rank team from the north! The name’s Earlia—I’m the Captain.”
“And we are a Silver-rank team from the south. I failed to mention that. I am Nailren, leader of my team.”
Nailren spoke, bowing slightly. The new adventurers looked around, surprised.
“Three Gold-rank teams here? That’s a sight you wouldn’t see that often in Invrisil! Sorry we didn’t recognize you. It’s just that the Halfseekers are a lot more noticeable.”
Earlia turned towards Griffon Hunt, all of whom shrugged moodily. Nailren looked at the other teams and bowed slightly to Jelaqua.
“The Halfseekers are known in the south of Izril as well. We were impressed by the battling of all three of your teams. Truly courageous. Sir Halrac’s defeat of the giant moth by himself was astounding, as was the Silver Sword’s prowess. But the Horns of Hammerad also astounded, truly.”
At that, Earlia glanced towards the Horns, who were sitting back, slightly overshadowed by their illustrious colleagues. She offered them an apologetic smile.
“Horns of Hammerad? I’m afraid we haven’t even heard of your team. We’re from far up north, past Invrisil. We’ve been on the road for the last month, ever since we heard about the dungeon!”
“They were part of the fighting against the moths. One of them actually cast the weather spell that ended the battle.”
“You did? Incredible! We heard about that? Are you a [Weather Mage]?”
Earlia looked at Pisces, and then Ceria. Both demurred and then Earlia spotted Ksmvr.
“I am Ksmvr. Hello.”
Erin looked around desperately. There was no end to the explanations! She looked at Lyonette and pointed.
“Break out the whiskey, Lyonette. I think we need a few drinks so everyone can get to know one another.”
That idea was received well by all parties, except by the newcomers, strangely enough. Earlia raised a hand.
“Oh, not for us. We can’t drink now.”
Nailren nodded. He was looking out the window at the pouring rain and sniffing. He coughed politely and looked to Erin.
“As much as we would delight in talking, we cannot drink or eat overlong. We are bound for the dungeon as quickly as possible. And we would greatly appreciate directions.”
Earlia nodded and shifted her grip on her warhammer. The other adventurers stared at them. Revi was the first to speak up.
“Are you serious?”
“A Gold-rank dungeon. When was the last time one of those has been discovered? A century ago? Two?”
Earlia shook her head wonderingly. She hadn’t heard the latest news about the dungeon, that Tekshia had proclaimed it suitable for teams of Gold-rank or higher. Neither had The Pride of Kelia. They sat at their tables as Ylawes, Jelaqua, and Revi delivered the bad news in turns. Earlia shook her head.
“I can see why, though. Isn’t the dungeon underwater at the moment? It’d be a hell of a thing for a Bronze-rank team to enter. And the moths that came out—that’s Gold-rank for sure.”
“Exactly. So sorry that the Adventurer’s Guild hasn’t spread the word. But that’s the way it is. You can probably find some work dealing with the fish or something, but I’m afraid you’ve come all this way for nothing.”
Revi gave both teams a sweet, fake smile of regret. Earlia eyed her and looked at Nailren. The Silver-rank Gnoll Captain was looking at his team. He bowed his head, his ears twitching slightly.
“A danger indeed. We have heard rumors about the dungeon. Treasure obtained, monster hordes…it is a threat worthy of the rank.”
Earlia sighed. Then she slapped her knees and stood up.
“Alright, let’s go in. Nailren, want to cooperate until we get into the dungeon? Word is it’s a labyrinth so we can split up easily.”
The Gnoll grinned as he stood with his team.
“You read my mind, yes? We can at least hire a boat together. Shall we?”
They strode for the doors. The Gold-rank teams scrambled to stop them.
“Wait, wait! Didn’t you hear? This is a Gold-rank dungeon!”
Revi looked outraged. Earlia stared at her and then frowned.
“So? So it’s dangerous you moronic—”
Revi was muffled by Ylawes as he moved to block her. The [Knight] smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry Miss Earlia, but the dungeon is truly dangerous. A Silver-rank team should not enter it. Even we Gold-rank teams hesitate to venture further in unwary. The Halfseekers have been cooperating with Griffon Hunt to enter via one entrance for two months and they have still encountered many, many setbacks. It would not be right for us to let another team enter when so many have perished or unleashed horrors by mistake.”
Earlia heard Ylawes out, nodding and looking concerned. Then she shrugged.
“Thanks, but we didn’t come this way to turn back now. Gold-rank or not, we’re entering this dungeon.”
She tried to brush past Ylawes. He moved to block her. Earlia frowned and put a hand on her warhammer’s hilt.
“Hey. Stop joking around here.”
Jelaqua answered for the others. She folded her arms, her tail curling up around one leg.
“I know you came all this way, but you kids are in over your heads. We can’t let you enter the dungeon. And the Adventurer’s Guild and the city will back us.”
The Human and Gnoll adventurers looked at each other. Earlia stood straighter to confer with Nailren.
“Might be best to head in right now if the Adventurer’s Guild and the city’s going to cause a fuss.”
“Are you insane?”
Revi burst out. Earlia gave her an impatient look.
“Maybe? Move aside, Gold-ranks. We’re going in. My team and I did not ride for a month straight just to turn back now.”
“What about caution for your lives?”
Ylawes folded his arms. Earlia snorted.
“Caution is for Gold-rank teams, old man. We’ll never succeed if we hide and run from every challenge. Or have you forgotten what makes us adventurers?”
She jabbed a thumb at her chest.
“We know the dungeon’s above our pay grade. But that doesn’t mean we can’t handle it with luck and Skill. We’ll go in, get our measure of the place, and go out. We might get killed, we might not. But if we don’t try, who’ll conquer it? You lot? No thanks. There’s treasure down there and we mean to have it.”
“Exactly. We have come for the dungeon. It is wrong of you to try and stop us. If it is death we seek, let us find it and fight it with tooth and claw.”
Nailren growled and his team growled with him. The Gold-rank adventurers looked at each other uncertainly. Earlia tried to step around Ylawes and this time ran straight into Dawil.
“Hold on, Human. You may not know this, but the last group of adventurers set off the attack on Liscor.”
The others looked at him askance, but Dawil went on, never taking his eyes off of Earlia.
“They had no idea what they were doing, bumbling about. How’ll you lot account for the dead if you screw up?”
He looked up challengingly at Earlia and Erin held her breath. But the young woman didn’t so much as blink. She bent down and grinned toothily at Dawil.
“We’ll figure that out when it happens, Dwarf. But if we were good at planning ahead we wouldn’t be adventurers.”
Her team laughed at that, and cheered, lifting their weapons. Earlia looked around and raised her voice.
“We’re going in. Danger or not. We’re adventurers. Not Gold-rank. Not yet. And we’re not running from a challenge.”
Nailren nodded. His ears slowly flattened and he drew his bow.
“It is perhaps best we met you so we could say it to your faces first, no? We will not abide by your rules. We will enter ourselves. And if you would stop us, then try.”
The Silver-rank adventurers raised their weapons. The Gold-rank ones, the ones blocking the way, put a hand on theirs but looked uneasy about a fight. Earlia looked around and called out.
“You! Horns of Hammerad! Are you with us?”
The Horns of Hammerad jumped. Ceria looked at the Humans and Gnolls.
“That’s right! We’re going in. Are you being held back by these Gold-rank teams too? Join us! We could fight down there together or join forces for reconnaissance!”
Ceria looked uncertainly at her team. Erin saw her hesitate, bite a lip. The [Innkeeper] watched as Ceria looked at the two Silver-rank teams, shining with confidence and bravado and hesitate. Ceria’s heart pounded. Her hands, flesh and skeletal, shook. Her mouth went dry.
Terror. Skinner dragged himself down the hallways, the armor of flesh on his body gaping at her. The undead charged forwards as Skinner’s red eyes shone at her. Ceria saw Gerial stride forwards, saw the hand descend. Calruz’s scream etched itself in her ears. The coffin’s stone lid was hard as she pressed her hands against it, trying not to scream.
“We’re not letting you through. Any of you.”
Ylawes drew his sword and grabbed his shield. Earlia unslung her warhammer. The adventurers in the inn braced. Erin saw Moore glance at Jelaqua who nodded slightly and Falene stand up, grasping her staff. She saw Revi raise a wand and be yanked backwards by Halrac who said something to Typhenous. But all of that was a blur because Erin was running forwards. She leapt in front of Ylawes and Earlia.
Her shout echoed in the inn and the pressure that went with it stayed all hands. Every eye fixed on Erin as she stood in front of the adventures. She turned around slowly and the pressure that had gripped everyone but Mrsha, Lyonette, and Apista faded.
“Wait one second. Put away your weapons. Listen.”
She looked at Earlia and Nailren. The two adventurer Captains stared at her with wide eyes. Erin took a deep breath.
“Look. You’ve just got here so let me lay this one you. Liscor is flooded. To get anywhere you need my magic door or a boat. And there are two entrances to the dungeon. One through the main entrance which is aboveground. But there’s tons of magical traps. It’s not been cleared yet. The other way’s through the underwater rift, which is what you’re suggesting. You’d need a boat to get out there, and you’d need to hold your breath just to sink all the way down. There are evil fish in the water. And if you get into the dungeon itself, the odds are you will be ambushed in the first five seconds.”
Earlia glanced at her team. She shook her head impatiently.
“Thanks Miss Innkeeper, but you can’t—”
Erin’s command halted Earlia’s tongue. The [Innkeeper] took a deep breath and went on.
“The ambushers are Raskghar, the distant ancestors of Gnolls. They’re big, really strong, but can’t level. They can see in the dark and use poison-tipped arrows to shoot you from afar when you enter. That’s how a lot of teams have gotten killed or maybe captured.”
Nailren snarled softly.
“We know the Raskghar. It is one of the reasons why we came. To do battle against our ancient, traitorous brethren. They do not scare us.”
“Yeah? Well, watch out for them when you enter. Get a shield. And maybe try my patented, special magic food. Lyonette?”
Erin turned. Lyonette nearly tripped as she ran forwards with a bowl of what looked like blackened rocks mixed with limes. Erin offered it to Earlia and Nailren, who sniffed it dubiously.
“Free sample. Try it. It tastes awful.”
“Why would we want to try that?”
“Because it makes you stronger? Or how about my scale soup? I have another one that makes you warm even if you’re naked in the snow. I have magic food. It won’t last forever, but it’ll even the odds.”
Earlia hesitated and looked at Nailren. She lowered her warhammer a bit.
“That’s…useful. Are you telling us you’ll sell us the food?”
“And I’ll get you a boat and escort. I know where the dungeon is.”
“What? Erin, you can’t be serious!”
Jelaqua was outraged. The Selphid strode forwards.
“You’re planning on letting this lot enter?”
“Absolutely. And I’m going to need a copy of that map. Which I will buy from you and which other people can buy from me. If you need potions, Octavia can get you extras. And I’d get more because Raskghar are the least of your worries down there! There’s Flesh Worms, undead, giant metal armor dudes, this thing that collects heads—Selys will write up a list.”
Erin ignored Selys. She locked gazes with Earlia and Nailren, looking from face to face.
“It’ll all be here tomorrow. Information, transport, everything. You can find an inn in Liscor or Celum. I’ll keep my door open. Find an inn, get settled, and if you need to, talk with the Adventurer’s Guild. But regardless, come back here and I’ll help you get into the dungeon.”
She spun and glared at Jelaqua.
Jelaqua looked furious. She pointed at the Silver-ranked adventurers.
“You’re going to get those kids killed! This is insane, even for you. If you let them go in—”
“If I don’t they’ll find another way. Or are you planning on beating them up and locking them up?”
Erin challenged the Selphid. Jelaqua opened her mouth furiously and tried to come up with a response.
She hesitated and looked at Ylawes and Halrac uncertainly. The [Knight] was scrubbing a hand through his hair, looking frustrated. Halrac folded his arms.
“Halrac! You too?”
The [Scout] nodded. Erin gave him a grateful look. She turned and faced the others.
“You can’t stop Silver-ranked teams from going in. That’s what being an adventurer is all about, right? However, I can help. This inn will be more than a place for people to rest. If adventurers are going into the dungeon, I’ll try and make sure they come back out.”
“You are insane.”
Revi poked a finger at Erin. She glared back.
“Oh yeah? You do something then! Go ahead and stop them. I’ll try and stitch you back together once the fight is over, but no promises! I’m bad with needles.”
The Stitch-Girl looked around helplessly, mouth open in outrage. But Erin knew she was right. Both The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer were ready to fight. And they were right, in a way. Erin didn’t quite look at the Horns of Hammerad.
“Playing it safe is all very well, but if they want to enter the dungeon responsibly, that’s their call. All I can do is help. That’s why I’m an [Innkeeper], not an adventurer. With that said—”
She swung back to both teams and looked at them.
“Tomorrow. You don’t rush this. You get some sleep, figure out where you’re sleeping, and come back when you’re ready. You can try going now but I guarantee you that my magic stuff and maps and so on will help. Got it?”
Earlia and Nailren looked at her. It was the Human who lowered her sledgehammer first.
“You’re as crazy as they say. I like you! We’ll do it your way, Miss Erin. You wouldn’t happen to have any rooms for us, would you?”
Erin gave her a wide, relieved smile.
“Sorry. My Hobgoblins took all but two. I have a basement open if you can’t find any inns in Liscor, though. But I’m sure Celum has space.”
Later, Erin found herself carefully writing on a piece of parchment with a quill and ink. It wasn’t easy. She had cramped handwriting and she had trouble getting it to look good, since it was meant to be read from afar. At last she gave up, had a smart idea, and went to get Lyonette.
“Why don’t you do it with your [Flawless Attempt]?”
That made everything incredibly easy. Erin watched with envy as Lyonette wrote huge words on the parchment, even managing to add a rough sketch in charcoal. When it was done, Erin plastered the parchment to the wall of her inn by the magic doorway. She paused.
“We might need a bulletin board. This works for now, though.”
Lyonette went to stand by her. She looked up and read the words she’d so carefully inscripted on the parchment.
Wanted. Information on the sightings of the Minotaur known as Calruz. He has one arm, possibly wields a battleaxe and is bad-tempered sometimes. Credible information provided under [Detect Truth] spell will be rewarded with 50 gold coins.
“Do you think it’ll work?”
“If adventurers are going down into the dungeon? Why not? This way they’ll all keep an eye out, even if they’re not actively looking. And I’m going to make sure they all come through my inn before they enter.”
Erin folded her arms and frowned with determination. Her ears still rang from her shouting match with Revi. But she knew she was right. The dungeon was a threat. It had to be entered. And adventurers would keep going in. And if they were going to go in, they might as well go in prepared.
The Gold-rank teams were smart. They were cautious. They planned ahead. But they were also sort of elitist. They wanted to keep the map, the information about the dungeon, and the right to enter to themselves. Erin understood that, but she knew it wasn’t practical. And if something wasn’t practical, what was the point? She nodded at Lyonette.
“Think the bridge is ready?”
“I think so. The Gnoll in charge told me it was nearly done.”
“Good! Then let’s check it out.”
So saying, Erin left the inn and stepped out into the rain. Still raining? Yup. Her cozy, well-lit inn was at odds with the downpour outside. Erin thought she might get more business if she let people from Liscor go to Celum or Pallass for a holiday in the sun. She stared down her hill to where the water met the land.
There was a bridge there. It was simple, made of wooden planks tied onto rope with two rope handrails. The bridge sat on the water and it stretched to a tall pole jutting out of the water. A hill, or the top of one. The [Builders] had anchored the bridge there and stretched it to another hill. Thus, the bridge zigzagged from the top of hill to hill until it reached the city.
“Weird. But they said it’s good, right?”
“It should be.”
Lyonette watched as Erin walked down the hill, slipping a bit with all the wetness, and reached the bridge. As Erin stepped onto the first plank she saw it sink into the water. Instantly, cold water filled the bottom of her indoor slippers.
Still, Erin didn’t pull back. She took another step, further onto the bridge, letting it hold her weight. The bridge sunk a tiny bit as she stepped onto the wooden boards, but it was remarkably stable. Erin wiggled her toes and smiled.
“It’s so cool! It’s underwater but not! This is great!”
“It’s also dangerous.”
Lyonette observed as she stared across the bridge as it networked from hill to hill and then finally reached Liscor’s walls. From there one had to climb a ladder up to the battlements. She frowned at the rain-thrashed waters.
“Anything could still pop out. If you’re an Antinium or unprepared for a fight, it could be risky. I won’t let Mrsha go on the bridge and I think I’d prefer to use the magic door too.”
“Definitely. But this is a way for other people to get here. Look! I think we already have visitors!”
She pointed. In the distance, Drakes were headed across the bridge. Drakes and Gnolls and a few Humans. Lots of them. Dozens already and Erin suspected there would be more to come. Behind her, she could hear the inn humming with life. The Players of Celum had already set up and they were getting ready for The Triumph of Liscor performed by their second-string cast, before they put on Juliet and Romeo for the first time in her inn for Liscor’s crowd.
“Lyonette, I feel like we’re actually successful, don’t you?”
“If your inn becomes a hub for adventurers on top of a place where plays happen every night, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be.”
Lyonette smiled at Erin. The [Innkeeper] grinned back. She looked speculatively back at the inn and shivered as the rain drenched her.
“Think it’ll work?”
“What, the plan with the adventurers?”
“No. Yes. I mean, the plan to get them to overcome their fear.”
There was a reason Ylawes had stopped objecting. Erin sighed as she looked back up to the inn. Lyonette shook her head.
“I don’t know, Erin. They’ve been through so much. Do they have to do it? Wouldn’t it be kinder to let them—”
“What? Stay here? Keep talking about doing it and never go in? Calruz might be alive, Lyonette. If this is anything like a story—he is. It might be dangerous. They might die.”
Erin gulped as her throat suddenly closed. The thought of her friends dying made her want to cry. But she didn’t. She wiped rain out of her eyes instead and took a deep breath.
“But that’s what makes them adventurers.”
The Drake stood on the balcony, dressed in rich, elegant clothing fit for a noblewoman. She looked down and spoke, her chin raised, her manner refined.
“If they do see thee they will murder thee.”
Below her, concealed in the bushes, a Human man looked up. His clothes were no less fine, but the colors muted. He had snuck here uninvited and his life was in as much jeopardy as she said. But he responded with brash confidence.
“Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet, and I am proof against their enmity.”
His words made the Drake smile unwillingly. She opened a fan to conceal her expression and replied. Pisces didn’t have to hear her to know what she’d said. He’d watched Juliet and Romeo performed countless times in Celum. Wesle and Jasi had refined their craft since then, and they embodied the [Lord] and [Lady] they were supposed to be.
“A fine performance, wouldn’t you say?”
He glanced sideways at the others sitting at his table. Ceria looked up moodily from her beef casserole. She hadn’t set into it yet, which was uncharacteristic of the half-Elf; by her side, Yvlon’s plate was equally untouched. Ksmvr was shoveling down his food like there was no tomorrow.
“What? The play? There’s certainly enough people for it.”
She glanced around the room. Erin’s [Grand Theatre] Skill afforded her a room three times as big as a normal inn, already large. It was nearly packed by Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans. Celum’s theater-loving crowd had filled some seats, but Liscor’s citizenry had finally heard of the wonders of the stage and they had come to see what all the fuss was about. So far, they hadn’t been disappointed.
“A standing ovation for The Triumph of Liscor. Subpar writing, an unctuous display of patriotism—from Humans to Drakes, I note—only redeemed by the star of the cast. Me. What would be the appropriate response to a true work of art? Wild orgies in the streets?”
Yvlon snorted and then glared. Pisces smiled, pleased at himself. Ceria grinned unwillingly and then looked morose again. Ksmvr looked up.
The Horns of Hammerad sat as they looked around the room. The Wandering Inn had risen fast, hadn’t it? From an empty house it was now a full one, and populated by movers and shakers and dancers as it were. Wall Lord Ilvriss was there, sitting with a group of Drakes. So were three Gold-rank teams, and now, three Silver-rank ones as well. The Pride of Kelia and Gemhammer had come back to eat and see the play and they were entranced. Ceria couldn’t take her eyes off them for different reasons. She played with her fork, spreading her cheese around the plate listlessly.
“Do you think they’re right, Pisces?”
He looked at her, distracted by the play.
“Hm? Ah, well, they are certainly forthright.”
“Confident to the point of suicide, perhaps.”
Yvlon frowned, looking at the Human team. She touched her arm unconsciously and Ceria glanced at her.
“Yeah. Yeah. The Gold-rankers certainly seem to think so. It’s just that they’re…well, they’re our level, aren’t they? Silver-rank. And they’re good too, according to what Selys managed to dig up on them.”
“Good isn’t enough for this dungeon.”
The armored [Wounded Warrior] spoke through tight lips. Ceria hesitated.
“Maybe. But they’re still willing to risk it. And here we are. We haven’t gone into the dungeon. It’s been a long time since Pisces told us that Calruz might be alive. So are we—I mean, am I—a coward?”
She choked on the words. Pisces looked up. Ksmvr stopped noshing and Yvlon turned.
“I’m the team leader. I was part of Calruz’ team! He was my leader. I should be telling us to go in now, but every time I want to, I freeze up. I know we have to move. I know, but—”
Ceria gestured at her hands. Pisces saw her skeletal hand, holding her fork. It was shaking so badly she could barely hold on. She tried to hold her hand with her other one, but they were both shaking. Ceria shook her head, tears springing to her eyes.
“I’m a coward! I shouldn’t be Captain. But I—I know what’s down there. I know. Things like Skinner. Maybe worse. I’m afraid, but I can’t back down! And you all need a leader! I shouldn’t be a Captain. I—”
“It’s my fault too.”
Yvlon grabbed Ceria’s arm. The half-Elf looked at her. Yvlon looked pained.
“I’m afraid too. I haven’t said anything. I agreed with you—because I lost too much too. I should have asked if we wanted to go in, really wanted to risk our lives. But I was afraid of looking cowardly. I was afraid of disappointing my brother. It’s not just you, Ceria. It’s…I’m scared.”
“I know. It’s not fair to ask you to go in. Not for Calruz. Not when we could die. When it’s so likely.”
Ceria looked at Yvlon, then at Pisces. He met her gaze and then fiddled with his utensils. Ksmvr looked around.
“But you are our Captain, Captain Springwalker. How else should we move, if not by your will?”
“Oh, Ksmvr. I can’t ask you to die for me. And this—I’m not worthy to do it.”
The half-Elf closed her eyes. She sat still as the play went on in the background. Pisces was still for a while, his eyes flicking to the play behind Ceria, and then he sighed.
“And yet, we follow you.”
Ceria looked up. Pisces pushed his plate back and looked at her, looked at Yvlon.
“You are afraid. You fear for our lives, rightly so. You have declined to enter the dungeon. Of course I was aware of this.”
“I was not.”
Ksmvr raised a hand. Everyone looked at him. Pisces cleared his throat.
“Friend Ksmvr. Now you are aware. By her own admission, Ceria calls herself a coward. Unfit for duty. Does that change your opinion of her? Of your position in the group?”
The Antinium cocked his head, thinking. He shook it.
“Never. If Captain Ceria and Yvlon fear to enter, command me. I will go in alone and find this Minotaur. I am part of the team. If my Captain fears, I will be fearless. If there is death, I will fight it.”
He looked around proudly and saw the pain in Ceria and Yvlon’s eyes. Ksmvr hesitated.
“What? You gave me purpose. You gave me a place. How could I offer you anything less?”
Ceria closed her eyes and Yvlon reached out to grab his hand. Pisces sniffed.
“Well spoken. For my part, I do not intend to die. But neither do I intend to leave this group. I have waited. The other teams prepare. Ceria, Yvlon. If you fear to enter the dungeon, say so. I will not think twice at walking away. But if you do not—”
Pisces’ eyes glittered.
“Then say so and we will follow you into that hell.”
“Even if we die?”
The [Necromancer]’s eyes shone in the dim lighting.
“I do not plan on dying. If you intend to order us to our deaths then by all means step down. But tell me there is a chance of victory and I will seize it. Point us to glory, Ceria. Did we not enter Albez ourselves? Are we adventurers or cowards? If we are the latter, why have we risked our lives and fought together? If we are the former, why are you afraid?”
A shock ran through the other three adventurers. The Horns of Hammerad looked up. Ceria felt strength return to her shaking hands. She made a fist and looked Pisces in the eye. There was a shining light there, a burning passion. She had seen it once before, in a younger man’s eyes. She felt her limbs stop shaking. She opened her mouth and heard a voice from the stage.
“If that thy bent of love be honourable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow.”
Jasi bent to stage-whisper to Wesle. The Drake gave the Human a smile full of young, reckless love. Ceria heard a sigh from the Humans and nothing from the Drakes. And then a voice.
“A Drake marrying a Human? Outrageous!”
A shout broke through the sacred silence of the play. Wall Lord Ilvriss leapt to his feet, bursting with outrage. He tried to rush the stage. Two Hobgoblins ran to stop him.
“This play is a disgrace!”
The Drakes in the audience were getting to their feet. Their beatific smiles were replaced by pure hostility as they hurled drinks and food at the shocked actors. The Humans in the crowd were stunned—until that shock turned to anger.
“What’s wrong with that? Let the girl marry him!”
“It’s not like we like your scaly faces either! Get lost you tailed freaks!”
The audience turned on each other. Shouting about the sanctity of Drake species turned into threats. The Drakes and Humans shook fists and claws and thrashed tails, and then began to hurl things at each other. From their seat the Horns of Hammerad didn’t see who threw the first punch, but as soon as it started a brawl broke out.
Drakes leapt onto tables and kicked Humans to the ground while Humans grabbed chairs, mugs, anything they could get their hands on. The five Hobgoblins began hitting Humans and Drakes alike but the angry mob was too far gone and they turned on the Goblins as well.
Ceria was shocked by the sudden turn of events. She saw Erin trying to restore order—right until someone hurled their plate of spaghetti in her face. On the stage the Players of Celum defended themselves as Drakes rushed at them. Ceria got to her feet and saw the adventurers in the room get mixed up in the fighting too.
Jelaqua was already defending herself from angry Drakes who were using this moment to object in no uncertain terms to her using a Drake’s body. Moore was a target purely based on his size. Ylawes had gotten into a brawl by trying to break it up. Griffon Hunt was standing against the walls as was The Pride of Kelia, but Gemhammer was already on their feet. Earlia punched a Drake, laughing as her friends upended their table for cover from the flying projectiles.
“Whoa. This inn is great!”
The Horns tended to disagree. They were sitting at a far wall, but the fighting was spreading fast. Yvlon spotted Ishkr pulling Drassi back to the kitchen while he tried to shield himself with a platter.
“What a mess!”
There were multiple sides. Drakes, Humans, the Gnolls who seemed keen to either escape or fight indiscriminately, and Erin’s faction. They were badly outnumbered, however. Yvlon saw Headscratcher vault over a table and kick Ilvriss in the chest. The Wall Lord roared, punched the Hobgoblin, and then was struck on the back of the head by an angry [Actor].
Ilvriss turned, decked the Human with a single blow and then grabbed a chair. Headscratcher was borne to the ground by a trio of Humans, but they all staggered as a piece of firewood cracked into their backs. Erin lowered her hands and strode forwards. The Horns could hear her shouting angrily.
“I just bought those. Can I go for one month without my inn being wrecked? One month?”
The Hobgoblins rushed to protect her as Erin expertly poked a man in the eyes and kneed him in the groin. [Bar Fighting] at its best. Ceria shook her head.
“We’ve got to get in there.”
Yvlon and Pisces looked at her. Ceria hesitated. She looked at the other two. She wasn’t talking just about the fight. She smiled ruefully.
“Yeah. I’m sure. Glory? Wealth? Power? I want all those things. I’ll be honest. This thing scares the crap out of me. We lost once. But we have a friend who might be in there. This is about more than pride, more than fear. This is personal. Let’s go kick some teeth in.”
Ceria shook as she spoke. But she was right. She looked at her friends helplessly. She was afraid—until she saw their faces. Pisces smiled and Yvlon grinned ruefully. They nodded and Ceria felt warm inside. Ksmvr stood straight and nodded.
“Well said! I will be the first to fight!”
“Wait, what? Ksmvr! I was talking about—”
The Antinium didn’t hear her. He charged into the melee, received a [Minotaur Punch] from Erin and spun once before a pair of burly Drakes smashed him to the ground.
“Cat guts! I’m going to get him!”
“Get Lyonette too!”
Ceria saw a frightened Gnoll running through the feet, being pursued by Lyonette. A Drake woman tried to attack the [Barmaid] and received a flawless counter in return. Lyonette ran after Mrsha as Apista flew overhead, bravely stinging everything and anyone she could find. Yvlon nodded.
“I’ll get Ksmvr! You get Mrsha and the others!”
No one had drawn blades yet although there were a lot of pieces of wood and jagged glass being waved around. Ceria knew that bearing steel would make the brawl a lot deadlier. Still, that didn’t mean she was going in weaponless. She made a club of ice with one hand and charged with Yvlon with a shout.
Pisces stayed back. He ducked a thrown tankard and observed the chaos at his table. He sighed. Good art had been ruined once more. Well, it was to be expected. He watched his teammates enter the fighting and rolled his eyes. But he couldn’t help but contain a smile. He muttered to himself, so softly no one else would hear.
“It’s about time.”
Then he grinned, disappeared with an [Invisibility] spell, and entered the fray. Twelve seconds later Ilvriss kicked him over a table. The Wall Lord shifted one of the rings on his clawed hand and grunted.
He turned and Erin punched him in the stomach.