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The air was warm, and the sun shone brightly as the Dragon emerged from his cave in the High Passes. The world over, spring had already turned into summer’s heat and warmth. That was simply a fact of life, which tormented the few people who knew anything about hemispheres and basic orbital theory.

But it was true. And summer brought warmth. Full harvests. And of course, life. The wildlife, fed on a longer spring than usual, was growing at breakneck speed. Goblin tribes doubled their population, herds of animals bore new young—and the monsters did the same. But if levelless nature was prolific, well, so were people.

Children were being born. Or growing. And those already grown dreamed and made their plans for a future generation. The [Lords] and [Ladies] of Izril in the north plotted, schemed, and sometimes acted outright.

In Chandrar, the nations of the desert continent waited, at odds with each other but united by a common enemy. The King of Destruction. And Baleros? The companies were still battling in the jungles—when they weren’t trying to take a break in the shade from all the heat.

Rhir, coldest of the continents save for parts of Terandria and Baleros, had a milder summer, but no less eventful. The Blighted Kingdom was moving, excited. So were the Demons. While summer gave life, it also motivated each species and nation to pursue their own ends. Individuals could shape the fate of empires. They were after all, the inheritors of this world. Children.

And there were far too many of them. The Dragon lifted his head, blinking in the daylight. He growled. He was gigantic, larger than a plane from another world. In this one, almost unrivaled for size. His scales were gold—no. Brass. They shone brighter than gold, though, as the light caught them.

The Dragon’s head rose. The mane running along the back of his long neck was like molten copper. And his eyes were mismatched, heterochromia of heliotrope and cerulean. To look into them was to see the same light stars were made of, the essence of magic. And to behold him here would be to see a myth.

A Dragon. Even in this world full of magic, they were a sight few would see in their lifetimes. A story. But one existed. At least one. Now, he raised his head, looking up towards the clear, beautiful blue sky in the towering High Passes. Above him rose the mountains, which dwarfed even Teriarch’s form a million times over. Vast peaks that rose beyond imagination. But that wasn’t what concerned the tyrant of flames.

Teriarch opened his jaws, exposing brilliant, only slightly yellowed teeth. And he roared one word upwards.

Wretches!

He breathed fire. Dragon’s fire, shot upwards. Brilliant tongues of flame, so bright and vivid, curling upwards. So hot that air ignited around the magical fire, expanding, a flaming jet filling the sky. Monsters and animals alike fled the searing heat.

But what Teriarch was aiming at didn’t flee. The Dragon exhaled, the fire burning. Then he felt a cold sting. A chill in this summer’s heat. Frost blasted down around him, and the fire travelling upwards stopped.

A blast of pure frost, of chill wind and frozen air met the Dragon’s fire and exploded as cold air and hot air met. The Dragon covered his face with one wing as debris blasted around him, though there was little real threat. He growled, roared, and shot fire up again.

Begone, you brats!

And his words were fire itself. But the torrent of fire that shot upwards was met by an equal force. It came from not one mouth, but hundreds.

Circling above the Dragon, flying high overhead, Wyverns breathed a deadly, chilling frost. The Ice Wyverns of the High Passes were tiny compared to Teriarch. But there were hundreds. No—over a thousand. This clutch was tremendous in size. And though their individual breath attacks could barely stop Teriarch’s flames, together—

Another explosion rocked the High Passes. Panting, Teriarch wheezed as the Wyverns were blown away by the blast of air. They fought to group together again, shrieking their fury. The Dragon inhaled as frost tickled his scales. He looked up and pointed. One enterprising Wyvern had swooped lower and was blasting him with cold.

“You arrogant little worm!”

He pointed. A ray of light shot from one of his talons and the Wyvern attacking him was struck by the thin, red line of light. The Wyvern didn’t so much disappear as vaporize. Teriarch saw its form rapidly turn to ash and snorted. But then he ducked as the entire weyr dove at him, shrieking and unleashing their magical frost attack.

A note about Wyverns. Unlike Dragons, who boasted the ability to speak and vast intelligence, magical power, and all-around superiority that marked their kind, Wyverns were much like the inbred cousins of Dragons…if Dragonkind deigned to acknowledge the shared ancestry at all.

Wyverns were more similar to birds, having large hindquarters, grasping talons, and enormous wingspans. However, they shared many traits to Dragons, possessing thick, scaled hides, the ability to fly despite their amazing weight and size, and, in rarer breeds, the ability to breathe magical fire, or frost or even lightning or other elements that was the hallmark of Dragon-type species. A group of Wyverns was known as a clutch, or a weyr, or as Teriarch would put it—

You lousy nuisances! This is my territory! BEGONE!

The Dragon bellowed upwards, shielding his body with his wings as the frost attack redoubled. This might have been a poor move as the Wyverns were diving, talons outstretched to rend at the Dragon, but that was because Wyverns weren’t familiar with how Dragons fought. Or at least, this one.

The leading wave of dozens of Wyverns trying to dive down towards the Dragon saw a flash. Then—nothing. Teriarch threw the glowing meteors of light upwards, chanting softly, and watched in satisfaction as they punched through the first group of Wyverns, halting their charge in their tracks. Then he exhaled again.

Fire engulfed more Wyverns. The rest aborted their dive. They couldn’t get to Teriarch without clumping up dangerously, and the two Wyverns who got past both spells and fire—Teriarch swung his tail and crushed one against a wall. The second, landing and charging to bite, looked up and beheld the size differential between it and the Dragon. And it was alone. Teriarch bit—then spat out. He uttered another oath.

“Tamaroth’s beard!”

He spat, gagged, and then glared. His mouth filled with water and he swished it around his bloody teeth. The Dragon spat it to one side.

“Disgusting.”

He glared up, realized the weyr was preparing to breathe again and shouted.

Get out of my territory! Begone, you idiotic hatchlings!

The Wyverns wavered. The force of the Dragon’s bellowing—not to mention his very nature and the way he’d slaughtered two dozen of them was intimidating. But then the milling thousands heard a scream of rage.

A huge Wyvern, even by their standards, flew downwards. The Dragon spotted the leader of the weyr at once. His scales were pearled white and blue, and he was a third of Teriarch’s size. The Wyvern leader screamed a challenge. Teriarch rolled his eyes. He blew a long stream of fire up and the leader’s frost breath met it.

The Wyvern leader lost, and was blown backwards by the explosion of air. Teriarch snorted. The Dragon raised his claw and, in a very familiar way, shook it at the Wyvern.

“You little runt! You’re a thousand years too young to challenge me! I bested your matriarch two hundred years ago, or has your entire clutch forgotten? Wait. Maybe you have.”

He eyed the impudent Wyvern. The leader was shrieking his rage, and at his command, the massed Wyverns breathed again. Teriarch saw the frost incoming and swore.

This time the wave of frost blasting down wasn’t met by fire. It froze the entire area it hit. The temperature, a summer’s day of warmth, instantly fell far, far below zero. The cold froze rocks, cracking the very stone, and everything in it for thousands of feet froze in a moment. If there had been any animals present, they would have been dead, frozen to the core. As it was, there was only a Dr—

He was gone. The Wyverns stared. They couldn’t really blink, but their minds processed the empty space where Teriarch had been for a second. The Wyvern Lord, for lack of a better title, paused. Had he won?

No. Of course not. The Wyverns hesitated. The Dragon had gone back inside his cave, refusing to duel with breath attacks again. The Wyvern Lord swooped lower, as if thinking to dare the cave’s entrance. But that would bottleneck the Wyverns. He elected to shriek instead, a pure challenge. His weyr flew around him, screaming, hoping to draw the Dragon out.

“Little impudent—every decade it feels like—reproducing as fast as damned Humans—”

Inside his cave, the Dragon known as Teriarch panted as he carried himself back inside the vast cavern that was his home. For now. Gold and magic flashed as the Dragon hurried back towards his hoard. Because of course, he had one.

It was rather neatly organized this time. At Teriarch’s whim, the gold had been stacked according to denomination, weight, and purity over here. The magical artifacts had been organized by his personal filing system here and the artwork on display here…

Even so, it was still hard to find what he wanted. Teriarch growled, exasperated as he turned his head, hurrying as he heard the screams echoing through his home.

“Where is it? Sword. Swords…no. Wait! Where did I put the Baneblade? Over there? No. Scrolls…do I have one that conjures a meteor storm? Maybe—grave rot? Absolutely not. I’m not cleaning up all—”

Affronted, the Dragon exhaled a plume and engulfed a floating magical scroll in front of him. He peered around.

“Aha!”

His talon shot out and very delicately snagged one of the countless artifacts in his collection. And then another. Teriarch paused.

“This one too. And this one. My, did I have an original Wadeir and I never noticed it? How fascinating…”

—-

It took about five minutes before the Dragon returned. The screaming Wyverns were nearly convinced he was going to leave the territory and flee—after all, this was a challenge. But the sight of the gleaming Dragon made them falter.

“One warning. Begone or—”

Teriarch winced as the weyr exhaled. Another blast of frost, and it was cold even to the Dragon! He muttered and the freezing chill abated as a magical spell engulfed him. Teriarch growled.

“You asked for it.”

Without further ceremony, he flicked one claw. And one of the magical artifacts he’d taken from his cave shot from out of the air behind him. It flew upwards, faster than any normal arrow.

The Wyvern Lord saw the flash of metal. Forewarned, he desperately dove—and the trident missed him by inches. But it still went through three of the Wyverns flying behind him. Like a dancing arrow, it shot through the skies. Each time it hit a Wyvern, the tips of the magical trident vaporized what it hit. Wyverns fell, parts of their heads, chests, and wings missing. The rest shrieked and fled, avoiding the magical death.

“And this!”

The Dragon bellowed. He focused again and magical arrows sprang from a quiver. They shot upwards like hail. The air was filled with explosions as the magical arrowheads detonated. Teriarch smiled in smug satisfaction as the rain of magical crystal—so sharp and propelled so fast by the explosion that they pierced even Wyvern hide—burst in the air.

The Wyvern clutch was in full disarray. And as the reeling Wyvern Lord saw more Wyverns falling, it made the smartest decision since it had decided to oust Teriarch from his territory. The lead Wyvern opened its maw and screamed.

A note of defeat. The Wyverns fled after it, beating their wings furiously to escape the dancing trident still striking them down. Both the trident and rain of arrows stopped. Because Teriarch was out of arrows and the Wyverns were fleeing.

The Dragon snorted as the magical artifact floated down to him. He was smug—then aghast as he looked at the empty quiver. He telekinetically flung the quiver onto the ground as the trident rejoined his collection.

“Wasted! All on a bunch of empty-headed Wyverns! I could have ransomed a city-state of the Eullopian Territories for that many arrows! Begone! And if I catch you flying around my territory I’ll come up there and eat you, you arrogant little bratling!”

He bellowed up at the fleeing Wyverns. The Wyvern Lord shrieked a note of fury in the distance as a reply. They did understand each other in a way, Dragons and Wyverns. Teriarch snorted a bit of smoke and coughed. He was still breathing hard. He looked around.

Ice was slowly melting around the entrance to his cave now that the ceaseless attacks of frost had stopped. The Dragon had blood on his scales and—he was displeased to note—Eater Goats were already coming out to chomp on the bits of dead Wyvern.

“Scavengers. Almost as bad as Crelers!”

The Dragon glared and the Eater Goats froze. A few tried to play dead. The Dragon stared at them and reconsidered.

“Not as bad as Crelers. Feh, that would be what comes next, wouldn’t it? Darkscale’s breath!”

Grumbling, the Dragon turned and stomped back into his cave. And the creatures of the High Passes slowly emerged, Gargoyles, Eater Goats, Razorbeaks and more—all trying to claim a piece of the aftermath, or deciding to eat the competition.

The Dragon cared for none of it. He wearily trudged back into the center of his hoard. He lay down on the smooth marble—what kind of dragon would sleep on dirty, rough stone?—and sighed. The altercation, brief though it was, had exhausted him. As much mentally as physically.

“As bad as Drakes, really. Wyverns. An entire nest of the frost children and they can’t remember what happened a decade ago, let alone…hrmf. I shouldn’t stand for it. And the goats! I might actually have Crelers somewhere about. If there’s an adult hiding its thoughts…I ought to root them all out. A few passes. Scorch the area clean for a few years.”

He snorted as if to do so, but the Dragon was already sagging, yawning. And Teriarch, ancient of days, was already heading towards sleep. His voice grew deeper as the magical protections on his cave reactivated. His voice was a murmur now.

“I should hire some…adventurers. Yes. Deal with them. Why not? A few Gold-ranks…get to it when I wake…arrogant…get out of my territory. Goats…”

He fell asleep. Soon, the Dragon’s soft breathing interrupted by the occasional snore was the only sound in the cave. And peace returned. To him at least. And wasn’t that what really mattered? Teriarch gave no thought to the Wyverns, aside from a mentally scrawled note to hire some adventurers. When he woke up.

The Dragon never thought about what the Wyverns might do after losing their challenge against him. He didn’t consider the ramifications of a growing weyr, or the impact of so many hungry Wyverns on an ecosystem like the High Passes’, or the natural implications of his defense of his territory. Or where the Wyvern Lord was leading his clutch now. Teriarch was, in large, a selfish creature.

After all, he was a Dragon.

—-

It was summer. And the road was worn as the City Runner ran down it. The Runner’s pace never flagged, though the sun was a bit too harsh from where he ran. After a while, he had to pull out a water flask and gulp from it, but he kept running.

“It’s too hot.”

Fals, the City Runner who worked around Celum, was a Human man in his prime of life. He was also a [Runner], which meant that he had Skills that boosted his speed down the road. [Surefoot], which ensured he didn’t stumble even when the road got rocky, [Efficient Run], which conserved his stamina and allowed him to run far further before he needed a stamina potion, and, for emergencies, [Thousand-Step Sprint]. He could escape from even someone riding a horse…if he had somewhere he could hide.

But he was no Courier, or even a high-level City Runner with a fantastic ability like, say, [Double Step] which could literally double his running speed in theory. Fals could only run at normal, mortal speeds. He was a Runner, and he delivered messages, packages, anything that people would pay him for.

He was cheaper than a horse, could traverse terrain no mounted animal could—and most importantly, he was nearly as fast as a mounted rider over longer distances. Horses needed to rest. Humans could drink a potion and force themselves to keep running. Horses would throw you off and step on you if you tried that too many times.

Even so. Fals panted as he caught sight of a waypoint along his route. A city, small one, tucked along the winding road leading south, through the safe part of the High Passes. He wiped his brow.

“It is unbearably hot.”

Summer had come, and with a vengeance. The City Runner felt more sweat already beading as he ran towards the city ahead of him. It wasn’t a large one, even by the standards of the cities in the area. Even so, the walls were high enough to discourage [Bandits] and monsters and they were manned. Fals raised a hand as he ran down the road.

“City Runner!”

He already had his personal Runner’s Seal in hand in case the guards wanted to see. They waved him through, although they did keep a relaxed eye on him. Fals trotted through the gates, waving up at them.

“Hot day, isn’t it?”

“You’re not the one wearing armor, Runner!”

One of the guards shouted back. He was leaning on the battlements, but he didn’t take off his helmet despite the heat. Nor, Fals saw, did he stray too far from the longbow at the ready. Of course, that made sense. Esthelm, the city Fals had come to, had been sacked before. They wouldn’t allow it to happen again so easily.

The City Runner paused by the inside of the gates and continued his conversation with the guard. He was only about fifteen feet up, and he and his buddies seemed at ease. Esthelm was the furthest Human city south, and supplied itself by mining above all else. And visitors, save for trade, were rare.

“What’s your business here? Or is this just a stop?”

“Just a stop. I’m heading south towards Liscor. I just need a rest.”

The [Guard] gave a knowing nod to his companions. He rubbed at the scar on his cheek.

“You and everyone else. You need a drink, the Dancer’s a pub right next to the Runner’s Guild. Just down the street—there.”

He pointed. Fals nodded gratefully, though he wasn’t planning on drinking. Yet.

“I’ll check it out. Say, how are you all surviving this heat?”

He gestured up at the [Guards] on duty. They had on metal helmets, which reflected the bright sunlight, and chainmail over leather. Fals imagined they’d keel over after a few hours if they didn’t drink like mad. The [Guardsman] grinned.

“Cooling stones. Don’t you have one?”

Fals did a double-take.

“Too expensive for my blood. How much do they pay you all?”

The members of Esthelm’s Watch laughed. The [Guard] with the scar pointed.

“We have a [Runecrafter]! Try Bezoar Street—go right at the statue of the [Florist]. Ask for Miss Ediya. The old woman with the white hair. She’ll set you up.”

“Got it, thanks!”

Fals smiled and waved at the Watch. They nodded him off. It was a quick exchange, but a good one. Fals, as a City Runner, found it paid to be friendly with the local Watch. They could make a Runner’s life tough. But Fals had an easy demeanor about him. He was good at being friendly, and that was a skill as vital as a Skill for City Runners.

Esthelm really was a small city. Larger than a town, it was true, but only just. Fals knew of Esthelm only by reputation; he’d run deliveries to it of course, but seldom. Until recently, Fals had avoided going further south than Esthelm at all.

He knew the city had been sacked once when the Goblin Lord had attacked it. The survivors had rebuilt the city, fending off Goblins and undead to retake their home. With help, they’d restored the city and built it stronger. Higher. They could have fled, but instead, Esthelm had grown and it was now as large as it was before. Larger, in fact.

Some might have found it strange for people to be so possessive over a small city on the border of Drake lands. But this was the only home many people knew. And Esthelm had plenty of work to go around. The High Passes had deposits of minerals, ensuring [Miners] had steady occupation. And more than that…people had fought for this place. It was hard to abandon.

Fals saw evidence of it everywhere. As he trotted down the city, he saw more weapons on display than he’d ever see in a northern city like Wales or Remendia. Men and women carried shortswords, or he’d see a bow propped up by a [Shopkeeper] as they did business. The Watch had looked pretty sharp too. Yes, this was probably a poor place to be a [Thief].

The statue was set in a rebuilt part of Esthelm. Fals didn’t know its history. Nor did he care to find out. He stared at the image of the girl with a basket of flowers and wondered over it and the inscription only for a second. He paused, and then headed right.

Miss Ediya was indeed an old woman, but she had a glint to her eyes suggesting that her faculties had only sharpened with age. Indeed, she nailed Fals with a question the instant he entered her shaded, blessedly cool store.

“Cooling stone, right?”

“Yes Ma’am. Are you Miss Ediya?”

“If I wasn’t, that’d be an awfully odd question to ask, wouldn’t it, lad?”

The woman grinned and patted her desk. Fals walked forwards after brushing his dirty shoes against the doormat. Miss Ediya’s shop was cluttered—mainly with little stones with delicate sigils etched on them. There was very little space for a customer; the counter encircled Fals on three sides. Most of the shop was the [Runecrafter]’s workspace. The old woman was probably in her sixties, but she was quite fit as she bent to one side, grabbing for her desk.

“Let’s see. I have a dozen finished cooling stones. They’re selling quick! You want a high-grade one?”

“Actually, I’d prefer it cheap. I don’t have much money to spend on an expensive artifact—”

“Artifact? Where?”

Ediya grinned, exposing a missing tooth, but a lot of quite white, straight ones as well. She laughed at Fals’ expression.

“I don’t do high-level work like that, young man. And my work’s cheap enough for anyone! Here. Take a look at this. Esthelm specialty, right here.”

She brought out a small stone, about as long as his thumb, long and oval. It was a piece of lapis lazuli, polished but not shaped; Fals could see some other stone trapped in the material. Nevertheless, even this simple stone had a brilliant glitter to it. And what was more—

Magic. Fals saw the glittering rune etched into the stone as Ediya turned it towards him. It was a faint glitter, but it caught the light in an odd, enticing way. He blinked.

“How much?”

“One gold, three silver.”

Ediya shot Fals a calculating look. He winced. She tapped it.

“Don’t run off just yet. It can be recharged. And it will keep you cool! [Runecrafter]’s oath.”

He wasn’t sure he wanted to drop an entire gold piece on a cooling charm, no matter how hot it was. To buy time, Fals looked at Miss Ediya.

“[Runecrafter], Miss Ediya? I thought there were [Runesmiths].”

She laughed again.

“[Runesmith] is someone who got into runecraft from, well, metallurgy. They’ll engrave runes into their armor. Or sword hilts…it’s still not the same as a [Rune Master] or a higher-level class. And [Runecrafter] is someone who can’t swing a hammer or use magic like an expert! How about it? Give it a try.”

She pressed the stone into Fals’ hand after tapping it. Instantly, Fals felt his body cool down even further. He bit his lip. This was nice.

“It’s good, Miss Ediya. But a gold piece and three silver is a lot.”

“Call it one silver and one gold piece, then. And call it an investment. This summer’s only going to get hotter.”

The old woman eyed Fals as the City Runner mulled it over. He inspected the stone.

“It’s impressive how magic happens with a rune. And it just needs a bit of lapis lazuli?”

The [Runecrafter] snorted.

“Runes are just complex magical spells simplified. You can’t see half of what’s written here, young man! Nor can I simply write a cooling rune on any bit of stone I have around! I need pure lapis to hold the spell. It’s complex, and the magic doesn’t come from nowhere!”

“Of course not. I only meant…is the stone from around here?”

The [Runecrafter] nodded, a hint of pride in her voice.

“Esthelm-mined. The High Passes have all sorts of varied deposits and we have a seam…well, you could get better quality stuff from Salazsar, but you’d pay ten times for it. At least! And it will be cheaper than any cooling trinket you’ll get north or south of here.”

She gave Fals a pointed look. He knew that was probably true; he’d seen a smaller stone going for double what Miss Ediya was charging in Celum. He bit his lip.

“Alright. You have a deal.”

Miss Ediya’s face lit up as Fals rummaged in his coin purse. She took his money, giving him quick instructions.

“Don’t scratch the rune. There’s a coating, but don’t let it get chipped away by anything hard. Store it in a soft place. It should be good for one month or your money back. And anyone in my field can replenish the charm. Just watch for the fading glow in the rune—you’ll notice it too! And tell your Runner friends where you got it!”

“Thank you. Do I just touch it to…? Absolutely no water. Of course.”

Fals stayed for a few more moments before heading out of the shop. He might have stayed to ask about runecrafting—Miss Ediya seemed like a pleasant sort and she had no other customers, but he was on the job. And as he left the shop, the summer’s heat rolled back over him.

Not too much. Esthelm did lie in the shade of the High Passes, but Miss Ediya’s shop had been cooled by the very runes she drew. Without them, Fals felt unpleasant, so he decided to give the stone a try. He tapped it, hoping it was worth the expensive price tag.

Well, it was cheap for a magical item. But well worth the money. As Fals activated it, he felt a blessed cooling radiating from the stone. Not chilling; but it was cool enough that when he hung it around his neck, his head, all the way down to his stomach felt like it was a mild spring day. It was a good spell; Fals had used stones where the cooling effect was localized and the stone itself was so cold it would freeze your fingers. This was a full-body…half-body experience.

Ah.

The City Runner sighed in relief. He paused for a moment, and then in a much better mood, went to find the Runner’s Guild in Esthelm.

This too was a small affair. Esthelm was no major trade city and the Runner’s Guild had a single [Receptionist] on duty. She might have even been the Guildmistress; it looked like it was that small an operation. Fals pushed into the door and saw no other Runners; a city like this might have two dozen Street Runners at best, he guessed. He came up to the desk; the woman was playing with a little blacksmith’s puzzle and didn’t see him at first.

“Hello. I’m on delivery to Liscor. Anything for me going that way?”

She jumped and looked up. The [Receptionist] coughed as she put away the little wire puzzle and looked up.

“Good morning! Delivery to Liscor you said? Where are you from?”

“Just Celum. I set out two days ago. Do you have anything for me?”

It had been a long run. Fals had forgotten how far it was from Celum to Liscor. But he was being paid for the delivery, enough to justify the time spent. The woman blinked as she rummaged through her ledger, looking at all the orders the Runner’s Guild had for deliveries. She shook her head.

“Just a silver’s worth. Or two. Our own Runners keep us connected with Liscor. Well, all four of them.”

That was small. Fals tried not to let his expression show.

“I’ll take all of them unless they’re big deliveries.”

“Really? We could speed up this shipment of ore if you had a horse…oh well. I have the letters here…and a little sample here…it’s fragile. Be careful. I think it’s an ore—bound straight for an [Alchemist]. Appraisal. Don’t drop it, please.”

“Never.”

Fals took the letters and bound package, adding them to his mental list of destinations. The [Receptionist] sighed as she looked for anything else he could earn money from.

“That’s all, I think. Sorry, but we are close enough to Liscor that there’s no real money…”

“I understand. A silver’s enough for me. I’m already getting paid for a delivery.”

Fals patted his Runner’s pack. The [Receptionist] nodded. Of course. There was no point to Fals running all this way if he was just looking for work. She made a few notations, marking that he had all the deliveries she’d given him. Then she paused.

“Odd. We haven’t had a delivery from Celum through here in months. You’re the fifth one this week. What’s changed?”

The City Runner grinned a bit ruefully.

“No magic door. There was one from Liscor to Celum, but…”

“Oh. That’s right! The magical door!”

The woman’s eyes went round. She looked around, and then leaned forwards conspiratorially.

“You know, we have one too. That magical door-thing.”

“Really?”

Fals raised his brows. He vaguely recalled that. The [Receptionist] nodded.

“It brings us straight to Liscor. It was marvelous! Our [Miners] could bring ore straight to Liscor! And they brought a bunch of gifts. There was this Drake a while back—and the [Innkeeper] of course. The one that owns the door. Did you know she kicked out Commander Deint?”

“Who? I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard.”

“Our leader! Well, I say leader, but he was more like a [Tyrant]. No one could do anything about him, or rather, no one was going to. I didn’t really think how bad it was, but that [Innkeeper] marched in here and well, got rid of him! It was like magic!”

Fals had little interest in the politics of a single city like Esthelm. But the [Receptionist]’s description rang all kinds of bells in his head. He leaned over the counter.

“By ‘that [Innkeeper]’, do you mean a young woman? Around my age?”

“That’s the one. The owner of the inn. The Wandering Inn. I hear it’s a strange place. Filled with Goblins! Imagine! I’d never visit, even when the door was working. Goblins were the ones who attacked Esthelm. Them and the damned Goblin Lord. Although…”

The [Receptionist] shuddered and paused. She glanced out the window. In the direction of the plaza with the statue. Fals coughed.

“There aren’t that many anymore. I’ve actually been to the inn. I know the [Innkeeper].”

“Do you really?”

Another wide-eyed look. The [Receptionist] was all too eager to chat. But Fals was glancing out the window. He had to run, so he smiled apologetically.

“I’d love to stay and talk, but the door’s actually giving me a job.”

The woman’s face fell.

“Oh, that’s right. I’m sorry, I know you City Runners are always out and about. I suppose the door is why we’ve been getting more of you. It’s been inactive, right? For the last two weeks! But then—you heard what happened?”

“Oh yes.”

Fals inhaled. Word had spread in Celum as well as everywhere else. The [Receptionist] shuddered.

“Crelers. And the inn’s gone. Destroyed, or so they say. But then, I haven’t been to Liscor. Lots of folks are heading down there, though. There’s work to be had. Say—could you ask when the door will be working again? I mean, if it’s not broken? It would be nice to walk around another city. Assuming there aren’t too many Goblins in Liscor, of course.”

“Absolutely. It’s my first time heading back that way myself. Thank you, and stay out of the heat!”

The young man smiled and headed towards the door. The [Receptionist] waved him off.

“Good luck! If you’re coming back this way, please stop by! We have a few messages heading north and if you could take it to at least the nearest Runner’s Guild…”

—-

South the City Runner ran. From Esthelm, through the winding channel cut through the mountain range that was the High Passes. This was the only safe route by land towards the southern half of the continent. And it was a long road.

Not so long now, though. Fals knew Esthelm was only a stone’s throw away from Liscor so he ran hard and reached the natural basin where the Floodplains began after two hours. From there, he slowed.

Liscor awaited. But the path there was difficult. The road that led to Liscor went up and down, following the natural hills and valleys that were formed by the Floodplain’s annual rains. And there was some danger here. Fals stuck to the road, but he kept an eye out for Shield Spiders and worse, Hollowstone Deceivers, known as ‘Rock Crabs’. Also, because he was getting tired. And the Floodplains were large, for all they were a basin sheltered by the mountains.

But there it was. Liscor, a city set on a small hill. The walls were far higher than Esthelm’s, to keep the flood waters out. And as Fals ran from the north, he saw a small shape on a hill to the east. He knew the inn well. But even from afar, it was…different than he recalled.

Crelers in the Bloodfields. Something had happened at The Wandering Inn. Fals knew what had happened at the Bloodfields. Adventurers had fought an Adult Creler which had emerged with an entire nest of the horrors. And they had won. Even now, he recalled the name of the team credited with bringing it down.

The Horns of Hammerad. Fals smiled. He had been terribly worried for them. But news of their victory had been just as astounding. Now, he wanted to see them.

And the [Innkeeper] that Esthelm still remembered. But as Fals approached Liscor from the winding road north, the hill disappeared from sight behind the walls. And Fals was more distracted by the queue at the gates.

More people had come down the road before him this morning. And that was an unusual sight. Normally, it was just [Traders] and [Merchants] who came to the city. It was a rare traveller who would try to pass through the Bloodfields at this time of year. Yet now, Fals found a line at the northern gate. He saw nearly three dozen people lined up, the first being interviewed at the gate by a Drake [Guardsman].

They were workers. Not Antinium Workers, but Humans, like Fals. They’d come down the northern road like him. And they were here for…what?

“Purpose of entry?”

The Drake on duty yawned as he leaned on his spear. He was a huge fellow that Fals thought he recognized. The family nervously standing in front of him stammered an answer as a whole. The Drake paused.

“Work? Oh, more of you. What’s with the kids?”

He eyed a pair of scared girls hiding behind their mother and father, both of whom looked like [Miners] or [Laborers] of some kind. The mother shushed them.

“We’re here for jobs. We’re [Builders], sir. We heard there was good paying work, so we came down.”

The Drake picked at his teeth with one claw.

“Aw, more of you? Well, there’s not many places to sleep. But yeah, I guess there’s work. Fine, fine. You want to go down to the uh…”

The two parents, who’d been brightening, paused. Relc paused. He scratched his head, held up a finger, and sidled over to the Gnoll who was doing the same job next to him.

“Psst. Tkrn. Where do they go if they want work?”

“The Mason’s Guild! Right down Tellshale road!”

Tkrn growled at Relc. The Gnoll looked exasperated as he waved his people in line through. He was working a lot faster than Relc. Fals, and several other people in line, eying the two [Guards] at work, quickly switched to Tkrn’s line. Relc sighed. He went back over to the family and waved at Tkrn.

“Right. What he said. They’ll find you a job and houses. And stuff. Now…oh wait!”

He blocked them as the family tried to scurry past. Vaguely, Relc reached for a sheaf of parchment.

“Let me just make sure you’re not a wanted criminal. I have a list. And illustrations, see? If you look like anyone on this list, I get to stab you. Probably through the knees.”

One of the girls squeaked and the father protectively shielded her, growing pale. Relc rolled his eyes as Tkrn glared at him.

“Don’t worry! It’s only adults. Oh, wait, there’s a kid on here. Hm. Hm. Nah. You’re not on the list. You’re almost free to go.”

The family relaxed, then stiffened at the ‘almost’. Relc smiled as he leaned on his spear.

“Just one last question. On a scale of one to a hundred, how well do you think I’m doing my job? One hundred being the best, obviously.”

The two parents looked at each other, dumbfounded. Tkrn shook his head, exasperated. Then a roar echoed from behind Relc.

Senior Guardsman Relc!

“Oh shit.”

The Drake whirled and saluted. Watch Captain Zevara herself strode up to the gates. She glared at Relc.

“Hi, Watch Captain Z.”

“Senior Guardsman, you are the worst, most incompetent guardsman I have ever had the misfortune of working with! And you!”

Zevara pointed at the family and moderated her tone as one of the girls hid behind their parents. The Drake coughed. She looked around, and tried to smile.

“Um. I’m terribly sorry for my [Guardsman]’s performance. Please, go on ahead.”

She ushered the family through the gates, offering apologies. The wide-eyed family watched Zevara go and the twitching smile she tried to keep on her face. When they were gone, Zevara grabbed Relc.

“Can’t you do a single job right you—”

“Hey! I was just asking for—ow! Watch Captain! That hurts my feelings!”

Bemused, Fals watched as another Gnoll took Relc’s position and the people waiting were checked in within a matter of minutes. The Gnoll, Tkrn, blinked when he saw Fals.

“Ah, City Runner, yes? Sorry, this line was for the immigrants. Travellers. City Runners can pass. We should have waved you through. Or someone should have.”

He turned and glared at Relc, who was still being chewed out by the Watch Captain.

“Oh, really?”

Fals was a bit put out by that. Still, it was only a few minutes. Tkrn looked past him at a group of wagons headed his way. He sighed and Fals offered him a sympathetic smile.

“Busy day?”

“Not by half. Hrr. Have we met?”

The Gnoll sniffed politely at Fals. The Human paused.

“I’ve been to the city a few times. I’m actually bound to the Runner’s Guild to make a few deliveries. You wouldn’t happen to know a…Miss Raekea, would you? [Blacksmith]?”

“Ah! You mean Councilwoman Raekea. She’s no longer just a [Blacksmith].”

Tkrn puffed out his chest as Fals blinked. The City Runner blinked as Tkrn explained.

“She won the election. She is on the City Council, so she is not always at her forge. You could drop off anything she needs to see at City Hall. It is more convenient than her home or shop, yes? Just go straight.”

“Thanks. Oh—and I’m actually here for another reason. I saw the inn from afar. The Wandering Inn. Is it open?”

Fals was almost afraid to look. He’d heard it was destroyed. Tkrn paused, and Relc looked around.

“The inn? It’s open.”

“Really? But I heard it was destroyed.”

The young man saw Tkrn smile. Watch Captain Zevara left off haranguing Relc with a sigh. The Gnoll nodded to Fals, and pointed east, although the walls blocked it from view.

“It was. But it’s reopening today. You came just in time.”

—-

The Wandering Inn. The family of Humans who entered Liscor already knew its name. Travellers from further north hadn’t heard of it. But those who had come to Liscor who found themselves queued up on the Mason’s Guild to see if rumors about well-paying jobs in this Drake city were true found themselves talking.

Not all of them were Human, but most of the new arrivals were. Some Drakes and Gnolls here to sign up for work looked disgruntled at the Humans, some of whom had come as entire families, others alone.

“Why are they coming here? Can’t they find jobs in their own cities?”

One Drake was heard to complain loudly, prompting nervous looks in the queue lined up at the desk. He was more well-to-do, and his function wasn’t as a potential worker, but a client of the guild.

He, and a group of Drakes and Gnolls were conferring with the Guildmaster of the Mason’s Guild. It was an ironic statement, made doubly so because some of the Gnolls looked disgruntled too. One of them, female, her fur combed and scented, frowned at the applicants.

“Is there enough space to house them all, I wonder? And surely it is true that there isn’t that much gold to be had, yes? This is our city. Not a Human one.”

Ironic indeed. Some of the younger Drakes and Gnolls in the group were nodding, but one of the Drakes bit her tongue on a reply. It seemed this Gnoll had forgotten that her kind had come nearly a decade back for the same reason.

The Guildmaster had not. Guildmaster Okr, a Gnoll who was both [Mason] and [Guildmaster], gave the younger Gnoll a reproving glance—when she wasn’t looking. His voice was brisk.

“Humans, Drakes, or Gnolls, we could use the paws—or hands or claws, yes? I’ll put them up in the apartments. It will be uncomfortable, but they will be building their own homes.”

“I just don’t understand the logistics of it.”

The Drake who’d been first to complain grumbled. Now, the female Drake who’d frowned spoke up.

“Maybe they’re here because we’re offering more silver than anywhere else, Zess. A few more silver pieces per week is a lot, especially if they’re high enough level to earn it. And we need the workers, don’t we?”

The Drake paused and flushed. He nodded to the female Drake.

“Of course, Selys. I’m only wondering if there would be uh, incidents. You know.”

“No. Do you mean between Drakes and Humans?”

Zess paused. He looked down at Selys Shivertail. There was all the makings of a trap in her smile and tone and question. The Drake tried to think on his feet and metaphorically fell flat on his face.

“Or Gnolls or Humans. I’m just concerned.”

“But why would they have a problem? Do Humans cause more trouble? Or would it be Drakes and Gnolls causing trouble? Or is there just a problem with hiring Humans?”

“Well…”

There was no good answer to that. Zess bit his tongue, wisely, and everyone else paused on a reply. Guildmaster Okr looked vaguely approving. The female Gnoll huffed, but most of the male Drakes and Gnolls hesitated to earn Selys’ wrath.

They were all wealthy. You could tell that by their clothing, and just their attitude. The clients of the Mason’s Guild, who were here to hire the very workers applying for a job were individuals who had money by inheritance or deed. And the newest among them, Selys Shivertail, was a face.

Niece to Zel Shivertail, the fallen hero known as the Tidebreaker. Even the Humans in line knew that name, and they stared at her. Granddaughter to Tekshia Shivertail, Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild. And—this was a new title—most eligible bachelorette in all of Liscor.

Selys was rich. She was a [Heiress], and right now…peeved. She sighed, but Guildmaster Okr got the group back on track.

“The Council is willing to let you subcontract my workers, yes? But be mindful—in your purchased lots of land, you must still accommodate the streets and sewer work already laid down. And your works must fit within the [Architect]’s overall designs.”

“But we have to pay for our own [Builders] to make what we want? And workers? That’s a lot of the burden on us, and for what?”

One of the Drakes grumbled loudly. He was the son of a [Landowner]. Guildmaster Okr sighed through his nose.

“Those are the Council’s orders. Now, if you would care to bid on the auctionable land…?”

He gestured to the map. Selys saw the Drakes and Gnolls look at each other sharply. For all their complaints, they eyed the plans for a new city like a hawk. Selys glanced at the lines of workers.

“Can you quote us how much we’re paying each worker, Guildmaster Okr?”

“Of course. They will be paid by level, so anyone below Level 10 will be paid according to this chart. By task, yes? Also, they must have insurance for injury or death. According to this chart…”

The Guildmaster had all kinds of bits of paper. The Drakes and Gnolls grumbled over them, although Selys, looking at the paper, thought it was a small amount of money for someone losing…a limb? She winced.

“How likely is this?”

“If building is done properly? Not likely, Miss Shivertail. But it is an expensive undertaking, as you can see.”

Zess threw down his pieces of paper with a hiss of annoyance.

“We can either fund part of the new section of the city being built or pay for it all ourselves? And can we charge rent as we please on our land?”

His tail lashed angrily. Selys glared at him.

“Assuming it’s not for poor Drakes and Gnolls, sure, Zess! Guildmaster Okr, I’ll buy this section of land here.”

She pointed at one of the auctioned spots on the map. The other Gnolls and Drakes bristled.

“You can’t do that! It’s going to be auctioned!”

“Okay, then put me down for the auction.”

Selys smiled sweetly at Rekka. The other Gnoll glared back. Okr made a little note, covering a smile as he did. Selys looked down at the map and shook her head. She looked around as a shout caught her attention.

“Build the walls! Yes! Payday!

A group of Gnolls and Drakes were celebrating at the desk. They must have been very pleased by the pay they were getting, because they were high-fiving. The landowners looked aghast, but Selys just grinned. She could see dirt and dust on their clothing. They must have been collecting their pay.

A new part of Liscor was being built. If you walked out around the walls to the west, you’d be able to see it. Already, the foundations were being laid. Buildings were going up, out of necessity as much as haste! The new wing of the city would have to be built and enclosed in walls by next spring. And there needed to be room for all the families coming here for work!

“It’s the Antinium who’re fastest. But would you want to live in a place they built? Let them do the sewers and outer walls, I say. If it wasn’t so expensive to buy land and hire enough workers—I’ll have to hire some Humans.”

Selys heard a conversation between two of the Drakes standing next to her. She grimaced.

Part of funding Liscor’s expansion was selling off parts of the new city to, well, anyone with money. The Council had funds from the army, the city’s own revenue, and gold from both the Antinium and the Walled Cities, but it still wasn’t enough. Not, at least, to fill the city with all the grand plans they wanted. So they’d decided to sell areas of the city to private citizens.

It would be their land, adding to the apartments and other establishments the wealthiest landowners owned at this moment. It would give them more property if they were willing to spend, and they were willing to spend despite their numerous complaints. And because Selys was rich, that number included her.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. But she had money, and this was an investment. No—it was the future of Liscor. Selys just didn’t like that she was rubbing shoulders and tails with a bunch of people she’d always considered high-class snobs. She sighed and took a few steps away from Zess and the others. The males were also very interested in courting her newfound wealth.

A conversation caught Selys’ earhole as she took a few steps back to ignore the quarreling group debating how much the workers would be hired at with Guildmaster Okr. A group in line, the same family Fals had seen at the gate, were nervously talking with some Humans and Drakes in line.

“So there’s paying work? We came from Esthelm—not far—but we heard someone was from as far as Remendia! Is there really that much gold to be made?”

“Oh yes. Steady work too, if you can keep up. Liscor’s going to be a third again as big if we follow these designs!”

A Gnoll woman standing in line grinned at the anxious parents and flexed one arm. The parents looked relieved, but one of the Drakes standing next to her cast a glare over her shoulder.

“Not if the Antinium take all the work. They’re out there, stealing our jobs—”

The Gnoll reached over and smacked her friend.

“They’re laying the foundations, and the sewers. You want to dig through all that dirt, Hesna? Be my guest, yes? But the Council made it so we all have work.”

“You mean, Councilmember Lism made sure of it. Councilmember Krshia wouldn’t have—”

A loud chorus of boos and growls from other Gnolls and a few Drakes in the line shut up the angry Hesna. The Humans looked around, wide-eyed, as a Gnoll growled and thrust a furry finger at the Drake.

“Keep politics out of it! The election is over, yes?”

Most of the Liscorian citizens agreed. Hesna turned red as Selys grinned ruefully. People were still talking about the outcome of the election. The Gnoll who’d been speaking to the Humans turned back to them.

“Sorry. Anyways, there is room. And places to sleep, yes? Outside the walls.”

“Outside?”

The family looked horrified and the Gnoll hastened to reassure them.

“You’ll see! It is right in the new section of the city. There are apartments that have been made for all the new workers. The city, it is full to bursting, yes? But there is already a temporary wall. Twenty feet high! The Antinium made it, and the apartments. Quickly, too.”

She glared at Hesna. The Drake rolled her eyes.

“The Antinium? You mean, the bug-men, right? Are they…what’re they like?”

Some of the Humans looked like they were regretting their choice to come to the city. The Gnoll and Drake exchanged looks.

“The Antinium? They are fine, yes? Just don’t ask Workers anything. Especially not their names. There will be an orientation. And the Antinium are fine. You will barely notice them.”

“But are there bugs? In the apartment? Or is it…”

“Buggy? Not at all. They were very clean, actually.”

The Gnoll [Builder] grinned. Some of the other Gnolls and Drakes chuckled. The Humans looked relieved. But that only opened the floodgates to more questions. Selys smiled as they began pelting the other Gnolls and Drakes in line with queries.

“So—there’s a Hive under the city? And that’s safe?

“About the spring rains…”

“Is there anywhere to play? I can’t have the children running about the city or going outside, not with all those Shield Spiders and those horrible…rock…crabs!”

“Is she here? I mean, the [Innkeeper]? I was hoping to stay at her inn.”

Selys looked around. The husband of the family from Esthelm was talking to the Gnoll. The [Heiress] drifted closer as the Gnoll blinked at him.

“The [Innkeeper]? We have many, yes?”

“Well, yeah. But I mean…her. The one from—what’s the inn called? She was at Esthelm.”

The man was getting flustered. He turned to his wife and then back to the Gnoll.

“The young woman. Human? She runs an inn around here. I was told it’s fairly famous. And she’s a bit—off—”

The Wandering Inn?

The chorus came from every Drake and Gnoll in line. The Humans looked around. But Liscor’s citizens were nodding. Some smiled, some rolled their eyes, exasperated. But they knew the name.

“So it’s here? I asked, but someone said it’s not in the city.”

“It’s not. It’s just on a hill. Eastern gate. You can’t miss it.”

That worried the mother and the family intending to seek it out.

“It is safe? I’ve heard all manner of things about that inn. They say the [Innkeeper] ousted Commander Deint. She started a coup. Is that true?”

“Hah! I’d believe it.”

One of the Drakes laughed good-naturedly. A [Foreman] from Remendia blinked.

“That can’t be true. I heard about that inn, but the ‘magic door’ was closed in Celum, or so they said. There’s not really an inn around here that has one, right? Right?”

He looked around. The Drakes and Gnolls just grinned at him. One of the Drakes put a clawed hand on his shoulder and the [Foreman] jumped.

“Magic door? My friend. That is the least of what that crazy Human does.”

“So you all know her? You’ve met her?”

Selys smiled as the Humans asked questions. Most Gnolls and Drakes shook their heads, but a few spoke up. One Gnoll, a headband tied around his furry head, nodded.

“I’ve had a few dishes at her place. You know, she’s invented a bunch of rare foods? She’s a genius, that one. She makes new foods, and she plays that game. Chess. She’s beaten our own [Strategist] at it!”

“No she hasn’t. That’s just a rumor. He teaches her.”

Another Drake shook her head, looking put out. The first Gnoll snorted.

“She’s not a genius. She’s insane. Totally insane. She keeps Goblins in her inn, did you know? A bunch of them, in her basement.”

“I thought that was dead bodies. She’s a [Necromancer], too.”

“A [Necromancer]?”

The Humans were horrified. The Drakes and Gnolls began arguing.

“No she’s not! She employs a [Necromancer]. But her [Barmaid]’s are undead.”

“No, no. They’re the Goblins. She’s got like, a dozen of them.”

“She’s not right in the head. I thought all Humans were like that, but apparently she’s weird, even by Human standards. Sir, can you spit blood at will?”

“Me? No!”

The [Foreman] looked alarmed. One of the Drakes nodded wisely.

“Ah, well, she can. It’s like a breath attack. She’s one of the Oldblood, except Human.”

Selys covered her face. But she listened, with delight and chagrin. So did the newcomers to the city.

“They say she killed the Goblin Lord.”

“She fought off the Face-Eater Moths. And Skinner. Her inn’s survived the Raskghar! I heard she tore one of them apart with her bare hands.”

“She beat a Minotaur at arm-wrestling. She’s got a punch to prove it. Swear to it. I saw her lay out a fellow one time—”

“She owns a pet bee. And she was a [Thief]! We expelled her from the city, but there she is. An [Innkeeper]. Credit to her, I say, all things forgiven.”

“Absolutely mad. Quite charming. Good singing voice too. But absolutely mad.”

“Do Humans have testicles? I’m asking for a friend.”

At this, Selys had to laugh. And her laughter made the line go silent. People turned to her as Selys approached the Human family. She saw the two girls hide behind their parents. But Selys smiled without showing her teeth, and saw two faces peek at her. She addressed the parents, who might have never really talked to a Drake before. The Gnolls and Drakes of Liscor hadn’t known many Humans before Erin, after all. And there were still misconceptions.

“Excuse me, but if you want to visit the inn, why not stop by after you finish up here? It’s opening today. Reopening, I should say.”

The news caught everyone off-guard, not just the Humans. One of the Humans, the [Foreman], turned to Selys.

“So it’s true? The inn’s back? But I heard it was destroyed.”

One of the Gnolls laughed.

“You can’t just destroy The Wandering Inn! It’s more than just an inn! It’s like a—part of the city! Where would we be without that crazy Human? It’s a symbol. A metaphor.”

Hesna shook her head.

“You mean, a mushroom. You just can’t get rid of it. Those Humans keep coming back…”

She grunted as the Gnoll standing behind her elbowed her in the stomach. The Humans looked warily at the Drakes and Gnolls. They were new to Liscor. And Selys sighed, seeing a few very Lism-esque glances. But then she smiled. She turned back to the Human family and shook her head.

“The Wandering Inn was destroyed. But it’s back. It’s just a little different.”

The listeners looked at her. The wife glanced at her children, and her husband, and cleared her throat.

How different, exactly?”

—-

There, on a hill, sat an inn. It had been destroyed. Or so the rumors claimed. But that had been two weeks ago. A short time. Or a long one. Because for all that time, the inn had been closed. But now, today, this moment in fact, it was reopening.

The first visitors were already lined up outside the magical door that would let them into the inn. Because who wanted to walk even the short distance to the inn? But the magical door wasn’t working just yet. Like the inn, it had been out of commission these last two weeks.

Fals found himself waiting in line behind a female Drake. He glanced at her, and the Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes standing around her. He recognized the very same family from Esthelm. Then Selys. She blinked at him.

“F-Fals? Wait, do I have that wrong?”

“No. It’s Miss Selys, isn’t it?”

They shook hands. Selys smiled as she gestured to the line. There was a long one! It stretched down the street. Fals glanced at it. Then around.

“A lot of people are waiting. Is the door open? I heard it was broken and that the inn was closed. Hey, is Erin alright? I heard a lot of things. And the Horns…”

He trailed off. Selys smiled, but a bit sadly.

“They’re all okay. At least, I think so. The Horns are north, actually. They’re going to Invrisil.”

What?

“They took one of Erin’s door-portals north. They left about a week and a half ago. Sorry, did you come here for them?”

Fals sighed.

“No. I just—I wish I’d had a chance to talk to them. I’m just glad they’re alive. I thought maybe I could see them, but the door—”

“Oh, right.”

The Drake grimaced. She twirled a ring on one of her claws.

“The city took it after the inn collapsed. They needed it to clear the Crelers from the Bloodfields. And the inn was broken, so it was in the city.”

“Oh. So there were Crelers?”

Selys’ eyes glinted.

“Yes. I’ll tell you about it. Or let someone else do that for me. I wasn’t there. I saw the aftermath, though.”

Fals shuddered.

“But Erin’s alive? She didn’t get hurt?”

“Not from the Crelers. I hope we’ll see her soon.”

Selys sighed. Fals wanted to ask more, but an impatient voice called out from behind them.

“Hey! What’s the hold up? I want ice cream! I haven’t had any for two weeks! Look at my paw! It’s shaking!”

A chorus of voices rang out in the line. Selys saw a few people opening and closing the door experimentally, but nothing happened. Fals pointed and she shrugged.

“The door should be opening soon. I was told it was going to the inn today.”

“So is the inn rebuilt or something?”

“Yup. The Antinium put it up. Well, it’s still in progress, but apparently they got the most important bits up. We just have to wait…say, why are you in Liscor?”

Fals patted his backpack.

“Delivery.”

“Ah.”

The two turned back to wait. And the Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes waited in line, patiently and impatiently, all wanting to see the familiar, or the mysterious [Innkeeper], the owner of The Wandering Inn.

But the first visitors to the inn weren’t coming from the magical door. Rather, they were walking. The two proceeded from Liscor’s eastern gates, travelling down the hill into a small valley, up the grassy slopes. They were talking. Well, arguing.

“That jerk. Captain Z is always getting on my tail. So what if I like to add a bit of humor to my work?”

“You threatened to stab a child in the knee.”

“I didn’t threaten! I suggested I might. Anyways, she wasn’t on the list, so what’s the problem?”

“Besides excruciating and long-lasting mental trauma?”

“Hah! That’s not real. Wait, is it?”

“Do you still dream about the time your tail got run over by a wagon?”

“Ooh. Oooh. It still stings! Don’t remind me about it. Anyways I’m not that bad at my job! And she can’t dock my pay!”

“You are the most inept [Guardsman] I have ever had the misfortune to work with.”

“Hey! You’re not perfect, buddy!”

“I am not your buddy. We are coworkers.”

The two figures toiled up the hill. Well, they didn’t toil very hard. But they did have to balance the huge doorframe between them as they climbed. Relc glared at Klbkch.

“We’re best buddies.”

“I find this statement difficult to accept.”

Klbkch stared back impassively. Relc waved one claw, easily carrying his half of the magical door.

“Don’t be a lizard, Klb. If you’re not my buddy, who is? We’re partners, and a team! You can’t spell team without me. And…without I. Wait, how does it go again?”

The Antinium sighed.

“We are a team, but calling us ‘friends’ or ‘pals’ or ‘chums’ is a painful stretch in my opinion.”

“Huh? Why’s that? Klb, buddy, you’re wounding me.”

“I am increasingly reluctant to tie myself in a familiar way to you, Relc. Mainly due to your ineptitude and lackadaisical attitude at work, which is earning you the derision of our coworkers.”

“…But we’re best friends. Klb! You have to stick by me! I’m your only friend! Name one other friend than me!”

The Antinium paused as they carried the door to the waiting inn. He glanced up at the wide hill and shook his head.

“Erin.”

“…Name one other friend.”

“…Jeiss?”

“Aha! See? You don’t have anyone but me! Jeiss hates your guts.”

“He does not. We maintain a cordial working relationship.”

“We’re best pals, Klb. You can’t be pals with Erin. Erin likes everyone. Anyways, what would you do without me?”

“Enjoy my life?”

Relc kicked at Klbkch, but he missed as the Antinium twisted out of the way. They stared at each other. Then Relc jerked his head towards the inn.

“Let’s just get this door up there, huh, coworker?

“Yes.”

The two headed up the hill. And there it stood. The Wandering Inn. Relc peered up at the front of the building. He paused. Klbkch felt him edging left.

“Stop that.”

“Huh. It looks…different. Doesn’t it, Klb?”

“The design is fundamentally changed, yes. Were you not aware of this fact despite me repeating it to you several times throughout the week?”

“Klb, Klb…I don’t listen to you all the time. Ow!”

Relc glared as Klbkch kicked him. Then he went back to staring up at the inn.

“Strange. It looks…strange.”

Klbkch turned his head. And even the Antinium Revalantor couldn’t find a snippy comeback to that. As the two made their way up the hill, they looked at The Wandering Inn.

Aesthetically, there wasn’t much wrong with it. The inn’s solid stone foundation turned into thick walls, forming the base of the inn. And the first floor, three times as large as it had once been, was already done. Stone had been neatly piled up, and then cemented into a hard mass. Wooden beams joined wooden structure as the inn grew taller.

The inn wasn’t one building, the two [Guardsmen] saw, but a compound. It wasn’t solidly roofed, but rather looked as though one central building would be connected to several smaller ones when finished. As it was, the inn was wide as it was tall. And figures were crawling on the roof.

“Ants.”

“Workers.”

Klbkch corrected Relc reprovingly. The Drake was pointing out the Workers busily constructing a second floor. The Antinium had already built several rooms; Relc and Klbkch could actually stare into one as an Antinium laid the flooring. And more were busily covering a roof with fluted tiles. But what drew the eye was a little tower that had been built on the finished roof.

On the hypothetical third floor—which was also in construction—someone had nailed together a few boards very haphazardly, and with scavenged wood and determination, made a ramshackle tower. Both Klbkch and Relc saw a little Antinium Worker happily standing in his perch. He waved at them and Relc waved back.

Some things never changed. But as Relc approached the front of the inn he realized some things did.

“Look. Double doors. Fancy.

He poked the large wooden doors, reminiscent of a castle’s doors. In fact…Relc squinted up at the inn in progress. When it was done, it would rather be like a castle. Without spires or battlements, but with….inner and outer parts. And the keep waited within.

“Huh. Hey, how did Erin pay for all this?”

“The city granted her funds due to her inn’s part in subduing the Crelers. I believe there were also donations from concerned private citizens. And the Antinium have also taken this job on at slight cost.”

“Aw. You’re so nice.”

“Do not touch me.”

The two laid down the magic door. Relc sighed as he rubbed his left arm.

“That thing’s heavy!”

“You bet me you could drag me on it all the way here. Do not blame me for your bravado.”

“Well, I lost. So…shut up. Say, did anyone say where the door should go?”

“Right inside, to the left. In the entryway.”

“The left? Why not the right? Weird.”

Relc shook his head as he pulled one of the double doors aside. Klbkch did the same, and Relc jumped forwards.

Hey! It’s me! Where’s the f—

The Drake paused. Then he recoiled and stepped backwards. And he couldn’t say why at first. Klbkch had a different reaction; his hands instinctively went to his sword’s hilts. The two stared into The Wandering Inn.

It wasn’t the common room they found greeting them past the double doors. No—what they found was a narrow…passage. Or ‘entryway’ would be more appropriate. Because it was too narrow to really be a room. Rather, it was a long, open stretch of space flanked by walls on both sides which led up to another set of double doors. The hallway was just…a hallway. There were a few gaps along the walls, as if someone had forgotten to fully close the walls, but that was all.

A hallway surrounded on three sides. Just a hallway. But something about it made Relc distinctly uneasy. He glanced up towards the double doors, and then at the magical door. There was space for it along the left wall.

“Just here?”

“Yes.”

Klbkch was just as wary as Relc. The two [Guardsmen] wrestled the magic door in place along the left wall. There. It would allow visitors to enter the inn at the same time as regular guests. But in that case, why make people walk down this hall to get to the proper inn? It was hidden behind the second set of doors.

Relc didn’t understand. It made no sense. Right until he turned and stared at the narrow gap in the wall. It was…an opening. Although he saw what looked like faint shutters on the other end. What was—

Then Relc realized what it was. His scales crawled and he elbowed Klbkch.

“Hey. Is this…?”

“Yes. A kill zone.”

Klbkch nodded to the arrow slits. Relc peered at one and realized how thick the wall was between him and the gap on the other side. He glanced up—saw a faint outline freshly cut in the ceiling.

“Klb, buddy, do you think that’s a murder hole?”

“…Yes.”

The two [Guardsmen] edged out of the way of the faint, concealed outline in the ceiling. It could have been just a thin trap door. Or…if you were being highly suspicious, it might be a narrow opening which someone inclined could pour boiling oil down. Or acid. There were a number of those openings in the ceiling. And—Relc narrowed his eyes. This room was very solid. And now he looked, the door at the far end was very secure. He could imagine making this a choke point where one or two people could hold back…

“Hey, Klb. Didn’t you say one of your uh, Workers designed this inn?”

“Along with Miss Lyonette. Yes. Belgrade. He is fairly adept at making traps.”

“Right.”

The two [Guardsmen] hesitated. They walked forwards. Neither of them liked being here. Even if it was the inn—and it did not look like the inn at the moment to Relc—they felt instinctively that they were surrounded on all sides, easily flanked. Relc peered at the shut arrow slits. Then at the ceiling.

The inn was very quiet. The Drake passed by another opening in the wall. Put a crossbow or bow there and you could hit him from either side. And there’d be acid pouring down from the ceiling. Come to that—why was the magic door along the far wall? Maybe—

Something leapt on him. Relc screamed and whirled, spear in hand.

“Gaaaah!”

He nearly stabbed the furry, white shape tackling his legs. Nearly. But he saw Mrsha and stopped. Klbkch had nearly unsheathed his blades as well.

“You little rascal! Where did you come from?”

Relc’s heart was pounding out of his chest. He stared at Mrsha. The white Gnoll grinned up at him. She punched Relc’s legs, raced about him on all fours, and then held up her paws. She waved one paw, made a gesture where her paw closed and opened wide. It was her way of saying ‘hello! Tricked you!’

Mrsha, the white Gnoll cub giggled at the look on Relc’s face. The Drake raised his fist.

“Why, I oughta—take this!”

He punched. Klbkch staggered as Relc hit him in the shoulder. The Antinium caught himself, stared at Relc.

“Why did you do that?”

“I had to punch someone!”

“No you did not. I am extremely angry.”

“Where did you come from, though?”

Relc ignored Klbkch’s wrath and turned to Mrsha. She hadn’t come through the double doors; they’d closed behind them. The magic door? No. Relc looked around and frowned at Mrsha. The Gnoll was giving him the smuggest look he’d ever seen on a Gnoll’s face.

“Hey. You little scamp. How’d you sneak up on us? Answer me!”

Mrsha gave Relc a very Goblin-like shrug. But her eyes twinkled. Relc raised a fist.

“Don’t make me punch Klbkch again!”

“I will stab you first.”

For answer, Mrsha pointed. Relc looked as she pointed behind her, and then made another gesture where she covered her eyes and peeked.

“I have no idea what she’s saying. Do you know what her sign language is, Klb?”

“Hm. Cover eyes. Peeking. Don’t look? No—ah. Hidden. Secret.

Mrsha nodded excitedly. She pointed and Relc saw her scamper over to a piece of wood near the entryway. His eyes narrowed as she pushed on it. Then he saw the cleverly disguised—

“Door! Look, it’s a door!”

Klbkch nodded. Mrsha disappeared through a hidden door. Relc realized there were two, one on each side of the entryway. He looked around.

“Of course! So they can get at the door. But if they don’t like who’s coming in…arrows! Boiling curry! Evil Gnoll cubs!”

He waved his claws at the cleverly-designed hallway. Klbkch eyed the closed secret door. Mrsha had swung it inwards. He went over and pushed on the section of the wall. Nothing happened. Klbkch tried harder. Relc thought he heard silent laughter coming from behind it.

“I believe the door is able to be barred from the other side. Clever.”

“Yeah. Unless you do this! Hah!

Relc charged into the secret door. Klbkch heard a thud, and an alarmed sound from behind the wall. Relc picked himself up from the floor.

“Ow.”

“Erin’s Skills appear to be in effect. And you appear to be an idiot.”

“Klb. I don’t appear to be anything. Wait. That’s some tough wall.”

Relc rose, rubbing at his head. More relaxed now, he looked around. The double doors at the far end had opened, and a warm glow greeted him. The Drake inhaled and smelled…sawdust. But also, warm food. He grinned.

“Klb, do you remember when we first came to this inn?”

“I distinctly recall it was another inn, set further to the east. But yes.”

“Strange. Feels like a lot’s changed. A lot.”

The Drake nodded. He just looked around for a moment. Then he smiled.

“Alright. Let’s open that door!”

He strode over to the door to Liscor and yanked it open. A magical portal appeared, quick as thought. Relc saw a huge line of Drakes and Gnolls and Humans. He grinned at them.

“Hey! Look at—”

About time! What took you so long, you lazy bum? We’ve been waiting for over—

Relc slammed the door shut. He turned to Klbkch.

“Let’s toss the door down the hill.”

Klbkch only sighed and pulled the door open. Then he turned and punched Relc in the shoulder.

“Ow. Klbkch, that hurts my feelings.”

—-

And here they came. Relc and Klbkch in front, Selys pushing with Fals behind. Not just them. New visitors, like the workers from Esthelm. But more.

“Hey! Is the inn open again? I’m so hungry. Erin! Are you there? Ooh. Free snacks!”

Relc’s voice echoed ahead of the others as he made his way down the hallways, pushing Klbkch back so he could be first into the inn. And behind him followed a crowd. Drakes, Gnolls—and then adventurers.

A Garuda, fluttering through the door and blinking suspiciously at the arrow slits. A blue-scaled Drake who nodded approvingly at the very same and eyed the murder holes with worry. A tall, furry Gnoll with a bit of gray in his step and a cat riding on one shoulder.

And then a Centaur, trotting ahead of a nervous young Human woman holding a magical staff. A female Minotaur. Behind them, a harrumphing Drake glaring about, followed by a Gnoll [Shopkeeper] who looked ready to toss him back through the doorway. Not all were friends. But most were.

A bevy of Antinium followed the crowds, polite Workers and a few Painted Soldiers, gleaming. Among them, a giant a few inches taller than the rest, marked by yellow droplets of paint. An Antinium who smiled and clasped lower hands together in prayer.

Conspicuous among them were the faces who weren’t there. There was no half-Elf, no sniffing [Necromancer] or woman with silver arms. Or Antinium with only three arms. But then someone opened the side door, adjusted a setting on the magical dial, and a Stitch-girl stepped into the hallway with a Hobgoblin.

She was carrying a flask of bubbling liquid she was offering around for people to sample. The Hobgoblin had a guitar on his back. They joined the crowd slowly coming through the doors. And though some knew what to expect, the newcomers looked up.

Here she was. The [Innkeeper]. The owner of The Wandering Inn. A young woman, or so it was said. But one who played chess like a [Strategist]. Who befriended Goblins and [Necromancers]. Who fought monsters. Or served them. She could do anything. Or maybe she drew trouble like metal drew lightning. She was kind. Or just crazy.

There she stood. A little white Gnoll ran around her, excited as could be. She was shorter than the legends claimed. But she smiled with genuine delight as visitors saw her. Her hair caught the light pouring in through the windows, glinting red.

The common room of the inn, the true common room was wide, and vast. Too vast for the space it should have inhabited. But there was a point where the bright glass windows turned to smooth wood. And at the far end of the room, a stage waited.

So too did the tables and chairs. They were new, polished, waiting for people to fill them. A long bar manned—or womaned—or Draked lay along one wall. Kegs and bottles stood at attention, as did mugs and tankards waiting to be filled. And a large kitchen issued aromas of already-cooked food. But it would be fresh as the moment it was made, no matter how much time passed.

Indeed, over a dozen members of staff were waiting for this first crowd. Gnolls and Drakes, smiling and welcoming some guests. The newcomers relaxed—and then ducked as a huge bee floated overhead, flying upside down and pondering what it meant to be free. But the laughter of the young woman calmed them. She raised her hand and the bee flew down to land on her hand.

So this was her. The madwoman of Liscor. The [Innkeeper]. The guests stared as she greeted some of the faces she knew, smiling, bowing to the Gnoll [Shopkeeper]. They looked at her and wondered. Her legend was small, yet. But it was growing. A young woman, they said. An [Innkeeper]. And her inn, which had done so much in such a short time.

The Wandering Inn. And here was—

Lyonette.

The [Princess] smiled as she transferred Apista to one shoulder. She nodded to Krshia and raised her voice.

“Excuse me! Everyone keep moving, please! There are tables and chairs enough for everyone! We have a menu with illustrations and one on the far wall—the bar is serving drinks or our staff can take one to your table! Hello! Elirr! Mrsha was dying to see you! Is that a cat?”

The Gnoll smiled ruefully as the cat on his shoulder hissed at Apista. The Ashfire Bee menacingly poked it’s stinger at the cat. Lyonette smiled as she took the Gnoll’s hands and kept ushering people through the doors.

“It’s so good to see you. Thank you for putting us up—will you have a seat? We can put you over there, by one of the fireplaces…Ishkr? Ishkr!”

“Here.”

A younger Gnoll appeared. Lyonette turned to him as Mrsha dove through the sea of legs, happily seeking out friends.

“Open the side doors, will you? I think we have too many guests for just the double doors!”

“On it.”

The Gnoll nodded and Lyonette saw a stream of people begin appearing through another doorway. The press abated somewhat and she and Elirr moved to one side.

“Mrsha! Mrsha, come here you silly girl! You’ll be trampled!”

Mrsha appeared, grinning with delight. She was as excited as Lyonette and everyone else. Relc was bouncing up and down.

“This place looks great! Ancestors, you’ve got two fireplaces?”

“It’s a large room! And we have a private room—more buildings planned—Krshia! Oh, and Councilmember Lism.”

She politely bowed. Lism glared about, but brightened when he saw his nephew. Krshia came over, smiling.

“It is good to see you, Lyonette. It seems the inn is finished, yes?”

“Not by half! But the entryway and common room are done. And the kitchen! So we could reopen. Which is just as well, because some of the things I have planned—alright! Let’s begin serving tables! I’ll check on the Players of Celum as soon as we’re settled!”

The room was far from packed, but at least a hundred people had come through already and the flow didn’t seem to be ceasing any time soon. Lyonette was smiling fit to burst. So was Krshia, but something paused her.

It was Lyonette. Of course, it was Lyonette, not Erin Solstice. The uninformed were looking at Lyonette as if she was the rumored [Innkeeper], but she wasn’t. She was a [Princess]—although you’d hardly know it by her neatly tied back hair and businesslike way she was managing people. Or maybe you would.

In either case, she was still not an [Innkeeper]. And that was the one face conspicuously missing among the crowd. Even as Relc chortled over a full bowl of spaghetti filled with meatballs and sauce, he was looking for her. The Antinium lined up by their table were turning, ignoring the frightened looks they were getting from the Humans. Krshia sniffed the air, but she’d already determined it.

“Erin Solstice, she is not here still? Lyonette?”

The [Princess] paused.

“Not yet. But she knows the inn’s back. At least, her Skills are active. Her [Grand Theatre] Skill began working two days ago. But she’s still away.”

“What’s that? Excuse me. Hello! I’m sorry to intrude, but—”

A voice interrupted Lyonette. Fals hurried over. The City Runner paused, recoiling as Apista fanned her wings threateningly.

“Oh! Fals!”

Lyonette ever-so-gently flicked Apista’s head and the bee, mollified, relaxed. Fals smiled.

“I didn’t think you’d recognize me amid all the crowd. Hello! It’s good to see you Miss Lyonette and, er…Miss Krshia?”

“Good morning to you.”

Krshia growled a polite greeting. So did Elirr, who introduced himself. The Gnoll plucked the cat off his shoulder as it tried to climb up.

“Shoo. You wanted to see the inn? Well, I hope Mrsha eats you.”

Affronted, the cat leapt from the Gnoll’s shoulder. She landed on the ground and came face-to-face with a very large Gnoll cub. Well, by cat standards. Mrsha was a giant compared to any housecat. The cat warily backed away. Mrsha grinned. They darted into the crowd, playing a game of Gnoll-and-cat.

“Mrsha! Don’t—”

Lyonette sighed. The confusion was familiar and aggravating. But the inn was filling! It was in fact, raucous. But someone was missing. Fals looked around.

“Is Miss Erin not here?”

“Not yet. Do you have business with her?”

“I would like to see her. I imagine many of us here would.”

Elirr nodded to the tables full of friends and single enemy contained in Lism. Olesm was staring at the dedicated chess tables that some Antinium were already filling. But he too looked around.

“I actually have a delivery. That’s why I’m here. And to talk, obviously. But I have—”

Fals had produced a rather large, square object, wrapped very securely. Lyonette eyed it, curious, but she had to shake her head.

“She’s not here, Fals.”

“You mean, she’s out?”

“Hey! Where’s Erin? This pasta doesn’t taste like her pasta! I’ll have another thanks, and a hamburger. Where’s Erin?”

Relc shouted, waving a fork and trying to talk around a mouthful of pasta. Lyonette sighed. She looked at Fals.

“She’ll be back. But maybe not just yet, Fals. Can I take the package for her?”

“I have to give it to her. If she’s out on a walk…”

“No. She’s not here.”

It took the City Runner a moment to realize what Lyonette was saying. He paused, and looked at her.

“Then where is she?”

“Pallass. On holiday.”

Lyonette said it simply. Krshia nodded, her eyes flicking to Lyonette, then back to the magical door. Fals paused.

“For two weeks?”

“She needed a break. She’ll come back. When she’s ready. At lot happened while you were away. And I think Erin needed time. I’ll try to get word to her that you’re here. She should know the inn’s open.”

The City Runner hesitated. ‘Can I go to Pallass?’ was something of a hard question, even though he knew the door was able to take him there. He settled for nodding.

“Do you think she’ll be back tonight?”

Lyonette’s pause was telling. Fals sighed. And some of the old guests were catching on. From their seats, four of the Antinium were rising. Lyonette saw and waved a hand.

“Excuse me, I’ve got to keep moving. Take a seat, please!”

She ushered the others to a seat and then made her way to the Antinium. There were four of them. Pawn, Yellow Splatters, and…Lyonette stared at the other two.

They looked somewhat like Soldiers. But they were…different. A bit taller. And their hands were actual hands, not stumpy digits. More importantly, they wore no paint. They were as alien to Lyonette, who knew what Antinium were like as…well, what Antinium were to most species. She focused on Pawn first.

“Pawn! It’s so good to see you! And you’ve brought the Antinium!”

“Lyonette. It is good to see you.”

Pawn took Lyonette’s hand softly. Yellow Splatters nodded.

“We have come, as promised. Thank you for your invitation.”

The Soldier’s voice was deep. Almost unsettling since it came from a Soldier, but Lyonette smiled and nodded.

“It’s a bit of a rush as you can see, but I have acid flies all ready for the Workers and Soldiers. And plenty of soup!”

The two Antinium brightened. Pawn hesitated, looking around.

“Is Erin not here, Lyonette? I thought she would be.”

“She’s still on vacation, Pawn. I think she might be back tonight. I’ll send someone to look for her first thing after this settles, I promise. And get the Players of Celum. I completely forgot, and I want them to perform here tonight. Ishkr, can you—”

The harried-looking Gnoll rushing past Lyonette turned. Lyonette caught his eye.

“—later.”

Pawn nodded, but he was still looking around as if Erin might materialize from nowhere. Lyonette glanced at the two strange Antinium standing next to Pawn and Yellow Splatters.

“Um, Pawn. Who are your friends?”

Pawn jumped. He looked at the two Antinium and at Yellow Splatters. Lyonette saw his mandibles open and close and paused. Yellow Splatters paused too, but it was one of the two not-Soldiers who replied.

“Hello. We are ordinary Antinium Workers, here for sustenance.”

Lyonette stared at the Antinium. He stared back. She looked at Pawn. The [Priest] couldn’t quite meet her gaze.

“Workers?”

“Um…”

The second Antinium not-Soldier must have read Lyonette’s clear confusion, because he jabbed his companion with one of his four arms hard. The other Antinium started.

“We are ordinary Antinium Soldiers. Excuse me.”

Lyonette stared at them. Then she looked at Pawn and Yellow Splatters. It was hard to read Antinium expressions most of the time. But this was a look. She cleared her throat.

“Oh. Well then. I’m very pleased to meet you. If you’d like some food, someone will bring you a menu very soon. Um…welcome to The Wandering Inn!”

The two ‘Soldiers’ nodded. They turned and marched back to the table. Lyonette swore she heard one of them whisper to the other above the hubbub.

“Nearly perfect infiltration.”

“Thank you, Tersk.”

Lyon stared after the Antinium for a second, mouth open. She caught Pawn poking himself repeatedly in the forehead with one finger. She was about to ask a question, but then Pawn turned to her.

“If Erin is not here, I will let you get back to work, Lyonette. We will be able to speak later. Tonight? I know you must be very busy.”

“Of course. It’s a promise.”

Lyonette smiled. Pawn nodded and made his way back with Yellow Splatters. Lyonette looked around.

“Where’s…?”

She spotted a Centaur sitting down at a table to her left. Palt, Montressa, and Beza were looking around warily. And not getting a lot of friendly looks. But they had an invitation back here and…Lyonette murmured.

“They’ve been gone for two weeks. Did they take Isceil’s body…?”

She was about to go over when she heard a chant. Relc was on his feet.

“Hey! Where’s Erin? Where’s the [Actors]? Let’s have some entertainment!”

His words were followed by a cheer. People turned to the empty stage and Lyonette cursed.

“The Players of Celum aren’t here yet! They’ll be here tonight!”

“Boo! Then we want Erin! Erin! Erin!

The chant was taken up. Relc stood up on his chair. And his voice was joined by Klbkch of all people. And Olesm. Lyonette tried to shout an abbreviated explanation, but then other people were shouting the name, taking it up.

And not out of pure peer pressure. It was true that the inn was here. The guests were here. And some things were changed, others different. But something was missing. The heart and soul of the inn had yet to appear. That [Innkeeper]. The crazy Human.

Erin Solstice.

But she was far away. And as Lyonette tried to calm the mob and Mrsha snuck up on Beza with a spring-loaded cat, and Bird happily sang a song in his tower, summer was underway. A single Ashfire Bee buzzed happily. Birds weren’t singing for fear of Bird singing.

And cause and effect was well at work. In his cave, a Dragon rolled over and flapped one wing lazily. That had nothing to do with the thousand or so Wyverns flying out of the High Passes.

And here they came. An army of Gold-rank threats, descending from the heights of the mountains. Enraged, driven out of their territory, led by the furious Wyvern Lord. And what should meet them but a city, a place of Drakes? And as before, the monsters descended. Lower and lower. The Wyvern Lord drew breath as Bird looked up, staring at faint specks in the distance.

“Ooh. What is that?”

The Wyvern Lord stared down at the city and the small oddity on the hill next to it. His sharp gaze spotted the Antinium, the milling Drakes and Gnolls. He snarled and dove.

Some things never changed.

—After a second, the Wyvern leader changed his mind. He stared down at Liscor. And his feral mind did some busy calculations. That was a rather small city. And bugs? He wasn’t about to eat bugs. He rose, shrieking at his companions. The weyr flew after him. No, for a clutch this large, the Wyvern Lord needed a proper place to make his nest, not some titchy little place like this. He flew on, affronted.

South. Over crimson earth and plants that didn’t interest Wyverns one bit. Southwards still, slowly making their way mile by mile. Searching for something…

—-

And far in the distance, too far for sight yet, lay a city. A jewel of the south. Pallass, the City of Invention. And call it chance, or luck, or twisted fate, but there she was.

A young woman lay on the grass outside of Pallass’ walls. She could see the Walled City in the distance. But right now she was lying by a gentle stream. On a bit of grass. The sky was clear. And she had no idea what was coming, hour by hour across the four hundred miles.

But she was there. And some things changed. And some things never changed. Erin Solstice lay on her back, staring up at the sky. She hummed under her breath. Just staring up the sky, sleepy. Relaxed.

“I’m on holiday.”

She spoke dreamily, in that sleepy way you had, between actual sleep and wakefulness. There was nothing to do. No grand adventures to be had, not even much excitement. A little fishing net and line lay next to a rock. And in the distance, Pallass waited. Erin didn’t look at it. She just lay there. And after a while, which could have been minutes, hours, or forever she got up.

She sighed, shaking out her lazy body. She stretched.

“Ow. Ooh. I should do that more often.”

Then she looked around. At her little getaway. At the still-clear skies. And Erin sighed. She sensed it, to the north. Not the Wyverns. But a glowing beacon.

Home.

It was such a familiar feeling. Painful, sweet. It called to her. But was she ready to go? The young woman lifted her hand. She put it to her chest, over her heart.

Painful regret. Sadness. Guilt. It all lay there. And yet—what glory. What sights she had seen. What friends waited?

“It’s boring being on break. And I suppose it’s time to go back. And do it all better this time. Differently.”

Erin Solstice smiled. A bit sadly. A bit painfully. But there was happiness there too. She drew her hand back from her breast, cupped it.

A small flame glowed in her palm. It burned, magic fire glowing with a vibrancy beyond mortal fire. The core was blue, as deep as the sea. And the fire was lighter. Brighter. It glowed like the sky itself.

Fire and magic. And memory. It was warm and sad and beautiful. For a moment she let it burn in her hands. Then Erin blew it out and turned. She smiled again, and began walking back towards home.

It had to be said that she had poor timing.

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A note from pirateaba

They say the first day of work after a break is the hardest. I can’t remember who said it, but I’m saying it so it must be true. Hello! The story’s back!

Did you miss it? Or are you reading in the future where this is all old news? Well, at the time of writing it’s been about 2 weeks of break! And it feels…like it was over in a flash, honestly.

Too short. And too long. I have missed this! But starting is the hardest thing to do. Starting and ending. I had so many plans for this chapter, but this is what came out. A chapter that sums up some things, changes a bit, but really just brings us back. Some things are new, but we’re all waiting for our [Innkeeper]. And away we go.

Hope you had a good break and start to your year! It may be an eventful one, but The Wandering Inn is beginning Volume 7. I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading and look forwards to next chapter! When is my next break?


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