After so long, she was coming here. There was more than a bit of fate in it, but fate was such a fickle thing. As immutable as belief and mountains, and as fragile as both before will, chance, and magic.
Even so, like belief, like a dream or a mountain, only the most foolish ignored such things, and so she took notice.
The omens were everywhere. The very earth muttered it, whispering in toadstool rings, and she felt it in her blood, in her hat—a hat was a very sensitive thing, and hers seemed to shift about on her head more than it should—and the deep ways of her kind. Her class.
[Witches], you see, listened to thought and omen. They listened to the fates, and some wove threads, others looked into tea or the flights of birds. Some listened to the wind.
Especially when an [Emperor] told you that Erin Solstice was coming. That was a very useful trick [Witches] had picked up, listening to people. Even the new generation hadn’t forgotten that most ancient of magics.
…But she, Wiskeria, woke up with a tingling in her toes and saw a line of ants marching in a concentric spiral that slowly looped across one of the newly-built walls of her home. She walked to the window and reflected that building a home for strange friends was not always wise.
For, in the lack of cold iron nails or other fittings came a little, natural slime made of water rolling across the windowsill. It was trying to devour a little stone with a hole in the center of it, a natural, if rare piece of geology, and as she watched it glide past, it slipped and splattered onto the ground. The water of its body flew up and landed, and she read the odd, unnatural pattern as it began to reform.
All these things Wiskeria, the daughter of Belavierr the Stitch Witch, saw. She saw a great flight of Mavika’s crows cross the air and split three ways down the center across a cardinal point where land influenced sky. And those were just the things she exposed herself to by looking. The tea leaves clumped in her morning pot of tea, and she had to shake it gently until they came out in a rush.
A meaning in each sign, a divination into the future. Wiskeria sipped at her tea and listened to the old man sobbing in the distance. She heard the land muttering Laken’s name and tasted a dire warning on the air blown far from the obscured heights of the tallest mountains in the world.
And Wiskeria calmly, deliberately, and intentionally ignored each and every one. She had some tea, blew her nose into a handkerchief because it was getting colder and she’d been out late last night, and munched on a bit of toasted, day-old bread with some of the [Beekeeper]’s honey she’d purchased last week in a lovely little blue ceramic jar.
After all, an ordinary [Witch] paid no attention to such things. She was oh so ordinary. Yes. Wiskeria carefully adjusted her hat and robes, then, humming, walked out of her house and started her day. She’d been dreaming her mother was drowning in deep waters as black as a midnight squid’s ink.
That did put a smile on Wiskeria’s face and a pep in her step.
At the same time, quite far away—over four hundred miles at least as a crow flew—another [Witch] started her day unnaturally. She opened her eyes as her inn clattered about with people getting dressed and checking their things last-minute, and a [Princess] loudly marshaling a few [Knights] into packing up a lunch—and decided to try breathing fire.
“Fooh. Fuuf. Wait. What did they say in that game? Fuuuuus Dooooh…um. Peh!”
Quite why she wanted to breathe fire was beyond her. If she had really thought about it, the act of exhaling fire didn’t seem quite as practical as conjuring it in her hands. But if she had actually thought about it, she wouldn’t have tried.
It just sounded cool. No, she had a vision of breathing a stream of fire like a firebreather, and that was such a tantalizing image that she chased it. The young woman lay on her back, making odd sounds at the ceiling and pursing her lips. She nearly spat, then realized she’d hit herself in the face.
Plus, gross. She tried to conjure an emotion, and that was difficult.
Because she had to feel it. Fire was no light thing, and Erin Solstice hesitated. Then she thought of Laken Godart and visiting the Goblins. Her face fell—then she thought of Pebblesnatch, and her eyes widened with determination. Only one fire fit them, when she met the Goblins.
And that fire was pink like few things in nature. Like that rare color—of Glory.
A Hobgoblin holding a morning bisque and wondering if you could get tired of the stuff knocked and opened the door when he heard the shout of alarm. He was just in time to see a young woman, lying on her back, exhale a plume of pink fire straight up.
Not a firebreather’s concentrated stream of it, mind you. More like…a little expanding mushroom cloud of pink flame. Numbtongue’s eyes opened wide. He beheld Erin’s beaming face as she stared upwards.
Then—sudden alarm as the fire of glory did what regular fire did not. It hung around. And it landed in a burning swath of expanding glory.
Straight on her and her bedsheets.
The young woman flailed about as the [Bard] covered his face. He almost threw the bisque on her, but she scraped the fire off like it was trails of gossamer.
“Numbtongue! Don’t just stand there! Get some—water? Get some help! I’ve set myself on fire!”
Erin tried to get up, realized she was too weak, and shouted at him.
“Bisque! Bisque me!”
She had the wadded bedsheets gathered up, currently burning with the faint pink flame. As mildly-horrifying statements to hear in the morning went—
Yvlon Byres paused with a toothbrush in her mouth. She had just heard, ‘I’ve set myself on fire! Bisque me!’ followed by a clatter, then an exasperated Hob running with flaming pink bedsheets downstairs.
To her credit, or perhaps as a sign of how the inn was, Yvlon just stared a second, then kept brushing her teeth, because dental hygiene was important.
That was how Erin Solstice started her day. Staring glumly at her slightly-burned bedsheets. Glory burnt fast, but it didn’t scorch and blacken the cloth in the same way. It had…more evaporated a good amount of the cotton cloth, exposing the innards and thinning out the material.
Lyonette was patently exasperated, but her guests expected nothing less of the [Innkeeper]. No, the [Witch].
A strange [Witch]. A poor one, half-trained, half-made.
After all, she had no hat.
And what kind of a [Witch] had no hat? It wasn’t that she had an invisible hat or a hat full of sky, which was an obviously acceptable and practical kind of hat. She had no hat.
She had no craft.
She didn’t even think of herself as a [Witch] at times. She obviously had qualities, but qualities did not a full [Witch] make.
Coal had the same qualities as diamond, but one was not the other. And yet…soon she would be heading to a place with many [Witches]. On a task from one of the greatest [Witches] of her era. The signs were everywhere in the inn. A swirl of salt knocked over by a little Gnoll’s paw. Soap suds in the bucket of water the [Head Server] patiently dunked dirty plates into.
Even the way her maple syrup drizzled out of a bottle. Erin stared blankly at the plate.
“Hey, lookit the weird syrup, Mrsha.”
Then she took a bite. The Gnoll girl barely looked around. She was racing around so much that Lyonette was having trouble keeping track of her and checking her list.
“Okay, we have a lunch packed. Burritos to go. Who’s allergic to what? Ser Sest—put an ‘S’ there. Ah, ah—Mrsha refuses to have sauce in hers. ‘M’. Is that all? No, wait. Why does it say ‘no tomatoes, Tkrn’?”
“…Because Tkrn is coming?”
“Tkrn? Inkar? We’ve forgotten to make them lunch! Where are they?”
Lyonette threw up her hands in exasperation. Ser Dalimont, marking the burritos in their paper bags, sighed and glanced at the kitchen. Erin’s head turned at her table.
“Inkar? Tkrn? Who’s—oh, Inkar!”
She had barely seen the young woman from Kazakhstan. Mrsha gave Erin a highly offended look and was scribbling when Erin poked her.
“Don’t you insult me! She’s been with the Silverfangs, Mrsha. I wondered why she wasn’t at the inn.”
“Probably in mourning. Honored Krshia has been absent too. I will make two burritos. Without tomatoes, Lyonette. You finish packing.”
Ishkr whizzed past them into the kitchen, and Lyonette finally exhaled.
“We need a [Chef]. Okay. Mrsha, are you packed? Don’t give me a blank look, missy! Do you have your clothes? Don’t point to your bag of holding! You pack, not throw everything in higgledy-piggledy last minute!”
Mrsha sighed long and loud, but she was still excited as she raced upstairs. After all—
She was going on a vacation! Erin herself scarfed down her food. It was still funny to her.
“You sure you want to come, Lyonette? You look like you, uh, might be stressed.”
The [Princess] gave Erin an arch look.
“I’m fine, Erin. It’s true that we could use someone to run the inn…but I don’t foresee as much business with you gone. And frankly, after all these ‘adventures’, if Mrsha is going, so am I.”
And no one’s getting into trouble this time. That was the unspoken promise, and Erin shrugged guiltily.
“Who’s on the final list?”
“A small group.”
Lyonette assured her. She read from the list.
“Let’s see. Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha, no Bird because of a certain potential issue with a ‘Mavika’…and Antinium abroad, sadly. Numbtongue—can Octavia make it, Numbtongue?”
“But Garia can. She’s coming. Maybe write that down.”
Lyonette threw up her hands and went on rapidly, as if afraid of being interrupted.
“Inkar, Tkrn! Sest, Lormel, Dalimont, Ushar, Typhenous, and the Horns are…?”
She turned, and Ceria raised a hand.
“There we are, then.”
Erin turned in her seat. It was a large group, really, but it was far smaller than you could have asked for, given the inn’s population. No Halfseekers, no close friends.
No Normen and Alcaz either. She waved at them.
“Sure you guys don’t want to come?”
“I have practice, Miss Erin. And it occurred to us that someone should be here with Mister Ishkr, as it were.”
The bulk of the security was going with them. Although, there wouldn’t be any adventuring teams, but if there was an issue that Numbtongue, Typhenous, the Thronebearers, and Mrsha the Great and Powerful couldn’t solve—
Well, Erin could probably find it. Lyonette did look slightly nervous as she turned to Ceria.
“Are you sure? House Byres is not that far from Riverfarm…”
The half-Elf gave Lyonette a smile and glanced at Pisces, who was looking nervous. Was he sorting through notecards? Erin’s eyes were fixed on him, but he glanced up and nodded. He had something to tell his friends.
“We shall do without. We have at least six fighters.”
Lyonette murmured. She gestured at Numbtongue, Typhenous, who was delighted at being able to return to Riverfarm with Erin, and the Thronebearers.
“Six? You mean eight.”
“No, I mean six. See? Unless Tkrn counts…? And Erin? Me? Oh, Garia.”
Lyonette tried to add up the numbers as someone interrupted her. But the Hobgoblin just pointed at her chest.
Then she pointed at the grinning little Goblin dressed all in black, like an edgy shadow in a pitch black room lined with charcoal. With two shining red eyes peering out of charcoal eyeliner and dark lips, although it wasn’t really lipstick.
Gothica and Ulvama. Lyonette gazed at them.
“But you—I didn’t ask you two!”
The [Shaman] gave Lyonette a blank look, then she fished a burrito out and sniffed it.
“Put beef in mine. Also, you forget scary stabby Drake.”
She glanced around, and Lyonette realized she had missed Tessa, as usual. She covered her face with her hands and screamed silently into it for five seconds.
Then she got back to work. Mrsha rushed down, beaming, with a little rucksack along with her bag of holding. She didn’t need it, but she wanted the look.
She was going on a vacation! Not an adventure. A proper vacation, and she would get to see [Witches] and meet an [Emperor] and add him to her collection of contacts, and Typhenous said that Riverfarm was fun, and, and—
It was fun. Erin beamed as Mrsha scribbled on a piece of parchment.
“You want to take Moore? Aw…sorry, Mrsha, he has to stay with his team. Plus, he said he visited Riverfarm briefly. But we’ll take him on the next vacation! We’ll go to tons of fun places, just like I promised. Like—a beach! That’s better than some village-place in a forest, anyways.”
Mrsha gave Erin a dubious look. She had expressed the disillusionment she had with sand, but Erin’s smile grew wider. And if a [Witch] could have seen her then, through one of the windows, per se, what would she have seen?
A young woman gesturing excitedly as she stood up with magical food in her veins. Her inn replete with the most strange and outlandish of guests.
“A beach! We could go surfing, Mrsha. You’d love that. Surfing and swimming and—we’ll do it. First Riverfarm and Nanette and the Goblins—the next, beaches!”
“And the inn.”
“Right, right, and the inn.”
Erin turned guiltily to Lyonette, but she didn’t focus on that long. She stared ahead, if not always physically, then with eyes alight when she talked about the future, like the fire she had conjured. A strange [Witch].
But even she noticed something, at last, and turned to the window with a puzzled frown. She put a hand on her head—and then looked outside. Then Erin’s eyes widened, and Ulvama glanced over sharply and saw it too. She hissed—
And a raven cawed loudly. It beat its wings, and Erin blinked. Numbtongue glanced over casually.
“That’s one big raven. Bird didn’t shoot it?”
“That’s…no normal raven.”
Erin muttered after a second. She felt a tingle down her spine, and then it lit up her face, a bit worried, a bit nervous—but she waved at the raven. She should have tipped her hat, but she had none.
Then she threw up her hands in alarm and ran upstairs.
“Bird! Don’t shoot the raven! Don’t shoot the—”
She found Bird sitting glumly in his tower and staring at the huge bird. The Antinium looked up as Erin rushed out an explanation about the dangers of hunting certain creatures.
“I know, Erin. I am not a silly Bird. That raven is a bad bird.”
“You didn’t shoot it?”
For answer, Bird sulkily held out his bow. The string was snapped. Erin blinked at it.
“Oh, well, don’t try to shoot it. Worse could happen.”
Bird tossed three broken strings down in front of Erin and folded his arms.
He shook a fist down at the raven arrogantly preening its feathers.
“I will level up and hunt you down!”
Then he turned back to Erin and spoke conversationally.
“The world of bird-hunting is very deep, Erin. I did not know this, but first I had to learn to hunt big Wyvern-birds, next, I learn some can snap your bowstrings. Others flash, and some have ‘owners’ who try to stop you. Do not worry, I will rise to the challenge.”
Erin opened her mouth. Then she patted Bird on the shoulder.
“Just, uh, just be careful, Bird.”
He waved as she left and was still waving as the group began to leave for Invrisil. Though they took the door downstairs for that. He called out cheerfully to the air.
“Do not worry, Erin. I know my level is not high enough yet. I am a cautious [Hunter]. I need twenty more levels at least before I hunt a Wrymvr.”
He rubbed his hands together.
He normally worried about the ethics of hunting people-birds like Bevussa, but Klbkch and Chaldion and Saliss had all told him he was welcome to try. Pivr was sadly more cowardly.
So, a [Witch] set out to meet a [Witch]. A classic. The journey was different, non-standard. She began her trip by stepping a single time and moving four hundred miles. She prepared little, and she gave no warning.
Oh, she gave warning to the [Emperor], but none to the [Witch], save by proxy. Nor to the other [Witches]. She strolled about in company, arranging a carriage ride to a series of stops over the next two days that would see them in Riverfarm.
Nor did she realize there was a stirring in the air. Grave worms amidst a fallow field. Not that Wiskeria paid attention to that either.
Or the old man sobbing as she walked over him. Each morning he whispered to her, and each morning she broke a tiny bit of his skin away. She walked over the wet ground tilled by farmers and found a father searching for food to feed his family.
He froze, and she snapped his neck. For a second, they locked eyes, then he turned, and she put a foot on his back and drove her other heel down as he writhed and began to scream. Her sensible boots struck the bone on his neck and snapped it. Blood rushed helplessly around as she ground the flesh down, and the head lolled, eyes blank, as she lifted him up.
His children watched as Wiskeria turned. She hefted the limp rag up, a bit of blood running from the nose, and met the children’s eyes. She would have had them too, but they fled, and the [Witch] simply exhaled.
She could have tracked them down to their homes and snuck upon them at night. A hammer to bash their brains out or a knife in the darkness. But that required more effort than she had. If she wanted, she could have followed them by day, using the father’s corpse like a dowsing rod. She could have whispered a name into the dark roots of the forest and heard an answer for a price.
She did none of those things. Instead, Wiskeria walked on, ignoring the signs of the worms. A farmer groused at them, then jerked in surprise as she offered the father’s body.
“General Wiskeria! What brings you here?”
“Just touring the farms, Mister Ram. Worms?”
“Odd bastards. Grave worms. Not natural. I think it might be—er, some of your folk, begging your pardon, Miss Wiskeria.”
He was careful around her. He almost said something else, and Wiskeria caught the not-words.
Might be unnatural magic. Tampering.
Witchcraft, or what the [Head Farmer] thought witchcraft was. She took no offense. A [Witch] could conjure worms or relocate them, but she had done nothing about it.
“I can ask about, Mister Ram. No doubt it’s just some carrion. Speaking of which—”
She showed him the body again, and the dead father stared out with glassy eyes, head hanging askew. Blood was drying, and his body was stiffening already in rigor mortis. Murdered moments ago by those sensible boots trodding over worms and pulping them into the soil.
Mister Ram stared at the dead body and smiled. Approvingly, gratefully. It was something Wiskeria had learned people did.
“Damn. A racoon by daylight?”
“He must have been hungry. Should I not have killed him?”
Wiskeria saw the man instantly shake his head and purse his lips.
“Not at all. You needn’t’ve troubled yourself though, General. Not you—we’ll put out some of Gralton’s dogs on night-watch. The last thing we need is them stripping some of the good crops.”
He nodded at the valuable crops, not mere wheat or barley sprouting up in vast fields, but even some aspiring grape vines and most crucially—a whole host of pumpkins.
“Are they growing…well?”
“We’ll be eating them for ages. Pumpkins in the bread, pumpkin pie—though we’re not growing sugarcane, as of yet—and have enough for Emperor Godart’s funny tradition. Carving faces.”
He laughed at that, like a man who saw only a funny image in a face carved. Not a curse. Not a place for a screaming soul to hide or eyes to watch. He accepted the dead body from Wiskeria.
“I’ll trot it over to a [Butcher]. Could be some good meat for the hounds. Thank you kindly.”
The [Witch] smiled and tipped her hat. She turned, stomping more worms to death as they writhed away—but so did he. She walked off, deliberately not worrying about what was coming. Because she wouldn’t know anything about that, would she?
She was a [General], a [Witch]—and most thought of the two classes as an odd combination. They forgot that [Witches] had led armies. A [Witch] could marshall a village. How hard was an army compared to that? If she could medicate wounds, settle disputes, make sure there was enough to eat, the animals were fed, the pests dealt with—a talented [Witch] could do that for a hundred thousand people.
It was only a matter of scale.
So, Wiskeria walked the farms. She checked on the people in the town—too large to be called a village now, even with the other outlying settlements being built—and listened for the sounds of disputes, people who might be unwell.
These were far more difficult for her to pick up than the man weeping and begging her to listen. Mortal voices were soft and—confusing. But they greeted her with smiles and called her ‘General’, ‘Miss Wiskeria’, or ‘Witch Wiskeria’, and she smiled back.
“How has your day been—Yesel?”
Prost’s wife was only too happy to tell Wiskeria.
“It’s been a night, Wiskeria. We had little Rulent up with a fever, so his parents came rushing to us. Nevermind that it was a spring fever—new parents get worried, so I was up halfway till dawn with tea and blankets until we all passed out.”
“Oh no. How terrible!”
Wiskeria seemed shocked and upset. Right up until she noticed the blank look cross Yesel’s face.
“I mean—for Rulent?”
Then her heart was pounding fast in her chest, as fast as the dying father’s, with worry until Yesel’s expression cleared.
“Yes, the poor dear! He was so upset—I should see if he can take down some soup.”
Wiskeria smiled, and her heart rate calmed down. Oh, so that was how it went.
“It’s…tough for you? A nuisance?”
“Not too much, but thank you for asking.”
“Oh. I see. Well, let me know if I can help.”
Yesel waved it away, but her smile seemed to increase, and she patted Wiskeria’s hand.
“You are so thoughtful, Wiskeria. Not like—”
She caught herself, and Wiskeria read the other words. The [Witch]’s smile never changed. But she remembered this, remembered this and tried to figure out how to do it right next time.
Because this was hard. Not that Yesel noticed, aside from that one moment of uncertainty. They were all people. More than Humans—and Riverfarm did have a few non-Humans these days—people were well-trained. They ignored little moments like that, smoothed them over, and Wiskeria was intensely grateful for their forgiveness.
Yet if she passed by in the eye of many as an important person, but unseen—there was one group of people who did watch Wiskeria. Who looked at her oddly.
And they were also [Witches]. But they were not the ones Wiskeria was trying to fit with. So she ignored the straightening [Witch] with her sensible cardigan sweater—under the lightest of ‘robes’, more like a long jacket, all bright red over a linen-beige covered with little mauve flowers—and her non-threatening hat with a little embroidered crown like leaves. The green thread spread downwards until they bloomed into ‘flowers’ which were black cats and broomsticks, cauldrons and wands and stars.
A beautiful hat that took everything that was [Witch] and made it somehow less and expected. A terribly wretched hat, to some, which offended their eyes.
But a perfect hat for the friendly woman with a face that was welcoming and excited to tell you things as a teacher, for that was what she was. Witch Agratha carried sweet toffee she made in one pocket, sealed with bits of wax paper that she would give to children or her apprentices. She had a handshake that even a [Miner] respected, and her clothing was often the brightest among any coven of [Witches].
In her way, she was as noted and as separate as Wiskeria was. But even Agratha, who smiled in the face of scorn like a willow in the winds—even she looked at Wiskeria with a frown full of unease. Until Wiskeria turned and Agratha smiled as if Wiskeria could not see out of the corners of her eyes.
As if Wiskeria were as blind as a [Witch] like Agratha, who didn’t need to ignore the whisper of the winds and the old man’s sobbing. For she, who taught hundreds of apprentices, had never learned to listen.
A [Witch] was made by many things. Her craft, her personality, her deeds and experiences and if she was sick or well and her friends and…everything.
But she still expressed much of it in her hat. A hat, Emperor Laken had learned, was a [Witch].
…Which annoyed him no end because the blind [Emperor] did not have eyes, and even his senses, which allowed him to detect most of Riverfarm, did not do detail like hats. It was something he would have learned to live with—except that they sounded like wonderful damn hats.
Nor could he go around and lay his hands on and feel out each [Witch]’s hat one-by-one. Even an [Emperor] did not go around touching hats.
So, in his desperation, like a [Pervert] seeking intimate details of the goings-on in a bathhouse or restroom—that was how he felt—he summoned one of Riverfarm’s subjects to describe hats.
It was objectively weird. And not the thing he should be doing while Erin Solstice was headed this way. Durene had paused for the longest time when he confessed his hat-envy.
“…I think I’ll go fight those skeletons in that graveyard, Laken. Have fun?”
It only made him more uncomfortable, and the unfortunate hat-describer was no less awkward as he laid out his request.
“Why me, Your Majesty?”
To that, he only responded with honesty:
“You, Adventurer Revi, have the best sense of fashion and a way with words among everyone I could name. I also think a Gold-rank adventurer might be discreet.”
The [Summoner] huffed and tried not to sound pleased.
“Well, I suppose that’s true. A Stitch-Woman for a cloth job. Do you want a hat?”
“Me? I don’t think so. And I don’t think a [Witch]’s hat is that, ah, simply obtained. I am trying to learn more about [Witches]. Do you…know much about them?”
“There’s not many in Nerrhavia’s Fallen. They were…more common with the Tyrant herself. I’ve met a few. Never partied with any—Wiskeria’s the first [Witch] I’ve really met in that sense. Do their hats matter?”
The [Emperor] thought about the question.
“Absolutely and not at all. But they do sound fascinating. Possibly fabulous or striking.”
Revi nodded slowly.
“In that case—that’s all the justification they need. Where do we start?”
They started with Hedag’s hat. The Hedag was, after all, one of the great [Witches] who had come to Riverfarm and among the greatest who remained.
Laken left the wide, vacuous ‘throne building’, which was an old storehouse they had converted into a place for him to take audiences, and walked down the bricked roads of Riverfarm. He could not see, but he could smell a morning’s breakfast on the air, hear excited panting as dogs ran up and Revi cursed at them and they danced away.
A wagon rolled past as he seated himself at an outdoor café and was brought a milk tea. Oh, the teas. It smelled of mild juniper, and if you so wanted, you could have a tea filled with a bit of saffron from Chandrar or something so hot and refreshing as to wake you up in Cenidau’s colds.
The great Tea-Witch, Eloise, was much to do with Riverfarm’s renaissance in tea, and the iron lattice of the chair and [Servers] fussing over Laken, very pleased at their modest outdoor café’s patronage, faded into the background. Laken had heard coffee had been discovered or rediscovered, but he had found tea was far better with an expert in Riverfarm.
Hedag was on the same street, hence them choosing one of Riverfarm’s new outdoor cafés where everyone could get a cup if they waited in line, gratis. Money was still something being worked out, but there were enough people and gold coming in that they had more than just the Unseen Empire’s citizens.
And somehow, Hedag picked out children of [Merchants] in the crowd. She, despite being an imposing figure, attracted children and younger people who sat about with her. She needed no toffee; she needed only to sit on the sidewalk and let a boy dangle his legs on her knee, perhaps wiping his nose on her dress, and whisper timidly in her ear until she handed him a coin made of wood and gave him a promise with a handshake as wide as his head.
Of such things was a Hedag’s craft, and Laken would not stop her even if he could. Of the [Witches], she stood out for what she did. More than that, she had a title from the days of old. Hedag. A word like the woman herself. A force of nature walking as much as a woman. Like old law given form. Arms like a woodcutter’s, a smile, or so Laken had been told, as broad and unassuming as could be.
As terrible as the axe she carried, which Revi claimed had the red of rust or blood on it, but an edge as sharp as a razor. Revi described Hedag as best she could as they had breakfast.
“She’s got…well, if there were workwoman’s robes, that’s what they’d be. I don’t think it’s cotton. Some kind of sturdy, twill cotton? Maybe another fabric like that?”
“What, it’s not a robe?”
Laken had assumed all the [Witches] were walking around with what he took to be classic [Wizard] and [Mage] robes, long and flowing, long-sleeved, a tripping hazard. But Revi, much amused, corrected him.
“Nope. Hers is more like…a riding dress? Have you seen—uh, nevermind. She’s got long socks underneath and trousers under her dress. Good thing too—the dress isn’t that clean. But it’s got some pockets, and it’s…brown. Like her hat. Which is nothing special, by the way.”
“Really. No unique ornaments? No…”
Revi studied Hedag, and her voice, often snappish, judgemental being the default state, grew uncertain.
“Well, no. It’s just a hat. Much the same material. Old leather, maybe, cracked as can be. I think it’s dirty, but not filthy, if that makes sense. Just travel-worn. It looks like it’s been on her head forever. Nice brim—and old. So old. It’s got tons of patches, but…that’s a lot of lines. It almost looks like it’s a hundred years old. Older. I don’t know why. It’s just a hat—”
She laughed, uncertain.
“But it’s—it’s crooked, bent at the tip. It has all these creases, but I could imagine it’s been in the family ages. Passed on from mother to daughter or…”
Hedag to Hedag? Laken tried to imagine it. A hat as old as the name upon a smiling woman’s head. The hat would witness sins and pettiness, and yet for all it was bent and old—it was a proud hat.
For no evil it saw remained. The Hedag’s axe swung up and down, and the hat, stained perhaps, was the only memory left.
“Is there power in a [Witch]’s hat? Is it more than just a symbol, or are even the best hats—hats?”
The [Emperor] wondered aloud, and Hedag heard him. She strode over as Revi made an uncertain sound at this hat-voyeurism, but Hedag just laughed like booming trees.
“Laken, lad, you’re interested in hats? A fine thing for an [Emperor] to take interest in! More than a woman’s thighs or how gold shines! A hat is a hat. Some of us put things under them or make the hat well, but it’s no helmet a [Soldier] swears by.”
“But you can do magic with a hat?”
Hedag winked, and she lifted her hat up.
“Can a [Farmer] use an adze? Does a [Painter] benefit from a better brush? Of course a hat matters. If you go looking—would you like to know the [Witches] with the most interesting hats?”
“Of course. Would that be…Witch Eloise? Witch Mavika? Alevica, if she’s here?”
Hedag affirmed all the names, but added a few of her own.
“You might as well see Agratha’s, for contrast. Oliyaya…and Wiskeria. Though if you ‘see’ what she has, a blind man would see more than most.”
She laughed, then strode off. Revi glanced at Laken, and the [Emperor] tapped at his lips, much amused. He hadn’t missed the scorn in Hedag’s voice.
“It seems this hat-lesson will have more about [Witch] culture than I thought, Miss Revi.”
“Oh, goodie. Let’s go.’”
Eloise had no embroidery on her hat, which made Laken sad at first. He had passed by Agratha, who greeted him as she stood in the street teaching her apprentice [Witches] how to perform magic.
“Ward the street with the pellets, just so. Don’t scatter them like a [Farmer], Mavaise. An intention to each action. Place them like a [Hunter], but not to catch. Where might they go? Each pellet contains a bit of clover and onion, a hot pepper as spicy as you like, and some vinegar or other strong-smelling odors.”
“They don’t smell of anything to me, Witch Agratha.”
A young apprentice piped up, and she sounded nervous and interested. Laken wondered if she was one of the new ones from Riverfarm’s own. He noticed a number of people watching this lesson in the street.
Mothers and fathers, interested people watching a [Witch] at work. But Agratha spoke loudly for all, and he thought—to her audience as much as her apprentices.
Look at me, a [Witch]. Fear me not.
Revi had already described Agratha’s rather attractive-sounding dress and hat. Yet even in this lesson, Laken thought he understood why she was as much a rebel as a constant in the [Witches]’ loose network of covens.
Agratha was…well. Mundane.
“They might not smell to you, Mavaise, but trust me, a rodent will not enjoy biting into the rind of such pellets. One bite and they will have a very unhappy day. And you see, we’ve added a tiny bit of magic to cloak their nature. Run them around with pellets of grain and bits of cracker, or even seeds, until they all have the smell and taste. Borrow a [Miller]’s place, or do it in a bowl, but make sure it’s windless on the day. Then put them in a house or street, and the rodents will soon think twice about nibbling scraps! It won’t solve a bag of grain broken or a constant mess, but it will bother them.”
Her audience appreciated the lesson as much as Laken and the apprentices. It was so…straightforwards. A tiny bit of magic filled with clever-thinking. How practical.
Laken heard the most ungodly sound from his left and jerked. Revi made a noise of horror, but he was distracted by the thought.
Ungodly. Oh, how wonderful. He couldn’t keep the smile off his face, but that sound—his stomach roiled just hearing it. It was the sound of phlegm and bodily functions, and by Revi’s reaction and his faint senses—it was Oliyaya expelling a lot of it onto the street. Possibly through multiple orifices.
It was like a curse made manifest. Someone gagged, and there were cries of dismay. Agratha raised her voice.
“Witch Oliyaya! Do you have a problem with my teaching?”
For answer, Oliyaya, who was as much the old guard as Agratha was the new, tipped her hat in a way Laken knew was mocking. Her voice sounded, well, like a [Witch]’s.
Cracked and cackling at times, others, oozing with secrets and malice. Even when she wasn’t annoyed, Oliyaya could set your hair on edge with a chuckle.
“Not at all, Witch Agratha. Each Witch teaches their craft as they will. No matter how they explain every trick like a [Scholar] describes a [Charlatan]’s sleight-of-hand. ‘Tis amusing to watch the learned [Scholar] try to perform a true trick, though.”
Agratha replied in a clipped voice, and Laken knew she had spectacles she was fiddling with.
“It is my belief, Witch Oliyaya, that all magic should start small at the beginning. The basics are as potent as any great ritual, and our craft has suffered from disorganization, inconsistency.”
Oliyaya nodded as Laken whispered to Revi, asking what she was wearing.
“Fair points and fairer work, for the ‘Teacher Witch’. You have taught more apprentices than any [Witch] here. I tip my hat to thee for keeping [Witches] continuing. And I continue tipping it, never let a soul forget.”
“For as long as witchcraft endures with teachers like you.”
Oh snap. Laken tried to hide a smile as Agratha made a faint scoffing sound, which didn’t hide how vexed she was.
Agratha and Oliyaya had not been the coven who had come to Riverfarm to strike the great bargain, but they were as related—both had come to practice their kinds of witchcraft and raise a new generation.
They headed two kinds of ideas about what [Witches] were. Even their dresses and hats showed that. Revi did a running narrative on Oliyaya until Laken thought he could picture the woman.
She did not have tattered robes or decrepit clothing like some wraith-woman of the wilds. [Witches] were exceptionally practical.
Yet if Agratha wore friendliness and accessibility like the cardigan she’d knitted, plain thread she’d spun, know-how and a bit of artistry to make a piece of clothing that Revi claimed any decent clothing-shop would be happy to sell—Oliyaya wore magic.
Like their approaches to apprentices, perhaps. You could, with effort, mass-produce a hundred of Agratha’s sweaters, and they might not be so fine, but mostly as good. There could be only one of Oliyaya’s dresses for that much effort, if that.
Black was a color that few [Witches] wore. Even Belavierr hadn’t worn black, Laken had learned. Not that he understood the color by sight, but by symbolism, how it was talked about.
Oliyaya had woven her robes, or enchanted them, out of what Revi described as a shadow or piece of dusk. She had snipped it down out of the firmaments, perhaps, and then decorated it with her tools of work.
A skull resting upon one shoulder, a pocket from which hung dried stalks of fennel that never seemed to fall out no matter how she moved, the scent of toads and other animals, often poisonous, that the [Witch] found and squeezed or cultivated.
But the hat was ironically simple. And though Laken hadn’t known it—Oliyaya, of any [Witch], suited the Unseen Empire most. For her hat was as dark as that shadow, so that she could seem to step out of twilight like a [Witch] straight from Shakespeare or speak unseen, just out of sight.
Yet what made it unsettling were the eyes.
Two, stitched out of dark purple thread, which Revi, classically, had to characterize as ‘old lavender purple’ with complex pupils of cloud-grey and, faintly, a rotten acorn brown.
Just like Oliyaya’s eyes. They would pivot on her hat. Such that you might glance up and see the hat staring at you. The eyes moved. They might well see magic or help Oliyaya in her craft.
The two [Witches] seemed on the brink of fighting, and it was hard for Laken to see how Agratha would win this one. He might not have seen the two squaring off as more than shapes and vague figures, but he felt Oliyaya tapping the ground with a cane she carried.
“Oh, stitches. She’s building up charges in her cane.”
“Charges? Charges of what?”
“Looks like some kind of ranged spell.”
At this, Laken stood up in alarm, but Agratha raised her voice, sounding like she was trying to project calm.
“—And this, apprentices, is why a [Witch] does not invite malice. Although sometimes it comes to her. Witch Oliyaya, are you truly preparing for strife? Here?”
“I am merely preparing to defend myself, Witch Agratha. I do not have a club in hand.”
Laken seized Revi’s arm.
“Agratha has a what?”
“A nice club. It’s got an embroidered handle, too.”
The other [Witch] had pulled out a tool of her trade. Which was, apparently, a club. A most…[Witchy]…weapon? Agratha snapped back at Oliyaya.
“I’m not building up spells in my cane. You go too far with words and deed, Oliyaya.”
“A [Witch] goes farther by her nature. No pond exists that can contain us. Yet you draw lines in the muck and tell your apprentices it is a wall. You dance with words behind my ears, Agratha. I have heard you disparaging my craft.”
“I—may say things in private—”
“Words be weapons. I am not a [Witch] that lets any hurl them against me unopposed. Shall we show your apprentices what a battle between [Witches] looks like? It shall be instructive.”
Oh no. The rivalry between [Witches] was threatening to turn into a full-blown conflict. Today of all days? Laken stood up in alarm.
“Witch Agratha, Oliyaya! Desist!”
They heard him, and both turned his way. But Gamel and Revi were the only combatants here, and Laken feared a spark might set things off. Oliyaya’s two apprentices were facing off the twelve Agratha was teaching. Laken knew one was one of the ‘scary children’, apparently the survivor of a terrible fire, scarred with burns. The other, allegedly, never spoke, a huge problem for him to get to know her.
Both [Witches] tipped their hats at once. Yet neither desisted.
“Would you not permit us to entertain the folk of this land with a bit of strife? No harm to anyone watching. Just [Witch] blood upon the ground.”
“And let one of you two injure the other? I think not.”
“Behind closed doors, then. At a later time. This is a deferred battle. You see, apprentices, many things are best settled away from the standing authority—”
Agratha kept up a low monologue, and Laken snapped.
“No one is battling anyone! I will know. If you have a conflict, settle it without violence. Settle it with…”
He hesitated, then, because he didn’t know what the proper solution was. But Laken Godart relaxed and turned his head, which confused Oliyaya and Agratha until they both turned and felt it.
A tickling on the back of their necks. A twist in their hats. What did they see?
A Wolverine pretending to be a badger? A lion who had taken its teeth out? No, that implied something else. They saw Wiskeria striding along, a hand on her hat to keep it on as she hurried to this altercation.
And Wiskeria spoke, answering the [Emperor]’s question.
“A competition, Your Majesty? Witch versus witch. Anything you please would suit. Be it baking or creating a potion, sewing or solving a problem.”
“Ah, a competition? Is that traditional?”
Wiskeria tipped her hat as the two [Witches] regarded her. She was a Silver-rank adventurer, but ironically, Wiskeria was less well-armed than the two bristling older [Witches]. She had a long dagger at her side, an adventurer’s belt, and a wand, but she did not seem as threatening as a witch carrying a three-foot-long club, carefully hollowed and then filled with lead and marked with a little witchy cat wearing a hat burnt into the wood. With an embroidered handle.
Or a [Witch] whose crooked cane seemed to smoke with dark ash near the tip, and whose magic charge was slowly blackening the bricks it was resting on with soot.
Yet Wiskeria defused the situation, somehow, with words as well as her presence. Agratha folded her arms, and Oliyaya made to spit again, much to everyone’s horror.
“A contest? What shall it be, then?”
They turned to him, and the [Emperor] did not hesitate long. Because he had learned that he could say, ‘what would be best?’, or ‘what would you do?’, and if he had the right person, they might offer an opinion, but if he asked for a decision, they would hem and haw until he said it.
“I believe Riverfarm lacks for suitable style.”
The [Emperor] smiled tightly. He touched his un-hatted head of mousey hair, whose color he kept forgetting because it didn’t matter. An inferior head, despite being an [Emperor]. Especially compared to all these magnificent hats.
“We have fine clothing from some of our experts, and we are growing cotton and importing style and fashion. We have wool for sheep, and I am told by Adventurer Revi that Riverfarm does not lack for style.”
Indeed, while a lot of the clothing was utilitarian, he had been informed that the symbols of the Unseen Empire had begun to appear sewn onto clothing like badges, or embroidered. A hat, a triangular pyramid, or a giant hawk riding a bear. However, Laken gestured to his head.
“Yet hats? We lack for good hats. Hats for [Farmers] in the fields, or [Scouts], or a hat for the coming cold. I, myself, have been fascinated by them of late. Why not a contest? Let the best hat win, [Witches] or [Tailors] or whomever wishes to compete. And I will wear the best one for a day.”
Now that provoked a furor. Laken was proud of himself—right before he heard Oliyaya’s cackle and got worried. But Agratha bowed instantly.
“A hat contest? I shall need to prepare. When will it be, and what will the rules consist of?”
Laken had no idea, and he didn’t like Agratha’s enthusiastic tone. But he had methods for dealing with this. He turned his head ever-so-slightly and nodded, and Wiskeria broke in.
“We shall announce it by the end of the day, Witch Agratha. For now—disperse, please. No more fighting, indoors or out.”
And there ended a fight. Laken exhaled, then turned to Revi as Wiskeria marched over, talking to the citizens, but going to both camps of [Witches] and having a word.
His [General] really was good at her job. Which was keeping the peace, being the arm that connected [Witches] to people.
For a Witch of Law, or so she had claimed, Wiskeria truly was efficient. He had heard she was diligent in making sure the new trainees and [Soldiers] drilled, and she listened to experts like [Instructors] and weapon trainers and delegated her command to the actual soldiers.
He trusted her, for all she was Belavierr’s daughter. He thought Wiskeria liked her job, but Laken had to confess—of Prost, of Durene, even compared to the changed Rie—
He did not know Wiskeria. Laken realized how much he did not know her the longer they were acquainted. It was not just the tests he’d had Gamel run in the past, where Wiskeria had performed all manner of unsavory tasks without missing a beat.
It was not even her relationship with her mother.
There was something off about Wiskeria, and Laken confirmed that by the reaction of the other [Witches]. He leaned over.
“Revi, what is Wiskeria doing? Oh, and what is she wearing?”
He had high hopes for Wiskeria’s hat, but Revi took a few seconds before replying.
“…She’s wearing some blue robes. I’d say midnight blue if that wasn’t being too pretentious, but more like a darker cobalt. Bog-standard [Mage] robes.”
“Standard? What about her hat?”
“The same color. It’s also blue. Fairly straight. I’d bet it’s some kind of sturdy cotton. Probably a stiff lining of something.”
“What about decorations? Some…magic?”
Revi scrutinized Wiskeria a second and shook her head.
“No aura? No patterns? No dirt?”
“…Nope. It’s a hat. She’s got spectacles. Decent work-boots.”
Laken was crestfallen. He had never imagined what Wiskeria wore, but to hear it was so…so…mundane? He was disappointed for a second. Then he had a thought.
“Then, how do the [Witches] treat her?”
Revi paused a moment, and the [Summoner] sounded a bit uncertain when she replied.
“Just—politely. She’s talking to Agratha—I don’t know if many of the [Witches] like Agratha. But she’s civil. Oh, and now she’s headed over to Oliyaya. That young [Witch] apprentice is creepy. She’s staring at us.”
“Be polite, please, Revi. I’m aware she has—scars.”
The [Summoner] shuddered.
“Scars? That’s one thing. But she’s staring at us.”
“So? She’s allowed to—”
“Her body is facing the other way.”
The [Emperor] hesitated. He twisted his neck about 90-degrees, but that was how far it went.
“What, all the way around?”
“Ah. You may be creeped out, then. Is—is Oliyaya’s apprentice smiling?”
“What do you think?”
Still, there was something about Wiskeria that Laken noticed. And it was what Revi reported back to her.
“Oliyaya’s listening. Wiskeria is so business-like. Yep. Seems like she’s just lecturing or something. Can we go now or are we going to stare at Eloise and Mavika? I could tell you what Eloise has. Pressed tea leaves on her hat and lovely flowers embroidered in.”
“Thanks for ruining the surprise. Just tell me one thing. Do the [Witches]…like Wiskeria?”
Revi took a long time to answer that. She peered, frowning, standing on her tiptoes, and then replied in an odd voice.
“Now you mention it, neither one seems too keen to hang around Wiskeria long. The apprentices are staring at her. Even the creepy one. She doesn’t hang out with them much, not that I’ve seen. Why? Is that wrong? She’s mostly being your, uh, [General], Your Majesty.”
Revi might have remembered then that she was technically under his authority and he was an [Emperor]. But Laken only waited for Wiskeria to approach.
“Just part of the mystery. I suppose I’ll have to tackle it another way, Miss Cotton. You said her hat’s normal?”
“As boring as can be. Why? Did you expect something different?”
The [Emperor] smiled tightly as Revi shot him a glance.
“Yes and no. It’s more outstanding because it looks so boring. Did you know that her mother made it?”
“T-the Stitch Witch?”
Revi stuttered slightly. Laken Godart whispered.
“Yes. So what a normal, ordinary [Witch] her daughter is, eh?”
She was quite good at it. But Laken’s investigation into Wiskeria being Wiskeria was just a side-project of his. Something he wondered if she could even answer if he asked it to her face. He turned his head to the east on this day about hats.
Soon enough, he’d have far more to do. At last, she was coming. He wondered if she would bring a storm like Ryoka. After hearing tales of Erin Solstice, somehow, the [Emperor] expected nothing less.
Within the first day of setting out from Invrisil, everything went wrong. Like vacations did.
Erin didn’t get much of a chance to look around Invrisil. Lyonette was, stressfully, organizing the carriage-ride that would stop at two places she’d arranged for them to stay. Erin was busy defending the Goblins.
“They’re Goblins. There’re monsters! Someone call the Watch!”
“No, they’re not.”
“Wh—I can see them right there. I’m not having Goblins on my carriage!”
“But they’re not Goblins.”
“How are they not Goblins?”
A bug-eyed [Carriage Driver] was looking like he was starting to question his sanity. He was no Termin, and Erin calmly pointed to an amused Numbtongue, chatting with Garia.
“If they were Goblins and monsters, they’d be stabbing you. They’re just, uh, green people. They’ve got lime disease.”
“Lime what? Where’s the Watch? What’s…?”
“How about you just drive us to our destination and not worry about your passengers. We’re paying, and I’ll sweeten the deal.”
That caught his attention.
For answer, Erin offered him a cinnamon cookie.
That went well. But then Erin was sitting in a carriage, and much to her disappointment, there was no Inkar.
Inkar! The one Earther that Erin had yet to really meet! It was so strange how she hadn’t gotten a good chance to talk with Inkar. Of course, they had all been busy, but Erin realized that the young woman hadn’t sought her out.
She had been with the Silverfangs, and it occurred to Erin only as they started their journey that Inkar really had lived among the Gnolls for a year. Erin lived in Liscor, but she still was, in many ways, separate.
Yet Inkar had lived with the Longstalker’s Fang tribe, even won the right to be called Honored Inkar. She was a [Worldly Traveller], which fascinated both Lyonette and Erin.
She had slightly tanned skin from days under the sun, but Erin didn’t see much of it for the dress that Inkar wore. It was one of those ornate, embroidered ones, travelling clothes covered by a beautiful pattern of thread. The kind of clothing you could wear for a long time, because you had nothing else nearly as fine in your collection.
Erin certainly didn’t have an equivalent, even with Drassi and Selys’ clothes to round out her collection. She had put on a light shirt embroidered with a Rock Crab at the hem, which was cute. Inkar had a hat lined with slightly yellow wool that sometimes crackled if it built up too much static electricity, upon which Honored Deskie had stitched, in gold thread, her flag and added Longstalker’s Fang’s so people would recognize it.
A cap, not a pointy hat, to match a long-sleeved vest of dyed red, a deep currant color, so better to stand out on the Gnoll Plains, which were often long with green and yellows of the grass or the blue and white skies. The clothing was lined, again, with fleece to keep Inkar warm or cool her off from the sun, and the lining was apparently so magical she could teleport herself and her horse.
Which was awesome. But what made Erin really think the clothing was something else was…the embroidery. Gnoll traditions that intersected with some Earth ideas said that your clothing should represent who you were and where you came from.
So, there was an orb of Earth stenciled in green and blue, and, to Erin’s amazement, Deskie had even done an entire solar system.
Which was…just a fascinating choice. If Ryoka Griffin could have seen it, how many blood vessels of anxiety would she have burst? But then again—who would realize the solar system for what it was?
It spoke to a different attitude. Even Inkar’s decision to journey out to Riverfarm, albeit only for a few days, said something about her.
Because Kevin, Joseph, and Imani—or the absent Troy—weren’t going. Each one had begged justifiable workload in their new jobs. Well, Kevin had said he could probably go since he could take Solar Cycles on the road unlike Joseph, who had a team, or Imani, who had a kitchen. But he’d refused.
“I already have enough monarchs, thanks. I’ll die for lack of sleep if I get another one.”
Which was an odd statement. Nevertheless, Inkar had asked to join them. Erin had really been looking forward to chatting with her.
…Right until she realized the conceit of her thinking. Which was assuming Inkar would sit in a carriage the entire way there. The reason Erin could admire Inkar’s clothing only from afar was because the [Traveller] was riding.
She was astride the long-legged mare she’d named Samal, who was joyfully galloping ahead of the carriage. Followed by a less-graceful but no less-willing Tkrn.
“What happened to that guy?”
Erin turned to the occupants of her carriage. She had also been unlucky in her seatmates. There were no less than three carriages heading to Riverfarm given the number of people. Each one had a Thronebearer; Lyonette’s had two. So Ser Dalimont, judged the best candidate for Erin, got to sit with Erin, Gothica, and Typhenous. Technically, the carriage could have fit six or even seven, extremely cramped, but this was the minimum for everyone not to go insane while sitting for hours at a time.
Unfortunately, there was no Mrsha, who was with Lyonette, and Numbtongue had decided to try running with Garia.
…He’d given up after thirty minutes. As for Erin’s fellow passengers, Typhenous glanced up from trying to bribe Gothica into spilling the secrets of her class.
“Who, Tkrn? I don’t recall him, but he looks fairly good, doesn’t he? A fine class. [Companion], I believe.”
“Yeah, but I remember Tkrn, and he was this silly…[Guard]. Not—”
Erin waved a hand out of the window at the Gnoll racing after Inkar. Tkrn! He seemed older. Certainly tougher. He had an enchanted sword, and while he’d given back the Demas Metal plate armor, he had replaced it with Liscor’s City Watch’s gear, and he had a shield with an eye on the back of it.
A [Companion]. Someone who’d fought alongside Gire and held their own in a war. Erin kept peeking at him. And Inkar and he were a thing?
“That’s so weird. Uph!”
That was the sound of Gothica hitting Erin with a piece of her burrito. Erin spluttered as Ser Dalimont started. Gothica raised a finger.
Erin stared at the [Goth].
“No, I wasn’t. Okay, a little, but I was just—don’t throw your burrito! I’ll kick you!”
“Try it. Bitch.”
Erin’s mouth opened. She thought this [Goth] class was going too far. She glanced around for help, but Typhenous was delightedly stroking his beard and hiding a smile, and Ser Dalimont was pondering the ethics of fighting a Goblin half his height. And probably eying her teeth.
It never occurred to Erin that Gothica was to her what she was to Chaldion. Or trying to be.
The point was that Erin spent the rest of the carriage ride asking Typhenous how Griffon Hunt was doing and getting a rundown on Terandrian kingdoms from Dalimont. The Thronebearer was good at storytelling, and even Gothica liked him retelling stories of Noelictus.
“…Overcast skies, always grey. I believe they get less than six hours of pure sunlight per day, and as you may know, the undead rise due to the concentration of death magic in the earth.”
“Ugh. Who would want to live—Gothica, I swear!”
Erin blocked the burrito wrapper as the carriage swerved slightly. Ser Dalimont hesitated.
“It is slightly—gloomy. But Noelictus’ people are resilient, and they have their own methods, Miss Solstice. Not least, Noelictus is considered the great breadbasket of Terandria. Their fields are among the most fertile in the world. The Ashwheat I believe you wanted comes from there. Most of their produce is distinctive.”
“Oh, you don’t say. Gothica, would you want to live there? Really? I know you have a class, but do you really like stuff like that enough to live in an undead…gloomy place?”
Gothica considered the question. She bared her teeth.
“I want to sleep in coffin. You make. Coffin in basement with dead bodies.”
Erin threw up her hands.
She was slightly aggrieved, in short, when they disembarked for their stay at a local inn on their way to Riverfarm. That was when the next part of the bad journey took hold.
“But they’re not Goblins. They’re—”
This time, the surly [Hostel Manager] cut Erin off.
She barely emerged from behind the door she had only opened a crack. Lyonette took over before Erin could explode.
“We’ve already paid for our rooms. Surely there’s somewhere we could stay?”
“You can have your money back. You said nothing about Goblins. ‘Sides, there wasn’t any reservation. We’re almost full up.”
“But I sent you a [Message]—”
“We don’t do reservations. First come, first serve. That’s how it works.”
Both Lyonette and Erin were used to a different system of, well, tourism. However, Riverfarm was not exactly a populated hub—or it hadn’t been. Erin fumed as Numbtongue picked out a good spot to camp. Inkar was only too willing to find them a spot, but Lyonette came back with an offer.
There was a guest-house of sorts, not connected to the hostel itself, that the group could stay in. It would cost them extra, and the Goblins had to stay out of sight and not do Goblin things. Frankly, only the Thronebearers’ presence had gotten that much.
The [Hostel Manager] clearly thought Erin was insane, and she watched fearfully as the guests trooped over to the ‘guest house’. Erin was tired after sitting in a carriage all day, and even Mrsha was droopy. So they went inside and discovered why the guest house wasn’t being used.
It was run-down, had holes in the walls, and Erin discovered the beds had spiders living under them. She found that out after waking up, because she had a rash of bites on her arm.
Frankly, the people who’d elected to camp outside—Numbtongue, Garia, Inkar, and Tkrn—had probably enjoyed their sleep far more. When Erin got up, exclaiming over the itchy bites and having to wash with a bucket drawn from the well, she found breakfast was a bunch of cold porridge and milk someone had left them outside the cottage.
Lyonette was haranguing the [Hostel Manager] before they left. She had a little Mrsha clinging to her, oddly tired.
“—poor quality food, completely inadequate rooms, and I noted that your [Stablehands] were barely able to bed the horses down. My companions had to do it themselves! Completely inept.”
“That’s my son.”
“Well—I—it’s still poor service for the price!”
The angry woman glared at Lyonette, and they argued as the carriages were loaded up. Erin Solstice just stared.
The [Hostel Manager] noticed the [Innkeeper]’s eyes digging into the side of her face after about three minutes of arguing. She turned and snapped.
“What—what do you want?”
Erin just spoke after a long silence. Eating cold bisque was not a fun way to gain her strength, either.
“Is it fun?”
“Is what fun?”
“Is doing this fun?”
Erin gestured at the hostel and the…everything. It wasn’t a rich place, and if the guests leaving were any judge, it only got a decent amount of travellers most of the time. The woman just stared back, hard.
“Not everyone comes from Invrisil.”
Then she slammed the door and locked it before Erin could say anything else. The [Innkeeper] stopped Lyonette from banging on the door, but she was angry enough herself to say something. She noticed Inkar glancing her way and waved.
“Maybe I could ride with you or talk to you, Inkar?”
She tried to look forwards to the next day of travel. Then Mrsha groaned and began to cough. She rubbed at her throat, and Lyonette felt at her forehead.
Mrsha was sick. She had a cold. Probably from running about and being excited late into the night.
It wasn’t a bad cold, just unpleasant. She blew her nose, coughed, and stared around at everyone with the banked fury of a victim of the most unfair and unscrupulous treatment.
She was sick on her big vacation! This was all your fault! You! And you! And especially you! She wanted to have fun, and now she felt like a wet dishrag.
Curse you! She shook her fist at Typhenous, her seat-passenger for the day. He adamantly claimed to be innocent.
Sick Mrsha, bad accommodations, and another day of this. Lyonette was [Messaging] ahead, and she quickly realized that the same problem applied—her ‘reservation’ wasn’t much good, and the owners did not like Goblins.
It would be the height of unpleasantness to find a place to camp—without a tent—as they arrived at dusk or, alternatively, have to argue their way into a place to sleep, so Inkar volunteered to help.
“We will ride ahead. We can find out if there is anywhere to stay.”
“I’ll ride with you! I can ride a horse. I think. I’d like to try, if that’s okay?”
Erin offered, and Inkar gave her a long stare. Erin worried the [Traveller] was mad about Erin taking Tkrn’s place or unwilling to ride with her, but Inkar just nodded.
“How many times have you ridden? Let’s see.”
She got off her horse and helped Erin into another one. Erin had forgotten how big horses were, and how…
“Whoa. Whoa. Um…hey, buddy.”
She tried to pat the horse on the back of the head. The animal whickered, sounding as uneasy as Erin. He took a few steps forwards, and Erin grasped at the reins, but was too nervous to pull them.
“I, uh—stop! Whoa!”
Inkar made a clicking sound with her tongue, and the horse stopped. It gazed at her as she reached up and patted it on the sides of the head. Soothed, the animal turned as Inkar smiled.
“You’ve ridden a horse?”
Her English wasn’t bad! She had a lot of practice, but she had an accent that Erin noticed. It sounded a bit high-pitched? As if she didn’t follow through on the full breath of some words. Perfectly understandable, but interesting.
“I have—a bit. For fun. At, like, ranches and for that kind of thing. But I, um, don’t know how to ride one. Is that okay?”
“Erin, the carriages move pretty fast…”
Lyonette was clearly worried Erin would get left behind, but Inkar reassured her.
“It’s okay. [We Travel Together]. My Skills and hers…we’ll go fast.”
She smiled, and Erin looked delighted. She sat up straighter as Inkar swung herself onto Samal’s saddle with one move. So cool! Mrsha whined as she pointed, and Lyonette patted her on the head.
“Sorry, dear, but no. Absolutely not.”
“We could gamble, Mrsha? I have a deck of cards.”
The carriages began to pull away as Erin saw Inkar wave at Tkrn, who had elected to sit with Numbtongue. The Hob was already playing a song as Gothica poked him, demanding he work on her theme song. Erin kicked her horse.
“Gee up! Let’s go after them, pal! You and me! What’s your name? Bobby? Stanford?”
The horse ignored her. Erin was trying to be a confident rider, so she pressed her heel into the sides. She thought it was hard, but the horse ignored her. Erin flushed as Inkar trotted forwards.
“Want to go? I wanted to talk to you.”
She smiled with her teeth like a Gnoll, and Erin blinked.
“Sure. How do I…? Whoa!”
The horse began trotting after Inkar’s horse. It barely listened to Erin, but followed the other horse. Erin quickly realized that she had no control over her mount, but it was a well-trained animal. It knew to follow Inkar, and once she learned to adjust to the bouncy rhythm—it was fun.
Being on a horse was nothing like being in a car or on a carriage. It felt—close to everything and fast. Not least because Inkar’s Skills meant they caught up to the carriage at a canter!
Both girls had to get moving first, though, so Inkar’s first half-hour was telling Erin to hold onto the reins differently, relax in the saddle, and watch her tongue in case she bit it while riding. Erin felt completely out of her depth, but Inkar was a good guide.
“Sit back a bit. Good. Now we ride! Do you want food?”
“Food? We had some bad porridge. You have, uh, any snacks?”
For answer, Inkar pulled out what looked like…travel pancakes? They were a flatbread, fried up, and she offered some to Erin.
“Shelpek? I made them like home. Gnolls have something like it. And silkap.”
She offered a jar of the fine meat spread, and Erin found herself munching on a piece of bread covered in the rich food and perked up.
The world felt so much better with the good food in her mouth! Suddenly, she glanced around, and the bleh morning took on some color. Erin stared around and saw a dirt road winding ahead, passing by a huge field of Yellats being yanked out of the ground by a [Farmer] with tongs.
He had an odd hat with two crystals dangling off it and stopped mid-pull with the orange vegetable dangling off the tongs to see the three carriages, each one painted a gentle green, passing by.
Clairei Carriages, painted in a bit of bright yellow, with the advisory underneath: Protected by the Order of Clairei Fields.
The field of Yellats was huge! Erin saw dried and what she would have assumed meant dead stalks of faded yellow amid the dry dirt, but that was just how Yellats grew. Indeed, the [Farmer] didn’t need to wait on rain since the crops native to Chandrar were so hardy. He waved a hand, and the crystals dangling from his wicker hat shone as Erin realized they were cooling gems.
“Hello there! Headed to Riverfarm?”
“How do you know?”
Erin shouted back. He laughed in a huge voice, amused.
“Everyone’s headed there these days! Safe roads in the Unseen Empire!”
“Thank you! Who are you? Tell me, so plains can sing your name!”
The [Farmer] blinked as Inkar slowed and shouted back.
“Farmer Geleit! And who’re you?”
“Inkar of Longstalker’s Fang, and Erin of Liscor!”
The [Traveller] shouted and laughed at his expression. Inkar rode high-backed, staring up at the sky, where grey clouds were passing over the blue. Erin’s face fell.
“Aw, no. Not rain—”
It began to shower, and it looked like that morning would be bad again as the damp smell overtook the vague spicy hint of the Yellats and the fall air. But Inkar just laughed.
“Rain! Do you want a jacket?”
It bounced off her enchanted clothing, and she didn’t look like she even cared about the drizzle. Erin blinked, then accepted a long hide-jacket. The instant she put it on, she felt warmer, and the rain slid off the oil worked into it. She still got wet, but suddenly, they were riding through the morning rain instead of suffering it, and Erin saw the horse open its mouth to the sky and drink some of the drops, and then—
And then it felt like an adventure. A travelling adventure, not some great journey, but no less exciting for all that. Inkar turned to Erin and gave her a smile, seeing how Erin felt. And Erin felt a big grin come over her face.
“Is it warm enough, Erin?”
“Yep! Thanks! This is great, Inkar!”
A carriage slowed as the two young women picked up speed again, and Lyonette called out the window, seeming worried.
“Erin, are you too cold? We can have Ser Sest trade with you.”
“I’m fine! Inkar lent me a coat! Let’s go, Inkar! Ride faster, Bobby!”
Bobby the horse ignored her until Inkar made a whistling sound, and both horses began to move. Then, Inkar was riding alongside Erin, and they were watching the rain drizzle down, waving at riders and talking.
Not all the time, and not about everything at first. Sometimes, one horse would slow and the other would follow, or one of them would point at something and the other would agree—that was something to stare at.
But unlike the carriages, Inkar was only too happy to slow and exchange words with someone on the road or call out. Which was interesting, because Erin was the [Innkeeper] and Inkar seemed like the reserved one.
She didn’t speak as long as others. She didn’t chatter. But she did greet almost everyone who passed her by, such that Erin wondered who said more, her at length, or Inkar from person-to-person.
“So you were in Longstalker’s Fang? What was it like?”
Inkar considered the question as she cut up half a carrot with a knife and fed it to both horses. She did it while sitting astride Samal, as if there were nothing easier.
“A bit like home. I lived outside the cities. We rode horses, we travelled—”
“Oh, nomadic? I had no idea! Where’s, um, Kazakhstan? Where do they kazak?”
Inkar gave Erin a blank look, and then, to her credit, she tried to smile at the joke. Erin turned red, and Inkar tried to explain.
“South of…Russia? It—hold on. I have a map.”
“You have a what?”
To Erin’s amazement, Inkar pulled out a drawing she had once made for Chieftain Eska after a few minutes of searching. She showed Erin where Kazakhstan was, and Erin embarrassed herself twice in as many minutes.
“Wait, Kazakhstan is that big? Is this map accurate?”
She had no idea how big Kazakhstan was or that it was in central Asia…or, really, what central Asia was. Because if east Asia was China, Korea, Japan, and so on, Kazakhstan bordered the middle east, a large nation landlocked as you headed north into that vast expanse you marked as ‘Russia’.
And Erin had barely known it existed, much less anything about the culture or people living there. But as Inkar explained, it had a lot of oil, cities filled with emerging industry, but an entire culture of people who still participated in horse races and who mixed with urban landscapes before heading out into the wide flatlands.
“I was going home. On a train. Then…I was walking in a place I thought was in the middle of nowhere. Lost—I thought it was home at first. It was dark.”
She had been lost in the Great Plains of Izril for almost a week and had been forced to cannibalize her smartphone to start a fire before Longstalker’s Fang had found her. That had been the hardest moment of her life, aside from the battle at the Meeting of Tribes.
“The Gnolls did not all like me, at first. Because I showed Honored Deskie how to make a device to help spin without working hard. So many of the [Spinners] played tricks. One put a bug in my tent.”
“Those jerks! Did you get back at them? Did Eska punish them?”
For answer, Inkar just smiled.
“Not much. I helped them, and we became friends after I apologized.”
“Apologized for what?”
Erin was outraged, but Inkar shook her head.
“Taking their jobs. All their classes and levels.”
That was another difference of opinion, and Erin’s righteous anger on Inkar’s behalf got confused, because the [Traveller] seemed quite calm about everything. She had won over a tribe’s approval, and as she showed Erin—
“Honored Deskie made this for me. The most beautiful clothing I have ever worn. Longstalker’s Fang and I will always be friends. See?”
Then she teleported ahead of Erin, and the [Innkeeper] shouted in amazement and wonder and envy.
“That’s so amazing! Could I buy clothing like that?”
“Maybe. Deskie is old. But maybe for a friend. She has to make it out of Waisrabbit fur, and it is hard to get much of that. I promised to hunt any I saw. But what about you?”
And then Erin had to tell her about Liscor, and she felt like it was hard to explain how she’d started, with meeting Relc and Klbkch at first and fumbling around in her inn, but Inkar listened and asked a lot of questions, shuddering when Erin described Skinner and all the monsters she’d met.
“You’re braver than most warriors. You saw so much danger.”
More than Inkar had with a tribe in one of Izril’s wildernesses. Erin demurred and asked what kind of monsters Inkar had seen—but they weren’t nearly as prolific. Monstrous bulls, semi-vampiric hunters, slimes, occasionally a rogue Wyvern…
They were so engrossed by talking that they were almost at their destination by early evening. Erin hadn’t realized they hadn’t stopped for more than a few stretches of the legs and to pee—Inkar had kept sharing out snacks periodically such that Erin never really got hungry for lunch.
They had also made splendid time thanks to the [Worldly Traveller]’s Skills. Like everyone else, Inkar had benefited greatly from the Meeting of Tribes, and she had a number of unique abilities.
Going faster on horseback was just the basic stuff. She had ears like a Gnoll, and as they entered a village where Lyonette had intended to make their second day of rest, it turned out, a nose like one too.
“[Gift of Friendship: Sharper Scents]. There are a lot of good smells—and bad—and people that way. Let’s see if they will let us stay the night.”
Erin’s good mood lasted until she felt how saddle-sore she was, but then she drank a healing potion for the day and felt better.
Then it plummeted again when it turned out not only was the local [Tavern] full up, but the owner flatly turned them away when they mentioned Goblins.
“If you want somewhere to stay, try one of the farms. But good luck. Goblins? A damn Chieftain raided last winter. Tremborag, the great bastard of the mountain. He’s dead and all of them with him. Are you mad? Are you—”
Inkar pulled Erin away as the [Innkeeper] shook her fist. The angry young woman turned to Inkar.
“Maybe we’ve gotta pay them. I’ve got gold. How much is a room? Let’s offer them…uh…four more gold. Sixteen? I just want a room.”
Inkar studied Erin’s face. The [Innkeeper] was still tiring faster than she would have liked, and she was fed up. Inkar glanced at the coins.
“He’ll toss someone out instead. Let’s ask the farmers first. You can rest if you want?”
“No, I’ll come with you.”
The rain was picking up as Inkar led Erin from place to place, asking who might have room for an entire party. They were directed to a farm twenty minutes down the road, and by this point, Erin was desperate enough to offer that much gold just to stop staring.
The [Farmer] wasn’t that wary of them when he saw the two wet travellers, and he welcomed them into a home with two boys, both young, and his wife, who was just offering them tea when Erin mentioned the Goblins.
“Let them sleep here? Even the barn—our animals are in for the night. What if they eat ‘em all?”
“Goblins don’t eat—my friends aren’t—they’re not monsters. Listen, I’ve got—”
She was digging in her money pouch when Inkar forestalled her. Instead of responding directly to the worried [Farmer] who had lurched to his feet, Inkar took a sip of the tea and smiled.
“It’s very good. Have you lived here a long time?”
The woman, Miss Veierne, shook her head, casting a worried glance at Erin.
“We fled the raids when the Goblin Chieftain from the mountain came. We kept most of our animals, but we came here.”
Inkar was digging for something in her bag of holding as Erin watched the two boys staring at her as if she had antlers. She was trying to think of a way to convince the farmer. She had to introduce Numbtongue to him! But if he chased them out before she could get him to sit down…she felt like he was not an unreasonable man, but he looked worried, and she understood why.
But Inkar didn’t wait for Numbtongue. She was nodding and gestured to herself.
“I am Inkar of Longstalker’s Fang. I came from their tribe. I come from further away still, but I lived with them in the Great Plains.”
“Longstalker’s Fang? That sounds like—you mean a Gnoll tribe? All the way in the Great Plains? You’ve come thousands of miles! Were you there with all that—unpleasantness I heard about? Drakes and Gnolls and these new lands? Dead gods, but we felt that and heard out days later what happened.”
The [Farmer] broke off from his study of Erin. The [Worldly Traveller] smiled and nodded.
“Izril’s north is very beautiful. We have come to visit friends in the Unseen Empire—yes, I was there.”
The family looked at Inkar, astonished, and were about to ask a dozen questions when Inkar held something out.
“Here. This is Fang Brie. A gift for you all from Longstalker’s Fang. They make it out of their Shockwoolies.”
“Oh my. Really? But this is so generous—are you sure?”
Miss Veierne seemed uncertain, but Inkar’s eyes crinkled up with mischief. She leaned forward.
“Please, take it. It is my [Traveller’s Gift From Home]. My great Skill of Level 30.”
Erin’s eyes went round, and she beheld a Skill from a class unlike even an [Innkeeper], much less a [Mage] or [Warrior]. The round piece of cheese covered in wax paper wasn’t huge, hardly a comical wheel, but it was actual, real cheese.
And it tasted sharp! Even a bit electric, but it was also sweet, and Erin knew this because the family cut it open and shared it around as Inkar told them about living among the Gnolls and an account of the Meeting of Tribes.
This village had no scrying orb, so Inkar was the first and best account of the tale that Erin had thought everyone knew about. The family listened solemnly and fetched out handkerchiefs when Inkar began to describe the Doombringers and the terrible conspiracy.
“All that’s been going on for centuries in the south? Hold on, won’t you? We have—there’s some brisket from a goat and—”
The [Farmer], whose name was Oreth, hurried out. Erin was sipping tea and wondering about the Goblins when he came back with no less than eight people from the village and some of the brisket.
She found herself having dinner as Inkar told a number of villagers her story again, and the brie disappeared along with the meat as she brought out her flatbread and then a jar of jam she’d bought in Liscor.
At some point, Erin stopped fidgeting and trying to look for a moment to talk about the Goblins, and she started watching Inkar. She broke in, adding more details about the Gnolls and talked earnestly as the people of the Village of Alast reacted with outrage, shock, wonder, and confusion at what had happened.
“New lands. New lands…never seen before.”
That was all Farmer Oreth said as the rain began to really hammer down. Erin glanced down at a [Message] scroll shaking by her side. She unraveled it and groaned.
“Oh no. Lyonette’s here, and they went to the tavern.”
They had spent two hours, and no rooms were available! Oreth looked at Inkar, hesitated, and Veierne took his arm. They vanished into the kitchen as Inkar glanced up, and Oreth came back.
“It’s not that tidy, but I can shovel the hay around, and we’ve got linens. How many did you say there were? You can roll those carriages right inside, Miss Erin, Miss Inkar. As for food—we’ll see what we have.”
Erin fished in her money pouch, but the [Farmer] smiled, embarrassed.
“It’s just a farmhouse. We wouldn’t take coin for that.”
“Then—let us pay for food! And do you have a room for a sick Gnoll girl?”
“Of course! Bring her in right away. What does she have? There’s someone with a few Skills down the road.”
Veierne seemed appalled, and no sooner was Erin writing a response to Lyonette than the three carriages rolled in. The sick and cramped passengers looked ready for a terrible night, but Lyonette herself perked up as the [Midwife] came out to check on Mrsha and tell everyone they’d have food in a trice.
And that was Inkar’s doing. She smiled as Erin turned to her, and the [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes.
“That was so smart! Did you know that would work?”
Inkar gave her a puzzled look.
“No. But I gave them a gift because it was polite. They are very generous.”
Oreth had halted as he saw the three Goblins standing in the rain, and the two boys hid in the doorway. But Numbtongue held the guitar in his hands, and he began to play a merry song. The [Farmer] blinked.
The [Bard] was a good student of Erin’s. But Inkar…there wasn’t any guile in her expression. Erin watched her and exhaled, then smiled.
“No wonder you’re such a good [Traveller].”
She liked Inkar in that moment as if they had known each other for months. And Erin thought—if anything, she could learn to be a little bit like Inkar. So that was their trip to Riverfarm. Erin feeling a bit like a lump, a bit like someone on an adventure, out of her element but enjoying the rain. Learning instead of telling.
But she had forgotten, perhaps, that the world didn’t revolve around her. Not that she would have ever said as much. Erin slept on a lovely bed inside the farmhouse while some of the guests camped in the farmhouse, but with pillows and bedding aplenty, her belly full of good food and a night listening to stories, both familiar and of living on Izril, from people who had seen the Goblin King’s rampage and spoke of the Five Families like distant, if erratic, protectors.
Then she slept, wondering if Inkar were levelling, and awoke to the news of the High Passes exploding.
It was the strangest thing. Erin felt the vibration in her bones, the beating of her heart. She glanced around and wondered if you could make a white flag out of a shirt and a stick.
She listened as Lyonette read out loud the [Message] that had been relayed to her by Selys.
“Thousands of Eater Goats. Hundreds of Gargoyles led by Bossels—leadership, advanced monsters. They’re storming down the main pass.”
“Where’s that, exactly?”
“Northwest of Celum. Ryoka’s run it—it’s a lot of miles from Celum. The city’s probably safe. So is the farm.”
Garia was trembling as Numbtongue put an arm on her shoulder, a hand on his sword hilt. He was listening with as much insight as the City Runner. He knew the High Passes.
“Big. Strong. Smart, for Gargoyles. Have weapons, armor—we fought some. Never hundreds. Each clan has Bossels. One dies to a Frost Wyvern but hurts it. Two can beat a Frost Wyvern, but one dies. Three always wins, and all three live.”
Erin gulped. Those sounded like a higher caliber of monster than even Liscor was used to. She began to pace.
“Eater Goats. They…they don’t stop.”
She looked at Numbtongue, and his head bowed. They both remembered Bugear.
“No. More of them—the more dangerous. Thousands? They won’t stop. Can’t kill them. Not with pikes, not with spells.”
“Surely a good pikewall would do it. No offense to Goblins, but…”
Numbtongue glanced at Dame Ushar and shook his head. He drew a finger alongside his throat.
“Nope. They run onto pikes. Then eat the pikes. Then eat the Humans. Too many. Overwhelming death. Bitey death.”
The Thronebearers muttered uneasily. Typhenous tugged at his beard.
“Indeed. As a senior adventurer, I can tell you that, as horde-monsters go, Eater Goats are entirely unpleasant. Only Crelers are worse. What caused this?”
“They don’t know. Only—Selys is telling me that the Mage’s Guilds have advised all the cities near the High Passes to evacuate. They’re already rushing people away, and the Merchant’s Guild and the Driver’s Guild are sending anyone they can to help…the Adventurer’s Guild has put out bounties on the horde, but it’s unclear how many will go to fight.”
“Even a Gold-rank team won’t go into certain death.”
Ser Lormel predicted darkly. Erin turned.
“This is terrible! Okay, we—it’s pretty far from Celum, right? But still closer than Invrisil? Can we make it back to Invrisil in two days or will one of the cities be under attack?”
“One is less than half a day’s ride from the High Passes. Why?”
Ser Dalimont was checking a map as Inkar listened to Tkrn explain quietly the threats of the High Passes to someone not native to this region. Erin put her hands behind her back, trying to pace.
“Then—then Grimalkin. And Chaldion! And who else can we get? Saliss? Does he have enough potions? We’ve got to turn around now. How fast can we get to—?”
“Erin. What are you talking about?”
Erin turned and saw Lyonette staring at her. She pointed back the way they’d come as Farmer Oreth gave her a strange look.
“We’ve gotta help.”
Lyonette spoke, as if trying to drip Apista’s honey into a jar of understanding.
“No, Erin. We don’t. You’re on vacation, and we’re days away. By the time we get back to Invrisil, all the evacuations and adventurers will already be on the way. Leave it.”
“But the monsters—”
Erin felt like she was being dragged back to Liscor, but Dame Ushar cleared her throat.
“My understanding is that the Five Families have long since been alerted to the issue. The local nobility and cities are mobilizing their militias. They’ll try to halt the horde at the first city they can, and if it can’t be stopped, House Veltras or another noble’s force will stop it.”
“If they head to Esthelm, Liscor’s army might sortie and hold the pass. Hells, they might let it go for Liscor and have the city use their wall spells.”
Tkrn offered. Erin looked around.
“But—what about Saliss? Or Chaldion?”
“Maybe they’ll do something. Send a [Message], Erin. But you aren’t doing anything.”
Lyonette folded her arms, and Numbtongue nodded.
“No craziness. Just do something here, and we keep going. Riverfarm is too far away, too.”
Erin cast around for support, but even Mrsha, Bane of Crelers, just sniffed and gazed at Erin with a vague sense of…expectation.
Were they going to do this? Turn around and race south to a battle they might be days late for? Erin…Erin…
What did you want us to do? So Erin Solstice took a breath and felt it in her veins. Like how she had felt when watching a tragedy on the news, far, far from where she was on Earth.
A vague sense of helpless unease.
It didn’t feel right. Not anymore. So she sat down, wrote [Message] spells as the carriages were loaded up, and ended up riding to Riverfarm on the third day, writing notes to friends and waiting for responses. She didn’t turn around to Invrisil. She had something else to do.
She was on vacation, and for once, The Wandering Inn would not march on the High Passes.
It wasn’t her fight.
The Horns of Hammerad were packing up while Ceria argued with Yvlon. She gave up in the end and sighed, but the inn was quieter than Ishkr expected.
He was almost as shocked as Erin when he got the [Message].
Ishkr. Stop. Will not be returning to the inn. Stop. Please tell any adventurers to take gear if needed. Stop. It’s their choice, stop. Hold down the fort. Stop.
He held up the message and didn’t get the irony, but he understood the broad meaning. The humor…he wondered what her face had been like when she sent it.
A few Antinium, Menolit, a handful of regulars, and Relc stirred when Ishkr announced Erin wasn’t coming back. Ceria threw up her hands.
“See? Why are we joining the muster? Even Erin’s aware how far away it is.”
“Someone’s got to stop the monsters. Have you gone mad, Ceria?”
Yvlon glared at her, and the half-Elf scratched at her head.
“…No, but I’m aware of how many ‘thousands’ is. Fine, other teams are going. Let’s scope it out.”
And that was it. Ishkr saw a [Guardsman] get up and sigh in relief. Some of the Antinium looked around blankly, but only Relc sighed.
“Damn. No Solstice event? Come on! She’s losing her touch! Oh well, glad she’s safe.”
Ishkr got back to work. He didn’t believe Erin’s message. Oh, he believed she might not come back, but he was waiting. A few Antinium hires were on trainee duty, so he let them serve their counterparts, mostly the Antinium on break like Squad 5 had been or Pawn’s Painted Antinium.
That was a good portion of the business at the inn without Erin. The other part were guests who just liked it, like Menolit, and Ishkr was enough to hold down the fort for the remaining guests with Liska’s help. He sighed.
She was forty minutes late. But he kept working and occasionally checked the position of the sun. It took him only twenty minutes before he heard an exclamation, and someone came running into the inn. Ishkr nodded to himself as Relc came roaring back in.
“She did it! I knew it! And I’m gonna miss it!”
<Mass Heroic Quest – Stop the Monster Hordes from the High Passes!>
Failure: Horde dissolves, destroys (8) settlements.
Monsters are pouring out of the High Passes! Eater Goats, Gargoyles led by Bossels—watch out! An army needs to fight them back. Any brave adventurers or people, stop the monsters and evacuate people! I can’t offer much, but please do what you can and stay safe!
Conditions: Destroy monsters, save lives in immediate danger, aid with evacuation or intelligence leading to the horde’s destruction. Higher value monsters rewarded proportionally.
Quest Reward Pool: 200 Gold Coins, flawed simple agate, half-pot of butter, iron butter knife, experience in <Combat>, <Aid> class categories.
For someone who was interested…well, it was all interesting. Firstly, that there were other elements to the quest that had appeared.
For instance, this was a mass quest. Second? There were conditions, a way to fail, as if it could be judged. Finally—the quest pool.
The morality didn’t come into play. Oh, it was interesting, but the keen minds who noted this phenomenon were concerned mostly about that last bit.
A simple agate? The gold…predictable. But why a half-pot of butter? A butter knife?
The answer became obvious over the course of a few hours as the <Quest> circulated. But in the opening moments of the day, when it was posted—only Erin Solstice realized what was going on.
“Erin, stop putting things into the quest!”
Lyonette stopped Erin from adding the farmer’s family heirloom to the <Quest>. Erin guiltily lowered her hand.
“I didn’t know I could do that! I’ll pay you back!”
“Did you just…post a pot of butter as a quest reward?”
Typhenous looked at the place where the butter had been and his hither-to unbuttered piece of toast, which would never receive any, as the butter—and butter knife—were gone. But that wasn’t the fascinating thing.
Once they got on the road, Erin was reading [Message] spells like the Horns telling her they’d head to whatever rally point was set up and do what they could. She wrote a reply, and was told by Selys not to come back, that Liscor was abuzz with the news, although they were far from danger, as was Celum, for now.
Then she received an update.
Quest Reward Pool: 1236 Gold Coins, flawed simple agate, half-pot of butter, iron butter knife, experience in <Combat>, <Aid> class categories.
“Hm? What the—”
No less than ten minutes later, as Erin was waiting for Ishkr or Selys to confirm what was going on, it happened again. It was like…she could always check on her <Quests>. The ones she had posted.
But if she thought about the one she’d just added, Erin realized something had changed.
Quest Reward Pool: 5236 Gold Coins, flawed simple agate, half-pot of butter, iron butter knife, experience in <Combat>, <Aid> class categories.
And it kept happening.
Quest Reward Pool: 5237 Gold Coins, 15 Silver Coins, 44 Copper, flawed simple agate, half-pot of butter, iron butter knife, experience in <Combat>, <Aid> class categories.
Then it began getting weird.
Quest Reward Pool: 6536 Gold Coins, 515 Silver Coins, 994 Copper, flawed simple agate, iron butter knife, 299 potatoes, goosefeather pillow, 5 pots of ink, steel sword, rusted buckler, 22 apples, 18 fake gold coins, pewter mortar and pestle, low-grade healing potion, full pot of butter—
And it kept going. The list, no, the quest pool began expanding so much that Erin began reading the world’s craziest laundry list. Then she heard from Selys what was going on.
Erin, they’re adding to the quest in the Adventurer’s Guilds! Lady Reinhart, apparently, added those four thousand gold coins, and she’s done that in addition to ‘regular’ bounties in the Adventurer’s Guild. What have you done?
You could add to a quest bounty. And if Erin was right…
“I bet you get a proportion of the rewards! So that’s how it works!”
She sat back as Numbtongue folded his arms, fuming.
“It’s not a flawed agate. It’s nice.”
That gave her some hope. More adventurers and people might go help just for a slice of that growing pie. She wasn’t stupid; some people would help purely for the money, but if it was more hands evacuating citizens…
She noticed something.
“Wait a second, did someone already get the pot of butter? So it’s already giving out rewards!”
Erin sat back and felt better. Not like she’d helped, not really, but better. But she wondered who would stop that many goats. Who cared enough? Magnolia, enough to offer gold? Or…House Veltras?
Who would care and do something? She didn’t, and it gnawed on her. But Erin turned ahead and also thought of a promise she had made. For a girl named Nanette. Her head bowed, and she exhaled.
Yes. She did have to keep on this path.
That was how, on another day with rain and monsters, a [Witch] came to Riverfarm. The instant she passed over the border where a totem pole decorated with eyes sat by the road, an [Emperor] felt it. Like a burning outrage, like instinctual hatred. Like—
He closed his eyes and smiled grimly. It was not his heart that beat for instant dislike. His heart surged against the other emotions foreign to his soul. So the mind and the heart liked her even more even as he felt it in his blood, like boiling contempt.
Erin Solstice had arrived.
A girl sat with locks of slightly curly, chestnut brown hair tangling underneath a hat fit for a child. Navy blue and dark, but not poor, not ill-made. Simply a child’s hat, because it had a little star on top.
Made of thin wood, painted silver, like an idea. A child’s idea of magic, and so simple, so innocent and thus so wonderful that it sometimes made people smile to see it.
In other days, she had been hurrying along, trying to match a longer stride, looking up, looking ahead, looking behind uncertainly but expecting in all three directions only great things.
That was the promise. Something scary, perhaps, or wonderful, hard work or daunting as it might be—her round cheeks would light up with a smile or a frown of determination, or she’d crumple a bit and look for guidance.
But such things were fine, because the world was solid. Where she stepped, the ground held firm, and in those days, her hair had been shorter and always combed, because such things were expected, and if it had ever become a nest, someone would have briskly produced a comb and lectured her about appearances as she gently untangled the locks.
There were other hands, now, and gentler words. Gentler words, but never kinder, never better, and never more welcome, so the hair tangled. The hat, with its silver star, no longer seemed to glimmer.
The girl sat under a tree like a doll with its strings cut. Her name was Nanette Weishart, and her mother was no more. It was a terrible thing to tell a child directly or confront. Yet she was a [Witch]. And Califor’s daughter should do nothing less.
On this day, she thought like a dream, hoping perhaps she’d wake and knowing that her days of daydreams were forever gone. But she still thought, as she sat, of children. Of mothers.
Ever since she had been old enough to walk and know, she had been a secret daughter of Califor. Not that her mother had ever left her side or been ashamed. Shame had met Califor and walked the other way down the street.
No, it was, as the great Witch of her time had told Nanette, purely practical. Nanette should not be favored. Whatever she was should not be done in the shadow of a name. So Nanette became Califor’s apprentice, already startling, for the Witch Califor had never had any, but a fair one, whom [Witches] held expectations of, but treated like any other.
By contrast, when she had heard of Wiskeria, even from afar, and especially when they had been preparing to visit Riverfarm, the other [Witch] had always been Belavierr’s daughter.
No…that wasn’t right. Nanette had never heard the other, older [Witches] say ‘Belavierr’s daughter’. It was more that Belavierr was Wiskeria’s mother. An odd distinction, only a change of words. But [Witches] paid attention to words.
Wiskeria had been kinder than Nanette thought. Odder too, but not in a way Nanette expected. She had feared an Alevica or someone who walked heavy in the old ways, like Mavika, or simply was, defiant of all whispers, like Hedag.
Yet Wiskeria was…normal. And when she had said that, her mother had looked at her and told her to find the true Wiskeria. Which was how Califor had always taught her daughter when she was wrong.
So Nanette had thought and listened and realized how [Witches] talked of Wiskeria was odd. They spoke of Belavierr’s legend and were glad Wiskeria was no monster to sacrifice all for a power so depraved it defied death. They were relieved she denounced her mother, and that, to all intents and purposes, she was naught but a credit to [Witches].
…But then they spoke of her, in the same breath, with a bit of disappointment.
“Wiskeria? She’s talented, in her way, but she never took to my lessons. She is exceedingly practical, but I don’t know what to make of her.”
So spoke Agratha, who praised Wiskeria’s lack of showing off, but found her disquietingly hard to read. She would, with Agratha’s encouragement, seek out others and try to befriend them or perform ‘good acts’, which would endear Agratha’s style of craft to the world.
But something made the Teacher Witch uneasy, and so she did not talk to Wiskeria much.
“She knows every old way, and if I wore her face, I would sneer and spit in my own shadow for daring to try to teach her. I think she knows it all, but she practices no great craft. Never have I seen a greater failure of a [Witch] for what she should be. But is it failure if she is the Stitch Witch’s daughter? I can judge neither, but she is not mine.”
And there was Oliyaya, whom even Califor respected for her views on craft. Oliyaya, who told the others that Wiskeria knew more than she.
Yet Nanette had done magic with Wiskeria and seen no great art. So, the little girl had realized, before her mother died, that something was off about Wiskeria. But she had thought Wiskeria was kind, and kindness was all Nanette needed to like someone.
Her craft was—had been—happiness. Happiness and contentment and good things. Califor had indulged it with a bit of exasperation and told Nanette it would not last. But for the moment, the apprentice had trundled along, tucking a smile for a meal into a hat filled with a passing compliment, an infectious laugh, and she had baked little tarts filled with mirth like sugar.
Now, her hat lay empty on her head, and everything she put in it drained away like water through a sieve. Only grief sat there, brooding and heavy. So much so that she could barely raise her head.
Only the other [Witches] knew what to do with her. So Nanette was like Wiskeria to those that remained.
A puzzle. Here were the daughters of two great [Witches]. One was too young, and grief might eat her whole, but she should be saved, must be saved, yet it was hard.
The other was older, a [Witch] on her own, and a [Witch] was a [Witch]. No one had forgotten.
…But a [Witch] of Law? Could she even have that as a craft? She did less magic and more mundane things than even Agratha. They were puzzles apiece, and perhaps that was why Wiskeria often visited Nanette.
Even if her mother had been the one to end Califor. Perhaps because of that.
They could have been great friends.
Nanette thought that and felt a lump in her throat, like a frog. A tingle in her toes, a creeping down her spine. A [Witch] paid attention to such things, Califor said. Sometimes, it meant you needed a massage or you were getting a chill. Other times, it meant something else.
However, how many [Witches] knew each stage of the two moons that hung overhead? How many could still speak the old words and not be laughed at by the trees? Nanette understood that when the older [Witches] saw Wiskeria and said, ‘what a shame’ without saying it, they wondered what she could do.
Nanette? She knew. Not that Califor had taught her the old ways. They were lessons at midnight or in the blazing sun, where dark things couldn’t listen or take note. And the lessons were sometimes just stories in a pool of crystal water, where Nanette tried not to splash about while she listened to a secret or a…a change of perspective.
That was how Califor had carefully taught her daughter, looking to raise a child as much as lead a [Witch] to her craft. But Belavierr?
Of all the differences between the two, and they were great [Witches], the one thing Nanette would always believe, always—was that Califor had been the better mother. For Belavierr had taught her daughter, in her strange love…
The result was Wiskeria. Wiskeria, who sat with dark hair, closer to black, but the faintest bit blue—like her robes—if you looked hard enough. Her eyes were like a pale firefly’s yellow crossed with the wereflames in a swamp, a lurid green.
But she didn’t often meet your eyes long, so you might never notice how beautiful and eerie those eyes were. If you looked, you might never notice the roots of her hair tinged blue. Her dress was simple and ordinary to the point where it offended other [Witches], even Agratha. For where Agratha took her craft to be inviting and accessible and non-threatening, Wiskeria craved something else. She was a wonderful [Witch], with all the potential in the world.
Her hat was empty. She had no craft, no stored anything. So she was the least of [Witches], even among the youngest apprentices. Even Nanette.
She sat down next to Nanette, and she was so silent she might have been a corpse. She was so still that a butterfly landed on her shoulder almost at once. Nanette had been sitting there, a doll filled with grief, for hours.
Yet Wiskeria was somehow less of a presence than the younger girl. Nanette had to breathe and fidget, despite how she lay there against the oak. Wiskeria…she had to do all those things, surely. But when she spoke, the butterfly flew away in a terror, like an insect having a heart-attack.
“I killed a father today. I snuck upon him while he was searching for food, and I broke his neck. It was well done, or so Mister Ram said. Then I made a mistake with Yesel. Rulent was sick, but it didn’t matter, nor her lack of sleep. It mattered, but it didn’t. I suppose it was how she said it.”
She stretched her legs out in the grass, and Nanette listened. She looked sideways and saw Wiskeria staring thoughtfully ahead. It had probably seemed quite normal to everyone else, but it was the hardest thing for Wiskeria. Harder than fighting or resolving disputes between [Witches]. Harder than speaking to Laken.
Not for the reasons Nanette had thought at first. The younger girl spoke, coughed, and hacked out what felt like dust in her lungs.
“Who was the father?”
“I never knew his name. He was a racoon.”
That was what you had to ask Wiskeria. The first time she had told Nanette she had murdered sixteen people, the girl had almost gotten up and ran. Then she had realized why Wiskeria told no one, not even Mavika, her true thoughts.
“The fields. I gave Ram his body. Should I have killed his daughters too?”
To that, Nanette had no good response off the tip of her tongue. So she held it and thought, as a good [Witch] should. Then she asked a question.
“Did you have to kill him?”
It was Wiskeria’s turn to think. She adjusted her hat and peered up at the sky. In the distance, both [Witches] could see Riverfarm below the forest where Durene’s cottage lay. Across the swift-flowing river, past what had been burned land, the crops were growing and more and more buildings were springing up. Soon, the place where the old village had been buried in snow, where death still hung like tears, might be resettled or turned into a proper graveyard.
Laken Godart had killed Riverfarm as much as saved it. What sprouted here was, in some ways, anathema to [Witches]. It would become the seed of nations. It was that already. But they needed it as well, in this world where the wild was vanishing. The Gnolls had learned that as well. It was a lesson.
Someone was coming. They sensed it and saw it in the gathering of people, like a vast anthill turning upon an [Emperor]’s will. People were preparing an entire parade. Beniar and his Darksky Riders were setting forth, and was that a dot on the horizon, coming their way? Nanette felt an itching in her hair, but it might have been a bug. Wiskeria stared ahead, then ignored whatever she was seeing.
“Did I have to murder him? No. I did it because I thought I might be praised for it.”
Nanette waited for a larger reason, but that was it. What should terrify her was that Wiskeria meant it. There was little distinction between the racoon and another person. A Human person and the racoon she both called ‘him’ or ‘father’.
Nanette wondered if Wiskeria would be more bothered if it had been a Human or Drake. She thought she knew the answer.
But she tried. She had learned, and she carefully unpacked Yesel’s interaction.
“I suppose it was because the boy wasn’t that sick. Yet if he had been about to breathe his last, I would have been right, isn’t that so?”
“That’s right. Can’t you tell the difference?”
Wiskeria shifted, and Nanette did not mean to hurt her feelings. After a touch of awkwardness, Wiskeria replied.
“…He could have breathed his last in the night. A child’s lungs can close. A summer cold can be a parasite or rot in the lungs. He was still sick; these could be his last days.”
“But you don’t know that.”
“But Yesel couldn’t know he’ll live.”
“She hoped he would.”
“Hm. I think I see it.”
Despite her grief, the young Nanette stirred. If she had been well and not heavy with sadness, she would have laughed, or given Wiskeria a disbelieving look, or…instead, she asked a question that bubbled out of her like the curiosity it was made of.
“Wiskeria. How did you live as an adventurer? Was it this hard?”
For answer, Wiskeria tilted her head upwards and stared at the sky. She had begun weeping, nearly five months ago, for no reason. Not even she had known why until later when she had learned that the [Maid] called Sacra was dead. Wiskeria had known her as Odveig.
“It’s easier to be an adventurer. You smile at people, you tell jokes, and if you just do what you’re told, that’s called ‘professional’. People rather liked me, I thought. My team often told me I didn’t have to do ‘menial tasks’, but it made me liked. And I didn’t lead my team. Odveig did. So we went around and killed whomever we were paid to. A task as old as time. My teammates seemed happy. Murder and pay. Simple and easy.”
That was how she saw it. Then Wiskeria smiled sadly.
“…I guess that might have been too easy. Odveig was really Sacra. I wonder how odd she thought I was. I never knew, Nanette. Really and truly. I thought I had a friend. Oh well, I’ve been wrong before.”
The doll-like girl’s limbs twitched. She almost wanted to hug Wiskeria, to stand—but Belavierr’s shadow loomed wide, and Califor was dead. So Nanette didn’t move as a cry came up from Riverfarm.
It sounded like, ‘Goblin’. Wiskeria turned her head and hesitated, but she relaxed when she saw an [Emperor] raise his hand.
“You don’t sound mad Sacra tricked you.”
Nanette whispered as the other [Witch] began to stand. Wiskeria turned as she adjusted her hat and made sure she was looking proper. She gave Nanette a blank glance.
“No. She was probably told to trick me.”
“But you thought she was your friend.”
For answer, Wiskeria shrugged.
“Yes, but she had her job. And I do not blame Magnolia Reinhart for spying on Belavierr’s daughter. I would, if I was her. Something is happening below. I should be there, as Laken’s [General].”
Nanette peered up at Wiskeria, and she eyed the other [Witch]. Wiskeria had been a Silver-rank adventurer. Before that, she had apparently sailed from Terandria and worked as a sailor in all but class for two years. Now, she was a [General] for an [Emperor].
Did it feel more or less important to her? Did she enjoy it? What a mystery she was. Nanette spoke softly, as below, someone like a lighthouse, like a roaring flame, like a waving flag upon the wind, strode into Riverfarm. Nanette wondered who she was. Wiskeria turned her head once and then looked back.
“Wiskeria. Why don’t you practice the old ways? Why don’t you strive for your craft? Mavika says you could surpass her. Oliyaya thinks you could teach her. Why are you like this?”
For answer, Wiskeria thought for a long moment, then nodded down the hill to where her humble house lay and Riverfarm was in uproar. She spoke, though Nanette knew she would have to uncover the true meaning.
“There’s an old man around Riverfarm. Every morning, as I wake, and in the night, I can hear him weeping. He knows I’m here, and he whispers to me, begging for me to pick him up and carry him with me. He’s dying, and Mother ignored him because he had nothing she wanted. Maybe Califor could hear him. Perhaps Mavika can or only knows that he’s there. But if I bent down, I could lift him up and add him to my craft. Or strike a bargain for Laken or do many things.”
What old man? But Nanette saw Wiskeria adjust her hat.
“A [Witch] with no hat has walked into Riverfarm. I can sense her like a [Lady]’s fire, smelling of Goblins, and ghosts. I can hear…her coming. I can see it on the wind and in the ants. If I wanted to protect myself, aid or help her, or make good on my promise to end my mother’s evil, I could whisper down a well long abandoned into the deeps. I could journey to Chandrar and cut a piece of flesh that never rots and devour it. Or if I feared that, walk into the blood of this land, like Rie—though she’s also corrupted in her way—and offer to strike a pledge with the nobles of this land. Those are but options. I could bleed myself for a month and then offer it all up for a pact if there were anyone left to listen.”
All these things were secrets. Terrible secrets. Nanette felt chills as she heard rituals that Califor would never teach her. Some things should be forgotten. Yet Wiskeria knew them, and she could do them all, Nanette believed. Wiskeria turned her head, and her smile was no more or less bland with all the words that made the air darken. The promise of such acts and deeds…became a strange look in her eyes. It was the first true emotion she’d shown this day, and Nanette read it on Wiskeria’s face.
Slightly scornful. Slightly sad. Wistful and resigned, and…Wiskeria shook her head.
“I could do it. But how boringly predictable would I be? Mother taught me too well. It’s easy. That’s not my craft.”
With that, she turned and strode down the hill. An ordinary witch with a hat full of nothing. Wiskeria headed down to meet a [Witch] with no hat. Nanette closed her eyes.
If only they had met earlier. Indeed, they might have been such wonderful friends.
Erin Solstice had fallen in love with Inkar. Just like so many of her guests, over the course of only three days, she had seen Inkar’s way of travelling across the world and envied and admired how she was.
“I want to help you. Are you going back to Longstalker’s Fang?”
“Probably. I don’t know what Tkrn will do. Or what will happen. I like Liscor, but Eska might need me.”
The [Innkeeper] solemnly placed a hand on Inkar’s shoulder and patted it a few times, and the [Traveler] smiled at her. Erin looked ahead to the people waiting at the huge town and spoke to Inkar.
“I’ll do something. For you and your tribe. You helped Mrsha so much—I promise. It’ll be great.”
“Uh oh. Goodbye tribe.”
Gothica spoke up, and Erin turned her head to glare. Erin knew it was a wild promise, but she meant it with all her heart. Then she raised her head and turned, for she felt him across the middle distance. A blind man…with an aura so vast she had ridden into it. She felt as if there were an eye looking at her. But the person…Erin waved at Laken Godart and realized he couldn’t see her since he was blind.
But to her amazement—he waved back.
“Gothica. Why are you harassing Erin? She fought the Raskghar, and you helped bring her back. Stop it.”
Numbtongue hissed as he disembarked from the carriage. He poked the little Cave Goblin in the side, reminding her of everything. Gothica stomped on his foot. As if she had ever forgotten. She glowered up at him and whispered back.
“I am [Goth]. Goth doesn’t respect stupid laws or authority.”
“Right, but Erin is nice.”
“Erin is also biggest authority ever. No killing Goblins. Bullies Titan. I level up. Who bullies biggest bully?”
Gothica tapped her chest proudly. Numbtongue opened his mouth and thought about it. He folded his arms and nodded.
“…Mm. Good, keep it up.”
He gazed ahead at Riverfarm, and the [Bard] wondered if this was such a good idea. For the instant he was spotted—and he had to admit, he’d gotten used to this on the ride here—the first thing the people did was shout.
They pointed to him and Ulvama. Gothica, ironically, was harder to pick out since Riverfarm’s folk weren’t used to a [Goth]-style Goblin. Numbtongue smiled and didn’t reach for his sword; he unslung his guitar.
He didn’t want to call lightning down, but he was noting the armed [Cataphract] and the better-than-average fighters here. And the Troll. Was she wearing armor? He decided he’d let the Thronebearers fight her.
He had heard of Riverfarm, though he had never been with Rags. But Ulvama had said there were possibly captive Goblins here, a reason for Erin coming. And that this had been a bloody battlefield between Rags’ tribe and the Humans. So Numbtongue waited—but then he realized that cry of ‘Goblin’ was odd.
A man with his eyes closed had raised his hand at the furor, but no one had raised a bow, just pointed at him. Which was the most tame reaction that Numbtongue had had since leaving Invrisil.
Strange and stranger. Lyonette looked worried, but she advanced with the Thronebearers flanking her and Erin just as planned, and the welcoming parade seemed to kick off as planned.
“His Majesty, [Emperor] Laken Godart of the Unseen Empire, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, welcomes the [Innkeeper] of Liscor, Erin Solstice! A friend of Riverfarm and ally of the Wind Runner!”
Some fancy [Knight]-fellow was shouting the address as Numbtongue sauntered after Erin. Unlike the [Innkeeper], he could observe since he wasn’t in the spotlight. Erin had frozen up a bit at all the fanfare—literally, a group was wailing on some trumpets. A cheer began, and he wondered what Ryoka had done here.
But Numbtongue also got the juicy gossip from the rest of his companions.
“Ryoka was here? Oh, with that Centauress. Charlay. I heard she’s a character. Numb, they’re not aiming bows at you! Good sign?”
Garia hissed at Numbtongue. On the other side, Dame Ushar was whispering to Ser Sest.
“Lormel’s got his shield up in [Invisible Guard]. We should have had two Torchlights securing this area.”
“It can’t be helped. We are entering a foreign monarch’s presence. Is that a…a [Knight]? It surely is. Low-level, but…who is that half-Troll?”
“Politeness. That’s the [Emperor]’s consort, Sest.”
“No, I know. Durene Faerise. I meant—her class. Her class is making me…”
Mrsha sneezed all over Ulvama as the exasperated [Shaman] carried her. She’d fed Mrsha a little tonic, but now Ulvama responded by wiping her arm all over Mrsha’s fur. The Gnoll tried to punch her, but then sniffled.
This is so fun, and I’m sick! Curse you all!
All of this made Numbtongue smile. Because it was chaotic and silly, and if no one died today, he’d consider this a win. He was especially looking forward to seeing how Erin reacted to the welcome.
She had frozen up a bit at the grand welcome, which Numbtongue knew she did not like. But he also knew she was no fan of this [Emperor].
Laken Godart. He stood with an interesting cast of people. Numbtongue eyed them.
A huge bald man—a bodyguard, some kind of high-level brawler—stood at the back with the young [Knight]. Numbtongue saw what seemed like a [Farmer] wearing a kind of compromise between a suit and work clothes, but he seemed almost as authoritative as the [Lady] flanking the [Emperor] on the other side. She was quite attractive in a Human-conventional way, and Numbtongue only barely noticed her—until his eyes drifted back.
Garia punched Numbtongue lightly. She mistook his look for eying Lady Rie for bardic inspiration. Namely, the kind they got a bad rap for, like how they might sing of the ‘low-cut bodice, alluringly clinging dress’, or some such.
Numbtongue didn’t go in for that. Although the [Lady] was attractive and had a nice dress…he was eying her skin. And teeth.
Was there a faint ochre tinge to her skin? It looked fairly flawless, no freckles or scars. But that wasn’t what interested him.
He thought, even as she smiled and held a hand over her mouth—
She had faintly sharp teeth. Not just her canines like Fierre, but all her teeth, like a Goblin.
Which was hot. And probably justified the punch. More than that, Lady Rie was shifting, and Numbtongue saw, faintly, some muscle move along her arms and shoulder and even along her calf, exposed by the aforementioned dress cut down the sides. Ooh, muscle. She didn’t seem like she worked out.
What an interesting Human. She went up higher on the danger-meter. Then he paid attention to the half-Troll girl, Durene. Lady Rie’s unusual features or not—she was squashed by the Troll.
After all, it wasn’t often that Numbtongue had to stare up at someone only a bit shorter than Moore, with tough, grey skin and armor. It was faintly golden, with an authentic glow that beat the Thronebearers’ shiny armor. A giant wooden mace was propped beside her, and she was giving him a glare. He blew her a kiss, and her look of outrage made him laugh.
Oh yes, if Riverfarm was showing off, Erin’s group was giving at least a bit of what it got. People were pointing at Tkrn, who looked embarrassed to be so interesting. Ulvama glanced around with a vaguely interested expression because she had seen this before and eyed the crowd, then sniffed the air for the food set out. Typhenous waved grandly as people cheered him, beaming and winking into the crowd as a group of three pushed forwards.
The Thronebearers and Lyonette attracted just as much attention; Dalimont and Lormel flanked Lyonette, who had not been announced because she was incognito—but people cheered and waved her like, well, a [Princess]. She was even doing the graceful little wave.
But it was Erin Solstice who had locked eyes with Laken Godart’s closed ones. And it was harder to say whether they liked or disliked each other at once.
Or rather, which outweighed which.
Erin Solstice was smiling, but her eyes darted around the huge crowd with a clear dislike for the moment. Laken Godart was almost ignorant of the commotion, as if this were commonplace. Yet his smile was equally—strained.
She could not know it, but a bubbling dislike was warring with an intellectual appreciation that knew full well his animosity was not natural. Still, the feeling was hard to erase. And at the same time…Erin gazed at Laken.
Laken, whom she knew full well had participated in the siege of Liscor. Laken, who had kidnapped the Goblins; to save them, but also kidnapped them. And fought with Rags. Who had…saved her life. And he was Ryoka’s dubious friend or acquaintance. Also, Laken from Earth, who had become an [Emperor]?
She was eying Laken Godart in a way that Lyonette did not like. The [Princess] knew Erin’s moods, and Erin had the same expression she sometimes cheerfully gave to Zevara or Lism or…a lot of people.
“Erin. Erin, this is his welcome, and we need his cooperation. Be very polite. Erin? Erin?”
The procession was coming face-to-face with Laken’s entourage, who had waited for them to approach. Like supplicants before an informal throne. Erin even smelled flower petals and a faint perfume in the air instead of sweat or anything else.
Such an orchestrated event, and people were cheering or applauding. Laken raised a hand, and the sounds died down instantly.
Erin tried. She really did. She twitched—then, as Gamel began to read out an official welcome, she lost control.
“Hey, Laken! Good to meet you at last! Put her there!”
The [Innkeeper] strode forwards with a hand stretched out. Lyonette screamed—internally. Erin halted a second as the half-Troll girl stirred, frowning. Laken had no eyes to blink, but he twitched, and Gamel faltered.
Undaunted, Erin took another step, holding her hand out, right before a woman’s arm shot out and the [Farmer] blocked her way. Prost and Rie gave Erin long stares.
“His Majesty doesn’t shake hands, Miss—”
“Emperor Godart is waiting upon a formal greeting, I believe—”
The two began until Laken coughed. They stopped, turned, and he walked forwards.
Durene hissed at him, but the blind man continued. Erin blinked. He wore pale white clothing with flashes of color added to them along the sleeves and leggings around his ankles, an oddly austere look matched by the embroidery of that pyramid and eyes—his symbols, emblazoned on his chest.
Royal-casual clothing? It certainly seemed nice, and he had a few artifacts on. A ring like hers, probably, buffed walking shoes, but he didn’t dress like Altestiel even.
Yet never had Erin felt an aura as strong as his. Not even Magnolia had the…intensity. The power, maybe, but she felt like it was pressing all around her. Erin’s own aura was skin-deep, and she pushed it back, but she’d never been so conscious of the authority in the air.
But the blind man was casual, and indeed, he walked without a cane, as sure as could be across the newly-laid brick street. Erin had only half meant it when she held out a hand. Yet up his came, and he clasped hers with both of his. And shook it gently.
“Erin Solstice. You’re every bit as outstanding as Ryoka said.”
His grip was firm, even tight, but Erin saw him smile widely. Almost too widely. Did he…not like her? Was he offended?
For once, she had no idea. She had known—well, met people who were blind, a few times, but she couldn’t read Laken for more reasons than just that. Fortunately or unfortunately, her mouth was running on autopilot.
And there were people watching her. Erin felt a prickling on the back of her neck from some—feeling. But she couldn’t turn away from Laken, so she smiled and joked.
“It’s a pleasure, Laken. I’m Erin—you knew that! Oops, sorry. Can I call you Laken?”
Outrage and murmuring from people who could hear. Laken Godart’s brows just rose, and then an expression of amusement crossed his face.
“You can call me…‘L’, Erin.”
She blinked in confusion—then began to giggle and laugh as she remembered. Laken chuckled, and the expressions of anger changed to confusion. A joke only the two of them knew as Lyonette smiled desperately and everyone watched. And suddenly, Erin felt a little calmer.
She let go of Laken’s hands and looked at him again. Then Erin properly stared around Riverfarm, at the thousands of people, and whistled.
“Whoa! This is amazing! This is your village? And you’re—and I’m here at last and—the Summer Solstice party happened? You, an [Emperor]!”
The young woman laughed in delight now, and Laken shrugged self-consciously. His head turned as if he was ‘looking’, but his eyes never opened.
“And you’re as striking as Ryoka said! You know, I felt the moment you crossed into the Unseen Empire? Are those three Goblins with you? And two Gnolls—I should love to meet them. No Drakes? More friends from home?”
“Oh, just one. Um, the others are sort of busy—but we brought you gifts! Sorry, I forgot you didn’t get Drakes up north…”
Laken’s smile changed, and the word ‘Drakes’ produced a rumble that Erin didn’t like, but she held judgment, or tried.
“It might be just as well. We have run into a few. From Manus.”
“Ooh. Manus? What…no, um, maybe we should do the introducing thing?”
Erin faltered, because Lyonette was staring at her out of the corner of her eyes. She was embarrassed, but Laken just turned his head. Cool as a cucumber.
“Of course. To whom do I have the honor of meeting?”
His head turned straight to Lyonette, and Ser Lormel stepped forwards and bowed smoothly. He performed a strange bow, deep, for royalty, perhaps, and spoke.
“Your Majesty of Riverfarm, it is my honor on behalf of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer to extend the greetings of thrones from His Majesty, King Reclis du Marquin. I present to you Princess—”
Lyonette was hissing at him, but Lormel had clearly decided that this was not the time to play incognito. Erin saw Laken turn and then greet Lyonette, waiting through five minutes of floral addresses.
He was so unbothered by the attention. Which was unlike Erin—she could generate it, but she always knew it was there. Laken stood with thousands of eyes on him as if he had forgotten they were there. True, he might be blind, but this was different.
It was all going better than you could hope, if less well than planned, in short. Lyonette was stepping back, eying Laken with clear interest and wariness, but he turned his head.
“May I meet the rest of your group, Erin, Princess du Marquin? I confess, I am powerfully interested.”
That was unusual, and Lyonette faltered, but Mrsha was squirming with a notecard in Ulvama’s arms, and Dame Ushar was trying to take it from her with clear worry. Numbtongue’s eyes lit up, and he produced another, worryingly toothy grin. But the person that Erin feared most was a Goblin spitting into her hand and cackling.
They never got that far, and Laken was spared whatever Gothica had planned for one simple reason. Erin heard, in the crowd—which was murmuring, calling out, hardly silent during these proceedings now it was more casual—a familiar, caustic voice.
“Did we miss it? Did we miss—move it, please. Gold-rank adventurers, coming through! Come on, Halrac. Where’s Briganda? Dead gods, what are you, shy? Come on and—”
Then Erin Solstice’s head turned, and she saw a familiar Stitch-Woman tugging on a loose thread in her neck anxiously. Half-bullying, half-cajoling a taller man with a face set with lines that defaulted to ‘grumpy’, through the crowd.
He wore enchanted leather armor and a bow was on his back at all times. Or rather, the invisible outline of one. His grey hair was not an indication of his actual age, but added to the grumpy old man. He seemed far more tired than Erin remembered. As if someone else were weighing him down, and he had always seemed tired.
But right now—his eyes were lowered, fixed on Revi determinedly, as if he were trying not to look. His eyes were always roaming, but they were turned away from her.
Shyly. As if afraid to look. A [Shieldmaiden] was pushing through the crowd with a little boy on her shoulders, who was waving at a Gnoll who’d sat bolt-upright in Ulvama’s arms, sickness or not.
Typhenous hurried through the crowd and turned, delighted. But Erin turned away from Laken Godart and began walking, completely forgetting the [Emperor] was there.
Revi Cotton looked up as Halrac the Grim’s head rose. His face was set in that expression that had earned him his nickname before Named-rank. The face of a man about to take a wound or endure a sandstorm naked.
His friends and teammates knew it was fear. That of someone afraid of what he might see, or not see. His gaze rose, passing through people stepping to one side, sounding shocked.
He saw a young woman in travelling clothes, her brown hair flying in the wind a bit, hazel eyes on him. She was running forwards, arms waving, outstretched, flying past a surprised [Emperor].
“Halrac! Halrac! Haaaaalrac! And Revi!”
The Gold-rank [Marksman] had only a second to blink before she leapt and threw her arms around him. He froze up, and Erin laughed as she grabbed him.
“Erin! Emperor Laken—”
Revi was horrified, but Erin just grabbed Halrac, and the man stared down at her. His arms went wide, but hesitated, hovering over her.
Halrac stared down at her, taking in her face, how she’d changed from being—dead. Those eyes seemed older, and yet, when she looked up and smiled—
“Hug me, silly! Or are you too cool?”
Awkwardly, flushing as Master Helm and Windrest’s folk watched, Halrac put his arms down and—patted Erin on the back. She squeezed him harder.
“You silly guy! I’ve missed you. You…you…”
“Erin. You did it.”
You came back to life. He had never expected to see her again. He had gone to the Village of the Dead for a dream, but never had Halrac thought to see Erin again. Ulrien…his friends in war and as adventurers.
He thought he’d known some things never changed. Now—Halrac, who kept his feet planted on the ground, felt as though he were floating. He squeezed harder as Revi made a gasping sound.
She grabbed Erin, and Typhenous gently placed his hands on Erin’s shoulders, seeming delighted. Briganda watched, looking at Halrac’s face. Stone was trying very hard not to crack. Erin squeaked as her feet left the ground. The [Marksman] realized she was alive.
Then—a laughing, snotting, sobbing little white blur leapt towards Halrac and slammed into his legs. He glanced down, bent down, and Mrsha was all over him. She hugged Halrac, clinging to him as he tried to say something.
“Halrac? You look like someone’s just slipped ice into your britches. Say something.”
Briganda teased. Revi glanced up at Halrac, and then her head spun around.
“Typh—Typhenous, get a scrying orb. Record his face!”
What did he—? Halrac almost let go, but then he saw Mrsha’s sobbing face. She was hugging him, and Erin gazed up at him. Her eyes were shining. She wiped at one and then began to hiccup.
“Oh no—hic—what’s going—hic—now? Come on, this is so embarrassing.”
She glanced around as an [Emperor] held up a hand and listened, smiling. As a coven of [Witches] halted and an ordinary witch caught her first sight of Erin. For there was Erin Solstice, Mrsha, Halrac, Griffon Hunt—and then Lyonette came hurrying over, and to the horror of her Thronebearers, flung her arms around the group.
At this, the little Goblin with the poofy hat issued a strangled cry and broke off from the cautious group who’d left their territory and ran, screaming, across the ground. A [Shaman] shouted and ran at her, but Pebblesnatch ran straight past Ulvama and launched herself into a flying headbutt that nearly took down the [Innkeeper].
And all through it, Halrac didn’t understand why Erin was hiccuping. Until he realized his cheeks were faintly wet. Erin was sobbing.
“Pebble—? Halrac, stop crying! You’re making me cry!”
Halrac felt at his face, and Revi looked up. Mrsha offered him a truly soiled handkerchief, and the [Summoner] pointed at Halrac’s face as Typhenous took a magical image for posterity. Just in case he needed to show it around, because no one would ever believe this.
“You’re crying and smiling, you idiot. Make up your mind.”
Halrac’s fingers found his lips, and there it was. He bent down as Pebblesnatch and Mrsha sobbed and patted each other on the head and hat. Erin Solstice looked up at him, and the [Bowman of Loss] stood there.
His class was founded upon his past. It was informed by the wounds he took, wounds which would never close, not with a thousand Potions of Regeneration. He bled into the ground invisibly, in a way not even an [Emperor] could see. A [Witch]? Of course.
For the first time, Halrac Everam felt himself stop bleeding. A hole in his chest closed, and he bent down and hugged an [Innkeeper] a while longer. Though his wounds made him stronger, Halrac would have thrown it all away to stay like this a little while longer.
Because she knew that, the moment stretched. The [Innkeeper] asked him where he had been and thanked him, until time forgot it died and became immortal.
That was almost long enough for him. Almost.
The [Witches] watched her. Not one, nor a few.
All. All of Riverfarm had come—some called, others informed—to see this stranger to the [Emperor]’s lands.
[Witches], from Eloise standing in the shadow of Hedag to Mavika, perched upon a branch with her flock, to Agratha and Oliyaya, even Alevica, who had come to a halt as a Centauress, who was a local celebrity and runner for the region, frowned.
“Is that Ryoka’s other, second-best friend? I guess she looks okay. What do you think, Alevica?”
A herd of Sariant Lambs were sitting in people’s arms or watching out windows, warily appraising how much danger they might be in. They had recognized the Ryoka Griffin connection.
All eyes on her, and two last [Witches] saw Erin Solstice differently.
A little girl sitting under the shade of a tree wondered why her hat rustled when she saw the [Innkeeper]. Another stood almost unnoticed in all the hubbub, for all her rank. She listened to the [Witches] talking.
“She has no hat.”
“She has no hat, but she was part of the deeds of Gnolls. Look, you can almost see the possession on her.”
“An [Innkeeper] and a [Witch]?”
“Why not? Yet she has no hat. Yet…she summons a prickling in my thumbs. A [Witch] this way comes.”
Now, they saw her. Now…Wiskeria’s eyes locked on Erin Solstice. She looked at the [Innkeeper], the [Witch] with no hat, for a long moment. She saw more than most, even the blind [Emperor], and a dozen omens wrote themselves around Wiskeria in a moment.
She ignored them all. Then she turned away from Erin Solstice. Idly, as if there were other things to do and Erin was but one of them. Too bad.
“I don’t believe I will like her.”
The old man was weeping again. Wiskeria ignored him as he whispered, begging. Ignored him, but this time—
The [Witch] without a hat heard him.
Whew. As you may realize, this is the poll chapter. And it is Part 1 of…at least 2. I decided to mix it with the Erin storyline because it’ll work better, but I split it up because I felt like I needed to.
And this is me, who normally expects to write 60k in one sitting. So I think I was wiser? I also worked harder on setting the scene up more, and doing other things.
Always improve, and always try new things. I’m feeling a bit tired, though, so I’m gonna rest.
…And play Immortal Empires on Warhammer 3! There’s a video game I want to play. Look, this is how I relax. I don’t watch the new um, House of Dragon show or whatever. I do something where I can use a different side of my brain.
Anyways, I hope you enjoyed the chapter! Some slice-of-life as well as a completely unrelated vacation story. Ahem. Thanks for reading and stay healthy!
Pirateaba Baking Bread, Sugar Tea, Mrsha Ramsay and more by LeChatDemon!
Belavierr by butts!
Belavierr by pkay!
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