This story is by Hannah Custer and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
On the far edges of the territory of Karhu, it was the night of the winter solstice. A group of bards lost in a storm rang a small bell that barely made a sound and suddenly found themselves at the doorstep of an inn that seemed like it could fall over any minute. As worried as they were, they couldn’t turn down the safety it offered. One of the humans asked, unbelieving. “Is this The Wandering Inn?” They were welcomed warmly inside by a silent clay gollum. Then, as payment, to the delight of the other travelers, they began to play their instruments for the main assembly of guests, other rescued souls.
Eventually, the traveling band was worn out. The audience was asleep where they sat or were already off to their beds. The group decided to play a tribute to their unexpected host as their last song. It was the centuries-old story about the Wandering Inn and a well-known song amongst the elven children. It was called a rescuer in times of trouble, and its lady host was described as a friend to all. To anyone else outside this room, The Wandering Inn was a child’s fairytale and nothing more.
Afterward, the traveling bards’ leader, a slender elf named Ikigai, helped the others pack their instruments away, and he reminded them of the rules. The three human men went to bed with a bit of grumbling. The two women teased Ikigai invitingly to join them, but he gently brushed off the twin sirens, bidding them a good sleep.
Ikigai waited until all the guests were asleep and walked silently to each of his companions’ rooms. He pricked his figure with a knife from his belt and grew a small sigil into the door frame. The sigils glowed faintly silver before disappearing. He heard a feminine voice when he turned away from the last door. “That’s pretty impressive magic.”
Standing there was a woman who didn’t look much older than himself. Ikigai instantly recognized her as a wood nymph and an old friend. “Good evening, Jana. You look as beautiful as always.” He gave her a low bow and kissed her hand.
Jana’s hair was green curls recently cut short, with violets peaking out from within the tight curls. The swirls of freckles on her skin reminded Ikigai of tree bark. She took her hand away and crossed her arms across her chest as her heart fluttered. “You owe me now. You can start by explaining what you’re doing with my doors. They’re much older than you, and I won’t stand for nonsense.”
Ikigai replied with a cocky grin. “It’s part of my blood inheritance. The elders advised me against using it, but you know how well I listen. I picked up the rest in my travels. As for your doors, it’s just a small charm. I was surprised it works.” He traced the sigil in the air with a trace of light so she could see.
Jana replied. “The rune of renewal?”
Ikigai nodded. “So my friends will sleep soundly. They usually sleep like bricks, but I wanted to see you alone.”
Jana tried not to smile and turned away from him. When she regained her composure, she asked him haughtily. “What took you so long? You said you’d be back before the solstice.”
Ikigai guided her to a table and sat opposite her. “Do you know how hard it is to find a fantastical Wandering Inn on purpose?”
Jana couldn’t help but laugh. “I gave you the bell.”
Then Ikigai admitted, pulling the silver bell on a chain from under his tunic. “I also got held up.”
Ikigai tossed one of his long braids over one shoulder and replied. “Bandits.”
Jana moved forward and stared into his eyes. “Try again.”
Ikigai admitted with a smile, “We stopped in the mountains between Brawbrook and Ulderhaven. There is a dwarven settlement there. We planned on a day or two, but one of the lutes snapped when a drunken brawl broke out. We had to stay until one of their craftsmen repaired it.”
Jana smiled. “I’d love to see the city of Brawbrook. I hear all kinds of stories from the travelers.”
Ikigai asked with a smirk. “We’ll have to go back through there to go home… You could come with us.”
Jana shook her head, but Ikigai continued. “You could join the troupe! You just have to charm us with an instrument, singing, or storytelling. I’m already charmed, and I get two votes.”
Jana blushed at his suggestively wiggling eyebrows. She fought for control as oozing jealousy flooded her veins. It burnt the channels of her spirit like acid. She tried not to respond but instead reflexively rebuffed his sincerity. “Is that how the sirens joined?”
Ikigai shook his head. “I was overruled. We discovered they quickly get us into trouble when they sing, but they can play almost anything expertly.”
Ikigai reached for her hand, not noticing her jealousy. She gave it, and the ugly feelings inside her pulled back with visible relief.
Jana told him with a sad, sincere smile. “I’m thankful you’re here. I hoped to see you at least for a moment before I went back to sleep. We’ll start wandering again at midnight, and I won’t be awake until summer. And thank you for the song. I know it was you who spread that around.”
Ikigai shook his head, uncharacteristically shy.
Jana laughed at his expression, her chest feeling lighter than it had been in ages.
Ikigai took out his dagger and pricked another of his fingers. He traced it on her palm. It glowed silver for a second but then sputtered out.
Jana told him earnestly. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t. The thing that ties me to the inn is ancient and disgusting. We can wait to try until summer.”
Ikigai pulled up his sleeves and revealed arms covered in crisscrossed white scars and recently healed stripes. He told her. “Let’s try something at least. We can’t keep doing nothing. What if you don’t wake up?” Without hesitation, he took the dagger to his arm and added another stripe to his collection. He drew a sigil on his palms with the blood and gently took both of Jana’s hands.
Jana was afraid, but she didn’t refuse him.
His magic flooded into her veins. The power was molten metal pulsing from him until it found its target. The curse that tied her to the building throbbed with revulsion as the persistent elven magic teased and pulled. As the elven magic gained ground, its strength grew. Ikigai could barely hear Jana whimper as the curse pulled back from where it had reached into her limbs. It returned to its place around her heart and cowered.
When Ikigai opened his eyes, they were both drenched in sweat, and the silver sigils sputtered out.
Jana took her hands away from him and couldn’t even speak. She kept trying to reassure him, but she could only sputter out breaths.
The clock struck midnight, and Ikigai told her in a rush. “I’m sorry, but I had to try. The elders are shortsighted bastards! They sent me to destroy this place, but how could I? I’ve known you my whole life, and I love you. At best, I thought we could leave together and go anywhere if I could find you first. At the least, I wanted to see you again.”
Jana’s anger at the betrayal of the eleven elders and the frustration raged inside her heart until it burst and ran unbound through her body. It was a rancid sprite that broke down everything it touched into sludge, and as it burst out of her eyes and hands, the table she was sitting by and the chair she was sitting in turned to rubble. It quickly consumed her body from the inside out. Then, as Jana gave up hope, she felt the same silver energy burst into her veins, fighting for her. The fleeting thought of Ikigai flashed through her, bleeding out and desperately trying to help. The silver light started with hands on her face—a calm warmth spread from their touch. Despite how the decay recoiled and fought the calm silver flood, with her last sense of self, she welcomed Ikigai’s help again. After a moment, she was able to take a deep breath. The night air was painful but also a relief.
As the last bell tolled, Jana saw Ikigai barely standing on his feet, covered in black ooze. He had a gash on his chest, and he was covered in the most intricate sigil than she’d ever seen. She recognized the runes for renewal, hope, euphoria, and clarity. The silver light dissipated, and Jana felt clean for the first time but couldn’t shake off her sudden exhaustion. She begged Ikigai as her eyes closed and the long sleep overtook her again. “Will you come back? Please…”
Ikigai nodded. “As long as it takes.”