There was a rite of passage among medical students, although it wasn’t publically talked about. And that was that in many graduate programs, regardless of whether you were studying to be a physician or just aimed to practice general medicine, it used to be mandatory to take a class in which you would dissect a human cadaver.
Geneva had known she’d have to open someone up when she’d first enrolled as a medical student. She’d dreaded the moment, feared the impartiality of it. Then had come the moment when she cut open the gray, lifeless body. It had felt solemn, and she remembered the classroom being hushed as the students around her felt themselves taking a step into a world many would never dream of entering.
They cut open a body, dissected it, identified organs, and within a few days, felt used to it. That was the point. No amount of illustrations in books or lectures could give you the hands-on experience of touching a real body, and that was what a surgeon or specialist needed most of all.
Of course, now medical programs were cutting back on using human corpses, due to lack of time and the expense of obtaining ones for medical students to practice on. And yet, therein lay the irony of surgery, of Geneva’s profession.
To become a great surgeon, one capable of taking on the hardest challenges, one had to practice. But no one trusted a new surgeon. And yet, a surgeon had to operate, and thus, make mistakes to grow experienced.
In short, it always came back to the same contradiction: a surgeon grew from the patients who died under her care.
It wasn’t always like that of course. That was a harsh generalization. In another hospital, there would be veterans, older doctors, and other surgeons on standby who could help out in an emergency. But part of Geneva had wondered, idly, while she listened to her professors lecture her whether experience was all a doctor needed.
The average surgeon took on many operations each year. Hundreds. But they also followed a strict set of rules, having to clean themselves, create sterile operating environments—all to make sure their patients had the best chance possible.
In wars, medicine was not so nice. During the Second World War, doctors had to see to patients without the luxury of a schedule, or even a full team of trained helpers. Soldiers would come in all at once, sometimes by the hundreds, and it would force the helpless doctors and medics to make the hardest choices. They’d have to balance who would live and who would die, and who would be easier to save. They could save one life while ten more passed, or save ten and let the one die.
Perhaps those doctors had been the best. They would have operated countless times each day. Did that confer some sort of instinct? Some innate sense of the body and how to save it? Geneva had idly wondered about that as a student. Now—she knew. And the answer was simple, painful.
No. After a while, all the bodies began to look the same. The living—but especially the dead.
“Beginning the incision. Make sure the patient is still asleep and let me know if they wake up!”
Geneva snapped as she raised a scalpel and sliced into the wounded Dullahan’s chest. The blade she was using delved past the shattered chest plate of the Dullahan’s armor—a small mercy or she would have had to saw through it, taking precious time. Now Geneva cut into the thick skin that was the last layer of protection between the Dullahan’s internal organs and the outside world.
The two [Soldiers] who stood in the tent nodded. They were used to the work, and both were ready to grab the Dullahan if he woke. They stared grimly at the broken and bleeding insides of the Dullahan, and then away. They’d volunteered for this, and respected Geneva for what she could do.
But few people could look at what a surgeon did to the body without flinching. Geneva’s left hand was a blur as it cut, exposing a bloodied mess of organs beneath.
“Internal bleeding. I need a healing potion!”
Her right hand shot out and grabbed a bowl of liquid. Geneva carefully administered it, watching as the organs, muscles, and tissue that had been battered and torn by the mace slowly closed.
Healing potions. Faster and better than anything in her world. Geneva eyed the rest of the wounded site, and saw nothing wrong.
Her hands moved with experienced speed. Her left shot out and grabbed a curved needle, already threaded in preparation for this event. The other found a pair of forceps.
The [Soldiers] in the tent turned back to watch as Geneva began to sew up the Dullahan’s mended chest. This they could appreciate, and there was something miraculous about how fast Geneva moved. Her left hand was a blur as it stitched up the flesh of the Dullahan’s chest, closing the long incision in moments. Her right hand moved slower by comparison, carefully grasping the flesh and bringing it together to be sewn up.
And then it was done. Geneva stepped back from the closed flesh and grabbed the bowl of healing potion. She sprinkled a few drops of it over the stitches, and watched the wound heal.
Partially. That was all she could ration. Geneva put the bowl back and found the Dullahan’s shattered chest plate. She couldn’t fix his armor, but it was important to them that it stayed together.
“Wash this. Make sure you give him the lecture about keeping the wound clean.”
She spoke to one of the [Soldiers], another Dullahan with dull grey iron armor. She nodded and after locking her head into place on her shoulders, carried the Dullahan off of Geneva’s operating table and out of the room.
Done. Geneva sagged for a second, feeling the tension of the operation fade away. She spoke, although there was no one else in the tent but her.
“That was a relief. I thought a piece of the armor might have been stuck in his chest.”
There was no one there to hear that could be seen. But a voice replied, inaudible except in Geneva’s head. Because it was speaking in her head.
“If it had been, what would you have done?”
“Removed it. Hoped the healing potion solved the worst of the issues—sutured what I could. Time was of the essence, Okasha. If I had the ability to do blood transfusions, I’d have more time. But I haven’t been able to fix up a proper needle and pump mechanism.”
“I see. Should I see if there are any ways to construct such a thing later?”
Geneva shook her head slightly, speaking to the thing listening to her. In her. The Selphid named Okasha was in her body, controlling her right arm. She could probably feel the vibrations in Geneva’s vocal chords before the words left her mouth.
“Don’t bother. The healing potions replenish lost fluids, and they’re faster. It’s better to use them rather than try and maintain a blood bank, especially in this heat.”
Okasha didn’t reply, but Geneva felt an acknowledgement, a gentle twitch that ran through her body’s nervous system. It wasn’t unpleasant; the opposite, in fact. But it would have terrified her to experience such a thing, to know someone was sharing her body a few months ago.
Now she didn’t react. Geneva had long since made her peace with what had happened. Although there were things to get used to.
Like how her body would move. Geneva found herself walking over to a bench in the corner of her impromptu operating area, sitting down. She hadn’t intended any of it, but Okasha had taken over and Geneva hadn’t tried to fight. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she did, to be honest. Okasha had never brought the subject up. She was a friend, an assistant on the operating table, and she worried about Geneva. Too much, sometimes.
“You should rest. You’ve been awake for over a day now.”
Geneva knew that. She felt the exhaustion in her body, but she shook her head anyways.
“I’m fine, Okasha. I need to stay awake.”
“But if you don’t sleep—”
“I’ll sleep after this lot. I promise. Just give me a moment.”
Okasha fell silent. Geneva sighed, and lowered her head. The Dullahan would live. He wouldn’t fight for a day at least—she’d keep him here in the field hospital she ran, until the convoy arrived at night to take him back to his army. Then, depending on whether they decided to treat him with more healing potions, he might be fighting tomorrow.
The living came to be saved, and then went back to kill or be killed the next day. Geneva had struggled with that knowledge, wondering if she was doing the right thing. She didn’t know. She only knew that she had sworn an oath. If there was a life she could save, she did.
There was no one else who could. In Baleros, a continent that bled, Geneva was the only [Doctor]. The only true one, at any rate.
She wondered, sometimes, what those brave souls laboring to save lives had felt during the war. Did they fight for every life, clinging to it, fighting to fix the horrible things bullets and humans could do to each other? Or did the feeling of despair slowly sink in? Did the endless tide of bodies crush them?
She didn’t know. She couldn’t ask. Geneva sat quietly in the tent, hearing the sounds of battle in the distance, screams of the wounded around her. In a few moments the tent flap would open, and another wounded person would come in. Another life for her to fight for. But right now she just sat. She was tired, exhausted.
Geneva Scala, a Level 26 [Doctor], sat with Okasha humming a quiet melody in her ears, transmitting the song into Geneva’s mind by projecting the sound directly into the inner ear. It was a soothing melody, and Geneva closed her eyes. If she slept for a minute, Okasha would make sure her body stayed upright.
She was so tired. She would have loved to rest, but there was always someone crying out. There was always a war. This was her third battlefield since coming to this world. Geneva had been working non-stop since then. Saving lives. Fighting.
She couldn’t remember what it was like to smile.
Kenjiro Murata knew he was no hero. He was not a warrior, although he’d been in a few fights growing up. But he wasn’t someone who liked to fight, and he preferred to defuse tense situations rather than escalate them.
That was Ken’s problem. He wasn’t many things. Some people were good at everything. Not Ken. He wasn’t a top athlete although he liked running on the track. He’d never placed that high on exams, and if he was honest, he wasn’t good-looking. Not that he had an unattractive face! But none of those attributes could define him in a meaningful way.
In truth, there was only one thing Ken was good at, and that was understanding other people. He liked meeting people. He liked talking to people he didn’t know—especially foreigners.
It wasn’t that he was that social, either. Ken would have agreed that he was no social butterfly—if he’d understood what that phrase meant in English. He just…liked other people. He liked other cultures, studying about other nations. He dreamed of travelling, which is why he had rejoiced at a chance to visit Australia as part of his university’s foreign exchange program.
Ken wasn’t that good at learning languages so he felt awkward, but he’d been excited to travel to Australia and talk with everyone he could. That was why he’d wanted to be a businessman, preferably someone who travelled abroad and negotiated business deals in foreign countries.
It was his big dream, the thing that Ken had aimed for ever since high school. He knew his grades weren’t the best, but he’d persevered. He wasn’t excellent at speaking English—he wasn’t gifted, but he kept practicing. If he had a talent, Ken would have said he was good at observing people, learning how they acted.
This is what he saw.
It came towards him, making a horrible scratchy sound through its damaged vocal chords. It was a zombie, the weakest of the undead. But it was also a Centaur, and so it was terrifying for other reasons.
“Get around it!”
Someone shouted. Luan ran past Ken and bashed the Centaur’s back left leg. It stumbled, and Ken dodged away from its swinging arms. The Centaur, tall as any horse—taller, in fact since it had the human torso on top—twisted, and the dead female’s head focused on Luan.
Ken heard the call and he ran forwards at the same time three others did. He cut at the Centaur’s side as Aiko speared it from one end and two Dullahans cut at it with swords. Luan ran forwards and delivered the final strike—a hammer blow to the Centaur’s head. He alone was tall enough to hit her there, and the Centaur, body too broken to move, finally fell.
Ken backed away, shaking, sweaty. He waited for the Centaur to move as Aiko pulled her spear back and stabbed it in the head, but it didn’t. It was finally dead. He breathed out and heard a voice.
“Everyone okay? Hey, you two good? Ken?”
Luan was walking around, checking on everyone. As leader of their small group, one patrol of the Gravetender’s Fist company, he felt the need to make sure they were well. Ken raised a shaking hand and gave him a thumbs up.
“Good work, mate.”
Luan raised his fist and Ken turned his gesture into a weak fist-bump. The tall South African man grinned at him and turned to the Dullahans.
“You two good?”
They were. Everyone was good, even Aiko. She stepped away from the corpse as Luan turned to it. Ken heard him groan.
“Now we’ve got to drag this back to the pile. Damn it. We should have lured her closer.”
He gestured, and the five gathered around the Centaur. Grimly, each one reached down and began to haul the body away. It was horrible. Ken and the other Humans had gloves and the Dullahans had gauntleted hands, part of the armor that covered their entire body, but the stench and smell was overpowering.
Not to mention the Centaur wasn’t entirely whole. A part of her fell off as she was being dragged—Ken looked away and tried not to gag.
Perhaps it would have been easier if they cut her up and carried the bits to one of the corpse piles that would be burned come dawn. But neither Ken nor the other new recruits in Gravetender’s Fist had the stomach for it. So they dragged the body, swearing as they crossed the uneven ground and mud, heading towards a place where a pair of armed soldiers with lanterns stood looking in every direction.
“Hey! It’s us!”
Luan called out as the two soldiers spotted their group. He didn’t need to say anything else. He just needed to reassure the soldiers that they were alive and not undead. The lantern that Aiko carried helped, but Ken had learned to be wary of every moving shape as they worked.
Their group deposited the corpse at the pile of bodies. It stank. Flies buzzed and Ken had to back away fast or vomit again. Not that his stomach was full—he’d been told not to eat anything before nightfall, and this was why.
One of the soldiers commented and Luan grimaced.
“She got up right when we came by. Scared us all to death.”
“Be grateful she wasn’t a Ghoul. Only thing worse than a Centaur Ghoul is a Dullahan one.”
The soldiers called out as Luan and the group trudged away. Ken glanced at the two Dullahans, one male, one female, but neither reacted to the statement. Probably because it was fact. A Zombie Dullahan was a nightmare to fight, mainly because of their armor and the fact that their head might be lying on the ground, making putting them down again that much harder. You had to batter them to pieces unless you found the head.
“Let’s go back. It’s this way, I think. Right, Aiko?”
Their group trudged back the way they’d come. They had an area to cover, and the zombie Centaur was only one of the bodies they had to haul back to the pile to be burned. It was a horrible, foul job, and Ken hated it. But he had signed up and so he had to work.
This was Gravetender’s Fist. A suppression company enlisted to dispose of the undead and corpses that were the natural byproduct of a conflict involving two companies, the Razorshard Armor company, and the Roving Arrow company.
Ken’s unit, along with everyone else in the company, had a simple job. They went out, found dead bodies, collected them into a pile, and burned them so undead wouldn’t spawn from them. They killed any undead that had already risen, and then got off the battlefield before the two sides began fighting again.
This was their third night doing it. Was it better the third time?
Yes. A bit. The third night was better than the first, if only because there was no shock and horror. The fear was still there, almost overwhelming the senses in the torch-lit darkness, but Ken and the others could operate under it now.
Aiko called out to her left and Ken, Luan, and the two Dullahans stopped dead in their tracks. They moved towards Aiko and spotted a group of corpses. They approached warily, weapons at the ready. A pile of bodies could be burying a zombie or something worse. Aiko stepped forwards and stabbed the pile repeatedly, but nothing moved.
“Let’s take them back.”
Luan sighed and Ken reached down to tug at the armor of one fallen soldier. He paused as he saw a Human face in the lantern light, twisted with fear. It was staring right at him.
Aiko’s voice snapped Ken’s head up. He saw her looking at him. He shook his head.
He began to pull at one leg, as Aiko gingerly took an arm. They dragged the body away and Luan bent.
“Hold up. The sword’s here.”
He pulled it away before Ken and Aiko dragged the body any further. Luan went around collecting armor, weapons, that could be used, while the Dullahans dragged one body. Ken and Aiko resumed pulling their burden.
Back towards the pile. It was most efficient that way, apparently. Burning each body where it had fallen was too hard, and it carried a risk of spreading fire. So the Gravetender’s Fist company had designated areas where piles of corpses were collected, to be disposed of later.
The pile Ken and the others were assigned to was taller than he was, and it was one of many. It took hundreds of people hours of non-stop work to collect the bodies and burn them before the next day began. It felt meaningless because the next day the soldiers would begin slaughtering each other as soon as it was light, but the work was necessary.
Bad things appeared if the bodies weren’t laid to rest. Ken saw one of those things later that night. He heard a scream that rose above the buzzing of insects, the voices in the distance, and the pounding of his heart.
He and the others froze in place. Ghoul. One of the stronger, faster variants of undead. They were rarer, but far deadlier than a zombie. And the call had come from nearby.
“What should we do?”
One of the Dullahans looked around, her hands tight on her sword hilt. She was wide-eyed. She’d seen a Ghoul before, seen what they could do. Ken’s stomach twisted with fear. He’d seen too.
Luan’s voice was steady. He motioned them to stand in a circle, as they’d been instructed to do.
“Stay together. Watch for anything—”
“Look! The Captain!”
Aiko cried out. Ken saw their company’s captain, Quallet Marshhand, sprinting in the direction of the scream. He shouted, and Ken saw a blur of movement heading towards him. Quallet slashed out at it with his axe, incredibly fast. For a moment his form was obscured, and then Ken and the others saw him hacking at something on the ground. The chaos ended.
The Ghoul was dead.
“Back to work!”
Quallet shouted at all of the people who’d stopped, his voice reaching far across the valley. Ken felt a hand on his shoulder and Luan nodded.
“You heard him. More corpses.”
That was life. Ken slowly began to move forwards, shoulders aching, sweat and insects fighting for space on his body. He kept dragging bodies towards the pile until he heard a horn call, and hurried back towards the gleaming flag, illuminated by magic and lighting up the area around it. As the sun broke over the hills around the valley, Quallet led his weary company back towards the neutral ground where they could rest and sleep.
Another day done. Countless more to come.
When he wasn’t on duty, which lasted the whole night, Ken slept. He woke up past midday like the others, found food waiting for him, and ate the unpalatable rations in silence. Then he glanced at the sun.
It was falling fast due to the season being allegedly winter. Ken had already learned to hate that fact: it meant he had to work more and night would come sooner. But for a few precious hours, he was free to stay within the neutral zone his company had been allotted. He could chat with other members of Gravetender’s Fist or the other suppression companies, scrub himself with dirt—water being far too precious, unless it rained—gamble for food with dice, squat in a latrine if he needed to relieve himself, or go back to sleep.
Small things. But Ken would have gladly squatted over the insect-covered pits in the ground for hours rather than spend five minutes hauling corpses. Well, maybe an hour for every ten minutes.
Instead of going over to where the people from his world, the Humans of various nationalities, mostly American, Australian, and European countries, were talking and sitting amongst themselves (or having sex in one of the tents, which had bothered Ken and Aiko when they’d heard about it—and heard it happening), Ken took a chance and went over to talk with another group that sat by a fire, talking amongst themselves.
The Lizardfolk, one of the main races inhabiting Baleros, looked up as one as Ken approached. He smiled and waved at them, which was received well, because they instantly waved him over.
“Human! Do you need something? Is it orders from Captain Marshhand?”
Some called out to Ken as he hesitantly sat by the fire, trying to smile, to project sociability. To Ken’s knowledge, this was the first time anyone from his group had tried sitting with the Lizardfolk. They’d chatted of course, but never for long. It had always been—what was the word? Awkward.
And Ken had an idea why.
“No I am not here with orders. I would just like to ah, talk.”
Some of the Lizardfolk immediately laughed and crowded around Ken, in a moment he found himself sitting by lots of scaly bodies. The Lizardfolk of Baleros were thin and reptilian, with long tails and colorful neck frills of flesh. They looked like they had odd versions of a lion’s mane—each Lizardfolk had a very colorful frill, which often contrasted with the rest of their scales.
“So why do you want to talk to us, Human? What is your name?”
Ken found himself looking at a blue-scaled Lizardgirl with deep red neck frills, bordering on purple. He knew her.
“You are Quexa, yes? I am Kenjiro Murata. I am very pleased to meet you.”
“Oh! You were assigned to my pile last night! Did you hear about the Ghoul? It attacked my group—nearly got me!”
Quexa grinned at him, her red neck frills opening and closing as she gestured to some other Lizardfolk.
“I thought I was going to die—I tried to hit it with magic, but it was too fast! Then Captain Quallet came and cut its head open! Lucky! You look different from the other Humans, you and that girl. Are you two having sex?”
Ken’s eyes widened and he tried to reply to Quexa in order. Lizardfolk had an odd way of talking. They’d ask and reply to multiple questions and statements in the same sentence. To fit in, Ken tried to do the same.
“I am very glad you are okay. I ah, am from Japan. It is a different country than the other, so I look different. I and Aiko are not having sex.”
Quexa’s eyes brightened in appreciation and Ken saw other Lizardfolk nodding as they listened to his scatter-shot response. He smiled inwardly. Yes, this was how you talked to Lizardfolk! He was right! The mood around him grew more intimate and Quexa scooted closer, a sure sign he was being accepted.
“Oh, I was asking because you look the same. And a lot of you are having sex! Every day you Humans have sex! Aren’t you worried about getting pregnant? Or do you all have birth charms? Can we borrow them? They must be very effective!”
“I uh, do not now about birth charms. Many of my…my friends are very worried, so they have sex. I uh, do not know about being pregnant. I hope they do not become pregnant, because we have no charms.”
“Humans are so reckless!”
“Are you interested in trying it with us?”
The Lizardfolk practically jumped on Ken, asking questions, laughing, speaking in a jumble with no clear leader. As was their way. Ken had watched them carefully before this moment, and he thought he understood Lizardfolk. He had observed how they interacted. So they could understand him. So he could understand them. So they could be…friends?
The first thing Kenjiro had observed was that of the three non-Human species in Gravetender’s Fist, the Lizardfolk liked to talk the most. In fact, they were what he would call おしゃべり, or ‘chatterboxes’ as some of the Americans called them. Only, that applied to their entire species, not just one in particular.
It wasn’t hard to observe the other races—Ken had served with them for three days already, on top of the time he’d been marching with them. And one thing Ken had noticed was that Lizardfolk stuck together. They liked being part of a group and, this was crucial, seemed to decide things en-masse.
They were also uncomfortable being the odd ones out, which is why Ken had noticed that every time a group of people from his world came over to talk to a few, the Lizardfolk had seemed edgy. It was only when they were in greater numbers than the outsiders that they seemed happy to talk.
They didn’t like being outnumbered. But when they weren’t, they were as social as could be, which is why Ken had chosen to speak with them, rather than Dullahans or Centaurs first. He wanted to, well, he just wanted to be friendly with them.
Ken believed in being friends, in forging relationships. It was a part of his culture—making strong ties and getting to know people was how the business world in Japan worked. It was everything, and Ken was trying to apply that idea here. It was all he knew, and they were all on the same side, right? All the more reason to be friends. Especially because Ken knew nothing of this world.
And Lizardfolk liked to talk.
“You’ve never met a Lizardperson? Ever?”
Quexa had moved rapidly past the horribly awkward and intimate talk of sex and was quizzing Ken about where he had come from. He couldn’t answer concretely, but she seemed happy enough to explain her people to him.
“We’re Lizardpeople! Only, you knew that. We’re the biggest species on Baleros—there’s Dullahans and Centaurs of course, but we have more sex than they do. We’re sort of like Drakes, if you’ve met Drakes, although they hate it when we say that. We’re not related, you know, although we look sort of the same.”
“Ah, yes. I know Dullahans and Centaurs. But there are other species, yes?”
Quexa laughed at Ken and the other Lizardfolk immediately shouted out names of species.
“Ever seen a Selphid?”
“What about a Fraerling? Ever stepped on one?”
“How about a Gazer?”
“Seen a Naga? One of our people?”
Ken hadn’t. Quexa pointed a Selphid out for him, and he saw one of the pale-white soldiers standing in the Untimely Demise company, talking with a Centaur. The Selphid had a Lizardperson’s body, but the body was clearly…dead. The scales were pale, and there was a bloodless wound on the side of the Lizardperson’s body that wasn’t bleeding. Ken shivered and Quexa noticed.
“Don’t worry! Selphids don’t steal living bodies. Or they’re not supposed to. They did that in the past, you know? Only, now if they do it we kill them. So they steal corpses! They live inside them. That’s a Selphid. I’d show you a Gazer, but I don’t think you’d see many in a Centaur-led army or a Dullahan one. They keep to themselves, mainly.”
The conversation diverged into a lecture about how weird Selphids were, with other Lizardfolk adding in details and stories.
“You know they never fight? Selphids. Even if they’re hired on opposite sides, if they meet they just bow to each other and won’t do battle, no matter what! I think that’s because there are so few. Well, we killed a lot of them a long time ago.”
“Hey, are any of your people [Mages]? You have a lot of shining magical artifacts. We see them, though you keep hiding them! What do they do?”
Pressured by the Lizardfolk, Ken tried to explain about the iPhones, computers, tablets, and other electronic devices some of the Humans from his world had carried. He showed his dead iPhone to the Lizardfolk and they were all over it, poking and prodding and vocally disappointed when it didn’t work.
Quexa handed the iPhone back to Ken. It had been dead ever since he’d come to Baleros—he’d forgotten to charge it and had been looking for a charger back in the Australian airport when he’d been taken. Aiko didn’t have hers, and neither did Luan.
“You should get that fixed! I bet a [Repair] spell would do it. I’d cast it, but I don’t know the spell.”
“Ah. And you are a [Mage]?”
She shook her head.
“I’m a [Sorcerer]. It’s not the same as the [Mage] class, you know. We cast magic by thinking about it real hard. Mages learn spells, but us [Sorcerers] are too lazy. We can’t use big spells unless we’re really high-level, but we don’t have to study. Cool, right?”
Ken tried to be as friendly as possible. After an hour of rapid-talk his head was spinning, so he got up and politely excused himself.
“I am very glad to meet you all. I hope we can talk soon, and that you are all safe this night. Thank you very much for greeting me.”
He bowed to them, making the Lizardfolk cry out farewells and warmly wave him off. Satisfied, Ken left the group and heard them continue chattering behind his back.
“See? I told you some of them were nice.”
“Did you hear his accent? I wonder where he’s from.”
“What about the shining things? You didn’t ask where they got them—”
Ken made his way back to the Humans and explained to Luan and Aiko what he’d done. The other Humans clustered around him, and soon they were going over to the Lizardfolk—in smaller groups. Chatter started up, and soon the Lizardpeople were comfortable enough to talk with Humans on their own. Ken felt accomplished, and then felt his happiness drain away as the sun set.
The valley was filled with bodies as Quallet ordered everyone to take up arms and march down into the darkness. He carried the flag of Gravetender’s Fist, a fist shooting out of soil emblazoned on cloth that shone brightly in the dark. It was one of the precautions the suppression companies took. They carried bright lights and waved shining banners so neither army would look at them as enemies.
That was the fourth night.
On the fifth day, there was beer. Ken heard about it as soon as he woke up, and found a mug filled with a frothy orange liquid shoved into his hands by one of the Americans.
His name was Johanas. He explained to Ken, face flushed, already clearly intoxicated. Ken leaned back a bit as Johanas excitedly talked.
“One of the guys traded a flashlight to him for a ton of beer! Hey, did you know that you can recharge all of our stuff with magic? It turns out if you cast [Repair] on something, the batteries get recharged too!”
He looked very happy at the news. Ken was happy too—but reservedly so. He appreciated drinking as much as anyone else, but not, it seemed, as much as the Americans. Some were under twenty one, which was apparently the drinking age in America. So many of the young men and women from America were drinking a lot—too much, in Ken’s opinion, to actually enjoy the experience.
Some were already throwing up.
“Thank you for telling me. Where did you buy the—beer—though?”
Ken stared at the orange liquid. It wasn’t like any beer he’d ever seen, but apparently it was a popular drink in Baleros. Johanas pointed north, towards another group sharing the neutral zone.
“See those guys? The [Merchants]? They’re…what, war vendors? Yeah, that’s what they’re called. They’ll sell to anyone for the right price.”
Ken did indeed know about the war vendors, opportunistic [Merchants] who travelled with heavy escorts to battlefields to supply armies in need of extra potions, arms, magical artifacts, and so on. And apparently, beer as well.
He spotted one of the [Merchants], and saw to his surprise a serpentine form, a good seven feet high, glittering gold and red scales that ran from a long and powerful tail up into a humanoid torso with two arms and a serpentine head. The Naga had long fins on the back of his head, like a Lizardperson’s frills. And that was because…
Ken stared hard at the [Merchant], enough so that both he and Johanas noticed. The Naga turned, saw Ken looking, and waved at him. Ken kept staring.
“Dude, don’t stare.”
Johanas tugged him away, but Ken shook his head. He deliberately scrutinized the Naga from shining head to toe, noting how the Naga wore clothes only on his upper half, leaving his serpentine lower body free. He was very flashy, and his scales and clothing shone. He had small jewels embedded in the fabric!
“Hey, he’s looking at us.”
The slightly drunk and sobering Johanas looked worried, but Ken was not. Another aspect of Lizardfolk culture went into his staring.
“I think they do not mind. How can I say…? They like to be acknowledged.”
The other young man gave Ken a skeptical look, but Ken’s theory was proven true in a few moments. Far from taking offense at Ken’s obvious study of his body, the Naga instead grinned. He twisted his body around, showing off his serpentine features much to the approval of the Lizardfolk watching him.
“He is one of the Lizardfolk, I think.”
“What? Him? But he looks nothing like them!”
Johanas was astonished. Ken nodded hesitantly.
“That is what they said. I think they turn into him. Into Nagas. Sometimes.”
The American young man stared at him. Ken turned his attention away from the Naga and shrugged. Johanas turned his head and then shook it, looking disoriented.
“Weird as fuck, man. I’ll, uh, I’ll see if the Lizards want to party, then. We have a lot of booze.”
So saying, he went over to the Lizardpeople. They were instantly on their feet and headed towards the place where the Americans were drinking, and Ken saw Johanas approach a group of Dullahans next.
Watch. Ken’s eyes narrowed slightly and he forgot the mug in his hands as he watched Johanas approach a group of five Dullahans. They had been talking quietly amongst themselves, but went silent as Johanas came over.
This is what Ken noticed. Of the five Dullahans, three had wooden armor, crude, seemingly hewn from trees. The other two though had metal armor. One looked like iron plate, the other, a type of scale mail. The other Dullahans seemed to defer to them.
It was about the armor. Ken was no expert, but the Dullahan with scale mail armor probably had the more expensive equipment, or body, than the one with iron armor. And that mattered. He watched as Johanas stumbled over and heard the young man’s voice.
“Hey, any of you lot want to drink? We’ve got free beer!”
He didn’t address the Dullahan in scale armor, nor the one with iron armor. And Ken knew immediately that was a mistake. The Dullahan in scale armor narrowed her eyes, and the Dullahan that Johanas had addressed, a wide-eyed, very young male in cheap wood armor, looked at her first before silently shaking his head.
“What about you then? Want to hang out?”
Ken winced as Johanas only now addressed the Dullahan in scale armor. She froze up. She looked irritated, furrowing her brows slightly. Johanas didn’t notice—Dullahan features changed only slightly and he was too drunk to see. She replied curtly and he stumbled away, shrugging.
The entire group of Dullahans had declined as one. None of them would go drink with the Americans, although a few Centaurs did drift over for the alcohol.
Ken was looking at the Lizardfolk, whom some of the Americans were unsuccessfully trying to convince to play a game of spin the bottle with, when someone spoke his name.
“Ken, what are you doing?”
He turned as Aiko approached him, speaking in Japanese. Ken pointed to the Lizardfolk, who were all refusing to play spin the bottle.
“They move as one group, you see, Aiko? If you cannot convince them as a whole, none will agree.”
Aiko eyed the group of Lizardfolk and shook her head.
“So? I think you spend too much time looking at them. Especially the female ones. What about Humans? We’re normal. They’re odd.”
Ken felt nettled by the comment. He turned away from Aiko, annoyed. He was trying to understand the other species. They were all in the same company—so what if Lizardpeople looked strange? So what if Dullahans could take their heads off, and Centaurs were half-horse, half-Human? He knew some of the people from his world couldn’t interact with the other species—he noted a girl refusing to go near one of the friendly Lizardfolk. But that wasn’t right.
“So what if they are different? We should get to know them better.”
He spoke sharply to Aiko. She stomped her foot, exasperated.
“We should stick together and work with other people from our world! They are talking each day, and you do not listen!”
A lot of the Americans were arguing it out with the Europeans and Australians, Ken knew. Everyone had been appalled at finding out just how horrible their duties were, and it was the Americans especially who wanted a change. But what could they do? He glared at Aiko.
“Should I go back and spend more time looking at Luan-san, then?”
Her face went red. Ken knew that Aiko had developed a crush on Luan. The South African man was older than everyone else, and he was always optimistic, always taking command. She punched his shoulder and Ken yelped and moved away.
She stormed off. Ken turned back, feeling guilty, and stared at the Centaurs and how they were interacting with the very drunk Americans. He had a theory about them as well, but he was interrupted by Luan.
“Hey Ken, I saw you and Aiko talking. Did you have a fight?”
Ken turned and smiled at Luan. His friend had a mug in one hand as well and was sipping gingerly at it. He made a face as he came to sit by Ken.
“You two in an argument? She looked pretty upset. What was it about?”
Of all the people to ask—no, Luan was the one who kept Aiko and Ken company, who looked out after them. Of course he’d ask. But Ken could say nothing. He bit his lip and tried to respond.
“I ah, how do I say this? I do not think I can tell you. It is not my secret to give away. I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Luan grinned at him, and then frowned at his mug.
“Have you tasted this? It’s awful.”
Ken sipped at his drink and recoiled at the taste. The liquid was sour in a very unpleasant way. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the taste, but as Luan observed, they were only trying to get drunk.
“Half of them aren’t allowed to drink in their country. Crazy.”
Ken nodded in agreement. The drinking age in Japan was 20 years, but it wasn’t enforced in any strict sense of the word. In South Africa, it was apparently 18. That only mattered because Ken and Luan had had the chance to drink quite a few times before now. For Americans, it was apparently a lot harder.
“They are enjoying themselves. I am told they traded a flashlight for beer.”
Luan had heard that, and he wasn’t happy about it. He frowned as he took another sip of his drink and nearly spat it back out.
“They shouldn’t have done that. It was a bad idea.”
Ken saw Luan hesitate, and then glance around. No one was nearby to listen—they were either drinking, or trying to ignore the shouting coming from the people who were drinking. Still, Luan lowered his voice.
“That flashlight is very valuable. We don’t have a way to get more, and if we can repair it with magic, it’s too valuable to waste. But those assholes didn’t listen to me, or any of the Germans. They’re playing by their own rules and no one else’s opinion matters.”
“Damn right they are. Fucking bastards.”
Both Ken and Luan jumped. Someone had snuck up behind them. Someone with a class in [Rogue], which he’d gotten from sneaking around the battlefield. A tanned young man with blonde hair and a sword. His name was Daly, and he was from Australia. He put a hand on both Ken and Luan’s shoulders and he leaned in with them.
“You lot talking about the Americans, right? Know anything?”
“Not a thing, mate.”
Luan nodded familiarly with Daly. Perhaps it was because both of them said ‘mate’ that they got along. Or that they came from hot continents. Or…they just got along. Ken gently edged away from Daly. Intimate contact wasn’t exactly something he was at home with.
“Those wankers are up to something, and they won’t tell the rest of what. You heard anything, uh…what’s your names?”
“I’m Luan, this is Ken.”
“Pleased to meet ya. Thought I’d seen you around, but couldn’t remember your names off the top of my head.”
Ken was treated to a firm handshake. Daly squatted down next to them and began to grouse about the American problem with Luan.
“We’re all on the same boat, right? Why the hell are they keeping things secret?”
Luan shook his head as Ken sipped his drink and kept tactfully silent.
“Americans. I think they want to tell us what to do.”
“Yeah, well, since none of them have a nuke shoved down their trousers, I’ll pass on that. We’re in it together and unless they tell us what they’re planning, none of our lot is budging. The work we’re doing is shite, but at least none of us are dying.”
Daly nodded at the group of Australians he was with. There was an even ratio of males and females there, and they were having a conversation with some of the Centaurs, shouting to be heard above the party which was now enveloping all three companies. Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, and Untimely Demise. Ken wondered if one of the officers would break up the mayhem, until he saw officer Raeh drinking along with the rest of them.
“Right well, it was good to meet both of ya. I’d love to have a pint with you, but those damned idiots are hogging it all.”
The Australian young man stood up with a groan, and then went off to get something to drink as well. Ken heard him shouting as he approached the group of Americans, who were now singing their national anthem.
“Oi! Stop hogging all the alcohol! Share some, you buggers!”
Someone waved at Daly and he gave them a ‘V’ sign with his fingers that Ken was fairly sure didn’t stand for ‘victory’. Luan laughed as he watched a group of Centaurs finally come over to shout at the partying soldiers to shut up.
Ken turned back to Luan. He hesitated, not knowing where to begin.
“Good friend Luan-san…”
“Call me Luan, yeah?”
“Luan—I have been talking with the others. Lizardfolk, and I was thinking of doing so with the Dullahans and Centaurs, only Aiko does not think it is a good idea.”
He was on familiar enough terms now to call Aiko by her first name, and he was glad that Luan felt he was a friend. Ken certainly considered him one. Luan nodded.
“Talking with them? Sounds good. I can’t get them to talk to me, but you got those Lizardfolk to open up. What’s Aiko’s problem?”
“I think she feels awkward. It is…they are very different, but I think they are like us. Some of the people from our world do not think so. But I—I think they are like us. What do you think?”
Ken held his breath, but Luan just smiled. He tapped his chest as he looked Ken in the eye.
“I was born during Apartheid, good friend Ken. I know about judging people by their skin. I think I should talk with Aiko, and you—should talk with the other species. We are all soldiers, yeah?”
Relieved, Ken grinned at Luan. That was how he found himself heading towards the group of Dullahans that Johanas had failed to invite. They were watching the partying with stony faces, and all of them stared flatly at Ken as he hesitantly approached.
This was different from the Lizardpeople. Ken braced himself. Where the species of Lizardfolk as a whole were cautious but quite open to talk, Dullahans were private. Notably so. They didn’t try to start conversations with people of other species unless it was out of necessity. But Ken thought the real barrier that none of the Humans had understood was the need for formality.
Americans weren’t formal. Europeans and people from Luan’s country…well, Ken didn’t actually know enough about each culture to be sure, but he knew that Japanese culture was very formal. Using the proper honorifics was extremely important in Japan, and it was something people from other countries had little grasp of.
It was like how in English, no one called him Murata-san or Ken-san, which would be more polite. It was all first names, which Ken found awkward at first. But Dullahans…they were slightly Japanese in the way they behaved towards one another.
This is what Ken had seen, from Johanas’ interactions with the Dullahans and other times. Dullahans had a hierarchy in any group, even if it was just between two of them. It was unspoken, but it was there and it shaped every interaction they had. And it was all based on armor.
Every Dullahan had armor. But the type of armor, quality, and materials different on each Dullahan. It was like clothing, only more intimate. It was a reflection of their personality and, Ken now understood, their social standing.
In a group, the Dullahans with the most impressive armor always spoke first, and everyone else deferred to them. It wasn’t just what their armor was made of either; someone with ornate armor was more important than someone with the same material of armor, but less craftsmanship. You had to have an eye for it, but Ken was confident in this case.
He approached the group of five Dullahans as they stared at him warily. They clearly didn’t want to talk, but Ken intended to prove he could show proper respect. That was why he didn’t immediately speak to the closest Dullahan, but rather, to the one with scale armor, the one Johanas had failed to immediately address.
“Please excuse my rude interruption, but I was hoping I could speak with you all.”
The Dullahan woman wearing scale armor blinked as Ken bowed his head towards her. She had placed her head next to her body, and now she grabbed her head and aimed her face at Ken to speak. She hesitated, and then replied.
“What do you wish to say, Human?”
The others looked from her to Ken as he introduced himself.
“I am Kenjiro Murata. I would like to introduce myself to fellow soldiers. May I ask your name?”
Again, he spoke directly towards the Dullahan in scale armor. She nodded after a moment.
“I am Etretta Fulvrie. I greet you, Kenjiro.”
She spoke his name somewhat awkwardly, but Ken pretended not to notice. He nodded towards her and she nodded back. Then Ken turned to look at the Dullahan sitting across from her, the one in iron armor.
There was a flicker of surprise as the Dullahans noticed Ken’s action. The Dullahan in iron armor glanced at Etretta. There was a flicker of approval in her eyes as she nodded slightly at him.
He introduced himself in a gravelly voice. He was named Lethic, and the other three Dullahans introduced themselves, in the order of the quality of their armor, not where they were sitting or their age. Kenjiro hid a smile. He was right!
“What is it you have come to say, Kenjiro Murata?”
“I wish to apologize for my comrade. He does not understand your culture, and he may have offended you. For that I am very sorry.”
Ken spoke to Etretta, and the group at large. He bowed first to Etretta, and then to Lethic. The Dullahans stirred, murmured quietly. Etretta’s eyes were sharp on Ken. She had a very fine sword and she, unlike the others, was an experienced soldier in Gravetender’s Fist.
“Humans often make mistakes. We are used to it. But you think you understand our ways, Kenjiro?”
“I would not say I understand, but I hope to know more. Your people are a very impressive one.”
Ken met Etretta’s eyes for only a moment before looking away. He had a sense that staring at a Dullahan’s head was too intimate. By contrast, staring at their armor was a sign of respect.
Again, his intuition paid off. Etretta cradled her head, growing visibly more relaxed as she and the others rested their heads on the ground or their laps, not holding them stiffly as they did around strangers. Was it a sign that they didn’t think they were in danger?
“I accept your apology, Kenjiro. I would speak with you more if you are willing. Are there still drinks to be had?”
Kenjiro smiled. And after a second, so did Etretta. As it turned out there was still alcohol to be had, although they had to pass by several comatose bodies to get to it.
That night, Quallet swore a blue streak and threatened to thrash anyone too drunk to do their duty awake. It was up to Ken and the other Humans to get the people who’d literally passed out while drinking up and somewhat sober. More than one person was stumbling as they headed out into the night.
The work was still desperate, still dirty, and this time, Kenjiro slipped while carrying a Dullahan’s corpse and found a pile of maggots squirming down his armor. He lost what food he’d eaten, but it was a Dullahan, Lethic, who pulled him up. Quexa burned the maggots off the front of his armor as Luan and Aiko helped get the rest out from under his armor.
Small things. Kenjiro stumbled back into camp too tired to walk properly and reeking of filth. As his head hit the ground he heard a voice in his head. It had a surprise for him.
[Warrior Level 4!]
[Negotiator Class Obtained!]
[Negotiator Level 2!]
[Skill – Amateur Linguist obtained!]
[Skill – Polite Demeanor obtained!]
On the sixth day, Ken watched the fighting. He couldn’t help it. Sometimes he could ignore it, when he was talking with people, watching the different species interact, but other times it was too raw, too visible to ignore.
Each day, the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company lined up their forces and sent them into the valley to fight. It wasn’t just like two masses of soldiers charging at each other, though. Both sides kept forces hidden in the trees, or moving around the outsides, clashing, trying to strike the enemy from behind.
Flights of arrows flew from the galloping Centaurs, and they charged into the armored Dullahans with lances and spears that pierced through the heavy armor. The Dullahans brought forth a group of [Mages] that blasted groups of warriors apart until a Centaur charge forced them to fall back as the furious Centaur warriors hacked apart a group of Lizardfolk assigned to guard the [Mages].
It was terrible to watch. Terrible, and yet some part of the fighting called to Ken. Not the blood. Not the limbs and hacked open flesh, but the moments of heroism. They still shook his heart. He saw a [Soldier] hold off three Centaurs with a Skill that made his blade dance and create a whirlwind of metal that held the warriors off until his comrades could join him. He saw a [Mage] raise an emerald shield up and calmly walk through a hail of arrows.
That was the glorious, magical part of the battle. But it was savage and merciless too.
A group of Centaurs had roped a Dullahan commander and were dragging him across the battlefield, howling war cries as the soldiers tried to free their leader. They kept dragging the Dullahan across the broken ground long after he’d stopped moving. When they cut him loose, the Dullahan’s corpse lay there. Ken saw the red streak it had left and turned away.
“Bloody horrific, ain’t it?”
Someone joined Ken as he watched the Centaurs regrouping for another charge. He saw Daly and another Australian girl standing at the edge of the neutral zone and staring down at the carnage. Daly nodded to the young woman.
“This is Paige. Paige, this here is Ken.”
Paige offered her hand and Ken shook it lightly. She stared down at the battlefield, face grim. She didn’t flinch away, though. Everyone from Aiko to Luan had gotten used to far worse, roaming the battlefield at night.
“They line up on the battlefield like gentlemen, and then start tearing each other to bits each night. What kind of place is this?”
“Better than if they fought at night, too.”
Daly shrugged, but Paige frowned.
“I heard someone got killed over by where the Untimely Demise lot were working. Not from an undead—they got shot.”
Both Ken and Daly looked at her in alarm. Paige didn’t know.
“I heard the Captain was asking about it. But I didn’t hear if he got an answer.”
Ken stared down at the valley, where Dullahans were marching towards the Centaurs, driving them back. It was incredible that after each day there were enough soldiers to keep fighting, but apparently both companies were sending their forces into the valley, rather than keep fighting and destroy the landscape around them. They were trying to wear each other down, rather than risk mutual destruction.
“So they’re just gonna keep tearing each other apart until one side starts winning? Sounds like the dumbest war in the world.”
“Sounds like every war.”
Daly and Paige were arguing as Ken excused himself. He’d seen enough bloodshed, and he had to think. Think about his new classes, for one thing.
[Negotiator]. Ken had told Luan and Aiko about it immediately of course, but no one else. He hadn’t known it was a class you could get, but it made sense. And the Skills he’d gotten! [Polite Demeanor] and [Amateur Linguist].
He could understand [Polite Demeanor]—apparently it made him look and smell less like someone who lifted corpses each day. According to Luan and Aiko, it made them want to talk to him more than anyone else, if only to escape the foul odor everyone else in the company had.
But [Amateur Linguist]? That was more intriguing. Ken had tried to use it, but apparently it was a passive Skill rather than one he could use. It seemed to help with his ability to speak English, and perhaps other languages, if he knew them.
The Skill didn’t make his speech that much markedly better, but suddenly Kenjiro could understand words in English without first having to translate them into Japanese. In short, he began to think in English, which made his ability to reply and comprehend what people were saying far easier. Aiko was purely jealous.
“So unfair! I want that Skill!”
Ken was very grateful for it, but he had no idea whether having the [Negotiator] class was a good thing, or whether it was useless. Luan was of the opinion any class was good news, but Kenjiro had heard a girl from the Netherlands saying that one class was best because of…something to do with maximum levels in a video game? Her opinion was being hotly debated among those who played video games.
He didn’t know what he was looking for in camp, aside from a distraction, but Ken found it in an instant when he saw Captain Quallet arguing with a group of Centaurs, one of whom was wearing important-looking armor. Well, arguing was a bit of an understatement. Quallet was bellowing at them.
“We can’t do our jobs if you lot won’t give us access! I don’t—no, I don’t care where your patrols are! The corpses are there, and if you want us to get rid of them, you’ll give us access!”
He was yelling at the Centaur officer, who was getting more offended by the minute. Ken hurried over, not knowing what he was doing, but knowing in his heart that Quallet was doing exactly the wrong thing if he wanted to convince the Centaurs of anything.
Unlike Dullahans and Lizardfolk, the third predominant species of Baleros, Centaurs, were neither taciturn nor talkative. They probably fit between both Lizardfolk and Dullahan temperaments when it came to how social they could be, but, and this was a big but, they had a temper. Collectively. As a species.
If there was a ranking for bad-tempered species, Centaurs would probably be at the top of that list, competing for first place with Drakes and Minotaurs, although Ken had never met representatives of those species.
Centaurs were touchy, prideful, and reminded Ken a bit of his grandmother. They didn’t accept bad manners at all, and the slightest offense was instantly corrected, regardless if it caused trouble for all parties involved. Right now Quallet was digging himself a hole by shouting at an officer.
The angry [Mercenary Captain] had a hand on his axe and the Centaur officer looked ready to pull out his bow and shoot him. Kenjiro heard the Centaur speaking curtly to Quallet.
“Our territory is being patrolled to keep the damned Dullahans away from our camps. Twice now they have tried to attack us with [Rogues] and [Assassins]. My [Commander] demands to know how we know your forces will be trusted.”
“I told you, you empty-headed donkey—”
Ken saw the Centaur officer’s eyes narrow and jumped into the conversation. Literally. He nearly knocked Quallet aside. The [Captain] stumbled, eyes widening with fury. He rounded on Ken, but Ken was busy speaking to the Centaur officer. He spread his arms wide, smiling as best he could.
“Honored friends, we would humbly like to request permission to cross into your territory. We intend no disrespect, but we…must painfully intrude because of our duties. We mean no offense. And we will identify ourselves as best we can.”
The officer eyed Ken as Quallet opened a furious mouth, and then closed it as he saw what Ken was doing.
“Hmf. So you say. But how will we identify your people?”
“Banners. We have one—”
Again, Ken interrupted Quallet. This time the [Captain] let him speak.
“If it is agreeable, we will raise our company banner. It is illuminated, and the rest of our company will carry lanterns to identify ourselves. We will respond to any challenges, and, we would like to cooperate more sincerely, we will stick to an agreed-upon area of your choosing.”
It was what Quallet was going to say—what the Gravetender’s Fist company did every time, but the wording of it was key. Ken deferentially let the officer think for a moment, and then the Centaur spoke grudgingly.
“That is adequate. We will specify the location before nightfall. Do not stray.”
Ken bowed his head and thanked the Centaur as he and his soldiers trotted off. Then he turned and saw Quallet staring hard at him. Part of Ken’s elated heart went up his throat. But Quallet didn’t berate him. Instead, he nodded at Ken.
“Good job. You have some kind of [Diplomat] class?”
“Um. No sir. I have just received the [Negotiator] class.”
Quallet grunted. He paused, and looked at the Centaur’s backs. Then he spat. Ken winced, but none of the Centaurs noticed.
“In that case, you’ll be dealing with both sides from now on. I hate bowing and scraping to the Centaurs, but they’re touchy. As for the Dullahans—if it comes to it, just bow to the one in the most polished armor. You know that?”
Ken nodded. Quallet eyed him and then clapped him on the shoulder. Ken staggered.
“Keep it up. If you can talk us out of more trouble, I’ll give you a bonus.”
He walked off. Ken massaged his shoulder, wishing people weren’t so intimate. But he smiled. And later that day, dozing, he leveled up again. Then he woke up. His smile faded. Ken went back to the battlefield and began hauling bodies. There was no happiness in that.
This night Gravetender’s Fist was working in a wooded area, part of the Centaur’s marked territory. They’d heard a stern injunction from Quallet and the other officers not to stray far from the banner, and each group had filled their lantern’s oil so it shone brightly in the night.
Now Ken and the others walked past trees, some marked by combat, felled by blasts of magic or powerful Skills. They had to be especially alert for zombies hidden in the shadow of trees, but they were used to the routine enough to talk in low voices.
“They are talking about leaving?”
Aiko whispered to Luan as Ken helped both of them drag a heavy Lizardman in broken armor to the pile. Luan nodded, looking angry.
“The Americans want to go. They’re saying this job is shit—which it is—and they want to abandon the company. They’re saying we can desert and head back to one of the cities, sell our swords and armor maybe.”
“That is a bad idea. Isn’t it?”
Ken stared at Luan, heart pounding at the thought. Leave the company? If they did, they’d have to leave the neutral zone. At night or by day made no difference. If they were caught—
Luan nodded, looking angry.
“I told them—the others told them—it’s a terrible idea! But the Americans are fed up with hauling these bodies. I can’t blame them for that, but a handful of maggots here is better than dying. They think we can do it though, and they’re going to bring it up tomorrow.”
“We must talk to the others.”
Aiko’s face was pale. Luan nodded, and shifted his hold on the Dullahan.
“Shit. I can’t see. Where are the others?”
Today Ken, Aiko, and Luan had paired with Quexa and three other Lizardfolk. It was Quexa who had the lantern. Ken lowered the Dullahan’s body while Luan adjusted his grip. They waited for the Lizardfolk to catch up—they were struggling to carry an obese Centaur.
“Never thought I’d see a fat Centaur. He looks round. I wonder if that’s how they got him. Too big of a target? Or was he too slow to run away? If a Centaur is too fat, does it just waddle around?”
Luan commented as he watched the Lizardfolk swearing loudly, trying to move the Centaur.
“At least it was not a zombie. That would be very hard to kill.”
Ken grinned, imagining an undead Centaur waddling towards him in the darkness. Aiko giggled, putting her hand up to her mouth and then snatching it down. Her hands, like every other part of her body, were filthy.
Luan laughed. He turned towards Ken, about to say something, and then there was a whistling sound. He blinked, and Ken heard a thunk.
Something sprouted from Luan’s chest. He gasped, and then Aiko screamed. The Lizardfolk dropped the Centaur and Quexa shouted.
Shouts rang out as shadows in the forest suddenly turned into galloping shapes. Ken reached for Luan as his friend sagged to the ground.
There was an arrow in his side. Ken reached for it automatically, but someone caught his hand. A Lizardman shook his head as Quexa ran over, waving her lantern and shouting desperately as the Centaurs galloping around them.
“We’re not enemies! Gravetender’s Fist! We’re—”
There was chaos. Ken heard pounding feet and voices, and then officer Raeh was there.
He shouted at Ken and the others and fumbled at his belt.
“Healing potion. Here! Snap the arrow off and pour it in—the arrow should come out. I’ve got to stop us from being killed!”
He stood up and waved his hands at the Centaurs, shouting. Ken bent over Luan. The man’s face was pale and beaded with sweat. Ken reached for the arrow, hesitated.
“I’ll hold him. Do it.”
Quexa and the Lizardman seized Luan. Ken looked at Aiko. She grabbed the arrow and he used his hands and tried to snap it.
It was hard. The arrow’s shaft was thick and as he moved the arrow Luan woke up and began screaming. Ken heard Quexa shout and he tried to break the shaft. He felt it splinter, and then it snapped.
Aiko pulled the bottle out frantically and removed the stopper. She splashed the liquid into Luan’s wound and Ken watched the skin seal over. The broken wood shaft of the arrow popped out of the wound, but the arrowhead did not. Had it passed through his body? In any event, Luan stopped thrashing.
Ken held his breath. Then Luan opened his eyes. He blinked, and then spoke.
“I thought I was a goner.”
Luan grinned at them, face covered in sweat, still very pale. Ken and Aiko smiled in relief. Luan laughed shakily. He sat up to say something, and then his face went white. He cried out in agony.
“What’s wrong? Luan?”
Aiko reached for him, but Luan knocked her hand away. He pressed his hands towards his side, and to Ken’s horror, he saw the wound was opening back up. Luan fell back, screaming again as the wound tore open a second time.
Horrified, Aiko reached for the potion to use it again, but Quexa stopped her. She called out.
“It’s not working! Sergeant Raeh!”
The Centaurs were gone, at least for now. Raeh came running back over, demanding to know why they hadn’t used the potion. When he heard what had happened he swore.
“It was some kind of enchanted shaft. Damn those four-legged bastards!”
He knelt by Luan’s side as the younger man cried out in pain. Raeh didn’t touch the wound, but he looked grimly at the head of the shaft.
“Whatever’s in there is still cutting him up from the inside. You—boy. Did the entire arrow come out?”
“No—no, only the—the shaft.”
“Damn it. It was an enchanted arrow after all!”
Raeh looked grimly at the wound. He beckoned for Quexa to bring the lantern over, and peered at the oozing wound. He pulled a knife out grimly, and then hesitated.
“I can’t…tell where it is. I need to cut it out before the healing potion can work, but—”
“Cut it out?”
Aiko was horrified. Raeh helplessly looked around Luan’s side as he thrashed.
“It could be anywhere in there. The enchanted arrowheads are nasty—some of them move. If I don’t get it right off, your friend will die. We can’t use healing potions until I get it—I—”
His hands were trembling. He didn’t know where to cut, and he thought he’d miss. Raeh hesitated, and Ken saw his hand tighten on the grip of the dagger. He raised it, and Ken caught his arm.
“It has to be done! Move over boy—I’ve got only one chance to help your friend. It’s that or slit his throat, because he’ll die in agony—”
“No! There has to be a—a hospital, yes? A doctor? Someone who can perform surgery?”
There had to be. But Raeh just stared at Ken and shook his head.
“There’s no one like that.”
He raised the dagger, and Ken felt true despair in his heart as he saw Raeh’s haunted gaze. That was when Quallet found them. The [Captain] ran towards them, axe drawn, [Sergeant] Xor following.
“Raeh! What the hell’s going on here?”
Raeh explained in short sentences and both Quallet and Xor knelt by Luan. Their appraisal of the situation was the same.
“It’s got to come out, but damn me if I don’t know where. ”
“He’s losing blood. A bad cut and he’ll be dead in minutes. We can’t fish around in his guts, Captain Marshhand. It might be kinder to—”
Xor was speaking, but it all seemed far away. Ken stood in an oasis of shock and horror, watching the moment play out as if it were on a screen or far away. There was static in his ears. Aiko was gripping Luan’s hand, he was screaming—Raeh had the knife.
Then Quallet looked up. He had the same empty look in his eyes, as of someone expecting to see only death. But he saw Ken, and something flickered in his gaze.
“No. Not us. There’s another way.”
Quallet stood up. He turned to his two officers.
“I’ll handle matters here. Raeh, get these two an escort and a white flag. There’s a spot to the north where a [Doctor] works. Have them get—Luan—over there. If they’re quick and lucky, this [Doctor] might be able to save him.”
“Are you sure?”
Raeh looked skeptical, but Quallet nodded.
“It’s their best shot. If we try, he’s dead either way. You know that. There’s no way we’ll find an arrowhead, but if what I’ve heard about this ‘Last Light’ are true, the [Doctor] might be able to.”
A [Doctor]. The word dragged Ken back into reality. He looked at Aiko, and saw the same desperation in her eyes. It was something to cling to. Ken knelt by Luan as Raeh turned and started shouting.
“Hold on, Luan.”
It was a stretcher they used to carry Luan, the same kind they used to haul bodies or bits of bodies. It was filthy, and Luan screamed when they put him on it, but they had no choice.
They carried Luan on the stretcher, Ken, Aiko, and Quexa, while the Lizardman carried the white flag. They ran out of the woods, trying to run and not jostle Luan or trip all at the same time. They ran through the forest as the sun began to rise, searching desperately, praying.
That was how Ken met the [Doctor] known as the Last Light. He arrived in a small camp as the sun rose and Luan’s blood ran from his side. It dripped from the stretcher and fell onto the wet ground, among the grass and mud. Bugs landed to feed on the red liquid, and in the valley, two armies gathered to fight once more.
And the bodies came in, the wounded, the desperate. Ken and Aiko stood with Luan, one among many. Waiting for her, hoping she was real. The voices cried out, begged, pleaded. For salvation, relief—
For a [Doctor].