Quallet Marshhand was shouting at a Centaur. He knew it was a stupid thing to do. Centaurs were belligerent, touchy, and the only way to get them to agree to something was to flatter them. But Quallet was fed up, and there were some times when he just needed to scream at something.
The Centaur commander was clearly unhappy at being shouted at, and kept trying to snap at Quallet. His soldiers were also trying to be menacing, but Quallet knew he was in the right. He snapped at the ash-colored Centaur as his company worked in the darkness, putting the undead to rest and burning the rest of the corpses.
“No, you listen to me. That was my company you shot at! We announced ourselves and carried both a banner and night lanterns! How could you not see—”
“He was not standing with the lantern.”
“He was ten feet away from it! How could you not tell they were together? They were hauling a dead Dullahan. If that didn’t tip your idiotic soldiers off—”
“The Dullahans have disguised themselves so before.”
The Centaur was unmoved. He glared down at Quallet, looking uncomfortable at his patrol’s attack on Quallet’s soldiers, but equally enraged.
“The Dullahans have been attacking our camps disguised as your people. They, damn them, have done this twice now!”
“That does not justify what your men did! You attacked my soldiers—shot one with an enchanted arrow! If he dies—”
“If he dies, we will pay the blood price. But we will not change our methods. Not now.”
The officer’s face had locked up into a stubborn rictus. Quallet stared at him, shaking with fury.
“And how am I supposed to stop that from happening again?”
“Stay within our designated areas. Identify yourselves.”
“We did that—if you want our company to do our duty, keep your soldiers away from mine! Because I promise you, if this happens a second time I will cancel our contract and demand full pay for—”
The Centaur cut Quallet off and the [Mercenary Captain] nearly drew his axe right there and then.
“We must continue patrolling. I will instruct my soldiers and tomorrow negotiations will begin over reparations and perhaps change the location your company works. Until then, keep close to your lanterns.”
He whirled and trotted away, rather than continue arguing with Quallet. His soldiers left too, wincing as Quallet let loose a set of invectives that made the battle-hardened warriors flinch. Quallet would have liked to do more than curse.
But there was nothing he could do. Quallet stomped away to speak with Raeh and Xor. He immediately pulled back all of the company within range of the banner and made them move together at all times. Less corpses would be disposed of, but he wasn’t about to lose more soldiers than he had.
Luan. The enchanted arrow had gone deep into his side. Quallet had seen Raeh’s eyes, seen the fear. The only way to get it out was to cut into the flesh and bone and find the arrowhead…a tiny thing somewhere in all that blood and guts. There was no way Luan would have survived if Raeh had done it. Maybe this [Doctor] could save him. But Quallet feared the young man was already dead.
“Luan? Luan! Stay awake. Please!”
Ken knelt by his friend’s side, speaking urgently to Luan as his eyes flickered. The black-skinned South African was shaking, sweat beading on his forehead.
He was dying. Blood was seeping from his arrow wound, staining the clumsy bandage that Aiko had tied around his side. The one who’d tied it, Aiko, was holding Luan’s hand as he groaned and shivered. That was all she could do. Ken looked around frantically.
“Is the [Doctor] here? My friend needs help!”
He was speaking—shouting at—a pale warrior with a halberd. He was a Selphid. His body was that of a Lizardman, but the scales were pale, close to white. The body was dead, but something else looked down at Ken and shook his head.
“Wait. The [Doctor] is still sleeping. She has worked without rest for over a day now. When she wakes, she will see your friend.”
Ken opened his mouth, but the Selphid stared at him.
“Quiet, or I will remove you. That will not help your friend.”
Ken closed his mouth. Luan was at the head of a line of wounded soldiers. There were only a few as the fighting had barely begun. It was just past dawn. But some of the soldiers were badly wounded, bandaged, unable to be healed by potions, carried by their friends to wait for the [Doctor] like Luan.
Some were already dead. Ken’s stomach was a knot of fear, but he made himself grip Luan’s other hand and wait.
“Give him more healing potion, Aiko.”
She did. Raeh had pressed the remaining bottle into her hands as he’d sent them to look for the [Doctor]. It could not heal the wound so long as the enchanted arrow was in place, but every time she carefully poured more into the wound, Luan’s color would get better and he seemed to grow in strength. But then the arrow’s magic would open the wound again, and he would scream.
Life went in, life went out. But Ken saw that the healing potion was not putting as much in as went out of Luan over time. He was getting weaker. He needed help. And the [Doctor] was asleep.
It felt like hours before she woke. When she did, Ken knew in an instant because the Selphid who had been standing guard over the lines of the wounded turned his head. From a small tent a form emerged, blinking in the light of the day. She turned her head and Ken saw a Human face. For some reason that reassured him. He had wondered if the [Doctor] was a Dullahan, but she looked…normal.
Then she began to lurch down the hill and Ken wondered if he’d made a mistake. She couldn’t be who Luan was waiting for.
When Kenjiro first saw the woman known as the Last Light, the famed [Doctor] of the battlefield up close, he thought he was looking at another zombie. Her skin was olive in color, but pale. Her hands were covered in blood, as was her clothing. Her brown hair was covered by an odd cap—a cut-down leather helmet stained with sweat.
She looked as if she needed a [Doctor] herself. One of her arms was practically white, as if blood flow had been constricted there. Her steps were brisk, but she stumbled twice as she approached the line of wounded. There was red in her eyes. Broken blood vessels.
When she spoke, her voice was hoarse.
“What happened to him?”
Ken looked at his friends. Quexa and a Lizardman had come with them, helping carry Luan. They were sitting by Luan, and looked at Ken. So did Aiko. So Ken took a breath and tried to explain.
“He—he was shot by an arrow. A magical—he does not heal. It is here.”
He showed the woman the wound and the [Doctor] knelt. She appraised his side for a second and then stood. She nearly fell down again, and the Selphid guard caught her.
“Arrow wound. Understood. Don’t move him. Stay with your friend. If he wakes, don’t let him get up. Keep him still, got it?”
Ken broke off. The woman was already moving past him, speaking to the soldiers second in line. She knelt by a man with a broken sword blade protruding from his stomach, nodded. Ken stared at the piece of metal—it was frosted over. Magical? The man with it in his stomach was shaking uncontrollably and moaning. But the [Doctor] did not see to him either. She moved on to the next wounded soldier, then the next.
The [Doctor] had nearly reached the end of the line when Ken ran towards her. The Selphid barred the way. Ken stopped and pointed at Luan.
“Will you help him?”
“Yes. Later. I have other patients to attend to first.”
Ken turned and saw two other Selphids with pale bodies carefully picking up the Soldier with the enchanted blade in his stomach. He gaped.
“But we are—first!”
The woman shook her head.
“Not the point. I am triaging. I must decide who needs attention first. This is not a situation where the first who arrive get treated first. I will save those who need my help most, and then move on to the less critically injured.”
She’d raised her voice so everyone waiting could hear. Ken understood her words, but couldn’t accept them.
“But my friend—”
“He has more time. I will see to him when I can.”
The [Doctor] turned away. Ken took a step, but the Selphid barred his path, his face grim. Ken stared helplessly at the Lizardman’s face and the intelligence lurking behind the dead features. He saw the [Doctor] move on, and then hesitate. She turned and spoke crisply.
“I am a [Doctor]. That means I save lives, no matter who it is I treat. I will try to save your friend—if I can. But I can’t promise anything. I will get to him as fast as I can. But you must wait.”
And that was it. Ken went back to Luan. In less than a minute, the woman had finished her surveying the patients. She marked them—Ken could see how she pointed and the Selphid guard laid colored stones by the wounded. Green for the least wounded. Yellow for moderate wounds and red for those about to die. Black meant they were dead or…or they weren’t going to be treated.
Luan was yellow. He was going to die, but not as soon as some. The [Doctor] strode up to a tent where the other Selphids had carried the first patient. Someone came out with a bowl of healing potion he dribbled on those with the red stones. It helped.
Ken applied healing potion to Luan’s wound. The skin closed. Broke open. Luan screamed. He waited, staring at the tent. It felt like hours passed before the tent flaps opened and the man with the enchanted blade in his stomach was carried out—minus the blade.
That was the first. There were five more to go. Ken watched another body go in as a group of ragged Human soldiers stared at the tent. Hours passed—Quexa told him it was minutes. The tent flaps opened, and a corpse came out.
Ken felt his stomach drop. Another body went in as the Selphid guard laid the body down and the soldiers, the friends of the female Lizardwoman who’d taken five arrows to the chest, wept and clung to each other in grief. The tent flaps were already closing around the third wounded soldier marked with a red stone.
A corpse came out. Another body came in. Another corpse. The fifth soldier lived, but his arm was gone. As the sixth came in, Luan started gasping and his eyes started rolling back into his head.
Aiko was clinging to him, whispering to him in English and Japanese. But it was no good. The wound kept bleeding and the healing potion had run out. Ken stared helplessly at the stained bandages, crimson from all the blood loss and remembered some of the medical techniques he’d seen on TV. He had never been trained, but he couldn’t just sit back any longer!
“We should—出血を止めまれ! Apply compress—”
He reached for Luan’s side, guided by only a few memories of what to do with an open wound. Apply pressure? Where? Along the edges?
Aiko was white-faced, hands hovering over the open wound. Ken heard a shout as he reached for Luan.
“Don’t touch him!”
The Selphid guard stopped Ken as Quexa and the Lizardman stood up, just as worried. The Selphid pulled Ken back, explaining as Ken protested weakly.
“It’s an Evercut Arrow. It cannot be removed without opening him up, you see? If you shake your friend about, it will cut through his insides. Do not move him any more, and do not let him move.”
“But he is dying.”
The Selphid looked him in the eyes, calmly. He had seen death. He lived in a corpse. He pulled Ken back as Quexa took Aiko and hugged her.
The Selphid’s name was Calectus. He made Ken sit, drink some water from Ken’s water flask. Ken had forgotten he had it. Calectus didn’t give Ken any false assurances, or hopes. He just told Ken to leave Luan, to not make things worse.
“Hope that he lives long enough for Doctor Geneva to see him.”
So Ken did. He prayed under his breath by Luan’s side as the sixth patient left the tent a corpse. Then it was Luan’s turn.
Geneva didn’t calculate her success rate as she worked. If she did, she would have given up long ago in despair. But she couldn’t ignore the brutal arithmetic of life and death.
Some lived, some died. Sometimes Geneva would save four, twelve people in a row. Then she’d be wondering when the next patient would come in that she couldn’t save. Or sometimes she’d fail to save five people in a row, and keep praying the next patient was treatable. Because they had to be. The next one had to be. It was a game her mind played. It tried to find logic and patterns in chaos.
As the Selphid assistants took the sixth body outside, Geneva rested her hand against the table. She knew who was coming next. The black-skinned youth with the enchanted arrow in his side. She didn’t know if she could save him.
“Be ready Okasha. I need you to move fast. He will have lost a lot of blood and I need to find the arrow before I can heal him with a potion.”
Okasha moved Geneva’s right arm up, blotting at her sweaty forehead with a damp cloth. Geneva saw the flaps open, and then the young man was on the table in front of her.
“Beginning the incision.”
Geneva didn’t need to do any diagnosing. She knew what had hit the young man. The Roving Arrow company had begun using the Evercut arrows a few days ago and Geneva had seen too many cases of these wounds to count. The arrows lodged in the inside and kept moving, slowly digging through organs and preventing healing until the patient died.
Swiftly, she cut with her scalpel across the young man’s chest, cutting open cloth, and then she cut again, opening up his side. She didn’t worry about infection or disease—her leveling up had granted her the invaluable Skill of [Sterile Field], an upgrade over [Sterile Equipment]. Nothing in a radius around her would be affected by unsanitary conditions, although they would if they left her presence.
So Geneva’s scalpel was clean as it sliced into the young man’s side. He opened his mouth and cried out—he was awake. The two Selphids immediately leapt forwards and held him down as Geneva tuned out the sounds he was making. She adjusted for his struggling and cut.
“I can see the entry wound. Going deeper.”
His flesh parted under the fine blade. Geneva stared into pulsating insides and saw red. The arrow had cut into the young man’s insides. The blood was concealing everything. Geneva’s eyes darted around, looking for the telltale glint of metal. Nothing.
If she were in a hospital she’d have a suction machine to clear away the blood. Here she only had—
Okasha moved Geneva’s right hand at her command, sponging away blood. She put the towel aside, picked up another one. It was horrible, unsanitary, and Geneva’s only option.
She had some water that she used to rinse away the last of the blood. Now Geneva could see. And she saw…
Nothing. She could tell where the arrow had ripped through the young man’s side, into his liver. But it wasn’t in his liver anymore. He had stopped struggling, either passed out from the pain or…no, he was still alive. But she had to move quickly.
“Where did it go? Do you see it?”
A voice in Geneva’s ear, too quiet for anyone to hear but her. Geneva felt her hand move. She could see the passage of the arrowhead now, though. From the liver, something had cut…Geneva saw an opening in the stomach lining and went for it. And at last she saw it, a tiny piece of orange metal, glinting and—moving—among the red flesh.
They were in her hand. Geneva knew what to do now, and carefully maneuvered them towards the arrowhead as it squirmed, cutting into the stomach. She took a breath, and then gripped it tightly. Instantly, she felt tension in the forceps as she tried to lever the arrowhead out of the flesh.
“It’s fighting me. Careful—”
Geneva twisted, and then flicked the arrowhead out of the wound. It flew off of the surgical table and onto the ground, still buried in a bit of flesh. One of the Selphid aids ran over to capture the arrowhead, taking care not to let it touch his skin.
“There. Check for fragments—where’s the healing potion?”
Okasha had it ready. Geneva swept through the rest of the body, but found nothing else wrong. She was running out of time.
“Apply the potion now.”
She normally used it sparingly, but the arrowhead had cut through so many parts of the body…Geneva closed the stomach, liver, and other damaged organs and then sutured the incision she’d made before closing that too. It helped, she found, and reduced the need for as much healing potion.
And then it was done. The young man went out and Geneva heard a scream of relief and shouts. That lifted a tiny part of her spirits. But then the next body came in, this time a soldier who had some kind of spell that was eating away at his legs, both of them. She had no way to stop it. She had to amputate. And then…
And then it was evening. The bodies stopped coming in. Either the soldiers were being killed off without a chance to be rescued, or all the injuries were healable with potions. That happened. Geneva stumbled out of her tent and found herself blinking up at a sun setting in the sky.
A voice interrupted her. She turned and saw a man in armor with a helmet tucked under his arm and an axe at his belt. Calectus, the Selphid guard and highest-level warrior who’d volunteered to protect her, was watching him warily. Geneva took a step and nearly fell. The man caught her arm.
“Thank you. Ah, can I help you?”
“You already have, Miss. My name is Quallet Marshhand. I am the commander of Gravetender’s Fist, a suppression company hired for this engagement.”
“Oh. The ones who dispose of corpses.”
Quallet nodded as he and Geneva sat on some chairs that someone had found. He studied her, and she studied him. He was much what she had expected from a company commander. She’d seen and treated many by now. She was clearly not what he’d been expecting, though.
“This morning you saved one of my soldiers. I am grateful, although I don’t know what the custom is. My company can offer you—”
Oh. That was why he was here. Geneva sighed as she felt exhaustion catching up with her. She cut Quallet off brusquely.
“I’m a [Doctor]. I don’t charge fees for my work. If you want to donate, that’s fine, but I tend to each patient that comes to me without bias. I don’t take sides in war. Saving lives is my only priority.”
He blinked and considered this, not offended by her abrupt interruption.
“I see. In that case, let me offer you some money and my thanks. The young man you saved—he’s a good soldier.”
“They all are.”
Geneva tried to smile at him, and failed. She stood and shook Quallet’s hand. He gave some coins to Calectus—she saw silver and coppers, no gold. Geneva didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. She didn’t really care. Some commanders gave her nothing if she saved hundreds of their men, others, like Quallet, felt the need to come and thank her for each one.
She wasn’t doing this to be paid. She was…she was…she just had to do it. Because she’d sworn an oath? Because it was right? No. Because it was all she could do. It was all she could rationalize herself doing in this terrible world filled with blood and death.
Troubled by that thought, she turned away and nearly fell. Her leg shot out as Geneva nearly collapsed forward. Okasha steadied Geneva and spoke.
“I’m fine. I should stay up. If there’s more—”
“You didn’t get enough sleep last night. If there are more wounded, I will wake you. But your mind is exhausted. You sleep. I will eat and rest us both.”
Geneva shook her head as she felt at her pocket. But Okasha was insistent, and Geneva knew what she was about to do.
“Sleep, Geneva. You must sleep. You have worked enough.”
Darkness engulfed Geneva’s mind in a moment. She felt oblivion come. It was welcome.
Okasha had never invaded a living person’s body up until the moment a few months ago when she had had no choice. It was anathema to her kind, and punishable by death. But a body was a body, and she had adapted quickly and learned that a living body was far different from a dead one.
For one thing, a living body reacted to secretions Okasha could produce, as well as the ones it naturally secreted. Okasha had learned that long ago and made use of that fact to get Geneva to rest when the woman needed it.
She just had to trigger Geneva’s brain to secrete a little bit of the chemicals that induced drowsiness, the thing that Geneva called ‘melatonin’.
Oh, the things Humans came up with. How could they come up with a name for something Selphids had poked and prodded at for millennia? And yet, Geneva had told Okasha things about how the Human body worked that even the Selphids hadn’t known.
“Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.”
It was Geneva’s voice, but Okasha who whispered with it. To differentiate between the two, Okasha lowered the range of Geneva’s vocal chords to make her voice deeper. She steered Geneva back towards camp, heading towards the [Doctor’s] tent.
Geneva’s mind was asleep; Okasha was in control. The Selphid only took full authority over her body when Geneva was asleep or in dire need. And she was uncomfortable with that, to be honest. What she was doing was abhorrent to Selphid culture. It had been banned by ancient treaties under threat of total extinction for their race. If Okasha was revealed to be possessing a live body, she would be destroyed, she had no doubt.
And yet, Geneva would be paralyzed without her. For all the [Doctor]’s genius, she had no knowledge of a way to cure damage to the spinal cord, and she had been struck by Thriss’ mace on the back of her neck. She would die, unable to move anything but her head without Okasha. And she couldn’t die. She was too valuable to the world.
Okasha saw that. That was why she helped Geneva, looked after her. That was also why six Selphids had joined Geneva’s camp. It was one of them who walked towards Okasha now. Calectus, most senior and highest level of the Selphids. He had come at Okasha’s behest, and he knew more than he let on.
For instance, about the fact that Okasha was in Geneva’s body. He knew Okasha had taken over Geneva as well—Selphids could see through body postures better than anyone else and so his face was disapproving as he looked at Okasha. He still had not forgiven her transgression, and spoke to her brusquely, as a senior to a junior.
After all, Okasha was only a Level 23 [Rogue] and now, a Level 15 [Medical Assistant]. Whereas Calectus was…
A Level 36 [Honor Guard]. Okasha stood in awe of him and humbly bobbed her head as Calectus motioned her to the tent where food was served to the wounded and Geneva, when she remembered to eat.
“She is asleep?”
He asked this as brusque confirmation as Okasha ate with Geneva’s body. The Selphid paused to savor the hot food—it was tastier than when she inhabited a dead person’s body. Geneva’s taste buds were all intact, and the sensation was blissful.
“Yes. She didn’t level today.”
“You can tell when it happens?”
Calectus frowned at Okasha as the Selphid nodded.
“If I listen, I think I can almost hear the announcement myself. But it’s always inaudible…I wonder if our predecessors worked with their hosts, rather than just controlled them?”
“Idle speculation. It was a mistake and it cost our kind everything.”
The older Selphid was disapproving. Okasha nodded meekly. He studied her, frowning as she finished her plate and filled it with a second helping. Geneva needed the energy.
“Do not take risks, Okasha. I do not like you forcing your host to sleep; even that is risky because we do not have the experience of interacting with a living host. Take no chances while you are working with her. Let her take no chances. The value of Geneva Scala’s life far outweighs yours or mine. So we have agreed.”
Geneva nodded. Calectus paused. She looked up at him. The Lizardman’s body he had recently inhabited was all very well, but she knew he was more at home with Dullahans. She coughed as a bit of food went down her lungs and fished it out with her Selphid body.
“How long will you stay with Geneva, Calectus?”
“As long as it takes. If there is any Human, any person in this world that can save our people from the Wasting, it is her. Allow her to reach Level 30, and then, perhaps suggest to her that it is time to leave. I do not like the way this battle is going. Both sides are growing far more…savage.”
Okasha nodded. She’d felt it too. She and Calectus were soldiers, and the use of Evercut arrows spoke to a desire to hurt the enemy badly. Such arrows could only be used once and they were expensive…the Centaurs wanted to beat the Dullahans at all costs.
The two Selphids made no more conversation. Okasha finished eating and returned Geneva to her tent. There she made Geneva lie down. Time to sleep. Okasha let herself drift, relinquishing control of her body. Selphids slept like Humans.
A few hours later, Geneva awoke. She sat up slowly, and whispered.
There was no response. It was dark out, and the Selphid was asleep. Geneva was about to get up to pee—that was what had woken her up, but she felt at her pocket first.
Tucked away in her pants was a small stone. Geneva carefully pulled it out, trying to sense if Okasha was waking up. She was not.
Slowly, Geneva brought the stone up and tapped the surface. Instantly, she heard rustling sounds, and then a voice.
“Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.”
It was in Geneva’s voice, but she had never said the words. Geneva shivered as she listened on. The small stone she held carefully between her fingers as it replayed the events of the last hour after she’d activated it.
It was a small voice recorder, a magically carved rune embedded in the center of an azurite stone. Geneva had bought it a while back and Okasha had forgotten she carried it. It took just a touch to activate. Geneva could do it when putting her hands in her pockets and the Selphid wouldn’t pay attention if she wasn’t in full control of Geneva’s body.
The conversation between Okasha and Calectus played as Geneva lay back in bed. She listened; closing her eyes for a moment, and then shook her head.
They should have asked her. But help was help. She stood up, and went to pee. In the morning there would be more wounded to tend to, and Geneva was still tired. This was her routine. This was how every day went.
This was her life, now.
“Luan-san, you’re awake!”
Ken and Aiko were there when Luan opened his eyes, as evening had begun. He sat up, gasped, felt at his side, and looked around.
“The [Doctor] healed you. Can you tell? Do you remember?”
Aiko hugged Luan fiercely as he blinked, confused, and then put his hand to his head. He shook his head as Ken tried to give him an explanation of all that had passed.
“Shame. I thought I was a goner.”
He stood up, shakily, and then felt at his side again.
“I’m cured! I can’t believe it. What was the [Doctor] like?”
“Very strange. She was…she was very much like a doctor from our world.”
Ken told Luan about what had happened as Aiko went to get him some food and let the others know Luan was awake. Luan frowned.
“She was talking about ‘triage’ and needing a ‘blood transfusion’ and many other complicated terms. I did not know there were [Doctors] in this world.”
“That is odd. How would someone know about blood transfusions here? Unless…does everyone know about that? That is a very advanced medical concept, I think.”
Ken nodded. Then he hesitated. Aiko rushed back in with some hot gruel and Luan devoured it. Ken took Aiko aside and whispered to her.
“Blood transfusion. That is—what is a ‘transfusion’, Aiko?”
“Oh! That is odd! Luan, do you think she might be—”
Luan stared at Ken, and both felt a sudden jolt of excitement. It couldn’t be. Could it? Ken tried to remember—it was a young woman, a Human young woman who’d talked to him. A [Doctor]. That was a word from his world. Here [Healers] were far more common. Could it be? Was there someone else?
Luan put a hand to his side again, still not quite believing he was cured. He and Ken speculated about whether a person from this world would even know what a transfusion was before Aiko told them there was trouble outside.
It was the Humans. Or rather, Ken, Aiko and Luan’s group. They were arguing around the fire. They had been arguing for hours, apparently, but Ken had been too preoccupied with Luan to notice.
Now he saw Johanas shouting at Daly, pointing back at the battlefield where the Dullahans and Centaurs were still fighting.
“Those things killed Jessica! And those fucking Centaurs nearly killed Luan! I’m not sticking around to get killed. Let’s get out of here and—”
Daly was standing across from Johanas with a group of Australians. There was a clear divide in the group and it turned out they were arguing about leaving. Ken stared as Luan groaned and Aiko helped him into a seat. Only the groan turned out to be about the issue, which Johanas had brought up and Daly and the others didn’t want to hear.
“We’re not leaving, you bloody idiots. You heard what the Captain told us about deserters—”
“Better than dying here or hauling more fucking corpses!”
The Americans were clearly ready to split. They’d been rattled by Luan getting shot last night, and that, on top of having to deal with dead bodies every night had been the last straw. The Australians were of a different opinion, as were the other young men and women in the group.
“You wanna go? Fine. But we’re not on board with this. Just because you lot are fed up, doesn’t mean we all want to risk our necks.”
Daly was arguing with Johanas. The American young man clearly wanted everyone to go with him. He turned to the group.
“In that case, let’s vote! Democracy! Everyone who’s in, raise their hands—”
Hands shot up, but Paige shouted as she crossed her arms.
“Screw your democracy! Over a third of the group is you lot. We voted last time, and that’s how we ended up here.”
There was a general agreement. Johanas flushed and opened his mouth angrily to retort. Ken turned to Luan. He caught sight of Xor and Raeh watching the disturbance at a distance, but neither officer seemed inclined to stop the fighting so long as there wasn’t violence. Quallet was ducking back into his tent—Ken spoke to Luan.
“What do you think, Luan?”
“What do I think?”
Luan’s face was still pale, but he bared his teeth.
“I think the Americans have a point.”
Ken and Aiko looked at Luan, shocked. He shook his head.
“Friends, I don’t know about you two, but I am not looking forward to going out there again. I just got shot. But—”
He frowned as the debate ended without a definitive conclusion. Daly took a swing at Johanas and both sides pulled the two apart before they could start brawling. Luan watched everyone disperse and shook his head.
“—But I don’t think abandoning the company is any better. Let’s talk to Daly and see what he thinks.”
It turned out that Daly and the other Australians were dead set against leaving and refusing to consider the matter.
“It’s not a vote, alright? We’re going to stay no matter what the others do.”
Daly spoke curtly to Luan as Aiko supported him. Ken’s attention was drawn to a short, furry creature that Daly was bending down and petting. It had green fur and a white belly and huge, round ears, a long cord-like tail and small paws. It was cute. Ken had no idea where it had come from.
“What is that, Daly?”
“Cute, ain’t it?”
The Australian young man grinned, forgetting his earlier ire as he bent to feed the thing a bit of bread. It squeaked—a surprisingly deep sound—and nibbled at it as two more hopped out of the brush.
“They just popped up while I was snacking. Friendly as you like. Go on, pet them.”
Ken did. To his delight, the rodent rubbed its head against his hand. Aiko immediately bent to pet it, while Luan took a seat on the ground.
“It’s like a quokka, I think. Doesn’t it look like that, Daly?”
Paige, another Australian girl with a scarred-over bite wound on one arm reached out and stroked the little furry creature’s head. Soon, she and every Human in the company were trying to touch the affectionate creatures. Ken felt himself smiling—until one of the Lizardfolk noticed what was going on. Ken heard a shout and saw Quexa running over excitedly.
“Ooh! Look! Beriats! Don’t let it get away!”
She ran over to the large rodent that Ken had been holding in his lap. It froze at the sight of the Lizardgirl and then leapt from Ken’s lap and tried to run into the forest. Too slow. Quexa caught up with it and lifted her foot with a triumphant yell.
She stomped on the green-furred rodent’s back, breaking its back with a sickening crack. Paige cried out in horror, but in a moment the other Lizardfolk were running over. The Beriats darted away, but the Lizardfolk grabbed them and beat them against the ground, using the Beriats’ tails as a handle.
There was a moment of shock as the Humans stopped shouting and the Lizardfolk happily lifted the corpses of the Beriats up. They blinked at the stunned Humans.
Aiko burst into tears. Luan went to hug her as Ken edged between her and the Lizardgirl. The Lizardfolk were getting insults from all sides and were clearly not understanding the issue.
“What? We’ll share. Beriats taste good when cooked. Or raw!”
It took some doing for Ken to smooth ruffled scales—and explain to Quexa why the Humans were upset that a bunch of cute animals had been butchered before their eyes. Quexa and the other Lizardfolk didn’t really understand—they were used to killing livestock themselves, and they regarded Beriats as a pest that ate grain and stole food, for all they weren’t a physical threat.
They were a pest. But they were cute. Ken felt that should have saved the Beriats as he watched the Lizardfolk happily skin them and roast them over a fire. They had brightened up everyone’s day, and now they were dead, made into hot food the Lizardfolk did indeed share around.
It was fitting of Baleros, of this place with as many horrors as marvels. Ken just wished the Beriats didn’t taste so good. He tactfully did not eat his portion anywhere around Aiko, but he was too hungry for hot meat to turn it down when Quexa offered. Not to mention that it would have offended the Lizardgirl to have refused.
That night, Quallet mustered Gravetender’s Fist and gave them a short speech before sending them out. They would no longer be working near the Centaur’s camp he promised, but they were still expected to do their jobs. He didn’t address Luan especially, but everyone knew Luan had been saved by a [Doctor]. Luan’s group was also assigned to an area close to where Quallet planted the company banner, with less corpses and danger overall.
It still didn’t make picking up bits of dead bodies easier, but at least Ken could detach his conscious mind to do it. He only paid attention to make sure Luan was fine, but the healing potion had restored the young man’s strength, and Luan was in better physical shape than Ken. He was still jumpy and kept watching the shadows, but he was alright.
However, trouble started as dawn began to break. Luan pulled Ken aside as Aiko stabbed a few bodies, looking for undead.
“Hey Ken, have you seen any of the Americans?”
Ken immediately felt worried, remembering the argument of a few moments ago. Luan hadn’t seen them either, and it turned out no one had.
“I don’t know where they are. Neither does Daly or anyone else. They’re not where they were supposed to be assigned. Xor’s kicking up a fuss looking for them. Let’s get back to camp. I’ll tell you if something happens.”
Worried, Ken finished his duties. Quallet heard about the missing Americans and would have gone looking, but it was too close to dawn. Furious, the commander ordered the company back and they reached their camp. Ken tried to stay awake as he heard Quallet interrogating Daly and the others about where Johanas and the others had gone, but he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept since Luan had been shot, so he laid his head down…
“Ken. Ken! Wake up!”
It felt like a moment had passed. Ken groaned as he felt someone shake him. He protested, but the hand came again, shaking him roughly.
“Just a moment Luan…”
A hand dragged Ken out of his bedroll. Ken heard Luan’s voice as he woke up a bit more, and only now registered the tension in it.
“Ken, wake up. It’s the Americans.”
There was something in Luan’s tone that took the exhaustion right out of Ken’s mind. He got up at once, blinking around.
It was just past dawn. He hadn’t slept an hour. But the instant Ken saw Luan’s face, any thoughts of sleep fled.
“What is it?”
Luan stepped out of the tent without explaining. Ken followed. There was something hollow in his stomach, a terrible foreboding. He was not filled with dread so much as a…certainty. He didn’t want to be right.
Ken stopped when he reached the edge of the neutral zone, a place where he could look down into the valley. He expected to see the soldiers fighting, but neither side had begun. Instead, in front of the Dullahan army there were a group of eight kneeling figures. Ken’s heart stopped when he recognized them.
Johanas knelt beside five girls and two guys, all American. They were lined up in front of a Dullahan. A Dullahan with an axe.
Ken didn’t need any more context. He stared, white-faced at Luan. Aiko was there, trembling. So were the other Humans and the rest of Gravetender’s Fist.
“They got caught sneaking through the forest last night. They’re—they’re going to be executed.”
Executed. Ken stared down at the kneeling group of Humans as the Dullahan with the axe shouted something and the soldiers behind him roared. He felt a ringing in his ears.
“We have to stop them.”
Luan looked at him. Ken had no answer. The Dullahan stepped forwards and Aiko made a sound. Ken didn’t realize he was next to her until he was putting his hands over her eyes.
She didn’t protest. Ken stared down at the bodies, feeling sick, horrified. The axe came up—someone stepped in front of him. Ken saw black skin. He stared at Luan’s back.
“You don’t need to see it.”
Luan’s voice was low. He blocked Ken’s view. Ken opened his mouth, and then heard the scream. It came from Paige. She stumbled back and he heard Daly shout and turn away.
Ken heard another shout, and more screams. He saw Luan’s back trembling. There was another roar from the Dullahans, more screams, and then Luan stumbled away. Ken heard him throwing up with several other people, not all of them Human.
It was over. Ken stared down at the valley as the Dullahans raised their weapons and shouted at the Centaurs, who shook the ground with their hooves and roared back. He saw bodies without heads, a red axe being wiped clean by one of the Dullahans and horror in the eyes of the other Humans.
The battle began minutes later. But Ken stood there, just staring at the place the bodies had been. Johanas’ corpse was soon lost among the fighting. But Ken remembered it. He wondered if he’d be assigned to dispose of it that night.
In that moment, Ken knew he could never go back. He looked at Luan. The young man was wiping his mouth. Vomit had stained part of his shirt. He looked at Ken, and Aiko grabbed the arms of both. Tears were streaming down her face.
“I can’t do it.”
That was all Luan said. Ken nodded.
“We must go.”
“We do, and we will die.”
Aiko’s face was drained of color. Luan looked at her, and then at Ken.
“The [Doctor] knew about blood transfusions. Maybe she’s from our world.”
It was a slim hope, a slim chance. But Ken grasped at it.
“We can ask her.”
Aiko stared at the fighting. If they went out without a banner, they would be a target for both sides. But they’d navigated the fighting once. If they kept clear of it, and most importantly had a banner—
“A white flag. That was what Captain Quallet told us to use.”
Ken stared around, hoping to see it. Luan paused.
“They keep the flag with the company banner. It’s in Quallet’s tent, and there’s always a guard. But you can probably talk him into giving it to us.”
“But it’s dangerous—”
Ken hesitated. Luan looked at the battlefield and came to a swift decision.
“I can’t be part of this. We can’t. Let’s go.”
Geneva had been sharpening her scalpels with a whetstone when the group of two young men and a young girl had rushed into their camp, waving a white flag. She hadn’t recognized them at first, until she’d looked at the tallest young man’s side. She hadn’t paid attention to his face, but then she remembered the shorter young man who looked almost Japanese.
And then he’d spoken, and the world turned upside down.
The scalpel fell from her fingers. Instantly, Geneva bent and recovered it from the dirt. She stared at Kenjiro, Aiko, and Luan as if they were ghosts.
“You. You’re all from—”
“You know about blood transfusions. You saved my life. You operate on people, and we’ve heard that you appeared a few months ago. We appeared last week. I’m from South Africa. This is Ken and Aiko. They’re from Japan. Are you…like us?”
The black young man—Luan—looked at Geneva. She felt Okasha moving inside her, whispering.
“Another world? Geneva, what—”
The word passed from Geneva’s lips. She saw the Japanese girl put a hand to her mouth, and the young Japanese man sag. With relief?
“I don’t believe it.”
Luan stared at her. He walked towards her hesitantly, and reached a hand out. Geneva stared at it. And then she rose and took it.
“I’m Luan Khomala, from South Africa. I am—I used to be a paddler. In training for the Olympics. Who are you?”
Geneva felt the grip, strong and sure. A pulse beat through Luan’s fingers, and she stared into dark brown eyes, a strong, smiling face with short hair. She hadn’t looked at his face before. Her voice was hoarse as she replied.
“I—I’m Geneva Scala. I was…a medical student. I’m from America.”
She saw Luan’s smile vanish as she said where she was from. Suddenly, Ken had lowered his head and Aiko was crying. Geneva looked at them.
“I didn’t know. I had no idea there was…anyone from my world. I never had a chance to ask around or—I didn’t know.”
Geneva sat with the others, in a rare break from the fighting. No—it wasn’t a break. It was that the fighting had been too fierce for anyone to bring the wounded to her, so Geneva actually had time to talk. The irony of that was bitter on her tongue as she sat with Aiko, Luan, and Ken.
And spoke. It was the first time Geneva had really talked with—with anyone. She heard the three out, listening mainly to Luan as he explained the incredible circumstances that had led them onto the same battlefield as her. Incredible, but not unbelievable. She had had the same experience. In Baleros, it was hard to find paying work for those who were unskilled—except in war.
It was the deaths of the other Americans, the other people from her country that shook Geneva the most. She hadn’t heard about the executions. There had been a group of people from her world, from where she lived, perhaps from the same state, and they had lived and died so close by without her ever knowing.
“I can’t stand this place. I’ve seen and heard of horrible shit in the countries where I come from—there are African warlords who’d fit right into this place. But I can’t just do my job disposing of dead bodies while it goes on.”
Luan gestured with a shaking hand at the cover of the forest, beyond which he could hear and see the fighting going on. He looked at Geneva.
“How do you stand it? You’ve been through, what, three battlefields?”
“Four. Counting this one.”
Geneva stared down at her hands. She’d seen so much blood and death over the past month—more bodies and horror than she’d seen in the worst videos of ER rooms at hospitals. Somehow she’d kept her sanity and mind through it all. She’d grown numb to it, at least in part.
“What is it you’re doing, Geneva-san? Why are you here?”
That came from Ken, the young Japanese man. He leaned over the table, looking curiously at her.
“Were you hired? Are you being paid to save people?”
“No. Not at all. I’m not here to…I do my job. I try to save people. That’s all.”
Geneva tried to explain. The others tried to understand. Geneva stood up and paced around, grateful that Okasha was just listening to all this. She didn’t know if she should tell them about her.
“I—I was trained to be a doctor, a medical practitioner. I wanted to be a surgeon. And this…I never graduated from medical school, but I still believe in the Hippocratic Oath. I see people dying. Soldiers. And I can help them. There are no medical techniques in this world. No one knows about suturing, or surgery—they don’t know about blood transfusion. Or blood types.”
Something took a hold of her tongue. Geneva found herself correcting her statement.
“Well, Selphids do. But they don’t share that knowledge.”
The others looked at her and Geneva tried to pretend nothing different had happened. She continued.
“So I do what I can. I patch people up—I can deal with injuries that healing potions can’t fix, like the arrow that hit you, Luan. But I can’t stop the fighting. I’ve just done what I can. That’s all I can do. I’d like to help you three, and the others, but…I can’t do anything.”
The three exchanged hopeless looks. Geneva stared at them. She knew what suppression companies did. She’d seen the undead rising—had one appear on the operating table before Okasha bashed its brains in. That hadn’t violated her oath, but it had disturbed her. There were magical, fantastical things like the undead and mages in this world, but people still bled and killed each other like they did in hers.
And now there were people in need, people from her world, frightened, without any way to protect themselves, stuck in a war and dying. Geneva felt the same urge as she did when she saw someone who was wounded. She had to help.
But how? She paced back and forth and came to a quick decision.
“If you can leave your company—I’ll make sure you’re fed and have a place to sleep here. I can’t, won’t leave. Not until this is over. But you’ll be safer here than you will out there.”
Luan looked at her. He was Geneva’s age, maybe older. He stood.
“It’s not just us. There are more—there were more, but there are still at least forty people. Can you feed us all?”
Geneva had food. The Selphids had food, rather. They’d brought it with them and provided a lot of the supplies she needed. She hesitated, and then nodded. She wasn’t sure, but she had only one answer in her heart.
“Only people from our world, though. I can’t ask the people with me to guard more than that. Luan, Ken, Aiko…I don’t know if you’ll be safer here than in your company, to tell you the truth. I don’t have a company, and I don’t dare leave this area.”
They nodded. Luan stood and looked towards the sky.
“We’ve got to go back.”
“Will you be safe going back? I could ask Calectus to—”
“We will be fine. I am a [Negotiator] and we have a flag. A white one.”
Ken reassured Geneva, although she wanted to be the one to do that to him. He was pale, as was Aiko and Luan. They’d just seen their friends killed and now Geneva was handing them a hard choice. They looked at her. Aiko bowed and so did Ken. Luan nodded.
Then they were gone, leaving Geneva alone. Only, she was never alone. Okasha had heard the entire thing.
At that moment, Geneva couldn’t have cared less.
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
Ken looked at Luan as they found their way back to camp. Luan’s face was set. He looked at Ken and Aiko.
“I’m going to go with Geneva. I can’t do this, guys. I can’t—can’t go out there and keep wondering if I’ll die the next time a patrol thinks I’m an enemy. I nearly died once. I won’t risk my life to clean up after a war. I don’t know if you’ll come with me, but I’m sorry. I’ve made up my mind.”
The two Japanese college students blinked up at Luan. Ken and Aiko shared a look. Aiko was the first to speak.
“I…don’t want to ever stab a dead body again!”
Ken felt his entire body resonating with Luan’s statement. He took a breath.
“I will go. And I hope—I hope the others will come too.”
Daly raised his head and shook it. Ken saw the motion, recognized it, and still didn’t comprehend.
“No? Why not?”
“I’m not going, Ken. Even if this [Doctor]’s from our world—I’m going to stay in the company.”
He was sitting by the fire, somber, and he’d been alone until Ken and Luan had come to talk with him. None of the others were in the mood to speak, but Daly’s decision stunned Ken. Luan sat next to Daly, eyes on his face.
“Are you worried about being safe?”
“Not that. I just don’t think leaving the company’s a good idea.”
“Daly, what we saw this morning—”
The young man from Australia swore and turned to Luan, eyes overly bright.
“I know what we saw. But the way me and the rest of us figure it—we don’t have a choice. We signed on to be soldiers, and if we desert now, we’re stuck in the same boat.”
“Geneva says she can protect us—”
“Maybe she can, maybe she can’t. That’s not the point!”
Daly raked his fingers through his blonde hair. His hands were shaking, but his voice was more controlled when he spoke.
“We may not like what happened, but every bloody bastard out there is higher level than we are. The Captain is right. This is the safest way to level up and learn how to fight. So long as we don’t try to run.”
“So what? So you’ll all gain levels fighting. And then what? Will you join up as a soldier? Keep working here?”
Luan folded his arms. Daly shrugged.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead. No one has. But if we don’t have a way to defend ourselves, what’s to stop us from getting shot? Or getting killed like Johanas and the rest?”
He looked meaningfully at Luan as he said that. Ken didn’t know what to say, but Luan shook his head.
“Daly, after what I’ve seen, I don’t think any amount of levels or Skills or weapons is enough. Fighting in these wars, with these companies…if I can help it, I’d rather not fight at all. I have something to live for. Someone to live for.”
Someone? Ken looked at Luan, and then at Daly as the other young man shook his head.
“I guess that’s the difference in the way we see things. Some days it’s fine to run. Other days you’ve gotta buckle down and fight.”
And that was it. He refused to go, and told Ken and Luan the same went for the rest.
“We’re sticking together on this. Each one of us. We’re a team, and a lot of the others are decent sorts. The Centaurs are right bastards, the Dullahans are stuck up, and the Lizardfolk love killing cute things, but they’re all like us. We’re a company and we’re not going to abandon each other.”
There was something wonderful about what he said, and also…Ken felt drawn to what Daly was saying, but he shared Luan’s horror. And he agreed with Luan. It was one thing to risk his life, but for this? To haul dead bodies away so more people could fight? That was senseless to Ken, more than the call of staying with the company was.
Ken and Luan didn’t just ask Daly of course. Aiko was asking some of the girls she knew, but the answer was the same. The others wouldn’t join up with Geneva, who they’d never met. They were going to stick together, to keep working. They’d been shaken by the executions of that morning, and they had seen the truth in what Quallet had told them. Only one of them had died so far while clearing the undead. But those who had fled had died. True, Johanas and the others had only been a fraction of the American group, but no one, including Ken, thought the others had survived.
In a strangely perverse way, the executions had brought the rest of the Humans, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist closer together. They were a proper company now. Only Luan, Aiko, and Ken couldn’t be part of it.
“We’ll be watching for you lot. If you survive the fighting…well, we’ll see then, won’t we? Watch how you go.”
Daly shook Ken’s hand, as did the others. That left Ken, Luan, and Aiko to march up to Quallet’s tent as night began to fall. Ken wondered if they were doing the right thing. Johanas and the others had fled without a word. What would Quallet do if Ken told him to his face that he wanted to quit?
Stare. That was the answer. The [Mercenary Captain] was getting ready for the night’s work. Now he turned and stared at the three.
“If you go, you’ll be deserters. You saw what happened to deserters this morning. Why risk it? And why tell me?”
“Because we want to be honest about it.”
Luan met Quallet’s eye. The Captain eyed him back and nodded to the forest.
“So you’ll just run off and pray you don’t get spotted by a patrol? Because if you do—”
“No. we will go to the [Doctor].”
“The [Doctor]? Why—”
“We know her. She’s…from where we are.”
The Captain frowned. He looked at Ken, then at Aiko, and then Luan. But it was Ken his eyes settled on, and Quallet remembered his promise to give Ken a bonus. He shook his head.
“I won’t stop you. But if you leave my company, you’ll be on your own. That [Doctor] seems competent, but she has no company. She’s got a handful of soldiers protecting her, and she won’t have enough healing potions to do her job forever. Not at the way this war is going. What makes going with her better? She’s one person. A single [Doctor]. Alone.”
“She’s not alone.”
Aiko was the one who said it. Ken and Luan closed their mouths and looked at her. She stared at Quallet, eyes still red from crying, but resolute. She spoke carefully, forming the words in English.
“She is not alone. We are like her. We are not…not soldiers. She is like us. She does not kill.”
“Neither does my company. We fight undead. We dispose of the dead. What makes her work any different from the work we do?”
“She saves lives.”
Luan spoke. Quallet opened his mouth, and then Ken interrupted him. He looked at Quallet, and a slight suspicion made him speak.
“Captain Quallet. May I ask a question?”
“You are a smart captain. You are experienced as a leader. You heard us arguing. So…”
Ken hesitated. He looked at Quallet.
“…Did you tell the Dullahans that our friends would try to run away last night?”
Aiko gasped. Luan’s eyes widened. Quallet just stared at Ken, and then he turned away. Ken stared at his back, and then he walked out of the tent.