I used to be afraid of getting up in the morning. Or rather, reluctant. There are days when I want to crawl into my warm blankets and hide. Sleep is an alluring thing.
Funny. Having someone I love changes that. I feel Durene’s presence when I sleep and when I wake—she’s inevitably up before I am. And because I miss that, I get up.
That still doesn’t mean I like the sensation of wandering around Durene’s cottage and getting dressed in the morning any better. Durene is quite warm at night—enough so that blankets are necessary and clothing is not, but in the morning, her absence makes things chilly.
Is it undignified for an [Emperor] to walk around looking for a clean shirt and arguing with his pet bird? If it is, only Durene sees that aspect of me. When I exit my cottage, I am dressed, fed, and mostly coherent.
Today’s a big day. Just like yesterday. The man from Windrest, Helm, is due to return with his villagers tonight. I sent him back with an escort and the Wildfrozen Riders will have left already to escort the villagers down the road to my village.
I hope they make it here safely. Goblin attacks are on the rise and many villages are in danger. That’s why this morning I make it a priority to talk with the two adventurers who are waiting for me first.
“Odveig, Wiskeria, can I trouble you to talk this morning? Durene has some tea hot in the cottage. Prost, is there anything I need to take care of at the moment?”
“Nothing, sire. Gamel and I will await you in the village.”
Prost gives me a surprisingly elegant bow and he and Gamel retreat. The two female adventurers, the leader and sub-leader of the Celestial Trackers, exchange glances. The shorter one with the mace shifts uncomfortably.
“I would hate to intrude Mister L—I mean, your majesty!”
“No need to worry about formalities, Odveig. I’ve told you that.”
I smile reassuringly at her. She’s clearly uncomfortable around me, still. Wiskeria on the other hand seems to have adjusted to the current situation quite well.
“It’s quite cold out. I’d like to ask about the Goblin attacks and what you know of them.”
Odveig seems relieved; I can hear her tone lighten and sense her posture change. She nods at Wiskeria.
“If that’s what the problem is, we can talk about the Goblins. There’s nota problem in my eyes, but we’ll know more about the threat once the villagers return, right enough.”
There’s something funny about the way she says ‘not a’, as if it’s one word. Perhaps it’s because I’m blind, but that instantly puts a smile on my face to hear an accent so nicely distinct.
Funny, I can’t help but think of her as Scottish or of some similar heritage. Her accent’s a good bit different, but there’s that name and…wait, is Odveig a Scottish name? No…I don’t think so. What country then?
Ah, does it matter? There’s only so many ways words can be written in any language, and this world’s fixation on the English language means there would be parallels. And why does everyone speak English? Ryoka had a theory…
I lead the two young women inside—well, Odveig is definitely older than I am, and Wiskeria’s probably older too—and they take a seat on one of Durene’s oversized stools and sip from her mugs. Durene’s already left to help in the village.
“It seems like a lovely cottage, sire.”
Wiskeria sits comfortably in Durene’s home. I can’t detect a hint of disingenuity in her voice, so I hope she’s being honest.
“Yeah, it’s ah, a really nice place, your majesty.”
Odveig is a poor liar. I can sense her sitting across from me, looking around anxiously and then at me while she clutches her mug in both hands. She hesitates.
“Not to pry, but why are you staying here? As I said, it’s wonderful but…wouldn’t it be safer to sleep in the village? I know a few good houses have been dug out—they’d surely be more comfortable than here—not that here is—”
She stumbles over her words and shuts up, embarrassed. I smile at her again.
“I’m sure it would, but this cottage has sentimental value to me, Odveig. I first met Durene here, and it’s a fine place for me to sleep and work from. I seldom stay here anyways; it’s got a few of my possessions, and a bed, which is all a good home needs.”
“Ah. Well. That’s good. Uh, you said you wanted to talk to us about Goblins? Your majesty?”
I hope she can get over her awkwardness soon. Covering an internal sigh, I reach for my mug. Oops. It’s empty.
Wiskeria takes the tea pot over the fire and fills the cup for me quite gracefully. I’m surprised—she could be a [Maid], not a [Witch] for how coordinated she is. I nod to her.
“Thank you, Wiskeria.”
Yes, Wiskeria and Odveig are an odd duo. Odveig’s clearly at home with the mace she uses, but she’s far more awkward outside of battle, and that’s presumably why she turns to Wiskeria for advice so often. Wiskeria, the [Witch] often seems to have answers when Odveig falters.
She’s competent, quiet, well-spoken and…my first pick if it comes to it. But enough about that. I’ll get to know them more over the next few days. I steeple my fingers together as if I’m at a board meeting and lean over the table.
“Goblins. I know they’re attacking villages all over the place. Is that normal? It seems like these villages are prey to any kind of monsters that come along. How could anyone survive like this?”
Wiskeria and Odveig exchange a glance. It’s Wiskeria who speaks for the both of them. I can sense that she wears some kind of glasses—spectacles I think these ones are called. She adjusts the frame as she speaks.
“Goblin attacks are common in most places of the world as I’m sure you know, sire. However, around Invrisil, they’re known to be well-coordinated and particularly nasty. Not that they’re particularly common or this vicious—mostly, Goblins will raid a farm and steal what animals they can, make away with a [Farmer]’s stores—sometimes kill, but usually they just want food. These ones are different.”
“It’s this new Great Goblin Chieftain. There was word a while back—a group of women were found outside the gates of Merendia not two weeks back. Apparently a Goblin tribe of all things left them there.”
“A Goblin tribe? But wait—these women—were they—?”
The silence from both Wiskeria and Odveig confirms my darkest suspicions. Odveig clears her throat.
“It’s just rumor and hearsay, but I heard that this Goblin tribe actually rescued them. Apparently, there’s a huge Goblin tribe living in a nearby mountain—Dwarfhalls Rest it’s called. We had no notion it was occupied, but there’s a Great Goblin Chieftain living there, or so the women claim.”
“A Great Chieftain?”
“I’d never heard of it myself, your majesty. It’s caused panic all over the nearest cities once they heard of it, especially with this Goblin Lord to the south.”
“Right. Goblin Lord south, Great Chieftain around here.”
It’s hard keeping track of this Goblin news Durene and the others seem so well-versed in. I’ve never met a Goblin. They sound like horrible monsters, though. Very Tolkein-esque. And a Great Chieftain is apparently bad news. City-ending bad news, which is a horrible thought.
“It seems this other Goblin tribe splintered from the mountain. The woman claimed there was fighting and they were helped to escape. Well, the upshot of that is that the Goblins that still remain in the mountain are hopping mad. Probably lost a lot of food or whatever they were hoarding, so they’re hitting villages and towns with massive raiding parties. Not just a few Goblin stragglers with knives and rocks—Hobgoblins and lots of smaller Goblins with real weapons.”
That sounds like exactly the sort of thing I didn’t want to hear. I must look worried, because Wiskeria hastens to assure me.
“You paid for both our group and the Windfrozen Riders, sire. We’re capable of fighting off any lone raiding party aimed at a village. However, it might be best to take precautions.”
“Indeed. Thank you for telling me. If you don’t mind, I’d like to discuss exactly what you had in mind. These Goblins…say they came to this village. How would you prefer to fight them off?”
That’s the first part of my day. After talking with both adventurers, I immediately head into the village and find Prost.
He’s busy supervising a bunch of young men and women who are busy cutting down and then cutting up trees. I’m no carpenter, so the flurry of movement is all a mystery to me. But this is the first step on getting those new houses done.
“Your majesty! What can I do for you?”
“A lot, unfortunately. I’ve just talked with Wiskeria and Odveig—they’re concerned about Goblin attacks and so am I.”
My voice is loud enough that the other villagers working on the trees glance up. Prost sounds concerned.
“Yes, your majesty. We’ve heard the same. It’s customary for a few of the older folk with levels to organize a militia of sorts, but that’s only if we think there’s a handful of Goblins hiding out. If there’s a lot, we can only trust to adventurers.”
“True. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit idly knowing there are Goblins around. I was thinking we could add a palisade to the list of things we’re building.”
“A palisade, sir?”
Palisades. Fences made of sharpened wood stakes. Prost is certainly familiar with the idea, but Riverfarm never had any walls of any sort. Nevertheless, when I give him the idea he agrees it’s possible. Only…
“Only, it’s difficult, sire. I have this lot hewing the wood and then planing it for construction with hand-tools, but that’s a far cry from a sawmill, which is what I’d prefer. It’ll be slow going without more hands…”
“We’ll get those soon enough. However, I’m not suggesting we put up walls all the way around the village. A few to block off the most undefended routes would be good to start with. I was thinking around the barn, using the back as a wall, you see?”
Prost and I do a short tour of the village and go over how many trees he’d need for that, and the time it would take. When he goes off to shout that he needs more hands for trees, I wander back over to Gamel. I heard his voice and sensed he was among the workers there.
“Gamel, how’s work going?”
The young man pauses with some sort of long iron bar in his hands. He’s using it to keep the log steady while others hack at it with axes. It looks complex, and I’m sorry to have stopped him, but he and the others immediately jump to their feet.
“I don’t want to disrupt you. I just thought I’d ask how you’re doing.”
“Well, sire. I’m happy to be helping and be back in the village. I uh, this is Tessia and Erhart. Tessia’s a childhood friend. She and I, uh—”
Gamel stammers and introduces me to two people, one of whom is a young woman he’s clearly biased towards. They introduce themselves, bowing and curtseying awkwardly—although both are wearing trousers and thick clothing because it’s cold.
“Your majesty, I’m honored.”
The young woman known as Tessia has a quiet voice as she introduces herself. Erhart seems tongue-tied at meeting me.
I smile at Tessia, and then remember a young woman with a shard of wood sticking out of her leg as the digging team pulls her out of the snow. She remembers too, and bows low over my hand as I offer it.
“I—I wanted to say…thank you. I can’t ever say what it means—I thought when I was down there—”
Her voice breaks. I grip her hands as Gamel reaches for Tessia’s shaking shoulders.
“I know. I’m glad I could help.”
That’s all. I leave the two to the tree and step away. I’ve had similar conversations with almost all of Riverfarm’s people at one point or another. It’s not embarrassing so much as painful when I speak to them.
I wish I could have saved them all. But I know what was impossible.
Something else attracts my attention as I talk about how many trees need to be cut for the new defenses. I sense a large number of bodies entering the outskirts of the village and hear shouts coming from that direction.
“Prost. I think the people from Windrest are here.”
Prost and I hurry over to where the commotion is happening. In my sense of the village I can tell a huge crowd has entered, accompanied by a few donkeys pulling wagons, overloaded carts with valuable possessions—
It’s a nightmare. I didn’t expect an entire village’s worth of people! No—I did expect it, but seeing the population of Riverfarm double in a moment blows me away. If I didn’t have my inner view of the village, the noise alone would render my sense of hearing useless.
“There he is!”
I hear a voice. Helm is shouting and waving towards me and Prost as we stride towards the crowd. I hear the majority of voices cut off, and then every eye is on me. A few people begin whispering incredulously in the crowd.
“Is that him? Is that—”
“An [Emperor]? In Izril?”
“Why’s he got his eyes closed? You can’t mean he’s truly blind? Not—”
Prost’s voice shouts across the entire village. I can sense the man standing tall beside me. He waves a hand and the villagers fall still. Oh, well if Prost’s got it—I relax a bit. Too soon!
“Kneel before Emperor Laken, the Protector of Riverfarm! In his mercy, he has allowed you to—”
I elbow Prost in the side and cut him off before he can say anything more. Okay, not what I hoped he would say. I clear my throat, and take a few steps forwards. Every eye is on me. I speak, calmly, reassuringly.
“I am Laken Godart. An [Emperor].”
Voices. Murmuring. I wait for silence, and go on.
“I welcome you to Riverfarm, people of Windrest. Please know that you will be safe here. However, while you stay in my domain, you must obey me as your ruler.”
Shock—I wish I could see their expressions, with my eyes. I sense people shifting around me. But I don’t move. I am that I am. Calm. This is how it is.
“I own these lands. If you cannot accept that, I am afraid there is no place for you. But know this: while you are here, I will do everything in my power to protect you. You have my word on it.”
Silence. Then I hear someone clapping. Prost. This time it’s what’s needed. The people of Riverfarm begin cheering my name, and then I hear the people of Windrest take up the feeling. They shout my name and cluster around me.
Do they believe I’m an [Emperor]? I don’t know, but Durene tells me I have a look about me that makes me different. And whatever they believe, I’ve promised them safety. So they shout my name and a man fights his way to me.
“Your majesty, it’s me! Helm, sire!”
I find my hand being shaken rapidly by huge, callused hands that nearly break mine. I extricate myself from Helm’s grip as he shouts at me.
“We’re ready to work, sire! I know there’s houses needing to be dug out and more built—us Windrest folk have brought our tools and there’s some good [Carpenters] and [Builders] among us! Just say the word and we’ll do what needs doing, milord! I’m a [Blacksmith]! I have my anvil—I’d sorely love to ply my trade here, if your lordship’s willing?”
Didn’t I hear that Izril has a lot of [Lords] and [Ladies]? It seems like I’m being treated like a more outstanding version of one. I nod at Helm, raising my voice so the people around me can hear.
“We’ll have work for you soon, Mister Helm. If you’ve an anvil, all the better. We could use nails, repairs to tools that were damaged in the avalanche, more nails…there’s always work for a [Blacksmith], as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Yessir! And the rest of my kin—I’ve a cousin and two daughters, what will they—”
Helm’s voice is anxious. I place a hand on his shoulder—amazing the people around me since I’m talking and moving with my eyes closed—and reassure the man.
“Everyone will work, don’t you worry, Mister Helm. So long as people work, they’ll have a roof over their heads and a hot belly and a place to sleep. We might have to build the roofs first, but…if you have any concerns, Prost, my [Steward], will handle them.”
When I mention Prost’s class I hear gasps, none more loudly than Helm’s own. As if my words have summoned him, Prost strides into the crowd and takes the attention of the group off of me.
“The [Emperor]’s not a man who has the time to deal with you louts himself! Line up—divide yourselves by classes, the lot of you! I’ll put families together once we’ve sleeping places sorted out—leave your tools and such over there! We’ll organize it later I said! And we’ll share what we have—no hoarding! Helm, who’s the [Village Head] around here?”
I walk away from the group and watch Prost get to work. He’s efficient. The people of Windrest know what to do, and when he tells them where to put their belongings and what needs doing, experienced workers like the [Carpenters] immediately peel off and get to work on the felled trees, while other [Woodcutters] grab axes and head towards people cutting.
More people go to the barn to help unload the carts, quite a number of women and a few men stay to manage the children, and in the midst of it all, an old man with a limp, bad posture, and a desperate note in his voice grabs me.
“Your majesty, I beg a word.”
“Jelov, your majesty! I’m afraid that your man Prost might not have a job for me! I—I’m old and might not be worth the effort of keeping, but I beg your mercy! Please!”
He looks desperate, and no wonder. He’s the oldest person I’ve seen in this world, and his hands are as contorted as his back. I calm him down and take him a few feet away from the crowd around Prost.
“I’m sure there’s work for you Jelov. What’s your class?”
“Oh? Well, if you’re a [Carpenter]—”
The man’s voice contorts with equal measures agony and indignation.
“I’m no [Carpenter], your eminence. I’m a [Carver]—damned class though it is! I carve toys of wood, hilts, handles—my hands can’t hold an axe in my old age, much less lift all that weight! There’s not a call for it at the moment, not now with folks building and whatnot. No need for toys when there’s not enough places to sleep, but it’s all I can do!”
He looks pleadingly at me.
“I wouldn’t dare ask normally, but I’ve a granddaughter and if I can’t work—”
“Of course you can work! If carving’s what you do, we’ll let you carve, Jelov. Toys? Why wouldn’t we need them? Children have to play after a disaster, and I’d consider it a blessing to have things to occupy them.”
The old man’s eyes widen as I interrupt him. He looks so relieved he might faint. I can see why—if a village is in dire straits, the elderly might be the first to be deemed expendable.
“Why thank you sire, I’d do whatever needs doing—I could fletch too, although I’m a slow hand if it’s not with a carving knife—”
“No, no. Carving’s just the thing. You could help me with a project I need doing.”
Is it coincidence Jelov found me? I recall one of the things—a piece of advice I’d been given. Intrigued, Jelov cocks his head to one side, his beard blowing in the wind.
“You’d like something carved, [Emperor] Laken, sire? I can do detailed woodwork. A piece for your mantle?”
“More like a pole in the ground. I’m thinking of a large wooden pole, Jelov, the kind of thing you could plant in the ground and leave for years. Like a signpost, only…etched.”
“Etched? Ah, you mean illustrated with letters and so on, sire? I could do that! Is there a name for this piece you’d want?”
“Less of a piece, and more of a marker. Let’s call it a, uh, totem pole of sorts.”
The old man starts looking worried again, and just when I’d calmed him down.
“Totem, sire? What kind of wood is totem? We’ve naught but cedar trees around here mainly, although I know a good birch—”
“Uh, not that. It’s a kind of carving. Which I’d greatly desire. Do you think you could take a large block of wood, around this wide—”
I measure a square about a hand-and-a-half wide in each direction and eight feet high for Jelov and tell him what I’m thinking. Soon the old man’s stroking at his beard and chattering to me, spraying me and the nearby surroundings with a bit of spit as he does. His earlier timidness is gone as his love of the craft—and pride—takes over.
“A pole like that? Pshaw—oops, sorry ‘bout that, your majesty. Carving a few fancy shapes into this much wood? Naught a problem. See, the issue’s in varnishing and I know a few young lads who’d do it right quick if you let me have them—and I’ve the oils and resins I bought from an [Alchemist]. Served me well these last few years—no, I could have it carved up in a day or two. The processing’s the thing, see? And design of course.”
I edge away from Jelov, but he just crabs over to me, talking excitedly. Aw, well, who needs a dry face anyways? Isn’t spit good for the skin?
“I’m not this old for nothing, sire! I’ve many a Skill—reckon I could get a good start, just so long as I know what you’re wanting. Got anything in particular you want on it, or just some fancy etchings? I can do fancy—folk think I’ve written mage symbols when they’re nothing but scribbling on the bark.”
“I have an idea, thank you. I’d like the top to have a symbol. This would be a, uh, marker of sorts, so I want it to show that.”
“Right, right. What kind of symbol?”
“How about…an eye?”
I really hadn’t though this part through too much. I need a symbol of my domain, so an eye naturally pops into my mind. I sketch an Egyptian-style eye into the ground and Jelov nods appreciatively.
“Not hard at all. You want two of them?”
“One’s fine. It would go here at the top, and then maybe carve a line to separate it…can you put the eye in a, ah, triangle? A pyramid? It would look like this.”
“Ooh, now that’s occult, sire. Feels like it’s staring at me, so it does. And them little lines—are they bricks?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s a pyramid. An ancient structure. And below it, some ground—”
“Ah! A floating eye in a pyramid-thingy! Very good. I can carve that no problem sire.”
Jelov’s making encouraging noises, probably taken with the symbol I’m designing for him. Myself, I feel a bit…embarrassed. It’s not as if I’m coming up with the design, obviously.
It’s just a silly thought. But the Eye of Providence—a part of the U.S. bill and often associated with the Illuminati—is a cool symbol. It makes for as good an inscription as any, and I have a sense that this totem pole, this marker, needs to have this kind of symbol.
Because it will represent my people, my village. Me. And I can always change it later.
“That’s the head taken care of your majesty. What’s the next bit?”
“Next bit? Uh…”
There’s a lot of totem pole to go. I frown, thinking on the go.
“How about some fancy symbols below it? You could do a—a hawk. And a village, maybe? And then you write on it sideways—‘Claimed by Emperor Laken Godart’. How about that?”
Jelov’s busy drawing in the dirt. When he’s done, I stare at the plans for a totem pole practically covered by ‘fancy occult stuff’ that has the old man rubbing his hands together in glee. I smile.
“Add whatever you think might be good. Maybe carve it so it’s not just a rectangle of wood? I’ll leave it to you, but when you have the final design, show it to me. I’ll…need quite a few once we have the design set.”
“At once, your [Emperor]-ness! I’ll uh, need a piece of wood—”
“I’ll have Prost get some to you right away. And helpers if you need it, but for now the pole?”
“At once! Don’t you worry milord, I’ll have the pole ready to show you tomorrow. Let me just find my best knife—have to cut with the best tools I say. Have you met my daughter? Want to show her the trade, by your lord’s leave of course. A natural. Woodworking’s in the family blood. You’ll see—it’ll be my finest work, my word on it. Won’t let you down. I recall one time I did a piece—”
Somehow, I get away from Jelov and by the time I do, the village is bustling with activity. Prost is in the thick of it, and I find myself talking with people, reassuring them, pointing out my adventurers and…being an [Emperor], I guess. I have an answer for every trivial problem, which isn’t hard, but I’m doing it and everyone’s watching, which is apparently all they need.
The sun has set by the time I have a bowl of hot soup in my hands and am eating it standing up. I’m exhausted from talking, but I have time for one last person who approaches me on horseback.
“What news, Beniar?”
The adventurer and captain of the Windfrozen Riders ducks his head towards me, for once not showering me with compliments or praising himself. He sounds grim, and a bit worried.
“Trouble, your majesty. Windrest was mostly devastated, but it’s hardly the only village. I met a group of travelers on the road heading straight for Invrisil—they say their village was attacked and torched. The Goblins took everything and slaughtered everyone they caught. They’re killing this time, not just raiding.”
I feel coldness inside my heart. Goblins. I nod to the village.
“Do you think they’ll come here?”
“Unless they get what they want, it’s a surety, sire. We’ll double our patrols, but I’d be more comforted if I knew how many Goblins might come our way. We can handle Hobgoblins, a large band, even a Goblin [Shaman] if one of those bastards is hiding among them. But Goblins can come at any time, from anywhere. That’s what makes them dangerous.”
“I understand. And I have a plan to deal with that, Beniar.”
“Do you, your majesty?”
He sounds skeptical. I just smile at him.
He hesitates. I can hear him getting off his horse, and then shouting for some soup for himself and fodder for his mount.
“For some reason, I do your majesty. Emperor Laken.”
I’m a bit uncomfortable with Emperor Laken, but it is who I am. And Beniar seems to think so too. I sense him nodding towards the villagers.
“I’ve never seen a [Lord] shaking common folk’s hands before, much less an [Emperor]. It gives them hope. I…I’m glad you care about villagers, sire. I was one once, too.”
“Villagers. Lords. We’re all people, Beniar.”
He laughs shortly.
“Yeah, but you’d not see a [Lord] care so for common folk.”
I hold one of my hands out to Beniar while I cradle the hot soup bowl with the other. He stares at it. I waggle my fingers impatiently.
“Go on, shake it.”
He does, tentatively. I smile at him and take another hot spoonful of soup.
“Well? How does it feel? You’ve just shaken hands with an [Emperor]. I’m no [Lord], Beniar. I’m better than that. I care about all of my subjects. And I’ll protect them no matter what.”
He stares at me.
“Does that include us, sire? Me and my riders?”
“I’ve hired you. While you work for me, I’ll do my best to make sure you’re as safe as anyone else.”
“That’s reassuring to hear, your majesty.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it? Let’s work hard to make sure I’m not made into a liar, Beniar.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
[Emperor Level 10!]
[Skill – Empire: Low-born Militias Obtained!]
[Skill – Rallying Presence Obtained!]
“…Is there an instruction manual or something?”
People skills. That’s all being an [Emperor] is. People skills. Or is it more like a video game about allocating resources? My job as an [Emperor] is not to manage the details of what I do—I have Prost, Helm, and the other older villagers to take that duty off of me. I look at the grand scheme, give broad orders, deal with situations—
And make sure people do what’s most effective. Which is why Beniar’s enthusiasm can be a problem.
“Give us the order, and we’ll bring back enough game to feed the village, sire! My team can cover countless miles and be back by the end of the day!”
Beniar seems determined to be of help the next day, but in an odd way. He’s offered to hunt, and I admit, having a food source might be just the thing now that we have far more mouths to feed than I had projected for. Prost calculates that we have enough supplies to last for a month, but not through till spring anymore.
Still, I shake my head as I talk with Beniar and the other adventurers in the morning.
“I’d rather have your people patrolling. A few hunters might be acceptable Beniar, but your riders need to patrol.”
“As you say, sire.”
He’s disappointed, but his idea is solid. I turn to Odveig and Wiskeria.
“Do you think you could hunt with your group, Odveig? Wiskeria? If the Windfrozen Riders patrolled, I think we could spare the Celestial Trackers.”
They’re not a mounted group, so the idea seems fine to me. Wiskeria voices her agreement immediately.
“We could send several groups out, sire. There are trails of deer and other animals we picked up—”
It’s Odveig who interrupts her, shaking her head adamantly.
“Not a good idea, Wiskeria. I think we’ll keep our group here by your leave, your majesty. There could be trouble and I’d hate to fail our contract if we don’t keep you safe from all dangers.”
She frowns at Wiskeria and I frown too. But Odveig is the leader and she makes sense. The Mossbear could wake up, or something else could happen.
“If you’re sure. In that case Beniar, I’ll let you take three of your riders and hunt…the rest will spread out with the Celestial Trackers nearby…”
Every day has a challenge. Today’s is rats. Apparently, the new ground Prost is trying to dig up has rats.
In the winter.
“How are there rats, Mister Prost?”
I walk around the edge of the new village boundary. I can vaguely sense this place, mainly because the villagers are laying down the foundations of the new houses as we speak. Prost grimaces.
“The little devils have to make their burrows somewhere, Emperor Laken.”
“Yes, but…what do they eat? How can they survive?”
“There’s root stores in the ground, and the rodents prey on our fields. I reckon there’s a few burrows here—they’ll infest the houses and cause a mess if we can’t get rid of them first.”
“Right…how do we do that?”
Prost sighs, sounding vexed.
“Only way is to dig up all the ground about here with pitchforks and kill the damned vermin as they come out.”
“That sounds like it’ll take a lot of time and effort we don’t want to spare.”
“Yes sire, but it’s the only way. We don’t know where they could be hiding—”
Wait. I frown as Prost says that. Rats, hiding in the ground? I feel like…I feel like I might be able to solve this one. I cut Prost off and stare at the ground. This area is mine. Vaguely mine. And I can sense what goes on in the ground, can’t I? I saved the villagers that way. So why can’t I look—
My senses go beneath the earth. I sense thick, rich loam beneath my feet, roots—the remains of a grass stalk and its system. And across from me—two feet down, a tunnel network. Something moves in it. Big, furry, chewing at a bug that wriggles through the soil—
“Emperor Laken? Sire?”
A hand touches my shoulder and I nearly jump out of my skin. I start, look around. Prost is staring at me with concern in his eyes. I blink at him, and then grin weakly.
“Mister Prost, I think I can solve our problems. But we’ll need a way to kill the rats when they come up. Unless you’re planning on stomping the rats to death or hacking them apart?”
I don’t think I could stand to see that. But Prost only smiles.
“No sire, we’ve a time and tested way to deal with that!”
Dogs. Eight dogs of varying shapes and colors snuffle around my feet and sniff me, wagging their tails as they circle around Prost and a group of [Farmers] with shovels and pitchforks. I watch as Prost sticks his pitchfork into the loose, frozen earth that’s been broken up and lift it with a grunt.
Something squeaks. I recoil, and the dogs go nuts as a group of rats unearthed by the pitchfork flee. The dogs growl and run down the rodents in moments. The [Farmers] cheer them on, whistling as they unearth more rats which the dogs hunt down with almost contemptuous ease.
Terriers. The world’s finest ratters. Of course, that’s what they were bred for, back when they weren’t just pets but companions. I feel stupid for not thinking of it, but I’m both gratified and entertained to see the dogs in their elements. They clearly love to hunt down the rat nests which I can pinpoint with ease.
That’s right. Just like the villagers trapped under the snow, I can see under the ground. And that means I can see every rat that’s infested the fields we’re trying to turn into a new area for houses.
It feels almost dirty to have this ability. And I have to say, when Prost’s pitchfork comes up with a tiny impaled rat on it, still squeaking and struggling I feel awful. But they are rats. They’ll destroy a field and breed until they start eating each other given half a chance, and Prost and the other farmers clearly hate them with a passion.
“Damned fine work, your majesty!”
One of the farmers shouts at me, earning a jab from his friends for swearing, but I only grin and wave at him. This is one of the cases where my [Emperor] talents really help the villagers in a concrete way. I wonder if all [Emperors] can see their lands like I do. Am I just attuned to these senses more than others because I’m blind?
Ah, well, I can’t tell.
I hear a squawk as another group of rats makes it to the surface to be pounced upon by the dogs the villagers of Windrest brought with them. I look over and hear fluttering wings.
“Frostwing giving you trouble, Gamel?”
“I think she wishes to join in the hunt, sire.”
Gamel struggles with my pet bird. Frostwing’s bigger than ever and antsy at being cooped up in Durene’s cottage all day, so I’ve asked Gamel to bring her with me when I walk around the village. It might have been a mistake. Frostwing is struggling as she perches on his arm—he has to wear a cloth armguard to keep her talons from puncturing his skin.
“Calm down, Frostwing.”
She shuts up for a second, and I can sense her head turning to glare at me. I nod to Prost.
“Here’s another nest.”
I tap the ground and the man comes over and sticks his pitchfork in the dirt. The dogs tense and he heaves—rats go flying.
Frostwing shrieks as the rats run about. I hear Gamel struggling to keep the bird steady on his arm as she flaps wildly. Then her wings open. She launches herself from his arm.
Five feet. Frostwing smacks into a rat as it tries to scurry away from one of the dogs. She knocks the rodent aside and then hops towards it, wings spread aggressively. I see Prost yanking one of the excited dogs back as Frostwing pecks at the large rat with her sharp beak. It tries to flee and she hops right after it.
There have been epic battles waged in the name of survival between different animal groups. The duel between the lone rat and the fledgling Frostwing is not one of them. She pecks at the rat and the rat tries to run. Frostwing pursues, hopping rather than flying, and I give her a bit of assistance, blocking the rat with my foot.
Hop, peck. Hop, peck. In the end Frostwing downs the rat, but I have to say, she does not deserve the sense of satisfied pride I feel from her in my mind. As my bird savages the rat she’s killed and begins to disembowel it, I kneel by her side.
“Who’s a good bird? You are. You’re a good bird. Even if you are fairly bad at your job.”
She pecks at me with a bloody beak, and then flares her wings aggressively as one of the villager’s dogs sniffs near her. It retreats, whining, and I decide to pick Frostwing up before she can cause trouble. She agrees to perch on my arm only after grabbing her kill in one talon. On the way back to the cottage she drops the rat. Twice. Nothing would do but I let her grab it again.
Ah, birds. They’re quite stupid. Dumber than dogs at times, which I’ll admit is difficult. But I love mine even so.
“Emperor Laken! Your majesty, I have your pole of totems! Here! Won’t you inspect it?”
At the end of the day Jelov comes to me with a finished pole, just as he’s promised. I inspect the pole with my hands, running my fingertips along the carvings, and feeling the deep-cut symbols in the wood. I get a splinter. Twice.
“It’s not smoothed yet, and there’s work to be done rounding and varnishing, but if you’re satisfied, I can copy the design onto however many poles you want, sire!”
“That will be excellent, Jelov. You’re a fine craftsman.”
“Thank you, your majesty!”
He beams. I wonder whether anyone else in the world has ever been so happy to have their work praised by a blind man. But this new totem pole has caught people’s imaginations. Certainly Durene’s.
“It’s so creepy, Laken! Are you sure you have to have the floating eye-thing? I keep thinking it’s staring at me and Jelov’s carved it onto all four sides, so it’s staring at you no matter where you’re facing!”
“It’s important because it’s a marker, Durene. The symbol marks who I am. Okay, maybe it was a mistake to make it the Eye of Providence, but—”
“Oh, if it’s a symbol, that’s fine. I was worried it’d be on our flag or something!”
I have to laugh as I sit next to her.
“Flag? Our flag? What are you talking about?”
Durene turns to me, surprised, as she munches on some fresh bread that Prost’s wife, Yesel baked in one of the ovens we uncovered this morning.
“Well, we’re obviously going to have a flag. This is your empire, right? Our empire, I mean. You’re going to rule us so we’ve got to have a flag! And a name! I think the Unseen Empire sounds cool, don’t you?”
The question throws me completely for a second. An empire? I suppose that is the logical step, but I’ve just seen what I’m doing as managing a village. But Durene’s already talking about it as if it’s an empire. I try to quell the uneasiness her words provoke with a slight joke.
“We’re far away from an empire, Durene. We’re just a village—”
“Two villages, now.”
“True. But the people of Windrest are just staying here because they’re afraid. Once the Goblins are gone—”
“They’ll still be your subjects. They said so.”
“The people of Windrest, silly! You promised to keep them safe, remember? It’s as good as being protected by a [Lord], they say, only you’re real. I don’t think they’d go anywhere even if the Goblins were gone.”
The statement leaves me flabbergasted. Silent. Durene chews happily.
“Want some bread? It’s really good and doughy, the way I like it! Laken? Hello? Laken?”
[Beast Tamer Level 5!]
The reports of Goblin attacks continue. Beniar brings in two travelers on the road who say their caravan has been attacked by Goblins, a group of well-armed ones that looted their wagons and slaughtered their guards in a moment. I take them into the village. What am I supposed to do?
The situation with the Goblin incursions is clearly getting worse. I have an impromptu meeting with Beniar, Odveig, Prost, and Wiskeria and come to a quick decision.
“Anyone who wants to be trained. My village needs soldiers to protect it, and not just your adventurers.”
I rest my hands on the table and stare at Beniar, Odveig, and Wiskeria. They sound uncertain, but my mind’s made up. Odveig coughs.
“Begging your pardon sire, but we’re adventurers, not instructors. We can teach basic swordplay and fighting skills I suppose, but—but we can’t lead a group. And it’ll take weeks to make proper warriors out of most of this lot!”
“You don’t have to worry. I have a…Skill that might help matters.”
I grin at Odveig. I gained the [Empire: Low-born Militias] skill two days ago and I’ve been wondering what it does. I can’t help but suspect it would grant my subjects some combat prowess on the field. As for [Rallying Presence]—I can’t help but feel that’s one of the reasons why Windrest’s villagers have grown to trust me so quickly.
Regardless, relying on the two adventuring teams I’ve hired isn’t a good move long-term, which is why I’ve come up with this idea. I nod towards the [Witch] as she adjusts her pointy hat. Indoors. I guess she just likes wearing it.
“Wiskeria, do you think you could teach some of the people with magical aptitudes some magic? Gamel knows a fire spell, but it’s not useful for anything but lighting quick fires. If he could throw fire on the other hand…”
“I could teach them a bit, sire.”
“And I’ll show your young folk some swordplay your majesty, don’t fret! If Odveig wants to look out for Goblins, I’ll gladly demonstrate my Skills!”
Beniar is only too happy with the idea, of course. I smile sardonically.
“If you’re willing Beniar, I’d be grateful. However, I’d like you to take a certain student under your wing personally?”
“Who? Your man Gamel? I could turn him into a decent [Warrior] with enough time. It’d be my pleasure—”
The tent goes silent. I sense Beniar gaping at me, but it’s Wiskeria who agrees first.
“Durene? She’s stronger than anyone I’ve met. As strong as a Minotaur. Stronger perhaps, with her [Enhanced Strength] Skill. Give her a sword and we’d have a warrior capable of facing down a Hob.”
“She’s untrained! And there’s not a sword that would fit her hands. We’d need a custom-built greatsword, and that would cost—”
Odveig protests, but my mind is made up. Within the hour, I have Durene, Gamel, and a bevy of young men and a surprising number of young women who have volunteered to train with the adventurers.
Beniar’s all for teaching everyone how to use a bunch of practice swords that Jelov and some [Carpenters] have thrown together, but I stop him and ask him to run the trainees through some exercises first.
“Exercises, your majesty? What, like swinging a sword? I can do that, but holding a sword’s important. Half of your folk look like they’d cut their thumbs off, swinging the swords like they are.”
I nod, watching Durene lift a huge club made from hammered-together bits of wood. It looks like a poor weapon, but I can’t help but wonder how much damage it would do if she smacked me with it. Certainly the other villagers are keeping away from her, and she’s using a partially-converted door as a shield. It still has the door handle on it.
“I know swordplay is important, but from what I understand, classes and Skills still rely on the body of each individual and their skill, don’t they?”
“True…I suppose I could have them train their bodies a bit. Although your villagers are fairly hale, milord.”
“Hale isn’t the same as trained. I’m thinking of giving them a little test first. Some running, arm exercises—”
I nod to the excited villagers and eye Riverfarm. It’s an expanded mess of tents and lean-tos as the first few proper houses are going up. But the snow’s mostly cleared by now and there’s a good path for people to run around in.
“Six laps around the village might be good. It’s not too far. If they do that every day when they wake, I think it would help. And pushups. Sit-ups…I’ll show you how to do burpees. It’s a delightful exercise that everyone’s sure to love.”
Is there a bit of devil in me? Perhaps. I smile a bit as I see Beniar go over to the villagers and watch their enthusiasm drain away when they hear what they’re going to be doing. I also studiously ignore Durene’s glare as Beniar leads the villagers away at a run.
I’m no expert at swordplay. I have listened to descriptions of how soldiers train, though, and I am aware that a fit body matters a lot in battle. Is this the right method, teaching villagers how to do exercises that have half of them groaning with muscle pains by the end of it? Maybe, maybe not.
All I know is that by the end of the training session, the excited young villagers are a lot less excited about the prospect of training to be [Warriors]. By the time Beniar has them learning to hold a sword, half of them are looking longingly towards the other villagers and their normal duties.
That’s where I step in. Everyone turns to stare at me as I walk forwards. Beniar’s busy showing them how to strike properly. I raise my voice and address them all.
“I’m glad so many of you want to learn to fight. But please know this: if you want to train, I’ll expect you to do what you just did every day, not just today. You’ll have days to rest, but you’ll be exercising like this as well as training and doing your jobs.”
The young men and women look horrified at the thought. Durene opens her mouth, and I shake my head slightly at her. No favoritism. I look at them all, and then do a rare thing. I open my eyes slightly. I can’t see obviously, but I want to look into their eyes like I’ve heard all good leaders do.
“Yes, I know how you feel. These exercises are grueling. But that’s the point. Learning to fight is not fun. It’s not easy. In fact, if you want to fight, you’ll have to work twice as hard as everyone else.”
There’s silence. I’m sure if I let them go now, not more than one or two would turn up tomorrow. Which is why the next bit has to count. I look at them all, trying to convey my feelings as openly as possible.
“You might ask why you have to work so hard. Well, it’s because being a [Soldier], being a [Warrior] isn’t an easy job. You’re fighting for your life. Not just your lives either—you’ll be fighting to defend your families, your loved ones—it’s not a game. If you want to learn to fight, I’ll gladly let the adventurers train you, but only if you are serious.”
That’s all. I nod to them and step back. I sense the villagers looking at each other. I don’t know how many will come back tomorrow, but to my surprise, Prost comes over for part of the sword fighting lessons. I don’t make him run around the village. He runs about enough without that.
To my surprise, Helm and a few of the other older villagers know how to fight too. Beniar trains with them and some of the adventurers and puts the young people through their paces.
“What do you think?”
I ask him that when the adventurer has returned to drink some water. Beniar mops sweat from his brow and frowns at me.
“Maybe it’s luck or a Skill you have, your majesty, but I’d swear half of those villagers could put up a good fight if you gave them arms. I’d hate to be a [Bandit] gang that tries to rob this place.”
“Your average Goblin? Hardly a threat, sire. But Goblins around Invrisil are nasty. They have to be—we purge every tribe we come across as a matter of course. And the monsters around here get nasty. So the Goblins—”
“Are just as nasty.”
“Just so, sire.”
“Well, keep training them. I’ll—”
I break off. Frowning, I stare away from the village, in the direction of our cottage. Beniar stares at me.
“There’s someone in my cottage.”
I sense it. But when I get there with a panting Durene and Beniar, there’s no one to be found. However, Frostwing is shrieking her brains out. I ask Durene to look around, but nothing seems to be missing.
“Maybe it was someone from Windrest?”
I frown, but there’s nothing I can do, and there’s certainly no reason for me to post a guard on the cottage. Still, I wish I could identify people precisely with my [Emperor] senses. Who would want to check out my cottage in the first place?
It might just be a coincidence. But the next day, I find something else unexpected.
“Are you sure we should do this, Laken?”
Durene’s voice quavers a bit as I hike up the slope with her in the lead. I’m grasping the back of her shirt as she walks. I’d normally use my cane, but I’ve grown so accustomed to moving about without it that I leave it in the cottage most days.
However, my [Emperor] senses don’t extend beyond the village limits, and so I’m blind out here. Blind, and possibly making the dumbest mistake of my life.
We’re trudging up a small hill towards the bear’s cave. Yes, the Mossbear’s cave. Durene has a large basket of dried fruits, cured meat, and other goodies. All things a bear might like.
“Why are we doing this, Laken? Couldn’t we just let it sleep?”
“Yes, but the trouble is, I don’t think it’s asleep anymore, Durene. The bear woke up once—it might wake up again. And I’d rather not have it go looking for food, especially if we can parley.”
“With a bear?”
“If we can. Just let me do the talking. You hang back a little bit.”
“What if it charges at you? I’m coming with you!”
In truth, I’m grateful. It’s one thing to have a stupid idea, and another thing to carry it out. But the Celestial Trackers have said the Mossbear is moving from his cave now and then, and I’ve been worried about what he might do.
What would you do if a bear was active in your vicinity? Run from it? Set a trap? Hunt it? Bury it in its cave? All of these options were given to me, and so I chose the dumbest idea I could think of myself: feed it.
It’s not entirely insane. I’ve explained my reasoning to Durene and she doesn’t buy it, but it makes sense to me. I was able to speak to the bear once. Intimidate it. Get it to leave. True, I had a bunch of scary humans and Durene with me at the time, but I am a [Beast Tamer]. And what is a bear if not a beast?
It’s just…a lot bigger than Frostwing is, that’s all. I feel Durene stop and stop with her.
“Just ahead. I can see the entrance. Laken, if it attacks—”
“Beniar’s waiting with a group of his riders. If the bear’s angry, he’ll lure it away. Just run, and take me with you.”
“If it comes after you I’ll kill it.”
There’s a steel core of determination in Durene’s voice. It shocks me for a moment.
“Don’t risk yourself, please. Running is fine. I know you’re strong, but I couldn’t bear for you to get hurt.”
“Bear. You said bear—”
“Oh, right. Haha.”
I’m too nervous to laugh at my own pun. I reach out and feel Durene deposit the heavy basket into my arms. I step forwards with it, and guided by Durene’s voice, place it at the entrance of the cave.
Something ahead of me growls. I back up fast, and hear Durene move. I hear movement—and wish with all my heart I could sense what’s ahead of me. I get the impression of something big and heavy coming my way, and then a wet snuffle. The bear is investigating the basket, but it smells both me and Durene. It growls warningly.
Time for my brilliant plan to go into action. I clear my throat nervously.
The bear growls. I hear Durene shift and raise a hand.
“Hold on, I’m friendly.”
The bear doesn’t seem to listen. I hear it take a step and then Durene speaks.
This time the bear stops dead. I stare ahead, sightless, and hear Durene’s breath catch. Yes, now the feeling’s in me. Will. That is what an [Emperor] is. I project it at the bear, ordering it.
“Listen to me. I am not your enemy.”
It makes a whining sound and I think it backs up. I step forwards and Durene squeaks. But in this moment, as I am, there is no fear. An [Emperor] cannot be afraid when he is ordering a subject, and this bear is my subject. That’s how I must think of it.
“Look at me. See? I am a friend. Friend. And this is food. For you.”
It’s like speaking to Frostwing, I feel. I have a bond with my bird that allows me to feel what she’s thinking. With the bear, I have no such link, but I can still imagine what he’s feeling. Confusion, hunger, maybe a bit of fear—but I am not his enemy.
And I think my voice reaches him. The bear doesn’t retreat and he doesn’t whine—instead he makes a whuffing sound that sounds tentative, almost inquisitive. I smile.
“Hello there. I’m Laken. Who are you?”
Shuffling. Durene makes another noise and I turn to signal her to stay put. And then—fur. I jerk in surprise and feel the bear’s face jerk back from me. Durene moves.
“Stay put, Durene.”
I breathe the words. The bear is only a few inches away from me. I can smell his sour breath, hot on my face. He’s sniffing at me almost like a dog, and I can feel his size. My knees want to quiver. A small, primate part of me wants to shriek and flee. But the rest of me is calm.
He is not my enemy. He is my subject.
And then the bear nudges my face with his. He blows hot air into my face—I sneeze on him. We become friends.
Of a sort. The bear is wary, but when it’s clear neither I nor Durene are openly hostile, he immediately turns his attention to the basket. It’s got all the food I know bears love. He paws at it, knocking the basket over and begins gulping down the food on the floor.
“Laken, do you think I—?”
Durene starts to the bear and it backs up in surprise. I wince as it nearly tramples my foot with its claws.
“Better not, Durene. I think you might be a threat to him. You’re as big as he is—”
“Take that back! I’m not as big—well, maybe I’m sort of—he’s a lot heavier than I am!”
I can hear Durene flushing, but the moment breaks the tension. The bear continues eating. I poke it in the side and it doesn’t even feel the gesture. So I take the moment to run my hands along the bear’s side. It grunts. In pleasure?
“You really are crazy.”
Durene’s voice is wondering. I can hear her edging around the bear for a better view, and then her voice lifts in surprise.
“Hey, what’s that?”
“What’s what, Durene? Is there something in the cave?”
“No, on the bear.”
“What on the bear?”
“It looks—looks like there’s a patch of his fur missing. I can’t see at this range.”
“Wait, what? Where?”
“Along the neck. Can you find it?”
Tentatively, moving very slowly I run my fingers down the bear’s head, trying to find the spot Durene mentioned. The bear lets me do it—it might be my insanity talking or my [Beast Tamer] class, but I have the sense that I can interact with him, at least to this level.
My fingers run across something odd. Short hairs, bristly. The bear farts. I recoil and Durene gags. When the air clears I go back to the bear, coughing.
“Hm. That’s odd.”
Durene’s right. A patch of the Mossbear’s fur is indeed missing. It’s hard to tell with my fingers, but my impression of the bear is that a good chunk of his fur is definitely absent near the nape of his neck.
“Why’s that there? Do you think someone cut it off when we were fighting?”
“No, there’s no blood. And the fur’s too neat. This was no accident but…huh.”
Another mystery. And not one the bear can solve; he eats all of the basket, turns, sniffs me, goes to crap in the woods and walks into his cave. That’s about the extent of my interaction with him; I never claimed I would be best pals with him, and nor is this Winnie the Pooh.
Lovely book. Not many people know that Winnie the Pooh came from a book written by an English author, long before he became a Disney animated character. But I digress.
Durene and I leave the bear’s cave and twenty meters later, Beniar rides out of the woods, practically shouting his amazement. The rest of the village clearly thinks I’m insane and fearless by equal measures.
It’s just more embellishment for my reputation as an [Emperor] if you want to be cynical, but I did it because I wanted to see if I could. I know something now. An [Emperor] can command more than people. I know this because the second test I did was to get a few dogs and march over to the fields where the first house’s walls were already standing upright.
A few rats survived the purge of two days ago. I sense a few under the earth. The dogs pad around me and warily edge back from Durene as I stand in the frozen snow. I point at the earth. At the rats hiding there.
The earth shifts. Three rats wriggle out of the earth and the dogs bark and fall on them. I stare at the ground. One of the rats is staying put.
“So it doesn’t work on all of them.”
“So you can command rats? Can you call me a deer? I’d love to eat fresh meat for dinner.”
Durene looks wistfully at me. I shrug.
“Worth a shot. If I expand the boundaries of my domain, I could try it. Not all of the animals obey me entirely, though. Maybe if I level up as [Beast Tamer]…or is it [Emperor] that decides it?”
“Dunno. Look! Ew! One of the rats is in pieces!”
“I’m just as glad I can’t. Durene, could you kick up the dirt right here, please?”
She does so obligingly. I failed to mention the rat. I didn’t think it would be an issue, but when it ran up Durene’s leg and she screamed—well, I supposed I didn’t think to ask how afraid of rats Durene is. It took several apologies and some cuddling that night to calm her down. But on the whole? Another successful day.
[Beast Tamer Level 7!]
[Skill – Animals: Basic Command Obtained!]
“Wow. I’ll finally be able to make Frostwing stop crapping on my hands.”
“Wha…? Laken, you say something? It’s late.”
It’s just past midnight when I hear the pounding on Durene’s door.
“Emperor Laken! Sire! Please get up!”
The shouting wakes me and Durene in an instant. We untangle ourselves from the sheets and I’m the first one at the door. I yank it open and Gamel’s there, gasping and panting for air.
“What is it, Gamel?”
“It’s Beniar! He’s hurt!”
Gamel opens his mouth and I hear a mortified cry from behind me.
“Laken! Close the door!”
I realize Durene’s in a considerable state of undress as it were. I leap through the doorway as Gamel ducks back, flushing and apologizing. Standing half-naked in the cold, I hear Durene banging around the inside as Gamel shuts the door.
“I’m sorry sire—”
“What’s this about Beniar?”
“He rode back to the village half-dead, sire! His own group found him as the first patrol never came back—we’ve got healing potions on him, but they’re not working fully! Wiskeria says to come quick because she’s got to mix up a brew!”
I leave the cottage at a run, stopping only to grab a coat. When Durene, Gamel and I get to the barn, there’s a crowd of villagers around Beniar, staring and talking anxiously.
“Everyone move back! Give him space!”
Being an [Emperor] has its advantages. The way clears and I can see Wiskeria bending over Beniar, mixing together something in a bowl.
There’s an arrow in his stomach, and a half-empty healing potion on the ground beside him. Despite that, Beniar looks closer to death than life. His face is greenish and Wiskeria’s telling his party not to give him any more of the healing potion.
“The poison’s preventing it from working. The wound won’t heal and you’re wasting potion! Let me finish this.”
Beniar croaks as I kneel by him. He’s still conscious. Apparently he was on his horse and riding this way when his team found him. As for what happened, he insists on telling me himself. He can’t sit up and has to whisper to me as I bend my head down.
“Arrow. Got me and Fabiel while we were riding. Didn’t even see—Fabiel died in a second. I think—I think it’s poisoned.”
“Who shot the arrow?”
It’s a whisper that silences everyone around him. I feel something begin churning in my gut. Of course.
“Five of them. They were waiting in ambush. Never seen—heard they did it sometimes. But didn’t expect—they rushed the horses. Fabiel’s is gone—I got away. They didn’t want to pursue. Just kill and loot.”
Beniar choked as someone tried to give him water. He coughed it out and continued as Wiskeria grabbed at her pouch, searching for something to add to the paste she was making.
“They’re not just coming, sire. They’re already here. Hiding.”
I stared at him. Beniar down. One of my adventures dead. All while I’d slept. All without me knowing. The Goblins weren’t anywhere in the village, that I could vouch for. But beyond it? Suddenly, the limits of my senses made me feel as if I was blind all over again.
“I have to apply this. Beniar, we need to take the arrow out, understand?”
Wiskeria brushes past me, not bothering with formalities. I step back and watch as Durene bends down to hold his legs. Someone else gets Beniar’s arms—he screams as Wiskeria pulls the arrow out and then applies the mash.
The people around me are worried. Children are crying, families are hugging each other. And all eyes are on me. Only this time, I don’t know what I should be doing. I search for words to reassure, and then hear something.
A horn call in the distance. It wails—a high, piercing sound that cuts through the night and makes the people of Riverfarm sit up and wake from their comforting dreams. It goes on for ten seconds, and then stops. Then it blows again.
Mocking. Taunting us. Telling us that we are not alone. I can see Beniar’s pale face in the moonlight, Prost’s worried expression, Odveig’s intent eyes on his wound and Wiskeria’s gaze. Hers traverses the room to find mine, cold, expectant. Waiting.
They are here. They are coming. It turns out there’s evil, real evil in this world, and it’s not just us. It has a name. It hungers. It enjoys our suffering.
It is my enemy. And I will hunt it down. I hear the horn call a third time before it fades. It’s a prelude, an ending of the few moments of peace we have. They are coming.