“I can’t believe it. It was Odveig—I mean, Sacra, the entire time?”
“Yes, Durene. I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Damnit, I feel like an idiot—”
“But how? She didn’t act like—she was always so respectful and—and not like a spy at all! I thought Wiskeria was odd when you said she might be the one, but—Odveig?”
“The best spy’s one you don’t see coming, Durene.”
“And she works for Lady Magnolia? I mean…the Lady Magnolia?”
“You know her?”
“Everyone does. She’s Magnolia Reinhart. She’s…why’d she want you, Laken? Why’d she send Odveig?”
“I don’t know. Curiosity, maybe. Or—no, it’s no use questioning it. But now she’s gone and we could have really used her, Odveig’s abilities.”
“Yeah. You know, when she hit me, I didn’t feel a thing? She just tapped my head, like that, and it was…poof! What level do you think she was?”
“High. It was a mistake to confront her. Not that I knew it was her. Now Wiskeria’s afraid she’s trapped in some political game, and the adventurers are nervous. It was a mistake to do this now.”
“But you know who was causing trouble now, right? That’s a good thing.”
“Yes, but we don’t know why, Durene. We don’t know why and if she did anything else and what she’ll tell Lady Magnolia. We don’t know—and the Goblins are still out there.”
“Yeah. They shot arrows at Gamel when he was cutting wood. Everyone’s afraid.”
“Oh! But they know you’ll take care of it! You have a plan, right Laken? Right?”
“I—I have something, Durene.”
“What is it?”
“It’s—well, it’s just a guess. An idea, really. The Goblins are hiding, and I’ve been taking…steps…to deal with them.”
“Steps is good. But what…? Is it a secret?”
“No. Just stupid. I mean, it sounds stupid in my head. It’s got to do with Jelov. I’ll—you know what? It’s time. I have to try it. Otherwise we’re in trouble. We’ve lost Odveig, I mean, Sacra, Durene. Everyone’s afraid. It’s only a matter of time before someone tries to run or gets killed, or people try to replace me—either way, that’s when the Goblins attack and we all die.”
“I won’t let them do that. I’ll kill them. All of them. By myself, if I have to.”
“I know you’d do that, Durene. But it’s my job to—to make things easier. I’ll do it tomorrow. And the situation with Wiskeria and the others—we’ll deal with it afterwards.”
“What if she’s, you know, angry I tried to hit her?”
“Then she can be angry. But she’ll obey. We’re only coming out of this one way, Durene, and that’s if we stick together. And I’ll do it. I’ll make us fight as one if I have to force everyone to do it myself.”
“Oh. That’s good.”
“Really? That sounds terrible to me.”
“Well forcing people, yeah…but you’re you, Laken. I know you’ll help everyone, even if it means twisting their arms.”
“Hah. You always know what to say, Durene.”
“Laken? Are we going to die?”
“…No, Durene. I won’t let it happen.”
“Good. But if we do, I wanted to—”
“Shh. Go to sleep.”
“But I wanted to—”
“I love you.”
“I know. I love you too.”
Three attacks. Arrows flying out of the woods and Goblins charging a group of the villagers. Both times there were only wounded, not the dead—the Windfrozen Riders chased the Goblins away before they could do more than cut at the villagers.
And yet, the pain is still there. I can hear a man screaming and whimpering before the healing potion is applied sparingly to his leg. An oval of flesh had been carved off of his leg.
It’s too much. I can sense the villagers’ fear, sense the adventurers wavering. Odveig’s sudden departure and the suspicion Wiskeria was put under has rattled both groups. Wiskeria’s in charge now, but she’s jumpy too. Whatever relationship I had with her is strained…
But we’re all in the same boat. I don’t know if Odveig—I mean, Sacra, got away safely, or if she was killed by the Goblins. We’re cut off right now. Isolated.
But not hopeless. Not yet. Once I’m done talking to Prost, I stride over to my one hope, my secret weapon, my ace in the hole.
Jelov looks up at me as I find him eating in the barn.
“Your majesty, can I do something for you?”
I don’t waste time with pleasantries.
“The markers, Jelov. Are they done?”
He sounds startled.
“Yes, your worship. Not polished as good as could be, but—”
“Good, have them brought out. I’ll be using them in a few moments.”
I leave him scrambling to get up and find Wiskeria. I think she’s trying to hide from me, but I know where she is. The [Witch] tenses.
“Your majesty, about Odveig. I—”
“Wiskeria, how dangerous would it be to go…let’s say four miles out of the village with a wagon and plant something in the ground?”
She stares at me. I’m not making sense. I take a steadying breath. Calm down.
“I have six—no, seven wooden markers. Each one’s thick—and heavy. I’m sure you’ve seen Jelov carving them.”
Still not making sense. I speak slower.
“I want to plant them in the ground. Each one needs to be hammered into the ground in a circle around Riverfarm. Deep. Somewhere where they won’t fall down, around four miles or so away from the village. Can it be done with a small group? Without danger?”
Wiskeria stares at me. She opens her mouth, hesitates, and then answers without asking the why of it.
“I suppose it’s possible, your majesty. It’d be a job for the Windfrozen Riders, and risky. If they’re attacked. Otherwise we could send out a huge band, but that would leave the village undefended and I guarantee the Goblins are waiting for that moment.”
“Okay, a small group, then. What would that entail?”
“…Four riders, I suppose. Six, maybe, depending on how heavy the markers are. It would slow them down, and hammering it into the ground would take—”
“What if Durene carried the markers? She could probably drive them into the earth with her bare hands.”
Wiskeria gulps and I hear the noise.
“That could work. But it would be dangerous.”
“You’ve said that. How dangerous?”
“I wouldn’t risk it, your majesty. Why—”
“Give me odds, Wiskeria. Solid odds. Out of ten.”
“…Four in ten odds they’re attacked, sire. If they move fast enough, if they keep in the open.”
“Good. In that case—do it. Seven points around Riverfarm, evenly spaced as possible. A perimeter. Four miles away from the village, each one.”
“I’m not discussing this, Wiskeria. Do it. Take Durene with you to make it quicker and however many people you need to feel safe, but get it done.”
I turn away from Wiskeria abruptly. My faith in her is…weakened. I thought I could trust her. She wasn’t the spy, but she did place us in danger with the Mossbear. That might have been her doing, not Sacra’s. That she didn’t come clean about it bothers me most.
And Sacra. It seems like she was one of Magnolia’s spies, someone who could pose as a Silver-rank team leader when needed. Was her hiring Wiskeria really due to them being old friends? Or was the entire team in on it?
I don’t know. I only know that she’s gone and the Goblins are my biggest threat. I stand in the village and hear the Windfrozen Riders—and Durene depart.
My heart is beating too quickly. I’m taking a huge risk. I’m gambling their lives—and Durene’s on this. I wouldn’t risk her for anything, but I have to do this. It has to work.
Prost hurries up to me, worried.
“Emperor Laken, I heard you’d ordered a group to take Jelov’s decorated poles out and place them in the dirt. It’s not my place to say, but—”
“Then don’t, Prost. I know what I’m doing.”
He falls silent. I wait, feeling seconds turn into hours, at least in my mind I feel a twinge of guilt, realizing Prost is standing with me. I’d like to explain. However, I might be wrong.
No, I can’t be wrong. But nothing else has been going my way of late. Goblins. Spies. It’s all out of control. I have only this idea—hell, it’s not even mine! I just want it to work. It has to work. Otherwise—
There’s a feeling in my chest. I pause; put a hand to my chest. I can sense Prost looking at me worriedly in silence.
Thump. I feel it, and scraping dirt. It’s coming in the direction the riders and Durene left. A sensation, far away. Miles away, in fact. I’d bet anything it was exactly four miles.
I can feel it being hammered into the ground in the distance. It’s like a beacon in my mind. Prost looks at me.
“What’s that sire?”
“One, Prost. Wait for it.”
It’s…twenty minutes or more before I feel the thump again. Can you travel four miles in twenty minutes? You can if you’re running with a horse. And Durene—I’ll bet she can run pretty damn fast too.
Prost looks at me, silent. But he’s catching on. It’s about the same time when I feel it again. Three points now, each one in the distance. One to my east, another southeast, another almost directly south…
Forming a circle. It goes on. Now one to my west. It takes a while. But then—
North, now. Prost is waiting and so am I. My heart is pounding. North—north west.
Two left to go. I wait. The next thump makes my body shake. I feel Prost steady me. The earth shifts. I feel it—
I stagger. I’m not aware of Prost catching me, shouting for Wiskeria. I only know it’s happened.
Six. That was the magic number. I feel it. A huge area of land, marked by six points, opens up in my head. Suddenly, I can see the entire world encompassed in that space.
That’s right. The markers. The pieces of wood Jelov worked so hard on. They’re in the ground now, and they demarcate a rough hexagon, slanted oddly near the north side, but circular, around my village.
Six points. Six markers made of wood, bearing my symbol, claiming this land as my own. Now the points are connected in my head, and the wide area they encompass is suddenly there. I can stretch my senses beyond the limits of the village.
I sense the forest, still covered with snow, the melting water as it drips off of a branch under the light from the sun, the Mossbear slumbering in its cave, a squirrel hibernating in a tree, worms wriggling under the mud near a rock—
And the Goblins. There they are. Hiding in the forest, a group of them armed with bows watching the adventurers and Durene racing across an open road to the last point. They’re hidden in the trees, waiting in ambush I see a Goblin raising a bow, aiming at Durene’s back, an arrow drawn.
No! I draw breath, sightless, seeing it in my mind as Wiskeria asks me what’s happening. But my soul, my very being is somewhere else. I’m with Durene, watching her pant and carry the last marker, exhausted from her rapid pace. My heart is with hers, and its life rests on the arrow the Goblin sights down. He’s aiming at her head. I shout.
The word echoes. It freezes the people around me—and the Goblin. His arm freezes as he’s about to release. He halts—and then curses, looks around. The Goblin sees nothing and looks at Durene, suddenly concerned. His fellows stare at him impatiently. Durene is nearly away.
He hesitates, falters. I say the word again.
This time the Goblin still moves. He jerks, snarls, draws the arrow to his cheek again. The word doesn’t work on him fully.
It’s a pushing, a mental shove. That’s what effect my [Emperor]’s command has. I can see the Goblin have to brace itself in some way as I demand he stops, but he can keep moving now he knows what’s coming. This time he aims at one of the adventurers.
The hesitation is barely a flicker. The Goblin releases the arrow, howling with triumph and fury. The arrow streaks after the adventurers, strikes a horse’s side. The horse and rider go down and I see Durene dragging both away. The adventures are retreating. The Goblins get ready to swarm them.
There’s a huge Hobgoblin, all fat and muscle, holding a longsword and signaling the Goblins to move in. One of two. The other Hobgoblin is closer, watching the village from afar with a group of Goblins patiently waiting in a forest clearing.
But this Hob. He’ll try to kill Durene. I see it in his eyes. So I whisper a command to him.
“Leave this place. Go far away and never come back.”
He starts as well. I sense his foot take a step away from Durene, and then he jerks it back. The command was almost completely ineffectual. But it gives Durene a chance to put more ground between her and the Goblins. And now he’s distracted.
The Hob casts around. He knows something is happening, but can’t see what. He’s wary, rightly so. He snarls something at the Goblin archer and I see the two conferring. The Hobgoblin turns his head, stares with narrowed eyes the way the riders and Durene have gone.
Towards the village. Towards me.
In my mind, I can see Durene and the riders running back towards the village. They abandon the last marker; they have to abandon the horse too. The [Rider] slits her horse’s throat, sobbing, rather than let it be taken alive by the Goblins. They come back.
And the Goblins do too. I see them streaming through the forest, some stopping to crap in the snow, others laughing, fingering weapons. The Hob snarls at them and they keep silent.
Now both Hobs are together. They gesture towards the village, the one with the sword arguing with the other. A decision is reached.
By the time Durene reaches the village, practically collapsing with exhaustion, I see it. The Goblins move out. A small group breaks away from the larger mass, circles around the village. The Goblins begin sharpening weapons, chattering excitedly. I sense their intent, see it in the way they move.
They have nets. Bundles of dry wood. They mean to capture some of the villagers and torch this place when they leave. The Hobgoblin is shouting at them, ordering them—
“—Laken? Laken! Please, get up!”
Someone’s shaking me. Someone’s holding me, pleading with me. I hear a voice I love, feel sweaty, callused palms, smell Durene—
I don’t open my eyes. There’s really no point. But suddenly, I’m back in my body, lying in Prost’s house, as Durene shakes me and Prost, Wiskeria, and all the villagers who can fit in the room over around me. I can sense them all, hear their distressed voices. Gamel is clutching the bedframe so hard I can sense the wood splintering a bit.
“Durene? Stop shaking me, please.”
“Oh! Thank goodness!”
She sweeps me up into a hug that nearly kills me. I gasp, and Wiskeria and Prost manage to make Durene let go. I sit up, breathless, and look around. Prost hovers around me, worried.
“Your majesty? What happened? One second you were speaking, the next, you fell over!”
“I’m fine, Prost. I told you I had a plan. Thanks for catching me. Now…I need to get up.”
“Are you sure? If you need to rest—”
“Up, Prost. And then you, Wiskeria, and Beniar will meet me…right here. Everyone else can get out. Durene can stay if she wants. We’re going to end this thing with the Goblins right now.”
This is what an [Emperor] sees. Three people, a young man, an older young woman, and an older man standing around a dining room table in a house still bearing the marks of the avalanche. I sit in a chair, holding a mug of tea.
And see my empire. Now it’s a huge plot of land, not just a village. I see forests and hills, animals, grass and trees buried under the snow, and all things in between. This is mine.
And there are trespassers on my land. Thanks to my senses, I can count them all. I can see where they are. And I know we’re in trouble.
“Sixty four Goblins? And two Hobs?”
Wiskeria looks at me. Credit to her, after all she’s been through she can still focus. Even more credit—after hearing what I’ve said, her voice is only slightly shaking.
“And you’re…sure, your majesty? Absolutely sure?”
“Absolutely. I may have miscounted—”
“It may be higher. They move around and I lose track. But it’s at least sixty four. At least.”
She pales. I turn my attention from her, to the fidgeting young man. Beniar stares at me.
“How can you know this, your majesty?”
“I can see them. The markers you placed claimed this land as mine. I can sense everything that goes on in my empire, including how the Goblins are moving. It’s a Skill that [Emperors] have. Or maybe just a function of my class. I don’t know.”
Beniar’s open-mouthed, staring at me. So is Prost, but Wiskeria’s focused on what I’ve said about the Goblins.
“Sixty. That’s…too many. We’ve twelve of the Trackers and seven of Beniar’s riders. We’ll be overwhelmed. And two Hobs—each one’s as dangerous as the Mossbear. More dangerous because they can think.”
Beniar nods. He strokes at the stubble around his chin, sounding worried.
“Sixty four. I uh—if they’re not trained warriors—and if they are—well, it’s doable if we can catch them off guard, right, Wiskeria?”
He turns hopefully to the [Witch]. She nods with less conviction and looks at me.
“Do you know where they are, your majesty? We could ambush them and whittle their forces down. I have a few spells I could use if I had the time…”
I wince. Here’s the bad part. I shake my head as Prost turns, sharpening a kitchen knife with a whetstone.
“They are coming. I—tipped them off.”
Prost’s hand slips. I sense the blood and hear him curse. Beniar starts and Wiskeria gets up—
“It’s nothing. Your majesty, if they’re coming, we’re doomed. At least, that’s what I understand from my own class and the looks on these adventurer’s faces.”
“Perhaps. But if we run, they’ll hunt us down, Prost. If we can fight them back…there is a chance. We’ve been training the villagers, and there are over a hundred and fifty of us.”
“Not all warriors, sire. Many children, folk too old or injured to fight, and most’ve never fought anything before. A far cry from a seasoned Goblin [Warrior].”
“Yes. I know.”
Silence. I can sense the adventurers and Prost looking at each other. But there’s no options available. Wiskeria clears her throat.
“We can rely on the palisades, block off the main street now we know they’re coming. I’ll prepare spells; see what the best area to fight in is.”
“I’ll do the same.”
Beniar springs to his feet. I raise a hand and he stops.
“There’s something else.”
I detected a group of Goblins splitting off from the main force, circling around the village. They’re clearly trying to flank us. When I tell Wiskeria that, she nods.
“Twenty…three. Including one of the Hobs. That leaves less Goblins to attack from the front, I guess.”
“But more to hit us where we least want them. I have a proposal, your majesty. If we let the Windfrozen Riders handle them—”
Beniar’s outraged. Wiskeria freezes him with a cold stare.
“You have seven people in your group, Beniar. Seven, including you. I doubt you could fight off that many alone. We’ll give you some other villagers who can use bows.”
“Yes, but—that leaves the Trackers and villagers to hold off forty Goblins and a Hob!”
“We’ll have to do it. We can’t risk being attacked from two sides. If you can finish off your group, you can help us. But we can’t let ourselves be overrun.”
Wiskeria’s in charge. She’s taking command in this moment and no one, including me is about to stop her. I can’t see the map she’s looking at, and she understands more of war than I do.
However, my input matters. I talk with Wiskeria as Beniar goes out to let his party know what they’ll be doing. Prost is already organizing a barricade.
I can sense her glancing at me from time to time. After a while, she breaks off from asking me what the Goblins are using as weapons—swords and spears, mainly with a few axes for good measure—and speaks quietly.
“I…wanted to apologize, your majesty.”
“For what, exactly?”
“For casting a spell on you. For not telling you about the Mossbear fur. For Odveig…all of it. I know that if I were in any other kingdom, the punishment for any of these things might be my life. I can only beg for forgiveness.”
“I put you in a bad spot, Wiskeria. I’m still angry about the Mossbear fur, but I understand that was a precaution.”
“Yes. I was actually trying to drive it off before you did. I didn’t understand why it was so furious—I suppose Odveig might have done something to it.”
“Well, her actions are not your fault, Wiskeria.”
“But they are. She is—was—our team leader. Because she did all these things…”
“Tell you what, Wiskeria. We’ll sort out blame after all of this. But if you fight and put your life on the line with all of us, I’ll consider that a very strong endorsement of your innocence. Deal?”
“Yes, your majesty.”
“Now tell me how likely it is you think we’ll survive.”
For a while she’s silent. Wiskeria traces the map and I hear the rustle of paper.
“Truly? We’ve no [Strategist] or [Leader] and neither do they.”
“I’m an [Emperor].”
“Yes, but—I apologize, your majesty. However, you’ve not said you have any direct combat skills. Without those, the battle remains as it is.”
“I see. You’re correct. In that case…”
“We have Durene. She might be as strong as a Hob, but she’s never fought before. We outnumber the Goblins, but only with the villagers who are as inexperienced. And these Goblins are trained, deadly. It will come down to your people, sire. They would win no matter what the odds if they were without fear—”
“But they are afraid.”
“Yes. And they will die, and see their friends and family dying. They’ll pay the cost in blood. And if they break and run—”
Wiskeria takes my hand for a moment. Her hands are cold and clammy. I squeeze her hand gently.
“Well then, I suppose it’s my job to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
I sense her smile weakly. We say little more. The village is alive with fear, with tension. But also, strangely, a bit of certainty. After so much waiting, the Goblins are finally coming. For all of us, there’s some relief in that finality.
I don’t want to die here. Wiskeria and I part ways after a while. I want to be with Durene for the hours before night, when we think they’ll strike, and she has work to do.
“Emperor Laken? May I ask you one question?”
Wiskeria stops me before I go. I turn.
“I’ve wanted to know this the entire time. You—you’re truly an [Emperor], aren’t you?”
“Yes. I am.”
“In that case…how did you become one? Were you born to it? Are you from some distant land?”
I have to laugh softly.
“I am from a distant land. One you’ve never heard of, Wiskeria. But I was not born an [Emperor]. In fact, I only became one when I met Durene.”
“What? Then how—?”
“I decided to be one. Because I knew I could be one. Because I’d heard a story about an [Emperor] with no crown. An [Emperor] with no castle. An [Emperor] with a city to live in and not a penny to his name. Beloved by all.”
With that, I leave her. I walk out the door and kiss Durene in the middle of the village. And night falls.
And the Goblins come.
This is the sound of the end. It’s blowing horns, shouting in the woods, and wind howling through the trees. The wind has to howl. It’s only fitting.
It’s the sound of your own teeth chattering as you try to make a speech. It’s the sound of a young man weeping and people around him shouting at the Goblins, roaring as if to drown out the guttural shrieks coming towards them.
It’s the sound of saying goodbye to your loved ones, holding a child’s hand, lying, saying all that will be well. It’s the sound of ‘I love you’, spoken a hundred ways to a hundred people.
It is the sound of Goblins.
They burst out of the woods around midnight. It’s a terrible wait, knowing they’re coming. When they do come, it’s so quick I can barely shout before the alarm is raised.
But we’re ready. The Goblins falter a second as they see the barricades made from overturned wagons and spikes driven diagonally into the ground. But on they come. A huge Hob is leading them, sword gleaming in the winter moonlight.
And the Goblins are everywhere. I know there are only forty of them, but they stream across the ground like one mass. I can only imagine what it’s like to see all of this and not sense it. I’m standing at the back of the rows of villagers and I think I can hear Wiskeria’s heart stop.
But she doesn’t falter. As the Goblins approach she shouts and the villagers with bows and the Celestial Trackers loose quarrel after quarrel at the Goblins. They’re answered with arrows from the Goblin’s bows, and I hear villagers cry out around me.
“To the rear! More goblins!”
A shout goes up. I can sense the Hobgoblin’s smile, but the trap he’s set with his friend cuts both ways. I hear a wild war cry as Beniar and his Windfrozen Riders charge towards the Goblins trying to attack from behind. I pray for him.
And then the Goblins are here. I hear a voice like gravel shrieking and feel helpless. I have a woodcutter’s axe with me, but I’m to stay behind the fighting. Everyone insisted. Prost told me privately that he thinks the villagers will flee if I’m killed or wounded.
So I wait. And I see it all.
The first group of Goblins doesn’t charge onto the wooden spikes. That would be suicide. They hack at the sharpened points instead, cutting with their weapons and then surge through the gaps, climbing the barricades and fighting with the people jabbing spears and other weapons down at them.
“Celestial Trackers! On me!”
Wiskeria screams and throws glowing blue fire at the nearest Goblins. She and the Celestial Trackers rush forwards. Some hang back, loosing arrows in point-blank archery duels with Goblins.
Prost leads the counterattack. He and the villagers keep formation, trying to hold the Goblins at bay. But retreating. The Goblins are expert warriors and they swarm and try to get around the villagers, some going as far as to try and climb the roofs of the houses and leap down on the villagers from above.
I hear a different cry, and sense Durene. She’s towering over the other Humans, and the Goblins are reluctant to go near her. She swings her club and they back up. Wiskeria is trading spells with a Goblin in the back wearing war paint—a [Shaman]?
And then I see the huge, fat Goblin towering over the rest. Only it’s not fat, is it? Hobgoblins like this one are round and made of muscle. And he is taller than anyone but Durene. Stronger, too.
The Hob is fighting across from Durene. He’s smashing the wooden barricades, sending villagers tumbling off it and opening a hole with pure brute strength. As I watch, he turns and cuts. One of the Celestial Trackers screams and falls, her hand severed at the wrist.
No. I want to cry out, to rush forward, but the villagers are forming a solid mass between me and the Hobgoblin. I look around—there’s a platform the archers are meant to be using, only this one’s lost its archer. I find a young woman on the ground behind it. Dead. There’s an arrow in her throat.
No time to be sick. No time to cry. I stand on the platform. I can’t use a bow. That’s one of the things sight is essential for. But I can use my voice. So I shout.
“I am Laken Godart, [Emperor] of Riverfarm! You are trespassing on my land! Leave or die!”
I’m shouting right at the Hobgoblin. I know he can hear me. He turns—his eyes are glowing, although in my mind they have no color. I shout.
For a moment he does. Long enough for a villager to attack him with a pitchfork. But the moment of hesitation isn’t enough for the young man to capitalize on it. The Hobgoblin twists his body and the tines of the pitchfork break on his armor. He slashes—the young man falls.
“I said, halt!”
This time the Hobgoblin gives me a dismissive glance. My voice of command is useless on him. He turns and grins as the Goblins around him shout and drive the villagers back.
Helpless. I feel helpless. Wiskeria is shouting orders and Prost is fighting. Durene swings her mace and Goblins scatter around her. One is too slow. The blow breaks something in the Goblin and it—she—falls.
And I do nothing.
My voice is useless. The Goblins laugh and sneer at my attempts to stop them. I can only shout. My words—
I see them falling. My villagers. They’re being pushed back by the Goblins’ relentless assaults. And their morale is weakening. Already three of the Trackers have fallen. Wiskeria screams as the [Shaman] hits her with a bolt of energy that scorches her shoulder black.
They are my people and I cannot help them. In this moment, I know it. I see a young man with a hoe cutting at a Goblin, and watch as it ducks beneath the blade, snarling, and stabs into his stomach.
His intestines come out. I see the Goblin duck away as he collapses. I know his name.
Calop, the name of a root. He is mine.
Mine. I pulled him from the ground. I saved his life. They can’t take him. He is my subject.
But he fades. I see him sagging, see a young woman clinging to him, trying to pull him up and ward the same Goblin away. He grins and cuts her.
Her name is—is Fulca. I offered her sanctuary. I told her she would be safe.
She falls too. Dying. They’re all dying.
My mouth opens silently. You cannot have them. They are mine. My subjects. My people.
I don’t realize that I’ve leapt off the archery tower. I’m standing at the backs of the villagers now, shouting.
“Stand and fight! Don’t retreat! Don’t let them advance a single step!”
They hear me. I can see villager’s heads turning, see them struggling harder. But they are mortal and frail. This is all they can do and spirit is—a Goblin guts a young teenage girl, barely older than a child.
It’s not enough. Now I’m screaming at the Goblins, shouting as they laugh in my face.
“You are not worthy of standing on this land. You did not bleed for it. You have not died for it! The people of this village have lived and died here for generations! This is theirs. And mine!”
I point at the Hob. He sees me now and throws a man aside as he cuts towards me.
“I will burn your people to dust. I will hound them from the face of the earth! I swear to you, for every one of my subjects that falls I will take a hundred of your kind as vengeance! I will not let you take this ground!”
There’s fury in my heart. Something bursting in my mind. I feel something ignite. The Hob is coming. I hear Durene’s scream, Prost yelling.
This time the Hob’s knees buckle. He pauses and when he looks at me, it’s no longer with a smile. He raises his longsword. I have the axe. I raise it.
Someone shoves me aside. The Hob’s sword descends and cuts the young man who gets in the way. Gamel blinks at me as the longsword opens up his chest. I see bloody ribs, see his open mouth.
He falls. The Hob turns to me and Durene bellows a challenge. She roars, hurling villagers and Goblins aside and the Hob backs up.
I don’t see her collide with the Hob. Gamel’s on the ground. He’s trying to tell me something. I tried? Please…?
I can’t hear. I can sense the light leaving him as I try to grip his hand. Not him. I can’t let him go. I can’t.
“Stand up! Don’t die! I said, stand up! Gamel!”
He tries. But there’s nothing left. He’s given it all to me. All. His life fades and I see it flowing out of him. I reach for it. It’s not enough. I want more. I demand more. He cannot die yet.
I will not allow it.
“Stop bleeding. Stop. Stop.”
It doesn’t work. Something in me speaks. I look into Gamel’s heart. His soul.
Something—Gamel stares at me. The wound on his chest is gushing blood. It stains the ground. But now the blood stops. Gamel’s body jerks. He stares at me. My voice is an echo. Distant. Loud like tempests, terrible. Alien. It rolls and breaks upon the ears of the living. A command.
His legs move. Weakly. There’s not enough strength in him. That’s fine. I’ll give him more. I rise.
“Stand up, Gamel. You swore to follow me on the graves of your parents. In ice and blood and loss. It is not time for you to die. I need you. Stand up!”
His body moves. Gamel rises, the sword in his hand gripped in a pale hand. I turn. There are Goblins fighting with the villagers. They stare at Gamel as he turns towards them, his chest opened, covered in his life’s blood.
Gamel charges. Flames burst from his hand and sear one Goblin’s chest. He hacks at another Goblin. They fall back, afraid.
The other villagers are fighting. They see Gamel and falter. But then they hear my voice.
“Fight, people of Riverfarm! Fight, folk of Windrest! Fight! You have sworn yourselves to me! Fight for your [Emperor]!”
I command them. I command their very souls. The wounded rise. Exhausted arms move as if they were fresh. Limbs without strength grapple with their opponents and force them back. My voice is in their ears as the villagers form up, forcing the line of Goblins back. The words come out of me, out of some place in my soul.
“Stand. I see your lives like flames on the sea. You are mine. The water will not touch you. The wind cannot quench your fire. So long as I live, your fates and mine burn together. I do not give you permission to die. So stand—and show me nothing but victory.”
The Goblins hesitate. They have never seen this. An old man with a rake charges them, hacking at faces. He blinds a Goblin with a strike, bites the sharpened points deep into another Goblins’ back. Others stab him, mortal wounds to his chest and throat.
Breathless, he keeps swinging his rake. Heart stopped, he seizes a Goblin and tears at his throat. He keeps moving as he falls, keeps fighting. And he is one. Gamel fights past him, face contorted with rage. Prost runs through a Goblin and keeps running. The villagers charge and the Goblins retreat.
Something roars. The Goblins turn and something charges them from behind. The [Shaman] casting spells at the dying witch stops laughing and sees a paw descend. The Mossbear smashes the Goblin flat and bites into a second. It roars, and bites the intruders. Called by a spell. Commanded by an [Emperor].
Two shapes fight amid the Goblins and Humans. Two giants. Durene and the Hobgoblin strike at each other, trading blows. He has a shield to go with his sword and moves with trained grace. She is slow. Her shield is crude, but it blocks his sword.
Yet she is wounded. He’s cut her deeply on the side and along one breast. Now the Hob senses the tide turning. He snarls and swings his sword. Durene sees it coming on her club arm. She does not try to block.
She howls and swings her club. The sword bites deep into her arm, cutting through grey flesh and stopping on bone. The Hobgoblin raises his other arm, his shield. The club falls through the sky and nothing in this world can stop it.
The shield deforms. The arm breaks. The Hobgoblin’s head implodes and it falls. Durene turns with his sword still buried in her left arm and roars.
She has forgotten who she is. I have forgotten who I am. A girl reaches out for fury and finds it in her desperation, in her rage.
The Goblins look at her and step back. She looms over them, bleeding, holding her club. They see the part of her the Humans fear. The part of her that has never come out before.
Durene roars and swings her club. Two Goblins die. She hammers another one into the ground, dead the moment her weapon touches him. On the hill, an [Emperor] howls and his people rush forwards around the Troll, screaming, fearless.
The Goblins are warriors. Not heroes. They break and flee as they are overrun.
A screaming band of riders rushes out from the village, weapons and armor covered in blood. They charge the Goblins from the side, cutting down Goblins from behind.
Not one escapes. The last is crushed by a massive hand. Durene tears the Goblins’s arm from his socket and hurls the body to the ground to stomp on it. In the sudden silence, every head turns.
Like magic, the villagers, the adventurers, and the half-Troll turn to look at a young man. He stands by himself, apart from the fighting. Something is looming in his shadow. He stands like a giant amid the dead, and for a moment his words are bolts of lightning, strings that death cannot cut.
Then it fades. He sags and villagers drop like stones. Laken Godart stares at his hands. They are not covered in blood. They are wet instead.
It’s over. The Goblins are dead. But it is not over.
There are wounded to attend to. So many. So many dead. In truth, not that many—
Not all. But more fall by the second, whether from exhaustion or mortal injuries, it’s impossible to say. Prost carries people to beds, opens healing potion bottles with trembling hands. It’s a race against time and some die despite his efforts.
And mine. I open bottles, hand them to people, pour the liquid over wounds and wait for them to close. Some don’t. I’m just one person in the village. One person among many that no one speaks to.
No one can look at me. No one speaks to me. I think they’re afraid to. I can barely exist myself. I—feel like I was another person for a while. I feel like another man’s memories are in my head.
What did I say? Why did I say it? How could I—
I stop and lean against the wall of a house. It’s cold. I feel sick. I want to throw up, but I can’t. I am their [Emperor]. I gave them the orders. No one else did. I ordered them to fight, and when they were dying, I told them to live.
Because I willed it.
And then I remember Gamel. I find him among the wounded, lying on a cot in the barn. I slow as I see him.
He stares up at me. I can feel his hands shaking as they try to grip mine. The gaping wound in his stomach is gone. All healed. But the trauma and blood loss can’t be healed so easily. He can’t stand.
He is hovering at the edge of life and death. He was dead. He was meant to be dead. The wound’s closed, but he can’t be alive. Like the old man with the rake. He was still moving afterwards. But though the potion closed his injuries, he never opened his eyes.
“Gamel. I’m sorry.”
“I—was happy to serve. You gave me strength.”
Gamel struggles to talk. I can see something in his eyes, fading away again. I shake my head. Tears.
“I shouldn’t have. I took something from you. I—”
“Wanted to. Give. A ruler is more than a man.”
I stare down at Gamel.
“No. Yes. He is. But I am still sorry.”
It’s not a word. Just a question in his eyes. I sit by Gamel. The words come out of me slowly.
“A ruler can afford to see nothing but pawns and tools or break his heart against his duties. But the mortal, human soul in him must cry out for every injustice he commits. Or he is no ruler, but a monster wearing the same skin. I am both. And I am sorry.”
“Still my [Emperor]. Saved us. I’ll live.”
I smile. My heart is twisting in my chest.
“Yes. You will live. Sleep now, Gamel. Sleep—and rest while I can still let you.”
He closes his eyes. I can’t tell if he’s dying or not. I put my hand on his chest and feel nothing.
I look around. The lines of bodies are long. But I sense many chests rising and falling.
Thirty one dead, forty six wounded. Of that number, eight had wounds that could not be healed with potions. A young man lost three fingers. A wife a leg. One of Berniar’s riders lost an eye. Some should have died from the wounds they took.
But they lived. Because I commanded it. They lived when many should have died.
The Mossbear is gone. It left after eating some of the dead Goblins. I think it was wounded, but not deeply. Wiskeria summoned it from its cave.
A last resort. An emergency measure. That’s why she wanted the fur.
These are all numbers I see. In my mind. But it doesn’t change reality. I stare at the few people who are upright. Some are still holding their weapons. A shovel, a rake, a frying pan of all things. But they killed with them. The blood is still on some.
I have made warriors of these humble folk. I have turned farmers into killers and taught them what death is. Is there anyone who wouldn’t be changed by such an experience? They have killed.
Goblins. They killed Goblins. But Goblins are too much like people. The people of Riverfarm and Windrest will remember this day for the rest of their lives.
Prost finds me kneeling next to Gamel. He takes me away for a moment. When he speaks, it’s a simple statement.
“You saved us.”
“You saved yourselves.”
He shakes his head.
“You saved us. I felt it. When you spoke—”
“I manipulated you. I took away your will. I forced you to—I had no right. Surely you agree.”
He shakes his head again. There’s pain in Prost’s eyes. His wife was the one who lost her leg. But his children are alive. I look into his eyes and see little gratitude. It hurts too much for that. But neither do I see anger or hatred, either.
“Not for us to say, my Emperor. We are yours. We gave all we had to you for our lives, and that of our families. We are sworn to you. Servants, subjects to a ruler. If we wished for freedom, we could only but rebel and break our oaths. We would be damned for that.”
“Some oath. What do you get, then?”
I look at Prost. He reaches out.
“You. We are yours and you are ours. So it is for every ruler and his people. They are his, or hers. And they belong to their people. One cannot live without the other. For better or worse, they are bound until one is gone.”
“Is it a Skill? Part of my class?”
For the first time in a long while, I see Prost smile. He shakes his head.
“It is not just part of classes and levels. It is the bond we have made. You gave us hope and purpose. You gave us life when the snow buried our home and our families. You pulled us out with your bare hands. How could we not give you everything we have in return?”
He leaves me with that. I go back and find Wiskeria. She’s sobbing over one of her friends. When she sees me she bows her head.
“I don’t know what—I heard you. I felt you. I—I can’t go back to Invrisil after this. I can’t.”
I kneel as she chokes on her words. She looks at me with tears in her eyes.
“Part of me died here. Part of the Celestial Trackers. We’re gone. We put too much of ourselves into that battle.”
Of the Trackers, four out of twelve survived. Of the Windfrozen Riders, five. I look at Wiskeria. At her as she is, raw, grieving. It’s not the time. But there’s nothing else I can give her.
“Wiskeria, I—I’ve misjudged you. You and your group have given—no. Wiskeria, listen to me.”
She looks at me.
“Be my [General].”
I say it softly. She blinks as if she can’t understand. But she’s smart.
I turn. So many wounded. So many hurt. A battle with no [Strategist] or [Leader]. I look back at her.
“I have…a certain number of positions I can give away as an [Emperor]. Not many positions of nobility; they’re filled. But every ruler needs someone to direct their armies. I’d like that person to be you.”
“You lead the battle. You’ve lead a group. No one else can do it. Beniar is too reckless, but you—you could do it.”
“But I’m a [Witch]. I never dreamed of being a [General]. I can’t just give up my class.”
“Be a [Witch], then. Be a [General], too. Be the first [Witch General] the world has ever seen. If that class exists, you’ll have it. If not—I’ll make it for you. But be mine, Wiskeria.”
I hold out my hand to her, in the barn full of grieving voices and death. There isn’t anything else in the world but Wiskeria and me. She stares at my hand, at me.
“Take my hand and walk with me until the world ends or we do.”
Forever passes as we look at each other. There’s still so much we don’t know. But she knows enough of me and I know her. She takes my hand. And it’s done.
I find Durene after the rest of it. She’s crying, holding a friend. I hold her close and feel her shaking. We lie down for a second and hold each other. For a second of rest. Then she gets up to help the wounded again. My [Paladin]. I close my eyes.
[Emperor Level 15!]
[Skill – Empire: Art of the Builder Obtained!]
[Skill – Undying Loyalty Learned.]
Sleep calls. But I hear the voice and know. In my heart. It pulls me up. I stand.
[Undying Loyalty]. A word for what I did. A chance. Just one.
So I sit with Gamel throughout the night. He alone lives. The rest, those who I called back from the grave—
Durene leveled too. That’s the upshot of it. Wiskeria became a Level 4 [General] overnight—Prost leveled. I don’t think there was one person in the village who didn’t level or gain a class, come to that.
There’s no work to be done the next day. Just burying the dead and burning the Goblins. I feel like a ghost at times, so little do I speak. There’s no need for an [Emperor] to order anything at this moment. I just need to be there so people can see me. To know I’m there.
They still believe in me. They believe in a man who ordered them to fight and die. Because in doing so, I saved them. I cannot forgive myself, but there is nothing to forgive for them.
We are alive. I go on with that knowledge keeping me sane.
Durene and I sit together after the digging is done. The cold ground is rough, but she is tireless. Among her new Skills is [Lesser Endurance].
Now, in the quiet of mourning I finally tell her the truth. She sits cross-legged with me, feeding Frostwing and letting the bird nip her fingers. Frostwing flaps her wings and a feather floats down.
“A [General], a [Steward], a [Paladin]…all of these classes are rare. Special. Stronger than normal classes because they’re more important, you could say. Or so my theory goes.”
“So that’s why you gave it to me.”
“Well, that wasn’t my idea to begin with. That was…luck.”
“Oh. But it’s better than other classes?”
“Better than [Warrior]? Yes, I think so. I think some classes are just designed that way, in whatever system this world works off of.”
“But that’s not fair.”
“Of course not. But it has to be this way, Durene. How can a [General] be both a [Strategist], [Warrior], and [Leader] all at the same time? It’s because he—”
“Thank you. Yes, or she—must be all these things and arguably just as good as an expert in all three fields. There’s a famous [Lord] in the north named Tyrion Veltras. Apparently he’s not only able to manage a vast amount of his lands, but he’s one of the leaders who commands the Human armies when they fight against the Drakes. To me, that sounds like he’s got at least two classes’ worth of Skills packed into one.”
“Oh. That’s good, then. So you’ll give more classes to other people?”
I nod, staring at my hands. This is one of the things I can do for them. I owe them this.
“I’m going to make Gamel my [Knight] if he wants me to. If not—there are other classes I’ve thought of. I have a few good suggestions, too. Wiskeria will offer the rank of [Captain] to Beniar to start with, and if I need to, I’ll give him a higher rank. If he doesn’t like that, I’ll see if he wants to wear armor. If there’s a [Cataphract] class, I’d love to see if his [Riders] could obtain it by wearing armor.”
Durene nods. She stares across the village, at the churned ground, still stained in places, where the fighting happened. She feels at her arm where the sword cut her.
“So how do you know all this, Laken? Claiming lands with markers, giving all these classes out—did you think of it yourself?”
“No. Actually, I…”
I break off and look around. But no one’s nearby to listen. Still, prompted by some hunch, I lean over to Durene. She obligingly bends her head down.
“I…was given this advice by someone. Let’s call it some insider advice. Ah…you don’t know what I mean by that, do you, Durene?”
“My…informant, let’s call him, was rather strange. He seemed to know exactly how a lot of things would turn out and he knew a lot about my class. He admitted as much. So I’ve used a lot of his suggestions—”
“Like making Mister Prost a [Steward]? And turning Wiskeria into a [General]?”
“And the trick with the totem poles—I mean, markers. Yeah. It’s a bit odd how much was exactly like he said. I was wary about taking all the advice, but it was free, and there’s a saying where I come from…”
I trail off for a second. Durene nudges me.
“What? What’s the saying?”
“Oh, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’.”
She shifts and I hear her voice rumbling in confusion as we sit together.
“Why wouldn’t you look one in the mouth? It could be dangerous. What if it was a Dresh Horse? You’d be sorry for not checking, then!”
I have to laugh at that. Trust Durene to come up with a practical answer to a silly folk saying.
“What’s a Dresh—never mind. I get it. And you’re right. But I can’t help but think someone’s on our side out there. Or at least, we’re getting help because it suits someone for the moment.”
“Okay, but when did you meet him? I never saw—”
“I’m not around you all the time, Durene. In fact, I met him in Invrisil. While I was there.”
“I’ll tell you all about it. Later. Hold on, someone’s coming.”
I stand up, suddenly worried. Someone is coming. Someone on horseback. Odveig? Sacra?
It’s not her. Instead, a man on horseback rides into the village, staring at the Goblin bodies and asking for me. He’s escorted to me by the villagers, some of whom are holding weapons.
I’m not worried. The man showed Prost his Runner’s Seal. Some use horses. And he has something for me. The man clears his throat a few times and I hear him speak quite nervously as he half-bows in my direction.
“I have a letter addressed to an…[Emperor]? Emperor Laken of Riverfarm?”
I have no Runner’s Seal, nor any way to prove who I am. Nevertheless, the City Runner doesn’t hesitate for a moment to hand the letter over. It smells faintly of…orchids? Perhaps. Something close to that, a delicate perfume. Durene’s murmuring tells me the parchment is rich. There’s no name on the letter, just a wax seal.
A letter to an [Emperor]. I break the wax seal and open the letter. It’s short. I have to have Wiskeria read it out loud to me.
“To the esteemed [Emperor] Laken Godart of Riverfarm, I am humbly…”
Looks like it’s a greeting from a [Lady] Rie who lives in Invrisil. She greets me, invites me to her estate which is only a few miles away, offers me her congratulations…I listen to Wiskeria read through the letter, barely able to process it at this time.
“Well. She gave this letter to you, did she?”
The City Runner coughs nervously.
“Her manservant did, mil—your majesty. However, this—isn’t the only letter.”
“That is the first letter, ah, your majesty. I have three more.”
He has three more letters, two from [Merchants] and one from a [Lord]. I hold them in my hands and sense the Runner fidget.
“Would you like to send a return message? That service has been paid for by each sender.”
“I’ll consider it. Please, stay for a while and allow me time to decide. Unless you’re busy?”
“No your majesty! My time has been paid for. I will wait wherever you please.”
“My [Steward] will find you a spot. And something hot. I will deliberate by myself.”
I wander away from the City Runner and hear him asking what happened. I wonder what Prost will tell him. Myself, I step away from the village and sit on a rock, brushing the snow off of it.
So much has happened. And this is just the latest development. It’s mind boggling. Insane.
“Strange. I can’t believe it.”
I whisper the words out loud. I stare at the letters, sniff the perfume. Each one addressed to me. All coming at once. From [Lords] and [Ladies], no less.
“It’s all happening like he said. Exactly like he said.”
I don’t know what to think. My head is whirling, my heart still bleeds. I look back towards my village and raise my head to the sky. Here it is. My empire. My people have bought it in blood and I am bound to it now.
My lands. My people. My love. All things start here. I open the next letter with my thumb.
“Well then. Let’s begin.”
After a second, I look around. I wander back into the village and raise my hand. Everyone looks at me.
“Hey, can someone read this to me?”