In this world, the main method of transportation between settlements is with wagons. True, you could argue that Runners and magic play their own roles, but the price for such deliveries is usually out of reach for the common villager. They might be able to afford a letter in a bulk delivery or a trinket to send to a loved one or relative, but as regular, reliable transportation? Never.
Indeed, you could say that Runners are by and large more useful for their discretion and ability to deliver messages and items without fear of interception. The best Runners in the world deliver for [Lords] and [Kings], after all. Whereas magic trivializes the issue of sending letters between two [Mages]—but at a higher cost. Accordingly, sending a small package instantly from one spot to a point across the world is possible, but the cost is beyond prohibitive.
So wagons rule, at least for bulk deliveries. Or, at least, they would if bags of holding hadn’t been invented. Give a Runner one of those and they can deliver goods faster and more reliably than a caravan. So extremely rich cities with powerful Runner’s Guilds like Invrisil can actually out-muscle the local Merchant’s Guild. But bags of holding are very expensive, so wagons rule in low-income areas with less substantial urban development.
The point I’m making with all of this is that wagons are important, so roads are important. Keeping a road maintained and free of monsters or bandits is crucial to a small town or village’s survival. The problem is that the said bandits and monsters know it.
The Goblin raiding force hit the caravan of [Traders] just past dawn. They streamed out of a cave where they had been lurking for the last few hours or so and charged down the hill towards the wagons and armed guards. The Humans, lone Gnoll and two half-Elves screamed and tried to form a circle with the wagons, but the Goblins were too quick.
The raiding force met the few caravan guards hard, killing two of the armed warriors in the first clash. Three Hobs lead the lesser Goblins, smashing aside warriors. The [Traders] fought back with their guards, but they were outmatched. They hadn’t brought enough guards for a long trip; they’d trusted to speed to get them from one town to another. They could make the journey in an hour or two. Less, with Skills.
But that window was all the time the Goblins needed. They only needed ten minutes, in fact. Away from any kind of large militia or the walls of a city, they could raid and be gone too quick for pursuit. And the [Traders] could hardly afford Silver-rank teams to protect them, could they? And if they could…three Hobs were more than a match for a single team.
A flawless strategy. Or rather, it had been flawless until now. Because despite all their preparations, the way the Goblins had carefully snuck into the cave through a back entrance and their [Stalkers] had crept along the road, out of view, they had still been seen. And preparation was everything.
“Are we too late to save the caravan?”
I’m miles away from the stretch of road, too far away to see the desperate fighting among the wagons or the way the blood mixes with the mud and snow on the ground. Too far to see with my eyes, that is. But my [Emperor] senses can see the Goblins—thirty or so—pushing forwards, shouting wordlessly. And I can also sense the second force, not [Traders] or Goblins, approaching at speed out of the woods.
In the silence of my mind, I can see a figure racing ahead of the group, see him put a horn to his lips and blow. There is no sound in the vision in my head, but I can see the Goblins turning, reacting to the horn call. I smile. Hello, Goblins. Allow me to introduce myself.
I’m Laken. An [Emperor], ruler of Riverfarm, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, and now sovereign lord of Windrest, Tunslaven, Kiquel, and the surrounding areas. Some call my territory the Unseen Empire, but I think that’s a bit too arrogant. Anyways, I may be blind, but I saw you coming. And this is my army.
The Goblins brought thirty, so I sent sixty. Simple math and it’s pretty much our entire force, so I don’t feel worried about leaving people behind. Not that there’s much danger; I can sense any threat coming and react accordingly. Like this. And my army has fought Goblins before.
This is how it goes down. The Goblins are still reacting, still turning to see the force of armed warriors on foot racing out of the woods when Beniar’s [Cavalry], [Riders], and lone [Cataphract] crash into them from the side. They actually take down one of the Hobs in the first clash; a lance straight through the armpit. I wince as I sit in Prost’s house. Nasty.
The riders fight for a second and the Goblins, used to battle, turn on them, trying to swarm the riders off the mounts. But Beniar’s already pulling back, circling for another charge. He’s timed it well or Wiskeria has; the infantry crash into the other side of the Goblins in tight formation. Leading the charge is a tall half-Troll I watch with anxiety and pride alike.
Durene. She’s still not wearing armor because none fits her, and her club’s still made of wood, but her shield is better than the old door she used to use. She shouts a word as she leads the assault on the Goblins’ rear. I sense her body begin to glow and Goblins shrinking back, shouting wordlessly.
Now, what would she be shouting? Probably the Skill. [Radiant Courage]! Durene’s body is shining with light, but the glow doesn’t bother the soldiers around her. They charge, shields raised, into the Goblins and reap the benefits of their enemy’s sudden blindness. Durene smashes two Goblins with her club like a hammer. Her Skill is devastating in group fights like this, where she can blind her enemies while keeping her allies safe. Now Durene charges forwards at the closest Hob.
He’s dangerous. This Hob has a battleaxe and he turns, the sharp blade dripping with blood, towards Durene. And he seems less affected by the light she emits. He lashes out with his axe and she raises her shield. I see Durene shouting again. Now her shield glows. The Goblins and Hob around Durene stumble back as a wall blocks them from swarming my beloved [Paladin]. Durene grits her teeth. I see her plant her feet in the mud, raise her shield and shove. Goblins go flying through the air and the Hob stumbles back.
[Shield of Valor]. It’s a Skill that [Knights] and other classes learn; a powerful tool for holding back the enemy or, it seems, creating an opening. The Hob loses his footing and Durene capitalizes on it. She swings her club up and down—
I shift my vision away, although part of me sees the splatter. The battle’s over. The remaining Hob is smart enough to try to run, but he and the Goblins are boxed in now by their greed. Beniar runs down stragglers and the soldiers finish off the remaining Goblins, fighting defensively, wearing out their opponents rather than taking a risk. That’s thanks to their leader, who calmly sits atop a horse from the back and blasts the Hob with small jolts of lightning until she—the Hob is female—drops with two swords in her belly.
It’s over. I see Durene turning, wiping sweat with one hand as she rests her club against a wagon and the frightened [Traders] rushing towards my little army, waving their hands, shouting their relief no doubt. There’s no need to watch the rest; Wiskeria knows what to do.
I probably didn’t need to watch after the second Hob went down, in point of fact. But I do worry. Whenever Durene fights I can’t help but watch over her. That and make sure each battle is one stacked as heavily in her favor as possible.
That’s all I can do. I sigh, and get up from the table I’m sitting at. It takes me a moment to center myself. Suddenly I’m not on the muddy road, but many, many miles east of there. I’m standing in Prost’s house in a village known as Riverfarm, and I can hear the shouts and voices of countless people in the distance around me.
“That went well.”
Slowly, I make my way towards the door and pause with my hand on the doorknob. I wait, and then open it slowly. Outside, I sense a man turning towards me and nod.
“Mister Prost? The battle is over.”
“Over? That’s quick, your majesty!”
“Yes, well, the Goblins attacked a bit sooner than Wiskeria thought. We were almost too late getting into position so there were a few casualties among the caravan. However, no one else died.”
Prost’s sigh of relief is huge. I nod towards him as I step out into the street. My feet slip a bit and Prost catches me before I can slip onto the ground. I steady myself and thank him as he lets go quickly. It wouldn’t do for an [Emperor] to fall on his face now, would it?
Even though I can sense mud and other debris underfoot, I can’t always predict what will happen. Plus, I’m bad about watching where I step when I use my [Emperor] senses. For a blind man, there’s probably nothing more ironic.
“Thank you, Prost. Please let everyone know what’s happened. I’m sure Tessia will be relieved to know Gamel’s alright.”
“I will let her know directly, your majesty. Do you believe the caravan will continue onwards?”
I pause for a moment and cast my senses east again.
“I believe so. Yes, the wagons are already moving. Sensible of Wiskeria. They’ll get to Trottvisk within the hour, I think. Which will help immensely when we begin our negotiations with them.”
“I should imagine so, sire.”
Prost steps with me out of the muddy street, and I frown as I notice how much snow’s already melted. Not that we get as much snow as some places on the continent, but it certainly makes for bad footing. There’s mud everywhere, but ahead of me the ground feels…firmer for some reason. I frown as I try to make out what I’m sensing. Not dirt, but something else. Wood? What is it?
“I know we agreed that you should be the one to talk with them, Prost, but perhaps we should leave that to Wiskeria? I could alert her with a [Message] spell and I really can’t afford for you to go even for a day. We have so much to do—and I’m adding a paved street to our lists. This mud is too dangerous, and the last thing we need is for someone to slip and break something.”
I can sense the man nodding. My [Steward] leads me onto a dryer patch of ground. Oh! Sawdust! That’s what I was sensing. How sensible, and so much easier than digging up the entire street. Prost’s ahead of me as usual.
“Yes, sire. I will make plans directly—we have a good deal of stone from the quarry we’ve set up, and I’m sure one of our [Diggers] has a stone-related skill. If not, there’s always mallets…but on the topic of sending someone to Trottvisk, your majesty, wouldn’t it be more appropriate for them to come to you?”
I pause and rub my chin.
“Perhaps. But I’d like to talk with them sooner rather than later. We could use a steady supply of goods, and if we wait for them to make the first move—”
Prost coughs gently and I break off. It’s interesting how we’ve developed a system already. He would never interrupt his own [Emperor], and yet, he does just that by coughing or making some other sound when I’m being an idiot. So I wait and let him speak.
“I think, sire, that it would be simplest to send a messenger requesting them to come here. You are an [Emperor], your majesty.”
“I—do you think they’d really come?”
“Certainly. [Lords] and [Ladies] do the same, and it would spare us having to send a party ourselves…”
“…And we get to negotiate on our own ground. Excellent idea, Prost.”
“I’ll see to it at once, your majesty.”
“Good. Now, we’ve now expanded the totems to the roads between Trottvisk and Acran, but I’m still not sure about our northern borders. Obviously we don’t want to annex other villages, but can you have someone replant the markers down the…oh, the forked road just past Kiquel?”
I scratch my head.
“I can’t tell what’s at the crossroads there and it’s making me uneasy. And I know Jelov’s overworked, but I could really use another marker around that pond we found north of here. It gets fuzzy if they’re too far apart, and I could swear something is living down there…”
Prost follows along as I walk and talk. Around me, people call out, waving, speaking my name. Houses are going up, men and women are carrying wood and stone to new foundations, and in the distance, a group of [Farmers] is breaking new ground for fields. They want to plant now, and spring is only a month or so away by their reckoning.
I take it all in, part of me still amazed everything is happening. This is my empire. And it’s growing. Three villages are already pledged to me including Riverfarm, and we’re building new houses as fast as we can to keep everyone under a roof. And if a town decides to join, well—
I’m lucky I like to stay busy.
There is a dignity to being an [Emperor], but naturally that dignity is compromised according to each situation. I’m aware of the sins of hubris, and so I try to tell people that I’m as much of a man as I am a leader. With that said, I know the people of my village cherish my reputation, so I try to be dignified as well.
It’s debatable how well I do. For instance, I still live in Durene’s cottage because I love it there, and Durene and I need…special time now and then. The village is not a good place for privacy. Everyone wants to live near me, and though Kiquel and Tunslaven are still standing, people keep coming here. Because they feel safe.
I’m going to have to do something about that. I’ve already made plans with Prost to expand both villages when we have time. There are good pastures in Kiquel and Tunslaven is too nice to abandon. However, it might be that Riverfarm eventually gets so big that both of the other villages become districts that are only a stone’s throw away from the main empire. Now that’s an intimidating thought.
Nevertheless, where was I? Intimacy. Right. Prost goes over every architectural decision with me and since I have a view of my entire kingdom in my head, I can organize the upcoming houses, fields, barns and so on in a very efficient manner. I can also make it so that no new expansions are being built in the direction of Durene’s cottage. That can stay as it is, thanks.
And yet, in public it’s still on me to preserve my image as an [Emperor]. I can’t walk around inspecting spots forever; I need a throne. Everyone says so, from Durene to Wiskeria to Gamel. Beniar doesn’t, but he thinks I should have a chariot. I was against a throne since I want to be active, but we all found an…unusual compromise.
“Good morning, Emperor Laken!”
“Good day, sire!”
“Hello, Cinney. Good morning Siccy. Why is there an egg in your pockets?”
The young boy turns guiltily to me as I move through the village on my throne. He shuffles and clears his throat.
“It’s a snack, sire! My ma boiled it and I was going to eat it, but I forgot—I’m sorry.”
I smile at him.
“Ah. I see. Never mind then, I was just curious. Your mother’s quite smart—boiled eggs are a favorite snack of mine.”
“I’ll tell her you said so!”
Siccy’s bright voice makes me smile as I ride on. I can sense him watching me as I continue sitting on my throne. Yes, it’s certainly impressive. Eye-catching? Most definitely. Comfortable…not exactly.
I shift, and my ‘throne’ grunts a bit. It plods down the street and the villagers give it a respectful distance, but they’re used to the Mossbear enough by now to call out greetings to me as I pass by. One daring girl even offers my mobile throne a piece of dried jerky, giggling as it snuffs and licks her fingers. Her father scolds her for getting in my way, and I smile and wave.
Yeah. I ride the Mossbear around from time to time. It’s…regal? I’d grant that it’s impressive, but I personally feel like I’m in some kind of satire of a certain world leader each time I sit on the Mossbear. At least my bear is docile; I’d hate to try and ride him when he’s running about.
It’s thanks to my [Beast Tamer] class that I can have a bear as a throne, anyways. Or maybe my [Emperor] class and my [Beast Tamer] class? I can’t help but feel like a Level 9 [Beast Tamer] is a bit too low-level to have forged a bond with a bear already. But hey, what do I know? And speaking of animals with bonds—
I raise my arm and call out. I sense a shape diving towards my arm and I’m glad Frostwing decides to land on the leather armguard rather than my shoulder this time. The large and, apparently, blue bird preens herself as I stroke her head.
“You’re learning to fly really well, aren’t you? Good job! Maybe now you’ll be able to feed yourself, rather than gobble meat all day. Would you like that? I can tell you’re going to poop now. Don’t do it on me, please, or the bear.”
A beak pecks at my fingers and I sigh. A tiny little tongue licks my fingers—Frostwing must have noticed the honey biscuit snack I had for lunch. A real treat I had to share with the bear as well. He’s a surprisingly docile fellow for someone so big. I’m told Mossbears camouflage themselves and attack deer when they get hungry. Or people. I’m just glad it’s possible to tame him with hot, buttery mashed potatoes.
“Okay, okay. You’re hungry and you’re a terrible hunter. Ow! Don’t peck. We’ll get you something to eat. Let’s all just go see Prost, okay? Prost. That way.”
I nudge the bear mentally and with my legs and he ambles left. Frostwing flutters down to land on his back and sits with me as we proceed down the street. The bear. I haven’t come up with a good name for him yet. I’m thinking something German would be nice, but I’m really not inspired. And he’s not exactly fussed—it’s just that having [Lesser Bond: Unnamed Mossbear] in my head is a bit…well, I feel bad for him.
“Emperor Laken, good morning, sire!”
“Prost. What have we here? Hello Durene, we meet again.”
Durene turns as I approach a cleared space with a lot of wood, nails, and busy people hammering and cutting wood. My half-Troll lover reaches up and strokes the Mossbear’s head. He whuffs at her as Frostwing caws impatiently. Prost edges around both bear and bird as I slide off and coughs nervously. I think he’s afraid of both animals, which is perfectly understandable. I step to one side and investigate the scene with my senses.
“That’s a lot of wood. A lot of nails and screws, too. Do you think you have all the materials you need?”
Prost hesitates. He glances around.
“I think Mister Helm’d be the better man to speak to that, sire, but I see he’s busy. I’m not an expert, but from what he and the other [Carpenters] and [Blacksmiths] say, building this…thing should be easy.”
“Trebuchet, Mister Prost. It’s called a trebuchet.”
“Yes sir. I’ve never heard of it as I said, and the other folk say they haven’t either. Then again, you hear about odd weapons being used in Chandrar and Baleros—do you think we can truly make it, sire?”
I have to hesitate.
“Possibly, Mister Prost. It’s worth a shot at any rate. I uh, can’t read the designs Ryoka gave me, but you told me they look good?”
“Oh, yes sir. It’s a very simple design. It’s just the size of it that’s stumping us, sir. You say these things are meant to hurl blocks of stone hundreds of feet away? I’ve heard of magical catapults that couldn’t do the same!”
“Well, these are siege weapons, Prost. In fact, I’d prefer a catapult, but Ryoka couldn’t remember how uh, torsion siege weapons were made. Trebuchets are a lot easier, according to her. Someone apparently made one out of duct tape once.”
“Never mind. If you think you can make one, I’d love to use it on any attackers. Put it on wheels, maybe make them smaller since we’re not exactly firing at castles here and…well, why not? Just think about it, Prost. Six of these aimed at a group of Goblins and we wouldn’t have to fight a battle.”
“I can’t argue with that, sire. And it’s such a simple thing too. One arm goes up, a heavy block goes on the other end, and it all rests on this uh—”
“Yes, that. I’m most worried about whether the wood will stand up to all the weight, sire. Our first trial broke the fulcrum thing as you know. However, the lads—and the three ladies—are very excited about it. Miss Tessia’s almost as keen as the boys are to see this thing throw something. And on that note, I learned yesterday that three of our folk have a new class, sir!”
Prost leans over and whispers to me confidentially.
“They’re [Tinkerers], sir. Not [Engineers] like you’d hoped, but I’m told that’s the first step. To have three in one village, well, it’s extraordinary. Begging your pardon of course, I know you’d hoped for more.”
I shake my head, smiling broadly.
“That’s great news, Prost. I didn’t think [Engineers] were that likely, but I’d hoped, that’s all. You see, to gain the [Engineer] class I think the people would need the right tools, more knowledge about how to build things, and perhaps the right mindset. As it is, the [Tinkerer] class will probably become [Engineer] about, oh, I’d say Level 15 or so. So there’s nothing to worry about.”
I can tell Prost is giving me an admiring look. It’s completely undeserved.
“You know so much, Emperor. How did you learn about so many classes?”
I cough. I might have said too much. I hesitate over my reply.
“Someone…told me, Prost. Anyways, these [Tinkerers] have useful Skills?”
“Yes, sire. Tessia learned [Detect Flaw], which is a great help in itself. It’s a Skill that lets her know if we’ve cut something wrong or there’s rot in the wood and so on…I wouldn’t mind her going to all of our houses later on to check on them as well.”
“I think that’s a fine idea. At your discretion, Prost. Now, I know Durene’s helping you lift things, but could you spare her later on? I haven’t had much time to see her after she got back.”
I can sense Prost’s posture shift, and I studiously ignore the small smile on his face.
“Yes, sire. I could let her go right now—”
“No, no. I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”
I cough again, and turn away. An [Emperor]’s dignity. I try not to blush. I turn back to the Mossbear as Prost returns to the construction and sigh. When everyone and their dog knows about your relationship—and worse, now approves of it and actively tries to give you space—it’s nearly as bad as the prejudice.
Seid doch nicht so pervers. At least today I got to see the trebuchet fire. True, the rock went nearly straight up and crushed half of our experimental model. Prost and I concluded that the testing had better be done from far away using a long rope—and everyone should wear helmets just in case. But it’s a start. Hell, more than one. I’m building trebuchets now. Where does it stop?
I guess this kind of technology will help level the field against [Mages]. Our best mage is Wiskeria, and she’s a [Witch]. That’s a concern for later, though. Our new empire is still stronger than it has any right to be. Hopefully all these little tricks—the palisades we keep rebuilding further and further out, the network of totems, my ‘eyes’, and things like the trebuchets will keep us safe, keep my people safe from now on.
And maybe if no one else dies, the nightmares I’ve been having will someday stop.
Today I had my first audience. It was spontaneous—I didn’t realize the messenger had arrived until he was riding in on horseback—largely informal, and took place while I was sitting on my throne. The Mossbear. Given those circumstances, I can’t see how it couldn’t have been a success.
“I’m deeply grateful for the gifts, from Trottvisk, Mister Rencil. And I understand the trading caravan gave my people several tokens of their appreciation as well. However, it was our pleasure to help fight the Goblins. They are a common enemy that transcends alliances and feuds.”
“Just as you say your majesty. But we are deeply grateful for your protection. I ah, am instructed to tell you these are only the smallest representations of our esteem. Our town did not know there was such an—an esteemed personage so close by, or we would have sent a delegation earlier, of course.”
The [Messenger] stammers as he tries to control his nervous horse around my bear. I smile and dismount. I think my closed eyes bother the young man on horseback as much as the bear.
“Please, allow me to offer you some refreshments and food. It’s the least I can do.”
“You are too kind si—I mean, your majesty. However, I couldn’t intrude. I’m—I was only instructed to deliver the gifts and report b—I mean, return at full speed.”
He’s stumbling over himself and almost falls over himself as he hands Prost the gifts—some wax candles, a bundle of fine cloth, and a bottle of some kind of drink. Probably alcohol. He clearly doesn’t think it’s a fitting gift, but I don’t really care. Mainly, I’m a bit concerned that my reputation as an [Emperor] has spread so far already. Rumor and gossip are one thing, but how—
Ah. Wiskeria and my soldiers must have talked. Drat. Regardless, I smile up at the man and offer him my hand. He fumbles with his glove and his hand is sweaty as it grasps mine.
“I shall await the delegation eagerly. I feel that mutual ties between my empire and Trottvisk would be beneficial for us both. You may know that my army keeps the area around my empire safe from monsters and bandits—I would like to do the same for your towns with their permission.”
“I will tell them that at once, your majesty. I’m sure we could provide you with anything needful—we have lots of goods—for your protection.”
“Uh, that wasn’t what I—”
Too late. The messenger is already promising me whatever Trottvisk can offer if we’ll keep the Goblins from sacking their town. I sigh over it later when he’s gone, but Prost and the others are approving. Protection for tributes. It feels wrong, but Wiskeria puts it into plainer terms for me.
“You have a finite force at your disposal, your Majesty. Fighting battles—even ones where you know the enemy is coming—will cost you time and lives. Why shouldn’t other towns offer you some sort of support for your protection? Going out of your way to keep the roads patrolled is enough of a boon as it is. Normally adventurers have to be paid vast sums to do the same.”
“I suppose you’re right, Wiskeria. And on that note, I hope you can find more recruits soon. We have half a dozen adventurers, around fifty warriors and archers, you, Durene, and…a Mossbear as our standing forces. That’s not exactly reassuring if a larger group of Goblins comes calling.”
My [General] nods calmly. She’s rarely in the village, often dealing with a threat or talking to other villages, but I trust her perhaps most of all my close advisors because she is so competent. She’s taken to her role as well as Prost has.
“Beniar knows some adventurers and I have my own contacts, but I believe we’ll find the most success recruiting old veterans and training new warriors from the villagers. The army might be small now, but it is substantially more powerful than most towns’ militias, in my opinion.”
“True. But we need more gear. If all we have is weapons taken from Goblins…well, let me know if there are any more [Knights] you would like me to dub. I think I could make about ten more.”
Wiskeria shifts as she laces her fingers together and frowns slightly.
“I think it might be best to wait, your majesty. I understand Gamel and the others are leveling quickly and that [Knights] are far superior to [Warriors], but if they are limited—”
“—I should wait for truly promising recruits. I understand.”
I grimace. Making [Knights]. Of course, it’s not without their consent and each person I’ve dubbed has told me how honored they are—Gamel still seems stunned and his girlfriend, Tessia, is over the moon about it—but it still feels wrong. Like I’m forcing them to become something they’re not.
“Hm? I’m sorry, Wiskeria. I drifted off there. What were you saying?”
Silently, the [Witch] offers me a cup of the tea she brews and keeps in canteens at her saddlebags. I accept it gratefully—she brews very strong tea which has more caffeine in it than coffee. It also has a very refreshing minty taste.
“I was saying, that appointing [Lords] and [Ladies] might lure in even Gold-rank teams, if you so choose. Their loyalty might be bought, but if you’re concerned, I could ask about trustworthy groups…”
Her tone is cautious. I frown, but not because I’m disagreeing with her. Appointing…? Oh, right. That’s a good idea. But…alas. I sigh.
“Unfortunately, Wiskeria, I don’t have any more such titles to give out, at least not now. I could probably name one or two more [Lords] and [Ladies], but nothing more. I, uh, gave the other titles away to save my village a while ago.”
She’s looking at me with that piercing, inquisitive gaze. And adjusting her spectacles. I keep my face smooth. I trust Wiskeria a lot after it was revealed Odveig was the spy and she was loyal all along, but telling someone about making a bunch of Frost Faeries [Baronesses] and so on is a bit…well, let’s just say that it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of mental health.
“I’m willing to offer other groups land, or some kind of title, but I’d rather have people who are loyal rather than here for personal gain, Wiskeria.”
“I understand. In that regard I think we’ll be fine either way.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
Wiskeria counters my raised eyebrow with one of her own. She nods towards the door. I gave Wiskeria one of the first new houses we constructed, but she’s already hinting she’d like a personal home when we finish building the essentials. That’s fair. Her neighbors are already complaining of the smells her witch brews create.
“You just received a messenger from Trottvisk, your majesty. I imagine the other nearby villages and towns will have heard about that and your army, and will be sending their own envoys shortly. I expect at least one village will pledge themselves to you, and there will certainly be at least a handful of older warriors among their number. And that’s besides the gifts you’ll receive.”
I cough on the tea.
“You think so? But we already got tributes—”
She shrugs dismissively.
“Tokens of esteem. Tributes for an [Emperor] would be far more substantial, I imagine. Which is why spreading word of your name and class is important.”
I stare at her. Well, turn my head towards her while keeping my eyes closed. It’s practically the same thing.
“Did you plan all this ahead of time, Wiskeria? Is that why rumors about me keep spreading?”
She only smiles and sips at her tea. Witches. They’re so…mysterious.
Goblins attacked a distant village and burnt it to the ground. The people were slaughtered or taken prisoner. I heard about this through a [Message] spell sent to Wiskeria. There was no word on how many Goblins attacked or if there were Hobs, but I told Jelov I needed more markers done now.
There is a limit to how much ‘space’ each marker can cover. We need more to extend our vision past the few towns and villages around my empire. Winning a battle is all about knowing where the enemy is coming with as much advanced notice as possible. If a large force does come here…we have to be able to set traps, lay in ambush. We don’t have the soldiers yet—
But I am leveling up. And if I need to I will fight. Order my villagers to fight, even when their bodies are spent. Even if that means seeing more of the dead faces in my dreams.
The delegation arrived on horseback around midmorning, as I was about to visit Jelov the [Carver]. I would have seen them right away, but Prost insisted there was a formality to everything. He had their horses saddled and the visitors given a meal in the newly-built townhouse that also doubles as the main storehouse and kitchen, and I went to visit Jelov in the meantime.
“Your majesty, I’m so happy to see you! Can I offer you a seat? Whoops, there’s a chisel there…and that’s no good—let me just brush off some wood shaving here. Please, please, have a seat!”
I smile and sit as the [Carver] sidles around me, fussing over me. I get him to sit only after a lot of coaxing. But then, it’s probably only natural that Jelov is glad to see me. My usage of the marker totems that define my territory—and thus the limits of my [Emperor]’s sight—have made him an important man in the village, where before he was something of a hermit.
Now he has his own house, respect, and two apprentices. Jelov practically gushes all this out as he sits a bit too close to me, and I recall why I don’t visit him all the time. Spit is good for the skin. I keep telling Durene that.
“I’m working on more markers as we speak, sire, but my hands ache so. I carve all day, which isn’t to say it’s not worth doing! But I’m afraid you can’t rush art.”
I smile. Art. Each totem Jelov comes out with is subtly different. The symbol at the top is always the same of course—it’s the illuminati eye, known as the Eye of Providence. But Jelov takes liberties carving the rest of the eight-foot totems, sometimes illustrating battles, sometimes carving names or other weird symbols into the wood—I don’t mind, and he clearly feels like uniform totems would be a crime.
“I understand you’re working your hardest Master Jelov. And I’m not here to demand more of you—rather, I wanted to know about a little rumor I’ve been hearing. Something about miniature carved totems popping up around the village with my symbol on it?”
Jelov gulps audibly. I put my cup to one side and turn my head towards him.
“What’s this about, Jelov?”
“Well—it’s nothing sire. Just a little sideshow, a distraction. A hobby more like. It’s just these—why don’t I show you one? Here?”
He rushes about his workshop and comes back with several objects that are all about the size of my hand. I study them in my mind’s eye. They’re…well, they’re scaled down models of the markers, carved in the same way, polished and rounded down at the edges.
“Totems, sir. Just like you said. Trinkets, really. It’s just a little thing I’ve been doing for the other folk who live here.”
He sounds surprised.
“Why, because they ask for them sire! Everyone wants one of these in their homes. They think it gives good luck. Or protection! If I wasn’t carving these large markers I’d be making these little ones all day. The demand’s through the roof! Err—not that I take time off to make them, not at all! These are just a bedtime occupation. A bit of carving between the sheets, before I sleep, sire. Honest!”
I have to shake my head. I know the markers are essential and people take pride in this empire and me, but this? I pick up one of the little totems Jelov’s carved and frown as I trace the etchings on the wood.
“You say people want this Jelov, but how do they pay for it? No one has any money to spare—unless they’re giving you something else?”
It was a hesitant request, but the villagers gladly gave me what little they had. I in turn traded with the various towns for more food, more supplies on their behalf. What was left over Prost insisted was mine, as I ruled everyone. Jelov crabs sideways, and his voice is…shifty.
“Well, y’see your majesty, there’s coin and then there’s a bite of food, some fresher pillows, maybe a scented candle…small things to exchange, you know? There’s no harm in it.”
“Bartering. Of course. But if people need money—”
“There’s time enough for that when we’re all eating rich, milord. Us simple folk just like having something to give and take with our spare time, that’s all.”
Jelov’s voice is surprisingly firm. I hesitate, and then relent and put the half-finished totem down.
“Just don’t let it take too much time, Jelov. And tell people the totems don’t work like they’ll hope. I can’t see everywhere at once and I wouldn’t even if I could.”
“Ah, you say that sire, but didn’t you rescue little Evvy when that old wall collapsed onto her? You were shouting for people to dig her out before we’d even noticed she was missing!”
“That was luck, Jelov. I can’t do it every time.”
“Once or twice is better than none, your majesty. And a bit of hope’s what folk like. Not to mention my carvings look good on the mantelpiece or by the bed.”
“I wish they wouldn’t put them there.”
I bite my lips on my reply. People are people, and I can’t help what I sense. But having an image of a couple…or trio…having sex in vivid details is not one of my interests, thank you. Villagers they might be, but the people of my empire have surprisingly kinky tastes. I could have lived without knowing that.
“Never mind. Why don’t they put them by the windows? That’s a very proper place for it. Far from the bedrooms. Maybe over the mantle?”
“You’d know best, wouldn’t you, sire?”
Jelov twinkles at me and I glumly resign myself. At least there’s no real harm in it, and if people like it—I turn as Jelov lifts up a tiny carved illuminati eye on a round wood ball with a flat base.
“Now this is a little trinket I came up with yesterday. Very small and convenient it is. Perfect for a pocket or as a gift. I’m told some folks are making their own—not as good as mine of course—and sending them to relatives.”
“You think so? I think it could use a bit of color, myself. Do you want one, milord? I could get one painted and all special like. Maybe as a gift for Miss Durene?”
“I’ll think about it, Jelov. Just don’t let your hobby overtake your work.”
Sighing, I leave the [Carver]’s shop behind. Little illuminati totems. And people want them staring at them. What next? Well, next is arguably less fun. I wipe the spit off the side of my face, and then begin the negotiations.
They go well. Riverfarm, or rather, the Unseen Empire might not produce any agricultural goods, or trade goods, or any goods of any kind at the moment, but we’re currently the most powerful force in the area. And because I can see everything in my territory, I can promise safety without it being a lie. It’s funny how much people are willing to offer for that.
Word spreads quickly about the Goblin attacks. Two more delegations arrived and another village, Batte, asked for my protection. I couldn’t give it. They were too far away. So the villages decided to come here.
Now the three closest towns and almost all of the villages accessible in a day’s journey are under my protection. Under the protection of the eighty-some warriors and Wiskeria, a [General], but a low-level one. My champion is Durene, a Level 14 [Paladin]. I’m worried. But Wiskeria comes by with a proposal, and it’s such a good plan that we send out messengers that night to each town and village. We have a plan in case the Goblins come in force. I hope we never have to use it.
“Delivery for…Emperor Laken Godart? Yes, sir. My name is Thasius Griff. I am a City Runner from Invrisil. I have a delivery—several deliveries for you, your majesty. Do you have a seal?”
I stare at the City Runner in front of me. My eyes drift sideways to Prost. The man shakes his head and grimaces. I look back at Thasius.
“No. Should I?”
“It isn’t required your majesty, but a specialized and unique seal for our uh, wealthier clientele speeds up our deliveries. May I ask you to place your hand on this truth stone and declare your name?”
“Certainly. I am Laken Godart.”
There’s a delicate pause. Thasius coughs. I wait a beat. So, that’s what they want, is it?
“I am an [Emperor].”
“Thank you, your…your majesty.”
After a brief moment of hesitation, the smooth stone is taken back. Thasius steps backwards and fumbles with his bag of holding, a bit more hesitant than before. I tilt my head. I can’t see inside the bag of holding with my [Emperor] senses, so I’m as curious as my advisors around me.
My advisors. That means Beniar, Wiskeria, Durene, Prost, and Gamel. In truth, Beniar’s more of my cavalry leader, but he’s a solid adventurer and he sometimes has good advice. Durene’s here because I love her. Prost and Wiskeria are both intelligent and run my empire. And Gamel’s here because I want him to be here.
“I have—excuse me—I have several gifts from various clients, your majesty. If you will allow me, I will present them one at a time so you may confirm delivery.”
“May I ask who sent each gift?”
Thasius nods. He’s holding the first parcel in his hands, some wrapped, bulky set of objects.
“Each client specifically requested their name be mentioned with their gifts, your majesty. There is no request for a return message, but I will deliver any verbal or physical replies free of charge as part of the service.”
“I see. Very well then.”
The City Runner nods and clears his throat.
“The first gift I have is from the Merchant’s Guild in Invrisil. They offer you their profound thanks for rescuing two of their caravans from Goblin and monster attack respectively, and offer you a small gift as their thanks.”
He unwraps the cloth parcel to reveal…bottles. I frown at them, sensing the liquid inside.
“Forgive me. I cannot see what these ah, gifts are. Prost? Will you tell me what they contain?”
Prost steps forwards and the City Runner offers him the bottles. There’s a moment of fumbling, and Prost’s voice catches.
“These are—healing potions, your majesty. High-quality ones. And this is a—a perfume?”
“Scented oils, I believe. And this one is a potion of Armorskin, a powerful one. I believe they’re the same quality as the ones used by Gold-rank adventurers.”
“We can certainly use them.”
Wiskeria murmurs in my ear. I nod, but keep my face straight. I know my reactions are being watched by Thasius, so I nod while showing little emotion.
“An expensive gift. Please return my thanks to the Merchant’s Guild and assure them that I hope for continued prosperity between my people and theirs. What else do you bring?”
“A gift from a [Merchant], your majesty. Specially scented soaps.”
Yes, soaps. Some are clear red, others are light purple, one’s pink…Durene and Wiskeria touch them, exclaiming over them softly so I let them take the bundle. Soaps. Apparently they’re very expensive. And this merchant’s sending them to me as a gift.
Hmm. This time I just nod towards Thasius.
“Please thank your client for the expensive gifts.”
I don’t mention the [Merchant]’s name or go on. And Thasius notices. And I notice that he notices. Now I think I’ve got the tune of this game, so I go on.
Eight gifts were sent my way, from eight people who live in the general area of Invrisil or nearby. And, coincidentally, each one was delivered at once. Was it the Runner’s Guild who arranged that? Or were the roads not safe until now?
Curious. I recognize two of the gifts as being from the same senders as the letters I’d received over a week ago. I remember thinking hard over what to do with each letter, but I eventually did exactly what I’d been advised to do.
My reply to the various letters I’d received had been uniform, polite denials to their requests to meet. I’d told each person, from the [Merchants] to the nobles that I was busy, invited them to pay me a visit at their convenience and so on and so forth, and expressed my best wishes for the future. I’d signed it simply as ‘Laken Godart’ and not added any titles.
It seemed like the thing to do. Pique interest, keep them occupied wondering what my game was, and move on with the important business while they schemed. And so, after a week of waiting, the next move these powerful figures did was to offer me gifts. And while some were useless, like the soaps and received my scant thanks in return, others were intriguing.
“This comes from Lady Rie, your majesty.”
Thasius has to struggle with his next delivery and for good reason. I blink as he pulls out a long, long, package and small wrapped parcels of powder, tiny vials, and most curious of all—
Yes, several large jugs of goat’s milk. I stare at the odd collection of items that sits on the table in front of me, and Thasisus explains.
“Lady Rie delivered a short message with the gifts. She understand your majesty is uh—uh—”
“Um. Yes. So she ordered me to deliver the message verbally. It is as follows.”
I sense Thasius closing his eyes and he speaks slowly and carefully.
“To [Emperor] Laken, I am Lady Rie Valerund of Invrisil. I offer you my greetings and hope that the people you have chosen to protect fare well in these troubled times. I understand you have taken several villages under your aegis, and offer these medicines, ointments, and powders that have been created to ease children into this world. The young are our future, and the taxing requirements of raising them should be lessened if at all possible. I hope and trust we shall meet in the future as circumstances allow. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, Lady Rie.”
The young man is panting when he finishes. I stare at the gift Lady Rie has sent me. Piles of—of—baby powder? And milk? I can’t help it.
I laugh. The sound makes Thasius start, but then I stand up. For a second I debate making him memorize a reply of my own, but then I relent.
“Please tell Lady Rie that I am most grateful for her thoughtful—and insightful gift. I would welcome a meeting between us and hope I can return her gift in time. I am most humbly in her debt as Emperor Laken of the Unseen Empire.”
Chuckling, I sit down. Thasisus stares at me before scrambling to break the next gift out. That night I share around soaps, candied treats, and other goodies. I don’t really want any of the things myself, and Wiskeria can use the potions. The only thing I keep is three of the soaps. They’re useful and Durene wants to use them. We try the first soap that night and conclude that the soaps are good, but we need a bigger bathtub. A hot tub would be very nice.
The trebuchet arm broke, but at least we knocked down a tree. Now, if only we could aim the damned thing. Ryoka said the arm had to be…what was it? A ratio of 1:3.75? That’s really hard to put into practice.
And yet, a trebuchet…I see Tessia’s eyes shining as she fires a tiny, prototype and it sends a rock flying across the village. It’s a good idea. I just have to make sure none of the kids make models of the trebuchet themselves. The stone brained Mister Helm and nearly cracked his skull.
Another town attacked. This one fought the Goblins off, but at heavy cost. The attacks are all coming around a mountain far to the east, and there’s a rumor going around that some kind of Great Chieftain of the Goblins lives there. All the better—or worse, I suppose. A Great Chieftain sounds bad, but if they’re further away, it means raiding parties won’t bother to travel this far. We’d have to have something they really wanted for them to attack, and the Unseen Empire’s greatest asset is that we’re poor.
We’re poor. Hold on, what’s moving down the north road? It’s just at the limits of my senses, but it feels like it’s headed north. And isn’t that where…?
The attack was sudden, fierce, and came at dawn. Over two hundred and twenty Goblins poured out of the snowy landscape, and twenty six Hobs were leading them. It was a force that might take a town, or raze a village in less than an hour. But it was not a village nor a town that was attacked.
It was a mansion. Nestled comfortably adjacent to a small town, the home of Lady Rie and the Valerund family’s estate was in theory safe from bandits. The magical wards on the walls and the lady’s own private guard were more than a match for any monster or bandit attack.
But not Goblins. A [Shaman] blasted the wards off as the other Goblins swarmed through the town, setting it alight. Hobs cut down the shocked defenders as people fled towards the mansion.
No one made it.
The Goblins encircled the mansion, pounding on walls, trying to break the magically-reinforced glass. One Hob managed to bash through a window, but magefire and a hail of arrows dissuaded other Goblins from entering that way. Too dangerous. Instead, the [Shaman] began dancing in front of the door and the remaining Hobs brought out the battering rams. They began pounding on the doors as the lesser Goblins around them shouted, whipped into a frenzy by the [Shaman]’s dancing and spells.
Inside the mansion, Lady Rie Valerund and what remained of her guard sat and counted weapons. They had few bows, although there was a surplus of arrows for each one. Her servants and protectors were all gripping weapons, but they were only good steel, not enchanted. The Valerund family was not heir to the Reinhart legacy, and their bloodline had been whittled down over the years to one sole member.
The scion of the Valerund blood sat in one of her upholstered chairs and looked towards the captain of her guard. He, a brawny man who’d been an accomplished [Street Brawler] before she’d met him, was injured. Blood ran thickly down one arm before he poured a splash of healing potion on the wound. Lady Rie eyed the bloodstains on her carpet and said not a word about it.
“Have you sent a [Message] spell to Invrisil, to Lady Reinhart?”
She turned to her [Mage], a young man who had attended Wistram but failed to received his mage certification. The pale-faced man nodded.
“I did—but they said that help won’t arrive for hours yet!”
“In which time we shall be dead. And Lady Reinhart?”
Lady Rie’s face was calm. Only one shaking leg betrayed her, but she kept the motion hidden by one of her gowns. Her captain of the guard, the man who’d been known as Geram Redfist, looked at his mistress and then away. The young [Mage] gulped.
“She—was unavailable, my lady. I tried and tried, but the [Mage] who answered said—said there was nothing she could do anyways.”
Rie tapped at one lip thoughtfully. A loud thump echoed down the corridors and her face paled, but she went on as if she hadn’t heard.
“Either her magical carriages have broken down again or her staff are…indisposed. No aid from her, then. It seems the Goblins will break in within the hour. Unless I am wrong, Geram?”
The big man lowered his head. He carried no weapons, but he had two gauntlets on each hand and he had beaten the Hob who’d entered to death with his bare fists.
“They’ll be in sooner than that, Miss Rie. That damn [Shaman]’s creating something big out there and the Hobs are breaking the doors bit by bit.”
Lady Rie bit her lip.
“I thought those enchantments were meant to hold a Troll off. They were Wistram-certified. Nesor, you told me they were powerful.”
Nesor, the young [Mage], gulped.
“They are, Lady Rie. But—but no enchantment lasts forever! If you could shoot the Goblins or—or chase them away, the magic might replenish. I could cast a spell—”
Geram shook his head.
“Open a window and you’ll be filled with arrows before you can raise your hands, boy. There are Goblins climbing the roofs. They’re banging on the windows upstairs.”
“They won’t get in, surely.”
Rie looked at Geram. He shrugged.
“Before the Hobs bust down the doors? No.”
She understood what he was saying. And what he wasn’t saying. Rie looked around, at the frightened faces around her and stood up slowly.
“Well then. It appears we all have an engagement with destiny. My loyal staff, Geram, Nesor, it has been a pleasure, truly.”
The gathered servants, [Maids], lone [Gardener], and [Cook] stared at their mistress in horror. She looked around and sighed.
“For all my scheming and plans, I didn’t expect it to end like this. Not…not so inelegantly.”
“We’ll hold them off as long as we can. I’ve already barricaded the main corridor and we’ve got every bow at each end. We’ll make them bleed before they get to us, I swear.”
Geram clenched one fist as the thundering blows on the door intensified. Outside the Goblins screamed and the [Shaman] roared a word that made the silverware on the tables flash for a second. Rie flinched. Geram looked towards Nesor and the [Mage] hesitated before hurrying towards the makeshift barricades. The captain of the guard drew closer to Rie and lowered his voice. He took something off of his belt and handed it to her.
Rie stared at the object. It was a dagger. She looked up at Geram’s face. The man’s expression was grim.
“I won’t lie, Lady Rie, there’s no way out for us. I could try opening a window and making a break for it, but the Goblins would catch us before we went half a yard. As for holding here—we don’t have the manpower for it.”
She nodded and tried to laugh lightly.
“I suppose I should have hired that Silver-rank team like you’d always advised me, shouldn’t I, Geram?”
He smiled back. Someone screamed and his head turned. It was only a servant, seeing a Goblin’s face pressed against one of the windows. He shook his head.
“Three Silver-rank teams wouldn’t have made a difference, milady. But here.”
He offered her the dagger again. Rie stared at it.
“For me? I’m sure I’ll fight my best Geram, but I’m no warrior. If there’s someone who can use it better—”
“We’re all armed, milady. No. This is for the last.”
Geram’s bald head was sweating. He looked into Rie’s eyes.
“I’ll die fighting, with a Goblin’s throat in my hands. But milady, the Goblins are known to capture—that is, take prisoner women and—”
Lady Rie’s face paled further. Geram hastily raised a hand in case she fainted, but she caught herself.
“I see. I understand Geram, but that won’t be necessary.”
“But Lady Rie—”
She drew something out of her pocket with trembling hands. Geram stared at the viscous orange liquid within. Rie smiled bitterly.
“We all have plans for the end, Geram. In this case, this poison will kill me quicker than any dagger. And better, it will poison my body. If I am to die, I will make sure any…indignities…are repaid in kind.”
The bald man looked at Rie and smiled. He offered her a hand and Rie took it as if she were being led onto the dance floor at a ball. The two proceeded towards the barricade. Heads turned to follow them as they walked. Geram lowered his head towards her as he walked.
“It has been an honor to serve you, my lady. I was nothing until I met you.”
“Nonsense. You were always worthy. Now. It is time.”
The doors were splintering. The Hobs roared as they smashed the battering ram into it again and again. The magic wards were failing. Rie turned and raised her voice. It could hardly be heard above the shrieking of the Goblins just outside, or the pounding at the doors, but still her words reached each one of her servants.
“Ladies, gentlemen, this is it. The end. I am afraid we will die here. Perhaps horribly. And that is our fate.”
They stared at her. Lady Rie’s chin lifted. The shaking in her knees stopped.
“Did you expect otherwise? No. I did not. No matter how much we beg or plead, there is no mercy here. This is Izril. Here we fight and live and die without respite, all of us. Life is a battle. We use words like knives and fight with politics and swords. None of us are ever safe, and it is an illusion to say otherwise.”
She paused. A thundering roar came from outside. Rie closed her eyes, and then opened them. She looked each of her servants in the face.
“But remember this. We will be avenged. Because that is Izril as well. We repay death with death. These Goblins may win today, but they will not celebrate long. We will be avenged. Remember that, and sell your lives wisely—”
Nesor’s voice, desperate and shrill. Rie closed her eyes. He had lost his grip, the poor child. She opened her mouth, tried to speak over him.
“Remember that! Do not give the Goblins any quarter—”
Geram roared at the young [Mage]. He strode over to Nesor, and froze as the [Mage] pointed out the window. He stared. Rie turned, aware that something was happening.
“What’s going on? Nesor? Geram?”
No one answered her. Rie strode over to one of the windows. Her first impression was a heaving sea of green bodies, but then her eyes focused on something in the distance. They widened.
“What on earth…?”
There was another sound. Rie turned left and saw Nesor falling backwards. His eyes were flickering and she saw the telltale signs of an incoming [Message] spell. He gasped and she rushed over to him.
“What is it?”
“It’s—a [Message]. To you. Lady Rie. It says—says—”
Nesor was a poor [Mage], unable to process [Message] spells like an experienced spellcaster. Normally Rie didn’t care, but at the moment she couldn’t bear to wait. She shook him impatiently.
“Well? Out with it!”
The young man choked. Geram pulled Rie back, and then Nesor’s head rose. He spoke slowly, each word ringing in the sudden silence outside.
“Lady Rie. I thank you for your gift. Though it is humble, I seek to return the favor. In this dire hour, I offer you the gift of swords.”
Slowly, Rie’s head rose. She looked back towards the window and all the pieces fell into place. She walked towards the windows, and saw the army, shining as it marched towards the Goblins. She breathed the words slowly.
An army halts within range of the mansion. I have to pause when I see the numbers. Over a hundred—two hundred Goblins. And so many Hobs! And one of them is a powerful spellcaster.
It’s a force that could swallow Riverfarm whole. Far greater than the last one we faced or any since. And normally I wouldn’t dare risk my army fighting them. But it’s not just my army here.
Wiskeria gallops her horse forwards. Her voice is a shout that echoes as Goblins break away from pounding on the mansion’s doors and stream towards us.
“[Archers], aim! Hold, hold I said! Wait for them to draw nearer. Cavalry, on my signal! Infantry brace!”
A hundred bows rise at her order. A hundred. Or more. I didn’t count. They’re not our bowmen, not just ours, at any rate. No, they’re [Guardsmen], retired [Hunters], warriors, even a few adventurers. From each town and village we could reach. And not just them. Rows of armored [Warriors] brace themselves in a line while mounted warriors line up. They’re carrying banners, and Beniar’s voice raises with Wiskeria’s. He trots them left as the Goblins approach.
A shower of arrows shoots upwards. Goblins scream and race towards us, some returning fire. Bodies jerk and tumble downwards. The Hobs are charging from the front. I see Durene standing tall, her shield and club in hand.
I’m at the back. I raise my hand as I hear a rumbling growl next to me. The Mossbear roars as the Goblins stream at us.
“Wait. Not yet. Wait…”
Wiskeria is shouting.
Another flight. Now Beniar’s cavalry circles the Goblins, searching for their flanks. I see the Goblin [Shaman] dancing, casting huge jets of fire at the riders, burning them. From our midst, several robed figures with wands loose spells at the [Shaman].
And then they’re here. The Goblins charge into our ranks. Wiskeria turns and points. The soldiers surge forwards. My hand tightens on the Mossbear’s fur for a second.
He roars and charges forwards. Durene is trading blows with a Hob, and I stand, watching the battle in my mind’s eye. It’s all hazy. The markers are barely working. But I’m waiting. Wiskeria shouts my name.
My words break across the Goblins as Beniar charges in to their midst. Some fall to their knees. Others just hesitate. The soldiers cut down the hesitating Goblins and charge forwards. I stand where I am.
An army. Over four hundred soldiers all told, including our forces. A levy. I stare towards the mansion where Lady Rie lives, a hazy shape in my mind’s eye. Is it worth the cost? Is it worth the dying men and women around me? I don’t know. But the Goblins are a threat. And so I raise my finger.
The [Shaman] is laughing; blocking spells with one hand and shooting globs of acid that melt the soldiers fighting around me. Wiskeria is blasting Hobs with lighting, and the archer’s arrows swerve before they reach the [Shaman]. I point at the laughing Goblin and speak into his ears.
“Look this way.”
He does. His head turns towards me and his attention wavers. I see him frown, then turn his head, eyes widening. Too late. Beniar rushes towards him and leaps from his horse. My [Cataphract], my [Captain], impales the [Shaman] with his sword and falls to the ground, hacking at the Goblin. I stand as the bloodbath continues. I am Laken, and this is my war.
I can sense each soldier that falls. I heard them screaming. Some beg for life, others curse the Goblins as they die. Others die silent, surprised. But never alone.
I hear them all. And I do not ask them for more. Not today. The battle is won. The Goblins, outnumbered, fight to the last. The Hobs do terrible damage to my forces, but they do die. I watch them fall.
And when it’s over, I meet Lady Rie. She says not a word, but walks out of her mansion, face pale, blood soaking the hems of her dress. Near the end I saw the doors open and her servants and personal guard rush out. They fought well, especially the bald man in armor.
She says not a word as she approaches me. I stand as the Mossbear whuffs and licks at an open cut on its side. Durene sits next to me, covered in blood, injured and alive. I walk over to Lady Rie, wondering what I should say.
She says nothing. As I approach, she drops to her knees in the muck and blood. I stare at her, and see the bald man and the young man in robes drop to their knees beside her. Lady Rie lowers her head. I watch her kneel, and sense the other soldiers around me doing the same. I look around.
The other soldiers kneel. A disparate group, soldiers and retired warriors, fathers and mothers and retired veterans from different homes. People who know this land, who rose up at a chance to defend it. It was nothing special, what I did. I proposed an alliance, offered them a chance to fight as one. Anyone could have done it.
But I did it. And now they kneel to me. And some shout my name.
“Laken! Emperor Laken!”
“The Unseen Emperor!”
“The Emperor of Beasts!”
That last one is new. I glance backwards and sense the Mossbear licking Durene’s arm. I have to smile. It’s a story, and I’m a bad actor in it. But I’m slowly learning my lines. Because this is what I have to do. The road’s been set and I have to walk down it.
I am Laken, and it’s begun.
[Emperor Level 19!]
[Skill – Imperial Levy obtained!]
[Skill – Empire: Blacksky Riders obtained!]