The next day, Erin closed up her inn just after dawn. She waved farewell to the Players of Celum who’d done two performances, and let the Soldiers march through to their Hive or to resume their watch from the battlements. The last of her guests she said farewell to were Relc and Klbkch.
The two [Guardsmen] had enjoyed their night at Erin’s inn. They argued as they left, good naturedly. Relc had been blown away by the stage and had applauded both plays when he wasn’t asking if he could have a try. Klbkch on the other hand was actually a born critic, and had made a few observations on the quality of the [Actor] portraying Claudius in the second play. He reminded Erin of her English Literature teacher in that sense.
She closed the door to her inn tiredly, wishing she had a few more hours before the sun rose. Erin had to get up soon! Or maybe she could nap and let Lyonette take over? She was so tired she nearly ran into Apista as the Ashfire Bee floated past her, trying to get outdoors.
“And where do you think you’re going, huh?”
The bee buzzed around Erin as she shooed it back inside. Apista reluctantly floated back to the faerie flowers as Erin closed the door to Liscor. She’d never hear the end of it from Lyonette if she let Apista fly away.
As it happened, the Ashfire Bee had survived the entire battle with the Face-Eater Moths by hiding in the kitchen and devouring a jar of honey as large as she was. Erin had found her squeezed into the glass jar when she’d gone to open the cupboards. It had not been a nurturing experience, although it had relieved Lyonette, who’d been anxiously searching for her pet.
So much for bees. Erin yawned as she staggered back to her kitchen for bed. She could get a few hour’s nap. But she paused as she passed by a boarded up window. It was a bad patch job and she could see outside. She stared through the crack into the wet landscape. The waters had nearly engulfed everything, but a few hilltops were visible. And as the skies lightened, Erin’s eyes caught a few odd details out in the Floodplains.
“Hey. What are all those Drakes doing swimming over there?”
Erin peered at the distant figures swimming towards Liscor from the south. She thought about it, shrugged, and went back to sleep. And the swimming Drakes approached the city. Their home.
The sun had yet to rise when the soldiers struck their camp. Armed Drakes and a few Gnolls rolled out of their tents, ate dry rations without a fire in silence, and were on the march within twenty minutes of waking.
Only they weren’t quite marching as they traversed the waters between their hill and the city of Liscor in the distance. The [Soldiers] moved single-file as one of their [Scouts] moved ahead, venturing from hilltop to hilltop and attempting to cross as little water as possible. Avoiding the water entirely was simply impossible; the waters had risen so that most valleys were flooded at least twenty feet deep. The [Soldiers] had to march with their heads barely above water or, if it came to it, swim to the next elevated ground.
It was a challenge, not least because the company of a hundred and twenty odd Drakes and Gnolls were all armed and armored and carrying their gear. All but the best swimmers sank like rocks and had to hold their breath as they crossed a valley on foot…underwater. However, the [Soldiers] had been trained to do just that and they emerged from the water, gasping, but making little other noise besides that.
As they reached the top of a hill close to Liscor, a Drake mounted on a horse raised a clawed hand and the [Soldiers] froze as one.
She inspected the city, only a few hilltops away from their position. Home, at least, the place Liscor’s army called home. They were always on the move, so the city was a distant memory for most. Yet not even their commander could suppress a small stir of excitement in her chest as she regarded the city.
“Looks like Liscor’s not seen any battle with the Goblin Lord. Or if they have, there’s no damage to the walls. What’s that structure over there? Some kind of inn? Anyone recall that being here three years ago?”
She pointed to a distant building on a hill just west of Liscor. One of her subordinates peered at it.
“That’s a new building, Commander Grasstongue. I recall an old, abandoned inn two hills over—there. But it’s been razed by the looks of it.”
He pointed and the Drake shifted her gaze towards the hilltop. She frowned.
“Hm. Well, the presence of an inn suggests the city hasn’t come under any kind of major attack. Or it would have been razed. Who’s the scale-cursed idiot who authorized a building outside of the city without any kind of fortifications, anyways? Captain Halliss, who’d we leave in charge of Liscor?”
“A [Tactician] by the name of Olesm Swifttail and Watch Captain Zevara Sunderscale, Commander.”
“Huh. We’ll have to question them about that inn. Any sign we’ve been spotted by Liscor’s City Watch?”
“None, Commander. The watch-lanterns are out on the walls as well. Unless the guard has night-vision they’ve shirked their duties.”
The [Captain] saw his commander swish her tail restlessly. She growled.
“Poor security, especially with the Goblin Lord’s presence. No wonder the Council called for a detachment to return. What in the name of the Ancestors does this Watch Captain think she’s doing?”
“Watch Captain Zevara is well-thought of. High Command’s reports on her stated her trustworthiness and competence.”
A grunt. The Drake commander eyed the dark walls.
“Is that because she’s Oldblood? From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look like she’s nearly as competent as the reports claim.”
The [Captain] was silent as the Drake considered Liscor. Beneath her, the horse fidgeted. It was wet and wanted to graze. The commander kept her mount in check as she came to a quick decision.
“Let’s test their sentries a bit. See how close we can get before they challenge us. If we get within two hundred feet of the city without them raising an alarm I’ll have that Watch Captain’s head.”
She raised a hand, pointed, and drew a line across her face in the air. The [Soldiers] of Liscor’s army saw the movement and instantly checked their wet armor, cinching it and any loose items tight. Quietly, they crested the hill and began crossing to another hilltop some fifty feet away.
To the Drake commander’s extreme displeasure, the company of soldiers made it within one hundred feet of Liscor’s walls without so much as a peep of warning. She glared up at the dark battlements overhead.
“What in the name of the Ancestors…? If we were an enemy force we could take the walls by surprise! Who’s up there?”
One of the Drakes wearing solid plate armor raised a claw as he stared up towards the walls. He had a spyglass in hand and the brightening sky finally revealed the figures on the battlements. He swore loudly, breaking the silence.
“Commander! I see Antinium on the walls!”
Every [Soldier] immediately reached for a weapon. Swearing, Commander Grasstongue leapt off her mount and stormed over to the second [Captain]. He offered her the spyglass and she took one look before uttering an oath.
“There are Soldiers up there, hundreds of them! They must have taken the city!”
Shouts of outrage broke the dawn air. They were immediately silenced. The Drake commander turned to her officers, her expression dark. She reached for a spear—one of two she carried with her horse.
“Prepare to charge! Get me a [Light Bridge] spell now! We’re taking those walls and slaughtering every Antinium we see. There might be civilians left alive! Get ready for combat!”
The Drakes and Gnolls rushed into formation as the commander mounted her steed. Sensing the mood, her horse reared, and the [Commander] soothed her mount. The Antinium still hadn’t raised the alarm—if they could maintain their advantage for a few seconds longer, they might be able to mount a surprise attack. She gazed towards the walls, her heart beating with rage. Rage, and a bit of fear. She spoke under her breath.
“Hold on, old man. If you’re still alive in there—help’s on the way.”
Then a Drake [Mage] stepped forwards. Commander Grasstongue nodded at him and he raised a staff. A shimmering walkway of light shot forth and struck the ground as it built itself towards the walls. In seconds, a [Light Bridge] spell had formed. Liscor’s 4th Company shouted in fury as their [Commander] pointed.
“Take back the city! Slaughter the Antinium bastards!”
The Antinium Soldiers were on guard detail. They’d taken over for Liscor’s [Guardsman] in shifts—rotating out so that the Painted Soldiers could see one of the two plays being put on before returning back to man the walls. Or Soldier the walls. Antinium the walls?
Verbs weren’t important. But this duty was. Liscor’s Watch was in sore need of rest from the battle, so Zevara had readily agreed to let Pawn’s Soldiers hold the walls another day at least. This did mean that the Soldiers were running on four or less hours of sleep across two entire days of staying awake, but that was fine. They could operate for up to three days without rest entirely before they began to suffer complications.
And of course they’d spotted the Drakes heading towards the city nearly an hour ago. Yellow Splatters was on command duty with Purple Smiles since Pawn was watching the second play at The Wandering Inn, and he’d been staring at the Drakes splashing about with curiosity. He hadn’t thought to inquire about why they were trying to swim in armor—they were Drakes. Liscor was filled with Drakes. He was on the lookout for monsters, so his only interest in them was to wonder how they managed to swim at all.
It was only when he saw one of the Drakes raise a stave that his instincts told him they might be the enemy. When the stave projected a wide ramp of golden light towards the wall he was standing on, he was sure. The Drakes began lining up, shouting angrily, and he saw one on horseback point towards the walls. They were going to climb onto the walls via the ramp!
Yellow Splatters instantly changed his opinion of the Drake group. They weren’t friendly. If they were, they’d come through the gates. But the walls? This was a siege maneuver! Antinium used the same trick, although without magic, forming living ladders to climb the walls. This magical ramp would let the Drakes charge onto the battlements and they were all armed.
The [Sergeant] made an immediate call. The Drakes were enemies. Ergo, Liscor was under attack! All the Soldiers around him instantly raised their fists. Yellow Splatters turned his head—another Soldier was already running. The Soldier, painted with blue grass and yellow flowers, charged towards a large bronze bell. He didn’t bother fumbling with the bell hammer. He drew back all four fists and began punching the bell as hard as possible.
The bell tolled loudly with each punch. The ringing jarred the dawn air, echoing. The light bridge spell finally finished materializing and the Drakes below looked up, alarmed. It had been less than two seconds since the Drake [Mage] had cast the spell! But that was the nature of the Antinium. Yellow Splatters’ analysis and decision had conveyed itself to the Soldiers around him, and like a single organism they had moved, ringing the alarm and racing to defend the site of attack.
Two seconds had passed and the bell’s ringing had already reached every corner of Liscor. The Drakes were still assembling around their ramp made of light. The speed of reaction had caught them off guard—the Soldiers were already closing around the top of the ramp as Yellow Splatters charged into position with Purple Smiles.
There the Antinium braced themselves, the Soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the light ramp. Without further orders they would repel the Drakes here. They waited for the first charge as the Drakes pointed. There was at least one [Mage] in the group and they looked ready to rush up the ramp. The Painted Soldiers would hold until they were all dead, or the enemy retreated.
That was guard duty.
Watch Captain Zevara was asleep in her office. She’d passed out sometime during the night, after a full day of work. Technically she should have been in bed, but the Captain of the Watch had learned long ago how soft a wood desk could be—if you were tired enough, that was. And it was a hard-earned sleep, a sleep born of security. After all, she had eleven whole hours to sleep thanks to the Antinium taking over the walls. That was the best gift Zevara could ever have asked for: more sleep.
Olesm would take the first shift in the morning, which meant Zevara could drool and sleep on her desk as long as she wanted. There were [Guardsman] in the Watch’s barracks of course—there always were. But the sounds they made below couldn’t wake Zevara. She could sleep through anything. Fights, offending Drakes, Humans, and Gnolls being tossed into jail, laughter—
Zevara’s eyes opened and she jerked upright. She could sleep through anything, at any time. Except a call to alarm. She sat up, wiping the drool from the side of her face and prayed that she’d just been dreaming. It did happen. Sometimes she dreamed of an alarm—
Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.
It was no dream. Zevara froze as she heard one of the bells on the southern wall tolling. The urgent alarm made Zevara’s pulse skyrocket. That was the call to alarm! There was no other bell that sounded like that in the city by law. And there were no horns but—of course not! The Antinium couldn’t blow horns! They were on the wall right now. That meant the Antinium had spotted something!
Had the moths come back? Had something else? Zevara didn’t remember charging out of her office or running down—she found herself running through the barracks, drawn sword in hand. [Guardsmen] turned to her in slow motion as Zevara ran, still blinking sleep out of her eyes.
“Get to the walls! I want every [Guardsman] in the city on the South Wall now!”
She screamed at the Drakes and Gnolls on duty as they scrambled for their gear. A dozen of the Watch charged out the door after Zevara and she ran with the speed of panic towards the stairs leading to the battlements.
There were a hundred and sixty eight steps leading up to the top of the battlements. Zevara took them two at a time, counting each step. She burst onto the ramparts and turned.
Then she saw light. Not the dawning sky, but bright, shimmering mage light, the kind that came from a spell. Zevara shielded her eyes and then took in the scene in one moment.
The Painted Soldiers stood in a mass in front of a ramp of light, a [Light Bridge] spell used to siege cities. Coming up the ramp was a small unit of Drakes, only a hundred or so strong.
“What in the name of the Ancestors?”
A Drake was riding a horse up a ramp made of light towards Liscor’s walls! She had a spear in hand and she was being followed by the Drakes, four abreast, who were shouting as they charged a wall of Painted Soldiers.
Zevara wondered wildly if they were an attacking force from another city. But—Drakes didn’t attack Liscor! They had no enemies! Liscor was the border city that held the pass from Humans! And it was surrounded by water at the moment! Then her blood ran cold.
Was this an attack by Pallass? She listened to the Drakes shouting as she wavered.
“Wipe the Ants out!”
Liscor? Zevara’s eyes widened. She stared at the armored Drakes, and then put everything together in a sudden rush. She ran towards the Antinium Soldiers, shouting desperately.
“Wait! Stop! Hold! I said, hold!”
Too late. Her voice was too weak and she was too out of breath to shout properly. Zevara saw a few Soldiers twitch, but her real target, the charging Drakes, were too far away to hear and too caught up in the moment. Zevara frantically ran towards the Antinium slipping, cursing, as a mild shower of rain pelted her. She had to stop them! If the Drakes killed an Antinium Soldier or the Antinium killed the Drakes it might be war!
She wasn’t going to make it. Zevara knew that and so she paused and shouted.
“Stop! Stop! These are friendlies! Stop!”
The Drake on horseback didn’t hear. The rain fell. Zevara watched the Antinium brace as one as the Drake leveled her spear at the Soldier with yellow splatters on his body in front. She closed her eyes and heard a voice bellow from behind her.
“Soldiers! [Rapid Retreat]! Clear the area now!”
It was a loud voice, louder than Zevara had ever heard Olesm yell before. One of the Soldiers turned. He had a purple smile drawn across his mandibles and face. He saw Olesm pointing, saw Zevara waving her hand, and raised a hand. Every Soldier looked at him and then moved.
The Antinium didn’t hesitate. They instantly turned and charged out of the way, moving with the speed of Olesm’s Skill. The charging Drake pulled up her spear, confused, as she found the battlements ahead of her empty. She wheeled her mount and faced the Soldiers on her left.
Zevara had finally gotten her breath back. She dashed forwards and nearly slipped. She ran straight at the confused Drake as more [Soldiers] poured over the wall. Zevara could see Drake [Captains] in armor followed by [Sergeants] and regular infantry, screaming wildly as they came over the ramparts and stopping in confusion. The Drake on horseback, their leader, stared incredulously at Zevara.
“What’s going on here?”
“Hold! I am Watch Captain Zevara! Tell your men to stand down!”
“Watch Captain? But—”
Zevara bellowed at the Drake. This [Commander] was young—younger than Zevara herself. She had light red scales, too bright to be called pink, and her spear tip crackled in the rain. Lightning enchantment. Zevara strode towards her.
“Commander, I am Watch Captain for Liscor! Why in the name of the Walled Cities did you decide to attack our walls?”
Confusion and anger flickered across the younger Drake’s face. She gestured with her spear at the Soldiers, who were staring silently at the [Soldiers].
“I—we spotted the Antinium on the battlements. Why are they here?”
Zevara groaned internally. Liscor’s army had returned! Part of it. The hundred or so [Soldiers] couldn’t be more than a single company. They would have been a welcome sight about a month ago when the Goblin Lord was breathing down Liscor’s neck. As it was, they had chosen the worst moment to arrive. Which was typical. She should have expected it, honestly.
“I’ll explain everything in a moment. For now, have your men stand down. Antinium Soldiers—”
One stepped forwards instantly. Zevara recognized Yellow Splatters, who Klbkch had introduced her to. He was a [Sergeant] and the fact that he had a class like that was definitely going on her next report. Zevara turned to him almost sheepishly.
“These are friendly soldiers. Liscor’s army. I regret the confusion. Please take your…your men back to their stations. I’ll handle things here.”
The Antinium Soldier stared at Zevara silently and nodded. She had no idea what he thought, if he had any thoughts. The Soldiers instantly dispersed across the battlements. The soldiers glared after them. Zevara clearly heard one of them mutter.
“They’re working with the Ants? Ancestors, what the hell’s happened to the city?”
The [Commander] snapped angrily and the soldiers straightened. They’d sheathed their weapons, but from the way their hands hovered near their hilts, they didn’t trust the Soldiers now staring out into the wet, drizzling landscape. Zevara shook her head. Then she turned as she heard more pounding of feet.
“Watch Captain! What—”
The [Guardsmen] coming to reinforce the walls stopped in confusion as they saw the unfamiliar [Soldiers] standing there. Zevara cursed internally. She turned to Olesm.
“Olesm, we need to call off the general alarm.”
The young Drake nodded. Zevara caught his arm.
“Excellent work, Olesm. You saved us there.”
She squeezed his arm. He smiled at her, looking only slightly shaken.
“Just doing my job, Zevara. I’ll have someone blow the all clear.”
He hurried off. Zevara watched him go, and then turned to the [Guardsmen]. One of the Senior Guardsmen, a Gnoll in his mid-forties with black and grey fur, looked relieved.
“So we’re not under attack, Captain?”
“Nope. It was a false alarm. Almost false. I’ll issue a statement in an hour. Get everyone back off the walls—and back in bed if they’re up. This lot spotted the Antinium on the walls and thought the city was under attack.”
“Who would do—oh.”
The Gnoll stared at the Drakes and his eyes widened. He sniffed and growled under his breath, then turned to the other members of the Watch beside him. He conveyed the news in the simplest of terms.
“The army’s back.”
Zevara heard half the [Guardsmen] behind him groan. She saw the soldiers shifting impatiently, and turned to the [Commander] who was looking more and more annoyed.
“Watch Captain, what’s the situation?”
She was asking for a report. Zevara nearly laughed. The Captain of the Watch looked around, at the Painted Soldiers, at the wet landscape and the moth bodies floating in the water, and at the inn visible from the battlements to the west. She wiped some water out of her face and stared up.
Drizzling, but not raining too heavily. That was good. Clear skies would be better for the event later today, but drizzling was clear skies at this time of year. She looked at the [Commander], all military discipline and efficiency and gave her the most unprofessional shrug of her career.
“Where should I start?”
An hour later, Zevara stared at the slight stain on her desk. She was pretty sure that was where she’d been drooling. She wondered if she should get a cloth and wipe it off—or if she could put her head down and get back to sleep. She certainly felt like it. Unfortunately, the visitor in her office was too important to ignore. She wasn’t sitting like Zevara was—she was pacing restlessly, her scales still damp from the rain.
“Did I hear you correctly, Watch Captain? The dungeon—Liscor’s dungeon, which was unearthed just four months ago—has been classified as a Gold-rank dungeon by the Adventurer’s Guilds of Izril? Are you sure that’s not a misclassification?”
“Not at all.”
Zevara watched the younger [Commander] pace back and forth. She wished she were that young. Well, maybe not that young, but she wished she had that kind of energy in her. The young Drake’s scales were bright red and she was in the physical prime of her life. Red scales were rare on Drakes—green was most common, and very bright or very dark scales were the least likely to be seen, especially without patterns.
This Drake might have been considered nobility if her scales had that bright glow or unique flame coloration of Zeres’ nobles. Or if her scales were midnight black like Pallass’ few lines of noble birth. Regardless, this [Commander] must be gifted to be in charge of an entire company at her age.
Unfortunately, youth and genius didn’t make her any easier to work with. The Drake turned back to Zevara, her gaze intent.
“The Guild Master of Liscor’s Adventuring Guild is Tekshia Shivertail, correct? Or has she retired and let someone else take over?”
“It’s still Tekshia.”
“And is her judgment sound? Guildmistress Shivertail is a respected war veteran, but…”
The Drake let the word hang in the air. Zevara scowled.
“Tekshia Shivertail is in full command of her facilities, commander. Moreover, her decision was ratified within a day by the other Adventuring Guilds in all six Walled Cities and by Invrisil! Both Humans and Drakes agree with her classification. I remind you that the battle was seen by most of the known world!”
“Through a magical doorway that is in the possession of an [Innkeeper].”
The commander’s voice was flat. Zevara winced. When she put it like that…
“As I said, this [Innkeeper] is a known asset to Liscor. And her inn contained adventurers who slew hundreds of the moths and one giant one. Not to mention the actions of one adventurer in calling the rain, which may have well saved Liscor!”
And wasn’t that a surprise? Pisces, the [Necromancer] of all people! Zevara could barely believe it, but the reports had been quadruple-checked by her [Guardsmen]. She might actually have to trust that damned mage for all his previous crimes of extortion. Hadn’t Olesm submitted a report about having Pisces clean Liscor’s sewers with an undead? Zevara had shoved it into a pile and told him she’d consider it. Where did she put it…?
“And the Antinium? Manning the walls, sending Soldiers into the streets?”
There was a level of hostility in the other Drake’s voice that Zevara usually only encountered when speaking to other Watch Captains in other cities about the Antinium. But that was Liscor’s army. That was why they stayed away from the city, in large part. Zevara narrowed her eyes.
“The Antinium gave their aid to Liscor, [Commander]. Which I requested. They sent Soldiers to fight the moths and slew thousands of them in the tunnels of their Hive! The Antinium were honoring our contract. They died to hold these walls, Commander. Just like my [Guardsmen] did.”
She stared at the young Drake until the commander looked away. Zevara could see her tail sweeping the ground in long, rapid strokes. She was upset, but not agitated. Good.
“Why wasn’t High Command informed of all these developments at once? The dungeon, the presence of General Shivertail and his departure—not to mention this magical doorway! We had only the report of the dungeon and a belated report of General Shivertail’s departure—a week before his death! Why were reports so sporadic?”
Because I forgot. And I had more important things to do. Zevara grimaced.
“Honestly Commander Grasstongue, the High Command was the least of my concerns given the distance between the army and the city. They were in no position to influence the events taking place here and Liscor’s Council was more than adequately advised by General Shivertail and Wall Lord Ilvriss until recently.”
The mention of Zel Shivertail gave both female Drakes pause. But then the [Commander] shook her head.
“I’m sure the Council was served well by General Shivertail’s input. But a Wall Lord from Salazsar? Why not consult with the High Command? Why trust only his opinion? The High Command deserves to know—”
“And I’m sure they will, now that you’re here to give them regular updates.”
Zevara had had enough. She stood up, pushing her chair back, and rested her claws on her desk as she stared at the red-scaled Drake.
“Commander Grasstongue, I have more important things to deal with. The dungeon could spit out more monsters any day now, and the Floodplains are underwater! This month the city will be stockpiling fish, casting nets—and that’s a chore for two Watch Captains without the danger of monster attacks or Goblins!”
“I understand the issue. But I was sent to secure the city against threats.”
“And I am pleased your company made it here, Commander. Despite being late by a month and arriving with only a single company—rather than the three I originally requested.”
The two Drakes locked gazes.
“We were delayed arriving here. We were besieging Zeres and had to avoid military confrontation with the other armies allied to the Walled City in the dispute between Oteslia and Zeres.”
“A dispute that Liscor’s city does not share. Liscor’s army may be under contract to fight for Oteslia, but I would hope that ties to home matter more than gold, commander.”
The staring contest went on for several minutes as Zevara refused to blink or turn her head. At last, the other Drake turned abruptly.
“You can remove the Antinium from the walls now, Watch Captain. We will take over until the Watch is prepared to resume their duties.”
Zevara folded her arms.
Commander Grasstongue whirled.
“The Antinium are trustworthy, commander. I won’t remove them and insult their Hive. Moreover, they are more than capable of holding the walls and reacting to any threat. As your company personally witnessed.”
That was a step too far for the young Drake. She leaned forwards over Zevara’s desk, breathing heavily, her tail curling in frustration. Zevara felt heat at the back of her throat. It was a bad idea to annoy an Oldblood Drake capable of using breath attacks, but this officer was too angry to care. She took a deep breath as she glared at Zevara.
“Watch Captain Zevara, I am Wing Commander Embria Grasstongue, 4th Company Commander of Liscor’s army—”
“And I am Watch Captain.”
Zevara cut her off, in surprise as much as anger. Embria? Grasstongue? Wait a second. Grasstongue wasn’t that unordinary a name, but could she be—? No, Zevara had to settle this now. She put steel and fire into her voice, trying not to breathe smoke at the younger Drake.
“Commander Embria, this is my city. Your company has come here at my request to protect your city. Your home. Only it appears that your idea of protection is to start a war with the Antinium. Do you have any idea of what might have occurred if you had slain the Antinium Soldiers in cold blood? At the very least you would have broken Liscor’s contract, which we have honored for nearly a decade of peace, and at the worst you would have thrown us into a third Antinium War!”
Her words made Embria pale slightly. The Drake opened her mouth. Zevara noticed her tail had uncurled and was swaying uncertainly, though.
“I was acting with the best intelligence I had at the time—”
“By attacking Antinium Soldiers? Without hailing the city? They were standing watch, commander! If they wanted you dead they would have been raining arrows at you with Workers! If the city had fallen you would have heard about it! No! I don’t want to hear about the High Command. I’m concerned with this city, and up till this moment I have had to defend it with the Antinium’s help, with the help of adventurers and Pallass and Celum’s help! They sent their City Watch to fight when the Face-Eater Moths were attacking. But there wasn’t a single Liscorian soldier on the battlefield.”
She leaned over her desk and felt a trickle of smoke come out of her mouth.
“Where were you two days ago, when we needed you most? Where was the army?”
There was nothing Embria could say to that.
“We were moving as quickly as we could. If we had been aware—”
“You would have gotten here yesterday. Too late. And now you have the gall to come into my office, into my city and demand to take charge?”
Zevara hissed softly. Embria held her ground, although the air was getting hot around Zevara. Most Drakes would have backed up, but to her credit Embria was no coward. And more to her credit—she wasn’t a fool either. She looked at Zevara and rapidly retrenched. Embria took a few steps back, hesitated, and spoke placatingly.
“Watch Captain Zevara, I apologize for my rudeness.”
Zevara paused. She waited as Embria paused and the room metaphorically and literally cooled down. The [Commander] nodded and studied Zevara as she spoke carefully.
“I would take back my rude words and offer you my sincere regrets if I could, Watch Captain. I realize my sudden arrival may have stepped on your tail, Watch Captain. For that I apologize. We were…hasty in our attack on the Antinium. However, we are here to help, to protect and serve Liscor. That has not changed, although the situation in Liscor clearly has.”
She gestured towards her armor, upon which was emblazoned a symbol of her rank.
“My company is at your disposal, and the Council’s. I will appraise High Command of the new developments, but I expect they will offer you nothing but support, as will I and my officers. I commend your hard work and again, issue you a heartfelt apology.”
Smart kid. Zevara had to admit that she hadn’t expected such a neat turnaround. But this officer was intelligent enough not to want to make Zevara her enemy. She nodded as she felt her internal fires dying down.
“Apology accepted, Commander Embria. Let me also apologize for my statements.”
Which statements they were didn’t matter. Embria smiled politely.
“We are both protectors of Liscor, in our own way. I hope we can work together in the coming months to fulfill our duties, our pasts aside.”
She held out a claw for Zevara to shake. It was a good gesture and would have laid to rest their earlier quarrel. However, Zevara wasn’t yet sure she wanted to take the claw. She hesitated, and then looked sharply at Embria.
“We respect the army and I acknowledge your rank, Commander Embria. But let me make one thing clear first.”
She tapped the desk as Embria withdrew her claw.
“In this city, at this moment, I am the commander of all military matters. A Drake Watch Captain is second only to a [General] in her own city and I won’t have any incidents occurring, especially between the Antinium and your soldiers. Are we clear?”
Embria was silent for a long moment, studying Zevara’s face. Then, slowly, she nodded.
“Absolutely, Watch Captain.”
She held out her claw again and Zevara shook it. There was no posturing, no squeezing too long or staring contest like she had to deal with when she ran up against a male Drake of the same rank who didn’t like her position. But then, there were other daggers female Drakes used on each other. Embria smiled, but Zevara was still a little angry. She was missing her sleep when all was said and done, and she still didn’t trust Liscor’s army.
Dead gods, what will I tell the Council about all this? If I’d known they’d cause me more headaches I wouldn’t have bothered asking for their help in the first place!
“Let me show you downstairs, Commander Embria. I’m sure the Council will want to speak with you soonest, and we can have a longer discussion with our resident [Strategist] when things aren’t so hectic.”
She led the other Drake down the stairs. Embria sounded surprised as she followed Zevara.
“Strategist? I was under the impression that Olesm Shivertail was a [Tactician].”
“Correct. But he recently gained the [Strategist] class. We’re celebrating that fact, among others, later today. Speaking of which, you might want to ready yourself now. I’m sure the Council will insist on your presence later today.”
Zevara halted with her hand on the door to the Watch Barracks. She stared back at Embria, only slightly annoyed.
“You’ve been gone from Liscor for a while, I understand that. But try to remember how we do things. We just survived one of the worst monster attacks in living memory. What do you think we’re going to do?”
Then she opened the door. Embria frowned as she left the Watch House. The [Soldiers] of the 4th Company were waiting for her, lined up, [Sergeants] and [Captains] awaiting her order. The Drakes and Gnolls on the streets were giving them curious looks. The word was already spreading. The army was back! It didn’t exactly seem to be the most exciting news in the world to Liscor’s citizens.
One of the [Captains] looked questioningly at Embria. She scowled, dropping her polite expression now that Zevara’s back was turned. She nodded to the soldiers under her command.
“Tell the soldiers they have leave for two hours. They can visit their homes or stow their gear in the headquarters. Get those on punishment detail cleaning the place out. Watch Captain Zevara says the place hasn’t seen use since we were last there. But I want everyone back here two hours from now with armor on and polished.”
“What’s the occasion?”
Embria turned. She sighed as she watched Watch Captain Zevara stride back into the barracks and begin shouting at the [Guardsmen]. She had indeed been away from Liscor for a while. Six years since the last time she’d visited, in fact. But contrary to what Zevara might have thought, she did remember how things worked. It was true of every Drake city, really. Embria eyed the drizzling weather and polished the breastplate of her armor with one claw.
“We’re going to a parade.”
This is how they gathered. They came together, small groups of three and four, sometimes six and sometimes as many as eight. Seldom more. Seldom less. They clustered in their groups, talking amongst themselves. Many were embarrassed, or a mix between pleased and embarrassed so close that there was no dividing line. But none were ashamed. They were proud.
They were adventurers. As Ceria looked around the gathering of Bronze, Silver, and three Gold-rank teams she noticed the rain had lessened. The canvas roof that had been erected overhead had to ward off less raindrops than before.
“Good. Less rain. Means we might not slip and break our necks while we’re walking down the street.”
“That’s hardly a concern. Falling might be, though. I’d watch your step. You don’t want to be the first to trip on an occasion like this.”
Ceria jumped. She hadn’t realized she’d spoken out loud until someone else addressed her. Falene Skystrall stood beside Ceria. Tall, glamorous, the picture of what half-Elves aspired to be—in a clichéd way—the [Battlemage] made Ceria feel short and ungainly. Still, they were both half-Elves and so Falene kept talking to Ceria as if they were familiar.
Which they were, if you got down to it. There were certain things only half-Elves could talk to each other about. They supported each other if they could, generally. After all, if you didn’t look out for one another, no other race would.
That meant Ceria could talk with Falene a bit more personally, even if she did think the other half-Elf was stuck up. She made a face as she gestured at the rain.
“You’ve done this before?”
Ceria’s raised voice attracted attention. She saw three other members of her group drift over. Ksmvr was nervous as he stood alone. Pisces, keeping him company, raised his eyebrows as he walked over with the Antinium. Yvlon was talking to another female Bronze-rank adventurer. Ceria addressed her friends.
“Falene says they’ve done this eight times before.”
Yvlon whistled and Pisces raised his eyebrows. Ksmvr looked blank.
“Done what eight times?”
Falene smiled not-condescendingly, which made her a bit condescending.
“It’s not like we seek it out, but we have had our victories. But haven’t you done this?”
“Once. But it’s not like we rehearsed or anything. It just…happened. Not like this.”
“Ah, well, preparation is rarer. But Drakes like organization and I think it simplifies things, this way. All you have to do is walk. And again, not trip.”
“Not be the first to trip is what you said.”
“True! Better not to trip at all, but there’s always a few who fall. It happens and you’ll be laughed at, but the first to fall always gets remembered. Just watch your step—you will be the first to go out.”
The Horns of Hammerad looked uneasily at each other. Yvlon muttered as she adjusted her polished, slightly mismatched enchanted armor.
“I don’t understand why it’s got to be us.”
Pisces shrugged. He was wearing his usual white robes, not having made an effort to dress up. Ksmvr had—he’d donned his magical cape and oiled his body so it shone, and Ceria had messed around with her hair. But Pisces was deliberately casual, as if what was about to happen was just another day for him. Ceria had to admire his guts. And hate them at the same time.
“Politics, I suppose. I am a persona non grata in Liscor, nominally speaking.”
“Comrade Pisces, please ex—”
“An unwelcome person. That phrase is a remnant of old language, a curious addition to our lexicon which—”
Pisces looked around, sensed his only possible audience was Falene, and gave up.
“Never mind. It’s an expression. Allow me to clarify my statement. What I meant was that since I am unwelcome, the city did not wish to honor me by putting me last in line. However, my contributions to the battle were substantial. I did call the rain.”
The older half-Elf smiled as Pisces narrowed his eyes to look at her. He sniffed.
“A spell of necessity that I had never had the chance to practice or cast before? I will accept a poor result if the salvation of Liscor is the price for my inefficiency. In any case, my contributions are recognized, but we are only a Silver-rank team at the moment—”
“So we get to go first. We’re special. I get it. Thanks, Pisces.”
Ceria rolled her eyes. Ksmvr nodded.
“Yes, thank you Pisces for giving us this opportunity. I will endeavor not to slip and embarrass myself.”
“Just relax. This is in honor of us, after all. And you are hardly the only team participating.”
“Exactly! This happens once in five blue moons, so enjoy yourself!”
A loud voice interrupted the conversation. The Horns of Hammerad turned with Falene and Ceria saw a young Drake striding towards them, grinning broadly. She waved at the Horns of Hammerad.
“Hey guys, miss me?”
They stared at her. The Drake spread her arms wide. She had grey-green scales, a scar along the side of her mouth, and a fit body. Ceria was sure she’d never seen this Drake in her life. But Pisces just smiled.
The Horns of Hammerad jumped. Ceria peered at the Drake and realized the greyish scales weren’t just color—but a lack of it! The Drake was dead and her body—she stared into Jelaqua’s eyes and saw that internal intelligence staring back. The Selphid grinned.
“Aw! Pisces got it! I was betting with Seborn that you’d all freak out. Hey Seborn! I owe you ten gold coins!”
A Drowned Man appeared out of the crowd of adventurers, and Ceria saw several teams respectfully part ways to let Moore walk towards them. The half-Giant had to bend over to walk without disturbing the canvas roof overhead. The Halfseekers smiled as they joined the conversation.
“Jelaqua! It’s great to see you. You got a new body?”
Yvlon clasped forearms with Jelaqua. The Selphid laughed, practically giddy with good spirits.
“Sure did! And just in time too, eh? I got this body and it feels great. I can feel things when I touch them! I love fresh bodies. Hey, Ksmvr, poke me!”
Ksmvr did. Jelaqua laughed.
“It tickles! Ain’t nerve endings great? Hey Falene, where’s your team?”
“Talking with the others. I think Dawil and Ylawes are trying to get away from that team, Vuliel Drae.”
Falene pointed and the adventurers saw that Ylawes and Dawil were indeed being mobbed by the female half-Dwarf woman and several other female adventurers. Ceria frowned.
“Vuliel Drae? Oh. The lucky team. I didn’t see them earlier.”
“Huh? Oh, me neither. They showed up with a bunch of wounds after the battle. Apparently they got ambushed by the Face-Eater Moths and had to hide out on their way to the dungeon. Took down a lot of them by themselves by the number of heads they brought in. Anyways, check this out! I’ve got a tail!”
Jelaqua turned around and nearly swept Pisces’ legs from under him. He caught himself and Seborn grabbed Jelaqua warningly.
“Hey. Watch it.”
“Sorry! I’m just really in a good mood!”
The Selphid grinned. Pisces eyed her tail with interest.
“Do you have to compensate for your new body, or is the process fairly automatic?”
“Hah, spoken like a [Necromancer]!”
Jelaqua had to think for a second as Yvlon and Ksmvr greeted Moore. The half-Giant was smiling, looking pleased at Jelaqua’s wellbeing. He’d refused to leave the stricken Selphid in the Adventurer’s Guild until now, Ceria recalled. She turned back to Jelaqua as the Selphid swished her tail and nearly tripped a passing adventurer this time.
“Nah, it really does feel normal after the first hour. It’ll be harder getting back to a body without a tail, you know? Only problem is I might forget about it and get it ripped off. I did that to my last Drake body.”
The Gnolls and Drakes in earshot winced when Jelaqua said that. Ceria saw more than one team staring at their group with interest. The Horns of Hammerad, Halfseekers, and Silver Swords were pretty much the highest-ranked teams in this gathering. Jelaqua seemed used to the attention, though. She shrugged in answer to another of Pisces’ questions.
“Yeah, the tail’s weird, but I like the scales. Sure they get caught on things, but it’s better than hair. That stuff catches and tears my skin—hey, do you have anything to eat? I want to give these taste buds a workout before they start to decay!”
“Not yet. But Erin’s got an after-party planned. She’s going to have cakes. Multiple cakes, according to her.”
“Whoo! Cake! Alright, let’s get this started!”
Falene interrupted Jelaqua as she headed for the tent’s opening into the street.
“Not just yet. We’ll get word once the City Watch finishes their march. And the Horns are going first, Jelaqua.”
“Right, right. Sorry. Forgot. Oops. Hey, don’t slip you guys! Otherwise Seborn and I will laugh at you.”
“Don’t be cruel, Jelaqua.”
A large hand flicked the Selphid on the back of the head. She staggered.
“Aw come on, it’s funny, Moore!”
“Wait, one thing I don’t get. You’ve been looking for a body for ages, Jelaqua. Why’d you suddenly get one now?”
Ceria interrupted the two Gold-rank adventurers. Jelaqua smiled.
“Oh, that? That was thanks to the law, believe it or not! Remember, I was injured defending Liscor. According to the standing agreement with the Adventurer’s Guild, Liscor is required to provide me with a suitable corpse.”
She gestured at her body.
“This is from one of their [Guardsmen]. A junior one, I think. Just got the job. Her parents agreed to give it to me—they got paid a lot I think. Dead gods, I hope I don’t see them in the crowd, but I explained about how Selphids work and I promised them—never mind. Selphid stuff.”
She sighed, losing some of her good cheer.
“It’s an ideal body. But that poor kid. She died of blood loss after a moth sliced the artery in her leg open. Lost her healing potion or didn’t think she needed it and died on the street. Amateur mistake.”
She shook her head sadly. There was a brief moment of silence as the adventurers all paused, remembering the heat of the battle. Few of them had died, but they were used to fighting and had magical gear. On the other hand, Liscor’s City Watch had paid a price for their defense of the walls. Their moment was broken when more adventurers walked over. Ylawes and Dawil, and the team of Griffon Hunt.
“Looks like you all made it.”
That was the first thing Revi said to the others. She, Halrac, and Typhenous looked no worse for wear despite Ceria not having seen them for a long time. She looked at them, trying to see if they were still in mourning over Ulrien’s death, but if they were they kept it to themselves. Halrac folded his arms and grimaced as Typhenous greeted Moore and Falene.
“Hey guys. Halrac.”
Jelaqua nodded somberly at Halrac as the Halfseekers greeted Griffon Hunt. Halrac just grunted.
“That would be us. A pleasure to meet you, Mister Halrac. I realize this might be inappropriate, but may I buy you a drink later? I was shocked when I heard of your captain’s death. I knew Ulrien briefly and I regret that such a capable warrior fell to treachery.”
Ylawes stepped forwards and held out a hand. Ceria wondered if Halrac would tense up or leave—the [Scout]’s face had frozen when Ylawes mentioned Ulrien’s name. But he grudgingly extended a hand and shook it.
“He was an adventurer. Heard your team took down a mother moth.”
“As did yours. But we have the Horns of Hammerad to thank for ending the battle. My sister belongs to that team. I believe you’ve met?”
Halrac nodded to Ceria, who nodded back. The [Scout] eyed Pisces.
“Rain spell. Good idea.”
Revi rolled her eyes.
“I can’t believe no one thought of it beforehand. Why not? It’s so damn obvious but—good work. Especially for a Silver-rank team.”
She nodded at Ceria. Typhenous smiled as he stroked his beard.
“Indeed. You’ve shaped up to be a quite decent party.”
“Yeah! They held the line! Those Goblins and the Horns? Whew! I saw what they did when they pulled me back inside! Moth bodies stacked like firewood! Not bad for rookies, huh?”
Jelaqua threw an arm around Yvlon, laughing. The Horns of Hammerad blushed under the praise. Dawil, looking around, grunted with displeasure.
“Enough slapping each other on the backs! I can’t reach and Ylawes has his armor on. Let’s get to the good stuff. Hands up. Who here leveled after the battle?”
He raised his own hand and the Horns all raised theirs. Moore raised his hand, as did Seborn, and so did Halrac. Revi scowled.
“You’re telling me you all didn’t level?”
Yvlon stared incredulously at her brother, Falene, and the others. Ylawes smiled.
“I’ll probably level in the next week or month at the latest. But remember, most of us are past Level 30—”
“All of us, right?”
Jelaqua looked around and Typhenous coughed politely. Falene smiled.
“A [Mage] never tells.”
Dawil rolled his eyes as he addressed Yvlon.
“Point is, this lot doesn’t level every time they go into a hairy situation. But if we don’t level today, it’ll be close. But what about Skills? I got nothing.”
He spread his hands. Halrac grunted. Moore shook his head. Seborn didn’t respond when Jelaqua nudged him and the Horns all looked at each other and coughed.
“Aw come on, don’t be coy. Tell us! Or at least participate in the tradition!”
Pisces looked suspiciously at Jelaqua. She laughed and it was Falene who answered.
“Tradition is that when adventurers gain their levels as a result of saving a city, clearing a dungeon, or so on, they show off any new Skills or spells during the parade.”
“Or just make a scene. Just fire off a spell and don’t reveal your newest Skill. I’m not showing anyone, Jelaqua. Leave off.”
Seborn got tired of Jelaqua’s encouraging elbow and stamped on her foot. She yelped.
“Agh! I forgot how much that hurts!”
“Wait, we’re supposed to put on a show?”
Revi sighed loudly.
“You’re adventurers. Of course you put on a show! Just do something to impress the crowd. We do it—its how you get people to recognize you! Unless you get your own personal parade. You want to be a famous Named Adventurer? This is one of the things you do! Honestly, newbies!”
She threw up her hands. Typhenous put a hand on her shoulder.
“Steady, Revi. Apologies—she’s just had to field too many enthusiastic adventurers today.”
“Too many admirers?”
Falene gave Revi a teasing look. The [Summoner] just glared.
“Says the big-shots who’ve gone through a parade eight times. We’ve gone five—that’s five total for me. I think Halrac’s at six?”
She looked at Halrac, who shrugged. Both teams looked at the Halfseekers. Jelaqua scratched her head.
“Yeah, funny. We don’t get invited to parades often no matter what we do. I think we’re only two.”
“And the Horns are one. Well, let’s add another to the list. Remember, don’t slip.”
Falene cautioned the others with a teasing smile. She pointed—Ceria could see a Drake jogging towards them and waving at the adventurers in the rain. Her heart began to beat faster.
“Oh boy. I think this is us.”
“Break a leg!”
“You deserve this.”
“Good job, sister.”
Ylawes caught Yvlon as the Horns began to walk forwards. He nodded at her and she smiled. The four adventurers moved to the head of the group of adventurers, conscious of all eyes on them. Then they walked out into the rain.
At first, it felt silly. Ceria felt a drizzle on her head but didn’t see anyone. She walked down the street—they’d been put at the east gate, at the back of where the parade would start—and began marching down the street with Pisces at her side and Yvlon and Ksmvr following. No one was there, although she could hear fanfare and drums in the distance.
And then she saw the people. They were lined up on the streets, some covered by awnings, others holding parasols or cloaks in hand. Most simply let the rain fall. Drakes and Gnolls and some Humans, scattered at first. Then, suddenly, a mass of them. All at once the faces turned into a sea and Ceria felt her heart beating faster.
There was noise in the air. Cheering, shouts—and a voice calling names out. Ahead of her Ceria could see the last of Celum’s Watch marching. She spotted Relc, waving a hand and shouting at the crowd. The other Gnolls and Drakes were also marching, waving at friends and family, some still bearing wounds. Missing eyes, a broken limb—one Gnoll had to be helped along. His left leg was gone. But the crowd cheered them, their city’s heroes.
They fell silent as the Horns of Hammerad began their march in the parade. Drakes and Gnoll stared at Pisces. They knew him. They stared at Ksmvr, and at Ceria and Yvlon. Pisces was a [Necromancer]. Ksmvr was Antinium. As for Ceria and Yvlon, they had participated in one of the biggest expedition failures in recent memories. Ceria saw some of the Drakes hiss at Pisces and saw his shoulders go up.
“Give them a show.”
She muttered under her breath. Pisces looked at her. She looked at him. Two images flashed into her mind. Pisces, standing in from of Wistram’s [Mages], shunned. And Pisces, walking down Remendia’s streets, a hero. He was both these things to Liscor.
“Think you can give them a trick or two? No Skills—just magic?”
She asked him challengingly, feeling her words were too loud in the silence. Pisces blinked, and then smiled.
“Coward. Okay. I was going to show you later. Watch this.”
Ceria pulled a wand out of her robes. Conscious of every eye she raised it and pointed it to the sky. The grey skies were drizzling. Ceria concentrated.
A chill condensed around the tip of her wand, a bubble of hoar frost held for one magical moment. Then it expanded and shot outwards. Ceria heard a gasp as her spell shot out twenty, maybe thirty feet overhead. The crowd cried out in surprise as the water droplets fell to earth as hail, breaking. The ground in front of Ceria was coated with a light layer of frost, a product of the chilling temperature of her spell.
Yvlon smiled, took a step, and nearly fell. Ksmvr caught her just in time and Ceria heard a few chuckles. Pisces stroked his chin.
“Well, we can’t have that. Let me try.”
He raised his hand, and green and gold fire shot forwards. The crowd oohed as the flames licked the street, turning the ice back to water. Then Pisces let the flames spiral upwards. They turned into miniature dragons which roared soundlessly before evaporating.
It was a powerful spell—and part illusion. Ceria held her breath as she tried to see if it had gotten the crowd on her side. She heard silence and felt her heart sink—and then heard someone yell in among the onlookers.
“Awesome! Go Pisces! Do more!”
Heads turned. Ceria saw Erin, waving wildly, laughing as Lyonette held Mrsha up beside her. She began to clap as Pisces, bemused, conjured another gout of fire which turned itself into a small horse which galloped through the air.
The Drakes and Gnolls stared at the fire, stared at Pisces, and then they started to applaud. Yvlon, grinning, tossed her sword up and caught it as it rotated back down. That wasn’t a Skill, but it was a good trick. Ksmvr waved all three hands. The applause grew louder. More adventurers followed the Horns down the street.
The crowd applauded more as Ceria and Pisces showed off their spells. Ksmvr leapt into the air, incredibly high, and passed through a hoop of fire Pisces conjured. The people gasped. Then they began to cheer.
The three Gold-rank teams saw the Horns of Hammerad begin to receive whole-hearted applause at last. Jelaqua grinned and punched Moore in the thigh.
“They did it! Told you they could!”
Griffon Hunt moved into place before the Silver Swords and Halfseekers. Halrac looked annoyed, Typhenous pleased.
“Let’s just get this over with.”
“The Horns did a good job getting the crowd interested. Think we can top that, Revi? Halrac?”
Typhenous pointed at the other Bronze and Silver-rank teams. They were also doing tricks with magic, if less showy than Pisces and Ceria. Some were trying to do tricks with their swords, but the parade was really a place where [Mages] shone. Revi rolled her eyes as she took something out of her bag of holding.
“Rookies. Stand back, you two.”
She held a large piece of amber with part of a moth’s wing encased in it. Halrac and Typhenous stood to one side as Revi strode forwards. The eyes of the crowd were on her. Already many were applauding and calling out their names. Especially Halrac’s.
“Halrac! Halrac the Grim!”
“Griffon Hunt! Show us a spectacle!”
Revi obliged. She tossed the wing in amber up and a flash of light stunned the crowds. Then there were screams. A Face-Eater Moth, glowing green, spread its wings wide and the shocked Drakes and Gnolls stumbled back before they realized what it was: a summoned spirit. They cheered and booed Revi as she climbed on its back and the Face-Eater Moth walked down the street. She waved at them regally, like a [Queen] as Typhenous and Halrac watched her take the lead.
“That Stitch-Girl will be the death of us both, I swear.”
Typhenous tugged at his beard, trying to hide a smile. Halrac just grunted.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“Just a moment. Appearances do matter, Halrac. My turn.”
The older mage walked after Revi. He tapped his staff on the ground and smoke billowed up, forming a cloud of Typhenous’ face. It loomed overhead as the [Mage] began to walk forwards, grimacing and making faces that simultaneously terrified and amazed the Drake and Gnoll children watching. Halrac coughed and walked along behind Typhenous, a scowl on his face. The crowd cheered him, though Halrac didn’t so much as turn his head to stare at them. He made it halfway down the first street before he grimaced and stopped.
Halrac paused, took an arrow out of the quiver at his side, and drew it to his bow. He aimed straight up and loosed. The crowd paused and watched the shining arrow fly higher and higher until it exploded with a dull boom and a spray of flames which went out in the light drizzle.
“Waste of a good arrow.”
Ceria heard him complaining as he walked onwards. The crowd cheered wildly, not seeming to mind Halrac’s sour mood. In fact, they cheered him for it.
Next came the Halfseekers. If Griffon Hunt started the show in earnest, the Halfseekers embodied it. Moore was visible over the heads of everyone as he walked forwards. Jelaqua’s pale body and Seborn’s half-crustacean form attracted as many gasps as applause—until they too started performing magic.
Moore struck his staff on the ground and flowers began to bloom in his footsteps. He raised his hand and flowers of every color began to appear over his body and vines grew from his fingertips, twining up his arms and chest. The crowd murmured in appreciation at the gentle spectacle.
The half-Giant left a trail of quickly wilting and vanishing flowers and grass in his wake. By his side Jelaqua threw the bright flowers growing from his body into the crowd, laughing as people caught the magical plants and held them, exclaiming as the flowers quickly faded out of existence. Seborn walked next to the two, looking slightly uncomfortable as people eyed his crustacean half. Jelaqua nudged him.
“Come on Seborn, show the kids a trick!”
“I don’t want to.”
“We’re both doing our part! Just one?”
Seborn looked around and realized he had no choice. Reluctantly he walked faster until he was in front of Moore and Jelaqua. The crowd waited with baited breaths to see what he would do.
Seborn took two steps, did a flip into the air and unsheathed his daggers. They glowed as he slashed and then landed, rotating once and sheathing his blades before he touched the ground. Everyone oohed and more than one child pointed excitedly to Seborn and asked if they could do that too.
Bringing up the rear were the Silver Swords. They followed the last groups of adventurers and received just as much applause. The sight of Ylawes, Falene, and Dawil was a fixture of the battle and more than one story had been told of Ylawes slaying the giant moth. And true to their reputation, they didn’t disappoint either.
Dawil roared with good spirits as he lifted the hammer over his head. He strode forwards, letting the crowd cheer him, shouting with unabashed good spirits.
Behind him, Falene rolled her eyes, but smiled and raised a wand. She flicked it, and the audience held their breath. When nothing happened immediately Ylawes glanced at Falene, puzzled, until he heard Dawil cursing.
“You damn Elf! Put me down! Put me down!”
The [Knight] saw Dawil cartwheel past his head, weightless, flailing frantically with his hammer in hand. The audience cheered and laughed as Falene made Dawil fly just over the heads of the crowd. The Dwarf cursed her until he started to enjoy himself and pretended to swim through the air. Only Ylawes and the other [Mages] noticed the slight sheen of sweat on Falene’s brow.
“I believe Dawil would call you a showoff.”
“It’s for a good cause. If he’d stop flailing I’d have an easier time not dropping him.”
Falene smiled politely at the crowd as they walked forwards. Ylawes smiled too. He raised one hand and waved as he walked, causing a few Drakes and Gnolls to stare at him admiringly. The [Knight] had no special Skills to show off, but the sight of him walking down the street in shining silver armor was enough for applause.
As the last of the adventuring teams followed the Silver Swords, there was a hush among the crowd. An expectation. The streets behind the adventurers lay empty for a good minute, and then every ear heard the rhythmic sound. Footsteps marching in perfect symphony. The first black body appeared and the crowd murmured as they saw a Worker marching at the head of a row of Soldiers, holding a burning censer in hand. The Soldiers marched in his wake, heads held high.
Silent. The marching of the Soldiers was perfectly uniform, and the cheering crowd that had loved the adventurers was silent. Pawn walked forwards, his censer swaying, his head bowed. A curious feeling stole over the people watching. They had no words for what he was doing, no memory or comparison for the scene they beheld. But the praying Antinium and the solemn procession spoke to them.
The incense wafted through the crowd as the rain fell harder. The Soldiers marched on, their bodies painted in every color. One had yellow splatters across his front, another a terrifying purple smile. Another one had leaves drawn in green as if he were some kind of tree. Yet another was simply marked with a crown of silver. One walking near the edge had no paint at all—until you realized the paint was a black pair of wings on his back, almost invisible in the wetness.
The people of Liscor watched the Soldiers march, silently at first. But then someone clapped. It was impossible to tell who it was in the rain, but it was immediately followed by someone else starting to applaud. More began to clap, and then the applause drowned out the rain.
In the crowd Erin stared around, wide-eyed. She hadn’t been the one who started the applause, and she’d been ready to. But she hadn’t been necessary in the end. Liscor began to cheer the Antinium, and as they marched she could hear voices in the crowd around her. The Painted Soldiers were faceless Antinium, all created in the same image. That was true. But because they were painted, they were all unique. And for the first time those in the crowd recognized individual Soldiers.
“I know that one! The one with the white circles around his eyes? He saved my shop!”
A Gnoll pointed at a passing Soldier. Erin, standing with Lyonette as the rain soaked her, saw Mrsha peer excitedly at Yellow Splatters. She heard more voices of recognition as she applauded, smiling and cheering for Pawn with all the energy she had.
“Hey, that’s the one who killed the moth breaking into our home? Mom? Do you remember? Mom? Mooom!”
The Drake child was pointing excitedly at a Soldier who had turquoise on the tips of his clumsy fingers and his antennae, nowhere else. Erin saw the Drake mother wave tentatively at him, and the Soldier turn his head just slightly. He hesitated, and then two of his four hands twitched, a tiny wave back.
The Drake girl waved excitedly. The crowds cheered. Erin stood in Liscor as the rain fell down and for the first time in history, Drakes and Gnolls and Humans cheered the Antinium. It was a moment for history. She smiled until she thought she’d burst.
“What a great parade.”
The 4th Company stared at the Antinium passing them in disbelief. They listened to the applause from Liscor’s citizens and practically spat venom when they saw a Drake child waving at a Soldier.
“Is this really what the city’s come to?”
“What happened to pride? What about General Sserys?”
“These people, they don’t know what—”
Wing Commander Embria stood next to Zevara in parade rest, her face set, watching the Antinium pass by without a word. Zevara noticed the tenseness in her tail, but the [Commander] wisely kept her opinions to herself.
The parade ended with speeches, as all good parades did. Actually, the speeches were mainly for Liscor’s Council to award the adventurers and members of the Watch with a few awards as many of Liscor’s citizens melted away. But after they’d offered Pawn a brief note of congratulations, the Council turned stage over to Embria. It was, all things considered, a poor note to end the parade on.
“We are delighted to also announce that our 4th Company of Liscor’s Army has returned to safeguard our city! She and her soldiers have marched tirelessly to return to Liscor…ah, I believe Wing Commander Embria has a few words for us.”
The Drake announcing coughed nervously as he abandoned the podium. Embria stepped forwards. The crowd of citizens stared at her. Zevara could already hear the murmurs.
“Now? Are you serious? Where were they when—”
“…Better start going to taverns that don’t serve them. Too many damn fights when they’re drunk—”
“We’ve got the Antinium. Why do we need them?”
Zevara winced at that. She could see Embria twitch as she took the stage and feel the anger of the [Soldiers] behind them. But that was Liscor’s army. They had never had a good relationship with the city at the best of times. They brought chaos and didn’t stay long which was good, but as a result, the citizens regarded them as well, a nuisance.
Thankfully Embria seemed to sense the mood, because her words were curt and to the point.
“Citizens of Liscor, we are delighted to return home after so many years! We regret that our company did not arrive in time to witness the heroic defense of the city. I personally offer you my sincerest apologies for our delay—we were unavoidably detained fighting for the glory of Liscor around the Walled City of Zeres!”
Silence. Zevara heard someone cough. Embria frowned.
“We are grateful to all who contributed to the defense of Liscor during her darkest hour. Henceforth the 4th Company shall dedicate itself to defending the city against any threats to it, be it the Goblins, monsters from the dungeon, or—anywhere else.”
She didn’t quite look at the Antinium, but Zevara sensed the ripple in the crowd. Embria was not having a good time on stage and Zevara dreaded the part where she was supposed to ask Liscor to cheer their returning heroes. She saw a number of Drakes and Gnolls break away from the crowd. And then she spotted a Human walking away with another Human and a Gnoll in her arms.
Maybe Erin didn’t intend to be so loud. But Embria had paused and her voice was just a bit too carrying.
“Well, looks like it’s time to go. That parade sure was fun, wasn’t it? Ending sort of sucked, though. Hey, is that really the army? They look like jerks.”
Zevara stared at her back as Embria stared at Erin’s back. The Watch Captain slowly covered her eyes and groaned under her breath, a gesture seen by the entire crowd. On the whole, the citizens of Liscor agreed that watching their Watch Captain wince through the rest of the speech saved the parade. The army left with a few thousand patriotic Drakes applauding them and Watch Captain Zevara finally got to get back to her desk to sleep.
And after Wing Commander Embria had finished dismissing her troops she took a personal trip to a certain apartment in the city. She knocked once and didn’t have to wait any longer. The door opened and the owner of the apartment stepped out reluctantly.
Relc, Senior Guardsman of the Watch and former [Sergeant] of Liscor’s army, emerged from his home, scratching the spines on the back of his head. He stared at Embria as she stood in the doorway, spear in hand, dressed in her officer’s armor. He stared at her. She waited.
She stared at him challengingly. Relc avoided her gaze. He looked at her, sighed, turned his head as if looking for help and then gave up.
“Let’s get a drink.”
Time went by. The day drew onwards towards night. Liscor, finished with its parade, celebrated or mourned in its own way. More than one tavern found itself with twice as many guests as normal as Liscor’s citizens decided that eating alone wasn’t for them. They were equipped for the rush of course; any [Innkeeper] or [Bar Drake] worth their salt knew to stock up in advance and every establishment was hopping.
So it was funny and slightly telling that Relc and Embria found themselves turned away from every inn and bar, even the ones that Relc went to nightly. They were recognized on sight, and while one or the other wouldn’t have made the establishments close their doors, the owners had learned to recognize the father and daughter duo like the way a [Herder] learns to recognize a bull charging them across an open field.
“I can’t believe this. You’re a Senior Guardsman. I’m a [Wing Commander]. How many inns have blacklisted you?”
Embria stormed down the street as Relc followed, wincing. The normally upbeat Drake dragged his footsteps as he followed his daughter.
“I uh, drink there all the time. I think they don’t want us in there after last time.”
“That was six years ago!”
“Yeah. But the tavern owner definitely remembers us. Why don’t we go—”
The young Drake woman shook her head, glaring back at her father. Relc shrugged helplessly.
“Come on, kid. I know the owner and she won’t kick us out.”
“She’s a Human. She insulted the army during my speech! And don’t call me ‘kid’!”
“To be fair, it was sort of funn—”
Relc saw Embria’s eyes flash and coughed. He shuffled his feet.
“Look, Erin’s a Human, but she’s cool! Really. And I sort of promised I’d go to this party she’s putting on. Klb’s going to be there…”
“Your Antinium partner?”
Embria hissed the word. Relc shrugged. He had a hard time meeting her eye.
“Well, yeah. We are partners. Sort of how it works. Captain Z gave me the day off and everything…”
“You were going to have a party at her inn? Was I not included in your plans?”
Relc raised his claws defensively.
“Hey, I didn’t know you were going to show up! I totally cancelled when Captain Z told me—look, we don’t have to go. But Erin’s got alcohol. And cake! She said there’d be cake!”
He looked longingly towards the western wall, where a doorway had been set into the side of the wall itself. Embria glared at her father and then relented.
“Fine. What’s cake?”
“Oh, it’s this great thing! You’ll love it, promise!”
Relc brightened. He led the way towards the door, talking excitedly.
“It’s really sweet. Erin’s coming up with all kinds of new stuff all the time. She’s got pasta, blue fruit juice—well, she doesn’t have it right now, hamburgers, pizza…uh, Goblins, tons of cool stuff like popcorn, ice cream—have you heard of ice cream? It’s this thing from Terandria and she knows how to make it—”
Embria halted in the street.
“Did you just say ‘Goblins’? Watch Captain Zevara mentioned there was an inn that had monsters working as part of the staff. That’s the inn you’re talking about? Run by that Human?”
The Drake [Guardsman] groaned. He turned pleadingly to Embria.
“Look, she’s cool! The Goblins are…Goblins, but they don’t do anything. Come on kid, let’s get a drink? On me? I’ll introduce you to Erin—you don’t have to look at the Goblins! Or eat cake! I’ll eat your share!”
It was possible that Embria could give her father a more disappointed look. She turned her back, ready to march away. Desperately, Relc played his last card.
“Did I mention that General Shivertail used to eat there all the time? It was his favorite spot!”
“Hey! Is that Relc? Welcome to the party! Celebration! Whatever! I thought you weren’t going to make it?”
Erin beamed as Relc came through the door. The Drake grinned weakly at her. Erin grinned back, and then froze as she saw another Drake enter behind him. She had red scales, shiny armor, a spear in one hand, and she was giving Erin a death-glare.
“Whoa. Is that your date?”
Relc choked. The Drake behind him opened her mouth angrily and he stepped in front of her. The big Drake cleared his throat a few times.
“Erin. I’d like you to meet…my uh, daughter. Embria.”
At this particular moment Erin was holding a stack of plates and cutlery. It has no bearing on what followed because Erin did not drop what she was holding, but she was very tempted to. She gaped, put her dishes on a table, and then threw up her hands.
“She’s back from the army—”
“Look, we just need a table and a drink.”
“Did I tell you she’s a [Wing Commander]?”
“Wha—you have a daughter? Since when?”
Erin’s raised voice made every head in the room turn. Relc winced as he saw three teams of Gold-rank adventurers, Klbkch, Bird, Olesm with all his Drake and Gnoll friends, Krshia, the Horns of Hammerad, Lyonette, Drassi, Ishkr, the Redfang Goblins and Selys and her grandmother look over. Mrsha poked her head up from underneath a table and stared too.
“It’s uh, complicated.”
“Tell me everything! Wait, this is your daughter? Isn’t she the Drake who was leading all those j—oh.”
At last, Erin realized where she’d seen Embria before. She paused and gave the other Drake a very sheepish smile.
The red-scaled Drake folded her arms. She stared at Erin and then pointedly looked away. Her eyes focused on Klbkch, Bird, and then the Redfang Goblins who were sitting at a table, still wearing their ‘Security’ armbands. Her eyes narrowed.
“We uh, just need a table, Erin. Somewhere quiet? Please? And far from the uh, Goblins? And Klbkch? Embria’s got a thing with them.”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed and she stared at Embria who returned the gaze.
“How bad of a thing? Selys’ grandmother already had a ‘thing’ with the Goblins and—”
“Erin. I really need this. Please?”
Relc looked pleadingly at Erin. She relented.
“I can put you over here. Next to the stage. Far, far away.”
She seated the two at a table ten feet away from everyone else. Relc ordered a drink and Embria ordered the same. They sat in ice-cold silence as Erin bustled away. Relc’s tail swished nervously as he grinned at Embria. She did not return the smile.
“So uh, this is the inn.”
“Those are Hobs. In an inn.”
“Right, right. But Erin’s got tons of other people in it! Drakes! You know that guy’s our [Strategist], right? And check out this room! It’s huge. Erin’s new Skill. Isn’t that—”
“Why are there three Antinium here? I thought you only had one partner. The Slayer. Or has the Watch started letting more Antinium in?”
“No…no. That guy’s uh, Bird. He’s uh…Erin’s employee too…”
Embria’s arms were folded. Relc desperately looked around, waiting for Erin. After a lifetime of one-sided conversation, she came back with two full mugs.
“Here you are!”
“Oh, thanks! Great! Hey Erin, what’s for dinner?”
“Ooh, we’ve got tons of stuff. We’ve got beef rolls, lasagna, pizza—”
“We’ll have the rolls. Both of us.”
Embria cut her father off as he began to brighten. Relc sighed as Erin looked at him.
“Yeah. Sure. Two please. And—”
He hesitated and lowered his voice as Embria stared at him. Relc looked longingly towards the kitchen from which tantalizing smells poured forth.
“Can—can I have a slice of cake?”
Erin’s answering smile was like the sun coming back up for Relc.
“Cake? Sure! I baked lots! In fact, you can have tons of slices! Only—ooh.”
She hesitated. Relc’s heart sank.
“Well…let me bring you a slice.”
Erin hurried into the kitchen and came back with a slice of cake. Relc stared at it with dismay. It wasn’t that the cake looked bad—on the contrary, it was vanilla cake (Erin had yet to figure out where chocolate came from) frosted generously with rich icing. However, and this was the deal breaker, Erin had decorated the cake with miniature faces. Of Goblins.
Relc stared up at Erin with hollow accusation in his eyes as Embria glared at him. Erin could only shrug.
“We had this big parade and everyone was getting appreciated—except the Goblins. So I…y’know…thought it would be nice. Everyone likes it. Except Selys’ grandmother. And it’s really good.”
“Is there any cake without smiling Goblins on it?”
“Right. Well uh, I’ll have a slice. Embria?”
The Drake watched her father accept the big slice of cake. Relc coughed and began eating as Erin brought out beef rolls stuffed to bursting with bacon, breadcrumbs, onion, and a spicy filling. She eyed the hot food, suspicious at how fast it had come out, but began eating. Her brows shot up.
“This is good.”
“Isn’t it? I love eating here. I used to eat here all the time before—well, now I eat here sometimes. Not often! Just—sometimes.”
Relc chattered nervously. Embria looked at him and sighed.
“I don’t mind you eating out…dad.”
“I know you can’t cook.”
“Hey! I mean, uh, you’re right. Can’t cook. Totally dependent on other people. I’d starve if I didn’t eat out.”
“But you could make an effort to eat at other establishments in Liscor! Not—”
Embria jerked her head to indicate Erin, who was laughing and offering Badarrow a slice of cake while the other Goblins tried to fight him for it. Relc hesitated.
“Look, Erin’s inn is special. Really. She only got the Goblins recently. I mean, they’ve been around a while, but there was only this titchy one before. And Erin likes Goblins. Dunno why. I got in trouble when I killed these other Goblins, see…”
“Good to see you’re doing your job, despite what the Human thinks.”
“Aw, come on. Kid…she makes good food. Like, really good. Try this cake! Here!”
Relc offered Embria a forkful of cake. She brushed his hand away, raised her fork, and eyed the sugary offering. There was a small Goblin head smiling at her. Embria speared it through the eye and lifted a bit of cake and frosting to her mouth. Her eyes widened.
“Ancestors, what is…”
“It’s good, right?”
It looked like it pained Embria to admit it. She shook her head as she began eating Relc’s slice of cake, much to his relief and chagrin. But at last she seemed to be relaxing. She nodded to Relc.
“So is this what you’ve been doing recently? Eating at this inn and guarding Liscor?”
“Um…yep. Same as always. What about you?”
“I made [Wing Commander] last year. I wrote you a letter. You never wrote back.”
“Oh. I read it. I just…sorry.”
“At least you remembered my birthday. Thank you for the message.”
“No problem. Hey, what’s the army doing now? Fighting around Zeres? Must be tough. Those guys don’t let up.”
“We manage. I was surprised to hear that Liscor needed help. I thought you’d be able to handle anything that popped up.”
“Well, yeah, but we’ve got a dungeon! And moths! And did I tell you about this Named Adventurer that turned out to be a fake? She was murdering people and guess who helped fight her off?”
“Fight? You mean she got away?”
“At least it looks like she’s talking to him now. There’s a lot of tension in the air, though. You could cut it with a knife.”
“Gee, you think? You could throw a knife over there and it would stick in the air. Just look at the way her tail is moving! She’s really upset with him.”
“You think she’s mad because of me?”
Selys rolled her eyes as she turned to Erin. They were peeking at the talking father and daughter duo from Erin’s kitchen.
“No, I think she’s totally fine with a Human [Innkeeper] who insulted her when she was giving a speech, asked if she was dating her father, and employs both Antinium and Goblins in her inn. That was sarcasm, Erin.”
“Yeah, I got that near the end. But why’s she so uptight?”
The Drake sighed.
“She’s part of the army, Erin. They’re the strictest hard-tail group Liscor has and that’s saying a lot. They hate monsters—no surprise—but they also hate the Antinium. They refused to go near the city for four years after we made the treaty with the Antinium after the second Antinium War and they’ve only been back twice since then!”
“Oh. That’s pretty bad, yeah.”
Erin stared at Embria. She still couldn’t believe that was Relc’s daughter. She was Erin’s age! And she looked really good, with her red scales and so on. Erin would have loved to talk with her, but from the way Relc kept wincing every few seconds she doubted Embria was in a good mood.
“So she’s Relc’s daughter. Does she like him?”
“He is her father. But what a dad. I don’t envy her. Just look at her. And her name.”
“What’s wrong with her name? Embria sounds cool?”
“It is…no, it’s more embarrassing. Embria? Seriously Erin, that sounds like a name of some kind of Dragon. She can sort of pull it off with her scales, but I bet she got teased all the time growing up. Only Relc would give her a name like that.”
“Aw. Poor kid.”
Embria turned in her seat and both Selys and Erin ducked back. Erin looked at Selys.
“So we haven’t gotten to talk much…”
“I wonder why not? Could it be the monster attacks and everyone nearly dying?”
“You’re getting good at sarcasm, Selys. But I wanted to talk to you about all kinds of stuff! Not just work—”
“Good, because my grandmother’s here and she’s going to kick your tail for getting me to try and register those Hobgoblins.”
“Your grandmother? Uh—do I have to talk to her? She’s scary.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Hold on—who’s coming through now? Is that…?”
Selys broke off and Erin got up as she spotted a familiar figure entering the inn through the magic door. Wall Lord Ilvriss and twelve of his followers entered, all of them staring around the inn as if it was a dump. Ilvriss caused a commotion though—he headed over to Olesm’s table as all the Drakes sitting there shot to their feet.
Embria also rose and strode over to the Wall Lord. She saluted as Ilvriss turned to her.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss! Sir!”
“Wing Commander Embria, is it?”
Ilvriss looked mildly surprised as he saluted Embria in return. He glanced at Erin as she hurried over.
“Ah. Solstice. A table for thirteen. Next to Olesm’s table. This is a celebration in his honor. Drinks—water for me.”
“Hey Ilvriss! I didn’t think you’d turn up!”
Embria nearly choked on her tongue as Erin grinned at Ilvriss. He glared at her as his adjutants gasped at her effrontery. Undeterred, Erin looked at Embria, confused.
“Are you Embria’s boss? Sorry, Miss Embria’s. I thought you were in different armies or something?”
Stiffly, Embria turned to Erin.
“Drakes share a common command. We respect each other even when we are at odds. Wall Lord Ilvriss is one of the foremost leaders of Salazsar. He deserves at least a modicum of respect.”
“Exactly. A [General] is still a [General] regardless of which city he hails from. He should be accorded respect in war—not that Humans share our beliefs.”
Ilvriss smiled at Embria who returned the smile, and then looked at Erin.
“Oh! Drassi! Ishkr! Table here! We’ll push it over. So you’re here for Olesm’s party?”
“I promised him I would attend and I am a Drake of my word.”
The Wall Lord replied haughtily. He paused lowered his voice.
“And I was told you were serving…cake?”
Erin grinned at him. The Wall Lord sighed.
“I would like enough for all my followers to eat. Assuming you’re willing to sell me what you have left?”
Erin grinned at him wickedly.
“Oh, I’ve got tons. Only there’s a slight problem…”
When she presented Ilvriss with the cake with Goblins decorated on it, Embria stared at the Wall Lord, waiting for his reaction. Ilvriss eyed the Goblin drawn in frosting and sighed.
“Typical. Fine, I’ll pay for one for every Drake at my table and whatever Swifttail’s bill is I’ll cover for the night. No cake for me. It’s far too sugary.”
“Want some mayonnaise instead?”
“Give me your menu, Human. And don’t push your luck.”
He went to sit down at his table. Embria returned to sit with Relc, wide-eyed.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss eats here?”
“Told ya. Old Zel ate here too, before…you know. People like Erin.”
“I can’t believe he didn’t take offense. What were we talking about?”
“You said you were ordered to come back here. Was it to see me?”
Embria looked frostily at Relc as he gave her a big smile.
“Hardly. I was ordered to return because my company had few wounded and because we could be spared. I would have argued to stay on the front, but I thought I might as well return to give you this. Here.”
She reached behind her and picked up the spear. Relc eyed it and his eyes widened.
“Hey wait a second! That’s mine!”
“Took you long enough to figure it out.”
“I was looking at you! Hey, are you giving it to me? Did you do your old man a favor?”
“No. I’m just delivering it. The army doesn’t need your spear and they’ve decided to let you have it since Liscor’s gotten more dangerous. You sent them fifteen letters—”
“Hah, I knew that would do the trick! Alright, my old spear! Thanks for bringing it, kid!”
Relc was overjoyed. He grabbed the haft of the spear and grunted. Embria hadn’t let go.
“Um. Kid? Hello? Embria?”
His daughter stared at Relc. Her arms didn’t move an inch.
“Dad. You should come back.”
The big Drake froze. He held onto his spear as he stared at Embria. His eyes slid past her.
“What? Nah, nah, I’m good, thanks. I retired, remember? They wouldn’t want—”
“I talked to my commander. He says you could reenlist. You’d have your old rank back. You could join our company in the city and come back with me after the Goblin Lord’s dead.”
“Look, k—Embria. That’s a nice offer, but I’m done with the army. Can I have my spear now? Please?”
Senior Guardsman Relc tried to smile. Embria stared at him, unblinking.
“Tell me why.”
“I told you last time. I like it here.”
“Staying in one place doesn’t make me stop liking it Embria. I like not being in the army more now, actually. It’s restful being in Liscor. Well, mostly. I get to fight and relax, you know?”
Relc tried to laugh, but Embria looked troubled. She shook her head as if unable to listen to him.
“You’re wasted here. You’re a [Guardsman]—”
“Senior Guardsman! That’s an important rank!”
“A Senior Guardsmen when you were a legend back in the army!”
Relc’s smile faded.
“I was a [Sergeant], kid. Don’t listen to those other idiots. I was just a [Sergeant]—hell, I got paid like one and never got past that.”
“A [Sergeant] who got awarded an enchanted spear for valor? Don’t lie. You were a hero. You could have stayed and been famous!”
A pained look flashed across Relc’s face.
“I was already famous. I wanted to get old, I told you. I retired—”
“No one just quits.”
“Right, they stay even when they’re wounded or old. That’s how your mother died.”
Embria’s eyes blazed.
“She died a hero.”
Relc didn’t meet his daughter’s eyes. He gripped the spear tighter. There was a creak from Embria’s chair and the table between then. Neither Drake moved.
“Let me have my spear, Embria.”
“Rejoin the army.”
“Give it a moment’s thought.”
“I did. And I did last time you came by. The answer’s no.”
A spark of fury entered Embria’s voice. She tried to pull the spear back with both hands, but Relc’s single arm didn’t budge.
“You’re wasting away here! What are you doing, working with the Antinium? With the enemy? Do you know how humiliating it is to know you’re his partner? That you’re the only Drake from the army who—”
“He has a name. Klb. Klbkch. He’s my buddy.”
“He’s a monster. The Antinium are a threat to Liscor!”
“No, they’re not. They saved Liscor.”
“That’s not what High Command believes.”
For the first time Relc met his daughter’s eyes squarely. He pulled and her arms moved an inch unwillingly towards him.
“You think the Antinium didn’t save us? That we beat the Necromancer by ourselves? I was on the walls. I was there, kid. The High Command’s got it wrong. The Ants—the Antinium saved us.”
“They just did that to trick us.”
“Good trick. They could have let us die when Skinner attacked—or when the moths did. They’ve fought for us ever since then. For ten years. You wanna give them a bit of a break?”
“Forget about them. Just come back!”
“No. Give me my spear.”
“It’s not yours. It’s the army’s until I let go.”
Relc’s huge arm gripped the spear tighter.
“Then let go.”
Embria pulled back, setting her stance, gritting her teeth as her tail lashed the chair legs.
“What are they doing?”
Erin stared at Relc and Embria as they both held onto the spear. She edged over to the Drakes having fun and ignoring the weird tableau that was the subject of attention and at least five bets in the room.
The Wall Lord looked up as he paused in laughing at something Olesm had said. He sighed.
“What is it?”
“Speak to Wall Lord Ilvriss with respect, Human!”
One of the Drakes sitting next to Ilvriss glared at Erin, her tail curled around her chair’s leg. Erin gave her a blank look.
“Sorry, but I’m in a hurry. Besides, Ilvriss isn’t my Lord of the Wall or whatever. He’s cool. I’m cool. We’re on a level.”
The Drakes sitting around Ilvriss inhaled sharply. The angry Drake woman half-rose.
“The nerve of—”
The Wall Lord held up a claw and sighed.
“Enough. What is it you want, Solstice?”
Erin nodded to the father and daughter locked in a silent tug-of-war.
“Relc. And uh, Embria. What’s their deal?”
Ilvriss stroked his chin and looked around the table.
“I don’t know that Drake personally—he’s a Senior Guardsman, isn’t he? Shivertail seemed to know him, but I don’t recall. Does anyone here know his history?”
He looked around. One of Ilvriss’ more military-looking followers sat up.
“I do, sir. That’s Relc Grasstongue. Former [Sergeant] in Liscor’s army. The Gecko of Liscor.”
Ilvriss clicked his claws together.
“That’s him! I knew I’d seen him before. And he’s a [Guardsman] in Liscor now? Oddities never cease in this city.”
Erin had heard the name somewhere, but she hadn’t fully connected it to Relc as a title until now. She stared at Relc, confused.
“Is that some kind of fancy title? I’ve never heard Relc call himself that. And he brags a lot.”
She saw some of the Drakes at the table smirking. Ilvriss spoke calmly.
“It’s not exactly a compliment. Are you aware of what geckos are, Solstice?”
Erin frowned. In her mind, geckos were small, quick little things that ran away and shed their tails. And sometimes promoted car insurance. She could see why Relc resented the title.
“They run away, right?”
“Exactly. The Gecko – or rather, Relc Grasstongue – was a known figure in Liscor’s army for his speed and fighting prowess. He was one of their best fighters who ambushed enemy officers and then escaped before he could be caught. A valuable skirmisher in other words, but the title stuck.”
Ilvriss nodded as he recalled Relc’s history. Erin was impressed. If Ilvriss, who was a big shot, could remember Relc, then Relc must have been something! Then again, Ilvriss seemed to have a photographic memory where Drakes were concerned.
“Why’s his daughter mad at him, then? And when did he have a daughter? Why’d he leave his army if he was so great?”
Ilvriss looked at the Drake who’d known about Relc. The officer sat up and nodded sharply.
“As much as the Human wants.”
The Drake drummed his claws on the table before speaking.
“The Gecko of Liscor. Relc Grasstongue. From what I can recall he was never formally married, but had a child out of wedlock with another soldier—a [Major]—when he was quite young. And my understanding is that this Wing Commander Embria grew up travelling with Liscor’s army, so I would assume she was raised by both parents as Liscor’s army travelled from place to place. As for Relc Grasstongue himself, he had a notable career for over two and a half decades until he suddenly retired, an oddity among Liscor’s [Soldiers]. Considered highly dangerous…known for his speed which could match a Courier’s…what else? He never made it past [Sergeant], and in an army like Liscor’s that’s telling.”
Erin was curious. [Sergeant] didn’t sound bad to her. It wasn’t great, but…she saw Ilvriss motion for the Drake to tell her.
“Liscor’s army is unique in that they have an officer for every five soldiers. Generally speaking, [Sergeant] is a worthless rank in an army that has hundreds of sergeants.”
“What, really? Hundreds? Isn’t that too many?”
“It’s a tactic they employ to strengthen their army.”
Ilvriss shrugged as he took a drink. He grimaced—he was drinking water. Erin wondered if he’d be interested in milk instead. The knowledgeable military Drake nodded.
“It’s a trick, but a good one. Liscor fields a very small force—two or three thousand generally. They can rise as high as six thousand depending on whether they’re actively conscripting. But their strength doesn’t lie in numbers. It’s their officers which buff their army to the point where they can fight against larger forces.”
“Oh. I get it. And Embria’s higher-rank, right?”
“Considerably. She’s a [Wing Commander]. That’s a variant of the [Commander] class that specializes in—you could think of her as being a few ranks down from [General], Human.”
“What’s her other class? Solstice, most officers have two classes. Sometimes they have just one, but many have two. Ocelos?”
Ilvriss looked over at Embria. She was still holding onto the spear, as was Relc, but the table between them was starting to creak. Erin thought she saw cracks forming in the wood. She wondered if she should stop them, and then wondered if that would get her stabbed. Ocelos pondered Ilvriss’ question for a moment.
“Her main combat class is…a [Spear Hunter] I believe, sir.”
“I’m not familiar with the class. Is it mobile?”
“Yes, sir. Specialized in mobile offensives—sometimes gained by [Hunters] specializing in spear weapons. It’s an upgrade to the [Spear Drake] class.”
“Our version of [Spearman]. Well, she’s not as adept as her father, then. Not that I’d expect her to be at her age.”
“Wait, how good is Relc, then?”
“Sergeant Relc…that is to say, Senior Guardsman Relc was known as a formidable [Spearmaster]. He earned the class by slaying another [Spearmaster] on the battlefield.”
“Yes, Solstice, that’s good.”
“With his Skills and speed the Gecko was a terror to [Strategists] and lower-ranked officers. I don’t doubt he’s just as formidable as he was in the past. What was his level, Ocelos, do you know? Thirty three? Hm. A Level 33 [Spearmaster] plus a Level…well, at least a Level 20 [Sergeant] is a formidable combination.”
“But he retired. Why?”
Ocelos didn’t know. Ilvriss tapped a claw on the table.
“Dishonorable discharge, a desire to stop fighting…it could be any reason which is his alone, Solstice. But his daughter clearly resents his retirement. It’s rare for Drakes to retire from military life to begin with and Liscor’s army takes that example to the extreme. She probably wants him to return to his command.”
“And he doesn’t want to go.”
“You have it correct. Does that satisfy your interest?”
“Yeah. I just wonder though, does she love him?”
“Embria? She came all this way for him. Does she love him?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps—”
He got no further. There was an almighty crack and Erin’s head whipped around as she saw the struggle between father and daughter end at last. Relc pulled his spear towards his body and Embria let go as the table literally snapped between them sending shards of wood flying everywhere. People ducked and Erin covered her face as Relc raised his spear.
“Hah! I win!”
Embria lay on the ground, staring up at him. She got up slowly as Relc lowered his spear. He looked almost ashamed as he offered her a hand.
“Hey kid, no hard feelings, right?”
She stared at his claw and knocked it aside. She stormed away from Relc as Erin rushed over.
“My table! Hey Relc, what was that about?”
The Drake sighed and kicked at a broken table leg. He looked around at Erin, at Klbkch, and grinned weakly.
“Sorry. I’ll pay for that. Embria and I were just…you know. It’s difficult. But hey. At least I got my spear, right?”
He tried to laugh. It didn’t work. Erin looked at him, opened her mouth, and decided not to ask. She pointed at his spear instead.
“That’s your spear? The one you kept talking about? Is it magical?”
“Yup. It pierces magic barriers like cheese! Soft cheese.”
Relc twirled his spear. It had a grooved tip and the haft looked thick and made of a dark brown-grey wood. Beside that it looked completely normal to Erin on first glance. She waited for Relc to go on.
“Wait. That’s it?”
He looked offended.
“What do you mean, that’s it? That’s great! I could take on any Gold-rank adventurer with this! I could have given that jerk Gnoll a run for her money and killed that Skinner dude with this! Okay, maybe not killed him—but I could have poked out one of his eyes! Besides, this spear don’t break! Check this out!”
Relc walked over to two more newly-made tables and tossed his spear on top of the gap between them. He leapt up and balanced on the spear’s shaft as both tables bore his weight, grinning at Erin. He hopped up several feet and landed heavily on the spear—both tables jumped, but the spear didn’t so much as bend an inch. Erin stared appreciatively at the spear.
“Cool. Now get off my tables! They’re brand new!”
“Okay, okay. I’m just telling you. It’s a good spear! And Embria brought it all the way here. She’s cool, that kid of mine. I just—”
Relc broke off as Embria stormed back towards him. The red-scaled Drake looked angry, and she ignored Erin completely as she stopped in front of Relc.
“Looks like I can’t bring you back this time. Keep your damn spear, Dad—no one else needs it.”
The Senior Guardsman looked hurt.
“Save it. I’m going back to Liscor. I just wanted to say something before I left. Not to you—to the Human here.”
Embria turned towards Erin. Confused, Erin met her sizzling gaze.
“Half the things in your inn, Human. But those Goblins are the worst. Get rid of them. They’re a threat.”
The Drake nodded towards the Redfang Goblins. The sound in the room stopped as everyone looked up. Erin saw Ilvriss glance at the Goblins, and the Hobs immediately grew tense. She scowled at Embria.
“They’re my security! They work here!”
“They’re monsters. Don’t lie to yourself.”
Embria glanced at the Hobs, not a shred of compassion in her eyes. She looked around the room, speaking loudly.
“You might not be aware of this, but after General Shivertail’s death, all the Walled Cities are increasing their bounties on Goblins fivefold. Liscor’s High Command has agreed with that decision and made it policy to hunt down Goblin tribes we encounter—as have the other Drake cities on Izril!”
Her voice echoed as she turned to face the Redfang Warriors. They sat at their table, the five of them, staring with crimson eyes at the red-scaled Drake. Embria’s voice was impartial, distant, as she continued.
“We eradicated two Goblin tribes on the way here. Small ones, not worth mentioning. The Walled Cities are doing the same and a lot of ordinary Drakes have volunteered for temporary military duty to honor General Shivertail. And we’re not alone.”
She pointed towards the north, where the Floodplains and rains ended and the road led towards Celum and beyond.
“I’m told the Human nobility are mobilizing armies against smaller Goblin tribes. Once that Human with the large army moves, there won’t be a living Goblin north or south of Liscor for a thousand miles. These Goblins might be safe until they cause trouble or until I can convince Liscor’s Council that they’re a threat, but soon enough they’ll have nowhere to go. Their tribe will be wiped out. The Humans are already purging the smaller tribes, just like the Drakes.”
Erin’s heart beat wildly. Rags! Embria kept staring at the Redfang Goblins. They met her gaze, and there was a bit of wild in their looks, a bit of hate. She stared back as Headscratcher’s grip tightened on his mug until it cracked, as Badarrow held back Shorthilt and Rabbiteater. Embria pointed at the five Hobs.
“Run while you can, Goblins. And run fast. Because this time everyone in the world is hunting you.”
Then she turned and stormed out of the inn.