Night was falling on Baleros. The jungles, always filled with life and motion, died down somewhat as a calmer, cooler atmosphere swept through the continent. Baleros, the continent of war and riches, grew quieter.
But no less alive. And in the break in the jungles, in an open haven of space where the green gave way to white beaches, a Lizardgirl bathed alone in the fading sunlight. Water dripped from her scales as she washed herself in a jungle stream meeting the ocean. Her neck-frills shone with moisture as she turned, her nude body catching the last rays of the sun.
It was there he found her. A proud Centaur, his top half bare, his sweaty skin bared to the cool air. He paused for a second as the Lizardgirl realized he was standing there.
“Oh. Pardon me, Miss. I didn’t know the stream was…occupied.”
“And I didn’t realize I’d have a guest.”
The Lizardgirl tilted her head. She propped her hands on her hips. The Centaur looked down and scuffed at the grass with one hoof.
“I should go.”
“Oh, but must you? There’s enough stream for both of us. And I’m not intending to stop bathing for a while.”
The Centaur looked back. His white teeth flashed in the gloom, and his flank rippled as he trotted forwards. With one bare arm he bent and held out a hand. The Lizardgirl smiled, her multicolored scales gleamed and the frills around her neck opened slightly. She pressed her warm body to his, feeling his short fur ripple in the moonlight. She ran a hand down his tail.
“You’re quite bold, sir.”
“I’m sorry. I thought this was enough stream for both of us. Unless I should bathe downstream?”
“Oh, no. I think we can fit ourselves in together. But ah—why don’t I help you?”
She ran one claw down his flank. The stallion shivered as the Lizardgirl bent lower. And as she reached for his—
“Hey, Daly. What are you reading?”
The young Australian man looked up. He broke off from the steamy scene of Centaur-Lizardgirl sex. The faded parchment in his hands began to roll up. Daly straightened.
A part of the jungle seemed to be speaking to him. That was, until the girl crouching across from Daly moved. Then you could see where her body started and the forest began. But for that, she was quite, quite hard to spot; she stayed still, whispering. And her body was layered in a composite of mud and lichen, so that if she was lying down she might pass for an odd splotch in the earth.
A mosquito whined past Daly’s ear. He didn’t swat at it, even when it landed on his arm. It probably wouldn’t bite him through the similar mud camouflage on his body. And if it did? Daly had too many bites to worry about one more. Instead, he carefully handed the parchment to the girl without a word. His hands had left some mud on the parchment, so she took it by the corner and squinted.
Just like in the piece of erotica, night was falling over Baleros. Only, unlike the idyllic scene with the nude Lizardgirl, Baleros didn’t get quieter with the fading light. If anything, it got louder.
Or maybe that was just how it felt to be in the jungle. Baleros wasn’t all plant and dense tropical forest. Like any continent it differed in geography. But it was best known for the choking, nearly impenetrable green that marked the continent. For, while each continent had uninhabited places, patches of land unclaimed or at least, unsettled by sheer virtue of the size of the world, only Baleros could lay claim to true wilderness.
Between the jungle-cities of the Lizardfolk, or the ordered settlements of the Dullahans, the sprawling Centaurian camps, and the other settlements by the races of Baleros, there was jungle. And you could lose an army in the densest places, where even sunlight never saw the forest floor.
This place wasn’t nearly so deep. But it was deep. No trails existed; Daly and his group had gone off the road and all traces of civilization had vanished. The greenery around them buzzed with insects mating, preying on each other, the croaking of frogs, and…other things.
And here they were, in that chaos. Daly, the girl squatting across from him, frowning at the parchment, and six other Humans. Four were Australian. The other two, the girl included, were from Sweden. Yes, Sweden of all places. Was it that surprising? Perhaps not, but Daly wouldn’t have usually bet on meeting a Swede crouching in the jungle, covered in camouflage, reading in complete silence.
Her name was Siri, no relation to the iPhone voice. It took her a minute to realize what she was reading. When she did, she looked up and raised one mud-covered eyebrow.
“Erotica? I didn’t know you read it.”
“I don’t. Give it here.”
Daly carefully took the loose pages of parchment and wiped at a bit of mud stuck to them. The pages were worn, and some of the ink smudged. It was no book; the parchment was loose and unbound, and the inky handwriting slanted as the writer struggled to keep to nonexistent page lines. But Daly handled it carefully as he edged closer to Siri.
“It was written by a friend. I sometimes read it to have a laugh.”
“Really? One of us? Who?”
“You wouldn’t know her. Her name was Caroline.”
Siri understood what Daly meant from the expression on his face and didn’t ask further questions. She looked down at the parchment as they squatted together, shoulders touching. Neither noticed. Or cared.
The jungle buzzed. But the two kept their voices so low that it was barely audible to each other over the background noise. And as the light vanished, the writing faded from sight completely. Neither Siri nor Daly suggested lighting anything, though. And Daly spoke into her ear.
“It’s funny. I’ll lend it to you if you want. And it’s uh, not bad.”
“Hot Centaur sex?”
“And the Lizardgirl. And a Dullahan appears later in. It’s unrealistic, though.”
“Yeah. Anyone with a bare chest would have a bunch of mosquitoes eating them.”
“No, I meant the other parts. Lizardpeople have cool bodies, not warm ones. And Centaurs hate anyone touching their tails.”
“Hah. That is funny. Lend it to me, please.”
“After we’re done.”
Daly carefully rolled up the parchment and inserted it into his belt pouch. He half-rose, and looked around. The small camp he and Siri inhabited was quiet. Dead quiet. The few insects who were attracted to the living bodies went about their business, but the Humans barely moved. Even when something bit Daly on the leg, he just stomped it quickly and only checked for blood. He and Siri were quiet. They didn’t ask when the others were coming. They didn’t make conversation. They sat, listening, alert for any larger sounds coming their way.
It wasn’t safe in the jungle at night. It wasn’t insanely dangerous either of course; it wasn’t as if monsters lurked around every tree, or dangerous plants and animals were always underfoot, but it wasn’t as if such threats didn’t exist either. If you had to spend the night in the jungle, you were best served by not attracting attention to yourself.
“What happened to her?”
Siri’s whisper was so faint Daly thought it was just a thought. For a moment. He looked up. She was invisible in the darkness. The moon and starlight were mostly blocked by the canopy. He hesitated.
“She disappeared one day.”
Daly’s throat constricted. But what else could you say? This was Baleros. A continent defined by conflict. By war. And it was his…home. The place where he lived, at any rate. If you could call it that. Sometimes…Daly closed his eyes. Things were different than they had been when he’d first appeared here, bewildered, confused, surrounded by young men and women from Melbourne’s airport. Back then Baleros had been hell. But they had survived it. And time had passed since then. Two months and a half to be exact.
When had Caroline written this? Right after the battle, that was it. Right after they’d survived the bloody battle between the Razorshard Armor Company and the Roving Arrow Company in the forests. When they’d first formed the United Nations company. Daly felt the parchment in his belt pouch shift a bit as he drew his knees closer to his chest. Back then, they’d been so optimistic. Hadn’t they? It had all seemed like everything was going to be alright. And it had been. For a while. It had been grand…
“She ran one claw down his flank. The stallion shivered as the Lizardgirl bent lower. She reached for his huge, throbbing—”
Kenjiro Murata broke off reading the piece of parchment and stared at what came next. He blinked, not trusting to the translation his brain provided, and then read on. He turned crimson and hastily lowered the parchment.
A girl stared at him. She was blushing too. That was somehow even more uncomfortable, so Ken jerked his eyes back down to the parchment and kept reading. He got four more sentences in and felt the tips of his ears burning. He looked up again and hesitated.
He was a [Negotiator]. A diplomat, but low-level. And Ken was from Earth. He was Japanese, a student from another world who had been accidentally (or perhaps intentionally?) teleported to this one. To Baleros, a continent defined by mercenary companies and war. He had successfully negotiated a ceasefire between two companies, survived a bloody battlefield, and even formed a company of people from his world and this one.
None of it helped in this case. Kenjiro looked at the page of what was in essence…smut. Yes, that was the English word for it. Or…porn. Erotica?
The different words and definitions popped into Ken’s mind. He had never heard the word ‘smut’ before, or ‘erotica’, but he somehow knew the definition of the word in Japanese when he thought of it. It was most likely due to his Skill, [Amateur Linguist]. Thanks to it, Ken had understood exactly what had been written.
“Ah, Caroline-san. This is…”
“It’s a work in progress. I’m not done with it.”
The young woman broke in hastily. She was Australian, about nineteen years old and currently the color of an apple. A red one, that was. She indicated the page and Ken realized she’d only gotten one page in. And amazingly, it looked like there was quite a lot of potential for more pages.
Carefully, Ken put the parchment down and looked at Caroline. He had a number of things he wanted to say, but his desire to be polite, and his class took over. Always be polite. Be accommodating. You could go far with words. Ken had no intention of going half as far as anything Caroline had just described, but he had to know.
“I understand what is written, Caroline. But um, what is the purpose of it?”
If she wanted his input on what the Centaur should do next, he would run away. But that didn’t seem to be why Caroline had pulled Ken aside. She knew he was very busy trying to organize the budding group, the United Nations company, and all the disparate factions that made it up. People from Earth, Quallet and the former mercenaries, all of whom hailed from different cultures, backgrounds, and species. But Ken felt positive about the challenge.
They could make this world. They could form a company that would not only look for people from their world, but would support and protect each other. They had a number of brilliant people among them. Luan, who was an Olympic rower from their world, or at least, an Olympic hopeful. Quallet, a [Mercenary Captain] who’d decided to stick with them even after the disastrous battle he’d narrowly survived, Centaurs and Dullahans and Lizardfolk, including the [Sorcerer], Quexa, and last but not least, Geneva.
The Last Light of Baleros. The [Doctor]. Possibly the most medically knowledgeable person in the world. Ken had watched her work on the battlefield and if there was anyone whose abilities were invaluable and irreplaceable, it was hers. As a [Negotiator], Ken hoped to bring all these people together and create something special. But this?
“It’s what I can do.”
Caroline took a deep breath. She indicated the work of fiction. Ken blinked.
“Yeah. I…well, I wanted to be a writer. Um, you know, write novels. Romance novels. I practiced! I had a bunch of fan fiction online about—uh, it doesn’t matter. Some of it was about Japanese manga. Have you heard of…?”
Ken’s polite stare somehow managed to convey his desire not to reminisce about popular manga. Caroline coughed.
“Well, I thought I could write something. There’s parchment in this world. And paper too, but it’s expensive. But I got some ink and parchment from Xalandrass before he left—I didn’t spend much! And I wrote this. So? What do you think?”
“It’s very…creative. But Caroline, what is this for?”
Ken waved the parchment at her. Caroline looked surprised.
“To sell, of course.”
Ken looked blank. Caroline nodded.
“Yeah. There’s no, uh, romance literature in this world. Not many books at all, really. And none of it is recreational, really. So I thought why not write something like this? I mean, Twilight sold a huge amount! If you think it’ll sell, I could write more, maybe do a short story—or a novel! And copy it…we could sell it, right?”
She looked hopeful. Ken sat back. Now he understood. She wanted to do—she wanted to be an author. And sell this. He had to admit, it was a novel idea.
“I know you’re trying to find ways to make money. Luan’s trying to be a Runner, and Daly’s talking about going back to work in a suppression company. But if that Quallet guy asks—I’m not doing it. Not ever again.”
The Australian girl’s lips compressed into a tight line. Ken nodded. He didn’t blame her. No one would want to walk back into the battlefield, not after what they’d seen.
He had been part of Quallet’s company, Gravetender’s Fist. They’d been a suppression company, hired to clean a battlefield of corpses after each day of combat to prevent the undead from spawning. It had been dirty, dangerous work. But even worse had been getting caught up in the crossfire as both companies who’d been fighting—the Razorshard Armor company, comprised mainly of Dullahans, and the Roving Arrow company, a Centaur group, had begun to ignore the rules of war and target third parties as well as each other.
“We will try not to force anyone to fight, Caroline. And yes, every talent is needed. But are you sure this would…sell?”
He had his doubts. But then Ken remembered that there was a big market for this in Japan. It was just…would it apply to Baleros, where other species were as common, if not more common than Humans? Caroline shrugged.
“It can’t hurt to ask, right? So…will you ask?”
Ken looked horrified. Caroline blushed.
“But you wrote it!”
“I just can’t! Ken, you have to! You’re the [Negotiator]. You can ask if the others think it’ll sell. Please?”
Ken spluttered. This was not something he’d ever envisioned having to do. But Caroline was insistent.
“It’s for the good of the company! And it might sell a lot! You know about Twilight, right? And Fifty Shades of Grey? They sold millions of books, Ken! Just imagine it! Please ask! I just need feedback from a few Dullahans, Centaurs, and Lizardfolk.”
Only them? Ken bit his tongue. Caroline had named the three most common species inhabiting Baleros besides Humans. The stony-faced, hierarchical Dullahans encased in their armor, who could detach heads and body parts as easily as blinking. Centaurs, haughty, arrogant, and yet also intensely honorable in their own way. And Lizardfolk, who were in a word, social. Extremely adaptive, almost never found alone, and chatty. And Ken had to show this to them? He opened his mouth to protest again, and found Caroline ushering him towards the door.
“Remember to get their feedback! Ask them if they liked the pairings! And the—the descriptions!”
Ken stared at the door as Caroline shut it behind him. The little hut that had been his work area was one of several on the beach. In fact, the small fishing village inhabited by Lizardfolk was entirely on the beach. The slim, scaly Lizardpeople walked to and fro, chatting, casting nets together, and stopping to stare at their guests.
The United Nations company, or rather, the group of people who’d decided to rally under that banner were still in holiday mode. Groups of Humans dressed in bright clothing mixed with a few Dullahans, a pacing Centaur or two, and a gaggle of Lizardfolk. They were mainly Humans from Earth, and they boasted a mix of technology from their world—iPhones, modern clothing, and jewelry the Lizardfolk clearly coveted—some also still carried weapons from their time as mercenaries. Among them was Quallet Marshhand himself, a man with several scars who was clearly out of place in this peaceful setting.
The beach was wonderfully white and beautiful. Ken had never seen somewhere this lovely in person. The waves lapped at the sand, and the food was excellent, the Lizardfolk hospitable. They’d given up their house—for coin of course—and had fed their guests well. Being here had almost made Ken forget the blood and death of only a week earlier.
Almost. But Ken would never forget, least of all in his dreams. What was a bit of embarrassment compared to that? He took a deep breath and marched across the sands. As he walked, some of the people looked up. One of them called his name. Ken turned and waved at Daly, an Australian young man who still bore the axe he’d fought with.
He was relaxing next to Quexa, a Lizardgirl. She had only one foot. The other one had been cut off in battle, but Geneva had helped create a simple peg-leg for her. And the [Doctor] was hoping to improve on that, and bring more modern technologies from her world. She just needed time and resources. And if erotica would fund the [Doctor]’s needs…Ken took a deep breath.
“Excuse me! Mister Revuc, yes? May I ask your opinion of something if you have the spare time?”
“Fucking hell. I think he’s actually doing it. You owe me…two silver coins, Paige.”
Daly watched as Ken approached a Dullahan wearing stiff wood armor. The Dullahan had his head tucked under one arm, but he fastened it to his head and locked it into place as Ken showed him the piece of parchment. Two Lizardboys crowded around and Ken hurriedly shooed them away. They were too young, but the Centaur and five other Lizardfolk he called over all looked interested. Daly watched and then turned to his side.
“Hey Paige, I said—”
“I hear you. Go to hell.”
A young woman lying in the sand half-raised her head. Her ears were filled with two blue ear buds. She was letting the sun bathe her. Reluctantly, she looked up and saw Ken gesticulating quickly to the Dullahan, who was looking quite affronted.
“I don’t know. I quite liked it—”
Without looking over, Paige tossed some sand at Daly. He spluttered and Quexa laughed.
“Not the story. The fact that Caroline made Ken ask about it. Let her do it if she’s so invested.”
Some of the other Earthworlders in earshot nodded. Daly shrugged. He brushed sand off his back, and then felt something sweep across him. He looked over. Quexa winked at him as she slapped his shoulder, dislodging the dry sand.
“I don’t know. I think it’s smart, myself. True, Caroline should probably grow a pair and get out there, but if they do go sour, Ken’s probably the only one who could stop a fight. He’s our [Negotiator], after all.”
Paige just grunted. They kept watching. Daly didn’t know what was being said, but the affront on Revuc’s face changed to something like amusement after Ken kept talking. The Centaur laughed, and the Dullahan cracked a smile.
“See? Look at that. He made them laugh, instead of knocking his teeth out. Caroline’d probably get in trouble. Well, maybe. I couldn’t do that. Not to one of the Dullahan fellows right now. It takes guts to smile at anyone after you see something like that.”
The others grew silent. Something like that. Daly meant the battlefield they’d walked out of. Watching other people from Earth being executed. By Dullahans. Fair, it wasn’t as if Revuc stood for all of them, but the memory was burned into Daly’s mind. Paige looked over and plucked one ear bud out.
“Any news from there?”
Quexa spoke up. The Lizardgirl sat up.
“The Razorshard Armor company won. They drove the Roving Arrow forces away. It was a slaughter after we left. Both companies were reduced to a fraction of their original force. But the Razorshard Armor company secured the area—for four days. Then another company, Steliers’s Ring, came in and forced them to retreat.”
“Fucking hell. You mean all that fighting was for nothing? They won but then had to give up?”
Across from them, one of the Australians that Daly had come here with, Dawson, muttered. The others just looked up bleakly. Quexa smiled and her tail curled up a bit. Daly saw that, but no one else could. The Lizardgirl spoke cheerfully.
“That’s Baleros for you! Fortunes change in an instant. Even the strongest get eaten. And it’s not like it was for nothing. The survivors leveled. The Razorshard Armor company probably secured a lot of spoils from the dead. Armor, weapons—it wasn’t a complete loss.”
“Still. This place is just like a warzone. If it’s like this, then…”
Someone else muttered. Daly looked up. Baleros was completely different from home. War and battles were commonplace. No one batted an eyelash about hearing about two companies fighting. And this was where he and the others were. Stuck.
After a while, Daly spoke up. He looked back to Ken thoughtfully.
“I don’t know about you lot, but I’m glad Ken’s here. Because if he hadn’t been—if we hadn’t run into Geneva, we’d be dead. Or living like maniacs.”
He saw nods from all around. Paige just closed her eyes and lay back. Daly didn’t doubt he was right, either. He remembered what it had been like, living in Gravetender’s Fist those last few days. He had felt…alive.
Frighteningly so. The fear and adrenaline in the air, the feeling of being on the razor’s edge—it had colored every waking moment. Daly could remember eating feverishly, sleeping, only to wake up in an instant. That had been the mood among him and the other people from Earth. A burning desperation, the realization that they were in another world and how hopeless their situation was.
There had been something liberating in it. Wild, that called them to do whatever they wanted. Eat, drink, and relish every second you’re alive. Because soon you’ll be dead. There had been real despair among them—in everyone from their world as the realization had sunk in. But some of them hadn’t given in. They’d refused to fight, found another way out.
“I killed eight guys before Ken showed up. Eight. It wasn’t even that hard. You just swing the axe, use a Skill—it was easy after fighting zombies every night. Zombies you have to cut off their heads. Centaurs, Dullahans—they bleed and die. If he hadn’t stopped the fighting and helped us get away…”
Paige looked up. Daly stared across the blue ocean. He was still wearing the axe, despite sunbathing. His hand twitched. Quexa looked up. But she said nothing. She looked at the other Earthworlders, but no one else wanted to speak. Paige nodded.
“I saw Anders get run down by a Centaur. Right in front of me. Makes you wonder how Humans survived at all. In this place.”
No one spoke. Desperately, still smiling, Quexa looked around. Her tail curled further, and she pitched her voice up cheerfully.
“Oh, I know the answer to that! It’s because there are too many Humans to get rid of. You’re on every continent—lots of you. Mainly because you reproduce so fast. I mean, Lizardfolk do too, but Humans are really good at it. We’re both good at having sex. Our species, I mean. We might be good ourselves, but I haven’t had enough practice to tell.”
A few of the Earthworlders laughed. Daly chuckled and Quexa brightened.
“Speaking of which, I was going to ask. About sex. Is it normal for Humans to have—”
Daly raised his voice. The others began laughing. That was how Ken found them. The young man walked over, holding the parchment. Daly broke off from explaining to Quexa, red-faced, why talking about intimate moments wasn’t customary among Humans—at least not in this public a setting—and looked at him.
“Ken! What’s the verdict? Are we all going to start writing Baleros fan fiction, or what?”
Ken only blushed a bit. He glanced over his shoulder and hesitated. He coughed twice.
“There is…potential. If Caroline-san keeps writing, we can try selling her finished story. But it will take time for her to write.”
“No. I think it might sell. Um. Among at least two of the species. Lizardfolk are very—how can I say it?—interested. They are open and liked the story. I do not think the Centaurs would, though. Their culture doesn’t enjoy it the same way, as they do not like reading of intimate scenes.”
“And the Dullahans?”
“Um. Revuc was very upset. But after I explained it to him, I think he might have been interested. If it wasn’t so public when he was reading it. Please do not talk to him about it. But Dullahans might enjoy it, if it was not so public.”
One of the others whistled.
“Closet perverts. Really? Are all Dullahans like that?”
“They are not all like that. But culturally, Dullahans do not express things like that. So I am saying maybe they might be interested…so long as no one knows what they’re reading.”
The others laughed. Daly was joking that Caroline should just copy Twilight and trying to explain that to Quexa when he saw some other people approaching. One of the Humans who had been rowing about the waters had finally come ashore. Luan, sweating but visibly delighted, approached.
“Ken! What’s happening over here?”
The others looked up and waved. Daly saw Luan had his own group of followers trailing behind him. He’d been rowing with Aiko in his canoe, teaching her how to row. And he was followed by a host of Lizardfolk, all of whom had been taken in an instant by Luan’s skill. He was faster than any of them on the water, despite the fishing canoes being their crafts. And that was because Luan was truly extraordinary when it came to rowing.
He was an Olympic athlete, or more correctly, the Olympic hopeful of his nation. Luan had trained all his life to excel at one sport. Daly had watched him shoot across the waters. It was strange. Luan had just been one of the others when he was trapped in the jungle. But on the water, he was different.
“Luan. Caroline-san has given me this. She thinks we should sell it. What do you think?”
Ken turned, smiling at his friend. He, Luan, and Aiko had been a close group in Baleros. The Japanese girl waved at Daly and the others. She stuck to Luan—Daly wondered if they were together. The rumor was that Luan was actually a married man, but it hadn’t been hard to tell that Aiko was deeply in to him.
No one would ask. This was a different world. For his part, Luan took the parchment from Ken and began reading. He started laughing almost at once.
“What? She wants to sell this? Are you serious? It’s a brilliant idea! Twisted! It’s like doujinshi, you know, Ken? Aiko could do illustrations!”
“What? No, Luan! No way!”
The young Japanese woman protested vigorously. He laughed, trying to show her what was written. She covered her face and turned away. The others laughed and Daly saw Quexa looking interested. She was going to want to read it next.
Luan returned the page to Ken, who in turn handed it to Quexa when she requested it. The South African man grew serious as he took a seat in the sand with the others.
“I’m not saying it would sell lots, yeah? But if we could sell some copies, that’d be great. And Caroline could be a—a [Writer]. That’s a class, isn’t it?”
“Um. [Scribe] is more common to start with. Ooh. Hey, wait a second! We don’t have warm bodies! Not unless we’re really sick. Is she sick?”
Quexa pointed indignantly at the manuscript, and Daly looked over. He grinned. Luan kept smiling, but there was reserve in his tone.
“I’m sure Caroline could fix it. She’ll gain a class tonight, right?”
“If she doesn’t have it already. I’m surprised. You all don’t have levels. Even you, Luan. Even though you’re fast on the water.”
The Lizardgirl looked at Luan. He shrugged, glancing at the others.
“It’s complicated. But I’ll want to level. Especially if it makes me faster. We should all be trying to level up, I think.”
“We’ve all got [Warrior] classes, mate. Should we keep leveling those classes?”
Daly felt at the axe at his side. Luan hesitated.
“That’s up to each of us, Daly my friend. But we need to earn money somehow. We’re the United Nations company, and we need to feed everyone somehow. I’m going to make money by running messages in my canoe. That’s a good job.”
Quexa nodded absently. Luan looked at Ken.
“And Quallet wants us to be a company. Escorting Geneva around. And fighting. Not sure that’s the right thing to do. But we need jobs and that’s a fact, friends.”
The others grew silent. They sat up a bit. It had been a wonderful few days here. But Luan had reminded them of the facts. They weren’t on vacation. And their surviving the fighting in the jungles hadn’t left them rich. They’d been paid for the fighting, but it wasn’t as if Quallet and the other suppression companies had come out with money from the broken contracts.
“Well, we’ll have another meeting tonight. Caroline can be our [Writer], and the rest of us can look for proper jobs once we head to another town.”
“Yeah. Definitely. We’ll make it.”
Paige smiled. But there was a bit of uncertainty in the smile. Daly could hear her turn up the music in her headphones. Luan looked around. And then he started.
“Oh. Look who’s coming.”
Every head turned. And the Humans grew still. Some sat up a bit. Walking across the beach came another figure that everyone recognized. Her steps were quick, her gait only a slight bit uneven, favoring her left side. But for all that, Geneva Scala was distinguished. Not just her bearing either. No one who saw her could forget. There walked Geneva, the [Doctor]. The Last Light of Baleros.
She had saved hundreds of lives on the battlefield before Ken and the others had found her. Alone, working in the jungle with nothing but scalpel, needles, and healing potions. To the people of this world, her skills were unique. She could do what no potion or spell could. She had brought people from the edge of death without rest.
And it showed. Of the people on the beach, Geneva was the only one who was clearly not smiling. She looked—restless.
“Ken. Luan. Aiko. Hello. What’s happening?”
Geneva paused before the others. Luan turned to her, smiling a bit.
“Geneva, come and look at this.”
He handed her the parchment before anyone could object. Geneva read quickly, and then visibly paused. She frowned.
“It’s erotica. Caroline’s thinking of marketing it. You know, like a cheap romance novel?”
Geneva looked up. She didn’t smile. Her expression seemed to be a perpetual frown. No—more like a concentrated stare. And she was restless, as if she expected to be called upon at any moment. She considered the writing and then handed it back to Luan.
“That’s not the correct anatomy. But if it sells, why not? We need money. We need to leave this place soon.”
The smile faded from Luan’s face.
“Not just yet. We could stay a few more days, right?”
Geneva shook her head.
“We’re running out of money. Do you know how much we have left?”
Luan shifted uncomfortably.
“I do. But some of us are worn out, Geneva. We all need more of a break. You included.”
“I’ll be fine. But we can’t keep putting this off, Luan.”
Daly looked from Geneva to Luan and sat up a bit. The dark-skinned man hesitated. He looked at Ken and no one else spoke. Of the Earthworlders, he and Geneva were the oldest, which wasn’t saying much. At last, he nodded.
“We can leave soon. We’ll talk it over tonight.”
“Are we going to be working as a suppression company again, Luan?”
Paige called out. Luan looked at them. His eyes flickered. Everyone grew quiet.
“If we have to. But Quallet’s on our side, and a lot of Gravetender’s Fist stuck with us. We don’t have to go from battlefield to battlefield. He was saying he wanted to form a proper company, instead of a temporary suppression company. We could do stuff like…guarding places, right? Or we could get other jobs. We’ve got money. All we have to do is stick together.”
“Right. And we’ve got the Last Light of Baleros on our sight and Luan the almighty [Rower]. We’ll be fine, right?”
Daly joked. He heard a few sparse laughs. Luan smiled, but it only revealed a bit of strain. Geneva turned.
“We’re having another meeting tonight? Okay. I’ll be there. We can’t stay here forever.”
She walked off. Quickly, not even glancing at the ocean. As if she was being pursued. The others were quiet as reality came back. Slowly, Daly shifted.
“Guess we’ve got to get back to work.”
He stood up, brushing sand from his legs—
Daly’s hand snatched a large bug crawling up his arm and hurled it off him. The biting thing flew off into the jungle. Daly rubbed at the bite. He made no sound. He heard Siri shift once, changing her stance. But neither she nor Daly sat down, despite their sore legs.
Sitting was a bad idea. Lots of things would crawl over them. And if they were unlucky enough to lie down on a nest of some kind—well, Daly had watched enough nature channels to know about army ants in the Amazon rainforests of his home. They were just a taste of the nasty things you could run into here. No. No sitting or sleeping. They didn’t intend on spending the entire night here, anyways.
“She was right. It really doesn’t look like that.”
Daly whispered to himself. He felt Siri shift, but he didn’t elaborate. He felt at his belt pouch again. The manuscript was longer. But it had never been finished to the author’s satisfaction. And it never would.
Caroline. Listening to her trying to come up with the right words and responding to their teasing each night had been so much fun. He’d really thought it would sell, too. Earn the money they needed. Until…
Daly felt his stomach gurgle. Not exactly in hunger. But it did remind him. He looked up.
“Siri. You eat anything?”
Daly nodded. He wasn’t either. He’d eaten some dried jerky earlier, but he was too alert to settle for a real meal. Absently, he felt at his side. Let’s see. By his count it had been an hour and a half. If they were any longer, he’d have to—
Rustling. The crunch of footsteps in the soil. Daly froze, then turned. He felt Siri jerk to attention. Neither Human moved. Slowly, Daly rose into a low crouch. He reached for his side. The worn handle of an axe fit into his hand as he drew it. Siri, invisible, readied herself. The two were tense. And then—
“Crikey, what was that?”
Someone muttered ahead of them. Daly relaxed. He lowered his axe and grinned.
“Think it was a croc, mate. How’d you lot do?”
The figures ahead of him relaxed. Daly heard shuffling, then the outlines of four people—two male and two female—appeared. Like Siri and Daly, they were covered in mud and bits of nature. And like them, they barely spoke. In fact, they’d navigated their way here in almost complete darkness.
Almost. As they scooted into the camp, Daly could see one of them held what looked like an oversized firefly in their hand. A [Light] spell, but so faint that it barely provided any illumination. Which was the point.
“Sorry we’re late, boss.”
One of the latecomers murmured. He and the others trooped into the small camp space they’d set up. There was rustling—Daly moved aside as someone passed him. He saw the light pass him, and then a face came into view.
Dawson was a friend from home. But covered in mud, only his eyes were visible. He looked horrific in his jungle makeup. Daly nodded.
“Did you run into anything?”
“No. We had a clear go of it. But the damn buggers moved two hundred paces west. We had to follow them.”
“Can you find them again?”
“Definitely. They’re already asleep. So we can go as soon as we’re ready.”
That was good. Daly breathed out slowly in relief. At the same time though, he felt the tension racket up another notch.
“Give it twenty minutes. Anyone needs to eat? Get a mouthful in you. The rest of you—ready up.”
The others nodded. They shuffled around the camp, grabbing what supplies they’d left here. All in silence. Daly stretched. His legs were sore. Not only had he and the others set up camp here this morning, they’d spent all day tracking their quarry. They’d expected them to sleep later, but apparently it was lights out as soon as night fell. Well, it would speed up their job considerably. Daly didn’t want to wait another few hours like this.
“I’m gonna take a piss. I need a light.”
Someone muttered. The [Light] spell travelled to Daly’s left. He saw someone shuffle over. Male or female it didn’t matter. They didn’t get far enough away for anyone to not hear the quiet pattering sound. No one commented. Better embarrassment here than wandering too far out. And light was essential. You never knew what was around you.
That done, the others went back to getting ready. Daly already had his rucksack dropped, and he checked his weapons. He couldn’t afford something breaking. They’d only get one shot at this. The six of them had spent too much time to waste it here. And failing would have more repercussions than just wasted time and effort. It was their reputations on the line here. After all, they were adventurers.
Adventurers. Daly breathed in and out, slowly. His right index finger itched. It was an odd distinction. But adventurers were different from mercenaries in Baleros’ companies. They often fulfilled the same duties, but adventurers operated in smaller groups. They were hired for things like monster extermination over fighting other people. Usually. It didn’t mean the job was all that safer. Monsters were quite deadly.
But it beat killing people. There was that. Daly breathed in and out. String? Good. He loaded and unloaded the bulky weapon. He’d apply the poison at their destination. The [Alchemist] had told him it needed to be a fresh coat. He could hear the others doing the exact same check.
Silence. The minutes ticked by very, very slowly.
Aldenon, or Ald as he preferred to be called, sought Daly out as the others took a brief rest around the camp.
“Daly, I’ve got a bite. Something jumped up and got me on the way back.”
Daly was immediately alarmed. He looked down at his friend’s leg, but Ald shook his head.
“I don’t think so. It didn’t do much more than hurt. But it did bleed a bit. I didn’t want to use a healing potion until we could check it out. You know what Geneva said about venoms and potions.”
“Damn right. Let me see. Get that [Light] spell over here, Dawson.”
The light appeared again. Daly looked down and saw dried blood on a leg. He bent, squinted. Ald held still. Daly inspected the wound for eggs, discoloration, but saw nothing as he brushed at the mud and blood.
“Looks fine to me. Just a bit of blood. Not even deep.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Ald relaxed a bit. Daly nodded.
“It’s not gonna slow you down, although it might attract bugs. Already got one bugger in there. Let’s put a bandage over it. If it’s bad, Geneva’ll take care of it when she gets back.”
“I’ve got a roll right here. Let’s wrap him up and reapply the mud.”
Siri rummaged in her belt pouch. Daly nodded.
“Clean it first. Where’s the med kit Geneva worked up?”
One of the others tossed Daly a little rucksack. He opened it and fished out a canteen. The instant he uncorked it, a pungent smell rose from the bottle.
“It’s gonna sting, Ald.”
“Hah. I got bit by a Ghoul. Don’t worry about—fuck!”
Ald bit his tongue as Daly poured the alcohol over the wound and then rubbed the blood and dirt away with a clean bit of cloth. He bit his tongue and kept silent as the bandage was swiftly applied and wrapped up. Daly slapped his knee gently.
“Good as new. Let us know if it starts feeling worse, got it?”
The operation had been very quiet, despite the swearing. Daly corked the canteen and stowed it again, resisting the urge to take a sip. The liquid within wasn’t for drinking, tempting as it might have been.
Medical kits didn’t exist for most companies. They had healing potions and little else. But the thing about having a [Doctor] in your company was that she insisted you be prepared. After all, healing potions couldn’t cover everything. Hence the bandages and other kit they’d brought with them. Antiseptic was especially important. Geneva had been tearing her hair out over the problem. She had a Skill, but she couldn’t be everywhere.
In lieu of rubbing alcohol or a proper antiseptic, Geneva had ordered them to bring whiskey, or a hard grain liquor as a substitute. That was what Daly had poured on Ald’s leg. And the smell was distinct. Some of the bugs flew away at the odor. Some came closer to investigate. Daly heard a grunt.
“Pshaw. What’s that stuff you poured on Ald? That Firebreath Whiskey we bought? It stinks!”
“Yeah. We want to get rid of the smell before we’re on the move.”
Daly scowled. He shouldn’t have applied the stuff here. Sloppy. They had to be more careful. If this was a riskier mission or something had been nearby—
One of the others spoke up thoughtfully.
“You know, we might be able to make a Molotov out of that stuff. Good old-fashioned firebombs? Worth a shot?”
“Maybe…don’t think it’d do much damage against our targets this time. But it’d probably scare them. I don’t think it could start a fire in this wet. What do you think, Daly?”
Siri spoke up quietly. Daly gave it a moment’s thought.
“No. Not this time. We start throwing alcohol around and we’ll be in the red for this job. We’ve got poison. We’ll try that first, pull back and rethink if it doesn’t. Remember, aim for the eyes or the side. No one speaks until we get there. Ready?”
The others gave a quiet affirmative. Daly nodded.
They stood up. In silence, the six left their camp. Dawson took point, leading the way through the tropical rainforest he’d memorized. Daly walked in the middle, Siri keeping up the rear. The light spell was barely visible. The footsteps were loud in Daly’s ears, despite everyone keeping quiet as possible. They were all listening for sounds that might indicate something lying in wait. They lugged their weapons with them, drawn, but not loaded. Not yet.
Bugs. Mud. Aching legs. There was only one reason for Daly to be out here, being eaten alive. And that was what motivated all adventurers.
Money. It always came back to money. Everything would be fine if they had enough coin. But they didn’t. And soon they’d realized what that meant. Daly’s teeth ground together for a moment before he stopped it.
If they’d only realized how much it cost to run a company, they wouldn’t have pushed so far…
“We’re not going to make it.”
Daly looked up. Paige was counting their coins. Silver, coppers, gold—all of it was in Quallet’s personal bag of holding. And there wasn’t enough. He could see that. Even so, he asked, in case asking would change reality.
“Are you sure? How much do we have?”
“A hundred and eighteen gold coins.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
Paige shot him a glance. Daly winced. He scooted over and checked, but Paige had counted the coins into even piles of five. He held his breath. Luan and Geneva were not going to like this.
“We’re never going to get to Talenqual at this rate. We have to stop and earn money. Somehow.”
“I don’t know. Here. Another town? But we’ll starve long before we get there. And we’ll lose half our company before that. They’re already talking about needing to be paid. I’m surprised they haven’t brought it up until now.”
The others. Daly felt a lurch in his chest. It had been a week and a half of marching. They’d left the idyllic Lizardfolk village on the beach to march back through the jungle. North, towards one of the cities nearby. Quexa and the others had said it was a good place—peaceful, with opportunity to work. But the journey had taken longer than they’d thought.
No—they’d delayed too long. Too many days of stretching out on the beach, wasting money. And then they’d stopped at nice inns, not marched nearly as hard as they could. They were paying for it now. Quallet had insisted the Earthworlders and soldiers still with them pick up the pace, but the Humans from Earth hadn’t been able to muster the discipline, and none of the appointed leaders—Luan, Ken, or Geneva—had had the stomach to force the issue. Daly wished they had. Desperately, he counted the coins and tried to estimate how far they had to go.
“Look, if we all just eat rice—with some of that cheap meat the Lizardfolk sell, er, xelca, and we drink water, how much does it cost us each day?”
“Too much. I’ve done the math, Daly.”
Paige snapped at him. He knew she was just stressed. As the appointed treasurer of the United Nations company, she was already under pressure to save as many coins as they could. And that was before the issue in front of them—the Earthworlders were reluctant to give up the pay they’d earned and pool their funds, no matter how necessary it was, and the others weren’t about to do that at all.
The remnants of Gravetender’s Fist might have agreed to join the company, but they were still separate. Even Quexa and Quallet. And if there was no money to be had, they might up and vanish. And then how would the Earthworlders defend themselves?
“It’s too expensive. We’ve got too many mouths. Even rice and meat add up, Daly. We can’t always cook it ourselves, and it’s way more expensive if we’re paying for meals. That’s on top of paying for rooms, Geneva’s supplies, materials for the Dullahan’s armor, bug repellant, not to mention ink, parchment, [Repair] spells for the electronics…”
“Damn it. What do we do, then?”
Daly scrubbed at his hair. Paige shrugged.
“I’ve done all I can. I can only relay the bad news.”
Which she did. Every night, the leaders of the United Nations company gathered. In Quallet’s tent if they were camping, in a room in the inn if they were paying for lodging—six of them.
Paige, Daly, Ken, Luan, Geneva, and Quallet. The six of them were, each in their own way, leaders. Daly and Paige represented the Australians, who were the largest group of otherworlders who’d survived to join the company. Paige kept the money, Daly had found himself keeping people in line. Stopping them from fighting on the road, wasting money, and so on. Ken was their diplomat, responsible for negotiating prices and more of the peacemaking. Luan was Luan. Geneva likewise. And Quallet was their link to the outside world and common sense.
It was that the [Mercenary Captain] threw at them now. They didn’t want to hear it, but he was insistent. He paced back and forth, looking angry and irritated.
“Companies always bleed coin. The way we earn it is constantly being on contract. Or by controlling and selling a resource of some kind. If we were responsible for guarding a town, for instance…but we’re not. We need to find work.”
“You mean, by taking a fight. Going out there and killing some other poor buggers.”
“Not necessarily. Companies get paid to menace an area, or just patrol. We could take a job clearing pest monsters. Or even undead. Anything to get by. I thought that was why you formed this company.”
The man glared at Geneva and Luan. The two looked at each other. Luan spoke quietly.
“We don’t want to fight, Quallet. It’s too risky. People will die.”
“That’s what happens in a company.”
“It’s not what we want. This company is supposed to protect its members.”
“By letting them starve?”
“By protecting. Finding another way to earn gold. We’re not in this to start fights!”
Luan snapped at Quallet. The man ground his teeth together. Geneva looked up.
“I can do it. I’ll offer my services at a battlefield. If Quallet can get together some people to guard me, I’ll see if Calectus is willing to stay with us and guard me.”
Quallet was skeptical. He had every right to be. The Selphid, Calectus, was already thinking of leaving. He’d done his job guarding Geneva from everything without so much as asking for a copper coin—now he was hinting at leaving more and more with each passing day. He wanted to find some of his Selphid friends and bring them back to meet Geneva. He wouldn’t be happy to learn she was planning on going back to the battlefield.
Neither was anyone else. Ken protested immediately.
“Geneva, please reconsider. Doing something like working on the battlefield—it’s too dangerous, surely!”
The [Doctor] shook her head. Her hands moved restlessly on the table. Daly saw her left hand’s fingers moving, as if they had a mind of their own compared to the right. He shivered but kept silent.
“I’m no use here. I can at least earn money by saving lives on the battlefield.”
“That might be true. But we can’t protect you. When I said we should work as a company, I didn’t mean head to a battlefield as a third party. We should take small contracts. We don’t have the numbers or the punch to defend a target like you.”
Quallet looked at Geneva. She shrugged.
“Then I’ll go by myself.”
“This time they’ll kill you straight off. They won’t risk what happened last time. Word got around. You destabilize a battlefield. No [Strategist] will let you interrupt their plans.”
The Italian woman’s eyes blazed.
“What’s the other solution? Let everyone else fight?”
“It’s not necessarily going to come to battle! I told you, companies aren’t always at war.”
“And it if does?”
“You were [Soldiers]. Mercenaries. You survived one battle, and did it well. Why can’t you do it again—”
Ken interrupted the two as they argued. He forced himself between Geneva and Quallet, speaking desperately.
“Please! Friends, calm down. No one is going back to the battlefield. We could not convince our friends, I think. We must find another way.”
Quallet subsided. Geneva stepped back unwillingly. The [Mercenary] looked at Ken and modulated his tone, but barely.
“That doesn’t change the fact that the rest of us came with your group because we thought it would be an opportunity. The Last Light, your strange lot—we’re with you. We are. But we have to earn a living and none of us have seen any coin.”
That was true. Quallet had funded them with his funds as well as their own. Daly looked down and gritted his teeth.
“We could fight. At least, do some patrolling. I’m sure at least half of us would sign up for it.”
He meant the Earthworlders. The Balerosian lot, Quexa included, were only too happy to act as a company. Quallet relaxed, but Geneva shook her head.
“I can’t let you do that, Daly. Not you or anyone else. At least two thirds of the Earthworlders are suffering from symptoms of PTSD. I’m not a psychologist, but that’s my diagnosis. And it’s an easy one to make.”
She looked from face to face. Quallet looked blank. Luan shifted.
“A lot of us have nightmares. Flashbacks. They’re unstable.”
“They’re green. This was their first battle. They’ll toughen up. I’ll keep discipline.”
Quallet growled. Geneva sighed loudly. He didn’t understand what they were talking about.
Paige spoke up.
“They’re afraid. They don’t want to fight. We’re not warriors, Quallet. We don’t come from a place where people fight. At all.”
“Well then, you’d better learn. Because a company that doesn’t fight dies.”
That was the last the man said. The others looked at each other. Luan sighed.
“If we stop here and let some of us take jobs while the rest work as a company, can you earn money from tending to people, Geneva? Enough to put us on the road?”
Geneva’s nostrils went white as she inhaled painfully.
“From what patients? Who needs a [Doctor] when you have healing potions? Besides, there aren’t enough injuries. Unless I’m on a battlefield—”
The door burst open. Quallet turned and Daly drew his axe in an instant. Dawson froze as he saw Daly turning towards him. Quallet seized Daly’s arm and brought the axe down.
“What the hell is it?”
He snapped at Dawson. Some of the color flooded back into Dawson’s face. The young man looked around the room.
“Caroline’s gone. Has anyone seen her?”
“No. Did she go outside?”
The others looked at each other. Dawson shook his head.
“We thought she was just somewhere else, but no one’s seen her all night. She was going out.”
“For a walk? I told you not to go out alone! Especially this late at night!”
“I don’t know if she did! But she’s missing.”
“Damn it. Let’s spread out and search. Daly, Paige, you follow me. The rest of you, stay here!”
Quallet cursed. He led the way out the door and Daly followed, heart pounding. They searched for Caroline, asking about the inn, checking the forest. Shouting her name.
They never found her.
“It’s not going to work. We have to split up the company.”
Ken announced that fact to the group the next morning. Daly looked up. He was sleep-deprived, exhausted from a night of searching. Quallet jerked. He’d been half-asleep.
“What do you mean? It’s over?”
Luan and the others looked at Ken as well, in alarm. The young Japanese man hesitated.
“No. The company is not over. But—we cannot be together. Work under the same flag.”
He turned and bowed to Quallet.
“Captain Marshhand, it is clear to me that you wish to have a company that fights and operates as one. You have mercenaries, and I think, the will to earn a living that way, is that correct?”
Quallet nodded slowly.
“That’s right. I’m done with the suppression company work. I want a real company at my back, not new soldiers. And I’m willing to make your company into one.”
Ken nodded a few times.
“I understand that. But I think we have had a miscommunication. A terrible one. You see, Miss Geneva, Luan, and I—we are not trying to form a company that is for hire. We are forming a—a group that protects others like us. That finds other people from our home.”
“Earth. Your strange homeland. I understand that. What’s the problem? Larger companies control land, territory, and so on.”
Again Ken nodded.
“That is true. But this company is small. And those of us from Earth—we are not willing to fight. Some of us might to defend ourselves, but we do not wish to. And Geneva especially.”
Every eye turned to her. Geneva nodded.
“I can’t be part of fighting. Even if it’s just me tending to the wounded on one side—if anyone’s hurt, I have a duty to help them.”
“Well that’s just great. A [Doctor] on our side is our one big asset. You’re telling me you want me to fight—without including Geneva or most of you lot?”
It looked as if Quallet would burst a vein. Ken shook his head.
“No, I think that would be unfair. And I think you and the others would be unwilling. So I am saying…we should split up. Captain Quallet, you should form your company and split with ours. We will earn money ourselves. Your company will be independent.”
The others gathered around the table froze. Daly looked up.
“Hold on, Ken! If we’re alone, what will we do to defend ourselves?”
The young man looked at him. His eyes were serious.
“I do not know, Daly. We must defend ourselves. But I think it is better to do this than have the others leave at once.”
“So we’re going to abandon each other? Just like that? We just made this company!”
“We did not think it through properly. And in truth, I think this is for the best. We can remain allies. But we are not working towards the same goals.”
Ken looked sideways at Quallet. The man rubbed at his face.
“That’s…true. I felt like that from the start. Damn it. I think you’re right. We’re not working towards the same goals, are we? I’m all for fighting, but you lot—aren’t.”
“So that’s it? We split up?”
“Anyone who wants to go with Quallet can. His company will earn money—work independently. I hope, I feel that we can keep strong ties. But he will not owe us anything. If he needs help, we can exchange help. Geneva can tend to the injured. I can negotiate on behalf of the company—but we must earn a living by ourselves. Without fighting.”
“Find jobs. Settle down somewhere. I’ll earn money as a Runner, if I can do it rowing. Geneva can work as a [Doctor]. Maybe in a bigger city?”
Luan folded his arms and looked at Geneva. The Italian woman scrubbed at her hair with her right hand and nodded shortly. Ken turned and gave an apologetic bow to Quallet.
“Captain Quallet, I am very sorry about this. But I hope your company will keep good relations with ours.”
The man looked embarrassed.
“It’s…the best way. I won’t say this isn’t disappointing, but it’s for the best. We’ll split. My company will keep ties with yours, of course. But you’re right. We’ll split. I’ll tell the others. I think they’ll all come with me. And we’ll be searching for work today.”
Daly watched as he sat down with Ken to work out how much each group would keep of the remaining funds. Quallet was generous. More than he had to be, really. But it didn’t change the fact that when he left, the room was a lot emptier than it had been. Paige looked around.
“So we’re alone. No more mercenaries, no more Quallet to help us.”
Luan looked troubled.
“They have to earn a living. So do we. And we’re not fighting.”
“So? Baleros isn’t safe.”
Paige shot back. She was still upset. They all were. Caroline had vanished. No one knew if she’d walked into the forest and gotten lost, or if something had gotten her. Or if someone had. They couldn’t stay in the town.
It was hard breaking the news to the others. But in the end, the results were predictable. None of the Earthworlders wanted to go with Quallet. Not even Daly and the others who’d gained levels in the fighting. It was too much to face. His company prepared to part ways with theirs that evening. It was then that Quexa sought Daly out.
The Australian looked up. He saw the Lizardgirl fidgeting. She limped over on her peg-leg prosthetic. Geneva hadn’t been able to get anyone to carve or make a better fit.
“Quexa, are you going?”
The Lizardgirl nodded. She took a breath and then spoke in a rush.
“I am. It’s not that I don’t like you all—I do! But I wanted to be a mercenary and I guess you guys don’t. So I’m going. And we’re um, not going to talk. I mean, we can talk if we see each other again! It’s just that I think you and me are—are—”
A hole opened up in Daly’s stomach. He looked at her. Quexa went on, talking even faster.
“I like you! But I was also really upset after I lost my foot, I mean, who wouldn’t be? And I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be together. Right now. Because we’re going our separate ways and I really thought you’d come with us, but you didn’t. But if you did—but you won’t. Will you?”
She looked at Daly pleadingly. He hesitated and put his hand on the handle of his axe. Daly shuddered. He stood with Quexa for a while, head bowed.
Paige found him later. Daly was sitting, staring at the axe that Quallet had shown him how to use. He stood up as Paige came over.
“Daly? Are you alright? Quallet’s left. With the others.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”
Daly looked up. He didn’t look at Paige. She hesitated.
There was no need for him to answer that. He just looked at her as he buckled the axe to his belt. Daly shook his head.
“Let’s just keep moving. It’s not safe here.”
The present. Daly realized he was murmuring the words. He stopped. The others were glancing at him. Silently, Dawson changed their course, skirting a thick tree in the forest. Daly felt the weight of the axe at his side. And the heavy weapon in his hands.
It was weighty. Wooden, smoothed by sanding, but not varnished or polished. A hunk of wood, really. But strong for all that. And there had been skill in making it. Hard effort. The result might have been crude, but the tool was deadly nonetheless. Daly ran his hands over it carefully, checking the string, making sure the trigger was ready for a quarrel to be loaded into it.
He was holding a crossbow. A big one, far bigger than the small hand crossbows or even the regular-sized ones you saw most people carrying. This was a beast, made almost entirely of wood, save for a few small parts like the screws, sliding mechanism, and part of the trigger. But the rest was wood.
The other five adventurers carried the same. They moved through the underbrush, careful not to get the crossbows tangled on anything. It was twenty more minutes of walking before they reached their destination. When Dawson stopped, Daly knew they’d reached their target. He peered ahead as his friend beckoned him forwards. That’s when he saw them.
Boars. Or rather, something that looked like boars, lying about in the forest. Huge, lumbering things, as big as pigs bred for slaughter in his world. And covered in armor. Their fronts were covered in a dull, matted metal, smeared with dirt and plants and so on, but still noticeably metallic. It was steel, which gave the boars an impression of wearing jagged masks. Their tusks, their faces, were all covered by the heavy metal.
It made them deadly when they charged and they were incredibly aggressive. Hence their name. Stelbore. And they had a high bounty on their heads not just for the steel armor, but because of how aggressive they could be. Stelbore would kill travellers on the road. They ate almost anything. Like pigs.
They were all asleep. Lying on their sides. Nine of them. Two were very big, three more adults but Daly thought only one was male. The other four were smaller. Piglets. Boarlets. Whatever. Daly held up a hand and circled with his fist.
Spread out. The others did at once. They didn’t go far—but they moved from tree to tree, hiding themselves. Peeking out. Their crossbows were prepared, strings pulled back and waiting for ammunition. Now they pulled bolts from their quivers and dipped the heads into a little bottle each of them carried. Poison, bought from an [Alchemist]. It should work on Stelbore. It had worked on other animals, but these things were big. So Daly pointed at the boar and raised three fingers. Then he pointed at the—oh, the sow. That was it. The female Stelbore. He raised two fingers.
No one responded. But they’d gotten his message. Three of the team aimed their crossbows at the boar, the other two at the sow. Daly sighted on the boar as well. He waited, aiming slightly up from behind his tree, bracing the butt of the crossbow’s stock on his shoulder. In his head he spoke.
The Stelbore’s underbelly was vulnerable. Exposed. Daly sighted. He felt the crossbow’s trigger pressing against his finger. Waiting for him to pull hard. The stock of the crossbow was smooth. Not entirely so; it wasn’t a professional piece, but it was sturdy. Daly knew that.
He’d carved it himself.
“Hey Paige. Money.”
The young woman looked up. She blinked as Daly set down seven silver coins and two copper ones. A day’s work. He smiled wearily at her. She looked at the coins and up at him.
“How’d work go?”
He shrugged and sat down in the chair next to her. It was hard, wicker, but to him it was a heavenly thing. The little cottage they were renting was cramped, and air conditioning wasn’t a thing. The shutters were open to let a breeze in, but that just meant the hot, humid air was filling the room. Daly could feel sweat dripping down his body. Paige was perspiring a bit, even though she hadn’t been out in the sun.
“Not bad. I got worked hard. But it’s good work. My boss says I pick up stuff well—you know, for someone without the class. She’s looking forwards to seeing what Skill I get tonight.”
“So being a [Carpenter] suits you?”
Daly grinned wearily.
“Suits me and then some. I’m grateful. Didn’t think I’d ever land a job, but my boss is a Naga. You know? Has a big shop and decided to take a risk. It helped that I told her I admired her scales.”
The young man nodded and leaned back, trying to find a comfortable spot in his chair. Ken had taught him and the others how to interact with some of Baleros’ races. They all had their peculiarities. For instance, you didn’t get handsy with Dullahans unless you were best friends. And even then it was rude. On the other hand, Lizardfolk loved contact and chatter. And one of their evolutionary forms, the Naga, was incredibly vain. They loved being complimented, hence Daly getting lucky.
“She gave me a trial run. I think she was impressed that I knew how to do some of the stuff she wanted already. You know, planing wood and so on? Apparently she has to explain it all to most of her apprentices.”
“That’s great news.”
Paige smiled. She added Daly’s coins to the little belt pouch she carried at all times quickly. Then she reached for her side. Daly saw her pull out her smart phone and work on it. The screen flashed—but dimly. It was at the lowest brightness setting to conserve power. Paige entered a few numbers and sighed.
“We’re in the black at last. Geneva’s gotten some more customers, and Ken thinks he can talk the Dullahan into leasing us the apartments until we can find something more permanent.”
“Really? I put us over the edge?”
That brought a smile to Daly’s face. Paige nodded.
“You did. Between Luan’s income as a City Runner, Dawson and the others finding work as [Laborers], and so on—we’re good. We’ve bought Luan a boat and paddles, we’ve got some healing potions stored away, Geneva’s set for materials—we don’t have to worry about coins this week.”
“What about [Repair] spells?”
“Accounted for. So long as no one drops their damn tablet or laptop, we can afford to recharge our devices this week. Once. Anyone who runs out of power before then can go without.”
Paige scowled for a second. She brushed at her hair and sighed. Daly noticed she was hunched over. He sat up a bit.
“Anything wrong? How’d it go holding down the fort?”
Paige shrugged. She hadn’t worked all day like he had, but she still looked tired.
“I was managing people, you know. Getting the others to get jobs. I had to kick Sofie into getting out there. And Ben was holding back some of the money he made. Or rather, he spent it.”
“That fucker. Want me to talk to him.”
Daly sat up with a scowl. Paige looked at him.
“I already handled it.”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
He sat back. She shrugged.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m just tired. Plus, I had to explain to him why I wasn’t working myself.”
“Because you have to keep the rest of us from goofing off?”
Another smile. Paige sat up a bit.
“Anyways. I’ll deal with it, so you just get some rest. We’ll have dinner soon—I’ve bought more fruits.”
“Is it too expensive?”
She waved the phone at him as she turned the screen off.
“We’re in the black, remember? And Geneva insisted. We need a healthy diet. So no more rice and meat for us each night.”
“Aw, but I like eating rice and meat. It goes well with Ken and Aiko complaining about there not being any soy sauce.”
The two Australians laughed together for a second. And then Paige grew serious.
“About what we were talking about last night, Daly. I’ve been doing some sketches. Just—figuring things out, really.”
Daly sat up, suddenly alert. Paige sighed. She opened her smartphone, this time to a drawing app and showed him a few sketches. They were rough—they’d been done with a finger, but it beat paying for parchment and ink. Besides how annoying it was to write on parchment, saving coins had been a vital necessity these last two weeks. As Paige had said, until now they’d been bleeding money and barely scraping by. Daly didn’t want to spend a copper coin more than necessary until they had money saved up, and he hoped his new apprenticeship as a [Carpenter] would help bring in that much needed silver.
Luan was already rowing from town to town with his canoe, learning the routes and earning money delivering for the Runner’s Guild. At the same time, Geneva was trying to earn money as a [Healer] would, and not finding much luck. The rest of the Earthworlders were doing what they could, even if that meant hauling goods from the docks all day. And Paige? She was working on doing more.
“I’m not an expert. I told you, I wanted to go into engineering, but in a completely different field.”
“Spaceships. Yeah. So do you have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out?”
She laughed tiredly.
“Better an engineer with actual experience in the workshop. Or someone who actually completed their degree. I’ve never built anything like this. I studied aerodynamics, not…look. I thought it over, and there’s no way I can make most of what we came up with.”
Daly’s smile faded.
“Damn. You sure?”
“I can’t make anything like a gun, Daly. Let alone something more complex. I mean, a gun’s doable, but gunpowder…I need sulfur, which is expensive. And I’d be making a matchlock. A gun you have to load by hand. You think that’d be useful?”
Daly thought about the Redcoats and how slow that was. He grimaced.
“Yeah. Not exactly great compared to a spell or a bow. What about an engine?”
“Doable, I think, but a different problem. I know how some things work—like a steam engine, and I could experiment with making one. I’m sure I could make it in time, but I’d need specialized metalwork and lots of help. I’d need to hire a [Blacksmith], get high-quality steel, do experiments—none of which we can afford.”
“Right. Of course you do.”
It always came back to money. Daly sagged. Everything they needed, all the ideas the group had come up with to make something from their world that would earn them money—a steam engine to automate travel, or a forge to produce high-quality steel or just a gun—all of it required funds. Which they didn’t have yet.
“Hey. I’m not done yet. I did have one idea of something we could make. Or rather, I could make while you’re working.”
Daly opened his eyes. Paige swiped across the phone and showed him a picture. He took a second to realize what he was looking at.
“Is that a crossbow?”
“That’s right. They sell them in the markets. I visited an weapons supplier while I was buying dinner and checked one out. Apparently not just anyone can make them. Normal [Blacksmiths] can’t. They can forge the parts, but a specialist [Carpenter] usually has to put it together at least. Usually a [Bowyer] who knows how crossbows work.”
“But you can figure it out?”
Paige shot Daly a smile.
“I got everything just from looking. And I took a picture when he wasn’t looking. See?”
She showed Daly an image of the crossbow. He swore.
“Don’t go showing your phone about in public! Remember what happened with Dawson?”
“I was careful. But I had to have an image. And all the parts make sense to me. If I can get a [Blacksmith] to sell me a few parts, the rest we can make with wood. I mean, if a certain someone can get ahold of wood.”
She waggled her eyebrows at him. Daly grinned.
“Wouldn’t know where to begin, but I’ll ask around. I’m sure my boss’ll let me have some if I ask her nicely. Or offer her some silver. It’s not like wood’s hard to get around here.”
“True. But I need it cut to very specific sizes so it’ll fit together. I’ll have the measurements for you tomorrow. Can you—figure out how to get the best cut of wood? The strongest variety?”
There was so much they didn’t know. Daly made a note to ask his Naga boss. That was easy—she liked chatting as she worked.
“No problem. Hell, she’s probably helped make crossbows herself. Won’t be a thing.”
“Thanks, Daly. And I think I can improve the design. Or at least, make it bigger. I’m going to try and make an almost all-wood crossbow to begin with. Something cheap we can manufacture quickly.”
“Think it’ll sell?”
“If it’s good, it will. This is Baleros. But I was thinking. Maybe I can make one of those advanced versions. You know, a compound bow?”
Daly only vaguely recalled hearing about them. Paige showed him another blueprint that looked a lot less like a proper crossbow to Daly.
“I don’t know how they work, but the idea makes sense. Some of the Americans were telling me about them.”
The young [Axe Warrior] and soon-to-be [Carpenter] nodded slowly.
“Oh yeah. I remember them talking about that. Wishing they’d brought their pistols. Or a fucking rifle. As if they’d be walking around the airport with one of those.”
“Frankly, I wish they had carried one.”
Paige’s face was bleak. Daly couldn’t argue with that. He looked out the window at Baleros thoughtfully. A bug flew in through the window. Both Paige and Daly eyed it, but it didn’t look menacing. Just big. Daly took off his shoe and smashed it.
“If one of the security agents appeared here—”
“They’d be dead.”
“They’d have a gun. A bastard appears here with a submachine gun? Or even a pistol?”
“Still dead. How many rounds do you think they’re carrying? Enough to fight off a company? And frankly, a [Juggernaut] would tear them apart. Let alone a bunch of Centaurs with bows.”
Daly shook his head. That was true. For a second he remembered and his hand twitched towards his axe. But he was a [Carpenter] now, a carpenter. He shook off the memory and looked at Paige’s phone.
“So try and make a compound crossbow if you can. Looks fucked to me. But I’ll settle for a crossbow. It’s not like this town’s that safe. They got hit by raiders two months back. Ken’s saying he doesn’t want to stay long, and I agree. But we have to earn enough coin and this is the best spot.”
“Agreed. I’ll make one as fast as I can. Compound crossbows are probably impossible until I’ve gotten a good bit of practice. But I can make you a good one. Even if it’s only made of wood…”
“Wood? Crossbow. Wood? Wow, I’ve never seen one made out of wood before. I’ve seen metal ones made by Dwarves. But this is new. Weird.”
A week later, Quexa bent over the first crossbow. Her tail waved to and fro and her neck fills opened a bit as she inspected the crossbow that Daly and Paige had labored over in their spare time. Paige held her breath as Daly just watched Quexa.
She looked…good. Good, for someone with one foot. She could move fairly fast on her peg leg. Fast enough to keep up with Quallet’s company, at least. The revitalized Gravetender’s Fist company had been working in the area. They were still burgeoning, but they’d earned enough to justify a vacation in the town where Daly and the others were staying. Quexa had been the first person they’d shown the crossbow to—they were hoping to impress Quallet with it.
But the Lizardgirl didn’t immediately jump for joy, despite Daly’s hopes. The rampant enthusiasm that most Lizardfolk exuded upon seeing a new thing was tempered by Quexa’s critical eye. She’d seen more fighting. Even though she was a [Sorcerer], it was still dangerous work. But she’d made her choice. Daly ignored his stomach twisting as he watched her.
“Well? How’s it look?”
Quexa looked up speculatively. She hesitated, bit at her lip with sharp teeth. And then she shrugged.
“Mm. I’d give you…two gold coins for it? Maybe two gold coins and eight silver?”
Dismayed, Daly and Paige looked at each other. That hardly seemed like enough to justify all the effort and time—not to mention resources they’d burned on it. Paige protested.
“At least make it four gold coins. Why the low price?”
A decent, used steel sword could cost eight gold coins. At least! But Quexa could only shake her head.
“It just doesn’t look that good. I mean, compared to a metal crossbow, right? And if you made it cheap, it’s not that great, isn’t it? And crossbows aren’t that useful. I mean, they have to be strong or what’s the point? Your quarrels will just bounce off armor or a monster’s hide. So it’s not that great. Sorry, is this rude? I’m not trying to be rude.”
She glanced at the two, giving Daly a quick look before looking away. Daly sagged. That was true. This was made of wood. And it wasn’t—polished. Even with all the sanding he’d done and the varnish he’d applied, it was still rough around the edges.
“But it is powerful. Maybe not as powerful as a regular crossbow, but it’ll do the job. Surely that’s worth something. Even if it’s not worth a full crossbow’s price.”
That was Paige’s argument. She repeated it when she and Daly and Quexa showed the weapon to Quallet. He grunted.
“Give to me. Do you have any bolts?”
Daly did. They were wood-tipped and the fletching was wood too. Quallet eyed them, but he took five and tried the crossbow out. He grunted, pleasantly surprised by the strength it took to cock the bow. He fired five shots, landing most of the bolts close to the target Paige and Daly had set up. Daly whistled—Quallet had a far better aim than he did.
“Not bad. It’s strong. Heavy, though. I’d pay you three gold coins flat out for one of these. But Quexa’s right. It’s not worth paying nearly as much as I would for a regular crossbow. Sorry.”
“Would it be worth more if I used metal?”
Paige was visibly upset. Quallet hesitated, then nodded.
“At least sixteen gold coins, then. It’s not just the power of the crossbow, you see. Metal implies it’s a lot sturdier. It can fire harder.”
“But I’m sure this can compare to a smaller one.”
“Maybe. But it’s wood. Most companies will rate wooden weapons very poorly. Even crossbows. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.”
Quallet handed the weapon back to Daly. He stared down at it.
“Well, fuck. Guess we’re not getting rich this way.”
He looked at Paige. Then back at Quallet.
“Okay. It’s not worth much on the market. But you said you’d pay gold for these. Can we sell them to you?”
Quallet and Quexa blinked. The Lizardgirl frowned.
“We don’t need that many bows, Daly. And we’ve got [Archers] who have their own weapons.”
“Yeah, but everyone could use one of these. Paige is going to make one for everyone in our group. You’re not thinking of it like we are.”
Daly hefted the crossbow. He pulled the string back, made sure the trigger was holding the rope, and then grabbed a quarrel. He looked at the others.
“I’m armed now. I get one shot—more if I have a quiver of say, twenty bolts. And that’s just me. I don’t need practice to use one of these. I don’t need a class or Skills. One of these hits you in the face? You’re dead. Give one to each person in the company, and we’ve got dozens of crossbows. With wood quarrels, and practice, how many can we shoot a minute? Six? That’s a lot of shots.”
“I’ve heard of all-ranged companies, but I never thought I’d build one. You’re saying to lug these things around? That’s a lot of weight.”
“For a free shot at the beginning of the battle? Why not? Bring ‘em, fire them, and grab your other weapons. And if you teach your lot to fire them fast—”
Daly was staring down at the crossbow. He turned to Paige.
“We might not make a fortune with this, but we can defend ourselves. And fight. Earth-style.”
She nodded. Paige looked more hopeful. Defense. They’d been worrying about that issue. A lot of the Earthworlders could fight, but it didn’t come to them naturally. But this? This was almost like a gun. Quallet and Quexa didn’t see the danger, but Daly had come from a time where guns could fire faster than you could see. He looked down at the crossbow and wondered if this was a good idea. Then he reconsidered.
It was better than being defenseless.
“All we need now’s a boomerang. Think you can make one of them, Paige?”
She almost smiled. Daly handed the crossbow to her and then took a deep breath.
“Paige, figure out a way to make these things even stronger. I’m going to talk to Ken. Once you and I make more—a dozen or so, I’m going to quit my carpentry job.”
“What? Why? I thought you liked it.”
Daly did like it. But he was doing the math in his head.
“We’re not earning enough money like this. Someone needs to pull in lots of coin and Luan’s already doing deliveries day and night. Geneva’s not getting much business aside from the occasional person with a chopped-off limb. So. I’m going to apply to be an adventurer.”
And so here they were. Adventuring paid more than carpentry. A lot more. At least, if you took contracts that had risk in them. The bounty on a herd of Stelbore, even a small one, was gold, not silver. The only risk was dying.
The Stelbore would gut Daly and the others if they charged. That meant they couldn’t. Daly waited, aiming at the boar’s flank. He didn’t hesitate. You couldn’t. He spoke softly.
He pulled on the metal trigger and felt the crossbow kick. The string snapped through the air and the quarrel launched through the air. For less than a second it flew, and then it buried itself in the Stelbore’s unguarded belly. Five other crossbows snapped at the same time.
The sound was loud. Not nearly as loud as a gunshot, but still loud. The crossbows were powerful. And the impact pressed the wood stock into Daly’s flesh. The bolts were just as deadly.
The Stelbore woke up instantly as four bolts slammed into it. It squealed a piercing sound in the night, and the other Stelbore woke up. The sow who’d been hit shrieked. But Daly was already reloading, silently. He lowered the crossbow to the ground, put his foot in the wooden stirrup Paige had added and pulled on the string. It was heavy, but adrenaline gave Daly strength. He lifted the crossbow and grabbed a bolt.
[Reinforced Frame]. [Quick Assembly]. [Advanced Crafting]. Paige had leveled up quickly. Each Skill had made the wooden crossbows stronger. Daly aimed. He heard Siri fire before him. He pulled the trigger again as the Stelbore writhed, this time Daly aimed for one of the smaller Stelbore.
The sound of the string snapping by his ear made Daly’s ear ring this time. But the sight of one of the boars floundering was worth it. The other crossbows snapped as Daly bent, reloading his bow again.
This was his team’s weapon. His company’s weapon, in truth. Paige had learned to make crossbows, so they all had one. It was a simple weapon to learn to use. True, each one was large and bulky, cumbersome to haul about. But Daly’s team had gotten far enough practice by now to make lugging the crossbows around manageable. As for their aim—
The Stelbore were racing about, questing for their enemies. But they were blinded in the night, confused and panicking, still half-asleep. And Daly and his team were covered in mud, hiding behind trees, wearing the scent of the forest. They loaded and fired at their helpless targets. Was it fighting fair? No. But they’d die if even one or two of the Stelbore charged them. This was how you fought.
Click. Crack. Pull. Click. Crack. It was a rhythm. Daly didn’t think. He just bent, reloaded, straightened, and fired. He barely paused to aim at the unshielded parts of his targets. He had practiced too many times to hesitate. Hesitation meant death. Again. The crossbow kicked in his hands. Again.
The sound was a roar. One of the [Bandits], their leader, had just exploded a tree on the outside of the town as a demonstration. A warning. The townspeople raised their heads as the [Fireball]’s detonation rained flaming branches down on the area. The rest of the bandits pawed the ground and shouted.
They were Centaurs. And they had come to loot the town. Or be paid a ransom. Either one worked, and they were quite willing to spill blood. But the leader of the group, a [Mage] with a staff, paused as someone came towards them, holding a white flag.
Geneva Scala walked forwards, ignoring the [Bandit]’s jeers. She spoke loudly, holding her hands up as the Centaur leveled his staff at her.
“I am a [Doctor]. The people in this town are armed. Please, don’t do this.”
“You’re the Last Light of Baleros?”
One of the Centaurs gave a braying laugh. The leader of the bandits grinned down at Geneva. She looked up at him.
“Some people call me that. I’ve taken an oath not to harm people. Please go back and leave this place alone.”
He spat on the ground in front of her.
“Humans and oaths? Well, you can stand there in that case. We’ll see what the Last Light’s worth to a Chandrar [Slaver]. As for the town—if I don’t see gold in five minutes, we burn the place down? You hear that?”
He roared at the town and the bandits cheered. They were ready to charge. Some of them had lances—Centaurs were born to charge, even more than a [Knight] on horseback. Others had bows. They’d strafe the town, burn it to the ground.
“Don’t do this.”
Geneva looked up at the bandit leader. He snorted at her. He raised his staff and aimed at the town—
The impact of the crossbow rammed into Daly’s shoulder. The sound of the string snapping was the only thing he heard. He saw the quarrel leave his bow from his hiding place on one of the rooftops. He didn’t see the bolt. But he saw the Centaur stagger, drop the staff.
Below him, Quallet roared. Across the town, more of Gravetender’s Fist and the United Nations company rose to their feet. Others standing on the rooftops or hidden behind cover poked out and loosed a first barrage. The Centaurs jolted as the bolts struck them, some splintering on armor, but most finding flesh. They screamed and charged.
“Reload! Spears forward! Hold back—hold!”
Daly pulled at the crossbow with shaking hands. But he was watching too. He saw the first Centaur charged down the main street—
And collapse. He went crashing to the ground as the first of the ropes intercepted him. Daly aimed down at him as the other Centaurs tried to slow and another struck the rope, ripping it from the moorings. Quallet’s soldiers rushed forwards. Daly shot another Centaur in the chest. And then another.
At some point someone shouted the words. But Daly kept firing. He only stopped when someone grabbed him. Daly’s hand grabbed the axe—he saw Quallet raise a hand. The [Mercenary Captain] looked at him. There was blood on his armor, none of it his. He pointed.
“Stop. They’re running away.”
The bandits were fleeing. The survivors were just that—survivors. They’d been cut down by Gravetender’s Fist as well as the townsfolk and the Earthworlders armed with crossbows. They hadn’t expected to run into reinforcements, let alone that many bolts flying every second. Daly descended to the street and heard cheering.
Not from the Earthworlders. They stood, staring at the Centaurs. The half-horse, half-Human folk lay in the street, dead or dying. Daly stared down at them. Then he looked up at Quallet.
“This is how we do it. We take them to pieces. Ambush them. Rope traps for the Centaurs and anyone who charges us.”
“You mean, as adventurers?”
The mercenary looked grave. Daly nodded.
“Crossbows and traps. Paige can make more.”
“We’ll buy them. Wood or not. After seeing that—”
Quallet indicated the dead bandits. He looked at Daly.
“You can make those quick. With less resources than most [Blacksmiths] or [Carpenters] would charge for. Are you thinking of creating a market?”
Daly looked across the battlefield that had been the town only minutes before. He saw someone running this way. Geneva. She was shouting for Aiko, looking for survivors. Among the bandits. He shook his head, a cold pit in his stomach.
“Not to everyone.”
This was how they fought. It was close to home. But different. Daly knelt in the dust and looked at a fallen Centaur. He felt his hands itch. But he made himself look. Then he checked if the Centaur was carrying any money…
The battle ended before Daly knew it. One second he was loading his crossbow, the next, he couldn’t find anything to shoot at. The Stelbore were lying on the ground. A few had fled, but they’d died quickly. Still, Daly emerged from cover first. He only signaled the others forwards when he was sure it was clear.
“Poison worked. Or it just bled out.”
Siri checked the boar they’d hit first. It was lying on its side, a huge tusk facing the sky. Daly nodded. He took a shuddering breath. They’d won. The jungle was filled with noise, awoken by the blood and violence. He took another breath.
“Right, let’s strip these bastards and get out of here. Half butcher, two on watch. Siri, Dawson?”
They got to work. Daly knelt and began the gruesome task of cutting the Stelbore’s distinctive armor off. He ignored the rest of their bodies—they were far too big to carry and besides, the poison bolts made that an obsolete option anyways. It was very hard to separate the steel armor from the boars’ heads, but they had time.
Bugs began descending on the corpses before Daly was done. He had to trade off with Siri and Dawson; his hands were numb. But they did it. After about an hour, the Stelbore were stripped of metal and Daly was working up a sled to carry the stuff.
“We’ll be a target. So we want two people in front until we get to the road. Then we’re straight back to Talenqual. Got it?”
They nodded. The team trooped back through the rainforest, three hauling the sled, one on point, the other two moving ahead in case something heard them. Still in silence. Daly had tried to recall all the knowledge he could about operating in hostile environments. All the stupid things you saw on TV, all the little facts—all of it became life-or-death stuff here. The team didn’t smile. They just put their backs into it until they got to the road. Then, muddy, tired, but alive, they headed back towards Talenqual, the city that had eventually become the home of the United Nations company.
“Bushrangers reporting in. We’ve killed nine Stelbore on the contract and we have their remains. I’m ready to claim our bounty, turn in the materials, and take a bath.”
The [Receptionist] at the Adventurer’s Guild was a young male Centaur. He stared at Daly and then at the bloody pile of Stelbore steel. He opened his mouth and blinked again. He must be new.
Daly knew he was a sight. Though he’d scraped off a lot of the mud and camouflage on the way back, he still had grime all over him. And bites. And he stank, to put it lightly. Still, that was true of most adventurers coming back from a job. Well, some didn’t look like they’d rolled in the mud.
That was all the Centaur managed after a while. He gulped, looked down at the Stelbore armor, and then fiddled with the papers in front of him.
“You’re uh, the Bushrangers? I’ve heard of you! It’s a pleasure to meet you. Did you say you killed nine Stelbore? By yourselves?”
“Only five adults. The rest were piglets. I assume we get paid the same either way?”
“Of course, of course. Stelbore are counted by the numbers—assuming the little ones had armor? They don’t count if they’re fresh. Litters and all that. Right, right. Let me just calculate—um, we’ll need to weigh the Stelbore armor. But you can leave it here and we’ll do the job! I just need you to sign—hold on…”
Flustered, the Centaur fumbled with his papers. Daly gave him a weary smile. The rest of his team was relaxing in the plain wooden chairs, practically dead on their feet.
“Don’t worry mate, another minute won’t bother us.”
The smile did as much as the words. The Centaur relaxed.
“Thank you. You know, I really am glad to meet you. I heard about the all-Human team that popped up. You’re practically invisible on the job, or so I hear. Even some of the [Ranger] and [Rogue] teams are talking about it.”
“Hey, we’ve had some practice.”
Daly shrugged. He could sense eyes on his back, and not just because of the haul they’d brought in. It was true. His team was a rising name, and in a city like Talenqual, which had a fair number of adventuring teams, that was a pretty good feat. He glanced down as the Centaur presented him a form to sign.
“Right here, please. Name and team.”
Captain Daly, Bushrangers.
Daly had to smile a bit as he signed it. Bushrangers. Now there was a name that would call anyone from home who heard it. Anyone who knew basic history, that was. He’d chosen it for that reason, and also because it fit how his team operated.
The Bushrangers were a Silver-rank team, by virtue of hard work more than impressive gear or high levels. They all carried crossbows, and did mostly hunting jobs. They worked in stealth, and didn’t get into melees unless they could help it. They played it safe and didn’t punch above their weight.
Even so, the work was hard. Daly was proud of his team and so he didn’t spend time talking with the Centaur. He just collected their bounty, agreed to come back the next day for their payment for the Stelbore steel—or claim it after paying the guild’s tax on monster parts—and headed over to their team. Dawson was complaining as Daly came over.
“Fuck me, but did we have to wear all that mud? I get that it’s great camo—I can barely see myself sometimes. But did we need it against boars?”
Daly tilted his head and wondered if he should respond. But Siri, the Swedish girl they’d picked up three weeks back, responded. It had been her idea to use camouflage—that was how she and Tofte had survived after being transported to Baleros.
“It’s necessary, Dawson. It’s our edge. The one thing we’ve got over the other teams—over other companies and mercenaries—are our tactics and tools. They’ve got higher levels. They’re Dullahans in armor and Centaurs and so on. We can’t afford mistakes. If we have to wait for half a day for our targets, we do.”
“It’s part of the job. Believe me, I’d outtalk you, Dawson. But if it means surviving another day, I’ll go without flapping my mouth. If it’s too much, we can rotate you onto a break.”
Daly interrupted the conversation, surprising Dawson. The burly Australian looked up and grimaced.
“Aw, I’m just talking shit, Daly. Don’t mind me. It’s better than killing zombies with a hammer, or watching a fucking [Mage] vaporize half the forest.”
“Too right. So what say you we get out of here and get back to a real bath? Dawson can use the ocean.”
That cheered up the others. They stood up, ready to get some well-deserved rest. Daly was leading them to the door when someone walked in front of him and barred his way. Several someones.
A group of Dullahans in metal armor—iron, not steel, but good iron—walked forwards. They were all carrying shields and maces or axes. They looked like a Silver-rank team that Daly had sometimes seen going in or out. He’d never exchanged words with them before. But it looked like today was the day. Daly stopped as their leader, a female Dullahan with blonde hair, darker skin, and a rather Grecian nose looked down at him.
“So this is the Bushrangers. Mud covered, filthy as well as arrogant. Which is to be expect of Humans, it appears. Thieves as well as vagabonds.”
The Bushrangers stopped. Some of the other adventurers who’d been gossiping looked around and fell silent. Daly saw the Centaur at the desk gulp and back up. He paused, forcing his hand not to move to his side. His team was tired, their crossbows were unstrung, and the Dullahans looked like they were spoiling for a fight. Why?
“I’m sorry, have we met?”
The Dullahan glared at him.
“I do not believe so. But one does not have to meet an enemy to know them? Or a thief, who steals a rightful assignment. Is that not so?”
The other Dullahans chorused together. Daly felt a rising urgency in his stomach. But he forced it down, forced himself to think.
“I’m sorry, but I still don’t know what you’re talking about. Thief? I don’t believe we’ve stolen anything. Those Stelbore were our kill.”
“They may have been killed by your team, but it was our team, the Rustless Guard that deserved to hunt them down. We requested the assignment before you. And you took our quarry.”
The Dullahan adventurer snapped at Daly. He sucked in his breath. Uh oh. He hadn’t heard about another team taking on the Stelbore assignment. Requests to hunt down monsters were first-come-first serve. But there was such a thing as politeness among adventurers. How much politeness depended on which team it was. But these were Dullahans and it looked like they’d taken offense.
What should he do? Starting a fight wasn’t it. Daly’s mind raced. He fell back on a certainty. What were Ken’s rules for Dullahans?
Meet their eyes. Don’t give way, but be respectful. Talk to the Dullahan in the shiniest armor—the one who’s speaking. Make it clear what your rank is. Give and take in equal measure.
Daly looked the female Dullahan in the eyes. He bowed slightly, which surprised her and the others.
“First, pardon me. I’m Daly Sullivan, Captain of the Bushrangers. May I ask who I’m speaking to?”
The Dullahan hesitated. Then she slowly unfastened her head from her shoulders and held it up with one hand, the Dullahan version of a bow.
“You speak to Captain Eldima of the Rustless Guard.”
Daly gave her his best smile.
“Honored to meet you. Captain Eldima, let me be honest. If we stepped on your toes, it was unintentional. We had no idea someone else had the contract. We only saw the Stelbore contract yesterday and went out to collect it at once. Just like us hasty Humans, huh?”
His words provoked a chuckle from around the guild. As Humans, Daly and his team were in the minority. But being called ‘hasty’ was an insult Dullahans applied to Lizardfolk and Centaurs. A bit of humor went a long way. And one of the Dullahans behind Eldima cracked a smile before hiding it. Her lips twitched—a very good sign.
“You didn’t stop to inquire about the beast? My team had been preparing. We were in the guild, making our intentions clear.”
Daly spread his hands out.
“Again, we set off right away. We had poison pre-bought so we didn’t linger. My sincere apologies. If we’d known, we would have let your team handle them.”
He saw two of the Dullahans shift. Eldima’s eyes flickered. Daly was giving them a good excuse, but there was something else Ken had said about Dullahans. They don’t like to be seen to have made a mistake. Always offer them an honorable out. As opposed to Centaurs, who need to always ‘win’ an encounter regardless of whether or not they actually do.
Daly thought quickly, and then gestured towards the door.
“Tell you what, why don’t we buy you a round at the very least? Then we can tell you how miserable it was tracking down those damn Stelbore, and you can tell us how you would’ve hunted them. Because, frankly, next time I think I’ll let someone in armor take those freaky pigs down.”
His words provoked another laugh. And this time Eldima actually joined in. She hesitated, put her head back on her shoulders, and then held out a gauntleted hand.
“I accept. There is a bar we frequent. Allow us to buy the second round.”
“I’d be honored.”
Gingerly, Daly shook Eldima’s hand so as not to dirty her spotless armor. He followed the Rustless Guard out, and nudged Dawson on the way. On cue, the others in his team began striking up the Dullahans in conversation, and such was the change in mood that they even dragged a few other teams out for an impromptu drinking session.
An hour later, Daly and his team exited the bar a bit lower on coin, but higher on friends. They walked down the street, a tad unsteady for sleep and alcohol, as Dawson burped. The cheap alcohol they’d bought was going through Daly as well and he felt the increasing need to relieve himself—and take that bath.
“Captain, you’ve done it again. I thought for sure those Dullahans would try and mix it up.”
“That was impressive.”
Siri agreed. She looked at Daly, eyebrows raised. He only smiled.
“Wasn’t a thing, boys and girls. Just a bit of the Down Under charm. Learned it from the master himself. Ken would’ve had those guys buying us the next round if he were here. Speaking of which—let’s get back to base before we have to spend more money on angry adventurers.”
“I’ve only met Ken once. Do you think he’s back? With the [Doctor]?”
Tofte looked at Daly. The Australian frowned.
“Maybe. They were going from city to city, trying to find work for Geneva and some of the stuff she needs. All down the main roads—but they didn’t know when they’d be back. I hope they return soon. Them or Luan.”
He hadn’t seen the rower in a while. But Luan kept bringing gold back every time he returned. Daly only hoped all that money was going to good use. They were in the black and they had been for a while, but their company could use a lot more coin. For Luan as a Runner, for his team, for Paige…
And for their home. Daly slowed as he came to a large building. It was, in fact, two apartments, but they’d been bought, converted into one place, and now housed more bodies than it strictly should. The house was on the outer edges of the city, closer to the rice fields in fact. Not far past it you’d get to the roads. But it had a nice wooden frontage, and Daly knew they’d been spotted because the doors opened and someone waved at him.
He grinned up at a girl who smiled at him.
“Hey, Kirana. We’re back. Is Ken back? Geneva? Luan?”
“None of them. But Paige is here and she told us to make you baths!”
That cheered up the Bushrangers considerably. They stormed up the stairs, fighting to be the first ones up. They pushed into the door, greeting Kirana, a girl from India, and some of the other Earthworlders who came to greet them. Daly let them precede him, and then greeted the girl who came to the door.
“Paige. We did it.”
“Never doubted it. How’d the bows work? Any problems?”
Paige looked different. Two months and a half ago, she’d still had something of a shell shocked look. She’d been dressed in her Earth clothing, and wouldn’t let her smartphone out of her sight. Now she had on the loose, light Balerosian dress. Her Earth clothes were safely stored away, as were Daly’s, for the most special of occasions only. And while she had her smartphone, it was as a tool now. Paige’s hands were callused from working with designs and models and she had a different aura about her.
“Crossbows worked fine. So long as we hit the bellies. It wouldn’t have done a thing if they were charging us, though. We needed that poison.”
Paige nodded, but she still demanded Daly’s crossbow and gave it a quick inspection.
“No signs of fraying or cracks in the bow. Good.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
“You would be if you’ve ever seen one of the bows snap. But it looks good. I’m working on getting steel bows made. And a mechanism for pulling the drawstring back. That way I can make the strings a lot heavier.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Daly signed as he sat down in a chair. Kirana eyed the mud he was tracking in, but she didn’t say anything. She knew where he’d been, and the gold he placed on the table caught the light in a very pleasant way.
“Our pay. We had to use a bit of it to soothe some ruffled Dullahan nerves. But the rest’s here.”
Paige eyed the gold coins and silver. She took half and handed the rest back to Daly.
“You can keep it. Get some more gear for your team. I’ve got enough to keep us afloat.”
Daly stowed the coins away in his belt pouch. It was something, that every coin wasn’t going to just paying for food and board. He still felt like they needed a lot more. Magical bolts, gear to fight monsters that actually got the drop on him—
But that was an issue for later. Right now, Daly just wanted a bath.
“We have enough tubs for all of us?”
“You’ll have to wait. Getting something like plumbing’s on my list of things to do. But for now—bathtubs. Don’t worry about water. Kirana and the girls hauled enough for all of you.”
“You’re the best.”
Daly smiled in relief. He stood up as Dawson tramped down the stairs, half-naked, shouting about leeches in his unmentionables. Some of the Earthworlders who’d come to greet them shouted obscenities—others just looked away. Daly laughed, found a tub, washed himself, and felt more alive.
There was no dinner with the others—they’d arrived back far too late. But there was hot food, courtesy again of Kirana who’d taken over those duties from Paige. The Bushrangers ate like starving animals, and then they sat about for a while.
Daly’s finger was twitching. He covered it with one hand and looked at the others.
“I think we’ve earned some quality time with the computer. Anyone up for it?”
They looked up. Half of them were asleep on their feet, but they all nodded. Daly led them up the stairs.
“Hey, who’s got the movie laptop? We’ve got dibs! Give it here and I swear, if anyone’s been draining the battery playing video games…”
His threat went unanswered. The laptop lay in one of the big sleeping rooms set up for multiple people. The Bushrangers found blankets, pillows, and sat together as Daly fussed with the laptop. He looked over his shoulder as Siri sank onto the ground, looking completely different from the mud-covered adventurer with the crossbow. She looked like a girl he’d ask out if he saw her at the bar or in class now. An ordinary, young woman from Earth. He remembered her shooting a Stelbore from the cover of a tree. His finger twitched.
“Ah—what’re we watching this time? The Hobbit?”
“Only if you want me to fall asleep right now.”
Dawson groaned. Siri, who liked all things Lord of the Rings, elbowed him hard. He grunted. Another young woman looked up looked up.
“Can we watch The Martian again?”
One of the other Bushranger groused, but without any real rancor. Kami, their best shot, stared at the glowing screen in the dark room.
“I just want to imagine somewhere cold. And see spaceships and computers and—”
And home. She broke off. No one said anything. Daly cleared his throat.
“The Martian it is. Subtitles?”
“Go to hell.”
Dawson threw a pillow at him. The others laughed. Daly left them on anyways.
A lot of the people who’d been transported from Earth had brought their electronics. But not all of them had survived the initial chaos. Even fewer had survived the fighting. And of what remained, the devices and gadgets were prized. Someone had kept a USB cable, and so every laptop had been given the same software. Much swearing had taken place when it became obvious that the Macs would not accept any kind of data transfer. So the laptops that ran Windows, and in one case, Linux, were prized and fought over.
Not just for the movies. For the music, video games—pictures of home. Daly started the movie and sat back as the movie’s grand sound was redirected through the poor speaker system. At least the quality was good—every time the laptop was [Repaired], it went back to perfect quality. Better, in fact, than it had been when Paige had first bought it.
The plot of The Martian was one Daly could recite by heart. Only a few movies had been kept across all the devices. The Bushrangers had all watched this particular movie at least sixteen times, even the newcomers like Siri and Tofte.
Daly had seen it twenty three. Practically every night someone would be using the laptop, never mind that they’d have to get it charged up using a [Repair] spell. Even on lowest brightness, even sitting together, necks craned to see the small screen—it was worth it. It was one of the few things that kept them sane.
The others began falling asleep sometime around the point where Matt Damon began excavating crap out of the compost. Daly kept watching. His eyes began to blur. But then something exploded on screen and he leapt to his feet, reaching for his axe. He only realized it was a movie after a second.
Heart pounding, Daly sank back down again. He tried to sleep. And it closed back on him, but with dark edges. No matter how much Daly tried, he couldn’t stop his trigger finger from twitching. And when Daly closed his eyes, he could still hear Centaurs and Dullahans killing each other, and he raised his crossbow and fired. And pulled. And fired. And pulled. And—
And he dreamed of being home. It was the most fleeting, most wonderful of dreams. Daly slept. And his people, his family who had lost their homes, his company slept around him. The United Nations. The lost nations.
Dreaming of Earth.