Back home, Daly would have been enjoying his summer break. He’d be flying back, looking forwards to being home. Of course, he’d be looking for a job, but he’d be glad to be home. He’d even like to see his sister. Addy’d been fighting with his parents often, and she was a pain to be around when she was in a mood. But he would have liked to see her.
Funny. It had been months since Daly had thought of Addy. Or his family. It was as if he’d forgotten—
Daly opened his eyes as someone dropped something hard on the ground that clattered. He jerked, sprang to his feet, and whirled.
“Oh my god!”
Lights. Motion. In Daly’s blurred vision, they resolved themselves into a girl, barely fifteen. She was staring at him, holding her hands up. Crouching. Her brown skin was dead white, her mouth was open. He stared at her.
And then he realized he was holding his axe. He’d ripped it from the sheathe, and it was drawn back, ready to strike. Daly lowered it. The Indian girl backed away.
“Sorry. I heard—”
“Sorry! I’m so sorry!”
She backed away. And then fled. Daly hesitated. Then he saw the other figures around him. The other Bushrangers were frozen as well. Like Daly, they’d all woken at the sudden sound.
Half were holding weapons. Siri had a long dagger out; Dawson had snagged the mace. They looked at each other and slowly relaxed.
Dawson lowered his mace. Embarrassed, Daly returned the axe to his side. He heard a laugh from one of the others.
“Not a fun way to wake up. Who was that? We scared her.”
Siri carefully inserted her daggers into its leather sheathe. Daly shook his head. He’d recognized the face, but the name escaped him.
“One of the Indian girls. Don’t know who. Hold on. I’ll make sure she’s okay.”
Carefully he stepped out of the room and looked down the wood hallway. The floorboards were well-worn and creaked as he headed down the stairs. There was a commotion downstairs, and Daly could hear other people moving about.
The two apartments that the United Nations company was renting was home to at least thirty souls at all times. When the Bushrangers, Luan, and Ken and Geneva’s team were back, it was over forty. Not much space for so many people in truth. People had to sleep together in the rooms, and personal space was limited.
However, given that a lot of people worked during the day, it was less cramped in the mornings. Everyone with a day job was already at work—as [Laborers], [Scribes], [Builders], and so on. Someone, Andel, had even found his way onto the fishing ships that operated out of the harbor.
The city of Talenqual was large enough to employ all of the Humans looking for a job. If it wasn’t a capital city, it was at least big enough to have a spot on any continental map. It was a port city, a necessity given Luan’s line of work, and it was relatively peaceful, as the company which claimed the city—the Featherfolk Brigade—wasn’t engaged in any major conflicts. Neither did Talenqual have any vastly rich resources which might tempt other people into fighting for them. It was just a decent place to live in.
Quiet. Except for right now. Guiltily, Daly descended the stairs. He heard a female voice and a few others, reassuring her.
“Excuse me. Morning everyone.”
Daly poked his head into the living room that was the United Nations company headquarters. It was in fact, two living rooms as the apartments had a connecting door which was permanently open. The young man saw the girl he’d scared, along with Kirana and Paige. All three looked up and Daly stopped.
“Hey there. Uh—sorry about that. We heard a noise. She must have dropped something and—”
“We know. It’s fine.”
Paige looked up. She was patting the younger girl, who was wiping her eyes. Daly’s heart sank, but Kirana said something to the girl. Sharply, in another language. Hindi? One of the languages of her nation. The girl gulped and looked at Daly.
“She dropped pieces of wood. She did not mean to wake you.”
The younger girl gulped. Daly gave her a reassuring smile.
“We should be apologizing. We just heard something and—you know, we’re adventurers. Really sorry, uh—”
“Priya. Of course. I’m very sorry.”
Daly nodded at her. Priya sniffed. She looked at Kirana, and the older girl nodded.
And that apparently ended that. Kirana got up, Priya hesitated, and then went past Daly. He coughed as she headed back upstairs, and looked at Paige.
“It was just—”
“I get it. It’s not the first time. Andel nearly stabbed Dion by accident the other day. I’ve banned weapons in the house, but you lot are a special case.”
The Bushrangers were the only active fighters among the group. Six of them, all adventurers. Of course the other Earthworlders owned weapons—especially those that had survived their stint as mercenaries—but Daly could see how dangerous that was. He scratched his head, feeling the adrenaline leaving him. He blinked and looked around.
“It’s late out. What time is it?”
“Late morning. We were going to let you sleep.”
Daly rubbed at his face.
“Kind of you. We needed it. We—aw, fuck. The computer—”
He’d forgotten to turn it off! It must have burned through all the battery. Paige looked up and shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it. Kirana saw you were all asleep and turned off the laptop.”
“That’s a relief.”
“We’ve got to get ahold of a spellbook or find someone who can teach us [Repair]. Paying for it’s not worth the expense each week.”
“It’s what keeps half of us sane. So I’m including it as a reasonable price. But I am searching for someone who can teach us—none of the [Mages] want to give up our daily contribution. And we don’t have anyone who’s high enough level yet, besides.”
Paige scowled as she sat down at the table. She was working on something. Another design, from the looks of it. She had a piece of charcoal and parchment she was sketching on. She glared at the document, probably thinking of the amount of money they paid to get [Mages] to recharge their electronics each week, and then looked up.
“You didn’t brush your teeth last night, did you?”
“We did not.”
Guiltily, Daly realized they hadn’t done anything like that for the last two days. He felt at his teeth. Furry. He winced. Paige just shook her head.
“Head upstairs. Kirana made some new toothpaste.”
“Really? Alright then. Be down in half a sec.”
He headed upstairs. True enough, Kirana was waiting for him. Priya was nowhere in sight. Kirana offered Daly something. He blinked down at a minty-smelling wooden tub.
“Here. We made toothpaste. Better than last time.”
She smiled as Daly accepted the thick, whitish-yellow paste and sniffed at it. The unmistakable mint smell intensified.
“This smells a lot better than the salt stuff we were using before. What’s in this, mint?”
“Mint. Oil. Salt—it’s better. You have toothbrushes?”
“Yep, I think we’re set. Thanks a lot, Kirana.”
She nodded. Daly made his way into the room and looked about.
“Hey you lot—”
He saw a curtain drawn across half the room. The two other guys were on the other side, not bothering to change clothes from last night. Daly shrugged. He pointed at the tub.
“We’ve got some toothpaste.”
The others looked up. Dawson slapped his forehead in disgust.
“Fuck. I knew I forgot something! It’s been days since I brushed my teeth. Give it here!”
He fished for his belt pouch as Daly set the toothpaste tub on a table instead. He had a toothbrush in his pack as opposed to his belt pouch, and he had to wait for the girls to dress before he could retrieve it. Then he and the others gathered around the toothpaste, filled their brushes—half modern plastic, the other half wood, made of some stubbly brush—and began to brush their teeth.
It was odd. But there was something so satisfying about an activity as mundane as brushing their teeth. Especially because this toothpaste tasted halfway like something you could buy at home. Nothing Daly would have bought if he had an option—the bits of mint that had been crushed and mixed in with the gel did little to counteract the salty, astringent flavor—but it felt like proper toothpaste. Daly fished out a canteen, gargled, and then realized he had to spit.
So did the other Bushrangers. They fought silently to be the first to the loo—in this case, a smelly pair of toilets located at the back of the apartment. There they spat into it, holding their breath and washing their mouths out.
“That’s good toothpaste! My mouth actually feels fresh.”
Siri exclaimed after they’d returned to the room. Daly nodded, running his tongue over his gums. He hoped they wouldn’t start bleeding. The last thing he needed was to lose a tooth or get a cavity in this world.
“And that toilet’s disgusting. Did you smell that? I’d almost rather go in the bush.”
Another girl complained. Daly grimaced. It was true. The toilet wasn’t one of the fancy, flushing toilets he’d taken for granted back at home. It was an outhouse design—that meant wood panel with a hole you could do your business through. And what was uh, excreted didn’t go anywhere. It sat at the bottom of a combined container for both apartments.
“It needs emptying.”
Half of the Bushrangers instantly touched their noses. Daly didn’t.
“It’s not our job. We pay someone to take it out. [Nightman], the class is called. They take the stuff, use it in the fields.”
“You want the job, Siri? Because I hear it pays well. It’s a shite job, though.”
Siri punched Dawson. The others groaned, imagining that line of work. They’d all had to work hard—well, Siri and Tofte had joined them after the Bushrangers had been formed—but there were some lines they weren’t willing to cross. Daly grimaced.
“It’s what people did for ages in the past. I guess no one’s invented sewers?”
“Oh, they have mate. I was talking with a Lizardguy the other day. He says there are sewers in some cities. Lots of ‘em in other continents like Izril and Terandria, apparently. But they don’t bother with them here.”
“Probably because something’d breed in them if they did. Imagine taking a job there?”
Daly could, all too well. He shook his head.
“You’re putting me off my food, you lot are. Let’s have brekky and then get to work.”
His team looked at him, not so much with resistance as a kind of weariness. Daly felt it himself. They’d just been on the job. But if there was more money to be made—they could always use it.
“If we see a good contract. I’ll head down to the guild myself. You lot take the day off until then.”
With that, they headed downstairs. They found another surprise waiting for them. Food, again courtesy of Kirana and two of the other girls who stayed about the house. Daly smiled, as Siri and the others found Priya and apologized again.
“Rica and lentils and—what’s the bread stuff? That’s new?”
“It’s called poori. It’s a popular breakfast at home.”
Kirana explained as she filled bowls with rice and poured lentils over the top. She also had several sticks of corn, which had been baked until the sides were turning a bit black. Those were good, so Daly snagged one and tore into it at the table with the others. He was ravenous and the food really was good.
“This is so good. I miss this every time we’re out. And you made these poori really well, Kirana.”
The young woman smiled. She was the [Cook] in charge of feeding everyone, and the second manager of the home front besides Paige. In truth, she’d pretty much taken over the household affairs to let the Australian girl work on more designs, and she and several of the girls from India—another addition to the company about two months back—had really improved the living situation. Especially because it turned out that Baleros’ markets sold a lot of ingredients that they were quite familiar with from their country.
The foods of Baleros were plentiful and a mix of exotic and familiar. Daly had been surprised to see staple foods like corn and rice being served alongside plants he’d never seen before. Blue tubers, spicy red things called Yellats, and so on. But Baleros was known for growing a lot of produce, and there was meat to be had as well. Obviously that was more expensive, so the breakfast was all-vegetarian. But spicy, filling, and just the thing for hungry adventurers.
Paige kept working at another table as the Bushrangers ate their fill. She had some of the money out, in neat rows and was doing calculations. She looked up as Daly was going back for his last helping.
“Kirana, here’s the money for this week’s budget. Try not to buy too many spices. I know it’s important, but that and oil take up a lot of our budget.”
She handed Kirana four gold coins and three silver ones. The girl nodded. Daly’s insides twisted a bit—feeding the company for one week cost two thirds of what they’d been paid to take out those damn Stelbore. True, it was a lot of mouths, but Paige was already separating more gold coins out from their limited stash.
“And here’s the month’s rent. Daly, can you take this over to Miss Hastel on the way out?”
“Definitely. I’ll pop by the Adventurer’s Guild as well.”
“Already? You just got back from your last job. You could take a break.”
Daly shrugged uncomfortably.
“We’re not that tired.”
He looked around for confirmation. The other Bushrangers nodded, or murmured agreement. But their postures told Daly they could use a break. He felt it too.
It was hard being an adventurer. Not as hard as being a soldier in a company and fighting huge battles, but in other ways just as bad. They’d spent a day and a half scoping out their target and barely speaking, in the jungle with things biting them, alert for every second. One time they’d spent nearly a week tracking monsters down, sleeping in primitive mosquito nets while it poured rain and mud down on them.
But what else could they do? It was all about money. Paige hesitated.
“Maybe you should take a day off. We’re set with coin, especially if Luan comes back. Or Ken and Geneva. They’re set to come back today or tomorrow, you know. They sent a [Message].”
That relaxed Daly a bit. He hesitated.
“If there’s nothing really good…”
Paige nodded. Siri looked up.
“Anything you need us to do if while we’re here?”
She looked at Kirana and the others. Kirana shook her head.
“It’s your day off. Enjoy yourselves.”
That just made it harder for Daly to commit to taking a request. He sighed. But they had a point and the idea was tempting. If he saw something really good at the Adventurer’s Guild…
“Right. I’ll nip down there, but you all take a break. Which reminds me—here.”
He fished at his belt pouch and handed around some of the money he’d kept. Two silver coins to each. The Bushrangers brightened.
“Spending money? We must be doing well.”
“Don’t spread it. But you’ve earned a break.”
Daly met Paige’s eyes questioningly, and she nodded. Some of the other Indian girls looked jealous. Money had been the subject of a lot of arguments in the company, until it was decided that everyone could take a few coins from their job—the rest would go to Paige so she could spent it on necessities and what the company deemed vital. Again though, the Bushrangers were an exception to that rule in some regards.
“I’m off, then. Paige about the crossbows—”
“I’ll get the steel I ordered in a few days. But it won’t be ready for trials for a week.”
“Alright, then. We’ve got poison, still. And it’s damn effective. Killed the Stelbore right off. I’ll see you in a bit.”
“I’ll join you in visiting Miss Hastel.”
Siri offered. Daly nodded. The two of them strode out of the apartments as the other four Bushrangers broke up.
“What’ll Dawson and the others do for the day, do you think?”
Daly looked at Siri as he opened the door and the humidity and sun swept over him. He blinked as he saw several Lizardfolk walking down the street, a Dullahan, and then a Centaur trotting by, pulling a cart. This was home, alright. Siri shrugged. Walking down the long steps, designed to let a Centaur climb them, she looked around the city.
“Probably use the computers, if Paige lets them. Otherwise? Books. Maybe go out and buy something, get a few drinks. Check the markets. We could really use some magical artifacts, you know.”
“I know. But affording even potions is all we can do.”
Daly sighed. He walked into Talenqual, and looked around. The buildings stretched out ahead of them. Few were more than three stories tall, if that. Most were made of either wood or the mud brick the Lizardfolk loved to use. For all that, the city felt vibrant. Alive. A few larger structures near the center of the city stood out, having been made of quarried stone or even reinforced with magic. Beyond the city lay the sea, a glittering sight, filled with boats from the harbor. And in Talenqual walked the citizens of Baleros.
Dullahans in armor. Wood or metal, often decorated or inlaid with fancy decorations if they were rich civilians, or functional iron or steel if they were warriors. Poor Dullahans wore crude, painted wood, but all of them were unmistakably Dullahan—some carried their heads in baskets or slings, allowing them to rotate them in every direction while their bodies walked. Colorful mist, or fog ran from the place where their heads should have been.
Centaurs trotted past them, tall half-equine, half-human people. They were far larger than any other species, and moved briskly. Many of the workers pulled carts or other vehicles behind them, and Daly and Siri kept out of their way. The flow of traffic in Talenqual was such that the Centaurs tended to move in the center lanes, which allowed the slower foot traffic to move on either side of the street—unless you wanted to cross the road. Daly saw a scaly body dart across the road and a Centaur slow and stamp impatiently to let the pedestrian cross.
A Lizardgirl. She ran across the street, laughing and waving at the Centaur. More than Centaurs or Dullahans, it was Lizardfolk who dominated the streets in numbers. Talenqual was a Lizardfolk city after all, and the scaly, friendly people of Baleros moved about in groups, chattering, talking, always on the hunt for something interesting. They had neck frills and colorful, patterned scales that made them stand out. It was rare to see a Lizardfolk not smiling or chatting. Rarer still was seeing one of the evolved forms a Lizardfolk could eventually turn into, a Naga, or Lamia, or other rare serpentine variant.
“Hey! It’s you! Buddy!”
Not fifteen steps out their door, Daly and Siri were accosted by a smiling Lizardman, or perhaps a Lizardyoungman. He was carrying a glittering bottle filled with what looked like a powerful potion in one claw—it shone with four different colors, black, blue, yellow, and flashes of orange as it sloshed about in the jar. He came up to Daly, grinning widely.
“I got that potion you wanted. Really top-grade stuff, right? It was hard getting my claws on it, but for you—”
He got no further as he tried to slide closer. Daly held up a hand.
“Piss off, mate. We’re not tourists. We’ve been here before. United Nations company. We don’t want colored water.”
The Lizardman deflated at once. He tucked the bottle away and scowled for a second. A few Lizardfolk who’d heard Daly laughed at him.
“You Humans are hard to tell apart! You’re all one color.”
He turned away. Daly called out after him.
“Who actually buys that stuff?”
“Idiots! Wish me luck!”
The Lizardman turned and waved. Siri shook her head.
“There’s hawkers in every world. Has anyone in our group ever fallen for that?”
A delighted look crossed Siri’s face.
“He did? He never said!”
Daly nodded, although it was harder to smile at the memory.
“First day we came to a big city. Paid eight silver coins for some alchemy-colored water.”
“Yep. Luan and Paige nearly throttled him. I’ve never got bit, but you should be careful. The bad scammers are like that, but the good ones have Skills. I nearly found myself buying an amulet from a bloke I could have sworn I was best friends with.”
“Scary. And there’s [Thieves] with Skills too. [Merchants]…it’s a wonder we’re not robbed blind every time we go out.”
“That’s why Paige controls our money. You can’t overspend on what you don’t have. Speaking of which—you really want to say hi to Miss Hastel?”
“I…I’d like to see her.”
Or her husband. But Daly made no comment. The address of Miss Hastel, their [Landlady], was only a block away. She owned several properties on the street, and she’d naturally chosen the loveliest home for herself. The front of her neat apartment wasn’t mud brick but stone—far more impervious to bugs or rot in Baleros’ heat. Daly knocked once, and after a minute, heard faint noises.
Hoofbeats. Four of them. And then the door opened and Daly felt a gust of cool air. Miss Hastel, a Centaur with tan fur and dark black spots around on her flanks, looked down. Her upper half was dark-skinned, a contrast to her lighter pattern. And she had blonde hair. Dyed, apparently.
She was also heavily, noticeably pregnant. A large bulge in the center of her lower half weighed her down, but it had been covered by a quilt-like covering over her lower torso. Clothing for the lower half was optional for Centaurs, but this was clearly a decorative, expensive dress, bright blue and white. Miss Hastel blinked at the two Humans for a second, and then she focused on Daly’s face.
“Oh, it’s you. Mister Daly and…a friend? Come in.”
She smiled, lifting a hand and gesturing them inside. Daly and Siri obeyed with alacrity, because the inside of Miss Hastel’s house was pleasantly cool. Magically so, in fact. Daly only paused to scrape his boots of the dirt and whatever muck was on them on the rug. Siri did likewise, and they walked into Miss Hastel’s apartment.
“Please, have a seat. Anywhere you’d like.”
Miss Hastel waved her hand around the spacious, and quite tall apartment that was her home. A Centaur’s house was noticeably different from the Lizardfolk dwellings. For instance, while the United Nations company had rented an apartment for Lizardfolk, or perhaps Dullahans, and gotten a building with two floors, with multiple smaller rooms for a number of people, Miss Hastel’s building was one floor, and spacious.
Centaurs did not like cramped spaces. Nor did they enjoy climbing stairs. So Miss Hastel had an open kitchen, a very spacious living room, and even a door less bedroom only partially concealed by a wall. Daly looked around, thinking that the room looked like something he might see back home—with a few differences.
The first, obviously, was the lack of large windows. Even Miss Hastel couldn’t afford more than two small glass ones. The second was that her couches and chairs were quite limited in number. Centaurs couldn’t sit on most chairs, so she had rugs and pillows instead.
“Would you like anything to eat?”
“We’re fine, thank you. We won’t take up too much of your time.”
Out of deference to her, Daly and Siri sat on the ground and Miss Hastel sat on a large pillow, cushioning her belly, with her hooves facing the Humans, though Daly suspected she’d be more comfortable lying flat out. But Miss Hastel was a Centaur and thus she was infallibly courteous to her hosts. And that also dictated how Daly and Siri behaved.
“A lovely home, Miss Hastel. Thank you for inviting us in.”
Daly nodded to the apartment. The Centauress smiled.
“Thank you. And thank you for coming. I’d be out and about, but as you can see I am indisposed.”
She indicated her stomach. Daly nodded politely.
Ken’s Centaur Rule #12, or something. Centaurs value tradition, ceremony. You have to make small talk. It’s one of the reasons why they hate Dullahans being blunt and to-the-point and Lizardfolk indiscretion. Exceptions exist, but err on the side of caution.
“I assume you’ve come about the monthly rent? Or is there another issue with the walls?”
Miss Hastel broached the subject at last. Daly smiled.
“No problem with the walls. Paige is grateful for how fast you got the [Alchemist] to whip up that pesticide. We’ve come about the rent. This is next month’s payment, if you’ll accept it?”
Different though they might be, the allure of gold was a fairly universal attraction. Miss Hastel’s eyes lit up at the sight of the gold and silver. She let Daly place it on a small foot table in front of them.
“A proper payment. And ahead of time too. Your company are excellent tenants, Mister Dally, Miss Siri.”
“We try to be.”
Siri smiled. She looked at Miss Hastel’s stomach. Daly saw her open her mouth, and then he heard a slam. Someone had thrown open the door, and a loud, exuberant voice bellowed into the room.
“Hello! I’m back!”
Daly jerked. His hand went to his side, but this time another hand caught it. Siri stopped Daly from reaching for his axe. He relaxed at once and she let go. Miss Hastel hadn’t noticed. She’d jumped and was glaring towards the door. Daly turned and saw Miss Hastel’s husband…or partner, or…
He was certainly a cat. If you took a look at the ancient Egyptian drawings of cat-gods and compared it to the Beastkin that strode into the apartment, you’d find a lot of differences. This was a proper cat-man, not just a cat’s head on a Human body. He was shorter than Daly, but slimmer, and he had Humanoid fingers. Beyond that though? All cat. His tail wagged as he grinned at Miss Hastel, did a double-take, and spotted the Humans.
“Oh! It’s the Humans! I didn’t know you had guests.”
The Centaur woman looked completely embarrassed at his entry. Rital, looked completely unabashed. He spotted the gold coins and grinned.
“Ooh! Paying rent? You Humans are so prompt! And easy to deal with! Not like Lizardfolk or Dullahans. Or Centaurs. They’re all awful. Actually, what am I saying? Humans can get pretty bad too.”
Daly grinned. Rital was energetic as Miss Hastel was stately, for all that both of them were probably a decade older than he and Siri. The Centauress cleared her throat meaningfully.
“I think you mean to say that Mister Daly and Miss Siri are excellent residents.”
The Cat-tribe Beastkin nodded cheerfully.
“So long as they keep paying. Otherwise we’ve got a problem. Hey, pal. If you don’t keep paying her on time, I’ll get upset, you get me?”
He glared at Daly, narrowing his eyes. He pounded one furry fist into his palm. Daly tried not to laugh. And the sparkle in Rital’s eyes told Daly that he was having fun too.
“Perfectly clear, mate. Message received.”
“Aw, don’t worry! I’m just kidding. Or am I?”
Rital’s antics brought a laugh out of Daly. Miss Hastel on the other hand looked like she wanted to kick Rital. She stood up slowly and glared at her partner.
“I think Mister Daly and Miss Siri have more important business to attend to. Thank you for coming, you two.”
“Yep! Keep bringing us money! Hasty’s not able to get around that far. What with the kitt—er, foal on the way…”
The Cat-man bounded over lightly and put an arm around Hastel. His long, feline tail curled up around her. Siri sighed quietly so that only Daly noticed.
Miss Hastel went crimson. She looked mortified as she ushered the Humans to the door.
“Please excuse Rital. He’s always so…”
“We’re not bothered. He’s a breath of fresh air, that one.”
Daly reassured the female Centaur. She caught her breath, and then smiled at last.
“To you, maybe. But to other Centaurs…”
She held open the door. Daly walked out regretfully—Miss Hastel’s apartment was cool and lacking humidity, probably thanks to magic. What he wouldn’t have paid for air conditioning at home. Siri paused by the door.
“Miss Hastel, when are you expecting your child?”
The Centauress’ eyes lit up. She paused by the door and Daly stood back and watched as Rital made faces, trying to get him and Siri to laugh. That was, until a hoof shot backwards and nearly hit him in the groin.
“Any day now. I have the best [Midwife] on call.”
“It’s your first birth?”
“My very first. But I’m not worried. Rital will be there—outside, naturally, where he can’t cause trouble. And my [Midwife] is the best in the city. A Centaur, of course. After the birth, I’d welcome visitors.”
“We’ll be sure to be there. I’m sure everyone from the company will want to come over—”
Daly cleared his throat.
“Some of us will certainly stop by. Good day, Miss Hastel.”
He dragged Siri backwards. The Centauress bade them farewell and Rital waved at them before the door closed. The two Humans stood on the doorstep. They very clearly heard Miss Hastel’s voice for a second.
“What have I told you about being rude to—”
“Aw, come on. They liked it. Humans love—”
The Humans in question backed away. They walked a bit away from the apartment, then Daly looked at Siri, a bit vexed. He crossed his arms.
“You know we’ll have to give gifts to the baby.”
Siri was unabashed.
“We’d have to do that anyways. Ken would insist on it. I didn’t know [Midwife] was a class.”
Daly grunted, imaging the cost of a present for Miss Hastel’s baby.
“It’s a variant of [Healer]. Anyways, you got your fill?”
Siri smiled, a bit wistfully. She glanced back towards the door. Paying Miss Hastel hadn’t been what she’d come here to do. She’d only come to see Rital.
It wasn’t that she was interested in Rital in any kind of romantic way. If she was, Daly would have stopped Siri from jeopardizing their relationship with their landlady at all costs. No, it was just that Siri loved seeing a full-sized Cat from the Cat-tribe of the Beastkin. Rital was the only Cat Beastkin in the city. Beastkin were rare, even on their home continent of Baleros. And Siri loved cats. And Rital was more cat than even regular cats. Then Siri frowned.
“I don’t know how Hastel gets along with Rital. He’s the exact opposite of what most Centaurs are like. I’d expect him to be a Lizardfolk’s partner, but not her.”
Daly shrugged. He led the way down the street.
“All sorts of weird couples find love. You know that.”
“But how did he get her—”
“He didn’t. She was in a relationship and the stallion—male Centaur—ran off.”
“Oh. And Rital stuck with her?”
“Apparently they were already close friends. I guess they got closer. Some cats are loyal like that.”
Siri glanced wistfully back at the house. Daly sighed.
“Please don’t try and scratch his ears or something. Because I think Miss Hastel’d kick us all out if you did.”
“I would never. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look.”
Siri glared at Daly. Then she signed.
“I’m going back to the apartments. You’re going to the Adventurer’s Guild?”
“I’ll only take a request if it pays really well.”
“I’ll hold you to it. Later.”
Siri trotted back down the street. Daly watched her go. Then he looked around. Lizardfolk, Centaurs, a scowling Dullahan—he was alone. And for some reason, that felt fitting.
Daly walked forwards and melded with the crowd. He stood out. He was an oddity, a Human, one of the rarer species on Baleros. But he wasn’t a foreigner, or a tourist. In some ways, after several months here, he’d gotten to know Baleros.
Daly watched his belt pouch as he walked, careful of [Pickpockets]. He effortlessly fended off [Hawkers] and other street vendors, and ambled towards the port. The city of Talenqual had grown up around the docks, so most of the more established structures and richer districts were located closer to the spot. Not too close though; the smell of fish and the commerce of the docks wasn’t appealing to most.
“Nali-stick! Want a nali-stick?”
“Xelca meat, fresh!”
“Looking for someone willing to haul cargo off the ships! Fifteen pairs of hands wanted! No Centaurs!”
“Hey, has anyone seen the shop where they sell that new board game? Not the chess one—”
Daly heard competing voices shouting for attention as he walked. He paused and glanced at one of the shouters. A little Lizardgirl, her scales a dusky pink and yellow, was waving a basket of white, fibrous sticks. He paused in front of her and fished for a copper coin.
“Give me a stick.”
He offered her the coin. The Lizardgirl inspected it, fished in her basket, and held one up.
“Nali-stick! Here you go, Mister Daly!”
She knew him! The adventurer grinned.
“Have we met?”
The nali-stick seller looked scornful. She shook her head, the red frills around her neck opening slightly.
“Everyone knows the Human team that came here! You’re the Captain, right? Want more sticks for your team? I’ll give you one for free if you buy five!”
“No thanks. I’m good with one.”
Daly stuck the end of the white stick in his mouth and tore a piece off. It came away—the nali-stick was made up of many fibers—and chewed hard. For a second he only tasted the tough fiber, and then a wave of sweetness flooded his mouth. Daly grinned, and the Lizardgirl laughed as she saw his eyes light up.
Of the exports Baleros was known for, sugar was one of its chief moneymakers. It came from sugarcane, which grew on the continent above all else. The famed plant yielded sugar that the world so badly craved. However, Nali-sticks were concentrated versions of the tall-growing plant. Unlike sugarcane, they were much thinner, but held just as much sweet in their thin stalks. As such they were highly prized as snacks, and it was a cheap buy in markets where the stuff grew plentifully.
“Want another stick, Mister? Or you want to buy information? Looking to raid a dungeon?”
Daly glanced back down at the little Lizardgirl.
“I could be. Why, you know about some super-secret dungeon full of treasure? Because I’ll treat you to a nali-stick if you do.”
Indignant, the little Lizardgirl pushed her basket up one arm and glared at Daly
“For information about a dungeon? You should pay me silver!”
The Australian adventurer grinned.
“I would. If I thought the information you were selling was good.”
“I’ll swear on a [Detect Lies] spell that—”
“—I’m sure you would. But that’s not the point, is it? If you’re selling information, how do I know you didn’t get it from someone else?”
Daly cut the little Lizardgirl off. She hesitated. He went on.
“And if you know about a special lair that’s popped up, I’ll bet everyone in the city knows about it. Especially at the Adventurer’s Guild, hmm? A new dungeon’s popped up and it’s all the rage? Is that the information you were going to sell me?”
She squirmed, a child caught out in a lie. Daly grinned.
“Well, now I have two reasons to go to the Guild.”
“Aw. But I still told you! Don’t I get anything?”
“Tell you what. I’ll buy you another nali-stick.”
He handed her a copper coin. The Lizardgirl eyed it, then shrugged and handed him another stick. Daly laughed and they parted ways.
Two sticks worth of sugar put the pep in Daly’s step. He double-timed it to the Guild and found it was abuzz with activity. Adventurers were pouring out the doors and half of them were armed. It looked like the Lizardgirl was telling the truth. One of the teams fighting to be out first was arguing with another group.
“We have first rights! If the coach comes, we requested it. Stand down!”
A Dullahan in iron armor swung a fist and an angry Lizardman backed up. Daly recognized her as she whirled. Her small team was keeping everyone else back. She eyed him and then blinked.
“Ah. Captain Daly. Are you going after this new dungeon?”
Daly looked at the Dullahans. They were the ones from last night. He paused.
“The Rustless Guard, right? Captain Eldima?”
“Our team just heard about it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the news?”
“New dungeon? Popped outta nowhere?”
He didn’t even have to know the details to guess. Baleros, like all the continents in this world was ancient. Dungeons long buried often appeared as geography changed naturally or artificially. Edima nodded.
“The rainfall cleared an entrance. It’s three miles south of here. Very close. We intend to inspect it first. And your team?”
Daly eyed the Dullahan, thought about the odds of taking on an unknown lair faster than the other teams—if they could even get there before the others, that was—and shook his head.
“My team deserves a rest. It’s all yours, and the best of luck to you if you can get there first.”
The Dullahans relaxed. Eldima offered Daly a rare smile.
“We will take that luck. We are ready to go and only await—here it is.”
Daly heard clattering hooves. Shod. A pair of Centaurs raced down the street, and then another pair. Both were pulling carriages. They stopped and the Rustless Guard poured into the carriages. The other adventuring teams roared and some raced down the street, looking for another carriage. Daly waved up to Edima as she scrambled into the coach last of all.
“Fame and fortune to you.”
Eldima turned her head and nodded down to him.
“It surely awaits.”
And then they were gone.
“Huh. I wonder if they’ll find anything.”
It was a tossup, really. A new dungeon could hold nothing, having already been plundered in ages past, a massive fortune, or have simply become the lair of some monster. But it was exciting. On another day Daly would have cursed not having heard about the dungeon ahead of time. Today? He was relieved for the excuse not to visit it.
The Adventurer’s Guild was practically empty as Daly strode in. All the teams were converging on the dungeon, and wouldn’t it be a right mess when they got there? The desk was staffed by a Dullahan, or rather, her head. Her body was hard at work mopping the floor.
“Any contracts worth looking at?”
Daly addressed the head. The [Receptionist] paused.
“Nothing I can think of. The dungeon’s the rage, but every Silver-rank team and Gold-rank team’s headed for it. You can check the board, if you’d like.”
“Will do. Thanks.”
Daly checked the board. He spotted a few contracts—taking out some large rodents annoying one of the [Farmers], hunting down some birds for a [Fletcher], a lucrative job escorting a trading ship—nothing that the Bushrangers were interested in.
“A day off it is.”
Daly found there was a smile on his face. He walked back out of the Adventurer’s Guild. He could tell the others. Take a longer nap, maybe consult with Paige. But—that was work, wasn’t it? What if he just played a game on one of the laptops—assuming they had juice—or went and grabbed a quick drink? He could do that. Or he could head into the main city and—
“Mister Daly! Mister Daly!”
The adventurer’s head turned. He saw a little Lizardgirl race up to him. The same girl he’d spoken to not half a minute ago. She even had the basket of nali-sticks on her arm. Some bounced out and fell to the ground and other children pounced on the snacks. The Lizardgirl didn’t notice. She waved at Daly and stopped in front of him, panting.
“Mister Daly! I have something else to tell you! You’re giving a bounty on information, right? I remember you said!”
She looked up at him, her eyes imploring this to be so. Daly hesitated.
“Yeah! On news about strange Humans! Well, I forgot, but I heard there were some Humans who were spotted in an abandoned village! They were really weird! They have weird clothing, and they were in trouble because they weren’t supposed to be there!”
Daly froze. Strange Humans? Weird clothing? His contented mood vanished.
“Strange clothing? Did they have anything else off about them?”
The Lizardgirl thought, panting.
“They—they had strange lights. Not magical ones, but bright. One of the [Builders] sent to check out the village said they scared him and the others off! With these bright artifacts! But no magic. I can show you the person who saw them, if you want. They’re going to chase the Humans off soon!”
Squatters with bright, non-magical lights. Daly could only imagine one scenario that fit that. He looked at the Lizardgirl, heart racing, then fumbled at his belt pouch.
“Tell me more, kid. And bring me to the person who said they met the Humans. If you do—”
He flashed the Lizardgirl a silver coin. Her jaw opened with delight. She dragged at his hand and Daly looked about. More Lizardchildren were about. He pointed at one.
“You, run to find Siri, Paige, or someone from my company at their apartments. You know the ones? Miss Hastel’s buildings, down on Texal Street. Tell them to ready up the Bushrangers. We might have a mission.”
It was only three of them who took the Centaur-driven transport out of the city. It wasn’t so much a carriage as a wagon, designed to carry more bodies. Daly had no idea how many Humans there were, so he hoped the wagon was enough. And the information seemed good. Daly had met the Lizardman [Builder] who’d been sent to begin reclaiming a village that had been abandoned due to a Spear Spider infestation.
The worry Daly had was whether this was just a waste of time and money. But he’d paid for the Centaur-wagon and Paige had agreed it was important. So Daly took Dawson and Siri with him to the village.
“You’re sure we’re not going to run into monsters on the way? Because we’re not being paid to outrun monsters.”
One of the Centaurs pulling the wagon looked at Daly as he climbed on board. He was one of a pair—the other Centauress was chewing on a nali-stick. She glanced back at him as well. Daly shook his head.
“No fighting or monsters, mates. The village is supposed to be abandoned. We’re only going to check on the Humans living there. Swear it on the adventurer’s code of honor.”
“You don’t have one.”
“Well then, I swear by my good looks.”
Daly grinned. The Centaurs exchanged a glance. The Centauress snorted.
“Let’s just go. The Spear Spiders hit that place last month. If we’re just going there, it’s fine.”
The wagon jolted into motion as the Centaurs grunted and began to pull it forwards. Daly, sitting in the back next to Siri across from Dawson, felt a bit of air begin to blow past his face. He stared ahead as the wagon drove through the city.
It was only midday. But they’d be travelling for a good hour. Siri and Dawson sat in the back, staring at the city as the Centaurs slowly navigated towards the gates. When they left the city, they were still initially slow until they won clear of the foot traffic flowing in and out. Then they picked up speed.
In Baleros, transportation from city-to-city and within the cities had another facet in the form of Centaur-pulled carriages, rickshaws, and so on. They provided a cheap, easy means of transport and had literally outrun the competition in the Runner’s Guilds. The only exceptions were those who could navigate the unpaved areas or waters, like Luan.
The sight of the two Centaurs trotting ahead while their upper bodies remained still was interesting. To pass the time, the Centaurs were chatting quietly. The female Centaur was even cutting some nali, extracting the sweet core for her friend. In the back, the adventurers sat together, talking over the rush of the wind and the sound of the Centaur’s hooves.
“Shit. I didn’t bring my poison with me, Daly. It’s in my pack. I grabbed my crossbow, but…”
Dawson groused. Siri shot him a reproving glance. She had her gear, pack included.
“Do you have enough quarrels?”
“Yeah! But the poison—no.”
“We’re not here for a fight. If it comes to that, we’ll lend you our share.”
Daly reassured his friend. Nevertheless, he checked that he had his sealed jar of poison on him as well. He had brought his crossbow, as had the other two. They were armed for a fight. Just in case.
“Think they’re really from Earth?”
“It sounded like they had a flashlight or some kind of electronics. And who else would hide in an abandoned village? Bandits would have attacked.”
“Guess we’ll see.”
Dawson settled back in the wagon. Daly nodded. He stared over the side of the wagon. Baleros wasn’t all jungle and forest. Like the Americas that Baleros vaguely resembled on the maps, parts were extraordinarily clear and flat. The Centaurs made their homes there. Lizardfolk loved the marshes and swamps. They had settled the port cities while Dullahans claimed the cold north by and large. Other species like Selphids and Gazers inhabited the deeper jungles.
Right now, the wagon was driving through rice fields. The Lizardfolk had created vast paddy fields which, filled from Baleros’ spring rains, were busy growing large quantities of crops. It also had the byproduct of attracting bugs and insects. And frogs and other amphibians too, all of which Lizardfolk loved to eat.
“I hope it won’t rain. I’ve had enough of sitting in the jungle with rain drowning us. And I don’t know how they’ll do in the rain.”
Dawson remarked, nodding to the Centaurs. The male Centaur snorted.
“We have Skills, idiot.”
Apparently, the Centaurs could still hear the Humans in the back. Daly scooted forwards. The female Centaur half-turned to look at him.
“Mind me asking how bad the rain gets? This is our first time to Baleros. We had a few nasty close calls with the rain flooding streams on the job.”
“When you were adventuring?”
“How bad’s it get? We’ve seen some of the big storms. Does it get worse?”
The Centaurs looked at each other. They spoke at the same time.
“You’ve barely seen the rainy season. You want monsoons? We’ve got monsoons this far south.”
“Miserable weather. Hate it. I can barely walk and there’s mud everywhere. Worst time to work. You might break a foreleg.”
“The only species who love this weather are Lizardfolk. The freaks love dancing about in the rain.”
They groused happily to Daly and the others about the weather. The male Centaur, whose name was Bault, pointed at the sky.
“Don’t worry about rain today. You think we don’t check the weather on long runs? Our climate mages aren’t perfect, but they usually know what’s happening. Unless a company decides to mess with the weather or start burning something.”
“That happen often?”
“The smoke interferes with the clouds. Sometimes it can change what’s predicted. Otherwise—well, there’s no perfect spell for detecting the weather. Some Skills can tell when it’s about to change, but not predict, right? I suppose a [Diviner] could do better, but we don’t have one.”
The female Centaur, Pihava, glanced at Daly.
“So you’re the Bushrangers. I heard you were all [Rogues]. Practically invisible on the job.”
Daly smiled. They were well-known! Maybe it wasn’t just them being Humans.
“I wish. We’re just good at hiding. The idiot in the back’s Dawson, and that’s Siri.”
“Our idiot leader’s Daly. Hey, that village we’re headed to was attacked by Spear Spiders, right? What the hell’s a Spear Spider?”
Pihava shrugged. It was quite convenient for her to be able to run and turn sideways to talk. Although she kept looking forward to check the road.
“They’re one breed of Baleros’ resident spiders. There are all types. You’ve heard of Shield Spiders? No? Well, I’d prefer those, honestly. Spearwalker Spiders are tall. Some can grow up to twelve feet high—”
“Three and a half meters.”
“Fuck. You serious?”
“All legs. They’re tall ones. You know those spiders that have small bodies but really tall legs? That’s a Spear Spider. Only, their legs can impale people. And they have this trick they use to modulate how long their legs are. They’re fast, dangerous—”
“But fragile. I hear adventurers just blast them in the bodies with magic or swing a warhammer and take them apart.”
Bault looked back at Daly. The young man looked at his crossbow.
“Think they’re immune to poison? Because we don’t go for heavy armored foes. We’re skirmishers.”
“Tell you what. If we run into them—and they should be gone, or I’m kicking every head in at the Runner’s Guild—I’ll let you shoot as many crossbow bolts to find out as you want.”
“Fair. Say, how many close calls have you had on the road?”
“Well, Pihava’s new, so personally—”
The conversation went on for about twenty minutes, and then lapsed into silence. Daly sat in the back of the wagon and closed his eyes. He could still use a rest. Or rather, his mind told his body to grab the break while it could. It was comfortable in the back of the wagon, and the air cooled him down as it blew past his head. Daly closed his eyes.
Were they really from Earth? If they were…
He drifted off like that. It felt like only a minute before Siri was shaking him. Daly jerked, but remembered enough not to grab at his axe. He sat up and saw they’d arrived.
The village that had been abandoned still bore marks of battle. Brick houses partially caved in, roofs with holes in them—possibly from the Spear Spider legs. Some had been torched, perhaps to ward the monsters off, or maybe by accidental fire. But the rest were intact.
The village was actually on top of a hill. A nice, defensible spot with even a low mud brick wall, crumbling in places. But it hadn’t saved the place. Now, the Centaurs paused below the hill. Bault gestured up at it, sweating.
“We can pull you up the hill. But between you and me, that’ll cost you.”
“No need. We’ll make the trek. You guys wait here and rest a spell.”
Daly hopped out of the wagon. Pihava nodded.
“If you hear us shouting, get down here quick. If we see anything, we’re taking off.”
There were no signs of monsters, but Daly nodded.
“That’s fair. We won’t be long. Siri—”
He looked around. She was already taking point. As the [Scout] of the group, she was quietest, thanks for her Skills. Not that the road up to the village was covered by forest. Still, Daly and Dawson gave her a lead and then followed. Their crossbows were on their back in case they were being watched, but they were drawn, ready to be loaded and fired.
Daly’s skin crawled as he walked up towards the village. He could see several quite intact buildings. And he had a definite sense he was being watched. He looked at Dawson.
“How should we handle it? Call out first?”
He saw Dawson roll his shoulders.
“Up to you. I wish Ken was back here.”
“You think we’d send him up first? What if they were [Bandits]?”
“He’d probably charm them into giving us a hot meal. Why don’t we just march up, shout ‘anyone from Earth? If not, fuck off!’ And then—”
There was a shout from above. Daly and Dawson looked up. Siri had frozen. Someone had shouted and thrown something down at them. A heavy stone. It crashed and rolled down the slope. Instantly, Daly reached for the crossbow and hesitated. He looked for cover—there wasn’t any but the sides of the hill.
“Stay back! This is our place!”
Someone shouted from above. Daly couldn’t see who it was—but the gates of the village had been barricaded with boards of wood. It looked like someone had tried to repair parts of the wall. He saw a flicker of movement, and then another stone flew over the wall. Siri jumped back, but it landed well clear of her and rolled down the hill.
Daly glanced over his shoulder. Their Centaur guides were staring up at them. He waved at them and then looked at Dawson.
“That sounds like a Human.”
“Yeah, not friendly. Hey! We’re Humans! We want to talk! Are you from Earth?”
Dawson bellowed up at the walls. Daly heard a sound, muffled, and then cut off. There was a pause. And then—
“Go away! We have weapons!”
Daly exchanged a glance. The voice was loud, female, and panicked. The first voice had been male. He called up towards the village.
“We’re from Earth! Are you? Do you know—”
He got no further. Someone threw a rock.
“Leave! We won’t be tricked again! If you come any closer, we’ll kill you!”
More stones flew. These ones landed uncomfortably close, so the adventurers backed up. Shielding his face and watching for missiles, Daly hurried down the hill. There he looked at Siri and Dawson.
“They’re from Earth. I’ll bet anything.”
“But they’re fucking agro. Why the hell’s that?”
Dawson grimaced. Siri frowned.
“Did you hear what they said? ‘We won’t be tricked again’. Again. You think they ran into other people from our world?”
“If they did, it didn’t go well for them.”
Daly grunted. He eyed the village. Stones and shouting. He’d bet there were only a handful in the village. It would be easy enough to circle the hill and sneak up it, maybe with a distraction. Siri caught Daly’s eye.
“They’re terrified. You can hear it in their voices. We should do this peacefully.”
“How? If they’re pelting us with stones—”
“No, Siri’s right. We scare them and they’ll run. Someone’s already made them afraid—even of folks from home. We need to coax them to come out. We’ve gotta do this Ken-style. Hold on. Give me a moment to think.”
The other two waited as Daly paced back and forth, looking up at the village. Dawson groaned.
“Ken-style? First you said earth-style, now this. You’re a good leader, but you’re shit with words, Daly.”
“Shut up. Let me try again.”
Daly climbed up the hill. He was greeted by a flurry of stones.
“We just want to talk! Can I talk to one of you? I said we’re from Earth! We’re like you lot! We want to help!”
“Get lost! We see your crossbow!”
Fuck. It had been a bad idea to take it after all. Daly paused.
“I’ll leave my weapons behind! Look, just say if you’re from Earth or not! Are you Americans? Can you tell me what a iPhone is?”
Hesitation. And then dead silence. The stones stopped flying, but Daly wasn’t about to get anywhere closer and risk them panicking. He walked down the hill, back to the others.
“Why won’t they say if they’re from Earth?”
“Afraid. Fucking hell. What did the other group do to them?”
“Maybe they were attacked.”
There was a dark look in Siri’s eye. Daly and Dawson looked at her. She and Tofte had shown up on their doorstep a while back, and never told the whole story of how they’d survived until now. But they’d arrived with combat classes and experience in fighting. Geneva had diagnosed Siri and Tofte with a traumatic event in the recent past. But since they could still fight and function, Daly had recruited them into the Bushrangers.
Daly paced back and forth for a while, trying to figure out what to do next. What would Ken do? It was a serious question. Without Ken’s primer into how to interact with Baleros’ races, Daly often would have been lost. And it was his philosophy, as well as Geneva’s that had shaped how the United Nations company worked. Daly frowned, bit his lip, and then he had it.
“Well—what if we lure them out?”
“With what, nali-sticks?”
“No. Hey Dawson, did you at least bring your iPhone and the speaker?”
Dawson patted his belt. He was wearing the iconic adventurer’s belt, complete with pouches stuffed full of an adventurer’s gear.
“Never leave without it. Why?”
“I want you to set it up. Turn those speakers up to max blast. It’d better be charged.”
“It is! I haven’t wasted the battery. Not since last time.”
Dawson grimaced. He fished out a tangled mess of cord, and then a portable speaker. And then his iPhone. Daly had lost his. Or it had been stolen, back when he’d been in Gravetender’s Fist. Dawson frowned at Daly.
“You want to scare them with the distraction audio?”
Three of the Bushrangers were armed with smart phones as part of their gear. They had a recording to go with the portable speakers they carried. Using it would set off a timed cacophony to distract a monster or person. Daly shook his head.
“No way. Just play them a song.”
Confusion flashed across Dawson’s face for just a second. Siri blinked, and then smiled. She nodded. Dawson’s eyes lit up as well after a second. He lifted the speaker, turned it on, and then aimed it at the village. He thumbed through the music, and Daly waited impatiently.
“Come on. It just has to be something they recognize.”
“Don’t rush me. There’s a right song for every moment, Daly. I just have to—here it is!”
Triumphantly, Dawson pressed the button. Instantly, a song blared from the speakers. Quietly at first and then with increasing volume as Dawson adjusted the speaker’s volume to max. The song was iconic—at least, to Daly. Siri frowned for a moment before recognizing it.
The two Centaurs looked up in surprise as the first drums, and then a flute began playing. The background buzz of the insects in the jungle grew silent for a moment as a bass began to echo up the hill.
Daly groaned. He shot Dawson a look. The Australian patriot grinned. Daly didn’t even need to hear the lyrics. He knew them practically by heart.
Down Under, by Men at Work. There was some logic to it—if there was one song a foreigner might associate with Australia, it was probably that one. And it was unmistakably from Earth. Still, Dawson had such a big shit-eating grin on his face that Daly wanted to smack the smartphone out of his hands.
But it worked. No sooner had the song ended than Daly saw movement at the top of the hill. Someone peeked over the walls. Daly waited, holding his breath. Then he saw a figure descend the hill.
The three Bushrangers dropped their weapons and slowly walked up the hill. Dawson began playing Great Southern Land until Daly smacked him on the shoulder.
The person descending the slope was a young man, dressed in a tight-fitting sports shirt with a logo on the breast. The shirt was dirty, as were the sports pants he wore. He looked thin. Worn at. But his eyes were fixed on Dawson’s iPhone. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and then raised a hand.
“You’re really from Earth?”
Daly halted a few feet away. The young man’s accent was familiar. He couldn’t be…? The Australian gave him a smile.
“That’s right. We’re from Australia. We heard there were people here that might be from Earth. We came to check it out. We want to help.”
Siri jumped in.
“We’ve got an apartment in a city near here. We’ve got food, money—we’re a company.”
“Food and money? You mean, you live here? You can live here?”
The other Earthworlder looked stunned, confused. Daly’s heart skipped a beat.
“That’s right. We’ve got jobs. We’ve banded together, all of us from Earth that we could find. Are you—how’ve you survived?”
“We—we’ve been scavenging. Eating what we could forage. Hiding from—everything. We thought you were bandits like the last—”
The stranger shuddered. He looked at Daly. And then part of him seemed to unwind.
“Can we go with you?”
“We wouldn’t be here otherwise, mate. Come on. Tell your friends to come out. We’ll get you back to civilization.”
“Oh my god. Oh my god.”
The young man fell to his knees. At first Daly thought it was an overreaction. Until he saw the tears. The young man shuddered, and he looked up at them like—like—
Dawson turned away. Daly knelt at the same time as Siri. They helped the stranger up.
“Easy. What’s your name?”
“Blake. I’m Blake. We’ve been starving up there. And when the lizard-things appeared last night, we thought—this isn’t a dream, right?”
A grimy hand clutched at Daly’s arm. He nodded.
That was enough. Blake took a shuddering breath. He slowly rose. Daly held him until he was sure he was steady. He was thin. The sports shirt didn’t fit him that well.
“Where’re you from, Blake?”
Blake started. He looked up. Then he suddenly grinned. Daly thought he knew why. Blake wiped at his eyes, and then grimaced. Or tried to. He looked at Daly and Dawson. And then he coughed.
“Well, goddamnit, it had to be a bunch of aussies, didn’t it? Of course you lot’d survive over here”
Dawson looked over, and his face lit up with delight.
“You’re a kiwi?”
“New Zealand. Yeah.”
“Ayyy! How’d you lot survive out here? I don’t see a herd of sheep—”
Siri punched Dawson gently in the shoulder. But Blake was laughing. He turned and looked back up towards the village walls. Daly could sense they were still being watched.
“Those your friends watching us? You mind waving to tell them we’re friendly? The last thing we want is an arrow through the throat.”
“They don’t have weapons. We were going to run if you got closer. Hey! It’s fine!”
Blake turned and waved his hands. He began walked back up the hill and then turned.
“You’ll stay here?”
“Right here. Go on.”
The Bushrangers settled back, as Dawson complained to Siri.
“Aw, come on. It’s great! We just take the piss—”
“Maybe don’t make that the first thing you do?”
The two began arguing over the right timing to tell jokes and be serious while Daly tried to relax. They had time—it took nearly ten minutes for Blake to come back. When he did it was by himself. The others came over the walls very gingerly, and gave Daly the impression they were ready to bolt. Like Blake, they wore colorful clothing that no [Tailor] of this world could have come up with. Even the dyes of Baleros couldn’t quite match the artificial colors of Earth.
“It’s safe! See? They’re Australian. Australian.”
Siri raised a hand. The words seemed to reassure the others. They gingerly followed Blake down the hill, staring at the Centaurs with clear fear. There was one more guy, and two girls, all of them younger than Blake. They stared at the Bushrangers, reluctant to go further, but Blake waved them on, shouting a word that Daly didn’t know.
“Is that Italian?”
Siri looked up curiously. Blake turned and nodded. He walked back and ushered the three forwards once more. He turned and spoke to the Australians and Swedish girl.
“They’re Italian. They were on a tour or something—only one of them can speak English well—and they just appeared here. This is Lorenzo, Diana, and Nicoletta—”
The last girl introduced herself. She was around Blake’s age, possibly not even twenty yet. No—definitely around nineteen, the both of them. Daly hesitated. Now what was the best move?
Siri made it for him. She reached out and offered a hand.
“Salve. My name is Nicola. I’m from Italy. You’re—from Earth?”
She spoke in halting English, partially fragmented. Lorenzo and Diana watched her, and Daly saw their eyes flickering from him to Dawson.
They didn’t understand English. Well, no wonder they’d had a terrible time of it. Daly hesitated, then he offered his hand. Lorenzo was the first to shake it. The Italians shook hands and repeated the same question, even if it was condensed to one word.
And Daly nodded. He repeated himself.
“Earth. Australians. Friends.”
The relief in their eyes was palpable. Daly looked at Blake. The New Zealander was eying him, and then the Centaurs.
“Centaurs. Yeah. They’re pulling our wagon. We should pile in—this place isn’t entirely safe.”
“It’s not. There were these little spiders in one of the houses—wait, you said go with them? In the wagon?”
Blake looked uncertain. Nicola, who was whispering to the others, translated, and they drew back. Daly hesitated.
“They’re friendly. They’re Centaurs. You know—”
He had no idea how common Centaurs were in Italian folklore, but popular culture was popular culture. That didn’t seem to be the problem though. Nicola shuddered and backed up. Blake hesitated.
“We met Centaurs that—is that why you’re armed?”
“No. To fight monsters. We’re adventurers.”
Every second seemed to be confusing the Earthworlders more and more. Daly hesitated. They had a lot to explain, but here wasn’t the time. Pihava was pawing the ground with one hoof, clearly impatient. Nicola turned to Daly as he was trying to figure out how to reassure them.
“You’re—from Earth? You know how to get back?”
He met her eyes. They were desperate. Afraid. She looked at him with wild hope. As one lost, frightened person did to another. But—Daly wondered if that was how he’d looked at first. Afraid. Terrified, in fact. But with a core of something in her eyes. Determination. The will to survive. Slowly, he shook his head.
“No. We don’t. We’re lost. Like you. But now—”
He reached out. Nicola took his hand. Daly spoke quietly.
“We’ve got you. We’ll protect you. We’re not alone. We are part of the United Nations company.”
Nicola jumped when she heard the words. Blake opened his mouth, his eyes wide. Daly looked at them. He pointed down the hill.
“Come with us. You’re safe now.”
And he knew that was the right thing to say.
That was all Blake said when they were loaded on the wagon and driving away from the village. It had taken time, twenty minutes in fact, to get the others to approach the Centaurs and into the wagon. But now they were driving back down the way they’d come. Pihava and Bault were pulling the wagon quickly despite the new passengers. Once in a while they’d glance backwards to stare at the Humans. When they did, the Italians and Blake would flinch.
They’d had a nightmarish time of it. Blake explained in a shuddering voice as they drove. He couldn’t take his eyes off the Centaur, until Siri fished out some travel rations and handed them around. The hard, dry meat was salty, a miserable meal. But the other Earthworlders tore into it ravenously. Daly brought out his water and found they were dehydrated as well.
“We didn’t know where to get safe water. There was a stream—but we’ve barely been able to start a fire. We couldn’t find firewood, and none of us had anything useful on us—and there are things out there. In the jungle.”
Blake shuddered as he wiped his mouth. His hand was shaking as he reached for more travel jerky and crammed it into his mouth. Daly squatted next to him, too restless to sit properly on the moving wagon.
“Tell me about it.”
He saw the Earthworlders look around at each other. Daly understood the feeling. How could you explain the shock of it? The sense of being in another world, the confirmation of that reality? But they weren’t describing anything unknown to the others. Blake spoke, coughing on another mouthful of water.
“The first day—I thought I was losing my mind. I was playing rugby with some friends. I went to grab the ball and I landed…”
In another world. In the water, in fact. Blake was so shocked that he just stood there in the waist-deep pool. That was, until something started biting him. He looked down, felt a searing pain, and then ran for the shore. In that time, he picked up three leeches and the fish took two more bites out of his legs. He still had scars. And when he ran into the group of Italians, they nearly attacked him, bleeding and terrified as he was.
Nicola, Lorenzo, and Diana had all been riding a crowded bus when they’d passed through a tunnel and found themselves standing in the middle of a forest. It hadn’t just been three of them. There had been eight. Plus a pair of two confused people. From…
“We think they were from Venezuela. I think that’s what they were saying. But they were speaking Spanish and none of us…”
The initial confusion of what had happened led to an immediate need to get their bearing. To survive. And at first, they’d managed it. A pocket lighter, meant for cigarettes, some branches—they’d even gone back to the pool and collected some water to boil. They’d gotten that far. But after that—
“The first night they got us.”
That was all Blake said. He turned dead white and couldn’t go on. Neither could Nicola. Daly didn’t press them.
Something had happened. After that, the four survivors had fled. They’d hidden from civilization, foraged, kept away from the roads and all species they’d encountered, and eventually ended up at the village. That’s where they’d stayed until Daly and the others had found them.
“How long was it?”
Daly exchanged a glance with Dawson and Siri. Three weeks? Blake wasn’t sure, but even if he was off by a few days, the timing didn’t match up with anyone else. Were people still coming over from Earth? It was a question for later, though. Because Blake and the others had thousands of their own.
“This is another world, isn’t it?”
“And those are—”
“Centaurs, mate. Centaurs. They live on this continent. We’re on Baleros. It’s inhabited by Centaurs, Lizardfolk, Dullahans…”
Blake stared at Daly as if the Australian were mad. Daly had to admit it was a far-fetched tale. But the only way he could put it was like that.
“This is a fantasy world, Blake. Right out of a story. There’s magic and shit and monsters too.”
“Magic? Now you’re kidding me—”
Siri had to cast a [Light] spell to show them. When she did that. Lorenzo nearly scrambled out of the wagon. Daly gave them the quick rundown, pausing to let Nicola translate—or try.
“Everyone here speaks English. Just English. I don’t know why, but it’s universal.”
“That’s not right.”
Blake frowned. Daly shrugged. It was convenient—until you remembered that Ken, and Kirana and everyone else who came from a country that didn’t have English as a native language was screwed. It was probably why they’d found so few people who didn’t speak English alive.
“We’ll give you the full story later. The important thing to remember is that you’re safe. We call ourselves the United Nations company. To let everyone know we’re from Earth. And there are more of us. You’ll get food and we’ll give you a checkup back at base.”
Blake breathed the words. Dawson grinned.
“What, you think we’d abandon someone from Earth? We’ve got you. Aussies and kiwis got to stick together, right?”
“Your countries are right next to each other, right?”
Siri looked at Daly for confirmation. He nodded.
“We’re close by. But totally different. You know, Australia and New Zealand have different cultures so we make fun of each other. We have different words, different accents—”
“Ours are better.”
Blake grinned faintly as the two gently ribbed him. Siri looked between the three.
“You both sound pretty much the same to me.”
Daly, Dawson, and Blake all glared at Siri. She shrugged completely unapologetically. She looked over at Nicola.
The girl nodded. Siri fished out a nali-stick and showed them how to eat it. Blake sat back as she offered him a piece. He chewed and his eyes opened wide.
“It’s sugarcane. Or something like it.”
“God, I’m so hungry. And this is so—”
Blake started choking up. Dawson looked the other way, but Daly grabbed Blake’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry. Just relax.”
The younger man nodded. It was at this point that Bault looked backwards. He cleared his throat and Daly looked up.
“Sorry, we can’t help but overhear some of that. Are these Humans—friends?”
Daly looked up. He cursed as he realized the Centaurs had probably heard the stuff about this being another world. Or not—they’d been talking quietly up till now. Either way, he could only roll with it.
“That’s right. They’re from the same place. Civilians. Not warriors. They landed in the jungle. Blake here landed knee-deep in a pool with a piranha and leeches or something.”
Pihava looked over her shoulder and gave Blake a sympathetic glance. He tensed up and then slowly waved a hand. The Centauress looked at Daly.
“Is that why your company put out a bounty for any strange Humans?”
“We don’t know what hit us. Teleportation spell, maybe. We’re looking for anyone else who’s out of place.”
The two Centaurs exchanged a long glance. Bault coughed.
“I didn’t know that. I just heard there was a bounty. Tell you what, if we hear of anything, we’ll bring news of it your way, okay? Free of charge.”
“And you can hire us. Ask by name. We know all the roads around here.”
Pihava tossed her head and gave them a nod. Daly smiled.
“That’s very kind of you. But if you could keep what you heard a secret, that’d do us even more of a favor.”
“Of course. But we will tell everyone at the Guild you’re looking. Dead gods, a teleportation spell? You should get the Adventurer’s Guild to put out an all-alert.”
“You think they would?”
“Of course! If there are Humans wandering around with no idea of the dangers—these ones are lucky to have survived this long! We’ll get you back to the city. Come on, Bault.”
The wagon noticeably picked up in speed. The Earthworlders stared at the Centaur’s backs. Lorenzo whispered something to Nicola. She spoke up.
“They’re nice? Not…monsters?”
Both Centaurs stiffened. Daly bit his tongue. Pihava looked back with a glare that made Nicola flinch.
“We’re not monsters.”
Daly held up a hand and waved it.
“They’ve never seen Centaurs before, mates. Not Lizardfolk or Dullahans either. Just Humans. They’re far from home.”
Bault snorted. But the Centaurs relaxed ever-so-slightly. And they kept moving, fast enough to be back in Talenqual much faster than they’d spent going. They made their way through the gates as the Bushrangers did their best to keep the other Earthworlders from freaking out at the sight of all the Lizardfolk, Dullahans, and Centaurs. It seemed the Centaurs bothered them the most—the Dullahans made them nervous, but not in the same way. The Lizardfolk were just…strange.
“Here’s our stop. It’s not much, but it’s filled with people from Earth. Go on, Siri will lead you inside. Dawson? Do a runner and tell everyone what’s up.”
“You got it.”
Dawson and Siri hopped out. Daly jogged around the wagon as they helped Blake and the others to the ground. He looked up at the Centaurs, who were panting.
“You two did a fantastic job. I’ll say as much next time I’m in the Runner’s Guild. Here.”
He reached into his belt pouch and offered both Centaurs a gold coin. They eyed it appreciatively. It was a generous tip, but they’d run fast and far and Daly was paying for the insult and goodwill.
“It was nothing. Like we said, we’ll spread the word. Call on us.”
Daly promised and meant it. The Centaurs took off, dragging the wagon back towards the Runner’s Guild, done for the day. It was early evening now, and Daly headed straight into the apartments. He heard a commotion, and then opened the door and saw Kirana hugging Nicola, and more of the Earthworlders in the United Nations company surrounded the overwhelmed group.
“Hey! Come on! Clear a space! Let me introduce them!”
Daly raised his voice. He gestured to the group, and spoke to Blake.
“This here’s the headquarters of our group of refugees from Earth. Let me introduce you. Take a seat here—hey, they’re thirsty and hungry. Do we have food…?”
One of the Indian girls, Priya, rushed into the kitchen and came out with food. The still-hungry Italians and Blake set to as Daly pointed around the room.
“Let’s see. This is Kirana, Priya, um—”
Daly turned red as it transpired that he didn’t know all the names. They introduced themselves, talking in slow English while the others volunteered their names. Daly heard a clatter down the stairs, and looked up. Paige stopped on the stairs, staring.
“Hey Paige! You’ll never guess who dropped in! Someone from fucking New Zealand of all the luck!”
The Australian girl stared at Blake, and then descended slowly. The first thing she did was give him a hug, which made Daly embarrassed for the ribbing. He coughed.
“Paige is the one who holds down the fort while we’re all away. You could say she’s the boss around here.”
Paige gave Daly a look, and he went on.
“But our real leaders are all out. There’s about forty of us—but we have two guys and a girl who are pretty much running the show. Ken, Luan, and Geneva. And Aiko?”
“Are they adventurers? Like you?”
Blake pointed at Daly’s axe. Daly shook his head, grinning ruefully.
“Better. Ken’s a [Negotiator]. You got classes, so you know what I mean. He and Aiko—she’s Japanese too—they’re always with Geneva. He talks to people, gets them to let her work in peace. Aiko’s Geneva’s number one assistant.”
Besides Okasha. And no one was allowed to know about her. Then Daly realized he hadn’t said what Geneva did.
“Geneva’s a [Doctor].”
The word made all of the new Earthworlders look up. Diana urgently tugged on Nicola’s arm. She’d been swaying in the wagon, and Lorenzo had been helping her move about. Nicola looked up.
“Is she here? Diana is sick.”
Half of the people at the table drew back. Nicola waved a hand.
“No, no. It’s—”
She looked at Blake. He looked grave.
“Diabetes. She’s out of insulin and we—”
“Kirana! Grab us that kit!”
He jumped as both Paige and Daly turned and shouted. Kirana was already grabbing for a bottle. She pressed it on Diana and they rushed to explain what it was. The girl took a sip of the stamina potion after staring at it for a second. Then she gasped, and color flooded into her face. Daly took off and left the apartment to run and find the other person with diabetes—Filip, of Poland. He was working as a [Scribe], but he repeated Geneva’s instructions and Daly came back, huffing and puffing, to find that Paige had already found the hand-written instructions.
They were explaining more about Baleros and this world to the Italians, filling in the gaps that they’d guessed at. It turned out that the announcements in their head were a universal language, so the [Scavenger], [Survivalist], and [Skulker] classes they’d received were all familiar to them.
“We’re all working to survive here. The other species are different—but they are people. You can work and earn money, like everywhere. That’s why so many are out right now. Working. Ken and Geneva and Aiko will be back tomorrow morning.”
“And she is a [Doctor]?”
“That’s right. She doesn’t have her tools, but she studied medicine and she’s the best we’ve got. Her and Luan are the oldest. He’s a Runner.”
Then they had to explain what Runners were. And adventurers again. Daly corrected himself as he sat at the table, drinking some of the sugar water that came from boiling water with nali-sticks.
“City Runner. Well, I say ‘Runner’, but he only operates on the water. He’s a kayak—sorry, a rower. Nothing to do with kayaks. And he’s an Olympian, a professional athlete.”
“He never actually competed.”
Paige demurred. Daly snorted.
“But he’s on the South African team.”
“An athlete? He must be insane on the water.”
Blake looked up. Daly grinned.
“Fast as fuck. When he gets back, you’ve got to watch him zip around. He can move faster in that canoe than I can run. Way faster with Skills.”
It was scary, really. But hearing about Luan was reassuring, as if someone who would have gone to the summer Olympics conveyed more safety. The Italians were relaxing by the time Nicola asked about the name.
“Why United Nations company?”
They’d understood that, but not the reason the Earthworlders had rallied around the name. Daly gave them a wry smile.
“It’s a symbol of home. Yeah, it’s a bit stupid, but a lot of people know the name, right? And it wasn’t us that picked it. Ken came up with it. He’s an idealist. And between you and me, I don’t think he knows quite what the UN did back at home.”
“It’s a good name, though. Really. It stands for something.”
Blake hurried to reassure the others. He looked up and groaned.
“I feel full. Excuse me, do you have a bathroom? And—a bath?”
“We’re hauling water for you right now. This way.”
Daly led Blake upstairs. Paige caught him on the way down.
He nodded at her, smiling. Then he felt at his belt pouch and frowned.
“Paige, we’re down two gold, nine silver, and two coppers. I’m nearly out of money.”
“Got it. But we brought back four of our own.”
Paige glanced over her shoulders. Daly heard an exclamation at the door. More of the company was returning from work.
“Damn, there’s going to be a crowd. I should get them upstairs and find them a room—and a bath—before everyone pours in. They need sleep, not more introductions.”
“I’ll head them off.”
“While you’re at it, can you get some xelca meat? Kirana forgot to buy some.”
Daly went downstairs. There were more Earthworlders outside. Anders, wet from his work in the harbor, Filip, young men and women from a number of countries. Most were Australian, though. Daly raised his voice.
“Hey, listen up you lot! We just got four more friends from home!”
There was a cheer. Daly shouted over it.
“Right, but before you come crowding inside, wait! They’re tired, exhausted—half starved—and they’ve had enough excitement. Paige is getting them upstairs, so don’t crowd them. Kirana’s got food going, so we’ll cycle you in and out—half of you’ll have to eat on the steps. And would someone buy some xelca meat? I’ve got money—”
“Did someone say xelca meat? My cousin sells it!”
A Lizardman poked his head out of the house across the street. Daly wavered. That was Talenqual, for you. No privacy.
“Uh, yeah. Can we get—fuck. I don’t know, six pounds?”
“Hey, what’s xelca meat anyways? No one’ll give me a straight answer when I ask.”
One of the Australians called out suspiciously. Daly heard a laugh from the Lizardman, who grinned and crawled out the shutter without answering. They also liked playing pranks. Daly shook his head.
“Thing to remember with Lizardfolk and their food? You don’t ask. It’s probably a toad or fish. Probably. And it’s good when it’s hot, edible when it’s not.”
The Lizardman turned as he walked down the street.
“Ooh. That’s catchy! I’m going to use that. Good when it’s hot, edible when it’s…”
He disappeared. The other Earthworlders looked at each other in amusement. Then they began to ask questions, giving time for Paige to do her job. By the time the Lizardman came back with a wrapped package of xelca meat in the long strips they were sold in, Kirana was ready to cook it. The Earthworlders went into the apartments, eating buffet-style, grabbing bowls and filling them before eating outside or shoulder-to-shoulder in the living room.
Halfway through the meal, Paige came down to announce everyone was asleep. Like Daly, she was immediately barraged by questions. A girl from Poland stood up.
“Are they okay?”
“Fine. Geneva can check, but they’re just hungry. Nothing else. No one crowd them now. We’re putting them up in a room by themselves. So it’ll be a bit cramped.”
Someone groaned. Paige folded her arms.
“We’re working on leasing another house. Our neighbors are open to the idea—especially with all us noisy Humans tramping about. We just need Luan to get back with a hefty coin purse. Or someone to lose a limb and call in our [Doctor].”
There was a quiet laugh. Paige fielded a few more questions, and then headed back to her work room. And the others ate, talked or complained about their day, but all too soon went to sleep.
They’d worked full jobs. And so they filled the upper floors of the apartment, sleeping in the crammed rooms as Daly and the Bushrangers stayed awake. They hadn’t had that active a day. So they sat together in the dining room of the second apartment with the door closed and talked quietly.
“Looks like we’ve got four new mouths to feed.”
“We’ll manage. We just need to take another big contract. And they’ll work as soon as they’ve got their legs under them.”
“What if they don’t? Like the group we had to kick out?”
“We deal with it then.”
Daly sighed. He leaned back in his chair. Then he looked at the kitchen. Kirana was still hard at work, preparing breakfast this time. He could smell it, and his full stomach decided to rumble anyways.
“You know, half of the newcomers think we’re prepared for this.”
The other Bushrangers looked up as Dawson relaxed. He waved his hand.
“This. I was talking to Jeraldo? Think his name was Jeraldo. He and some of the others—you know, the ones who came after us—they think we’re used to this because we come from the great Down Under. Like we’re used to punching kangaroos and fighting off rattlesnakes.”
“Fuck off with that.”
One of the other Bushrangers exclaimed, kneading her fingers together angrily. Daly kept his mouth shut.
“Why, because Australia’s got bugs and spiders? Doesn’t mean we’re all experts. Let’s see. Fuck that, and that, and that. What the hell is that thing?”
She pointed to a few bugs crawling across the floor. They looked like ants—but not ants from Earth. One was blue. Glowing. Daly grimaced. They must have been attracted to the food. Kirana kept a clean place, but Miss Hastel’s apartments weren’t exactly airtight, and bugs were a given in Baleros. No one worried unless it was an infestation.
“It’s a vote of confidence. Who else is going out and actually taking on monsters? Us. And the Swedes.”
He nodded at Siri and Tofte. The Norwegian man looked up.
“Some want to. But not when they know what it’s like.”
The others nodded. Once you’d actually come face-to-face with a monster—even a zombie, you learned how real it was. Hell, even a zombie…Daly remembered having to slowly hack at the zombie’s head, just to bring it down. And the smell, the feel of metal hitting bone…
In the silence, Daly looked around.
“We’re not all experts who live out in the bush. That’s true enough. But someone’s got to do this job. Push comes to shove, we’re our company’s first response.”
“And we volunteered. We didn’t have to.”
Daly nodded he glanced at Dawson.
“Anyone tells you how we should wander off and kill a Spear Spider with a boomerang, you just tell them we’re not used to this. If they want to join up, they can. But it’s not a fun job. I’m proud of you all for stepping up.”
There was a moment of silence. Then Dawson offered a tired smile.
“Love you too, Daly. No homo.”
“Aw, you idiot…”
The group broke up. Daly sighed as they trooped up the stairs—to share a room this time. He stayed up, wondering if he could nap in the living room or if the ants would start crawling in his ears.
Eventually Kirana finished her work and turned out the light in the kitchen. She headed upstairs, missing Daly. He was sitting so still he was invisible. And he had a Skill.
[Faint Presence]. An [Axe Warrior], a [Carpenter], and a [Rogue]. Apparently he might become a [Ranger] if he kept at it. Daly sighed. And then he heard a faint sound.
Someone was coming down the stairs. Daly looked up, about to call out. And then he saw Blake. Daly froze. His hand reached for his side. And then he reconsidered. He reached for something else instead. Blake walked down the stairs, barely making a sound. Quiet, slowly. He looked around the room, and then crept for the door.
Blake spun. He saw Daly, sitting in the shadows, one hand resting on the table. The other was on his lap. Daly pointed.
“I’m not the suspicious sort. But we had one incident where a bloke tried to rob us and then do a runner.”
“I wasn’t. I was just—I needed to step outside. Be alone.”
Blake gulped. Daly eyed him, then shook his head.
“Outside? You’ll just run into Lizardfolk. And there’s no alone when you’re with even one of them. Have a seat. Here’s the best you’ll get, probably.”
He pulled up a chair. Blake hesitated, and then sat across from him. He stared at Daly.
“I wasn’t going to take anything.”
“I believe you. What’s wrong. Can’t sleep?”
“No. It’s—I did sleep, but then I woke up. I couldn’t get back. All of this—it’s too much to believe.”
The New Zealander uttered a short laugh. It was more like a bark of sound. Daly nodded.
“It’s tough. But believe me, it’s real. If pinching could wake me up—it’s all real.”
“I know. There’s no way I’m dreaming. But I want to be. You know?”
Blake ran a hand through his hair. He felt silent. Daly waited.
“About when we came here. What I said—we got jumped on the first day, you know? Not by bandits or—[Bandits]. By other people. From home.”
Daly didn’t move. Blake looked up.
“Yeah. I don’t know who they were. They just came out of nowhere. This guy ran up—they’d smelled us cooking that fish. They told us to hand it over. One of the Italians said no. They started shoving each other and then—they just attacked us.”
“What nationality were they?”
The other young man looked up. Daly elaborated.
“If you meet them, or if we run across them, it’d be good to know. We can’t take people like that into the company—”
Blake uttered a strangled laugh.
“No fear of that. Like I said, after that day—there were four of us. We ran. I don’t know what the hell those others were—they were like monsters. They didn’t look as if they’d been here for just a day. Completely psycho. And they had Centaurs with them. They were [Bandits], I guess.”
“How many Centaurs?”
“Just two. They were really young.”
“Outcasts. Centaurs expel troublemakers. Most die, or form into groups like that.”
“I guess they do. But they didn’t follow us. So we ran. Eventually we got to this—this village. Headed straight down a road, and found them. They were—Dullahans.”
Daly frowned. Then why were they alone? His hand twitched. Blake nodded. He was caught up in his story.
“They scared us so bad. We were running, and then this head hidden in a tree trunk spoke to us and the bodies appeared out of nowhere. We thought we were dead. But they saw the blood and cleaned us up and even healed us. And when we told them what had happened.”
His voice broke. Daly waited, hearing Blake gulp.
“They were appalled. You know? Just horrified. They patched us up and their head person—their [Village Leader]—told me that justice would be served. The next day a group of them in armor set out. They came back four days later with the heads of everyone in the bandit group.”
“That’s how Dullahans do it. They take heads. On Dullahans it works. They take the heads and the bodies try to get to them. Or die.”
Blake uttered what sounded like a prayer in the darkness.
“Yeah, well, these were Humans. And the Centaurs. The Dullahans told us justice was done. Two days after that they kicked us out when they realized we couldn’t do anything. Herded us out and told us they’d cut off our heads if we came back without money to pay for lodging.”
He looked up. Daly paused. Then he nodded.
“That’s Dullahans for you. I don’t want to say it, but you got lucky. Not that lucky—Lizardfolk would have been nicer. But you could have run into Centaurs. They might’ve killed you then and there if they thought you were lying, or just left you to die.”
The tone in Blake’s voice was flat. Daly nodded. He pointed up.
“You know Kirana? Priya? The Indian girls who help keep the place running? They were the last group we found. Just girls. I think they were this group we met the first night we were here. But—the rest of them were dead. They took to stealing. Got caught in a Centaur town. Guess what they did?”
Blake didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. Daly nodded.
“You know why Kirana and the other girls survived? Centaurs don’t kill women unless it’s in a battle. Even bandits.”
“Does that make them better than Dullahans?”
“I think they can be right bastards. Some of them. But that’s their way. They think females shouldn’t be treated like men. Or they respect the only gender that can give birth. They revere mothers and are really protective of children. Especially because childbirth’s trickier for them. That’s how Ken sees it.”
“Ken. You speak about him like he’s your leader. Him and—Geneva?”
“And Luan. They pulled us out of the fire. We were in a company. Mercenaries. We would have all been slaughtered in this war—but Ken helped stop the fighting. So yeah, I look up to him. All of us do. Him and Geneva and Luan—they keep us together. Because they’ve got actual talent. Ken’s a diplomat. Luan’s an actual athlete. And Geneva…”
The two sat in silence for a while. Blake looked up at last.
“Thanks for getting us. We would have stayed there until someone ran us off.”
“It’s what we do. We have to stick together.”
Daly nodded. He looked at Blake.
“Get some sleep if you can. You’ll have a full day of it tomorrow.”
“I will. Thank you. Again. Thank you.”
Blake stood up. He headed up the stairs, looking calmer. Or so Daly thought.
But was it just an act? Did someone wake up and just happen to go to the door?
People from Earth. Just because they’re all from our home, doesn’t mean they’re all trustworthy. Some nights Daly still wondered what had happened to Caroline. Was it just an accident? What if Pihava or Bault talked?
Stupid. Wasn’t their knowledge from Earth useful? And there were other things to consider. Not everyone could work together. There’d been one fight about one of the boys wanting to set up a place to pray, and squabbles over sleeping arrangements. Friction.
Together but not together. It might get better when Ken and Geneva returned. It usually did. But in his heart, Daly struggled.
He had to believe Blake was on the up and up. He had to believe things would work out. He’d watch Blake. He had to. He had to be the one who made the hard decisions. But he couldn’t turn into the monster. His finger twitched and twitched. Daly tried to make it stop.
Baleros was war. It wasn’t hell, although it felt like it sometimes. There was so much beauty here you could forget the blood and death. And then a day would come along and rip the illusion wide open. But it wasn’t an evil place.
Daly had fought. He still fought, every day in fact. And he’d learned something on nights like this. It wasn’t monsters or even other people you were fighting. What you were really fighting, was yourself. And whether you turned into a monster or didn’t was the real battle.
Slowly, Daly reached into his belt pouch and pulled something out. A compact device, made of wood. He fumbled with it, and then removed the little toothpick-sized quarrel. He stowed the miniature crossbow and carefully uncocked it before packing it into the case Paige had made for him.
Some nights it felt like all he’d done since coming here was learn how to kill things in different ways. With that thought in his head, Daly just pushed back the table and lay down on the floor. He fell asleep slowly, as an ant crawled across his arm.
And the next day, Geneva came back.