They called her the Last Light. The Last Light of Baleros. To most, she was a [Soldier]’s story. And not even a grand one at that. Her legend was small. But somehow, it spread.
She was no warrior. She hadn’t built up decades of triumphs like the larger-than-life figures who dominated Baleros. The Titan. The Seer of Steel. Or even the younger heroes, like Aria Fellstrider, “Battle Hymnist” of Maelstrom’s Howling.
And yet, the Last Light’s tale lived on. It spread from word of mouth, from soldier to soldier, until you could hear a story about her a hundred miles from where she had ever walked. And that was because there was something in the Last Light that called to the [Mercenaries], to [Soldiers].
To anyone who fought on the battlefield, really. The Last Light was someone who would mend you. Save you when no potion could. Her true name, her identity was actually unimportant. She just symbolized a dying soldier’s hope. So they knew her. The Last Light. The [Doctor] of Baleros. And when they lay dying in the mud and gore, impaled by spears, bleeding, mage-burnt or torn from a monster’s claws, they called for her. The wounded, the despairing. Reaching out for a glimmer of hope.
But she was not there. And they died or lived by miracles she had nothing to do with. The Last Light was a legend. The real thing was only Human. And so powerless.
And she was coming home.
Geneva Scala rode down a trade road of Baleros. The pony she rode wasn’t too happy about carrying her. And she wasn’t too happy with it, really. But since both were well-disciplined, they plodded down the stone road in disagreeable silence. Geneva occasionally swatted at a fly that landed on her. Her right hand gripped the reins while her left flicked the flies off before they could bite and lay eggs. It was spring, and the air was humid. The pony flicked its tail constantly as its shod hoofs gently struck the stone.
A trade road. Unlike the muddy, sometimes flooded or overrun dirt trails, the trade roads were almost always clear. They connected the major cities of Baleros. They had been painstakingly laid over hundreds of years and were maintained—for it was from them that the lifeblood of Baleros, trade and war, flowed.
The pony Geneva was riding decided to relieve itself as it walked. She felt the gurgling and smelled and heard the distinct plops on the road behind her. She half-twisted, wrinkled her nose, but didn’t bother chastising the pony. There was really no point. Besides, the trade road had all kinds of detritus left on it. It would be clean once one of Baleros’ many storms or showers passed by.
The person riding behind Geneva minded a bit, though. She heard an exclamation, a female voice.
“Oh! きもい! Don’t walk in—ew, ew!”
Geneva sighed. The voice belonged to a Japanese girl, who was horrified as her pony trod right through the smelly leavings. She heard Aiko crying out in disgust in English and Japanese, and then laughter. It came from ahead of Geneva and behind. After all, she wasn’t alone.
The trade road had tons of travellers on it. Caravans bearing goods to and from the ports, adventurers, and of course, companies marching to battle. The party that followed the traffic on the right side of the road was small. Six people, all riding ponies.
“Ken! Miss Essil! My pony—”
“Aiko, it’s fine. Ponies walk through all kinds of bad things. Don’t worry. 大丈夫.”
Geneva heard Aiko break off and speak rapidly in Japanese. She heard another voice reply. She looked to her side. Ken was arguing with Aiko, probably about the hygiene of pony hooves. Like Aiko, he was Japanese. A young man with a wide-brimmed farmer’s hat, to protect him from the sun. He was dressed in light Balerosian clothing. Aiko, who had elected to wear one of her hats from Earth, had on a bright travel dress. Both wore longer clothing, to protect their fairer skin from the sun.
However, the extremely pale-skinned duo of riders riding behind them wore no protection from the sun at all. The two Selphid [Guards] riding behind their group laughed.
“Ponies don’t mind what they step on, Miss Aiko. It’s snakes that bother them. Snakes, flies—if you want to help, keep waving the pests away and your pony will thank you.”
Aiko did. She had a long fly whisk in her hand and was diligently keeping the stinging flies from her pony, whom she’d even named. Geneva stared down at her pony. It rolled its eye back as if to dare her to try and play nice. She kept riding, her body automatically balancing to prevent her from being jolted. Well, not exactly automatically.
Geneva was a poor rider. She didn’t ‘do’ horses. Or other four-legged animals bigger than she was, really. She liked dogs. Cats. Fish. Horses were a bit too…Centaurs were fine. But she didn’t feel that riding animals was for her or them. And they agreed.
Normally she’d be saddle-sore from poor posture, but as luck would have it, she was riding like a professional. And it wasn’t really something she was doing. Or rather, she was doing it, but…
“Miss Essil! Miss Essil, my pony doesn’t want an apple! Is that bad?”
The sixth member of their group looked over her shoulder somewhat reluctantly at Aiko. Essil, a Lizardwoman who was more at home in the saddle than on the ground, was a rare breed of her species. In that she didn’t actually enjoy talking all the time. Aiko, by comparison, would have fit in well with the Lizardfolk. The Japanese girl smiled as the two Selphid [Guards] hired to protect Aiko, Geneva, Ken, and to some extent, Essil herself, laughed again. Essil eyed Aiko’s pony and shook her head curtly.
“It’s not hungry because you fed it two apples already. You’re spoiling it. Don’t give it any more or it’ll overeat when feeding. I’ll have to lower how much I give that one—”
She grumbled and turned forwards. Essil scowled at the road ahead, her tail waving in time with her pony, who was calmly plodding ahead of the small group.
“Just—stop fussing over it! We’re nearly at Talenqual—once we’re there I’ll take my ponies and you lot can leave me alone.”
“We love you too, Essie.”
A Selphid wearing a Dullahan’s body called out cheerfully. His name was Maquit, at least when he wore a male body. When she was in a female body, she preferred to be called Maqua. Geneva turned sideways to eye the Selphid as Essie glared back at him.
Selphids. The body snatchers of Baleros. A pejorative nickname, really, since Selphids neither stole the bodies of the living and only rarely stole dead bodies outright. They paid to use the bodies of the deceased, hopping from body to body as they eventually decayed, much like hermit crabs and shells. Not that Okasha had liked the comparison when Geneva had made it.
Nevertheless, Selphids were fascinating. To Geneva, they reminded her of a fictional book she’d read when she was a kid. Animorphs. To her, Selphids were a bit like Yeerks, only they infested an entire body via the nervous system, rather than through the brain.
Strange. Yeerks had terrified Geneva as a child. The thought of aliens living among normal people, of being able to control someone against their will, leaving them helpless in their own body had been horrifying. But Selphids didn’t bother Geneva at all.
They were…people. They had unique personalities, morality, and like people, few were disposed towards mindless cruelty. Selphids were in fact very careful about the rules that defined their culture—they never inhabited living creatures. Doing so was punishable by death by every species in the world—especially their own. And they were also courteous of the dead. They paid the families of the deceased for the bodies they inhabited, and were in fact more careful of their vessels than the owners had been in life.
Which of course made Geneva’s own situation that much more ironic. Geneva saw a fly buzz at her face—no, a mosquito. A big one, with a proboscis that would hurt if it stuck it in her. Mosquitos had evolved to take on the bigger monsters of Baleros, and some had decided that being unobtrusive wasn’t as important as being tough. This one had a much, much bigger body, covered in a thicker carapace.
And it wanted Geneva. It landed on her cheek. She jerked—but her left hand had already snatched the mosquito before her right hand could. It quickly and ruthlessly smashed the bug between its fingers. Geneva felt the horribly unpleasant crunching and squish between her fingers before her left hand tossed the mosquito away. It rubbed its fingers on the pony’s side—the animal snorted unhappily.
The death of the mosquito didn’t bother Geneva. She was a pacifist. She had sworn an oath not to harm. But that didn’t apply to animals—she could eat meat—and it certainly didn’t apply to Baleros’ stinging insects. Nevertheless, she shuddered a bit at the sensation. She heard a whisper.
“Sorry. I’ll deaden the nerves next time.”
The voice hadn’t come from anyone around Geneva. Rather, it was a silent whisper in her eardrums. In her eardrums. Only the [Doctor] had heard it. She whispered back, her lips barely moving. She knew she didn’t have to be loud, only make the barest vocalizations.
“Don’t. It’s fine. Thank you.”
The conversation went unnoticed by Essil and everyone else on the road. They were in good spirits; after all, their journey was nearly at an end. Geneva wasn’t in such a good mood; she felt tired, weary of ponies, and honestly? A bit depressed. A bit useless.
One person did pick up on that. Ken, the young man riding next to Geneva, looked over and his smile grew into a thoughtful look. He stopped teasing Aiko, and nudged his pony a bit closer to Geneva’s. The mare obeyed happily. She seemed to enjoy carrying Ken, who had given her a treat and kept her free of the biting flies. But that wasn’t unusual. People liked Ken. It was his thing.
Ken, the [Negotiator]. Ken, who had managed to get even Essil to guide them at a cheap rate. And book them in good inns. And done most of the talking. And who was a Level 25 [Negotiator]. His latest Skill, [Moodreader], allowed him to see what people’s general states of mind were. Geneva hated that Skill.
She also hated that Ken didn’t outright ask what was wrong. True to form, he waited for a second, assessing her, looking around, and then carefully asked a question. It was how he did so well with the touchy Dullahans and Centaurs—he was polite, deferential—he’d taken the etiquette of his culture and applied to Baleros with splendid results.
“Geneva, are you excited to be back in Talenqual? I think we have achieved some good results that the others will be very happy with, don’t you?”
Geneva scowled, and then tried to smile. Her lips twitched—then turned into a natural smile. Not her own. She turned it back into a scowl. She hated how naturally Okasha could do that.
“It will be good to be back. I can work on isolating a proper antibiotic. As for achievements—we haven’t brought back more money than we left with.”
In fact, they had a lot less. Their journey had set them back, and while they still had a surplus of funds, they’d used up far too many gold coins for Geneva to be happy. Ken nodded, looking slightly puzzled.
“But we’ve made good progress. That’s worth the effort, is it not? And we have done quite a lot.”
You have. Not me. Bleakly, Geneva thought of all the people Ken had introduced himself to, and the talking he’d done while she’d stood around awkwardly as people stared at her. She shook her head.
“It was a good use of time. But I’m just worried about our finances. We didn’t get a [Message] from Paige, so all’s probably well, but without a proper source of income—”
She broke off sharply as she saw Ken’s polite smile grow ever-so-slightly strained. Somewhat guiltily, Geneva realized this was the umpteenth time she’d brought up the issue on their journey. Even he had to be tired of hearing it. She cleared her throat.
“I’ll be glad to be back.”
“So will I. I want to see Kirana and Paige! They say they’ve made new dishes from home. Very tasty ones, I hope!”
Aiko rode forwards, smiling brightly. She was a [Nurse], a [Sketcher]—she was hoping to become an [Artist] with more practice—and Geneva’s assistant in most things. She was a breath of sunshine while Geneva—was not.
“We will discuss it at the headquarters. And maybe talk about renting another space from Miss Hastel. That would be very important. Paige told me the apartments was—excuse me, were—very full already. ”
Ken nodded to himself. Geneva nodded, keeping her mouth shut. She glanced behind her. Maquit and Ilmt, the two Selphids, were caught up in a quiet dialogue of their own. They were fairly relaxed, this being a busy trade road, but they wore the shortswords and bucklers on them at all times.
“Thanks for escorting us to Talenqual despite the detours, Maquit. We appreciate it.”
The Selphid [Guard] glanced up. He grinned, a younger intelligence smiling out past the old Human man’s face. He had a bald head with whips of grey hair and his body was portly. But Maquit was barely out of his teens. And he spoke like it, despite the older voice. An odd dissonance, but you grew used to it with Selphids.
“Our pleasure, Miss Geneva. And if you want to travel again, remember to ask for us! We’ll be in Talenqual as long as it takes to find more work, probably a day or so at the latest. But should you need work, just mention Calectus’ name and you’ll get one of us. If there are any in the city, that is.”
Geneva nodded. Maquit and Ilmt had given her group an excellent deal on their rates and accompanied them wherever they wanted, despite the detours Geneva had asked for. That was because Calectus, the Selphid [Honor Guard] who’d protected Geneva throughout the jungle had spread the word. Geneva was a person of interest to Selphids and so they went out of their way to give her aid. Because they thought she could help them.
Oh, how Geneva wished she shared that optimism. She shook her head, feeling herself grow gloomier again. She turned ahead, and then noticed her left hand doing something. She watched as, unbidden by Geneva’s mind, her left hand uncorked her water flask, raised it to her lips. Her mouth opened and Geneva drank. All of this occurred without Geneva ordering her body to do any of it.
She must have been dehydrated. Geneva hadn’t felt it, but the humidity and heat of Baleros was a constant thing and she was mildly sweaty even in the early morning. But her other body’s passenger, her truest protector and one of the reasons why she could command Selphid aid, would have noticed at once. Not that anyone else would know just by looking. Except perhaps…another Selphid.
And perhaps Maquit and Ilmt had noticed, because their gazes fixed on Geneva for a second longer than normal. But they only smiled when she looked back at them and made a joke about Humans being easier to guard than Dullahans—at least Humans don’t forget their heads! She knew they wanted to talk to her other body’s other occupant, but they’d been very careful and the right moment had never sprung up.
“We’re nearly there.”
Essil interrupted the group’s chatter. The Lizardwoman looked back over her shoulder and pointed as, ahead of them, Talenqual appeared out of the jungle. Geneva looked up and sighed.
Home. Or at least, a place where she lived. She rode towards the city, hunched over her pony. It had been two weeks of travelling. And they’d accomplished…something. They really had. She just wished she could smile. Because after all this time, she still felt so useless that it hurt.
Daly was lounging in one of the two sofas the apartment held when Andel burst through the door excitedly. The young Australian man was on his day off from fishing, and he’d seen Ken, Geneva, and Aiko coming through the gates. His words provoked an uproar among the Earthworlders.
“At last! Let’s go meet them!”
Excitedly, Mary jumped to her feet. Dawson waved a lazy hand. He was playing on the one gaming smartphone the company shared.
“Bah, they’ll be here any minute. They know the way.”
Kirana poked her head out of the kitchen, looking excited. Daly nodded and she ran upstairs to find Priya, both of whom were good friends with Aiko. Daly looked around. He saw Blake, who was sitting and talking with a few of the other recent newcomers, look up from his briefing about Baleros and the world. So did Nicola and the Italian kids.
Nicola looked confused. Daly nodded. He stood up.
“That’ll be Ken, Geneva, and Aiko. Ken and Geneva are two of our company’s leaders. Along with Luan.”
“They’re very good. The highest-level our group has. You’ll like Ken. He is a [Negotiator]. And Geneva is famous. The Last Light of Baleros is what people call her.”
Nicola frowned, still struggling a tiny bit with Tofte’s Norwegian accent. She hesitated.
Tofte nodded. He tried to explain how Geneva had gotten the name—which was a trick in itself because the story was complicated. Daly, who had been there, only half-listened. He glanced around and saw Siri coming down the stairs.
“I heard Ken’s coming back? And Aiko and Geneva?”
“That’s right. Our [Doctor]’s returned.”
Daly felt a bit of relief in saying it. Ken and Geneva being here would make him relax a lot. He hoped they’d come with good news, or better yet, a lot of money. But them just being here and not necessarily on the road would be good. Siri frowned.
“I met Geneva only once, when I first came here. Then she left on her trip.”
“Oh, right. I forgot you only got here for a bit.”
It felt like Siri had been part of the company, and the Bushrangers, for ages. But she was new. Daly saw Siri was frowning slightly.
“Hm. What’s she like in person? Geneva? She was very—”
Siri broke off. Out of politeness, perhaps. Daly wondered what her experience had been. He hesitated, and then shrugged nonchalantly.
“You’ll see her in a few seconds.”
The Swedish girl eyed him, but didn’t push it. And indeed, she settled back down in the chair she’d been using. Meanwhile, more of the company not working flooded back into the apartments. They wanted to greet Ken and Aiko and Geneva.
Many of the most eager ones were the newest members, the ones who had barely had a chance to get to know Ken and the others before they’d gone on their trips. They hadn’t spoken to Luan, who was always working, or gotten more than their first encounter with Geneva. Ken they knew; he’d helped find a lot of them. But the others were more mysterious. And Geneva?
Sometimes Daly still heard stories about her. From adventurers, no less. And every time Quallet came back with his growing company, newer members of Gravetender’s Fist would be with him, just to see if the myth had any feet. Daly couldn’t tell what they thought after meeting Geneva. But it was the question everyone asked at first.
What was the Last Light of Baleros like, really? What was Geneva, the [Doctor] like as a person? Daly had seen her on the battlefield. But he had known Geneva afterwards. And what she was like was—
The door opened. Ken heard an exclamation from the stairs, and then a shout.
“Ken! Aiko! Geneva!”
Everyone turned. Half the room shot to their feet and crowded the door. Ken heard a familiar voice, exclamations, and then Paige shouting.
“Alright, everyone, back up! Back up and let them through!”
Hers was not the voice of a [Negotiator], but sometimes you just needed to be loud. The Earthworlders moved back and Daly saw a familiar face. Ken was wearing the conical hat, but it was pushed back, and he was smiling, shaking hands. His face lit up as he saw Daly and the Australian felt a jolt of relief in his stomach.
He pushed his way forwards. Ken approached slowly through the crowd.
“Daly! It’s good to see you!”
“We’ve missed you. Could have used you yesterday—and Aiko too! Hello there!”
“Hello, Daly! Hello Paige! And Kirana, Priya—”
Aiko lit up as she hugged her friends from India. Daly looked around. People were crowded about, Blake, Nicola, Lorenzo, and Diana were craning to see—
And then there was a moment of calm. Heads turned. Some of the laughter died out, and people turned to see the third member of the company who’d come back.
No one leapt forwards to hug her. She did not tower over the others; she was a bit short of six feet, tall for a young woman, and dressed in travelling clothes. But that wasn’t what marked her. Geneva Scala could have been any young woman with Italian heritage. But her eyes. They were…
Yes. Intense was the word. Look at Geneva from the side and you might not sense it at first. But take one look at her gaze, or notice how she moved, how she walked or even stood. It wasn’t posture, so much as readiness. She felt intense, and if Ken made you relaxed, Geneva made you check the skies for a storm, or listen to the wind. She had the same pressure in her gaze that Daly sometimes saw in Siri’s eyes when they were about to enter combat, or in Dawson’s. Or his own, in the mirror on dark nights.
You wanted to know what Geneva was like? A look said it all. She looked around the room, clearly conscious of the effect her entrance had had. She nodded.
Ken could have said that and turned it into an opening for conversation. Geneva’s statement somehow shut it down. That was Geneva, even when she wasn’t acting as a [Doctor]. She was just driven, when there was nothing to drive.
And she didn’t smile often. Sometimes, Daly thought she’d forgotten how. Then she’d give him a natural smile and he’d know it wasn’t Geneva who was doing the smiling. Daly looked around. People were hesitating, silent, unsure of how to greet her. He wondered if Geneva had the same effect on Lizardfolk. Probably not. Even her personality had limits.
Still, it was awkward, so Daly did his best. He put a smile on his face, reached out, and slapped Geneva on the shoulder. She blinked at him.
“Good to see you, Geneva! Our [Doctor]’s back, everyone!”
There was a pause. Geneva stared up at Daly and she saw her lips twitch. Then a natural, welcoming smile came over her face. It looked completely normal. But Daly still felt a shiver run down his spine. A natural smile, but she hadn’t given it.
“Good to be back! Thanks, Daly.”
And that wasn’t her way of saying it either. But the effect was welcome. Everyone not in the know immediately relaxed, and the babble of voices broke out again. They crowded around Daly and Geneva and the others, asking questions. Ken had to hold up his hands and raise his voice.
“Please! Everyone! We just arrived. Let us give Paige some things—we have souvenirs as well! And then we will have time to answer questions! Paige, I have a pack—”
“Put it in my work room. Kirana, do we have food?”
“We have wonderful snacks!”
The Indian girl beamed. There was a cheer—and like that, the twin apartments were filled with people eating the snacks Kirana and the others were bringing out, sitting on the couches and floor and table listening to Ken relate the stories of where they’d been and what they’d seen, or Aiko doing the same, but from a different perspective.
And somehow, Daly found himself standing next to Geneva. That was the second thing you’d notice, if you looked. Geneva Scala, the Last Light of Baleros, didn’t command the room. After you got over the intensity of who she is, after you looked past the legend, you realized Geneva was just…ordinary. Or rather, she didn’t do extraordinary things. In fact, she was fairly quiet. Until something demanded her attention.
“Had a good trip?”
“Uneventful. But yes, perhaps. There’s good and bad—Ken’s planning on filling you and Paige in tonight. We got some of the things she wanted.”
Geneva sighed. She looked tired, and Daly imagined she’d been travelling from dawn to arrive by midmorning. He coughed.
“How was the road? Did you take a Centaur carriage?”
“No. Too expensive. We rode. Ken’s guide had ponies, so we made most of the journey on horseback. Not my idea of fun.”
“Aw, you don’t like horses? I’m partial to them myself. Although they are temperamental buggers.”
Geneva looked up. She hesitated.
“Next time I’ll give you my seat.”
It sounded like a joke, even if her delivery was terrible, so Daly laughed. Geneva didn’t smile, but the corners of her mouth moved. The two looked over at Ken.
“Nope. He came in once. Dumped a bunch of gold coins on us, slept for almost two days straight, and then went back out. Said he had a big contract. He’s really gunning to get a Courier rating.”
Geneva looked concerned.
“He should take it easy.”
“That’s what I said. But did he listen? He’s flying up in levels, Geneva. He did ask about Aiko, but that was it.”
“Oh. Aiko asked about how Luan was doing too. She had something she wanted to talk to him about. I don’t know what.”
Both Daly and Geneva’s eyes slid towards Aiko, who was happily chatting away. Geneva shuffled her feet. Daly bit his lip. As far as they knew, it was just friendship. But you had to wonder. Luan was married, but Aiko had admired him until she’d learned about that pressing fact. It was probably nothing. And if it was?
“So—did you encounter any trouble on the road worth mentioning? How were your guards? Did you need an escort? The Bushrangers are doing better. We’ve taken a good number of contracts since you left—all hunting or recon ones. We could spare some of our own if you need it next time.”
The [Doctor] looked up, and then shook her head slightly.
“No, our Selphid [Guards] worked very well. Not that there was any need for violence. They did stop a [Thief] from targeting Aiko one time, but the trade roads are very safe. Honestly, we probably didn’t need them. But they’ve said we can hire them again and Calectus’ name is still good.”
“Well, we’ll definitely have you going with someone. Alone’s too risky for my tastes.”
Daly frowned. Geneva nodded. The two stood together another moment, as something Ken said elicited a laugh. Then Daly had to ask.
“So…how’d it go? The cities, I mean? Did you get the company’s name out? Obviously you didn’t find anyone from home—but how many people did you see?”
He had to know. Daly had been hoping—dreaming, really, of Ken’s small expedition to the nearby cities coming back with a bucket load of gold coins. Enough to put the company in the black for months and give Daly time to think about outfitting his Bushrangers, and Paige the money to really get to work on translating things from their world over here.
They hadn’t gotten any [Messages] that indicated wild success, but that wasn’t the sort of thing you advertised, was it? Especially since rumor had it that some [Mages] were on the take and would sell you out to [Bandits] or other lowlifes. Or just sell your information to anyone who wanted to be in the know.
Daly was hopeful. Right up until he saw Geneva look down. She clenched her hands, and then looked him dead in the eye. There was that intensity. But that was just Geneva on the surface. Behind that, what she’d been through, there was a normal person there. And the guilt in her eyes told him everything before she opened her mouth.
Geneva nodded. Daly saw her close her eyes, and then she spoke slowly. Quietly, above the chatter in the room.
“Nothing. I performed two surgeries—removing an old arrowhead, and pulling three rotten teeth. That’s it.”
Daly felt his stomach drop as if Geneva had slugged him.
But you’re the [Doctor]. They’d sent her with Ken to learn what she could, so Ken could make introductions, get their company known. And Geneva was their ace. The miracle worker. The Last Light who’d rake in the coin performing surgeries. That was the plan. But Geneva just shook her head.
“They had [Healers] who could do a lot with potions, poultices, and so on. And there are [Doctors] in this world—or at least, people who can perform the most basic of surgeries. With healing potions though, that’s all they need.”
Of course. Daly imagined it. Cut yourself? Healing potion. Break a bone? Set it and use a healing potion. Lay your leg wide open so you could see the bone? More expensive healing potion, or a [Healer]. And he saw it in Geneva’s eyes. Frustration. She looked away.
“No one needed me.”
It would have been easy if Daly got angry. But he didn’t. Geneva saw him take the bad news like a physical blow. She knew it would hit the others hard, once news got around. Ken was only telling stories of what they’d seen—huge, sprawling Lizardfolk cities, magical artifacts, towers built out of magicked stone that were tall—although not on the level of skyscrapers. Interesting people, fascinating experiences. But nothing about the money.
“So how much did it cost?”
The young man from Australia looked ready for the worst. Geneva paused.
“We’ve got sixteen gold coins. So a little over two thirds of what we left with.”
A huge sigh left Daly’s mouth. That was a lot of money spent. But if they’d used the full amount, it would have been a lot of money—probably a month of the Bushranger’s working their best—lost.
“Not bad. How’d you manage it?”
“Like I said, I did two surgeries. And Aiko earned some money doing her manga sketches of people.”
Daly smiled for a moment. Geneva nodded.
“Close. Lizardfolk loved them. And Ken saved us money by being Ken. He talked us into better rates for practically every inn we stopped at. Same for the [Healers] I visited.”
“So you did get what you needed? There’s something, at least.”
Daly was trying to put a good spin on it. Geneva frowned.
“Yes. And there’s a bit of progress there. But again…”
She couldn’t lie to him. Even if she wanted to. Daly hesitated. It would have been easier if he said how disappointed he clearly was. But he didn’t. Instead, he did the best thing possible. He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile.
“Hey, I’m glad you’re back. We need you here.”
It was the perfect thing to say to make Geneva feel worse. She just nodded.
“Hey, what’s to be sorry about? If they don’t need surgeries—we should have thought of that. And frankly, it was bum luck. There could have been work for you. Someone slips, cuts off a hand—or has an accident that a potion can’t handle?”
Geneva nodded. That was true. There could have been a dire situation that only she could have solved. But it hadn’t come up, though they’d visited a few sprawling large cities with people living together in the tens or hundreds of thousands. No one had needed her, even when Ken was selling Geneva’s talents as loudly as possible. Because there wasn’t a war going on. And that meant Geneva couldn’t do much.
What she could do, in the end, was teach what she knew. She could make a field surgeon out of Aiko, and anyone else who wanted to learn. She could teach them how to operate, remove shrapnel, staunch bleeding—but what use was that to someone when a healing potion could do the same?
“If someone lost a limb…”
“It has to be fresh. And ice isn’t that common around here. No one thinks to ice a limb, Daly. If word got out what I could do, I imagine they might. But…”
That was something Geneva had on healing potions and [Healers]. She could cut away organs or limbs affected by poison, magical rot, and so on, and use spot-applied healing potion to regenerate the area. She could also reconnect an arm or leg if she was very, very quick and the limb hadn’t begun to rot. In those two areas she was useful. But the rest? Not at all.
“So I didn’t do much. I wish I could say I did, but I was useless on the trip. I would have told you by [Message], but Ken said it was better to break the news in person.”
Or rather, what he’d predicted was that anyone who was at the Mage’s Guild would spread the word about rather than just relay it to Paige or Daly. The Australian nodded. He frowned at Geneva, clearly trying to think of something to say. And then he had it.
“I think the Centaur boy—colt, sorry, please excuse my mistake—you saved would disagree. And the [Wood Cutter]. And Quallet.”
“That’s true, I suppose.”
But those were all people she’d helped earlier. She could have stayed in Talenqual and both of them knew it. Daly coughed, looked around, and then waved.
“Hey Kirana! Can we get one of those? Kirana, you know Geneva, right?”
“Yes! I know Geneva. Hello. Would you like one? This is a dahi kebab. Vegetarian.”
Geneva recognized the deep-fried vegetable dough ball that was offered. She took one, and bit into the bread-crumb exterior. It was still warm and delicious. Daly snagged two and Kirana scolded him.
“Hey! I’ll share with Geneva.”
“Are you doing well?”
“Yes, thank you!”
Kirana smiled at Geneva. The two paused, because Geneva had nothing else in her arsenal to say. Then Kirana turned as someone shouted her name from the kitchen.
“You’re terrible at talking to people. Were you always like this? Eat the kebab. It’s really good.”
Daly glanced at Geneva, then realized who she was talking to. He bit into his kebab and his eyes opened wide.
“Bloody hell, that’s good! No wonder we’re spending so much on our food budget each week!”
Geneva savored the rest of the dahi kebab. It was very good, and she suspected it had been chosen to appeal to the widest variety of people—there were some vegetarians mixed in the Earthworlders, although some had been forced to compromise their values to survive.
“First time having them?”
“Kirana and her lot are always coming up with new stuff. They practically run the kitchens now. Indian cooking works really well with Baleros’ markets, apparently. Lots of spices, similar foods—”
“That’s lucky. Perhaps we could sell some of the foods they make?”
“Paige was talking about that. Kirana wants to hit at least Level 15 before we try that, but she’s open to the idea. Really, the issue would be getting a market stall or somewhere to sell from. And the ingredients. It’s not too bad, but we might need someone to stand watch. And…”
They needed money, but they were waiting for us to come back. Geneva’s last bite soured in her mouth. She nodded.
“We’ll work something out.”
What else could she say? She turned as she saw Ken had gotten up. He waved at the people who were protesting, and trotted over to her and Daly. He gave the Australian a smile.
“Daly, I wanted to talk to you.”
“If it’s about the money, Geneva just filled me in. No worries, mate.”
Ken’s eyes flicked to Geneva for a second.
“She did? Well, I think it is disappointing, but it is not all bad.”
“That’s what I was saying. You guys did accomplish the rest, right? Paige’s disappeared upstairs.”
“We did do good work. I introduced our company to many others, and Geneva did meet with every high-level [Healer] in the cities we visited. I think it was productive—I also have many things to share with everyone. A map of the world, and I’ve learned of other continents. And I’ve learned about the Four Great Companies.”
Daly exhaled. Geneva could see him taking that on, bolstering his mood. Now why couldn’t she have said it like that? Probably because she hadn’t done any of that. Except for spending money bribing [Healers].
“Making connections, huh? Good lad! Don’t suppose you’ve got anything that would help us out? The Bushrangers, I mean?”
“Actually, I did. I met a few groups who were interested in yours. I know their names and I wanted to share them with you—later. There were a few intriguing job offers that I saw in other cities.”
“We should take our group on the road, then?”
“Maybe. But I will share more tonight.”
People were already calling for Ken to come back. He waved at them again. Daly smiled.
“Well, I can wait. But oh! Before you go—we had a little adventure of our own. We just finished a contract hunting these armored pigs—Stelbore they’re called, when guess what? We got word of some ‘strange Humans’ hanging out in an abandoned village. So we checked it out and—”
Ken’s eyes widened.
“You found more people from Earth?”
Geneva’s head snapped up. Daly nodded.
“Just yesterday they came in. They’re still hungry, but we rescued four. A kiwi—uh, a guy from New Zealand named Blake, and three Italians. The Italians barely speak English, but I thought you should meet them. And Geneva—”
“Have you given them a checkup?”
The Italian-American was looking around. Daly shook his head.
“Only a once-over. They looked pretty fine—but one of them has diabetes. We gave them your emergency treatment!”
That only worried Geneva more. She looked at Daly.
“Can I see them now? Are they here?”
“Oh yeah. They’re still bulking up. Uh—hold on. Let me get them. Hey! Blake, Nicola! Geneva wants to see you! She’ll do a medical examination!”
Daly raised his voice. The four newest Earthworlders looked up, startled. With Daly’s help Geneva moved them upstairs to a room. Ken stayed below to keep chatting, but Geneva had something to do and she intended to do it now. Better yet, she knew Italian.
“Oh, thank God! No one here speaks Italian! Are you really a doctor?”
Nicola was incredibly relieved to speak in Italian rather than her faltering English. Geneva, whose Italian was rusty, faltered for a few sentences before speaking quickly with the other two. Lorenzo and Diana clustered around her, asking all the questions they couldn’t due to the language barrier.
“Sì, sì, I am a [Doctor]. I was training in medical school before I came here. I want to give you a checkup to make sure all is well. Are you hurt? Diana, I hear you have diabetes.”
“Not very bad. But it was terrible. I was very sick—until they gave me a—a potion?”
Diana explained. Geneva breathed a sigh of relief.
“It is a stamina potion. It helps, although we do not have insulin to properly take care of you. But I promise, I will do my best. Please let me check you just in case first as I answer questions. There are many small ticks and insects in Baleros, as well as diseases. You are probably fine. But could you help me put up a curtain? Then I will check you one by one.”
Quickly, she rigged up one of the privacy curtains that the company used to separate the genders when sleeping in a large room at night. Geneva got out a few tools from the pack she’d carried on her journey and saw the three Italians and Blake, the girls first. They were less embarrassed to get a checkup from Geneva, especially because, and this was the tricky part—Geneva had to see them in their underwear.
In fact, she’d have liked to see them naked, but she settled for verbal descriptions and having them check themselves. That also meant Blake and Lorenzo had to check each other’s rears, an intimate experience neither enjoyed. But necessary.
“No spots? No injuries or other pain? Swelling?”
“None. Thank you, Doctor Geneva.”
Lorenzo replied, blushing a bit. Geneva didn’t blush—she moved her stethoscope and bent her ear to listen to him breathing. She didn’t know what she’d do if she heard something terrible, but knowledge was the first step.
“Breathe in. Hold your breath. Breathe out…thank you. You’re quite healthy.”
In the time since she’d operated on the battlefield, Geneva had made a few more tools with the company’s resources. She now carried a few items out of a general practitioner’s kit. Among them were a primitive wooden stethoscope—really just some paper and a tube to magnify the sounds—a measuring tape, wooden tongue depressors, clean gauze, alcohol for disinfectant, and so on. But her real kit, which was useless now, was far more advanced.
Metal retractors, scalpels, scissors and hooks. Different sized needles with thread specialized for one kind of stitching or another. Clips, clamps, forceps, and tools to cut or snip bone. Sutures.
To most people, a surgeon’s gear might look like some kind of serial killer’s torture devices. And there were commonalities. Surgery wasn’t pretty or pleasant. And unfortunately, Geneva had learned, it wasn’t that useful either.
Back on Earth, Geneva had been studying as a general surgeon. She’d cut corpses open, and been a good student, but her actual experience had been almost all theoretical when she’d been taken. She’d learned to be a surgeon the hard way—by killing her patients before she’d improved.
And a surgeon wasn’t the same as someone practicing general medicine, no matter what people thought. But since Geneva was the only person who’d taken classes and read up on medicine, she had to fill that role too. She summarized her report to Daly and Paige as the four headed back downstairs, relieved and chattering to themselves.
“They’re fine. Completely. Diana’s one to watch, but they’re all fairly healthy for people who survived the jungle. Their only complaint is just malnourishment, I think. The bug bites aren’t infected, they show no signs of fever—and the scars show no sign of inflammation. Keep feeding them simple foods in smaller meals.”
“We’re doing that. Anything we should do for Diana? I have her carrying the stamina potion like Filip and I’ve told Nicola what to do, but is there anything else?”
Geneva shook her head.
“All we can do is stabilize her with the potion if her hyperglycemia begins acting up. Frankly, I’d rather have low blood sugar than high—as far as I can tell, stamina potions generate some kind of insulin that will regulate the high blood sugar, but it requires a high-grade potion. Low blood sugar is simple. We can give her calculated amounts of food. But she and Filip need to keep regulating their intake. It’s guesswork, but I’ll monitor them…”
She saw Paige and Daly nodding, and felt like a fraud. They listened so attentively to her words. As if Paige and Daly hadn’t done everything needed already. Daly had gone out there and rescued the four. What had Geneva done? Come back, proclaimed all was well and they were doing a good job. But somehow the two Australians still looked relieved to hear Geneva say it.
“It’s a relief to have you back, Geneva. We’ll talk more when Ken’s free of everyone—we’ll have to pry him away, but I’m gonna grab us all after dinner for a chat. In the meantime, I’m sure you could use some rest. Do you need to take a nap? Kirana could make you a lunch—”
“I had something to eat, and her snacks. Thank you. I might walk about for a bit. But I’ll be back for dinner. Ah—Aiko’s pack is full of—”
“I put it in my workroom. We filled your space with bodies—the apartments are full to bursting at night. But you can take over my spot anytime. Just let me know.”
Paige reassured Geneva. The [Doctor] nodded. What else was there to say? Nothing.
“Then I’ll…head out for a bit. Exercise my legs.”
“Sure. Good to have you back!”
Paige smiled. Geneva tried, but the courtesy was something she couldn’t return. So her invisible friend did it for her. Which was worse, because both Paige and Daly knew Geneva’s secret.
“Geneva! Will you come and talk with us?”
Nicola called out as Geneva came back down the stairs. The young woman hesitated. The Italians were clearly dying to speak to someone, but Geneva was saved by Paige.
“I think Geneva needs to walk about. Why don’t we work on some English? You’ll need to learn, sadly. But we’ve got some useful stuff. One of us has a smartphone with a huge dictionary loaded onto it, and we might be able to transfer the files, or just switch phones. Do any of you know how to jailbreak phones? Because working with the software is tricky. We should also check your stuff for anything useful…”
Geneva exhaled as Paige took over talking to the four newcomers. Blake looked puzzled as he fished out his smartphone.
“I’d like to help, really, but my phone’s been dead for ages. Unless you’ve got a charger—and a solar panel?”
“Oh, mate. You’re going to love this. Guess what? A magic spell charges up your phone.”
The exclamation elicited laughter as the new Earthworlders flipped out. They fished out their electronics—they only had phones, having been teleported while being on a bus—but each one was a treasure trove of data. As were they. As Paige explained as Geneva slowly edged over to the door, anything they knew from earth was invaluable.
“Anything. Chemistry—we have a periodic table up but no one can remember the bottom parts—math, like the Pythagorean Theorem, knowledge of how to replicate different things from earth—”
“Like cake! I remembered how to make that stuff. Beautiful!”
Dawson blew a kiss. Daly laughed.
“But your first cake was utter shit, mate! Leave the cooking to Kirana!”
“What, you’re saying I can’t cook? Shove off! I’ll show you. Hey Kirana! Let me help with tonight’s dinner—”
“We don’t need more poison, Dawson! We’ve got enough to kill the monsters with already!”
One of the other Bushrangers hollered. Everyone laughed. Blake looked at Daly.
“I suppose making weapons would be one of those important things, yeah?”
Geneva froze. She looked at Daly and Paige. The [Engineer] girl hesitated and glanced at her.
“We don’t want it to spread. But yes. Anything you can tell me is useful. However, remember what I said about bringing up anything from home around others. I know how to make gunpowder…I think.”
“And a lot of our tech’s not useful or too hard to build, frankly. Light bulbs, batteries—not that great when you can just cast [Light]. I’ll kiss you myself if one of you knows how to put together a steam engine, though.”
Daly grinned. He felt at his back and then looked around.
“Oh, right. You saw that we used crossbows, right mates? They’re our bread and butter. Paige is trying to improve them, but it’s tough. Guns are out of our reach for the moment. Plus, half of us think a good crossbow is better than one of the old firearms.”
And I told them under no circumstances could firearms be imported to Baleros’ mercenary companies. Geneva felt a pang. She knew what Daly did was important. And she’d seen monsters. Even so. Blake was conferring with Lorenzo, who was interested. The young Italian was making a cranking motion with one hand. Blake was nodding.
“Yeah, yeah. I saw your crossbows, Daly. They look good. Ever think of making a ballista?”
“Sure. We’ll mount it on our elephant. Too hard to carry, mate. But Paige is working on a monster one. We’ll put it on Dawson’s back.”
“Oi, Daly! What’ve I done to deserve all this?”
Another laugh. Blake nodded, but now he looked excited.
“Yeah, but have you thought about—do you know about repeating crossbows? Lorenzo was saying that there’s one that shoots like that. Chinese or something—”
He got no further because Paige reached out.
“Tell me more! No wait, sketch it!”
There was an uproar. Geneva hesitated. Repeating crossbows? That sounded…terrible. She imagined the damage one crossbow could inflict. And if you chained it up like a machine gun…
Geneva ignored the voice. She walked outside. Somehow, it was cooler outside than it was inside. All the body heat of so many people crammed together. But not less humid. Geneva looked around the bustling street, took a few breaths, and then began to walk. She needed to walk.
So. She was back. Daly had taken the news well. So had Paige. Neither one would say they were let down. But Geneva felt bad enough anyways. She’d earned no money. She hadn’t had any patients. And she’d wanted to, as horrible as that was.
She was part of the United Nations company. Named after an ideal of Earth. A company that was the only thing protecting the scattered people from her planet. They were poor, but everyone was pitching in. And Geneva was trying. But she felt useless today, and most days after leaving the war between the Roving Arrow Company and the Razorshard Armor company.
And what was worse, in a sick way, she missed the battlefield. She missed being needed all the time. Here she was dead weight unless someone was hurt, and healing potions trivialized how much she could add. What good was a [Doctor] without patients?
“You’re being mopey again.”
Someone spoke in her head. Geneva sighed. It was her invisible guest. The reason Geneva was never alone. Okasha the Selphid voiced her opinion, speaking in a very quiet voice in Geneva’s head. No one else heard. No one else could hear. Because Okasha lived in Geneva’s body. She was a Selphid possessing a living being, the most heinous of crimes a Selphid could commit. If anyone found out, Okasha would die. But she had done it to save Geneva’s life.
A long time ago. No, mere months ago, Geneva had been working as a [Doctor]. An enraged [Sergeant], Thriss, had struck a blow along her spine, paralyzing her. Geneva would have died from blood loss or at Thirss’ hands, if it weren’t for Okasha. The Selphid [Rogue] turned into [Nurse] had killed the sergeant, and then offered Geneva a choice.
She’d gone into Geneva’s body, bridged the gap and the destroyed nerves, and now helped Geneva move. Without her Geneva would be helpless. And she could do more than just that. She was Geneva’s protector, her friend, and the literal voice in her head.
Sometimes she was a quiet passenger that only did a few things, usually with Geneva’s left hand like swat at flies. Other times she was active. She could possess Geneva at will. Not that she usually did that, but a smile, a twist to avoid stubbing her toe, waking Geneva up in the morning at the right time.
Geneva had grown used to Okasha’s presence over the months, but it was still strange. She shared her body now. And unfortunately, that meant sometimes the person she was sharing it with had a difference of opinion.
“I’m fine. I deserve to be depressed. We didn’t bring anything back.”
“You got information. And the [Healers] did give you what you wanted.”
“Daly was expecting us to come back with coin. Instead, we just wasted what he worked so hard to get.”
Geneva heard a sigh in her head. The Doctor spoke, her lips barely moving. Okasha didn’t need to hear the words out loud; she was in Geneva and could read her vocal chords and muscles. Her voice was distinct from Geneva’s own as well, at least when she wasn’t using Geneva’s vocal chords, and she could change Geneva’s voice in astonishing ways if she chose to as well.
“Okay, but what does being sad help with any of this? It’s pointless and it just makes your mood worse. Cheer up.”
“I don’t want to. Okasha, don’t—”
Too late. As she was walking, Geneva suddenly felt a jolt of emotions—a compounded mix of excitement, energy, and what she could only describe as happiness—shoot through her. She stumbled, and Okasha steadied her. Geneva felt the Selphid doing…something in her. It wasn’t a horrible feeling—not like the Selphid writhing about.
Okasha’s biology allowed her to spread out incredibly finely, and her control was impeccable, at least with practice. Geneva was the first living being she’d ever been in, so occasionally there were accidents. But not now.
Whatever was running through Geneva pepped her up in a moment. Instantly, she felt better. The funk clouding her mind vanished. Geneva felt her spirits rise. And then she grew angry.
A passing Dullahan looked around and saw Geneva scowling at the air in front of her. He opened his mouth and then Geneva snapped again, apparently to no one.
“I didn’t ask you to do that. I hate it when you do that! Don’t do it again, understand?”
The Dullahan decided to walk faster. Okasha was unmoved.
“I just tweaked a few things. It was just a little adjustment, nothing big. Don’t worry.”
“I know exactly what you did. Those were hormones. Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. You released them into my brain, my system to make me feel better.”
It was incredible and scary to think Okasha could do that at will. But Geneva knew what she’d felt, even if she couldn’t control the effect it had on her body. She sensed Okasha hesitate.
“…Hormones? No, it wasn’t that. It’s uh, completely different. Look, it’s just this little—”
“Don’t play games. I’m a [Doctor]. I know everything about my body.”
That was a lie. But Okasha fell for it. She was surprisingly gullible, or she overrated Geneva’s knowledge.
“Damn it. Okay, I’m sorry. I was just trying to be—how did Humans ever learn so much about their own bodies?”
“We had to. We didn’t have healing potions or magic. We fought plagues and disease, advanced on the backs of a few people who found a cure, a new way of doing things.”
They had no magic on Earth. No Selphids either. If they did, most of the mysteries that had taken scholars and doctors centuries to uncover would have been solved instantly. Selphids knew almost everything there was to know about the body—even if they didn’t have the medical lexicon that Geneva did.
“I’m sorry, Geneva. I’m just trying to be helpful.”
“By smiling at people? That’s not me, Okasha.”
“Would it kill you to be friendly? Oh wait, you can’t smile.”
“And you smile and then they think I’m crazy because I don’t act like you.”
“Well, excuse me for caring!”
Geneva heard something like a gurgling sob in Okasha’ voice. The Selphid went quiet and Geneva felt her left side begin to drag a bit. Okasha had stopped assisting Geneva’s movements and was just passively feeding Geneva’s instructions to her body. When that happened her left side was slower to react. Geneva’s stride became a limp, but the [Doctor] took a vicious pleasure in knowing her body was under her imperfect control. Then she felt a bit guilty. But she did hate thinking Okasha was influencing her. It was just—
The streets of Talenqual were filled with people. Hawkers selling goods, people going about their business. And children. A Dullahan ran past Geneva, then tripped. She was a little girl, with her head attached to her shoulders and covered by a ratty scarf. Her armor was very poor—plant matter and bark as opposed to anything else. Partially a beggar. She bumped into Geneva and caught herself.
“Whoops! Sorry, Miss Human—”
She gave Geneva a gap-toothed smile, quite unusual for a Dullahan. But children took after every culture, didn’t they? Geneva stopped.
“I’m fine. Are you—”
Her right hand, which had been reaching for the Dullahan child as she backed away, suddenly shot forwards and grabbed the Dullahan’s wrist. The child yelped in alarm. Geneva heard a growl. Her voice. And her face was suddenly scowling.
Okasha glared with Geneva’s body. The [Doctor] froze in alarm, but the Selphid had control of her body. The Dullahan tried to get away—her arm began to detach from her body, but Okasha just tightened her grip.
“Leave your arm and I’ll bring it to the Watch. Want to live as a one-armed Dullahan wanted by the City Guard all your life?”
The Dullahan withdrew a pouch and tossed it on the ground. Geneva’s coin pouch. The [Doctor] gaped mentally—she hadn’t even realized it was gone! Okasha was unimpressed, though. She snagged the pouch, checked it, and put it back on her belt. Only then did she let go and glare at the [Pickpocket].
“Get lost. A poor thief picks on [Healers] and [Doctors], kid. Next time at least go for a [Merchant].”
The Dullahan girl fled. Okasha walked Geneva forwards as the crowd, who had noticed the incident, resolved itself back to normality. A few people shot Geneva admiring glances; Okasha kept Geneva moving until Geneva’s heart rate had slowed. Then they had another conversation.
“No problem. You want to walk?”
“Alright then. Your turn.”
Geneva’s pace faltered, and then returned to normal. Geneva looked around, but the Dullahan child was long gone.
“You scared her.”
Okasha was unmoved.
“So? I don’t feel bad. I would have kicked her if you’d let me.”
Geneva was appalled. Okasha punched Geneva’s right shoulder with her left hand, lightly. A Lizardgirl on the road eyed Geneva with interest.
“It’s for her own good. She has to learn not to be caught. Or the next time someone gets her, she’ll lose her arm, her hand—or just her life.”
The thought was incredibly depressing to Geneva. She looked around again, as if she could draw the girl out of the crowd.
“Then we should have helped her.”
“How? By giving her your coin purse? Someone will just rob her. Or she’ll spend it and steal again and again. That’s how I grew up.”
“No. She needs someone to take care of her. If her family isn’t there, or if they’re not responsible, she needs a home. Guidance.”
“Planning on saddling the United Nations company with a mouth that’ll steal from them and bring trouble down on them?”
But that was the option, wasn’t it? Geneva bit her lip.
“On Earth, there are institutions that help people in need like her. Orphanages. Soup kitchens. Homeless shelters.”
“And do they save everyone?”
The cynicism in Okasha’s voice made Geneva acutely aware of what a lie it would be to say yes. She shook her head.
“No. But it’s something. The system is there, even if it is flawed. It’s…”
A helpless rush ran through her. This time Okasha did nothing to stop it. Geneva walked on, looking around. Yes, Baleros had richness, and beauty. But it was a world. This was a city. There was just as much darkness to it. And in Geneva.
That was the problem. Okasha’s hormonal treatment could only do so much. Geneva spoke out loud as she walked down the street.
“It’s—not just me being disappointed in myself, Okasha. I told you. I’ve diagnosed myself. I’ve had a traumatic event. I’m not sure of all of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’s symptoms, but I’ll bet I have it. Me and Daly and at least half of the United Nations company. The four newcomers certainly did.”
“You told me about that. I still don’t quite get it. I mean, I do. You’re shaken up from battle. But you’ll get over it. Everyone does.”
“Will we? People from Earth aren’t used to war, Okasha. At least, the ones from countries like Nicola’s aren’t. There’re cultural differences, a difference in expectations. Most Humans don’t even see butchered animals. Many will go most of their lives without seeing a dead body more than once or twice—and usually in nonviolent situations.”
And even if they do see them, it’s on the news or at a remove. It’s not war.
Okasha’s voice was wondering in Geneva’s head.
“I can’t imagine a world like that. But if that’s so, perhaps I do understand a bit. You’re all like the children of nobility. Sheltered. So you have this PTSD thing, which makes you sad and depressed all the time, is that right?”
“It’s…the barest of summaries, but I suppose so. There are a lot more complications to it, let alone treating the problem. Mental illness is not my field of study.”
“But I suppose it is, now. I’m not qualified to be more than an assistant in the operating room back home. Here? I’m the font of medical knowledge.”
“Oh no. Here we go again…you know what you need, Geneva?”
Geneva tripped. Okasha caught her effortlessly and kept her walking, turning her head back and forth as pedestrians walked past her.
“I’m just saying, that’s what we did back in the companies. A new soldier gets the shakes after a battle? Get them drunk, get them laid, and get them a break. Three, four battles after that, if they’re alive, and they’re fine.”
“Having sex is not a solution, Okasha. It’s escapism—”
“It feels good and you should do it. What’s wrong with that?”
“For one thing, I have you in here with me!”
“Is that why you don’t masturbate? Look, I’m totally fine with it. I’ll help, actually. Heck, I’ll do it for you.”
Geneva closed her eyes. One shot back open.
“Watch your step! And don’t get judgmental! I have needs too! Look, if you’d just consider—what about him?”
“What about him?”
“But come on! I’m sure he’d be interested. Let me do the talking, though. Unless he likes stone-faced [Doctors] with no sense of humor.”
“Daly laughed at my jokes.”
“He was humoring you. Although he’s a good option—uh, unless he’s still moping about Quexa. I should have told him Lizardfolk don’t do long-term relationships when they’re younger. Hey, you think he and Paige are—”
“Okay, what about him? Come on, I know you like him.”
“Geneva, that’s an objectively sexy body. Look at it!”
“I’m not dating a Centaur, Okasha.”
“Who said anything about dating?”
Geneva shut up. The problem with arguing with a Selphid in your body was that they could tell when you were lying, and what you were feeling. The heart palpitations, sweat…Okasha admitted it was new to her to have a living body doing these things, but she was good at monitoring a body and she gloated now.
“You and I have the same taste, which is good taste. Admit it! Come on, Geneva. Just one night? Or we can take it slow. I bet you we can get an empty room for a moment in the apartments. Or, hell, I’ll settle for a tree in the jungle, although if there are bugs—”
“Will you be quiet!?”
“But I’m restless. Geneva! Do you know how quickly nerve endings wear out in a dead body? There’s a reason we call it ‘fresh body fun’, you know.”
“Not in my body. Not now, thank you.”
“Wait, does that mean later—”
Geneva groaned. This was going to be a problem. But Okasha was living with her. It was like having a roommate you couldn’t get rid of. Not without suffering full-body paralysis and your roommate being incredibly vulnerable to harm or diseases. That kind of relationship everyone had. She changed the subject abruptly.
“I’m going to talk with Daly and Paige tonight. See if I can do something…anything to help. At least I can tell them about the diseases and my progress there.”
She heard Okasha shudder.
“Horrible stuff. Okay, at least you’re perking up! See? Even talking about sex—”
“But until then, I want you to help me exercise, Okasha.”
Geneva heard Okasha whine.
“Again? But I did that yesterday!”
“And two days ago. It needs to happen at least three times a week, Okasha. Preferably more. You know it’ll be beneficial.”
“Yeah, but you’re not the one doing it. And it’s really tiring! Why do I have to do it?”
Geneva hesitated. This called for some delicate negotiations and Ken was nowhere in sight. She thought for a second, and then spoke quietly.
“If you do it, I’ll eat that awful stuff you like so much.”
She sensed Okasha growing excited.
“Xelca meat? You promise?”
Geneva grimaced. She hated xelca meat. But Okasha loved the stuff. Especially if it was fried up in lots of grease. Geneva liked pasta, but Okasha hated the stuff. To Geneva, it was home cooking and delicious if done right. But the Selphid didn’t like grainy foods. It was a sore point that often resulted in them eating pasta with xelca meat, which both could agree on.
“I promise. I’ll even ask Kirana to make some.”
“And buy it fresh!”
The young, Italian woman sighed, but with resignation.
“Alright then! Here I go! You don’t mind if I do it now, do you? Keep walking—I’ll try not to make it affect your legs. Okay, how long per muscle? I know, I know—full body workout. And that core thing you keep talking about.”
Geneva felt Okasha moving slightly through her body, and then she felt her leg muscles suddenly contract. Her stride didn’t change, but suddenly her muscles were working in her leg. Geneva didn’t feel much more beyond the movement though. She heard Okasha’s voice in her ears.
“Exercise, exercise, move that muscle, suppress that lactic acid. Boring. Move again, move again…”
The Selphid was singing a childlike nonsense song as Geneva felt her moving the muscles in her body. Tensing them, pulling and stressing and really just damaging them to induce the same effects as if Geneva was giving her arms, legs, and core a vigorous workout. But the Selphid was far more advanced than any workout regime; she could even play with the hormones and induce the growth needed for Geneva to gain muscle in the right places.
And that place was everywhere. From the legs, Okasha moved up to Geneva’s thighs and stomach, working out her abdomen which had been mostly fat until recently, her upper arms, and even her neck. Not too vigorously; Geneva had no desire to be some kind of inhuman body builder, no matter if Okasha thought she could do it. But she did think being in prime physical shape would be very handy, and a Selphid was the easiest way to that goal.
In fact, Geneva felt a bit guilty sometimes. She was gaining abdominal muscles at an extraordinary rate. Any beach-going narcissist back at her world would kill for a Selphid to manage their bodies like Okasha did hers. But it wasn’t just vanity—okay, it was a bit of vanity—but as Okasha concentrated on Geneva’s arms she did the truly important work. Geneva wanted her arms to be stronger.
Her hands especially. Geneva was aware that a surgeon’s hands and techniques could change the outcome of a surgery, so she’d asked Okasha to figure out a way to give her more muscular strength, more fine control. And the Selphid had managed just that. Not only could she improve things like Geneva’s grip strength, she could tell exactly what parts of Geneva’s body were sore and redirect her body’s resources to deal with the problems.
“In some ways, Selphids are the answer to every biological issue we’ve been seeking. Pacemaker, nanobots—a Selphid surpasses modern technology in countless ways.”
Geneva muttered to herself. She sensed Okasha pushed her hands open and give her a thumbs up.
“We are useful, aren’t we? But this is dangerous, Geneva. Not for your body—but if other Selphids started doing it. Not everyone’s like me.”
“Not as ethical?”
The Selphid’s voice grew serious as she worked Geneva’s hands, making them twitch as Geneva shoved them in her pockets.
“No. Not by far. If I wanted to control you, I could. And with a living body, I could do a lot more than what other Selphids can. I could Rampage without issue since I can heal your body. And if you had a [Warrior]’s body, it would be even stronger. I’ve been thinking about that.”
Geneva shivered. Okasha felt it and hurried to reassure her.
“I wouldn’t! Ever! I meant that in the sense that I can see why a living body is so dangerous. It makes Selphids more powerful than other species. It’s too tempting. If we started doing it again, it would lead to the Selphid Empire, I’m sure.”
The Selphid Empire. A time when Selphids had ruled over other races. Yes, Okasha was right. That was a problem. Still, Geneva spoke mildly.
“But I trust you. You could have taken my body if you wished to. Instead you share it. You let me have control. Why? Why be so…kind?”
For a second the Selphid paused. Then she spoke, simply.
“You swore an oath not to kill. I have my own.”
Geneva’s heart jumped. Okasha squeezed her hand gently, a gentle pressure on her nerves, as if Okasha was holding her hand. The two walked on.
This was why it worked. Because they could get along. Two chance roommates in a single body turned out to be friends. It was luck. Geneva said nothing more. But her spirits rose, and Okasha knew. The Selphid kept working her body and as promised, Geneva stopped by a meat vendor on the way back.
“Xelca meat! Good when it’s hot, edible when it’s not! Get a stick, three coppers! Five coppers for two sticks!”
That was a new slogan. And catchy. All the meat vendors were yelling it. Geneva had to smile as she paid for some xelca meat. That was Lizardfolk for you. Give them an idea and they’d run away with it.
“Hey Geneva! You’re back! What’s that you’ve got?”
“Xelca meat. Kirana, can you make a little dish with it? Please—ah—please fry it up.”
Geneva sighed. Unbidden, her mouth opened again.
“And can you make it extra greasy?”
“With vegetables, naturally.”
“Not that you need too many.”
“I prefer yellats.”
“But you really don’t need to add them. Just meat is fine. Actually, deep-fried meat would be—”
“Horrendous. So we—I’ll just have some fried meat to go along with whatever you’re making—”
“A lot of fried meat.”
“But not too much, because I’m sure you already have a meal in mind and I’d be delighted to have that.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.”
The look on Kirana’s face as Geneva delivered that monologue was priceless. Daly nearly laughed himself sick as he covered for Geneva—only he and a few others knew her secret. Even the regular Earthworlders had no idea—it was just too risky for anyone to find out about Okasha. The Indian girl took the xelca meat anyways and promised to turn it into something special. Daly grinned at her, but didn’t mention Okasha out loud.
“I’ll say this, it’s nice having Kirana cooking. She knows enough vegetarian dishes to keep our picky eaters happy—and they’re tasty for us meat eaters too! Dinner should be ready in a few. You want to sit? Ken’s still talking. Lips of gold, that one.”
Guiltily, Geneva realized she’d been moping rather than acting like a responsible leader. She followed Daly back into the apartment and tried to actually contribute rather than drag everyone down. That meant, sadly, that she had to rely on Okasha to do some of the talking.
That night the United Nations ate like champions. In that they ate a lot, talked noisily, and were about as raucous and noisy as any group of young adults. It wasn’t for everyone; Geneva knew that some people ate leftovers in smaller groups, but the act of socialization was important. Everyone she looked at had a job. Even if some had vacation days like Andel, or were off-duty like the Bushrangers, they worked for a living. It changed them.
Gone, gone were the young men and women who had wandered into Baleros. The ones before her were still growing, and still immature at times—like Dawson, who was one of the older ones—but they also had a level of emotional awareness that others their age might lack.
There were no adults to run to, no one to solve their problems but themselves. Paige and Daly broke up fights, but the Earthworlders had to resolve problems themselves. Some didn’t, but most rose to the challenge. As such, Geneva felt oddly at home, as if the young man of sixteen years old was a friend in his last year of medical college talking with her over his xelca meat mixed with curry.
“Hey, anyone want a drink? I’ve got some cheap er—I think it’s a rum? Came off one of the boats! Not that crap they sell at the markets that’ll kick you off your ass and then on your back, but it’s still strong stuff! Watch yourselves mind. If you’ve got work—”
Daly’s warning went unheeded as a shout went up and most of the table raised their glasses. He went around dishing out the alcoholic drink. Geneva had a glass herself—she watched as a girl of fifteen had a small shot mixed with a fruit juice.
No one raised an eyebrow. Alcohol was necessary. It helped take the edge off, and aside from Americans, most of the Earthworlders had tried alcohol. And it had the other effect of taking off the most tired to their beds after dinner. Full stomachs, excitement, and a bit of drink—people dropped off left and right.
There were some who stayed up, like the Bushrangers who weren’t working, but they’d had their fill of Ken’s stories enough not to groan too hard when Daly looked around and announced that the kitchen in the west apartment was now off-limits.
He’d chosen it because it had a door. Daly stood up as Geneva got to her feet. He approached her, smiling, but with a hint of reserve.
“Time for our chat. But uh, Geneva, I know this is an important meeting, but Michael—you know, from Spain?—he’s worked up some cards. Wood, but we wanted to play some games. If you wanted to talk, we could do that before—”
Geneva was determined not to bring the group down. And in fact, this suggestion appealed to her. So she cut Daly off with a nod.
“Fine by me. But bring the alcohol. We might as well make a proper game of it.”
Daly’s surprised smile was enough of a reward. That was how Geneva found herself sitting at a table, playing on wooden, painted cards with Siri, Daly, Paige, Ken and Aiko. They represented the United Nation’s leadership—although Luan was as yet missing. Siri was a new addition, but Daly explained her presence simply.
“She’s the best of us Bushrangers and a solid head. If I’m ever unable to take over, I’d trust Siri to make the right calls. Anyone object?”
No one did. Ken did look around, though, with a small frown.
“If Siri is Daly’s um, backup, then Paige should be allowed to nominate someone. Is there anyone you would recommend we listen to, Paige?”
Daly hesitated as he shuffled the thin, wood cards that Michael had made. They were simple, but even the act of shuffling them made some at the table perk up.
“Dunno about the other guys. Dawson’s a fighter, but he’s a bit iffy sometimes. Paige?”
“There’s no one I’d call a leader. I handle the home front. Kirana’s good, but she bosses around the girls from her country mainly. I think she has something on them, or there’s a reason why they’re listening to her she’s not saying.”
“Caste system? Doesn’t India have that?”
“Mm. Might be? But I think it’s something else. Maybe her parents were someone famous. Or maybe she’s just better at leading them. She had to get them out of the jungle after the guys got executed.”
“True. Ah, well. We’ll hold off on Kirana. Too many girls as it is. Yow!”
Daly yelped. Ken smiled, and the Australian checked the deck.
“Got fifty four cards—no jokers. But instead—hah! Good on Michael. Look.”
He raised a card. Instead of the joker card, Michael had painted a [Doctor] wildcard, complete with a red cross. Geneva blinked at it as the others chuckled. Daly placed the two aside as he shuffled the deck.
“Alright, before we get to chatting—what’s our game? Swedish Rummy? Oh Hell? Donkey?”
“Aiko and Ken probably don’t know those games. Don’t make it complex, Daly. Let’s just start with poker. We can go from there.”
Daly shrugged. He began dealing out the cards. Siri looked at her hand as Aiko quietly asked Paige to refresh her on how to play.
“What shall we play for?”
“Oh come on—”
“Not for real. It’s all company money anyways. But we do have a bit of spending money. Say, we use that and pool it? But the winner takes like…a few silver coins more than the others?”
Geneva nodded and the others agreed. Soon, they were playing cards while talking, pausing only to bid and reveal who had the winning hand. Daly chuckled as he took the first bid with three two’s.
“So? I think we’ve all heard the bad news. No big haul from the expedition.”
Siri looked up. Geneva had only met her once, doing her examination before she’d left. The [Doctor] stared down at her garbage hand and shook her head.
“That’s right. I’m sorry—”
“It wasn’t Geneva’s fault! Healing potions are too useful!”
Aiko protested. She was a poor player of poker, as was Ken. It wasn’t a natural game to them—they probably would have swept the competition playing another game, though. Mahjong, maybe. Ken knew how to play that. Aiko was bleeding silver while Ken won a hand by luck.
“It’s fine Aiko. Thank you, but I can’t say anything other than that I should have seen it coming. There’s no need for [Doctors] outside of a battlefield. Not as much need for them there either, frankly. That’s all.”
Geneva sighed. That was the truth of it. If a company had healing potions in supply, even on the battlefield they could heal most injuries right off. Her business came from poor companies—or situations where healing potions were in short supply. Things like Evercut Arrows gave her work, but they were in short supply in taverns. Usually.
“It can’t be helped. But you did get me some of the ingredients I wanted. And you got our name out. That’s a plus. But Aiko did say you got some work done with the [Healers], Geneva.”
The [Doctor] nodded as she placed her cards on the table.
“Fold. That’s right. I went around to [Healers] and paid them to show me their poultices and secret recipes. Mainly in hopes of discovering something useful. I also investigated past diseases, plagues, and other ailments that occur on Baleros. To familiarize myself with them before I have to treat them.”
She looked as Siri as she said this. The Swedish girl nodded seriously, placing two cards down and gesturing at Daly to give her two in return. She had an excellent poker face.
“What did you find?”
“Honestly? A mixed bag. As I said, injuries aren’t nearly as bad here as they are in our world. True, amputations occur more frequently since healing potions have limits and surgery is primitive, but people survive amputations and there are magical prostheses.”
Ken lapsed into Japanese. Aiko nodded.
“Oh! Like Quexa’s leg!”
“Except some are magic. Which means you can have an arm made out of fire or some shite like that. What else, Geneva?”
Daly frowned at his hand. Geneva shrugged.
“Illnesses aren’t as prevalent either. At least, plagues and other major outbreaks don’t occur that often, despite the lower level of hygiene.”
“Oh come on. Why not?”
“Two reasons. Actually, three. First, a disease like a plague tends to move from city to city much slower, and the population density is lower here. Second, we haven’t as much international traffic. Less chance of diseases spreading to vulnerable populations without airplanes. Third—”
The table groaned. Paige scooped up her winnings. Geneva frowned at her hand. She was getting trash.
“But not in the way you think. Potions don’t cure diseases, remember? They accelerate a body’s natural functions.”
“They make it worse.”
Siri looked up. Geneva nodded.
“Either a [Healer] figures out some kind of cure, or the potions make the disease worse and it kills off everyone it infects. Plagues are far more deadly in this world because of potions. And when a truly virulent one appears…”
The others fell silent. Paige grimaced.
“Please tell me you can cure that. Or do something?”
Geneva glared at her cards and slapped them down on the table, one by one.
“I. Need. Antibiotics. But without them, there are some remedies that seem to work. There’s some antiviral and antibiotic components in each of the recipes I learned. Not strong ones, though. But it’ll do until we can find something like penicillin. I’ve been using red wine or spirits as antiseptic…and there’s honey, ginger—and garlic.”
“How effective is it?”
“Honestly? Don’t get sick. I can do something for you, but I’ll be relying on the body’s immune system as much as what I can do externally. But I am working on medicines. Poultices based off the [Healer]’s personal remedies that combines the best. So I’ll be able to do some work…but I’m not about to try and cure diseases.”
“Unless we can get an [Alchemist] to figure out how to find the penicillin mold.”
“If it exists. And won’t that be expensive?”
Daly muttered sourly. The table fell silent. Geneva felt a pang in her stomach. Ken, who’d lost every hand since his lucky one, looked up.
“It is not hopeless, though. We are improving. A few months ago we were afraid of paying rent and eating rice. This is better. The Bushrangers are gaining fame. We are saving money. This is working.”
The others looked up. Ken smiled around the table. Then his eyes slid to the cards.
“Five copper coins.”
He had a good poker face too. Geneva calmly slid her coins over.
Ken met Geneva’s eyes, a polite smile on his face.
“I fold—no, I don’t—shut up, Okasha!”
Two voices burst from Geneva’s mouth. She scowled and put down her cards as Siri blinked and Daly sat back. Paige and Ken showed their cards along with everyone else. Daly laughed as it was revealed that Geneva had pure trash and Ken had a straight. The [Negotiator] took the round, and the others tossed in their cards.
“You had nothing!”
Okasha protested with Geneva’s voice. The [Doctor] closed her eyes.
“That’s why I was bluffing. Ken and Paige probably would have folded if we went another round. Okasha, you’re terrible at gambling.”
“You have nerves of steel.”
The Selphid grumbled. Ken smiled.
“Hello Okasha. I probably would have folded. Geneva is very hard to read.”
“Hello, Ken. Hi everyone! Nice to meet you, Siri.”
Okasha smiled with Geneva’s face and introduced herself. The Swedish girl had heard about Geneva’s secret, but she had to do a double-take and ask the usual questions of Geneva. Did it hurt? What was it like? Geneva answered as best she could as Daly narrowed his eyes at Ken.
“Wait a second…are you reading our moods with your Skill?”
“I would not do that!”
Ken protested innocently. And his meager coin pile attested to that fact. Geneva grumbled as the table got back to the game.
“Let me do the gambling.”
“Fine. I’ll drink. Pass me the bottle, Paige? Thank you!”
The conversation passed back to the expedition’s results. Ken had a lot to say. He’d been more than just a mouthpiece to talk up the United Nations company. He’d observed, listened, and gossiped with as many people as possible. And his conclusions were frank.
“Baleros is…dangerous. Of the other continents, it is one of the most dangerous. Chandrar and Baleros are considered to be roughly equal—although Chandrar is more dangerous because of the climate than war. But Chandrar has slaves and the King of Destruction that we heard about.”
“Oh yeah. I heard people muttering about him.”
“Yes, he is concerning. But Baleros is just as dangerous. We were unlucky to come here, but luckier in some respects. There is a continent—Rhir. It is very dangerous.”
“I heard there are Demons there.”
“Demons? As in actual…?”
“I think they are a type of monster, Daly. Not Demons like…yokai, Aiko, or anything else. But it is very deadly. On the other hand, Terandria and Izril are safer. There are Drakes, who are apparently very angry who fight with Humans and Gnolls on Izril. They hate Lizardfolk, but Humans live on the northern half of Izril.”
“And Terandria? I’ve heard it’s mostly Human.”
“Yes, it is safe…but it is farthest of the continents away from Baleros. All the continents are. Ship voyages are also dangerous and take a long time. We could hire a good ship and [Captain], but…”
“…Paying for all of us would be tough and we’d be starting from scratch, huh?”
“On the other hand, it’s something to consider. Okay, how about where we are?”
“Well, I think we chose a good city. You see, we are here—”
Ken paused the game to pull out a map of Baleros. They were on the lower southeastern coast, and Talenqual was connected via the trade roads to most of the other major cities in the area. He outlined a few zones north and to the west.
“There is fighting over there, but I think it is unlikely to come here. Talenqual is safe. And—this may be good or bad—but it is not controlled by a Great Company.”
Daly nodded. He frowned down at the map. They were just a dot. Baleros was massive, and to Geneva, it vaguely resembled the Americas, albeit with a few noticeable differences. There was no Panama Canal—the continent was a fairly solid chunk that had a large southern jungle and vaguely hammer-esque north half. She watched as Daly traced their route—barely more than an inch on the map.
“Hell, this place is big. Tell us about the Great Companies, Ken. They’re the big players around here, right?”
Ken nodded. He sat back as the card came took a nap and the others leaned in.
“Okay. There are Four Great Companies. You know of them right?”
Everyone sitting at the table nodded. How could you not? The Four Great Companies were the most powerful forces on the continent. More than nations, more than cities. Their reach was vast, and hundreds, possibly thousands of smaller companies had links to them.
“Well, I asked and each one is different in…temperament? Reputation, leadership—they are all distinct. As you know, the Iron Vanguard is up north. They are mostly Dullahans.”
“A species company.”
Paige put in. That meant a company that represented a species’ interests as much as their own advancement. Ken nodded.
“But not all Dullahans. The Iron Vanguard is old and established in the north. The north is ah, cold. One of the only cold places in the world.”
“Pause. What do you mean ‘only’ cold places, Ken?”
The Australian girl frowned as she held out a hand. Ken pondered how to reply. Geneva stepped in for him.
“Only two continents have snowy regions. Except for Chandrar—the desert might qualify as a tundra. But besides mountains, only two areas have semi-permanent snow. The north most parts of Baleros and Terandria.”
“Nothing on the south side?”
“Not a thing. Chandra’s farther south, and it’s a desert. But not snow. And there isn’t an Antarctic region that I can tell.”
“Odd. Where is the equatorial line, then?”
Siri traced a finger across the map, perplexed. Daly hesitated.
“There might not be one. I was chatting with a bloke in the bar, and he claimed the earth was flat. Think that’s right? Or is it just a round planet and no one’s made the connection yet?”
Ken shook his head gravely.
“No, I think the earth may be flat, Daly. You see—I asked and there is an end of the world. Ships sail off it. It is a known fact.”
The table went silent. Everyone tried to digest that information. Paige sat back, shaking her head.
“Two moons, a weird equator, the end of the world…I wish we had a telescope. Or a satellite.”
“You can build one later. Go on, Ken. The Iron Vanguard’s northern Dullahans. And?”
“Ah. You see, the Iron Vanguard has many…fortifications. The north is poorer, but it has some good metals to mine. So the Dullahans fortify it—and the Iron Vanguard controls much of the region. They are…an aggressive company. But they prize heavy armor.”
“Bunch of [Knights] tromping around tanking fireballs. I get it. And knowing Dullahans, they’re a right laugh.”
Aiko giggled. Ken nodded. That was fairly spot on.
“Their leader is the Seer of Steel. A [Juggernaut] with a body made of the most expensive armor money can buy.”
Siri raised an eyebrow.
“Why do they call him the Seer of Steel?”
Geneva muttered into her drink. Okasha poured her another refill. Both of them liked alcohol.
“Because he doesn’t go into battle with his head. He leaves that far, far away in his fortress. He controls the body with a scrying orb in place of his head. That way you can only hit his body. He’s practically impossible to kill, or so it’s said.”
“That’s properly intimidating. But I suppose a big shot would be like that.”
Daly slid his eyes sideways to Siri. Geneva wondered if they were trying to figure out how they’d kill something like that. Aiko looked around and spoke brightly.
“Very scary. But the Male—male—Ken, how do you say it?”
“Thank you. Yes, they are not so bad. They are Centaurs! And Lizardfolk. They have a younger leader and her mother, and they control the—middle?”
She pointed to the map of Baleros.
“Very open plains. They have the most space, but since it is so wide, they cannot control—”
She mimed to say ‘all of it’. Ken nodded.
“And there is another company which emerged recently. The Forgotten Wing Company. They seized a lot of land from the other companies. They are the closest to us. Based in the south.”
“Yes! They are led by the Titan!”
Daly’s brows show up.
“I heard of that guy. The best [Strategist] in the world, right? What do you know about him?”
“Much of is it gossip. So I did not trust it. But he was very intelligent. He teaches other [Strategists], and he is famous. Apparently he loves playing games of strategy? Anyways, his company is considered very powerful, but—”
He raised a finger.
“—It is considered fragile.”
“Fragile? How? It’s a fucking massive company, isn’t it?”
Daly frowned. Ken nodded.
“It is. But it is new. And people think that since the Titan and the leader—it has another leader called Three-Color Stalker whom no one knows except that she is a powerful [Assassin]—they think that if those two die, the company will fall apart.”
“Ah. So a few high-level blokes are the only things holding it together.”
“Yes. Pretty much. But while they live, it is very dangerous.”
“And the last company? The Eyes of Baleros?”
Siri was done drinking. She pushed her glass back and got some water instead. Ken frowned.
“I know little other than they are based deep in the jungle. Very secretive. They have the smallest land, but no one fights them. They are a species company. Of Gazers.”
The others at the table frowned. None of them had met a Gazer. From what they understood, they were a secretive people with huge eyes that had powerful magical properties. Ken hadn’t been able to get much solid information about them, but what he had heard had disinclined him to meet them in person.
“I have heard of Gazers and I…do not think they would be a good company to anger. From what I understand, the Eyes of Baleros is a very difficult company to work with.”
“Huh. So. We have a mixed company? The Forgotten Wing? A Centaur and Lizardfolk company, a Dullahan company, and a company made of…Gazers.”
“Actually, it is Centaurs, Dullahans, Gazers, and the Forgotten Wing Company.”
Aiko corrected Daly. Ken nodded.
“There was a Lizardfolk company who was the fourth Great Company, but the Forgotten Wing company replaced them.”
“So they’re really dangerous. Fine. That’s valuable information, Ken. But from where I sit, we’re not in a position to tangle with them anyways. I’m more focused on getting a solid base of support around here. Maybe work out a deal with Quallet—fuck, I don’t know. We need land or some big revenue source.”
Daly sighed. Paige nodded as she knocked back another shot of rum.
“I agree with Daly. I’m not suggesting we attract attention to ourselves, but having some backup would be nice. We’ve got allies, but they’re small players compared to a Great Company. And if war threatens, the company protecting this place, the Featherfolk Brigade, isn’t going to necessarily cut it. They don’t owe us anything, more to the point. And if they don’t like another company basing themselves here…”
“You want an army.”
Geneva spoke quietly. Daly looked up. He hesitated.
“Not one to fight with. But—there are big [Bandit Lords] and other companies out there, Geneva. I’d be reassured if we could scare them off rather than chance it if battle came calling.”
There was nothing she could argue with about that statement. Geneva was well aware of how Baleros worked. The strong survived. Daly sighed longer, louder.
“Honestly? A Gold-rank adventuring team would make any company hesitate. If we could get the Bushrangers to that level—”
Siri said it flatly. The Australian glared at her, but she was unmoved as she sipped her glass of water.
“We don’t have the levels, Daly. And though we do level, it’s too slowly. To level faster, to gain more money, we need artifacts to take on more monsters. Crossbows are too weak.”
“I know, but we’re paying the United Nation’s bills here, Siri.”
She nodded, but the frown didn’t go away. Paige looked between the two.
“I’m working on this new invention that might help—but we could use money back at home too. The apartment’s so full that we’ll start having fights.”
“And my tools and experiments take money. Rather than earn it.”
Geneva looked into her glass. How many times had Okasha filled it? She slumped over at the table. Daly winced.
“Don’t mind me, I’m just running my mouth. Look, Geneva. If you need money, we’ll earn it. You just keep figuring out stuff like antibiotics, syringes, and so on. We can pay the bills with the Bushrangers.”
“But Daly, you just said it. You need better weapons. Armor. Artifacts.”
Aiko looked worried. Daly grinned.
“Don’t worry. That’s if we want to take on bigger threats. We can earn a living just taking on lower-level monsters, right Siri?”
The Swedish girl nodded reluctantly. Geneva tried to remember the Bushrangers telling stories of hiding in the forest while bugs ate them alive. But Daly acted like it was nothing.
“Daly, you work very hard. If we can support you and your team—”
Ken began, but the young man from Australia waved a hand.
“Don’t worry about it. We can keep going on as we’re doing. It’s not the most profitable, but hey, even if Dawson bitches about it, a few days of rest make up for some hard hunts. Besides—”
He smiled tiredly.
“It’s not like I do much around here.”
Everyone looked at Daly. Paige shook her head and rolled her eyes. Ken frowned and slowly stood up.
“I do not think that is true. You hold together the company when we are gone. We rely on you.”
“Naw, that’s you and Luan and—”
Daly looked at Geneva. But Aiko was protesting.
“I think you are excellent, Daly! We need you, so do not be—Ken’s what’s the word?”
Daly flushed a bit.
“Well, okay. But look, I just meant the Bushrangers can keep funding us. And Luan’s pulling in coin—”
“Like I said, give me a few days, no one day—there’s a lot Blake was talking about I want to try and I have this idea—”
Paige spoke up. Siri leaned forwards.
“We can take on other assignments. If we get other weapons. They don’t have to be magical. But I was thinking. What if we carried warhammers—”
“For armor? That’s heavy—”
“Well, only some of us. But with traps…”
“I am going to talk to Kirana about opening up a stall outside! We can sell some of her cooking.”
“—And if I can get the formula right, we don’t even need to use metal. Ken told me about a Japanese version that—”
The conversation was growing confused. Lots of voices melded together. Geneva slumped at the table, pouring herself another drink. She whispered the word in between the voices.
So many people trying so hard. And here she was. She vaguely realized that Okasha was trying to get her to stand up.
“Your liver isn’t happy. And I’m…drunk? We should lie down.”
That was a good point. Geneva got up. She didn’t remember excusing herself, only that the others were smiling and positive and she—felt useless. She trundled up the stairs. Paige had told her to go to her workshop to sleep. After two tries, Geneva found it.
She lay on the ground, world spinning around and round. Trying to think. Okasha was singing in her head, babbling. The silly Selphid was drunk. Couldn’t hold her liquor. Not like…Geneva.
“Whee. Hey, I’ve never been in a living body, so I had no idea it does this when you get drunk. Did you know you have this weird thing that—”
“Go to sleep Okasha.”
At some point the Selphid did. Geneva felt it tugging at her mind too. She couldn’t move anymore, even when Paige and Aiko stumbled into the room and went to sleep. Geneva just lay there, feeling the floorboards pressing against her cheek. Her thoughts were muddled. But she knew one thing.
She was useless here. Useless, for all her knowledge. Sometimes she wanted to go back to the wars. Where she had some use. But she couldn’t. She knew that. She couldn’t be a [Doctor] on the battlefield.
Because in war, it seemed that all a [Doctor] could do was make things worse.
The next day Geneva woke up without a hangover. In fact, she felt fresh, good—and had a bladder that seemed to encompass her entire body. She got up, peed, and heard Okasha whispering in her head.
She’d taken care of the alcohol in Geneva’s system but couldn’t do the same for herself. Geneva let Okasha rest and ate for both of them. Then she went upstairs and began to do the only work she could. And even that was deferred work.
“How do the petri dishes look, Aiko?”
The girl peered into the glass dishes that Geneva had bought. The cultures of primitive gelatin were growing molds. The [Nurse] had a mask on her face. Geneva stood back, watching.
“Careful with the petri dish. Remember, my sterile field is down. The masks—”
“Yes, Geneva. I know. The bacteria is growing well. But the antibiotics…see?”
Aiko handled the dishes carefully, taking care not to bring them too close to her face. The masks were Geneva’s design, but she couldn’t be sure how well they protected Aiko. Geneva peered at them, taking care not to touch the petri dishes.
Her hands were sterile, thanks to her Skill. And while Geneva had learned she could temporarily disable the field that cleansed the area around her, her hands would kill the bacteria in a moment. She frowned at the samples she’d made up.
She had mixed several of the [Healer]’s poultices into new batches, trying to find a mix of antibiotic agents to replace penicillin. So far the results were promising…but hardly as good as penicillin itself.
“Not bad. But not good either. Look at how the bacteria’s resisting the samples. We have two strains—#4 and #6 that look like they’re the best. We’ll try them against other cultures. Let’s get a mouth swab. From someone else. Daly, maybe.”
Coming up with an antibiotic was one of the achievements Geneva was determined to hand the United Nations company. It was essential. Preventing diseases might not earn much money for the company—healing potions really did kill off a lot of people with bad illnesses if used carelessly on them—but it was vital nonetheless. She’d trade her left leg for penicillin. Hell, both legs. This world needed it. She needed it. Without that, Geneva’s skills outside of a battlefield were practically zero. Infections were the one thing she could cure, but this—
Geneva was laboring over another antibiotic test case with Aiko when someone pounded on the door. Daly thrust open the door, stopped as Geneva shouted at him, and backed up.
“Sorry! But I thought you should know—we just got word that the Gravetender’s Fist company is marching towards us!”
Both Aiko and Geneva looked up. Geneva’s heard skipped a beat.
“Did they say if they had injured?”
“No word on that. But they were doing a patrol along contested territory. I’m going to say hi to them! Meet me there!”
Daly raced out of the room. Aiko looked at Geneva. She nodded.
“Pack up. Seal all the containers. Carefully. Then we’ll head out.”
She straightened. A company had injured usually, even if they were on peaceful duties. Accidents happened. Not that she wanted it. And healing potions—but there was a chance. She should hurry. Geneva looked around for her medical kit. Okasha, who was still recovering from her hangover, whispered in her ears.
“The company’s back? Oh good. Maybe someone will be hurt so you’ll stop complaining.”
Geneva ignored that. But a part of her, a cynical, dark part, hoped Okasha was right.
The Gravetender’s Fist company was camped outside of Talenqual. Naturally a mercenary company couldn’t all enter a city. That was practically an invasion. And in fact, it was only because Gravetender’s Fist had a reputation for honesty that they were allowed near the city at all. That, and the fact that the reigning company who controlled the city, the Featherfolk Brigade, outnumbered them substantially.
Gravetender’s Fist was still a small company. But they were gaining respect. Not only did they have an experienced leader, Quallet Marshand, but every soldier was armed with a crossbow, which they usually fired before switching to other weapons. It was an interesting tactic, and refilling quarrels and selling crossbows had earned the United Nations company a tidy profit.
And Quallet’s company had strong ties to the United Nations company. Even if one wasn’t under control of the other and neither company owed the other anything, they had an agreement to support each other where possible. But none of that was really why Daly hurried towards the camp. He only stopped when he saw a distinctive Lizardgirl walking towards Talenqual with a slight catch to her stride.
Quexa looked a bit older than Daly remembered from his first encounter with her. But she was no less cheerful, and by now her peg leg barely slowed her.
“Daly! I knew we’d see you! I told Quallet we had to stop here, and he agreed! How are you? You look good! Are the Bushrangers doing well?”
“Quexa. It’s good to see you.”
The two stopped as they met just outside of Talenqual. Daly looked at Quexa, and then noticed she had company. Quallet, a Lizardman, and two officers that Daly vaguely recognized were accompanying the [Mercenary Captain] along with Quexa. She was his second-in-command. Quallet nodded at Daly as the Australian turned to greet him.
“Quallet. How’s business?”
“Good. We’re off-duty. We finished a patrolling job. Decided to stop by here.”
“I heard. Did you see any fighting?”
Quallet shook his head.
“Mostly quiet guard duty. But we did run into a [Necromancer]-led company on our route back this way. Brief battle—we both agreed to a ceasefire after we shot two volleys at him. Nearly broke his magic barrier.”
“Good to hear. Hey, I know Paige and Geneva are headed this way. I just—came along first.”
Quallet nodded. He glanced at Quexa then cleared this throat.
“We’ll head into the city. We’ve got business there. Quexa, find me later. I need to talk to Geneva.”
That got Daly’s attention.
“No. I’ve got two bad infections among my troops for Miss Geneva to look at. Human.”
He walked past Daly. Quexa fidgeted. The other officers followed Quallet, but the Lizardman stopped. He held out a claw.
“Hey, you’re the Human that Quexa had sex with! Hi! I’m Zalel!”
Daly choked. He hesitated, looked at Quexa who was blushing with embarrassment, and held out a hand and the Lizardman shook it energetically after a moment.
“Uh, nice to meet you.”
“Great to meet you too! I’d love to chat, but old Quallet’ll get mad. Quexa, I’ll catch you later! Hey, wait up!”
Zalel followed the others. Quexa stared daggers at his back until he was gone and then turned hurriedly to Daly.
“I didn’t have sex with him. He’s just an old friend. Just so you know.”
“I didn’t ask.”
Daly instinctively replied. Part of him wanted to say it was fine whatever Quexa did, but that would be a lie. He hesitated.
“So, how’re you doing?”
“Good! I’ve been practicing new spells. Marching with the company—it was pretty dull, but hey, the job’s a job, right? And the company’s growing. It’s good to see you.”
Quexa blurted that last bit out. Daly smiled.
“Look at us, standing around. Say, want to go for a walk in the city? We can talk on the way.”
“Sure! I’m just dying for a nali-stick by the way.”
“It’ll be our first stop. My treat.”
“Oh, really? You’re so nice.”
“Well, maybe you can do me a favor in return.”
Quexa gave Daly a sharp look and he elaborated.
“We’re looking for someone who can teach us [Repair]. Know any [Mages] who might be willing to do it for cheap?”
“Oh. Sure! I know a few names. What, are the ones in this city giving you a hard time with your flashy-things? Leave it to me! But tell me—how’ve you been? What have the Bushrangers been doing? Let’s find a cool place to sit and you can tell me about it. Over a few nali-sticks. And some juice?”
“I’d love that. You’ve got the time, right?”
The Lizardgirl smiled.
“Quallet won’t mind. Come on!”
She pulled Daly forwards. He followed her, and saw Quexa turn her head back and paused for a second.
“I’m not having sex with you afterwards, though. Just throwing that out there. Well, not just for a nali-stick…”
For the second time in as many minutes, Daly nearly inhaled his tongue. He stopped, sighed. And then he laughed.
“I didn’t want to interrupt you. But both of them have it bad and they were whining to me the entire way here. They insisted I get you right away.”
Quallet looked as if he were always in a bad mood. But Geneva knew him well enough to know he was genuinely concerned for the two Human men he wanted her to see. For her part, she was fully equipped. Not that her patients needed surgery—they had infections. Bad ones, but Quallet had spared her the details.
Aiko was following Geneva, carrying some of their gear. Geneva paused in front of the tent where her first patient was waiting.
“Where’d they get the infections? Battle?”
“I wish. They got it at the last town we stopped at.”
Geneva frowned, perplexed.
“From what? Cuts? Something they ate? A bug?”
The [Mercenary] looked embarrassed. He shifted from foot to foot, a rare sign of discomfort.
“No. Ah, from a brothel.”
“Oh. So the infection’s…”
“I can tell them you don’t need to see them if—”
“No, it’s fine. I just need to be sure. It is on their genitals?”
Quallet nodded. He flushed a bit. Geneva was calm. She looked at Aiko. The [Nurse] looked distinctly embarrassed. Geneva was a [Doctor] and to her, private parts were all the same when someone was on the table. But Aiko was hesitant.
“You can let me do the diagnosis. I’ll only call you in if I need help.”
The Japanese young woman shook her head vigorously.
“No! I’m your assistant. So I will go with you! It’s just…”
She flushed again. Quallet looked at the both of them.
“I don’t think embarrassment’s going to be the worst of it. I took a look and—”
He shook his head.
“—it’s bad. The worst case of it I’ve seen.”
“Does it have a name?”
Geneva frowned. Quallet shrugged.
“It’s one of the new ones. I think they call it Yellow Rivers. But I didn’t ask too many questions. I’ve kept them isolated like you said I should do, but I wasn’t about to leave them.”
“No. You did the right thing. I’ll handle it from here. If there’s anything I can do—they know I can’t work miracles, right?”
Quallet nodded. But the look he gave her told Geneva that the story of the Last Light was still widely told in his company. She shook her head and took a breath. Not a surgery. But she was still a [Doctor].
“Alright, Aiko. Excuse me—”
She pushed open the tent flap. The man sitting on a cot and clutching at his groin looked up. His eyes widened as she saw Geneva and Aiko with a mask on. His eyes went to Quallet, filling with hope.
The man nodded. The mercenary practically scrambled to his feet. Geneva held up a hand, wishing her reputation didn’t precede her. Now the fear was in her. What if she couldn’t help him? No, she had to see first. She was ready.
“Please. I’m just a [Doctor]. I can’t work miracles. I’m told you have an…infection. May I see it?”
“Uh—show you? Here?”
It was funny. For all she was a [Doctor], and he had clearly been hoping to see her, the man was obviously unprepared to drop his pants in front of two young women. But Geneva was used to reticent patients. She had the man lie back, and pull his trousers down slowly. Aiko hid behind Geneva, peeking from behind her.
She needn’t have worried. The instant the man’s trousers and then underwear were off, embarrassment was the last thing that was in the mind of the two girls. Geneva saw the yellow-stained, wet underwear peel away. She saw a flash of paler skin. And then red and yellow and—
Aiko’s eyes went wide. She covered her eyes—then her nose—and then dry heaved. Geneva mastered the impulse as the smell hit her—and then her nose went dead.
Thank you Okasha.
But there was no way to turn off her eyes. Geneva stared down at the man’s groin, which was saturated with the worst case of…Yellow Rivers was a good name for it. The Human man looked up at Geneva, eyes pleading, full of pain. He was a man. Male, and proportioned as any man from Earth would be. But the rash and…it was hard to tell at first.
Geneva had seen a lot of horrific sights in medical school. But, she had to admit, even her stomach wanted to eject itself. Aiko was still gagging. Not just because of the sight. Because of the smell and the way the infection dripped.
But Geneva was a [Doctor]. And after a moment she took to assess the situation and control herself, she got to work.
“This is clearly a problem. You used a healing potion on it, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I thought it was a sore, but after I used it—it hurt so much. Please, can you fix it? I’d lose it. If it meant all this went away, even cutting it right off would be—”
The man whimpered. He was in a world of suffering. And that, more than anything, gave Geneva the ability to touch the inflicted areas, clearing pus away, getting a good look at the problem and telling Aiko to hand her the antibiotic treatments she’d worked up. That, and a strong pair of gloves.
The first patient took thirty minutes to tend to, and Geneva gave him a list of instructions and promised to be back the next day. His infection wouldn’t resolve itself overnight, no matter what he might have hoped, but she could see that her visit had given him some hope of surviving. The second patient Geneva saw was a little better—but only just.
“The same symptoms, the same illness and vector. It definitely came from your brothel.”
“And will it spread?”
Quallet was waiting for Geneva and Aiko after they finished the second patient. Geneva scrubbed her hands in two buckets of soapy water, never mind the fact that her hands were sterile and she’d worn gloves. There were some things you just needed to wash up for.
“Not if they keep out of contact of the others. And obviously I should say this: no sexual intercourse.”
“Won’t be a problem. You couldn’t pay anyone in the company to touch those two. Man, woman, Lizardfolk, Dullahan, Centaur—I don’t even think the Selphids would want a body like that.”
Quallet nodded back towards the tent.
“Will they survive?”
“It’s down to how well my treatment works. And how clean they can keep the injury. They won’t be marching with you any time soon. They need rest, and the infections can’t be contained and agitated by their clothing.”
The [Captain] grimaced.
“So, what? They’ll be lying buck-naked with that out for—”
“Not in the open. There are bugs. I’ve bandaged the infections and they’re not to agitate them. But yes. We’ll need two medical tents. And I’ll be back.”
Quallet gnawed on his lip, but he acceded without much fight.
“As you wish. But the cost—”
“It won’t be much for the treatments. Don’t worry about it.”
“Nonsense. I’ll cover it. And I’ll take it out of their hides once they’re better.”
Quallet shook his head and growled. Geneva looked at him. He was a good man, for all he acted aloof sometimes. She sighed, wiped her hands on a towel, and stood up.
“I hope I can make a difference. But seeing that—there’s something I need to do. Aiko, we’re headed back for the headquarters.”
“I’ll go with you. I need to talk to Paige about more crossbows anyways.”
Geneva nodded. She, Quallet, and Aiko who wasn’t feeling hungry or eating ever again, walked slowly back to the city. They didn’t make much conversation. Quallet and Geneva lived in different worlds. But somehow, they understood each other. They each had their way of living.
“Geneva? How are the patients? I heard there were some people with bad infections.”
“Oh yes. Quallet can fill you in. But I’ve just had a thought. Actually, I could use your help. I need to make something.”
Paige perked up. Geneva nodded. She led them upstairs and borrowed some parchment. She began sketching her design. It was simple, really. It took Aiko a few seconds to figure out what it was. Paige got it in a moment.
“Oh come on. Really?”
“You think it’s not necessary? Because believe me, after what I just saw? We need them.”
“Oh, the infections were down there? Oh, gross…”
Geneva ignored the comment. She kept sketching, noting different materials down. Okasha raised Geneva’s hand and pointed at the image.
“A tool that will stop more infections. But we don’t have the right materials. Paige, there’s obviously no rubber available to us, but I think linen might work. Can you get me some?”
The Australian girl hesitated.
“I can get you linen—but really? Sorry, I know it’s silly, but this? There’s potions—”
Geneva interrupted her brusquely.
“And this is a different issue. Get me the linen. I need it to be waterproof, and come up with a treatment for it. Something that won’t harm internal organs, but which might neutralize anything. Aiko? Where’s the medicine kit?”
The two girls went to get what Geneva wanted. Meanwhile, the [Doctor] tried to wrap her mind around the problem. They’d need it to be protective, but not cumbersome. It could not come loose. How would you hold it on? And obviously it would have to be tailored. Dullahans were like Humans, but there were different sizes. And Centaurs and Lizardfolk…
Geneva stared down at what she had designed. The simplest of tools from her world. Something so basic she hadn’t thought of it. Well, she had when she’d heard of some of the Earthworlders having sex, but when she heard about morning-after potions, she hadn’t looked into it. But after seeing that viral infection, Geneva was sure it was necessary.
“I don’t get it. But then again, this really isn’t a Selphid problem, is it?”
Okasha stared down at the blueprints. Geneva ignored that. The Selphid might understand bodies, but she didn’t understand germ theory.
“This will save lives, Okasha.”
“I guess? But will it save Selphids from our problem?”
Geneva looked up.
“Not in this way. But the problems are related. I’ve thought a lot about the symptoms you’ve described to me. Obviously I need to see the patients first, but if I’m right, isolating an antibiotic or even taking measures like this might—”
The door crashed open. For the second time this day Geneva spun. She thought it was Paige, or Aiko being loud. But it wasn’t. It was Daly. He was panting.
“Geneva! Get your surgical kit!”
Geneva’s pulse spiked. The tone of Daly’s voice, his posture, it all told her one thing. And then she felt a jolt of fear.
“Is it Quexa?”
He’d been on a date with her. But Daly was shaking his head. He pointed to the hallway where Siri was shouting at the other Bushrangers.
“I just got a [Message]. At the Adventurer’s Guild! It’s the groups of adventures who went to the dungeon!”
Geneva just stared at him blankly. She had no idea about the dungeon that had just been found. Daly tried to explain, tripping over his words as he beckoned at her.
“The Rustless Guard, Salamander Swimmers, the Fivefold Verminslayers—all the adventurer teams who got to the dungeon are retreating. They broke through into an old tomb and unleashed a bunch of monsters!”
Monsters. Geneva whirled and looked for her surgical tools. She rushed out the door after Daly, shouting for Aiko and then giving up and running after him. He was shouting at the Bushrangers to assemble. But they were far from the dungeon! Still, Geneva ran after him.
“What kind of monsters? Spear Spiders? Face-Eater Moths?”
She’d treated both injuries. They were horrific to deal with, potions or not. But Daly just looked back, his face grim.
Captain Eldima looked up and saw death. It flowed from the dungeon, dozens of sinuous bodies. She turned and shouted.
Around her adventurers were running. The Dullahan turned and ran, trying to carry both her tower shield and mace. But she was so slow. Her new iron armor dragged at her. And she knew the enemy was closing on her. So she turned. It wasn’t heroism that prompted her, just the knowledge that she couldn’t escape. She looked back and saw them.
Snakes. Or rather, serpents. Not pythons or the other snakes of the jungle. As dangerous as they were, these snakes were far, far worse. They were huge.
Giant snakes. That was all. But even the smallest was as wide as Eldima. And the largest? It rose and struck like lightning. An adventurer screamed—the fangs sank into the Lizardgirl’s back and she jerked twice before the jaws crunched down. And then the snake swallowed her whole.
That was what the dungeon had held. No treasure. Even after all the excavation of the tunnels, all the adventurers had found was already-looted rooms. And then the snakes. They’d been resting in the dungeon, fat, gorged on the prey that wandered by the entrance. Now they had a meal.
“Rustless Guard, stand and fight!”
Eldima cried out. Her Dullahans turned and formed a wall of shields. The first snake slithered towards them. It regarded the metal-clad Dullahans and hesitated. But it could smell their heartbeats. So it wavered, and then struck.
The impact threw Eldima and three of the Dullahans back a step. But they’d blocked the snake. It recoiled, hissing, and one of Eldima’s [Warriors] charged, swinging an axe.
“No! Kiltem! Get—”
Too late. The snake lunged. But not with its mouth. Kiltem’s charge was stopped as the serpent rammed him with its body, sending him to the ground. Quick as a flash, it was on him. He screamed as it bit at his body, rending the iron and his flesh beneath.
Eldima charged forwards and bashed the snake with her mace. It recoiled, but its scales were thick! It butted Eldima, knocking her back. She stumbled—and another snake swung towards them.
“No! Kiltem’s down!”
Eldima shouted at the others. But they were wavering. The snakes had already taken out two adventuring groups in the dungeon. Eldima and the others had been battling them for an hour and a quarter, frantically trying to collapse tunnels in the dungeon, setting traps, anything to slow the serpents. But the hungry monsters had kept coming regardless.
And now? It was over. Eldima raised her shield, hoping to strike a blow at the serpent still trying to eat Kiltem. She had [Power Strike]. But it might not even damage the serpent. She swung desperately. She saw the snake coil and tried to bring up her shield—
The impact knocked Eldima’s head loose from her body. She hadn’t secured it properly, and her head went flying. Eldima felt the air rushing past her head, and then screamed in pain as her head struck the ground. Desperately she rolled her eyes, but she was on her side. She could see her body, and tried to control it. The snake was puzzled by the missing head, but it wrapped itself around Eldima anyways and squeezed.
Pain. On the ground, Eldima’s head screamed. Her body fought, but it was constricted, helpless. Her team tried to save her, but the second serpent was fighting them. And all Eldima could do was watch and feel her body dying.
It was every Dullahans’ worst nightmare. This was like how they executed their criminals. Eldima’s eyes filled with tears. She struggled, cried out—
And she saw a flash out of the corner of her eye. Movement. But not the fleeing adventurers. Movement in the other direction. A figure advancing, rather than fleeing from the dungeon. Eldima saw the figure raise something in its hand. A crossbow. And as she watched, he fired once.
The bolt shot from the wooden bow. It sped across the ground and hit the serpent crushing Eldima in the eye. The shot was perfect—the serpent recoiled, screaming, and let Eldima go. She saw her body fall to the ground. Sobbing, Eldima ordered her body to run towards her and snatch up her head. She placed her head on her body and turned, feeling her bent armor, her fractured bones. And then she saw him. She’d thought it was her imagination. But there he was.
Daly, the Captain of the Bushrangers, raised his crossbow. He pulled the drawstring back, loaded another quarrel, aimed, and fired. The second bolt struck the serpent menacing Eldima’s team in the side of the head. It turned. The bolt had broken on its scales. But it was distracted. The Dullahans backed away, carrying their fallen comrade. And Daly pointed.
Five figures strode past them. Each held a crossbow. Each raised it and fired. Five more bolts flew. One struck the serpent in its open mouth and it recoiled. But only for a second. Then it came on.
The other serpents had noticed the strange anomaly in their fleeing prey. They turned, locking onto the Bushrangers. The five reloaded, and then broke up as the snakes advanced, shifting their aim to individual snakes. They fired—the bolts struck scales. The snakes flinched, but then realized they weren’t hurt. So did the adventurers. One cried out.
“It’s not going through the scales, Daly!”
“Then aim for the eyes! Just keep them busy! Siri! Hit the lure!”
One of the Humans had something in her hands. She hit something. A light blossomed on the device she held. Eldima, staggering towards the group, trying to shout at them to run, heard a loud sound. And then a deafening sound that went straight through her body and armor.
The thundering dubstep was cranked up past what the speakers should have allowed. It was so loud that Eldima’s ears rang. She clamped her hands to her ears. But the effect on the sensitive snakes was even worse. They had no ears and they writhed in agony and retreated as the sound thundered. One of them lunged—Dawson raised his shield and went flying.
The Bushrangers had attracted all the attention of the snakes. They abandoned the fleeing adventurers and focused on the team. Anything to get the music to stop. But Siri used the speaker like a weapon, aiming it at the nearest serpents.
Eldima staggered towards Daly. He was shouting, waving his team back. But too slowly. They were going to be surrounded! And whenever this strange artifact ran out, they’d be dead.
“No! A few more moments! Get in position! Stay with us!”
Daly roared at his team and Eldima. She thought that’s what he said—she couldn’t hear anything. The serpents were getting over their fear of the blasting music, though. Rage was propelling them forwards. Daly was pointing back. The Bushrangers ran backwards. The snakes followed.
They were going to die. They’d responded to the [Message] spell in time, but the Bushrangers were an ambush group. They weren’t equipped to go up against giant serpents! Eldima despaired. And then she looked behind her and saw them.
A row of bodies. It stretched across the muddy ground. Hundreds of bodies. Centaurs pulling wagons. Lizardmen and Lizardwomen holding crossbows. Dullahans armed with pikes. Eldima froze. There was an entire company here! A huge one! What company had appeared? She knew that the Gravetender’s Fist company was in the area. But this was too large to be just theirs.
Then she saw a Lizardgirl at the front of the ranks point at the serpents. The agitated monsters hadn’t realized the danger they were in. But they got a clue as an orb of fire blasted from her claw and struck one in the face. It writhed in agony. And the army in front of them raised their crossbows.
Daly grabbed Eldima. His team was racing to the side. Out of the way. And before they were even in the clear, the first volley of crossbows fired.
Hundreds of bolts flew through the air. Behind them, Centaurs with longbows aimed and fired. More [Mages] threw fire and lightning and acid. The serpents weathered the bolts, took the spells. They charged forwards, armored, huge. But the assembled force didn’t waver. The first rank of pikes swung up as more spells and arrows targeted the snake’s eyes. And then one of the [Mages] threw a bolt of lightning that left only a crater where the largest serpent’s head should have been.
Eldima whispered. She heard laughter above the ringing in her ears. She looked up and saw Daly, still grabbed hold of her, whooping and laughing as the serpents fell. Only one even reached the lines of warriors. The Dullahan looked up, at Daly, and her thoughts were wonder.
“How did he do it?”
That was all Eldima could ask. All the other adventurers could ask. Bewildered, they watched as the company of warriors and irregulars calmly butchered what remained of the serpents, hauling the valuable meat and scaly hides away towards the city. Eldima looked around.
Her gaze was on Daly. He had led a group back into the dungeon, to look to survivors. Now he was tending to what wounded there were, with a small team. Eldima’s ears were still ringing, but she saw Dullahans who’d been fighting pass her by and managed to ask the question everyone wanted to know.
“Who? The Human? He didn’t call us here. And we aren’t one company. The two on the field are from Gravetender’s Fist and the Featherfolk Brigade. You should recognize us.”
The Dullahan looked affronted. Eldima instinctively bowed her head; she was wearing mangled iron armor and he wore steel.
“I am terribly sorry. But if he did not call you all—how?”
Why would so many respond to an adventurer’s [Message]? Normally they’d just lock down the city and leave the adventures to their fate. The Dullahan wearing steel frowned severely, but responded grudgingly at last.
“It was the Captain of the Bushrangers who made the plea, but our company commander acceded to the request thanks to another member of his company. A…[Negotiator] convinced us to engage in this fight, as it was clearly one we could win.”
“And the others. He pulled every one he could grab out of the city. Adventurers, Runners. Sailors.”
For a second the Dullahan looked almost admiring. He pointed at a figure who hadn’t been part of the fighting.
Ken. He and Daly had organized the operation. And it was true. They hadn’t bothered to invite just one company. They’d gathered everyone they could find.
Giant serpents could kill one Silver-rank team. Or even a group. But a Gold-rank [Mage] who headed the Mage’s Guild in Talenqual? The Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild? A [Captain] and his crew? Child’s play. And they had come. For sport. For the nobility of the cause. For an easy battle and a share of the profits. Anyone could make the argument. But only Ken had done it.
Eldima stared. But then she noticed another figure passing by all of the wounded, rapidly going from figure to figure, and then the silent shapes. Checking them. And Eldima’s eyes widened as someone whispered her name. She recalled a rumor and saw a legend in the flesh. And she looked at Daly and wondered what company he belonged to.
Wonder. Relief. Such were the emotions of the survivors. But Geneva was just…frustrated. She roamed the battlefield, ignoring the dead serpents who were being butchered. The smell, the sounds—all of it was reminiscent of a warzone between companies. But in this case—
“Any wounded? Any injured?”
Geneva called out for the eighth time. But she heard no one. No cries of pain. No shouts for a [Healer] or a potion. What adventurers had died were dead. And the others?
“I’m fine. A healing potion took care of my wounds. And you splinted my bones. I will be fine. I am in your debt, [Doctor].”
The Dullahan named Kiltem reassured Geneva when she went to check on him. He was one of the few people she’d treated and even then, the adventurers had known what to do. He would need to be carried and heal for at least a week, but with potions his broken bones and body would mend quickly.
There was nothing for her to do. Again. Geneva looked around the battlefield, at Daly who was congratulating and thanking some of the people they’d called upon with Ken, at the Bushrangers testing their crossbows on a serpent and shaking their heads—at the departing adventurers, [Warriors], and [Mages].
Useless. She’d come out here, rushed out here thinking to help evacuate the wounded. To save lives. But this hadn’t been her battle. It had been a triumph for the United Nations company—thanks to Ken and Daly. Thanks to diplomacy, words. Goodwill.
Geneva loved it. Hated it. She turned and walked over to Daly.
“Geneva? Everyone well?”
“They’re all fine. The dead—I can’t do much for them.”
Daly was high on relief and victory. But he paused as he saw Geneva’s face. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder gently.
“It’s good they didn’t need help, eh?”
She looked up and met his eyes. Guiltily, Geneva realized he was right.
“That’s true. I’m sorry.”
“Hey. Everyone knows you want to help. And you do.”
“Just by being here. Look.”
He pointed. And Geneva turned. She felt the eyes on her at last. Soldiers from Quallet’s company. The Featherfolk Brigade’s warriors. Even adventurers and sailors. Looking at her.
“They know you’ll be there when they need it. That’s enough.”
Daly’s voice was quiet. Geneva looked back at him. He smiled at her.
“Sometimes a [Doctor]’s work is just in the head. Just making people feel safe. Right?”
Geneva hesitated. And then her lips quirked. It wasn’t quite a smile. But it was close enough.
“No wonder Quexa likes him.”
Okasha remarked softly. For once, Geneva couldn’t disagree. She looked at Daly.
“You did a good job.”
He grinned, a look of delight for the compliment. Then he gave her a slight bow.
“Wish it were always that easy. But then, how’d we split the coin? Lousy job, this. Didn’t earn a copper penny, what with that lot hogging everything.”
Geneva chuckled. Daly nodded towards the Centaurs who’d raced a lot of the people on foot here.
“That lot’ll be heading back soon. Want to hitch a ride?”
“I think so. Let me at least fuss over the Dullahans with broken bones.”
After Geneva had loaded the Dullahans onto the smoothest wagon and ensured they were moving comfortably at a slow pace, she and Daly took another ride home. The two Centaurs were chatting the entire way back.
“Fantastic! I don’t know how you got those grouches from the Mage’s Guild to do it, but that was incredible! And we saved those adventurers.”
“And we get paid, right?”
“We’ll guarantee it ourselves, even if others claim all the serpent hides and meat.”
Ken reassured the Centaurs. Pihava tossed her head like a horse, her long hair doing the same work as a mane.
“That’s quite generous! Your company pulled out all the stops. Why? Do you know the teams that were in the dungeon?”
Ken and Daly exchanged a glance. They were riding in the front. Daly answered for them.
“Nah, just the one. It’s not that. It’s just—they needed help, right? And you don’t abandon your mates when they’re in trouble.”
“But they’re hardly your mates.”
“Not yet. But I think we could become friends. And hey, that’s what our company does best. Right Ken?”
He nudged the Japanese [Negotiator]. They laughed. Geneva listened to the laughter. And she felt…better. Peaceful. Daly was right. It was a blessing not to be needed.
The Centaur’s wagon pulled into Talenqual with the others, pausing as the sudden influx of traffic caused a small jam. But they were content to wait, and Ken and Daly called out towards the others getting back to their jobs and lives, shouting congratulations, thanks. And Geneva was sure their company would be a name on every lip tonight.
“Alright! Back to the headquarters! I don’t care what anyone says—I’m buying some alcohol and we’re partying it up!”
Daly exclaimed to the cheers of his team. He was leading the way, talking about the battle—mainly about the high-level spells and Skills they’d seen. Geneva was following them, listening calmly, not feeling the painful lurching of impatience in her stomach. It was so pleasant, she didn’t notice the Bushrangers stop until she nearly ran into Ken’s back.
“What’s the matter?”
Someone was standing in front of the twin apartments. Not one of the United Nations company. A stranger. Geneva didn’t recognize him. Nor did she know what she was looking at for a second. A cat…man? No. A Beastkin, from the Cat Tribe.
His fur was silky. His body sinuous. He entranced the eye, as if he’d stepped out of an Egyptian hieroglyph. But then Geneva saw his lowered ears. The look on his all-too understandable face.
Daly paused uncertainly as he spotted the Cat-man. Rital turned. He had been standing in front of the United Nations headquarters, as if lost. He focused on Daly.
There was something wrong. The elation of the Bushrangers faded. Daly looked at Ken.
“Hey, mate. What’s the matter?”
Because something was clearly wrong. Rital’s mouth opened and closed. The impish, fun-loving look on his face was gone. A look of desperation was there. He stared at Daly.
“It’s Hasty. Hastel.”
Daly didn’t know if they were married. Rital shook his head, but then he went on.
“She’s giving birth.”
“That’s…that’s great. Right?”
Rital didn’t respond. His eyes were wide, unblinking. He half-turned his head, staring down the street.
“She’s—it’s not—she’s not doing—the [Midwife] is with her. A lot of them, actually. But they say it’s—they’ve been going for two hours and it’s—it’s bad. It’s very bad.”
The obvious question was, ‘how bad?’ But somehow Daly couldn’t ask. He saw it on Rital’s face. The Cat-man looked back at him.
“I heard—there’s nothing I can do. No potions or magic. But I heard—your company has a [Doctor], right? That’s like a [Healer]? They can’t do anything. So I thought—”
Daly was frozen. He didn’t know what to do. What to say. He knew little about childbirth. And the other members of the Bushrangers were frozen too. There was nothing they could do.
But behind them, a young woman moved. She moved when no one else could. That was the function of a [Doctor]. Geneva pushed past Daly.
“Where is she?”
Rital stared blankly at Geneva, and then his eyes focused on her. With desperate hope. Fear and panic and a host of other terrible emotions ran through him. He reached out as if to touch Geneva, as if to see if she was real.
“It’s bad. Really bad. Are you the one they call the Last Light? Can you save her? Please?”
Geneva looked into Rital’s eyes. Daly saw her hesitate. A childbirth. It wasn’t the kind of surgery she was trained for, he knew. And she didn’t lie. Geneva didn’t, to her patients or her friends. But she reached out, and grabbed Rital’s hand. And her grip was fierce enough to wake him up a bit. Geneva looked in his eyes.
“Take me to her. And I’ll do my best.”
He stared at her. And then he turned and ran. Geneva whirled. She shouted a name. For Aiko. And then she was running. And even Daly couldn’t keep up.
Miss Hastel was in her apartments. Lying on her side. A rug had been placed beneath her—not an expensive one, but a comfortable, well-used one. For the birth. And she was surrounded.
Two Centaurs, both female, a female Lizardfolk, and a female Dullahan were crowded around Hastel. All of them were [Midwives], a specialist type of [Healer]. The best in the city. But for all the expertise in the room, it was deathly quiet.
Miss Hastel’s face was pale. She was making a faint, animal’s noise. Her breathing was heavy. Sweat was drenching her body and the carpet. And protruding from her lower half, hanging from her abdomen were two legs.
Geneva took in the scene in a moment as she burst into the apartment. She saw the [Midwives] turn in shock and anger. Their faces were pale. Hands bloody. Miss Hastel was bleeding too. But it wasn’t serious.
By her side, Rital was babbling. Trying to explain and plead at the same time. Geneva looked at him and made a call.
“Leave. There’s nothing you can do. I’ll save her if I can. Guard the door. Let Aiko and whoever I need through.”
Give him a task. One that he could do and feel like he was helping. Rital jerked. But Geneva wasn’t focusing on him. Next. The [Midwife] in charge was a Centaur. Geneva strode up to her.
“What’s going on?”
“Who are you? This is a very dangerous—”
“I’m a [Doctor]. I was told there was a problem. What is it?”
The Centaur met her eyes. She was older than the others, in her sixties or so Geneva would have said. She wavered, and then spoke quickly. Geneva listened, hearing Miss Hastel making incoherent sounds. One of the [Midwives] trying to comfort her. The room was tense, like a wake. If any of the Balerosians could have prayed, they would have.
And the sound beneath it all, beneath the pounding of Geneva’s heart, was the sound of her fear. The sheer terror only her will kept at bay.
She’d asked for this. She’d wanted the call. Begged for it in her mind. But that was the thing. When the call came, when the emergency happened, you were never quite ready for it.
Childbirth. Ken had once observed that Centaurs treated females differently than men. They didn’t execute female prisoners. And pregnant mothers were treated carefully regardless of the cause.
There was culture behind that reason. Culture and biology. Because Centaurs had tricky births.
Horses could have complicated births. So could Humans. But whatever their problems, Centaurs were worse because they combined both horse legs and Human head and hands together. Still, a body’s natural functions usually made the process of birth go correctly.
But not always. And it was in those complications where every expecting mother’s nightmares lurked. And a nightmare had occurred. The foal, the baby Centaur that Miss Hastel was delivering had come out the wrong direction. The [Midwives] hadn’t known until they’d seen the angle of the legs, but they’d guessed. A sinking feeling not yet given voice. That quiet terror, building each second with certainty.
“The legs are tangled up with the birthing cord. It can’t come out.”
“If it does—”
That was all. The cord was tangled. The legs at the wrong angle. There was no way to correct it. The [Midwives] could have reversed the foal if it was in another position, but the foal was coming out as a dog sat. Part of it would come out, but the rest would be unable to be born. And the umbilical cord was tangled.
It was the death sentence for Centaurs. The [Midwives] had tried their best to remedy the situation, but there was only so much they could do. Walking, getting up and moving—they’d made Hastel do all of that, and the [Midwife] the Centaur landlady had hired was good. She’d helped with the pain, tried to correct the birth when she’d sensed it going wrong—but there was a limit to her Skills. To her experience, even.
Right now she was stopping the birth with a Skill. But Miss Hastel was groaning and her strength—and the foal’s—was fading fast. Both might die. The foal certainly would.
And here was Geneva. She understood nothing of foaling. She had not been raised on a farm. But the situation reminded her of a situation she’d studied in medical school.
Breech birth. The baby was at risk if a vaginal birth occurred. In this case, the birth would be fatal. So there was only one option Geneva could think of. But the knowledge terrified her.
How long had it taken to hear the [Midwife]’s hushed explanation, put together the obvious on her head? Geneva spun. She rushed to the door. Rital was there. He turned, hair on end, claws out. Daly was panting outside. He looked up. Geneva snapped at him.
“Get me Aiko. Now. And I need more hands. Steady ones. Paige. Siri.”
At the very least. She needed steady hands. And she needed potions. Geneva snapped and Daly ran. She walked back inside, head light.
A surgeon knew how to do a Caesarian Section. But Geneva would have gotten practice. She would have observed—and this was a Centaur. The biology could be—no, it was completely different. And Miss Hastel was already at the limits of her strength. Geneva would be fighting the contractions, racing against time.
If she cut the baby—
A thousand thoughts. Okasha was panicking in Geneva’s head. But the [Doctor] had an icy well in her. Something cold reached up and took control of her hands. Because if they shook, her patient died.
The [Midwife] was blocking Geneva’s way as she got ready. She’d seen the scalpel and feared the worst. The other [Midwives] were staring in horror at Geneva as she checked the sharpness of her blades. The Centaur blocked her, ready to do violence to prevent what might be a horror far worse. Geneva looked up at her.
“I can save her.”
She met the older Centaur’s eyes. And she saw the hopelessness, the fear and pain. And Geneva showed the [Midwife] what was in her eyes. In her very soul. The Centauress hesitated. And then she stood aside.
And Geneva prayed. And then she began her work, and she prayed no longer. Because the child, Miss Hastel, were in no god’s hands, dead or alive.
They were in hers.
Cut. Slowly. So gingerly that Geneva could see the layers of cells peeling back. But oh, even more carefully. Look. Wait. Measure and cut again.
But too slow and it was too late. The [Midwife] was holding each contraction back with all her might. They all were. And hands were holding Hastel. Female hands. She had passed beyond the point of conscious thought. She was more animal than person, lying on the carpet. But she was awake. She couldn’t be put to sleep. There was no way. No time.
Skin was one thing. It could be stitched once more. Healed. But blood was another. A healing potion might do terrible, terrible things if it acted on the contracting birth canal. And it would close the damage Geneva needed to do. So Geneva had made up a transfusion. She had thanked every star in the sky that the compatibility test had revealed Miss Hastel could accept blood from most of the Centaurs outside.
They had given blood. The tube was crude. The blood poured into Miss Hastel’s veins. A horror show that Paige had to keep steady, keep feeding blood as Geneva measured Hastel’s blood loss and intake. And all the while, she cut. Tried to stem the bleeding. But inside—
The baby was there. Tangled up, half-borne. Blood soaked the carpet. One of the [Midwives] began to panic and was ejected. Another fainted. Geneva paid no attention so long as they were out of the room.
A tangled umbilical cord. A knot, like a shoe lace. But oh, be careful. Be so careful. She untangled the foal. Hands wet with blood. If her hands weren’t sterile, this too would have been wrong. But she had Skills. And skill.
Swifter. Too much blood. More blood from outside. The bucket—clean. Gods, if there were rust—
Focusing. The Centaur made a sound, tried to move. The Human girls had to hold her down with all their might. And the [Midwives] were doing the same. Geneva extracted the foal. It was limp. It was not breathing. But the umbilical cord was cut. The Centauress said to wait. Geneva couldn’t.
The foal in a safe place prepared for it. The Centauress—blood. See past the blood. Get rid of it. Aiko’s steady hands. Okasha made each movement of Geneva’s as precise as a laser.
See the damage. Begin to repair it. So many places—a dropper. Drops of healing potion as she stitched. Healing the wound, but not wholesale. More blood. Stitch. Quick, even, quick, even—
Something like an actual body reappearing. More healing potion. Watching bloody tears turn to scar, and then heal. Together. Together. Check—remove the thread. Pulse? Breathing? A staring eye. The shock of a lifetime. But no words. Just waiting. She knows you’re helping.
Stitch. Pray. Stitch. And then—a cry. Baby horses—foals—didn’t breathe for a few seconds. But it took a Centaur child until they could raise their heads, a few minutes—before they would cry.
The sound made Geneva’s hands tremble for a moment. But she stilled herself. She sealed the rest of Miss Hastel. Healed her. And then she sat back.
Then she could shake. Then she could hear. Breathe, inhale the iron scent in the room. Hear the voices outside, see the relief in the others.
Siri, who had faced down a serpent with a crossbow and a dagger, sat on the ground, white-faced, unable to move for a second. Kirana, who’d held the Centauress down as she thrashed, was pale as ice. But then someone breathed. A girl from Earth whispered a prayer. And then the others realized it was done.
Geneva moved backwards. Her tools were bloody. They didn’t belong near the healed Miss Hastel any longer. The Centauress was covering her face with one arm. Tears in her eyes. She was alive. And then the foal cried again, a true wail. And the people outside went silent.
Geneva leaned against a wall in Miss Hastel’s lovely home, her hands dripping blood onto the wallpaper. She didn’t even notice. The sweat Aiko had wiped away time and time again dripped down her face. She only raised her head when she heard and saw a Centaur approaching.
The old [Midwife] had regained some of the color in her face. More than the others in the room. She was tough. And she knelt to speak with Geneva. And the look in her eyes was an echo of the look Geneva had seen.
“My name is Caleffe Umbalt. I am honored, Miss Scala. Truly.”
Geneva coughed. Her throat was dry. Someone handed her a water flask. She drank, coughed, nearly choked. Caleffe waited for her to speak.
“I—was just doing my job.”
“Then it is a job no one else could do. You saved her when I thought no one else could. I have heard of the Last Light. But I did not give the stories credence. Until now.”
“I’m not her. I’m just a person. I can’t work miracles.”
“So you say.”
That was all Caleffe said. She looked over her shoulder.
“What was that? I have heard of…cuttings been done. I thought you were going to kill the child. Remove it—that was how a Centauress was saved once. But never have I heard of someone cutting into her belly and removing…I would trust no one with that task. Not even the highest-level [Butcher] or [Blademaster].”
“Never them. I’m a [Doctor]. That was Caesarian Section. The first I’ve ever done. It’s something used if a birth can’t be done traditionally. Only a [Doctor] can do it.”
“I see. Then fate truly was kind.”
Geneva’s head turned. Miss Hastel’s head was raised. She was looking around. And Geneva saw a limp, wet shape. Clearly unhappy with being alive, struggling to get up. The [Midwives] rushed over. Caleffe stayed put.
“I can only thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Geneva Scala, you have saved their lives.”
She looked at Miss Hastel and the child. Geneva shook her head.
“It was an emergency. I did what I could. But I don’t want to ever do that again.”
A blind Caesarian section on another species without anesthesia or assistants or…Geneva wondered if something this nightmarish had ever happened. No, surely there had been worse cases. She heard a strangled laugh to her left.
Paige was sitting on the floor. Her legs had given way after she’d put the blood transfusion equipment down. She looked at Geneva, face pale, but laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
The Australian girl shook her head.
“Did you hear what you said, Geneva? Only a [Doctor] can do it.”
Geneva’s slow mind took a moment to react. She could hear Okasha whispering in her head.
“Thank goodness, thank goodness. A child!”
And then Geneva’s brain processed what Paige was saying.
Caleffe nodded. She looked again at Miss Hastel.
“I know of many women who would prefer to know there was another way, a backup. Especially for Centaurs. The fear of it—”
“No scarring or stretching, right?”
Paige giggled, a touch hysterically with relief. Caleffe looked at her with great interest.
“Caesarian sections should only be performed if necessary. There is still a risk, and the operation is traumatizing.”
Geneva said that automatically. But her mind was racing. A potion could heal the trauma in moments. Miss Hastel was even able to stand, though the [Midwives] were urging her to rest, and Rital was trying to support her—a somewhat futile endeavor. But she was standing, and she looked—
Another cry made Geneva’s head turn. She nearly dropped her scalpel. The foal was standing. He—it was a he, Geneva had barely noticed—was a tiny thing. A baby and a horse, mixed into one. But there was something entirely Human about the way he struggled to his feet, instinctively going towards his mother, who couldn’t be stopped from going to him.
Geneva stared. And in her head, the fear, concentration, intensity of her work, willpower, determination, all of it coalesced into a single moment. A kind of realization. A thought.
She’d saved dying men and women of all species, dragged them back to life and heard them thanking her. She’d saved lives on a bloody battlefield only to watch them die minutes later. Afterwards she’d been as numb as relieved. The victory bittersweet. But this?
She looked down at the colt, already trying to stand. This was pure.
“I guess I should have trained to be an obstetrician.”
Geneva numbly spoke. It was the kind of stupid thing you said after an event like this. Caleffe looked confused. Paige grinned. And somehow, Geneva found herself sitting. Watching as a baby Centaur suckled for the first time. And then the door was opening, and she heard a cheer that made the baby start wailing, and people were staring at her—and she’d forgotten to wash her hands—
At some point, Geneva slept. And it was a fine, good, deep sleep. The call had come. And she’d been up to the task. That was all she’d wanted.
That night, Talenqual celebrated. For what, you couldn’t say. Not because no one knew—but because there were too many reasons. Because of the victory against the giant snakes? Because of Miss Hastel’s amazing birth that had defied all odds? Because of the Last Light? Because the legends were true?
You couldn’t say. But the streets were abuzz and the United Nations apartments were filled with motion and life. Daly felt like he was caught up in a whirlpool. Every time he turned around there was something to drag his attention. Kirana showcasing her foods to a hungry street. Rital, coming to shake his hand and thank him again and again because Geneva was asleep. An adventurer doing the same for different reasons—
Daly turned. A Dullahan with somewhat battered armor was standing in the street, head in her hands. She was chewing on a dahi kebab. She looked embarrassed and relieved and straight at Daly.
“Eldima? I mean, Captain Eldima, right?”
The leader of the Rustless Guard shook her head.
“Eldima is suitable. After all, your company saved mine.”
“Ah, well, it wasn’t just us. It was everyone—”
“Only one company organized it. It was yours.”
Daly didn’t fight Eldima on the issue. He turned and looked down the street. The Dullahan joined him. People were partying with the Earthworlders, and someone—Dawson probably—had just begun playing some music, almost as loud as when they’d fought the serpents. The bastard had even started with Down Under.
“You spent money for us. Hiring the Centaur Runners. Convincing the other companies and adventurers to help us. And it seems your company is giving out free food.”
Daly winced. That perception was probably one reason why this street was getting flooded. But he could only shrug.
“That’s the United Nations company for you, I guess. We’re poor, but rich in friends. Which is, I dunno, better? Something like that.”
He glanced sideways and saw Eldima smile slightly. Rare on a Dullahan.
“It is a strange philosophy for a mercenary company to have.”
“Ah, well, we’re more than just mercs. We form alliances. Friends. We don’t have enemies, really. This company wasn’t meant to seize power. But to protect. Gather folks like us.”
“I see. It is strange. I would have laughed to hear that a while ago.”
“Because that is how all of the Great Companies first formed.”
The Dullahan looked back at Daly. He hesitated. Eldima tilted her head, and then put it on her shoulders and fastened it. She took a deep breath, then looked at Daly.
“I would like to join your company.”
Daly was caught off-guard. Eldima hesitated.
“We owe you a debt. Besides which, my team is—not doing so well. We are slightly in debt for our armor and it is hard to find work that pays enough. Reaching bounties on time, the cost of healing potions…”
“We’re not so hot ourselves. The Bushrangers aren’t famous, Eldima. We barely get by. And our headquarters—”
Daly gestured. Eldima nodded.
“I understand. But we would be willing to collaborate. Work together. But I feel—your company is one that I can trust. One that it would be good to be…friends with.”
She looked at Daly, almost pleadingly. He hesitated. But then the music swelled, and all he could do was smile. He held out a hand.
“Well then. I can’t say for sure what’ll happen next. But we can always use more friends.”
And he saw a smile. And that was all you needed on a night like this. Daly laughed. And he looked up for a second, grinned at the sky, and then taught a Dullahan how to dance.