Talenqual. It wasn’t cool enough for a proper name, like the City of Serpents, the Ironforged Hearth of the North, the Titan’s School, and so on. It was just Talenqual.
That was fine. Unless you had an ego issue about something like that. This may have been true for the company which controlled the city as its prized headquarters, a hard-won seat of power for them. But it was just peachy for everyone else who lived there. Talenqual was a good city. It just wasn’t famous.
It was, in fact, a lot nicer to live in than other cities. Like, say, Liscor, the Drake city that had been popping up in the news lately. Talenqual was much nicer than Liscor vis-à-vis their location, natural resources, and most importantly, discretionary budget. As a port city, Talenqual could trade on its nali-stick fields, abundant orchards, pastoral land, as well as pull in trade and sustain itself with fishing. By contrast, Liscor survived solely based on its limited holdings and its army, which was never around to actually defend the city.
True, the company controlling Talenqual, the Featherfolk Brigade, had only a fraction of its forces near the city. But the company acted as a support to the local law enforcement, and it never left Talenqual unguarded. Additionally and more importantly, the Featherfolk Brigade was willing to pay to eliminate threats it couldn’t be pressed to deal with itself.
So, snakes. About two and a half weeks ago, a group of Silver-rank teams had gotten wind of a possible dungeon near Talenqual. They had dug into it and, as was the way of many dungeon raids, uncovered death and monsters instead of treasure. They had unwittingly unleashed a pack of massive snakes capable of swallowing regular warriors whole.
It might have meant the end of the Silver-rank teams, but an unusually rapid and effective response from the city’s highest-level inhabitants had destroyed almost all of the giant snakes in a short, one-sided battle. It was a triumph that had saved lives and come at no real cost. A wonderful achievement.
However, it didn’t mean all the snakes were dead. A lot had been killed, skinned, and harvested for meat and other parts (giant snake eyes were a delicacy), but the city was well aware of the dangers if the giant snakes were left to reproduce or if more were left unchecked. So they’d put a hefty bounty on snakes. And as the torrential spring rains let up one midmorning, one group of adventurers was there to collect.
A trio of giant serpents slithered out of their lair, angry and looking for blood. A Human fled ahead of them, arms pumping wildly as she ran for her life. The snakes followed her, fast as horses. The young woman had a head start, but they were closing fast. And they were angry; the smoke and controlled fire the adventurer had set outside of their subterranean home probably played a part.
They were going to catch her. Siri looked over her shoulder as she dashed out of the clearing around the snake’s lair and towards the edge of the forest ahead. The snakes were hot on her heels. But if she could just make it to the trees—!
One of the serpents coiled and sprang. Siri saw it coming as she glanced back and swerved. She heard a huge impact to her right and decided that was too close. The watchers in the trees agreed.
A hail of crossbow bolts struck the serpent that had leapt at Siri, going for the eyes. The snake recoiled as the steel-tipped bolts clattered off its scales; two landed but barely went through the thick scales of the snake. Too far away. Siri swore and doubled her sprint. The snakes’ attention split between her and the forest. They had sensed the heat coming off the group in the forest. Two split off while one kept chasing Siri.
“Hit the eyes! Hit the bloody eyes!”
A male voice shouted as a second volley flew from the trees. This time his order had an effect; one of the snakes reared back, making a pained hissing sound like steam escaping a twelve-foot kettle as it reared back. The other bolts snapped or bounced off. And the two snakes were heading into the forest—Siri dodged into the trees as the one following her lunged again and hit a tree.
Now the snakes were close to the attackers. They slithered around the trees, looking for their prey. They’d sensed the heat of their would-be victims. And they were…
One of the giant snakes, patterned purple and green across its massive head, looked up. It opened its mouth, exposing a set of small, fanged teeth. Daly, sitting in the treetop, realized that meant it wasn’t actually venomous. It was a relative of the boa constrictor, which squeezed its prey to death before consuming it whole.
This breed of giant serpent had clearly taken a similar, but different approach; with its humongous body it could literally smash a bear or deer to death without worrying about horns or claws damaging its armored body. It was clearly an apex predator in many regards. For a moment the Australian adventurer marveled at the magical biodiversity of nature. Then he pulled the trigger and shot a crossbow bolt straight through its eye.
“Got it! Two have only one eye; take the others out!”
Around him, the Bushrangers shouted as they poured more crossbow bolts down. The snakes, writhing in agony, struck the trees with their heads, shaking the branches, but failing to dislodge the adventurers. The Bushrangers had chosen their positions well. Daly loaded his crossbow as he looked around.
“Where’s the third serpent!?”
He saw movement in the trees. Daly heard a shout and swore as he stood up on his branch. He was very high up and felt a jolt in his stomach. But he had to see. Where was she—there!
Siri was running towards them, dodging through the trees as her enraged snake tried to follow her. It was quick, but the trees were slowing it down, giving it no opportunity to spring again. It was still too fast, though. Daly looked down. Siri was passing a very tense set of trees. Almost, almost…he waited until the serpent was passing by the stand of thick-trunked trees and then shouted.
A group of Dullahans exploded from their cover. The Rustless Guard, a group of Dullahans wearing armor led by Captain Edima, leapt forwards and hauled on the ropes they’d set between the trees. The thick coils of ropes came up and suddenly, the giant snake found itself snared. By a net! It turned, but the Dullahans were braced and heaving hard; six of them drew up the net and secured it to the pre-cut anchors in the trees.
They’d formed an enclosure around the snake! It immediately tried to break free, but the ropes were as thick around as Daly’s arm and secured hard; the giant monster also had no room to move as the ropes forced its body into the enclosure. It heaved and Daly saw the ropes strain, but it was trapped.
For now. It could break free, but this bought them time. Daly whistled as he saw Siri come to a halt. Edima turned and he pointed.
“Snakes inbound! Get ready!”
The two serpents had noticed the Dullahans on the ground and decided to give up trying to knock the crossbow-wielding adventurers off their trees. They slithered forwards and Edima shouted.
“Rustless Guard, forward!”
Her Dullahans moved forwards, shouting as they brought up their heavy weapons. Warhammers, axes, shields—they were a heavily-armed and armored team. By contrast, the Bushrangers were light on gear. Daly turned to his team.
“We’re going down! Move it!”
His team scrambled down from the trees. They’d all taken positions at least fifteen feet in the air, well above the serpents, but that meant they’d normally have a terrible time getting down without risking broken bones. Normally, except for what they were all wearing.
Harnesses. And as Daly grabbed a rope and checked his figure-eight knot, he grasped the rope tied to his harness and jumped. He immediately went down, but slowly; he used one hand to lower himself at a controlled drop to the ground. The rope was running through a device attached to his harness; as Daly jumped down his tree trunk, he watched it taking the rope, letting him stop himself from falling too fast.
The other Bushrangers were doing the same. Six adventurers plunged out of the trees with Daly to varying degrees of expertise. It was a textbook maneuver, one they’d practiced. But it went wrong. Halfway down, Daly heard a ping from his left. He looked over just in time to see one of the metal devices snap. The man holding onto his rope dropped with a scream.
The Australian hit the ground with a thump. Daly shouted. He leapt downwards and tore himself loose from his ropes. Cursing, he ran over to his friend in the harness. Dawson was sitting up, but his face was white.
Daly saw a horrible protrusion poking out of Dawson’s shoulder blade, moving the leather armor he was wearing. He swore. Then he noticed Dawson’s right leg was also sitting at a bad angle.
“Hold on! Don’t move! Tofte! Cover Dawson! Drag him away! The rest of you, harnesses off! Follow me!”
He couldn’t focus on Dawson. The Rustless Guard had engaged the serpents in the trees and all Daly could see were the backs of the serpents. He yanked off the restrictive harness, swearing as he tried to pull it off one leg. Then he charged forwards. Four of the Bushrangers went with him as Tofte ran over to Dawson.
The fight with the giant serpents was one that had happened before. And Captain Edima’s team had been part of it. They’d lost horribly; the serpents had sent the Silver-rank adventurers fleeing, helpless in front of their superior size and strength and armor. But that was because they’d been surprised. And that was the thing about adventurers; if they survived, they learned from their mistakes. And they didn’t lose twice.
This time, there were only three serpents. And they were fighting in a bad environment. The trees prevented the giant constrictors from moving as freely. And the Rustless Guard was fighting in the gaps, refusing to be encircled or let the snakes bite them. And as the Bushrangers charged in, they developed another advantage.
Daly shouted as his team grabbed the nets they’d tossed to the ground and rushed to help bind the serpents. It was quick, desperate work; the snakes did not want to be bound, but their heads were busy biting and striking at the Dullahans. And that gave the Bushrangers time to sling ropes and nets underneath the huge serpents and pull, anchoring the ropes to trees, and limiting the serpent’s mobility.
It wasn’t clean. Daly swore as the serpent he was trying to force a rope under twisted and nearly crushed his entire arm. He wrenched his limb free, feeling a moment of horrible pain, but getting clear before it took his arm. And when he got a rope under it and began to ensnare it, anchoring the other end to a tree while Siri wrapped up the snake and anchored her section, he saw two other members of his team struggling.
“Tie the knot!”
Kami, an Australian girl, was shouting at Aldenon. He was struggling with his end of rope and the serpent whose tail they’d grabbed wasn’t having it. Daly turned.
“Kami! Don’t try and hold it yourself! Don’t—”
Too late. As Kami began to let go, the snake twisted and tore itself free of the ropes. Aldenon fell backwards as the rope came loose in a tangle that snapped himself across the face. Kami screamed; Daly saw that she’d been pulled right off her feet. She fell down and he realized the force of the snake had nearly wrenched her arms out of their sockets.
Daly sprinted over towards Kami and dragged her back. He grabbed the rope as Aldenon retied the knot and got the snake’s midsection this time. It strained at the rope and the entire rope nearly snapped, but suddenly it was anchored. And the Rustless Guard descended on the snakes as the remaining Bushrangers continued to ensnare the snakes. But that was only the distraction.
The nets held the snakes; the Dullahans finished the job. Edima and three Dullahans waded into the snake that had knocked Kami off her feet; they’d brought warhammers and began hacking at the snake’s head as it found itself more and more restricted. Unable to dodge or move away, the snake bit and head-butted furiously. But it was trapped. And for all its scales were tough, with a good swing and the right weapon, the scales opened up.
The first snake collapsed after five minutes of fighting, the remains of its head a mess of gouged flesh and deformed impact from the warhammers. The Dullahans turned to the second, which was still fighting the nets. It tore itself free of one anchor as a rope snapped, but the Dullahans kept the head at bay as Edima and another Dullahan attacked the midsection. It was firmly held in place so the Dullahans didn’t risk fighting the head; they just hacked the snake in two.
Edima’s axe sliced through the first layer of scales and flesh like it were paper. Her battleaxe dug into the snake as it screamed; the other Dullahan helped her keep chopping through the snake. It survived the bisection, but it died shortly thereafter. That just left the third snake, still enmeshed in the trap.
“What do we reckon?”
Daly panted as he watched the second snake’s mouth fall open and the weakly writhing body stop at last. Edima wiped blood out of her eyes; the arms and front of her armor were soaked red. She looked grimly at the snake.
“Same as the other two. We’ll cut through its body; we can save the head.”
“Got it. Bushrangers—”
“Or we could try wrapping it up.”
Daly paused. He looked at the Dullahan [Captain]; she had dark skin but blonde hair, a combination not seen often on Earth. She paused to look at him as her team formed up.
“We could capture it. If you have more ropes and you think we could, Sir Daly—we could drag it back to Talenqual. It would be an effort, but I think many [Beast Masters] would pay a lot of gold for a snake like this.”
The Dullahan nodded seriously. She kept her eyes on the serpent all the while; it was fighting the ropes and Daly could see some of the fibers snapping; the nets wouldn’t hold forever.
“Snakes can be trained. Or kept as a pet, even. And if you breed them for food or eggs…”
Siri came up, panting. The other Bushrangers were on their feet, even Kami, and they looked tired, but mostly unhurt. Daly hesitated. All eyes were on him, both his team’s and the Rustless Guard. He thought for a second then shook his head.
“No. Too risky. We can’t haul it all the way, and I don’t trust our ropes. Take it out, Captain Edima.”
“Yes, sir. You, you, and—”
Edima turned instantly and selected three of her people. Daly didn’t watch them take out the final snake. He looked at Siri.
“Help them out. I’m checking on Dawson.”
She nodded. She had a coil of rope slung over her shoulder and her crossbow in her other hand, loaded and aimed at the ground.
“Got it. You want me to shoot the eyes out?”
“Apparently we can get as much as a gold coin for each eye. So no, not unless they’re struggling.”
Siri nodded. Daly jogged back through the trees. He found Dawson sitting with his back to the tree. Tofte was covering him with a crossbow and shortsword. The young man from Norway looked up sharply.
“All sorted. Dawson, mate. How’re you doing?”
The Australian grinned palely at Daly.
“Fuck me, Daly. I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder. And my leg’s twisted or—my damn gri-gri broke!”
Daly nodded. He’d seen the metal piece snap off during the descent. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though. Sorry it happened? Too bad?
“Glad you didn’t fall further. Too bad you didn’t fall on your head though; you’d be fine, then.”
Dawson laughed, swore, and cursed Daly at the same time. The Australian breathed a sigh of relief. He straightened and looked at Tofte.
“We’re going to need a stretcher.”
“I can walk. Just give me a shoulder—”
“Forget it. We’ll get Edima’s squad to help us out. For now—let’s get one worked out. Tofte, break out those blankets from the packs…”
And then it was over. Edima’s squad finished off their serpent without more than a bite on one of the Dullahan’s arms, and healing potions sorted out the rest. They came over, panting, drinking water, stamina potions or healing potions, and gathered around Dawson. Daly started giving orders after a short break.
“Alright, we’ve nearly got a stretcher worked out. Tofte’s got crafting Skills. Edima, anyone in your team have any classes in crafting?”
The Dullahan shook her head. She was washing her iron armor off; bugs were already landing and circling.
“I’m afraid I don’t. How is your man? Is he injured beyond a healing potion?”
“Shoulder’s dislocated. According to Geneva, we don’t want to use a healing potion. She needs to set it right. And his leg…I’m not sure how bad it is.”
“Doctor G will put me right. Don’t you dare pour a healing potion on me.”
Dawson groaned. He was fading. Daly looked around quickly.
The Swedish girl was cutting some rope up to help make the stretcher. Daly nodded in the direction of the main road, some three miles south of here.
“See if you can get to the road with…Kami. Your arms alright, Kami? Good. Then go over there and find a Runner or someone willing to give us a lift for Dawson. I want him back in Talenqual fast. Make sure it’s a smooth ride—and then call for our friends from the Runner’s Guild. Uh…”
“Pihava and Bault?”
“Exactly. I want them and…make it two other pairs with big wagons. We’ll get Dawson to the road.”
“Got it, boss.”
Siri and Kami turned and grabbed their packs before heading out at a jog. Daly looked around.
The Dullahan straightened. Daly saw her team glance up and caught himself. They weren’t in a combat situation so he took a breath.
“Sorry. Captain Edima, I would be very grateful if your team would assist us with butchering the serpents. The critters are already gnawing at them and I want to save the meat.”
The Dullahan smiled at Daly.
“Of course. My team is free for whatever you need.”
The Australian nodded.
“Excellent. Then—can you begin cutting the snakes up? Hack them into pieces we can actually carry to the wagons? Try and get them in pieces so we can harvest big chunks of their skin.”
Dally nodded. He looked at the rest of his Bushrangers.
“As for our team…I’ll help Dawson with that stretcher. Aldenon, Tobi, you’re both on lookout for anything smelling blood. The rest of you, let’s make up something to help drag the snakes towards the road…”
And so they did. It wasn’t as easy as Daly made it out to be; without her [Razor Cut] Skill, Edima and her team had a hard time making precise cuts and the bloody snake parts were being covered in bugs. The Dullahans swore and their armor got bloody and dirty, as did the precious snake parts. And dragging them through the jungle was a hellish ordeal; Daly had to come back and help once he had helped lift Dawson up with two Dullahans and bring him towards the road. Three miles of walking through forest, and then flatter ground was no fun for Dawson. He fainted when they dropped him, but he said little. He just gave Daly a thumbs-up when he got to the wagon.
“Sorry for falling back there, Daly.”
“You did nothing wrong. Your device broke, Dawson. You just rest up. Geneva’ll see to you as soon as you get back. You’ll be on your feet by the end of the day.”
There was hope in Dawson’s eyes as he leaned back in the small rickshaw Pihava had galloped over with.
“That’s be nice. Hell of a thing, healing potions. Back home, this would have…”
He trailed off. Daly checked him anxiously, but Dawson was just unconscious. Daly looked at Kami.
“You go with him. Tell Geneva to check out your arms. And put in a message at the Adventurer’s Guild that we have oversized snakes ready for dissection. They’ll probably direct you to a [Butcher]’s—have them meet us at the gates.”
“You got it.”
Kami swung herself up into the rickshaw. Pihava pawed the ground anxiously.
“Your friend’s okay?”
“Right as rain, Pihava. He’s not badly hurt. Thanks for getting here.”
The Centauress smiled.
“No problem. And your other wagons are on the way!”
Daly waved her off, then went to help pull the snakes out of the jungle. Three miles of carrying bloody, buggy, smelling snake parts, sometimes as a group of eight, balancing the bloody harvest on their shoulders. That wasn’t the part of adventuring you ever thought about, but the snakes were money. As much money as his team would get for killing the damn things. Daly sent off one wagon full of the bloody cargo for immediate butchering in Talenqual; he warned the drivers they’d have to wash off the meat first. The Centaur, Bealt, just laughed.
“Don’t worry. Our [Butchers] will get good cuts. And they’ll make sure nothing lays eggs in the meat. Good thing you went to the Adventurer’s Guild; they’ll hire quality butchers.”
The other three Centaurs shuddered as they turned and began lugging the laden wagons back with them. Daly grimaced as well; he knew the bugs of Baleros were nasty and imagining one of the horde of bugs swarming the snake meat laying eggs he might eat…well, his stomach was already turning and he was covered in guts and blood. Best not to think about it.
“Is your team coming with us, then?”
The final wagon pulled by two Centaurs eyed Daly’s team apprehensively. It was a crowd. Daly shook his head.
“Not us. We’ll call for another pair of wagons, I think. Can you pull your wagon a bit off road? Sorry, but we have one last stop to make.”
The Centaur shrugged.
“You’re paying us. You’ve got more stuff for us to carry?”
“Yeah. Little snakes and eggs.”
The Bushrangers hadn’t forgotten the would-be dungeon and snake’s lair. A final return trip took nearly an hour, which made Daly regret hiring the third wagon; they got paid for waiting about. But it was fruitful. Cleared of their adults, the Bushrangers and Rustless guard found two baby snakes the size of doors and a heap of eggs.
“Oh my god! I’m gonna throw up.”
One of the Bushrangers looked green at the sight of the pile of giant eggs. Daly almost laughed.
“This bothers you?”
“It does when they’re so big! And they almost look like chicken eggs!”
Aldenon shook his head. He eyed the eggs mistrustfully, as did Edima’s group.
“Are we smashing them, Daly? Burning?”
“Neither. We’re taking Edima’s suggestion. We take the snakes and eggs. Alive and intact. Come on, we’ll take the eggs in pairs. Wrap those snake babies up.”
More work. By this point, both teams groaned, even the stalwart Dullahans, but Daly and Edima egged their teams on, partly with bad puns, partly with the thought of how much live snake eggs were worth. Daly shouted as his team lifted the eggs, groaning at the weight.
“You want to earn some spending money? Think of how much a [Beast Tamer] pays for a serpent egg! Or how much it’s worth to someone who likes eating the stuff! I’m sure some Lizardfolk [Chef] will pay gold for these. Drop it and you drop our income, got it?”
That did the trick. In the end, Daly bullied, coerced, and flattered the teams into filling the Centaur’s wagon. By that point two more wagons had returned with Pihava and Bealt leading one, and three wagons returned to Talenqual. The bloody, dirty, sweaty adventurers sat in the back, washing themselves off with the last of their water. They were tired and exhausted. But the instant they saw the city, their spirits rose.
“Drive us straight to the harbor, Pihava, Bealt! I’m jumping in the water!”
One of the Bushrangers called out to their Centaur Runners. The two chuckled. Daly would have loved to join them, but he regretfully called the wagons to halt.
“I’m going with the eggs and little snake babies. Adventurer’s guild, please.”
“I will go with you.”
Edima looked like she could have used a dip in the ocean too, but she offered and Daly accepted. Their wagon went to the Adventurer’s Guild. Happily, a Centauress [Receptionist] was already waiting for them with Siri.
“We thought you’d be back earlier. What’s this? Eggs? And…”
The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened as she saw the snake babies. Siri blinked at the large serpents, still very young but still as big as any snake Daly had ever seen in Australia.
“They weigh a ton. Miss, can we sell these? And these eggs are all fertilized so they contain live snakes. No telling on when they’re hatching. Can we sell them to the Guild?”
The Centauress blinked hard, but selling giant snake eggs was, in fact, a situation she’d been trained for.
“Of course. We’ll need to find buyers quick. But I can quote you a price now. Or we can negotiate on what the Guild gets…”
“We’ll let the Guild do the sale and take our cut, thanks.”
“Of course. As for the little snakes, let me contact a [Beast Master] right now.”
The Centauress trotted off quickly. Siri peered at one of the snakes that Daly had roped up to prevent it from moving.
“It’s cute. Could we keep one, maybe?”
“Keep—you want one of those? As a pet?”
“We could try. Imagine having a fully-grown snake if one of our team became a [Beast Master]? I could try.”
Siri gently stroked the little snake’s head. It was quivering a bit; Daly stared at it. It was cute. But…he sighed.
“We can’t feed one of those yet. Sorry, Siri. But imagine how much meat it’ll eat? And finding a place for it? No.”
She looked so crestfallen, Daly had to throw her a bone.
“Tell you what. If we find a cuter, smaller animal on another hunt, we can talk about keeping the babies. If we find them. Deal?”
She smiled. Now Daly would have to worry about Siri suggesting monster hunting contracts from now on. Then again…he did feel a pang of regret as he imagined a giant, fully-grown snake for a war pet. But the sight of a [Beast Master] Lizardman hurrying back and the gold he gave Daly for the snakes and three of the eggs was very soothing in itself.
Daly waited for the Centauress to give him a receipt for the remaining eggs, the money from the [Butchers] who’d dissected the snake parts, and then he claimed the bounty for the destruction of three giant snakes and their nest.
Money, money, money. Daly counted it all, put it in a bulging coin pouch, and then he had to go to the harbor and wash the blood and filth off him. Siri and Edima joined them. The Dullahan sighed as she splashed the salty water on her armor.
“At last! I was about to become sick.”
“Bloody oath! That’s a good feeling!”
Daly dunked himself twice, sighing as he felt so much cleaner. A fish swam up and nibbled at a bit of snake; he watched it flit away through the water, then turned.
“So. How was that for our first big team-up? Captain Edima, mind joining us for a drink? Because I think we deserve some congratulations…and we should talk about how it went.”
The Dullahan paused in the act of scrubbing at her hair. She’d taken off her head to more easily tend to it, and Daly was curious to see how the water interacted with the vacant gap between her shoulders, from which light red mist was drifting. To his surprise, the water just flowed over the opening, and the mist disappeared, but a red light shone from inside the Dullahan’s body when she dunked herself. The head glared and Siri poked Daly.
“Don’t be lewd.”
“Lewd? I ah—come on! Sorry, Captain Edima.”
The Dullahan blushed a bit.
“Edima is fine, Sir Daly.”
“Then Daly’s fine, at least when we’re not uh, working. A drink?”
She nodded as she fastened her head to her shoulders. Daly chose the nearest pub and wasted no time; the Bushrangers and Rustless Guard were waiting, so he handed Edima a stack of coins.
“This is your team’s share. We’ll get more later, and sort out the exact numbers, but pass this out, please, Edima. And as for you Bushrangers…”
He passed out a gold coin apiece. Edima looked shocked; her team had taken the smaller cut and each member was still getting a good bit more than that. Siri smiled as she explained.
“It’s company money. This is their bonus.”
“Ah. I see.”
The Dullahan nodded a few times. Daly nodded as well and waved a hand. He raised his voice.
“We’ll see about the rest, and I’ll get this to Paige. But for tonight, your first three drinks are on me, both teams!”
They cheered loudly at that. Daly smiled as the Humans began shouting orders at the Lizardgirl server who came by, and the Dullahans raised their hands, letting their team go in order of importance. He excused himself and took another table with Edima and Siri. They settled down and Edima looked at Daly. He lifted a hand as a second [Server], a Centaur, delicately navigated around the tables.
“Excuse me. I’d like a mug of whatever beer you have.”
“We’ve got several. Have a preference?”
“Uh—your best bitter.”
“That will be a Calian lager. And who’s next?”
The Centaur looked at Daly. Both he and the Human were keenly aware that rank mattered, so Daly instantly turned to Edima.
She nodded appreciatively.
“I will have some dry Seamaster’s Gin.”
“And for you?”
“I’ll try the gin as well.”
“I’ll have your drinks in a moment. Are you paying for that table?”
“That’s right. Send the bill over here, thanks.”
The Centaur blinked a few times. Daly clarified.
He nodded and trotted off. Daly sighed as he leaned back. It was amazing how many linguistic similarities this world had with his. But the concept of a ‘bill’ was still foreign to most places, especially since that was a waste of paper, parchment, and ink. He waited until everyone had a drink and downed half of his mug. Then he decided to order an appetizer.
“Got any snacks?”
The Centaur raised his eyebrow.
“How do you feel about shrimp? Sautéed?”
“Beautiful. Give us a plate and some for that lot.”
“Four plates, then?”
Daly smiled as the Centaur left and came back minutes later with some hot, spiced shrimps that earned him another cheer. He leaned back.
“Captain Edima, help yourself. My team’s eating at headquarters, but a snack’s welcome.”
The Dullahan nodded appreciatively, but she still waited for Daly to snag one of the shrimps first before taking one for herself.
“Indeed it is. You’re quite generous with your team, Daly.”
Daly grimaced. He was a bit embarrassed, actually. Drinks weren’t expensive, and neither were a few plates of shrimp. Compared to the amount of gold still resting in his belt pouch, he was stealing from his team. But it was gold that the entire company would use, so he tried not to feel too bad. He’d definitely ask the [Bartender] to buy a bottle or two for tonight, thought.
“I’m not sure about generous, but after a day of hard work, we’ve all earned a break, Edima. How’re you feeling? Your team?”
The Dullahan stopped chewing and swallowed. She answered slowly, glancing from Daly to Siri. She’d put her head on the table and was feeding it to eat. Daly knew he shouldn’t stare, but Dullahans were still fascinating to him. Half of Edima’s team was doing the same thing, placing their heads on the table rather than keeping them on their shoulders.
“I would say my team is in very good spirits, Captain. As am I. This was one of the smoothest hunts we’ve had. And the least bloody. Not one member of my team was badly hurt, and against those giant snakes? It was refreshing to get back at them.”
She grinned toothily and Daly and Siri nodded. Edima paused.
“I hope your subordinate is well, though. What happened? I didn’t see one of the snakes attacking him.”
“Ah, that? He fell when he was rappelling down.”
“Using ropes to descend the trees. I didn’t see what happened either, Daly. What was it? Did Dawson let go?”
Siri glanced at Daly. The Australian grimaced and took a longer drink before waving for a refill.
“Nope. His, uh, gri-gri broke midway down. Damn thing just fell to pieces.”
Edima looked confused. Siri drew in her breath sharply.
“I thought they were in good condition!”
“So did I. But I guess the [Blacksmith] who worked them up didn’t forge them quite right. Paige is going to be pissed.”
She was the one who’d come up with the idea for the Bushrangers, after all. Although it had been Paige, Dawson, and a few others in their company who’d had the experience with climbing to redevelop the tools from home. Still, just knowing how to tie a figure-eight knot, how to belay, and use a gri-gri had provided a huge advantage. Edima looked very impressed.
“Perhaps the [Blacksmith] is not entirely at fault, although I do not know the mechanism he made. I’ve never heard of a team with the type of gear your team used, Daly, Miss Siri. I know some that can fight in heights, but the way your team went down the trees so quickly…it is profoundly different from how my team operates. No—most Dullahans would not ever dream of climbing trees. Perhaps throwing an arm up for an ambush, but sitting in the trees? The limbs would break under my weight.”
She gestured to her armor. Daly nodded.
“It’s a new tactic on us, too. But I like it. Assuming we can make sure there are no more accidents, we’re going to use this a lot. Sitting in a tree and shooting a Stelbore would be a lot safer than the ground.”
Edima nodded cautiously.
“The Bushranger’s ability to ambush and lay traps is quite amazing. Those ropes simplified a difficult fight, as did smoking the snakes out of their lair. But I hope our teams can continue working together?”
She looked hopeful. And no wonder; over the last two weeks, both her team and the Bushrangers had participated in a number of jobs together without so much as a hitch. This latest one had put more gold into Daly’s pockets and Edima’s than any job he’d done prior to this. He smiled reassuringly.
“No doubt about that. Your Rustless Guard has exactly what my team lacks, Edima. Armor and heavy weaponry. If you’re willing, we’ll definitely work on other jobs. Say in two or three days? Unless a really good job pops up.”
The Dullahan nodded rapidly.
“Of course. This will be a welcome break, and we have money to spend. I will contact you if I see anything. Otherwise, I thank you again for a job well done.”
A smile played over her lips. Daly smiled and lifted his mug as his refill came just in time.
It was only an hour later when Daly left the tavern. The rest of his team he left to their drinks, having covered his promised amount. He might have stayed longer, but he did want a proper meal at the headquarters. And he wanted to check on Dawson.
Siri came with him. Daly had told her she could stay, but like Edima, who’d taken off at the same time, Siri didn’t quite ‘fit’ with the rest of her team. She looked at him as he stuffed the bottle of wine under one arm. She was carrying some of the Seamaster’s Gin, which she’d taken a liking to.
“I’m not quite one of the team, Daly. You and I are team leaders. I can’t always hang out with them.”
There was a disconnect, sometimes. Daly liked his team and they worked hard, but if it came to something hard to do—like breaking up a fight, assigning punishment, or telling someone off, he had to do it. So did Siri, and that meant friendships and relationships were different. Also, they were the ones who made some of the big decisions for their team.
They were the only ones who knew about Okasha, for one. For another, they were the two who Paige called upon when she talked over problems in their group. Ken, Aiko, Geneva…they made up an inner circle. It was a known fact, and no one had accused them of being dictators. But still.
“Where’s Dawson? Geneva’s clinic?”
“Probably headquarters. She wouldn’t need to treat him that long. She told me she can fix a shoulder or even broken bones quick.”
“If she can cut people open and get to the issue, she can pour healing potion on the bone, yeah. I just wish she had anesthesia.”
Daly shuddered. Siri nodded. Both of them had been patched up by Geneva and the process was more effective than any healing potions thanks to her many Skills. But it hurt. Geneva spot-treated injuries with healing potions, and to do that for, say, internal bleeding, she had to slice your stomach open. While you were looking up at her from the operating table.
“Headquarters it is. Hope Dawson likes this.”
The two headed off one of the main streets and down a fairly well-paved road. Normally they would have had to do a few more turns and twists to get to a poorer street where their cramped headquarters was. But not this time. They reached the United Nations company headquarters ahead of time. And it was a proper headquarters now. A pair of double-story buildings were theirs, and two streets over was Geneva’s clinic, a small place, but very clean and with thick doors. To muffle screams and crying.
“Hoi, Kirana! Is Dawson here?”
Daly opened the door and shouted into the apartment. He heard a voice, then someone pushed out of the kitchen. Priya, one of the Indian girls, pointed shyly next door.
“Kirana’s in the other apartment. Dawson is there too.”
“Got it. Thanks, Priya. Where’s Paige?”
“Same place. Dinner’s here. In twenty minutes.”
Priya pointed to a sand hourglass placed outside of the kitchen. Both Daly and Siri perked up.
“Awesome. In that case, we’ll be right back. And can you send someone here to get the Bushrangers? They’re at…uh, the Lizardgirl’s Frill.”
That was that. Daly waved as he closed the door. They didn’t have a convenient door linking apartments yet, but Paige was talking Miss Hastel into letting them make one, and Daly had assured the Centauress [Landlady] that he could do it himself if need be. And both buildings were a lot bigger than their previous setup.
Nevertheless, a third building would be nice to avoid people sleeping so close together. And maybe with this…Daly pushed open the door.
“Hey Dawson, you bastard! You’d better not be hurt! We’ve got a job tomorrow!”
A loud, cheerful voice came from a couch. Daly saw Dawson lying on his back, eating some snacks as Kirana and Paige sat in chairs around him. He glared at Daly came into the building.
“I thought you’d be checking on me right out of the clinic! You had a drink, didn’t you? Don’t lie!”
“Everyone had a drink, Dawson. But don’t be too upset or I won’t share this bottle with you. Fancy wine or gin?”
“Wine! Who bought the stinking gin?”
Siri went over and handed the bottle to Kirana as the young woman stood up.
“Me. How’re you doing, Dawson?”
The burlier fellow sat up and grimaced.
“I’m good. Doctor Geneva set my arm, which hurt like—but she fixed my foot too. Says I need two days of rest, but if we really have a job…”
“Would I do that to you?”
Daly grinned as he offered Dawson the bottle. Dawson grunted appreciatively; he liked wine better than beer or spirits, especially the sweeter varieties you could buy. Kirana tutted.
“No drinking from the bottle, please! Here.”
She went into the kitchen and got a cup for Dawson. He poured himself a big drink as some more people came down the stairs.
“Hey Lorenzo, Nicola.”
Daly greeted the two Italians who were walking downstairs. Lorenzo waved and spoke in somewhat mangled English.
“Hello, Daly. You came back?”
Daly paused and enunciated clearly for their benefit.
“From adventuring? Yeah. We got back. We have wine. Want some?”
He pointed. Lorenzo and Nicola brightened considerably. But Kirana fended them off, much to their dismay.
“At dinner! Dinner! We can have some.”
“He has some.”
“He fell out of a tree!”
“Out of a…?”
“Tree. Yeah. It’s…Nicola?”
“Albero. È caduto da un albero.”
Daly laughed. He tried to explain while Paige helped herself to some of Siri’s gin. Kirana took the two bottles away before more could be shared as the others came back. And soon it was time for dinner.
“Oh boy. What’re we eating today?”
“Dum aloo—potatoes and a curry sauce with rice. Also, we have some salads, some sweet muffins for desert that Priya has baked. But our main dish is steak.”
Daly’s mouth began to water at once. Dawson heaved himself up at once.
“Steak? I love the sound of that!”
“Sit back down. We’ll bring it over.”
Paige pointed at the couch. Dawson lay back, grinning happily. Then he frowned.
“Wait. I thought Indian people can’t eat cows or something.”
“Beef. And that’s not an issue.”
The two Australians frowned.
“Why wouldn’t that be—”
And then Daly realized. He roared in outrage.
“Wait a second, we’re eating snake?”
“To be fair, it was really good snake.”
Daly burped. He had to hand it to Kirana; she’d turned the snake meat from the giant snakes into something that wasn’t only palatable, but tasty. Everyone had stuffed themselves on meat, while the vegetarians that were left had eaten the dum aloo, which really was delicious.
Daly had to admit, ever since Kirana had begun managing the kitchen, the food had turned from passable to downright delicious. If you added that to their new living environs, their teamwork with the Rustless Guard and all the little updates since Geneva had made her big breakthrough…he actually felt good. Strange as that was, Daly felt good about life here. And how crazy was that?
It wasn’t perfect of course. It was just better. Paige had taken one look at the Bushranger’s gold and told Daly a third building wasn’t an option.
“We can’t afford the rent yet. I want to have gold in case of emergencies and even with our jobs, three buildings is pushing it with the other projects we’re committing to. Miss Hastel is charging us as little rent as possible, but we still need to pay her.”
“Hey, I get it. No worries, Paige. We’ve got a lot more room than we did in the old place even with this. Where’s Geneva?”
Daly hadn’t seen her at dinner. Paige sighed.
“At her clinic. She’s working on a new procedure or her antibiotics or something. If she’s not back in an hour I’ll get someone to fetch her.”
“Gotcha. Ken and Aiko, how’s your side of things? Anything happen while we were on our trip?”
Ken relaxed next to the others at their small table. They were in an upstairs room next to Paige’s private workshop. Downstairs they could hear voices, laughter, someone shushing loudly—the others were watching a movie on a laptop with the last of the wine and gin. The mood was good. Ken smiled.
“I did well. My job is mainly listening and talking, so I ended a few fights.”
“God. Remember Michael? Well, some of the others have joined him. They’re not getting along with people praying. Especially since some of them want to pray to Mecca. And guess where that is?”
She waved a hand. Daly grimaced.
“So they’re mocking them?”
“Yes. And worse, there’s fighting about which direction they should be praying towards and if there is a god. And let me tell you, that’s not a fun argument to have. Ken sorted it, and I don’t know how.”
The young man nodded modestly.
“It is my job. After that I went around the city.”
That meant he was doing the rounds, as some of the others put it. Ken had no set job; the United Nations company didn’t have far-off contacts as of yet. But they did have allies, and Ken made a point of visiting everyone from Miss Hastel to the Silver-rank teams that Daly knew, to [Shopkeepers], [Captains], and so on at least once a week.
He’d go out and buy small gifts, or treat them to a meal, or buy a drink. Small things that he was budgeted for that made everyone favorably inclined towards him. It was an excellent use of a little bit of coin. Ken pretended it wasn’t nearly as important as Daly’s job, or Geneva or Paige’s, but he had been the one who’d been able to call an army to save Eldima and the others back then. But Ken just turned to the young woman sitting next to him.
“Aiko was working at Geneva’s, so I do not know how she is.”
“Good! We saw two patients, both of whom had Yellow River.”
Aiko shuddered. She shook her head.
“But they wanted fast cures, not what Geneva told them to do. Even though her patients in Quallet’s camp got better! I think they will be back, hopefully before it gets worse…but there are a lot of mothers asking about Geneva’s C-section! She doesn’t want to give many, though.”
Daly sighed. Paige looked annoyed.
“She’s right that not everyone needs them. But we’re getting a steady income from her now. Add it into the jobs people are working and the Bushranger’s money, and we will be able to afford a third building soon. Unless we have anything else we should be spending money on? My workshop and Geneva’s experiments eat up some of our coin, but what should we save up for now?”
The Japanese [Diplomat] twiddled his thumbs absently. He looked up and nodded a few times.
“I think it is time to invest in what Daly called the ‘big things’ now. After the third building, perhaps?”
The others looked at each other. Paige sat up a bit and Siri stopped sipping the last of her cup.
“You think so, Ken?”
He nodded carefully.
“Perhaps not all of our money should go there. Paige’s emergency fund is very wise, I think. So how about this? We save up enough money for her fund. Then we put the rest towards the apartment and rent for a month or two. And then after that? We allocate…twenty percent to paying for things everyone has been asking for. More regular [Repair] spells. Books. Proper beds. Um…”
Paige suggested a tad bit sarcastically. The [Diplomat] hesitated and gave a [Diplomat]’s response.
“Not toys, but fun tools for everyone to use. A chess set, perhaps. Things like that. But that is twenty percent. The rest should go to buying Daly’s team magical equipment, or Paige some magical wood. Spellbooks. And the boat Luan mentioned last time he was here.”
All eyes turned towards Daly. He felt a skip of excitement in his chest.
“That would be the turning point, sure enough. We’ve been keeping our heads above water. But if we can spring for some actual magical gear, like proper armor or get Paige the materials she needs to make a magical crossbow…”
So far the Bushranger’s income had gone solely towards the company and putting a roof over everyone’s head and feeding them. Daly hadn’t begrudged that, although it had been hard. But now, if all the money everyone made was going towards equipping them…he held his breath. He wasn’t going to push for it. Ken looked around.
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
“I’m sold. Especially since I’ll get more things to work with. And I want to try and learn magic. I think we all do.”
Paige leaned forwards, nodding. Siri did to, as did Aiko. That meant all of the current leaders were in agreement, and Daly didn’t think Geneva would object that hard either. He smiled.
“Then it’s settled. We’ll all draw up a wish list and take turns getting what we need. I’d be happy to make that a first priority after a third building and a spellbook. The Bushrangers have added a few of our own, but if I could get two or three [Mages] working with us, we’d be able to do a lot more.”
“Count me in. I want to learn magic.”
Siri nodded. Aiko was sighing. Everyone was, actually. Magic. Now that would be something worth all the struggles. Ken clapped his lands lightly, looking pleased.
“In that case, I think we have done well. Daly, thank you and your team for working so hard.”
The others murmured their agreement. Daly grinned at Siri.
“Ah, it’s nothing. We’re going to be loafing around for a day or two anyways. But I’ll light a fire under the asses of the Bushrangers and they’ll work twice as hard once they hear they’re going to get some gear. That’s all I’ve got. Anyone else have something to bring up?”
They didn’t. So that night’s meeting of the United Nations leadership adjourned. Daly stretched as he got up.
“I need a bath.”
Siri pushed past him. Daly sighed, but let her go ahead. Baths were a luxury, given that you had to get the water yourself. He glanced around as he filed out of the room. Paige was still seated, and she was giving him…he paused and let Ken and Aiko pass by.
“We should call this the security council meeting or something. Of the United Nations? Only, we actually like each other and get things done.”
Aiko laughed a bit. Ken looked blank.
“Is that a joke? I’m sorry, I don’t understand it.”
“You know, the security council from…never mind.”
Daly put his head against the doorframe. Ken smiled again and Daly heard him ask Aiko something in Japanese—probably for an explanation. They left and Daly waited a beat before looking back.
Paige slowly got up from her chair. She nodded at the door and Daly tilted his head. Everyone else was out of earshot. She walked past.
“Let me get some things. We’re going for a walk.”
She didn’t reply. Curious, Daly went downstairs and found that Geneva had finally returned. She was eating in the kitchen as the others watched Les Misérables on a laptop. Daly waved at her as Geneva munched on cold snake steak.
“Hey Geneva, how’s it going?”
He waited. Geneva chewed her bite and looked up. She paused.
“I didn’t have anything extraordinary happen to me. I saw Dawson; he wasn’t too badly hurt but the fall could have been worse. Be careful with that climbing.”
“It was the uh, gri-gri that snapped. We’ll check our gear carefully, maybe get more made and test them out.”
“Got it. I heard you killed some snakes.”
“That’s right. I think you’re eating some of them.”
The [Doctor] paused in her next bite. She hesitated, then took a bite. She chewed, and Okasha’s voice, higher-pitched and decidedly more cheerful, came out of Geneva’s mouth.
“Hey, Okasha. Take care of Geneva for us, will you?”
“Will do. Don’t get upset, Geneva. It’s just snake…”
“I hate snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”
Daly snorted and left before Okasha could ask what was so funny. Geneva had a sense of humor? He was about to tell Paige about that as she came down the stairs. Then he noticed the look on her face. The hint of tension, hidden, and the very large, and very bulky object she had wrapped up in a sack that she was carrying oh, so carefully. Daly hesitated. Could she have…?
Paige stepped behind the glowing laptop’s screen and Daly followed. No one else commented; they were too busy watching the movie. The two Australians walked out of the building, down the steps, and then down the street. Daly eyed Paige and the thing she was holding. It was round, and she had a smaller burden clutched in one hand.
“Can I take…?”
“No. Take the smaller one and for the love of god, don’t drop it. And don’t let anyone see until we’re out of the city.”
“How far out?”
“To a place no one can see. It’ll take twenty minutes. Come on. This is heavy.”
Paige picked up the pace. Daly glanced down at the small object she’d handed him. It too was concealed in a sack, but as he looked at it, something on the back of his neck began to prickle. Daly didn’t have [Dangersense], but if he had he thought it would be going off right now.
And his intuition was good, so he followed Paige swiftly, bearing his small burden carefully as could be. As they walked through the dark streets of Talenqual, both he and Paige stayed well away from anyone carrying a torch, a lantern, or any kind of fire.
Fifteen minutes of power walking later, Paige and Daly were well outside of Talenqual and in a private area of trees, off the main road. It wasn’t so deep that they couldn’t run for Talenqual; you could even see the city if you walked back a bit. But it was private—they’d passed by the outer farms and orchards to the left and gone off the main trade road.
It wasn’t exactly quiet about; the local wildlife had a cacophony of their own. But Daly sincerely doubted they had an audience.
“Alright. What’ve you got to show me you didn’t want to tell the others about?”
Daly turned to Paige. She bit her lip as she slowly and gingerly lowered her burden down.
“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell them. I just don’t know whether I should. Especially Geneva. Siri will need to know, but you asked for this and I…wanted to get your opinion first. Remember what you asked me for? It’s done.”
She reached out and took Daly’s much more lightweight burden from him. She opened it up and gingerly pulled something out. Daly’s pulse skyrocketed at once.
They came in many shapes. And they didn’t look like the ones you saw on TV, most of the time. Except that at some point, they probably had. And the little, papier-mâché sphere the size of Daly’s hand looked exactly like one of those cartoons. Except that the orb was a whitish-grey color, not black. And the fuse was a lot, lot longer than normal and it wasn’t lit. Otherwise? It was a bomb.
“Fuck me sideways. Is that a grenade?”
“You asked me to make one. So I did.”
Paige hunched her shoulders. She stared down at the bomb—no, the grenade-sized bomb in her hand. Daly’s skin crawled. I was just holding that! He looked at the little sphere.
“Is it safe?”
The [Engineer] looked up irritably.
“I wouldn’t have given it to you if it wasn’t safe! Don’t worry. I’ve thrown these things, knocked them about—at a distance—even put an arrow through one. They don’t explode unless there’s fire and the sphere is sealed tight. But yes, this is a grenade. Packed with gunpowder. You want to see what it does?”
Daly nodded. He stared at the little orb. Paige had actually made…? His skin was crawling with unease. He’d never seen a real weapon like this up close. She took a few breaths.
“Okay. I’m going to light it, toss it, and it’ll go off. I didn’t fill it with anything but gunpowder, so it’ll explode, but we’ll be safe. I’ll throw it there. See? I have a clear shot. ”
She walked a good bit away from the bag she’d put down and reached for her belt. She cursed.
“Damn it. I forgot to bring a lantern or something. I need to make some fire. Give me a second?”
Daly froze as Paige tossed the bomb at him. He swore as he caught it.
“Don’t do that!”
“It won’t go off. Stop being a baby. You said you wanted this and I made it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t juggle explosives. Isn’t there a chance it could ignite?”
“Probably? But it’s humid. Here. Hand it back.”
Paige had a small burning candle in one hand. Daly gingerly handed it back and the girl took a breath.
“Okay. Here goes.”
She swiftly lit the fuse with one end. Daly saw the flame slowly burning down the waxy rope and Paige turned. She threw the orb far and fast between a group of trees; it hit the ground and rolled for a moment. Daly watched the fuse burning. The fire didn’t exactly race down it. Still, he held his breath. Until he realized it was going to take a bit.
“Sort of slow.”
“I haven’t figured out how the fuse works best yet. And I’ve made them long for a reason.”
“Still, if we’re using this in a combat situation—”
“Just watch this one, okay?”
Daly shut up and did just that. He shifted from foot to foot as the fuse slowly burnt away. It really was too long, but Paige’ eyes were locked on the little orb. Daly wondered how much of a bang it would make. Surely not much? Grenades were small, but weren’t they filled with…higher-grade gunpowder or something? Paige had just gotten the ingredients for the stuff a little while ago. So surely—
That was the sound the orb made. But it wasn’t a ‘bang’, or a mere pop of sound. It was a full explosion that made Daly half-duck and shot his heart up into his mouth. The sounds of the jungle instantly stopped. And the explosion was a lot larger than he’d thought. He felt the wind change from where he was standing and when he stared at the spot where the orb had been…
Daly had to force himself to inspect the blast spot. It took a moment to find the actual impact spot; some of the forest floor had been blown away, but the actual zone of impact was very small. He looked at Paige.
“That was a lot bigger than I thought it would be! But the impact…”
She shook her head.
“If you’d have been standing next to it, that wouldn’t have been fun, believe me. But grenades don’t do damage because of the explosion. It’s the shrapnel that does it. And I used paper and nothing else. That was a demo. What do you think?”
“What do I think? I think you just made a grenade, Paige! In what, two weeks? Who’s a rocket scientist, then?”
Daly grinned shakily at her. But Paige didn’t look pleased. She pointed at the bit of overturned earth.
“If I gave you some of those, Daly, shortened the fuses, and packed them with some rocks or metal, they’d be like grenades. What do you think? Would they help out your Bushrangers against those snakes you fought this morning?”
The adventurer hesitated. He looked back at the blast zone and forced himself to think. If they were filled with shrapnel and he threw, say, four of them…if you tossed one in a snake’s mouth, that might be different, but if it hit their armor? Reluctantly, he shook his head.
“I don’t think so, Paige. Grenades were anti-people weapons, right? You could shred some people if they were bunched up with one of these, but not a monster. Ironic, huh?”
He glanced up. Paige shook her head slowly. Slowly, she bent and reached for the second sack, the much larger one.
“I was afraid you’d say that. Okay. In that case, I’ve made this.”
This time she pulled out a bomb. Daly recoiled; this wasn’t a grenade. It was a bit smaller than a basketball, with an iron outer shell and a wick. It looked like a bomb from a cartoon. But the way Paige held it, and the look on her face…
“You carried that around?”
“What am I supposed to do, cart it? And if you use this—if anyone does, they have to stand some bouncing. I’m going to light this, so you and I need to run at least a hundred feet out of the trees. See this fuse?”
She indicated the very long piece of string. Daly stared at it.
“A hundred feet? We won’t even see—”
“You don’t want to see it any closer. Believe me. You get back. I’m lighting this thing. I’ve filled this with shrapnel. A hundred feet out of the trees at least. I’m running for two hundred and you and I are staying close to the ground. There’s an incline over there; we take cover behind it.”
Paige set the bomb down. Daly hesitated. Then he turned and ran. He found the incline and, panting, crouched down behind it. He glanced up and saw Paige running after him. She tumbled over the rise of dirt and panted.
She lay flat. Daly hesitated.
“Hold on, we’re far enough, aren’t—”
“Get down, you idiot! Or do you want to be hit! Cover your face and stay down! Shrapnel could still hit—”
Maybe this fuse was faster, or the run had taken longer than Daly thought. Either way, this time the explosion made his heart stop. It was so loud, he heard his ears ringing.
They had to have heard that in Talenqual! What if someone investigates?
Daly nearly got up but Paige held him down. She waited for ten seconds. Only then did she get up.
This time the blast wasn’t hard to miss. Nor was the destruction. Daly stared at the shredded tree trunks, and then at a tree. It had fallen down, and he could see a few bits of metal embedded in the trunk. Shakily, he looked over at Paige.
“You could blow up a house with that! And you had that in your workshop?”
“I kept it locked away. But yes, I did. And you asked me to make this thing.”
That was true. But Daly still couldn’t believe it. He looked at Paige, shaking his head.
“You made a bomb? Just like that?”
She nodded. Paige looked around, but there weren’t any pieces of the bomb’s casing left to find on the ground. She slowly shook her head and bit her lip.
“I’m not happy about this, Daly. I know I said I could do it. But it was too easy to make. Once I had the ingredients, it took me three days of careful experimentation to figure out the right ratio of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal to make the gunpowder. I did some tests with containers. After that, I had a [Blacksmith] make a shell like this and bought some metal scrap. Daly, it took me less than a week to make this. Imagine what happens if Quallet got ahold of this? Or a larger company?”
“I had—I didn’t ask you to make one of these to sell, Paige. Geneva would kill me first. But we can use them.”
“You’re sure? After that, you’re sure you want one of these?”
Paige looked up questioningly. She stared hard at Daly. And for a second he hesitated. He understood what she was asking, why she’d shown him this in private. You want to me to make more of these? And for a second, the decent part of him agreed with Paige. But…he looked around at the jungle and clenched a fist. Then he slowly replied to Paige.
“When we take on monster contracts, we have to weigh how dangerous our target is against the reward. We took a risk on the snakes and we spent two days preparing and another scoping out the nest. We needed ropes, we had to team up with the Rustless Guard…and it was still closer than I’d like. Those snakes are the baddest thing we can take on. Give us some of these and we can take on almost anything.”
He kicked at the blown up earth. Paige just stared at him.
“You want to bomb monsters?”
“You want me to fight them with crossbows and swords? Paige, maybe the Bushrangers shouldn’t earn money like we do. But aside from Luan and Geneva, we’re the only source of income the company has. And after seeing some of the monsters we fight, I think adventurers are needed. I don’t think this world needs bombs. Especially not Baleros. But give me one of these and no one can copy it, right?”
“Not unless you don’t use it.”
Paige folded her arms, looking deeply troubled. She stared again at Daly.
“You really want more?”
He closed his eyes and nodded.
“I asked. And I think…yeah, I think we do need them, Paige. You saw the snakes we brought in, didn’t you?”
“I saw parts of them.”
“Well, they were a lot bigger in person. Say we go up against them again. I’d like to use these. Just our team. Just when we have to. We don’t show them around, we only bring them when we know there’s a fight that involves them. Deal?”
He saw the [Engineer] nod.
“Agreed. No one gets these, no matter what.”
“And with that said…I want three of them. Make sure they’re sealed perfectly. I don’t want a chance of them going off.”
“Three. You want three? I can do that. I can do it. But I need more ingredients.”
Paige scrubbed at her hair distractedly. She looked at Daly. Then she shook her head.
“I suppose you still want the ballistae, too. Or those oversized crossbows you were thinking off?”
“The big ones? Yeah. If we can mount it, or use a stand, we could pierce even the serpent’s hide. What, can you make them?”
For a second Daly wondered if that was an out. But Paige shook her head.
“I was talking with Blake. Apparently ballistae were made with something called torsional force. As opposed to draw force, like what we have with bows and the crossbows I’ve made.”
Daly raised his eyebrows.
“Okay? What does that mean?”
“It means they did something else. Blake said that he thought it involved skeins of rope or something, but he wasn’t sure.”
“How does he know all this stuff, anyways?”
“Video games. Apparently the models in some games are quite close to real life.”
“Huh. So he doesn’t know how this torsional thing works, though, right?”
“Nope. And I bet if I had a YouTube video I could build one from that. But no one’s downloaded a video on their phones and the internet’s not exactly around. So until I can figure out how the Romans did it, I can’t build anything stronger.”
“Oh. Then I guess…”
Daly indicate the bombs. Paige nodded. She stared around the forest, unnaturally quiet, and then gestured back at Talenqual.
“We should probably head back. They might try and see what that sound was.”
But neither Human moved right away. Paige kept staring at Daly. At last, she spoke.
“You know, I was really hoping you’d see what the bombs did and say ‘No, don’t make any more, Paige. Absolutely not.’”
Daly’s heart twisted in his chest. He held out his hands, helplessly.
“Paige. We need those.”
She rounded on him.
“Do we? Do we really need those?”
Her finger shook as she pointed back at the blast zone.
“Daly. I feel like I’m a terrorist. Look at that. You want me to make more of those?”
Daly nodded. Paige halted and stared at him, but he pointed back at the explosion. And this time he wasn’t as scared of the weapon as before. He was remembering something else.
“Ever seen a [Fireball] explode? It’s just as nasty. Worse. Remember the battle between those companies? They were throwing around spells like that. And some monsters can take a [Fireball] to the face and keep on coming. Those serpents could. If we want to hit Gold-rank, or go any further, we’ll need those, Paige. We’ll use gunpowder on monsters.”
“So long as it’s just monsters.”
She stared at him. Then she turned her back and began walking away. Daly followed her.
“Paige, I swear, if I thought—”
“Don’t. You convinced me, Daly. Don’t justify it.”
He fell silent. The two walked on, pausing to hide as a group of [Guardsmen] did indeed pass them by, looking for the sound. After that, Paige and Daly went back to the main road and pretended to be coming back to Talenqual. They walked together in silence, and the triumph of this morning felt like a long way away to Daly.
Good news and bad. Daly walked back to his bed and Paige said nothing else. He was troubled, like her. But they needed an edge. And if that meant making bombs…he fell asleep, wondering if he’d said the right thing.
The next day, Daly woke up, ate food, lounged about, and did things he forgot about five minutes later. Around midmorning he found the Bushrangers relaxing after their big job and ordered them into the living room. It was time for a lesson. Siri was in change with Tofte helping her. They got ten minutes in when Dawson looked up and complained loudly.
“Daly. I have to ask. Why do we have to study another language in a world that speaks only fucking English?”
He glared at the alphabet Siri had written down for them in her native language. Daly sighed, but he explained as patiently as possible.
“We have two Swedish speakers, Dawson. If we need to talk when the enemy might be around, or warn each other, another language is perfect. It could be a huge advantage. That’s also why we have hand signals and need to be able to write in Swedish too. We can leave each other messages.”
“And why’s it got to be Swedish? Can’t it be pig latin? Or something easier? No offense, Siri.”
Daly waved a hand for silence. He frowned as he replied.
“I thought about Japanese, or one of the languages Kirana and the other girls speak, but apparently there is a nation of islanders about that speak some kind of weird language. Drathians. They sound Japanese, so that’s out. And Siri and Tofte already know the lingo; this makes the most sense. Plus, it’ll help because Sweden isn’t that big a country so the odds of running into another Swede are a lot lower than someone from India.”
“What does that—”
Dawson was frowning, but Siri looked sharply at Daly. She replied for him.
“He means if we have to go up against people from Earth.”
The Bushrangers fell silent. Daly saw some of them look at each other uncomfortably. Dawson swore.
“Fucking hell, mate. What are you planning?”
Daly’s voice was cold in his own ears.
“Nothing. But I’m preparing us for everything. You heard Blake and his lot’s story about the [Bandits], right? We need to be careful. From now on, any hint of survivors from earth we investigate cautiously. We watch them before we take them in, and we put people on them for the first month.”
“It’s what we have to do. It’s not a question of ‘if’ we’re going to run up against some nasty people from home, it’s ‘when’. Or do you want to be the idiots who get stabbed in the back? Don’t worry though; we’re already looking into buying amulets enchanted with [Detect Lies] along with getting a [Repair] spell.”
That didn’t cheer up the group much. But they did sit still as Siri went over the alphabet and a few basic words. Daly didn’t have the heart to push them to learn more than a few words despite his speech; but he did warn them they’d need to remember.
“Siri’s going to ask you and so will I. Just remember the words for now. Got it?”
The others nodded. Dawson looked very uncomfortable. So did everyone else. Siri was frowning at Daly. She’d been the one to suggest using Swedish, but she looked curious. She drew Daly aside as the others began to get back to lazing about. But she never got a chance to ask her question because the door blew open and Michael burst into the room, shouting.
Daly whirled about, his spirits suddenly rising. He heard an oath from upstairs and Paige appeared in the stairwell. Kirana rushed out of the kitchen and more members of the United Nations company rushed down the stairs.
“You serious, Michael?”
“I just saw him! He’s coming into the docks! Come on, let’s go greet him!”
Dawson was on his feet. He charged out the door with some of the others. The Bushrangers all got up, but Siri and Tofte, both of whom didn’t really know Luan, weren’t as excited as the others. She looked at Daly with a big frown.
“Why are we running to meet him like children?”
Daly paused, about to go out after the others. He beckoned at Siri and she and the rest of the team followed him. The [Axe Warrior] spoke as he led them in a brisk walk.
“Look, we’ve got three big leaders. Geneva, Ken, and Luan.”
“And you and Paige.”
Aldenon interjected. Daly hesitated.
“Well, yeah, but they were the original three, you know? The ones who started it all. And they’re all…well, look at it this way.”
He tried to explain to Siri, who was raising both eyebrows skeptically.
“Ken’s a nice guy. Everyone likes Ken, but that’s his thing. He’s not scarily good at what he does like Geneva or Luan. And Geneva’s amazing, no question; no one can do what she can in this world. But she’s…”
Daly hesitated and looked at the Australian members of his team for help. They pitched in cheerfully.
“Too serious all the time?”
“Got a medically implanted stick up her butt?”
Daly rolled his eyes as the others laughed.
“Thanks, Kami. What I mean is, Siri, Tofte, is that Geneva’s good, but she’s doing something she’s learned. She’s smarter than any [Doctor] in this world. But Luan? He’s genuinely just…better. At rowing. You know? He can do what Centaurs, Dullahans, Lizardfolk, all of them can do, but he’s the best, never mind if they have magic or special abilities. You remember Humans can do things better than the other species when you’re around him. And he always comes back with a lot of gold.”
They thought about that. Siri shrugged.
“Gold’s a good enough reason for me. Let’s go.”
And so they did. Daly reached the harbor docks just in time to see Luan finishing paying the [Harbormaster]—it wasn’t hard to spot where he was; a good number of Humans were standing around him and the tall [Rower] was laughing and trying to answer a dozen questions at once. He looked good. Tired, but good. And then Daly saw just how tired and pushed his way through. His was the voice of authority.
“Alright, give Luan some space!”
The others drew back reluctantly. Luan turned. He grabbed Daly’s arm and the two hugged briefly. Daly was grinning and Luan had a weary smile on his face. Genuine, but very tired.
“Luan, mate, I missed you two weeks back when you dropped off a ton of gold. You didn’t even stay a full day! You’re pushing yourself too hard!”
“Hah. Well, I’m back now, aren’t I? Sorry I didn’t send a [Message]—I just finished a three-day trip. Hello everyone! Paige, Kirana, and…are there new faces around here? Have we new people?”
Luan had spotted Nicola in the crowd along with Blake. He began to walk forwards as Daly started to explain, but then he stumbled. He caught himself, and shook his head as Daly reached out to steady him.
“Sorry. I don’t have my ground legs yet.”
He smiled, but Daly was instantly concerned. He gestured at Luan’s face.
“You’ve got bags under your eyes, mate. And you’re swaying where you stand.”
“No I’m not.”
He yawned hugely. Daly looked at him and Paige folded his arms. The South African man hesitated, then gave them a sheepish grin.
“Okay, I know. But offers are coming in faster than ever. People are hearing about ‘Luan the Rower’ and I can make enough to keep us afloat. I’m faster than anyone but a Courier on the water, and I can take the riskier deliveries because it’s so hard to catch me…”
He yawned again, hugely. Paige shook her head as she looked Luan up and down.
“No more deliveries right now, Luan. You’re staying put and getting some rest. No rowing for at least four days. The Doc’ll back me up on this one.”
He hesitated and then nodded slowly.
“I could do with some sleep. I’ve been—”
He yawned a third time and brought his right arm up. Daly saw a flash of bright color and stared. There was something on the inside of Luan’s arm. No…not something.
Gold, tattooed into dark skin. It shone as Daly stared at it. Two names.
Luan lowered his arm and saw Daly’s stare. He didn’t hide the tattoos; rather, he held out his arm so Daly could get a better look. His smile was bitter, sad, but mainly just tired.
“I’ve been pushing myself harder. It helps me stop thinking. But I don’t forget anymore.”
Daly hesitated. Paige stepped in for him, grabbing Luan’s arm and placing it around her shoulder. She was shorter than he was, so there wasn’t really much for Luan to lean on, but it made him smile.
“Come on. Aiko’s worried sick about you.”
Daly nodded. He turned and waved a hand. “We all are. Hey, you lot. Grab that boat-kayak and bring it with us. We can fit it somewhere in headquarters; better than paying rent on it.”
Several of the Bushrangers grabbed the boat and lifted it out of the water. Luan looked surprised.
“You sure there’s room? Also, it’s called a scull. It’s a single scull…I need to upgrade it. If we can afford a bag of holding, I can get a new one—it’s not a kayak, Daly. I’ll have to hurt you if you say that again.”
“Yeah, yeah. We can talk about that. We’ve got tons of money so I guess you can use some of what you’ve earned…this way. Hey Siri, nali-stick? Or just a stamina potion.”
Siri disappeared and came back with one of the sweet sticks and offered it to Luan. He thanked her and bit into it. The sweet rush of sugar perked Luan up enough that he was walking steadily by the time they reached the United Nations company headquarters.
“What is this?”
He blinked up at the building, realizing for the first time that they weren’t at the old headquarters. Daly grinned hugely.
“You didn’t know? We’ve upgraded, Luan! Miss Hastel gave these two buildings to us for a song, and we’re looking into a third next door! Come on inside; it’s a lot nicer! And we’ve got proper couches!”
“If I sit down in one, I’ll fall asleep.”
Luan joked as he came inside. But he didn’t fall asleep; the crowd gathered around him was probably part of that, as was the reheated snake meat. He ate it ravenously as he tried to speak about where he’d been and gone.
“I’ve been to several big cities—this is good, what is it?—and seen a lot of wonderful things. Some danger. There was this group of [Sea Raiders]—but I’ll tell you later.”
“What cities did you see, Luan? Come on, tell us!”
One of the younger members of the company, barely fifteen, was practically hopping with excitement. Luan smiled.
“Tell you? I borrowed a smartphone. I can show you.”
He pulled out a phone out of his pocket. The others immediately fought for it until Paige ordered them to stop fighting before they broke it. There was only a small charge left, but it was enough for a few minutes of browsing. Daly craned his neck to see as the others exclaimed over it.
“Whoa! What a city!”
“Is that a dancing Lizardwoman?”
“And a dancing Centaur? I didn’t know they danced!”
“They were having some kind of festival. I have a few videos too. And a few pictures of some shops, potions…I tried sneaking a picture of a spellbook when I was browsing, but, well…look.”
He showed the others a picture of a book. But the page was…white. Not blank; it was pure, eye-searingly white as Daly stared at the photo. Only after he’d looked away did he see a faint coloration to the painfully white photo. Luan gestured to it and shook his head.
“It’s like this with videos too. You can sort of see some colors, but the pages just turn white. Some spells look different on screen, too. Some are invisible, or different colors than what I see.”
“Maybe the pixels can’t represent the full color scale. Damn. It was worth a shot.”
Paige looked disappointed. A few seconds later the phone died, so she went and had someone get it charged with a [Repair] spell. She also chased off some of the crowd, telling them Luan would relate more stories over dinner. Daly was all set to bring Luan up to a room for some needed rest, but the athlete asked for some strong tea instead.
“I should stay up. I do have something I need to tell you, as well as stories. And you have something to tell me, it seems!”
He gave Daly and Paige a short and meaningful look both understood. Then he listened attentively as the others told him about the battle with the giant snakes, Geneva’s delivery of Miss Hastel’s baby, and their new home. He’d heard some of it the first time, but he hadn’t stayed long. And by the time the story was done, even Geneva had come back to greet Luan.
“You did all that by yourself? I have nothing but respect.”
Luan looked at Geneva. She smiled faintly at him.
“It’s just my job. Good to see you, Luan. You need sleep.”
He sighed, but gently.
“In a bit. I want to know more about your new clinic. You say you’ve been getting patients? That’s exactly what we wanted, isn’t it? And what about delivering babies? Is it profitable? Do you have many clients?”
Aiko nodded excitedly.
“She’s done eight Caesareans so far. A lot of mothers are worried about giving birth, or they have complications…one even came from fifty miles away when she heard there was a [Doctor] here. Word is spreading like lightning!”
She gestured at Geneva proudly as the [Doctor] coughed, looking embarrassed.
“Funny. A [Doctor]’s only popular on the battlefield. But [Midwives] and mothers gossip a lot faster and wider.”
Paige looked amused. Aiko smiled.
“And I helped! I know how to do a lot for mothers. But it is new! And scary! It is hard to deliver babies well across other species; their bodies are all different. And the last delivery was frightening! Geneva delivered the baby and then…the head fell off! Geneva was so shocked and everyone panicked but the mother! Because it was a Dullahan baby, you see?”
“That wasn’t funny.”
Geneva shuddered as she remembered that moment. Everyone else was laughing. Luan closed his eyes, a broad smile on his face.
“That’s wonderful. It really is.”
Daly thought he might not open his eyes and fall asleep just like that. He coughed, trying to think of something else to say. His eyes went back to the gold writing on Luan’s arm.
“So, Luan. About your tattoo. Aiko told us about what you two had figured out and we’ve confirmed it. No one remembers home unless we really try. Our family, our friends…it’s like a blank spot in our heads. We remember tech and politics and everything else. But we don’t feel nostalgic unless we try to remember.”
The room went silent. Daly looked around and realized everyone had gone silent. For a moment they remembered home, and the smiles went ever from everyone’s face. Paige elbowed Daly hard in the stomach.
“Nice going, Daly.”
Luan opened his eyes. He nodded heavily.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one. I thought…well, we can talk about it later. But I think I’m actually falling asleep right here. I take it back. Can I get a few hours’ sleep before dinner?”
Instantly, everyone was solicitous. Luan went upstairs and fell asleep immediately after putting his head down. Daly walked outside with Geneva as the others talked, the phone having come back so they could look at more pictures again. He stood outside was the [Doctor] stood with him. Both were uncomfortable together. Geneva broke the silence with all the grace of a beached whale.
“It’s surprising you brought up the tattoos. I thought it was my job to depress everyone.”
He glanced sideways at her.
“That’s two jokes in two days. Careful, or we might think you’re Human after all, doc.”
She smiled at that.
“I do have a sense of humor. It’s just buried by experience. I’m working on it. Okasha’s not helping; her jokes are worse than mine are, if you can believe that.”
Daly laughed. He stood outside with Geneva and glanced north. Last night flashed into his mind. He casually glanced to the side.
“Hey Geneva. Paige was talking to me last night, and uh…”
“Mister Daly? Miss Geneva?”
Someone interrupted them. Daly bit his tongue and looked around, annoyed. He stopped glaring as he saw a Naga approaching them. Like Xalandrass, the Naga was tall, sinuous, and stood out even in Talenqual’s busy and diverse streets. The Lizardfolk stood back respectfully as she stopped, her tail coiling around itself as she stood straighter. She smiled down at Daly and Geneva, both of whom looked up at her with surprise. Daly hesitated.
“How can we help you, Miss Naga?”
She smiled at him.
“I’m glad you asked! You can follow me. I was told to get two of your company, and you two are the leaders, aren’t you? Our boss especially wants to see you, Miss [Doctor].”
The Naga nodded. She gestured down the street, pointing to the center of the city and the tallest, grandest buildings.
“That’s right. I’m part of the Featherfolk Brigade. And our leader wants to speak with the United Nation’s company leadership right now. Will you follow me?”
The Featherfolk Brigade. On the walk to the building that housed the company’s leadership, Daly tried to remember everything he could about them. He knew they were a company, mainly Lizardfolk, that had claimed Talenqual.
According to Ken, they weren’t the biggest players around, but they certainly weren’t small-timers either. They had the numbers and firepower to defend a large city—Ken had called them upper-middle tier, which meant they were way above a tiny company like the United Nations company, or even Quallet’s Gravetender’s Fist.
Normally the two groups would never interact; if the Featherfolk Brigade took part in a conflict, one of their subdivisions would account for all of the United Nation’s personnel in a fight. But their leader had asked specifically to meet them. To meet Geneva.
Daly wished Ken were with them. But the Naga hadn’t let them get reinforcements. She’d asked, politely, that they come at once. But Daly had sensed it wasn’t really a request.
“What does your boss want with us, uh, Miss?”
The Naga turned her torso while she slithered forwards and gave Daly a smile. She had brilliant pink and red scales on her upper body, and she was practically naked except for a breast band.
“He wants to see you, of course. You’re a new company in our city. Why wouldn’t he be interested? And she’s the Last Light of Baleros. Don’t worry. He’s not angry at you. I think.”
Hardly encouraging. The Naga brought them to a huge, almost castle-like building with six floors that dominated the center of the city. It was a literal hub of activity and Daly saw that it was both home for many of the company’s soldiers, administrative building, and more.
Lizardfolk dominated the halls, but Daly saw a number of Nagas and even some other Lizardfolk evolutionary variants he couldn’t place. They stared at him as he passed and he sensed very little hostility, only the Lizardfolk’s ever-present curiosity. But he couldn’t help but grow tenser; some of the warriors looked incredibly strong and he was quite aware of how vulnerable he and Geneva were. He glanced over at the [Doctor], but saw she was walking as steadily as ever. He had to admire her cool. Or was it just indifference?
The Naga stopped at a pair of impressive wooden double doors. She gestured towards them.
“Right inside. He’s waiting for you.”
There was no use waiting. Daly looked at Geneva and opened the doors for the both of them. The doors opened and revealed a room rather like an executive’s office. Only, this room was a wide enough to make any CEO jealous, and there was in fact no glass front.
The office was open to the outside and the city lay beneath! There were a pair of curtains that could be swept forwards, but walk too far and you would fall six stories down. Despite that, sitting on, or rather, around a comfortable cloth chair, was a Lizardfolk. Only, he wasn’t a Lizardman. And neither was he a Naga. He was…something else. Daly stared.
Where his arms should have been were two massive, beautiful plumed wings, the feathers changing from gold to green at the tips. The strange Lizardfolk’s body was a brilliant light green as well, with a softer beige underbelly. His scales looked like plates as he slowly slithered upright and Daly realized the reason for the huge building; the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade was over seven feet tall as he drew himself upright, and that wasn’t even counting the rest of his tail wrapped around his desk and chair!
The stranger drew himself up as they entered and his wings spread. When he spoke, his voice was lighter than Daly had expected, but still powerful and melodious at the same time.
“Good morning to you, Humans. You must be Daly of the United Nations company, and Geneva, the Last Light of Baleros. My name is Fezimet. I am the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. And before you ask I’m a Quexal. You’ve probably never seen anyone like me, am I right? Tell me I’m right.”
He smiled widely, and Daly blinked as Fezimet wangled his resplendent wings. Daly immediately placed the Quexal as one of the vainer subtypes of Lizardfolk like Nagas and reacted accordingly.
“I haven’t! And it’s an honor to meet—did you say a Quexal? I’ve never even heard of your kind before. Incredible, isn’t it?”
He covertly nudged Geneva. She, like him, stared at Fezimet’s scales as the Quexal drew himself up, basking in their attention.
He laughed delightedly.
“You know something about Lizardfolk! That’s rare to see among Humans not from Baleros! Come closer. Sit, sit. Do you want something to eat? Drink? I have all of Talenqual’s finest delicacies to call on.”
“We’ll have some uh, Seamaster’s Gin and some shrimps if you’ll indulge us, Fezimet.”
“Of course! One moment.”
The Quexal reached for something on his desk. He didn’t have hands. His wing-arms seemed quite flexible, but his only true appendages for grasping were lower down, and they were a pair of long, bird-like legs. But they were incredibly dexterous; Fezimet delicately grasped a bell with the tips of his claws. He rang it gently and he was clearly adept at using his appendages for humanoid tasks. Even so, it was disturbing on another level as well.
The door instantly opened and Fezimet addressed the Lizardgirl and repeated Daly’s request. The Lizardgirl nodded and dashed off.
“Now, come, sit, sit. My desk has chairs for folk with feet and those without. Tell me, how have you enjoyed Talenqual this far? Are you well? Tell me everything.”
Daly and Geneva warily sat down. The Australian cleared his throat, but it was Geneva who spoke up.
“What do you want to know, glorious Fezimet?”
Both Daly and Fezimet started. But Geneva was smiling politely, friendly even. And her tone and the way she spoke—it was Okasha, Daly was certain. Fezimet hesitated, clearly thrown off-guard for a second.
“Well, I suppose I’d want to know if the legends are true. You are the famous Last Light of Baleros, aren’t you?”
Geneva-Okasha shrugged lightly.
“Some call me that. But I only participated in a few battles.”
Fezimet nodded knowingly.
“That’s all it takes. One or two to make a legend. Especially one so…unique. Would you mind telling me how you started? A [Doctor] is surely a rare class. What drew you to the battlefield?”
The [Doctor] raised an eyebrow.
“What else? Money?”
“But I wanted to save lives as well. I did that. But I grew tired. If you’re asking how I came to join the United Nations company and form it, it was when I met some kinsmen from Terandria by chance. To begin with, I had joined with the Raverian Fighters…”
Not for the first time, Daly caught himself wondering at Okasha. And he was especially relieved that she was with Geneva in this situation; the Selphid spoke on Geneva’s behalf, acting enough like the [Doctor] to almost fool Daly, but smoothly giving Geneva a more sociable personality, and incorporating some lies with her story. Fezimet listened, asking a few questions, and the food Daly had requested seemed to appear in no time at all. The young man sipped from his drink and shrimp as Fezimet ate what might have been roasted rat, listening to Geneva’s story.
“And you decided to form a company. Well, I understand the reasoning; after two betrayals, why not stick with kin? Reasonable, reasonable. But after your company formed, why did you decide to come to my city?”
He stressed the ‘my’ a bit. Geneva paused. She glanced sideways at Daly and he jumped in.
“Well, we’d heard Talenqual was a very safe place. Very safe and prosperous, with everything you could want. Harbor, strong economy…why not work from here?”
The Quexal looked pleased at the answer.
“Hm! True, very true! But did you choose it because of my company?”
The Australian hesitated.
“No. Should we? We uh, didn’t think to ask which company ran the city. We probably should have; I knew the Featherfolk Brigade was a mi—was an upper-tier company, but I’ve never heard of a Quexal before. What makes you…you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The question received an arch smile in return.
“Ah, I see what you did there. But I’ll entertain it because you should know. You ask what a Quexal is? Feathers and scales. Wings, too.”
Fezimet spread his wings again. He seemed not to tire keeping them open. He chuckled as he saw Geneva and Daly’s eyes go to his bright colors.
“Like all Lizardfolk, I was once one of my smaller kin. But I achieved this rare radiance for my unmatched abilities. Quexal are rare. Rarer than Lamias or Gorgons. There are few of us on Baleros, but those of us who remain are powerful. We do give up a lot. Hands, for one thing. But I don’t miss them. And yes, we can’t use swords that well, or other weapons, but most of us know some magic. I think it’s a requirement; I can blast my enemies from afar. Or crush them with my tail. Or bite them. It’s not hard.”
He smiled, and his serpentine face revealed a row of teeth that would probably take off Daly’s head in a single bite. The adventurer eyed the fangs; venomous, he had no doubt.
“Quexal are the fastest of the Lizardfolk evolutions, bar none. We can jump and even glide depending on the circumstances. We are mighty, and a Quexal has always led the Featherfolk Brigade. Hence the name. That answers your question. Now I have mine. What do you want to do in my city?”
This time Daly didn’t know what to say. He glanced at Geneva, but she was frowning, and Okasha must not have known how to respond. So Daly went for it.
“Honestly? We just want to find more of our friends from home, ah, glorious Fezimet. And we’d like to earn money ourselves. More than just enough to survive on.”
“Ah. So you aren’t planning on joining with Gravetender’s Fist? Are you intending to go to war? I hear the Bushrangers are quite capable. Will you expand your ranks? You’ve already made one alliance with the Rustless Guard.”
He knew a lot! Daly gulped.
“Not at all. We’re a part of the company, but most of us aren’t fighters. We got enough of a taste of action with Gravetender’s Fist.”
He thought he saw Fezimet relax a bit after hearing that. Did the Quexal have a [Detect Lies] spell or something?
“I see. And so your company wishes to make ends meet. To partake of the riches of my company’s city. Well, well. I suppose that’s acceptable. And you two don’t seem to be lying about that. But this [Doctor]’s business…”
He pondered for a moment before glancing at Geneva.
“I’m told you can deliver a baby free of complication by cutting a mother open, is that right?”
Geneva nodded slowly.
“I can do that. It’s not risk-free, but it’s less risky than a childbirth if there are complications.”
“Of course. But you know Lizardfolk don’t need to give birth? We lay eggs.”
Geneva shrugged slightly.
“Eggs can fail to hatch. Or something can go wrong inside. Nothing is perfect. My job is to try and save lives.”
She met Fezimet’s eyes calmly. The Quexal looked from her to Daly.
“I see. As noble as they claim. Well, I’m content with what I’ve heard. Your company has permission to remain in my city. You don’t seem like troublemakers or a threat, and you’ve saved at least one of my [Landladies]. As for your new…practice, I’ll send one of my Nagas over to watch sometime. Just to make sure it’s alright. Then we can talk about compensation.”
Daly hesitated. Fezimet smiled.
“For working in Talenqual, of course. After all, you knew it was such a glorious city when you came here, didn’t you? But let’s not talk about that. Eat more of those shrimps. I’ll have one myself. Now, tell me, Captain Daly, about your team. I hear they’re practically invisible in forests…”
Two hours later, Daly wished he hadn’t eaten so many shrimp. It wasn’t that they were undercooked; it was just that there was a limit to how many crustaceans he could eat. And he’d had too much gin. He should have asked for water and crackers.
Geneva murmured as she helped guide Daly back down the street towards their headquarters. He erped and tried not to throw up.
“That damned feathery snake can drink like no one’s business. Think…we’ll be okay?”
“I think so. Hold on, Geneva. I’m helping your liver filter all this. You’re going to need to pee bad…let’s get Daly inside.”
She opened the door. Instantly there was a voice.
“They’re back! Get Paige!”
Daly found a few hands steadying him as he lurched inside. He went straight for the kitchen—not to throw up, but to drink some tea to settle his stomach. Then he drank more water, and looked at Paige.
“What happened? All the others said was that a Naga came and took both of you.”
She looked worried. Daly shook his head.
“It’s sorted. I think. Nothing big. Tell you later. We’re having a meeting tonight. Is Luan awake?”
“Not yet. We’re going to have lunch. Uh…”
Daly spent the rest of the day slowly sobering up and trying to digest too many shrimps. He had an appetite by the time dinner rolled about and Luan was up. They ate and Daly listened to Luan’s stories without bringing up their encounter with Fezimet. Only after the dinner had ended did Paige stand up.
“Alright. The company leaders are meeting. Everyone else, you can talk to Luan later.”
“Come one, what’s this about? Is it the Naga…?”
“We should be allowed to listen!”
Paige scowled at the protesters, who were all mostly older people around her age.
“No, and no. Some of what we have to talk about is potentially dangerous or…”
She glanced at Daly.
“…Or would be bad if it’s gossiped about. We’ll tell you everything we can. But later.”
“Who elected you?”
Someone grumbled that. Michael, probably. Paige opened her mouth and Ken smiled.
“Should we have elections? I think it would be dangerous to make this a vote. After all, the responsibilities of our job are sometimes…a lot. And we cannot share everything, so if you wanted to vote for someone to listen with us…”
He trailed off. The murmurs fragmented and most of the group shook his head. That was Ken, framing the idea as not much of a solution at all. Daly lurched upstairs. The others found him with his head in his hands in their meeting room. Paige closed the door last. Luan yawned.
“You look worse than I do, Daly. What happened while I was out?”
“Too much to drink. We had to go met the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. Fezimet the fucking glorious or something.”
The other’s gazes sharpened at once. Ken sat up, looking mildly worried. Paige sat down across from Daly.
“What did he want?”
Geneva frowned and Okasha answered.
“I think he was scoping out our company. Trying to figure out if we’re a threat.”
“Oh, you know. Taking control of parts of his city, sowing dissent, just whether or not we’re easy to work with…”
“Did you reassure him we’re no threat?”
Daly grimaced and shrugged.
“I tried. I think he bought the line that we’re only here to make money. But he hinted—strongly—that his company wants a cut of what Geneva’s doing.”
“It’s just a tax. I think he was really curious about Geneva. But he’s…something. His company’s also massive. There were tons of Nagas and Gorgons—I wish Ken had been there. He might have figured out more of what Fezimet wanted. Okasha’s right. I think he was just trying to scope us. And he got me pretty good and drunk.”
“If he calls for us again, I will try and speak to him.”
Ken nodded. Aiko sighed, looking relieved.
“But it means it isn’t a problem, yes?”
“For now. But we’re getting heat from a big company. I guess that means we should keep an eye out to avoid pissing anyone off. Good work, Daly.”
Paige drummed her fingers on the table. Daly gave her a weak grin. He wasn’t drinking gin again for at least a month. Siri, who would have done well in his place, looked around with a frown.
“In that case, maybe we should listen to Luan. You said he had something to say?”
Luan nodded. He looked at Siri for a moment and then reached over.
“I think we’ve met. Paige told me you’re working with Daly? I’m Luan.”
“Siri. We met once. Briefly.”
He shook her hand.
“I’m a [Rower]. I’m aiming to be a Courier, but I’ll settle for a good position as City Runner. And I’ve been working hard, perhaps too hard of late, but the money’s been coming in and I’m glad it helped with…”
He gestured to the room around them. Paige nodded.
“We can start putting the money towards a better boat and gear for Daly’s team, Luan. We’re finally making more money than we need for the essentials. Which means you shouldn’t take so many risks. You brought in more gold than anyone by yourself at the start. You deserve at least a week’s rest.”
Everyone nodded at that. Luan smiled, but traced the gold ink on his arm.
“That’s good of you to say, Paige. But I have a job in three days I can’t get out of. Remember all that gold I dropped off two weeks back? Well, some of that was an advance payment. Listen, while I was getting my tattoo done in one of the cities, I met this Minotaur…”
Luan relayed the short meeting with Venaz to the others. Daly sat up, frowning and trying to think about why a [Strategist] would want to hire Luan for a delivery in three weeks.
“And he said it was all above-board?”
“He did. But I don’t know if I trust that. I did some digging and I found out he is who he says he is. He’s a student in the school run by the Titan of Baleros himself.”
Several of the people sitting around the table drew in sharp breaths. The Titan of Baleros. One of the heads of the Four Great companies. And one of his students was hiring Luan? The [Rower] looked around the table.
“I’m committed. And I may not have had a [Detect Truth] stone, but I think this Venaz was telling me the truth. I could ruin his reputation, and what’s the point of me taking a really dangerous job without knowing?”
“Still, it’s suspicious. It sounds like you’re getting involved with something political, Luan. I don’t want you making enemies.”
“But I am committed, Paige. And I’m a City Runner; this is what we do. If anyone takes offense…well, I’ll be careful. I need to row out to my destination in two days. But I had a thought.”
He paused and drummed a hand on the table.
“…We’ve been looking for allies. Quallet’s company is one, and it sounds like Daly’s allied with a Dullahan team. But a Great Company has the resources to protect anyone they want. If this Venaz is a student of the Titan, perhaps he had connections. Perhaps I could meet with someone high up in that company. Talk to them about Geneva’s abilities. We were saying that a [Doctor] with her talents would be useful even to—no, especially to a big company who doesn’t want to lose valuable leaders, right?”
He looked around the table. Daly did too; Paige and Siri were frowning, Aiko looked troubled, Geneva was pensive, and Ken was staring down at the table. Paige slowly replied.
“It’s true we were trying to get Geneva’s name out there, Luan. But that was before we discovered she could deliver babies. This way is safer. It doesn’t pull her into politics and…”
She looked around. Aiko and Ken nodded, but Daly wasn’t so certain.
“Hold on, Paige. That’s true, but didn’t we just get warned by the Featherfolk Brigade? And our position isn’t that stable here. One bad war comes our way and we need to run. It might be risky getting involved with a Great Company, but if the Forgotten Wing company’s decent—”
“Ken, what’s the Titan’s reputation?”
“Some are terrified of him, some respect him. Most agree he is honorable, but he is known for winning, sometimes in underhanded or sneaky ways. He is a formidable opponent. But it is said that he is generous and his company is very good to the areas it controls.”
Ken looked around the table. Daly nodded a few times.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Either we don’t use this and Luan does his job, or we take a risk. So here’s what I think.”
He took a deep breath and looked at Luan.
“If this Venaz guy really has a connection to one of the Great Companies of Baleros, try and exploit it, Luan. Try and mention Geneva. Who knows? Maybe this Titan guy will see the merit in a [Doctor]. I don’t know about C-sections. But it can’t hurt to try. And I hear he likes chess and Go, right? Aiko learned Go in Japan.”
“And we know Shogi. Perhaps we could interest him?”
Ken looked intrigued at the prospect. Paige was hesitant.
“Maybe. It could work. But I’m against it. Let’s put it to a vote.”
“I thought Ken just said—”
“I mean, among us.”
“Oh. Alright then, I’m for it. What do you think?”
The table slowly went around. Daly was for. Paige against. Ken put his vote in and after a moment of hesitation, Aiko disagreed. Siri hesitated, and in the space where she did, Luan nodded.
“I can take the blame if things go wrong. But I think—what’s the harm in trying? I will be very circumspect and get a feel for what it’s like. I may only meet this Venaz. And he’s hard to work with. I’d rather meet someone else, so we’ll see.”
That made up Siri’s mind. She nodded.
“I vote for too, then.”
“Me too. If nothing else, I can spread the word about diseases like this Yellow River.”
Geneva quietly spoke up. One of her hands waved excitedly and Geneva glared at it.
“Okasha says yes too, apparently.”
“That’s it, then. Three days from now, Luan does his delivery and tries to get our name out.”
Paige didn’t look exactly upset, but she did look a bit worried. She glanced over at Luan.
“What’s happening in three days, then? Did this Minotaur say?”
“He hinted it had to do with something his teacher, the Titan was putting on. But apparently it’s not dangerous…not really. I don’t know that that means, but the worst that will happen is that I’ll be caught, beaten ‘lightly’ and held for a day.”
Luan grimaced. Daly didn’t like the sound of that. Still, he had to admit it still sounded worth the risk. Fifty gold coins was a lot of money for a delivery.
“Well, that’s that. I think we can discuss the rest later. Luan, you clearly need more sleep. Let’s get some. Unless anyone else has something to add?”
Geneva took charge for once as she nodded at Luan, who was beginning to doze. He jerked upright and looked around. The others looked around and shook their heads. Only Daly and Paige hesitated. They locked eyes for a second and Daly felt the unspoken question coming from Paige.
Should they tell the others about the bombs now? Daly wasn’t sure and Paige was hesitating. They both knew what the reaction would probably be, at least from Geneva. And yet, this was the leadership. The others deserved to know, but right now?
She looked at him apprehensively. Daly hesitated. But if they could keep it quiet—or if they could prevent anyone from learning how they did it…
Gold-rank. Money to buy Siri spellbooks, or fund a giant snake. A third building. Gold-rank, where Daly could actually buy artifacts for himself and magical wood to make crossbows that didn’t break. Gold-rank, where they could defend themselves from Quexals who thought they could lean on their company.
A way to fight anything and everything. Daly closed his eyes. And yet. ‘I feel like a terrorist.’ That was what Paige had said. And what would Geneva do? She would flip out.
He could still say it. It was only three easy words.
“We’re making bombs.”
They might even agree. They might not. But this was the moment at which he could reveal the truth and they could put a stop to it. She could put a stop to it. He looked up at Geneva and felt the words dancing on his tongue.
We’re making bombs. Is this right or wrong? We’re bringing weapons from our world to Baleros. Will it change anything? We’re making bombs. Should we stop?
We’re making bombs. Geneva, how do you feel about that?
It would be so easy. Daly looked up, across the table at his friends. At the [Doctor]. At Paige.
He didn’t say it. And neither did she.