“Hey. Did you do your homework today?”
“Of course. And it was a pain. What about you?”
“As if I’d turn up today without having done it. Look. See here?”
It was a curious phenomenon. An odd system. As immortal in its own way as mountains or geography. Somehow, despite magic and monsters and the passage of time, society still conspired to bring it about. And that strange thing was called school.
Worlds over, it was the same. As people progressed, as ideas became facts and theories and methods codified, institutions of learning would appear. Erin and Ryoka and those from her world knew of school as a part of life, but in other places, school wasn’t such a basic pillar of existence.
In Baleros, no, in the world, there were fewer places to learn. Oh, you could learn to swing a sword or hammer, or even pick up one of the more mentally challenging trades wherever you went. Apprenticeships were common as dirt. But places where people sat in classrooms and learned from people whose sole job it was to teach? That was rare.
The Academy of Wistram. Belchan’s [Mage] Schools. The Draconae Scholarium of Fissival. To name but a few places. [Mages] had more colleges than any other class, perhaps owing to the complexity of magic. But there were other institutions that had been created that were just as notable.
For instance, the Walled City of Manus trained officers, leaders in the field. Terandrian kingdoms had training programs where [Squires] trained from a young age to become fully-accredited [Knights]. Similarly, if you wanted to learn [Fencing], there were training schools there too. And if the life of an [Assassin] called to you, well, there were darker, private schools too. Places where children were trained in poison or forced to learn to become killers—or die in the training.
But all these places of learning, cruel or voluntary, prestigious or infamous, shared a commonality. They were schools, and there existed a relationship between teacher and student, class and pupils that seldom existed anywhere else in the world. Where else could you wake up and know what your day was, if only in general? Where else was life systemized, learning turned into a process experienced en masse? Nowhere.
And still, some things were the same no matter where you went. Regardless of how hard it was to get into some schools, the great honor or privilege it was to have the money or talent to reach Wistram Academy or the libraries of Fissival, you’d meet students who showed up every day with their homework done, and those who clearly resented the effort. It was still a pain to be taught for some, and they took little away despite the time spent.
Unless you liked what was being taught. Unless what was being taught mattered and your teacher was…a genius. One of the greatest authorities in the world. Then you showed up early, and you obviously did your homework. Because you had fought tooth and claw and nail to get here.
“Look. Here’s my homework.”
Marian yawned as she sleepily trotted towards the citadel from the city streets. She was holding a large fang. It was huge, yellowed, jagged at the end; as large as the Centauress’ arm. And around the base, despite the tooth having been cleaned, Umina could still see a bit of flesh. In short, it was a freshly acquired tooth, and the Lizardgirl hoped that whatever had owned the tooth was very dead. Or it would be quite, quite upset.
“Ooh. That’s nasty. What’s it from?”
Marian smiled down at her companion. Umina was a Lizardgirl with pink-and-yellow scales, a pattern running from the violet frills around her neck to her long tail. Unlike Drakes, the Lizardfolk of Baleros were smaller, thinner, and possessed more vibrant patterns than Drakes, who were usually monochrome.
They had frills of skin around their necks which could raise in moments of excitement, but were usually kept folded, a sign of their connection to their primitive relatives. And Lizardfolk were certainly unlike Drakes in that they were, by and large, much more friendly. They were laid back, cheerful, and enduringly social.
It was wrong to generalize, but Drakes were known to have inherited their ancestor’s greed, tempers, and snappishness as a whole. Whereas Lizardfolk like Umina were curious. The smaller Lizardgirl peered closely at the tooth as Marian held it lower.
The Centaur had to trot slowly and Umina had to hurry her steps for them to keep the same pace as they walked towards the citadel. The sun was still rising and Umina yawned as she studied the ivory.
“It looks like…an Armorgator’s tooth? One of the giant alligators that lives in the water?”
“That’s right. I thought it was a crocodile, though. Aren’t they the same family?”
Umina shook her head. She blinked at the weight of the tooth as Marian handed it to her. The Lizardgirl whistled as she imagined the mouth that must have given up this tooth. If the tooth was the size of her elbow up to her claws…she imagined a twenty foot-long beast lurking in one of the huge rivers of Baleros and shuddered.
“This is a boat killer alright. And it’s definitely an alligator, Marian. Crocodiles live in salt water.”
“Oh. I had no idea.”
“That’s because your people live on the plains. Far away from water. Trust me; it’s an important distinction. Alligators and their kin aren’t nearly as aggressive as crocodiles. Although both are quite vicious and if one got to be this big…I hope it’s dead.”
The Centaur smiled.
“It’s dead alright. I wouldn’t have dared bring this in unless it was. What, do you think I’d cheat?”
She tossed her head a bit and her long hair flicked in the morning’s breeze. Much like a horse would toss their head. And the look Marian gave was slightly offended, even though she and Umina were fast friends. A Centaur’s pride, that. Umina shook her head instantly.
“Not at all. And I have my homework right here. Want to see?”
“Sure. What did you get?”
The Lizardgirl fished in her belt pouch and offered up a handful of quills. Sharp, thin, and long. Umina could handle them with a bit of care due to the scales on her hands, but she cautioned Marian.
“Careful. They’re sharp.”
The Centaur took one look at them and snorted softly.
“Sorry, Umina. But are you serious? Those come from Scattershot Porcupines. Honestly…porcupines?”
“They’re a threat. And you know what the homework was.”
“I suppose. But…”
“Let’s just see what the Professor says.”
Umina refused to let Marian’s skepticism sway her. She put the quills back in her pouch as Marian took the tooth again. It was indeed an impressive trophy, but Umina wondered if the Centauress had understood the point of the Titan’s homework. What he wanted from you often differed from what he told you to do.
The Lizardgirl and Centaur trotted up the hill towards the palace. They were walking along the streets of the city that had been built beneath it. But the citadel was the thing. It was worthy of any [King], but it didn’t house royalty. Rather, it was the seat of power of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros—the Forgotten Wing company. And it was also a school.
Soldiers were on duty at the open gates. But it was students, hundreds, who made up the foot traffic at this early hour. Some citizens too, but aside from the staff—and for a citadel of this size, there were a lot of employees—the streets mostly belonged to those who had come here to learn strategy from the world’s greatest expert on the subject.
Some of the city folk waved at Umina, especially the Lizardpeople; they were used to the sight of the student’s daily commute. And indeed, a lot of the business of the city was designed to cater to the students, from lodgings to inns to a very profitable business selling ink and paper. Umina and Marian waved back as they trotted into the academy.
Some of the other students noticed them, but aside from a few nods of acknowledgement, the pair was left alone. They were…different. And they headed to a different place than the other students. While a majority flowed towards some classrooms, or outside to the large training grounds reserved for students, Umina and Marian went up.
“I wonder how the others have done?”
Umina reached the third floor with Marian and headed straight for the end of the hall. The citadel was indeed a school, but it had reserved the lower floors for education. The higher floors were reserved for housing its inhabitants, war rooms, armories…and it was naturally off-limits to regular inhabitants. Go any higher and one of the guards would stop you. And the third floor was fairly empty too; only the advanced students ventured this high up. And a room at the far end of the hall was Umina and Marian’s destination.
A small classroom with a lectern opened up for the Lizardgirl as she walked in, holding the door open for Marian. It was more of a lecture hall than a classroom to be honest; a semi-circular set of raised seats, like slowly rising balconies, let the students look down on whomever was standing at the podium. The podium was absent of a teacher at the moment, and the students were clustered on the ground in front of the seats.
The best part of the Titan’s school for [Strategists] was that it was exactly not like school in all the right ways. Or at least, this class was. Umina looked around at the students gathered in the small classroom. There were just under fourteen of them. And like her and Marian, they had all shown up early. And they had all done their homework, or tried, at least. Some had clearly failed, but they had made their best effort.
That was because this school, the Titan’s school, wasn’t like other academies. It wasn’t Wistram, where the [Mage]-students were known to have outrageous parties, or other institutions like some of the Terandrian [Knight]-schools that sometimes cropped up in the news with stories of disgraceful conduct by the would-be [Knights] as they turned from children into adults. No, this was a school that expected adults. You came here to learn, not to grow up. And if you didn’t apply yourself as hard as you could, you had better just leave.
That went double for this class. This group was infamous because it was the Titan’s private class. The one that followed him on campaign, that took daily lessons from him. Everyone who was here had either paid an outrageous sum or had won entry by being gifted beyond all the other students. Sometimes both. In the citadel with its population of eight hundred or so would-be [Strategists] at the moment, everyone in this class was recognizable on sight. Especially the ones who stood in the center of the room, talking quietly.
Venaz the Minotaur. Cameral, a Dullahan. Yerranola, the class’ only Selphid. And the Human from Terandria, Wil. Umina and Marian joined their group, along with Jekilt, a short Centaur with darker skin.
He was a [Commander] who’d enrolled in the school and was older than the other students by a decade. Even so, while he was with them, he was a [Strategist]. And he didn’t talk down to the six standing with him; they were equals, if not in age, then experience. Because this class was a competition, and all of the students, not just the seven, were competing to stand out.
“Morning, everyone. How was your homework?”
Marian yawned as she trotted over to the others. It wasn’t a casual question either; it had been a week since she and Umina had seen the others. They had all been on the road for the last week. And their homework had been a rather impressive assignment. The others were bearing trophies like Marian’s horn and Umina’s quills. Well, most of them.
“Naturally, I succeeded in my task.”
Venaz, the Minotaur, turned and snorted. He was holding a rather impressive pelt in his arms; it was huge and as he unfurled it, Umina saw it was a huge bear’s hide. The Minotaur smiled smugly.
“Mossbear. My team eliminated it and two others. What of you, Marian?”
“Oh, I don’t know. All I have is this tooth.”
The Centauress smirked as she showed the giant Armorgator’s tooth. Umina smiled as Venaz’s triumphant look instantly turned crestfallen. That was Venaz. She looked around.
“Hi Cameral. Yerranola.”
The Dullahan nodded politely. He was holding a rather large mana core in his hands. Yerranola smiled. She was wearing a dead Lizardman’s body, but Umina thought of her as female. She waved a huge scale at Umina.
“What’s that you’ve got? Quills? My team managed to bag a giant carp or something. Not my best showing, but the Professor might not yank my head off for it. At least I have something. Better than poor Wil and Jekilt.”
She indicated the other two. Umina turned. Jekilt was pawing the ground restlessly. He flushed.
“You needn’t have spoken, Yerranola.”
“Don’t be mad. Jekilt.”
The Selphid teasingly smiled. She looked at Wil and her smile wavered. The Human was looking at his crisply-cut leather boots.
“Aw, don’t feel too bad, Wil.”
He spoke quietly. Umina looked around. The other students had proof of their homework too, with one other exception. She looked at Wil and Jekilt.
“What’s wrong? Did your teams not finish their mission?”
“Mine quit. It was a sensible choice, but…a failure’s a failure. I regret choosing them now.”
Jekilt pawed the ground, looking annoyed. He glanced sympathetically at Wil.
“As for Wil…better he explains.”
The young man shook his head. He was a [Lord], and as such, and because he was Human, he was more fully-dressed and better dressed than anyone else in the room. Umina had noticed Humans liked to cover a lot of their bodies; compared to her light clothing or Cameral, who just wore his steel armor, Will was fully dressed in a dark blue tunic and leggings that wouldn’t have been amiss at court. Whereas Marian and Jekilt only wore clothing on their upper bodies. And Venaz…well, he was dressed, but somehow, the bare-chested Minotaur seemed as fitting as clothing for him. He was glaring at Marian as she needled him.
“Three Mossbears, Venaz? You could have done better, I’m sure. My Armorgator was over twenty feet long. More than enough to swallow a Mossbear whole, I bet.”
He snorted angrily. Yerranola rolled her eyes.
“They’re already getting into it before class.”
She looked at Umina. The Lizardgirl shrugged helplessly. Marian was her best friend in class, but the Centauress and Venaz got along like fire and oil. In that when you put them together, they tended to combust. Venaz snorted as he clenched one fist.
“If I’d been allowed to take part myself or lead the team—it’s quality that counts, Marian. Quality. You and I were both assigned Silver-rank teams.”
“And I did better. Come on, admit it.”
“The Professor will judge us. Where is he, anyways?”
“I saw him outside. We’re going to meet with him soon, I think. We just…”
Cameral cut off. The other students looked around as the door opened. A Centauress trotted into the room. But she wasn’t one of the students. She was in her mid-forties, had a pair of spectacles, a slight limp on her back right leg, and a scar on her right flank that reached down to said leg. But she moved swiftly and the students immediately stopped talking and looked at her.
“Miss Perorn, good morning.”
Cameral and two of the Dullahans present immediately took off their heads and inclined their head with their hands, a Dullahans’ bow. Marian and Jekilt inclined their torsos as well. Umina didn’t, but that was because there really was no need. It was just that the Dullahans felt the need to show the courtesy and the Centaurs respected the teacher who’d just come in. Perorn, the Centauress, walked past the podium and turned.
“Good morning. I won’t keep you long. This morning’s class is cancelled as Lord Astoragon has another class to teach. A new group of potential students has arrived, and he intends to lead this morning’s class. Thus, you will leave your…homework…here and head straight down to the training grounds. I will inspect your results first, however. Please present your results if you have them, or give me a short verbal report in front of the class.”
She gestured at Venaz. The Minotaur immediately stepped forwards and showed her the Mossbear pelt.
“A trio of Mossbears. I contracted the Silver-rank team, Thunri Dwarves, to deal with them.”
Perorn had a clipboard. She noted down Venaz’ details swiftly.
“I see. Any casualties?”
“Thank you. Please place the pelts…here. I suppose Niers—Lord Astoragon—will want to inspect them later.”
Perorn sighed and indicated a space behind the lectern with one hoof. Venaz placed his pelt down carefully and Marian stepped up. Umina and the others got into line. She was near the end and noted Wil was right behind her. He looked downcast.
“It’ll be okay.”
“You haven’t heard what happened.”
The line moved fast; Perorn asked only for basic details. Umina showed her the quills.
“Scattershot Porcupines. I had the Bronze-rank team assignment.”
Venaz looked disbelievingly at the quills. Marian sighed and Yerranola raised her brows. Umina knew how it looked. Scattershot Porcupines were not a threat. Oh, they could fire their quills, which turned the already dicey business of getting near a porcupine into a positive threat, but they were hardly able to kill in most cases. But Perorn only noted down the detail. She glanced up.
“I see. The name?”
“Uh…they didn’t have one.”
The Centauress paused. Her eyes flicked up to Umina. And a small smile crossed her stern face. She also had a scar running down one cheek, but it was nearly invisible except if you were up close. Healing potions usually covered most injuries anyways.
“Ah. I’ll note that. Next?”
Umina laid down her burden on top of Venaz’ Mossbear pelt, which was being used to hold most of the trophies. She felt encouraged by Perorn’s smile; she might be right after all! Then she turned to watch Wil step up. He was, of course, empty-handed. Perorn gave him a severe look.
“Lord Kallinad, do you have anything to present?”
The young man flushed and Umina winced as Wil Kallinad, one of the two Humans in this class, shook his head. He looked miserable, even more so than Jekilt and Yerranola had been.
“I do not, Strategist Perorn. The adventuring team I contacted failed during their mission.”
Perorn adjusted her spectacles as she stared down at Wil.
“To what extent?”
“Six out of the nine adventurers perished, Miss Perorn.”
Umina’s gasp was part of the class’ groan out loud. Marian leaned over.
“Wil was told to hire a Gold-rank team, wasn’t he?”
“Yeah. I guess they got beaten. The Professor’s going to chew him out about that!”
The Lizardgirl shuddered. Perorn stared at Wil, then made a short note on her paper.
“I see. Thank you. Well, that’s all for me. I’ll leave this here—”
She flicked the clipboard onto the lectern and turned.
“Follow me. I’ll take you down to Lord Astoragon. My class is on the way.”
She trotted out the door. The others followed her, abandoning the paper and quills they normally brought along. If they were going outside, notes would just get dirty. Umina walked after Marian. The Centauress and the other students formed a group that followed Perorn at a respectful distance. Marian looked slightly aghast.
“Miss Perorn came here just to take notes and lead us? Surely someone else could have done that. A [Servant] could have done the job!”
“She likes making sure things are done. Remember when we saw her taking over for one of the [Tacticians] one day?”
Umina shrugged. Marian grumbled as she trotted a hair faster.
“But still. It’s her. I know we have the Professor around all the time, but…her?”
The Lizardgirl nodded. She understood the feeling. She watched as Perorn trotted down the Centaur ramps as opposed to the narrower stairwell. Perorn was a teacher, but she didn’t have the [Teacher] class. Rather, she was one of the instructors that the Titan employed out of his own company; Perorn was a [Strategist] in the Forgotten Wing company, a figure of renown in her own right.
Umina had studied three of her campaigns in class—the Centauress was fifty one, had slain over sixty enemy [Generals] and leaders in combat, fought for three years in Rhir against the Demons, and even taken down a small army of Trolls and other giant humanoids during the Mountainkin Incursions eight years back! If you knew [Strategists], you would know her name. Perorn Sadiluc, or, if you wanted her nickname, ‘Fleethoof’.
And here she was, teaching a class! But that was just how this school operated. It brought in famous [Strategists] to teach classes, rotating them in as these famous officers in the Forgotten Wing company returned from their duties for well-earned vacations. Sometimes one would stay to give a talk, or lead some students on a practical lesson for a day or two.
Other times they might be here for a month, or an entire season. And they were always battle-hardened veterans. And why not? The Forgotten Wing Company was filled with the best [Strategists] and warriors in all of Baleros. And the greatest [Strategist] of them all, Niers Astoragon, was the student’s main teacher! You sometimes forgot that.
On the way down, the small group of students passed by a few classrooms. These were far larger than the ones on the third floor and held many students, sometimes as many as a hundred. And the teachers weren’t as illustrious as Perorn, but they were good at their jobs. Umina heard a shout as she passed by a room on the second floor; she stared inside and saw a Dullahan roaring at a room full of students.
“Today you’ll be learning how to direct specific units in the field in the midst of a battle. There are a number of ways to do it, but regardless if you’re using flags, horns, magic, drums, or any other signal, you must be able to signal everything from a squad to an entire battalion to maneuver, brace, engage the enemy, set up pikes, retreat—don’t bother writing this down! You need to have this memorized; no one’s letting you read your notes when a bunch of [Riders] are charging your left flank! There will be a test in three days, and if one of you missed a single basic order—”
She winced as she saw the students fumbling with their quills and rolls of parchment. Marian tsked softly as she stared into the lecture hall.
“They must be pretty new if they’re learning basic commands.”
“Maybe it’s an officer training course. Three days. Yikes. I remember having to learn horn calls and getting them confused with drums. Old Rustarmor there will chew them to bits and spit them out.”
Umina shook her head. She peered at the grizzled Dullahan, who had earned the semi-affectionate name Rustarmor by his students. Despite his armor being free of rust; it was the dark red coloration he’d chosen to paint his armor that gave him the nickname, much to his displeasure.
Venaz snorted as he took one look into the room and tromped on by. The Minotaur was the tallest member of his class, bar none, and only Marian came close to his height.
“Idiots. If they can’t memorize the instructions in a day, why bother becoming [Strategists]? They’ll only be third-rate if they can’t even train their minds to memorize basic horn commands.”
His voice was deep and booming and Umina winced as the Dullahan inside paused to glare at the passing students. Venaz didn’t lower his voice for anything. Marian slapped Venaz on the back as some of the students in the class rustled like offended ducks.
“Don’t be rude, Venaz. Some of the students are quite young. They can hear you when you insult them in public, you know.”
“Good. Next time I’ll raise my voice so all of them get the message. They came here to learn. This isn’t Wistram or some place to be coddled. I’m glad I’m taking part in the Professor’s instructional lesson with the new students. I enjoy this every time it happens.”
Venaz rubbed his hands together, grinning unpleasantly. Marian sighed, but turned and deliberately walked in front of Venaz, showing him her behind. He stepped out of her way, grunting irritably; the sound of both his and Marian’s hooves clicking on the floor was the only sound for a moment.
“So, anyone here read the latest installation of that [Strategist] from Liscor? You know, Olesm whatshisface?”
Umina spoke up brightly. Yerranola chuckled and Cameral nodded.
“I paid for an early edition. Why? You read it too?”
“I got ahold of one. Just the [Message] spell; I hear there were maps, but I didn’t get sent one. Mind if I borrow it?”
“Oh, sure, sure. But I bet the Professor will have something to say when he reads it. Have you read it, you lot?”
The Selphid looked around. Venaz shook his head.
“I didn’t think it was worth paying for. Why? Has he included more chess strategies? The Professor’s only interested in that new game, Go, anyways.”
“He’s got chess and Go and something else. Actual strategy! He wrote his analysis of the Siege of Liscor.”
The other students looked around. They were, after all, [Strategists] as well. Yerranola grinned widely.
“Yep. But his analysis…I’m not going to say he’s wrong, but you have to read it. I’ve got a copy ready to show the Professor if he hasn’t read one yet.”
“I bet he has a copy himself. There’s no way he wouldn’t.”
“Yes, but he might not have read it yet. And let me tell you, when he does—”
“Just spit it out, Yerranola! Cameral, what does it say?”
The Dullahan was frowning.
“It was about Goblins. You see, this Olesm Swifttail seems to think that Goblins saved Liscor. He even went to go as far as to say they might actually be potential allies, not monsters. He cited several Hobgoblins and a tribe that—”
“He said what?”
Venaz’s voice made Perorn turned around. The [Strategist] glared at the Minotaur.
“Quiet. My class is up ahead. You all proceed down to meet Lord Astoragon. In silence.”
Her look made the Minotaur flush. Perorn stepped into one of the advanced classes and the rest of the students followed her, keeping silent until they reached the first floor. The Venaz whirled on Cameral, Yerranola, and Umina.
“Someone wrote that? Show me the article. This is outrageous. If that idiot thinks—Goblins? I’ll write in myself to tell him how idiotic that notion is.”
Umina raised a placating claw.
“Don’t worry, Venaz. You’re not alone. I think half the [Strategists] on Izril will be kicking down his door, never mind the ones overseas. I don’t know what possessed this Drake to write it, though.”
“I just want to see what the Professor says.”
Yerranola chuckled. Venaz calmed down a bit, but he stomped ahead, angrily muttering about idiots. Marian looked at Umina.
“You’re still keeping tabs on Liscor? Or just that chess magazine thing?”
The Lizardgirl swished her tail idly. She noticed some of the others looking at her sidelong.
“Just a bit about Liscor. The Professor did have his big lecture on the siege, remember? And there’s that dungeon…mind you, I’m more interested in Chandrar at the moment. Remember the King of Destruction’s announcement a few days back? Now that’s going to be huge news. I bet the Professor brings it up first.”
The others nodded and Umina sighed internally as they began to discuss the dramatic events from a moment back. War in Chandrar. But that was normal. Liscor on the other hand…she noticed Marian smiling at her and pretended nonchalance.
That was the thing. Marian was her best friend, but they were still students competing to be…well, the best. Umina would graduate from Niers’ school sometime, and hopefully it would never happen, but maybe she’d one day face Yerranola across the battlefield. Or Marian. Or…anyone.
Even Niers Astoragon himself. This was school, but it didn’t mean life stopped. Umina was already trying to get any advantage she could for when she graduated, and a hint about the Titan’s interest in Liscor—or an inn—was an advantage Umina wanted to keep to herself.
She didn’t want to ever face Marian in a situation that meant life or death. But some secrets were secret.
“And here we are. Looks like Miss Perorn was right. It’s a new class of students.”
The group of students reached the outside at last. The first thing Umina saw was a large collection of people, lined up in the morning sun and the slightly muddy cleared area that was used for practice skirmishes and other activities.
They were Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, but also species from across the world. Humans of course, but Drakes, Gnolls, even a Garuda! Half-Elves, no Dwarves, but that was hardly surprising…Umina didn’t see any Gazers either, but the assembled students accounted for most of the world’s species.
“New students. I forgot this was the time the Professor accepted new students in. Damn. I hope they don’t take up too much time.”
Jekilt looked annoyed by the group. Umina got why; they were new applicants to the Titans’ school. They’d paid to come here and receive lessons, but most probably had only a few levels in the [Strategist] class. They might aspire to be [Lieutenants], [Generals], [Strategists], or what have you, but they’d come here green as grass and that meant they’d be wandering around, asking stupid questions, and most importantly, getting in the way. But Umina was sympathetic.
“We’ve all been there, Jekilt. Except you, I guess; you were a [Captain] when you got here. But they’ll learn soon enough.”
The Centaur snorted.
“That’s not what bothers me. It’s the arrogance. Especially from the young stallions, Humans, and those Drakes.”
Kissilt, one of the Drakes in the class, protested mildly. Jekilt looked at him.
“You disagree? Your lot strides in and thinks that you know everything. I’m not saying Drakes are the worst; Centaurs are just as bad. But those Humans…”
The Drake looked mollified. Wil, one of two Humans in the group, blushed a bit as the others looked at him.
“I can’t defend that. But it’s not fair to say all Humans, Jekilt. It’s Terandrian nobility I’m afraid you’re thinking of. That includes me.”
“But we like you.”
Yerranola threw an arm around Wil’s shoulders. He shuddered because the Selphid’s hug was literally like being hugged by a corpse.
“Thanks, Yerra. But I’ll admit a lot of the Terandrian aristocracy doesn’t handle Baleros well. Especially uh, dealing with non-Humans.”
Jekilt snorted again and pawed the ground, but Marian cut in.
“How many are from Terandria, Wil? I can’t tell.”
She cast an eye at the Humans waiting about in the sun. There were a lot of young people, some as young as…sixteen? The bulk were younger than thirty, and there were only a few as old as Jekilt, career soldiers perhaps who had the money to pay for lessons. Most of the Humans were young, in their early twenties or late teens.
Umina tried to guess how many were Terandrian as well, but aside from the quality of clothes, it was an enigma to her too. Wil was more experience and ran a quick eye across the group before shrugging.
“Looks like your usual lot. I see at least a dozen applicants from Terandria. There might even be a member of the royal family.”
The students stared at the young man Wil pointed out. Umina caught a sharp nose, a quickly turning head…the Human in question was shorter and slimmer of stature, more like a Lizardfolk. Wil grimaced.
“That might be the son of Taligrit’s royal family. Third [Prince]. I don’t know.”
“Your people pop out so many heirs…”
“Well, it’s an advantage, isn’t it?”
“Only if they level. How much better is a [Prince] than a [Lord]?”
“Why are we waiting about? Where’s the Professor?”
“Bet he’s going for a showy entrance. And why did he want us to come down here?”
“It’s the usual, the usual, remember?”
Umina’s eyes widened with some of the others. So that was—then she heard a blare of trumpets. Her head turned with all of her class and the new students. And that was when she saw him.
Or rather, she saw the [Servant] carrying him. It was a Selphid who bore a large platform, really an elevated table with a small top nearly six feet high. And Umina was too far away to see, but standing on top of that table was a figure. The new students stared at the table, and then as it grew closer, they blinked as they saw it had an occupant.
Yes, here he was. The Titan of Baleros. At first the students stared. Then, some of them, especially the ones not native to Baleros, began to snigger. The older new students, especially those who looked like actual soldiers, didn’t laugh. The others clearly thought this was a joke.
The Titan of Baleros! That was who they had come to see. It was for him they’d sailed, sometimes across the world to learn from! And what was this? A Fraerling? One of the tiny folk? But he was called the Titan of Baleros. And it was him standing on that platform.
What all the stories usually forgot to mention was that the Titan of Baleros was a Fraerling. The smallest people in the world; only a foot tall. He looked like a Human, except shrunk down; standing and addressing this new class, he was barely visible from a distance. Niers Astoragon even had to use a voice-amplifying artifact for his words to be heard by those in the back.
The students stopped laughing. Some looked up. Niers Astoragon, second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing company, the Titan of Baleros and the Professor as he was known by his students, waved a hand.
“Silence, please. Yes, I apologize for the delay. However, we’re ready to begin. If you’ve just arrived, let me introduce myself. I am Niers Astoragon. The Titan of Baleros as some know me. You will know me as your teacher for however long you’re enrolled in my school.”
There were some chuckles from the audience. But the rest had caught on and some were staring. They were realizing that no, this wasn’t a joke. This little fellow…was the Titan? Really? Umina watched their expressions. Niers went on.
“I realize some of you are tired from your travel. We have students from other continents. However, as is customary, you will all receive your first lesson here. You have all come to learn from my school. To become [Strategists], or simply achieve an officer’s class. I intend to start you on that process now. With a brief combat exercise. You’ve been issued helmets and weapons, haven’t you?”
Umina saw the students had a yellow helmet; some had placed it on the muddy ground, which was a mistake. And they were wearing armor and holding weapons…some raised them now. The Fraerling might have nodded, but few people saw.
“Excellent! In that case, we’ll begin. You may know that my school has a reputation for mock combat exercises. You will all take part in them as you study here and even experience this fake combat yourselves. I intend to provide you with a little sample of said combat, although I myself will not participate directly. As you can see, helmets do little for me.”
There was a laugh from some of his audience. The Titan didn’t seem to mind. He cheerfully stood on his platform and Umina felt a prickle on her scales. He was being too nice—when he’d done this to her group, two years ago—
“Some of you are soldiers, and some have even experienced battle a number of times. The rest of you come from places that might not have ever seen war. That changes today. You have all come here, some at great expense, I know. But if you cannot handle today’s first lesson, you will be sent back!”
The students stiffened. That was a departure from what they’d expected. But Niers’ voice cheerfully shouted on.
“I have only a few demands of you. But this lesson is one of them. You’ve heard it said that I can take anyone, anyone, and turn them into a [Strategist]? I can. But only if they have the will and drive to do it. If you lack that basis—there’s nothing I can do. If you can, my promise stands.”
He paused there, and all the eyes fixed on him. Niers Astoragon spoke slowly.
“Five levels. If you are under Level 30, by the end of your training here, you will gain five levels. In a single year. That’s for the basic course where we hammer you into functional officers. If you stay for two years, four, or even six, you will emerge even better. That’s my promise. And I stand by it.”
The restless students standing in the muggy heat and sun went still. Five levels. In a year? Maybe if it was from Level 1 to Level 6, that would be a safe bet. But Level 20 to Level 25? But it was a common claim. And it was one of the reasons why Niers’ school was so popular. The Titan’s voice floated through the air, calm and serious.
“I have raised [Strategists] out of [Farmhands]. I have made [Generals] out of people without even a level in [Soldier]. If you have the will, I will teach you. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy. But you can achieve any class you wish if you strive for it. Take a look to your left. You see that group there? That is my most senior class.”
The group of a hundred or so new students looked over at Wil, Umina, Marian, and the others who were waiting in the shade. Umina waved as did Yerranola and some of the others; the rest just waited patiently. They’d heard this speech before. They’d stood through it. Niers pointed at them, a tiny shape standing on his dais.
“Regardless of how they entered, no one in my advanced class will exit below Level 30. If you have the aptitude, the talent, or just the drive, you may be inducted into their ranks, regardless of tuition. The coming months will determine if there are any of you who make that cut. But today we find out if any of you are going to stay. Venaz!”
He roared and the new students jumped. The Fraerling turned towards Venaz. The Minotaur hadn’t moved.
Niers pointed at him.
“Today’s lesson is one for the new students to see what battle is like. They should understand what the [Soldiers] experience when they are led into combat. Thus, I am giving you command of an army. The students will be part of your infantry; my soldiers will not be allowed to harm them! You will also receive training troops in excess of mine. Try to keep your side alive and defeat my army, will you?”
“As you wish, Professor!”
The Minotaur grinned hugely and strode forwards. Marian groaned and Umina felt a prickle of disappointment. She wished she had been chosen. The new students stared as Venaz strode forwards. Then they looked around. They were going to be part of an army? And take part themselves? Umina saw the worry on the would-be [Prince]’s face until a young man next to him nudged him and said something reassuring. She saw the [Prince] nod, looking relieved. She could imagine what was being said.
The Titan—if he was the Titan—had said that they’d be fighting? But they weren’t allowed to be hurt. So what was the risk? They’d see combat, alright. Maybe show off some of their sword Skills! Most of the students looked excited by the idea, as if they’d forgotten they were here to be [Strategists], not [Warriors]. Umina shook her head.
“Oh, you sweet, poor, hatchlings.”
Yerranola nodded cheerfully.
“They’re dead. Let’s find somewhere to sit and watch. Anyone have something to drink? Oh, look! Here come the training soldiers! Wow, the Professor’s called out a lot of them!”
She pointed. Figures were marching onto the training grounds, holding weapons and wearing no armor save for a metal breastplate that covered only their chests. Umina recognized them at once.
Selphids. Umina watched with interest as some of the Terandrian and a few of the Izril and Chandrarian students recoiled from them. The pale-skinned warriors moved with as much grace as their living counterparts, but their bodies were dead. Some bore the fatal wounds they’d taken; the others were unmarked. But this was the army that formed up on either side of the field. Venaz eyed his command and shouted; he was far away from the watching students and Niers, but he had a field roar that made the students in front of him wince.
“Aren’t you underestimating me, Professor?”
“Not at all! Do your best, Venaz!”
Niers’ voice cheerfully came back. Umina saw a group of Selphids surround him, carrying halberds and spears. It was a familiar situation. Like Niers had said, they were engaging in a war game. With live soldiers.
Well, sort of.
The thing about [Strategists] was that you couldn’t teach experience. And playing games with boards and figures was fun and you could level, but Niers Astoragon promised to train experienced [Strategists] who actually knew how to lead. Which meant that he made his students command actual armies in battle. But what if there was no handy war to be had? Well, then he had his training squads.
Over a thousand [Soldiers], [Mercenaries], and even Bronze-rank adventurers found employment at the Titan’s school. It was cheap pay and you might get bruised, but you could level up. Because you’d be issued with blunted weapons and you’d fight in formation, obeying a [Strategist] or officer’s commands, but actually fighting your opponents. Bones would be broken as two sides fought in various terrain, flanking each other, demonstrating different tactics—people got hurt.
And if one side lost badly, there could be serious injuries. Usually it wasn’t bad thanks to the practice weapons, but the Titan had let it be known that anyone who was hurt by accident would be healed with a healing potion or compensated for an unhealable injury. And despite the risk, there were no shortage of volunteers for his war games. It was better than getting hurt in actual combat.
Still, there were those more suited for fights than others. And Selphids were the perfect species for mock battles. After all, their bodies were dead. They lined up, cheerfully shouting greetings at the Professor or Venaz; taking their ease as they formed into distinct units to be commanded. Umina saw Niers directing his army as Venaz surveyed the units he’d been given.
The advanced students retreated to some stands that had been built to let people view the battlefield from a height. There were some regular citizens in the crowd; to the city folk, watching the Titan’s war-games was excellent, free entertainment. Niers’ students settled into a spot high up by themselves as they talked. Yerranola shaded her eyes as she stared down at the battlefield.
“I see what you mean, Jekilt. Those Humans and Drakes are giving my people a lot of dirty looks. Looks like none of them have ever seen a Selphid before.”
“To be fair, there are more Selphids on the field than I’ve seen in my entire life before now.”
Cameral commented placidly. Wil nodded. He was peering at the battlefield with a pair of enchanted spectacles. Umina nudged him and he offered her it to look.
“Aside from the Eyes of Baleros, the Forgotten Wing company employs way more Selphids than any other major company. Especially because they’re so useful in training exercises.”
Marian snorted softly.
“Well, they’re going to be more use than those new students. They can take orders. Look at Venaz. See how angry he’s already getting trying to make them form up?”
She pointed. The Minotaur was indeed bellowing orders and the Selphids were smoothly moving into place, but the students were a disorganized rabble. Jekilt shook his head.
“They might be a disadvantage unless Venaz gives them a simple order. At least they’ll slow the Professor’s troops down.”
“Hah. Do you think Venaz would give any other order?”
The others chuckled. Jekilt grinned.
“True. Umina, what’s the numbers on each side?”
The Lizardgirl called out as she surveyed Niers’ side and Venaz’s, watching the formations charge as both [Strategists] sized each other up.
“Forty [Crossbowmen], twenty [Riders], sixty [Soldiers], and a small command of about ten fighters including the Professor himself. Against that, we have…the students, which are about a hundred being protected by eighty [Soldiers]. Venaz also gets sixty riders and a personal command of about thirty plus himself.”
“Huh. So Venaz has a lot more numbers, and more [Riders], but no ranged. Sounds like your kind of matchup, Marian.”
“Probably why I’m not taking part. Unless the Professor’s going to use his Skills, he’ll be hard-pressed to keep those horses off his archers. Think Venaz will win?”
Marian frowned at the battlefield as she held out a hand for the spectacles. Wil shook his head steadily.
“He’s going to lose. It doesn’t matter that he has double the Professor’s numbers. The students he has are worthless and the Professor’s got range on him.”
“You don’t know that, Wil. The Professor never sets up a battle against us he can’t lose. He says it’s no fun. If Venaz charges him with the [Riders] just right…”
“We’ll see. Oh, look. They’re starting!”
Yerranola pointed excitedly. One of the [Trumpeters] had blown a blaring call to arms. The audience in the bleachers sat forwards as both armies jumped into motion. The instant the horn blared, Venaz roared an order and his [Riders] shot forwards. The infantry advanced, closing the few hundred feet at a walk at first, which would soon accelerate into a run. Marian made a disgusted sound.
“He’s just going for a charge. Look, he’s aiming straight at the Professor’s archers!”
“Hey, let me see! You’re right…but I mean, what else does he need to do? Hold on—look!”
The Selphid pointed excitedly. The crossbows in Niers’ army had instantly opened up, firing at the [Riders]. Umina saw the unit swerve to dodge as Venaz shouted; she wondered if he’d used a Skill or if their leader had just anticipated the bolts. The training soldiers were allowed some autonomy even with orders; they wouldn’t charge blindly into fake-death.
“Here they come! The Professor’s dropping a few, but…what’s he going to do? Is he pulling his infantry back, Yerra?”
“No. I don’t think—they’re advancing. And the riders are heading straight for—no, look! He’s sent his own riders in!”
The twenty mounted Selphids were charging straight at the sixty or so coming at them. Umina inhaled sharply. They were going to collide! Selphids or no, that many horses dying would be tragic! She saw Venaz pointing and shouting; he was giving the order to charge! Jekilt growled in disgust.
“Typical idiot—he’s going to lose half his riders and maim all those horses!”
“But he’ll get to the crossb—no! Look!”
Another volley of crossbow bolts flew up. Venaz’ riders stumbled; Umina saw several stop in place. The riders didn’t tumble from their saddles as the bolts struck them; they weren’t tipped with metal. Neither did the horses get hurt, despite the volley of projectiles.
The horses wore protective headgear, as did the riders. When the painted crossbow bolts struck them, the [Riders] would dismount if the horse died, or give up completely if the horse and rider were struck. And more were downed, but the rest were coming on; Niers’ crossbows were clearly being operated by people without [Archer] classes. Then Umina saw the horses swerve right, and then into Venaz’ riders.
“Look at that! Here they go!”
Horses reared and swords began flashing. The Selphids on horseback fought carefully, but Umina heard more than one animal cry out in pain. She felt for the horses, but the Selphids on horseback were taking each other to pieces. And Venaz’ charge was fumbling. Half the riders had to turn to fight the ones attacking them. And the crossbows were reloading…the rest were coming on…
“They’re going to hit his archers! They’re—oh, look!”
Yerranola shot up in her seat. Wil plaintively called for the spectacles, but she was pointing and everyone saw the sudden change in the crossbows as the forty Selphids tossed their weapons down, bent into the mud and picked up something.
“Spears! It was a feint! They’re his infantry!”
Yerranola laughed as suddenly, the cavalry found themselves heading right for a wall of pikes and spears. It was too late to turn back; riders were committed. Rather than actually hit the horses with the very real spears and pikes, though, the leader of Venaz’ [Riders] slowed the charge. Umina heard a cry.
“Horses meet pikes! Casualties: total! Twelve of pikes for Lord Astoragon fall!”
The riders guided their mounts off the field. Meanwhile, Venaz’ remaining riders had cleaned up Niers’ riders but found a group of pikes charging straight at them. They tried to disengage, but although they outran the pikes, they found the true archery unit had reclaimed their weapons. A volley picked off all but the stragglers and they too exited the field.
Umina grinned with delight as she watched Venaz practically hopping with rage from his side of the battlefield. All throughout the stands, the audience was laughing and some were heckling Venaz. Cameral was shaking his head with his hands.
“That fool. He should have noticed those were fake [Crossbowmen] the instant that first volley landed. He was gambling on the fact that the Professor wouldn’t expect a full-charge, but of course he did.”
“To be fair, if he hadn’t done that, Venaz would have forced the Professor to ward his archers and expose his command while his infantry got into range.”
Umina pointed out Niers’ command where the Fraerling was presumably issuing orders from. Venaz’ larger command was advancing now, with the rest of his infantry. Marian winced; the crossbows were reloading and Niers’ infantry, just under fifty, were moving forwards in a line.
“Yikes. The Professor took out all of Venaz’s horse, but he’s still outnumbered two to one. Think those crossbows will even the odds?”
“He can get off at least three volleys…and he’s aiming for the regular soldiers. What do you think, Umina?”
The Lizardgirl watched as the crossbows volleyed the first rain of bolts at the students.
“I think Venaz is in trouble, numbers or not. His Selphids are falling like flies. And as for the students…remember what it’s like?”
Her classmates nodded. They watched as the infantry streamed across the field. They were a ragged formation, actually slowing down the Selphid [Soldiers] as the bolts rained down around them.
The new students raised their shields as the [Selphid] soldiers around them screamed and shouted, advancing under the hail of crossbow bolts. They had helmets on, but—Umina remembered her first lesson vividly. You were advancing through the mud, with Selphids screaming in your ear as crossbow bolts fell around you. And they hurt! They were wooden bolts with powdered paint tied to cloth balls for the tips, but that was still a painful strike if it got you between the armor.
But that wasn’t the scary part, oh no; she didn’t see any of the students running despite the intensity of their advance. The really horrific moment came next.
Both Niers’ and Venaz’ forces had finally closed the gap. Venaz had left a lot of his Selphids behind, but the students were on their feet. They hadn’t been told to lie down even after being struck by bolts. And they clearly wanted a fight after being pelted with the painted crossbow bolts.
And both sides had real weapons. Steel glinted. The students charged with a ragged yell. The Selphids on both sides shouted. But Niers had the advantage in numbers now, students notwithstanding. The first rank of his Selphids charged into Venaz’ soldiers.
And they began to hack them to pieces.
Umina winced. The first two to meet were a Selphid wearing a Gnoll’s body and a Selphid Lizardman holding a glaive. The glaive-wielding Selphid swung as the Selphid with the Gnoll’s body charged with a sword. The glaive cut through the Gnoll’s arm and he screamed as blood spurted from the wound. He dropped and the Selphid with the glaive hacked at his legs, drawing blood, chopping through flesh, bone—
The students wearing yellow helmets paused in horror. A Selphid charged forwards and another ran him through the belly. He fell down, screaming and writhing and another soldier hacked at his head. It took six strikes, and the soldier finally yanked the head up by the roots and screamed. He hurled it at the students.
“Oh dead gods. They’re using that fake blood.”
Umina saw blood spurting from wounds as Selphids on both sides began to hack at each other. Both groups of soldiers clashed in earnest, trading actual blows; Umina saw metal hacking into flesh, exposing bone. The blows were deadly! The Selphids took aim at each other, screaming as if they were actually fighting.
Not the students; anyone with a yellow helmet the Selphids on both sides avoided. And indeed, some let themselves be run through with the weapons as they fought with students. Their chest plates protected the centers of each dead body where the Selphid inside would be resting, ensuring that a fatal blow to the Selphid was never struck. But that meant limbs, heads, and other parts of the body were free game. And both sides let each other have it.
The shrieking Selphid with an axe chopped another Selphid’s head off and the defeated Selphid’s body collapsed, spurting some painted red water as the Selphid with the axe screamed happily. He whirled and Umina saw a terrified new student from Terandria screaming and raising his shield as the Selphid hacked at it. One blow, two, three…the Selphid let the student run and chased him, screaming—
And laughing. It was a game for the Selphids. They weren’t being hurt. This was just their host body. But the students had forgotten that. And faced with actual gore—Umina could remember what she’d felt. She’d been in their shoes.
Look. There, a Selphid was dragging out the guts of another [Soldier], and another was hacking at a dead body as a group of students fled, screaming in terror…the students around Umina were laughing, but it was tinged with a bit of memory. Umina pointed at a student who’d just frozen in place as Selphids from Niers’ army butchered Venaz’ force around him.
“I think I peed myself when that happened to me. I had one Selphid on my side holding onto me, screaming in pain and waving a bloody stump of an arm around…”
“Hold your ground! Hold!”
One of the Selphids under Venaz’ command was shouting desperately, trying to rally the students. And some were fighting; the ones with actual combat experience were dueling Selphids, who were taking care not to hurt their opponents. But the majority of the hundred were running for the hills. The city folk in the stands were in stitches, enjoying the spectacle. Mindful of what Niers had said, Umina looked around.
“It doesn’t actually matter if they hold their ground, right?”
Wil shook his head. Embarrassed, he rubbed at his neck.
“I ran when it happened. All of us did; we got routed when the Professor sent some of his [Riders] to hack up our group. I think it’s only if you ask to go home. But I imagine a lot will after this.”
Umina stared at a student hiding behind a dead body as the [Soldiers] from Niers’ side pursued the rest, still screaming their lungs out. She wanted to imagine all the brown on the new students was mud.
“I don’t doubt that. Dead gods, I forgot how much the Selphids screamed.”
Yerranola sighed as she watched her kin pursuing the routing students and Selphids from Venaz’ force.
“It’s to make it as real as possible. Besides, they’re having so much fun. It must be great, working this kind of job. I’m so jealous.”
The others looked at her. The Selphid [Strategist] nodded wistfully.
“Free bodies if you get yours destroyed, you can Rampage when you’re doing a training exercise and not worry about busting up all the muscles in your host, and you get respect, pay, and the chance to beat spoiled students over the head? It’s any Selphid’s dream come true.”
“Well, they’re all due for a new body thanks to Venaz’ tactics. The Professor really must have shook him; he got his infantry butchered without so much as using a Skill.”
Marian nodded. She snatched the spectacles and peered around.
“Where’s that idiot got to? He’s oh, hold on! Look at that!”
She pointed. Suddenly, Umina saw a group moving forwards, despite the routing infantry. It was Venaz and his command unit of thirty. He’d advanced around the main body of his infantry, using them as a shield! Now his remaining [Riders] streamed towards Niers’ infantry, cutting them off as they tried to turn and block them. But Venaz and his thirty-some soldiers were charging. Straight at Niers’ command unit!
“It was all a decoy? Look, he’s going for the Professor! Will the crossbows get him?”
They hadn’t noticed Venaz’ group in the chaos of the students fleeing. Umina saw a command go out and the archers turn. But it was too late.
“Look, they’re firing—but now it’s too close!”
Venaz was leading his command straight at Niers as the crossbow bolts fell around him. Eight or so of his thirty soldiers went down from the sudden volley, but the rest made it. And now it was a melee between both sides and if the crossbows shot, they’d risk hitting their own side!
“Dead gods! It’s ten vs thirty! And the Professor can’t fight!”
Alarmed, Marian stared through the spectacles. The laughter in the stands had ceased. Umina got to her feet.
“Wait, what if he falls. If they trample him—”
“He’s got magical artifacts, right?”
The others clustered around Marian, trying to squint and see the distant commotion that was the last fight on the battlefield. Marian shook her head urgently.
“He does, I’m sure. But does this mean…Venaz won?”
The others stared at each other. Niers had lost training exercises before, but it was rarer than a blue moon when it actually happened. Had Venaz’ last-ditch gamble worked? Umina couldn’t believe it. This was such a simple exercise! Both sides hadn’t employed any Skills or real tactics; it was just to teach the new students a lesson. But had Venaz really…?
Then she heard a voice, roaring across the battlefield. Amplified, loud as anything—
The crossbows rose. Umina’s eyes widened. They took aim.
“They’re shooting at the Professor’s command?”
In disbelief, Marian exclaimed. The bolts flew and cut down the Selphids fighting between Venaz and Niers’ command units. Selphids on both sides lay down, shouting as they pretended to be writhing in agony. Umina saw Venaz turning his head in disbelief. And he was staring at the wooden dais, knocking it over, snarling—
“He’s not there!”
Umina watched as the second volley cut down Niers’ troops and Venaz’s. The ranged unit reloaded and fired again, and the Selphids obligingly lay down. A third volley took out the rest, until only a single Minotaur was left standing, furious, painted with the colors of a dozen crossbow bolts.
“Hold! Battle’s over! Hold!”
The shout went up across the battlefield. The remaining warriors put down their arms. Umina laughed in delight as she suddenly got it. Cameral, Wil, more than half the group was smiling. Marian’s eyes widened as she stared at the unit of archers with the enchanted spectacles. She chortled as well.
“Excellent! Venaz is never going to live this down.”
She pointed. And as Umina and the others leapt down the stands, they saw him. The Titan. He was standing on the helmet of one of his Selphids. The Titan bellowed cheerfully, waving his arms.
“The battle’s over! Training soldiers, stop harassing my new students, please!”
The female [Arbalest] whose helmet he was using waved at her fellow Selphids in the distance as the students ceased their panicked flight. Across the battlefield, the ‘dead’ Selphids were getting up. Those without legs or with bodies too damaged to stand were helped up by their comrades as they laughingly slapped backs or squirted out the rest of the colored ‘blood’ their bodies were carrying.
It was over. And just like that, the students realized the blood-covered [Soldiers] chasing them with actual weapons were just acting. The Selphids stopped running and laughed, pointing at the new students. Shamefaced, they turned back. Niers’ voice reached them across the field.
“I see you’ve mastered the first lesson any [Soldier] learns: when to run away! Come on back now, and we’ll have another talk. Anyone with injuries, raise your hands and our [Healers] will be with you in a moment! As for my colorful Minotaur—”
There was a laugh from the stands. Niers turned to face Venaz. The Minotaur was stomping towards him, ignoring the cheerful Selphids around him.
“Venaz, wash yourself off! The rest of you, gather in our classroom for a debriefing. I’ll be with you in thirty minutes! Come on, you new students, pick up the pace! Enjoyed your taste of war? If you’re upset, remember that this is the least you’ll see on a battlefield. So rethink your decisions. And come forwards! Move those legs! Now, if you’re going to stay here…”
Umina walked off the field, smiling and shaking her head. She waved at Venaz, but the Minotaur stomped right past her, shouting for a bucket of water. The Lizardgirl looked back at the new students, who were looking up at the Titan as he addressed them.
Some of them were shaking. Others had actually thrown up during the fighting. Umina watched with a bit of sympathy as they gathered, shaking after that ordeal. They’d certainly seen fighting. Watching anyone, even a Selphid acting being cut to pieces by a sword had to be jarring. She turned as the others in her class began to walk back inside, talking cheerfully. They hadn’t been forced to take part.
“I expect we’ll lose at least twenty. None of the actual soldiers, obviously. Some will probably get to an advanced class fast. Did you see that Gnoll with the spear? He actually got two of the Selphids!”
“Clearly a [Warrior] of some kind. I wonder if he served in one of the Drake armies or he’s a tribal Gnoll?”
“Tribal. Definitely from a Plains Gnoll, not city.”
One of the other students waved a paw. Cameral turned to the one Gnoll in their group.
“What makes you so sure, Feshi?”
She bared her teeth.
“Aside from the smell I got from him? You can tell by his war markings. On his fur? No one from the cities would dare wear that.”
She pointed at one of the Gnolls among the new students who hadn’t run away screaming when the Selphids had been routed. He did indeed have some bright paint on his dark run. Umina squinted at Feshi; the Gnoll was one of the newer students to their class and she had white stripes and a curious pattern on her arms.
“You’ve got some yourself, Feshi. Is it a mark of status?”
The Gnoll [Tactician] grinned at Umina.
“Yes. Sometime I will explain it. But it will take too long now, I think. And here is Venaz!”
She pointed. The Minotaur was already back, his fur wet and dripping. It looked like he’d dunked a few buckets of water over his head. The others waved at him, and Marian trotted forwards, smiling archly.
“Venaz! Did you enjoy painting with the Professor? That was some beating you received!”
He growled at her.
“If it hadn’t been that damn mud—that’s twice now the Professor’s used hidden weapons on me! His Selphids came onto the field having already swapped their gear! If I’d have seen them do it—”
“—Then it wouldn’t be a surprise, Venaz. Honestly, you should have expected it.”
The Minotaur sneered at Marian, in too poor a mood for even an attempt at civility.
“What would you have done, tried to hit-and-run his forces? He would have chopped your riders up like the last four times he did it.”
Marian colored. She opened her mouth and Umina jumped in.
“I’m sure the Professor was expecting you to try for a charge, Venaz. This was a battle he was supposed to win, to give those students a taste of war. And you got his command. Let’s wait to see what he says, alright?”
The Minotaur growled, but he subsided and Marian didn’t poke him further as they went back to their classroom. There they milled about, chuckling over the battle and speculating over some of the new students’ aptitude. They didn’t have to wait long. Soon enough, a door set into the ceiling opened and someone walked out.
There were small doors set high up in each room of the Titan’s citadel. The Fraerling’s tiny walkways. And there were little ramps that let them walk down. The Fraerling marched out of the door and leapt—from his walkway to the lectern. It was a six foot drop, but none of his students so much as batted an eye; they’d seen him do it many times before.
“Good morning, class! And what have we learned today?”
The Titan of Baleros was in good spirits. He beamed at his class and especially at Venaz. They laughed as they took their seats. The Minotaur folded his arms and growled.
“To not trust the Titan of Baleros to fight fair?”
Niers Astoragon raised an eyebrow.
“I thought that was obvious, Venaz. But come, aside from my little trick, does anyone else have any observations?”
Marian snorted. The Centauress raised one hand as she took a seat, folding her hindquarters into the padded cushions designed for her people.
“I do. Venaz, this ‘lead from the front’ strategy you’re always preaching got your entire force wiped out. Again. Haven’t you learned your lesson by now?”
The Minotaur colored again. He swiveled in his seat and looked up at Marian with a scowl.
“Better aggression than cowardice. Or how would you have taken out a superior, ranged force? Danced about while they shot you to pieces? I knew the Professor had pikes. So I risked a frontal charge—”
“And then you got cut to pieces. You even missed the Professor when you attacked his command force.”
Marian taunted Venaz from her higher seat. The Minotaur opened his mouth furiously, but Niers forestalled another huge argument between the two.
“Marian. Thank you, you’ve made your points.”
The Centaur ducked her head at his reproving tone. Niers looked at Venaz.
“Do you have anything to say yourself, Venaz?”
Almost sulkily, the Minotaur folded his arms and looked down at the desk in front of him.
“If it were anyone but you, sir, my strategy would have been sound! Once I took out the enemy command, their army would be left without a leader. I could then rally my forces and retreat or retrench and win the battle.”
“But the crossbows—”
Venaz glared at Wil.
“I could block one volley with my [Arrowguard Formation] Skill! I didn’t use any because the Professor didn’t. And with his demise, we could have used the fallen bodies as shields.”
“But wouldn’t the crossbows still have—”
“Not if he was there!”
Venaz snapped. Niers looked at him and the Minotaur subsided. Niers walked up to the edge of his lectern and sat there, feet dangling over the side. He nodded thoughtfully.
“Venaz is correct that he would have taken out my command. And if this were a larger battle, all of my [Strategists] would have been killed, it’s true. If I were a [General], that would be a crippling blow, regardless of whether or not I personally escaped.”
He forestalled the Minotaur’s response with a tiny palm. Umina leaned forwards, listening as Niers looked around the room. His eyes met hers for a second and she caught his smile.
“However, knowing your opponent matters. And aside from the trick with the riders at the start…if it were me, Venaz, I would have sent my command forwards without going myself. And if I were you, I’d have taken those remaining [Riders] and charged the crossbow line instead of stalling my foot soldiers. You could have done a lot of damage if you’d gotten close enough. And you would have split their attention away from the fight at the command nicely.”
Umina saw Venaz blink.
“You mean, split my forces further?”
“Why not? You don’t need thirty troops to take on ten. Send fifteen to take out my command, stall with five, and send the remaining ten, your riders, and yourself to hit my crossbows. The horses can probably dodge in and stop them from picking you off…it’s a desperate gamble, but I think it would be a more efficient use of your soldiers. Either you win and decimate a large number of my crossbows, or I force you back. Regardless, I never get to shoot up your soldiers at my leisure.”
The other students digested that. Marian raised a hand.
“So you’re saying Venaz wasn’t aggressive enough, Professor?”
“Possibly. I hope Venaz can take my words to heart. I know he prefers a cautious strategy most of the time…”
Niers laughed, and after a second Venaz had to chuckle himself. The Titan relaxed, as did his students. And the classroom took on a different air from the lectures, or the shouted introduction Niers had given to the new students. In this room the tone was conversational, friendly. Intimate. Niers reached for a tiny wand and flicked it; he began drawing in the air, illustrating the battle with bright lines of color.
“I understand Venaz’ line of thinking, Marian. If he wasn’t going to retreat, he might as well gamble on doing enough damage. And Venaz would have been one of the highest-level fighters on the field. Lead from the front. There is a good deal of practicality behind the concept; a [Strategist] rallies the soldiers around him and if you’re confident in your abilities, why not regard yourself as a valuable piece on the battlefield?”
Venaz was nodding with a broad smile on his face. Niers raised a tiny finger.
“However, let’s not confuse practicality with culture. And there’s a lot of that in your strategy too, Venaz. I understand Minotaurs promote bravery on the battlefield. But it’s making your tactics predictable. And you know what I think about predictability.”
“It gets you killed.”
Umina chorused with some of the other students. Venaz drummed his fingers on the desk. He was searching for a response, Umina knew. The Minotaur was incredibly stubborn and refused to be easily swayed by anyone, even Niers himself.
“I understand that, sir. But there’s nothing wrong with having a style. Didn’t you say that high-level Skills develop as a result of your style? If I were to gain a powerful attacking Skill, like your [Charge of the Strategist]—wouldn’t I be remiss if I didn’t use it in battle?”
The tiny Fraerling smiled. He tossed the wand back on his desk as he spread his hands.
“I did indeed. And never let it be said that I underestimate Skills—if you’d used yours during the battle and I had not, you might have won, Venaz. But there’s knowing your opponent as well. Even the King of Destruction doesn’t use his best Skills in every battle; he adapts. And an unused Skill is one the opponent watches for the entire time. And again, if I know you’ll commit to every massive attack yourself, why shouldn’t I always keep an archer in reserve to aim for you?”
Venaz chewed that over for a second.
“I suppose so, sir. But consider my perspective as well. My people don’t respect a [Strategist] who won’t fight on the frontlines.”
“Then don’t fight every battle on the front, Venaz.”
“But what would be the point if I didn’t consider myself an asset, as you said, Professor? What if I just fought elsewhere, in say, smaller skirmishes as a feint—”
“Dead gods, Venaz! Stop arguing!”
From her seat, Yerranola hurled some fruit peels at him. The Minotaur growled, and the Titan waved a hand.
“I think your obsession with having to fight is the real issue, Venaz. But Yerranola’s correct. We can’t stick onto this debate; I’m tired of having it with you and I intend to discuss actually relevant work today. Which brings me back to my assignment. You’re all back I note, and it’s been a week. How have you done? I see Perorn’s left her notes. Kind of her. Hm. Interesting. And, oh dear. Let’s not beat about the bushes. Wil?”
The young man stood up. He was pale.
Niers waved impatiently at him. He peered down at the large clipboard.
“Sit, sit. And calm down, Wil. You’re not in trouble. Although I fear your Gold-rank team might be very unhappy with you. But they knew the risks. What do you think was the problem? I see they were hunting a Cyclops. Nasty. And rare. Still, they should have been able to handle it; it seems they were a well-respected team.”
“Yes sir. They—I thought they could handle it with some degree of risk. I didn’t expect them to be completely wiped out. It was—I’m sorry to have wasted—”
Wil was red-faced despite the Professor’s words and stumbling over himself. Umina looked away guiltily. Niers glanced up. The other students were shifting, as one does in a situation like this. Cameral was pointing his head the other way, pretending Wil’s embarrassment was not happening, Marian was looking at her notes, Yerranola was trying to pat Wil’s leg covertly—
And Venaz, true to form, was staring at Wil with arms folded, clearly willing the young man to hurry up and finish. Niers lifted a hand.
“Calm down, Wil.”
For a second Umina felt the voice grow…firmer if that was possible. So firm it was an inescapable order. Wil stopped stuttering. His face grew less red. Niers looked up at him with a friendly smile, like a grandfather. He shook his head.
“You’ve been with this class for, what, a year now?”
The Titan nodded.
“Then you know it’s not about money. I gave you your funds to hire the adventuring teams as part of the exercise, Wil. And these are all monsters in my company’s territory; it’s not about that. Nor is your failure solely your fault; each team evaluates the danger of the request and takes it. Calm down and tell me what you think happened as impartially as you can. In the meantime, Marian. I see you had your team hunt an Armorgator. That’s a sizable task for a Silver-rank team.”
Wil sat back in his seat, breathing slowly. Yerranola offered him a drink. Umina glanced up at him; he was relaxing. The young man from Terandria was often high-strung and nervous when it came to classwork; he was steadier on the battlefield, ironically. But embarrassed though he might be if the flushed cheeks were any indication, the Titan was giving him time to recover. And Wil was taking it.
That was what the Titan’s personal class was like. Some of it was lectures, but by this stage, all of his students were expected to know a myriad of strategies and formations. Any one of them could take to the field at a moment’s notice and command an army—some of them had, in actual battles!
No, what they gained from these lessons was practical experience in the field and discussion, conversation, even arguments with Niers Astoragon himself in the class. It wasn’t a situation where you were ever totally wrong; and there was no penalty for being incorrect. You were meant to learn, and the Titan strived to make sure you did.
“…And so, I was sure that the team I hired could take on the Armorgators with zero risk, sir. If they stayed at a distance and bombarded the monster with spells the creature would never be able to snap them up. The worst that could happen was that it could retreat.”
“And so they killed the monster after a day of work. Nicely done. And it does rid the area of a large threat. Hm. I see.”
Niers nodded. He glanced around the room and raised his voice.
“As you all recall, my homework was to find a team and have them take on the most pressing threat to the area possible. Whether you were assigned Bronze, Silver, or Gold-ranks, I asked you to form a request that would see a specific team used to their best effect. Marian’s clearly done well, but I think…Umina? Would you explain these quills?”
He pointed down at the pile of quills on the Mossbear pelt. There were several chuckles from the students. Umina got up.
“Yes, sir. I believe the Scattershot Porcupines were the best threat for my team to deal with.”
Niers tapped a foot as he stood on his lectern.
“I understand Scattershot Porcupines are not exactly a dangerous threat. Except to my people. It would seem that your team could have taken on a more powerful enemy. After all, the local [Guardsmen] and even a [Mercenary] could probably handle a few errant porcupines, couldn’t they?”
He looked at Umina, with perhaps a stern look in the eye. But the Lizardgirl saw the twinkle. She smiled.
“That’s true, sir. But may I present my argument?”
“By all means.”
“Then, firstly, I’ll say that my Bronze-rank team had no name listed. And they didn’t when I hired them.”
“I did see that. Was there some reason for this? An unregistered team, perhaps?”
Umina shook her head.
“No, sir. The reason was that they were still arguing about what the name should be. The team I hired was the greenest, newest team I could find that I thought had potential.”
There was a shift in the classroom. Marian blinked as she looked sidelong at Umina. Niers smiled.
“I see. You wouldn’t task a team like that with a big threat, would you?”
“No sir. And Scattershot Porcupines are dangerous. One can put out an eye; they can also run away fast. A team has to learn to flank them, keep them from running, even track them down. Especially if their [Mages] have poor aim. It took my team five days to eliminate all of them. And I put a bounty on each head they brought me, and gave them an exclusive contract.”
The Titan smiled.
“I see. So you were training them?”
“Their [Mage]’s aim, and their [Hunter]. Yes, sir. As for why I thought this was the most pressing threat—this particular group of porcupines had been straying near villages and more than one child had been hit by quills from them. They might not have killed anyone, but they were encroaching into Lizardfolk territory. And that might be more of a threat than a known Armorgator or Mossbears who stay in their homes. No offense, Marian, Venaz.”
Umina looked at her classmates. Marian blinked at her. Niers was grinning. He applauded softly.
“Well done. That’s excellent reasoning.”
“Oh, but there’s one more thing, Professor.”
The Lizardgirl looked at the Fraerling. He raised one eyebrow.
“Oh? Enlighten me.”
“The Scattershot Porcupines were encroaching into Lizardfolk territory, but they were also migrating into the forest. Near a Fraerling village, sir.”
The room went silent. Niers looked up sharply. He stared at Umina, then he nodded.
“Ah. In that case, you have my thanks twice over. The smallest of creatures can destroy a Fraerling village if things go wrong. And if the Tallguard had to fight a pack…a quill can go straight through a Fraerling. Well done, then. Well done indeed.”
“Thank you, Professor.”
Umina sat, and felt that triumphant bubbling in her chest. Marian leaned over and whispered to her.
“You didn’t tell me that!”
“It was part of the exercise. Not everything’s about size, Marian.”
Niers had overhead the two. Umina blushed and Marian sat up. The Fraerling looked up at them with a faint smile.
“This lesson was to help you deal with adventuring teams, which I’m sure you will all have to do. Monsters are tricky and adventurers, for all their quirks, are better than [Soldiers] at dealing with them. You were also tasked with identifying which threats would be too much for your teams and which were the most pressing. Umina clearly focused on the societal impact, while Venaz and Marian weight in on threat-analysis. Neither approach was wrong. With that said, Wil. Do you have an answer?”
The Lizardgirl sat in her seat, a bit red with the gentle rebuke. Wil got to his feet, then remembered he didn’t have to stand and sat back down, flushing. Then he stood back up anyways.
“I do, sir. And I think it was just…bad luck.”
Venaz looked incredulous. Wil halted and Niers gave Venaz a reproving look.
“Bad luck is a legitimate answer, Venaz. Go on, Wil.”
“It was…the Cyclops had a den set up and I informed the team of where it was. However, I didn’t know another team had been pursuing the monster. A different contract on the same Cyclops. Both teams ran into each other by accident as the first tried to smoke the Cyclops out. And the other team hunting it was Silver-rank. Unprepared. They hadn’t told anyone in their guild they were going after the Cyclops; there was no way of knowing.”
“Unprepared adventurers going after a bigger score in desperation. I’m familiar with that all too well. Go on.”
“Well, as I heard it from the survivors, they found the first team right as the Cyclops emerged from the den. It went after the [Mages] first—by luck, perhaps—and from then on…”
Umina listened to Wil’s account of his team’s demise, wincing along with the rest. It had indeed been a very poor encounter thanks to the first Silver-rank team’s bungling, and both teams had lost nearly all their members. Niers shook his head when the story was over.
“Ill luck indeed. And it would have been hard to predict. I agree with your assessment, Wil. Don’t take your team’s failure too hard to heart—as for the survivors of that Silver-rank team, I’d be concerned for their lives. Vengeance from other adventuring teams is not a pleasant discussion. I’ll look into it perhaps. Alright. Who else has a story to tell?”
He glanced around at the show of hands.
“Venaz? If your team just went head-to-head with the bears, I’m not impressed. Dwarves are stout fighters. How would that push them? Mossbears aren’t exactly dangerous anyways and I asked for threats, not trophies. Yerranola? Not too impressive, unless you have something to add? Jekilt? Your team failed their mission. How did that happen?”
Five other students spoke, and Niers commented briefly on each story or result. It wasn’t just commentary; he shared his own thoughts and experiences from being an adventurer, as well as how to employ the other teams to best effect, or how to give them a bit of help with or without their knowledge. But that was just the homework. And while it had taken the students a week, Niers didn’t dwell overly long on it.
“Alright. Enough about adventuring. I trust you’ve all been keeping up on recent events. What do you think about the latest developments in Chandrar? The war against Tiqr and the King of Destruction’s proclamation?”
Umina raised her hand with half the class. This was another moment she looked forwards to because Niers gave his frank opinion on the situation. And hearing the Titan’s thoughts was worth gold. She wondered if the rulers of each nation would take his advice if they were in her seat. Then she had another thought: was one of the students relaying the Titan’s words to other nations? It wasn’t out of the question. Umina wasn’t doing it; the risk wasn’t worth the reward.
But this was another aspect of the class that students in the other classes missed. They studied tactics; Niers’ best class studied politics. Politics were as much a [Strategist]’s lot as tactical engagements. And grand strategy, the movements of armies and kingdoms, was just as important.
Niers had explained it to Umina and the others like this: a regular [Strategist] could just think of his army and the conditions affecting it. But a true [Strategist], the ones he was trying to train would think about the nation, country, or cause they fought for as a whole and how their army would affect that. They were fighting on multiple levels and as such, their actions mattered.
“To be frank, I have to admire the Empress of Beasts and what she tried to do at Pomle. If you look at the situation objectively, the King of Destruction is in a bind. If he goes to war, the other nations will turn on him. But they’re being played.”
Niers had ordered Venaz to help Marian put up a map so he could use his wand to illustrate the political situation. He pointed at Tiqr, now at war with all of its neighbors.
“You see, Tiqr is in trouble, but these other nations have now incurred the King of Destruction’s wrath. A risky position to be in. They’ve shown their hand—too early, I feel. I have no doubt the Emperor of Sands orchestrated this. If I were in, say, an advisory capacity to the Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fall, I would have told her to take the position Tiqr did at the summit. Which would have backfired splendidly had my nation been the only one present. Two on the other hand…”
“Why would you have stayed out of war with the King of Destruction, sir? Isn’t it wise to attack him straight off? I almost feel like the other nations are making a mistake not going after him, rather than focusing on Tiqr.”
Umina raised her claw to ask the obvious. Niers smiled at her and Umina’s heart skipped a beat.
“The King of Destruction is frightening, that’s why, Umina. Yes, it’s sensible to attack him in concert. But the first coalition army he smashed to pieces. True, it wasn’t nearly what could have been fielded against him, but imagine you’re the [Strategist] that has to commit to an offensive against the King of Destruction. Knowing what you know of his past?”
He looked around the room. Umina gulped. She wouldn’t take that job, not for love or money. Niers went on.
“I imagine all the [Generals] of each nation are shaking in their boots thinking of how to go up against Flos, let alone Orthenon. Remember, the King of Destruction can turn the tides even in the face of impossible odds. If Nerrhavia’s Fall committed a hundred thousand soldiers to a battle against Reim in its current state, Flos would win. The first battle, at least. And if you’re the nation bearing the brunt of the conflict, you’re wide open to an attack after Reim is defeated. Either way, you lose. With that said—it would be smart to oppose him, as you said, Umina. But tiring yourself out fighting Tiqr and making him your enemy straight off is a poor choice.”
“So you would do…what, Professor?”
The Fraerling smiled.
“Take a middling stance. Which was what Tiqr’s [Empress] tried to do. She was certainly not Flos’ worst enemy at that summit by all reports. But neither did she declare for him—she still hasn’t. Normally that would give her an advantage in negotiations; I’d push for concessions to join a coalition against Reim. But as I said, it backfired. It seems the rulers of each nation were coerced or too hotheaded to take a measured approach. Now, if I were in another nation, say, Belchan or Jecrass, I would be complying with the King of Destruction and playing both sides.”
“But if the King of Destruction attacks…”
“If he attacks, he’s broken his vow. In which case, all bets are off the table. But Flos was never one to forswear himself. If he breaks his oath, Cameral, I can’t predict what he’ll do. But if I were Jecrass’ [King]? And if it were me? I would consider what benefitted my country. And frankly, if the Forgotten Wing company were based on Chandrar, I would, at this moment, be approaching the King of Destruction for an alliance.”
A gasp filled the room. Niers rolled his eyes.
“Don’t be dramatic. I realize my past with the King of Destruction is public knowledge, but he’s no fool. Nor am I; betting against the King of Destruction is a fool’s game. It always was. And if I had a navy with faster ships, and I was sure the other Great Companies wouldn’t stab me in the back, I’d be taking all of you to Chandrar to earn as much gold and prestige as possible. Chandrar is rife with opportunity. Especially if you have the stomach to trade in slaves.”
He grimaced and took a small sip from a cup.
“Well, it’s not as if Baleros doesn’t have enough gold. And the jungles may run red with blood, but Baleros doesn’t live on tears. The Slavers of Roshal will benefit from this conflict more than anyone else. Gah. Enough. Let’s focus on armies. Tiqr’s definitely in trouble. Aside from the fact that their [Beast Tamers] aren’t exactly good at large-scale battles, they’re up against Nerrhavia and Illivere. Savere isn’t a threat so long as the fighting stays away from the coasts, but it means they’ll be raiding constantly…
Only the Titan would force his best students to command a full-scale defense of a nation from eight different hostile armies and expect them to win a scenario like that. Umina scored points, as did Feshi, both of whose species had historical precedents for that kind of fighting. Marian got berated for trying to apply her usual strategy to Tiqr’s forces, and Venaz earned a grudging point from Niers for his suggestion.
“Hire Minotaurs. My people have already been contracted to fight the King of Destruction.”
“Which they haven’t done.”
Venaz shrugged stoically at Marian.
“I haven’t been home in three years. But if they gave their word, they gave their word. They probably can’t land yet.”
Niers smiled crookedly.
“I’m not surprised. The odds of any coastal nation allowing a fleet from the House of Minos to land is remote, no matter what they say. But the King of Destruction had better watch his coastal expansions twice over. But if they’re against Reim, why hire them, Venaz?”
“Because that’s the King of Destruction. This is a separate matter. If Tiqr can pay, have them contract four warships. They won’t hit Savere, but Nerrhavia has a large coast. Minotaur [Mercenaries] could pull most of their forces away with ease.”
“Trust a Minotaur to vouch for his own people. You might as well hire a Great Company from Baleros.”
Yerranola muttered. Niers smiled.
“Good point, Yerranola. And I said no. Tiqr can’t afford my services, and as I said, our navy’s not at that point yet. I can’t imagine the Iron Vanguard would say yes either, and they’re the only Great Company with a navy large enough to join the fray.”
The Selphid inhaled her snack. Literally. She didn’t choke as oxygen wasn’t exactly a problem, but Umina had to sit through a few nasty minutes of squelching as the Selphid cleared the blockage in her throat. Niers chuckled.
“I keep telling you, don’t underestimate rulers. They can be cunning, desperate…but I wanted to bring something else up. Yerranola, I think you had something to say?”
“I did, sir. Sorry about the sounds. Uh, have you read the latest chess newsletter from Liscor, by any chance?”
Yerranola looked innocently at the Titan. Niers’ eyebrows shot up.
“I didn’t. Has it arrived? Peclir must have notified me and I forgot. I’ll have it sent here. Unless you have a copy?”
The Selphid waved a stack of papers over her head. Niers smiled.
“Of course. Cameral too? And Umina, I see. Well, give me one—spread it out on the ground so I can read from here. The rest of you can share it around.”
As Yerranola trotted down, Umina shared her version with Wil and Marian. She knew what it said, and Marian had gotten the basic outline. But the Centauress still exclaimed over what was written.
“Employing Goblins as…an irregular adventuring force? Cancelling the bounty on Goblin ears? Is this Drake an idiot?”
“I can’t believe this. Either he’s mad, or Liscor gone completely off the rails. I knew it was insane already with that Hive below it, but this? The Walled Cities must be in uproar.”
Kissilt frowned over Cameral’s shoulder. The Drake’s tail was lashing with agitation. Venaz was just as incensed.
“This Olesm Swifttail would let Goblin Lords pop up left and right. I don’t know what’s possessed him, but this is far outside of his regular chess commentary. It’s a disgrace, isn’t it, Professor? Professor?”
The Fraerling was reading. He looking up calmly.
“Shut up, Venaz. You’re speaking like every Minotaur student I ever had.”
“Do you recall that just a decade ago, my company had a pact with the only Goblin-led company in Baleros? Or have you forgotten the name of the Goblin’s Lament company already?”
The students fell silent. Niers looked around.
“It was a strong company. And until he became a Goblin King, Velan the Kind was considered the equal of any company leader. A Goblin Lord you could reason with. He didn’t earn that reputation by being untrustworthy. He kept to his promises more than any company I can name. Including my own.”
“And then he slaughtered entire cities and declared war on the world.”
Venaz’ eyes burned crimson for a second. Niers looked at him and the Minotaur glared back. The air went icy around Niers and Venaz’ eyes and fury dissipated. Umina sat back in her seat. The Titan glared at Venaz until the Minotaur looked away.
“Yes. He did. But that is the nature of Goblin Kings. And until that day, I trusted Velan the Kind. I spoke to him. And he was sane, Venaz. I don’t know what the House of Minos endures. But if this Olesm Swifttail claims to have met Hobs that defended Liscor—I believe him. Or did you not see Goblin fighting Goblin during the siege?”
The Minotaur didn’t respond. He was struck dumb, at least for the moment. Feshi looked uncomfortable. She raised a paw.
“Hrr. But there is precedent for wariness, yes? Professor, are you suggesting now that this idea should be put into place?”
The Gnoll held still as the Titan shifted his glance to her. Then, abruptly, Niers sighed. He stroked his beard, looking older and more tired.
“I suppose not, Feshi. In light of what I now know? No. But again, I think we are making a mistake in how we view this young [Strategist]’s claims. Olesm Swifttail is not saying we must make peace with Goblins, or hire them. These are suggestions. His observations. Since when has having an opinion been so wrong?”
He glanced up.
“Kissilt, I see you opening your mouth. Before you speak, consider that this [Strategist] is floating an idea. The reaction of the Walled Cities and his fellow [Strategists] are predictable. But you know what I think about that. All of you, I want you to engage with this idea in a way that doesn’t make me think you’re giving me a gut reaction. Especially you, Venaz. I’m sure this Olesm Swifttail is already getting a very vocal response. But point out the good in his suggestions. He’s also done some commentary on the Siege of Liscor. Thoughts? These Painted Soldiers he references…”
“We saw them during the battle, sir. Those Antinium with colors?”
“Yes. And they concern me more than any suggestion about Goblins. If the Antinium have come up with a new breed of Soldier—what was their kill to death ratio before the Goblin Lord took their formation to pieces? Someone go and tell a servant to fetch a recording of the battle. I think we’ve got one of Wistram’s new movie crystals…”
Umina had more than one reason to admire Niers during the rest of their lesson. Not only did he have his students do a calculation of the Painted Soldier’s kill-to-death ratio and compare it to other Antinium groups—a very disturbing result, even if you accounted for the fact that their opponents were Goblins—he gave them a short story about employing Goblin adventurers, something so rare it had only occurred once in Baleros.
“And only when Velan was alive. The only other instance of a Goblin adventurer I have ever heard of is in Izril. Garen Redfang of the Halfseekers. And as I understand it, he died at Liscor.”
“Slain by the Gecko of Liscor himself.”
Kissilt murmured. Niers looked up.
“One of Liscor’s champions, Kissilt? Can you elaborate on him? I do recall him, but I don’t know all the particulars of famous Drake soldiers, I’m afraid.”
“No, sir. I mean, I know a little, sir, but he’s no longer considered part of the standing army. He’s a former [Sergeant] in Liscor’s army. I grew up hearing about him. Pallass is close to Liscor and I suppose he’s just one of the names I heard growing up. I thought he was retired. But he would be good enough to take down even a Gold-rank adventurer.”
“Hm. Interesting. Never underestimate retired warriors, even old ones. Especially old ones, I should mention. More than one [General] has died when entering a supposedly conquered city. A seventy year-old Dullahan [Sniper] can still fire a crossbow. And they really don’t like armies burning down their homes.”
Stories, reminiscence, his take on what he personally would do, and debate. It was the kind of class Umina enjoyed most. Even more than a mock battle where she could choose her army and face off against one of her fellow students, using all her Skills on the training field. This was what she enjoyed. It was fun being in the Titan’s class, arguing with Venaz, trying to impress him with an observation.
And it couldn’t last. It never did last long enough. After four, all-too-short hours, the Titan had to go. His students might take other lessons, but Niers Astoragon had to manage his company, or do a thousand other things. That they got this much time with him was important. But today, the Titan didn’t send them off with one of his assignments, or simply his blessing and an injunction not to get too drunk before tomorrow’s class. Today, the Fraerling clapped for everyone’s attention as he stood on his podium.
“That’s enough for today. And I hesitate to bring this up, but if you’ve forgotten, our little game begins shortly. Has anyone forgotten? Because now might be a good time to panic.”
The class chuckled and shook their heads. Niers smiled affectionately, but there was that twinkle in his eyes his students had learned to pick up on.
“Excellent. We’re gathering in Daquin in two days. If you’re not joining me on the trip, be there by midmorning or you’ll be unable to compete in the exercise. And remember the rules of the game. No deaths. No blades or dangerous magic. Aside from that, do your best and try to distinguish yourselves. I think this year’s audience will be very interested to see how you do. As will I.”
Umina’s stomach twisted with apprehension. She looked around the class; most of her fellow students looked excited. Wil looked somewhat sick, but he always did before a test. And this was a test, even if it was a game.
“Sir, any word on who will be uh, finding us this year?”
Marian spoke up casually. The Titan laughed.
“I’m sure you’d like to know, Marian. But if you haven’t found out, I won’t be telling you. Isn’t knowing you’re going to Daquin enough?”
“Come on, Professor. A hint would help—we are going up against our seniors, aren’t we?”
Niers waggled a finger at Kissilt.
“That’s what they said when they were in your shoes, Kissilt. Just relax. Lay a few traps. Make plans; I’m sure they’re thinking of how best to box you in.”
The Drake grumbled, but good-naturedly. He was excited for the competition, Umina could tell. The Drake looked up at her and grinned. He wasn’t nearly as hostile as most Drakes who met Lizardfolk, but the ember of competition was still burning hotter in his eyes.
“Think you can survive until the end, Umina?”
“That depends on what the Professor’s done to mess with us.”
Umina peeked at Niers. He grinned, but didn’t take the bait. Marian shook her head.
“Professor, when did this game start? And why is one of the biggest tests of our entire academic lives a game of hide-and-seek?”
“Marian, when you get to my age…”
His students laughed or groaned; it was the answer the Fraerling liked to give when he was avoiding the question. But there was that twinkle in his eyes. Umina looked down at the Titan and wondered.
It was said that the Titan of Baleros lived on excitement. If he were to go a week without some kind of chaos or excitement occurring, he would die of boredom, or so the myth went. Which was patently untrue. Niers Astoragon was perfectly capable of living without some kind of interesting event occurring in his life every few days. It was just that if you offered him the choice between a peaceful life and offing himself, he might just choose the latter.
This event was one of the things the Titan used to entertain himself when he wasn’t on campaign. It was also considered one of his penultimate tests of his students. And it was a simple concept, really.
Once every few years, sometimes once a decade, and at one point, he’d done it every year for eight years straight, the Titan of Baleros would announce a game with his students. It usually happened in times of enduring peace; it never happened when there was war or unrest. It was a game that involved his students, past and prior. He would take his students to a location, be it a city, or patch of jungle, or even an artificial maze and give them a day to hide while an entire army searched for them.
It wouldn’t just be Umina’s special class there. Over a hundred of Niers’ students nearing graduation and even some recent graduates would be invited to intend. His current students and recent graduates would be hiding. And the seekers would be his guests of honor—the older [Strategists], his first students, veterans of dozens of wars.
It was a game of hide and seek. But what a game! What competition! The former students of the Titan would relentlessly hunt down the new students while the hiders tried to fulfill some kind of criteria that changed every year. And it sometimes got intense.
Because the game wasn’t ‘find someone and they’re out’, or even ‘tag you’re out’. It was ‘capture the hiders by whatever means necessary’. Which meant the students could and did fight back. And the seekers could subdue them by whatever means necessary short of permanent bodily harm. And they had some of Niers’ soldiers armed with clubs, nets, and other helpful tools to facilitate that process. And the new students often laid traps, made alliances—they’d fight back with every trick they knew to stay free and clear of their pursuers.
Ostensibly, it was a game designed to teach Niers’ students what it was like to be cut off from their forces, to prepare them for situations where they might be hunted by [Assassins] or an enemy army in a city, jungle, or what have you. In practice, Umina suspected it was the Titan’s way of having fun.
“Call it a hobby of mine. And it certainly provides entertainment. At least for me. I understand it’s an opportunity for all of you.”
His students nodded to varying degrees of excitement. That was certainly true. In the past, this might have been just a game Niers played for his own enjoyment and his student’s benefit in outwitting each other. But as was the nature of all kinds of spectacle, word had spread and now his semi-regular competition had an audience that would come from all over Baleros to watch.
And it mattered. It always did. Umina saw several students including Venaz look around warily at the Titan’s words. Because of course, they were all already being watched.
It was a fact. Umina, Marian, Venaz…they were all the Titan’s best students. When they graduated, they would be the best crop of [Strategists] of their age in the entire continent. Perhaps one of them might be as brilliant as Perorn Fleethoof, or perhaps even as gifted as the Titan of Baleros himself.
Other nations and companies kept an eye on Niers’ class; some had even approached Umina, covertly or publicly to test her out, see if she might make a good hire. And if there were eyes on Umina already, well, during the games there would be even more. Umina had seen visitors watching her as she conducted those war games against her fellow students, evaluating her.
This would be another chance to stand out. If she somehow performed really splendidly, she might even get an offer to serve as a [Strategist] in another company, or for a nation after she graduated. Some students had even quit the academy during school because they’d impressed a visiting [King] or ruler so much!
“A chance to win prestige in the eyes of the world. A rousing competition for me to enjoy. Sea and surf at Daquin; they do some very fine prawns too. What’s not to like?”
The Titan looked around at his students. They smiled back, but with an edge. It was all fun for him, but they were [Strategists]. They wanted to win. And there was a reason, even more than the thrill of beating older [Strategists] and their classmates. There was a rumor about winning this particular game. Umina had heard some of the older students whispering about it in the past.
There was always a way to beat your pursuers outside of outwaiting the seekers. Sometimes it was to solve a puzzle, or travel a certain distance. One time it had been to subdue a Wyvern the Titan had let loose, and hadn’t that been a bloody year? But the risk was always worth the reward, and it was always the same.
The reward was that you got to go to the Professor’s private rooms, you entered, and apparently, you could ask him anything you wanted. Any question in the world and the Fraerling would answer it if he could, be it personal or huge, earth-shattering.
Any question. The students looked at each other, wondering if it was true. And because they wondered and because Venaz was…Venaz, he raised his hand.
“Professor, sir! I have a question.”
The Titan looked at the Minotaur with a sparkle in his eye. Venaz got to his hooves, and hesitated, which was uncharacteristic even of him.
“Professor, I’ve heard that this…contest of yours has a reward. I’d like to know if that’s true or not. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of victory?”
The Minotaur met the Fraerling’s eyes. Umina held her breath along with the other students. Niers looked up at the ceiling.
“Hm. A reward? I wonder. I do know there are rumors—I wonder how they started? Which prize would you be referring to, exactly, Venaz?”
The Titan’s eyes twinkled as the Minotaur growled at him. He stood upon his lectern for a moment and Umina wondered if he’d refuse to answer. Then he smiled.
“The answer, Venaz, is yes. Any question in the world. If I know it, I’ll answer it. So choose your question wisely. If you win—you only get one.”
The silence in the room was complete. Umina felt her heart skip a beat. So it was true. Then she saw the Titan grinning with delight. His students exhaled slowly. Venaz looked around.
“Any question? But what if—”
Niers raised a finger. The Minotaur shut up. Niers Astoragon looked stern.
“Venaz, obviously there are some questions that are tantamount to giving away the secrets of my company. Obviously some questions are dangerous.”
His student nodded, a tad disappointed. Niers smiled.
“I’ll answer them. Any question in the world. As dangerous as it may be to know. I’ve done it before. And some of my students have died because they asked a question and got my answer. Not from me, personally. But I know a lot. Any question. Any question. My level, the location of buried treasure. The name of your greatest enemy. Their weakness. What Foliana had for breakfast. Anything.”
His students stared. And then they whispered. Marian looked at Umina, vibrating with anticipation.
“What could you ask…?”
She cut herself off. Niers raised a hand.
“If you win. If you’re the one who finishes first. Don’t get excited; there’s only one winner. And you’re hardly the only competition. Two years running, the victor hasn’t come from my advanced class. Remember that.”
His students calmed down. And then they appraised each other again. There could only be one. Niers Astoragon smiled.
“Well, as I said, we’re leaving tomorrow. Pack your things. Make your plans if you haven’t already. Remember the rules. Try to win. Class dismissed!”
He leapt from his podium and strode up the platforms leading towards the Fraerling ways. Before anyone could stop him—and a few of his students shouted questions—the Titan was gone. And that left Umina excited, nervous, and very scared. She glanced at her fellow students, then hurried out of the room, grabbing her notes and things.
Let the games begin.
“I’m going to lose.”
Twenty minutes later, Umina sat in her small room in the apartment she’d rented only five minutes’ walk from the citadel. She buried her head in her claws. She’d known it already. And she’d tried not to get excited by the game because of it, but now she wanted to win. And she knew she was going to lose.
It wasn’t that Umina didn’t have the drive. Or the levels. She was a Level 27 [Strategist], a genius for her age. At nineteen years old, Umina was one of the youngest students in Niers’ advanced class, a prodigy among her species. She had a dozen Skills she could call on, and she placed with the best when it came to his field exercises or debates in class. She could and had beaten every one of her classmates in the practice war games; she was especially good at taking down Venaz, who, despite his brash attitude and nature, was still one of the best students when commanding the training soldiers in practice.
However…Umina’s face fell as she checked her purse of coins. She had all her worldly wealth sitting on the table in front of her, illuminated by a [Light] spell she’d cast. The Lizardgirl counted unhappily.
“One, two, three…”
The coins came out of her purse, as if by counting them Umina could double or triple their number. But no matter how many times she counted them, she barely had more than twenty coins.
Silver. Not gold. And she had two gold coins, but that was rent and food for this month. If Umina spent them, she’d be destitute until her family sent her more money. And while she could probably survive by borrowing from her friends, at least Marian…what was three gold coins’ worth of money going to buy her?
“Maybe some rope. A few blankets? I could get…a potion or two…nothing! Not even enough to avoid a [Scrying] spell!”
The Lizardgirl hunched over her desk, scattering the coins miserably. Then she hurried to pick them up in case one rolled between the cracks in her floorboards. She sat at her table, her tail curling and uncurling.
“I want to win. I want to win. But unless there’s a puzzle, I won’t have half of what the others do! If it’s Wil—even his clothes are enchanted! And Marian has her bow. Even if she can’t shoot arrows at people, she can still pay for…everything! Venaz probably made plans. I know Yerra’s been plotting how to win. And I can’t do anything.”
She was poor. That was just how it was. Umina wanted to cry, but she knew that would be stupid. The fact that she had gold to spend and she was Niers’ student was amazing. And she wasn’t poor. Not really. It was just that compared to the others in her class, she was. Most of them could drop ten gold coins on something without blinking twice. Umina couldn’t drop ten silver coins without doing a double-take.
“Umina? Hey, Umina!”
Someone was calling from outside. Umina looked up. Her room was very small, even by Lizardfolk standards. She hesitated.
“Marian? I’m busy—”
She tried to put away her coins. But her Centaur friend was insistent.
“Umina, I’m coming in!”
Umina swiped her coins into her pouch and hid it at her belt. Marian trotted into the room.
“There you are. Come on. We’re going to have a drink together. The Professor’s setting off tomorrow and you’re going with him, right? Let’s talk with the others before that. They’re at the Stalker’s Pub.”
“I’m not that thirsty.”
Umina mumbled. She knew her tail and frills were drooping. Marian eyed her.
“Well, come anyways.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I think you should.”
“Marian, I really—hey!”
The Centauress trotted forwards and picked Umina up. Before the small Lizardgirl could protest, the Centaur had tossed her on her back.
“Come on! Where’s your key?”
She trotted out of Umina’s apartment, pausing to let the Lizardgirl lock the door and then trotted down the ramp that led to Umina’s apartment on the second floor.
The presence of Centaurs meant that many buildings in Baleros were designed to accommodate them, which meant the stairs were often ramps and buildings tended to be wider and shorter, the rooms very spacious to avoid claustrophobia. Umina knew Marian hated her small room and so she didn’t protest. Especially because she was on Marian’s back.
Centaurs were like horses. Half their body was humanoid, but their lower half was horse. Except that they hated being ridden by people they didn’t implicitly trust. Anyone who tried it on a dare might get their head kicked off their necks. The fact that Marian let Umina ride was a sign of true friendship. The Centauress trotted down the ramp and into the street.
“What’s gotten you so upset, Umina? You were buzzing in class when the Professor complimented you on your strategy. And he chewed me out for my strategy.”
She tossed her head. Umina ducked to avoid being slapped by Marian’s hair. She hesitated, and then muttered.
“I don’t think I’m going to do well, Marian.”
“What makes you say that?”
The Centauress looked over her shoulder as she walked down the street. A few Lizardpeople waved at Umina and she waved back, trying to smile. She knew that they could tell it was fake, but at least they were out of range before they could come over and ask what was wrong. She had Marian for that.
“It’s just…I know you made preparations for the games.”
Marian nearly missed a step. Her hooves clicked on the smooth paving stones.
“I have. Not as much as the others, maybe. Why?”
“I haven’t done a thing?”
The Centauress looked astonished. Umina shook her head miserably.
“I can’t afford to.”
“But you did so well at his other assignments. Like the adventurers—”
“You know the Professor normally gives us a budget. I use his budget. I can’t pay for anything else. Especially not traps or potions or…anything.”
“But if it’s just a few potions or a little ring, surely—”
“Marian. You know I—you know what? Look.”
Umina grabbed her coin pouch. She’d never shown Marian it explicitly. Why would she? The Centauress had never needed to ask. Now Umina shoved the pouch in front of Marian and opened it.
“Well, that’s not so bad if you—”
“That’s all I have. If I use that, I don’t eat, Marian.”
For a while, Marian’s hooves were the only sound the two made. The Centauress blinked at Umina, looking ahead now and then to make sure she didn’t run into anyone.
“That explains why you don’t always drink with us. Or buy much. Cameral thought you were just bad at handling alcohol. I thought that too.”
“You weigh three times what I do.”
That made Umina smile a bit. Marian picked up her pace.
“I didn’t know you were that tight on coin, Umina. But you don’t fall behind all of us. If anything, everyone else thinks you’re serious competition.”
“No they don’t.”
A hand ungently flicked Umina across her forehead. The Lizardgirl recoiled. Marian frowned at her.
“Yes they do. You got into our class based on pure talent. That’s more than anyone else can say. Everyone else paid more to get into this class, including me. You were in the one year program and the Professor let you join our class!”
“I guess I did. But you’re all still as good as me. You beat me last time we faced each other.”
“Because you fell off your horse. That doesn’t count. You trounced Venaz three times so far; no one else has done that. My best is two wins in a row.”
“Well, I’m glad you think I’ll do so well. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t pay for any preparations. Or artifacts. Someone casts a [Scrying] spell and they’ll find me in a moment.”
Umina flopped over Marian’s back. The Centauress hesitated.
“It’s not all about—”
“Say it’s not all about money and I’ll pull your tail, Marian. I know how much you have.”
The two trotted along. Umina could tell they were entering the entertainment district of the city, which was wide and prosperous; Niers’ students liked to use their free time and they often had coin to spend. Most of them, at any rate. Marian frowned at a few students as they passed by.
“Wil’s rich. Or rather, his family is. So is Venaz, that bastard. I mean, they’re both really rich. Wil’s a [Lord]’s son, and I don’t know what Venaz is, but he can toss around gold like water. I guess I always thought I was poor compared to them, but—I suppose not. My family’s not that wealthy, Umina.”
Umina resisted the urge to tweak Marian’s tail. Friends or not, she’d probably get bucked off for that.
“How do you have so much gold, then?”
The Centaur’s gait faltered.
“I…got a lot of support from my clan. Everyone I knew contributed money to fund me. I need to repay them.”
Oh. Centaur pride. Umina could just imagine how that went. Marian would be the pride of her clan. They’d probably all pitched in. Her tail wagged unhappily.
“Makes sense. Yerra’s got a lot of money from her family too. Selphids supporting Selphids. I wish I had that.”
“That didn’t happen for you?”
Marian was surprised. But she needn’t have been. Umina sighed.
“You know what it’s like in Lizardfolk cities. We like each other, but we’re not organized like Centaurs. Some of my family’s friends helped pay for me to get here and sometimes I get donations, but it’s random. My people mean well and they’re really proud of me being the only Lizardfolk in the Professor’s current class, but I’m just one of many, you know? How many Lizardfolk [Strategists] do you think the Titan’s taught?”
“You’re special. And if you don’t have a lot of money…what if we teamed up?”
Umina perked up, then felt a prickle of conscience.
“So we can fight at the end, Marian? You know how it works.”
“Well…maybe no one’s ever won as a pair before. But I’ll tell you; I’m not certain I did all I could to prepare. I have a few tricks, but if we worked together, my money and your brain—”
“You think I’ve got any fancy ideas? I only got to ‘buy an invisibility potion and hide in a corner’. Only, I can’t afford that. I don’t know what this year’s criteria for winning is, Marian.”
“Well, don’t give up just yet. Come on. There’s a reason why I wanted you to drink with the others. I’m paying, so try not to look so down.”
They’d come to an inn. The Stalker’s Pub, named after Three-Color Stalker, the rarely-spotted leader of the Forgotten Wing company. It was a regular haunt of Marian, Umina, and the other students, and the Lizardgirl saw there was already a crowd at their usual table in the corner. She slipped off of Marian’s back as she saw Yerranola, Venaz, Cameral, and Wil already sitting down. They were drinking and trying to console Wil, who looked about as miserable as Umina.
The Centaur and Minotaur greeted each other shortly. Venaz looked at Umina and waved her forwards as he dragged a seat from an adjacent table with one hand.
“Come on and sit down. One of you help console Wil. I’m sick of hearing him moan already.”
“You’re heartless, Venaz. Wil, what’s wrong? Still upset about the adventurer teams? The Professor said it wasn’t your fault. Excuse me! One ale and some mulled wine!”
Marian looked over at Wil. The young Terandrian noble was hunched over his drink. He did look morose. Umina accepted a tankard of ale as Marian sipped her wine. Wil shook his head.
“It’s not about today’s lesson. Well, partly. I wish that Gold-rank team hadn’t gotten killed. But it’s more to do with the Professor’s game. I want to win.”
“You and me both, pal.”
Yerra slapped Wil on the shoulder as she drained her mug. If Umina and Marian were a pair, Yerranola and Wil often sat together, although Umina wasn’t sure if the Selphid was just forcing her company on Wil. He didn’t seem to mind, and Cameral was often a seatmate of the two. The Dullahan had removed his head and was offering his head a finger-sized bowl to sip from. His head spoke as his body got up and left the table, possibly to pee.
“Everyone wants to win. But what’s troubling you, Wil? Umina, you look similarly dispirited. Unless I’m prying?”
His eyes shifted towards the Lizardgirl and then away, wary of intruding. Umina smiled.
“No, not much, Cameral. I’m just down about the competition too. I don’t see myself winning.”
“Shut up, Venaz.”
Marian glared at him. Wil shook his head, still looking troubled.
“I’m trying to win, Cameral. I realize that’s a bold claim especially with—”
He indicated his peers, who were some of the best in the Titan’s class.
“—as well as the other students competing. But I think I have a chance. And I’ve made…extensive preparations. It’s just—have any of you actually had a command, before? Outside of the Professor’s lessons? I know you have, Yerra.”
The Selphid nodded.
“Definitely. The Professor made me lead one of his wings on campaign one time. That was terrifying, right, Marian?”
“Yup. We did it, but we had a bunch of officers standing by. So it’s not the same.”
The Centaur sipped from her glass. Wil nodded.
“I’ve done that too. Only, the Professor’s always there so I know that if I really make a mistake, he might catch me. I mean, no one’s there to stop you and if you make a mistake, people die. Or you create a huge incident. Have you ever been in that position?”
All of the others, excepting Venaz, shook their heads. The Minotaur grunted.
He looked around as his friends gave him skeptical looks. Venaz glared.
“Do you think my people would have sent me here without practical experience. I’ve led more than one mission where people could have died or did die. It’s not fun.”
“Did you ever make a bad mistake?”
Wil looked at Venaz. The Minotaur hesitated.
“Once. I haven’t forgotten it.”
“How do you know if you’re right?”
Umina watched as the powerful drink Venaz was imbibing noticeable lowered in his tankard. Venaz wiped his mouth.
“I thought I was right. Why? Are you hesitating over some decision?”
The young man from Terandria nodded quietly. He traced on the well-worn table.
“I’ve made the calculations. And I’m sure my reasoning is right. But if I’m wrong? It’s such a big leap. And if it pays off? I could be set up. But if I’m wrong…I’ll embarrass myself and cause—”
He grimaced and took a long drink. No one pressed him for details. Venaz sat back in his chair, eying Wil. Yerra sipped from her mug.
“It’s not the end of the world if we screw up, Wil. Granted, I don’t know what your plan is, but the worst we can do is look like idiots. I’m fine with that.”
She glanced around with a quick smile. Wil drained his mug and waved for another.
“If only it were me, Yerra. Then I’d be fine. But this involves my family. You know I’m from the high nobility in Terandria?”
The others nodded. Marian shot Umina a quick glance; the Lizardgirl just kept drinking, listening. Wil sounded awful, which somehow made her feel better. He went on as he received and drank his new round.
“I’m a second son. Not as important as my older brother, but a lot of hopes are on me. My family paid a fortune for me to be here. I realize I’m not as gifted as…”
He looked sideways at Umina and the Lizardgirl blushed. She opened her mouth, but Wil shook his head.
“I know I earned my place in the Professor’s class. But I still had to pay part of my way in. I worked hard to stay, but my family’s invested a lot in me. I can’t let them down. And if I embarrass them with everyone watching? What then?”
The others nodded. Marian patted Wil on the back.
“I know what you mean. My clan’s going to be watching the games too.”
“And my family. You are not alone, Wil. The thought of embarrassing myself—I’d rather strip off my armor and walk around naked for a day.”
Cameral gravely announced to the table as his body came back, wiping its hands with a handkerchief. Everyone looked at him. Coming from Cameral, that meant a lot. Yerra grinned uncertainly.
“I don’t know about all that. But we all want to win. No hard feelings if we lose, right?”
She nudged Wil. The young man stared into his mug. He had three sitting next to him. And it hadn’t been long since they’d started drinking! He shook his head again. Umina felt it was her chance to chime in.
He looked at her. Umina hesitated, then tossed him her coin pouch.
“That’s what I’ve got.”
He blinked into the pouch. Venaz leaned over.
“Hmf. Well, that’s a relief for me.”
“Ooh, that’s tough. You mean that’s all you have to spend?”
“She means that’s all she has, period, Yerra.”
The others fell silent. Wil looked at Umina. She cut him off before he could grow embarrassed.
“It’s not your fault. I’m just not rich. So if I go into this competition or spend my money, I’m taking a huge risk. I might not be able to eat, or pay rent—I might have to borrow from Marian or someone else. That’s my problem. If you’re afraid of embarrassing your family…you had a chance. Whether you use it is up to you. That’s what the Professor would say, I think.”
The others fell silent. Wil silently handed Umina her pouch back. Yerra smiled.
“Spoken like the Titan himself, Umina.”
Wil nodded. He got up. The [Lord] straightened his clothes, then looked at the others, a touch unsteadily, but with a hint of steel in his gaze. The same steel he’d shown when he beat Umina or the others on the training fields.
“I’m sorry for complaining. You’re right, Umina. I’m going to do it. There’s no turning back. I wish you all the best of luck. But I intend to win.”
He walked away from the table, then came back to put a few coins down. The others watched him go in silence. Umina wondered what Wil had planned; whatever it was, she was sure it was big. Venaz broke the silence by snorting and finishing his drink.
“Insecure. One wonders how he manages to pick his clothes in the morning.”
The others let out a huge sigh. Umina wondered if that was Venaz’ way of being encouraging. Regardless, Marian still slapped his shoulder hard. He didn’t even budge.
“Didn’t he outmaneuver you in our sea training exercise, Venaz? And he’s brilliant, and I meant brilliant at logistics. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Plus, you’re forgetting something.”
“You’re an ass. Do you know how hard it is to have you in class? You don’t respect anyone but the Professor.”
The Minotaur laughed softly into his mug. He raised two fingers and a Dullahan trotted over with two more drinks. The Minotaur drained half of one in a breath, a feat that made Cameral blink, and then looked up. He surveyed his fellow students with the lofty, arrogant gaze, and then nodded slowly.
“I respect most of you. It’s just that I have to be better than all of you. That’s why I came here. To prove that. If I’m inferior—well, it won’t happen. Which is why I must win the Professor’s game of hide-and-seek tomorrow. I’d rather it were a combat exercise. Either way, I have a question I want to ask him. And so I’ll win. Simple as that. I’m not underestimating Wil; it’s just that I’ll overcome him.”
“And you pull that confidence out of…?”
Yerra raised both brows. Venaz replied steadily.
“My very soul. If I could not, I would not be here.”
He finished his mug and reached for the second. The others stared at him. Umina sipped her drink. She wished she had Venaz’ fire. Or his coin; he was drinking Firebreath Whiskey, a Drake favorite. That was expensive and he was downing it in mugs. Yerra eventually stood up.
“I’m taking the Professor’s games seriously. And after this, I think I need to make a few more plans. You all should too. I knew this would be a big event, but after hearing Wil, I think it might be a lot more important than we thought.”
She got up. The Selphid tossed a few coins on the table and walked out the door. Venaz looked over at Marian and Umina.
“What about you two? Are your preparations in place? I don’t feel the need to change mine.”
Cameral sighed as he fed his head some nuts with a spoon.
“Money is a factor. I can’t afford to spend too much on this game, even if it’s important. I have spent some money, but I’m not confident I can win like Wil or you, Venaz. Thus, I am hedging my bets.”
All four remaining students turned. A Gnoll was standing next to them, mug in hand. Feshi gestured at the table and Umina edged her seat back to let her slide in.
“Feshi? How long have you been listening?”
The Gnoll grinned.
“Not long. But I saw you sitting here and wanted to join in. Are you talking about the competition in Daquin?”
Marian let the Gnoll sit next to her in Yerranola’s seat.
“What else would we be talking about? How committed are you, Feshi?”
Feshi shrugged, her ears flicking cautiously.
“I wouldn’t waste my tribe’s coin overly much either, yes? But I have made some preparations. But are we sharing plans? Because I think that would be unwise. We are competing against each other, of course.”
Venaz harrumphed. He was displeased at Feshi’s entrance; the Minotaur didn’t get along with Feshi. He didn’t get along with Marina of course, but theirs was a rivalry, whereas Feshi and Venaz clearly just didn’t like each other. He eyed the Gnoll over his drink.
“I’ll win, of course. I’ve been making plans. I’m warning you, if you get in my way, I’ll have to deal with you. I intend to ask the Professor a question after the games. As well as prove my abilities to the world.”
The Gnoll bared her teeth in reply.
“Minotaur might? One bag of Tripvines and you’ll be caught. This is a game about intelligence, Venaz. Cunning. Or did you forget this morning already?”
Venaz scowled. His brow darkened, but before he could answer, someone else called out. A group of students at another table, most older than Umina, turned around. There were two Humans, a pair of female Dullahans, and a male half-Elf sitting at their table. They were from one of the senior classes, but not part of Niers’ special group. The half-Elf looked at Umina’s table.
“So you’re all planning to win the competition at Daquin too. Tell us, does the Titan’s special class get a heads up about what the game’s going to entail this time?”
“All we know is what you know. The Professor doesn’t give us any favors. He wants a fair game.”
Marian calmly shot back. The half-Elf glared.
“Well, I’m glad about that. We’re intending to take first place too, you know. Don’t forget about us while you snipe at each other.”
He and his table turned their backs. Umina stared at the half-Elf. Venaz looked amused.
“Was that a challenge?”
Feshi grinned. She eyed the other students and spoke loudly and casually.
“They’re going to try and foul us up. Not that subtle, yes? I suppose the other classes are working in concert against ours.”
The backs of the other students stiffened slightly. Feshi grinned. Venaz just waved a hand.
“Rabble multiplied is still rabble.”
For a second Umina thought the Dullahans would turn around and throw their drinks at him. But then just got up and left. Marian exhaled slowly.
“Venaz, you have a talent for picking fights.”
He shrugged, unmoved.
“They clearly wanted to provoke us. I simply baited their trap. Knocking a few candidates out of the race wouldn’t bother me unduly.”
“Should I check my bedding for poison, then?”
Umina joked lamely. Venaz glanced down at her.
“Not from me. But this is a competition. And I regard the stakes as significant. Don’t you?”
The others fell silent. After a moment, Feshi cleared her throat.
“Alright. To my purpose in coming here. I’m not saying we have to team up. But…there’s no rule against it. I have been speaking with the others. And the Professor’s only rule is literally ‘don’t kill anyone’. So our class has decided on a truce.”
Venaz snorted softly. The Gnoll frowned irritably at him and then went on.
“Truce. Everyone here doesn’t attack each other unless our plans get in each other’s way. We’ll have enough trouble getting past our pursuers and the other students. I noticed in the supply reports the Professor had us doing that there’s a big increase in the provisions in Daquin. At least enough for a thousand soldiers. Maybe two thousand.”
Marian sucked her breath in sharply.
“That’s going to be a nightmare to evade. Forget running about.”
Cameral shrugged. He’d put his head on his shoulders, perhaps wary of a brawl.
“It’s still possible. Daquin is a big city. But if you add that to whatever hunters the Professor brings in…sometimes the graduates bring in their own hunting groups. Especially if they’re big names.”
“What I’m worried about is who the Professor brings in to hunt us. He could call on any of his graduates. And he’s trained…how many [Strategists] over the years?”
Marian frowned. She scratched at the table. Umina sat upright. She’d had a terrible thought.
“Oh dead gods. What if it’s Miss Perorn?”
The others looked at her. Cameral shook his head. It wobbled on his shoulders.
“No. That would be…unfair.”
Umina looked at him. The Dullahan hesitated.
“Even for the Professor. Surely?”
“Think about it. She’s been teaching us this last month. If the Fleethoof herself leads the hunt, how fast do you think she’ll catch us? She could run half of us down herself!”
The others sucked in their breaths. Venaz bit his lip. His crossed legs began to jiggle and the table shook.
“I would…I relish the competition.”
“You would! I’d be scared hoofless if I had to run from Lady Perorn!”
Marian looked pale at the thought. Umina was muttering to herself, getting more and more nervous.
“If we see her in the group going to Daquin…aw, no. I’m getting chilled just thinking about it. And remember what the Professor said? There might be a huge audience this time. This could be my chance to land a really big job after I graduate. Especially with Chandrar and the King of Destruction…”
“Are you thinking of working in Chandrar?”
Feshi looked surprised. Umina hesitated. She hadn’t talked about this with anyone. She noticed the others, Marian, Cameral, Venaz, looking at her.
“If I get a really good offer…I’d be scared tailless of going up against Flos, but I mean, if I got paid enough, Feshi…”
Soon she’d be working and fighting actual battles. She’d seen blood and commanded a force before, but the real thing was coming closer with each passing week. Soon she’d graduate. That was terrifying. Niers’ game was terrifying for different reasons. Umina was breathing hard. Then she felt a hand grip her arm. She looked up and saw Marian. The Centaur smiled down at Umina.
“It’ll be alright, Umina. You’re not a full [Strategist] yet. And this game’s a game. Come what may, if we win or lose, we won’t die.”
“Not if we play by the rules.”
Cameral remarked calmly. Venaz nodded. He drained his last mug, then stood up. He looked reluctantly at Feshi.
“Very well. A truce?”
“If everyone agrees…”
The Gnoll glanced about. Umina nodded. Marian pointed at the door.
“What if Wil or Yerra says no?”
“Where’s the benefit in that? We’ll all be travelling together. There’s no alliance, but I say we’d all agree to a truce. Within the class. We’ll have enough competition and whoever’s chasing us to worry about fighting each other. Truce unless we foul each other.”
The others at the table nodded. They stood up, fumbling for coins, Marian tossed money down for her drinks and Umina’s. She looked at Venaz, then at Cameral and Feshi.
“We’re part of the truce, but Umina and I are working together. We’re going to win as a team. Umina, we’re going to make some plans tonight.”
“Marian, are you sure?”
The Lizardgirl held her breath. The Centauress gave her a wide smile.
“Two tails are better than one, even if mine doesn’t flex. I want to win this thing and ask the Professor…”
She broke off. The others looked at each other. Venaz, Cameral, Feshi…and there was Wil, Yerra, and all the others. Umina’s heart beat faster. Only one person could win. Unless she and Marian really did win as a pair. And if they won, they could ask…
Anything. Was it the Titan’s arrogance? Or did he really think this was a prize worthy of winning the competition? Any question in the world. Umina thought of all the things she could ask him. There were so many mysteries the Titan surely knew. Stories about him, about Baleros.
Like whether he knew what lay in the upper floors of Wistram. What the great treasure that the Forgotten Wing company had been founded on. Whether the rumors of him being cursed by Queravia during their battle was true or not. What level Niers Astoragon was, really. What his greatest and most powerful Skill was and what it did. The names of the most powerful people in the world. Their secrets.
Umina could ask about anything. Everything. But one question came to mind. Perhaps, if it were her, she’d ask a simple question. The question everyone wanted to know.
Who was his mysterious opponent he played chess with? Did he know who they were? Or perhaps she’d ask him if he knew, truly, how to become a Naga. Or a Lamia. Or if the Foliana really did have a map to the world’s greatest treasure. Or what he had really thought of Velan the Kind, if he had really been friends with the Goblin King before Velan had gone to war. Or if he knew where there was any buried treasure. Or…
A thousand and one questions. And Umina couldn’t pick just one. If she won, would she ask about Dragons? Or something else. Would she even win? That was the question. Umina felt her heart beat faster as she walked out of the pub with Marian, and for the first time she put her mind to winning. Truly and seriously. But she feared her fellow students had already laid deep plans. Still, there was always a chance. Umina set off with her Centaur friend in tow, making plans.
She still had no idea just how exciting the game of hide and seek was going to be.