The city of Daquin was one of Baleros’ many port cities. It wasn’t quite a metropolis, but it was large. Its harbor could hold as many as eight warships at the same time without being overcrowded; the buildings were by and large stone, a product of a nearby quarry and the city’s rich history.
It was also over a hundred and fourteen miles away from Elvallian, the capital of the Forgotten Wing company and the training school Niers Astoragon and his company of students had departed from. And that was as the sparrow flew, if it could even get that far without being eaten.
Two days after they’d departed from the school, Niers Astoragon, and a company of nearly four hundred staff, teachers, guards, and students reached the city. Over a hundred miles in two days.
It was a trivial journey. Not worth even mentioning. The students rode while talking to each other merrily, thinking up last-minute plans, forging desperate alliances and fomenting betrayal all while enduring lectures from some of the teachers riding with them. The [Soldiers] watched the roads. The staff ensured there was hot food and that each of the stops was as comfortable as possible.
Nothing stopped the small procession. And it was small. And the distance was still negligible. Yes, for another rider it might be a heroic distance to travel in such a short amount of time, especially by foot. But for a Great Company of Baleros?
If you wanted to, you could talk about enchanted wheels, horses raised by Beastmasters, the Skills employed by the [Strategists] that made the road disappear, and the prudence of travellers who decided not to block the Titan’s personal mobile home and travelling vehicle when not on the campaign.
It looked like a doll’s house mounted on a pushcart and it was pulled by a donkey. To a Fraerling, it was the height of luxury and Niers could relax on the porch while talking with people riding across from him and do paperwork at the same time.
The only vexation for Niers Astoragon were the bugs, and his mansion-on-the-go had enough warding spells and enchantments to fight off three Trolls. But it was entertaining watching him shoot down horseflies with a bow and arrow from the roof. Yes, you could talk about all of that. But that wasn’t the point.
Two days later, they were here. Umina, Venaz, Wil, Cameral, and the others who hadn’t elected to travel via horseback piled out of the comfortable open-roofed coach they’d been chatting in. Somewhat tensely. Because they were here.
Daquin. It wasn’t that impressive. Elvallian was three times larger. If anything, Daquin was a letdown to anyone expecting to find something better after wandering through the Titan’s city of cities. But Daquin was special. Here the Titan’s game would begin.
The [Strategists] and other students took in the city for a moment. And instantly, some of the perceptive students realized why Niers had chosen this city for his game of hide-and-seek.
“Narrow alleyways. An unfortunate lack of an [Architect]’s oversight when constructing the thoroughfares. You could hold an army in some of the streets. Others are too wide to easily block. The buildings are stone and wood; many with multiple stories. Some have doors that connect between buildings; Lizardfolk design. No sewers, though. But there are a thousand hiding spots. Only a few vantage points either. See?”
Marian pointed out a tower to Umina as she trotted into the city. The Lizardgirl, stretching her legs, hopped after her friend nervously. She looked around, trying not to hyperventilate.
“Right. Right! It’s great for hiding. There’re a few high spots. That large tower, there—”
She pointed to an extraordinarily high tower nearly half again the size of the building below it. Marian nodded.
“Looks like an archer’s tower. Or a watch tower. Either way, you could put someone up there to watch for [Pirate] raids or armies. Set up a high-level [Sniper] or [Mage] with long-distance spells…nice defensive spot.”
Yerranola laughed as she strode into the city. She elbowed the Minotaur walking beside her.
“Too bad we’re not staging a war game, huh, Venaz?”
The Minotaur snorted softly.
“This is enough of a battle for my liking.”
He folded his arms as he surveyed the city. His eyes lingered on the open harbor; it had a bowl-shaped opening with external watch towers and a sea gate that could be closed. It was open, but Umina spotted several ships lingering in the harbor. They bore the Forgotten Wing company colors; it looked like Niers had even taken over the harbor for his games. Umina gulped as she passed down the street, following the Titan and some of the teachers. They were walking casually while the Titan borrowed a shoulder for a ride.
“Hey. Look at all the [Soldiers].”
She pointed. The other students looked. Yerranola gulped.
The streets were full of Lizardfolk, Dullahans, and Centaurs. Some were Daquin’s citizenry, but Umina saw an entire platoon of Forgotten Wing company soldiers marching out to greet the Titan himself. Yerranola muttered an oath as she counted.
“I can’t tell, but if every street is like this—how many did the Professor put in Daquin? A thousand?”
“Two thousand. It’s not enough to cover the city by far, but it’s a lot.”
Wil appeared behind the others. His face was so pale it was nearly white, but some color actually went back into his face as he stared across the street. Marian tossed her head uneasily.
“All this for a game. The Professor really doesn’t do things by halves, does he?”
“Would you expect anything else? Where are we gathering? Or are we just waiting for the others to gather?”
Venaz looked back irritably. Umina’s heart skipped a beat as she looked back and saw nearly two hundred of the oldest students following them. Older students in the [Strategist] classes, those training to be officers—she saw dozens of eyes staring at her and turned forwards hurriedly. Yerra gulped, for a second losing her semi-permanent smile.
“Ooh. I got a lot of evil looks just now. Was there a Gazer in the crowd?”
“Some of those students have been studying as long as you, Venaz.”
“We’re part of the Professor’s personal class. Don’t let them shake you. The victor of this competition will come from our class; of that I have no doubt.”
The Minotaur raised his voice as a pair of Centaurs trotted by. They turned and stared at Venaz. He stared back, unruffled. Umina gulped.
“Yeah, but Venaz—look ahead. Those aren’t students. See that group? I think those are graduates.”
The Minotaur turned with the others. They saw a group of fifty or so, waiting ahead of them. The Minotaur hesitated.
“Ah. Alumni. Seekers?”
“No. Didn’t the Professor say they’d be competing against us? They’re competition.”
“They…could be trouble.”
Umina nodded in agreement. She recognized some of them. The group was mostly in their late twenties, having graduated only recently. But some had already begun to make waves. She squeaked as she pointed at a half-Elf bearing a curved sword at his waist and wearing some kind of bright, white-steel armor covered by an armored cloak.
“Isn’t that Tefret, the [Mage Captain]? I heard he graduated two years back! He’s supposed to be employed in Terandria!”
“We’re supposed to beat him?”
“Of—of course. Don’t raise your voice, Marian. He’s barely higher-level than we are—”
“He killed a half-Giant in his first campaign after graduating. You ever beat a half-Giant, Venaz? Venaz?”
The urgent voices of the students in Umina’s class were only a backdrop to the larger conversation from the rest of the Titan’s students. The Lizardgirl grabbed Marian’s arm as they walked forwards. She spotted a Dwarf and Lizardman walking past her, both looking nervous as well. The Dwarf was panicking much in the way Umina was.
“Grandfather’s beards! I thought we wouldn’t have to complete against graduates, Sillk! It was bad enough having to deal with the Professor’s special class—that lot have seen actual combat!”
The Lizardman was nodding. He was maybe three years older than Umina and quite handsome. She stared at him as he placed a clawed hand on the Dwarf’s shoulder, but his tail gave away his nerves as well.
“Calm down, Merrik. We have a shot. We just need to win. The game’s not just about hiding. We have to be the first to win—or the last ones standing. And between my class and your uh…beard, we’ll make it. We’ll—”
He caught sight of Umina staring at him. She smiled and waved weakly. The Lizardman, Sillk, paled, and dragged Merrik forwards. She clearly heard the Dwarf’s voice.
“What? What? Oh—isn’t that Umina? Blast it. Is she marking you?”
“Me? No way. Steady. Let’s just calm down…”
The two hurried forwards after the Professor. Umina swished her tail. Somehow, their panic had reassured her. They weren’t alone. She looked around and remembered the Professor’s lessons.
Calm down. Look around. See the other expressions? They’re all nervous. From Venaz to the other students in other classes. Even those graduates—we’re all competing, but no one’s that confident. See the way Tefret is standing? Hand next to his sword. Even a [Mage Captain]’s probably intimidated. Even though this is a game. He wants to win. So you have a chance. Remember that.
And she was calm. Umina felt her mind, the cold part that came out in the middle of battles, take over. She breathed evenly; she wasn’t just a student. She had seen battle. The Lizardgirl looked around and saw a few students meet her eyes. Some other students were doing what she was doing.
But the ones to watch were calm. A Garuda with red feathers gave Umina a nod. A Dullahan woman with a quarterstaff in one hand looked back fearlessly. And then to her left, Feshi. And Wil. The same eyes. They’d calmed down too. That was the first step in winning a battle. The Gnoll grinned at Umina and the Lizardgirl grinned back. Then someone grabbed her arm hard.
And here was someone who hadn’t calmed down. The whites of Marian’s eyes were showing. Despite her experience, the atmosphere or perhaps the numbers of competing students had gotten to her. Umina winced as she saw the Centaur’s hooves; Marian was giving herself away as she practically pranced in place. Then again, the Lizardgirl was sure she’d been just as bad a minute ago.
“I’m getting nervous! I know we prepared, but do you really think—”
Before she could glance towards the harbor, Umina grabbed Marian’s arm and gave it a squeeze with her claws. The Centaur yelped and tried to pull back. Umina didn’t let go.
“Marian! Calm down! This is just like a war game with the Professor. A skirmish. Imagine you’re against Venaz. Don’t give in to the pressure; that’s how you’ll lose!”
It worked. It might not have on someone else, but like Umina, Marian had lived through her introduction to battle. Being attacked by Selphids in training wasn’t the last ordeal the Professor had put them through. And he’d taught them how to resist even [Fear] spells in combat. The Centaur stared at Umina, then the Lizardgirl saw her breathing shift. She inhaled slowly, and her eyes flickered. The pulse Umina felt through the Centaur’s arm slowed. After a second, Marian patted Umina’s arm.
“You can let go.”
The Lizardgirl did. Then she saw the blood on the tips of her claws.
“It’s fine. It shook me out of it. You ready?”
Marian ignored the small punctures on her arms. She gestured around and Umina saw her classmates had almost all gotten control of themselves. Feshi was smiling and sniffing the air, Jekilt’s arms were folded, but the [Captain] was icy calm. He probably hadn’t panicked. Venaz was growling and making a fist. Yerra was grinning and slapping Cameral’s shoulder. Wil was checking the sky, the position of the sun—only Cameral seemed to be panicking, and even then, not as bad as some of the other students.
“Look. The Professor’s stopped. Looks like he’s greeting the [Mayor] of the city.”
“Can’t be the [Mayor]. Daquin has a sitting council.”
“Fine, their council, then. Is this important?”
“No, not really.”
The students had entered a large plaza. Marian pointed out the Titan. He and the teachers had stopped to talk with a group of dignitaries, four Lizardfolk, and two Dullahans, who were presumably the leaders of the city. There was some smiling and bowing going on—all very relaxed. Some of the [Soldiers] accompanying the group were offering the council a gift. Daquin’s citizens, the soldiers, and students waited.
Umina kept glancing about. There were so many! True, a lot would just be part of the audience. But Umina hadn’t considered how many eyes might rat out the hiders to whomever was seeking. Marian looked around, using her height to eye the [Soldiers].
“Looks like this isn’t a group of elite soldiers. The Professor might have just called in one of the reserve units. He’s got a good mix; no one specific species.”
Some of the [Soldiers] were yawning, while the others were talking to each other. They were clearly part of the game; they eyed the students with amusement and Umina saw they were equipped with clubs, truncheons, nets—the equipment to take down the hiders. She gulped.
“Those are going to hurt.”
“We can fight back.”
“You mean, you can. I get hit by a club; I’m lying down. I—”
“Miss Umina! [Strategist] Umina! Over here!”
Someone shouted her name. Umina’s head turned around. It wasn’t one of the students in her class, or even a student at all. Out of the waiting citizens of Daquin, she saw a Lizardgirl waving excitedly. Umina blinked. Then she raised a hand. The Lizardgirl shouted back as some of the students turned to look.
“Miss Umina! I’m a big fan! You have to win the Titan’s game, alright? I’m going to be a [Strategist] when I grow up, like you!”
Umina turned bright red. The other students were looking at her! Some were glaring, but Umina saw a flurry of hands from the crowd. The Lizardgirl’s mother waved excitedly as well.
“Miss Umina! Win for the Lizardfolk!”
“I want [Strategist] Xelic to win!”
A Lizardman next to the mother pointed at Xelic, one of the other students in the special class. Xelic turned bright red and raised a claw, clearly not sure whether to wave or not. There was a laugh from the crowd, then a cheer.
The Lizardgirl looked around. Daquin was a Lizardfolk city, so at least a fourth of the crowd was Lizardfolk. And they all began taking up the chant, shouting the names of one or the other Lizardfolk in Niers’ class. Marian turned to look at Umina with the students. Yerra grinned.
“Umina! I didn’t know you were famous in Daquin!”
Umina wanted to curl up under a rock. She muttered loud enough for the others to hear as she tried to duck her head.
“They know me.”
Venaz harrumphed, but to Umina’s surprise, he looked vaguely approving.
“Of course they do. You and Xelic are in the Titan’s personal class. It’s a mark of honor.”
“But we’re attracting attention!”
It was true. The other students—and there were around two hundred—could scarcely have failed to notice the growing cheering from the crowd. They turned to look and Umina felt more than one very annoyed gaze on her back. A few of the Lizardfolk not in her class looked rueful; a few even clapped along with the others, laughing. And from the gathering with Daquin’s leaders, Niers Astoragon and the teachers were turning—Umina went scarlet as her fans laughed and cheered louder.
“Marian, hide me. Or trample me.”
Before the Centaur could oblige Umina’s death wish, another voice rang out. A young Centaur in a [Laborer]’s outfit reared in the crowd and shouted loud enough to be heard.
“Marian Felthof! Win for the Centaurs!”
He bellowed and some of the other Centaurs called out. Another called out Jekilt’s name. Then the air split as both Centaurs and Lizardfolk began cheering for the students they recognized. Marian raised a hand as it was her turn to blush; Jekilt raised one fist as the Centaurs stampeded in place. And the Dullahans in the crowd—
Didn’t cheer. But to Cameral and the two other Dullahans students, they were nodding, raising their heads over the crowd to see. Cameral bowed slightly, his face pale. The crowd cheered and roared, filling the air. They’d decided the games had begun and were cheering—even over the Titan’s greeting with the council. Umina blushed, waved, and looked at the other students. They stared back. Yerra waved at a Selphid wearing a child’s body in the crowd and muttered to her friends.
“We are so dead. They’re going to go right for us the instant the games start.”
Umina nodded with the others. Venaz was cracking his knuckles. He didn’t appear bothered by the lack of a Minotaur crowd cheering for him.
“I see Daquin’s citizenry is here. But where are the seekers? And the guests? My sources told me that in previous years, there could be a huge guest presence. At least a few [Emissaries]—even royalty from overseas at times!”
He looked around, dismayed. Umina scanned the crowd and realized Venaz was right. Despite the people in the square, they all looked like Daquin’s native inhabitants. No one stood out, and if there were another company here, she would expect to see them with a sizable escort. But all she saw were Forgotten Wing company soldiers.
“I guess no one’s coming? Maybe this is normal for them. Oh—wait, there are a few robes by the Professor.”
The Gnoll glowered at the [Mages], a group of sixteen or so, waiting to one side and looking around. They were clearly [Mages]; if their colorful robes and staffs didn’t identify them, the aloof looks they were giving to the crowd would have tipped Umina off. Feshi’s glare was another hint.
“I am sure. I can smell them.”
“Looks like the Professor is greeting them. Dead gods, I hope he tells us the rules soon. Or—wait, if the seekers aren’t here, is he going to be leading the hunt?”
“Don’t jinx us, Yerra! Maybe it’s just the soldiers who have to find us and some kind of riddle.”
Umina saw a Centaur turning in the crowd, holding what had to be Niers Astoragon at head height. The Lizardgirl felt herself go pale. The Centauress looked back across the audience at the cheering crowd. And she stared right at Umina.
Perorn Sadiluc, known as Fleethoof, looked back at the source of the sudden cheering. The plaza was filled with bodies; most of the city had gathered to see the Titan in person, which was quite difficult even for those at the front. But they knew the game was taking place, and so they actually outnumbered the two hundred students and fifty or so alumni who had come to play in the Titan’s game. Now Perorn picked out a student from the crowd who she knew by name.
Umina, one of Niers’ prized students. A sharp mind and flexible one too, able to answer quickly and adapt to new situations with ease. She was standing next to Marian, a Centauress. Another bright candidate, but Perorn distinctly recalled Marian going red and stammering both times the [Galewinds Strategist] had called on her. It was a flaw in her Centaur students that Perorn had no time for. But perhaps it was unavoidable.
The Centauress turned her head back. She realized the council member, a Dullahan woman in her late sixties, had addressed her. Instantly, Perorn ducked her head, embarrassed, although it didn’t show on her face.
“My apologies, Councilmember Felit. I missed what you were saying.”
The Dullahan looked horrified. She adjusted her head on her shoulders, bowing deeper than Perorn hurriedly.
“No, no. Our apologies for keeping you waiting. And for our citizen’s indiscretion.”
She turned a scandalized eye towards the cheering crowd. All four of the Lizardfolk members of the council looked appalled and delighted.
“So sorry! And it’s a pleasure to meet you. And honor, truly! You and Lord Astoragon!”
One of the Lizardmen bowed to Perorn and the small Fraerling perched on Perorn’s shoulder. Niers Astoragon bowed back, and his voice was a mix of politeness and cheerful informality.
“No offense taken, Councilman Ulli. We are grateful for Daquin’s hospitality today. Please do warn the citizens that they may be included in the games if they stay outdoors. The participants have been warned that dangerous weaponry and spells are off-limits and we have [Healers] standing by, but accidents happen.”
“We will inform them again, and call upon the [Guards] to clear the streets. And we will not keep you any further, will we, Councilmembers?”
The Dullahan woman, Felit, bowed to Niers. She looked pointedly at the Lizardfolk and the Dullahan man. He nodded instantly; the Lizardfolk looked disappointed.
“But I wanted to ask—”
Ulli yelped as Felit stomped on his tail. He withdrew, looking unhappy, and all of the Council had to shake Perorn’s hand and bow to Niers before they withdrew. It was a ceremony Perorn was used to and she smiled briefly and repeated each name once. Then they were gone. She turned her head to speak to the tiny Fraerling on her shoulder.
“Now the [Mages]?”
She saw Niers, a tiny man dressed all in blue and gold, grimace. He tugged the rakish hat he’d chosen lower on his head and grumbled, before nodding.
“Ah, Wistram’s delegation. We might as well or they’ll kick up a fuss. Before that, who was cheering? I couldn’t see; your hair’s in the way.”
He kicked at Perorn’s long hair, auburn mixed with strands of grey. Perorn sighed, but she turned to let him see. Niers grinned as he saw the crowd cheering his students.
“Ah. My advanced class has gotten the attention of the crowd. That might make them targets.”
“If you wanted them to be inconspicuous…”
The Titan shook his head.
“No, it’s fine this way. Let’s just hurry the ceremony up; we can bring in our guest soon. I imagine they’re getting impatient.”
Perorn sighed, but she trotted over to the waiting group of [Mages]. She saw them stand up and adjust their robes hurriedly as they saw her coming over. She spoke to Niers with a slight frown.
“And who is this mystery guest? You didn’t tell me.”
“If you had an ear to the winds, Perorn, you would have seen it. It’s obvious to anyone who knows what to look for. Sadly, I think only a handful of students know. Even in my class, I think only Wil figured it out. Did I make it too hard? But this is fine. He’ll be entertaining enough.”
Niers sighed. He looked at the [Mages] and shook his head. Hopefully, he glanced up at Perorn.
“What if I let you do the introductions, Perorn?”
“They wouldn’t mind.”
She paused and glared at him.
“You’re the Titan of Baleros. You organized this game; Wistram’s here at your request.”
“I didn’t invite them. I would have used our [Mages]. Very well. But I’m hardly impressive to most of them. You’re the one the Council was making duck eyes at.”
Niers looked huffy as he checked his clothing and hat. Perorn debated flicking him off her shoulder for a second. But it was true. Like Daquin’s ruling Council, the [Mages] stared first at her. Their leader, a half-Elf woman in sweeping, emerald silk robes emblazoned with purple blooms, bowed deeply.
“Lady Perorn Sadiluc. I am First-Mage Teura of Wistram, assistant to Archmage Feor and the leader of my small gathering. I thank you and the Forgotten Wing company for the invitation to—”
Perorn held out a hand and felt Niers nimbly leap onto her palm. Teura, froze in the middle of her half-prepared speech as she spotted Niers.
“—And my deepest thanks to you as well, Lord Astoragon.”
The [Mages] jumped. They stared down at the Fraerling and half of them blinked. You could tell which of them hadn’t ever met Niers before, but they all hurriedly bowed as the Fraerling strutted forwards and nodded to Teura.
“A pleasure, Mage Teura. I’m surprised you’ve left the academy.”
The half-Elf calmly addressed Niers as if nothing was amiss. Some of the [Mages] were openly staring, but the rest had composed themselves. Their eyes flicked to Niers. This was the Titan of Baleros. Perorn held still, seeing their eyes go to her next.
“It was at Archmage Feor’s request, Lord Astoragon. We could hardly ignore such an event, could we? Especially given our function.”
“Ah, yes. Well, I’m delighted to have you watch.”
Niers sighed, his tone and face suggestion he was anything but. Teura didn’t react; she merely bowed again.
“We will observe from the side and several points around the city without interfering of course. But if I may request that some of our members accompany you? For the best position.”
“As you will.”
The Titan waved a hand. Teura nodded and gestured; a Centaur came forwards along with another half-Elf. Perorn nodded to the Centaur, a younger male. He might have been in his early forties or late thirties, but he looked like an excited colt as he bowed to her.
“It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Fleethoof—and uh, you as well, Lord Astoragon!”
He hurriedly bowed to Niers as Teura shot him a glare. Niers only chuckled, and Perorn, lifting him back to her shoulder, politely greeted the [Mage].
It couldn’t be helped. No, it was to be expected, really. They stared at her, the [Mages]. At Niers too, but in surprise. Because, after all, he was the Titan of Baleros. But when he didn’t try, when he just hid on Perorn’s shoulder, Niers was…a Fraerling. Small. Whereas Perorn was hardly equal to him in terms of fame, but her name was widely known as well.
Perorn. Fleethoof. And she looked the part. The Centauress walked back, conscious of the eyes on her. The crowd was still cheering for the students. They were watching her and Niers of course, but they hadn’t done anything but a few greetings.
In many ways, Perorn knew, they were letting down those who had gathered to see them. Unless Perorn was racing across the city, sword in hand, leading a charge, or Niers was…being Niers, they were disappointments. Almost as bad as Foliana, although you could argue she was everything you expected in another sense.
But Perorn wasn’t in the mood to race; she wasn’t a young mare anymore, her back leg hurt as if a storm was coming despite the clear skies for some reason, despite the ointment she’d used, and this wasn’t her game. She had been invited to come to Daquin; Niers had insisted on it for some reason. But she wasn’t taking part.
“I’m not taking part, am I, Niers? You promised me that. If you intend to trick me into performing, I will step on you.”
The Centaur [Strategist] turned her head to glare at Niers. The Titan of Baleros smiled, sitting on Perorn’s bare shoulder. He stroked his beard, smiling lightly.
“I did promise you. I’m attached to my unsquashed body, so I suppose I can’t cheat and add you.”
“It would be unfair. If I went against your students, I’d have half within the hour.”
Perorn felt the need to justify herself, to Niers’ smug expression as much as anything else. He grinned at her.
She raised a finger warningly, ready to flick. She wouldn’t ever have done it of course; Niers’ magical equipment would probably break her finger if she flicked too hard. The Titan sighed.
“I don’t need you, Perorn. As a seeker, I mean. My guest is already here.”
She glanced around, frowning. Niers smiled.
“If you had a spyglass and you were on that watch tower, you’d see him. He’ll be inbound as soon as I give the signal. No—I think he’ll chose his moment. You are listening, aren’t you? Give me a chance to mention Wistram first, and then you can come in.”
Niers raised his voice and looked around. Perorn felt her skin crawl. A listening spell? Or maybe Niers just meant there was a spy in the audience. She trotted towards the waiting students.
“Where would you like to speak? And you’ll do it yourself; I’m not holding you up while you speak.”
“There will be a dais. Ah. Here!”
Niers was pointing. On cue, a pair of [Soldiers] were dragging forwards the little wooden dais Niers liked to use to speak to people on a level. Perorn trotted forwards and Niers hopped onto it. The crowd, murmuring, went still, and the students looked up.
And Perorn saw the moment of disappointment. The Titan was a speck from afar. And he landed on the dais lightly. His teachers spread out behind him, some notable [Strategists]. Perorn felt most of the eyes go to her, and the murmur spread again.
And where was the Titan? Invisible. Barely noticeable. Perorn knew Niers hated that. But as the Titan walked forwards onto the wooden platform, six feet up in the air, he cleared his throat. And then his voice was louder. And then the Titan of Baleros really appeared. Niers spread his arms and roared.
“Citizens of Daquin! Thank you for your patience!”
His voice boomed down the plaza. The sudden sound made his audience jump. Perorn winced and wished she could plug her ears. Niers stood on his platform and looked at his students. They stared up at him.
“And my students, thank you for your patience. I realize many of you know why you’re here. It’s my custom to play a little game between my former students and current ones. Hide and seek. A children’s game, a Fraerling’s life.”
He chuckled as the audience shifted, not sure if they should laugh.
“This game is meant to teach you what it is like to be alone. Cut off from your forces. Isolated. But more than that; it’s a test of wits. Are you better than my former students? Can you seize victory from them and claim the prize? And yes, the prize is real. To anyone who wins, I’ll answer any question of your choice. There’s also wine; I enjoy a drink, so the lucky student who fulfills the game’s requirements first will share a few cups with me in my quarters at their leisure.”
The students stood straighter hearing that. Perorn saw many eyes light up. So it was true! There were rumors, but they hadn’t known. She looked at Niers.
Any question in the world. Any question at all, the Titan of Baleros will answer. Truthfully. She saw Teura and the other two [Mages] from Wistram shifting behind her, watching. Perorn knew how Wistram operated—she imagined that any of the [Mages] would have given a finger to be in the student’s place. Come to that, Perorn might have competed herself if given the chance.
Any question…the students fell silent as Niers raised a hand. He was tiny, but now you could see him clearly, even three hundred paces away. It was like he was larger, or perhaps distance stopped mattering. There he stood. A little man dressed in tiny clothes. With a hat. But you couldn’t look away. And he occupied your view. He stole the attention of a city. The Titan of Baleros. He should have been born a giant.
“This is the game. I’ve played it for decades now. With my first students. And though you’re hardly the last, I’m no less excited to see how you fare than I was the first time. More so today, in fact. Because you know what’s coming. Many of you have made preparations. Some of you may have laid traps, or forged alliances, or prepared artifacts, spells—some might call that cheating. I would not. You know what I would say: you’re preparing properly given the situation!”
There was a chuckle from his students. One of them, Yerranola, whooped.
“There’s no such thing as cheating, Professor!”
The Fraerling laughed along with the others.
“Only in chess, Yerra. But you’re right. In this game, as you know, I’ve set only one rule: no one gets hurt. And by hurt, I mean, no one dies or suffers permanent injury. You can knock someone out, put them under a [Sleep] spell, use confusion magic, illusions—I draw the line at shooting someone in the legs with arrows because accidents happen, and blood’s so damned hard to wash away—but everything short of that is fine. So cheat away. You’ll need to.”
He looked around. Now the air was vibrating. Perorn felt it and she had to stop herself from shifting on the spot. There was excitement in the air. She looked at the students, many of whom she’d taught herself. They were all nearing the end of their time here. Some would become [Strategists], others officers like [Captains]. Many had the classes; they were ready to lead armies. To fight. And yes, to die. But they wouldn’t die easily. Some would become legends in their own right. And none of them would have made it here if they didn’t have the will to win. They stared up at the Titan, waiting impatiently. But Niers wasn’t done. He glanced up at the sky for a second. Waiting for something?
“As is customary, I have my seeker prepared. And it is a former student of mine. They’ll be taking command of my soldiers in the city. The Forgotten Wing company has about a thousand soldiers here, very happily being paid to take part in the game. Or paid, at least.”
He gestured to some of the soldiers standing in the square. There was a cheer from a few of them until a [Captain] shouted at them. Niers waved the [Captain] back with a relaxed hand. The soldiers had cheered for him, not the students, Perorn knew. They were, in fact, giving the students very expectant looks.
“My soldiers deserve their fun. They like money, but being paid to catch a bunch of students who might fight back and draw them into traps is not what I would call a fun vacation, even if they’re not fighting. So aside from the luxury of being able to crack a few of my best student’s heads—”
Another chuckle from the soldiers.
“—I’m offering them an incentive. For each student they personally catch and subdue, and they do have to subdue you, the soldier or group earns ten gold pieces. Per student, if that wasn’t clear.”
That provoked a moment of silence from the students, and a huge cheer from the soldiers. Neither group had been expecting that. The citizens of Daquin, caught between the conflicting emotions of worry and elation, decided to cheer as well. The Titan winked; you could hear it in his voice even if you couldn’t see it. From behind him, Perorn imagined his delighted expression.
“Just something to incentivize both sides. But I have two more surprises—”
His students groaned. But they had expected that. Niers scowled at them.
“Don’t be so upset just yet. Before my seeker arrives, let me first clear up a misapprehension you might have all had. There are, I note, very few guests outside of Daquin’s illustrious citizenry. Splendid as they might be, this is somewhat of a mediocre turnout given the past visitors who normally sit in on these games, isn’t it?”
There were nods from the crowd as the illustrious citizenry tried to figure out if they’d been insulted. Niers pointed around and Perorn saw he was right.
Normally there were a lot of people who’d gather for something like this. [Diplomats], visiting dignitaries, [Commanders] of companies, and their entourages…but this time the gathered audience was incredibly small. Just a few [Mages] and some small-time mercenary leaders. Perorn wasn’t sure if the students were relieved or disappointed. Venaz was clearly heartbroken. Niers waited until the murmurs had died down, and then went on.
“Fear not. Especially you, Venaz. You have your audience. And they’re watching already. Or haven’t you noticed our guests from Wistram? They are here—”
He pointed back towards Teura and the other two.
“—And around the city. They will be stationed on rooftops, in the streets, to follow you no doubt and watch the games. And if you hadn’t forgotten, that means something else. Or has Liscor taught you nothing? The King of Destruction? Ah, I see you’ve already figured it out, Wil. Umina, good, Merrik…try not to throw up, lad.”
As if he were in class, Niers began pointing out students in the crowd. The rest struggled for a beat to catch up to what the Professor meant. Then Perorn heard a gasp. She shifted and looked back at Teura. The half-Elf met her gaze, and Perorn knew that for a second, her face had appeared on a scrying orb. Not just one. Or even ten. And not just in Wistram. But in every building with a [Mage] to catch the signal, in every mansion with a scrying orb willing to catch the spell that was sent out—
“Hold the spell.”
Archmage Feor spoke dreamily as he stared into Perorn’s face. Fleethoof herself. The aged half-Elf stroked his beard. She was older than when he’d met her last. It felt like a moment ago. And for the half-Elf, not much had changed. He was old. Far older than Perorn.
But she was a Centaur. And he was part immortal. Feor closed his eyes. He remembered a fiery mane of hair, a Centaur with no limp who had fought with him on Rhir. It had been two decades since then. Perorn was in her fifties and he—
“Archmage, we have over four hundred contacts. And more requests are coming in. Should we—”
A [Mage]’s voice spoke behind Feor, strained. He looked back and saw nearly fifty [Mages] of Wistram, linked in the magical circles they’d drawn. They needed no tactile connection; they sat or stood as they pleased, and there was food and drink enough to keep them linked and more [Mages] on standby. Once the connection had been fully established, they could move about, even perform mundane tasks. It was only at this moment as the image of the Titan spread across the world that all those present struggled with the enormity of the spell.
“Broadcast the image to anyone who requests it. Add connections slowly. This isn’t a race.”
Feor spoke sharply, annoyed by the intrusion into his memories. He saw the [Mage] nod and turned back to the image in the scrying orb. Niers Astoragon had replaced it. A tiny man, but Teura must have amplified her vision. He appeared in the orb, and Feor saw a flash of darkness as Teura blinked.
“There must be a better way to record the images. Perhaps with an artifact, as young Aaron suggested.”
Feor mused to himself. He listened as Niers spoke, as crisply as if he were in front of Feor. After all, the concept of recording an image and sound wasn’t anything new. [Mages] had known how to do that for years. But sending the same signal across the world? Creating a…network? Even that wasn’t an entirely unheard of idea. But for entertainment? That was new.
The Titan looked around. He turned his head, and Feor’s heart jumped as Niers Astoragon met his eyes for a second. The Fraerling spoke, in a whisper magnified to a shout.
“The world is watching.”
From Wistram to Terandria to Izril. From the King of Destruction staring into his marble-sized scrying orb to Lady Magnolia Reinhart, drumming her fingers and having Ressa note some of the students to Wall Lord Ilvriss, sipping wine in his home and watching with a critical eye.
[King] Raelt stared into the scrying orb his servant, Geril, had fetched for him out of their armory. It was slightly dusty and his daughter was getting in the way.
“Jecaina, please move back. I can’t see.”
The nobles of Terandria sipped wine and scarfed foods in the courts. Monarchs of lands not embroiled in war watched, some enviously, others with idle interest, others picking out faces out of the crowd. The Quarass of Germina watched, drumming her fingers on her throne, a child witnessing something she had seen in the past, but in a new way.
The Emperor of Sands waited, reclining on silk cushions. The Blighted King stood in his war room, glancing at the orb only now and then, impatient, speaking with his [Generals]. The leaders of Baleros watched, the Seer of Steel with patience, the Bannermare with jealousy and her mother with disdain. A thousand pairs of eyes. Then two thousand. Ten thousand—[Merchants] in their shops. Adventurers in their camps. Students in Wistram’s lower levels crowded into rooms. Cognita. Az’kerash. Greydath.
A Dragon slept through it all.
Daquin shook. The city trembled, and Umina’s knees went weak. She stared up at her teacher as he stood on the dais. Her eyes travelled to the [Mages] behind her. And through their eyes, she imagined a hundred thousand, no a million souls were staring back. At her. At the city. At him.
The entire world was watching the Titan’s game. Umina began to hyperventilate.
The students shook. Some cried out. Others gasped. A few, were just silent. Someone fainted. Umina looked to her right. Marian had gone still, her mouth half-open. Yerra’s grin had frozen on her place. Cameral was muttering.
“Of course we knew it was a possibility. But we didn’t think—for a game? But if it is the Professor’s game—”
Umina looked up. Venaz had turned into a statue. The Minotaur gulped twice; she saw his throat move. Then he coughed.
“Hmf. W-well, it’s only fitting. Appropriate, even. No, the more who witness my triumph, the better!”
But even he couldn’t hide the tremor in his voice. Wil was muttering on Umina’s left.
“I’m going to do my best. I can’t be caught. I can’t fail. I can’t…”
Feshi breathed in and out, looking calmer than Jekilt. He was lying on the ground, passed out.
“I wonder if my tribe can see me?”
She waved a paw experimentally. Umina opened her mouth and felt her stomach roiling. Forget calm! This was—
The word was like a bucket of water. Jekilt jerked and his hooves moved randomly for a moment. Marian started breathing again; Umina felt her terror subside. Everyone looked back at Niers, students, soldiers, and citizens alike.
“Don’t be nervous. It’s just the world.”
The Titan laughed. No one laughed with him. They stared at him, a tiny Fraerling perfectly at ease. Then everyone remembered. He was the Titan of Baleros. And suddenly, the stage seemed fitting for him, if no one else. Niers Astoragon walked forwards. And his eyes found his students. Not just Umina and his private class. All of them.
“If this is enough to scare you, how can you call yourselves my students? Look at you. This is the world. This is everyone. Your enemies. Your employers. Your allies. [Kings] and [Queens]. Monarchs. They are watching. And look at you. Why are you shaking? It should be with excitement. You may never have a chance like this again. This is your chance to show what you can do in the eyes of the world. This is my gift to you. A stage to create your legend.”
His words swept across his audience. They stopped shaking. And they looked up and realized he was right. You might never get a chance like this again. Umina’s claws clenched. She heard Venaz growl.
“My people are watching me. I will not let them down!”
A rumble went through the crowd. Niers raised a hand.
“Yes. A stage fitting for legends to be made. But that only applies if the challenge is appropriate. So. Students. Audience—across the world. I know my trivial game of hide-and-seek might not interest you. But a game is only as good as the players. On one side you have my students. But for a game worthy of this moment, for legends to be made, I call upon a living legend.”
He raised a hand. And Umina heard a drumbeat. It rolled through the air. The people looked up. Another beat echoed. Niers spoke over it.
“For this year, I have but one seeker. Although I understand he has brought some of his company. To find my students as they try to hide, I give you one of my oldest students. He has come from the north.”
A drumbeat echoed through the air. Umina felt it roll off the buildings. Where had it come from? Behind? Ahead? She looked around wildly.
“He won this game, in years past. And though his company has many demands of him, he agreed to seek. You may know of him as the second-in-command to the Iron Vanguard. Equal in rank to the Titan of Baleros.”
Umina’s neck snapped around. No. She heard a laugh. Cameral was laughing. The Dullahan stared up the Professor. But Niers wasn’t laughing.
It was coming from the harbor. Umina looked towards the sea. There were buildings in the way of course. She wouldn’t—
Her heart skipped another beat. There, above the two-story buildings was something. A…piece of wood. And below it, canvas. No, cloth, dark grey. A sail.
But from so far away? And the buildings—the harbor! There was only one kind of ship large enough to be seen from this distance. A warship. And then Umina saw it wasn’t just one. She counted.
“One of my oldest students. Some may call him my finest.”
The Titan’s voice was faint, for once. The drumbeats kept echoing. Growing louder. A rolling beat. Like thunder. And now Umina heard something else.
Footsteps. Marching, the sound of hundreds, thousands of feet striking the ground in rhythm. No—not just heard. Felt. Was the ground shaking?
“Move back, soldiers.”
Niers pointed. Umina saw the Forgotten Wing soldiers near one entrance of the square reacting. Grabbing at their weapons; they looked up at the Titan’s voice and backed up. Fast.
Here they came. A wailing horn blew. The drums began to beat faster and faster. And the first rank of Dullahans marched into the square.
Dullahans wearing steel. Marching five abreast, moving in perfect formations, in two columns. They spread out, moving into two wings at either end of the other side of the plaza, across from Niers. They moved in step, their armor gleaming.
Like the beating of her heart, now. The drums pounded, drowning out all sound except for the marching Dullahans.
Then Umina saw a column of riders pass between the infantry. Their spears were raised. They rode forwards and the students backed up. The Dullahans marching on the ground suddenly stopped for a moment.
Then Umina saw some huge Dullahans stride forwards. Male and female, their armor as black as night, their heads secured to their bodies and covered by dark helmets. The Midnight Shield. Invisible in the darkness. Unstoppable in battle.
Elites of the Iron Vanguard.
And they flanked a figure who walked among them, at first invisible. But as he moved forwards, they spread apart and his armor shone. Silver and brilliant. A color beyond chromatic. He carried his head under one arm and Umina felt her heart skip a beat as she saw him.
And like that, the drumbeats stopped. The Dullahans came to a halt. The two columns flanked him as the riders formed an interior wall, holding up their spears. The Midnight Shields passed underneath, and he walked through ranks of his soldiers. The students parted; they couldn’t help it. Umina saw him pass by as the Dullahans in black armor passed bare inches from her. She saw dark skin, hair as pale as ash. Eyes as silver as his magical armor.
Niers’ voice was quiet as he spoke.
“My students, please welcome your opponent for these games. I see he has brought his company.”
More and more Dullahans fell in behind him, filling the plaza. Not all Dullahans; here came a platoon of Lizardfolk. [Mages]. Adventurers, moving out of synch with the rest. Niers looked down at the Dullahan in shining armor as he strode towards him. The [Strategist] came to a halt as his soldiers parted. He walked forwards and raised his head.
The Titan bowed slightly. Then he looked around. His eyes found the [Mages] of Wistram, pale and silent. The petrified citizens of Daquin. The waiting Dullahans. Perorn’s burning gaze as she stared at the Dullahan, Niers’ former student. And then Niers looked at his students. He smiled slightly.
“The second-in-command to the Iron Vanguard. My former student. A victor of this humble game in years past. You may know him as Tulm the Mithril.”
She knew he was coming. The instant Niers had said the Iron Vanguard, Perorn had known who it had to be. Their second-in-command. The [Strategist] who commanded the entire Great Company. The one answerable only to the Seer of Steel. The most legendary [Strategist] on the continent short of the Titan.
He marched with his army as they filled the plaza. Unlike Niers’ soldiers, who had stood to attention, the Dullahans marched in perfect formation. Their armor gleamed. But it was him that Perorn was looking for. She only realized he was there when she saw the Dullahans moving.
The [Soldiers], the citizens of Daquin, even the students like Cameral bent as he appeared. They knelt, removing their heads like helmets, turning them up while their bodies bent down. To look. To stare. It was unconscious. And even among Niers’ soldiers, the Dullahans bent.
They couldn’t help it. Unlike Niers, he didn’t hold back his presence. He didn’t hide it. Tulm didn’t hide who he was.
There. A flash of metal. A color brighter and somehow deeper than silver, a radiance you couldn’t find in common metal. Magic, wrought into armor. His entire body was made of it. Worth more than any [King]’s ransom.
Tulm the Mithril. Perorn felt a shudder run through her body. Her back right leg screamed. She reached for her sword and then caught herself. Then she felt the crushing presence.
It wasn’t just the Dullahans. Behind the Titan, the ranks of teachers and Perorn felt it. Like a weight on their shoulders, a pressure. Compelling them to kneel.
There were [Kings] without this kind of force. Perorn looked to her side. A Lizardwoman gritted her teeth. She was a [Brigadier General] over Level 30, but she was still sweating. By her side, a Gnoll’s knees were buckling. Perorn growled at him.
The others looked at her. They locked their legs. But as he drew nearer, the pressure grew stronger.
“It’s—like the last time I saw him—”
A Drake gasped. His scales were pale. Perorn stared at the approaching Dullahan. Exactly like the last time they’d met. She had to fight not to grab her sword, to charge him. She raised her voice, ignoring the drumbeats.
“Hold your ground. If one of you bends a knee, I’ll run you through myself!”
The others tried. But they were slipping. Out of the corner of her eye, Perorn saw one of the Wistram [Mages], the Centaur, kneel. None of the students were doing it; he was only directing his aura at them! Perorn bit her lip.
The Titan turned. He’d been staring at his old student. He saw his teachers, his people struggling. He stared at Perorn and then looked forwards. His gaze locked with the approaching Dullahan.
“Kneel? You are my [Strategists]. Don’t you dare.”
That was all he said. But at once, the pressure on the group behind him lifted. Perorn saw the Lizardman stumble and felt the weight lift off her shoulders. She stared at Tulm the Mithril, then at Niers. He still had a ways to go. Would it be appropriate to…?
No. But he didn’t deserve it from her. Perorn broke ranks. She trotted forwards to Niers and bent.
“You called him. Are you mad?”
The Titan looked up at her. He spoke quietly; amid the beating drums, Perorn would be surprised if anyone else could hear, listening spells or not. The Wistram [Mages] were still pinned by his aura, anyways.
“Not yet. But you can see why I didn’t tell you who was joining the game. You would have refused. Foliana certainly did.”
Perorn’s hands clenched. She pawed the ground, staring at the Dullahan. He was looking at her. Her and Niers, his former teacher.
“If I had any notion—what are you thinking? That Dullahan? He’s—”
She bit her lip. He was Niers. If the Titan was the most famous Fraerling in existence, Tulm the Mithril was an equivalent existence. Niers raised an eyebrow.
“The Centaurs have you, don’t they?”
“Horseshit. He’s the second most important figure in the world to Dullahans outside of the Seer of Steel. If he’s to Dullahans—you might as well bring Archmage Nailihuaile here from Wistram, and the Bannermare over here as well!”
“I did ask. They both declined. Which surprised me in both cases. You know how they like to cause a scene.”
Perorn glared down at Niers. He hadn’t turned to look at her. He and his student were engaged in a staring match and neither one was blinking as the Dullahans marched towards him. The students were parting in front of the Dullahans like sheep in front of wolves.
“You did ask, didn’t you? I shouldn’t have expected anything less. This is cruel. Even for you.”
“Why? This is just a game. A game of hide and seek. I just chose a good opponent.”
The Titan spoke dreamily. Perorn stomped a hoof and he looked up. Fleethoof stared at the Titan. And Tulm the Mithril closed on them.
“He was the one who took away my leg. Why did you bring me here, Niers?”
Niers Astoragon looked up. A tiny man. Then he looked at Tulm the Mithril, leading an army into the city. And Perorn saw him smile bitterly. And she remembered how he felt about his student.
She thought nothing he could say would stop her from leaving. From attacking or—but she was wrong. The Titan of Baleros looked up and gave Perorn a slight smile.
“To have a good day.”
They met in silence. The Midnight Shield slowed, and the armored Dullahans paused about twenty feet in front of the Titan. To get any closer might as well be an act of war. Trust only ran so far.
Then again, he was as dangerous as his escort. More so. Tulm the Mithril walked forwards. Niers waited for him. He could hardly leave his wooden pedestal. By his side, Perorn tensed. Her eyes locked on Tulm and her arm strained as it didn’t quite reach for her sword hilt.
Tulm paid no attention to her. He was staring at Niers. He halted a few feet before his old teacher. And Niers Astoragon gave him a bow. First. And it was a proper bow, not a simple nod of acknowledgement. It might have meant nothing to non-Dullahans. But Perorn and the Iron Vanguard watched. And there was an imperceptible shift in the ranks of the Dullahans behind Tulm.
Satisfaction. Perorn followed Niers’ example, gritting her teeth. Tulm waited a beat and then bowed back. It was a copy of the Titan’s bow to the last centimeter. Then he straightened and spoke softly.
“Are we equals, then, teacher?”
Perorn tensed. It was the same voice! The same tone, even. But Niers held up a hand and the [Galewinds Strategist] held herself in check. He answered casually, in a tone that was almost playful.
“I don’t see how I can look down on you anymore. You’ve grown up, Tulm. Your armor’s quite nice.”
The Dullahan had put his head on to bow. Now he took it off and held it under one arm. His head spoke back, eyes looking Niers up and down calmly.
“So you’ve said before.”
“Did I? Time plays tricks on me. The last time we met was across a battlefield, wasn’t it? I didn’t congratulate you on your victory, then.”
“No. You did not.”
The two stared at each other. Niers bared his teeth. You could charitably call it a smile. He held out a hand, politely indicating the furious Centauress next to him.
“May I introduce Perorn? You recall her.”
Tulm’s silver gaze flicked to Perorn. She spoke one word, infused with over a decade of…everything. Her back right leg had stopped hurting. It felt as good as the moment it had before he’d hamstrung her.
They met gazes once. And then both looked away. Any longer and one would have gone for their weapon. Perorn had a curved shamshir. Tulm wore a mace made of mithril, enchanted to hit like a sledgehammer. But his true weapon was a halberd. Niers clapped his hands together as if neither Centaur nor Dullahan were imagining gutting the other.
“I see the hosts of the city are getting nervous. Tulm, as the reigning champion of hide and seek, I hope you can win without turning half the city to ash this time. Hopefully your advanced experience and levels means you can seek without destroying.”
He looked sardonically at Tulm and the Dullahan turned his head back to Niers. He smiled coldly.
“It is not my intention. But tell me. Why am I truly here, then, teacher?”
The Fraerling gave Tulm a blank look.
“You didn’t read my message.”
“I read your message.”
“It specifically stated that this was my competition—”
Tulm leaned forwards. He raised his head to meet Niers and spoke flatly.
“You called me here. Over two thousand miles, with a letter sent into the heart of the Iron Vanguard’s mightiest stronghold with highest priority, by one of the best Couriers in the world. As if it were a declaration of war.”
“I hope it didn’t bother the Seer of Steel unduly.”
Tulm didn’t blink. He stared at Niers, as if his old teacher were a puzzle to be unraveled. With an axe.
“You had to know it would throw all of Baleros into chaos. The other Great Companies and half the continent waited to see what your letter meant. All this, for a child’s competition.”
The Fraerling [Strategist] shrugged.
“What can I say? I like my games. And you must agree, this time is different.”
He gestured to Teura and the other [Mages], who were trying to eavesdrop and finding their spells were unraveling around the trio of [Strategists]. All they could do was stare and let their viewers try to read lips. Incidentally, the price of those with lip-reading Skills or the talent had gone up exponentially in the last few minutes. Tulm shook his head with his hands.
“The world now looks through a hundred thousand eyes. Do you fear it? I thought you would rejoice, teacher. But you look disturbed.”
“I enjoy Wistram’s company, Tulm.”
“Ah. I see. So is it just for this that you called me? More sport, my greatest of teachers?”
Niers paused. He stepped forwards, to the edge of his little platform and Tulm bent forwards. Niers smiled with his teeth until the two were very close, and then both turned their heads away from the three Wistram [Mages] slightly. The Titan whispered up at Tulm the Mithril while still smiling as the silent crowd watched.
“Tulm, are you trying to annoy me by calling me teacher every two seconds?”
“Are you going to continue avoiding my question? Teacher?”
The two stared at each other. Tulm spoke softly.
“If you want me to crush your new students in front of tens of thousands, I will. And I will show them exactly what the difference is between me and them. A harsh lesson, even for children. You could have sent Fleethoof against them if you wanted to test their mettle. I will not be so kind. You tempted me here, but I do not intend to play your g—”
He paused. The Dullahan stared down at Niers Astoragon. The Fraerling’s face was too tiny for anyone but Tulm and possibly some of the Midnight Shield to see clearly. And he was grinning. He was giving Tulm a grin from ear-to-ear, his eyes as wide as they could go, his teeth bared. Unblinking.
The Dullahan and Fraerling stared at each other for one long minute. Then Niers spoke, his eyes still opened wide as could be.
“Go ahead and crush them. I want you to try.”
Tulm hesitated. He looked down at his former teacher. Niers stared up at him. And the expression on his face.
You could call it a smile. He spoke very slowly.
Umina had thought the Professor couldn’t surprise her any further. After the Wistram [Mages], she thought his reveal might not surprise her. But he had. He always did.
Here he was. Out of the blue, as if Niers had summoned him. A Dullahan wearing armor made from a metal rarer than gold. A magical substance. Mithril. The kind of gear a Gold-rank adventurer would jump for joy to obtain. And his armor was made all out of it. It wasn’t an alloy. It shone with an inner light. But it was the Dullahan’s face Umina couldn’t take her eyes off. As he walked towards the Titan, putting his head on his shoulders, she stared at his back.
The second-in-command of The Iron Vanguard. The greatest [Strategist] of the Dullahans.
Tulm the Mithril.
Umina’s head was ringing. In a trance, she saw Tulm bow slightly to Niers. She saw him look up at Perorn, and saw her reply. He was speaking—she didn’t hear any of it—it wasn’t meant for the audience to hear. Like everyone else in the plaza, Umina was transfixed. Then Tulm the Mithril turned and he squashed her.
Just like that. Like a bug. The Dullahan ran his gaze across the students and smashed them flat. With just a look. Umina knew there was an incredible gap between her and the Professor. But Niers Astoragon was the kind Titan of Baleros, her teacher. Tulm the Mithril was—
Terrifying. It felt like he was reaching into Umina’s chest. She couldn’t breathe. She was supposed to fight that?
Marian was shivering as she held Umina’s arm. Venaz had frozen in place, his arms still folded. Umina looked around, for anyone who could—she couldn’t meet the Dullahan’s eyes! Cameral was still kneeling. Feshi was growling, biting her lip, looking down. Yerranola was making retching sounds in the back of her throat.
And Wil? He looked sick, but he met Umina’s eyes as she glanced at him. He nodded slightly. He’d known! How? There must have been clues. The Professor had probably left hints, but only Wil had picked up on it. No wonder he’d looked sick. How was he going to—how was she going to—
Oh, Nagas save me. I’m going to embarrass myself in front of the entire world. I wasn’t prepared for this!
Forget hide-and-seek. Forget that it was a game. No matter what they played, it was unfair. There he was, standing at the head of an army of Dullahans! There had to be at least another thousand in the square! And him! Umina took another glance and shuddered.
Tulm the Mithril. One of the greatest pupils of the Titan to have ever left his school. He’d beaten his teacher on the battlefield. He’d crippled Fleethoof’s leg. He’d killed Goblin Lords, brought armies to ruin and leveled one of the oldest Lizardfolk cities in the world in a week-long siege. They said he could destroy a Walled City if his company were to ever come to Izril.
They said he’d killed a Dragon. But Dragons were just a myth, a distant rumor. But they said he’d killed one. And a myth stood in front of them now. The students in the plaza looked down. They shook. If Niers had shouted ‘begin!’ half of them wouldn’t have even known what he meant. All thoughts of the game were gone from their heads. Before the game had begun, they’d lost.
“Ahem. Thank you, Tulm. You know how to make an entrance as always. My students, citizens of Daquin, and…everyone else, I introduce your seeker. Tulm the Mithril. I won’t forestall the game any longer. Without further ado, let me tell you the conditions of the game.”
Umina looked up dully at Niers as his voice echoed through the square. He wanted to talk about the game? His voice was just a distraction from Tulm as the Dullahan stood on the Titan’s left, Perorn on his right; Umina couldn’t meet his gaze, but she couldn’t look away from his armor. It was hypnotic. Painful. Traumatizing.
“The rules are simple. You know them well. You hide. Those who are caught and subdued—firmly subdued—have lost. They may not rejoin the game even should they break free. To ‘win’ this game, one need only refrain from being caught. But that isn’t true victory, is it?”
Niers chuckled. There was no response. Without missing a beat, the Titan went on.
“To be the first to win this game and claim the prize, the rule is simple. You will all leave and have half an hour to hide within the city. My soldiers and the Iron Vanguard will lock down the gates and harbor. And indeed, they will continue guarding the gates and harbor thereafter, but the rest may be deployed by Tulm as he wishes to find you all.”
Stop talking. It doesn’t matter. Umina focused on Niers. She couldn’t get his voice out of her head. It was writing itself into her memory, despite the oppressive feeling of Tulm’s presence. Part of her whispered—was Niers using a Skill, too? If so, Tulm had the stronger presence.
“Pay attention, please. I will not repeat myself. And you will all be running anyways. Because to be the first to win, you must simply return here. To this area of ten feet by ten feet around me.”
The Fraerling waved a hand.
“I’ll outline the area with chalk or rope. It needn’t be precise. But simply return here, by magic, or air, force or treachery and you win. Naturally, Tulm will attempt to keep you at bay as best he can. But the one who reaches me first wins. Simple as that. If no one arrives by sundown, well, there is no victor. Those who escaped till the end will have won a small victory, but not the full prize. Is that clear?”
It was. And Umina would have rejoiced before, because she could have won. But not against him. Silence fell as Niers waited for a response. And one came, from Tulm himself. The Dullahan spoke softly, and like Niers, his voice was amplified.
“Teacher. Do your students have the heart for your game? It seems my presence has dismayed them.”
Tulm’s voice was dry, deeper than Niers’. And commanding. Oh, yes. Calm and cold precision filled every word and it made the raucous sound die away at once. Tulm the Mithril looked at his old teacher. Umina shuddered. He was right. But Niers Astoragon just looked up at his former student and shook his head.
“What, are you suggesting I cancel my game, Tulm? I quite enjoy it. And my students wouldn’t have come all this way to forfeit out of hand, surely.”
He looked around. And his students tried to answer him. But Umina’s jaw was locked. She saw Venaz clenching and unclenching his hands, sweating. Tulm looked around. Umina looked down as the eyes swung towards her.
“It would be embarrassing, certainly. But I look around and think you overestimate this generation, teacher. Can they answer me? Even one? Without you to bolster their courage with a Skill, that is.”
He swept his gaze over the crowd again, at the paralyzed students, at the kneeling Dullahans. And Umina saw the flash of challenge in his eyes before she looked at her feet. So that was it. He wanted to embarrass Niers. If the Titan didn’t use a Skill to fight back, they’d be crushed. And his game would end. So he’d be humiliated in front of a watching world.
And it would be their fault. Hers. Umina strained, but she couldn’t force her head up to meet Tulm’s gaze. She tried. She saw blood running down Venaz’ leg as his fingernails dug into his flesh. But he didn’t say a word either. And what could Niers do? All he had were words.
“They cannot answer me, Teacher.”
The Titan’s voice snapped in Umina’s ears. But it was fainter now. He’d stopped using a Skill. She saw him, tiny, in her peripherals. Tulm was looking at him. But Niers wasn’t looking at his student. He spoke loudly, without a Skill. With just words.
“Your trouble has always been that you rely on Skills and levels, Tulm. And yes, you have as many levels as any two of my students combined, most likely. So what? My students will answer me. Not for my sake. But because I’ve set the stage.”
Look up. Look up! He’s waiting for you! Umina fought. She heard a groan from Marian. But her neck didn’t move. Niers went on. And suddenly, his voice was burning. The lighthearted, conversational tone he’d used all this time was gone. He spoke louder, even angrily, like he would when he was shouting from his lectern, at Venaz, at her.
“A watching world. A secret answered. Victory over their peers. And you, Tulm. Who some call my greatest student. Tulm the Mithril. The most famous [Strategist] on the continent besides myself. Perhaps you don’t know why I called for you. It’s because I can’t attack my students without mercy. But you can. Is it unfair, to put untried children up against you? Of course. But if life were fair, what would be the point of striving? So I’ve given them this. My gift. A challenge for them to rise to. If they cannot, they aren’t the brave young people I see every day. If they can’t, I should retire here and now. Because they can.”
She still couldn’t do it. Umina was biting down so hard she felt her lip bleeding. And Niers’ voice sang in her ears as Tulm pressed down.
“My students exist to surpass me. One of them will, someday. They surprise me every day. I refuse to believe levels would hold them back. I refuse to believe a simple Skill could keep them silent. When my students graduate, they will take their place on the battlefield. And when they fight, they will take their opponents to the depths of hell, be it an Archmage, a Lord of the Wall, the King of Destruction, or Tulm the Mithril himself.”
Umina looked up. Shakily, past Tulm. Her ears were ringing, but she heard Niers above it. She would have heard him if she were deaf. He was looking around, at his students. From face to face. He was looking straight at Umina.
“You are afraid. I would expect nothing less. You’re not fools. But don’t let history stop you. Don’t let names or fame hold you back. You may be students, but you’re my students. Someday you’ll clash with legends. Someday, perhaps, you’ll be my opponent. And that moment will be the same as this. When that day comes, there’s no excuse I can give you, or you to me. There’s no saying that you weren’t ready. So. Here is your opponent. Do you have the courage to face him?”
Click. Umina felt her teeth meet. She spat blood. Then she stood straighter. She drew in a breath of air. But he shouted before her.
“I do, Professor!”
Wil raised his hand. And he bellowed the words at the Dullahan soldiers, at the others, and at Tulm the Mithril. That bright gaze fixed him, but Wil didn’t step back. He was only looking at Niers.
“I can. Give me the chance and I’ll win.”
Umina shouted. She saw the silver eyes staring at her, but she stared at the mithril armor defiantly.
“In a game of hide in seek. In a war game. Across a chess board. I’ll take on any opponent. I’ve played the Titan himself and won.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. Then a roar. Umina jumped as Venaz raised both arms.
“I am Venaz, from the House of Minos! I challenge you, Tulm the Mithril! I’ll take the Titan’s prize, my oath on it! Bring forth the entire Iron Vanguard and I swear our class will still claim victory.”
He pointed towards the Dullahan. Tulm blinked. And like that, the spell broke. Marian reared up, and uttered a war cry that came from both lines of her heritage. Feshi howled. And the students stood up and screamed their answer from a thousand throats.
Umina was already yelling. Venaz bellowed louder than the others, but Marian was shouting next to him. The people of Daquin watching from their windows and roofs shouted as well. Centaurs stomped their hooves and Lizardfolk shrieked. Dullahans pounded their armored hands together. And they were shouting down at the students. At her. Umina realized she was raising a hand. And the Titan was looking at her.
Wil. Umina. Venaz. Marian. Feshi. Jekilt. Yerranola. Cameral. Xelic. Merrik. Tefret. Over two hundred and fifty students shouted and cheered. And Tulm the Mithril watched. At last, he turned to Niers.
“So it seems we have a game. But tell me, teacher. You told me I had a reason to participate. And I see no opponent worthy of my striving.”
His gaze passed contemptuously over Venaz. The Minotaur roared and slapped his chest. The Dullahan was speaking loudly, but even his voice was nearly drowned out by the cheers. They were endless. And despite Tulm’s presence, he had no sway over the crowd.
His armor shone. And he’d brought an army to hunt for him. But the Titan of Baleros had called them his students. He had dared them. And for him, they could at least hide from an army.
In this moment, if he shouted ‘charge’, they would have fought the Iron Vanguard there and then. But the Titan wasn’t so bloodthirsty. This was just a game.
But the stakes had never been higher. They were for pride. Pride in their teacher, and truth. And then the Titan added to them. He spoke, his voice echoing down the winding streets and across the port waters.
“That is quite true, Tulm. And I suspect there are few things you could ask that the Seer of Steel wouldn’t be able to answer. Or you yourself. So this year, and in honor of our audience…”
He shot a sardonic glance at the [Mages] from Wistram.
“…and yourself of course, I’ve decided to add another incentive. To the student who reaches me first, in addition to the usual reward, I will give them a suitable gift from my vaults. A prize unlike any other, from the Titan of Baleros. My oath on that. And if you’re not satisfied, you may take any sword, and piece of armor, any artifact you wish short of—”
His words cut off at the second roar of sound. Umina gaped. Any weapon? Short of one of the best artifacts. But the Forgotten Wing company had an armory any Gold-ranked team, no, any Named Adventurer might drool over! And a personal gift?
Tulm’s arms were folded.
“And if I catch them all? Before sunset?”
He glanced pointedly up at the sun, still rising in the sky. Niers smiled.
“If no student reaches me, then I suppose I’ll owe you a gift.”
He met Tulm’s eyes again. The Dullahan stared at his teacher. Then he turned his back.
“And that justifies my journey? The presence of my company?”
He gestured at the waiting soldiers. Niers spoke with a silkily smooth voice at the back of Tulm’s head.
“Of course. It will be suitable. Even for Tulm the Mithril. A gift even the Seer of Steel would envy. You have my word on that. If you wish, I’ll give it to you publicly. With a bow wrapped around it.”
Tulm turned his head on his shoulders. And this time the silence was profound. Everyone’s mind was racing.
What kind of gift would impress Tulm the Mithril? And then a thought hot on the heels of that—what will I get if I win?
Niers shattered the silence with a clap of his hands. Which, magnified by his spell, was like the sound of rocks shattering. The crowd jumped as the Titan faced forwards.
“Well then. Enough wasting time. Dead gods, we’ve spent far too long on this. Everyone knows the rules. Students! You have half an hour to hide. No one else is allowed to move from this plaza. This game ends at sunset. Or when someone reaches me. Begin.”
This time Niers didn’t bother clapping his hands. He just stood in place. The students stared at him. The Titan’s eyes twinkled.
“That’s seven seconds already elapsed. My, you’re all confident.”
And then they realized the game had begun. Umina whirled. She saw Venaz glance at the sky.
The students nearest the edge of the plaza were already turning and running. Umina saw a Centaur leap over the heads of the crowd nearest him; a Garuda took wing. The Lizardman she’d spotted earlier slipped past a line of Dullahans; his Dwarf friend didn’t bother and charged through, knocking several to the ground.
“Run for it!”
Yerranola was the first to run in her class. She leapt up, bounding up over the heads of the other students and then sprinting faster than Umina had ever seen her go in her life! The Selphid had to be Rampaging! Already?
“Watch for the Dullahan [Mages] everyone! I think—haekcho!”
Feshi bounded after Yerranola. She was sneezing hard and Umina saw one of the Dullahans was pointing at their group. The others looked like they were waving their hands. A spell?
“No spells during the hide-and-seek phase!”
Niers bellowed and the Dullahans stopped at once. His words provoked the rest of the students to take off. And desperate alliances were forming even in the chaos.
“Cameral, team up!”
A Dullahan girl snapped at Cameral. He fastened his head to his shoulders as he ran, thudding past Umina. She looked around desperately; now everyone was shoving to get free. Venaz hurled a Drake aside as he ran for the nearest alley. Umina’s head searched left and right. Where was—
She shouted desperately. Someone seized her from behind. Umina shouted, but Marian flipped the Lizardgirl onto her back.
The Centauress had done a quick circle to gain momentum. Now she galloped ahead at full speed. The students ahead of her could get out of the way or be trampled. The Centaur shouted as Umina clung to her midriff.
She accelerated. Umina felt wind blast her in the face and saw the Centaur shooting towards a group of Dullahans from the Iron Vanguard. They took one look at her and scattered, abandoning their formations. Marian raced down a side street, a three hundred foot dash in three and a half seconds. She slowed as her Skill ended—but the ground still flashed past Umina. She screamed at Marian.
“Go straight! We’re going to the harbor!”
The Centaur raced ahead. A few students made it into their street as Marian raced down it; some stopped where they were, looking for nearby places to hide. Others took off, going as fast as Marian and Umina. But not too far. Because victory lay behind them. It waited with the Titan as he laughed, waiting for his students to best the Dullahan standing to his left. His students ran with his words echoing in their ears.
They would be back. And they were going to win.
“It seems I’ve fallen into your trap once again, Professor. This feels…nostalgic.”
Tulm the Mithril stared at the flurry in the courtyard. He spoke absently, bitterly. Almost…fondly. The Fraerling was sitting on his wooden dais now that attention was off of him. The Titan paused in waving at some of his staff to look back at Tulm. But the gaze the two shared was anything but nostalgic. Niers reached into his bag of holding and pulled out a tiny folding chair. He sat down on it.
“You don’t say.”
The Dullahan slowly turned his head on his neck to stare at his former teacher. He stared at the chair. Niers pulled a stool out of his bag of holding and put his feet up. Behind him, the [Mages] of Wistram stared, capturing the scene for the world to see. The Titan, the running students. It wasn’t a war. It wasn’t important, but at the same time, it was.
The world watched. Perorn was glad none of the [Mages] were looking at her, though. The huge smile on her face was uncharacteristic as it was smug. Tulm glanced at the Centauress, then slowly put his head on his shoulders.
“My own fault. But this game is still mine. If you want a winner—I will win. I have three thousand soldiers if you permit me to command your forces.”
“I do. And pull the crew off those six warships while you’re at it. Fill the streets if you want to. Use [Mages]—I’m sure you can get some to teleport in to help you out. Excuse me, I asked for a lime drink. Something properly sour. No sugar, thank you.”
The Fraerling frowned at Councilman Ulli, who’d hurried over with the drink in one claw. The Fraerling frowned at the drink, which was in a thimble still essentially the size of a bucket for him.
“Terribly sorry, Lord Titan! I’ll get you uh—a fresh lime right away!”
The Lizardman turned red. Niers waved at him genteelly.
“It’s not a race, Councilman. Oh, and while you’re at it—a Centaur’s seat for Perorn unless she wants to watch somewhere else. And a drink? Tulm, will you have anything?”
“And I’ll watch somewhere else. Best of luck, Mithril.”
Perorn stared at Tulm’s back. He ignored her and the Centauress stormed off. Niers waited for his lime, reclining and watching the Dullahan. Tulm spoke absently at last.
“If Fleethoof cheats—”
He turned and raised a hand. The thimble bounced off Tulm’s palm and the sweet limeade trickled down the mithril. Tulm shook his hand. Niers sat back down. Tulm waited a beat.
“If Perorn or any of your people cheat, the world will see. But you brought those [Mages] here for that reason, didn’t you? I think I’ll decline your offer. My ships stay where they are and my crews likewise. None of your students will leave the harbor or the gates. I intend to catch them all and the water won’t hide them. First Armor Captain.”
A Dullahan, one of the Midnight Shields, stepped forwards and pounded on their breastplate. It was impossible to tell whether they were male or female with their helmets on. Tulm nodded towards the ranks of Dullahans.
“Send word to the fleet. Every [Soldier] aside from the ship crews is to disembark once the thirty minutes window has passed. Each warship will hold the harbor entrance and allow no one through; I want spotter watching the waters. The [Mages] will begin setting up wards—”
He hesitated and then glanced at the Wistram [Mages] before eying Niers briefly. The Titan looked up from accepting a second drink.
“Thimble? I have no idea, Ullim. You know where they get to. Maybe it fell down? Thank you. Nice and sour.”
The mithril-clad Dullahan frowned at the Wistram [Mages]. They were edging closer, and a few more were hovering on the outsides of the plaza.
“Focus on anti-teleportation spells at once. I want each entrance sealed to the plaza and watchers on the rooftops. [Mages] with net spells. No one will reach the Titan by air, ground—have a [Mage] begin sending signals through the earth to check for tunnels. And each squad is to activate anti-invisibility and anti-illusion countermeasures…”
He stared as Niers sat back. There was a bowl of candied nuts on his left, enough to feed the Titan for about a week, and some sliced fruits on his right. Niers leaned further back in his chair and sighed. Then his head came up and he blinked at Tulm.
“What? I’m waiting for the game to start. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when you can leave the plaza. Want some snacks? I could play a game of chess to pass the time.”
He grinned. Tulm stared at him expressionlessly, then turned. The Dullahan [Captain] followed him, already giving out orders. Niers drew his sword, sliced off some banana on his right, and took a huge bite. He sipped at his drink, sighed, and looked around.
The Iron Vanguard was spreading out in formation and his soldiers were hopping to Tulm’s orders, reluctant though they might be. The citizens of Daquin were being moved out of the way by the seekers, and some had gone to their houses. Others were staying out for a better look, even if it meant being clubbed by accident. He raised his voice and shouted as he spotted some of Wistram’s [Mages] casting spells he recognized.
“No [Mage] leaves the plaza until the time’s up! You with the wand over there! Try to leave with that [Invisibility] spell on and I will have you tarred and feathered as a sideshow!”
The [Mage] jumped and the citizens of Daquin cheered. Niers sat back as the [Mage] hurried out of the crowd. He looked around and caught Tulm staring at him again. Niers waved. The Dullahan’s expression never changed, but he turned around. And what was Perorn doing? Talking with what looked like a [Merchant]. Why?
Ah. Bookkeeping. The Titan waved a hand and made a signal; one of his Selphid [Spymasters] approached, with a sugar cube.
“Get me our [Diviner]. We did bring one, didn’t we? I want to know the odds as they come in, and any conversations we can intercept. Oh, and get me the good wine. My stock, and don’t let anyone stop you. Perorn can have it over my dead body.”
“Any bets, sir?”
“I’m afraid Wistram would notice. No. Just interception.”
The [Spymaster] nodded and vanished. Niers laughed. He sat back, had a drink, and gestured for Teura to approach. No chair for her though; she could bloody well stand. The Titan smiled as he watched the world focus in on Daquin and his students. It was going to be a very fun day.
For him, at least.
Luan stared at the city in the distance. He checked his map again, but Venaz had told him the name enough times. The City Runner, or rather City [Rower] stretched in his small single scull. He was already limbered up to be honest; he’d gotten up early, had a stamina potion, and rowed out here from the neighboring port city hours ago. He’d been waiting all this time to go in.
Now Luan almost wished he’d ignored Venaz and gone in sooner. Because the sleepy harbor of Daquin had exploded with activity. First a few galleys had appeared, and one larger ship and sailed into the harbor. Not too bad; it could have been a [Merchant] group, but Luan had spotted armor on too many of the crew. But he would have still bet he could escape all of them if need be. And he was going in, so what was the worry?
The worry was the six gigantic warships that had appeared out of the blue and charged into the harbor. Each one was massive and their crews were all Dullahan. Luan had been prepared to row for the horizon, but there hadn’t been any sounds of fighting. Just a few horns, those damned loud drums and now…silence.
But something was going on in the city, Luan was certain. The South African man checked his heartbeat. Too fast, but he was nervous. Again he debated cancelling, but his reputation was on the line. So were fifty gold coins. So he just held his breath and checked the sun.
“Almost time. Almost time…”
The little bag of holding was clasped firmly between his knees. Luan eyed the warships. They’d set up a perimeter around the harbor. That was clear enough. And Venaz had warned him something like this might happen. Well, Luan had a few options…the City Runner held his breath. Then he checked the sun, swore, and began to paddle forwards. Slowly at first.
“Well, here goes. Venaz, friend, if I die today…”
He looked down at the bright golden names on his arm.
“You’d better have that gold ready.”
Then he began rowing for Daquin. Just in time to see the Centaur and Lizardgirl racing across the docks.
Umina and Marian raced down the street. They’d taken a circuitous route, having gone the wrong way out the plaza first. But they were still galloping along, or the Centauress was. Umina clung to Marian’s torso as the Centaur slowed from their sprint, but she was still moving fast.
Ahead of them were only a few students; most weren’t heading their way, down a slope towards the harbor. Obviously the Iron Vanguard would be coming from that direction, but a few had taken the risk. Intelligently or not. Umina saw a Drake and Gnoll [Tactician] duo she recognized running down the street. The Drake was screaming at her friend.
“There should be a cover to the sewers somewhere on the street! Or a drain at least! Where is it? Is it covered beneath the dirt, maybe? Help me find it!”
The Gnoll shouted at her partner’s back.
“There aren’t any sewers, you idiot! That was your big plan!? I thought you had a brilliant idea!”
The Drake was horrified.
“No sewers? What kind of a primitive city is—”
Marian galloped past them. Umina peered over her shoulder.
“Don’t go too fast! There’s an incline! And take a left down this street! To the port!”
Marian turned her head, breathless, as she galloped.
“We’re sticking to the plan? But the Iron Vanguard’s ships—”
“So what? There are still others in port! Left!”
The Centaur swerved. The two broke out of the street and into the wooden pier. Umina swore as she saw the Iron Vanguard’s black vessels and grey sails. There were distant figures milling about on the decks.
“Oh, hells, Umina! They can see us from the harbor!”
“Back into the buildings, then! Use the smaller ships at the docks as cover! Pretend we’re going back!”
Umina dropped from Marian’s back. The two raced back behind a building and then came out, low to the ground, blocking their view of the Iron Vanguard’s warships with one of the smaller trading vessels anchored at the docks.
Marian panted; her withers were streaked with sweat. On a Centaur that meant the part of her body where her humanoid torso met the horse part of her body. Centaurs had weird anatomy. But Marian had raced across the city faster than almost anyone else, proving why her species was unmatched on the plains. [Knights] on warhorses were dust compared to a Centaurs on the charge.
“This had better work, Umina. We’ve got—”
“Twenty minutes left. We’re fine, Marian. We can do our fallbacks! Just hold on—hey! Hey up there!”
The Lizardgirl had led them to the side of a ship. Now she called up cautiously. There was a second, then a scuffle and a [Sailor] poked his head over the side. His eyes widened as he saw her.
“What’re you doing? And what in the name of krakens is going on in the city!”
“Haven’t you heard? The Titan’s game of hide-and-seek is going on!”
Umina hissed up at him as Marian gulped for air. She felt silly putting it that way, but the [Sailor]’s eyes widened.
“Of course we heard about that, but—Captain! Vexula! Ronny! Get over here!”
More [Sailors] appeared on the edge of the ship. Umina wished they wouldn’t be so obvious about it. They blinked down at the two [Strategists] huddled up against the side of their ship. One of them narrowed her eyes.
“Hang on. Don’t I know you…? What’s this about the city? We know the Titan’s having some kind of game, but where did those warships come from? That’s the Iron Vanguard! Is the city under siege or something?”
“No. Tulm the Mithril is taking part.”
Umina shot a glance over their shoulder. Every second they spent…she waved at the [Sailors], one of whom looked like a [Captain].
“Hey. We’ve got a favor to ask. My friend and I are trying to win this thing, but the Iron Vanguard’s going to be unloading soldiers in moments and searching the city! Mind if we hide in your ship? Please?”
Marian stared at Umina. She mouthed silently, something along the lines of ‘that’s your plan?’ But the [Sailors] just blinked at each other. Then one nodded.
“Of course! Let us get a rope! We’ll haul both of you up on the sly. Hey! Get those crates in the way! We’ll smuggle you two below decks and if any landlubber asks—well, no one’s getting on our ship, Great Company or not!”
The crew instantly went running. Marian blinked at Umina.
“How did you do that?”
The Lizardgirl just grinned.
“Know your audience. Remember the crowd? Look.”
She pointed. The first [Sailor] was already back. And as the others tossed down a harness used for horses for Marian, the Centaur noticed what had made Umina pick this ship. The crew, with the exception of Ronny, were all Lizardfolk.
“Umina, right? You’re doing us proud! The Titan’s personal class! You’d better win this one for us!”
The [Sailors] congregated around the two as they helped lift Marian, hiding them as the two disappeared below decks. Marian was following Umina shaking hands and touching tails as she smiled. The Centaur stumbled as she went down the cramped and to her, very narrow stairs; she was breathing harder even though the below decks were quite spacious.
“We need a hiding place. Can we move your stuff?”
“Sure, sure. Need a hand?”
“Just tell us when the Iron Vanguard moves in! And in the name of Nagas, don’t act suspicious!”
“Just don’t act unnatural! Get drunk or something!”
The [Sailor] brightened up and headed upstairs. Marian looked at Umina as the Lizardgirl checked the hold.
“We don’t have nearly enough to take on Tulm the Mithril’s soldiers. Your tripvine bag won’t work on the elites, Marian. We need a better plan and fast.”
“I’ve got gold. And some stuff in my bag of holding. Is the world…rocking to you?”
The Centaur replied faintly. Umina glanced up.
“We’re on a ship, Marian.”
“Oh. Centaurs don’t like being at sea. Or boats. Or small spaces, Umina.”
“Bear with it until we can go, Marian.”
“We could go now. There are better hiding spots.”
Marian danced in place nervously, then felt ill. Umina sighed.
“No. We hide here, at least for the first hour.”
“But if someone gets to the Professor before us—don’t you want to win?”
The Lizardgirl paused. She met Marian’s eyes and there was a fire there that made the Centaur forget her sea—her harborsickness for a moment.
“I do. And we’re going to win, Marian. But we need intelligence on how Tulm is moving. How many soldiers are on each street, whether he’s concentrating his forces or spreading them out—anyone who rushes the plaza right off will get caught. We need to wait for an opening.”
“But if we’re trapped in this wooden box—”
Marian gulped. Another Lizardwoman had come down. She eyed Marian and silently handed the most important object in the pair’s plan so far. A bucket. Marian immediately clutched it to her chest.
“Damned Centaurs. Get seasick on a rowboat in the middle of a pond. What can we do for you, Umina?”
The Lizardgirl smiled at the older [Captain].
“We could use eyes and ears, [Captain]. No one said we couldn’t ask for help. Can you put some of your crew out to let us know what’s happening?”
“Can do! Don’t worry, my crew’ll love to help out. No one’s getting on our decks. And—”
Both Lizardfolk winced as the boat rocked in a gentle swell and Marian promptly threw up.
“—don’t worry about your friend here. Or my decks. This is the most fun we’ve had in ages! Tulm the Mithril! And the Titan himself! You think we can win?”
Umina met the [Captain]’s eyes and got a grin. She reached out and patted Marian on the back.
“But first we hide. And wait. And we see what happens next. The Professor always says that information wins wars. That, and armies. We’re working on the second part.”
“Halt! The harbor is sealed by the Iron Vanguard company!”
The order came when Luan was a few hundred feet from the warships. He cursed, but he slowed and half-rose to shout back with hands cupped over his mouth.
“I’m a City Runner! I have a priority delivery! I can’t stop!”
There was hesitation aboard the warship. Except for war—no, even in war, City Runners were usually accorded immunity. The Dullahan aboard the ship called back.
“No entry! You will have to wait! If the request is urgent, the package can be relayed!”
“I don’t think that’ll happen.”
Luan muttered to himself. He stood up.
“I can’t deliver to anyone but the recipient! You know the Runner’s Guild rules! I can prove I’m a City Runner! I have my seal here!”
So saying, he paddled forwards. The Dullahan on board turned and paced up to what looked like the [Captain] or another officer. He came back and shouted after a second and Luan had closed maybe fifty feet.
“No entry! By order of Tulm the Mithril, no one is allowed into the harbor! Turn back at once!”
Tulm the Mithril? Luan had no idea who that was, but he sounded like someone important. Still, the City Runner had no choice. He pretended to go forwards at a decent rowing pace, as if he were putting his back into it.
“I have to make my delivery! Sorry, friends!”
The voice cut off and Luan saw the Dullahan gesture exasperatedly towards him. Some Dullahans approached with nets and began slinging them from the first warship to the one at anchor across from them. They were going to form an artificial wall! Luan grinned.
“Too slow! Here we go!”
He swung around the boat, then put his back to the warship. In the mirror, he saw the Dullahans pause, hoping perhaps that he’d given up. Not so; Luan had just gotten in the proper sculling position. He bent forwards, dipped his oars in the water and pulled. And he took off.
Luan saw the water heave as his agile craft shot left—not towards the gap between the first warship, but between another pair. The Dullahans blinked and stared for a moment—Luan was shooting across the water faster than they could run! He heard a cry from the Dullahans on watch.
“Dead gods! Put the nets down now! [Mages], stop that boat—”
Pull. Swing. Dip. Pull. Swing—Luan heaved and the force shot his scull out of the water. He felt the boat land and grinned. A net landed in front of him, which was really behind his scull—the Dullahans had misjudged how fast he was going.
“Is that a damned Courier?”
“[Mages]! Get over here now! I said—”
Pull! The oars didn’t send a huge splash of water flying; that was poor form. All of Luan’s strength went into the water and sent his boat flying. He saw someone pelting up the decks. But before the [Mage] could even get to the aft of the warship he was through the gap. He shot through the harbor as the [Mages] raced to the starboard of their ships. More nets, but he was out of range. But spells?
“No, no, no—”
Luan turned right. Something—it looked like a huge net made of spider webs—struck the water with a large splash next to him. The second spell was a ball of purple which imploded in the water, creating a whirlpool and trying to drag Luan in. He rowed furiously, dodged a third spell that looked like some kind of magical anchor, and saw the docks coming up fast. No time to slow—
The impact splintered the front of Luan’s boat and capsized him. Luan frantically grabbed at the pier’s docks as he surfaced and with bag of holding in hand, clambered over the side. He saw a ship full of Lizardpeople watching him with interest from their ship.
“Look at that Human go!”
“Is he a student? Good luck, Human!”
Luan heaved himself onto the docks, swearing and dripping with water. He stared at his broken scull, but it was too late for regrets. He saw the Dullahans on the warships pointing, but for some reason they weren’t chasing him! He decided not to chance it. If worst came to worse, he’d buy a ride back to Talenqual. Fifty gold pieces could buy him the scull of his dreams—or at least, a much better one.
“The Starlight Requiem. The Starlight Requiem—”
The [Rower] panted as he ran up an inclining street. The inn was close to the docks! He just had to go up two streets. He was prepared for anything or to fight through a crowd, but the streets were eerily empty. All he saw was a running Lizardperson—no, wait! Was that a Drake?— disappearing down one street. And then another empty street. And…windows with people staring down…
Luan slowed. He looked around. Every window in the upper floors was full of staring faces. Lizardfolk, Dullahans…they stared down at him. Someone shouted from above.
“Hurry up! Time’s nearly up!”
“Time? What time?”
The face looked confused. Luan looked around and his stomach was in knots. What had Venaz gotten himself into? He spotted a sign and raced towards it.
“The inn! Hello? Is anyone—”
The Runner pushed open the doors and staggered in. He took one look around. The [Innkeeper] looked up. He was a Dullahan and his body lumbered towards Luan like something out of a horror film while his head shouted from the counter.
“Oh no! You can’t hide in here! I can’t have my inn destroyed!”
“Wait! I’m looking for a Minotaur—”
“I sent him out too! No one’s hiding here! I get enough things broken with the [Sailors] brawling! Out! Out!”
“But where did he—”
The Dullahan chased Luan out; the man backed up fast and the doors slammed in his face. He looked around and grabbed at his hair.
“That goddamn—where is he?”
Venaz was nowhere in sight. And judging by the commotion, something was going on. Something bad? Luan stared up at the people in the windows.
“Did a Minotaur come this way? I have a delivery for him! I’m a City Runner!”
There was an ooh from above. Some of the watching citizens turned to each other.
“Should we tell him?”
“What if he’s on the Mithril’s side?”
“But a City Runner—anyone remember where he went?”
Luan ran down the street, looking around frantically. But no one was on the ground! It was as if—then he saw a group of [Soldiers] marching towards him. There were eighteen Lizardfolk and three Centaurs. They stopped as they spotted Luan. One of the Lizardfolk frowned.
“Wow. They suck at hiding. Is this really who’ll be commanding us? Hope this one’s a washout.”
The Centaur leading the group frowned. He was armed with what looked like a catch pole. Another Centaur had a long, curved stick much like a hockey stick, ideal for tripping people up. The Lizardfolk had nets, staves. And clubs. Luan gulped.
“I’m a City Runner. On a delivery.”
He held up the bag of holding and fumbled for his seal. The [Soldiers] stared at it. They looked at each other. The Lizardman scratched at his frills.
“Okay, that’s sort of smart. Do you think he’s telling the truth, though? Anyone can get a seal if you paid enough. Is it a student?”
The Centaur looked vexed. He stomped a hoof.
“Take anyone on the street! That’s what the Mithril said and we’re part of this game. You want to turn down ten gold coins?”
“When you put it like that—get him!”
Luan turned to run. The Lizardfolk and Centaurs raced after him. He heard galloping hooves and knew there wasn’t much point in running—Luan stopped with his hands up in front of a closed stables. He turned and Centaur bearing down on him reigned up.
“Sensible, Human. Look, if you are a City Runner, you’re in bad luck. If you don’t run, we won’t beat on you. How’d you get into the city, anyways? The gates are locked tighter than an Ogre’s ass.”
“How tight is that anyw—”
“I got in through the harbor. Past the warships.”
The Centaur looked surprised, then delighted.
“You got past the Iron Vanguard? Hah! So much for sea superiority. Alright, turn around and we’ll put some ties on you. You can sit in the plaza with the other captives; you might be the first one. The game’s just started. Shame you aren’t a student, though.”
“Game? What game?”
“You didn’t hear? Well—damn, we’ll let them explain. It’s just begun though, so you’re lucky you’re off the streets. It could get chaotic. Especially with Tulm the Mithril seeking. I heard that when he played against the Titan, he burned half a city down—”
Luan stared at the Centaur as the [Soldier] fumbled with some rope. The other [Soldiers] looked disappointed they couldn’t beat Luan up. They were chatting to Luan as a patrol of Dullahans came around the street. They were marching fast and armed like this group, but the way the Lizardfolk and Centaurs stiffened told Luan they were at odds, for all they were on the same side.
“We’re on your side, idiots!”
The Lizardfolk shouted back. The Dullahans marched over to them and the leader pointed at Luan.
“Is this a student? We’ll take him.”
“And steal the gold reward? We have him, thank you, [Captain]. Your [Strategist] may be in charge, but we can do our job.”
“I’m not a student—”
“Did you say the game’s started? I thought it was in two more minutes!”
The Centaur snorted as he pawed the ground, his group facing off with the Dullahans.
“Your time’s off. Lord Astoragon just called a start to the game! Think we’d cheat and—”
He broke off and turned. So did the Dullahans. And Luan. They stared at the stable doors. The muffled voice had come from there. Someone from inside spoke.
“Hah. Told you that timekeeping artifact’s utter trash, Tompha. Alright. I guess we’d better start this off.”
Luan threw up his hands and shouted.
“Start what off—”
The game of hide-and-seek, the Titan’s challenge, the competition in Daquin, started in earnest next to Luan. It started with a whumph of sound as the doors of the stable blew outwards. A group of eighteen students burst out of the stables, riding full-tilt on stolen horses straight for the plaza. The [Soldiers] turned to run after them and one threw a bottle. Luan turned and dove as he saw the glass break; he felt something strike across his back and try to unravel, but the tripvine missed.
As Luan rolled to his feet, he saw the [Soldiers] groaning and swearing in the middle of a tangle of vines. Another bottle broke and a pair of Dullahans dropped like stones; the soporifics vapors knocked out the audience in the apartment above. The students rode past them, shouting as a wall of Dullahans raced towards them. Towards Luan too. The [Rower] took one look at the students, the [Mage] hurling arrows made of light, the Dullahans with nets, and he ran for it. He was going to kill that Minotaur.
If he ever found him.
The explosion from the stables was audible even in the plaza. No one had been making a lot of noise before that. From his seat, Niers looked up and smiled.
“And so it begins. High Mage Teura, move that scrying orb closer, will you? And everyone else, stay out of the winner’s circle. I won’t have you interfering with the game.”
He waved at the group of teachers, onlookers, Wistram [Mages], and others clustered around the circle. They shuffled obligingly out of the way as the half-Elf [Mage] floated the scrying orb closer to Niers’ seat. She and Niers were the only two in the winner’s circle. Outside of it was a ring of Dullahans in black armor.
The Midnight Shield. They didn’t so much as budge at Niers’ order. And they would have really ruined his view of the game, but happily Niers had the scrying orb. And Wistram’s [Mages] had spread to every corner of the city to watch. That meant Niers could watch the game through the scrying orb with everyone else and see the action already in progress.
A group of eighteen students were racing down a street, barely two blocks away from the plaza. The view was from a rooftop, and Niers could actually see the [Mage] with this vantage point slowly tracking the action from above. He enjoyed this perspective immensely, although it did mean he sometimes saw himself in the scrying orb as the viewpoint shifted to Teura’s vision.
“Lord Astoragon, do you have any comments? It’s surprising to see your students moving so quickly, isn’t it?”
Teura spoke on Niers’ right hand. He shrugged and reached for a bit of candied nuts, then eyed himself in the scrying orb. He sighed, sat up, and spoke with a smile on his face.
“Not at all. They’re probably hoping to catch Tulm off guard. Boldness is a strategy in itself. And they’re on horseback. We should be seeing them—”
A clatter of hooves. The viewpoint switched back to the students. They were racing up a street. Niers watched them throwing alchemist weapons with abandon; one of them was casting spells. He chortled with delight.
“And here’s Tefret himself! A [Mage Captain], one of our graduates in fact. He’s pushing in hard. And I think the Iron Vanguard—excuse me, Tulm’s force—has underestimated my students. Money can bowl over even a regiment of battle-hardened Dullahans!”
It was true. The Dullahans had come armed to catch, not to block a dozen exploding flasks which showered them with oily slicks, sleeping gas, vines, and in one case, some kind of liquid that was apparently very painful to get into the eyes. The Dullahans backed up, calling for shields—which of course they hadn’t brought. Niers glanced up with a smile and saw the viewpoint flick to Tulm the Mithril, standing calmly next to a map of the city. The Dullahan glanced up and Niers saw his eyes in the scrying orb for a second. He spoke a single order.
“Southern entrance. Have the unit hold ground; the riders won’t reach them. Xol. Cut them off.”
In the scrying orb, the [Strategists] were racing towards a row of Dullahans. They’d outpaced everyone else and had blasted their way clear. The half-Elf, Tefret, was throwing [Light Arrow] spells from the tip of his wand, a veritable storm of magical bullets. But they weren’t deadly; they had the force of a hammer to the jaw at worst and the Dullahans guarding the plaza did have shields. They held their ground, holding behind the shields, refusing to buckle in front of the impact. The [Riders] refused to slow as well. They were aiming for the Dullahan wall, and Niers looked up and saw them at the entrance to the plaza.
“Confusing. Reality meets scrying orb.”
He shook his head and jumped up. Teura yelped as the Fraerling climbed up her arm and onto her head. Niers saw his students riding at him behind the wall of Dullahans just in time. They passed by a building and the wall exploded outwards. A fist grabbed a student off his horse and slammed him gently into the ground. Gently by comparison; the Human girl might have broken a few ribs. But the Dullahan [Juggernaut] who charged out of the side of the building could have squashed her and her horse like a bug.
“Dead gods! [Juggernaut]!”
The students screamed. Three horses reared—the gigantic Dullahan swept and hand and knocked all three students off with blows that were almost too fast to see. He was quick! And strong—he grabbed another horse as it ran past him and plucked the student off.
“We’re nearly there!”
The remaining students panicked. One threw a tripvine bag at the colossus wearing crimson armor with silver inlays. The [Juggernaut] caught the bag; it exploded in one hand. He lashed out and the student went flying. The Dullahan rose, high, higher, until he loomed above the horses below. Fourteen feet high; he had to have been crouching to have hidden. He charged forwards and the students scattered.
Niers heard a gulp from below. He looked down and saw the scrying orb had changed. A Drake sat in place, face pale.
“T-that would be—Xol of Ingrilt. Wouldn’t you say, uh, Sir Relz?”
A second Drake appeared in the picture. He was wearing a monocle and tapping his claws together rapidly.
“Indeed, Noass. Xol of Ingrilt, one of the largest and most famous War Walkers in the Iron Vanguard company. Often seen in the company of Tulm the Mithril’s personal vanguard, so it’s not surprising to see him here in one sense. In the other—deploying a War Walker in an urban environment is…and against students who might not even be Level 20? Some of them—I wonder if the Titan of Baleros would care to comment. We er, understand he is watching no doubt, and perhaps this development had caused him to reconsider his claim to ah—”
The image broke off. Niers saw another [Mage], the Centaur, edging around to stare at Niers standing on Teura’s head. He looked over and saw Tulm staring at him. Niers smiled and adjusted his voice so it boomed across the plaza to Tulm.
“Ah, Tulm. You only brought one?”
He was rewarded by just the slightest of changes in expression. Then Niers turned and watched the rest. He completely ignored the two Drakes trying to get his attention as the scrying orb flicked back to the action.
Tefret bellowed at the other students. Eleven raced away; Xol and the pursuing Dullahans had already knocked out seven. The Dullahans on the southern entrance to the plaza had formed a triple line; there was no chance of getting past them. And Xol was pursuing the others. The giant was outrunning horses, at least in the narrow streets. Xol whirled as Tefret charged him on horseback.
The [Mage Captain] leapt from his horse and slapped it to make it race away. He aimed his wand and pointed.
“[Storm Arrows of Light]!”
A hundred missiles shot from the tip of his wand, blasting outwards in a spiral. They hammered Xol as the Dullahan turned towards him. The [Juggernaut] didn’t bother to shield his face. He just charged, into the hail of magical arrows.
“Trees rot it all—[Aerial Burst]!”
The half-Elf pointed at the ground and leapt. The shockwave blasted him off his feet and into the air. He landed on a rooftop, sprinted across the top, and pointed down.
“[Sticky Webs]! [Water Geyser]!”
The webs shot down, hitting the giant Dullahan. A huge column of water blasted out after the webs, enough to knock several Dullahans down. Tefret leapt.
“[Featherfall]! [Hammer Kick]!”
He hit the ground lightly from the two story drop and kicked a charging Dullahan. The metal armor bent around midsection as the Dullahan dropped. Tefret whirled. He had to run! Time for another plan. Without using deadly spells, there was no chance of felling Xol. On the plus side, the [Juggernaut] couldn’t pursue him hard. If he ran—
The half-Elf sprinted for an alley. He stopped as his [Dangersense] screamed at him and halted. The wall exploded outwards and Xol appeared. His armor was wet and a few strands of webbing clung to the enchanted metal. Tefret looked up at him with a weak smile.
“Then again, I didn’t have a chance anyways, did I?”
Xol bent. The giant Dullahan tensed. Tefret raised his wand.
A hand grabbed him. The [Mage Captain] fired the spell into the palm for all the good it did. He went up and then slammed into the ground. His body didn’t break. The paved stone did. Tefret grinned up dizzily at Xol as the Dullahan stared down at him. The half-Elf croaked.
“I am a huge admirer of yours. May I buy you a drink?”
“Dead gods. Dead gods.”
The first encounter with the Iron Vanguard spread like wildfire across the city. Half the students creeping out of their hiding spots immediately retreated. The fire that Niers had lit under their bellies vanished.
“A [Juggernaut]? How are we supposed to beat that?”
A Drake grabbed her Gnoll friend and whisper-screamed in the apartment they’d hidden themselves in. The Dullahan watching out the window gave them a sympathetic look. The Gnoll [Tactician] was breathing heavily.
“I—I do not know. Dullahans should be slow, no? Maybe—”
“Slow? You saw that thing! It caught a horse! And it got Tefret like that!”
The Drake snapped her claws. The Gnoll nodded a few times. She licked her lips.
“Piccy, we may be outmatched. We are only in our second years. Maybe we should give up. The other students may be able to take on the Iron Vanguard. But we—”
“Give up? But we won’t get another shot for years! I knew we should have prepared more. I knew it. Oh, Ancestors, why didn’t we think? We can’t go outside. We go and we’ll get caught like that—”
Piccy snapped her fingers. She clutched at her neck spines and glanced at the window. Then she heard a pop.
A Dullahan [Mage] appeared in their room. He wore no robes; his armor shone like glass, a brilliant yellow stone mixed with dark black metal. He pointed at the Drake and Gnoll.
“Jump for it!”
The Gnoll went for the window. The Dullahan pointed as the apartment’s room owner fled.
A torrent of water shot upwards, engulfing both [Tacticians] in a moment. The Drake and Gnoll floated helplessly, choking for a few seconds before the Dullahan [Mage] levitated them out and into the air. The [Mage] paused to turn back to the other Dullahan who was staring in horror at the captured students.
“My apologies for the disruption, Miss. Please submit any water damages to the Iron Vanguard pending the conclusion of this exercise.”
Then he leapt and floated down the street. And the Wistram [Mage] had seen it all.
“How did they find them?”
Noass pounded the seat of his armrest, staring at the replay of the two [Tacticians] being caught. He turned to Sir Relz. The Drake was thinking.
“No doubt the two were giving off some kind of signal. But what? I have to think it was a [Scrying] spell employed by the Iron Vanguard’s mages. They must be looking for magical hotspots.”
“Can you explain, Sir Relz?”
“Naturally. Any artifacts that give off magic, any powerful spellcaster would show up under certain scrying spells. Those would obviously locate some of Daquin’s citizens, but more than a few students would easily be caught this way unless they have counter spells! This is—well, it’s effective, but is it sporting?”
“It certainly wasn’t for those two poor girls. Two of Izril’s own, gone like that! This really is a one-sided match so far. And what’s this?”
The image blurred. Daquin’s watch tower, at least eighty feet in the air, had a guest. That would be a Wistram [Mage], who backed up as she saw someone else climbing up. A furry, somewhat shaggy—the two Drakes stared.
“That’s no Gnoll. I know Gnolls and that is not a Gnoll. Sir Relz?”
“No…that has to be—”
The Fox Beastkin growled up at the [Mage] staring down at him.
She leapt sideways into the air, making an affronted sound as he shoved her aside. The leather-clad adventurer took no notice. He strung a longbow as he stood on the small tower, staring around. Then he took aim.
He pulled an arrow out with a shaped head, aimed it, and loosed in less than a second. The arow flew down, emitting a shrieking sound as the carved head caught the air. And when it landed, it detonated with a cloud of smoke. The running Centaur yelped as Dullahans converged on her location. The [Sniper] looked around and twisted.
“Got two. Twenty gold pieces.”
He loosed again, shooting an arrow through a window and pegging a Dullahan peeking out in the chest. She felt back as smoke billowed from the window. Noass and Sir Relz stared. The Drake with the spectacle spoke slowly.
“That would be a Gold-rank adventurer. Samile the Watcher, part of the Whisperstep band. It appears Tulm the Mithril is expanding his vision with him on the tower. Noass, would you have a chance of hiding against a Gold-ranked [Sniper]?”
“Not a chance, Sir Relz. And I would dare any Silver-ranked team to do better than these poor students.”
Both Drakes were nodding. Sir Relz looked back in the scrying orb, and fixed it with a stern gaze.
“Lord Astoragon, I’ll ask again since you appear not to be hearing me. Is this unfair?”
“Oh, shut up.”
Feshi growled at the image in the scrying orb. She was crammed into a root cellar. A very small, unfinished root cellar. But it was practically invisible even up close, the smell of the cellar would foil any nose, and the dirt provided some protection from scrying spells. As did the talisman tied to Feshi’s necklace of fangs. It was a gift from her tribe’s [Shaman] and she defied the Iron Vanguard to find her with their spells. She could even watch the scrying orb.
All in all, it was a wonderful hiding spot. The Gnoll had located it in a preparatory visit to Daquin. Feshi’s only complaint was that she hadn’t been the only one to find it. She shifted, and nearly collided with the person sitting next to her. Wil stared into his scrying orb and winced; another student was caught.
A Dullahan [Strategist] both he and Feshi knew had been beating a group of Dullahans back with a quarterstaff. He’d fought quite well—right up until Xol had charged into the alley and rammed him into a wall. The Gnoll sucked in her breath.
“This is not good, no? I expected a formidable opponent. Perhaps even Fleethoof herself as Umina predicted. But this is ruthless. As befits Tulm. Is there no hope?”
She looked unhappily at the Human crammed in next to her. She rather liked Wil, for all he was vaguely depressed most of the time and unconfident. Better that than arrogant like Venaz, though. But Feshi didn’t see a happy ending for either of them. She had a few tricks, but nothing that would work if everything was one-sided as this.
To her surprise, Wil glanced up at Feshi. And his eyes were alight with…emotion. It burned so bright that the Gnoll wondered if she’d gotten into the root cellar with the same Human. Wil even smelled different. The [Lord] and [Strategist] shook his head.
“We’re not done yet, Feshi. I’m not done. None of our class has been caught.”
The Gnoll met his eyes.
“No. This is true. Forgive my panic. But you have a plan. Or is courage enough?”
Wil was about to respond, but Feshi perked up one ear. She held up a paw and he went silent. The two [Strategists] held their breaths. They heard a muffled bark.
“Hunting dogs. We should be safe here. They can’t smell us. These roots stink.”
“How many tricks does this Mithril one have?”
Feshi growled. She smeared more half-rotten produce on her and Wil for good measure and heard him gag. The Gnoll shook her head.
“I can handle them even if they get near. But this is serious. This Tulm, he wants to beat the Professor rather badly, no?”
“He does. And he’s pulling out everything he has. Wouldn’t you?”
The Gnoll grinned.
“Only if it didn’t get me insulted. These two Drakes, I know them. They commented on Liscor’s siege and those moth attacks. One wonders if Wistram approached them to speak about this. It seems like an interesting job, yes? If only—”
“—they weren’t so stupid?”
Feshi blinked. Wil was staring down at the scrying orb. He glanced up.
“Sorry. They are playing the uh, fools. You know, the oblivious bit? I saw a comedy routine by [Jesters] back home like this.”
“You think they’re foolish?”
The Gnoll squatted to peer into the scrying orb. In the lull between more students being caught the two Gnolls were using a map of Daquin and talking about the various sweeps going through the city. There were at least three thousand soldiers on the ground, but the city was home to tens of thousands. Without magic or other devices, Tulm’s forces would be searching for weeks to find all of the students.
Then again, he didn’t need to find them all. There was only one way to win. And while Feshi supposed the Dullahan [Strategist] might be humiliated a bit by a less-than-complete victory, it was hollow for the hiders. Wil grimaced at the orb. He looked up apologetically.
“I thought that was what you were going to say. Don’t you agree?”
“Hrr. I don’t believe they’re underrepresenting our competition.”
“But we haven’t begun to fight yet.”
The Human looked up. And Feshi caught the same look in his eyes that had driven her people from northern Izril. That burning, indefatigable emotion.
And as he spoke, the viewpoint shifted. Wil and Feshi watched as a group of Dullahans swept down a street, moving into houses—after knocking first of course—checking each floor, keeping alert for [Mages] or the screaming arrows from the watchtower. They looked up and down the street. And then they saw them.
A group walking towards them down the street. The Dullahans relaxed. Another soldier group. Until they saw the Dwarf walking among them. That gave them pause. Then they saw the lack of uniforms and grabbed their blunt weapons.
The Dullahan [Sergeant] called out, smiling. Some of her [Soldiers] laughed. The group of students looked puzzled. There were six of them. A Gnoll, the Dwarf, Merrik, a pair of Centaurs, a Garuda, and Drake. Feshi didn’t recognize any of them outside of this morning. She stared.
Merrik, the Dwarf spoke. He had a greatclub over one shoulder. He looked at the others and they grinned. He shrugged at the Dullahan squad.
“If you like. Put your weapons down. Tie yourselves up while you’re at it.”
The Dullahans lost their relaxed postures. They formed up, coming down the street while the Dullahan relayed a [Message]. There were twenty four of the Dullahans. Six students. The Dwarf counted.
“That’s…hold on. One and a one fifth for you lot, eighteen for me. Got it?”
“Your math is terrible.”
“Bite me, Kelsa.”
The Dullahans looked at their [Sergeant]. He gave a curt order.
They charged across the ground. The Dwarf roared. He jumped forwards. The students charged. The Dullahans weren’t expecting that. Merrik brought his club up. The [Sergeant] had a shield in hand and a truncheon in the other. The Dullahan roared.
“[Ram’s Charge]! [Power Strike]!”
He shot past his men. Merrik slowed and brought up his club.
The two met with an impact that shook the street. Dullahans stopped and took cover as shrapnel from the paving stones flew in every direction. They looked up and saw a shape in the dust. Merrik stood over the Dullahan. The [Sergeant]’s armor was bowed in. The Dwarf bent and felt at his head anxiously. He looked up and nodded.
“Phew. Didn’t kill her. Didn’t know it was her, either.”
The Dullahans stared. They looked at Merrik as he sauntered forwards. One croaked.
“Oh. That. [Body of Stone], lad. And it’s [Giant’s Hammer], not [Hammer Blow]. I just like shouting fake Skills for fun.”
Merrik brushed at his tunic. The fabric flapped away, revealing something underneath. Steel. The Dwarf winked.
“You’re not the only ones with armor. Ready?”
And then he charged. The Dullahans braced. A pair of Centaurs leapt over Merrik and the [Sergeant]. Kelsa had a staff in one hands. She whirled it, struck a Dullahan over the top of his helmet and then under the chin. She danced sideways, kicked—a Dullahan caught the hoof and spun.
The second Centaur caught a catchpole on one leg and then a net across the chest. He kept running. The Dullahans shouted as the catchpole was torn loose from a hand. The three Dullahans holding the net skidded across the ground as the Centaur ran on. Then he circled and trampled the fallen [Soldiers]. Carefully.
“Forwards! For Oteslia and the skies!”
The Drake shouted. She flew forwards, and the wooden club carried snapped twice, striking hard enough to dent metal. Dullahans surged forwards. More were coming down the street! The Drake spun, hacking at those surrounding her. Then she opened her mouth.
The warning came too late. The Dullahans surrounding her shouted as a jet black fog burst from the Drake’s mouth. They stumbled out of the cloud, choking, and a few seconds later, the Drake strode forwards. She dispersed the fog herself, dragging out the Dullahans who’d inhaled the black smog and fainted. She whirled as a Dullahan clubbed her across the back of the head. He drew back his mace and a blunt wooden tip of a sword struck him between the eyes.
The head of the Dullahan bounced to the ground. The Gnoll tsked as she walked past the Dullahan [Soldier] as his body crumpled, unconscious. Dozens of Dullahans were swarming towards her. She left the rest of her group to fight the patrol.
The second group of Dullahans slowed slightly as she walked towards them. The Gnoll carried a rapier, or rather, a wooden imitation. Sturdy at the tip but still flexible, a bludgeoning weapon in the shape of the dueling sword. But however incongruous it was, it fit. The Gnoll’s hand glinted as she lifted the rapier. Her paws glided across the street, her stance never wavering.
A silver bell chimed on her paw. The Dullahans set themselves. Their [Lieutenant] drew a wooden sword. He charged the Gnoll, shouting for his men to surround her. The [Fencer] stepped in, her eyes gleaming.
“Fight’s going one way! Keep it up! And leave some for me!”
Merrik huffed as he ran to catch up after the scattering Dullahans. They were falling back, regrouping. He ran after one, raising his club over his head and shouting a war cry. A fist punched through the wall just over his head.
The Dwarf froze. He looked up as Xol tore a hole in the side of the wall. The [Juggernaut] looked down. He raised a fist and Merrik brought up his club, swearing. Xol swung, then leaned back mid-strike. He dodged the kick at his head. Xol lashed out again, with a jab that cut the air. He still missed her.
The Garuda back flipped through the air. She caught herself in the air and dove.
“Axe kick. Palm strike. Punch. Punch. Cross kick.”
She calmly pounded Xol across the chest, transitioning from the kick to punches and another kick. The [Juggernaut] struck again, but she missed. His armor rang with a second punch and the Garuda flew back. She landed and flipped sideways—a fist struck the stone.
She punched the arm before it withdrew. Merrik roared.
“Grandfathers damn it, Peki! Stop shouting your moves!”
“Move back. I can’t hold him long.”
The Garuda balanced on one leg, holding up the other claw-foot, her wings poised to take off, dodge or strike. A [Martial Artist]’s stance. One who fought on both air and ground. Xol stared at her. Then he charged.
Punch, left, right, up—the Dullahan slammed with his shoulder, hoping to hit her. But he missed. The Garuda spun past him and kicked the side of his head. Then she flew up and dove.
“[Aerial Dance: Waterfall Strikes].”
The Garuda vanished. A blur replaced her, striking its way down Xol’s armor. He raised his arms, guarding, staggering as the blows took him off-balance. Peki reappeared on the ground, panting. Her friends were retreating, fighting off the other Dullahans.
“You’re not very good without your weapons. You should have brought your shield at least.”
Xol righted himself slowly. He adjusted his head on his shoulders.
“I’ll reclaim it. Tell me. Who taught you how to fight like this?”
The Garuda smiled.
She flew at him. The Garuda struck Xol three more times on the chest and disengaged. Xol retreated, and Peki flew back towards her friends, who were calling for her. The Dullahans stared at their retreating leader. The Dullahan [Commander] looked up.
“Call in reinforcements.”
She slowly drew a potion and drank it. Her form blurred. The Dullahans next to her stared at their commander. A [Mage] uttered a spell and a Dullahan in front of him raised a glowing weapon. A Centaur from the Iron Vanguard company trotted forwards and drank a potion. Her skin and fur turned dark, glossy, like metal.
“Ah, hell. They’re buffing themselves. Time for a tactical retreat?”
Merrik eyed the advancing Dullahans, who were approaching in formation. He looked over his shoulder then ducked.
An arrow hit the ground where the Dwarf’s head had been. It burst and the students leapt back. There was a flash—Merrik emerged looking dizzy.
“Light spell. Faugh! Someone do something about that idiot! I can’t see! Cover me!”
His friends dragged him back. The Dullahans charged, sensing the weakness. Kelsa raised a hand.
The doors of the apartments opened up and down the street. And people poured out. Dullahans dressed in nondescript armor, holding polished clubs. They laid into the Iron Vanguard with considerably more expertise with the weapons. From an alley behind the Dullahans, a group emerged. Adventurers. The [Mage] in front pointed.
“Floor is hot! [Salamander’s Embers]!”
Fragments of a flaming, magical substance coated the ground in front of her. The other adventures set up. [Archers] and [Mages] began to fire arrows which exploded into sticky substances or hit with a nonlethal punch as the [Mages] cast similar spells. The [Warriors] strode forwards, wearing magical footgear and armor. They began beating down the Dullahans in the back row.
Merrik roared. More Dullahans were emerging from every side now; Tulm the Mithril had seen what was going on and was sending more reinforcements. But more students were arriving by the second, some leading groups.
[Thugs]. Adventurers. [Mercenaries]. Fighters for hire. Merrik pointed a club at the struggling Dullahans ahead of him.
“We need to clear this lot up and retreat! Everyone on me! I’m using my big one! [Battalion of Glory]! Charge!”
His club began to shine. The Dwarf charged, and his friends and the fighters on the street began to glow with that same light. They rushed the Iron Vanguard, and their roar seemed amplified by a hundred voices. They crashed into the Dullahans as the [Soldiers] fought to get back.
“Commander charge! Retreat!”
Too late. The adventurers and students took down the Dullahans from both sides. By the time Xol was marching back at the head of a massive force, the forty or so Dullahans on the street were unconscious, stripped of their weapons and items. And the students had retreated. They were instantly pursued, but the [Mages] found the adventurers were able to push them back. Three Dullahans went down, immobilized in short magical duels.
And the Gold-rank adventurer on the watch tower found a Garuda shooting up at him. He shot arrow after arrow at her and his aim knocked the [Martial Artist] out of the sky. A better matchup. Until Samile the Watcher saw the arrow flying up. He dodged sideways; the arrow exploded and the burst of air blew him screaming off the watch tower and towards the ground.
“The officer classes.”
Feshi and Wil stared at the other students in the orb. The Gnoll breathed the words out slowly. She looked at Wil.
“No wonder we did not recognize them. They aren’t new students. They’re the Professor’s officers, yes? Some of them are aspiring [Generals].”
Wil smiled. He stared at the retreating group, who had fled after Merrik’s Skill ran out.
“They’re all officers. They could have used [Strategist] support; that Dwarf used up his Skill in a battle they’d already won. Some of the others may join them.”
“Wait—look. Jekilt’s already doing that.”
The Gnoll pointed. In the rapidly changing orb, the two saw their classmate. Jekilt was leading a band of nearly fifty fighters through the city, fighting to link up with the others. Wil nodded.
“He must have called on a part of a company. Maybe his friends he keeps talking about.”
The Centaur was fighting with the Iron Vanguard, but like the others, he was moving fast. There were more students popping up around the city, but even combined, they had only a fraction of the Iron Vanguard’s force plus the Forgotten Wing [Soldiers]. But by the same token, the Iron Vanguard couldn’t use all of their soldiers without leaving the plaza exposed. Wil and Feshi looked at each other. The Gnoll bared her teeth.
“So you were right. What now. Do we go above?”
Wil’s eyes were fixed on the scrying orb. He glanced up through the slits in the root cellar’s trapdoor. And then he looked at Feshi.
“Listen to those Drakes. They’re fools twice now. They’re acting as if this changes anything.”
Feshi smiled crookedly.
“I agree. This is our teeth we’ve bared. But that Tulm, he has not used a single Skill. And I think—we had better keep hidden until we see what he can do.”
Wil nodded. Then his eyes flicked to the scrying orb.
“It looks like the Professor will give us a chance to see just what we’re up against.”
Niers shouted cheerfully. Samile the Watcher stopped shrieking as half a dozen [Mages] caught him mid-fall and gently lowered him to the ground. He sat there, breathing hard, looking quite flushed. The Titan stood on his dais and shouted into the scrying orb.
“That was fairly lethal! But in fairness’ sake, I’ll say that there were few ways to take that adventurer out that weren’t lethal! Either give him a Ring of Featherfalling or no one goes up there!”
He pointed at Samile. The adventurer nodded vigorously. Then the Titan sat back down and continued watching. From atop Teura’s head. The half-Elf coughed pointedly but politely.
“Lord Astoragon. Do you have any comments? I understand our [Commentators] and our audience would like you to speak some words. We have four hundred and twelve [Message] spells directed at you—”
She winced as Niers jumped off her head with a sigh. The Titan adjusted his hat, kicked over his folding chair and footrest, and the bowl of nuts. The audience watched as he cleared his dais.
“Very well. If Wistram insists, I suppose you could twist my arm into it. Now, as for that last encounter. I’m pleased to see my officer classes are paying off. The Dwarf is Merrick, a fine [War Leader] rather than a formal military class. I understand he fought several brisk battles in the mountains against Trolls before coming here. Rather hasty with his Skill, but as you can see he is indomitable against a lower-level class of officer.”
Niers gestured towards the scrying orb as he paced back and forth. The [Mages] desperately tried to recall the image of Merrik. The scrying orb flicked to Sir Relz and Noass. The Drake cleared his throat.
“Ah, so would you say this Dwarf is a contender for—”
The Titan spoke right over the Drake, loudly drowning him out. He gestured towards himself and the feed was replaced by him once again.
“A fine stalwart lineholder capable of reversing the odds in any army. As for Kelsa and Romin, they’re clearly adept at taking the fight to the enemy in that quintessential Centaur charge, although I’ll note that both were handicapped without their weapons. Romin uses a lance you see—quite impossible to use nonlethally when he charges.”
He chuckled. Teura opened her mouth, but Niers pointed and it snapped shut. The [Mage] glared, affronted, as he went on.
“And Kelsa usually had blades on her staff. Both ends; quite deadly too. I forget what she called it. As for Peki, her style speaks for itself. As far as aerial commanders go, I consider her my best. It reminds me of the time she executed a rather splendid raid by air during a training exercise. With twenty Garuda she managed to defeat a force of nearly a hundred, ironically by using nets—”
Perorn watched Niers strut about, recounting his story as both the Drakes and Teura tried to cut him off. But it was too late. And now the Titan was calling out his students by name as they appeared on the scrying orb.
“Wonderful deflection by Jekilt there. But he is a [Captain] and he can easily divert a charge. You see, it’s impossible to take him with a similar number of unled soldiers. Hah, well, even a [Captain] of the same level might struggle to do it. See how he’s leading his troop down that alley? He hasn’t spotted the Dullahans, but his [Dangersense] plus his intuition skill, [Battlefield Awareness] is letting him outmaneuver the enemy. He may have other Skills, but I’m afraid that’s his business. Nevertheless…”
He knew each student. Their quirks, their abilities, and their strengths. And the Fraerling was cheerfully shouting into the scrying orb, broadcasting his praise across the world. You couldn’t pay for a better endorsement.
“Pay for publicity. There’s a new thought. I had to kill enemy [Generals] and monsters to get my name out there.”
The Centauress murmured ruefully. She watched Niers, her earlier vexation at him completely forgotten. Because he was playing another game, below his cheerful support of his students. What was it he always said?
“Tell a story, Perorn. History is a story. And stories win hearts, more than any speech.”
It was all about stories. And here was one now. The world had seen him appear and nearly crush Niers’ students. Tulm the Mithril, one of the most powerful Dullahans in the world. You would bet he would win if you just looked at the odds. But would you? If you weren’t part of the Iron Vanguard, if you weren’t a Dullahan—no, even if you were, who wanted to root for him?
Look at Cameral, his hiding place discovered, throwing Flashfire Dust into the eyes of a [Mage]. Look at a Dullahan girl, wrestling with a [Soldier] twice her size, throwing him, getting away. Children vs adults. A new generation vs an old one.
Tulm the Mithril. Call him Tulm the Villain. Because he wasn’t the one who should win. Every species was represented here, or nearly. Dwarves, half-Elves, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, Garuda—so many species. No matter who you were, you had someone to cheer for. And across the world, Perorn thought they were.
“Show us victory. Show us you can beat the Mithril.”
She looked at the scrying orb. Then Perorn’s head turned. She saw Tulm standing at his impromptu war room, snapping orders. He appeared unruffled. But that was only a façade. He was irritated. The Wistram [Mages] crowding around him, asking questions didn’t help. He was not used to this. And worse, someone was making comments every few seconds.
“Agh! And that group of Dullahans going down the alley is jumped by Xelic and Sillk. Ah, Sillk, one of our [Rogues]. A splendid takedown of the Dullahan leader. Foliana would have been proud. Are you watching, Foliana? Ah—I would like to mention that Sillk is one of our officers in training. We do not and have never operated an [Assassin] training school, contrary to popular opinion.”
“Would you swear that on a truth spell, Lord Astoragon?”
The Fraerling paused.
“I hardly see the need to. Anyways, as I was saying, wonderful ambush. A shame Tulm, my prized student missed it. Really a pity, but no one’s perfect. And he’s not serious yet. Ah, and there goes another patrol. Tragic, tragic…he might consider bringing them in now that my students are going on the offensive, but I trust his strategy.”
He turned and gave the watching audience an unconvincing smile. Perorn laughed. It was the twinkle in his eyes. She saw Tulm stiffen at his table; he had a scrying orb to listen to as well. Or rather, a scrying mirror. Orbs were tricky and broke and rolled about. Perorn didn’t know why people loved the damn things.
Still, the Titan’s voice was just that. A voice. Niers Astoragon had given his word not to interfere, let alone use a Skill. You could tune him out. It was just psychological warfare. If you ignored it, it didn’t have an effect on you.
And if you believed that, you didn’t know anything about the Titan. Perorn watched. And she waited. And if she could have heard Wil in his root cellar hiding spot, she would have agreed. Anyone who thought Tulm was rattled, that he was losing or unprepared was a fool. The Dullahan looked up as Perorn stared at him. And the audience around Niers, laughing at a joke the Fraerling had told at one of Tulm’s past mistakes as a student went quiet.
A cold wind blew. No—it was a wind that had no basis in air. It blew only through flesh. It touched only bone. Freezing. And he stood straighter.
Like a statue that consumed light and gave only a silver glow. With eyes that shone in the day. And the sea of calm that had drowned even the Titan of Baleros. The ice that had crippled Fleethoof.
Tulm the Mithril turned. He bowed towards Niers once and placed his head on his shoulders.
“You were right, Professor. I suppose I must do my best.”
That was all he said. He turned.
“Call them back. Xol takes the north, I will lead the south.”
The Dullahan standing next to him blew a horn. The Midnight Shields stood taller as Tulm walked past him. He looked around and the Dullahans standing in the plaza looked at him.
“The Midnight Shields will hold this ground. Four hundred of the Iron Vanguard holds these streets. The Forgotten Wing’s [Soldiers] form hunter packs of fifty. Form up in companies of two hundred and disperse the rest as independent patrols. Wait for my mark for targets.”
Horns blew. The [Mages] raised their hands to their temples. Dullahans fell into ranks, their painted armor gleaming in the light. Tulm walked down their ranks. He stopped in front of his chief [Mage].
“Activate the Screamer Dust.”
Perorn inhaled. And then she saw the [Mage] move his fingers. He whispered a word. A single incantation. An activation phrase.
And the world began to shriek.
Umina and Marian heard the air began to vibrate. And then the vibrations turned into a hum. A shriek of noise that split the air, louder and higher-pitched than any cry. In their root cellar, Wil and Feshi were deafened by the noise. The Gnoll’s ears were bleeding as she tore herself out of the cellar.
Hiding in the water by the harbor docks and the remains of his boat, Luan saw the Centaur and Lizardgirl staggering out of their hold. The [Sailors] backed up, shouting over the noise. But it was intense! The two [Strategists] shouted at each other, and then the Lizardgirl pointed to the water. She dove and the sound faded. Marian did the same and Luan saw the two treading water. The ringing in his ears faded and he heard the Centauress, still shouting, paddle towards the water.
“What in the name of horse shoes was that?”
“Screamer dust! We must have gotten hit by it! But I have no idea when—”
The Lizardgirl was shouting too, rubbing at hear earholes. Then her eyes widened.
“The plaza! Remember those [Mages] throwing something? Feshi was sneezing—oh, Nagas! We all got hit! Listen!”
She grabbed her friend. Luan could hear it too. The dust or whatever had been causing that noise had washed off the two in the ship, but across the city the sound was echoing. Hundreds of students were flushed out of hiding. And the waiting soldiers pounced on them before they could wash their dust off.
“That dirty, cheating—”
The Centauress swore with words Luan had never heard before. They sounded like horse expressions. ‘Salt licking coward?’ He almost laughed, but the look on her face was bleak. The Lizardgirl nodded. Then her eyes widened.
“Hold on. One’s getting nearer! It’s—”
Luan saw a huge, bellowing figure sprinting down the street. Right at him. The [Rower] dove just in time. Venaz plunged into the water, flailed about, and then swam to the docks. He heaved himself out of the water, cursing.
“Underhanded. When I get my hands on that spineless—”
He broke off as he saw the two looking at him.
“Marian! Umina! So that’s where you two have been. I should have known. You got doused as well?”
“We were hiding here! Where have you been?”
The Minotaur shook his head. He wiped water out of his eyes, casting a glance up the street.
“Never mind that. We need to move. Now. More students will be trying to get here. And the damned [Soldiers] are sure to have heard us. I passed a patrol of Forgotten Wing soldiers on the way here.”
“You idiot, Venaz—”
“If I had my plan in place—”
All three turned as Luan heaved himself out of the water. The [Rower] glared at Venaz. He stomped towards him. The Minotaur brightened.
“Where were you? And what is going on? I did not get paid for—”
The Minotaur was holding his hands out, completely unapologetic and reaching for his bag of holding. Marian was staring at Luan. Umina was looking at neither. She glanced up the street.
“Oh no. Here they come!”
She pointed. Luan saw a patrol of Dullahans, Centaurs, Lizardfolk, and Selphids charging down the street. Three Humans too. Venaz swore. Marian pointed.
“This way! Plan B, Umina! Follow me!”
She grabbed the Lizardfolk girl and tossed her onto her back. The Centaur galloped down the docks as the [Soldiers] pointed and gave chase. Venaz turned to Luan.
The Minotaur glanced around. Luan backed up, but Venaz didn’t bother with the bag. He grabbed Luan and like Marian, tossed all six feet plus of the [Rower] over his shoulder and took off. Luan swore and tried to break free, but Venaz was thundering along. He followed Marian as the Centaur wove and changed streets. The howling was still in the air. And then the Centaur halted.
“What is that?”
A wall of dark grey fog was coming towards them. Venaz stared as Marian backed up. Umina pointed.
Luan bounced about and nearly bit his tongue. Then he heard a door slam. A flurry of voices, Venaz’ outraged tone and then a horrible smell. Luan twisted as he saw a huge opening into darkness. He realized what it was as Marian half slid down and shouted.
“Whoa, whoa, wait—”
Too late. He was tossed down the outhouse’s receptacle into the communal septic tank. Luan wished he could have landed on his feet. He did not. Worse, the ‘floor’ was liquid and it went up to one ear. The [Rower] got up immediately then something splashed his face. Venaz had landed. The Minotaur uttered a bellowing oath as the privy closed and the Lizardwoman shut the toilet lid. Only a sliver of light entered the communal tank. Luan sensed something with a very big body and four legs getting up next to him, making incoherent whinnying noises. Then there was a flicker of light.
A very small orb appeared in Umina’s claws. She held it up and looked around. She was standing knee deep in—and Marian, Venaz, and Luan were covered in—
The [Light] spell went out. It was better that way. Luan tried not to breathe. Venaz spoke in a controlled voice.
“Where are we?”
Umina’s voice quavered. She spoke brightly, opting for cheerfulness.
“Uh…a communal waste pit? You see, Lizardfolk cities don’t have sewers. Too many things grow there. But we need to get rid of waste. So we dig these spots and empty them with uh, [Nightmen]. Or [Nightwomen]. Although that’s an antiquated term that comes from Terandria with Humans, you know? The class is usually [Scourer], which sounds so much nicer. Or [Hauler] is a good generic one, because, you see, these have to be emptied. Or [Digger]. In fact, people in this line of work have to be good at digging, like the woman who runs this pit. We should be grateful she let us—”
“Umina. I’m going to murder you if you don’t shut up.”
Silence. After a second, Venaz spoke.
“I wish to leave. Now. Where’s my bag of holding?”
“…Are you talking to us?”
“No. The Human. Luan the Runner.”
“I am going to murder you, you damn Minotaur.”
“Oh. Uh, hello.”
“My bag of holding. Then we can be gone.”
“Where’s my money?”
“Hold on. I have it here. Hmph. I suppose this calls for a tip. Hold on. Let me just—”
“Hah. Life is full of surprises. Would you believe I dropped my money pouch? Hold on, it might be in here.”
The mists rose. Thick and dark, like iron dust. The air grew heavy. Perorn felt it dragging at her legs. Her body.
You couldn’t run in it. It sapped energy. Sight became difficult. And these mists were worse. Magic began to fail in them. Lesser spells ceased.
An army could die in the mists. An army had died in the mists. Perorn remembered the darkness, fighting alone as her army lost maneuverability. Was cut to shreds. Because the mists only affect his enemies. The Iron Vanguard strode through the mists as the shining figure walked at their heads. She heard him as he passed her by. Tulm’s voice echoed in the dark plaza.
“[Battlefield – The Cold Iron Mists]. [Legions of Steel].”
The Wistram [Mages] choked. Perorn saw a desperate flare of magical light; a clear space opened around Teura. The [Mage] desperately held the mists back, but only in a radius around herself. She was sweating. And the screaming filled the air.
“Screamer Dust. He must have—earlier—is—fair—?”
The voice from the scrying orb was distorted. But Perorn had no eyes for the orb. She stared at Tulm. His Dullahans marched past her. And their bodies were—steel. Not just their armor, which looked thicker, but their skin. As if Tulm had given each one of his [Soldiers] an Ironskin Potion.
She croaked as he passed by, coughing in the mists. She knew the students had to be affected too; the mists were rolling through Daquin. Tulm could fill a battlefield with them.
The glowing figure stopped. A head turned and silver eyes pierced through the mist.
“As I recall, the Professor used to say there was no such thing as cheating. Only intelligent preparation. Or does that only apply to his current students?”
Perorn had no answer to that. She just coughed. Tulm walked past her.
“Xol. Take your company north. I will catch the students from the south. From there, we hunt down those caught by the Screamer Dust that the patrols do not capture. The remainder will be found or the time shall elapse.”
“By your order, Mithril.”
A giant walked through the mists. Perorn staggered blindly towards the shapes. Unfair. That was what she wanted to say. You couldn’t let someone like this fight against the students. It wasn’t fair. This was a Skill she had lost to. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t—
A voice stopped the Centauress. Niers stood on his dais, in his circle, lost in the darkness. The Titan looked so small as she bent to speak with him.
“This is insane, Niers. How can anyone fight this?”
The tiny man looked up at Perorn. He reached up and grabbed her finger.
“Believe in them, Perorn. My Fleethoof.”
“I do. But—”
Perorn coughed. The mists were lightening. Teura was standing taller, gritting her teeth, banishing the fog around her. The air in the plaza lightened. Perorn stared at the half-Elf as she bent, panting. Niers raised his eyebrows.
“…I somewhat regret standing on her head now. That was impressive.”
The half-Elf wiped sweat from her eyes. She looked up at Perorn and gasped. The scrying orb had gone dark. Now it flickered to life, showing the Titan and Perorn. Teura’s voice rasped from it, a double of her voice as she spoke.
“What now, Titan of Baleros? Can your students handle this?”
Everyone was silent. Looking at him. Niers Astoragon stood small in the scrying orb, as the mists covered the city. The world waited with bated breath. The Midnight Shield turned their heads, waiting. And the Mithril strode through the city, leading thousands to crush hundreds. Students coughed and fought to breathe and see.
And the Titan of Baleros looked up at the sky as the mists threatened to engulf the sky. And he sighed. And smiled.
“Yes. How many times do I have to say it? Yes.”
He pointed up.
“Your [Mage] on the watch tower. Have him take control of the spell. And look around. Probably towards the harbor. I think one of my [Strategists] is cornered there.”
Teura looked up. A Garuda [Mage] levitating in the sky next to Samile raised her wing. The scrying orb flickered. And Perorn saw a city engulfed in dark, roiling iron. As if Tulm had torn down a cloudy sky and filled the city with it. She heard a gasp from the people around her. But she saw the mists had not fully engulfed the city yet.
They were slowly rolling down towards the harbor, the most distant point in Daquin. And sure enough, there was a young man standing at the docks. Wil. The young man was dripping as the [Mage] enhanced her vision. And standing in next to him, aiming a wand which blew apart a group of [Soldiers] slowly advancing down the docks, was a Gnoll.
“Feshi too. And a wand with a wind spell. Good lad. He’s generous and thinks of contingency plans.”
Niers smiled down at the image as Wil turned and hurled an orb that exploded and covered the area with fast-hardening mud that became as strong as stone in a second. The [Soldiers] still came on. Perorn stared down, willing them to run. They could at least dive! Or break through! But the Gnoll and the Human held their ground.
“Lord Astoragon, what—”
Niers held up a hand. He closed his eyes. And Perorn saw a flicker of moisture as the Titan rubbed a finger across his eye.
“You see, he doubts himself. And he’s always questioning his place, I think. A good attitude to have, but he underestimates his strengths. Except when he’s on the field. Then he shows me that steel. That spine that the Kallinad family possess. Unwavering. Unyielding. And brilliant. And he’s my best student in logistics, bar none. He can plot a company’s course across a continent by the differences in their supplies, if you can believe that.”
“Shut up. He’s early. And so are they. But they can’t have missed it. And Wil was always willing to improvise. So here they come. Look. In this moment, Wil Kallinad is my best student.”
He pointed. And Perorn saw it. At first, it was only a flicker in the waters. The confused [Mage]’s gaze was fixed on the wrong place, on the dark harbor. But then she noticed it. And looked up. And Perorn saw the view shift up, going to clear skies.
The sun still shone. Beyond the dark city filled with clouds, the sky was clear. And the sun, slowly beginning to set in the east, illuminated the shapes on the water.
Ships. They sailed towards the port, white sails billowing, running with a wind that blew against the darkness. The black vessels of the Iron Vanguard held their ground and the Dullahans on the docks called out, firing warning spells over the port. But the warships never slowed.
Four of them. Four, to match the Iron Vanguard’s six. Smaller, perhaps, but not by much. And they sailed ahead, crewed by [Captains] without fear. Drowned Men. [Storm Sailors]. The wind blew on their backs as they shot towards the gaps in the blockade, filled by nets to capture smaller vessels.
The Iron Vanguard’s navy tried to turn. Tried to cast spells. But too slow. Too late. The first warship crashed into the prow of one of the warships and the stern of another and sailed through, cracking through the thick wood. The other three ships sailed through the gaps, sending Dullahans [Sailors] tumbling into the water.
The boats surged towards the port. Towards the dock with Wil and Feshi. The [Soldiers] trying to apprehend the two had stopped to stare. A fist of fifty Iron Vanguard [Dullahan] led by a squad of [Riders] had joined the Forgotten Wing soldiers. They halted in place, watching the ships surging towards them. And they didn’t slow. The Dullahans backed up. The Forgotten Wing [Soldiers] fled.
The first warship crashed into the docks, sending wood splintering. It ran aground, the hull missing Feshi and Wil by less than a dozen feet. The Gnoll stared up at the ship. Then the side of the ship fell outwards. A ramp opened, exposing the ship’s belly.
“A transport ship?”
Perorn whispered. The gangways fell down, wide enough to drag a wagon down. And out they came. Rank after rank of gleaming [Knights] already mounted on warhorses. Their armor shone. They carried padded spears and practice swords. Weapons meant for tourneys. Jousts.
A game. The second warship hit the docks, slower, but ran aground and began unloading [Knights] as well. [Archers] on the decks shot blunt arrows at the Iron Vanguard unit, forcing them back.
“There are a thousand members of the Iron Vanguard here. Tulm could bring his ships to the harbor, perhaps, but it’s now occupied. Two thousand of the Forgotten Wing are also under his command. In case you ask, I gave Wil no instructions. No hints. I certainly didn’t tell him how many soldiers to bring. I will swear that on any truth spell in the world.”
The Titan’s voice was the only sound in the world. Perorn just stared down at the harbor. Hundreds of [Knights] were riding forwards. And behind them [Squires], simple [Cavalrymen] and [Cavalrywomen], [Footsoldiers], [Archers], and even [Storm Sailors].
The crew of the ships leapt off the decks, whooping and fighting the [Soldiers] with fists and improvised clubs. [Mages] teleported off the ships or walked onto the water, already throwing magic at the iron mists.
But that was the backdrop. The tableau, the moment of forever was the first [Knight] who’d charged off the ship, leaping her horse off the deck rather than wait for the gangplanks to go down. Perorn saw a flash of brown hair, a helmet falling. And an arm, reaching down to Wil as the [Strategist] reached up with a smile on his face.
“Who is that?”
“That would be his sister. Lady Talia Kallinad. [Summer Knight] of the Order of Seasons. And that is her order. And the Kallinad’s personal army. And the banners of a dozen other noble families too.”
The Titan wiped at his eyes. He looked old as he stood there. Old and as happy as Perorn had ever seen him. He sat down, watching as Wil pointed ahead and his sister broke away from their embrace.
“Full marks, Wil.”
The army of Humans formed up. And as Tulm the Mithril turned his head and listened to the report shouted at him and slowly raised a hand to cup it to his ear, the darkness hanging over Daquin lifted. The sun shone through for a second. And Wil, standing next to a wide-eyed Feshi, looked at his sister. She bowed.
“Your command, Sir [Strategist]?”
He took a deep breath. And he pointed as the [Knights] raised their padded spears.