“You lost your money pouch.”
“No. Maybe. Perhaps. It might be down here.”
“Are you really searching—”
“Oh gods, Venaz!”
“Shut up, Marian. Move those hooves. I have to find my money pouch. I had a lot of gold in there.”
“It’s not worth looking through—watch those hands!”
“I am going to murder you.”
“Venaz, where were you? We saw you jump into the harbor.”
“Hmf. Hiding in an attic. I could ask you the same question, Umina. That is you, there, isn’t it?”
“Of course. We were in a ship—”
“Don’t tell him that! We’re competitors!”
“Oh? So you want to fight now, is it? I’m willing to settle the score, Marian.”
“Big talk from a Minotaur crouched next to my right hoof. Forget about the money, Venaz. It’s gone. You probably lost it in the harbor.”
“I’m going to kill you, Venaz. Do you hear me?”
“Then I’ll go back and find it there. I have to have my bag of holding.”
“Whoops! Hey! Watch the hands!”
“Sorry. I’m trying to kill the Minotaur.”
“We all want to kill the Minotaur. But—wait. Hold on. You said you’re a Runner? What’s one of your lot doing here?”
“I had a delivery for that Minotaur. Venaz. He dragged me into this. I’m going to kill him. Where is he?”
“Hm. Not here—”
“Sorry. Don’t get near me. This is a very small space. And it stinks! My hooves are twitchy.”
“Umina, you can cast magic. Light up this cesspit again.”
“Hold on, Venaz. That patrol was hot on our heels. We have to keep hidden!”
“Gah! Who’s near my tail.”
“Sorry. Where’s Venaz?”
“No, that’s me.”
“Oh. Sorry, Umina.”
“I’ll have your gold. I swear to you, Luan the Runner. Just give me a second—”
“Alright, everyone shut up!”
“I’m going to—urk.”
“Don’t kick me, Marian!”
“Okay. Okay. Everyone calm? Or do I need to kick you both again?”
“Very well. Let’s start from the beginning. Voices quiet. I think they’re searching the apartments.”
“…No one here! Damn those students. What do you think—invisibility potion? Or…?”
“…Screamer dust is off that group. Let’s follow the sounds instead. Besides, did you see that Minotaur. Huge, ugly bastard. Venaz, I think. One of the Titan’s top pet students. Not worth fighting that.”
“Get off me. I’m going up there.”
“Over your dead body!”
“I’ll help with that.”
“…Nah. Let’s go. Sorry for the bother, Miss. Alright patrol! Let’s—holy Nagas, what the hell is—run! Get out of—”
“I think they’re gone.”
“No kidding? Wonder what scared them off?”
“Maybe some students? Those clouds that Tulm the Mithril conjured?”
“Hmf. You should have let me go up there.”
“And blow our cover? This is our hiding spot, Venaz.”
“You’re welcome to it. I just followed you because I had no other choice. I want my bag of holding. I just need that money. Move over. I’m still searching.”
“I promised. I won’t forswear myself. This is—gah. I’ve waded through monster stomachs cleaner than this!”
“Venaz, stop. I’m serious. You’ll catch something and you’re about to throw up.”
“Shut up—Umina. I promised. I need—”
“Will someone explain what’s happening?”
“Oh! Sorry. I forgot you were here. Your name’s…Luan?”
“Yes. What’s going on? What were those clouds? Why is the harbor filled with warships?”
“The Professor’s playing a game. Haven’t you heard?”
“Professor? What? No. You’re making no sense.”
“Sorry, I meant the Titan of Baleros.”
“What about him?”
“Uh—this could be tricky. Well, let me put it this way. Do you know about the Forgotten Wing company?”
“Raise that hoof, Marian. I feel—no. That’s not gold.”
“Venaz, stop. Look, Mister Human. This is all a game.”
“With magic fog, warships, and people trying to bash my skull in?”
“Well, let’s start from the beginning. My name is Umina. I’m a student of Niers Astoragon. The Titan. That’s Marian, the Centauress who kicked you. And Venaz is the one on his hands and hooves.”
“I’ll find that gold. You have my bag of holding?”
“Yes. Okay, now what’s this about a game…?”
It was just a game. You could say that. Just a game. Why did it matter when there were people dying across the world? When monsters threatened lives, when war pressed down? There were some who would rail at the injustice. Why did a game matter? Why didn’t the world care about what was truly important, what mattered?
And they were right. And wrong. Because it was a game, yes, one where no one was supposed to die. On the other hand, it was a game set up by the Titan of Baleros. On one side you had Tulm the Mithril, the Iron Vanguard, and against him you had a class of students, all trying to reach their Professor in a plaza. Trying to make it to a small circle ten feet by ten feet across, to win a prize like no other.
The truth. And a gift from the Titan’s treasures. That alone made it a great game, one where the prize meant something. But the rest of it? The reason why the world watched?
Because it was real. It was true. The powers of the world, adults, rulers and leaders and monsters alike, watched children putting everything they had on the line for victory. Striving, as hard as they could. And so was it a game or reality? A mix of both, perhaps.
It mattered. It mattered so much the losers wept. It mattered enough for an army to sail from Terandria. And now they clashed on the street, with [Soldiers] from the Forgotten Wing and Iron Vanguard. And those soldiers gritted their teeth and held their ground, fighting with blunted weapons, breaking bones, drawing blood. Because although it was a game, they had pride. They wanted to win.
They all did. You could see it in the student’s eyes, hear it in their voices. The tremble, the longing.
And that was why Luan could rationalize it all. He was standing up to his calves in…muck. Excrement. He was, in fact, standing in a septic tank, a collective latrine used by the citizens of Daquin. He had seen the very same thing in Talenqual; the pits were filled, as it were, by a block or a few houses, and periodically emptied by [Nightmen], by [Scourers]—those employed to take the collected matter. It was, after all, valuable in its way. You could use it as fertilizer.
But why anyone would stand here stretched the City Runner’s belief. The South African man might well have believed this was all some prank, or that Venaz, the Minotaur breathing shallowly next to him was entirely insane. Until he heard the Minotaur’s voice. The Centauress, Marian, and the Lizardgirl, Umina, explain. Then he understood.
Not everything. The feud between the Titan and his student, the politics of the Iron Vanguard, the fact that these three [Strategists] were students at some kind of academy and so on was a lot to digest. But Luan already believed. And part of him already understood the important part. Because of who Luan was.
An athlete. An aspiring champion. Someone who competed in the truest sense of the world. He, Luan, had made his life’s dream about victory. He had a window; his body would grow old and he would lose his edge all too quickly. He could lose his chance thanks to injury, bad luck, any number of factors. But if he succeeded? If he trained until his sweat was blood? If he had the drive and will and courage?
He could have been the best in the world. Unmatched. Luan would have competed against the world’s finest, in front of millions. And win or lose, he would still have numbered among the greatest in his sport, in what he did.
So yes, Luan understood what drove the students. Better than Ken could have. He listened as they told him why they were here. And he understood.
It still didn’t make standing in sewage any more fun. But it stopped Luan from trying to kill Venaz. The Minotaur was doing the exact opposite of hyperventilating as he tried to search the waste he was standing in. Luan heard swearing, sounds of disgust, gagging—until the [Rower] could bear it no more.
“Enough. Stop looking around. You’re not going to find it.”
“I have to have my bag of holding.”
The Minotaur’s voice was steady as he straightened. He was barely visible with the tiny crack of light that came from the privy above. Luan reached for the Minotaur’s possession, the bag of holding.
“To win, yeah? Take it.”
He offered it. Venaz hesitated.
“But my gold—”
“I’ll track you down after this. And if you don’t pay me, I’ll…”
Luan hesitated. Threatening to break Venaz’s legs or offer the Minotaur any kind of physical harm was ludicrous.
“…I’ll make sure the Runner’s Guild hears all about this. But you want to win.”
Luan held the bag of holding out. And the Minotaur hesitated.
“I should pay you first. This lacks credibility. You were right to demand your payment. It’s dishonorable.”
There was a plaintive note in his voice. Luan hesitated. He wondered what Ken would have said if he were here. If he had told Luan about Minotaurs—but it was the competitor who spoke back to Venaz.
“Do you want to win, or not? I don’t know about your Professor or this grand secret. But do you want victory?”
“Then take it.”
Luan thrust the bag of holding out. It wasn’t exactly light—it felt like it was ten pounds of weight, despite being very small. It also felt full. But Luan hadn’t undone the drawstring. He waited for a moment. Then there was a splash—he felt a huge presence, and then a hand close over his wrist. Venaz spoke softly.
Luan didn’t know what to say to that. Frankly, he was still angry. His boat was damaged, possibly sunk. He was covered in—and he’d been chased and nearly beaten black and blue by the soldiers on the street. But after his anger had faded and he’d heard what was going on, the student’s situation had impressed itself on him. He looked around.
“So you’re all in the same class? The Titan’s class?”
The three shapes nodded. Luan tried to be suitably impressed. But even though he knew of the Titan of Baleros, he didn’t know the legends well enough to be in awe. And the three had done little to impress him. Now the Centaur shifted her hooves. She—Marian—spoke.
“If you’re worried about Venaz paying you, don’t be. He’d rather drink this entire midden’s contents than renege on his word. He’ll pay you after this is over, Luan, is it?”
Venaz made a snorting noise to Luan’s right as he opened the bag of holding.
“You’re exaggerating, Marian. If I had to choose between breaking my word over fifty gold pieces or drinking this filth, I’d rather give up fifty gold. Kraken’s tooth, but this is disgusting! Umina, what possessed you to hide here? I can’t see anything either.”
The Lizardgirl spoke up nervously. She had a higher-pitched voice, and from the way she shifted, was clearly more hesitant than her two companions. She sounded younger, too.
“Well…it’s a perfect hiding spot, isn’t it? Short of magic, no one will even think to look here. Dogs won’t sniff us out—we could hide for a long time here.”
“I’d rather be caught.”
Marian groaned. She sounded faintly sick. Luan was trying not to breathe. The smell did not get better over time. He looked around.
“Well, I did my job. Can I leave now?”
All three students said it at once. Luan scowled.
“You’ll give us away. We need to win this thing.”
“You mean, get to the center of the city and reach your Professor? Like a game of capture the flag?”
“Hm? Well, I suppose so. It’s a lot more involved than that. Did you notice the soldiers?”
“I was nearly beaten by the soldiers. What kind of game has people attacking City Runners and civilians?”
“What kind of proper game wouldn’t have that? Damn. I can’t find…Umina, can I get some light?”
“Sure. Just for a second. [Light].”
The Lizardgirl cast a spell. A hovering orb of light illuminated their surroundings. Luan saw moldy, slimy wooden walls, the Lizardgirl, a Centauress standing next to her, Venaz, one filthy hand holding the bag of holding—and then the [Rower] realized that Umina had illuminated what he was standing in.
He wished she hadn’t. Luan looked down and retched. It was semi-liquid, that was true. But there were…crusts. Venaz made the same mistake and uttered an oath. Marian began dry-heaving.
The light disappeared, but Luan had enough. He raised a hand, realized what was on it, and let it fall.
“I wish to leave now.”
“You can’t. I’m sorry, but we need a plan. Those mists rolled in moments after the Screamer Dust. Tulm the Mithril must have used one of his Skills, or his [Mages] conjured something incredible!”
“That was a Skill. [Cold Iron Mists] or something like it. A [Mage]-killer technique. Lesser artifacts and spells will fail inside of the fog. And we’ll be weighed down. Not that it matters. I intend to move shortly. What of you two? We are competitors, but given what we’re up against, I wouldn’t mind teaming up.”
Venaz was pulling something out of his bag of holding. Luan heard a clank, and then saw the Minotaur shifting. Venaz’ was lifting something up.
“Watch out or I’ll hit you.”
Luan shifted back a few steps. Marian lifted a foot with a wet, sucking sound.
“Umina, both your ideas are good hiding places. And I think we could hide here for a good time. But we need to win, not just hide. That’s the point of the game. We haven’t figured out how to defeat the Iron Vanguard, but we won’t manage it here. And frankly, if I have to stay here another minute longer than I have to, I will kill you and everyone down here ending with myself.”
She sounded serious. Luan shifted back from her. Umina sighed.
“I suppose you’re right. But we are at such a…I don’t know how to take on those Dullahans. You’d need an army! This isn’t just hide-and-seek. They can seal off the plaza with how many bodies they have. But you’re right. Venaz, a team up? What did you bring in that bag of holding?”
Marian shifted again.
“And why did you have a City Runner deliver it? You could have just…brought one. I did.”
Venaz’s voice was muffled for a second. Luan heard another metallic rasp.
“I thought our possessions might be confiscated, or the Professor would have interfered with our equipment somehow. I expected a trick. Just not the Iron Vanguard. Historically, he’s pulled tricks like this before—confiscating all the student’s equipment and clothing and making them hide naked in the jungles. Casting an anti-magic spell that wiped out their equipment. Unleashing [Thieves] on us before the games started—”
“Dead gods. He did all that?”
The Minotaur’s voice was reproving.
“You should have studied. The Professor’s created countless undesirable scenarios. I thought a City Runner would ensure I got my possessions and maintained a huge advantage. Now, I wish I’d hired a mercenary company instead. Still, I feel better prepared now. Ready to leave?”
The others chorused as one. Umina waded past Luan and shouted up at the door.
“Excuse me! We need out!”
There were hurrying footsteps. A flash of light. Luan looked up at a [Nightwoman], a Lizardwoman whose job it was to wade in what he was standing in every day. He had never had more appreciation for her class than now. Umina looked apologetic.
“Sorry, we can’t handle the smell. Mind if you get us a ladder? Er—stairs, for Marian? I’m really sorry.”
The Lizardwoman smiled.
“Aw, for you, anything. And we can get the Centauress up—we’ve got a platform for emergencies. You wouldn’t believe how many Centaurs fall in the toilet each year!”
“That happens? And thank you!”
The Lizardwoman disappeared. That left Luan and the other students standing in the now-illuminated tank. Luan shifted, saw something float past one foot—he closed his eyes.
The wail of the Screamer Dust had subsided, but he could still hear lots of shouting at a distance. More so than before, in fact. A game that engulfed an entire city? He shook his head. Well, it was the Titan of Baleros…he wanted to dunk himself in the harbor right after that.
“Nearly there! Hold on! It’s a bit heavy, but we’ve got a few hands! Don’t drop it on Umina, you guys! I’m rooting for her! Stand back!”
Venaz looked alarmed as everyone moved to the side. Umina waved a claw at him.
“This apartment belongs to uh, the night soil collectors around here. I think they like to stick together.”
“Or no one else tolerates their company.”
“Venaz! They’re really nice. And that’s true. Okay, let’s get up there, ask what’s happened, and—”
A flash of light. Marian, who had been silent and trying not to throw up, suddenly spoke urgently.
“Umina, we need to leave, now.”
Umina, Luan, and Venaz saw the hatch opening. Behind them. The stairwell the [Nightpeople] lowered and the open privy was one spot of light, but on the far side of the wide tank a hatch had opened, to expose light into the darkness. And someone was preparing to—Luan climbed up the steps so fast he nearly knocked over Umina ahead of him. Venaz was right behind Luan, and Marian moaned as she got up the stairs.
“Oh, dead gods, dead gods, dead gods.”
“Sorry about that. Here. Let’s get you some water and uh, more water.”
The [Nightwoman] looked apologetically at her guests. There was a small crowd of her co-workers around her, mostly Lizardfolk and three Dullahans. They insisted on shaking hands—after a few buckets of water had been splashed on all four. It didn’t get rid of the smell, but it helped. Luan breathed freely as Umina spoke to the [Nightwoman] again.
“We’re really sorry. I could handle it, but my friends…we also have to get moving, I guess. Still, you saved us from that patrol.”
The [Scourers] beamed as one, treating Umina like she was a minor celebrity. Which she…was? Luan eyed Umina as he sluiced himself off with more water. Venaz was demanding soap.
“No problem! Pleasure to be of assistance! This game is so exciting! And we want you to win, of course! When I think that you were using this pit—whenever I clean it, I’ll think of you! And uh—”
She peered at Luan with a frown.
“Is he a student too? Not one of the Titan’s personal class, is he? I know all the names. Unless he’s a new addition?”
“No, no. I’m a City Runner. And I really should be going—”
Luan raised his hands hurriedly. He looked towards the doors.
“I’ll find you later, Venaz, yeah?”
“Yes. Wait in the city. I’ll be sure to get you your money.”
The Minotaur breathed in and out. Only now did Luan realize something had changed about him.
He was wearing armor. The metal gleamed as water ran down it. Umina turned and stared along with Marian and the other [Nightpeople]. Venaz gritted his teeth.
“What? I told you I came prepared for a fight. This is only part of my gear. I’m not hiding any longer. Ready to go?”
“Nearly. Just one question. You said you were a City Runner, Mister Luan?”
Marian dumped a bucket of water over her tail. Luan nodded.
“I go by water, though. I’m a [Rower].”
The Centauress frowned.
“Odd. How’d you get through the harbor, then? The Iron Vanguard had at least six warships sealing it off.”
Luan smiled faintly.
“Well, they didn’t manage to seal it off fast enough. I slipped through.”
Everyone looked at him. Marian blinked.
“You got past six warships? In…what? A dingy?”
Venaz snorted, then turned his head and spat back into the privy. The [Nightpeople] looked disapproving at that.
“He’s the fastest City Runner on the water short of a Courier now. Why else do you think I hired him?”
“Huh. Then are you any good in a fight?”
Marian eyed Luan. The City Runner hesitated.
“Not much good. But I served in a suppression company once. Saw some fighting, but I’m mainly good at rowing. Very good, actually. Why?”
Umina was looking at her friend. Marian was thinking hard. At last she came to a decision and reached for a bag at her waist.
“Mind staying with us? I’ll pay you twenty gold coins and Venaz’ fee right now if you help us win this game.”
Umina exclaimed as Luan’s eyes went wide. Venaz blinked at the gold Marian held out to the City Runner.
“You want to hire my Runner? Why?”
“An edge. Luan’s a City Runner and he’s free to hire, right? Why can’t we hire help? The other students have done it.”
“Still, twenty gold pieces? Is he worth—”
Luan glared at the Minotaur. He hesitated over the gold coins.
“I’m afraid that arrogant cow’s right, Miss…Marian. I’m not good off the water.”
Venaz choked and turned red. Marian smiled.
“Just for calling Venaz a cow, I’d hire you. You made it this far. One person could make all the difference. What about it? You won’t break more than bones and if you do, there’s healing potions at the ready. And I want to win. Umina?”
The Lizardgirl started.
“You sure, Marian? The gold—”
“—is mine to use. If we win, it’s worth it. What about it, Luan the City Runner? My [Headhunter] Skill says you’re more valuable than I think.”
The Centauress stared at Luan. He blinked at her. And then he looked at Venaz.
Victory. The man smiled wearily.
“Well, why not? I’m in it this far. I could use some money and a diversion.”
He took the coins from Marian. She offered him the twenty gold pieces; he declined the rest. He’d get it from Venaz. The Minotaur snorted as Luan stepped up behind him. Umina was thanking their hosts.
“If there’s anything we can do—we can’t fight, but we can make sure those Iron Vanguards have clogged privies if they stick around long enough!”
The [Nightwoman] chortled. Umina laughed.
“We’ll let you know. Alright. Ready?”
Venaz nodded. He thrust open the door to the apartment and stepped out, fists clenched. His armor shone as he strode out, ready for war. Marian followed. She’d drawn a bow from her bag of holding. Umina and Luan had only their fists and a few items at their belt, but they followed. Ready for anything. Ready to take on the Iron Vanguard. Ready for—
“Forwards! Take the street!”
A rank of men and women in armor galloped down the street. Venaz lurched backwards, fists raised. But the Humans in armor weren’t aimed at him. They were pursuing a group of Dullahans, and Lizardfolk! Banners streamed behind them as they rode forwards in a wedge. And behind them came thunder.
Marching boots. Shouts. Luan saw dozens of Humans racing past him, armed with shields, clubs, some holding bows. Another rider was leading them, bellowing orders.
“[Knights] move up in spear formation! Archers, divide with foot soldiers and take those two rooftops. The rest of you, shield formation and move up—”
He thundered past the group of four. Luan heard the soldiers streaming down the street shouting as well.
“For Kallinad and the Order of Seasons!”
“Push the Iron Vanguard back!”
“Wil Kallinad! Victory for Terandria!”
And then they were gone. The sound of battle broke ahead of them. Venaz stared down the street. He walked out a few paces and stared at the backs of the running Humans. Marian trotted out behind him. Umina and Luan stared after them.
“Did they just say ‘Kallinad’? Was that a mercenary company or something?”
“Uh, maybe? Maybe—”
All four looked back. They flattened themselves back into the apartment as a second wave charged down the street, and then a third. Then they heard the horn blasts. Then, as the four climbed to the rooftop and the rooftop audience pointed them towards the harbor, they saw the four warships at the docks. Luan’s jaw dropped.
Those weren’t there when I left!
Venaz, Marian, and Umina were all staring. The streets were filled with Humans, fighting the Iron Vanguard! Pushing them back! Venaz stared at a rank of [Knights] as they harried a group of Dullahans.
“Ah. I…might have underestimated Wil.”
“No kidding? Hey, Venaz? Exactly what did you bring in your bag of holding?”
Marian and Umina turned to the Minotaur. He coughed, and looked into his bag of holding. The Minotaur rummaged around inside, pulled out a mace, a few pieces of paper with glowing lettering, a picture of a colorful dog…he put them back in the bag and looked around.
“Damn. Well, now I feel really foolish.”
An army in the streets! Warships in the harbor! Chaos reigned in the plaza where Niers Astoragon stood. Not just among the Iron Vanguard; they were scrambling to react. Somewhere in the streets filled with grey fog, Tulm the Mithril had halted his advance to deal with the unexpected attack. But the arrival of the army Wil Kallinad was leading had thrown everyone into confusion.
The Wistram [Mages] were scrambling to get a new vantage point on the battle. Teura was ordering more [Mages] to watch Wil. And members of Niers’ own company like Perorn were visibly ecstatic. The Centauress was practically prancing in place with delight.
Niers murmured out of the side of his mouth. But he couldn’t hold back his smile either. He watched as Wil sent the soldiers still disembarking from the warships charging up the streets, gaining as much ground as possible before the Iron Vanguard could regain their footing. Niers would have been happy to watch in silence, with only the audio from the scene.
But, sadly, there were always those whose first reaction to an unfolding drama was to give their opinion about it. The sort of people who would be standing in the crowd as someone drowned and offering their commentary on the other people diving in. Those sorts. And unfortunately, there were two who were debating the latest turn of events even as the images of Wil, his sister, and the army she was leading appeared on the scrying orb.
“Four warships filled with [Soldiers] and even a [Knight] order! Unbelievable, and the crews themselves are taking part! Amazing! Incredible! An inspiring turn of events! Sir Relz, can you credit this?”
The two Drakes were leaning over their upholstered arm chairs, staring at their own scrying orb and loudly speaking to their captive audience. The one with the monocle was nodding rapidly, but with a huge frown on his face in contrast to Noass’ look of amazement.
“I can, Noass, I can—I have eyes! But I don’t know that inspiring is the word I would use. Think on it, Noass. Yes, this a game-changer. But is it fair?”
He gestured to the image in the scrying orb as Noass sat back, looking confused.
“Anyone with the might of a Terandrian house could have pulled off this tactic. That the other students in the Titan’s classes haven’t isn’t due to a lack of skill. Consider this, Noass. If Wil Kallinad can pull an army out of his pocket, how can anyone else hope to compete?”
Niers saw Noass sit up a bit. He wondered if the Drake’s guild of assassins was still extant. Did they do contracts on public figures? He saw Noass cup his chin in his hand as he pointed at the orb, looking mildly outraged.
“Hold on, Sir Relz. I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. Even if you knew Tulm the Mithril were going to appear in this game, Sir Relz, could you convince your family to send over a thousand soldiers to another continent? Let alone call on half a dozen other noble houses?”
He waved a claw at Wil, who had appeared in the scrying orb again in between his comments.
“And let me remind our audience that no one saw these warships coming! Not even the Iron Vanguard, which boasts the most powerful navy of all the Great Companies in Baleros bar none! Sir Relz, how can you dismiss that as simply the product of wealth?”
The other Drake adjusted his monocle haughtily as he frowned at his friend.
“I just have a hard time giving this as much credit as you, Noass. To me, this stinks of an advantage born of station, not achievement. I realize that my own position as a noble contradicts my statements, but I am a son of Pallass, not some arrogant Lord of the Wall, like Salazsar’s jumped up tyrants.”
“Oh, come now, Sir Relz. You can’t make this entirely referential to Drake politics. Even if you’re going to bring in someone like—like Wall Lord Ilvriss as a point of comparison—”
Mercifully, whomever was controlling the broadcast decided the two Drakes were getting off-topic. Their voices cut off and Niers could focus on Wil. The Titan watched with a [Strategist]’s eye as he saw Wil’s forces moving and Tulm’s preparing to intercept from a bird’s eye view. Not bad. Then again, he’d see how well Wil was doing and how shaken Tulm was in a few minutes. He murmured to himself as he reached for his lime juice.
“I saw it coming. But I knew where to look.”
The Drake [Commentator] duo was half-right this time. It wasn’t just that Wil had the resources to call on; it was that he’d figured out Tulm the mithril was coming. He had plotted a sea route that took the warships to Daquin’s harbor without alerting a Great Company or the other ships at sea. Yes, they hadn’t been looking, but still. If you understood anything of logistics, of the effort it took to move that many warriors, you would look at Wil and want him to manage your armies.
It was proof of his ability. But there was another reason why countless eyes were glued to the scrying orb, to the drama unfolding in Daquin. It was sheer, simple amazement. Admiration.
The daring. The audacity. Noass was right. If you had the chance, even if you were nearly completely certain, would you risk it? Could you? Niers looked up. Teura was watching him again. He cheerfully smiled at her.
Yes, they were all watching. Everyone from the [Kings] of Terandria to the Wall Lords in Izril. Watching, and seeing Niers’ student. Evaluating him as a [Strategist], to be hired or fought against.
Wil Kallinad. A name known around the world in a moment. He was challenging Tulm the Mithril to a battle in the streets. Putting himself against the greatest [Strategist] of the Iron Vanguard on purpose. This was his moment. Niers only hoped he made the best of it.
He stood in the street, with a map of Daquin unrolled on the back of his sister’s warhorse. His ears were ringing. The ground felt like it was shaking.
Dark clouds rolling down the street. Flashes of armor. Ringing hooves, [Knights] riding past him, armor ablaze with the light of magic.
“Wil! I brought half of the reinforcements you asked straight from our garrisons! The other half came from the families you contacted! We got them on ships and the [Captains] are letting their sailors take part! They were really impressed with your sea route, and they’d just love a chance to stick it to the Iron Vanguard—”
His hands were sweaty. Shaking. Heart beating out of his chest. [Mages] made the air shake as they held the cold iron fog off. Flashes of magefire from the rooftops. Skirmishes already.
“Lord Kallinad, my name is Sir Kelm. I am a Knight of Autumn and the Order of Season’s representative. I and a hundred and twenty six of my peers have joined Lady Knight Talia by her request. We understand this is a non-lethal confrontation and have equipped ourselves accordingly—”
Glancing up. Seeing a Drowned Man with a tentacle for an arm, holding a club with his good hand, grinning at him with a face half-fish.
“I didn’t bring any [Strategists], but we’ve got an army here, Wil! And with the crews of the ship—you know, I got three propositions from the sailors on the way here?”
The horse snorting, shaking, restless. Glancing up. Checking the slowly setting sun, seeing Feshi’s wide eyes and shocked expression. A ring of steel. [Knights], [Field Commanders], [Captains], surrounding him. Waiting. Doubtful, impatient, excited.
“Sir Kallinad! I am Lance-Commander Wylint, serving House Teoring and commanding two hundred of my men! We are disembarking and looking for orders—”
Glance up. See Talia’s face. Excitement, passion. Her horse shifting. Not her favorite war-griffin, Amberwing. Too dangerous. And conspicuous. Wouldn’t like a sea voyage. Waiting faces.
Fear. Terror. Uncertainty. Elation. A thousand and one emotions and more, running hot in his veins. And just when he thought he’d break under it, a realization. The Professor’s words, beating in his chest.
“You only get once chance, lad.”
“What’s that? Wil?”
Concerned faces. Wil Kallinad glanced up, taking in the ring of Humans around him. One Drowned Man, a [Captain]. And Feshi. The Gnoll stared at Wil. And he breathed in and out slowly.
For a moment, Wil looked around and memorized the moment. And he knew that as long as he lived, he would never forget this day. Never lose this moment. Whether it was in shame or glory. And he stood a bit straighter. The fear and panic in his breast didn’t disappear. It never did. But he mastered it.
Thank you, Professor. You gave me a chance.
“Wil? Are you—”
The [Strategist] turned. He cut his sister off. He checked the sun, and began snapping orders.
“Lance-Commander Wylint, you are now acting-[General] on the field. Unload those ships! I want the soldiers moving up the streets as fast as they unload! Don’t worry about formations! We’re taking the first six streets from the harbor and holding there. Keep a [Mage] on standby and I’ll have orders for you in minutes!”
Will turned and surveyed the people around him. His mind was snapping to ideas and conclusions like lightning, too fast to fully process into words. The [Captain]? No. The [Knight] in brown and red, stained armor. Autumn Knight.
“The Iron Vanguard is using [Message] spells, but they have horns and drums as well. We’ll relay using messengers on horseback to avoid mixing signals. Sir Kelm, take your men down the main street. Engage the enemy at your discretion, but fall back in the face of superior numbers or if Xol is spotted. I will send you reinforcements as needed; the other [Rider] and [Knight] patrols I will split up across side streets. We will be preparing to flank and ambush the enemy; all mounted forces are to prioritize withdrawing.”
“Hit and run tactics? But we brought—”
His sister was confused. Wil held up a hand, not looking at her as he checked the map.
“The Iron Vanguard has the numbers and superior soldiers. They’ve also fielded Xol, one of their War Walkers. We cannot take him.”
“If we used lances—”
He glanced up. Talia was taking a breath, ready to argue. Sir Kelm was watching, the [Captain] grinning. Wil glanced at the waiting officers. Some were watching him. He nodded shortly.
“If this were a situation where the both sides used lethal weapons, I wouldn’t have brought half as many [Knights]. Especially against the Iron Vanguard. They can’t kill our horses or unseat our cavalry as easily; but this is still the Professor’s game. We’re pushing in fast; the goal is still to reach the central plaza. Commander Wylint! These streets I want fortified! Here, here, and here!”
He stabbed chokepoints. It was easy. He’d memorized the map a week ago and he knew where the Iron Vanguard’s force roughly was. If you calculated how fast a Dullahan could run—they could dig in. After that…Talia was glaring at him.
“Wil! We can win this! I didn’t talk father into coming all this way just to run from a fight. Trust me, we can—”
“Knight Talia, the [Strategist] on the field is speaking.”
His sister fell silent. Wil nodded to Sir Kelm. The [Knight] saluted.
“By your order, Sir [Strategist]. What’s the signal for retreat in case of emergency?”
Of course. Wil hesitated.
“Three horn calls, Sir Kelm. My apologies.”
He nodded and Wil remembered. Don’t flush with embarrassment. Don’t panic. He switched to the Drowned Man.
“Captain Squallcut, at your service.”
The Drowned Man gave Wil a grin. One of his eyes was part fish and it winked with a pale, yellow light. The Terandrian officers shuddered. Wil glanced around.
“To your stations! Move those men up with Commander Wylint! Are you waiting for the Iron Vanguard to set a picnic!”
They jumped and ran. Squallcut laughed and gave Wil a bow that looked halfway sincere.
“So you’re not just able to plot a course through the ocean currents, then? A master on the deck.”
Wil felt a grin take over his face, unfamiliar. Wild. His heart was beating. He could feel it, louder than war drums.
“This is my ship, Captain Squallcut. Can I trust your men to take orders, or won’t they obey?”
The Drowned Man looked amused. He waved an arm and two more [Captains] followed him. One was a Gnoll with a peg leg, a bandana tied over her head. The second, a Garuda whose feathers on his legs had turned to scales.
“They came for a fight, not a Terandrian dancing lesson. If the orders are good, we’ll think of obeying.”
Feshi turned and bowed to the Gnoll [Captain]. The Gnoll grinned.
“So this is the Human who sailed us through the Kraken’s Gulch? He barks fire! Little land-cousin, does he have the courage to lead a [Storm Sailor] crew? And take the consequences of failure?”
The Gnoll [Strategist] hesitated. Wil answered for her. He didn’t know Gnolls, but he knew [Pirates].
“What’s your name, [Captain]?”
The Gnoll with the peg leg gave Wil a long look. She wore a cutlass at her side.
“They call me Saltears, boy. On the sea, that is. If you want my real name, ask me when I’m in irons.”
“Then stow your sword, Saltears. No one draws blood.”
“The Titan himself. And he’ll drown Storm Sailors in the waves if his orders aren’t obeyed.”
The Gnoll paused. She looked at Wil. The young man met her eyes and then the Garuda’s and Squallcut’s. They were watching him closely.
“I don’t need your men, [Captains]. But if you and your ship’s crews will fight, on land or sea, I’ll pad whatever my sister’s paying you myself. The Iron Vanguard will be attacking us from the rear. And we have to sally forth and reach the plaza. But mark me—if your crew won’t take my orders, you can wait on the sides. I mean to dance with Tulm the Mithril himself, and I’ll drag him over the world’s edge if I need to. There’s no room for mutiny in this battle. Understand?”
They waited. And then the same grin spread across three faces. Saltears removed her cutlass and tossed it backwards towards a [Storm Sailor].
“Boy, we’ll hold your harbor against six warships or twenty! The rest of my lads will move with your land slugs. Where do you want me?”
Wil bared his teeth.
“Can you punch through a street full of Dullahans? I want you to bring a message to a bunch of students fighting. There’s several hundred of them—some are officers, others are [Strategists]. Tell them I’m overseeing the command of Kallinad’s army. If they want to fight, they can flank the enemy soldiers. We’re all going towards the same spot. You need to cut through the Iron Vanguard to get there—and those clouds. [Mages] choked in them.”
The [Captains] looked up. Saltears perked up one of her ears.
“Good thing we’re not [Mages]. Say I do that. What then?”
“How’s thirty gold pieces for every officer you knock out sound?”
The Gnoll [Captain] grinned as a reply. Wil straightened. Negotiations were done. The [Captains] strolled past the soldiers forming up. Wil pointed.
“[Mages]! Hold those mists back. Sir Kelm, advance!”
The [Knight] raised a padded spear.
“Knights of the Autumn, with me!”
And then moved. Wil snatched his map and strode back. A group of [Mages] and officers approached him. The first thing he demanded was a table. He heard Talia mounting up behind him.
“Wil? Where do we go?”
Her voice was tentative. But it was a fair question. A group of knights in bright, burnished armor of gold, brass—the colors of summer—were lined up behind her. Wil raised his head.
Fighting. He pointed at the map.
“Move forwards. Gather at the second command spot. [Mages], you have your orders. Horse! Feshi—”
The Gnoll grinned at him. Her eyes flicked to Wil as he mounted up.
“You planned this. Am I part of the plans?”
“Only if you want to be. Can you ride?”
The Gnoll hesitated. Then she held up a hand. Wil pulled her onto the saddle. He felt her grab him as he turned to his sister.
“Talia! We’re supporting Sir Kelm! Take us down that street!”
His sister whooped as she lowered the visor on her helmet.
“Forward, Knights of Summer! Take the streets!”
She began riding forwards. Wil kicked the horse into motion. He saw Talia’s head twisting towards him and she raised her visor in alarm.
“Wil! Stay back! You’re trying to win, remember?”
“We need to push in. We’ll reform later. You need me.”
There was no time to argue. The [Knights] rode forwards, a solid body. Wil eyed the numbers. Disperse them later. For now, they were a fist. And he intended to gain as much ground as he could.
“Infantry ahead! They’re filling a street!”
A [Scout] raced back. Wil saw Humans already skirmishing with a group of Dullahans who’d blocked off a street exit ahead of him. It hadn’t even been ten minutes! The Iron Vanguard had lightning reflexes. He pointed at the group as the Knights of Summer slowed.
“Pull the soldiers back. We’re breaking through. Advance at a trot!”
Thunder. The Human [Soldiers] fell back. The Dullahans did not follow. They looked up and saw the riders coming at them. To their credit, the line only wavered. Then it formed into a solid formation. Braced. Wil kicked his horse.
Faster now. He could see the Dullahan [Sergeant] shouting orders as the [Knights] lowered the thin lances as spears. Wil shouted.
“Stow lances! Swords!”
Hesitation. He saw the [Knights] switching weapons. Spears might kill at this charge. The Dullahans were also pikeless. But they were still braced. They thought the [Knights] wouldn’t charge for fear of their horses injuring themselves. That was their only mistake.
On they came. Feshi was howling something behind Wil. He roared as the first rank of [Knights] closed on the ranks of Dullahans.
The Dullahans [Sergeant] raised his hand too late, eyes widening.
The impact sent Dullahans flying. Wil saw the formation scatter like pebbles before a wave. He shouted as he saw [Knights] lashing out with swords.
“Ride on! Keep moving! Avoid trampling!”
The Humans caught their horses just in time. The wounded Dullahans pulled back as the Knights of the Summer raced past them. Wil looked around. He bellowed one word.
They were already converging on the fight. Wil pointed, and his [Knights] rode onwards. Faster. He bared his teeth. Take as much ground as he could in the first few minutes. And then push! Push!
He could feel the Iron Vanguard reacting. Moving to slow his army’s advance, hold them back before they could consolidate their position. And soon he’d be sending the full weight of his army against Wil. Tulm the Mithril. Wil pointed ahead.
The clouds of grey iron waited. His [Knights] cut a path of silver as they rode into darkness. And then there was only thunder. And, waiting in the darkness, that magical shine. That flash of armor.
An army of silver raced across the streets below them. Venaz stared. Marian paced back and forth, counting. Umina rubbed at her eyes.
“Whoa. Is that the same Wil we know?”
He was racing at the head of a small vanguard of [Knights], some kind of elite Terandrian order. Umina looked at her classmates. They were almost petrified for a moment. Strangely, it was the City Runner they’d just met, Luan, who looked calmer. He looked up and met her eyes.
“Some game. Was this part of the plan as well?”
She grinned weakly.
“Dead gods. Wil called in his family’s army. If this were any other situation, this would be an act of war.”
Marian spoke slowly. She followed the Humans as hundred raced down the street. There were [Sailors] mixed in among them; Umina thought she saw a Gnoll with a peg leg. But her mind had to be playing tricks on her. Venaz nodded.
Both the Lizardgirl and Centaur looked at Venaz. Coming from him, that word said it all. The Minotaur glanced up. He gestured to the streets below.
“He’s turned this into a proper battle. This isn’t a game of seeking anymore. The Mithril has to engage the Humans or they’ll punch through and get him to the plaza. Look; the Iron Vanguard’s already pulling back.”
He pointed ahead. Only a few of Daquin’s streets were visible from their rooftop ahead of them, but Umina saw Dullahans in full retreat. She nodded slowly, watching the Humans capturing street after street. But what looked like a complete victory was just an illusion. Umina had already done a headcount and come to a few conclusions.
“They’re still outnumbered. The Iron Vanguard plus the Professor’s [Soldiers] still have at least a two-to-one advantage over Wil’s force. Plus, their main punching class is [Knight]. They’ve got horses, but not enough and they’re up against Dullahans. And the Iron Vanguard at that. Heavy-infantry specialists.”
“Mobility versus armor.”
Marian nodded. She was frowning. The Centauress glanced up at Venaz.
“It’s like the battles we’d play out, Venaz. Only, in these streets, Tulm has it.”
“Only if you discount the other students.”
The Minotaur snorted. He was eying a plume of smoke in the distance, arms folded.
“I see what Wil’s going for. He’s trying to link up with the other students who bought adventurer groups or mercenaries. There are at least a hundred students still in the game. If you put that many up against the Iron Vanguard—no matter how many officers they have, they’ll run out of Skills first. So with Tulm the Mithril. He can only use his active Skills so many times per battle. Like that terrain-changing Skill he used; he won’t be able to use it twice.”
He gestured at the roiling clouds, still engulfing a good portion of the city. They were growing thinner; [Mages] were actively fighting the clouds. But it was slowing the Human’s advance. Marian nodded.
“So, Wil’s trying to break the Iron Vanguard’s formation and mount a charge that gets him to the plaza. Failing that, he’ll trying to out-Skill Tulm with the students. It could work. The issue is whether or not he’s got an answer to all of Tulm’s high-level officers in his party.”
“If he has [Knights], the quality of his [Mages] are presumably—”
Luan glanced from [Strategist] to [Strategist]. Their shock of a minute ago had faded. Now they were casually discussing the unfolding scene as if they were at ease. He raised a hand.
“This is still part of the game?”
All three glanced at him. Umina blushed and Marian blinked.
“It’s a surprise.”
Luan stared at her. The Centauress didn’t look that surprised. His heart was still racing out of his chest. But they’d already begun talking tactics! Still, his comment reminded them why they were here. Venaz pounded a fist into a palm.
“Damn. I’ve been completely outmatched. Very well. Come on. Let’s go.”
He strode towards the stairs. Marian stared at him.
The Minotaur looked up as he checked his armor.
“I’m moving forwards. I came here to participate, not hide! Are you with me, or not?”
The Centauress hesitated. She looked at Umina.
“Yes. But the point isn’t to beat the Iron Vanguard. It’s to get to the plaza. Like it or not, Wil is going to open up a path for everyone if he starts taking ground. Better yet—I think we can use his army to our advantage. Venaz! Head left!”
Umina shot to her feet. Venaz was already clattering down the stairs. Luan followed them as he and Marian ran down the wide steps. He still had no idea what was going on, but they did. The Minotaur snorted.
“You want to take us away from the fighting?”
“You want to fight both Humans and Dullahans? Both sides will take us for foes!”
“Hm. Point. Which way, then?”
“Left! We’ll circle around the main advance. We just need to get behind the Iron Vanguard’s lines!”
The Minotaur nodded. He began jogging down the street. Umina waved at Marian. The Centauress held out a hand.
“Need a ride?”
“I’m fine! Let’s go! Follow Venaz! You too, Luan!”
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Luan muttered as he ran after the three. A formation of Humans was marching up towards them. Luan heard a shout.
“Uh oh. They’ve spotted us! Go, Venaz!”
The Minotaur turned and pounded down an alleyway, Luan ran after him. Marian galloped past him with ease; Umina panted as she ran just behind Luan. Venaz turned up a street, cursed, and pointed.
“Next alley! There’s fighting all over!”
Luan entered the second street, saw two [Mages] throwing spells at each other, and ran as a splash of some kind of yellow liquid hit the buildings across from him and steamed. He ran down the next alleyway, hearing shouts from behind. And above.
“Look! More students!”
“Which ones are they? Oh! I recognize that Minotaur! And the Lizardgirl! That’s Umina!”
“Hells, they know us. They’re giving us away!”
Marian growled. Venaz reached a second street and pointed up it.
“Not for long. Brace yourself. That fog—”
His voice was muffled. Luan entered the third street, saw the dark grey fog, and hesitated. Umina ran past him.
Cursing, Luan followed her. The street didn’t exactly vanish, but the instant Luan hit the outer edge of the dark, iron-tinted mists, the shouts and sounds around him grew dimmer. The air felt…heavy. His pace slowed. His breathing came a touch heavier.
“Jungle rot. This is a Skill. It’s hard to breathe! Everyone here?”
Marian slowed. Ahead of her, Venaz was looking around slowly. The fog had reduced visibility. Sound. Everything was halved for Luan. He could still see the three [Strategists] in front of him, but their voices were quieter. Umina frowned.
“This…is Tulm the Mithril’s terrain Skill. [Cold Iron Mists]. Dead gods. This is the Skill he used when he beat Professor Fleethoof in battle.”
“Selphid’s tits. And he’s using it on us?”
Marian’s face was pale. Venaz shook his head. He took a breath, frowning.
“Damn air. But this works against him as well. Even if his troops are immune to the effects, visibility is still low on both sides. We can sneak through. Come on.”
He led the way down the street at a slower pace. Luan followed, hair standing up on his neck. A Skill had done this? Suddenly his [Lesser Strength] Skill and his other abilities he’d thought were too powerful seemed paltry by comparison. The three [Strategists] moved slowly, heads spinning left and right. Umina breathed in and out, taking huge gulps of air.
“We don’t want to go too far. The Iron Vanguard’s holding the center of the city. We just want to get closer and find another hiding spot. An apartment—”
Venaz held a hand. All four suddenly paused. Venaz frowned. Marian cupped a hand to an ear.
“I thought I heard—”
The shout came from all around them. Suddenly, the mists exploded as a group of Dullahans and three Centaurs raced out of the street. They’d been hugging the walls! Luan spun as nearly twenty rushed the four of them. Marian reared.
“Umina! Get behind me!”
The Lizardgirl grabbed at her belt. Luan hesitated. The [Soldiers] were armed! And he’d forgotten to grab anything like a weapon. But they wouldn’t kill him—
Just break every bone in his body! He dodged back as a Dullahan swung a cudgel at him. Marian grabbed an arrow. It was thick, with a heavy pouch of sand for a tip. She drew and loosed and the Dullahan charging her cursed as her arrow struck him across the cheek. A heavy blow. But he still came onwards. Marian swung her bow. Luan dodged backwards again, collided with Umina as she ducked a Centaur racing at her. Luan stumbled, and then felt the club strike his arm. He shouted in pain, raised a hand—
And Venaz grabbed the Dullahan, tore the club from the armored [Soldier]’s grip, and then hurled the Dullahan through the air, armor and all. The Dullahan crashed into three of his friends and they all went down. The Minotaur turned, punched the Centaur targeting Umina in the chest, and hit another Dullahan with a thwack that Luan almost felt. The Centaur stumbled and knelt; the Dullahan just fell backwards without a sound.
“You idiots! Grab a weapon and fight!”
Venaz roared at the others. He tossed the club at Luan and whirled. He didn’t bother with a weapon; the Dullahan charging him struck with a wooden sword at Venaz’s stomach. But he hadn’t noticed the Minotaur’s armor. The wooden sword bounced off the metal. The Dullahan swore. Then Venaz grabbed him. The Minotaur head-butted the struggling Dullahan, tossed him to the ground and kicked.
A female Dullahan with armor flew back six paces, her armor bent around the hoof print in the steel. The Dullahan patrol halted for a second and stared. Eight of the twenty down in seconds! Venaz turned. The Minotaur roared across the street, his voice cutting even through the heavy fog.
“I am Venaz! Foremost student of the Titan himself! Come at me, you pathetic cowards!”
They hesitated. Then they did just that. Luan gripped the club with two hands and swung desperately. He nailed a Dullahan across the shoulder as he appeared out of the mists, and tripped up another with a foot. He kicked as the Dullahan stumbled and swore; the Dullahan’s armor was hard! But he knocked the Dullahan down. Before the [Soldier] could get up, Luan hit him across the back of the head. Not as hard as he could have; with his [Lesser Strength] Skill, the Dullahan’s eyes still rolled up and her head popped out of her armor.
Marian drew an arrow and loosed it. The blunted sand-filled pouch struck a Dullahan straight between the eyes. He stumbled and fell forwards. Umina was ducking, dodging as Venaz took on half the patrol by himself. She reached into a pouch and hurled something into the eyes of a Dullahan. He shouted and reached a hand up as he swung blindly. Umina dodged back and Marian knocked him out with an arrow as well. She whirled—Luan raised his club.
“Help Venaz! Go left! I’ll use a Skill! Umina, get behind—”
The two stopped shouting and turned around. They looked around. And then they realized that the fighting had stopped. Venaz straightened as he dropped a pair of [Soldiers] he’d bashed together. The Minotaur grunted, wiped at his armor, and looked around.
“You got yours, then? Good. Grab a weapon if you don’t have one and keep moving! We’re sure to have attracted attention.”
He began trotting down the street. After a second he noticed he wasn’t being followed and came back with a huge scowl.
“You just took out fourteen [Soldiers] by yourself!”
Marian pointed accusingly at Venaz. He looked around, and a mildly smug expression crossed his face.
“Well, they were clearly low-level. I didn’t see the [Sergeant] or [Lieutenant] leading this group. Maybe he was the one I dropped at the start? It would explain why they fell apart so quickly. It just goes to show that you can find trash in any army. Raw recruits; the Mithril should have brought veterans. But he underestimated me.”
He looked around. Marian was still staring. Umina rubbed her head.
“Even so. Are you a [Warrior], Venaz? I’d expect that from Jekilt, but Minotaur or not—!”
She gestured at the bodies. Venaz snorted impatiently.
“Do I look like I wasted levels on a fighting class? No! I have a few levels, but I’m a [Strategist] to the core. Come on. Stop wasting time!”
He set off. Luan staggered after him and after a beat, the Centaur and Lizardgirl followed. The Minotaur led them through the fogs, grunting and following the buildings on the left side of the street. After a moment, Marian spoke up again.
“Okay, so how did you do that? And don’t tell me it was your armor; you didn’t use a single artifact. Unless you have some kind of potion?”
“What, you mean like a battle pill? Do I look that weak?”
Venaz gave her a scornful glance. Marian opened her mouth and Umina slid between them.
“Venaz, you know what Marian means. You’re clearly good at fighting. Are all Minotaurs as good as you or did you learn that somewhere?”
The Minotaur slowed. He looked back with a smile.
“I learned it, of course. And Minotaurs are good. But no one is as good as me. Why do you think I’m here?”
He stomped on. After a second, Marian frowned.
“Here as in on Baleros? In the Titan’s class?”
“Obviously. Keep up, Marian. You’re normally quicker than that.”
“You’re the best among your kind?”
Venaz turned to look at Luan. The [Rower] was rubbing one arm; he’d used a tiny bit of healing potion, but he wasn’t looking forwards to getting hit again! Still, it beat walking around with a huge bruise for a week.
“That’s right. I won the competition for the honor of learning from the Titan himself. Everyone in the House of Minos under thirty years of age participated. And I was the best, the sharpest, bar none. Or did you think my people would have funded me to learn here if I wasn’t the best at what I did?”
Umina whistled softly.
‘Wow. So you beating those [Soldiers]—”
Venaz waved a gauntleted hand.
“Skill at arms isn’t difficult to come by. Other species mistake Skills and levels for combat prowess. Minotaurs do not. I’ve pitted myself against seasoned warriors many times before. Against a Level 20 foe I’d have to get serious. Level 30 and it’s difficult, but doable. Even higher-level foes can be taken down in the right circumstances. And to learn from the Professor, I beat a Level 28 [Armored Veteran] in a duel with bared swords. There were hundreds of competitors; everyone wanted to win. I even beat our [Prince] for the honor.”
“You have a royalty?”
“You still owe me money.”
Everyone paused. Luan shrugged.
“Just adding that. So you’re one of the best, Venaz, friend?”
The Minotaur grinned at the Human man.
“Let’s just say that with this armor on and my bag of holding, I won’t be an easy target, even against the Iron Vanguard. They probably have no idea how strong I am. Marian doesn’t.”
He glanced back at the Centauress, who’d bitten her lip. Umina nodded.
“No wonder you keep arguing with the professor over your ‘lead from the front’ philosophy. You can’t fight in training matches.”
“He forbids it. Well, I’m perfectly content to crush my opponents with my mind. I’ll save my talents for actual combat for when I take to the field. And for this game. Now. Enough gossip. Let’s move out. These mists are hard enough to fight in without walking into another ambush.”
The others fell silent. And now they did follow Venaz with a will, because the Minotaur clearly knew what he was doing. He made less sound with his armor on than Umina and Luan did—let alone Marian with her hooves clopping on the street. The Minotaur was listening as he slid down the street—thanks to that, the students heard the second patrol well before they spotted them.
“Damn fog. I’m blind as a Dropbat out here. That Tulm the Mithril must want to win this all on his own because we’re not going to spot a thing until his Skill ends! How long do you think it’ll take?”
A voice floated up the street, a loudly grousing [Soldier]. It was clearly not one of the Iron Vanguard; as a few shadows appeared, the students and Luan crouched by a stairwell. The patrol walked past them, still talking.
“Forgotten Wing soldiers. Our lot. They’re not keeping to noise discipline!”
Umina hissed at the others. Marian made a face as she drew an arrow.
“Should they? This is probably just as bad for them as us! It sounds like they’re not included as being on Tulm’s side! Makes sense; they’re not his people.”
“This is your Professor’s men, yeah?”
Luan looked at the passing shapes as he whispered at Marian and Umina. They nodded. Venaz growled.
“They’re not on our side. But they don’t enjoy working with the Iron Vanguard. We can use that. Follow me. We’ll sneak around.”
He rose to his feet and stealthily moved up. Luan followed him, then Umina. The aggrieved patrol walked onwards, still talking.
“An hour? Yeah. Sounds about right. So that means an hour of walking around in this crap.”
“At least we’re not fighting the Iron Vanguard. I served with Fleethoof. You know. In the battle.”
“No kidding, [Captain]?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just say that the sooner this game’s over and I see the back of that damned Dullahan, the better. He can bite my equine ass if he thinks we’ll help him win. With that said, ten gold pieces is still ten gold pieces. And if we do run across a bunch of arrogant little snots thinking they can sneak past us—”
The soldiers turned. Luan whirled around as he heard galloping hooves. Marian, drawing an arrow, yelped as a Centaur [Captain] charged out of the mists and rammed into her. He had a staff in one hand and whirled it. Marian took a hit across the head and torso as the Centaur whirled.
“There’s four! Surround them and—”
He dodged backwards as Venaz lashed out with a kick. The Centaur blocked with his staff; the wood bowed inwards and splintered with the impact, but the staff held. He swore and backed up.
“They’ve got a good fighter! Get over here!”
Running footsteps. Umina reached for her belt as Luan held his club up. Marian scrambled backwards as Venaz advanced with his arms raised, grinning. The Centauress shouted at Luan and Umina.
“I’ll back that idiot up. You two, run. We’re bait—secure our next spot!”
So saying, she charged a [Soldier] coming out of the mist. Luan looked at Umina. She pointed down the street.
The patrol raced after them, but Luan and Umina were already moving and the fog obscured vision, and the pounding footsteps were hard to place. They settled for Marian and Venaz. The two whirled, keeping the group back. The [Captain] faced off against Venaz. He whirled his staff; the Minotaur grunted as he blocked a strike aimed at his chest, and then his chin in quick succession.
“I’ve got him, Captain!”
Someone shouted from behind Venaz. A Lizardman lunged forwards, swinging a cudgel. He connected solidly with Venaz’ back and heard an unpleasant clang.
A seven-foot tall Minotaur wearing full plate armor raised his fist as he turned around. The five foot six Lizardman [Soldier] looked at his cudgel. He backed up too slow. The thump of the Lizardman hitting the ground made the other Forgotten Wing soldiers wince. They backed up as the [Captain] came at Venaz again. The Minotaur was laughing and shouting.
“Forwards! For glory and the House of Minos!”
The sound came from behind them as Luan and Umina staggered out of a cloud. The Lizardgirl hissed.
“The mist’s lifted here! That means we either went the wrong way—or someone lifted the fog around here!”
Luan looked around wildly.
“Why would they do that? And where do we go?”
“Anywhere. We just need to secure a route away from that patrol. Hurry! Let’s make sure the street is clear. I have some wards—anyways, the only reason someone would do that is if it was someone against the Iron Vanguard. Or if they needed to cast magic—”
She stopped. Both she and Luan looked around. They saw an empty street. Empty windows, too. And in one apartment, dripping water. Almost as if—
A shape floated out over a balcony. Umina flattened herself in a shadow and Luan crouched at once. A Dullahan with shining crystal built into his armor was floating through the air at street level, her head floating next to her body, swiveling back and forth. The Lizardgirl hissed at Luan.
“Oh hell, [Mage]! She must have heard the fighting. Hold on—distract her!”
The Lizardgirl didn’t answer. She was creeping sideways, risking being spotted to get behind the Dullahan. Luan cursed.
“Just a game. Just a game—twenty gold pieces. Hey you! Down here!”
He jumped out and waved his hands. Instantly the Dullahan looked down. Before Luan could blink, she dropped out of the sky. Her head was on her shoulders in a moment. She pointed a finger at him. Luan swore and raised the club. She was fast!
The Dullahan ducked as the club spun over her head. She pointed at Luan’s chest.
Water shot upwards from the ground, engulfing Luan in a second. The [Rower] struggled, arms flailing. He didn’t panic; he’d been in situations like this before. He just had to swim free—Luan’s eyes widened as he realized the water was thick. And it was keeping him in the center! Air was only a foot away, but he couldn’t make his body move as he tried to swim towards it. He saw the Dullahan smile slightly. Then her eyes narrowed. She spun as Umina burst out, shouting.
Choking, submerged in water, he saw the Lizardgirl hurl something at the [Mage]’s face. The Dullahan raised a hand and a shimmering barrier appeared, but it couldn’t block the cloud of dust. The particles swirled around the shield and the [Mage] doubled over. Luan flailed desperately, saw Umina run forwards as the [Mage] tried to point at her—
The water surrounding Luan collapsed. He hit the ground as it splashed around him, coughing and gasping for air. He crawled up and saw Umina racing towards him.
“Are you hurt? Sorry, I had to get into place!”
Luan coughed up some water. He felt her slap him on the back and got up.
“I’m fine. What did you do? How’d you get—”
He looked at the Dullahan. Her head had rolled off her shoulders and she was unconscious. Umina grinned weakly.
“Just some flour and grit. It gets in the lungs and you hack a lot, but that’s all. [Mages] hate stuff like that, though. They can’t concentrate. Good thing her barrier spell was so poor. Low-level [Mages] usually use shield spells, not full-body protection spells. That’s a mistake, especially against clouds and other tricks like that.”
“How’d you get her to stop the spell?”
“I kicked her in the head. That works too.”
Luan stared at Umina. Somehow he’d expected something more impressive. The Lizardgirl shrugged.
“Anti-mage tactics on a budget. I learned that getting into fights back at home. There’s always someone who’s got a [Sorcerer] spell and they can scorch your tail right off if you let them. Don’t worry, she’s just unconscious. Now, help me set up!”
So saying, Umina grabbed what looked like strips of paper and handed a stack to Luan. He stared blankly at them.
“What’s this for?”
“They’re ward talismans. They’ll keep anyone from reaching us if we stick them on the alley entrances. Confusion ward, I think. They’re not mine. Venaz gave them to me.”
Umina held up a piece of paper about as wide as Luan’s hand and a bit longer. He blinked, and then grinned in sudden delight as he recognized them.
“Are those talismans? Ofuda?”
They looked exactly like the Japanese warding charms he’d seen from their culture. The symbology didn’t look exactly like Kanji, but the concept was the same. Umina looked blank.
“What? Maybe. These are pretty strong! They should work on that patrol and these are…anti-scrying wards! Venaz really did come prepared! These are Drathian—here, put these up on the alleyway. I need to figure out where we are. Excuse me, this map…”
She indicated the ones Luan should put up. Gingerly, almost reverentially, he stuck the warding papers on the alley they’d come through, four of them. Two made him vaguely nauseous as he stared at the glowing ink, and the other two had some kind of closed eye inscribed amid the magical writing. They weren’t sticky, but somehow, when he placed them, they instantly gripped the stone brickwork as if they’d been glued in place.
For a second Luan let his inner fan of Japanese culture escape. He wished Ken were here to see this! Then he turned to Umina.
“All done. What next?”
“Call them! Venaz! Marian!”
Umina shouted down into the alleyway, into the mists. Luan took a breath as well and bellowed as loudly as he could.
“This way! Street’s clear!”
For a moment he only heard distant sound of fighting and shouts. Then pounding footsteps, growing louder rapidly. Luan stood back just in time; Venaz hurtled through the alleyway, half-carrying Marian. She had a black eye and several discolored bruises on her arms already.
“She just took a few hits. Move aside.”
Venaz grunted and grabbed a potion from his bag of holding. Unceremoniously, he uncorked it and splashed Marian in the face with it. The Centaur gasped and came back to life. She staggered to her hooves, looking around wildly.
“We won free. And you used the talismans. Good work.”
Venaz trotted over to the alleyway. He frowned at the four glowing ward papers and then at Umina and Luan.
“You didn’t need to use four. Two is enough. One for the patrol, one to blank scrying.”
Umina looked embarrassed.
“Sorry. I didn’t know how strong they were. Can you remove them?”
“Too late. They’re activated. These are high-quality. Even a Level 40 [Warrior] would get turned around. Unless that [Captain] has a [Scout]’s Skills or an artifact, we’re safe. It doesn’t matter. I have more.”
Venaz flicked his fingers. Absently, he rubbed at one horn and cursed.
“He wasn’t bad. Those [Soldiers] nearly got us. Why is there no mist here? Have we gone the wrong way?”
Umina pointed silently. Venaz noticed the unconscious Dullahan [Mage] at last.
“Ah. Good work, you two. It seems this Skill affects even the Mithril’s own [Mages]. Good to know…where are we?”
Marian sat down for a second to catch her breath. Umina shook her head as she investigated her map.
“We’ve gone down several streets. I don’t know where we are exactly until we get onto a roof.”
“Better not. They’re watching the roofs.”
“Right. Well, I think we’re a lot closer to the plaza now. We’ll know once we run into the fighting.”
“Yes. I’d like to know how far Wil’s forces have pushed in. We’re moving blind. But we are getting closer. I can feel it.”
“Oh, you can feel it? I can feel a knot on the back of my head.”
Marian scowled at Venaz. He ignored her as he glanced up and down the street. He grabbed another bottle from his bag of holding and tossed it at Marian.
“Enough rest. Stamina potion. Drink a mouthful if you’re tired; its top-tier so don’t waste it. Let’s keep moving; those charms only ward the alley behind us, not in front.”
He began striding forwards. Marian got to her feet with a grimace. Luan declined the potion although Umina took a swig.
“Whoa. It even tastes good. Venaz, exactly what else do you have in that bag of holding besides those charms? They’re from the Drath Archipelago, aren’t they?”
“Of course. The House of Minos trades with the Drathians. They have useful tools. And most other species have a lot fewer counters to them. I have a few other…surprises. But nothing I’d care to use just yet. We are still competitors, Umina. Marian.”
The Minotaur shook his head. Luan eyed his back.
“So let me get this straight. One of your classmates brought in an army. And you brought a bag of holding, some artifacts and some armor, and you two have some potions, alchemist weapons, and flour.”
He looked at Umina. She blushed.
“Well, if it works…”
“I chose the wrong team, didn’t I?”
Venaz turned his head to glare at Luan.
“In the first place, if this were a survival game, or one of the Professor’s games where he demanded we hunt down monsters—I brought weaponry.”
“For a game of hide-and-seek in a city, Venaz? Really?”
The Minotaur snorted.
“It’s not always simply hiding or seeking. Sometimes the Professor changes the rules. If he unleashed Wyverns like he did in the last competition—”
Luan stared at Venaz as the [Strategist] broke off and grumbled under his breath. He looked at Umina.
“What kind of person is your teacher?”
The Lizardgirl smiled.
It was such a genuine remark Luan had no reply to that. He looked around. Umina cleared her throat.
“Anyways, it’s not as if the Professor’s the one targeting us. He set this up, but Tulm the Mithril’s our opponent. And he—”
Venaz snapped. Luan, Umina, and Marian looked up. They tensed, ready for another skirmish. But this time the fight had come and gone before them.
A group of Dullahan [Soldiers], Humans, and even a pair of horses were all lying on the ground, being tended to by a small band of Lizardfolk wearing robes. They looked up as the students halted. Instantly, one of their number strode forwards. It was an old Lizardwoman. She raised her hand as Venaz made a fist and lowered his head to charge.
“[Healers]! Back off, or we’ll have you expelled from the game!”
The students and Luan hesitated. Now they saw the [Healers] were bending over the injured, tending to bleeding wounds with healing potion or poultices. They were even treating internal bleeding and broken bones, setting the wounds before applying healing potion or magical salves. The [Healer] who’d stopped the students raised an eyebrow.
“Oh. You’re the poor fools who still haven’t been caught. Do you have any damage we need to clean up?”
“We ran into two patrols a few streets back.”
Venaz jerked a thumb over his shoulder, still looking wary. The [Healer] sighed exasperatedly.
“How bad? And if you’ve hurt them badly—”
“Just bruises. Maybe a concussion or two. Broken ribs at worst. Don’t worry. I held back.”
The Minotaur smirked. The Lizardwoman gave him a look which removed the smirk. She sighed and gestured.
“Roleis, Armiga, you two see what’s wrong over there.”
Two of the [Healers] got up. Marian opened her mouth, hesitating. The old Lizardwoman noticed and smiled.
“Don’t worry; these [Soldiers] aren’t continuing. Titan’s orders. No one gets hurt. Still, if there aren’t a dozen deaths by the end of the day, I’ll be surprised. Horses, people—accidents happen when you have idiots charging each other with sticks, even if they are padded! Some game.”
She scowled angrily. Venaz looked at his companions.
“Who did the fighting here? Kallinad’s forces? From the docks? It looks like they took this street. Why didn’t they hold it?”
The [Healer] sighed.
“It’s all hit and away. It keeps us running, but those Humans aren’t getting any closer, even with their [Knights]. The Iron Vanguard has stalled them and both groups are clashing in the streets without getting into a big confrontation. That will change soon; I know your lot. Hotheaded, the lot. But why am I telling you?”
She eyed Venaz severely. The Minotaur ignored her; his eyes were narrowed on the street ahead.
“We can use this. So long as we don’t run into too many patrols, we still have a chance.”
“Fat chance of them going after you. Hey, does anyone have a scrying orb? Maybe they’ll show you bashing heads so we know where to find your victims.”
The Lizardwoman [Healer] glared. Luan looked from her to Marian and Umina, who were arguing over the map and their location.
“So there are two companies fighting? Or is it three? I’m not clear on that.”
The [Healer] raised her brows as she turned to Luan. She seemed to figure out he wasn’t a student at once, because she gave Luan a more measured—and polite—reply.
“There are two companies doing the seeking. The [Soldiers] of the Forgotten Wing company, and the Iron Vanguard. We belong to the Forgotten Wing company, and so do these three nominally, at least.”
She gestured at Marian, Umina, and Venaz.
“It makes sense our soldiers aren’t seeking your friends as hard as the Iron Vanguard; they don’t want to get that badly hurt, no matter the prize. Ten gold isn’t worth fighting him.”
She pointed to Venaz, who looked pleased at the compliment. Luan focused on the second part of her statement. He’d heard that before.
“Ten gold pieces per student? That’s what the soldiers get for capturing someone?”
He glanced sideways at Marian. The Centauress looked up and tossed her head.
“Don’t get any funny ideas. You’re being paid more to help us, remember? And this is guaranteed money.”
Umina nodded absently. She sidled up to the old [Healer] who seemed content to talk while her coworkers actually did the healing.
“Excuse me, Miss Healer? Could I ask you to show us where we are?”
“What, and help you cheat?”
The old woman exploded. Umina winced. The Lizardwoman hesitated and eyed Umina.
“Well, it couldn’t hurt. What with those Terandrians bringing an army in. You’re Umina, aren’t you? My granddaughter’s your age. Alright, show me. Yes, yes…you’re right about here. And before you ask, no, I don’t know where the fighting is. But if you listen, they’re probably…”
She bent over the map. Venaz edged over to see with Marian. Luan looked at the injured soldiers. All this fighting. It made more sense now. You had to reward everyone taking part, or give them a chance. He frowned to himself.
“A game. If that’s the case, why not…”
An idea nagged at his head. Then he heard a curse. Venaz was looking up and down the street and Umina was folding her map. Marian galloped down the street and came back instantly.
“You were right! There are at least a hundred coming down the street!”
“[Soldiers]? Which side?”
“Does it matter? We’re going to be pounded flat either way! We have to outrun them!”
“But that’s the way we have to go to the plaza! Maybe we can break through. I have—”
Venaz was rummaging in his bag of holding. The [Healer] snapped at once.
“No more fighting! The wounded need to be cleared out! I forbid you to use an artifact!”
“We need to go forwards. We’re running out of time!”
The Minotaur pointed at the sun, which was nearly on its way to becoming evening. The Lizardwoman drew in a breath, and Luan grabbed her arm gently. He looked up the street where the unmistakable sound of marching boots was coming from.
She yanked her arm free of Luan’s grip and glared at him.
“Threaten me, and the Titan will feed you to the worms, no matter who you are. This isn’t up for debate. That goes for you. Prized students or not—”
She rounded on Venaz. Luan raised his voice urgently.
“No. I was just wondering—you’re prohibited from fighting, but would you be willing to earn some gold?”
The [Healer] paused. And the other [Healers] who’d been tending to their tasks looked up. Marian, Venaz, and Umina looked at Luan sharply. The Lizardwoman glanced over her shoulder and then around, as if looking for watchers. Then she eyed Luan.
Half a minute later, a huge patrol of the Iron Vanguard came down the street. They were ready for a fight; [Soldiers] armed with shields and heavy clubs were at the front, with archers and padded arrows and [Mages] following behind. They even had two of the Midnight Shields leading their group. They stopped when they saw the wounded on the street. The Lizardwoman strode up to them at once, scowling.
“We’re [Healers]! This lot just got taken out! Keep clear of the injured or I’ll have your head!”
She pointed. The [Commander] leading the battalion hesitated. He eyed the injured Humans, Dullahans, and others alike. It was impossible to tell who had belonged to which side as the wounded groaned or tried to sit up.
You could guess in broad terms, but there had been some Dullahans even among the [Storm Sailors] and Humans were employed in the Iron Vanguard, however infrequently. He frowned at a Minotaur lying still on the ground in full plate armor. He looked unharmed—until you saw the red blood smeared across his neck. He also stank. A Centaur was lying next to him, nursing both arms in a sling while a Lizardgirl moaned as a healing potion was being poured over her. A dark-skinned man was sitting against a wall as a [Healer] held up some fingers.
“We need to get through.”
“Take a side street, then. We can’t move the injured.”
The [Healer] snapped at the Dullahan. He hesitated, then nodded.
“Acceptable. But let us cast one spell. [Geomancer], forward! Seal the street.”
“Hold on. You can’t—”
The [Healer] jumped as, behind her, a wall of stone rose, neatly blocking off the street behind the wounded. The Dullahan [Commander] winced at the ferocity of the old Drake’s stare. He removed is head and bowed it slightly.
“Our apologies for the disturbance, Miss Healer. We have our orders.”
The Lizardwoman folded her arms, unimpressed.
“Get to it, then. And don’t interfere with our jobs any more, or you won’t see us when someone splits your head open.”
The Dullahan [Commander] nodded and after checking his helmet to make sure it was secured tightly, ordered his men down a side street. The [Healer] watched him go, and then waited for a minute. After that, she looked at the Minotaur, Lizardgirl, Centauress, and Human, who were all sitting up.
“Well, well, well. It looks like one of you has a brain after all.”
“More than just a brain. Brilliant idea, Luan. I knew hiring you was worth it.”
Marian got to her hooves, looking delighted. Umina was smiling fit to burst and even Venaz looked pleased. The [Healer] who’d been pretending to tend to her cleared his throat meaningfully.
“Speaking of which…”
“Of course. Here.”
Marian counted out some coins. The gold and silver vanished into the [Healer]’s palms and the Lizardman gave her a delighted bow.
“Much obliged, Miss [Strategist].”
The others crowded around for their share. One of them however looked troubled.
“Is this cheating? Our orders were—”
The Lizardwoman shoved past him, with a claw outstretched.
“I don’t see a problem with it. If the Titan had a problem with us, he would have added it to the rules. Do you see a problem?”
She tossed several gold coins at the other [Healer]. He perked up.
“You know, I’m feeling a lot better about it. Gold is a very therapeutic metal.”
“You said it.”
Marian sighed as she handed out the rest of the money. She scowled into her own bag of holding and glanced up.
“I’m spending a fortune today. Venaz, you’re paying me at least half back.”
“You’ll get it. Stop nagging me. If I had my money pouch…”
Venaz stomped past them. He glanced at the Lizardwoman and his gaze became calculating.
“How much would it cost to escort us towards the plaza? We’ll triple Marian’s payment.”
The Centauress choked, but Umina nodded.
“Not a bad idea. Let’s get as far as we can with this.”
The [Healer] hesitated, but then she shook her head, reluctantly.
“Ah! We can’t leave our area. We do have a job and lives are on the line. You’re on your own after this. Good luck; hope you win. I’d love to see the Iron Vanguard get their tails tweaked.”
She folded her arms. Venaz sighed and cursed, but he didn’t try to argue. The four set off again. Luan hurried after them and Umina turned to him. She smiled.
“Really good idea, Luan. I wish I’d thought of it.”
“Worth twenty gold coins?”
“I’m glad I hired you. I knew my Skill was steering me the right way. If you have any other ideas, we’d love to hear them.”
The two [Strategists] gave Luan approving looks. Venaz grunted.
“Yes, well, recall that I was the first one to hire him.”
“Yes, yes. Now, let’s keep moving. We’re closing in. There’re only few dozen streets between us and the plaza at most. We can take a circuitous route here to avoid more patrols until we get to the Iron Vanguard’s really fortified streets—”
All four ducked. Luan grabbed for the club and realized he’d dropped it while pretending to be wounded. He dodged behind Venaz as he looked around for the sound and then up—
Umina, Marian, Venaz, and Luan stared up at an open window. The apartments were filled with faces. And more people were standing on the rooftops! The cold iron mists had begun to dissipate, and the people of Daquin were watching the students with avid expressions. Someone shouted.
“That’s Venaz! And Umina! And uh—”
“Miss Marian! Who’s the Human?”
Excited voices called from above. Luan saw a Lizardboy waving excitedly at Venaz. Shouts filled the street at once.
“We saw you trash that patrol! Excellent punch!”
“Umina! Umina, will you marry m—”
Bemused, the students waved up at the windows. Venaz snorted, looking pleased and annoyed.
“Idiots. They’ll blow our cover.”
“Too late to change it.”
Marian smiled and waved, causing a male Centaur half her age to swoon. Umina looked up and frowned. Then she raised her arms and waved back.
“Then let’s use this. Hey yourselves! Anyone have a scrying orb? What’s the situation look like? Is Wil—I mean, are the Humans winning?”
Umina, Marian, Venaz, and the unfortunate City Runner they’d hired. To some, their tale was all-encompassing, the most important story unfolding in Daquin. It certainly was to the individuals in question. But the truth was that their struggle was just one of hundreds unfolding in the city.
Students running for their lives. Turning, fighting. Outwitting foes left and right. Triumphing, failing—the image of their battle against the Iron Vanguard was a never-ending shift of perspectives. Not one tale was told, or even fifty. It was all of the most significant dramas, with commentary, replays, twists and turns—
Some might have called it too many perspectives to keep track of. And it was true that some students were captured without much agonizing on parts of the audience. But others were names.
Wil Kallinad. Merrik, the Dwarf. Peki of Pomle. The [Rogue], Silk. Jekilt and his band of [Soldiers]. And yes, even Venaz. The Minotaur was certainly popular with his people if no one else. But to the disappointment of many, he had only appeared once in the scrying orb as the main focus in a satisfying, if short dustup. Umina’s defeat of the [Hydromancer] had also been caught, incidentally, as had their trick with the [Healers].
In truth, their perspective was, as of this moment, rather inconsequential compared to the other students who’d been making waves. Niers had watched as, with audible groans, the people in the plaza witnessed Jekilt finally subdued by a vanguard led by Tulm himself. The Mithril cornered the Centaur [Captain] with calm detachments of soldiers, slowly boxing the Centaur in until Jekilt was taken out from afar with a spell. But if Jekilt’s defeat was the talk of the hour, Wil’s dramatic battle with the Iron Vanguard was the hottest thing this century.
And it was only getting hotter. Niers watched as the company that had missed Venaz and the others walked straight into an ambush by nearly two hundred [Soldiers]. The Dullahans put their backs up as well as their shields as enchanted arrows rained from the rooftops and [Foot Soldiers] rushed in from all sides. But the ambush was a feint; the Dullahans in fact outnumbered their attackers, and they were meant to be held in place as Wil’s forces tried to seize a choke point five streets over.
They succeeded, but not before Xol had waded into the ambush and taken out two dozen [Soldiers] himself. Both sides drew back as Wil’s Human army advanced and the Iron Vanguard regrouped for another push outwards. Across the city, the students still fighting towards the plaza clashed with the Iron Vanguard and Forgotten Wing [Soldiers]. This was the stalemate that had occupied the city for the last two hours.
Bloody melees, feints, ambushes—the Iron Vanguard were giving ground as the students and the Kallinad forces advanced. But both sides were being ground down and the numbers lay with Tulm. And the students had yet to penetrate the inner third of the city around the plaza. So were they really winning?
No. They were not. To the excitable Noass and Sir Relz, each gained street was a cause for triumph and damn impartiality. But to Niers, it looked like Tulm had held his ground splendidly against Wil’s advance. He had given ground, yes, but he was whittling down the Humans. And he had the numbers to win a purely defensive battle around the plaza, even fighting from all sides.
“Still. They have a chance. If they manage to link up with Merrik’s group. Or if they can just take out Xol, or Tulm himself—”
Perorn clenched a fist as she watched through the scrying orb. Two seconds later her face appeared in the orb, repeating herself word for word. The Centaur turned and scowled at Teura in real time. She trotted back from the half-Elf [Mage] and towards Niers, who was watching from his pedestal in the center of his circle. He was still surrounded by the Midnight Shields. The Dullahans didn’t budge, even for Perorn.
They stared at the Centaur. Niers sighed.
“Perorn, if you want to discuss with me, I’m afraid I’ll have to come to you. One moment.”
He got up from his pedestal, touched a ring, and leapt twelve feet through the air and onto the head of a Dullahan in black armor. The Dullahan twitched as Niers strode up his helmet to talk down to Perorn.
“What do you think?”
The [Galewinds Strategist] folded her arms. Niers raised an eyebrow.
“I think you’re biased.”
“Of course I am. Or are you telling me you’d prefer that b—prefer Tulm to win?”
Niers shrugged. He was aware of Teura edging closer for a better view, probably amplifying his words at a distance.
“I’ve merely set the stage. The winner is the most deserving. Of course, I’m watching my student’s contributions. All of them.”
He looked pointedly past Perorn. She turned and Teura’s head snapped around. There came Tulm. He was escorting Jekilt into the plaza. The defeated Centaur looked visibly upset; he still had scorch marks from the flame walls that had boxed him in. Tulm strode over to his war table, ignoring the [Mages] clustered around him, asking for a comment. Niers rolled his eyes.
“Look at this. Will we have Wistram’s [Mages] on every battlefield after this, I wonder?”
“Only the important ones. And once we put an arrow or two through them ‘accidentally’, I think they’ll stop hanging around.”
Perorn pawed the ground restlessly. Niers shook his head.
“But they might well be everywhere. If—ah. Hold on.”
He broke off and leapt back to his pedestal. Something was happening. Tulm’s head snapped up as a shout went up.
The streets were mostly clear of individual students at this point. A few groups, like Venaz’s, had managed to get by with few or no helpers like Luan. But by and large, any student who hadn’t had the foresight to team up or hire help was now caught. And the streets were so inundated with soldiers that hiding near the plaza was all but impossible.
Ironically, if you were hiding at a distance, you were probably safe. No one cared about the students who’d decided to wait it out. But around the plaza, the Iron Vanguard was patrolling in so many numbers and in such force that anyone would be caught in moments.
Indeed, a score of students using [Invisibility], illusion, and even [Polymorph] spells and items had been caught by the [Mages] watching for any kinds of magical movement. Over the roofs or on the ground; their nets were stretched so finely that even a Fraerling would probably be caught in seconds if they got too close.
Which was why the group that appeared with a covered wagon down the main street leading straight into the plaza was all the more notable. They rolled the wagon forwards, pulled by four horses. Lizardfolk with swords ushered the wagon forwards, fending off the Dullahans that poured towards them. The horses raced ahead, urged onwards by the driver at the front. Faster and faster—and then the horses ran to either side, reins cut!
An exclamation came from the watchers in the plaza. Niers just adjusted his wooden pedestal until he could see over the heads of the Midnight Shields. He stared down into the scrying orb as Tulm raised his voice.
“Sir, intruders on the eastern main road. All have been apprehended, but the vehicle is still moving. The horses are gone, but it’s been driven. It’s a…wagon?”
It was indeed a wagon. Just a wagon. Hurtling down the slight incline of the eastern road, picking up momentum. A wagon. And, clambering up over the driver’s seat, throwing her hood back to expose her face, was Yerranola, the Selphid.
The plaza was guarded of course. Over a thousand feet away, a rank of Dullahans three rows deep was waiting and braced. Wil’s soldiers hadn’t even gotten near them yet. And if they had, the elites of the Iron Vanguard would stop even their Knights of the Autumn cold. Definitely. What would a wagon do?
Then again…the Dullahans standing in formation stared. It was a wagon. Just a wagon. But it was…
The wagon was loaded to build momentum, and somehow, Yerranola had managed to convince a [Carpenter] to reinforce the front with wood, turning it into a mobile battering ram. Without horses, it was now speeding towards the plaza’s eastern entrance.
“Out of the way if you don’t want to get hurt!”
The Selphid was crouched on top of the wagon, laughing maniacally as it hurtled towards the ranks of Dullahans. A few [Mages] hurled spells at her, but without using a [Fireball] or a wall spell, they couldn’t stop her. And that might well kill the Selphid, dead body or not. Should they use a spell? Could they remove her somehow?
The [Mages] hesitated, and by that point it was too late. The wagon was going faster and faster. How fast was it going now? Forty miles per hour? Fifty? Sixty? And in that moment all the Dullahans guarding the plaza did a quick mathematical equation. If you understood force is mass multiplied by acceleration…even if you didn’t know the exact math, even if the basic concept was something every sentient being understood…
How much did wagons weigh again?
Over two thousand pounds of wood hurtled across the ground at the Dullahans. They hesitated; they were braced in a shield wall, but they could figure out what would happen if that hit them. The front of the wagon had been shaped into a ram. And painted red. The [Captain] took one look and issued a desperate order.
“Dodge! Everyone out of the way, now!”
The wagon hurtled forwards. The Dullahans were moving, running, diving out of the way. In the plaza, Tulm looked up. He stared at the wagon coming in from his right.
“Oh dear. And just what will Tulm the Mithril do about th—”
Noass’ voice cut off as Tulm straightened. Yerranola screamed a war cry as she aimed straight for the center of the plaza. For Niers.
Niers smiled and waved. He jumped down from his pedestal as Wistram’s [Mages] crowded around him and the Midnight Shield for a better look, shouting questions. Perorn was nowhere to be seen.
“Lord Astoragon! Are you worried about this?”
Niers was counting. Twenty seconds? Twenty five? He looked over casually as the wagon grew larger and larger in front of him.
“Me? Why should I be?”
“It’s a wagon, Lord Astoragon. Surely even the Titan—”
The Centaur [Mage] hesitated. Niers was standing on the ground. The Fraerling looked up at the Centaur cheerfully.
“Unless Yerranola has truly atrocious aim, I think I’ll be quite fine, don’t you? The wagon should pass comfortably overhead. Even if I stretch. You all may wish to move.”
The Wistram [Mages] looked up. They stared at the wagon, which was hurtling at them. It would pass far, far above Niers. But they would be paste.
Teura murmured somewhat urgently. Niers raised a hand.
“No barrier spells! If you interfere, I’ll have all of you tied to rocks and hurled into the harbor!”
He glared at the [Mages]. They hesitated. Then they stared at the Midnight Shields. They hadn’t moved. The group from Wistram looked at Tulm. He was watching the wagon as well. He wouldn’t let it hit them.
They stared at the wagon, which had somehow endeavored to pick up more speed. And at Niers. At Tulm. They were pretty sure. Pretty sure but then again, he didn’t have anything to lose. The wagon was ten seconds away. The [Mages] ran for it.
The sight of the robed [Mages] diving for their lives was ironically captured by a watcher from above. And the wagon was still coming on. Niers stood still, staring through a gap in the Dullahans. Yerranola was laughing, pointing at him. He sighed.
“Ah, I think I see. Well—”
There was only one barrier left between the Selphid and her destination. The Midnight Shields. And at last they did move. The black-armored Dullahans marched forwards, forming a line of steel.
One of them spoke beneath her black helm. Tulm raised a calm hand.
“I leave it to you.”
“Yes, sir! [Lineholder Formation].”
The Dullahans braced. They didn’t draw their weapons. They didn’t raise their shields. They just stood their ground. And suddenly, they were a wall of black metal. Yerranola’s eyes widened. The Selphid took one look at the stationary Dullahans as her wagon screamed towards them. The circle.
The crash was one of the most epic collisions captured on scrying orb. It was the kind of thing you watched once, twice, and then a third time just to remember. The reinforced wagon splintered. The contents of the wagon, weights, nails, all of it, exploded like, like…like a [Fireball] made of wood against the Dullahans. They were the immovable force, though. And the wagon smashed itself to bits against them.
Naturally, the Selphid went flying. She hit the ground and three Dullahans were on her in a second. Everyone else in the plaza, [Mages] to captured students to other Dullahans and teachers alike ducked as a hail of wood landed around them. Perorn, who’d wisely taken cover, watched as the wood fell down, temporarily a weather phenomenon.
Niers watched as the wooden splinters rained around him, blocks of wood twice as large as he was landing next to the Fraerling. He raised his eyebrows as a dagger of wood spun towards his face. At the last second it bounced off something. The Fraerling glanced down. A ring flashed on his finger. He sighed as he kicked the bit of wood out of the way.
“I’ll grant you it got you into the plaza, but against the Midnight Guard? Not exactly a smart move, Yerranola.”
He looked around for the Selphid. She was squirming as the Dullahans held her. Yerranola’s back was broken, and she was peppered with pieces of wood; one stood out from her chest where it was embedded three inches deep. Still, the Selphid grinned with her classic, irrepressible good nature.
“Whoop! Looks like that failed! See you, Professor! I—oh, hells!”
She gasped as one of the Midnight Shields slammed her onto the ground. The Selphid blinked up at them.
“Ow. I felt that.”
“Student apprehended. Strategist, your orders?”
“With the others.”
Tulm waved a hand. He’d barely glanced up from his map where he was plotting Wil’s forces. Yerranola groaned. Niers sighed. Then everyone turned as one of the spectators, one of Daquin’s Councilmen, raised his voice.
“Reckless! Absolutely—someone get a healing potion! This [Soldier]’s injured badly!”
The Lizardman was pointing and shouting. And little wonder. A Dullahan was lying on the ground. His armor was steel, but that hadn’t saved him; wooden pieces had perforated the metal like it was parchment. And blood was already spreading from his wounds as he tried to pull himself up.
The cry came from a dozen throats as [Soldiers] from the Iron Vanguard rushed to tend to their fallen comrade. The moment was a tableau, captured once again by Wistram. A healing potion was produced and used at once. The Dullahan got to his feet, cradling his visored helmet as his body was helped upright. For a second, everyone was focused on the injured Dullahan.
“Heal the wounded. Reform the guard on the eastern entrance at once. As for the Selphid—place her with the other students. Now.”
Tulm was glancing towards Yerranola, his expression irritated. He spoke curtly. Yerranola’s face was a mask of horror.
“I’m really sorry, Professor. I didn’t think—is he alright?”
She strained to see as the Midnight Shields led her towards the other captured students. She called out again towards Niers. The Fraerling didn’t answer. He was staring at the scrying orb and the wounded Dullahan as the [Healer] rushed over to him. The [Soldier] was trying to get to his feet.
“I can walk. I can…I’ll go.”
He stumbled forwards, shrugging off help. The other Iron Vanguard Dullahans hovered around him, then composed themselves. True to Dullahans, they let the [Soldier] slowly proceed towards a [Healer] rushing towards him, passing slowly by the center circle.
It was a moment where no one was holding their breath. No one except Niers. And perhaps Tulm sensed it with a Skill. Or maybe it was intuition. But as the [Soldier] stumbled again, the Dullahan [Strategist] glanced up. His expression was absent for a second, puzzled. And then, suddenly intent. He pointed at the injured Dullahan and shouted in a field roar.
“Hold! That Dullahan’s armor isn’t bearing the Iron Vanguard’s insignia! Soldiers—”
Too late. Cameral began sprinting for Niers’ circle. The Iron Vanguard jerked as one. The Midnight Guard whirled. They charged Cameral. And they were quick! The Dullahan tried to swerve, but he was too slow. He knocked a hand free, charging at the circle with Niers in it. But he’d never make it. So—
He threw his head.
It was an easy toss. A lazy arc, belayed by the suddenness which with his body came to a halt as six Dullahans tackled Cameral at once. But they’d missed the head. And it flew.
Up, up! The Midnight Shields not tackling Cameral looked up. Several tried to change course, but their heavy armor weighed them down. It was too late. The world watched, open-mouthed as Cameral’s head fell down to earth, towards Niers, who’d stepped aside to give him room. He was going to make it! He was going to—
Tulm the Mithril leapt forwards. His jump carried him eight feet into the air, impossibly high. His mithril armor shone as his outstretched arm shot for Cameral’s head. Niers, staring upwards, saw the moment unfold.
Tulm, his eyes wide, hand outstretched. Cameral, shouting, his head slowly rotating as it dropped towards Niers. The Midnight Guard, lunging. Tulm’s hand, covered in the bright, magical metal, reaching, grabbing—
He caught Cameral and twisted out of the way, landing with a crash as the Midnight Guard leapt too. The Mithril rolled, grasping Cameral’s head by the hair. The Dullahan student was grimacing as his body lay, pinned by four of the Midnight Guard. Tulm held Cameral’s head upright as he scrambled to his feet. He paused, wavering.
The Midnight Guard froze. The audience in the square froze. And every eye turned towards Niers Astoragon. They all stared, students, teachers, spectators.
Had Cameral done it? Had his head passed into the circle, or had Tulm caught him in time? The world waited. And Niers studied the circle marked by ropes. He checked the air where Cameral’s head had been, glanced at the two Dullahans, Tulm and Cameral’s head.
The Fraerling raised his arms. He waited for one eternal heartbeat, for the effect, for the drama, and then swung them down.
And the audience went wild.
Minutes later, a lifetime of excitement later, Yerranola and Cameral were being spoken to by Wistram [Mages] as they sat with the other former contestants. The [Mages] were of course, lenses for the world to witness all that was unfolding and they did more than just watch the action in the streets.
They were interviewing the losers for their thoughts, opinions, and of course, reactions to what was happening. And now the latest two students were the subject of all the attention, despite the battle still raging in the streets.
“Of course it was planned. You think we stuck a bunch of wooden bits in Cameral’s armor and drew some blood to fake his accidents for fun? Come to think of it…”
Yerranola was chatting happily to the [Mage] asking her questions. She looked relaxed, for all her body was in tatters. Cameral was uninjured. His faked injuries had already been healed, for they had been quite real. But he had never been in any danger not planned. He was more subdued, but he did manage a quiet nod and a reply.
“Neither Yerra nor I had made enough preparations for this event. After we saw the Mithril and the Iron Vanguard arriving—we might have continued, but Wil’s strategy showed us just how unlikely we were to succeed. So we teamed up.”
“And this was your plan?”
The scrying orb the [Mage] was holding up switched to Sir Relz. The Drake was leaning forwards, interviewing the two [Strategists]. Yerra nodded casually.
“It was worth a shot. I was the bait and Cameral was just going to run for it. I know it’s not that impressive, but we decided to be bold since we had no other good hands to play. I hope the Professor won’t scold us for it.”
She glanced at Niers. After a moment, the sighing Fraerling appeared in the orb.
“Boldness is a virtue. I won’t say either Yerranola or Cameral exceeded my expectations, but they certainly came closer than any other student. Yerra was the first to break the plaza’s encirclement, unorthodox and risky through her plan was. How close it was depends. A head isn’t exactly a body; I would have had to think if Cameral had landed on whether that counted. But perhaps Tulm has an opinion on how good the gambit was?”
He winked at the audience. The screen switched to Tulm. The Dullahan, who had returned to his war table, glanced up briefly.
“Remove the [Mages]—”
The image went dark for a second. Niers, relaxing in his seat, saw Tulm walk away from the protesting Wistram [Mages]. Niers whistled, and Tulm stopped as he passed by the circle, guarded by a double ring of somewhat abashed Midnight Shields this time. Niers hopped onto another helmet and spoke quietly to Tulm.
“He nearly got you. Cameral. If you’d been a hair slower, he might have won. You didn’t think they’d be this aggressive, did you? You’re still underestimating them.”
He grinned as he perched on the very uncomfortable Dullahan’s head. Tulm glance at the Midnight Shield, and then up at Niers. He adjusted his head. His voice was impassive as ever.
“Tell me something. Was that Human boy—Wil Kallinad—really the surprise you mentioned? He will never make it in the plaza. You know he has no chance.”
Niers smiled. The two locked gazes. At last, the Titan shrugged.
“Alone, you’d be right. But teamwork nearly won once already. I wonder what happens if the other students work together?”
He turned back to his pedestal. Tulm stared at Niers’ back as the Titan helped himself to another lime drink and a candied nut. Then he looked around. His soldiers stared back. Slowly, Tulm glanced at his [Mage] responsible for sending [Message] spells.
“Command Xol to advance. Have the first to sixth Armor Captains begin sortieing with their units. It’s time to end this.”
“The plaza is in sight! Just six more streets away!”
Merrik roared as his group advanced. The Iron Vanguard was pouring out to meet them. But an equally large force was marching with Merrik and his group.
Wil’s forces were advancing down the street. It had not been an easy battle. The [Knights] were tired. More than a few had been unhorsed. More than a few had been carried off the streets. And yet, still they came.
Humans. Terandria’s champions. And behind them was Wil, still moving forwards, still clashing with Tulm the Mithril himself. It was enough to make Merrik proud of his homeland. Even so, he was going to win this. The Dwarf hefted his greatclub as he walked forwards. Some of his friends walked with him.
Kelsa was out. She’d been taken by nets. Romin was limping bad; a bone had been broken. Maybe even shattered. But he was still with them. He could heal later.
Cemiza was out. The Oldblood Drake had been caught by a [Mage]. But her friend, Kaelma, the [Fencer] with the silver bell, was still with them. Unharmed. So was Peki, the Garuda [Martial Artist].
And Merrik too. Oh, he’d taken bad hits, but nothing a healing potion couldn’t sort out. Now the Dwarf raised his club and roared and the soldiers around him cheered. He was out of Skills. But he was so close!
“Hold on, Professor. We’re nearly there!”
Merrik charged forwards. The Dullahans charged right back. There were a lot of them. But they could take them! They could—the Dwarf knocked three Dullahans down, aiming at their knees, then heard a voice that made his heart sink.
“Second Armor Company! Advance!”
A titanic roar worthy of the Professor himself. But this voice was properly huge, booming. It came from a giant.
“Aw, Dragon’s nuts! Here comes Xol! Peki!”
The Garuda flew up. Xol was impossible to miss. He was leading the Second Armor Company straight into the fray. [Knights] charged at him, using their spears like lances; the War Walker flicked them off their horses. He wasn’t holding a weapon. But he did have a massive tower shield. Peki dove at him.
“Rematch. Flutter kick. Swallow punch. Dodge—”
She flitted through the air, striking. Another Garuda went down, knocked clean out of the skies. Merrik grinned.
Xol had halted as the Garuda advanced on him. He raised his shield as the Garuda spun left, daring him to strike and be countered. Xol’s voice was huge. Yet, almost conversational.
“You were right. Without my weapons, it is hard to beat one of Pomle’s warriors. I would that we had chance for a rematch.”
“Punch, punch, kick—”
Merrik felt a tug at his side. He stumbled. Then he saw Peki fall out of the air like a stone. Xol held his massive shield up. And the Garuda slammed into it and stuck there. Pinned. She wriggled, struggling against the shield, but it held her as if the Garuda’s body were suddenly magnetized. Peki looked up as Xol raised his shield.
“This is bad.”
Xol brought the shield down. Merrik charged forwards, but it was much too late. The people below Xol scattered as the shield came down, Peki-first.
When the [Juggernaut] raised his shield Peki remained, lying on the broken street, her wings spread. Unconscious.
Her friends raced forwards, outraged. Heedless, they charged at Xol. Romin, Kaelma, Merrik—but a group of Dullahans brought down Romin, trapping him with catchpoles. And someone shot out from the side—Kaelma stumbled backwards, her cheek suddenly bleeding! The Gnoll turned, growling, raising her wooden rapier.
A Dullahan stepped out of the line of soldiers. He was unique, because his armor was made not of metal, or even wood or stone. But of cloth. It looked like padded armor as he gestured to Kaelma. His voice was soft, even amid the fighting.
“Second Armor Captain. Heldam. I challenge you, [Fencer].”
He had a wooden rapier like hers. And on his wrist—a silver bell. Kaelma hesitated. Then the Gnoll slowly walked towards Heldam, as graceful as a cat. He slid forwards to meet her. The silver bells chimed as they advanced.
Merrik looked around. Suddenly, he was alone. And the soldiers with him were struggling, suddenly bereft of leadership. He raised his voice.
“Pull back! Pull—”
A hand grabbed him. Merrik felt himself being raised into the air. He swore and struggled, but Xol’s grip was immense. The [Juggernaut] raised Merrik up and regarded him. Merrik stared at Xol and bared his teeth desperately.
“Ever hear about the Dwarf who felled a Giant?”
He wrenched an arm free. His club was still there. He swung desperately, and his greatclub bounced off Xol’s hand. The [Juggernaut] smiled faintly.
“Yes. I heard he cheated.”
Then he lowered his hand and Merrik found out what it was like to be Peki.
“Ah, no! He got the Dwarf!”
Umina groaned as she stared into the scrying orb. She, Venaz, Marian, and Luan were all hiding. For a second time. The Minotaur’s protective talismans were affixed to every window and door in the apartment they were hiding in. The Lizardfolk couple who’d let them in didn’t mind; they were as excited as could be as they clustered around the scrying orb.
“Dead gods, look! The entire team’s wiped out! Wil’s forces are on the run!”
Dismayed, Marian pointed. Umina saw it was true. The Iron Vanguard had finally come out swinging with all they had. And they’d taken the students and Humans completely off-guard. Umina groaned as Xol casually unhorsed a Knight of the Autumn with a single blow.
“It’s really unfair using that [Juggernaut]! Short of lethal weapons, how are you supposed to take him out?”
“Immobilize him? Magical spells?”
“None of that works with his reinforcements.”
“That’s the point. If he were easy to deal with, he wouldn’t be the Mithril’s best warrior on the field. Even so, look how far Wil’s company has come.”
He pointed to the map he was studying. Umina checked it too. Wil was in as many as five streets away from the plaza in certain sections. And Umina’s group? Eight streets. Venaz clenched a fist.
“We have a chance. We just need a way to get past the majority of the Iron Vanguard and the Professor’s soldiers. If we had a clear shot at the Professor, there’s just the Midnight Shields in the way.”
“Elite soldiers. But they can’t do more than break our bones. It’s definitely possible to get into that circle. I have some items.”
Marian checked her bag of holding. Venaz nodded.
“But we have to get through all of the Iron Vanguard’s main army. And Wil hasn’t the strength to push in. Not anymore! He needs help. By my count he’s used up all his Skills. And something must be done about Xol. None of us can take him out.”
“You surprise me, Venaz. I thought you’d be raring to challenge him yourself.”
Venaz shot Marian a slow look.
“I’m not an idiot. Xol of Ingrilt is more than a match for all of us.”
Luan shifted. He’d been quiet since he’d helped them use the [Healers]. Umina thought the City Runner had still been processing the game, having not quite ever gotten the full story. Now he glanced at Xol, who was front and center in the scrying orb as he waded through the Humans.
“Xol, huh? He’s the largest [Juggernaut] I’ve seen so far. Is he special or something?”
The other students glanced at him. Umina raised her brows as her tail swished back and forth. More and more surprises! Marian’s instincts had been spot on. She nodded carefully.
“You’ve seen [Juggernauts] before? Sorry, I mean, War Walkers? They’re really rare.”
“It was the only battle I’ve ever taken part in. I saw them fight. I won’t forget that. This Xol is a gentle soul by comparison. Hey, is this scrying orb’s image something I can watch later? If my company could see this—”
Luan replied absently. He was holding something in one pocket. But he hadn’t taken it out. Marian nodded.
“War Walkers are notoriously good at…killing. They’re big targets too, though. As bad as using Giants in battle. Still, in a situation like this, they shine. And Xol is bigger because he’s one of the oldest and strongest War Walkers alive. He could beat any [Knight] that Wil brought with him. Probably.”
“Without their enchanted weaponry? Definitely. We have to evade him. Strike while he’s distracted. It might be time for a gamble. Force our way in. I can hold off…some of the enemy.”
Venaz checked his talismans again. Umina was still focused on Luan.
“You have a company? That’s unusual for a City Runner.”
Luan glanced up.
“Yeah. I’m part of a company. The United Nations company. We’re based in Talenqual.”
Umina looked excited.
“Talenqual? That’s my—”
Venaz snorted as he reached into his bag of holding.
“How many nations are part of your company? Don’t answer; it’s a terrible name for a company. You should change it.”
Luan glared at Venaz.
“Venaz is a terrible name for a Minotaur. You should change it.”
Venaz’s brows snapped together. Marian looked delighted, but then she intervened, for once the peace mediator.
“Argue over names later. It’s time to make a decision. Wil’s forming up. He’s going for the decisive blow as well.”
It was true. Across the city, Wil’s force was drawing in, abandoning their fortified streets. Umina whistled.
“He’s even abandoning his rear. He’s going all in.”
“Smart. It’s the only way he wins. One push takes all. But Xol and Tulm—he won’t make it alone.”
Venaz stared at the image in the scrying orb. Then he looked up.
“I’m going. This is our chance. Umina. Marian. Do you concur?”
The two looked at each other.
“We concur. Let’s do it. I still don’t have a plan, though.”
Luan hesitated. Umina noticed that. She turned to him.
“Do you, Luan?”
“Something like that. You’ve all said this is a game, yeah?”
“Of course. Have you ever seen a battle this bloodless?”
Venaz lifted an eyebrow. Luan ignored him. He glanced down at the map, then at his coin purse.
“Well then. You bought me. And you bought out the [Healers].”
He nodded at Marian. She nodded slowly. Umina felt her brain fizzling. She raced ahead of Luan’s words. He didn’t mean—
“Ten gold’s what’s motivating the soldiers of your company to fight, right? So why not—”
“Why not bribe them to help us!”
Umina sat bolt upright. Luan nodded. Marian started.
“Bribe them? It’d never work. [Soldiers] are loyal, especially to a Great Company. The idea of bribing any of them to follow us—”
“In a battle. Obviously not. That would be suicide for them and us. But this isn’t a battle, is it, Marian?”
Venaz looked up quietly. Marian hesitated. Then she grabbed her coin pouch.
“Luan, can I borrow—one, two, damn, I brought a lot, but—”
“If I had my coin pouch—”
“Shut it, Venaz.”
Umina glanced up as the Minotaur and Centauress began counting and calculating. She met Luan’s eyes. The Human man had a slight smile on his face. A pleased expression. Umina felt a flash of admiration. And then curiosity.
“You have a unique way of thinking. That’s twice now you surprised us.”
“I’m sure you’d have come up with something. You’re all taking this more seriously than I am, besides.”
That was true. Umina was sweating with nerves. She needed to use the toilet before she went. She hopped from one foot to another.
“Still, have you ever been a [Strategist]? Or thought of being one? Do you play chess?”
An odd expression crossed Luan’s face.
“Me? No. Never. But I do know chess. Do you think this will help you win?”
Umina hesitated. She looked at Venaz and Marian, alight with the idea. Then she shook her head.
“…No. Assuming Marian has five hundred gold pieces, which she doesn’t, how many could we hire? Two hundred? One hundred? No. This will help, but it’ll be luck and something else if we beat Tulm. And that’s not how a battle should go. The Professor doesn’t believe in luck.”
Luan nodded. His eyes flicked to Umina.
“In that case, maybe you should change plans.”
“No. I mean, no, your idea’s great. It’s just…there’s something more to it.”
Umina spoke slowly. Luan’s plan was making her own brain buzz. She had a thought, nibbling at the corner of her mind. She pursued it as she thought.
“A truly great plan is something no one expects. Something original. But a great idea is only the first step. A [Strategist] builds on that idea. They take the unexpected and turn it into something no one is prepared for. Like…hold on. I need to go to the bathroom.”
The Lizardgirl hurried out of the room. She couldn’t hold it anymore. And as she was sitting on the toilet, she had it. She raced back into the room. She didn’t even wash her claws.
“Luan. I have an idea. Will you listen?”
She told him the idea, whispering to him in a corner. The City Runner’s face lit up and he grinned.
“That is smart. But would your Tulm the Mithril expect it?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But if it works, it’s sure to work. And this might be something even his [Mages] miss. It’s so…basic. And it would be quick. So quick—but—”
Umina hesitated. She looked at Marian. Could she do that to her friend? Tell her to risk it all on this? No. Marian would hate gambling it all on this. But Umina had nothing to lose. She looked at Luan.
“I’m going to try it. Can I…can I ask you to let them know?”
Luan stared at the Lizardgirl. Umina hesitated.
“Maybe I should tell Marian…”
Her conscience gnawed at her. Gnawed and pricked. If she was wrong—but if she was right—Luan stared at her. Slowly, the [Rower] bent. He spoke quietly.
“Do you want to win?”
Umina paused. She looked up at him.
With all her heart. The Human studied her eyes. Then he nodded.
“Then win. There’s honor in sports. But this sport is all about cheating. Or so it seems. So win. And have all your regrets afterwards. But win.”
And in his eyes flashed the same thirst for victory that boiled in Umina’s gut. The Lizardgirl took a step back. Then she nodded and fled. Back the way she’d come.
Marian looked around as she finished counting her coin. The Centauress trotted around the apartment, looking for her friend. She turned to Luan.
“Where did Umina go? Did you see?”
The City Runner nodded.
“She has an idea and went to try it. She’s trying to win. In her way.”
He met Marian’s gaze. The Centauress was hurt. Then angry. She pawed the ground.
“Aren’t we all? Why can’t she—never mind. Come with us.”
She gestured to Venaz. The Minotaur was straightening, checking his armor. He turned.
“Forget Umina. Victory belongs with us. We’re going. And you’re coming with us.”
He nodded at Luan. The Human smiled.
They came out of the apartment. Three of them, and at least two ready for a fight. Marian’s bow was drawn. Venaz strode forth wearing his armor. Luan had a table leg.
Why was he there? Moral support. To make up for Umina’s absence. A good luck charm.
“An extra body to take a block for my back.”
“You’re all heart.”
“You’re being paid. And soon, so will the other soldiers. Let’s find a patrol.”
“Can’t we just head straight towards the plaza?”
Marian looked at Venaz. The Minotaur shook his head.
“Too many of the Iron Vanguard. And what if we run into a larger group of the Forgotten Wing company?”
“Oh. Right. We can’t bribe them all.”
“Exactly. We should—”
Venaz broke off. He turned his head, held up a hand. Wil and Marian froze. The Minotaur paused.
“There’s a large force coming up the north. Riders.”
“They might take us out. The other way, then. Towards the plaza—”
The three began hurrying down the street. They hadn’t gone more than twenty paces when Venaz halted again. He hesitated. This time Luan and Marian had heard it too.
“That’s a lot of footsteps.”
“Back to the apartment!”
They raced backwards. Too slow. Too late. The first [Mage] appeared on the rooftops. Five more appeared and began throwing spells. The first raised her hands and shouted.
The other five stopped. On the far end of the street, a group of Dullahans floated over the rooftops. They saw the three Human [Mages] and two half-Elves and began throwing spells at once. The Wistram [Mage] fled, shouting. Venaz groaned.
“They’ve spotted us. The apartment’s no good! Form up!”
He put his back to the wall. Marian did likewise. And there they came.
An entire army of Humans. A regiment plus of Dullahans. And Luan, Marian, and Venaz were caught right between them. Both sides spotted the students and Luan; the Dullahans pointed.
Marian’s head swung left to right. The Minotaur was rummaging in his bag of holding.
“One second. It’s time to pull out my last resort. I can’t use this. No, not this one either. No. No. Damn. Why did I have to have such impeccable selection?”
“Venaz! Hurry up!”
Marian loosed an arrow at the Dullahans. The Humans ignored the students; they were charging the Dullahans. Only a few [Knights] remained and mostly on foot. The Minotaur grabbed something. He straightened, and turned towards the Dullahans. Ignoring the arrows bouncing off his armor and the spell that crackled harmlessly over the metal, the Minotaur raised a fist.
“These are weapons from my homeland. The House of Minos and the Drath Archipelago fight with more than just spells. Behold! Art is a weapon.”
He raised a fluttering piece of paper and cast it into the wind. Pages flew upwards. Luan caught a glimpse of one. A painted dog, drawn in vibrant colors, fluttered through the sky as the Dullahans charged. Then, the dog moved. It stretched, and then ran, and raced forwards. Off the page. Into reality.
A dog as large as a horse leapt onto the ground. Its fur was brilliant white; it was outlined with black and it had large, yellow eyes with intelligent pupils. It was a dog. But not a dog. It was…a drawing. A caricature of life.
And yet it moved. It was art, and yet it bounded forwards. And it was paint, ink, but it bit. The Dullahans shouted as the summoned dog leapt on them. The painting grabbed two Dullahans and worried them, shaking its head left to right.
“Don’t kill them!”
The Minotaur bellowed. The dog paused. The Minotaur pointed.
“Knock them down.”
The dog raced forwards. The Dullahans froze. They struck at the dog, but their clubs were ineffectual against the painted creature. And more of Venaz’s images were coming to life. First another dog, to match the first. Then a galloping horse, a unicorn but with two horns and a flaming mane. A screeching wyvern, claws extended.
“Summoned creatures! Fall back!”
The Dullahans shouted as they began fighting the monsters. The Humans raced forwards, attacking with the summoned creatures behind them. Venaz bellowed instructions at his creatures as he strode forwards. Luan took cover behind Marian, guarding her back as she loosed more and more arrows. The Dullahans were in disarray. Then a giant strode forwards, wearing a huge, horned helmet. The [Captain]’s voice was a bellow.
“Hold, you cowards. Those aren’t summoned beasts! They’re talismans. Painted Beasts. They’re as dangerous as Silver-ranked monsters. Hold your ground. Form a shield wall and fight them off. [Mages]—take the creatures apart. Don’t hold back.”
The [Mages] dueling on the roofs took aim at the summoned creatures below. Venaz growled as fire blasted one dog apart. He glanced up at the [Captain]. The huge figure strode towards him, larger than any Dullahan. Then the [Captain] removed his helmet.
A Minotaur tossed his helm aside. The Dullahans in his company advanced, shouting as they pushed the Humans back. The Minotaur swung a huge staff around, knocking a [Knight] senseless. He advanced, pointing at Venaz, who was shouting at his summoned animals to pull back out of the [Mage]’s range.
“Venaz of Hammerad! Turn and face me, coward!”
The Minotaur [Strategist] whirled. The Dullahan’s [Captain] threw aside his staff. He spread his arms. He was as large as Venaz. No, maybe larger.
“I am Shailt of Tergim. I challenge you to a duel. Fists. Run and forfeit your honor.”
Venaz bared his teeth. The Dullahans and Humans looked up and cleared the way as the two Minotaurs charged. The two roared as they came at each other. And when they met in a clash of steel, Luan could have sworn the earth shook.
Reeling. Regaining their posture. Trading furious blows, punches, kicks. Throwing each other. Locking horns and hands, struggling for a second’s advantage. Luan lost track of Venaz as the two threw each other across the street. He was in the thick of it now. Marian circled as Luan clubbed Dullahans trying to swarm the two. He was so lost in the fighting that when the first Human appeared he nearly hit her. The [Knight] jerked back. Then she lanced out.
“One side, [Soldier]!”
Luan saw her shoot past him. The [Knight] swept a Dullahan off his feet with a single slash from the wooden greatsword. Then she barreled into another group. She heaved and they went flying. She was fast! And the Dullahans went down like pins in front of her.
“[Knight]! Call in the [Mages]!”
“Sixth Armor Captain! Captain Shailt! We need—”
The Dullahans were in disarray. Caught between Venaz’s perishing summoned creatures and the Humans led by the [Knight], they were losing. The Dullahan [Mages] fled backward as the Humans and half-Elves rained down spells from above. And their [Captain], the Minotaur, collapsed as Venaz landed a punch to her jaw and shattered it.
Venaz bellowed as he stood over the fallen Minotaur [Captain]. The Dullahans surrounded their leader, but Venaz forced them back. He cleared a path himself, bellowing for a [Healer]. The Minotaur was carried away. The Dullahans, seeing their company leader gone, retreated. The Humans let them go. The [Knight] planted her sword in the ground as Venaz, panting, bleeding from both nostrils and stumbling, walked back towards Luan and Marian. The Centaur had only a few injuries; Luan was nursing a gash on his arm.
The Minotaur tossed one at Luan and drank one himself. He stared at the Armor Captain being taken off the field.
“Damn. The jaw bone shattered. I—didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“You took that guy out. That was an Armor Captain. One of the Iron Vanguard’s company leaders!”
Marian stared at Venaz. He hesitated.
“She was strong. But she threw her weapon aside to fight me. It was a favor to me.”
The Minotaur didn’t reply. He watched the [Healer] tending to the Minotaur. Then he turned. The potion bottle crunched in his grip and the [Knight] stopped a few paces away. She planted her sword in the ground.
“You two are students, aren’t you? Venaz and Marian?”
“Who are you?”
The Minotaur clenched a fist. Luan looked around. There were over a hundred Human [Soldiers] around him. He didn’t like the odds. Marian shifted.
“Relax. If we wanted to attack you, we would have done it. We’re on the same side. This is the first engagement we’ve won this close to the city’s center. I know the two of you; my brother speaks highly of both of you.”
The [Knight] removed her helmet. Luan saw a shock of sweaty, auburn hair. Pale skin, a battle-maniac’s smile. Venaz snorted.
“Your brother? You wouldn’t be—”
“Talia Kallinad. Come with me. I think Wil will want to see you.”
Venaz hesitated. He glanced at Marian and Luan. Then he nodded.
“Lead the way.”
“All four [Captains] have withdrawn. Some of their [Storm Sailors] are fighting on, but the [Captains] are done. They’ve had their fun.”
“Xol took out three of my Autumn Knights. We can’t stop him.”
“Merrik’s down, Wil. Peki, everyone else in his group but Kaelma. And she barely got away. We’ve lost our hammer, no?”
Wil leaned over the war table. He checked the map once and then twice. It added up to the same tally.
Outmatched. Outmaneuvered. Part of him wasn’t surprised. What had he expected? Fighting Tulm was like fighting the Professor. Even with his surprise attack. Even with the other students—
This was it. Jekilt, Merrik, even Yerra and Cameral were down. The adventuring teams had retreated and now the sailors were pulling out. They were tired of being beaten down. Wil glanced up.
“How many [Knights] can do battle still, Sir Kelm?”
The man hesitated.
“Sixty four. Half unmounted.”
“In that case, have them prepare. We have one last assault left. Commander Wylint, I will leave you in charge of the rear. Keep us from being encircled long enough for us to settle things.”
“Lord Kallinad! I can keep going—”
The [Commander] was barely on his feet. Wil shook his head. His stomach was twisting. Was this it? He looked around. The faces around him were grim. As if they were really losing a battle. But they were. And it might not be life or death, but it felt like it. Wil closed his eyes.
“One last push. We take the plaza’s south entrance. Form up—”
He spun. The [Knights] standing around him turned, hands on their wooden swords. But the voice wasn’t another call to arms. It was Talia. His sister walked with a slight limp. On foot; her warhorse had taken a fall and was being healed. And following her—Wil’s eyes widened.
“Marian? Venaz? Where have you two been?”
The two walked forwards, followed by a dark-skinned Human man that Wil had never seen before. Wil stared at Marian and Venaz. He’d wondered if Marian was still around with Umina—he hadn’t seen them captured. But he could scarcely believe Venaz had made it this far without being surrounded. The Minotaur glanced around as the Humans blinked at the two visitors.
“Wil, I met them when we engaged that Dullahan company. We sent them packing, in no small part thanks to these two.”
The Humans brightened at Talia’s news. Wil nodded. A small victory, but every bit helped. He looked at Venaz.
“Are you two trying to reach the plaza?”
“Trying. Is this your gambit to take out the best competitors now, Wil? I warn you; it won’t be easy.”
Venaz flexed an arm and stared around. The Humans stared at him. Wil nearly laughed.
“If I had time to deal with competitors—I wish our entire class was here. Or haven’t you seen the Iron Vanguard forcing us back? They’ve taken out all but a dozen students and I think the rest are hiding. Where’s Umina, Marian? Did she get captured?”
“No. I think not, at any rate. We got separated recently.”
The Centauress frowned. She looked at Wil’s map. And then at the ongoing tally of numbers on both sides he’d written up in shorthand. She winced.
“This is it, then?”
“One last push. You care to join in?”
“We were thinking of trying our own hand. But if you offer us no choice…”
Venaz eyed the map. He snorted dismissively.
“A simple assault? That’s my inclination too, looking at your numbers. This is the moment. If you allow the Iron Vanguard to regroup, they’ll surround you. You press on, or you allow victory to slip through your fingers.”
The others at the table blinked at Venaz. But Wil nodded.
“He’s right. This is it. We can’t do anything else.”
“But assaulting the plaza directly? We can’t break through their ranks, let alone those Midnight Shields.”
Sir Kelm frowned. Wil nodded heavily. He saw Venaz hesitating. The Human man was elbowing him and whispering to Marian as well.
“What? And who is this?”
Marian chewed her lip, and then nodded. Venaz looked ready to protest; she kicked him with a hoof and he growled, but let her go on.
“This is Luan. A City Runner. He’s helped us get this far. He had an idea. We were going to try it out before we ran into your soldiers, Wil. How much money do you have on you?”
Wil glanced at his sister. She raised her brows.
“Enough to pay for all of this. Why?”
“Have you thought about bribing the Forgotten Wing’s [Soldiers] to join your side?”
Wil’s eyes widened. He saw the officers around him glance up hopefully. But just as fast as Wil felt the surge of elation, he drooped.
“No. I hadn’t considered it, but it won’t work, Marian.”
“Oh come on. They’re not friends of the Iron Vanguard. And if we paid them, even something like five gold coins per head—”
“Even then. If we try, Tulm will outbid us. That strategy won’t work. Maybe it would if you found a patrol, but the Forgotten Wing and the Iron Vanguard have closed in around the plaza. You’d have to bribe them all together. And how could you even arrange that in the middle of a melee?”
Wil shook his head. Marian stomped a hoof.
“Damn! If only we’d had this idea sooner—”
Venaz pounded a hand on the table.
“Enough. It won’t work. In that case, I’ll lead the assault myself. Marian, you join us. Between us three, we might be able to force through the plaza. We’ll combine our charge Skills. I haven’t used any of mine. I’ll lead the charge on Tulm myself if he comes out. I can take that Dullahan, mithril armor or not. If he sends his Midnight Shields, put your [Knights] against them.”
He pointed at Talia and Sir Kelm. Wil was nodding, even as he weighed the odds of Venaz getting past Xol. But what other choice was there? Marian was shifting uncertainly, but nodding. And then Feshi spoke.
“You forgot to count me, as usual, Venaz.”
The Minotaur blinked. He looked past Wil and saw Feshi standing among the officers. She had been with Wil since the harbor. Now, the Gnoll bared her teeth in an unfriendly smile at Venaz.
“Fine. You’ll be part of our final assault, Feshi. Four of the Professor’s students stand a better chance than three. If you have any Skills—”
“Our assault? I didn’t see you fighting all this time.”
The Gnoll snapped back. Venaz ground his teeth.
“I found my own way here. And I will be the one to end it.”
“How? By beating Tulm with your fists? Not so, I think. But I have an idea. It’s my turn to shine. Wil. Will you lend me your ear?”
Feshi looked at Wil. He glanced at her. He thought Feshi had been sticking with him all this while out of desperation, perhaps hoping to claim victory if he won. Now the Gnoll was grinning.
“Do you have a plan, Feshi? One that can even the odds?”
The Gnoll nodded. She rolled her eyes upwards. Wil glanced up at the windows. Daquin’s citizens were watching, as were a pair of Wistram [Mages]. He wished he could appear confident.
“I can do a bit. I have yet to use my best Skill. But I have had a better idea after hearing Venaz and Marian’s trick, yes? I can even the odds. Even put them in your favor. If my plan works, I will pull away most of the Mithril’s reinforcements. But if I do it, I think, I will lose my chance to win.”
“How? I mean—will you do it?”
Wil stared at Feshi. He wanted to believe she was lying, but unlike Venaz, Feshi was never full of hot air. The Gnoll smiled lazily at him.
“I can. If I fail, I fail. But if I succeed? I will hand a chance at victory to you, I think. Even to Venaz and Marian. But I will need to lead. So I ask for a deal, Wil Kallinad.”
Time was running out. Wil knew that. But he was grasping at straws. He met Feshi’s eyes.
“What sort of deal?”
“Hm. I want something to give to my tribe. I had hoped to bring a secret from the Titan of Baleros himself. But anything of worth will do. I require a present to give to the Meeting of Tribes. Can you offer me something like that?”
Wil’s mind spun. A present? Now? He opened his mouth to tell Feshi he hadn’t a clue. Talia leaned over.
“Two trading caravans from the Kallinad harbors straight through the Gnoll Plains over six years. Will that do?”
Feshi and the others glanced at Talia. Wil’s older sister winked at him.
“It’s not a bad deal for us. And it’s worth a good deal to Gnoll tribes. What of it, Miss Feshi?”
The Gnoll hesitated. Her eyes flickered.
“Four trading caravans. Each one led by at least a Level 40 [Merchant].”
Talia reached out. Feshi gripped her hand tightly. Then she looked around. Sir Kelm, the other Humans, Wil, Venaz, Marian, and the City Runner named Luan all stared at her. The Gnoll smiled. Or was it a smirk.
“So close, yet so far, Venaz. Your idea was good. Excellent, even, yes? But you can take it another step. Using the Mithril’s own troops against him is one idea. But flawed.”
Venaz glared at her.
“It wasn’t actually my idea. But what do you have planned?”
“An army. One without fear. Numberless. To drown the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing alike. Your idea gave mine wings. So I give you credit. But this? This is my moment.”
The Gnoll’s eyes flashed. She walked past the war table. And she raised her paws. The Wistram [Mages] stirred, tracking Feshi with her eyes. But it was not to them the Gnoll looked at.
It was the people in the windows. The ones on the rooftops. Feshi shouted, her voice a growling roar.
“Citizens of Daquin! This is the final hour, yes? Tulm the Mithril waits! And our army, small as it may be, will challenge him a second time!”
There was a stir. The people watching from above looked down at Feshi. Some called out her name. Others just shouted encouragement. Feshi spoke above it all.
“We will try. But I think that we cannot win. Not against Tulm the Mithril. Not against the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing company. How could that be a fair battle?”
Silence. It was true. And yet—Feshi’s eyes burned.
“If only we had an army. Reinforcements. Wil Kallinad, he called an army from Terandria itself! If I could, I would call the Gnolls of Izril. But why wait for them when an army just as grand waits here?”
The citizens of Daquin stared down at Feshi. But some of them caught on. Feshi grinned up. She pointed with one paw.
“This is desperation. This is madness! Still, Tulm the Mithril awaits! The Iron Vanguard challenges the Titan’s students! And we are few. But if I called on you, would you come?”
Us? The shock rippled across the people standing on the roofs. Children, adults, laborers and shopkeepers looked at each other. And then down at Feshi in doubt. She wanted them to fight [Soldiers]? But the Gnoll was continuing.
“No one says that you cannot participate! So, come! We are only students! And you may not be [Soldiers]. But these [Soldiers], they have no swords. They cannot kill. And they are mighty. But with your help, we can win! Will Daquin help defeat the Iron Vanguard? Defeat Tulm the Mithril? You have that chance! Who will join us?”
She spread her arms out, raised them, beseechingly. Then she looked up. Pointed. Every head turned towards a [Mage] of Wistram. He froze as every eye fixed on him.
“Will you? Wistram’s [Mages]? Do you have the courage to take up arms? This is a game. But it is your chance. The Professor challenged us to defeat a legend. Will you be part of that legend? Or will you live knowing, always knowing that you could have made history and you did not?”
They stared down at her. And the Gnoll raised her paws.
“I call upon heroes. I call upon champions! I call upon you. Daquin! What say you? Have you any lions that prowl through Baleros’ jungles? Would you be Nagas? Or would you be Drakes, hiding behind your walls?”
She grinned. And then the silence broke. There was laughter. The Lizardfolk sitting above laughed. Drakes? They laughed and the first Lizardfolk swung himself down, dropping two stories.
“I’m no Drake!”
A door opened. A serpentine figure slithered down the steps.
“And I am Naga.”
She slithered forwards. And at that, a score of Lizardpeople rushed out the doors. And then Dullahans. They marched out their doors. Dullahans, Centaurs. Humans.
A Dullahan [Baker] adjusted his head on his shoulders and grabbed a rolling pin. He looked around. Feshi grinned.
And they came. In tens. Then hundreds. Then thousands. Children had to be restrained by parents. But the rest came, shouting. Laughing. Cheering the bold Gnoll who dared them. Because they were Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, and yes, more species still. And some had cheered for the Iron Vanguard. Others had no strong interest in the students winning. But they were citizens of Daquin first. And she had offered them a chance for history, a chance to be part of history.
It was just a game, after all. Wasn’t it? Wil stared up. The Humans looked around, counting. One street. Then two. Feshi turned back towards him.
“We can hold them for half an hour. The rest is up to you. Be the lance and break them.”
Then she turned and bounded forwards. And the city erupted around her. Wil watched her go. Then he turned. Venaz was blinking. Marian shuffled her hooves.
“Wow. I didn’t know Feshi was that good.”
An arm squeezed Wil tight. Talia was flushed with excitement as she pointed to the map.
“This is it, Wil! We can do it! The Iron Vanguard will be stuck in the streets! If they beat down Daquin’s citizens, they’ll be called monsters!”
“Even if they try, there are ten of Daquin’s own for every one of them.”
Sir Kelm observed quietly. He was frowning, eying the soldiers around him. Wil nodded. Then he frowned.
“We have one problem, though.”
“Which is? You’ve just been given an army of tens of thousands! What could be wrong now?”
Venaz snorted. Wil glance up at him and shook his head.
“No one can stop Xol. Without lances, the [Knights] have as much chance of slowing him down as—we tried ropes and he pulled a dozen horses off their hooves. Could Centaurs do better, Marian?”
Marian paled, which was as much an answer as any. Wil shook his head. He looked at his sister and Sir Kelm. If it came to that—
“Let me try.”
Someone spoke behind Wil. He turned. The City Runner was looking with interest at the map. He glanced up and around. The table stared at him blankly. The Minotaur and Centaur sharply. Luan smiled. His arm flashed gold as he held up a hand.
“I think I have an idea. I can stop Xol for a while. A few minutes, at least. Pay me and I’ll do it.”
Wil blinked at him. Talia sucked in her breath. It was a ludicrous notion. But in this moment, all things seemed possible. And—Wil glanced at Talia. She nodded.
Luan thought for a second.
“Ten gold pieces. And eighty silver pieces to pull it off. I work cheap.”
Wil opened his mouth. Talia grabbed gold from a pouch and tossed it at Luan.
“Done. Are you sure it’ll work?”
“Give me a few minutes. Where is he?”
“This street, as far as we can tell.”
Wil pointed. Luan nodded. The [Strategist] stared at him, searching.
“Do you have a plan?”
“I think so. I know a fact about War Walkers. My best friend knows a lot about Dullahans, you see. And I don’t fancy fighting in this final battle. Venaz, Marian, I’m coming back for my fee after this.”
“Stop Xol and I’ll double it.”
The Minotaur folded his arms. Luan shrugged. He jogged off. Wil turned back to the others. It was just a flicker of hope. But it was there. He took a deep breath.
“Here we go. Sir Kelm, ready your men. Commander Wylint?”
“No rearguard. We trust the streets to Daquin. We’re going in. Form up. Marian, Venaz, and I will all take to the front.”
He looked at the other two. Marian reared, making the Humans step back. Venaz flexed his arms and grinned fiercely.
“To victory. We’ll go in together. Three of the Professor’s finest. You two had better move fast. Or you’ll lose to me. Come! Form the ranks! Prepare the charge!”
He turned, roaring orders as if he were in command. Wil watched him go. Marian rolled her eyes. But there was a spring in her step as she followed him.
Talia turned to Wil. His sister glanced back at Venaz, and then leaned forwards. She indicated Venaz’s back.
“I like him. But he smells terrible.”
Wil laughed. And in the street, Feshi turned. Wil nodded.
“Go for it, Feshi.”
She couldn’t hear him. But she led the street forwards anyways. Wil mounted up. He knew word was spreading like wildfire. From scrying orbs. From word of mouth. And even the Wistram [Mages] were hesitating. You could feel it in the air. Didn’t you want to be part of it?
You could hear it. A roar that filled a city. A burning force as bright as the feeling in Wil’s chest when he’d seen the ships approaching from the harbor. Only, now it burned in everyone. If you had to call it something, you could call it hope, or courage, or just inspiration.
Victory. Something everyone wanted to taste once. And it came from a thousand lips, in a thousand voices in a thousand words. But they were all saying the same things. And if you listened above the roar of people filling Daquin’s streets, you could hear the Titan laughing and Tulm the Mithril finally losing his temper.
A small thing, in between Wil, Venaz, and Marian leading the Terandrians in a last-ditch charge. In between the Iron Vanguard coming out in force, leaving only their last line of defense around the plaza. Struggling to cross streets filled with Daquin’s citizens, who gave the [Soldiers] the fight of a lifetime. In between that moment, there was just him.
Xol of Ingrilt. He strode forwards. He had heard the call to rally. He knew what was happening. But he was too slow. And there were too many people in the way.
The streets were filled with civilians! Xol cursed as he strode forwards, shouting to clear the way. People ran out of his path, but the War Walker had to be careful. Xol tried to move as fast despite the danger to Daquin’s citizens. He was no fool. He knew this was the endgame.
They’d rallied Daquin, somehow. It was a masterful trick. Worthy of the Titan himself. Was this his plan all along? Had Tulm foreseen it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. If the Mithril had one fault, it was that his strategy was pure, like his armor. It could deal with any eventuality. But only if Tulm himself was allowed to be free. When he was unfettered by rules, he would destroy. And it was a terrible thing. But here—
Time was running out. Xol swept aside a group of Centaurs trying to block his path, stepped over a Lizardman kicking at his foot.
He had to hurry. Victory or defeat would be the difference in how long it took the scattered Armor Captains to regroup with the main force, to encircle Wil and the remaining students as they pushed forwards. A minute could be all it took for the students to reach the plaza—or for Tulm to capture enough and cement his victory. Just a few seconds of time—
The War Walker was nearly there. He turned down a side street, saw the trap too late and halted. He was already caught. He shifted. Just an inch. But any further and he would—Xol slowly raised one wrist. He spoke into the gem embedded into his gauntlet.
“Xol. I request immediate support. I am trapped and unable to move. Request immediate support.”
He heard the distant reply. But it was too late. Xol was caught. And the battle began even as he stood in place. Helpless against the most insidious of traps. What could stop a War Walker, a [Juggernaut]? One of the Iron Vanguard’s strongest?
A little Lizardfolk girl. She was happily standing on one of the War Walker’s feet. And Xol would have shifted, would have lifted her off and placed her to one side with the utmost of care. But for the other children clinging to his leg. The Centaur running around his other foot. The children, Lizardfolk, Dullahan, Centaur, who ran around him, laughing in delight.
“Move, children. Please. I am needed.”
They shrieked in terror and delight. Xol stared down at them as they refused to go. They were holding something. A glint of silver. Coins.
Slowly, the Dullahan looked up. He cast around for the creator of the trap. And found him. A man, a Human man stood a few feet ahead of Xol. He met the [Juggernaut]’s eyes and nodded.
“I’m told War Walkers can’t have children, so they prize babies and children above all else. And Dullahans themselves are very careful around the young.”
“Who told you that?”
“A friend. He’s met War Walkers before. And he knows a lot about Dullahans.”
“I see. And you are?”
The man walked forwards. The children waved at him and he waved back with a slight smile. He offered another coin to more children who ran up. They ran towards Xol excitedly. Free money to get to run around a War Walker? Xol turned his head and saw a few parents, looking alternatively terrified and amused. But he wouldn’t move. The Human was right. Xol looked back at him.
“Luan. I’m a City Runner hired to help an annoying Minotaur out.”
“I see. That explains things. A [Strategist] would not have done this. Using children, even to win a game, even if you are assured of their safety, is wrong.”
Xol stared at Luan. The City Runner shrugged a bit.
“Good thing I’m not a [Strategist]. Besides, they seem happy enough.”
He indicated the children happily trying to climb up Xol’s legs. Xol was afraid, more afraid than he had been all day, that one of them would fall off. He held very still and looked at Luan. The Human was smiling a bit. Xol spoke carefully. Levelly.
“Once a patrol reaches me, I will help end this game. I would advise you to be out of my way when that moment comes. I cannot waste any more time, but if you are still here, I will hit you.”
Luan lost his smile. He hesitated, eyed Xol, and then decided it was time to go. Dullahans were already fighting their way through the crowd.
Luan hurried off. Xol watched him go, and then noticed a Lizardboy about to fall off his shoulder. He reached out and caught the child as the Lizardboy fell with a sharp cry. The child laughed with giddy relief as he scrambled up Xol’s arm. The War Walker’s head turned to watch more children swarming up his body. He stared up and saw a Wistram [Mage] watching him with a smile on her face from a rooftop.
And on they came. Tulm the Mithril stood by the entrance to the plaza, his gaze burning like cold embers. Watching. On they came. An army of Humans. [Knights], riding in their armor, like Dullahans. [Soldiers] on foot. [Mages], flying or moving across the rooftops with [Archers].
And citizens. Civilians. They joined the final push, fighting against the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing companies, secure in the knowledge that this was a game. That they could fight without fear for their lives.
It would be so easy to drop a [Fireball] among them. It would be so easy to cheat. Because this was cheating. Wasn’t it? Daquin was rioting. The civilians were fighting—even in the plaza! The Councilmember had to be carried out on stretchers with bruises. They’d even gone after Wistram’s [Mages], who’d elected to impartiality after all.
“We have immunity! We’re with Wistram!”
A [Mage] shouted as he tried to levitate out of a crowd of citizens all too ready to knock him over the head. But those were just words. And in this moment, words were useless. She had already used them.
The Gnoll, leading the city. Madness. Tulm memorized her face. And then he looked forwards. The Gnoll was too far back. She’d never make it. But here they came.
Three of them. A Minotaur. A Centaur. And a Human. The [Knights] charged into the Iron Vanguard’s formation with a roar that staggered even the Midnight Shields. Which was one was using a Skill? One? Two? All three?
It didn’t matter. Tulm signaled. Every soldier not holding the crowd back pressed forwards. Every [Mage] was casting spells, battling the Humans and Daquin’s citizenry, forming walls of earth.
And yet, they came on. Over walls of earth, shattering barriers of magic. Overrunning formations of steel and flesh. It was almost inevitable. As his teacher would say, they had the momentum. And something else.
Tulm the Mithril sighed. He walked forwards. And for the first time he donned his helmet. His armor shone. And as the sunset marked the end of Daquin’s long day, he strode into battle.
The world watched. Marian lead her charge, shooting arrows as [Knight]’s spears splintered on wooden shields. She shouted, fighting forwards with Sir Kelm. The Midnight Shields formed a line in the sand. And they held. But with each step, they were forced back.
“Forwards! [Unit: Freedom’s Gallop]! On me!”
Marian turned and wove back through the press of bodies. Somehow, despite the melee, her hooves landed in open space each time. The [Knights] and Sir Kelm followed her, charging out of the ground and straight back in. The bodies seemed to move magically out of the way.
The second charge hit the Midnight Shields as they fought in the melee—Marian saw one Dullahan in black armor go down to a strike from Sir Kelm’s spear. She kicked at another and saw the Dullahan raise his shield. Marian reeled; she felt like she’d cracked a hoof!
But they were faltering. Just another push! Just another—Marian looked around and saw Wil striking from horseback. His sister was with him, on the ground, dueling an Armor Captain. There were even some students in the press. They were all fighting forwards. Nearly. Nearly—
And then she saw him. He strode forwards, followed by a dozen Knights of the Summer. Venaz. And his voice picked up above the rest.
“[Unit: Enhanced Strength]. [Unit: Unstoppable Advance].”
Marian’s blood chilled. Here he came. And Venaz had used both of his Skills. The [Knights] following him swung their weapons and the Midnight Shields faltered. The armored Humans didn’t break stride as weapons struck their armor. They could not stop. They could not be stopped.
The lines broke around Venaz. He cleared the area around him, punching, knocking Dullahans flying. For one minute he was unstoppable. After that it would be over.
But a minute was all he needed. The Minotaur rampaged forwards, bellowing. And he was headed straight for the plaza.
No! Marian fought to get to him, but her Skills were too deadly. And he was the best for this moment. Wil was shouting and his soldiers were fighting. But Venaz was entering the plaza.
And only one person stood in his way. The Dullahan’s armor shone as the Midnight Shields backed up around him. He waited, his armor glowing with light. Venaz bared his teeth in a savage grin as he came face-to-face with him.
Tulm the Mithril.
The fighting slowed. Both sides, Humans, and Dullahans turned to look. You couldn’t help it. They watched, waiting. Would the Dullahan retreat? Could he stop Venaz? The [Knights] locked blades with the Midnight Shields. Venaz charged. He had thirty seconds. Less. But all he needed was to take out Tulm. If he fell—
The Dullahan stared down at Venaz. He looked past the Minotaur, at the distant shape of Xol. Charging through the crowds, but too slow. Too far. The Dullahan looked up. Teura hovered overhead. He stared up, and the Titan of Baleros waited. They both smiled. Ruefully. And Tulm spoke.
“[The Twice-Born Warlord].”
Venaz raised a fist. Tulm looked down. He raised a hand. Caught the Minotaur’s fist. And—
Marian looked up. She ducked. The Minotaur landed behind her, with a thump that shook the ground. He blinked down at his torn armor. Then he looked up at Marian.
“I might have underestimated him.”
Marian looked up. Tulm raised a fist. A Knight of the Summer raised his shield and spoke a Skill. The Dullahan hit him. The [Knight] went flying.
The Centauress stared. Then she looked back. Xol approached. Calmly, the War Walker bent. He knocked Sir Kelm off his horse. Marian ducked as a finger flicked at her chest. She felt the crushing strength. The casual, incredible—and then she had it. She looked up and saw Tulm turning. He hurled another [Knight] back. And he looked up at Xol and nodded.
One and the same. One as strong as the other. A monster of strategy and one of might made into one body. [The Twice-Born Warlord].
“I can—I can do it. Give me a second.”
Venaz was getting up. He clutched at his chest, spat out some blood. Marian turned. Tulm was striding towards them, ignoring the blows against his mithril armor as if they weren’t there. The Centauress raised her bow.
The Dullahan’s head turned. Wil rode towards him. His sister called out, but she was locked in combat. Wil raised his sword in a salute. Tulm nodded.
They walked towards each other. Venaz heaved himself up. He charged Tulm from the left, Wil from the right. And Marian? She leapt.
The Dullahan blocked Venaz. He knocked Wil from his saddle. He looked up and reached—too late. Marian leapt over his head. She collided with a Midnight Shield. Hit the ground. Ran forwards.
Voices behind her. Marian raced across the plaza. An open shot. A last line of Dullahans was between her and the Professor. She could see him, sitting on his platform, grinning. Waiting. The Centauress ran. She fired twice as she ran. Her hands had never moved so fast.
[Hurricane Arrows]. The air blasted around her arrows, twisting. The Dullahans held. They were turning, encircling her. But she could make it. Marian turned, dodged a net. She felt something strike her back left leg.
She went down. A [Mage]’s spell seared across her leg and Marian screamed in agony. She heard a roar from the crowd. Protest. Tulm’s cold voice.
“Enough. Non-damaging spells.”
“Strategist. I—I have no excuse. But! I sense—”
“Enough. Take her. Xol, the Minotaur.”
“Face me, you—”
Marian struggled to three hooves. Healing potion. She was reaching for it. Tulm was striding towards her. A [Mage] behind him whirled, desperately casting spells as a volley came from half of the Wistram [Mages] present. They were all distracted! Marian got to her feet. So close. If she could just leap—
And there he was. Standing up. Watching her. Niers Astoragon waited. Venaz charged forwards, ducking Xol. Wil ran. Tulm whirled, uttering another Skill and a curse. Marian leapt—
And the stone ground went pop. Marian saw the head poke up, like a cabbage. Niers Astoragon leapt up with an oath. Tulm whirled. Marian landed and crashed as her bad leg gave way. Venaz ran into Xol’s fist. Wil stopped in his steps, panting.
The Midnight Shield whirled. They stopped. Tulm the Mithril stared. He looked down.
A little head was poking out of the ground. Off-center. Just inside the circle of rope. A little head, covered in what looked like and smelled like…crap. It was unmistakably a Lizardgirl’s head. Her neck-frills were dirty, covered in filth, but she was blinking. Staring around. She gaped up at Niers. And then then she looked delighted. She saw Marian and looked guilty.
Then Umina stared around. And everyone stared back. She wavered. For a second Umina hesitated. And then she put on her best smile. She looked up at the Fraerling staring at her.
“Uh. Hi, Professor. Did you know that [Nightmen] make excellent sappers? And that there’s an outhouse—excuse me, communal waste pit twelve feet from this spot? Well…underneath, now. And that if everyone’s busy, you can sneak into a pit and wait till all the [Mages] are occupied and uh—”
She broke off. Umina stared about. Then she retreated into her hole. Marian stared. She looked at the Titan of Baleros, who was blinking at the hole. At Tulm, who had gone white with fury. At Venaz, Wil, and the thousands of others.
And Marian tried. She really did. But she couldn’t find it in her to be glad for Umina.
No one else looked happy either.