6.24 D

There she was. Like a soiled yellow bell pepper, poking up out of the ground. Or—or a lemon covered in crap. Or maybe a yellow onion that someone had dropped in a latrine, half recovered, and then sprinkled with bits of pink—

You know what? There were no proper analogies. None at all. Umina’s yellow scales with the pink patterning was distinct in itself. Add that to her head poking out of the hole in the ground incongruously, and the—not to put a fine point on it—waste that had splashed on her in the tunneling process, and you had a sight like no other.

Marian stared at her friend. Tulm the Mithril stopped in his tracks. The Iron Vanguard, the struggling students, citizens of Daquin, and oh yes, the world stared at Umina. She half-ducked, as if trying to retreat into the tiny tunnel she’d squeezed her head out of.

And Niers Astoragon snickered. All eyes turned towards him as the Fraerling chuckled. The look of surprise that had crossed his face vanished in a moment. And it was replaced by hilarity. The Fraerling bent over, putting his hands on his thighs on his wooden platform as he laughed, and then guffawed. He tried to stop it, but he had to lean against a tumbler not to fall over.

The Titan of Baleros was laughing uncontrollably. He laughed and laughed, and the world waited, uncertain, disappointed. Angry, even. And the Titan of Baleros laughed on.

After about a minute of him laughing, people started getting upset. They looked at each other. And then they caught themselves. Looked around. At the streets full of people. The Human [Knights] from Terandria, fighting with practice swords against the Iron Vanguard. Xol, looming over Venaz, frozen in place with his fist raised uncertainly.

Some of the people in the plaza began to laugh too. It didn’t take everyone; the Dullahans, especially the members of the Iron Vanguard, just looked to Tulm in silent trepidation. But Lizardfolk rolled on the ground laughing, Centaurs snorted, Humans went ha-ha to various levels of actual humor—the [Knights] were as stone-faced as the Dullahans.

Laughter. Marian didn’t laugh. She was staring at Umina. The Lizardgirl was looking around, laughing but not really laughing, and looking more nervous than she ever had before. She was also deliberately not meeting Marian’s eye. The Centauress shifted her stare to Tulm.

The mithril-clad Dullahan was staring at Umina. He was still aglow with the light of battle. The strength he’d borrowed, no copied from Xol burned in him. And his eyes flashed as he turned his gaze to his teacher. He was not amused. And, to be fair, a lot of other people weren’t either.

Teura, the half-Elf from Wistram, looked apoplectic. As if her own pride had been wounded by the sudden and anticlimactic end to the Titan’s game. Some of the other captured students looked shocked and outraged as well. And the Humans around Wil, especially his sister and Sir Kelm, looked equal parts shocked, horrified, and furious. And it was the anger that was beginning to grow as shock faded.

Before any of that could boil over, Niers Astoragon caught himself. The Titan choked, coughed, and stood upright. With a monumental effort, he stopped his raucous laughter, coughed once, and tapped a ring on his finger. His voice boomed through the plaza, making Marian rear slightly in alarm.

Enough! The game is over!

The Titan’s voice was like a wave. It cooled the air in the plaza instantly. The laughers stopped laughing. And the anger vanished from the other faces. They stared at the Titan as Marian stopped rearing. She landed and nearly screamed; suddenly, pain was blooming through her leg!

Marian looked down and saw scorched flesh. Her stomach roiled. She suddenly recalled the Dullahan [Mage] who’d hit her with the fire spell and the pain took that moment to remind her that yes, she was in a lot of pain. She staggered and Niers saw it. The Titan leapt up, like a grasshopper, onto the head of the nearest Midnight Shield. He pointed at her.

[Healer]! Healers to the front at once! Everyone else, hold your ground! Weapons down! The game is won! Anyone with a healing potion, bring it out now and treat anyone in dire need! Move back! Slowly—I want those on the outskirts to move back! Disperse! Clear the streets of bodies if you’re uninjured! Anyone who is injured, scream for help!”

His words contained the same force Tulm the Mithril had used on the students at the start of the game. But there wasn’t the same oppressive pressure; people just moved and only realized they were obeying halfway through. They broke up and Marian saw the old Lizardwoman running towards her.

“Hold still!”

“My—my leg.”

Marian gasped. She pointed at her fetlocks, where the pain was radiating from the worst. But her entire leg was black. She could smell her cooked flesh.

“I see it. Don’t move. Raise that hoof off the ground!”

Marian obeyed, wincing. The [Healer] bent over her, her tail twitching angrily.

“Magic burn. What spell was it? [Firebolt]? Something along that line. Tier 2, but potent. Don’t worry. I can fix this. I need a second to make sure the healing potion works the right way, though—what idiot cast this? If it had hit your chest—”

She rummaged around in her satchel by her side, ripping out a jar and tearing off the lid. There was a thick cream inside. The [Healer] grabbed the good part of Marian’s leg and began applying it. Swiftly, and probably as gently as it could, but Marian still suppressed a cry as she held still, quivering.

“Hold still. Good, girl. You’ll be fine. I just need to apply this or the potion won’t get to your skin. Burns don’t heal right—this is going to hurt.”

Aah! Aaaah!

Marian had assumed the cream was some kind of painkiller, or a concentrated healing poultice. It was not. It was in fact closer to acid—she could feel it eating into her skin! She tried to move her leg, but the old [Healer] had a grip like steel.

“Hold. Still. The potion can’t work on burnt skin. It’s cauterized. Give this ten more seconds—”

Healer to the eastern plaza. I see five Dullahans downed and a [Knight] in need of aid. Don’t touch that man! Lay him flat and don’t remove the armor; the [Healer] will do that!

Niers’ voice boomed past Marian. The [Healer] winced. Marian, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes with the pain, saw a shape charging towards her out of the crowd. The Dullahans around her moved back. Tulm the Mithril was still staring at Umina, but now he glanced up and walked left.

“Marian!”

Perorn ran through the crowded plaza, around bodies, through gaps as if she were unimpeded. And she was; Marian saw her moving through the crowd as if they weren’t there. A Skill worthy of Fleethoof. The older Centauress stopped in front of Marian. The [Healer] snapped up at her.

“Her leg’s burned. I’m healing it. Stand back!”

“I have a potion. Higher quality. If she needs it—”

“She’ll be fine. Stand back, I said! This isn’t serious and I got to it in the first minute. The wound looks clean; I can see blood now. Marian, you will feel—”

The [Healer]’s voice drowned out as the pain shooting through Marian’s leg was suddenly, instantly, relieved. The Centauress put down her leg instinctively and looked—the flesh was regrowing before her eyes.

“Raise that leg! Keep it up until the potion’s done!”

Marian did as the [Healer] snapped at her. Perorn looked down, and the old [Strategist]’s face was filled with relief. She glanced up at Marian and for a second the younger Centauress saw a hint of pain in Perorn’s eyes. Unconsciously, Marian glanced at Perorn’s back right leg. The damaged one. Perorn limped back a step as the [Healer] straightened, and glanced backwards.

Her eyes met Tulm’s. The Dullahan looked at her. Perorn stared back.

“Fire spells? Are you mad? They could have killed Marian or crippled her for life. That one seared her to the bone.”

“It was an error on the part of my [Mage]. He panicked and reacted instinctively.”

Tulm replied coldly. He glanced past Perorn at Umina. She was shifting in place and calling out to someone below her. The Dullahan glanced over his shoulder.

“Tunneling?”

“Mithril, I barely picked it up. I was concentrating on defensive spells and there was no sign until a minute in. The tunneling began so close to this location. I have no excuse.”

The pale [Mage] saluted. Tulm stared at him. Niers Astoragon, from his perch, surveyed the plaza, then looked down. Everyone was moving back, but several people were pushing towards him. Teura and the Wistram [Mages] were among them.

“Lord Astoragon, what—”

Teura stared at Umina. The Lizardgirl stank. She was wiggling, trying to get free of the very narrow opening in the ground. Niers ignored the Wistram [Mage]. He was looking at Tulm.

“Any objections?”

Tulm the Mithril glanced up at him. He paused for a long moment, and then shook his head.

“I concede.”

“Very well. Will you take your forces back now or stay the night? Your wounded should stay here; I will arrange transport back.”

The Dullahan removed his head and shook it.

“No need. We will send a ship the next day. Until then, I take my leave.”

“What? But—”

Teura backed up as Tulm walked past her. She was struggling to keep up, as was Marian. Niers just nodded. Tulm paused and turned his head back, although his body kept facing the other way. His head stared at Umina.

“A final question. What is the name of this student?”

“Umina Caxical. One of my advanced students.”

“I see.”

Tulm stared at Umina. She quailed. Then the Dullahan placed his head on his shoulders. He walked forwards. And his voice rolled through the plaza.

Iron Vanguard. Return to your assigned warship. Leave the injured.

The Dullahans and other [Soldiers] in the square belonging to the Iron Vanguard stiffened. They turned and began marching as the Midnight Shields broke formation around Niers to surround Tulm. There was no precise march or accompanying drumbeat this time; the Iron Vanguard left in disarray, slowly forming up into units as they marched back.

It was so quick! Marian stared. She still hadn’t gotten past the fact that Umina had won. Umina. By tunneling through the privy! She looked back at Umina, who was struggling, one arm free.

“Steady—steady! I’m going up, not down. Just don’t drop m—”

“Lord Astoragon, is this really the end of the game?”

Teura demanded, as if she couldn’t see Tulm and the Iron Vanguard marching away. Niers turned to her, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course. Or do you not see one of my students trying to extricate herself from the ground? I do. And if this is an illusion, it’s a fantastic one. Your audience might not be able to smell Umina, but I can. Wonderful work, by the way, Umina. If you’d been a moment slower you might have lost. And if you’d been too early, Tulm would have detected you, I have no doubt.”

“Thank you, sir. Uh—could someone help pull me out?”

Umina waved an arm. She seemed to be sinking down despite her best efforts to get up. Marian could hear muffled shouts from beneath the earth. Something below seemed to be caving in. She made no effort to help Umina.

Neither did Wistram’s finest. They kept staring at Tulm. Marian could hear someone shouting from the scrying orb. It sounded like one of the Drake [Commentators] having a heart attack. Niers ignored them all. He clapped his hands together and beamed around.

“A fine game. Unexpected endings, always lovely. Don’t be alarmed by Tulm’s sudden departure. I imagine he has a schedule to keep, and he probably doesn’t wish to be interviewed, especially by a bunch of inbred leeches—I mean, the wonderful [Mages] of Wistram. Let’s clear up the plaza, get the wounded sorted out, and then we can move onto the conclusion. Perorn? Lend me your shoulder, will you? My Dullahan needs to go.”

He hopped off the Midnight Shield’s head and the black-armored Dullahan marched away at speed. Perorn caught Niers, placed him on her shoulder, and turned. The [Strategist] was already shouting more orders at the crowd. Marian looked at the [Healer]. The Lizardwoman slapped her leg. Marian yelped.

“That hurts!”

“Tender flesh. Lots of nerves. Good. You’re healed! Just don’t go galloping for a day.”

The [Healer] stood up briskly, already looking for another victim to heal. Marian stared at her. She looked at Niers.

“This is so sudden! Shouldn’t there be an announcement? Or something? Or—”

“Plenty of time for that later. He said the game was over, didn’t he? Good thing too. I was getting tired of fixing people up. Anyways, what do you want? You lost. That Lizardgirl won, and good thing too. I won money. She won; game’s over. Wasn’t the worst game I ever saw, wasn’t the weirdest either.”

Marian stared at the [Healer] as she put the lid on her jar and tucked it into her satchel.

“What, really?”

“Absolutely. This was tame compared to last time. Alright! If anyone’s hurt, scream! If not, you can fix yourselves—

 

—-

 

The game was over. But it didn’t feel over. It had gone down so quick, and the announcement had been so sudden—not to mention the Iron Vanguard leaving so abruptly—that no one felt like the game was actually done.

Which was intentional, Perorn could tell. Niers Astoragon had issued the abrupt statement on purpose. He was taking advantage of the confusion. People expected something to happen, and in that gap while they waited for the ‘correct’ thing to occur, he could fit in any number of his personal agendas. Some of them were important. Critical, even.

[Healer] down that street! Move; there’s someone with a head injury on the left side of the street!

The Titan ordered a group of [Healers] as Perorn trotted forwards. The Fraerling was surveying the city as a whole, using a scrying orb for its actual intended purpose for once. And the [Healer] corps he’d dispersed rushed en-masse about the city, tending to the most in need of aid first. And there were a number of people who needed it. [Knights] unhorsed with head injuries, horses hurt in the battle, members of the Iron Vanguard who’d been trampled—

“Tulm the Mithril pulled out in a second. Was that prearranged?”

Healing potion! I didn’t actually arrange that, Perorn. That’s just Tulm. He’s smart enough not to want to stick around and have me rub defeat in his face. And he lost, so he’s not getting what he wanted. Believe me; if he’d have won, he’d be sticking to me like glue this instant.”

Perorn grunted. That did sound like Tulm. He hadn’t even claimed his injured soldiers. He was just off, giving no one time to see his defeated expression. Not that he’d show weakness that obviously.

“Bastard.”

“Careful. There are [Mages] still listening to us. Which brings me to my second point. I’m going to make a little show of awards in a second. Would you help me with…?”

Niers leaned over and whispered into Perorn’s ear. The Centauress nodded, turning her head to survey the plaza.

“Fine. I’ll find the other teachers. You can show off as much as you like. Where do you want me to put you?”

“One circuit of the plaza. I want our [Healers] to get to everyone they need to first. Then the pedestal. That would do.”

Dutifully, Perorn circled the plaza as Niers ordered his [Soldiers] to help disperse the bewildered crowd. Half of Daquin’s citizens were still clutching their weapons uncertainly. Perorn eyed them.

“Feshi actually managed to rally the city into fighting!”

“Wasn’t it brilliant?”

Niers smiled. Perorn eyed the torn up street, the injured people being tended to, many of which were Iron Vanguard members, and didn’t know if she agreed. She walked back towards the pedestal and Niers leapt onto it.

Citizens of Daquin! Thank you for your patience!

The plaza jumped as one. Niers’ eyes twinkled as the Fraerling took the spotlight once again. He spoke, casually letting his amplified voice ring out across the plaza.

“And to my students and the audience, thank you as well. Let me repeat myself. The game is over. And we have a winner. One of my students has infiltrated the winner’s circle. From the ground! You may not have seen her, but I present to you—Umina Caxical!”

He gestured. Every eye fell on Umina, who was tugging a foot out of the ground. She froze and then waved a claw, looking terrified. She was still covered in dirt and stuff that resembled dirt. Niers smiled.

“A rather unorthodox win this time. It appears Umina tunneled under the ground through what I can only term a sewage depot. It appears the [Mages] in the plaza did not notice her. Nor did Tulm the Mithril himself. He has conceded defeat, so once again, congratulations to Umina on a victory well-deserved!”

There was a moment of silence at that. Some laughter even sprang back up. It was so—ridiculous. But the Titan forged ahead as if it was perfectly natural, and his audience was caught.

“Very well, very well. I think a bath is called for, or a bucket of water at least. But let us not waste time. Tulm certainly hasn’t. The Iron Vanguard is returning to their ships and my [Healers] are tending to the wounded. But the game is not quite concluded! As with every battle, I think the dissection afterwards is just as critical as the experience itself. So, then. Students! Class is in session! Gather around, all of you!

His sudden bellow made the students in the plaza jump. Venaz, Wil, and Feshi all appeared, at once, but Niers was beckoning to another group. A mass of students, seated or standing, some nursing bruises, others unharmed. They stood up slowly and approached. Everyone but the Wistram [Mages] gave way to them. And they surrounded their teacher, the Professor, as if they were in class. Niers looked down at them and smiled.

“Well now. Thoughts on today’s lesson? Questions? We will be studying this in class when we return to the academy, you know.”

They stared at him. Then one of the students in the crowd—Yerranola—laughed. Niers smiled along with her.

“I’m serious, Yerranola.”

The Selphid stopped laughing. Niers walked up and down the platform, looking across the students. And suddenly, he wasn’t speaking to the plaza or Wistram’s [Mages], or to the audience across the world, but to them.

“Well. It was a fine game. Unexpected, yes. Unfair? Probably! But that is the nature of all games. And whether you were caught, or you survived to the end—”

He nodded to Venaz, Wil, Marian, and Feshi, who were standing together. Wil looked tired, almost too tired to be upset. Feshi propped him up with a sympathetic paw on his shoulders. She didn’t look that put out. Venaz was still disbelieving, almost shell-shocked. Marian…she looked around for Umina. The Lizardgirl was hiding. The Centauress glanced back up and found Niers staring at her. His voice was soft.

“Whether you won or lost. Whether your plans went awry or failed in just one part to come to fruition. I saw it all. Your struggles, your defeats. I saw it. And you did me proud. Each and every one of you. I called for you to challenge Tulm the Mithril, and you did. For that, I thank you.”

His students looked up at him. The Titan, their Professor, smiled, and it was a fond smile meant only for them.

“I hope, no, I trust most of you will level up after today. Perhaps even more than once. But what sort of teacher would I be if I didn’t reward what I saw? So I have a few announcements to make. We have a winner of this game. Umina. Step forwards.”

And she appeared, from behind Perorn. Cleaner, but smelly. The students stared at her. The world stared, but this was a class. And Umina, flushing, afraid to meet anyone’s eyes, stood in front of Niers. He smiled gently.

“Congratulations, Umina. A prize from my vaults and the question of your choice is mine. When we return to Elvallian, I will set aside an appropriate date. Have your question ready then. Until that moment—well done. Your trick with the [Nightmen] was…inspired, to say the least. I didn’t expect it. Nor did Tulm. It was not a victory created solely by you, but you seized an opportunity. And that is the key to winning any battle.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Umina mumbled softly. Marian stared at her friend. And then Niers looked up. His gaze swept the students.

“But Umina isn’t the only student I have to reward. [General] Felk?”

A Drake walked forwards. He was one of the teachers. He stood next to Rustarmor and three other teachers from the academy. Felk looked around calmly and called out in a parade-grounds voice.

“Sillk. Venaz. Marian. Jekilt. Kaelma.”

The students walked forwards slowly, through the crowd. Marian saw the other students turning to look at her. She was suddenly nervous. She fell into place with the other students, glancing from side to side. Felk eyed them and nodded.

“Lord Astoragon?”

“Thank you, General.”

The Fraerling looked down from his seat at the students. He met each’s eyes in turn. Sillk’s abashed look, Venaz’s downcast expression, Marian’s stare, Jekilt’s level gaze, and Kaelma’s questioning glance. The Professor smiled.

“Don’t be disappointed. Or rather, only be disappointed in appropriate measure. This game was not easy to win. Chance played as much part as strategy. Nevertheless, I see fit to award you five for excellence during the game.”

The students looked up, confused. That wasn’t part of the game! Niers cut off Teura, who was trying to point that out. He shooed her back with one impatient hand.

“My game. My rules. Don’t interrupt, please. Now, where was I? Ah yes, Sillk. You first.”

The Lizardman walked forwards, hunched, checking his dark clothing. The [Rogue], who Marian had never seen once the game started, looked up at Niers. The Professor studied him kindly.

“I almost expected you to team up with Merrik. I’m pleased you two did not; you were most effective fighting in your strengths. I’m pleased to see you didn’t hold each other back with friendship.”

Sillk jumped. He blinked up at Niers, and then opened his mouth reflexively.

“Er, thank you, Professor.”

The response was so automatic, that some of the students laughed unconsciously. And Marian felt something ease in her stomach. For a second it felt like class and a student giving a particularly bad response. Niers laughed along with the other students and Sillk turned red. Merrik growled from the crowd.

“What do you mean, ‘thank you’? You’re getting it when this is over, Sillk!”

Niers waved a hand for silence. He went on, as, behind him, the scrying orb on his pedestal began flashing moments from the battle where Sillk had taken part.

“Very well done taking out the enemy officers. You got captured the instant the [Mages] tagged you with a locator spell, though. Any thoughts?”

“Uh—no sir. I mean, yes, sir.”

Sillk turned bright red again and went on.

“I should have gone to ground sooner than I did. I regret not doing that. I opened myself up for being tracked; I should have been just as aggressive, or even more so, but then hidden. Instead I got myself caught when I could have survived for much longer.”

Niers nodded appreciatively.

“Good answer. Well done indeed. I saw less leadership than I would have liked, but you coordinated well with Jekilt and your fellow students on the field. I’m afraid there’s not much of a reward for you, though. You’ll be eating tea leaves for the next three days.”

“Sir?”

Sillk looked blank. Niers smiled.

“I think Foliana has an opening for you in her schedule. She doesn’t have a set curriculum, but three days of shadowing her will prove instructional. Learn from her how she disappears.”

The students, who had been full of levity a moment ago, went silent. Behind Niers, Teura and the other Wistram [Mages] looked stunned. Marian felt the same way. She stared at Sillk. He was going to be taught? By Three-Color Stalker herself? She was notorious for not taking apprentices—as far as anyone knew. But this was a reward. And…

Did Niers have special training courses for [Assassins]? And if so…Sillk gulped, but he bowed.

“It would be an honor, Professor.”

Niers smiled drily.

“Say that after three days with Foliana. I have no idea what she’ll do, so I apologize in advance. Venaz.”

The Minotaur stepped forwards. Niers studied him.

“Interesting ploy with the City Runner. It would have worked if I had decided to take action against the students, but it handicapped you earlier on. I’m afraid you trusted to your battle prowess instead of considering a larger offensive.”

The Minotaur bowed his head, uncharacteristically quiet. Niers went on.

“You did well fighting through the patrols, though. And your leadership at the end took the fight to Tulm himself. I’m afraid you underestimated him, but the experience should be instructive. Venaz. Any thoughts?”

The Minotaur shook his head briefly.

“I have nothing to say, sir. I’ve embarrassed myself in front of my people.”

Nonsense.

The snap in Niers’ voice made Venaz look up. He met the Professor’s gaze. Niers glanced irritably at Venaz, and then the scrying orb.

“If you’re referring to hiding and being outclassed, that was a mistake every student here made save one. The point is how you reacted to adversity, not your preparations. With that said, you demonstrated considerable skill in making it to the end of the game unscathed. That alone merits a reward. And I’m sure the House of Minos agrees. If not, that is my sole opinion.”

Venaz stood a bit straighter. He glanced up at Niers, and then bowed his head quickly.

“Thank you, Professor. I…I was unprepared, but I found the value in teaming up with other students. No—more than that, listening to sound advice no matter where it came from. From the City Runner I hired, no less.”

The Titan smiled, and there was approval in his tone.

“That is a lesson worth learning. If you took away only that, I’d say you gained something from today.”

The Minotaur nodded and then hesitated.

“Yes, Professor. I have to ask—is Armor Captain Shailt recovering?”

“You may check on her later. I understand she was left in our [Healer]’s care rather than brought with the Iron Vanguard. Now, as for you, Venaz, I think some instruction into evasive maneuvers in an urban environment would be helpful. General Felk is an expert at urban warfare and you’ll be accompanying him as he returns to his duties in a month’s time.”

“Yes sir. Thank you, Professor.”

Venaz stepped back, blinking a few times. Marian was next. She smiled as Niers asked how her leg was and complimented her maneuvers in the plaza.

“Thank you, Professor. But I really didn’t do much.”

Niers nodded calmly.

“True. Other students made more heroic efforts. But you made it to the end, and if you’d had a second or a few feet, you might have won. What have you learned?”

“How poorly I do in close-quarters combat, sir? I was nearly taken out by a [Captain]; my bow wasn’t nearly as useful as I would have liked.”

“The flaw of every [Strategist] is weakness in combat, at least compared to [Warriors]. I’m glad you recognize that. But since it is important, you’ll get to receive personal instruction from our weapons masters until you can use a bow to fend off even a Level 30 [Warrior].”

“T-thank you, sir?”

The Titan grinned as Marian stepped back. Some of the students winced and one of them patted Marian on the shoulder. Kaelma received a similar gift; the [Fencer] had done well, but Niers pointed out her dueling Skills had been on display without any actual leadership. So she would lead [Scouts] on patrol for two weeks.

Now that it came to it, the Titan’s rewards didn’t sound like rewards so much as personalized training. Which was a reward, but it wasn’t always fun. Shadowing a [General], receiving one-on-one lessons from [Weapon Masters]…Marian groaned, imagining the bruises. Niers called over another group of students who’d also done well, but then someone else took his place.

Fleethoof. And when Perorn stepped forwards, the students looked up and went quiet. And the watching [Mages] leaned in. The Centauress’ voice was crisp.

“Peki. Merrik. Feshi. All three of you did exceptionally well.”

“Indeed. I particularly liked—”

Perorn walked in front of Niers. She stared down at the three students, the [Martial Artist] Garuda, the Dwarf, Merrik, and the Gnoll who’d rallied Daquin, Feshi. Her gaze was severe, but Marian thought she looked pleased.

“Peki, outstanding fighting Skills. Subpar choice of opponents. You lack experience against fighting opponents with high-level Skills or artifacts. You will report to my company and engage in duels against my officers.”

Marian winced. Peki only smiled.

“Yay.”

The Centauress gave her an icy smile. She turned her attention to the next student.

“Merrik.”

“Fighting maniac from Pomle—er, hi, Professor!”

The Dwarf straightened to a laugh from his fellow classmates. Perorn raised an eyebrow.

“Excellent leadership. You led your classmates and auxiliary fighters splendidly. Right up until the moment you wasted your best Skill in an early engagement.”

“Well, you see, Professor Perorn, I planned on—”

“You need experience. You’ll get that accompanying me. I plan on doing a patrol across our territories, battling monsters and [Bandits]. I expect you to learn something from the ordeal.”

“Oh, grandfathers. Not field training—”

Merrik shut up as the Centauress gave him a quelling glance. She looked at the third student.

“Feshi.”

The Gnoll smiled, baring her teeth. Perorn nodded.

“As far as ideas went, your ability to rally Daquin was exceptional. The rest of your performance was not.”

The Gnoll looked abashed.

“Hrr. Yes, Professor. I failed to use my best Skill at the end as well. I thought about it, but it would be little use with so many bodies in the way. How should I improve?”

“By learning to employ your existing Skills more effectively. To that end, you’ll be shadowing me on campaign. You’ll serve as my second. I expect you to fill that role to the best of your abilities.”

There was a gasp from the students. Feshi looked delighted and alarmed. She bowed.

“I will do my best, Professor!”

“Very good.”

The Centauress stepped back. Aggrieved, Niers cleared his throat once or twice. He looked at his students, then past them. Wistram’s [Mages], Daquin’s people, and his soldiers looked on. They were entertained, if puzzled by this moment. Now the Titan smiled and they stood straighter, expectantly.

“And so we have rewards. Or punishment. But exemplary though some performances were, and many were truly impressive, I have one student yet to call upon. Wil Kallinad. Walk forwards, lad.”

Every eye swung towards Wil. He was standing silently to the side. With some of the Humans from Terandria. Now he did walk forwards, and Marian saw his face was pale. He was…well, if Venaz was downcast, Wil looked smashed into the ground. He managed a stiff bow before Niers.

“Professor.”

“Wil.”

There was kindness in Niers’ eyes as he looked at Wil. He paused for a moment.

“You brought four warships from Kallinad’s harbors. Across the sea. And of all my students, you were the one to predict the Iron Vanguard’s arrival. You foresaw Tulm the Mithril and you challenged him.”

“Yes sir. And I failed.”

Wil looked up steadily. Niers shook his head.

“I could argue that without you, none of the students would have had a chance at victory, much less succeeded. But you are correct. You were outplayed in the end. By guile.”

He gestured at Umina, who went even paler than Wil for a moment. Niers paused.

“If you could have done something differently, what would you have done, Wil?”

Everyone waited for his response. Wil opened his mouth, gulped a few times, and then looked up. At last, he croaked hoarsely.

“I would have won, sir.”

Silence. Niers nodded.

“Fair enough. I suppose you feel disappointed. I suppose the cost of four warships—and crew, and [Soldiers], not to mention the [Knight] order accompanying you—weighs on you. And it should. [Strategists] may answer to [Kings], or [Generals], or any number of employers. But when we give our orders, our analysis, lives hang on the balance. On our decisions a nation’s hopes and lives may rest. Never forget that.”

Marian held still. Wil looked up, shaking with each sentence, but nodded.

“Yes, Professor.”

Niers waited. The world waited. The Titan walked back and forth, studying Wil.

“You lost. But you took on Tulm the Mithril. Don’t forget that either, Wil. You surprised him. I know Level 40 [Strategists] that can’t claim the same.”

Wil looked up. Niers went on. His voice rose slightly as he gestured in the direction of the harbor.

“It was a masterful move, Wil. I saw the ships coming because I looked. I lost them after they left the harbor, but I knew they were coming. Next time, everyone will be looking so learn to prepare decoys and cover your tracks. You’ll never be able to pull the trick you pulled today as easily. And that is because the world knows your name. The world saw you outmaneuver a Great Company. Come this close to victory. And for that display, I have only one thing to say. Umina.

He turned. The Lizardgirl jumped and stuttered.

“Y-yes Professor?”

Niers looked at her. She looked at Niers. The students, Daquin, and the world as always, held their breaths. Niers glanced around, then he smiled.

“I’ll see both of you later. Umina, I’ll have your gift ready. Wil, no gift. You did lose. But have a question ready. Both of you.”

Marian felt her heart catch in her chest. Wil’s eyes widened. Marian heard a wild cry and saw Wil’s sister raise a hand in the air. And then Wil opened his mouth to say something—to protest—but it was drowned out by the roar of sound behind him.

Humans, and not just Humans! Daquin’s citizens screamed and clapped and shouted in delight with the others. The students around Wil swarmed him, clapping his shoulder, shouting in excitement. The Titan stood on his pedestal and laughed as Teura tried to shout at him. He had to wave his hands for nearly a minute to be heard.

“Enough! Enough! No questions. The reward matches the deed. Enough said. So let’s continue. To my students, officers, strategists. To my soldiers of the Forgotten Wing Company, and those of the Iron Vanguard who have yet to depart. To Daquin and its citizens, who won a victory over a Great Company this day. I congratulate you all. And as the Titan of Baleros and member of the Forgotten Wing company, I offer you my hospitality this night.”

And at his words, Marian heard a roll of sound. Not the slow thunder of the Iron Vanguard’s drums, but a far more welcome sound and sight. Wagons rolled forwards, and [Servants] leapt down. From bags of holding, and the stores in the wagons, they began setting up tables. Chairs. Rolling out barrels; kegs were far too small. The students and Daquin’s people stared. Then someone shouted.

“A feast!”

“A feast indeed! My people are setting up across the city, so don’t swarm them here! I’m renting every inn, pub, and miserable dive in the city! Open your doors! And if one of my students leaves Daquin sober, I’m expelling that student on the spot!”

Niers roared and his students cheered wilder than anyone else. They swarmed the tables and the [Servants] who had to beat them back with ladles as they tried to serve food. The excitement, expectation, and surprise of the last hour, all faded as Marian looked around and realized how hungry she was, how tired.

So she pushed towards a table, grabbed the nearest edible-looking thing, ate, drank, and felt better. And she forgot about the heartache, defeat, and all the other emotions whirling inside of her. The game was over.

And that was a relief.

 

—-

 

The Titan of Baleros had a flair for drama. But saying that was an understatement of understatements. It was like saying that Crelers had a bit of an eating problem. It completely missed how aggravating, how annoying Niers Astoragon could be. And while Perorn had worked with him for decades, he still managed to catch her by surprise.

Like now, for instance. She had coordinated the rest of the student’s ‘rewards’, which were rewards, but really just rare training opportunities with the Fraerling. But the announcement about Wil winning the right to a question had caught her off-guard as much as anyone else.

She pushed through the crowd surrounding Niers, Wistram [Mages] demanding an interview, Councilmembers asking if he was really going to pay for everything, only to find he’d disappeared. He was good at that, too, which meant Perorn had to answer all the questions.

She found Niers after the mob had dispersed to go look for him. Or rather, he found her; the Fraerling had hidden in a little alcove underneath the pedestal. Like a spider. It was an uncharitable comparison, but Perorn wasn’t happy to be left facing a sea of aggressive questioners.

She glared at the Titan as he pulled himself back up the platform. No one noticed, not even the Wistram [Mages]. As Niers had once remarked, the fact that they trusted to spells to notice invisibility enchantments and so on and so forth meant that they were terrible at noticing the mundane. And Fraerling were masters of hiding in plain sight.

“Quick, put me on your shoulder. Before they notice me.”

Briefly, Perorn debated ratting Niers out, or abandoning him. But knowing him he’d just wriggle out of it and cause her more trouble. So she held out a hand and he raced up her arm as if he were running up a slope. He perched on Perorn’s shoulder and she trotted off. The celebration was in full swing, and more than a few [Mages] and Councilmembers were distracted by the barrels already being emptied of expensive alcohol.

“How much did you spend on the celebrations?”

“Do you want to know that? Or do you want to kill me about Wil? You can take your pick, but I’d rather not add to how snappish you’re going to be.”

Niers dangled his legs over Perorn’s shoulder, looking more cheerful than he had any right to be. The Centauress glared at him, limping slightly as she walked across the city.

“What was that stunt at the end? You just ruined the purpose of the entire game!”

The Fraerling stroked his beard, looking unconcerned at her reaction.

“As a matter of fact, I did not. Umina still won. And she gets a larger prize than Wil, but he still earns the right to the question. It’s not as if this is the first time. I did it two games ago. Or would you have let Wil toss himself into the ocean after losing to Umina?”

“I’d have rather you gave him a suitable reward. Or are you sympathetic to him because of how much money he spent?”

The Fraerling raised his eyebrows.

“The reward matches the deed, Perorn. Or do you disagree?”

The Centauress hesitated. The Titan looked seriously at her.

“I overplayed his bravery and the challenging Tulm bit, but he outmaneuvered the Iron Vanguard. They didn’t see him coming. I lost track of those damn ships.”

“You did? Really? I thought you made that up.”

“Well, I was hardly able to send scouting ships, was I? He kept them out of sight of regular vessels the entire way across the ocean. Tell me you could do better. Name me one of our best [Strategists] that could pull of a trick like that without sweating. And then tell me the reward is undeserved.”

Niers stared at Perorn. She hesitated.

“I suppose not. Even so—you know what the Kallinads will want to know, don’t you?”

“Mmf. Something political. I have something in mind. It will cause a fuss, but it shouldn’t get back to us.”

Perorn eyed Niers. His idea of a fuss was largely different from hers.

“And Umina? The gold you spent on this party? Healing potions? Was it all worth it? Not to mention—how many died?”

Niers paused. His expression grew somber.

“Seventeen deaths. Eight of ours, two civilians, six from the Iron Vanguard. One [Knight].”

“Low on the Terandrian’s side.”

“I didn’t count the horses. Twenty four of them.”

Perorn felt a twinge of pain. Horses weren’t Centaurs, but as distant kin, even if Centaurs were vastly more intelligent than horses, she felt the pain.

“What will you do about that?”

The Titan swung his legs in silence for a moment.

“Award the families double the standard pension. This wasn’t a battle. They weren’t meant to die. I’ll reach out to the Seer of Steel for his people. And I’ll have someone speak to Sir Kelm of the Order of Seasons about his [Knight].”

The two moved in silence for a minute after that. Well, Perorn walked and Niers sat. She could already see people eating, talking animatedly, clustering around a [Mage] in hopes of appearing in the scrying orb, and pairing up. The relief, the adrenaline and rush of triumph—it was almost as if this was the end of a battle. She spoke quietly to Niers.

“People always die. [Soldiers] die in camp when they quarrel with each other. Or after visiting a brothel and having their groins slowly rot off them. They die tripping while marching.”

“I know. It doesn’t change that this was my game.”

“Even so. You don’t have to—”

“We’ll pay them, Perorn.”

The Centauress dropped it. She looked at Niers. And thought. She knew her boss well. And she knew that nothing with Niers Astoragon was straightforward as it seemed, even when he looked like he was on a razor’s edge.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

He stood up and stretched. Niers absently raised a tiny whistle around his neck and blew it. The shrill sound was quite inaudible to Perorn, but she knew what was coming. She glared and reached out to grab him. He sidled down her shoulder.

“No. I didn’t. I’m going back first to Elvallian. You’ll be back at the academy tomorrow? The students will head with the convoy, but you can run back if you want to meet me there. We should plan out the student’s curriculums after this.”

The Centauress known as Fleethoof glared. She knew Niers wasn’t trying to hurt her—at least, she thought he wasn’t—but sometimes it felt like he forgot on purpose.

“I’m in no condition to run.”

Her right hind leg hurt. Now that Tulm was gone, Perorn felt her tendons protesting her every movement. Healing potions hadn’t saved her leg after it had been hamstrung; she had saved some mobility, but the pain and her own aging body made her old feats of speed a distant memory. She scowled and Niers looked up at her.

“It will feel better by the time you return.”

“Oh, really? And do you have a poultice for me? I don’t want one. I told you, [Healers] with painkillers don’t change the fact that my leg can’t move the same way it used to. And I won’t damage it just so you—”

“Perorn.”

The Titan stopped her with a word. He could do that. But Perorn swore that if the next words that came out of his mouth didn’t placate her, she would knock him off her shoulder and stomp on him. She waited as the Titan met her gaze. A tiny man on her shoulder. Perorn heard beating wings. Niers looked up, and then smiled crookedly.

“I told you you’d have a good day. Do you think seeing Tulm humiliated slightly was all of what I meant?”

Perorn blinked.

“I—yes. Of course. If it wasn’t just to see this, then what did you bring me for?”

Suddenly paranoid, she stared hard at Niers. But he only gave her his most enigmatic smile. He leaned forwards. And suddenly Perorn felt a hum as her rings warned her that he’d just employed an artifact. His anti-listening spells. He whispered in her ear.

“Venaz. Search for Armor Captain Shailt. Try to be discreet. Let him take the lead.”

What—

Niers stepped back. Perorn grabbed for him, but it was too late. He tipped his hat to her and leapt up. Perorn stepped back as a claw descended and snatched the Fraerling up like a bug. The owl flapped its wings once and took off. The Fraerling sped into the night, as the trained bird flew back towards the academy, as fast as a swallow.

Perorn watched him go. She cursed once. But she knew the owl would be flying too high for her, even if she decided to race after him. Damn animals. The Titan employed [Beast Masters] among his other tricks.

And then Perorn thought about what Niers had said. And her instincts, the little animal sense at the back of her brain, tingled. She looked around, murmuring.

“As bad as Foliana in his own way.”

He loved secrets. But he seldom lied outright. And so Perorn went searching for Venaz. She found the Minotaur a few minutes after a certain City Runner did. Perorn had to stop and speak to Daquin’s Councilmembers, as well as Wistram’s [Mages] and everyone else vying for her and Niers’ attention. Again.

Luan had to check on his boat.

 

—-

 

The game was over. She’d won. Umina walked around the streets of Daquin, feeling drunk on exhilaration, confused, and almost, a tiny bit, disappointed. Because no one was trying to kill her. No one was screaming that she was a cheat and should be punished. People seemed…happy.

But she wasn’t. Umina felt as guilty as she ever had, worse than when she’d pushed her neighbor’s son down the stairs because he’d shoved her the day before that. She’d seen Wil’s face after the game ended, and the disappointment on Venaz’s. But the worst had been Marian.

She’d been so close. Umina’s heart had stopped when she’d poked her head out of the ground and seen Marian leaping at her, and Tulm, Tulm the Mithril blocking her way. And he’d looked at her. And asked her name.

Umina’s heart pounded wildly at the memory. But if she dwelled on that, she’d start shaking, so she kept walking. Daquin’s citizens were in the streets, making merry with Wistram’s [Mages], the Forgotten Wing soldiers, and the students. They were the noisiest, and the center of attention, demanding to see themselves in the scrying orbs, which were on replay as Noass and Sir Relz gave their commentary on the game, drinking, being toasted and toasting each other—

And crying. Yes. There were tears amid the laughter and congratulations. Frustration, jealousy, disappointment—the other students had done their best after all. Some had spent money, or time, or any number of things on victory. And Umina had won. She tried to slink past the first few groups, head on a swivel for Marian. But the third wave of students clustered around a food table spotted her.

“It’s Umina! Get over here!”

A Dwarf’s bass voice roared over the crowd and everyone turned. Umina froze, but Merrik appeared and tugged her over to his table. He and some of the officer students were drinking, and they greeted Umina with shouts of delight. And surprisingly, none of them seemed angry. They sounded angry, but only for a second. Kelsa merrily cursed at Umina as she and Kaelma practiced quaffing. Jekilt shook his head as he drank more sedately from a mug.

“You bastard of a Lizardgirl, you did it! Right under our noses! Hah!”

Merrik slapped Umina on the back and then wrinkled his nose.

Phaw! You still stink! Here, take a drink and pour it over your head!”

He grabbed a mug and filled it with one hand. Umina took the mug, trying to speak, and saw a huge feathery shape appear next to her. Peki tilted her head and nodded a few times.

“Good trick. Dirty trick. I didn’t see it coming. Good job, and I hate you.”

She nodded at Umina as she dipped her beak into her drink. Umina ducked her head.

“I’m sorry—”

“Sorry? What’s there to be sorry about?”

Merrik was instantly outraged, as were several other students. Jekilt shook his head as he trotted over. He was eating some sticky balls of rice sweetened with a lovely sauce Umina knew from back home. Her stomach rumbled and Jekilt passed her a few. Umina scarfed them down. The [Captain] shook his head.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You won, Umina. A win’s a win. It makes all of our effort look pointless, though. Which is the lesson the Professor probably wants us to learn.”

He looked at the others. Kaelma nodded as she adjusted her head and poured the drink down for maximum, Dullahan-style quaffing effect. Umina blushed.

“I still feel bad. You were all fighting so hard, and I used you as a distraction. Especially Wil. I couldn’t have done it without him occupying the Iron Vanguard.”

Merrik grinned.

“Hear that? She couldn’t have done it without us occupying all of the Iron Vanguard’s [Mages]! Which means—eh—wait—so no one would have won if we didn’t do our best. But since we did, Umina won. But if we’d all acted like she did—so how would we have won?”

He broke off, muttering to himself. One of the others, the Oldblood Drake with the folded wings, shrugged. She spat a small wisp of darkness out; it dissipated quick in the blood-red, evening sky.

“Probably by having a better endgame plan. Facing Tulm the Mithril in a scrum was suicide. You saw how he flattened your Minotaur with a single punch, right?”

Jekilt nodded.

“Venaz? I’ve never seen anyone do that. What was the Skill he used?”

“[The Twice-Born Warlord]. Now there’s a Skill worthy of a legend.”

Merrik sighed longingly. The others nodded. Peki frowned.

“You think he has the Skills too? Is he exactly as strong as Xol? These are the questions. I would have liked to fight him.”

“Fat chance of that now. You saw how he swanned off at once. Can’t take a defeat, that one.”

“It’s not like he’s going to stay and drink with you, Merrik. Or that he’d be that fun to hang around. I am disappointed that Xol left, though. I wanted to ask him to sign my armor!”

“Me too! And I owe him a punch for smashing me into the ground! My head’s still ringing! Hey, did you see how he took out Tefret? Poor bastard didn’t even stand a chance. And I thought he’d be the one to make it to the endgame! Let’s see if we can get it on replay. Oi! You, the [Mage] with the hat!”

Umina edged back from the group as they turned on a [Mage] trying to pour an entire keg’s worth of alcohol into a bag of holding. She was glad, really, but she had a job to do, so after raiding the food table for a very tasty rodent of some kind on a skewer, she headed out in search of the person she really needed to talk to.

It wasn’t hard to find her. Marian hadn’t gone far, and she stood out from the crowd because she was, well, a Centaur. Even in packed spaces, Centaurs got space. After a horse steps on your foot once, even by accident, you don’t let it happen twice. She was eating from a plate heaped with oats and covered in a spicy salsa that the Centauress liked. Even though it gave her indigestion.

She was talking with another Centaur, a student from another class. Umina edged over. She knew Marian saw her, but the Centaur [Strategist] didn’t acknowledge her. Umina coughed.

“Uh, Marian. Can I have a word?”

The other Centaur glanced over and saw Umina. Marian turned her head and something about her posture might have given away her feelings; the other Centaur made himself scarce in a moment. Marian and Umina stared at each other. The Centauress chewed her food, and swallowed. She spoke shortly.

“Hi, Umina. Congratulations on winning.”

“Thank you? I mean—I wanted to say sorry.”

“What for? It was a game. You won. Congratulations.

Marian furiously shoveled another mouthful of oats and nearly choked. She glared at Umina.

“Everyone knows all we had to do was win. You did that. Good job.”

“Marian. I really am sorry. I just—”

“Just what, Umina? Just stabbed me in the flank?”

The Lizardgirl was silent. Marian took a deep breath. She stared at Umina, and a note of hurt entered her voice.

“I thought we were a team. Wasn’t that what we said? Why did you run off?”

Umina traced the ground with one foot.

“I—I just had an idea. You know, with the [Nightwoman] we met? I wanted to see if she’d help me. I didn’t know if it would work. It was just an idea. I thought it wouldn’t work, so…”

“If you thought it wouldn’t work, why didn’t you tell me? No, don’t answer. You thought it would work, and you wanted to win.”

Marian abandoned her food entirely. She tossed her plate on a table to fold her arms. Umina protested weakly.

“I really didn’t know. And—look, I knew you and Venaz wanted to try Luan’s idea. You might have succeeded! You nearly did.”

“Except that you won.”

The two stared at each other. Marian tossed her head angrily. Umina spoke in a small voice.

“I really am sorry. I didn’t know you were that close. If I’d known…Marian, look. I have a question, alright? And I get an item from the Professor’s vaults. What if—if I gave you the question? I can ask it and tell you—”

Marian jerked as if Umina had slapped her. Her cheeks grew red.

“Don’t patronize me! If you’re going to stab me in the back, don’t give away your victory. You won. You ask the Professor a question. Don’t be like—”

She waved an arm, frustrated. Umina nodded. She looked down at her claws.

“I really am sorry, Marian.”

“Yeah, well. Sorry doesn’t change anything, does it? We were supposed to win together.”

That was true. Umina rubbed at one eye. Marian glanced at her. Looked away. Then she looked back.

“I suppose at least one of us won.”

“Marian. I’m so—

“Don’t say it. Just—fine. Fine, okay?”

Marian reached out and grabbed her friend. She hugged Umina so tightly the Lizardgirl squeaked.

“I’m not forgiving you just yet. I’m out a lot of money thanks to you, and I have to duel a [Weapon Master] every morning now! You owe me big. So you’d better tell me a bit about what the Professor’s room is like and what he says to you. Got it?”

The Centauress let go. Umina nodded rapidly. She opened her mouth, caught herself, and decided to stop talking for a while. And that helped. So did the alcohol Marian filled up in a huge tankard. The Centauress drank down one mug, then another. In quick succession. So went the legendary Centaur tolerance for alcohol. After that, Marian looked more cheerful.

“And at least I didn’t have to wade through that sewage again. That almost makes it worth it. Was it nasty?”

“You have no idea. The last place we were in was clean compared to the one I had to have the [Nightpeople] excavate.”

Umina shuddered. Marian paused as she grabbed her plate of oats.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Oh yeah? How’d I get poo on my head?

Marian thought about that. She put her plate back, no longer hungry. Umina wasn’t much either. She looked around, struck by a thought now she’d talked to Marian.

“Where’s Luan? I didn’t see him. Did he get captured?”

“Him? No. I lost track of him in the final push. He helped us out, though. And he stopped Xol! With children, no less! He’s one interesting City Runner. Want to see if we can find him?”

“He stopped Xol with—yes, let’s find him!”

Marian nodded. She led Umina through the crowd, catching her up while Umina described in brief her adventure in the septic tanks, locating the right one and waiting for her moment. In truth, Marian’s story was far more engaging; Umina’s had mostly been one of patience and trying not to throw up.

“Oh, look! There he is!”

Umina spotted Luan in the crowd. It wasn’t hard to find him either after a bit of searching; he was Human, but his skin tone made him look Chandrarian, and the Terandrians were also a bit shorter than he was. Umina waved excitedly.

“Luan!”

“It’s you two. I saw you won. Good job!”

Luan smiled as he walked over. He’d been looking around the party. Now he grinned at Umina in a satisfied way that told both [Strategists] that he had no idea how momentous Umina’s victory had been. Umina glanced at Marian.

“Thanks. I uh, well, I owe you for encouraging me. And giving me the idea, really. Where were you? Did you get captured in the end?”

“Me? No. Once everyone poured out of the apartments I decided to stay back. I’ve been looking for my boat at the harbor.”

Luan made a sour face. Umina frowned.

“Your boat? I didn’t see it.”

“Exactly. My scull’s wrecked and sunk. It wasn’t that strong to begin with, but the collision—I’ll have to take a Centaur cart all the way back to Talenqual, or rent a canoe here. I’d rather take the cart.”

Luan scowled. Marian raised one brow, slightly offended by the comparison.

“Since you’re still here, can I ask whether or not you’ve been paid?”

“I have your gold. But I haven’t seen that damn Minotaur yet. Do you know where he is?”

The [Rower] scowled. Umina looked around.

“Not me. But that’s a good point? Where is Venaz? I’d expect him to be arguing with everyone and challenging all the officer classes to a fight.”

Marian craned her neck. She shaded her eyes against the sunset’s glow.

“He looked down after the battle. Was losing really that hard on him?”

“Let’s find him. I want to apologize to him as well.”

“Don’t bother. I’m the one you owed the apology too.”

“Marian…”

The two were joking as Luan looked around with a frown. He took in the tables and Umina distinctly heard a gurgle from his stomach. He pointed hesitantly to a table laden with food.

“This food’s free, right? Can I get some even if I’m not a citizen of Daquin?”

“Of course!”

Luan smiled.

“In that case—hold on. I’ll be back in a second.”

He hurried over to a table and grabbed a plate. Umina laughed. And then she saw something peculiar. Luan reached into a pocket and, after a glance around, pulled something out. Umina saw a bright glow, almost like a spell coming from a little device in his hands. The City Runner held it up and did a slow circle, before going over the buffet with it in hand.

Almost as if he was…she frowned and nudged Marian. The Centauress spotted Luan’s motions and nodded. The two trotted over as Luan filled a plate. And he put the little rectangle back in his pocket. Marian casually glanced at his laden plate and cup.

“Nice selection. What was that flash of light?”

Luan froze for a second. Then he gave her a disarming smile.

“Uh—artifact. I uh, just wanted to get a better look. So my friends back at the company could see everything. Where do you think Venaz is?”

Neither the smile nor quick topic change fooled Marian or Umina. They exchanged a look. Interesting. It could have just been any number of minor magical artifacts. But given that it was Luan…Umina’s instincts tingled.

Something to discuss. Or look into. But neither [Strategist] brought it up. Instead, Umina looked around with a frown.

“He mentioned that Armor Captain. Shailt? What was that about?”

“Oh! You missed it, Umina. We ran into an entire company right outside the apartment and Venaz was challenged by their leader. She was a Minotaur and he actually took her down!”

“An Iron Vanguard’s Armor Captain?

“That’s what I said! He was worried about her. Something about her jaw? I don’t remember. Let’s find a [Healer]. He might be with them.”

Ironically, the [Healers] were hardest to find. Not because they didn’t have an aid station set up where those too badly hurt to be cured immediately were being treated, but because it was so hard moving from street to street.

Daquin was packed, and people who recognized Marian and Umina just had to come up and congratulate her, or tell Marian how close she’d gotten. Luan had finished one plate and was halfway through another by the time they spotted a familiar horned head talking to a [Healer].

“Venaz! There you are. Why aren’t you having fun?”

The Minotaur turned around. He still wore the uncharacteristically depressed expression he’d had earlier on. He nodded to the Lizardgirl.

“Umina. Congratulations on your victory. It was well-deserved. I need to remember that underhandedness in the future.”

They were the right words, but without any of the arrogance that normally came with it. Umina blinked up at Venaz. He noticed Luan and grimaced.

“Luan. I haven’t found my money pouch. I’d get the Merchant’s Guild to withdraw me some coin, but—”

He gestured around the chaotic streets. No Merchant’s Guild was going to be open; Umina saw a [Merchant] dancing in the street with a [Barman]. Luan folded his arms.

“Can you borrow some?”

“From another student? I suppose so. I’ll do it in a few minutes.”

The Minotaur sighed. This melancholy was so unnatural that all three, Luan, Marian, and Umina, stared at him with worry. Even Luan, who’d known Venaz all of a few hours.

“Venaz, what’s wrong?”

He shook his head slowly and glanced towards the aid station. It was a commandeered inn and the patients were resting upstairs. Although given the raucous streets, the rest component was debatable.

“I’ve disgraced myself in front of my people. No matter what the Professor says.”

“What? You hardly did worse than anyone else. You even got a reward! I know it wasn’t as good as Wil, but—”

“Not that. I know my performance wasn’t stellar, but I demonstrated my abilities and faced off against Tulm himself. I don’t regret that. It’s Armor Captain Shailt.”

Venaz pointed towards the door. Umina glanced in, but the other Minotaur must have been upstairs already. She glanced up at Venaz.

“Is she badly hurt?”

“It was a weaponless match. If she’d kept her weapon, I have no doubt I would have lost, even if I’d used one of mine. But the duel was fair. I pride myself on my victory! She’s at least a Level 30 [Warrior]—the fact that I bested her is a mark of pride. Or it would be. But her jaw—”

He broke off and stared at one of his clenched fists.

“I misjudged my strength. I was wearing gauntlets. I hit her too hard and my punch shattered her bones. I know it did. I felt it.”

“But that wasn’t all your fault. She challenged you.”

Marian shifted her hooves uncertainly. Venaz shook his head stubbornly.

“To injure another Minotaur is normal. If this were a battle, even a death could be understood. But in a sparring match? A game? A permanent injury is far different than a wound that could be healed by potion. If I force Armor Captain Shailt to retire because of my careless blow, I could never forgive myself.”

He paced back and forth in front of the inn. And he looked so guilty that Umina couldn’t help but feel bad for him. She’d never seen Venaz beat himself nearly this much up over anything, even losing to Marian. And in a way, she could respect his guilt. She put a hand on his arm, standing up on tiptoe to do so.

“Hey. It’ll be fine. The Professor runs a Great Company, Venaz. You think he doesn’t have the best [Bone Healers] around? If Shailt doesn’t get better with the [Healers] here, I’ll bet he calls in an expert, no matter the cost. The Iron Vanguard will for one of their Armor Captains.”

Marian nodded encouragingly.

“They have experience with all kinds of injuries, Venaz. There’s no way you did enough damage with a single punch to be beyond fixing.”

Venaz perked up a bit, but grew despondent just as fast.

“True, true. But even then, shattered bone is different from a break. All the pieces—you can’t even heal them with a potion. And if the wound begins to heal before it can be seen to—”

Umina wondered if they could find the Professor, or another [Healer] to reassure Venaz. She was about to suggest it when Luan, who had been listening intently, stepped in. The [Rower] tapped Venaz on a shoulder and spoke seriously.

“If your Armor Captain doesn’t have the right [Healer] see to her here, Venaz, my company can help out. Either bring her to Talenqual, or I can bring my friend to her. There’s a [Doctor] in my company who can mend almost any wound. She might be able to restore even shattered jaws.”

“Your company?”

Umina blinked at Luan. Venaz did too.

“Your stupid company?”

Luan sighed.

“My company has an expert with us. She’s a [Doctor], not a [Healer].”

The man said it as if this was a good thing. All three [Strategists] blinked at him. Umina swished her tail uneasily.

“What, one of those weirdoes who hacks off limbs with saws and stuff? They’re…okay, I guess, but most of them aren’t better than a [Healer] with decent potions.”

Luan looked offended.

“She’s far better than that. My friend—Geneva—she’s saved hundreds of lives on the battlefield. [Soldiers] had a name for her because she was so good at saving lives, they call her the Last Light of Baleros. I saw her save a War Walker shot full of Evercut Arrows once. His arm was nearly gone and she reattached it by herself.”

Marian whistled slowly. Umina’s jaw opened. She had never heard of the Last Light of Baleros. But a [Doctor] who could reattach an arm? Short of serious magic or a healing potion like no other, that was incredible. And Evercut Arrows? Venaz stared at Luan and spoke slowly.

“A [Doctor] who can perform that level of healing? On a battlefield? That’s…incredible. If I had a [Doctor] like that in an army, I could reduce casualties by…you could create a vastly more efficient army that way!”

He was blinking fast. Umina waved an urgent claw.

“But she could also help Shailt, if need be, right?”

“I don’t see why not. I can at least ask her. She’s mended broken ribs, and all kinds of other breaks before.”

Luan nodded. Venaz looked up. He frowned, then nodded decisively.

“If Shailt does not recover. No, even if she does. Luan. If your [Doctor] friend is willing, would she consider journeying to Elvallian? I’d like to introduce her to the Professor. That is—the Titan of Baleros.”

The [Rower]’s eyes widened. Umina and Marian glanced at Venaz in surprise, but not for the same reason. Marian snapped her fingers.

“That might actually impress the Professor. If he hasn’t seen something like this already. Damn. Can I take partial credit, Venaz?”

“No.”

“You want Geneva to come to your—city? To meet the Titan?”

Luan spoke slowly. Venaz nodded.

“Why not? He’s always interested in new ideas. And even if he doesn’t allocate class time, I could get his interest by running an experiment. Hire someone to be cut open and test her versus a healing potion. Or break a leg. Yes. What’s her rate?”

“Rate? I uh—”

“Venaz. There you are.”

A voice interrupted Luan as he blinked and tried to respond. The students and City Runner turned to see an older Centaur trotting towards them. Marian bowed slightly.

“Professor Perorn!”

Luan looked up at the Centauress as both Venaz and Umina bowed slightly as well. He stared at her and the Centauress stared back. Her eyes shifted to Venaz.

“I was told you were asking about Captain Shailt. Her injuries don’t seem to be outside of healing. Lord Astoragon has sent for a healer specializing in this kind of injury. You needn’t worry. Who is this?”

Venaz let out a relieved sigh. He gestured to Luan.

“This is Luan, Professor Perorn. Luan, this is one of our teachers. Perorn Sadiluc.”

Luan bowed slightly, copying the students. And again, Umina saw he had no idea of who Perorn was.

“Pleased to meet you, Professor. City Runner by water. I’m a [Rower]. I was hired for this game by uh, Venaz.”

The [Galewinds Strategist] nodded politely as well. She looked Luan up and down searchingly, and Umina wondered if she was unhappy about the City Runner’s participation. No. That made no sense. But she definitely looked interested. Then again, Professor Perorn was the sort of person who would sweep a dirty corridor in the academy if she spotted it.

“Did I hear you saying you intended to bring someone to the academy, Venaz? After the last incident with the fire spitters, I’d hope you’d run any ideas by a teacher first.”

The Minotaur hesitated as Marian snorted.

“This is hardly on the same level, Professor. I’m considering inviting a [Doctor] with exceptional skill. She’s apparently renowned as the Last Light or something. You see, it would fit nicely with my proposals about a casualty-intensive battlefront that I intend to submit to Professor Astoragon…”

Marian and Umina both rolled their eyes, but Perorn’s eyebrows shot up. She glanced sharply at Luan and shifted her hooves slightly.

“The Last Light of Baleros? I heard a rumor about her. Tell me, how good is she?”

Luan frowned. He hesitated, and then nodded decisively.

“The best in the world. I think I can say that definitively.”

This time all three students made sounds of disbelief. But Perorn didn’t. She looked at Luan, and then glanced at the other students.

“One second, please.”

Umina backed up as Perorn drew Luan aside. They spoke for a moment and she saw Luan glancing at Perorn’s hindquarters. No, at her leg. Umina’s jaw dropped. Marian blinked rapidly.

“Does Professor Perorn think—”

“No way. The best healing potions didn’t save her leg.”

“But a [Doctor]—don’t they just cut off arms?”

“Sew them back on too is what I heard. Mad. I heard they were close to [Necromancers]. But the Last Light of Baleros?”

“Hmf. Luan didn’t lie. Not according to my amulet. I’d better do more research. If he’s telling the truth—”

All three broke off as Perorn exclaimed.

Really? You’re sure about that?”

The students tried to covertly shuffle forwards. They caught the tail-end of Luan’s reply.

“I don’t know. But she could reattach a hand that’s just been severed. And I know of operations that can splice tendons together. Maybe Geneva could…”

Both Centaur and Human looked up. Venaz looked up and pretended to stare at the sky. Umina tried to whistle. Marian turned around. Perorn glared.

“I believe I was clear on the meaning of privacy. Or do I need to prepare a lesson on civility as well?”

“No Professor.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s an open street.”

Marian kicked Venaz. Perorn looked at Luan. She nodded curtly.

“Bring her here to the academy. I’ll authorize it. I’m sure Lord Astoragon will if need be as well. We’ll send a formal invitation along with the cost of travel expenses. Does this [Doctor] need any tools?”

Luan smiled. He looked excited, as well as nervous.

“She has her own set. And she has a number of tools that can help with everything from sickness to delivering babies.”

“Delivering babies? Alright, now I’ve heard it all.”

Marian was derisive. Luan protested.

“She can do it! Geneva’s capable of delivering children when there are difficulties in childbirth as well.”

Umina was skeptical.

“You say that. But childbirth, fixing bones, reattaching arms…this isn’t some fake cure-all, is it?”

She expected Luan to grow defensive. But to her surprise, the man’s expression calmed. He smiled.

“No. It’s medicine. You see, what Geneva performs is known as a Caesarian Section. Anyone can do it, but she is one of a few experts—perhaps the only one who can do it reliably. The way it works is—”

It was just as well Umina hadn’t eaten much. She listened to Luan’s description with mounting horror. A way of cutting open stomachs to remove babies inside the mother? It sounded barbaric. And yet, Luan described it with such confidence and detail that Umina was impressed, despite herself. Venaz was shaking his head after Luan was done.

“Babies, limbs, I have to see this. So does the Professor. If you’re not lying, bring her over by all means.”

“I’ll arrange it. And yes, Venaz, you’ll get credit.”

Perorn stomped her hooves briskly. She looked around.

“You all enjoy the night’s party. I have to return to Elvallian.”

“Oh! Professor, aren’t you going back with the caravan—?”

“Too slow. I’minthemoodtorun.”

Perorn’s hooves shot forwards. She zipped forwards, surprising Umina. The revelers turned and stared as Fleethoof galloped past them, from standing to faster than a Human could sprint in a moment. Luan stared.

“Who was that?

“That was Fleethoof. One of our Professors. Almost as famous as Tulm the Mithril.”

Marian informed him archly. Luan stared at her. He blinked a few times.

“I’ve got to ask more questions.”

“And you have to meet our class! They’ll want to hear all about your [Doctor]. And I want to know more about your [Rowing]! And how you beat the Iron Vanguard into the harbor!”

Umina pointed back towards the plaza. Luan nodded amiably. He grinned.

“I could use some drinks. And more food. But just one more thing before that. Venaz.”

He turned to the Minotaur. Venaz blinked at him.

“Yes?”

“Give me my money.”

 

—-

 

Out of Daquin. Like lightning. The owl that had carried Niers back towards his home had nothing on the blur that raced down the streets, around people, jumping over wagons, as fast as any Courier. Students, civilians, and [Mages] looked up and stared. Some cried out her name in surprise. But by the time their words were echoing, she was gone.

Fleethoof. She raced down the trade road, weaving around other travellers on the road. Her four legs galloped, and the ground melted away in front of her. Perorn ran with the humid wind on her face as the sun set. And she felt alive.

She was indeed running back. Her leg hurt, but something, perhaps, a meeting beforehand, had caused Perorn to forget all about her pain. It blossomed fiercely in her chest, beating right next to her heart.

Hope.

And on a warship heading north across the coastline of Baleros, a silent crew attended to their duties with the exact opposite feeling in their guts. They were the Iron Vanguard. The might of a Great Company. More powerful than any one nation. And yet, they moved in almost complete silence. Nursing bruises, minor cuts, and worst of all, injured egos.

They had lost. But far more egregious, far more terrifying was the fact that he had lost. Their leader. You couldn’t have gotten a laugh out of the crew with a Level 40 [Jester]. And as they sailed through the beginning night, a Dullahan bearing a precious cargo headed above decks from the ship’s hold.

He was carrying a head. And it wasn’t his own. This head was far larger, and it still wore the helmet, the armor identical to his body. Xol, the War Walker, patiently waited as the Dullahan porting him carried him up the steps and onto the deck. The crew of Dullahans all paused to bow to him, those that weren’t immediately busy. He acknowledged them briefly as he passed, but the dour mood had infected him as well. His bearer took him towards the ship’s cabin, normally reserved for the [Captain], but now occupied by a much more prestigious guest.

The Dullahan stopped at the door to the cabin. A pair of silent Midnight Shields were standing guard at the door and their attitude was intense. They were taking the defeat worst of all. The Dullahan gulped, but the Midnight Shield let him knock anyways.

“Strategist. Xol to see you.”

“Enter.”

A crisp voice instantly replied. One of the Dullahans on guard swung the door open and the Dullahan porter entered. And there he had a surprise.

Because inside the cabin wasn’t doom, gloom, or even sulkiness. In fact, the person standing inside the cabin, his armor gleaming, was quite calmly feeding himself dinner while his head rested on the table. The Dullahan porter paused, surprised.

He didn’t look upset. And, strangest of all, he wasn’t. As the Dullahan carried Xol’s head into the cabin on a pillow, Tulm the Mithril glanced to his right at an orb he was speaking into.

“Xol has arrived, Seer. Your pardons, Xol, I was finishing my meal as I spoke. May I offer you refreshment?”

“It would be welcomed.”

Xol replied politely. As was customary among the Dullahans, the status of the two had already been decided the moment Xol entered the room. And despite the War Walker’s age and status as a titan among Dullahans, Tulm was still the superior. Now the two heads rested together on little cushions, talking together as Dullahans did in a little circle of heads, leaving their bodies free to act autonomously.

In this case, Tulm’s body was feeding himself and very quickly a Dullahan [Server] entered the room and began to serve Xol food. Headless, of course; it wouldn’t do for someone to join the conversation. Especially because the attitude was very informal, as befitted old friends. If someone else joined the conversation, everything would have to be very formal. Especially given who was listening from the scrying orb.

“A light wine, then. And to eat?”

“Mm. I will have the catch of the day, whatever that may be, with a pasta sprinkled with the oregano sauce. Hold the addition of salt and provide me with a lemon for the fish.”

“Noted.”

Tulm delicately wrote the requested dish down and handed it to the headless [Server], who took it and came back with a plate of food and drink during the conversation. The duality of heads and headless would have bothered another species, but Tulm and Xol barely broke stride. Tulm instantly turned back to the scrying orb.

“As I was saying. The defeat was close, and avoidable. If I had prepared more fully, it might have been reversed despite the intrusion of House Kallinad’s reinforcement. As it is, I can only offer my regrets, Seer.”

Xol held his breath. Tulm was apologetic, but there was little actual regret in his tone. Certainly not the humiliation or pain the rest of the crew was feeling, Xol included. There was a rumble from the orb.

“DO NOT REGRET IT, TULM. I QUITE ENJOYED IT.”

The voice rumbled throughout the cabin, a low, bass roar that reminded those listening of the thunder of rocks falling down a mountain. It was—well, to call it a shout was wrong because a shout was a certain way of speaking that involved force, effort, the maximal volume lungs could produce. This voice was as loud as any shout, but it was spoken in a conversational, even casual tone.

It was loud. Tulm’s own plate vibrated slightly and he winced as the liquid in his cup danced and a bit splattered on the tablecloth. Xol wished he could massage his ears; he’d felt his earwax vibrate.

“Seer, may I regretfully request that you lower your tone? Our confine is enclosed.”

“APOLOGIES. HOW’S THIS?”

The operatic, booming tone lowered slightly in intensity. But not by much. Tulm sighed. Volume control was among the Seer of Steel’s few weaknesses. He tried to adjust the scrying orb’s volume instead, and the volume did indeed reduce. But the size of the voice couldn’t be changed so easily.

“I have a few small victories to share. Among them was my ability to use my appraisal Skill on all of the students and a number of the Forgotten Wing officers during the game. I have had a [Scribe] write down their rough levels and Skills. The information will help us if we come across them in the field or in hiring. A small compensation.”

He indicated a sheaf of papers. The voice in the orb rumbled.

“USEFUL. BUT A LOSS IS A LOSS. I SHARE YOUR DISAPPOINTMENT, TULM. HOWEVER, IT WAS A GAMBLE.”

“Yes.”

Tulm calmly fed himself more of his dish, a lasagna-type meal neatly arranged and cut into pieces. Xol stared from Tulm to the orb.

“Pardon me, Mithril. Seer. But the crew and I were under the impression this was our battle to lose. Morale is low.”

Tulm glanced up and nodded.

“As it should be. However, Xol, I regard this loss as partially inevitable. The Titan invited me to this game. I came with every advantage I could reasonably take, including yourself.”

“And I was unable to grant you victory. It was my weakness, Mithril.”

“WAS IT? I THINK OTHERWISE. AS DOES TULM.”

Tulm nodded.

“To play the Titan’s game is to invite defeat. The only question was whether he intended us to play or not. I decided to take the risk. And I lost. I am ashamed. But not surprised. My teacher is insurmountable in his ability to play mind games. If I dragged him onto the battlefield, I would be more sure of victory. But this game?”

He shrugged. Xol stared at Tulm.

“Then, Mithril, if I may ask. Why take the risk? Why invite humiliation to the Iron Vanguard, however great or small it may be?”

“BECAUSE OF WHAT WAS OFFERED.”

The Seer’s voice made the cutlery rattle. Tulm nodded briefly. He looked up at Xol.

“A question.”

Xol’s brow wrinkled.

“I thought it was the prize from his armory. A gift worthy of the Seer of Steel. What question could the Titan answer that the Seer of Steel could not?”

He looked respectfully at the orb. There was a rumble, not so much words, but noise. Tulm put down his fork.

“Only one that matters. It is not your concern, Xol. Yet.”

That was a polite way of saying that Xol wasn’t important enough to know. Which told the War Walker exactly how important the question must be. He looked at Tulm’s head and the Dullahan closed his eyes. When he opened them, his silver gaze met Xol’s steadily.

“If I had won, I would have considered it worth the cost even if we had left four out of the six warships and their crew at the bottom of the harbor. And as much as it pains me, even you, Xol.”

Xol inhaled sharply. He hadn’t taken offense; why would he? But it was the magnitude of what Tulm suggested that gripped his heart below decks.

“Then why did we not deploy a dozen warships? Bring in as much of an army as possible?”

The Mithril smiled ruefully.

“I’m sure the Titan would have countered that. He already broadcast his game to the world. I brought what I could, Xol. I employed any number of tactics. And still I failed. His student, Wil Kallinad, was impressive. As were some of the others. I regret my defeat. But it was worth the risk.”

The three fell silent. And after a moment, the Seer of Steel spoke.

“INDEED. BUT WHAT WOULD MOTIVATE THE TITAN TO PLAY A GAME OF SUCH RISK WITH LITTLE REWARD?”

Tulm frowned. Now that was the question, wasn’t it? He stared at his empty plate. And then, to Xol’s surprise, he chuckled. And then laughed. It was a short laugh, but it was a laugh. Only in this unguarded room did it come out. Xol stared at Tulm. The younger Dullahan looked up. And then he addressed the orb, as was proper.

“My apologies, Seer. Xol. But I recalled something the Professor once said to me. He told me once that he’d burn down a forest to win a card game, if the stakes were high enough.”

“Ah.”

Xol exhaled softly. It was a phrase he’d expect from the Titan of Baleros.

“Then the only question is, was what the Titan sought worth the risk?”

The War Walker glanced at Tulm, looking for answers. But the Dullahan just frowned, pondering. No one spoke for a while. At last, the Seer of Steel’s voice vibrated through the room.

“TULM. UNCOVER THAT ANSWER IF YOU WILL. I WILL AWAIT YOU IN PERSON. IF THE TITAN WILL NOT ANSWER BY GAMES, THE ANSWER MUST BE FOUND ANOTHER WAY. IF THE QUESTION IS NOT FRUITLESS IN ITSELF.”

Tulm raised his head and nodded. Slowly, he fastened the head onto his shoulders and looked at the scrying orb.

“And if it is a question worth answering?”

“THEN IT IS WORTH ALMOST ANY COST. PAY IT.”

Tulm the Mithril nodded, and Xol did likewise. That was all that needed to be said. The figure in the scrying orb turned.

“XOL.”

“Seer.”

The image winked out. Tulm sat back and rubbed at one ear. Xol envied him.

“So this is a defeat for the Iron Vanguard.”

“A setback. A defeat would see far more ships burned and our officers downed, if the Professor had willed it. Xol, I thank you for your efforts. You have leave to rest. Unless you have anything else to bring before me?”

“I do, Mithril.”

Tulm glanced at Xol’s head, surprised. It was rare for the War Walker to request anything.

“Speak.”

“I request to allocate forty, no, sixty gold coins from my funds. And to request connection with the central Adventuring Guild in any major city.”

“Easy enough. I will conduct both affairs now.”

Tulm reached for the scrying orb. He spoke into it, and after a few instructions to the [Mage] controlling it, and a slight pause, an image appeared in the orb. A very nervous, very widely-smiling Lizardman appeared.

“My—my goodness! Tulm the Mithril and Xol of Ingrilt? How can Zevai’s Adventuring Guild assist my honored guests today?”

“The smallest of things.”

Xol spoke politely and carefully, aware of Tulm’s curious eyes on him. He was embarrassed to even bring it up in front of his commanding officer, but there was no time like now, in case he forgot.

“I would like to put a bounty up. On one Luan the City Runner.”

Tulm glanced at Xol. The Lizardman blinked only once, and then nodded rapidly.

“Of course, of course! Anything for the Iron Vanguard—”

“No. This is a personal bounty. Please register it as such.”

The Lizardfolk instantly scribbled a note. He was sweating; he didn’t want to make a mistake.

“Naturally. I have made the note. Um, Sir Xol, may I ask a few questions about the nature of the bounty?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. Well then. For helpfulness’ sake, may I ask if this is a lethal or nonlethal bounty?”

“Nonlethal.”

“Oh! Nonlethal, excellent, excellent. We have a wide selection of options if you have any preferences. We offer maiming, permanent disfigurement, loss of an eye, branding—that’s extra—minor humiliation, property damage, superficial beatings—”

“No permanent damage. Superficial beatings. And did you say property damage?”

“Yes, of course! We can put in a request for burned houses, financial damage, theft—I know this isn’t how other continent’s guilds do their jobs, but we aim to please, and if you have any specific items in mind…”

“He has a boat. Destroy the boat. But don’t harm him. That’s all.”

“I have made a note. And I will place the bounty up at once! Ah—”

“The Iron Vanguard will send the payment directly.”

Tulm spoke up for the first time. The Lizardman jumped.

“Of course! And if you have any more needs, please don’t hesitate to—”

The connection faded. Tulm sat back and regarded Xol. The Mithril looked amused.

“A small thing, Xol? Did the City Runner cause you some form of insult?”

The War Walker frowned mildly.

“Some things should be dealt with. There is fairness and there is justice. I did not appreciate the risk to the children.”

“I see. It is your decision.”

“Yes.”

The two sat in silence for another minute. Xol sighed. His pride still hurt, even hearing Tulm’s reasoning. The Mithril glanced at him, and then out the porthole at the sea. The ship’s lights illuminated the dark waters, but the horizon was vast and the sea endless. The Iron Vanguard’s navy, first and foremost among the Four Great Companies—no, the only naval power of the four, was a small thing compared to the vastness of the ocean.

“It was just a game, Xol.”

“Yes. And I wonder who really won?”

Tulm the Mithril looked up. His eyes flashed. He wondered the same question. For after all, as sanguine as he appeared, he had lost. He sat with Xol, thinking about the Titan, wondering what game his former mentor was playing.

They called him the second-greatest [Strategist] of Baleros. The second of the Iron Vanguard. Second in many things. And they told stories about him. Many of the stories were fake. The rest were exaggerated. But there was one thing no one knew. Tulm’s class. A class only he, the Seer of Steel, and Niers Astoragon knew he possessed. Perhaps Foliana too, but you could never tell what she knew. Or if she cared. But it was his class, and it was a class to shake the world.

[Dragonslayer Strategist].

Sometimes the legends were true.

 

—-

 

So Fleethoof ran, Tulm the Mithril sailed away, and his students laughed and partied. Victors, each in their own way. And Daquin became a name on every lip until it was not. And for a day, the world revolved around him.

The Titan of Baleros flew through the night, back towards the academy. The owl holding him was swift, and he was nearly back home. Still, he resented the trip; he realized that Perorn would only have arrived a little bit behind him if she was going all-out. Speed was a relative thing, sometimes.

Even so, the Titan was in a good mood. He hummed to himself as Elvallian’s spires came into view and the welcoming lights of his academy appeared before him.

They were coming to see him. All thanks to Venaz, a few lucky moments, and of course, a game that had pulled in every eye across the world. And they all wondered and speculated what his purpose was.

And they were right to wonder. And right to suspect. But the truth was that it was all a feint. The game. Tulm. Even Niers’ question and his gift to Umina, which he’d have to come up with. Oh, he always had his game. And he always liked it to be fun. But this time, it had all been to arrange one meeting. Such a casual one that while everyone stared at Niers’ grand plots and designs, they missed the little trick, the moment hiding amid the grandeur.

Niers laughed to himself. He’d nearly started a war to arrange a meeting. Good thing Tulm hadn’t won. Anyways.

That was what you called a proper distraction.

 


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61 thoughts on “6.24 D

  1. I was tired writing this chapter. Properly tired. I wonder why. Maybe the length of the last two chapters?

    Nah. Nah…but seriously though, I thought I’d take it easy this chapter. I tried that.

    Still 15,000 words. Oh well. I think this chapter didn’t need the intensity of the last one. We’re just…seeing how the pieces in the air land. And maybe I should have focused more on the disappointment of Umina ‘cheating’, but in truth, I think we’re all glad to see the game end. And the consequences of that game are interesting? Right? Right?

    Right. Anyways, I hope you enjoy the chapter! Saturday-Tuesday is always a rough break. Now I get 3 days off, so I’m going to use that to catch up on my rest! Hope you enjoy the chapter!

    • Interestingly enough, I find I enjoy these side chapters more when they are in clumps of a handful or more, rather than just 1 or 2, it lets me get more invested and better track the B plots.

      Like, I hate to go away from Liscor, but now that I’m invested here I kind of want another chapter with Baleros

      Anyway, great chapter, Luan is a great, Umina and Marian are adorable, rest easy ❤

      • Same here. A chapter or so gets me invested in the characters and situation, so flipping between them rapidly leaves me perpetually going “no, wait, I’m not done” while the longer runs let the little arc feel like it’s had a real chance, and that it actually matters.

        Of course, I like almost all of the side chapter characters, and the few I “don’t” I usually want to read more of by chapter’s end anyhow.

    • Loved it and can’t wait for the meeting to occur, but I am sure that will be in a bit. Question though, do you know what the Seer’s question would be? Will we see it in the future?

    • He should be paid a new scul. It was msged in the game, but looks like it might get burnt anyway, unless he gets the light weight one made that can fit in a bag of holding

  2. Leave a typo for owl transport! Slower than Fleethoof, faster than warships.

    (Fast typo finders: CiaranCu, lnrael, CarpDM, Twilgrimm, Aoxz, Vento, GreatGreedyGuts, James Walsh, Vroomba, Andrew Hyer, Christy Davis, AVR)

    • Also, not a typo, but -> “I was nearly taken out by a [Captain]; my bow wasn’t nearly as useful as I liked.” -> shouldn’t this be ‘as I would have liked’?

      • Another typo, “Xol wished her could massage his ears; he’d felt his earwax vibrate.” -> should be ‘wished he could massage his ears’

    • Possible inconsistency.

      > “Ancestors.”

      > Zel felt his heart beating faster than he could ever remember. He stared at Klbkch. A Dragon. Could it be? He saw Relc’s mouth hanging open and Olesm, scales white as a sheet. The Ancestors, the First Parents. How long had it been since a Dragon had been seen on Izril—no, anywhere in the world?

      > Chance sightings. Stolen cattle, or strange burn marks. That was the rumor. But a real Dragon sighting? A Dragon? Here?

      One of these is the problem. Either Zel’s reaction, or Tulm actually killing a dragon and it being semi-public knowledge.

      • The *story* is public knowledge, but people like Tulm and Niers (and Zel, for that matter) accumulate exaggerated stories like they accumulate levels, and what’s not public knowledge is that this one’s not just a story. If you’re the public, even the well-informed public, you’d assume he soloed a wyvern or something – fairly impressive in its own right – and it got blown out of proportion. It’s like Erin: it’s public knowledge that she’s seen a dragon, but if Klb were a little bit better at misdirection only two other people would know that she actually had.

    • If your [Doctor] friend is willing, would she be willing to journey to Elvallian? → [due to repetition, the sentence feels off] If your [Doctor] friend is willing, would she consider journeying/coming to Elvallian?

    • Bring her here, then. → Bring her to Elvallian, then. [unless Elvallian and Daquin are sufficiently close to one another to be considered the same general area compared to Talenqual]

    • The [Healer] grabbed the good part of Marian’s leg and began applying it. Swiftly, and probably as gently as it could
      –> as gently as she could

      Bring her here to the academy
      –> Bring her to the academy

      Kaelma nodded as she adjusted her head and poured the drink down for maximum, Dullahan-style quaffing effect … I wanted to ask him to sign my armor!”
      –>Might be wrong but this threw me off – it sounds as if Kaelma is a Dullahan here when she’s supposed to be a Gnoll, assuming she’s the one speaking in that instance.

    • Inconsistent.
      A) … She glared and reached out to grab him. He sidled down her shoulder.

      B) … She waited as the Titan met her gaze. A tiny man on her shoulder. …

      As stated in A, Niers had moved from Perorn shoulder, but in sentence B, he was back there as if he had never moved.

  3. I hope there is at least one more D chapter to wrap things up with the United Nations company and The Titan. This has already been one of my favorite story arcs, and it just keeps getting better. I hope your longer few days before the next release let’s you rest up Pirate, looking forward to what’s next!

    • Yes me too!

      This string of D chapters was quite good though. I think they’re some of the best we’ve seen in a long time. My only disappointment is that we probably won’t see more of them for a while….

      But that is OK too. Plenty of other good stuff to see going on in Innworld.

    • I commented on the last update that this one could provide a huge UN/Titan cliffhanger, so… .

      Remember what Uncle Milty said: “Always leave them wanting MORE.”

    • An invitation that no one will notice.

      Some Inception level manipulation getting someone else to invite someone else without the inviter knowing it.

      Keep in mind what Niers already paid that Naga to keep quiet about the Earthlings.

      Even more important than knowing about the Earthlings is Nier’s competitors not finding out he knows about the Eartlhings.

      Finally, most importantly of all, the Titan is no longer quietly, desperately bored.

      He has a whole 2nd world to find out about, with massive strategic consequences.

      Wistram’s TV broadcasts are just scratching the surface.

      • “Keep in mind what Niers already paid that Naga to keep quiet about the Earthlings.”

        Interesting way to put that, since I actually HAD forgotten all about that until you mentioned it. Makes me wonder what exactly was on that iPhone, given the variety of apps that exist. For example, I have the Ancient History Encyclopedia on mine, and clearly enough others do to keep it online; if the Titan got a hold of something like THAT. Or a NASA app? Physics, chemistry, engineering? Even a single Lou Riccetti would be as much a game changer in this world as in those books, but with all those tables he whined about not having actually present in a pocket smartphone… it would make the Industrial Revolution look glacial by comparison.

    • I don’t think so. All this to meet strange humans with devices from another world, and as a further bonus, perhaps with some connection to another strange human in Liscor.

    • As Tulm shares with us: “… the Professor [would] burn down a forest to win a card game, if the stakes were high enough.”

      Using the game as a cover to get in contact with the United Nations group is actually a brilliant idea since: a) he has to hold the game in any case; b) it is a good tactical/strategic exercise for his students; c) there were so many surprises (the Wistram [Mages] to broadcast the event, the presence of Iron Vanguard as an adversary, the unforeseeable way that Umina won, the granting of two questions, etc) that it would be nigh impossible to discern the Titan’s true intentions from random happenstance

    • No.
      All of that just to get a meeting with people from another Universe/Reality without alerting everyone in the world.

      The minotaur busted jaw and centauress busted tendon are just side benefits.

  4. He already knew about Luan, and the doctor’s abilities, and that it would come up in conversation. feint in a feint in a feint.

    NIIICE.

    • I think if the other advanced class students can keep quite about it and Geneva gets there fast things will work out well for the Titan.

      But if word leaks about his interest in the Doctor and/or the current leadership of the crew running the city the Doctor lives in finds out things’ll go pear shaped reeeeaaalllly fast.

      Personally I kinda hope things work out well between the Doctor, UN, and the Titan. So many things become possible if they do!! Especially with the alternative situations are likely to result in the Doctor getting killed and/or the UN getting busted up which’ll just be boring.

  5. Do leave the poor dragon alone. No dragon deaths, yeah?

    Nice chapter! Looking forward to the Doctor’s visit!

  6. All of that for a meeting? Part of me wonders if it was to get the earth side people to come to his city without anyone noticing his interest of it we will find out that there was another meeting he has set up.

    I know it is silly, but I half expect a powerful artifact and a door to be set up for a surprise visit at at the wondering inn.

    Though my bet is the doctor play. Which in turn causes the earthlings to run to his company after the current company pushes a bit too hard on them possibly resulting in a chase or an attempt to escape the city they are in.

    • Now it is not the titan inviting someone, but one of his students trying to gain favor with him. One is scary and dangerous, the other is of noteworthy, and depending on his reaction; very interesting. Someone introdusing someone to the titan happens every day. Someone unknown geting an invite from him only happes when something big is abaout to happen.

  7. I often wonder if any of the different people transported from earth know each other. And would they see the other in one of the broadcasted events. Slim chance but would be fun.

  8. Great chapter, lots of good character interaction. I can’t wait for the next one!

    Typo: Or do you want to kill me about Wil?

    Probably should be “tell”.

  9. Yeah, Luan really deserves a beating for endangering the children. It’s only a game after all…

    Also, I kind of hate Tulm for killing a dragon… perhaps he was one of those tyrannical ones, but still, the fact that dragons are legends seems to imply that he was mostly keeping to himself… but I guess we don’t know that.

    • Well Xol did a lot of damage, and inconvenience to citizens. Sole excuse:”but they’re adults” wouldn’t wash. Besides if he’s going to be doing that then he should put out a contract on their parents as well if he’s going to pull a “won’t someone think of the children”.

    • None of the children are hurt. They were compensated for the risk. In a setting that was thick with [Healers]. In an even where a whole city was full of idiots with wrapons and only seventeen died.

      Xol is overreacting due to his nature, but there is no reason to do so for humans.

      What I hate is targeting Luan’s boat. Because idiots from Adventure Guild will target New boat which will cosy all the money he *slaved* for with determination none of these kids ever had in their life yet, and perhaps never will.

      It’s not justice of any sort. It’s action of Xol that deserves horrible revenge.

      • I’ll have to disagree, using human shields is pretty dawn despicable. Even though the fighters where mostly restrained, accidents happen (as evidenced by the casualities of the whole game.

        Furthermore, while Luan “knew” that Xol wouldn’t harm the kids, he really had no way to be certain that it was truly true. Even if his sub-species is know for that trait it’s pretty much a gamble (with good odds but still) as he didn’t know Xol as an individual.

        If Luan’s boat does get destroyed, he’ll only have himself to blame for being greedy and crossing someone’s red line.

      • Obviously the win here is that the adventurers in the United Nations take the quest, rough up Luan, and “destroy” his boat.

        Mo money fo everyone.

    • I agree with Xol that Luan needed consequences, even though I like Luan and don’t want to see anything bad happen to him. What he didn’t consider was that the entire world was watching, and he just exposed a “weakness” that other less scrupulous people may exploit. Remember Vietnam? Little kids approaching soldiers with explosives. Men had to shoot anyone approaching them after they caught onto that. Think Xol and other dullahans want to have to deal with children suicide bombers equivalent? No way. Considering that Luan has a son, I just couldn’t believe what he might have started. And he even had the stupidity to explain it on scrying orb. So…losing a boat? Not that bad considering.

      • But from perspective of logic, there is nothing that makes child’s life more “sacred” that adult’s life.

        They are living creatures, yes; human beings, yes. But adults do feel the pain and sorrow just the same. if not more. Children – the younger they are – are much more *replaceable* compared to their older counterparts or adults.

        About Vietnamese using child bombers – well, never heard about that before, but child bombers are used nowadays by terrorists; more complex attack that terrorists use is paying laughable cash to local child in the area where they want to commit attack, and tell child to get “this bag to their friend”.

        But in war nobody cares about honor or decency nowadays. Or maybe that was always the case. Chivalry is inspiring yo watch, but it’s mostly dead nowadays. Pragmatism or crime won this battle and it’s pretty difficult to dislodge them.

        Any minor trick you can get away with, any minor exploit. And sometime nasty things are done just for fun. For example, when US soldiers were using flamethrowers to burn Vietnamese villages with villagers alive. With children too. When they used aircrafts to poison water sources. When they used chemicals to reduce vegetation to dust.

        And, believe me, if US would have won in that conflict, it would be the case of “history is written by the victors” and deeds of people from faction that was defending their homeland from just another foreign thief faction coming to steal resources of the land in question – would be condemned as Evil and Inhumane; but inhumane acts made by invading thiefs would be conviniently erased. 2019th year would see at least one or two games dealing with Evil Vietcong; or sci-fi about alternate reality where Evil Vietcong had taken over the world and MC is fighting against it in oppressive world-state (Wolfenstain, I look at you)

        We had a Fisha Gnoll raising the whole city of “human shields” and making them play dangerous game *for free*.

        I feel it’s weird to attack Luan, while forgetting about what Fisha did.

        Aw… Looking at the rant above. *facepalms* ok it seems like I’ve started picking sides and getting too invested in Luan. This ranting is turning into holy war. I’ll try to tone it down.

        But that above – is my sincere opinion on the matter.

        • Children =potential. Children can become anyone. Children can find different perspectives, open new horizons. They are the future. Adults are jaded bastards entrenched in their ways and who have lost their abioity to change paradigms.

          • >can find different perspectives, open new horizons.

            But that’s what adults usually do. About 1/7 of adults are specialized to find new perspective by biology of brain. They’re generators of random ideas – 99% garbage, 1% – that amazing innovation that clicks.

            >Children can become anyone.

            Not in the world of our where old clans are entrenched and new technologies allow for an even better control. And where technology is so complex that even life is not enough to understand depth of certain specialities.

            There is a belief that everybody can become an astronaut, or Olympian champion – it’s just you need to be determined… No. This belief is a horrible misunderstanding about how competitionworks. Only few can blossom into best, because when you have a crowd of determined competitors, winners in the end would be the ones with certain unique genetic traits. And you can’t reliably change your genotype, or limits of your brain. Yet.

            >Adults are jaded bastards

            Nah, I’ve seen one pretty amazing old lady that combines both optimism, altruism and survivability.
            Regarding jaded ones – children will become just the same as they grow, unless they are born either in remote village where die to chance life is nice; or with a diamond spoon in mouth.

            Children are potential, but some children have more of it than the other. You can’t say if this one is capable of becoming new Pascal, or if one’s potential is limited to become a pitiful depressed addict, or if one’s potential is best suited to steal children’s happiness and use it to feed one’s own temporary parasitic life.

            – – – –

            But if what you mean is that importance of children is twofold:
            1. They are almost *blank slates*, that can be (to a certain degree) carved and to extent augmented to fill a certain role.
            2. They are growing cells of society that are needed to replace dying cells.

            Then I would agree. But adults are important too. You can’t say that children are more important than adults. Adults are knowledge and experience of mistakes or victories; years of learning complex professions; bearers of history and myth and culture.

            Bone is rigid, muscle is flexible; but only when those are together they form limb that is best for moving.

            • >Children are potential, but some children have more of it than the other.

              To be fair it’s not exactly about *more/less potential* but rather about *shape and color* of this potential, and impact certain shapes can generate.

        • Main point is that Luan knew he did something unacceptable to Xol, he only has himself to blame.

          Seeing how cheap lives are in Innworld, he should consider himself lucky that it’s ONLY a beating and his boat broken to be honest.

          When you play with fire, you’re liable to get burned.

  10. I’ve been thinking on something for a while now; if people are pulled from all over earth, and religion here pulls off of belief, there’s a pretty high chance of the norse pantheon establishing itself- a wild world full of trolls, dwarves, and so on would literally seem like dying and going to Valhalla for their followers, and the whole “get strong, die stronger” mentality means the Asatru are basically religious power-gamers and/or ticking deity-spawning time bombs!

  11. Holly cow tiger batman! All that for a meeting!

    On another note. I want to go back to Book 1. Recall that Niers introduced chess to WI world. When Erin arrived, chess is already wide spread, maybe for a few years, strategists play it, [Lords] and [Ladies] aware of it. So… Where or how did Niers learn about chess?
    Is anyone else thinking that Niers ALREADY has connection to/with Earth?

    • He doesn’t. It’s been heavily impied or even outright stated, I think, that he learned of chess from the legendary dungeon he cleared with Foliana and for which he became a Named Adventurer. I don’t know the exact chapter though.

      That’s why he’s so intereted in Erin (magical chessboard he sent). The reason he claims to have “invented” chess while he really didn’t is because he hoped someone would speak up to dispute him. It all ties together with the dungeon and things he found there that didn’t make sense to him. The lie was bait he hoped to use to lure someone in who could tell him what he wants to know.

      But now Xalandrass (war merchant) told him about the Earthers and NIers has begun putting pieces together and wants to know more. Therefore the meeting and this elaborate plot to set it up.

    • Maybe he’ll be in luck and just buy some random boat to get back to Talenqual, which gets targeted and destroyed, so no real loss. Or the Bushrangers get wind of this and advise him to get a replacable one, let that get destroyed and *then* blow money on a *real* scull.

      • It would be pretty fun if Bushrangers themselves take that quest, then say – yes, we destroyed his boat and have beaten him black and blue, now give us the money! If truth spells are involves they can help Luan buy a new cheap boat, destroy it together with extreme prejustice, then… Well, Luan can suffer a bit for 60 gold for his company. They have a Doctor after all, and potions.

  12. Oof. A beating is right and proper for using children in a ploy like that, but breaking his boat… Xol, that’s just going too far! He just had that thing replaced (probably)!

    /mostlyjoking

  13. So the UN Company was already made; I hope they have the sense to realize they and their new home are both far better off cooperating with someone like Niers or even Magnolia than someone like Az’kerash tortured out all their secrets before quietly murdering them all (and possibly then reanimating them) to maintain a monopoly (however temporary) on that knowledge. I wonder more than ever just how they all happened to end up here in the first place; I suppose it could just be random chaos, but it at least feels far more likely that some ENTITY deliberately brought them, and that brings up a pregnant question:

    Who knew about Earth BEFORE the Earthlings arrived…?

    So far, only the Faeries have shown any such knowledge, and their stated opinion of Earth and what we have done to it hardly suggests they would want us to do the same to yet another world still rich in both magic and demi-human races. I also think more and more Az’kerash will turn out to be the storys overarching antagonist, just because he is the only one presented as wholly devoid of sympathetic qualities (unless ambition and affection for his abominations count.) Flos and the Antinium are just as widely seen as existential threats within their world, but Flos is portrayed as an anti-hero so strongly he is almost an “anti-villain,” and, while I can certainly see a conflict with Our Heroes and the other hives, it is hard to imagine the Free Antinium betraying Liscor, even to avoid betraying their overall queen (who seems to be more an empress.)

    I question whether the Titans plan to bring the UN Company to him undetected (if that is indeed what this mini-series conclusion indicates) was spoiled by Luans prominent involvement in Uminas victory and the near victories of her classmates (score Wil a draw, I guess, the more impressive since nearly all his achievement was unaided by Luan.) Xol and thus Tulm have already marked him, and now the Adventuring Guild of a “major city” in Baleros. Again, I hope the UN Company realizes just how many baleful eyes they have drawn and CONTINUE drawing to themselves, and that alignment of some kind with some company big enough to protect them is consequently not an option, but a necessity.

  14. Me, I’m just loving how Marian and Umina get over their issue together.

    That’s real friendship, right there. When, even though you feel genuinely guilty and/or betrayed, you work through it. Not because “it’s the right thing to do” or “because we’re friends”, but because you both can see the pluses and minuses of the outcome, as well as the factors that went into the breach of trust and can still trust the other to fundamentally be the person you like to spend time with, at the very least.

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