7.34 C

(Volume 2 is now out on Audible along with a 10-page preview of The Last Tide included!)

 

In Izril, Erin Solstice woke up to Rose screaming. Which was followed by Imani screaming for help. She ran out of her room with a knife and jar of acid as half the guests came out looking for trouble. Hexel, some other guests like the [Actors]—all stayed in their rooms. Lyonette shouted for Mrsha to run into the Garden.

By now, the reflexes of the inn’s staff were a honed thing. Imani fled behind Palt and Bezale as the two [Mages] emerged, bleary-eyed, aiming their wands at…

Rose. Covered in large, fat centipedes. A certain white Gnoll had dug them up and put them in her pillow as vengeance for unwanted petting the day prior.

Palt laughed his tail off. So did Numbtongue. Bird collected them as snacks. Erin and Lyonette? They went on a Gnoll hunt and Mrsha was duly punished with dishwashing duty for the next hour. Also, no dessert.

There were others, of course. And by that, other people from Earth. Kevin also laughed until Rose threw a centipede and it landed in his mouth. Imani was terrified and Mrsha had to apologize specifically to her; the girl had rolled over in their shared room, seen the many legs, and run screaming.

But listen: there were others.

Inkarr!

In a place far from Liscor, where The Wandering Inn’s name had never been spoken or thought of, a girl shaded her brows. She waved at the Gnoll, perfectly at home. A bunch of blue sheep were carefully following her about. She wore clothing like that of the Gnoll tribe.

She was perfectly at home, even if this was a strange land. And if the Gnolls kept adding a rolling ‘r’ to her name, well, they got on just fine. She turned, wondering what her friend wanted this early.

 

—-

 

In Baleros, the United Nations company was tracking the progress of the penicillin. Geneva Scala was checking in with Pallass about the progress of the cure.

“Why pumpkins?”

“They’re growing it on pumpkins. Mold, y’know?”

Daly yawned as he joined Paige. She handed him a cup of tea and he glared at it.

“We need coffee. Just pour a stamina potion in some fruit juice for me.”

“The last time you did that you got a rash, Daly. No mixing potions. Listen—someone’s stolen Luan’s boat again.”

Again? Damnit. We’ll go track it down. You think we can just beat him up ourselves and claim the bounty?”

“I’ll pass.”

Luan lowered the newspaper he was reading and gave Daly a level look. Paige saw Geneva rushing out of her room.

The treatment is working! I need my notes! Where are my—

That was their concern. But it would be disingenuous to imply that the United Nations company was all the Earthers in Baleros. For instance:

In a city much further south, controlled by a Centaur, a young man neatly copied down the Centaur’s [Message].

“Will that be all, sir?”

Xavier, a particular [Scribe] with a particular set of Skills, looked at the Centaur. He paced back and forth in the large office.

“No. Yes. Are you sure this—contract means I’ll get a share? Really?”

“It’s going to be notarized by the Merchant’s Guild directly, sir. And the investment is for a 13.5% share of the profits of the mining venture. As agreed. Both parties are aware and you will see the numbers.”

The Centaur eyed Xavier.

“This isn’t like the Golden Triangle thing, is it? I saw it on the scrying orb, you know.”

The young man sighed. As the first person to bring real investment into this world, he was understandably annoyed by the fiasco around the scam from Izril.

“No, sir. The money and contracts are very real. If you’ll sign here. And thumb-print…”

He did not know of the United Nations company. Any more than Inkar knew of Liscor or The Wandering Inn. Xavier yawned and slapped at an oversized mosquito come for his blood. And he thought he’d seen the weirdest bugs in his country, Peru. But home didn’t have teleporting mosquitos.

 

—-

 

Chandrar. Trey Atwood rode with two [Mages] from Parasol Stroll, far from Reim and Jecrass. He was learning from them. They were…on a mission. And thus incognito.

Mirin had put away her umbrella, as had Fellif. Neither Ulyse nor Grand Mage Esiela could be spared, but they had both written scrolls and Trey’s magical instruction was progressing fast.

But the majority of his advancement had happened in one moment, in a corner of a room and in a pool of blood. It disturbed Mirin, and Fellif, Trey could tell.

“The Quarass understands the power of Skills. In her way—she taught you more than we have thus far.”

Fellif murmured one day on their journey. Trey looked at him. The [Mage] glanced sideways at something on the pony Trey was riding.

A mini-Gazi stared back at him. The sand that made her was red. Lifeblood sand. And the details on the Golem were enhanced. The Golem even seemed…more aware than the primitive constructs Trey had made before.

“The Quarass is also cruel.”

Trey felt at his throat. Mirin nodded.

“But efficient. At least, you will not fall behind any others for the quality of your Skills, Trey. Now again—we practice. Try casting without sight or speech.”

She offered him the blindfold and Trey sighed.

At the same time as they rode south, towards a port-city in Nerrhavia Fallen, Rémi Canada was organizing another newspaper.

“The thing is—Wistram does not own a monopoly on the news. Give me the resources and I will make a newspaper for Chandrar. Izril is not the center of the world. Nor is Wistram. And multiple newspapers are an inevitability.”

The [Journalist] offered a sample to the group of [Merchants], the [Mayor], and the other interested parties.

“Another newspaper can focus on Chandrarian affairs and present the news in another light. Nothing is unbiased—but that is the point of diversifying sources of news. If there is only one newspaper, or two, they can be controlled. So. Do I have your confidence?”

 

—-

 

Terandria. The [Popstar] opened the door of her personal trailer and saw the two Wistram [Mages] standing there. They bowed.

“Miss Cara? We’re from—”

She slammed the door and locked it. The two [Mages] started. They were from the Libertarian faction. After an exchange of looks, the two waited for the door to reopen.

It did not. But the same day, the Griffin Prince of Kaliv listened to Lillian.

“We know where she is. It’s not impossible to travel to Izril. Especially with Griffins.”

“They can’t cross the sea unaided. At least—not mounted. And Ailendamus is close to declaring war. I can’t leave.”

The former [Bandit]-[Murderer] glanced up at the Griffin Prince.

“Well, I can.”

He sat there, and his gaze was far away.

“It was not Wiskeria’s fault.”

“Good. Then I won’t kill her. But she has to fix this. Don’t you want to be free of your curse?”

And to that, he had no reply, for the answer was obvious to them both.

 

—-

 

Izril. Baleros. Chandrar. Terandria. And not even there. There were people from Earth. Even at the edge of the world.

Solca Vis lay dreaming.

 

—-

 

So many people. All from Earth. Scattered across the world. And in small and large ways they were changing the world around them.

Those of them that lived. More, many more were dead. Their bones forgotten, some of their names lost before they had ever been uttered. Chance had killed them, poor luck the moment they’d appeared.

Some had died to monsters. Others, villainy or accident. Miscommunications, suspicion of Humans—

Exposure. Magical mishaps. Overconfidence and surprise. Some had fallen out of the sky.

It was not fair. It was not just. And no one, no one in any of the four continents knew why they were here. No one had a clue.

But in Rhir, it had begun. With a grand ritual, a spell beyond spells, unearthed from an ancient hiding place. As if fate had willed it, the Blighted Kingdom, the first and only defense against the Demons of Rhir, the Blighted Lands and the hell that had nearly destroyed the world many times over, had found it. A grand spell that would summon heroes in the hour of darkest need.

It had…gone awry. Instead of the heroes coming to one place, they had been scattered across the entire world. And they had not been heroes.

Not exactly.

King Othius IV, known to the world as the Blighted King, sovereign defender of Rhir—was old. If his actual age were disclosed, well, even half-Elves would have raised an eyebrow. That a Human could live that long meant only that he had used magic and other methods to prolong his life.

He had to. Rhir needed a [King] capable of holding back the Demons. And his [Queens], his offspring—none of them had proven a worthy successor. Many had been good, or valiant, or brave or intelligent or cunning. But they had ultimately failed because…they had died. In battle, to treachery or accident.

The Blighted King had produced more heirs, of course. Even now, he had a new [Queen] and two daughters. They were necessary insurances, even if they were too low-level.

That was practicality. But it would have been unkind and untrue to imply that the Blighted King had simply moved past the rest of his family, his children and partners who had died.

He wore their deaths on his face, his very body. For all he was hale of body—extraordinarily so given his age—they had aged him to grey. He was lined with the effort of his rule.

Yet the Blighted King lived. And he had in him a hatred that had allowed him to live so long and fight this endless war. The Demons were more than an enemy. They were an obsession, a curse.

They had to be destroyed. It revealed itself in the [King]’s gaze seldom. Often, like now, his eyes were obscured, his true thoughts hidden. Only at times did you see the mortal man, drowning in his fathomless disgust for his enemy peeking out.

So—Othius, the Blighted King. He stood in a secret room in the depths of his palace. He looked at a map. Tiny, little shimmering points of light glowed on it.

It was an incomplete map. Erin Solstice, Geneva Scala, Cara O’Sullivan, Daly, Ken, even Rémi or most of the other Earthers could have filled it out better. But the Blighted King did not know them.

He looked at a single mote of light, hovering over a city in between the High Passes. Then—more clustered in Terandria. Pinpointing the Singer of Terandria’s rough location. One gold pinpoint; several silver ones. Certainty was not easy.

A handful more, around the world. The Blighted King touched each one. Then he looked up.

“Ten thousand lives. We sacrificed ten thousand of Rhir’s children for a hundred ‘heroes’. No more than children in their own way, or so we believed. But it becomes clear now: our sight was not that of the whole. Nereshal. How can this be?”

Another man bowed. Nereshal, the [Chronomancer], was the Blighted King’s most trusted confidant. An exceedingly powerful [Mage] who owed nothing to Wistram. Some had wondered if he was a match—or beyond a match—for Wistram’s Archmages. But Nereshal cared nothing for Wistram. He, like Othius, was bound to Rhir and the eternal war. The only one that mattered.

Now, though, Nereshal wore a pained expression. He shifted his posture and bowed up towards his [King]. Nereshal was actually short and slightly pudgy, typical of a man who cast spells all day and managed the castle. But his eyes had the look of a [Soldier]. And he bore scars on his arms and left hand to match.

“Your Majesty. I can only beg your forgiveness and also plead ignorance. Perhaps the summoning ritual was incomplete. Perhaps something interfered.”

“One of the Deathless?”

Nereshal’s face twisted.

“If it had been them, we would have known, I think. And of them—no, I do not think even the Death of Magic could have altered such a spell from afar and without being obvious. No one should have known of this.”

“But the Fool—

Othius spat the name like a curse. The Fool, the traitor who had so nearly brought ruin to his kingdom months back! Nereshal bowed again.

“He had little knowledge, your Majesty. He was not there. That he discovered the truth later—does not change what occurred. Either we erred, or the spell was never perfect. It is clear to me now that the ten thousand lives produced a thousand…children from Earth. But instead of coming to their designation location, they were thrown across the world.”

He gestured to the map. The Blighted King regarded it.

Exactly a thousand? Are you sure, Nereshal?”

The [Chronomancer]’s lips twitched in a bitter smile.

“Your Majesty. I am not, but I would bet on it. We only know of a fraction, but consider; if the others were spread across the world, they would run into monsters, those hostile towards Humans. Perhaps some were teleported into the depths of the sea, or the sky? Yes, I believe a thousand came. We would notice if ten times that number had.”

“So a tenth were given to Rhir. And it was a tenth again of what was spent. A hundreth was a waste of life, or so we felt. But now—we see. They are young, but they have the potential of slumbering Dragons in them.”

“The class, certainly, your Majesty.”

The Blighted King looked at the map.

“We would prefer champions. We would prefer the greatest of this—Earth. Some of their fantastical war machines. Plans. But if all that is sent is children…that is enough. They level in a year what has taken decades for others.”

The [Mage] made no response to that. The Blighted King looked around. His crown was heavy on his head. His skin worn. His eyes were pale grey-silver, like his hair. He looked faded. But that hatred peeked out again, making the irises flash.

“So. If it is possible to call them again, we deem it worth the cost. Even if it were…the same exchange.”

Ten unborn children lost, for every one potential hero, who levels at a rate unmatched. Someone else shuddered in that secret room.

“Your Majesty.”

Do not stand. You are unworthy of it!”

Nereshal struck the speaker on his shoulders. The [Mage] collapsed. And the six [High Mages] who had been brought to this place remained on their knees.

The Blighted King looked at them. Traitors, all. They had cast the summoning ritual and fled when he demanded a repeat of the process. His gaze moved across three men and three women. The last of them he stared at.

“High Magus Laisa. We were wounded to hear of the treachery of our finest [Mages]. But your betrayal hurt us deepest. We had believed you were loyal to the crown and cause. How did the Enemy take your heart?”

He looked down at Laisa, and the [High Mage] shuddered.

“Your Majesty—I still believe in the cause! I still hate the Enemy!”

Demons. The other [High Mages] nodded desperately. Nereshal scowled. Othius raised his hand, forestalling another blow.

“But you fled, refusing to cast the ritual.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Laisa shuddered. Her hands twitched; a reminder of the…interrogation she’d undergone after her recapture. They no longer sat still. And that had been the lightest of the punishments even after she had confessed everything. The other [High Mages] shuddered.

“Why?”

Laisa hesitated, and then prostrated herself again.

“Your Majesty—please, understand that none of us were disloyal. What we did, we did for Rhir. And the world! We voiced our concerns, but—we believe the summoning ritual must never be employed again. It is not magic.”

“Explain.”

Othius sat, weary of standing. Laisa licked her lips and turned to the other [Mages]. One raised his hands, trembling.

“Your Majesty, I studied in Wistram. I—I understand the nature of scrolls. Enchantments. Magic contained in a scroll is still a blueprint and power to a spell. Even a Tier 7 scroll is understandable—even if we understand that the magic is incomprehensible at our level. But the summoning ritual?”

He spread his hands and shook his head.

“It is not magic. Or if it is, it uses a theory far beyond any understanding. Still—I and the others agree. It does not use just magic.

Othius paused. The [King] tried to parse that line and turned to Nereshal, looking annoyed.

“Explain, Nereshal.”

“The—High Mages believe that the power used to fuel the summoning ritual does not come just from magic, your Majesty.”

“Then what? Skills?”

The [King] was ill-equipped to deal with abstracts. He understood magic and Skills. But this was close to pure theory, science. Nereshal had no good answers.

“Something else, your Majesty. Perhaps a Miracle of old.”

“We fail to see why it matters.”

The [King] snapped. The kneeling [Mages] shuddered. Laisa raised her head.

“Your Majesty—we fear what cannot be understood. This ritual tears a hole in the barrier between worlds. But we cannot even sense that barrier save when the spell was cast! I led the spell in a link; I felt it breaking the first time and it was an experience more terrible than any other I have ever felt, before or after.”

She raised a shaking hand and Othius glanced at her. He had to know what she’d gone through and that gave him his first pause. Laisa rushed to pursue the hesitation.

“Your Majesty. This ritual could tear our world apart. Or—join both worlds irrevocably! It is not a simple transfer. It tears something with brute force, rather than finesse. That is why I fled. Better to fight the Enemy—fight Demons with spells and lives than to risk nothing at all remaining!”

“We have fought for six thousand years. Do you dare to imply this state of affairs should continue?”

Othius’ eyes flashed. Laisa trembled.

“No, your Majesty. But better that, perhaps, than nothing at all. I could not bear to spend ten thousand lives of Rhir’s children again. I—I have sacrificed my life in battle against the great foe. But not that. Please, your Majesty. Not that again.”

The others murmured agreement and their own pleas until Nereshal cast them a [Silence] spell. The [Chronomancer] turned to the [King].

“So they say, your Majesty. They are at your disposal. If you will it, I will have their loyalties restored. Or they will serve without rebellion. As slaves or…”

The [High Mages] shuddered. There were worse fates. Othius drummed his fingers on the chair, as if it were his throne.

“…They will serve. As they were. We recall that they fled; they did not conspire. Rhir needs all souls to fight the Enemy, Nereshal. Even those less than faithful to the cause.”

The [Mages] sagged in relief. But Othius was not done. He stared past Nereshal, at the scroll.

It had not worn, though millennia must have passed since its creation. It was as perfect as when it had been made and even mithril aged over as long as Nereshal had speculated it had existed. The shining words were not ever one color, but neither were they prismatic. They shone with light beyond that which Othius had known. And he had seen legendary magics and walked the world longer than most.

“We are weary, Nereshal. Your magic keeps us alive, but the duties weigh on us. We recall the last time the Demons were assailed by the armies of the world. We broke them, and they broke us. Even [Archmages] failed to bring their end. And the war with Demons…our continual holding of Rhir…it will continue long past our children’s children, or so we fear.”

Nereshal started at the weary tone of the [King]. Greatly concerned, he lifted his staff and time—froze.

For a moment, High Mage Laisa saw Nereshal whispering, his lips moving like lightning and not at all. A bubble of time burst; the Blighted King’s features changed, just a bit.

Growing younger. The hint of stubble disappeared. His features changed imperceptibly. But the [King] was still tired.

That was true power. The kind Wistram had lost. Nereshal hurried to his [King]’s side.

“We make great progress, your Majesty. The 5th Wall is being built and the Deathless have not emerged since their defeat! There have been setbacks, but when it is complete…”

A hand slapped the arm of the chair. Othius snarled.

“When it is complete, more walls must be built! More and more, until we can finally assail the Demons and crush them in a corner of Rhir! How long, Nereshal? How long should we force our descendants to endure? When we could but summon an army—”

His eyes moved towards the scroll. It called to him. Laisa shuddered as Othius broke off, staring.

“I dream of it, Nereshal. A day when I may walk past the walls and see no Demons, no Blight. Only green grass and clear skies.”

“Your Majesty…”

For a moment, Laisa saw Othius’ features soften. And she felt the same urge, the same compulsion. Her eyes filled with tears. How could she have thought he didn’t care? The longing, the bitter pain on her ruler’s face struck her in her heart.

“Any weapon is to be used against the great enemy, Nereshal. My [Mages]. Surely you see our conviction. We may risk disaster. We may risk another world meeting ours. But then two worlds will battle the foe. If there is any…concern we share. It is our grief over the sacrifice of so many of Rhir’s children.”

The [King] turned to his [Mages], whose loyalty had been rekindled in an instant. He stood taller now, and the Blighted King’s very presence inspired them.

Even so. Laisa bowed her head.

“Your Majesty. We cannot alter the spell. We had tried, you recall. To use criminals, the lives of Demons, animals, slaves…to no avail. It must be the unborn. And it weighs…”

It weighed on her. Nereshal nodded tightly.

“Your Majesty. Perhaps a controlled spell? A test of a handful of…?”

Even as he said it, Laisa knew it wouldn’t happen. The [Queen] was pregnant again. But she and nobles, as well as the common folk had been struck with the ritual’s effects. It had affected all of the Blighted Kingdom. Even now, some still wore black in remembrance.

“No. The ritual is too expensive, even in mundane magics. We have spent fortunes against the Demons and to use the ritual, but we will not ‘test’ it. We desire it used. And this time…a hundred thousand lives. For even a thousand heroes, and others across the world, we wish for an army. And if the spell can be focused upon Rhir…”

“Your Majesty—”

“Your Majesty! I cannot!”

Laisa cried out, even though Othius’ presence compelled her to serve. The Blighted King looked down at her.

“High Mage Laisa. There are ways. The Blighted Kingdom’s citizens lie in such great numbers that if…measures…were taken, even a hundred thousand would not slow the children born this year overduly. But it need not come to that.”

He smiled. And Laisa looked up. The Blighted King looked at Nereshal.

“We have thought on this issue. Listen—Nereshal.”

He spoke. Laisa’s eyes grew wide, and Nereshal blinked. But the objections…came only from Laisa and one other. And Othius overruled them.

“It will serve. And it is fairer. The only question then, is how useful our heroes will be. The ones that remain, that were poorly spent—ah, Nereshal. How fare they?”

“They are with Lord Hayvon, your Majesty. Under his watchful guidance. Some, like Richard, have been approaching Level 40.

“Astonishing.”

Laisa heard Othius whisper, and she was struck by jealousy and awe. She had met another, the young [Hydromancer], and her growth had been earth-shattering. Unfair.

“And…the [Clown]?”

Nereshal’s lips twisted.

“He is less manageable, your Majesty. But he has killed Demons and is much beloved. Have you need of them?”

The Blighted King looked back at the scroll. And he shook his head.

“No, Nereshal. Merely let Hayvon guard and raise them. They are few. Useful, but few. But let those with the talent cultivate it. For they shall be instructors to those that follow. Even if they spread across the world, what then? The world will destroy the hell that is Rhir. Together.”

He smiled, then. And looked towards that vision of another world. The Humans had come from Earth, to what reason they had no idea. They had struggled, persevered, failed, lived and died. They had suffered, and searched for meaning.

Soon—they would not be alone.

 

—-

 

While the Blighted King planned for the future, his kingdom fought the Demons. Year by year, century by century, they held the line against the horrors that came from the Blight, the corruption that was endemic only to the continent of Rhir, smallest and most cursed.

In the past, people had wisely avoided living on Rhir because it was inhospitable, filled with corruption that twisted the form, and new monsters emerged now and then to make your life more unpleasant. They had let Rhir be a place only the insane or adventurous go.

And then had come the Crelers. Six thousand years ago, the Creler Wars had ravaged the world and damn well nearly wiped out…everything. They’d been fought back, but the first Blighted King had decided Rhir had to be safeguarded. So he had established his kingdom as a safeguard against such things and fortified it with help from around the world.

All well and good. But then the Demons had arrived. Another kingdom had emerged, one filled with another people twisted by the corruption, who fought the Blighted Kingdom. They had been too powerful to destroy, and so the two nations had entered into a deadlock.

Fast forward to now. The Blighted Kingdom had constructed four—make that five—massive walls across Rhir, so powerful and mighty that they could hold back the Demons, creating safe zones. The fifth was incomplete, but step by step, they were taking back Rhir, hoping to one day wipe out the Demons.

In the meantime, resources from around the world came to Rhir. Ships bearing supplies, food, magical weapons, and soldiers for the cause of holding back the Demons. It was now just…a fact.

Hell was Rhir. And unless you were sent there, or traded with the continent, most people didn’t think of it. If the Blighted King fell, they’d get worried. But they pursued their petty wars and arguments and went about their lives because the Blighted Kingdom was holding the line. It sucked to be them, you supposed. But hey—did you hear about the hamburgers?

Then had come the [Clown]. No one knew where he’d come from, but he was a guest of the Blighted King. A strange class, an insane, laughing fighter who had no respect for life.

It spread throughout Rhir. Like…well, a cult. An obsession. Not for all; many heard the stories about the assault on the palace by the Demons or about Tom the [Clown] and thought he was mad.

But Rhir was filled with madness. Young people were born and raised to fight the Enemy. Some of them saw the [Clown]’s antics and embraced it.

“Uh. Lord Hayvon. Is that girl wearing clown makeup…alright?”

Richard twisted in his saddle and stared at a girl, holding her father’s hand as they went to market. She couldn’t have been more than eight, but she wore a ghastly thing from his world.

Clown makeup. The white face paint, the red on the nose and exaggerated features—she even had a tear, painted bright blue. The [Lord], riding ahead of him back to his mansion after a day of hunting, glanced to one side.

The father, in rougher clothing, didn’t have makeup on. Nor did the rest of the people in the village bowing to Lord Hayvon and clearing the road for his procession of followers, Richard included. The young man from Mississippi saw Lord Hayvon, one of the most influential figures in the Blighted Kingdom and 5th most powerful [Lord] in the world according to some book, shrug.

“I don’t see anything wrong with her, Sir Richard. Unless you mean the makeup? She or her mother must be one of Sir Tom’s followers.”

“Right. Sir Tom. Uh…you mean his groupies? The crazy ones who follow him and dress like him?”

Richard was a young man with dark skin, a wide-brimmed hat, and plate armor. He was, in fact, a [Knight]. Lord Hayvon glanced back at him.

“Groupies? Your words are so…unique. For everything, Sir Richard.”

“It’s Richard, Lord Hayvon. I mean, his followers.”

The [Lord] smiled.

“One must respect titles, Sir Richard. If you use my title, I should use yours. And yes, Sir Tom’s followers. He has many admirers.”

“Yes…but a girl? Tom’s—Tom’s a [Clown], Lord Hayvon. And yes, we have uh, [Clowns] from home. And killer clowns…but idolizing them isn’t usually a good thing.”

“Really?”

“No. People don’t like uh, admiring serial killers.”

Lord Hayvon was a tall man, but not distinguished. He was intensely…practical. He wore armor of course; they’d been hunting deer, but Demon attacks could occur even behind the 3rd Wall. And he was beyond competent in every area. So much so that he didn’t have odd quirks, like Lord Tyrion, Lord Bel, or any of the other [Lords] mentioned in the book Richard had read. He replied with a nod toward the mansion.

“In your world, perhaps, Sir Richard. But here—the people admire anyone who can kill Demons like Sir Tom. I gather many of them have classes like [Clown], if not that exact one. They’re rather like [Berserkers]—or at least, that’s how I believe they should be used. Irregulars.”

“…Is that why his Majesty lets Tom be?”

“You mean, entertains his swings of mood, and his oddities? Of course. He is a capable fighter. We have seen far worse. Allow him his ‘groupies’, Sir Richard. Allow him his fame. When the time comes, he kills Demons and that is what I care about.”

“Yes, Lord Hayvon.”

Richard bit back the objections he had and rode on. This was Rhir, after all. Richard had seen Demons. He’d fought them. He rode with Lord Hayvon back towards the mansion. Richard had not been a fighter before coming to this world. Now—he was a [Knight]. A soldier, at least in Lord Hayvon’s mind.

They all were. But there was more to Hayvon than just that. Richard had seen it.

 

—-

 

A Treatise on the Foremost [Lords] in the World, Of Present Writing by Krsysl Wordsmith. The name of the book was almost as long as the entire thing. Richard had found it one day in Hayvon’s libraries and been obsessed. He’d tracked down another copy and annotated at it.

The Drake [Writer] had named the five most important [Lords] in the world in a ranked list. And after a very lengthy introduction where he decried his detractors and said he was an authority in…er…history, he’d rationalized his list.

Lord Hayvon Operland was 5th. Lord Belchaus Meron was 1st. There was a [Lord] in Izril, Tyrion Veltras, who was 2nd, then another [Slave Lord] or close from Chandrar…

Each one’s accomplishments, holdings, personalities, had been written of. The book also had a list of top [Ladies], [Kings], [Strategists], [Generals]—it was like an ancient ratings-list of leaders. And the Drake had included a lot of—opinions—into the writing.

Lord Hayvon, as needs must be remembered, is a [Lord] of Rhir as thus merits consideration for that fact alone. Of course, his levels are unknown, but he is known as a staunch commander of men. Humans, rather, as well as the mixed forces sent to Rhir. He is largely practical, with that lack of true verisimilitude, the qualities that make one stand out in the history books…’

Richard read the intro to Lord Hayvon for the hundredth time. It was fascinating, the Drake’s take on him. Also—complete bullshit, as far as Richard understood it. The Drake had rated Hayvon as ‘average’. Obviously world-class, but average in terms of wealth compared to Emir Yazdil, average compared to a fighter like Lord Tyrion or Lord Belchaus…

Average? Richard was riding back to one of Hayvon’s mansions after a morning hunt. They’d been chasing deer, which bred around the 3rd wall. Not in great numbers, but Rhir had grown forests in the safety of the Blighted Kingdom. Even [Lords] needed entertainment.

But Lord Hayvon’s being a noble of Rhir meant that he only took one of the deer to feed his mansion. The other six bagged were given to the public, as a gift. Also—his mansion was rich, but not opulent.

Phrased another way—it was not as rich as it could be. And it lacked servants in the numbers of other nobility on different continents, Richard had been told. Nobles in Rhir were expected to give all they could to the cause—fighting Demons. And Hayvon was a patriot.

Richard broke off from reading the book and glanced up. And the 5th most powerful [Lord] saw Richard getting off his horse.

“Lord Hayvon, I’ll return to the mansion by myself if that’s alright. I’d like to…”

The [Lord] glanced up and waved a hand, smiling.

“By all means, Sir Richard. Someone will take your horse.”

Average in wealth. Richard patted his horse; he’d grown up on a ranch so he was used to riding unlike all of the others. Then he took two steps and flew.

The townsfolk and riders saw Richard fly up through the air past the others. The young man had raised one hand in a fist. That was unnecessary for the Boots of Flight to work, but there was such a thing as style.

A cloak fluttered behind Richard. Magical; enchanted like his armor. It was, of course, red.

Slowly at first, then with increasing speed, Richard flew through the air. The Boots of Flight couldn’t propel him that fast; they were slower than a horse. But look up. Was that a bird?

No, it was a flying [Knight]. Richard laughed as he flew, as he always did. He’d done this probably ten thousand times. But he couldn’t help it.

Careful, Sir Richard!

Lord Hayvon chuckled as he heard the young man laughing from above. He lifted his hand and Richard saluted him. Richard swooped over the town, seeing people waving up at him. And for a few minutes—he was a superhero.

He didn’t shoot a beam of fire from his eyes. But that was because he needed a ring for that. And it was too dangerous; it set things alight. Even so—Richard felt invincible.

He flew towards the mansion, past the slower trotting horses. And he saw someone waving at him from the grounds.

Hey, Superguy!

Vincent, a [Swashbuckler] from Earth from the state of Maine was sitting in the grass. He wasn’t flying about, but neither was he unadorned with magic of his own. He waved up at Richard and then threw something.

A rope. Richard tried to avoid it, but the magical rope wrapped around one leg. He swore.

Vincent—

The other young man hauled on the rope and was hanging underneath Richard. The Boots of Flight dipped lower as they tried to support both weights.

Get off!

With a laugh, Vincent leapt to the ground. He took two steps, and bounded up into the air. He landed on a hedge that shouldn’t have supported his weight, but it did. The young man balanced on the grass.

“If you’re Super-Richard, I can at least be Indiana Vincent. Since someone got Batman.”

He grinned. Richard hovered next to him, aware that his Boots of Flight were going to run out of power soon.

“Don’t act like that in a real battle.”

“You’re one to talk.”

“I only fly for fun. I’m aware it’s a stupid idea in a fight.”

The [Knight] flushed, embarrassed. But Vincent just laughed.

“Who wouldn’t want to fly? Besides Emily.”

She got altitude-sick. And it was true, that everyone had begged to use the Boots of Flight. Richard had stuck with them because he was actually the best flier with them and Lord Hayvon favored him.

“Sir Richard!”

Lord Hayvon rode up laughing, and dismounted as a pair of Dog-Tribe Beastkin came for the horses. They were grinning at the sight, and the [Lord] himself strode up into the air. His Pegasus Boots carried him up faster and quicker than Richard; they were more powerful.

“It does my heart good to see you enjoying the Boots of Flight so much. I’d completely forgotten what flying was like as a lad.”

The [Lord] smiled. Richard ducked his head and took off his hat.

“It’s a childhood dream, Lord Hayvon.”

“Ah, more of your heroes.”

The [Lord] looked at Richard, almost surprised. But then—Richard was a [Hero] and Hayvon had yet to understand superheroes. Hayvon shrugged.

“If you tire of the boots, you may of course swap them for something else. We can’t give you more artifacts without the magic clashing, but Sir Tom’s Ring of Invisibility or…Boots of Haste? But I understand the charm and utility of flight. Please, carry on. I shall be in my study. We shall repast on the deer you felled tonight, Sir Richard.”

He walked back down towards the ground. Richard flew down so he wouldn’t drop out of the sky—although he had a Ring of Featherfalling.

“You killed a deer, Richard?”

“Lucky bowshot. Hayvon insisted we bring it back. I’m not that good with a bow.”

“Huh. Better than me. But hey—that’s what crossbows are for, right? Hayvon finally got the one he said auto-reloads. Check it out.”

Vincent patted his side. A compact crossbow was hanging there. Richard hesitated.

“An automatic-reloading crossbow? But that’s like—”

“Yup. You want one? You’re a better shot.”

Richard didn’t know about that. But he’d owned a rifle back on Earth. Bows and crossbows were different.

“I’ll think about it. Where’s Tom?”

Vincent’s good mood faded. He jerked his head to the mansion.

Inside. Where else? He’s having one of his giggling fits.”

“Got it. What are you doing, Vincent?”

“Taking a break from the others nagging me? Especially Emily. She’s…”

Vincent made his hand flap endlessly. Richard sighed. And like that, it was back to work.

“Try not to fight with her, Vince.”

“Me? She’s the one who wants people to brainstorm how to get in touch with the other people from Earth and convince Hayvon. Gah.”

“I’ll talk to her.”

Richard walked on the grass, feeling…slow and stuck in mud as he always did after flying. He checked the worn, green boots that were nevertheless quite splendidly inlaid. Boots of Flight. And Lord Hayvon had, after overhearing Richard express admiration for his own Pegasus Boots, pulled a set from his armory and gifted them to Richard.

5th most powerful [Lord] his ass. Richard shook his head. He waved at one of the Dog-Tribe Beastkin.

Unlike Gnolls, whom Richard had met, the Dog-Tribe Beastkin were shorter. And more…doglike. Gnolls reminded Richards of hyenas.

“Hey, Richard! You have a good hunt? Smells like you got some deer!”

One of the Dog-Men bounded towards Richard. He was in a good mood. Man’s best friend—or in this case—just best friend. Affable—the two [Stablehands] were younger than Richard, but only just. This one was named Tel.

“That’s right, Tel. A deer.”

“What kind?”

The other Dog-Tribe Beastkin perked up his ears. Richard shrugged.

“Non-magical. That’s all I know. Not a Corusdeer, or a Selantler, at any rate.”

“Works for us! We might get scraps if we beg! Let’s get the horses settled, Rel! Thanks, Richard!”

The two dashed off. They were more informal with the young man since he’d told them not to use his title. And they were one of only two dozen servants for the entire mansion. Which was impressive given how large it was.

However…as Richard entered the mansion, he saw Lord Hayvon was already gone. And no one held open the doors for him; the other staff were probably elsewhere. So the young man took his hat off his head. He tossed it—and the hat went zooming off towards the hat rack.

Magic. The entire mansion was like that. Richard undid a clasp on his armor and the magic anticipated him, taking the armor off as well towards his room. Some kind of magical servant spell. Richard vaguely looked around.

“A glass of water? Please.”

One found him as he walked about the mansion. Richard accepted the floating glass and sipped from it. It tasted vaguely of something spicy. Which was how Rhir’s people liked to flavor water to make it the equivalent of a lemon and water. Weird, but far from the weirdest thing. Invisible magical servant-spells sort of beat that.

The one thing the spell didn’t do was show Richard where to find people. So he wandered for a good four minutes before he heard a familiar voice.

“Eddy, I swear to fucking god, if you tell me to make a sword out of this one more time, I’ll kill you.”

“Come on, Keith! I’ll pay you.”

“With what, the money Hayvon gives us? Let go. Hey, I said—

A scuffle. Down one of the rich hallways, Richard saw a door blow open and two young men emerged. One was shouting, face red and sunburned; the other was faster. More nimble; certainly more fit. He dashed down the corridor.

Richard! He’s got—

The [Knight] saw Eddy, or Edward, the [Spellblade], try to blur around him. But the [Knight] was faster. He grabbed Eddy’s arm and yanked him back.

“Richard, let go, let g—”

The block of metal in Eddy’s hands tumbled out of his grip. Richard saw it and grabbed; his [Heightened Reflexes] allowed him to snag the block of metal.

It was light. Richard blinked, and Keith charged after Eddy.

“You bastard!”

Eddy whirled and put up his fists. Keith froze and Richard grabbed Eddy.

“Eddy, put your hands down.”

“Hey, he started it. You want to go, Keith?”

Edward made a jab and Keith recoiled. The [Inferno Smith] backed up, warily. Not without reason; Edward, or ‘Eddy’, was a [Warrior]-[Mage] who’d recently consolidated. And Keith, despite his [Blacksmith] class, had no strength-enhancing Skills. If the two got into a scrap, like Richard’s fellow Earthers sometimes did, there was no doubt who’d end up bruised and bleeding.

“Knock it off, Eddy. Keith can’t fight you and you know it.”

“Hey, he—”

“You stole this. This is just bullying, Eddy.”

The two [Warriors] glared at each other for a second. Eddy was flushed; he didn’t like being lectured by Richard, who was only two years older. But the younger man was on a bit of a power trip of late. Richard let go and Eddy backed up.

“I don’t need this. I’m off.”

He stomped away. Keith flipped him off from behind and turned to Richard.

“Thanks, Richard. Eddy wanted me to make him a titanium sword. As if that would do shit. He’s already got a magic one and this is my only crucible steel.”

He gestured to the billet. Richard regarded it.

“So you actually got it made?”

“Of course! It’s been disgusting, trying to get the heat up in a proper smelter for it to melt. But we finally got it. Took eight different [Mages] and a lot of money…but that’s titanium. Uh—I don’t know how we’re going to hammer the stuff. But I told you!”

Keith beamed. Not all of the Americans—the group summoned to Rhir—were warriors. Or Americans. Edward, like Richard, was a [Hero], someone with the class who’d decided to fight the Demons. Keith was someone who’d lost the class; he hadn’t wanted to kill.

But that didn’t mean he was useless. And now that they had resources and Lord Hayvon’s support, he was proving it. Richard grinned.

“So we can make titanium armor? And weapons?”

“Well, sure. But it’s better for building stuff. Say—do you mind holding onto it? Eddy’s convinced he can get a titanium sword. Can you show it to Lord Hayvon?”

“Can do. I bet he’ll want to thank you. Maybe with a title or something.”

Lord Hayvon’s interest in the Earthworlders came from their achievements. Not just levels. He’d flip the moon about this. Keith grinned.

“Can’t let you get all the attention, can I?”

“It never crossed my mind. Say—has Eddy been bothering you? Besides this, I mean.”

He’d gotten into a fight before. Keith shrugged, face blank.

“Eddy’s an annoying asshole who thinks he’s Gandalf. Red nearly punched him in the face, but it’s fine. He’s not as bad as Tom.

The two grimaced. Richard patted Keith on the shoulder.

“If he gets obnoxious, let me know. I can talk to him. I’ll take this to Lord Hayvon. Do you know what Tom’s up to?”

“Don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Please tell me he’s going to fight Demons soon.”

“Sorry.”

 

—-

 

Keith was not the only person Richard met on his circuit of the mansion. There was Red, a girl from New Jersey, who marched up to Richard to complain about Edward. She was a [Painter]; just like from her world. Not as useful to Hayvon, but she’d been recreating some classics which had attracted attention from prospective buyers. Her Starry Night wasn’t exactly like the original, but it was close.

There was Katie and Stacy, who were conspiring over some new food from Earth and…well, not leveled much in any one class. Cynthia was out in the town, enjoying the sights and keeping as far away from Tom as possible; she hadn’t come back in two days and Richard was going to ask someone to find her just to check up.

This was his group. And Richard was—well, not the boss, but a leader. He had the highest level, aside from possibly Tom, and they listened to him. He liked them all. In their own way. They’d been through hell—literal hell. And they were like family.

Some were poorer members than others. Cynthia didn’t really contribute and she liked to distract herself until ‘help arrived’ from Earth. Others were like Keith, or Vincent, or Emily. Good people who worked hard and leveled.

And then there was Tom. Richard asked Stacy about him and her face twisted.

“Tom’s holed up in his rooms again.”

“Is he drinking, sleeping around, or crying?”

“Uh—he’s laughing.”

“Wonderful.”

Tom—was Tom. And his fellow Earthers had a different view of him than the other people of Rhir. To them, he was like a war hero. His insanity was even admired.

To the Earthers, Tom was a psychopath and they were afraid of him, annoyed by him, or just creeped out in equal measure. He had been Richard’s friend. But…

To Lord Hayvon, Tom was just a weapon. The [Lord] was always polite to Tom, but he didn’t entertain Tom’s crazy. When the [Clown] had ‘pranked’ Hayvon by trying to stab him, Hayvon had obligingly stabbed him back. Even the completely murderous ‘other Tom’ had decided it wasn’t worth provoking the [Lord].

Richard found Hayvon in his study. No servant to announce him, so Richard knocked.

“Lord Hayvon? It’s Richard. I have news.”

“Enter!”

The 5th most important [Lord] was sitting at his desk, studying a scrying orb. It was set to a Drake, cheerily broadcasting the news.

And in other news today, The King of Destruction won a pitched battle at—

She was new. Richard hadn’t seen her yesterday. Lord Hayvon glanced up and touched the orb; it went dark.

“I see the King of Destruction continues to advance in Jecrass. Do you keep up with this news report, Richard?”

“Only a bit, Lord Hayvon. Emily watches every day.”

To catch a glimpse of the girl who’d shouted ‘oh my god’, the soccer player, Joseph, as well as hints of Rémi Canada, or the Singer of Terandria. Hayvon nodded.

“Understandable. As I said, his Majesty knows the others are out there. He will attempt to retrieve them as best he can. I’m sure Emily has spoken to you?”

His tone was…guarded. Even Lord Hayvon could be hounded, and Emily had hounded Richard when he’d gotten back. The [Knight] rubbed at one ear.

“Yeah.”

The [Hydromancer] wanted to find the others from the phone call. Of course, Richard hadn’t told Hayvon or anyone else from Rhir about that call—but they’d all recognized the others from Earth. It had been massively exciting—and then troublesome when Hayvon told Richard straight out that they couldn’t leave Rhir.

Too dangerous. The Demons might come after them. Or—and this was Richard’s point—whomever ‘Kent Scott’ had been.

“I’ll tell Emily.”

“Good. I can’t entertain her for long. I ordered her out of my presence a minute ago. I thought she was coming back—in which case I’d have had to confine her to her quarters.”

Lord Hayvon was generous, but he didn’t suffer wastes of time. Speaking with Richard didn’t count, though. The [Knight] glanced at the blank orb.

“The King of Destruction. I’ve seen him a lot in the scrying orb. I saw him after they killed those Gnolls and those kids.”

“Yes. One suspects Belchan had everything that was coming to it. A waste of a [Prime Minister]. And two pointless wars.”

Hayvon grimaced. To him, any war except that against Demons or Antinium was stupid and pointless. He glanced at the scrying orb.

“I’m surprised more nations haven’t declared war on him. But they must all be wary of his [Army of the King]—his Level 50 Skill. You know what that is?”

“I’ve heard of it. You’re sure it’s Level 50, Lord Hayvon?”

The [Lord] dismissed the question.

“Level 50 Skills are more powerful—another capstone. Rhir remembers more about levels and classes than any other nation living. It won’t recharge quickly, though. But it must even be keeping the Minotaurs away; I heard they’ve been hired to fight the King of Destruction. Either that, or they’re waiting until a nation lets them actually land. Either way, the King of Destruction will need to gain a lot more land and a far larger army to take on all of Chandrar. And if he does—well, that’s that.”

It was remarkable how unconcerned Hayvon seemed about the legendary [King] who’d begun his rampage. Everyone else Richard talked to—especially soldiers from Chandrar—treated him like a mythical figure. The [Knight] had to ask.

“Lord Hayvon, the King of Destruction seems to worry every nation but Rhir. May I ask why?”

The [Lord] turned to Richard and smiled, breaking his attention away from the table, which had some letters on it.

“Certainly, Richard. The answer is complex, but I hope it will inform you as to politics in Rhir. Firstly—the King of Destruction may conquer, but he has and still sends aid to Rhir yearly. You are aware of the Pact of Rhir?”

The [Knight] from Mississippi nodded. It took many forms, but every nation had a variation of it obliging them to send resources, soldiers, or some other form of aid to Rhir each year. And they did. Of course, the pact was enforced by magic and Skill, but the nations were incentivized to do so anyways. The Demons had to be contained.

“Almost every nation, Richard. Some refused to ratify the pact.”

Lord Hayvon corrected Richard. He leaned on the balcony, glowering. The young man was surprised.

“Who doesn’t send aid to Rhir? Don’t they understand the danger?”

“They do. But a handful of nations refuse. Newer ones refuse to uphold the old pacts and must need renegotiation, but that is different. The ones who refuse entirely are very specific. They…do not see Demons as their enemies.”

He counted them off on his fingers.

“The Drowned Folk nations. The Empire of Drath. And…Dullahans. There are individual nations, but those three races refuse. They have allied or made peace with Demons in the past.”

Really? But why?”

Richard had never left Rhir. Of course, the continent, even smallest of the rest, was still massive. Keith had estimated it was as big as the United States—even more, perhaps. But the entire world was out there. All Richard had were books and the people from abroad. He wanted to leave someday.

But there was a war to fight, and Richard’s group were soldiers in an army. Leaving was impossible. For Richard, at least. Perhaps…

Lord Hayvon cut him off from his musings.

“Even nations as proud as Khelt or as strange as A’ctelios give aid. Even the Walled Cities and northern nobles of Izril will not attack vessels bound for Rhir. Every Terandrian nation gives aid. This is not a matter where complacency is allowed, Richard. But those three groups—no. Some Dullahan cities, and some Drowned Folk groups are wise, of course, but the Iron Vanguard will not send a tithe while the other three Great Companies do. Even the Gazers.”

Richard didn’t know who the Gazers were—although he imagined them—but he nodded. The [Lord] leaned on his desk, frowning darkly.

“Not as much in recent decades. But then—the Demons are weaker than they were a century back, hence the work on the 5th Wall. King Othius the 3rd and his Majesty were responsible for that.”

“How, Lord Hayvon?”

The [Lord] grinned humorlessly.

“Simple. We killed their commanders. Or should I say—wounded them? The Demons lack our resources, Richard. They have monsters, and they breed quickly. But they rely on their elites. Especially their Deathless.”

Richard hadn’t heard that term before. He was familiar with the Fearless, the shock troops of the Demons. But Deathless?

“I assume that means they can’t be killed?”

“It means it’s very difficult. Hence the name. They are all…immortals. So unless we kill them in battle, they return century after century. There are few left. They were all wounded in the last great war against the Demons, though. Let us not sully our lips with their names, though. Names—fear of them is a power I do not wish to grant the Enemy.”

Hayvon shook his head. He clearly didn’t like discussing them.

“Between them and the Antinium, we cannot overrun the Demons. But where was I? The King of Destruction?”

“Yes, Lord Hayvon.”

The [Lord] nodded.

“The other reason the King of Destruction is not a threat—yet—is that he was defeated once before. When he threatened to invade other nations and completely destabilized peace, his Majesty sent a force to do battle. They humbled his ‘Lord of the Skies’, Takhatres, one of the Seven in battle. Destroyed his tribe. The King of Destruction is not invincible. Minos crippled his ambitions in a single battle and the Titan of Baleros dealt the finishing blow.”

“I see.”

Lord Hayvon smiled and cracked his arms as he stretched them out. He gave a casual nod to the blank orb.

“And finally, Sir Richard—Flos Reimarch is no match for our king. He is just a [King of War], or some variant of the class. Specialized in one area, high-level—but I would wager, not yet a match for his Majesty.”

Really?

Richard raised his eyebrows. Flos had seemed like the reincarnation of war itself. But Lord Hayvon Operland smiled like a wolf.

“I would bet he is lower-level. King Othius has ruled for centuries.

“I know that. But Lord Hayvon—why didn’t his Majesty fight the Demons back when they attacked—”

Hayvon’s face changed and Richard closed his mouth. Mention of the Fool’s betrayal still enraged Lord Hayvon. There could be no greater crime; Hayvon himself had ordered the Fool’s body cut up and fed to Demons.

Not dogs, which would have been bad enough. The prisoners of the Blighted Kingdom. It was just a reminder…the man standing in front of Richard was capable of many things. Generosity and—the [Lord] replied curtly.

“Any one of King Othius’ Skills can change the course of a war, Sir Richard. That he did not use them in the surprise attack at the palace was intentional. If he had, we might have lost valuable ground.”

“Really? Even with the Demons weakened and these Deathless…?”

Hayvon bared his teeth.

“You have never seen his Majesty’s higher-level Skills, Sir Richard. So I forgive you the unintended slight. I hope you never have cause to see them except in victory…you see, the Demon King and his minions have equally powerful Skills. His Deathless are powerful—not as powerful as the Blighted King, but earth-shatteringly so. Yet his Majesty could slay them if they were unguarded. But if he were to waste even a handful of Skills—”

“A stalemate.”

Richard understood that. Mutually assured destruction. He explained the idea to Hayvon and the man nodded.

“Except that we should love nothing more than to use his Majesty’s Skills if it didn’t risk weakening us for a counterattack. If his Majesty had been forced to defend himself with, say, six of his grandest Skills—and he would have likely needed to use only one—he would have been unable to use them for a day, a week, a month—and the Demons would have capitalized on it.”

He glared at a map of Rhir and pointed.

“At worst, we might have lost the 5th wall or seen it set back decades. It was an attack meant to bait the Skill, as well as aim for his throat. Incidentally—if we had but one of your mass-destruction weapons, I should love to use it. Salting the earth doesn’t stop the Demons from growing crops, but I should like to try with your world’s weapons.”

The statement chilled Richard.

“I don’t know that you’d say that if you knew what the weapons did, Lord Hayvon.”

The man looked up, surprised. He actually considered the statement and shrugged.

“Perhaps. But since they cannot be made, or so you say, I will abide with steel and sorcery. Speaking of which…you mentioned you had news? This talk of the King of Destruction waylaid us.”

“Oh. Right! This is what Keith came up with. He finally figured out how to smelt—”

Richard pulled the titanium out and put it on the desk. Hayvon’s eyes widened.

“So that’s what it is? Remarkable! Titanium! It was but powder when we gave it to him.”

“That’s what it looks like. But this is the stuff from our world. Keith’s confident he can make more.”

“I see. May I…?”

Hayvon hesitated, with a healthy respect for magical metals before Richard gave him the nod. Then the [Lord] picked up the metal, marveling at the lightness. He tapped it, and then to Richard’s dismay, produced a dagger and sliced a chunk off the metal.

“Ah. Not magical, then. Don’t worry; this blade could cut mithril. But this is good metal! And if there is more of it than mithril, we will use it. Odd…it reminds me of Dwarfsteel. The same look, although lighter. I wonder if they’ve discovered your metal and call it that?”

“If it is—”

Lord Hayvon’s thoughtful look turned good-natured. He clapped Richard on the shoulder, firmly.

“Don’t worry, Sir Richard! If it is the same metal, I should be all the more delighted since it leaves us less reliant on Deríthal-Vel forges! I will inform his Majesty and ask the royal [Blacksmiths] to investigate the metal. And I will prepare a suitable gift for Keith as well as whatever his Majesty sees fit to bestow.”

“Keith will be delighted. He’s worked for long hours on it.”

Richard smiled. Lord Hayvon squeezed his shoulder and looked at the younger man. They were very different, in skin tone, temperament, and certainly background. Even faith—Richard was Muslim and the gods were dead to Hayvon.

But the [Lord] had a fond look in his eyes as he patted Richard on the shoulder. And a sad one.

“Ah, Richard. We erred greatly in dismissing you from the courts and leaving you to fight Demons. His Majesty is insightful, but his wroth and his disappointment clouded our judgments. Look at you now. I would that my son followed your example.”

“Your son, Lord Hayvon? We’ve never met him.”

The [Lord]’s expression clouded.

“He serves duty on 3rd Wall. Not far; but he is learning and I have no desire to unfairly influence his career. He is your age, Richard. A good son, but…lacking. I am his Majesty’s foremost [Lord] in all things. My son must carry my mantle. I worry if he will rise to the heights I dream of for him.”

For a moment, Richard saw Hayvon’s unguarded face, the worry on the father’s expression. Then he was smiling again.

“You have my thanks, Sir Richard. Was there anything else?”

“No, Lord Hayvon.”

“I see. Then we shall dine tonight and speak later then. I ask your pardon, but I must correspond about the 5th wall.”

And that was that. Richard left the office. He wondered if after dinner and a drink Lord Hayvon would listen to his request. The [Knight] walked down the hallways.

“Richard! Richard, did you ask—”

Emily found him after one corridor. She’d been peeking around, waiting for him to come out. The [Knight] sighed.

“Not yet, Emily. Hayvon’s busy.”

“But—”

“He heard your request, Emily. You shouldn’t have bugged him.”

The [Knight] saw the young woman from Minnesota glower at him. Emily was pretty, intelligent—the best [Mage] of the group—and determined to get her way.

“We have to ask, Richard. There are others! Out there!”

She pointed. Richard nodded.

“I know. I’ll ask after dinner when he’s in a good mood. But I’ll run it by Tom. Is he in his rooms?”

Emily’s face froze over. She looked at Richard.

“Why do you have to ask him?

“Tom’s smart.”

“He’s insane. And he’s growing crazier. He keeps saying ‘other Tom’ wants to kill Demons.”

Richard sighed.

“I bet he does. But he’s still one of us, Emily. From Earth. Do you want to vis—”

“No. No—you go ahead. I’ll see you at dinner. I have to practice my spells. I’m trying to make Water Elementals.”

The [Hydromancer] backed up. She conjured a blob of water which waggled a tendril at Richard. He sighed, but there was no talking around Emily. He wished she wasn’t so…strident. But his group of Earthers were just people from Earth, with nothing else besides their nation of origin in most cases to bind them.

Sometimes, Richard found himself identifying more with Lord Hayvon’s soldiers. Certainly—he liked some of them quite a lot, like one of the retainers, a Garuda [Skysword Master] from Chandrar. But what did Othius expect? He had wanted heroes.

He had gotten young people from Earth. And the closest thing to his hero was…

The [Clown].

 

—-

 

The people of Rhir knew of the [Clown]. They also knew of the summoned heroes from Earth—although not necessarily in those terms.

Brave young warriors from far abroad. That was how they were being described. Propaganda and storytelling.

But the [Clown]. He captured the imagination. This world had never seen his like. At least—not in the exact way he appeared. His insanity, the way he made killing a joke, the idea of him was alluring. It was…supervillainy. Not what actual blood and death looked like, or should be.

Of course—Richard had a different perspective than those of Rhir. He knew the original stories that Tom had taken from.

Much had been said of Tom’s madness. His…admirers or followers sometimes came to the mansion. Usually the female ones were let in. But everyone had heard how he’d defeated the Demon [Mage] in combat, killed a score of Fearless in the defense of the castle.

Not many people talked about the Fool, or the fact that Nereshal and the Blighted King’s warriors had held the hallways and pushed the Fearless back too. Tom caught the imagination.

However. He was still Tom to Richard. So when the [Knight] went to find his friend, he didn’t walk in awe or fear.

Or disgust, like the others. Emily refused to go with Richard. Her feelings about Tom hadn’t changed much since the beginning. Which was unfair of her.

When the others had fled the village, himself included, Tom had stayed. And he had killed an entire war party of Demons. That had been his most glorious day. His greatest achievement and tragedy. Not the part with the Fool, to Richard. Richard had never seen anyone braver. Or crazier.

Now…well…

“Richard! Richard, I need to speak with you!”

Someone intercepted Richard as he was nearly at Tom’s rooms. You could tell it was the [Clown]’s place of residence for the moment; all the breakable objects had been cleared from the hallway, or already broken. Someone had tried to carve a comic strip in the wall before getting bored one and a half panels in.

At least there was no laughter. The room was soundproofed. Richard glanced at it, and then turned.

“What is it, Chole?”

She was from California. And Chole was…concerned.

“Are you going to see Tom?”

“That’s right. Do you know what he’s been up to?”

“No. He’s shut himself in the room for the last two days. I’m worried about him, Richard.”

“That’s normal.”

“No, it’s not.

Richard hesitated a second and then smiled mirthlessly. No, it was not. But Tom had been in their company so long it felt normal. Chole nodded.

“Richard, Tom needs help.”

“He won’t take potions—”

“It’s not just that. Richard, I’ve been trying to work with Tom.”

The [Knight] frowned, suddenly concerned.

“Don’t do that. He’s dangerous. He nearly took off Emily’s hand that one time.”

Chole grimaced.

“Emily hates his guts and it’s reciprocal, Richard. No one talks to Tom. But listen—he’s unwell. But I don’t know how much of it is…him.”

“I don’t follow.”

The two stood in the empty hallway. Richard kept glancing at the door, but no sounds emerged. Of course…it was magically silenced. But it just made you more inclined to look. Tom had a habit of sneaking up on you and that had been before his Ring of Invisibility and other artifacts. And he could gut anyone but Hayvon in a moment. He had tried to before…not with Richard, but still.

“Richard.”

Chole put her hands on her hips. He looked back at her.

“Richard, listen. I’m a [Nurse]. I didn’t complete my education, but I’m still the most medically-qualified person in this world to talk about mental illness.”

Chole twisted her hand in the white apron. She glanced over her shoulder and lowered her voice.

“…That’s not just mental illness. It’s not just schizophrenia, or…or being manic-depressive.”

“What do you mean by ‘just’, Chole?”

“It doesn’t look like that. People do not turn into serial-killers wearing face paint if they have a problem, Richard.”

“Obviously.”

He hadn’t thought of it like that, though. Chole nodded at the door.

“I think Tom’s choosing to be like that, Richard. Either that—or he has one of the ‘sacrificial classes’ that Lord Hayvon told us about. That might be a Skill. But it’s not plain mental illness.”

Chose to be like…? Both jumped as something went crash from behind the door. Chole hesitated.

“Maybe If I went with you—”

“I’ll talk to him alone, Chole. You know how he gets if there are more people around. He’ll just try to play us off against each other.”

“Fine. But we have to do something about Tom. He can’t keep doing this.”

“I know.”

The [Nurse] left. She had other things to do than just try to get through to Tom. Hayvon had wanted to know about blood transfusions, Earth’s non-magical medicines despite the Blighted Kingdom’s surplus of potions.

That left just Richard. So he walked over to the door and knocked.

“Tom? I’m coming in.”

 

—-

 

The room was dark when the [Knight] pushed open the door. Not pitch-black, but nearly. So in the time it took your eyes to adjust, you were in blackness. Richard glanced around.

“Tom…? Come on, don’t play games.”

A futile request. The door swung closed behind Richard. And as the [Knight] turned—not whirled—he heard a sound.

Doododooodledododootdododooo…

Music. An annoying, semi-energetic song. It played around Richard, a nebulous sound. Loud, in the dark room.

“Tom—”

Someone was in the room. Richard heard a giggle. And as he turned, his eyes seeing shadows, he saw—

A knife. Two eyes. A figure, sitting in a corner of the room. Richard heard laughter. It was fast, manic. Perhaps someone had practiced it. But it had become him.

Who’s come to speak to me? Is that my best bud?”

The [Clown] giggled. The knife moved. Richard saw a flicker.

T—

He dodged the knife. It had gone for his side. It thunked into a wall. Richard reached for his sword. Tom had actually thrown it.

“Whoops. Sorry! Slip of the hand. You know how it is.”

The [Clown] vanished. Richard swore.

“Tom, this isn’t funny.”

Laughter.

“To you, Richard. I think it’s hilarious. It’s me, by the way. Tom.”

“Which one?”

“Does it matter?”

Flicker. Richard spun. Tom had another dagger. Maybe the same one. He had secret blades all around him. The young man scuttled across the room, giggling and Richard lost track of him again.

“Knock it off, Tom.”

He was thinner. He kept losing weight. Tom had been overweight before. Now—

“I can’t help it. It’s him. By which I mean, me. What’s up, Mister [Knight]? Are we off to murder people with pointy objects?”

“We’re not fighting Demons.”

“Oh. Sorry. The Great Enemy? Sorry, I forgot that’s what we called them. Say, if we managed to find their capital, who’s going to slaughter all the women and children? I’d volunteer, but I think I’d have to get in line after Hayvon and the others.”

“Tom. We talked about this—”

Oh yes.

A prick on the side. Richard was waiting for it. He slapped the arm down before the dagger could thrust. Tom danced away. Richard kicked at him.

Tom—

Giggling. The [Clown] actually did a backflip. Vanished again.

That damn enchanted belt.

“We talk all the time, Richard! Doesn’t stop us from fighting the good fight! Death to the Demons! Hey! Do you think once we get home, we’ll all get medals? Or imprisoned for war crimes?”

“Tom—”

Someone moved and threw something at him. Richard had had enough.

Light!

He shouted. And the room filled with light. Richard had almost forgotten the magic spell in the mansion. Tom froze, creeping towards Richard.

The [Clown] was thin. His face was painted with his makeup. And he wore that obnoxiously garish clown suit. Only this one was worn. Crudely repaired. And blood spattered parts of it.

Tom’s own face had changed too. He had to have lost at least sixty pounds. But more than that—the somewhat kind face had turned cold. His eyes glittered. But as the light caught him, he froze.

The two looked at each other.

“Tom.”

Richard. Hey, that wasn’t me. That was—other Tom.”

“Right.”

Once upon a time, Richard would have accepted that. There was Tom, the young man from Earth. And then there was Tom, the clown. Two different personalities. But of late—they’d looked like the same person.

This is his choice. Chole’s words. Where did the [Clown] end and Tom begin? Richard couldn’t tell anymore. Tom had always been…weird. And that was before the face-paint had gone on.

“I came to talk, Tom. If you try stabbing me again, I’m leaving.”

The [Clown] blinked. He peered at Richard, and then shuffled left.

“Me? Stab anyone? I’d never—”

“Throw that and I’ll hit you.”

The [Clown] made the knife vanish with a flick of the hand.

“Nothing up my sleeves. What’s up, Richard? Has Mister [Cowboy Knight] come to give me my marching orders? Ask me to take my medicine? Or does dear Emily want something? Lord Hayvon the Just?”

“No, Tom. I just wanted to talk. Can I sit?”

Richard looked around. Tom’s room was a mess. The [Clown] had thrown a table; that was what Richard had heard. And while he had multiple rooms; this was supposed to be a reception room, everything was trashed. Cut up with a knife—there were wine bottles scattered around. Glass shards—Richard glanced at Tom.

“I cut my feet a few times. What’s pain between friends?”

His feet were bloody. Richard felt for a healing potion.

“Here—”

“Thanks!”

The [Clown] reached out and grabbed the potion off Richard’s belt. He could do that. It was one of his Skills that made him so dangerous. Tom stared at the expensive potion. He uncorked it and then—smashed it into the ground.

Whoops. Got another?”

Tom!

Richard lost his patience. Tom giggled.

“What’s the matter? The Blighted Kingdom has more potions than sense! Just ask and they’ll give you another.”

“Tom. You’re—”

Getting worse? The [Clown] laughed as if he could hear Richard’s thoughts. So the [Knight]—not a [Cowboy Knight], incidentally—sat down on one of the few couch-chairs left.

“How are you, Tom?”

For some reason, that question sobered Tom. The [Clown] blinked. Then he sat down. He gave Richard a rictus of a grin.

“How do I look, Richard?”

He gestured to the clown costume, yellow and blood and blue hanging off his thinner frame. The rings under his eyes. Richard looked at him.

“Awful.”

Exactly!

The [Clown] snapped back. He hit himself in the face with the palm of his hand and then pointed.

“He’s in here, Richard. With me.”

“Other Tom? I just spoke to Chole. She says ‘other Tom’ isn’t to blame for everything.”

The [Knight] saw Tom glare at him. Then grin. It split into an expression of perfect, cynical despair.

“Maybe not. Maybe it’s me. Or the Skill. The point is this is how I’m doing. What did you expect? You’re doing well. I saw you flying about.

“I enjoy it. Is there a problem?”

Tom fidgeted. He couldn’t sit still. Richard realized there were no mirrors in the room. Tom kept asking for more. And smashing them. Hayvon had instituted a seven-mirrors-a-week policy. Which was fairly generous.

“Oh, no. No. You’re the heroic [Knight] who flies around. With a red cape. Hah! And I’m—I’m the [Clown]. One of us has to be the hero, right? Could you wear a hat with pointy ears and change your armor black? That’d make me feel better.”

“Tom…this isn’t a game. You don’t have to be the [Clown].”

They’d spoken. Tom was a [Clown]. He was insane. His Skills had given him another Tom in his head. It wasn’t his fault. It was his fault. Ever since the Fool’s death—Tom had gotten worse. Or perhaps he’d stopped holding back the part of him that liked to scare people.

“What are we, Richard? You’re a [Knight]—a man in shining armor! And I’m the [Clown]. The funny man! See what this world did to us? We became what we pretended to be.”

“I see it, Tom.”

Richard stared back at his friend’s face. Tom laughed again. And then his expression turned calculating.

“So what is it? You came here for a reason.”

“I came to check on you.”

“Don’t lie.

“Alright. I came here to speak to you and talk about Emily’s plan.”

Tom began laughing again. He laughed until he ran out of air.

“Emily’s plan? Oh, right! Let’s go find more people from Earth! And bring them here! I’m sure Hayvon and King Blight will love that!”

Richard hesitated. He trusted Tom’s intuition. Tom was intelligent. Richard didn’t trust Tom’s motives, though.

“You don’t think it’ll work? Hayvon said he was considering it.”

“I didn’t say that. I bet he’ll go for it. He’ll send out people to find the people from Earth and bring them here. So they can be wonderful soldiers in his war against the Demons!”

That sounded true. Richard bit his lip.

“Then what?”

Tom looked at him. His eyes flickered and then turned to fury.

“I don’t know. Why are you asking me? You’re the golden boy!”

“I’m not Tom the [Clown]. Hero of the Blighted Kingdom.”

Tom started giggling again. He’d leveled up in his [Hero] class. So had Richard. But he was Level 4. Tom was…

“That’s me. A hero. They love me. Me! For killing people. You know, they’d worship a—a—fellow who could really slaughter the Demons. Kill them all? Gas them? They’d put up a statue. Says something about them, doesn’t it? I’m not even the most ‘heroic’ I could be. And I did my best. I fought for them, when I thought the Demons were just monsters. Look what happened to me. Look what he made me into.

He pressed his fingertip into his cheek, hard enough to cut his flesh. Richard itched to grab Tom and shake him. Instead, he took a deep breath. When he spoke, it was to a point over Tom’s head.

“…You know something, Tom? I do think you got a bad hand. Whatever Skill or class you have—it’s driving you crazy. But it’s not an excuse.”

What? You think I want to be like this? Go fuck yourself, Richard! Or Emily! This isn’t me! This is the Skill! I was turned into this!

That was the Tom that Richard remembered. He snapped back at Richard, furious all of a sudden. Breaking through the act, if he was putting on an act. Richard met Tom’s eyes.

“That might be true. But I think the real Tom and the crazy Tom you talk about are closer than you admit. I remember the real Tom. He wasn’t perfect. He could be rude. He was definitely depressed. The first week here you drove Emily insane. You…Tom, maybe the crazy-you is just what you want to do. Insanity might be the excuse.”

“Oh, really? I like stepping on glass and—and laughing until I puke?”

Tom hissed at Richard. The [Knight] sighed.

“That’s the [Clown]. But let’s not pretend you were completely…the Tom I know is cynical. Arrogant, at times.”

Me?

The young man looked offended. Richard thought he was getting to him and he nodded.

“Yes, you. You never tell anyone what you think, but you think you know what the smart answer is. Like becoming a [Clown] that can fight. You didn’t tell me. Any more than you told us that you thought the Fool was a traitor. You like being right. Also—you’re a bit racist.”

What, me? I have tons of black friends! And other species too! I’m—I’m—how dare you! Hah!

The [Clown] started giggling madly. Richard sighed.

“Tom, the first thing you said when I said I was going to be a [Knight] was, and I quote, ‘I don’t know if the world can handle a black-cowboy-[Knight], let alone a Muslim on a crusade!’ Remember saying that?”

“Maybe? I thought it was funny.”

“I’m sure you did. Tom, you weren’t ever perfect. I’m just asking whether being insane is sometimes convenient, even if it is more true than not.”

Tom refused to meet Richard’s eyes—and then turned and didn’t blink or lose eye-contact. He grinned wider and wider, exposing all of his teeth.

“Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard, Richard. You don’t really trust Hayvon and the Blighted King, do you? Do you? Look at me, Richard!

Richard looked at him.

“The war against the Demons isn’t what we’re talking about, Tom.”

“It’s why we’re here, Richard. Do you think we’re on the right side? Really? Really? With Lord ‘let’s nuke the bastards’ Hayvon Operland?”

It always came back to this. Richard sighed. He nearly stood, but he was compelled to argue.

“They’re not perfect, Tom. But you’ve seen how vicious the Demons are. Or haven’t you seen all the things Hayvon’s been showing us? Those Vorepillars, the magic traps—the monsters?”

“Oh yes. The Demons do terrible things! Almost as bad as feeding the Fool to prisoners of war! Or executing the other ones in public! They do evil, so we can’t be evil. Is that your argument, Mister [Knight]? Richard?”

Tom giggled. And Richard had to reply carefully. Tom loved this argument. Everyone else had given up with him. Hayvon wouldn’t entertain it. The last time he’d invited Tom to dinner—two months ago—Tom had tried this. Hayvon had decked him and confined him to his rooms.

“They’ve tried to make peace with the Demons before.”

“So ‘they’ claim.”

“You can’t deny the Crelers, the monsters coming from the blight all come from Rhir and the Demons are protecting—”

Get wise, Richard! This is just a war. No Demons! Just idiots on both sides!

The [Clown] shrieked at him. Richard looked at him.

“So what are we supposed to do? Rebel? Run away? We’ve fought Crelers, Tom. Why are you fighting?”

“I have to kill someone, don’t I?”

The [Clown] avoided the question. He looked at Richard.

“You get your shiny Boots of Flight from Hayvon, and he makes you a hero and gives you all favors. But at the end of the day, we’re all just weapons. He says it about me. You’re the same. He’d kill his own son if that meant ending the war tomorrow. Is that your great leader, Richard? Do you want to follow him?”

“Lord Hayvon is…a soldier, Tom. He may be ruthless. But he isn’t needlessly violent or cruel. You are, at times.”

“So? So? You come here, lecturing me—”

The [Clown] shuddered and began rocking back and forth. He looked at Richard, his face twisted with fury.

“No one’s right, Richard. No one’s a good guy. Not in this war. The sooner you realize this, and that you’re a prisoner, the sooner you’ll see it my way.

The [Knight] felt a prick of anger. But that was why he came back. To keep debating Tom, even if they just ran in circles. He stood up, wearier than he had been from the hunt from this argument. He walked back towards the door and turned. Tom stared at him, suppressing laughter. Richard spoke tiredly.

“That might be true. I’m doing what I think is right and what I think we can do to stick together and survive, Tom. But even if no one’s a good guy—it doesn’t mean you have to be—that.”

He gestured at Tom. The [Clown] blinked. And then he began laughing.

Richard closed the door. But the [Clown] laughed and laughed, even when the door muffled it. Richard was sure.

Was Tom right? Sometimes, Richard wondered. That night, he sat with Lord Hayvon, dining on venison prepared by a [Chef]. The other Americans joined them, some casually, others dining formally, like Emily.

Some were warriors. Others, like Keith, Chole, helped in their own ways. Some did nothing, like Cynthia.

They were still his people. From Earth. Richard sat there, as Lord Hayvon spoke.

“The 4th Wall is redeploying troops. I plan on inspecting the walls; I will not take to the front. However, I would appreciate it if you took Sir Tom to the 5th Wall, Sir Richard. Just for a day or two. To train.”

Training. That was what he called fighting the Demons or monsters. Richard looked up and he felt a momentary tension at the table. Emily glanced up and Keith froze. But fighting monsters wasn’t even unusual. Vincent just glanced up and nodded.

“Sounds fine.”

It wasn’t the life-or-death fights of before. They would have heavy escorts and be safe in leveling. It had slowed Richard’s development, but he was too important to lose. Even Tom would be monitored.

“Of course, Lord Hayvon. But about Emily’s proposal…”

Emily and the others sat up. Lord Hayvon glanced at Richard.

“Finding your friends? Certainly, his Majesty desires that very much, Sir Richard. We will make an effort to locate them.”

“And bring them here? To Rhir? Perhaps, Lord Hayvon, one of us could go out and—find them? Make contact? Or even go out and…? Rest? For a little bit?”

Emily spoke up eagerly. Lord Hayvon glanced at her. Richard bit his lip. Emily wanted to leave Rhir. Go to Terandria, or somewhere else, or even Wistram. But the odds of that were—

“That would be trickier, Miss Emily. However—his Majesty may allow it. But until we have found a sufficient place, we must move slowly.”

The others looked up. Richard frowned over his cut of meat.

“What place?”

Lord Hayvon smiled. And his eyes flickered towards the hallway where Tom had been.

“Why, a place separate from Rhir. The Demons have tendrils everywhere. His Majesty has decided that a nation on another continent or perhaps an island should be found. To bring those of Earth safely together. For instance—a Walled City, or a nation of Terandria if sufficient ties to Rhir can be made.”

He patted his mouth with a napkin and went on as Emily’s jaw dropped.

“And of course—those who do battle will have time to stay there. But those committed to the fight will return to Rhir. The others—Keith, Cynthia, and so on—will have sanctuary there to work for the kingdom in safety. Even travel abroad, but with a home in mind.”

The others stared. And Richard felt his heart swell. Leave Rhir? He longed to tell Tom. The table erupted in a babble of excited questions. The others were over the moon. Lord Hayvon, chuckling, answered questions.

Richard did tell Tom, later. He asked if that changed anything, this sign of hope.

The [Clown] just laughed at him.

 

—-

 

In Rhir, in a place less plush than Lord Hayvon’s mansion, someone was snoozing. Actually, that was wrong. Snoozing implied she was taking a nap. She was well and truly asleep. It was night.

The sound she emitted was ‘snoozing’. Of course, it was a rather undignified, un-authoritative sound. It embarrassed her, which was why she was grateful the privileges of command awarded her a private room, however small.

None of this mattered, however, when the Drake [Captain] slammed the door open to Cirille Bitterclaw’s room and bellowed.

Commander Bitterclaw! Emergency message from High Command!

Cirille practically shot out of bed. She had a sword in her claws so fast that Captain Shellc, one of the officers under her command, nearly ran onto it. Cirille looked around blearily.

“Are we under attack? What’s happening?”

“No clue, Commander! Here!”

The [Captain] had been on night-duty, a necessary hassle for officers in any good army. But when trouble came—Cirille fumbled for the speaking stone. And she was afraid, tense.

Because this was Rhir. And when you got a message from High Command, the generic Drake term for the military brass, it could be really bad.

Commander Cirille, reporting! My division is ready to go, sir!

She bellowed into the speaking stone. Captain Shellc would have already alerted the others. She heard shouts in the distance as the garrison began to turn out. Drakes grabbed for weapons, moving in a frenzy. They could be ready to fight in three minutes.

The voice that came from the speaking stone was precise.

Commander Cirille, this is Bastion-General Quiteil. 4th Wall. My code is Baleros-Sivelle-Magnus Opal-45-B-2. Confirm.

The 4th Wall of Rhir. The closest wall to the Demons if you didn’t count the 5th one under construction. Cirille’s blood ran cold. She was stationed in the capital. If they were requesting reinforcements—she knew the code from memory; it changed every day.

“Yes sir. My code is Siville-2-9-A’ctelios-[Storm Sailor]-C-E!”

She rattled off the nonsense string of words, meant to confirm that they were speaking to the right person. She had orders never to divulge it unless confirming her identity—and this code was now defunct for future use. She waited, as Captain Shellc held his short spear at the ready.

“Confirmed. Commander Cirille, report your status.”

Cirille whirled. Shellc raised his claws helplessly.

“—All was clear through the night, Bastion-General. Is there an attack?”

“Not to my knowledge. Captain Cirille, report the number of spare spearheads in your inventory.”

For a second the [Commander] just stared at the speaking stone. But military discipline made her reach for her report.

“I—I—the [Quartermaster] reports…two hundred spare spears…steel…”

Spearheads, Commander Cirille. Not replacement weapons.”

“I don’t know, Bastion-General.”

“Find out.”

Cirille ran. She didn’t know why she was running, but four minutes later the [Quartermaster] had an answer.

“Rough count is eighty two, Bastion-General.”

“Good. Report the [Captains] under your command in alphabetical order.”

The Drake did so. The voice on the other end, Bastion-General Quiteil, the person in charge of the entire 4th Wall asked her four more questions, from her station to her reported level as [Commander] to the last officer who had made contact via the speaking stone.

“Bastion-General, what is the matter?”

Cirille finally asked after the fourth question. She was a Drake, and military discipline had been beaten into her at Manus, her home city. But this was odd. Her entire command, ten thousand Drakes, were ready for a fight. But all she’d gotten were these questions.

“Your responses were adequate, Commander Cirille. This was a test of readiness and identity. There is no emergency at this moment.”

“No…”

Cirille stared dumbly at the stone. Captain Shellc’s eyes bulged. Even among Drakes, this was insane. The Bastion-General had turned out an entire division of Drakes for…?

“Say again, Bastion-General?”

“Your troops are to report to 4th Wall in two days, Commander Cirille. You will be moved to the front. Coordinate with Citadel-General Delken for provisions and your route.”

Silence. Cirille stared at the stone. Slowly, she sat down.

“What do we…? Should I tell the division to stand down, Commander?”

“Yes. Do that, Captain Shellc. And get everyone some rest. We’re being redeployed.”

Cirille supposed that was why she’d been contacted. A readiness test. They’d been in the capital a long time and Rhir’s defenders never lost their slack. She could admire that.

Even so, she’d been—the Drake passed a claw over her face. Then she handed the stone to Captain Shellc, realized she was in her undergarments, sheathed her sword, and sat down.

She heard Captain Shellc restoring order. Cirille lay down, suddenly weary. It took her a long time to get to sleep as the adrenaline left her. Two more hours, in fact. She was dozing as the sun rose when—

Commander! Message from High Command!

“What!?”

The door blew open. Captain Shellc barged into the room. Cirille snatched the stone.

“Commander Cirille, reporting!”

“Commander, this is Bastion-General Quiteil. 4th Wall. My code is…”

A new code was recited. Cirille fumbled for her second code. She messed it up and had to correct herself. The Bastion-General paused.

“Commander Cirille, name your superior officer in Manus.”

“I…I report to Spearmaster Lulv for matters of military communication, sir. The [Strategist] on duty otherwise.”

“Acceptable. That is all, Commander Cirille.”

“That’s all?”

No response. Cirille sat there in her bed. She put her head in her claws. Shellc stared at his [Commander].

“Commander? Uh…”

“I’m going to sleep. I hate Rhir.”

She rolled over in her bed. She got exactly seven and a quarter minutes of sleep before Captain Shellc opened the door.

“Commander—”

 

—-

 

That had been two days ago. Cirille was still mad about it as she stood in the small waiting area to speak with Bastion-General Quiteil. Incidentally—she wasn’t just mad about the third time he’d contacted her with a priority message and demanded she recite her code. It was the eighth time in a single day that had gotten her.

“Next.”

The door opened. Cirille saw a Human march out. One of Rhir’s [Commanders], to look at him. The waiting room was certainly full, but the door everyone was waiting to swing open and admit them into was more like a [Clerk]’s office than a [General]’s.

But that was Bastion-General Quiteil, of the 4th Wall. When Cirille finally entered his office, right on time, she did not find the [General] she expected, some imposing war-hero of a man, one of Rhir’s finest.

Instead, she found the man suited to the room. Quiteil wasn’t muscular. He had a secretary’s build, spectacles, ink stains on his fingers—he was writing something as she came in, countless organized cabinets built into the walls—he was the image of a [Scribe].

“…Bastion-General Quiteil?”

“Yes. Sit down, Commander Cirille. Your division has arrived on time. I’m pleased that the Izrilian command is able to follow orders. Drake discipline has been noted.”

“T-thank you sir.”

The man had no small talk. Again, Cirille was used to Manus, but even their leaders had time to ask a single question about how she was doing. Quiteil hadn’t even looked up.

She noticed something. The man had darker skin—which didn’t matter since Drakes had different scale colors. But a patch of his skin on his arm was white.

Not just ‘white’, but brilliant. Luminescent, in fact. It covered his wrist and moved upwards, like a splash of water. Was it magical? A war wound?

Bastion-General Quiteil made a note on the document.

“Your division is ready for combat, Commander Cirille?”

“Yes sir. We’ve been resting in the capital.”

Aside from the fighting with the Demons that one time. But that had been months ago. Cirille had been used to escorting dignitaries around, putting on military parades—being useless. Quiteil made no comment about any of that.

“Your division has seen fighting three times. Twice on patrol around the 3rd Wall—monsters. Once in the capital. This will be your first deployment past 3rd Wall.”

“Yes s—”

“You will stay here one night and move forwards to 5th Wall tomorrow, Commander Cirille. You will be placed under Bastion-General Zavarial, along with more irregular divisions. I am also assigning you a unit to be placed under your command.”

“Yes sir?”

The man was moving at light speed. Cirille was trying to keep up. And he still hadn’t even looked at her! It was as if he’d expected her to be there and would have begun speaking even if she hadn’t been.

“The unit is a group of Gnolls, Commander Cirille. From the tribes. The count is two thousand, one hundred and three. Chief Warrior Merish is their commanding officer. He will be waiting for you. Fold his command into yours while serving.”

“Wha—Gnolls? Plains Gnolls? Excuse me, sir! May I ask a question?”

At last, Cirille had to break her military discipline. And only then did Bastion-General Quiteil look up. He didn’t seem surprised to see her; nor did seeing his blue eyes change anything.

“Speak.”

“Sir. May I ask why I’m to be given command of Plains Gnolls? Also, sir, we received eight priority-messages in one night and day. Each one requiring authentication. May I ask why?

The Drake tried not to let her annoyance show. The Bastion-General sighed. He adjusted his glasses.

“Commander Cirille, I am Bastion-General of 4th Wall. I do not have time to explain myself to every officer who questions my command. If you need clarification, seek it from someone with time to spare, but do not cause trouble on my wall. These are my orders. As to the Plains Gnolls—I understand there is a conflict between Drake forces and Gnoll tribes. However, you already command Gnolls—”

“In smaller numbers, sir, yes—”

Cirille was the [Commander] of the joint Drakes and some Gnolls from all of Izril. The Walled Cities sent forces to Rhir, as they were bound to by the pact. Cirille had been appointed command of them, a thankless task, but her officers and subordinates came from any number of cities, although mostly the Walled Cities.

“Then you have experience. Moreover, both forces are Izrilian. You will take command of them. Dismissed. Next!

He left Cirille standing there in stunned silence. But as the door opened, Cirille stumbled her way out. She heard Quiteil speaking to the next officer without even looking up.

“Archery Master Springwaters, apologies for the delay. Your orders are to…”

That was her introduction to Bastion-Commander Quiteil and 4th Wall. Cirille already missed the capital.

 

—-

 

Rhir’s legendary walls. Each one was larger than the last, although not necessarily more powerful. The capital of Rhir and the first wall dated back to the founding of the Blighted Kingdom. It had been made to repel the hordes of monsters and Demons.

Cirille had done her research and she had stayed on Rhir for nearly three years now. She was due to be rotated out after four years; it was a thankless duty and the Walled Cities send their second or third-best since it was a matter of pride, but no one liked duty on Rhir.

Hell’s Patrol. Dancing with Demons. There were lots of names for the duty. It could be boring, like Cirille’s job of escorting people around, or deadly. It was usually both, filled with the monotony that came to any defensive post.

Of course, if war and the Demons came it got hot fast. But Cirille had never seen the other walls.

She had after marching her division hard these last two days. The walls weren’t as high as the legendary Walled Cities—but they were still massive.

1st Wall she knew. It was made of a glowing golden crystal, forty feet in height, and allegedly capable of wiping out an army with more spells than any other defensive fortification in the world. Maybe even a Walled City? That was in doubt, but it went to show how much care had been taken in defending Rhir.

2nd Wall had a death zone around it. Cold—the kind of cold that could kill you in less than a minute extended for nearly a mile in front and back of the wall. You had to march down the heated roads fast; any deviation meant you left the ‘safe spots’, and they could be closed at will.

Each wall was like that. It wasn’t a gimmick so much as each wall having different designs to avoid the enemy surmounting each wall in the same way.

For instance—4th wall was eighty feet high. A curtain-wall formation, made of light grey stone. Innocuous at first—until you realized how wide it was. Most battlements were wide enough to, say, allow rows of archers and troops to move in synchronization.

4th Wall was the size of a castle—and it went across all of the continent, guarding the Blighted Kingdom. It’s defenders could hold it forever with the stockpiles of supplies and the wall was manned at each spot by vigilant, even paranoid officers.

After meeting the Bastion-General in charge of the wall, Cirille understood why. And she understood the Demons demanded that kind of attitude. Even so, the man had grated on her.

“That’s just the Bastion-General. He’s efficient. Word is he does that to all of his subordinates, especially the irregulars, Commander. I don’t think it was personal.”

In the barracks assigned to the Izrilian forces, Commander Cirille paced furiously and her officers from Izril tried to calm her down. The Drake was angry.

“And the checks?’

“Security. You could be a doppelganger.”

“Why eight calls?”

“To…be really sure? I bet a Demon wouldn’t be able to keep up their disguise if you asked them eight times.”

Captain Shellc winced as Cirille turned her head and glared at him. The Drake wished she were Oldblood so she could spit the vexation in her chest out.

Proper Oldblood, that was. Cirille had two vestigial wings on her back. But all they did was hurt when she was in armor—or flutter around depending on her mood. She couldn’t fly with them. They did make certain Drakes more disposed to like her—but that was all.

“Apparently, Bastion-General Quiteil makes a Manus [Strategist] look laid back. He runs a tight ship. His subordinates have to know how many arrows they have on hand at any moment.”

The other Drakes whistled. That was pushing it. They were career [Soldiers] all, but the famous Drake discipline their militaries were known for seemed to be matched in places by Rhir’s armies.

But Rhir was in an active war. And as Cirille had observed—it was different from other nations who went to war and made peace. Even the Walled Cities hadn’t had a major offensive since the last Antinium War. Here though…

“We’re going to the 5th Wall, boys and girls. So get your companies ready for a fight.”

The other officers—all Drakes—straightened. Some looked eager, others wary. 5th Wall was where you went to die.

Demons attacked the Blighted Kingdom, but the four walls meant that monster attacks and Demon raids were much, much rarer behind 4th Wall. But anywhere past 4th Wall was where you ran into entire war bands of Demons. Cirille had never had her company deployed past the wall.

They were…ornamental. Symbolic. She knew the term Rhir’s soldiers had for her company.

Irregulars. A fancy way of saying ‘outsiders’; groups of foreigners who didn’t gel with Rhir’s standing forces. They could be quite effective…but Cirille hadn’t missed that her army had been used to do military parades for the last three years.

But she was ready. She had graduated from Manus’ academies with honors. Cirille had fought Gnoll tribes and even participated in a pitched battle with an incursion from Chandrar—a short battle—eight years back. If now was the time to fight—she’d do it with everything she had. She addressed her officers with that in mind.

“We’re finally going to get to show all these Humans what real [Soldiers] look like now, people. No more cushy guard-duty! So gear up and get ready for some rough camping! I want everyone to redouble their security and prepare yourselves for an attack at any moment. Inspect equipment, gear—oh, and better buy a pillow, Captain Shellc.”

“Me, Commander?”

The [Captain] straightened his back. Cirille smirked at him.

“That’s right. We’re going to have to share quarters. No special officer-only rooms. Be grateful we’re not bunking with the troops! No pillow forts for you.”

Shellc turned red as the others guffawed. He’d been found with eight pillows in his bed in the first month of being in Rhir; a hoarding tendency known among Drakes. Captain Shellc’s ‘special pillows’ had become a running joke for the last three years because of it.

“We’ve got the day to relax. It seems more ‘irregulars’ are being sent to 5th Wall. I wonder why?”

Cirille frowned. She turned—and a yellow light blinded her for a second.

“Perhaps, Commander—”

Aaah! Ancestors! Dead gods, damn it, Ossky!

The other officers swore and shielded their eyes. The Drake with bright yellow scales closed her mouth. She raised her claw and spoke behind it.

“Apologies, Commander. If we have time, perhaps we should walk along the walls and see who else is there?”

Cirille was still half-blind. She blinked, seeing flashes of light as Ossky, an Oldblood Drake with wings and a breath ability spoke. She nodded, and then pointed at the yellow Drake.

“Lieutenant Ossky. Keep your mouth shut at night or we’ll have to tie it closed. Ancestors, if you snore…

The others groaned. They’d have to share a room and the Drake in question looked embarrassed. More light flashed as she spoke—this time bright blue.

“Sorry, Commander.”

Lieutenant Ossky. She was rare even among Oldbloods. Some spat fire, others lightning or acid or darkness—Ossky was like that, but reverse.

She breathed light.

In ages past, Dragons had come in all shapes and sizes and varieties. Ossky was a rare descendant; there were others. She was useful, though, especially if you wanted to blind the enemy. So long as she didn’t turn her head and cough.

“We’ll tour the walls. Tell the troops that those not on duty can wander—but I’ll tear their tails off if they cause trouble! Keep to discipline! But there’s one more thing.”

Cirille took a breath. She wasn’t looking forward to breaking this bit of news. The officers waited and the Drake came out with it.

“We’re, uh, assigned a new unit to mix with our forces. Plains Gnolls. Two thousand of ‘em.”

The Tribes?

The others shouted in horror and fury. Shellc pounded a fist on the top of a chair.

“Commander! They’re our enemies! Half of us have fought the damn Tribes! And now they want those fur—”

Belay that, Captain Shellc!

Commander Cirille bellowed at him. The Drake closed his jaws. He was from a city with very few Gnolls; none had come in his detachment. But Cirille was used to a mixed-species force and she knew talk like that would not make the Gnoll [Soldiers] under their command happy.

“I protested, but Bastion-General Quiteil didn’t give me a choice. I expect you all to follow orders and be civil. The first company who starts a fight in the division with the Gnolls gets their pay docked for the week! All of them! Let the troops know. I’ll meet with the…Chief Warrior right after this.”

The Drakes grumbled, but saluted. Cirille breathed in and out, wishing her tour of duty was over. She believed in Rhir’s cause; how not after seeing their fight? But Ancestors, it was hard. She sighed.

“Okay. Let’s go see who we’re fighting with.”

 

—-

 

Chief Warrior Merish was about as happy to meet Commander Cirille as she was to meet him.

He was a Gnoll. Light-reddish fur; a Plains Gnoll. Not disciplined, not at home with walls and cities, and not really under her command.

“The Tribes send their own pact-warriors to Rhir. We are to be under your command, no, Commander? So has said one of the [Generals]. So we obey.”

That was how he greeted her as she met him in the rooms assigned for the Gnolls from the Plains. They did not have the Drake’s military traditions. Instead of neatly setting up their bunks with gear placed in front for easy access and inspection and made beds, they milled about. The room was bigger than they needed, so some of the beds had weapons or other possessions on them.

Half were naked. By which, they were wearing nothing at all. Not even loincloths. They had armor which they’d put on, but they liked their bare…fur…

Well, at least Cirille couldn’t see anything. But the Drakes looked disgusted and the Gnolls weren’t looking too friendly either. Merish folded his arms as he looked Cirille up and down.

He was taller than she was. Over seven feet high, brawny; carrying an axe with some kind of paint on it. For that matter—the Gnoll had no armor. He had very light, cloth clothing, but his fur was dyed. Blue, white—some kind of intricate pattern.

“Pleased to meet you, Chief Warrior. I hope we will be able to work together for the duration of our assignment.”

He did not shake her claw.

“Hrr. One hopes so, but reality makes me believe that this will not happen, no, Commander Cirille.”

Cirille cursed internally. Damn that jumped-up [Secretary]. The problem was that on paper, it made sense. Put fighters from the same continent together, especially since they weren’t large enough to constitute their own armies. But there were…issues…with putting Plains Gnolls under a Drake’s command.

“Chief Warrior Merish, let me assure you that I have no intention of taking direct command for your forces. I’m aware that the Plains tribes do not have the time or…inclination to drill with my commands. I’ll let you command your force semi-independent of mine.”

The Gnoll looked thoughtful at this—but Shellc muttered in a whisper that would have gone unnoticed in a Drake-only room.

“Plus, damned Gnolls can’t handle military discipline.”

Cirille longed to turn around and kick Shellc across the head. Around the barracks, Gnolls looked up. Merish’s eyes narrowed.

“We will fight alongside your formations, Commander. That is all, I think.”

“Thank you, Chief Warrior. Excuse my [Captain].”

Cirille reached back and slapped the Drake with an open claw. After a second, she looked around the room.

“The only thing I need from you, Warrior Merish, is an accounting of your weapons. Which units fight with swords, bows, for example. We could use Gnoll [Hunters]; our troops are mainly spears, swords. Infantry.”

Gnolls were devilishly good with bows, as Cirille had reason to know. Merish nodded to all of this.

“I will tell you. First, I have two hundred archers of the—”

“In writing, Chief Warrior?”

The Gnoll stared at her uncomprehendingly. He lowered his paw, which had been pointing.

“…All of it?”

One of the Drakes made a sound. Fortunately, Ossky kicked the offender, which was probably Shellc again. Cirille had another headache.

“If it’s…an issue, I can task one of my officers to record the data. Major Galle? He’s from Pallass.”

“Ah.”

Merrik eyed the Drake warily. But Galle produced a scroll of parchment and proceeded to take notes as the Chief Warrior recited the various groups under his command. He had a better oral memory than Cirille; she had no doubt he’d memorize each name. He must not have problems with the day-codes.

“Excellent.”

Galle had annotated the flowery descriptions into utilitarian descriptions. [Archer] company, 200, etc. Merish frowned at the writing, but made no comment. Cirille realized there was one last thing she had to ask.

“You’ve brought sixty warriors yourself, Chief Warrior. Can I assume they’re infantry?”

“Hrr. Heavy infantry. Warriors, yes.”

“And their classes? And yours? What’s your level, roughly, Warrior Merish?”

Cirille waited. She heard nothing but silence. She glanced up.

“Chief Warrior Merish?”

The Gnoll had folded his arms again.

“My class is my class, Commander Cirille. It is not something the Walled Cities need to know.”

The Drake [Commander] blew out her cheeks. She’d been very patient. But enough was enough. She narrowed her eyes at the Gnoll and put a snap into her voice as if she was addressing a rookie on the training fields.

“Chief Warrior Merish, if you’re working under my command, I expect to at least know the basics of the warriors I’m commanding. If you have an objection to telling me your class, as well as the Gnolls fighting with you—please make it to Bastion-General Quiteil.”

And good luck. The Gnoll looked annoyed. His ears went flat, and he looked around. At last, he growled a reluctant answer.

“Hrr. Very well. I am a [Shamanic Warrior]. Of the Plain’s Eye tribe.”

Cirille blinked. She knew that tribe. One of the largest, and of course, [Shaman]-oriented. But…

“A what? I’ve never heard of a [Shamanic Warrior], Warrior Merish. Can you elaborate?”

He harrumphed under his breath and growled for a second.

A magic warrior. Like a [Spellblade], yes? Only—different. We are suited to heavy fighting. Not as fragile. Our fur becomes armor, our blades cut steel.”

He gestured at the bone axe hanging by his side. Cirille blinked.

Enchanted weapons and armor. Got it.”

“I am pleased my class fits so well into your military boxes of understanding.”

The Chief Warrior replied stiffly. Cirille sighed. It was time to try to at least bridge the gap between them. She held out her claw again, hoping he’d do what was best for both groups. The Gnolls were watching and no doubt, listening in.

“Believe me, I’m no happier than you are. I hope we won’t have to do more than just patrol together, Chief Warrior. But we’re both here to fight Demons. I’d be pleased if we can do that without incidents.”

Merish thought about it. Slowly, the Gnoll reached out and shook her hand. It was awkward; claws and paw. But they did it and nodded at each other.

“Nothing would give me greater satisfaction. Commander.”

“Thank you. In that case…I will see you later. We’re moving out at first light. Gate 27, Level 4. Er…”

“We will be there.”

She nodded at him. The Drake stepped back and her officers saluted. Merish and the other leaders of their divisions did not, but they nodded. Cirille was walking away when she had a thought.

“Chief Warrior Merish—you’ve met the Bastion-General?”

He glanced at her.

“Yes. Briefly.”

It must have been as short as her encounter from the dissatisfaction moving across his face. Cirille felt a moment of empathy. She nodded.

“Do you recall a…patch on his arm?”

She gestured. The Gnoll blinked. he looked at her.

“Yes. The Corruption has him. I do not know anything else.”

“I see. Thank you.”

 

—-

 

Corruption. Rhir’s blighted lands were not just a word. The skies, the earth—all of it had a taint to it. And in time, it affected people, animals—

Twisting them. It was rare in the capital, but Cirille understood closer to demon territory, it could affect you over time.

Mostly natives to Rhir; outsiders hadn’t lived there all their lives. It could twist you in any number of ways. Often not harmful or beneficial, but there were exceptions.

She noticed it among Rhir’s [Soldiers], the ones standing on duty close to the walls. There was a lot of space though, and behind tactical fallback lines on the massive battlements as she went touring, Cirille saw a few more marks of corruption.

An odd color of eye there. A patch of changed skin, like Quiteil, or something more extreme. One woman’s face didn’t move as she laughed with the others while leaning on a bow. It had turned to something like glass.

“Ugh. How can anyone live here? I’m glad we’re gone after the year, Commander. Imagine if I started growing fur? Or skin?

“Shut it, Captain Shellc. Don’t cause trouble with the Gnolls.”

“I won’t if they don’t shed on me, Commander. But I don’t envy you having to deal with them, especially that arrogant…”

Captain Shellc groused as he marched in formation after Commander Cirille. The officers followed the commander. She looked around. And she saw on this stretch of wall, one of the major roads heading north to the front lines—

The irregulars.

It seemed officers were the only ones allowed on the walls, or smaller detachments at most. 4th Wall was a tight ship but it still allowed the soldiers to move about, socialize; there were even places for them to drill, exercise, relax deeper in the fortress-wall. But the open air of the 4th wall was appealing.

Cirille looked up, into clear skies, turning grayer the further she went towards Demon lands. In the distance, past the curving wall lay the sea. Too far to see, but the fresh air blowing towards her reminded her how small Rhir was compared to Izril. And yet—

It began to rain. Cirille got one drop in the eye.

Damn.

Ossky cursed with a flash of light. The Drakes groaned as the skies opened up. Cirille stomped towards an overhang; a tower mounted with a catapult. The Drakes had supplied the designs. Or the Minotaurs.

“Damn. This is just what we need! Marching in this is going to be hell on the equipment, Commander!”

Shellc groused. Ossky nodded; she preferred not to speak if necessary. The Drakes huddled as it poured in an instant. Hot rain too; Rhir was weird.

“Don’t worry. This is just a flash-shower. It’ll clear up in a moment.”

A voice from the left made the Drakes turn. A woman was sitting on a little footrest of stone at the base of the tower. She hadn’t moved; she’d been in cover before the rain began. Now, it dripped down, landing on the brim of her black hat.

“Excuse me?”

“It’s stopping in five minutes. This is a [Flash Rain] spell. Someone must want water. You get used to it. Rhir’s smart about rain. See? Quiteil notified every one of the change. He never lets anything slide.”

The Human woman nodded across the tower. Other groups had already taken shelter and the [Soldiers] were sheltering from the rain. Cirille blinked.

“Huh. Er—we didn’t hear about it.”

“You must have taken his time up. He tells everyone else. You can’t interrupt him when he speaks. But you have to get used to him.”

“I see.”

Cirille blushed as her officers glanced sideways at her. She cleared her throat.

“You must be one of the officers.”

The woman glanced up. She had something in her hands, Cirille saw. And she’d been adjusting it with a set of metal tools. She raised a hand in greeting as Cirille edged over; the clouds were already beginning to let up the downpour, as the woman had said.

“The Hunter’s Guild’s finest.”

The woman’s hat was large. Her clothing long and dark. Underneath it she wore leather armor. She carried an oversized crossbow even a large man would have had trouble bearing. The Featherweight Runes shone to Cirille’s eyes. As well as half a dozen more.

“Huntress Delezza of Noelictus. Veteran [Demon Hunter] of the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria, on assignment.”

She nodded at Cirille, casually. Delezza was slowly loading a bolt into her crossbow, winding the hand-crank up. Four more, two men, one woman, and one a male half-Elf, all dressed in the same style, were standing to attention.

“Cirille Bitterclaw. [Commander] of the Drake forces sent to Rhir.”

Delezza held out a gloved hand and the two shook. The [Huntress] grinned; a scar across her lips stretched slightly.

“Are you on Hell’s Patrol as well?”

“…Not today. My division was assigned to the 4th Wall pending further duties.”

“Ah. They’ll make use of you soon enough. Myself—I’m on permanent patrol duty. And teaching the rookies.”

The Human woman jerked a thumb at the four [Hunters]. They all touched their hats; it was unusual to Cirille, but she’d heard of Terandrian [Hunters]. Delezza was examining the crossbow.

“Huh. Sight’s off. Hand me a corrector. That one.”

It was a bit of enchanted glass. One of her [Hunter] apprentices passed it to the [Demon Hunter]. Cirille eyed the oversized weapon.

“That’s standard for a [Hunter], is it, uh—Hunter Delezza?”

The woman glanced up. She aimed, ignoring the fact that the bolt was loaded, and then grinned.

“This crossbow? Standard. Which, I mean, it’s for a Regular Hunter. Not a Veteran. Mine’s fancier. Hey. Hunter Sisth. Hit my target.”

She tossed the crossbow to one of the younger Humans. Male. He caught it and Delezza stood up. She grabbed something from her belt and hurled it through the air.

Projectile—

One of the Rhir [Soldiers] bellowed. Another shouted.

“Belay warning! Friendly—”

Cirille heard the shouts at the same time as the younger [Hunter] lifted the crossbow and aimed.

Whoa!

The Drakes all dodged out of the way. But Sisth shot the crossbow with a thunk that everyone heard. It was like a miniature thunderclap. The crossbow bolt shot after whatever Delezza had thrown.

Cirille saw a poof of red explode. Something—red powder—bloomed in the air and floated away. The shouting continued, as Rhir’s [Soldiers] called the alarm and then confirmed it had come from Delezza. The [Demon Huntress] nodded.

“On target. We’ll keep aiming practice up.”

Huntress Delezza. Please refrain from fire on the walls!

A very upset Rhir-commander bellowed at her. The [Huntress] raised a gloved hand and waved it, which could have meant anything. She had broken at least half a dozen rules in a single moment.

Cirille couldn’t help but like her. The Drake nodded at the crossbow that the Regular Hunter was carrying.

“It’s a massive weapon.”

“It is. Dwarfsteel, and enchanted by their [Runemasters]. Effective range of about 200 yards unaided.”

The Drakes whistled. That was far. And ‘effective range’ meant that was how far you could hope to hit the enemy with and kill them. Delezza just shrugged.

“That’s without Skills. Longbows are better. This one’s for closer range. Punches through hide and armor. Right now it’s just a slow, heavy weapon. Once Sisth gets to Level 30, he’ll actually be a halfway decent [Hunter].”

She jerked a thumb at the [Hunter]—his long coat and hat weren’t black, but grey. He ducked his head.

“Apologies, Huntress.”

“What does he get at Level 30?”

Cirille settled back, as the wall began to dry itself with unnatural speed after the rains. No slipping here.

“[Automatic Reload]. Most [Hunters] get it when they hit Level 30. If they use crossbows. We’re trained to take on enemies by ourselves; we can’t expect time to sit around in safety. Either that or your crossbow gets enchanted to do it for you. Like this.”

Delezza pointed her bow. She slapped an arrow into it, shot it. Another shout went up—Delezza’s second bolt, on the heels of the first, came three seconds later.

Huntress Delezza!

The [Demon Hunter] ignored it. She turned to Cirille and grinned. The Drake whistled.

“You could send a lot of bolts through the air with that!”

She looked at the other [Hunters]. Imagine an army of them? Her officers looked uncomfortable. Delezza smiled wider as if she read Cirille’s thoughts.

“Don’t worry. The Hunter’s Guild can’t field many of us. Hence why there’s only five of us and thousands of [Soldiers].”

“Ah. So you’re here on assignment?”

“Yup. Specialist. [Undead Hunters] take on mobs. [Witch Hunters] fight spellcasters. [Monster Hunters] copy adventurers. [Demon Hunters]…we go to Rhir.”

Delezza sat there. Cirille smiled. She sat lightly.

“How long?”

“Eight years.”

Eight?

“Since I last left. I’m here for the long haul, Commander. Hunter’s Guild doesn’t have to replace me until I go. You’re new to 4th Wall, right? I’d have heard about your division before now.”

“That’s right. We’re going to the 5th wall tomorrow.”

Delezza raised her eyebrows.

“Best of luck. We’ll be heading that way ourselves.”

“You too? Why all the irregulars?”

The [Huntress] shrugged.

“Rhir likes to lump us together. Easier than having to work us into other formations. Say—do you play cards in Izril?”

The question made Cirille blink.

“Cards?”

“That’s right. The irregular commanders all meet up every night when we’re posted like this. After dinner. It’s a standing invite.”

“I might join you. Uh—where?”

“Officer’s lounges. We’ll—”

Huntress Delezza! Bastion-General Quiteil wishes to speak with you in six minutes!

The [Huntress] sighed.

“Damn. I’ve got to go. Can’t be late. Try not to annoy Quiteil.”

Odd words from her. She strode off without another word and her [Hunters] remained where they were, probably used to the dressing down. Cirille nodded at them.

“Cards?”

“Don’t get your hopes up, Captain Shellc. It’s just me by the sounds of it. I might do that. Looks like we’ll be working with the [Hunters].”

“Well, at least they can shoot. Think I can buy one of their crossbows?”

“You and what salary, Shellc? It’s enchanted.”

“Damn. Adventurer-types get all the funding…”

The Drakes headed down the wall, chatting. They saw a group of Rhir’s [Soldiers] on patrol. They looked sharp. But the Drakes walked in formation and almost total lock-step even when not marching. They were a contrast to Chief Warrior Merish’s Gnolls, or the relaxed [Hunters]. Cirille wondered if 5th wall would have—

Something floated across the walls as the Drakes walked forwards. A…voice. Raised. But not shouting. It had a cadence to it. Cirille turned her head and heard…

Let the lance-arrows fall from Ailendamus walls and guard the Kingdom of Glass and Glory~!”

“What in the name of the Walls?”

A group of Humans in plate armor were standing together. They had dark armor, purple and black but they had removed their helmets. And they were singing.

“Until my dying breath, from sea to glorious sea—Ailendamus, the only Kingdom of Terandria for me~!

“Who is wailing those horrible words?”

A growling voice. Cirille turned. Chief Warrior Merish had decided to walk the walls. The others pointed. It was a group of about eighteen, all armored in the same style and fashion. Human; Terandrian. They were singing their national anthem.

Some of the Drakes plugged their claws in their ear-holes. The Gnoll [Warrior] grumbled.

[Knights].

“It’s very…patriotic. They do that every morning, by the way.”

A wry voice came from Delezza, who was already back from being dressed down. Merish just sighed. Cirille didn’t know what to think.

“Commander, we can’t stand for that. They’re just singing about their nation?”

Captain Shellc pointed at the Humans. Half of the other Drakes nodded. Cirille saw them clustering together. One of them—a lower-ranking officer, was fiddling with his bag of holding.

“Humans. Do they have to sing? Ah, you are a [Hunter]. From Terandria?”

Merish was grumbling. Delezza nodded at him.

“Different purposes, same class. Say, you’re that Gnoll commander. Do you play cards…?”

She was just inviting him to the same place and Cirille was asking for clarification about whether there was betting. Delezza assured her that you could lose gold at the tables when Cirille heard another voice raised in song.

This one was closer. Cirille closed her eyes for a second as Merish’s head turned. She heard a loud, patriotic voice raised. Then she saw the flag.

A Drake stood on the battlements, holding a flag with the combined symbols of all six Walled Cities. He waved it back and forth, drowning out the [Knights].

Izril! Izril and the Walled Cities! Zeres, the City of Storms! Huzzah!

He began waving the flag and screaming at the top of his lungs. It wasn’t as…melodious…but it certainly got people’s attention. Merish looked at Cirille. Delezza started laughing.

Cirille strode and snatched the banner out of the Drake’s hands. She bellowed at him.

[Bannerman], cut it out or I’ll throw you off these walls!

“But [Commander], if they’re singing—we have to! We can’t be less patriotic than—”

The argument between the Drakes stopped as one of the [Knights] stood up and marched over.

“Commander, is there some kind of issue? By all means, let your [Bannerman] sing. His style is—unorthodox, but all nations should be celebrated.”

He clasped one armored fist over his breast. Cirille turned and saw a graying [Knight].

“I’m sorry, Sir Knight, but my subordinate does not need to sing. It’s not military tradition. I am Commander Cirille, in command of Izril’s Drakes and Gnolls…”

The man was graying, but he was still a warrior. He and the other eighteen [Knights] bowed stiffly.

“I am Ser Vorn of The Order of the Thirsting Veil, Commander Cirille. Deployed to Rhir to honor the ancient pacts. My fellow [Knights] were expressing our love of homeland. I’m sure it is a familiar sentiment to all not born of Rhir.”

“Er, yes, yes it is.”

Cirille shook the hand. Ser Vorn clearly knew Delezza; the man frowned at the [Huntress] before bowing to Cirille.

“Our singing has been cleared with Bastion-General Quiteil, if that is your concern. We do hold to discipline. I believe your forces will be deployed towards 5th Wall? My [Knights] will be held for heavy engagements, but I hope we will work together harmoniously.”

“I as well, Ser Vorn. May I introduce Chief Warrior Merish?”

“Hrr. Greetings, Sir Knight. It seems many outsiders will be working together, yes? Will your [Knights] be singing…daily?”

“If allowed, Chief Warrior.”

The [Knight] bowed. Merish eyed Sir Vorn.

“In that case, I ask that you not sing before morning, yes? It would help for sleep.”

She was glad that her training allowed her to keep her face completely blank. Sir Vorn’s reaction was priceless. Delezza laughed openly at the [Knight]’s consternation.

What a cast of characters. But then—they were all ‘irregulars’. Outsiders, sent from their nations to defend Rhir. There were other [Knights] of course, although not all came in numbers enough to be deployed as one group. The Order of the Thirsting Veil was large enough to send eighteen; others sent only one. Entire nations sent aid, or food—

“Don’t eat those rations. Warn your troops, Commander; no sneaking meats, if they tend to filch.”

Delezza pointed to some thick…rich slabs of meat being borne across the wall. The Drake frowned.

“Why? And my soldiers are disciplined, Huntress Delezza.”

“Gnolls do not steal everything lying about.”

Merish glowered, but Delezza shook her head.

“Even if it’s one—that meat’s no good. It’s been sent from A’ctelios. That’s their contribution to the fight. See?”

She pointed. And Cirille saw a group of robed figures waiting for the food. They were…oddities. Even other Rhir [Soldiers] stayed away from the four who took the meat which had no preservatives on it and began to eat it.

Raw. It may have been left out in the sun, but it looked fresh. The figures had long hands. Not Human; the skin was…more like leather…and were those long claws on…?

One of them looked up, as if noticing the scrutiny. Cirille saw a flash of glowing orange eyes. She shivered.

“Who are they? What species? A’ctelios? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Huh. It’s Chandrarian. Tombhome. Nothing comes out of there…safe. Especially the ‘meat’. It changes people. Those? Those are [Flesh Reapers]. They’re Human, mostly. Or they were.”

“That’s a Human?”

For a second, Ossky’s incredulous voice lit up the wall. The directed light hit the hooded figures, illuminating them. They shielded their faces. And Cirille saw—

The Drakes stared. The [Flesh Reapers] turned, moving around the chunk of meat to shield their faces. Cirille turned a pale face to look at Captain Shellc and Ossky.

“…That wasn’t a Human.”

“Not anymore. They change themselves by eating their foes. Demons. A’ctelios’ meat also…helps.”

Delezza checked her crossbow. The [Hunters], even the [Knights] were surreptitiously looking at their weapons.

“Why would anyone take a class like that?”

Warrior Merish demanded, clearly shaken. The [Demon Hunter] shrugged.

“Some of Rhir’s people believe in doing anything to kill the enemy. Even if it means becoming like them. They’re hard to kill. Believe me. I’ve seen them fight. Just leave them alone. And no eating meat that’s just left around.”

“I think I’ll eat leaves while I’m here.”

Shellc muttered. Cirille nodded. She wrenched her eyes away.

And they weren’t even irregulars. Rhir’s [Soldiers] seemed more at ease with the [Flesh Reapers] for all they were avoided more than the foreigners. Cirille was conscious that only the other non-Rhirians were standing together. The others were given a wider berth. And it wasn’t like Rhir was all Humans.

There were Garuda, Gnolls, even Selphids, half-Elves among Rhir’s forces. All species had come to Rhir and many had started families while doing battle. So the foreigners were truly foreign only because of their cultures. Because they had not lived here, fighting Demons. But they had still come, and that was respected.

Even a [Martial Artist] from Pomle was standing on 4th Wall. The Stitch-Man’s body was made of tough hemp and he was balancing on one foot, ignoring the stiff breeze and odor of the Blight.

“Is that Stitch-Man going to fight without armor? Barehanded?”

Shellc pointed incredulously at the [Martial Artist]. Delezza grinned.

“Yup. And they won’t hit him unless they’re really good. Crazy bastard came here to ‘test’ his abilities against the Demons.”

“And has he?”

Cirille thought the Stitch-Man must be mad. She knew the String Folk didn’t mind being cut up, but they still died if their heads were destroyed. But to her surprise, Delezza nodded. The Human glanced sideways at Cirille.

“Oh yes. There were eight of the [Martial Artists] who came with him. Two made it back. The others died in combat. He’s killed over thirty Demons with his damn bare hands and he doesn’t mind following orders. He’ll stand wherever you want him to all day. Bastion-General Quiteil loves him.”

“I just bet he does.”

Before she could wander over and ask if the [Martial Artist] was also going to the 5th Wall, someone shouted.

Hey! Are you Drakes? We’ve been waiting to meet you!

A shape bounded down the walls from their group. Cirille blinked. Someone was happy to see them? She turned, saw the colorful scales, the huge grin—and her expression turned sour. Shellc turned and cursed.

“Lizards! Aw, fuck this.

The little Lizardman was a multicolor of scales, unlike the mostly monochrome Drakes. And he was armed with a single spear.

No—a staff. Cirille looked incredulously at the shorter Lizardman. There wasn’t even a blade on the length of wood strapped to his back.

“Hey! You’re the Drakes, right? I’m Viri! We heard you were coming! It’s great to meet fellow scale-folk!”

“Get lost! I’ve had it, Commander! First Gnolls, now damned lizards? Get back!”

Shellc swiped at the Lizardman. The shorter staff-wielded looked hurt.

“Hey, I know our species don’t get along—but the other Drakes I met were cool! It’s true! Izrilian Drakes hate Lizardfolk?”

He peered at the Drakes. They all glowered. Delezza raised her eyebrows; she clearly didn’t know about the longstanding grievance between races.

“Hrr. I am Chief Warrior Merish. Pleased to meet you, Viri, is it?”

“That’s right. I’m not the commander, by the way. He’s over there. But he’s napping.”

Viri waved a claw at the other Lizardfolk, who were shouting greetings. Cirille tried to smile.

“I am Commander Cirille. Pleased to meet you. Soldier.”

Merish peered at Viri’s staff, perplexed.

“You carry no other weapon. Are you a…[Staffmaster]?”

“Nope! I’m a [Longstick Jumper]! See?”

Viri drew his staff and swung it around. Cirille took a step back. Delezza looked amused.

“The Lizardpeople are a breath of fresh air. Always cheerful—well, mostly. I didn’t know Drakes hated them.”

“They’re just copycats.”

Ossky grumbled. Viri laughed.

“How can we copy you? We didn’t intend to. Anyways, we’re all on the same side here! By the way, you might be speaking with me, Commander Cirille. I’m one of the best [Scouts] and we’re all going to 5th Wall! I’ll be jumping about! Like this!”

“What does that even—”

Cirille saw the Lizardman raise his stick. He planted his staff like a vaulting pole and leapt. The Drakes, Gnolls, and everyone in the vicinity stared up. Viri flew. Cirille saw him soar about twenty feet forwards in a single jump before his pole struck the battlements again. And he flew.

Even Ossky’s jaw dropped. The light Lizardman flew over the heads of the Rhirian [Soldiers]—one of them began demanding he stop this unorthodox behavior. Someone else on Bastion-General Quiteil’s bad-list.

“He can travel through the jungles as fast as any Courier. He’s a wonderful [Scout]. Hope he doesn’t die.”

Delezza murmured. Cirille had to admit—that was mobility. He’d be far better going up steep slopes than any horseback rider, and perhaps more agile than a flier.

“Come on, Commander! You have to meet our commander! I bet you get to play cards tonight! We can be friends!”

Viri landed and beckoned to Cirille. The Drake Commander followed him out of curiosity. But the other Drakes were still annoyed. Something about Lizardfolk just rubbed Drakes the wrong way.

“Figures. Lizards. Only good for scouting and running away. We could chop them up in a real engagement. I—ulp—

Captain Shellc was grousing as he pushed past the milling Lizardfolk after Cirille. Someone heard him. The Lizardfolk scattered as a figure rumbled. Cirille saw them part and—

An eight—nine—foot tall serpent-man reared up. He drew a pair of scimitars as the Drakes stared up. And Cirille saw more slithering figures rising from the hitherto-short group of Lizards. They’d been lying down or coiled up, enjoying the sun.

Scales like armor. And a predatory gaze completely different from the friendly Lizardman. The huge serpent-warrior hissed.

“Who wants to chop us up, little thing?”

When he opened his mouth, Cirille noticed fangs dripping with venom. Captain Shellc looked up. A scimitar pointed at him.

“Commander! Commander Uxel! They’re friends!

The commander of the Lizardfolk hissed. His tongue flicked out.

Drakes. You walk among us and utter rude threats?”

“I apologize on behalf of my subordinate, Commander Uxel. I’m Commander Cirille.”

The Drake [Commander] saluted. The giant serpent-man swung his head down to her.

“You?”

“That’s right. I understand we’re all going to 5th Wall.”

“Yes.”

It was a hiss. The giant Lizardfolk looked at Shellc and Cirille. He glowered, but then sheathed his scimitars.

“Utter no more rudeness. I am resting, Viri. Wake me for food. I will see you, Commander Cirille. Cards.”

He coiled back up. The Lizardman waved at Cirille as she pulled Shellc back. The Drake kept his mouth shut. He was pale; Viri seemed to think the meeting had gone well.

“See you, Commander!”

The two Drakes backed up. The other officers were watching from afar. Ossky stared at the giant serpents, now hidden among the Lizardfolk again.

“What was—what kind of Lizardperson was that?”

That. Was a Gorgon.”

Captain Shellc looked at Cirille’s grim expression. He pointed with a trembling claw.

“They’re bigger than even Oldbloods!”

“Yes. They are. So do me a favor, Captain Shellc? Shut up about the Lizards.

 

—-

 

After that, Captain Shellc went back to lie down, which was wise. Cirille stood on the walls a while longer. There wasn’t much to do on 4th Wall for the irregulars besides train and follow deployment orders. Which made sense.

War was about waiting, and the war with Demons was very, extremely, mind-numbingly boring except when it wasn’t. To pass the time, Cirille walked down the wall. And you could walk for miles and miles. Hell, you could march down the entire wall unbroken all the way from shore to shore.

An odd thought. Cirille liked walls, but the idea that these walls were actually larger than her Walled City in total space? That was a…hard thought.

Even so, the other species were interesting. But Cirille still felt…lost. She was a Drake. She had lived among Drakes all her life. True, she had been used to the capital and being the odd species out, but it still felt weird. There were so many Drakes back home. And here—

The [Commander] was wandering past another group of [Soldiers] when something caught her eyes.

A flash of scales. The Drake paused, on her way back to ask if Ser Vorn would care to test his Skills in a friendly bout. She was compelled to investigate. And to her delight, she finally found more Drakes!

The group was lounging near one of the gates. Amid Humans, some Minotaurs—all marked with the emblems on their armor of Rhir. All natives, in short. But they were Drakes.

They were wearing robes, half of them. The other half had a pale white armor on. But all carried wands or staves along with swords or other close-combat weapons. [Mages]? They were laughing and talking with the others, clearly relaxed on the 4th Wall.

“Hail! Are you from Izril? Or from Rhir?”

The Drakes blinked as Cirille and the other Drake officers strode towards them. They glanced at the military-discipline of the Drakes, the casual Gnolls—and then smiled.

“We’re all born of Rhir! But fellow Drakes are always welcome! Hello!”

“Hello! I thought we’d see no more Drakes on our tour! You’re [Soldiers]?”

The two sides met. The other species stood back as the Drakes introduced themselves.

“Not infantry. We’re specialists.”

The lead Drake, female, wearing the white armor, introduced herself. Her name was Hetarria; a [Captain] in rank. Not a Drake name, and she had Rhir’s accent, not the more sibilant Drake tongue. But Cirille was delighted to meet her.

“I hope you’re heading to 5th Wall.”

The Drakes groaned.

“We all are. Bastion-General Quiteil loves reorganizing us, so we’ve seen this wall more than two dozen times. We’re always passing back and forth. You’ll have us in the wings. A shame you didn’t meet with another of our armies; there are a lot more of us! Tens of thousands, in the infantry!”

“How does Rhir have so many Drakes?”

Hetarria shrugged.

“We were born on Rhir. Generations ago, most of us—or Drakes who decided to stay. Are you all from Izril? Which city?”

“Different ones. We’re all from different cities. Most are from the Walled Cities…”

“Oh, of course. I’d forgotten that was how it worked.”

It was…disturbing to meet Drakes so devoid of understanding of Izril. But Cirille still shook claws and smiled around at them.

“I’d love to talk more. If we’re not distracting you from your duties? I don’t suppose you play this card game I’ve been invited to?”

Hetarria laughed and shook her head.

“We’re actually working, Commander. And no; that’s for irregulars, not lowly [Mage-Captains]. But we can talk while we do our work.”

“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.”

The Drakes didn’t seem to be doing much at the moment. Hetarria glanced past Cirille. And then she heard a sound.

Gates opening! Make way!

The shout came from below. Two massive gates, far, far too tall for even siege weapons to need that clearance opened. Cirille heard distant shouts. And then she saw something moving.

What is that?

Ossky recoiled from where she’d been peering over the battlements. Cirille looked at her. She saw pale white. And then—

A figure moved. It took a step and there was a tremor. Cirille didn’t feel it on the walls, but she heard the sound.

Something rose higher. Cirille drew her sword. She heard a shout from Ossky, and then a bellow.

To arms! Undead!

A skeletal head, larger than Cirille was tall, swiveled. Two glowing flames in the hollow eye sockets. Cirille’s eyes went round as the Drakes took up the call.

Undead!

“Commander, what—”

Hetarria looked astonished. Cirille had drawn her sword. And she saw it in all of its horror.

The Bone Behemoth walked through one of the gates, eyes glowing red. It was made close to a Human, but it had a tail. And its bones were different. Cirille realized—

It was shaped like a Drake. And someone had given it bone armor. The giant undead was no renegade construct. Someone had shaped it, polishing the bone until it was white. Giving it armor—even a huge mace of bones.

Someone was controlling it. Cirille looked around. Someone…who had molded the Bone Behemoth to look like them.

The Drakes with robes and staves. And Hetarria, the other half. With white armor.

But it wasn’t metal. It was…ivory. Bone.

The copper penny dropped. Cirille backed away. Hetarria was staring at her, uncomprehending. The Drake [Commander] pointed her sword at her.

“You? You? How could—”

“Commander? What’s wrong? That’s ours. It wouldn’t just…Commander?”

Ossky and the others looked at Cirille. The Drake pointed a shaking finger at Hetarria. Then she shouted, as she backed away in horror.

“You’re [Necromancers]!

 

—-

 

“I respectfully request that my brigade not be assigned with the [Necromancers].”

“Denied.”

Bastion-General Quiteil didn’t look up, despite Cirille barging into his office. The Drake [Commander] glared.

“We will not work with [Necromancers], sir.

The man did glance up at this. He stared at Cirille and then reluctantly put down his quill.

“Commander, you have been sent to fight for Rhir. I was given to understand that Drake military discipline was second to only Minotaurs and Rhir’s own forces, but your officers have insulted the Balerosian detachment, conducted unauthorized singing on the walls, and now are refusing to fight as ordered.”

The Drake turned red.

“Sir. We do not tolerate necromancy in Izril. This is not species-dislike. This goes against the laws of the Walled Cities! Those [Necromancers] are dangerous!”

Quiteil pinched at the bridge of his nose, ignoring the ink-stains his fingers left.

“Mage-Captain Hetarria has fought for years without issue. Her creations never run amok. I would gladly take ten thousand more [Necromancers] like her in a heartbeat.”

And cart you damned Drakes back to Izril. His expression clearly indicated that. Cirille knew she was on thin ice, but she had to make her case. The soldiers would riot. Shellc was already swearing he’d rather be sent back to Izril in disgrace rather than march alongside undead.

“Bastion-General. Az’kerash died not two decades ago and the Walled Cities still remember his attacks! Not to mention, necromancy has been outlawed in the Walled Cities for—”

“Commander Cirille.”

Quiteil looked up and glowered at her around his notes. She went silent as he made a note on a piece of paper and then glanced up again.

“That may be the case in Izril. However, necromancy has never been outlawed in Rhir. We consider it an acceptable form of magic if used with care. Moreover, we recall Archmage Chandler’s contribution to the offensive against the Demons a hundred and fifty years ago.”

But that—

Archmage Zelkyr fought by his side along with Wistram and almost every other nation in the world. Archmage Chandler fought the Deathless; he is a hero whose legacy is the [Necromancer] corps we still fight with. Even if he is a villain to the rest of the world, he fought the Demons.”

And that was all. Cirille pointed out the window.

“So—that undead is safe? You’d allow it to walk around with the [Soldiers], sir? What about zombies? Other undead?”

“No. And before you speak, Commander, I believe Rhir understands the way undead function more than the Walled Cities do. We ensure undead are always monitored. This one is a war construct that Captain Hetarria’s force controls. It does not bleed. It does not die. It can be repaired. It is an exemplary weapon of war to counter Demon-Giants. Captain Hetarria is authorized to use skeletal warriors, but she will not reanimate the dead unless at need.”

“If my Drakes are used as undead, they will refuse to fight, sir. The same with Chief Warrior Merish’s Gnolls.”

The secretary-general sighed.

“So he has said. Which is why I did not replace you with Warrior Merish, Commander Cirille. I suggest you two speak further with Captain Hetarria and air your grievances and then resolve them. I will allow her the time to do so, although I consider it an imposition on her. I expect you to march to 5th Wall with the understanding that her forces will aide yours in battle.”

“But—”

The Brigade-General’s eyes flashed and Cirille realized she’d gone too far. Quiteil stood up slowly.

“If that is unacceptable, Commander Cirille, say so now. And I will send every Drake and Gnoll under your and Chief Warrior Merish’s command back to Izril and demand reinforcements that can do their duty. This conversation is over. Get out of my office.”

 

—-

 

“Six coppers. I don’t see what the problem is, Commander. I don’t like undead either. Terandria hates ‘em. And I’m from Noelictus; the undead rise more in our lands than anywhere else. Ser Vorn is sworn to slay them. But this is Rhir. Let it be. Or will your [Soldiers] really refuse to obey orders? I heard they had excellent discipline.”

Delezza put down the coins. The others sitting around the table nodded. Commander Cirille glared at her cards.

“Excellent discipline in battle, Huntress Delezza. They won’t break or rout. You know the expression, ‘Drakes do not run?’”

“Yes. No bet.”

“Yes. Six coppers matched.”

Ser Vorn politely added six copper coins to the table. Cirille heard a hiss.

“No.”

Commander Uxel of the Lizardfolk put down his cards. A muscular figure shrugged.

“No.”

That was the [Martial Artist]. Lacten. He wasn’t a [Commander], but as the sole representative of Pomle, he had been invited to the cards night. Cirille looked around.

They were all there. Huntress Delezza, Ser Vorn, Commander Uxel, Lacten of Pomle…Chief Warrior Merish glanced at Cirille. He was just as upset about the [Necromancers]. But he was also playing the game.

“Hrr. Six copper in. It is about principle. The Necromancer slew Kerash, who would have been the greatest of Chieftains. My fellow Gnolls also do not wish to fight.”

“Then don’t. Return home.”

“We can’t.”

Merish and Cirille chorused. They glanced at each other, and then looked away. Cirille put her coins in.

“We have a job.”

“Then it is simple. Duty is duty, however difficult.”

Ser Vorn spoke calmly. But his fingers were dancing on the cards. He had a terrible tell. Cirille kept her face annoyed as she glanced at the shining letters on her card. Everyone was waiting now. It was a game of bluffing.

Delezza was impossible to read. She smiled without giving anything away, and the Garuda [Flight Leader] was pretty good, although Cirille knew she had the card so it was pointless anyways. Merish didn’t hide his suspicion, but he was quick. Uxel, the Gorgon, was hard to read only because he was a serpent; Cirille felt like his fast-flicking tongue was giving him away.

“It’s more than a moral objection, Delezza. Even if I agree, my officers might—Del!

She slapped the glowing card down as she shouted. The glowing letters exploded upwards. Blackness engulfed the table.

Shouts. Merish had been ready; Ser Vorn and Uxel had been looking suspiciously at Delezza. The [Huntress] and the Garuda commander disappeared.

Cirille waited. She heard scuffling and then five seconds later—the blackness vanished. Sucked back into the card. Everyone sat at the table, calm as could be.

The way the game was played was that you anted in. Then you grabbed money from the ‘pot’, the center of the table when someone used the Del card. Now—Cirille looked around.

Who had been fast enough to grab what? She was looking for the biggest offender. Cirille took only one second.

“…Delezza.”

The [Huntress] sighed. She tossed three copper coins onto the table. And then six more from her pot. Cirille cursed.

“Who got them all?”

Merish smirked as he revealed the bulk of the coins. Ser Vorn, Uxel, and the Garuda cursed. The others tossed their cards in.

“I don’t get it. The point is to use one of the magical cards to steal money? And the person who is pointed at has to give the money back.”

“Three times as much. It almost always means the one with the ‘Del’ card comes out ahead, even if they don’t get the winner. But you can bankrupt another player. No wonder you said copper coins, Commander Cirille.”

Delezza sighed as Cirille added the coins to her pile. The others nodded. They were using a standard deck, with enchanted and non-enchanted cards, but they were playing an Izrilian game; Cirille had suggested it.

“Trust Drakes to come up with a game involving stealing.”

Uxel flicked his tongue out.

“Commander Uxel, it is a fun game. And there is more to do than shout ‘Del’.”

Ser Vorn smiled, checking his cards. Instantly, half the table folded. The [Knight] looked around.

“What? But I didn’t even say—”

“You must have the ‘Reve’ card, Ser Vorn. You need to work on your card-face.”

Delezza laughed as the rest folded. The bright ‘Reve’ card would illuminate ‘Del’, and anyone caught sneaking would have to pay however much was left in the pot to the one who’d played it. Each.

The game was indeed about making other people suffer. It was also physical, and Merish enjoyed it more than the other variants of the game. The cards—magical and non-magical and delicately laminated on bits of wood were also expensive. Cirille had a deck, but you had to put down a lot of gold for a fully-enchanted deck like the one Delezza had.

“I’m tired of grabbing coins. Especially since Lacten smashes my fingers. Anyone up for Kraken’s Trench?

One of the Humans from northern Izril complained. He named the most popular sea-based card game. The others shrugged.

“We can’t just leave. I’d be stripped of my command. But my [Soldiers] won’t like it. They might get into brawls. We’re going to have to crack the whip. How are you fine with the undead?

“Beats Crelers.”

Someone spoke casually. The others nodded. Ser Vorn bit his lip; Delezza smiled. Cirille trusted Merish’s nose and ears; when he folded in the first pass, she did too.

“Is no one worried that the undead will run amok? A Bone Behemoth could kill hundreds if it goes wild!”

“Ailendamus is no stranger to using dangerous…beasts, Commander Cirille. We employ War Hydras. I share your concerns, but perhaps when you see a Demon Giant, you will reconsider.”

Ser Vorn carefully matched Delezza’s bet, and lost three gold coins at the end of it. The [Knight] took it in good humor, though. He was actually a very even-tempered fellow with a good sense of humor.

“Snake slaves. Bah. But I agree. You stayed in the capital. I have seen a Demon Giant once. Enough. I say let the undead die instead of my warriors.”

Uxel narrowed his serpentine eyes at Cirille. He seemed to hate Drakes more than Cirille objected to Lizardfolk. Either that, or he’d taken Shellc’s threats very personally. The Commander flushed.

“It was my posting.”

“No judgment. Well—except that the Walled Cities sent infantry. The [Generals] probably didn’t want half of them to get wiped out and have to explain that. Same with the Gnolls.”

A Centaur [Lancer] spoke up cheerfully. Merish and Cirille looked around at the sudden silence.

“Surely you have to be kidding. Our formations are trained to fight any number of foes.”

The Drake glanced about the table. Few people met her eyes. Delezza sighed.

“It’s not about training. I’m sure Drakes won’t waver. And I’ve seen their spear-charges. Very effective. But Demons don’t fight fair. Your neat formations will march and won’t rout as a Demon Giant shoots arrows the size of your soldiers at you. Rhir prefers the other nations giving them resources over soldiers since soldiers tend to die. We’re all heading up together to be safe. Well—we are valuable. Look at it that way. We’re not going to be sent deep into Demon territory.”

Cirille clenched one hand. She didn’t even think; just folded.

“It’s not right. I came here to fight.”

“So did we all. But this war is not won by fighting. The 5th Wall must be defended. When it is done, the Blighted Kingdom expands. It is a different kind of war than I prefer, but one I respect.”

Ser Vorn’s words were that of a seasoned commander. The others nodded respectfully. Lacten shrugged.

“Walls. I came to fight Demons and test what I learned.”

“And have you learned much, friend Lacten?”

Merish glanced up. The [Martial Artist] smiled.

“Some. I’ve learned my weaknesses, which is more valuable. Upon my return, I will teach what I’ve learned. I will challenge the Strongest of Pomle, then. Though I have little chance of victory. I have not seen Demon Giants.”

“I’ve heard of them. Are they common? How do you fight them?”

Cirille was trying to learn tactics as well as be friendly with the others. A half-Elf—Springwaters—raised one eyebrow. He was graying; a master of over a hundred and forty years.

“With arrows. From afar. Has anyone seen the Nomads of the Sky? On the scrying orb?”

The others nodded. Springwaters took a sip as he anted up.

“Well then. You aim for their eyes. But the Demons don’t waste their Giants. Even they have few. Most you’ll see are archers. Or scouts.”

Scouts?

“Yes. They watch, and then run away. Giants can be fast. And it’s hard to kill that kind of scout.”

“It seems…cowardly. I heard Demons were fierce warriors without quarter.”

Merish grumbled. Cirille nodded. She checked her next deck and brightened. Winning hand. She tried to conceal her expression.

“Fold.”

Uxel instantly put down his cards. Cirille narrowed her eyes before she could stop herself; she had the feeling he was reading body temperatures!

“Fold. I’ve got nothing. Bad night for luck.”

Delezza might have her own Skills. She twitched one eye at Cirille; the others didn’t. The Drake swept the table.

“Demons have limits on how many soldiers they have. If you’ve heard of them pouring into a breach without end—that’s their fodder. Their elites, like the Fearless, are still safeguarded for big pushes. They like using monsters. You’ll see. 5th Wall, the section we’re deployed to, is nearly opposite Monarch’s Pass.”

“Monarch’s Pass?”

Merish and Cirille looked up. That sounded like a fine name; not dangerous or esoteric at all. The others shuddered. Delezza shuffled, putting down the cards hard.

That. Is the most dangerous stretch of land. In Rhir. Aside from outside the Demon’s Kingdom or the Antinium Hives, wherever they are. We’re miles and miles away. But that’s where the monsters come from.”

“Hm. I remember now. They get funneled down the pass. But why Monarch’s Pass? I just saw the geographic name. Er…”

Cirille blanked on it; she’d had a few drinks. Uxel hissed.

“That is because six of the Blighted Kings and Queens have died there. As they age—they die by assailing the heart of the Demons. The source of monsters. The Antinium. Someday, Othius will go there. If age does not take him, or poison.”

The table fell silent. A reminder that once the Blighted King died, his children or wife would take over. It would be dangerous for the kingdom; losing a high-leveled individual always was. That was why Drakes trusted to systems, not individuals. Gnolls too; Merish looked wary as he reached for a milk-alcohol drink.

“Well, Monarch’s Pass is where it gets nasty. Rumor is Crelers came from there first. And sometimes Rhir fights there—it’s a good chokepoint for both sides. When both sides sent true armies at each other—they’ll fight there. I left my family there.”

Delezza took a bite of a snack. The others looked at her. Ser Vorn put down his cards. Cirille blinked. It was such a casual statement.

“Huntress Delezza. Do you mean…”

The woman shifted in her chair. She spoke, her face still unreadable.

“You heard me. Husband. Two children. [Demon Hunters] all. I told you. It’s been eight years since I went home. This is where I’ll die. But I’m here forever. I suppose I’m more like Rhir’s citizens that way. Eight silvers.”

She pushed the coins in. No one spoke. Then Merish called her.

They were all here for different reasons. Some were here because it was their duty, like Ser Vorn. For others—it was personal.

“I came here because the Demons are a threat. The Companies squabble over land. But the Demons must be ended. I do not wish to be coddled.

Uxel hissed as he threw down his cards after another loss. Cirille glanced at him.

“That’s what I said about the Walled Cities, Commander.”

The Gorgon turned to her. He blinked slowly.

“Truly?”

“We can devote more resources to Rhir. I don’t want to stand on a podium and lecture but the Walled Cities are too occupied with infighting when the real enemies—the Antinium, the Demons, the damned H—”

Cirille caught herself. But Merish had been nodding. The Izrilian [Major] ignored that last bit as he cleared his throat.

“The Antinium bother me too, Commander. They came from Rhir.”

“Yes. But you all got lucky. They were wiped out at sea, most of ‘em. The ones remaining are bad—but not like Rhir’s Antinium.”

Delezza spat a silver coin to match the ante she’d been chewing on. The Garuda looked disgusted. Cirille blinked.

“Excuse me? The Antinium nearly overran the Walled Cities.”

“Yeah. And the ones on Rhir broke past every damn wall before stealing every ship in sight. No one’s seen ‘em since they left. But there are stories. Patrols wiped out. Even Demons as well, found massacred. Of course, it could be any number of Rhir’s horrors. But I tell you what, Commander Cirille. You think your Antinium are bad? If they had gotten to Izril in one piece—you wouldn’t have lasted one month.”

The Drake slapped down coins and glared at the [Huntress]. So did Merish. She was starting to like Uxel and Merish more than the Delezza’s opinion of the Drake militaries.

“That’s a bold claim since no one’s fought the Antinium but Izrilians, Huntress Delezza.”

“Take it or leave it, Commander Cirille. But don’t get mad. It makes you careless. Kraken’s Reach.”

The [Huntress] laid down the winning hand. Cirille blinked and saw her pay for the week disappear. Delezza leaned back, smiling. Cirille glowered at her. The woman tipped her hat.

“Just be glad the Demons aren’t at war. Even when I buried friends and fellow [Hunters]—this isn’t war. They’re performing a battle of attrition with the Blighted Kingdom. Even when the Giants are loosing arrows on 5th Wall, or you see a war party—even the ambush that Commander Cirille fought at the capital. When the war begins—you’ll see Deathless.”

“The elites of the Demon King? No one has seen them for over a century. Like Rhir’s Antinium. They appear not to exist, Huntress Delezza.”

Merish muttered. The [Huntress] shrugged.

“Maybe. But the closest I ever saw Bastion-General Quiteil to panicking was when someone shouted ‘Deathless’ for fun. He had that poor Lizardperson arrested, imprisoned, and shipped back to Baleros on the first boat. That doesn’t sound like they’re dead. Who wants to choose the next game? How about Seldraw?”

The others groaned. Cirille lost four gold pieces that night, even after some wins. Ser Vorn lost five times that much. The next day—she marched to the 5th Wall with friends and…the [Necromancers].

 

—-

 

5th Wall was thirty feet tall and not nearly as wide. Which wasn’t impressive given 4th Wall’s height and girth, but the real 5th Wall would be nearly one thousand feet of hell if you included the drop.

It was a deception. The ‘wall’ which was solid, impressive, and stretched across most major areas of the continent already was actually just a temporary wall. Which was insane, given the smooth stone, the hard work that had shaped it.

“Apparently the Blighted Kingdom put this up in a month.”

Commander Uxel glared up at the wall as Cirille marched with him. The Drakes were marching side-by-side with the Lizardfolk with the Gnolls on their left. The [Soldiers] were exchanging insults with the good-natured Balerosians. But they were actually in decent company since Cirille had told them it was that or march closer to the [Necromancers].

They were on the far side of the heavily armed and watchful column leaving the safety of 4th Wall. Beyond 4th Wall the Demons could attack at any moment.

“You must be joking, Commander Uxel.”

“I thought it was an exaggeration. But the records say it is so. The Blighted Kingdom has power. But that is not the real wall.”

The real wall was set nearly two miles back and deeply under construction. [Miners] and [Diggers] were tunneling down, creating a moat of moats that would someday be in front of a truly disgusting wall. A thousand feet of drop before you even got to the top of the wall. Wistram had sent master [Enchanters] and work was progressing. But slowly.

For now, the ‘fake wall’ waited. It was not one entire structure. Apparently, it had been—until Demons had blown holes in parts of it, collapsed others with sappers.

The Blighted Kingdom had repaired the gaps, and continued to do so, but parts of the wall were less fortified than others. It had miffed Cirille to learn they were being positioned at the most secure section.

“We’re not children.”

“No, but we are valuable irregulars. Relax, Commander. We’ll see combat. The monsters are coming out of Monarch’s Pass.”

It was there, in the distance, barely a speck on the horizon. Cirille met with the Bastion-General. She deployed her troops.

“Chief Warrior Merish, when it comes to fighting, we clearly need to train together. For now, we’re separate forces with a similar goal, but we’ll be here for months together. Can you muster your warriors for exercises and join me for strategic planning?”

“Yes, Commander Cirille.”

The Gnoll growled. He still didn’t like the situation, but both armies were more comfortable after seeing their commanders able to work together. Still—there had been four incidents already between the Walled City’s forces and the Gnolls.

Heads up. Looks like we don’t have time to practice our combined formations!”

Huntress Delezza strode down the wall. Since all the irregulars were grouped together, they’d be planning how to best deploy; for instance, Ser Vorn’s [Knights] were mounted and ready to reinforce any group that got in trouble, but the combined armies could benefit from, say Gnoll [Archers] to aid the relatively weaker Lizardfolk [Slingers]. Cirille blinked.

“What’s happening, Huntress Delezza?”

The Blighted King’s Champions are coming.

She shouted back. Cirille was confused. The who? She turned to Merish.

“Who are the champions? Named Adveturers?”

The Gnoll gave her an odd look.

“No. You should know, Commander Cirille. Is this Drake humor?”

“Not at all. I’ve never met the Champions.”

He snorted.

“You did. They fought at the same ambush with the Demons. Or did you never see them?”

The [Commander]’s eyes widened.

“Wait. You mean—officers! To attention!

And there they came. Cirille saw nearly a hundred elite warriors, wearing enchanted weapons, escorting a group of Humans. She stared down at them. She thought she recognized the one with dark skin—the [Knight] with the odd hat.

“Is that Sir Richard?”

“Wait, from the palace? Small world, huh?”

Captain Shellc blinked down at the [Knight] as a cheer came from Rhir’s defenders. Mage-Captain Hetarria—the regulars on the wall—they seemed to know him.

The Champions are taking to the front!

Someone shouted. Cirille blinked. Sir Richard had come up in the world. She’d understood his group had been returning from some kind of disgrace. But before she could peer longer, she heard another shout.

There! The Gloomless Troupe. And the Clown of Rhir.

The [Commander]’s head slowly turned. And to the side—following the elite soldiers riding in formation, she heard laughter.

And faintly—an annoying little song. It filled the air, drowning out the cheers. The [Soldiers] fell silent. The Drakes, Gnolls, irregulars, stared. They listened.

They were giggling. Laughing. Guffawing. Hysterically, hundreds of them. They danced or cartwheeled, all in such colorful clothing that they looked like what they were.

Targets.

Madmen. Madwomen, of every species but mostly Human. Young, again, mostly. They frolicked around a central figure. Cirille’s eyes were drawn to him.

“Sir Tom?”

She saw a laughing face. Too wide-eyes. A slashing hand; one of the other…[Clowns] fell away, bleeding. But the others laughed as if it was some big game. They were armed with daggers, swords, edged weapons. Clubs.

“The Gloomless Troupe. Haven’t you heard? It’s a group of imitators. And that’s the real thing.”

Huntress Delezza stared down at the cavorting crowd with disgust. She checked her crossbows.

“They’re going to fight. Both that [Knight] and those…adventurers? The Champions. And the [Clown]. I take it you know them?”

“I met them. I didn’t know they were so…famous. But that group—they don’t even have armor. They’ll be slaughtered.

“Yup.”

The [Huntress] shrugged as Cirille looked at her.

“Don’t worry. They’ll get support to make sure their leader doesn’t die. But I’ve seen them fight. They charge the enemy and hack at each other until one side’s dead or the other. They’re as bad as Fearless. I’ll say this—they level fast. Some of them are dangerous. Especially the [Clown]. They’ve charged Crelers before. Waves of them.”

Insane. Cirille felt her scales itch as she stared down at Tom. He was laughing; she didn’t think he’d stopped to draw breath. She shivered.

“Are you going to say hello?”

“No, I…perhaps Sir Richard.”

The Drake wondered if he’d even remember her. Tom…she wondered. But the [Clown], as he approached the walls, ignoring the delegation including the Bastion-General waiting to reach Richard, was making for the gates that led beyond the temporary 5th wall.

He was looking up at her. Cirille froze as Tom shouted.

Is that Commander Cirille? It is a good day to kill people at random!

He pointed and laughed. The Drake blanched; every head in earshot, and that was everyone, was looking at her.

“Is…that you, Sir Tom?”

Call me the Clown of Rhir. Hello, Commander! Are you here to die?”

“Not if I can help it.”

The Drake saw Tom making for the walls, completely ignoring protocol. She didn’t know if she should refuse to speak to him—but he was laughing.

“You’d make a fine crazy person. And here’s the grumpy [Huntress]! Hey, have you killed enough Demons to avenge your husband and kids? How many is enough? Riddle me—whoops!”

Delezza cocked her crossbow and Tom stopped. A bunch of [Clowns]—[Jesters]—whatever their class ran into him from behind. They collapsed in a stupid pile.

It was like watching Lizardpeople. Only, it wasn’t even remotely funny. They had too-pale faces. Their eyes were too wide. And they laughed hysterically at a joke only they knew about.

“Get off! Get off!

Tom slashed with his knife. The others leapt away, giggling. Cirille saw her officers staring. Merish looked stunned.

“They’re so weird.

Viri spoke up, a bit too loud. Tom’s eyes darted left. He giggle uncontrollably.

“It’s just war. It’s what I’m good at. I thought you were sensible, Cirille. You should go home. Or you’ll turn into Delezza. A good soldier for the war.”

“I’m off.”

The [Huntress] walked away from Tom, without even bothering to acknowledge him. The [Clown] waved at her.

“She shot me once, you know. I kept asking about her family. Hilarious.”

“Sir Tom. You’ve…changed.”

Since last she saw him? She remembered seeing him after the Fool’s betrayal. But this man was—he looked at her. And she felt like someone had pushed a spoon through his pupils and hollowed out his soul. The [Clown] looked back and Cirille glanced away.

“You’ll die here, Cirille. You should leave. You’re not crazy enough to survive. I am. I’m so crazy death doesn’t want me. And Richard—he’s a hero. But you’re just a good person. Good people die here.”

The words were calm. And because they were so calm, they were the scariest words out of his mouth yet. Cirille turned.

“I have a duty, Sir Tom. I believe the Bastion-General wants to speak with you.”

Indeed, Richard and the others were glaring up and shouting at Tom. The [Clown] edged forwards as his posse spread out.

“They can say that. But the truth is it doesn’t matter. They’ll let me do whatever I want. I could stab you and they’d keep using me. Lock me up, probably. But I’m too valuable. Don’t you see?”

“No. I—are you well, Sir Tom?”

She reached for him, wondering if he was sick. With the Yellow Rivers disease? Six of her [Soldiers] had caught it before they’d left. The [Clown] slapped away her hands.

“I’m fine. I’m—let’s just die, Commander.”

“We’re not going to die. Human. If that’s what you are.”

Chief Warrior Merish spoke up. He had a hand on his axe. Tom twisted his head, unnaturally too far around. Cirille heard his tendons cracking.

“What are you? A Gnoll? Better than those Dog-people who think they’re dogs. That’s the best way to make slaves, right?”

Neither one understood what he was saying. The [Clown] leaned on one of his following, a grinning harlequin who hadn’t blinked once. He started laughing.

“What do we…?”

Cirille looked around. Then she heard a voice.

Tom. Stop this. You promised me you’d try.

The Drake twisted. She saw a floating [Knight]. Richard. The [Knight] stared down at his friend. Tom looked up.

“It doesn’t matter, Richard. Let me have this. It doesn’t matter. I’ll kill for Lord Hayvon. I’m not bothering Commander Cirille much. I like her. It’s just—”

He glanced over the Drake’s shoulder and started laughing. This time, he didn’t stop. He laughed harder and harder, until he fell down. Guffawing? Cirille felt there should be a stronger word for the intensity, the force of the laugh. Bellows, gales of hysterical screaming.

Tom! We need to get him a calming tonic. Or something. I’m sorry, Commander Cirille—”

The [Knight] landed, striding over to Tom. Cirille hurried forwards as well. Tom was laughing.

Heartbeat.

Tom lay on the ground, laughing. The wall was in confusion as he didn’t stop laughing. It seemed as though he should have run out of air long ago. But he laughed and laughed.

“Shut him up! He’s embarrassing us!”

Emily was shouting up at the walls. Richard bent for Tom. Cirille felt her heart thump.

Thump.

“Stop, Tom—you have to stop.”

“Stop, Richard? Don’t you see? I told you it didn’t matter. Look. You don’t even see!

Thump.

The [Clown] laughed. He rolled around. And then some of his followers began to laugh. They pointed. Cirille thought they were mocking Richard. Or her.

Thump.

Then she heard something else. A wailing siren. The Drake [Commander] turned. She heard a horn blaring, high and shrill.

“That’s the call to arms.”

Dumbly, she looked at Tom. Had he done that? But no—it wasn’t him.

All hands to the walls!

The Bastion-General was bellowing. More horns began to sound. Richard looked up, at Cirille. Then, slowly, the Human and Drake turned around.

Monarch’s Pass. Just a speck on the horizon. The distant place where monsters came from. Of course—the Demons were the biggest threat. They could come from anywhere. Monsters were their weapons. A tool. But aside from Crelers and a few—they were just…monsters. A known quantity. But if you thought that—you forgot.

This was Rhir. And from hell, all things came.

Thump.

This time Cirille felt it and knew it was not her heart. She stared. Then she saw the horizon move.

Something took a step. It walked. As the horns blew across the 5th Wall, the defenders of Rhir, the irregulars, and the [Clown] saw it.

A twisting mass of things. Dark, coiling bodies.

“Serpents?”

Those are not snakes.

Commander Uxel hissed. He drew his scimitars. Commander Cirille stared.

“That thing is massive. Is that a Demon Giant? I thought—I thought the Giants were dead.”

“Some live. But that is no Giant.”

Ser Vorn stared at the distant figure. It was made up of the vast, coiling serpents. But—it was not one thing. Each one was a serpent or worm, the size of giant, twisting trees, but far wider. Vast—they formed a humanoid figure. Roughly…humanoid.

Enemy on approach! Get me Huntress Delezza! Identify it! Sir Richard! Sir Tom, to me!

The Bastion-General was bellowing. The [Demon Huntress] stared at the distant figure. It was coming forwards, each step covering hundreds of feet.

“I have no idea what that is. And I know every giant monster. That’s new.”

New. The word swept the walls in horror. New—the same word that had been applied to the Crelers. Antinium.

“There’s only one of it, though.”

Springwaters aimed with a bow, though it was far out of range even for his arrow. Cirille nodded. She saw the Bone Behemoth—now far smaller in size—moving forwards.

Prepare summoning spells and siege spells! We will bring it down at range!

The Bastion-General’s voice was confident. The distant monster was moving slowly, and the undulating serpents were individuals. It could be killed. It could die.

Thump.

As it took another step, the world shook. These walls weren’t spelled. Cirille felt it at a distance. But then something else.

 

Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump

Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump

 

“What is that…sound?”

The Drake stared at the distant serpent-titan. Or whatever it was. She narrowed her eyes.

“Wait. What is it doing…?”

She saw something happening as it drew nearer. Part of the titan—no, it’s entire body just—fell away. It stiffened; not flesh or bone, but something like cartilage. Like that left from a snake, stiffening.

“It’s…shedding. Growing smaller.”

Each step, the titan was shrinking.

“It’s not going to even get here. It’s losing mass.”

Richard had an enchanted seeing eyeglass. Tom giggled; he snatched it from the [Knight]’s hands.

“Did someone say one? You idiots.

He pointed. And Cirille saw.

 

Thump. Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump

 

That wasn’t one footstep. It was…dozens. She narrowed her eyes.

“Behind it. What is—Ancestors.”

The titan took a step. And a beat behind it, she saw—no, it had looked like one thing. But now she saw it shedding, dividing.

Creating a larger clone. The real thing shrunk, by one layer. And the clones it shed copied it.

Not one titan. Not two, or ten. Dozens, the first the colossus that had been seen. The smaller ones shrinking. But so many.

Thump.

It was coming to 5th Wall. The Bastion-General’s voice was quite calm. But Cirille heard the current underneath.

“Change the alarm to 4th Wall and the capital. Inform them this is a new monster. A titan, capable perhaps of limitless division. Perhaps one. Perhaps one of many. We will hold 5th Wall until it dies. It is not alone. The Demons are coming.”

He pointed. Cirille saw more shapes moving, flanking the monster. Humanoids, smaller. Demons. Those standing on the 5th Wall stirred. Tom laughed.

“If we fall, 4th Wall must hold. We will relay information about this threat until it is no longer possible. Beginning with siege spells. Commanders. Prepare for combat.

The Bastion-General’s voice filled the air. And behind it—the [Clown]’s laughter. He laughed and laughed.

“It’s another day in Rhir! Everyone’s going to die. Except me.

 

 

Author’s Note: This was hard, mainly because I had real life kicking me in the shins. I don’t know if I cut at 24,000 words or kept the entire 30,000; either way, you can tell this an arc.

Perhaps long awaited. Perhaps you hate the [Clown]. Let me know. But we’re in Rhir. And in Rhir…something something horrible stuff.

Look forwards to more! Or don’t. But I’ll leave you with some fantastic art, as always. Hopefully I’ll have less distractions next time. Thanks for reading!

 

YellowSplatters by Noonetoinfinity’s…sister?

YellowSplatters by Noonetoinfinity

 

3D Models of Ijvani, Skinner, Belavierr, and A’ctelios by MrMomo!

 


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138 thoughts on “7.34 C

  1. I was really bored reading this.
    It is painfully boring to have a bunch of new characters introduced that don’t have a connection to the main plot.
    I have no reason to care for them, and I don’t want to get to know them. There are already so many characters in this story, so many side characters that I forget, I really don’t want to get to know anymore.

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