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.

“One thousand lives. We sacrificed one 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 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.”

“So a tenth were given to Rhir. 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 a 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 a thousand 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…ten 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 ten thousand would not slow the children born this year. 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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129 thoughts on “7.34 C

  1. Leave a typo for Rhir! Also, if you’re on Rhir, consider leaving.

    (Rhir readers: Gorexn, Kaitiaki, RisenFyres, Pwnster7757, darkness559, belthanyl, MrWiggles, Vento, Aoxz, Gyoshi, afkcuzbookiscool, Neo, hougi, Gecko13, zombieno53)

    • We had tried, you recall.
      have

      The Gnoll blinked. he looked at her.
      blinked,

      Some of the Drakes plugged their claws in their ear-holes.
      Sounds painful

      This is where I’ll die. But I’m here forever.
      But I’m here forever. This is where I’ll die.
      -or-
      This is where I’ll die, I’m here forever.

    • Thank you.

      “But even if no one’s a good guy—it doesn’t mean you have to be—that.”

      I wanted him to say, “-it doesn’t mean you have to be the bad guy.”

    • Love the [Clown] chapters! It’s a different look on perhaps ‘sacrificial’ classes or at least the ailments that get added on.

    • “It must have been as short as her encounter”
      This doesn’t make much sense, maybe “it must have been a short encounter”?

    • “We shall repast on the deer you felled tonight, Sir Richard.”

      That’s not something you’d do unless really short of meat. Deer needs to hang for around a week before butchering & eating to allow enzymes to break down muscle tissue, making the meat tastier and more tender.

      By the way, love the Tom chapter.

    • Inconsistencies!?

      So in this Chapter we learn that the Pumpkins that were transferred to Salazsar to be send to Oteslia, Pallass, and Zeres in Ch 7.33 I, were for growing the Penicillin’s Mold into them, as it was stated by Grimalkin in Ch 7.32 D that Oteslia can grow enough Mold.

      The thing is that in Ch 7.33 I, 2 days after the Pumpkins shipment, the Wall Holders of Salazsar begin talking and questioning about the activation of Ilvriss’ Salazsar Ring in Invrisil, which was in Ch 7.31. And as seen by Navine in Ch 7.31 and stated by her in Ch 7.33 I, we know that at least all of Ilvriss’ family and the heads of each Holders of the Wall family were alerted on the same day that Ilvriss’ Ring had activation.

      So why did it take about 6 Days, for the Holders of the Wall to start talking and questioning who has Ilvriss’ Ring? Why not starting doing so on the same day or a day later when Ilvriss’ Ring had activation?

      Note about the 6 Days:
      Day 1 – Activation of Ilvriss’ Salazsar Ring in 7.31.
      Day 2 – [Druids] meeting in Interlude – A Meeting of [Druids].
      Day 3 – Erin talk with Geneva, the introducing of Penicillin, and Grimalkin talking to send a sample of Penicillin’s Mold to Oteslia for mass-production in 7.32 D.
      Day 4 – Pumpkins shipment to Salazsar, to be send to Oteslia, Pallass, and Zeres, (Ch 7.34 C, which may have happen on the same day, revealed to be for growing the Penicillin’s Mold), in 7.33 I.
      Day 5 – Alrric mining exercise, and finding Adamantium Ore and Stone Starers nest, in 7.33 I.
      Day 6 – The Holders of the Wall started talking and questioning who has activation Ilvriss’ Ring, in 7.33 I.

    • Merish grumbled. Cirille nodded. She checked her next deck and brightened. Winning hand. She tried to conceal her expression.
      Merish grumbled. Cirille nodded. She checked her next (hand or draw) and brightened. Winning hand.

      Checking the hand initially or after a draw will reveal your hand…and its potential to win. Even a royal flush can be tied though with another royal flush.

    • Mam, The clown is a good character. They say that an actor who plays a villain and manages to make everyone hate him is a good villain. Keep the clown, he challenges social norms, and brings new drama and intrigue. 🙂
      Very Respectfully
      AJ

    • These may all be fixed already, it took me a week to get through this chapter.

      “but his wroth and his disappointment”
      wroth -> wrath
      Because “wrath” is the name of the emotion meaning “anger” while “wroth” is the action of “being angry” but in the past tense

      “I worry if he will rise”
      Consider rewording, “I worry whether he will rise”

      “Then we shall dine tonight and speak later then.”
      Remove one “then”

      “He giggle uncontrollably.”
      giggle -> giggled

    • I have trouble with Rhir and Flos chapters. It just feels like you’re not excited about their story and I struggle to stay interested. All the other storylines are great and I’m so happy to have tons of great reading material.

    • He’s an insane man in a crazy kingdom. We theorize that his insanity is shielding him from some passive minds affects from the Blighted King

      • Thinking the ‘Blighted’ part of the Blighted King is his mind. I’d imagine all that Blight in his land has to go/take form somewhere and the King seems way to obsessed on expansion.

        And yeah hard for the King to infect Tom with his madness when he is already insane. Betting Tom is going to try out some of that A’ctelios meat in the future.

        • Maybe there are forms of “The Corruption” that are mental, not physical? Maybe the sleeping God is a god of war and this gives him influence?

          • I doubt the Sleeping One is making coherent plans of any sort, or Teriarch would be worried about it. And he’s not so out of touch to not know what’s been going on in Rhir for the last millennium.

            • what scares me the most in this story is the sleeping god and I wholeheartedly support the antinium in needing to kill it but I wonder what happened to all the other gods

              • Earlier in book seven Teriarch seemed to say that the thing sleeping under Rhir was not actually a god, but then refused to explain. Definitely seems like the thing that houses the city of A’ctelios and the thing underneath Rhir are somehow similar, though the one beneath Rhir has so far been portrayed as more dangerous. Perhaps efforts to keep it dormant have been less successful than in A’ctelios. Assuming they are similar, perhaps the sleeping one in Chandrar has its power diluted by the people eating it or something. The ruler of Khelt, Fetohep, said in a previous chapter that whenever A’ctelios would start to wake up it would send tremors across the entire continent of Chandrar. Definitely unclear what exactly they are. The only other clear hint I recall from the story is that the one on Chandrar supposedly resembles monsters that come from the edge of the world. Those monsters are apparently less impressive, but still dangerous, and are hunted at sea by the Drathians if I recall correctly.

  2. New monster, which looks to be a kind of parabolic self-replicator. The being that makes more beings of… not-snakes?

    I have to wonder if, after shrinking-cloning, it can stop to rebuild its mass. How much would a giant like that have to eat to live?

    …Does it have to eat? I’m not sure which would be worse.

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

    The lord is correcting Richard here, but Richard didn’t say anything.

  4. Really clear thay Tom’s mental state is deterioting. I enjoy seeing the bad side of leveling and clases. In most cases class and leveling is more intune with what you are (Erin), in Tom’s case it’s a damn nightmare.

    I think he does it to himself, unconciously.

    • Well, he has this situation not for being a [Clown] which is his Class, but for having the Condition: Lesser Insanity. That’s what twisted his Class into a killer clown-type and turned the manic-depressive Tom into a murderous psychopath.

    • Did we have any hint of him being racist before? I don’t recall any and I’m curious why it would be added now? To make Richard look better? Pirate worried Tom is too sympathetic?

      • Yeah, it comes a bit out of left field here. Maybe to make Tom more flawed and human? Not sure if that’s real racism or just very bad jokes. He wasn’t that funny even when he was sane.

      • Richard’s point of view is that by telling a racist joke, he believes Tom to be somewhat racist. Our viewpoint is different, as we’ve seen nothing to support this other than a single character’s experience. Richard seemed more intent on using this as an example of Tom’s flaws, for the purpose of a greater argument, than labeling him as a racist. Being called ‘somewhat racist’ had the added benefit of catching Tom off-guard and briefly disrupting the persona he has adopted.

  5. Well add the Blighted Kingdom to the list of people going after Erin. Also it really sounds like Trey is going to try and infiltrate Wistram. I wonder if he is going the Earther or new student route since I believe Wistram’s new student batch hasn’t arrived yet.

    Alright there’s definitely some Stockholm syndrome going on there with Rhir’s group. Still wondering what happened to that Earther with an iPhone that appeared in front of a Demon and 15 Rhir soldiers.

  6. Rhir has a great opportunity for a propaganda win by showing the world all the horrors the demons produce.
    Still I’d rather see it in brief snippets rather than full chapters. Rhir and the clown and my suspicion that it’s genocide make Rhir depressing to read about at length.

  7. 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.
    ——
    –This was a very confusing description. I’ve reread it a few times and I’m still not sure what it means. Is it just saying that the colossus is gradually breaking down into smaller titans?

    • As I understand it. Think of how snakee leqve behind there old skins when they grow. This titan does the same just again and again. But the skin it leaves behind isn’t empty its an new titan. Each skin have mass so the titan is lossing some when it does the cloning.

  8. So, I call bull**** on Hayvon and Blighted King’s proposal of a “safe haven” for Earthers. I can’t ever see those lunatics doing such a nice thing without a million strings attached. I’m assuming its gonna be a prison like Winstram, just much much worse since these guys consider the Earthers as mere tools for their “just cause”. It feels like an empty promise to quell their deisres to leave, by baiting them with a vague reward if they behave.

    However. There is a chance, small as it is, that their promise of a safe spot for them is legit. In which case, Erin’s Inn feels like an appropriate choice. Its “safe”, Erin-style. The door can potentially be upgraded with the kingdom’s expertise (+ Dragon) until it reaches Rhir, which would lead to shenanigans with the Antinium. Liscor is a known Earther “hometown” due to Joseph. The city is currently being renovated, which means that investments from the Blighted Kingdom would not be that suspicious, especially with the Antinium there. We have a slew of high-level patrons that could provide a form of security for the guests. I can see it working, and would facilitate the plotline merges that are already happening.

    All this aside, how the hell is the Demon King a threat to the world? From what we know, the Blighted Kingdom has no control over Rhir’s full coastline, plus it’s been stated here and in Strategists at Sea that Drowned Folk trade with Demons, ergo they have ports. Where are the massive Demon Armadas sailing to corrupt other continents? Are they like the Antinium with no knowledge and desire to sail off elsewhere? Are they unable to leave due to the corruption or something? If so, their threat is local at best. The actual world threats are Crelers and the other nasty critters our sleeping buddy cooks up in Rhir’s basement.

    Also, I vote for Tom as the sleeping God’s Avatar. I’m sure they’ll get along swimmingly, given their twisted taste.

    • It’s what Tom said- a promise, a bit of hope. It’s a mirage and a leash and it isn’t real until we see concrete progress

    • I am under the impression that they will be using the safe haven to conduct their mass summoning ritual to lessen the price of the 10,000 unborn they would otherwise have to pay. They could then use the location to train up high level individuals under the tutelage and watch of Rhir’s allies, with assimilated Earthers such as Richard for them to model themselves after.

  9. Since the author asked; not a fan of the Clown. Not a fan of Rhir. Tom’s an asshole, but he’s also right about the genocidal intentions of Rhir; makes it hard to care who wins their war.

    I snoozed right through the introduction of all the foreign soldiers. I’m expecting most of them to die.

    • I’m in agreement here. All the new characters seem interesting enough, but they’re not in a vacuum, they’re competing for attention with every other character written so far, so I already resent them. If the next chapter offhandedly killed them all off in a single paragraph and continued on without mentioning Rhir, I wouldn’t even mind. I’d have probably loved these characters if they’d shown up in say, Izril, being recruited by Ilvriss. I actually had my hopes up that’s where the chapter was heading early on.

      And Rhir in general feels too… flanderized? Other conflicts feel way more fleshed out. The humans, goblins and drakes have legitimate grievances with eachother and none of it seems black and white. But in Rhir? The blighted king and his war is clearly evil. He’s worse than Belavierre. There’s nothing to sympathize with there. He’s willingly risking destruction of the entire world, so you can’t even argue it’s an ‘ends justify the means’ scenario. I’m not even sure the demons are a threat to anyone outside of Rhir, let alone that they’re an existential threat that could justify multitudes of war crimes, as the goblins or antinium might be.

      I do like the concept of Rhir, broadly speaking. I want to know more about the antinium, the blight, the demons… but I feel no investment in anyone there right now, even the ones like Tom that got fleshed out a bit more. With him the issue is more just… he’s too random. It feels like nothing that happens to him is going to have any impact on what he does in the future anyways. Whether he watches all his friends die or saves them all and gets hailed as a hero, he still might kill anyone on either side the next day. It’s like trying to get excited about lightning randomly striking and killing people.

      • On that note do you think that his plan to make things more fair is to draw babys from the entire world and not just Rhir?

      • I agree with Big I and Stormlock. I really don’t like Rhir orTom. However, if there had to be a chapter about both, at least it wasnt from Tom’s POV. The only Erin-light I see is that Izril’s Drakes and Gnolls become more cosmopolitan, ie. more accepting of other races and Necromancers.

      • “worse than Belavierre”…
        Okay, here is why I think you are wrong.

        Belavierre wants ONE person to get ahead and is willing to commit evil atrocities just to bait her into becoming a great [Witch Paladin] or something. Belavierr is ancient and has committed atrocities for thousands of years, without remorse and having a conscience.

        The Blighted King now, is willing to commit evil atrocities so that his people survive an extinction war (which may not be the case, but it’s his belief!) after having seen for centuries how generation after generation gets killed. Look how he scaled down his grand designs in this chapter? He is “only” going to kill 1% of the babies he wanted to kill in 6.68. Yes it still makes him the bad guy doing the wrong thing, but he does it fully knowing that it will weigh on his conscience, and he has tasked his mages to explore less deplorable options.

        Also, really, after 5000 years of war you eventually stop exploring diplomatic options. I am extremely certain that this is not a war that you can simply stop, not even gradually within the next 100 years. The Blighted Kingdom has encroached on the Demon Kingdom for thousands of years with an unstoppable building machinery, the Demons would be fools to believe a diplomatic offering. And vice versa.

      • On the topic of the newly introduced characters being recruited by Ilvriss, that seems likely at some point in the future. Now that Ilvriss has been advised to consider recruiting veterans from Rhir, some of those characters seem like likely recruits when/if they return home (and if most of their commands get wiped out and they get injured, they might be returning home early).

        On the topic of Demons being a local or a global threat, I think we haven’t seen the true power of the Demons yet. Lord Hayvon seems to suggest that the Demon King is nearly on par with the Blighted King, so much so that wasting a single skill before the Demon King makes a real move could tip the balance of the war for a few decades. If we consider that Hayvon thinks of the King of Destruction a complete non-threat, still a ways below the Blighted King in level, then the possibility of the Demon King being a powerful foe is at least credible. While we have not seen evidence that the Demons would actually try to conquer the world, it seems likely that the demons are more powerful than most nations to have held against the Blighted Kingdom’s best efforts for thousands of years. In a previous chapter Wistram ranked the King of Destruction as the 8th most likely cause of the end of the world (if I remember correctly). I do not recall if the entire list was mentioned (I don’t think it was), but the demons were probably higher on the list than Flos. And while we actually have reason to believe that Flos would try to conquer the world (again), the Demon King presumably makes Flos look very killable by comparison.

  10. Slightly boring chapter. Too much fluff and I dozed off in between. It could have been simply one or two paragraphs before the real meat at the end.

  11. Damn. i had truble geting invested in the chapter. So much is happening with erin \ the [doctor] so i wanted to know more! and allready the last chapter was about something different =(

    Still good stuff.

    how are the monsters called? Crelers or crewlers?

  12. Does anyone else get the feeling The Blighted King may drop the ritual on another city somewhere in Innworld without telling anybody? Make them pay the cost of his 10,000 unborn for 10,000 Earthlings? Cause that’s the vibe I was getting.

    • From the use of ‘fairer’ by the Blighted King, it sounds like the next ritual will sacrifice unborn children across the world since the Earthers also get distributed that way.

      I still think the ritual won’t do the same thing again with bringing Earthers, as it just keeps looking worse and worse for the reliability of the ritual, but the sacrifice will likely still happen. A certain pregnant couple in Pallass will probably get hit.

      • I Fear that I have to agree with you about everything! Especially (and God I hope we are both Wrong), the pregnant couple in Pallass. Yes I am talking about Lasica and Rufelt’s unborn child.

        I believe than when finally the Earthers became known to the rest of the world, most of the inhabitants will become hostile to them one reason or another, like the Twins “waking” up the King of Distraction, the Golden Triangle, Baking Soda, and maybe the invention of Hot Weapons (Gunpowder). Than when they learn about the ritual, it may outright start a manhunt over the Earthers.

        The thing to note is that when the Earthers become public knowledge, one does not need to be a genius to figure out that Erin is an Earther, due to all her oddities. And while I am sure that Erin will be able to weather out anyone against her, Lasica and Rufelt will be the most painful of all to her. Not because they would have gone after her, but because they may cut all contacts with her.

        Again this is not because they would have blamed her for the dead of their unborn child, but because every time they see her, an Earther, they would remember consistently the reason of their unborn child dead. And since Erin consider very close friends (and parental figures to a lesser extent), this may devastate her more then if they had themselves just died, putting another crack on Erin’s psychic.

        • Earthers being hunter to death would be odd, they are straight victims here, Rhir on the other hand may actually face dire consuquences for the ritual.

          I do agree that when the apparently high leveling speed of Earthers becomes known, and that a bunch of “new” inventions come from them that they will be sought after. It should even out the disparity in knowledge from Wistram hoarding what it can.

          It is also important to remember that guns are being invented across the world, remember how Magnolia told us about her sabotaging attemps to create them that she discovers. Doomed to fail of course, but she is just trying to buy time for the knowledge to spread more evenly so that some nation does not use the advantage to sweep their neighbours before they catch up.

          • I am saying that some people will not be happy about them. Yes there will be those who will sought after them for the technologies and other things that come from Earth, but just like Celum’s Bakers who were not happy about Baking Soda, there will be others who will not like them for similar things.

            Add as well the people who suffered due to the Golden Triangle, and those who in the future will eventually suffer and those who will become the victims to other things that come from Earth, like Guns, and you will have a majority of people who will dislike them enough for some of them to kill Earthers, regardless of the Earthers being victims in all of this as well. At the very least there will be those who will have a similar if not outright worse horrible racist attitude like Lism, over the Earthers.

            Even Magnolia once said that if there will be a World War, it will happen because of the Earthers in some way or another, which will be another reason for some people to hunt them.

            Also, IF the Blighted Kingdom will Really perform the ritual across the world, I believe that they will have a counter measure to not face the dire consequences for it, like blaming it on the Demons or maybe Othius IV has a Level 50 Skill that could make the majority think that it was a necessary sacrifice or something?

      • A Skill that causes every pregnancy to become twins, [fertile kingdom] or the like… and then the ritual takes the life of one of them?

  13. It’s going to be fun learning about more from Rhir, especially since it’ll provide more canon knowledge about it for the fanfic that i’m writing. Also, Level boosting is strong for [Heroes]. I gotta keep that in mind. took about a half a year for Richard to go from level 26 almost to level 40, and that’s assuming that they haven’t been in combat all the time. Although, that might just be the nature of Rhir- High Danger, Fast Leveling when you fight.

    Now, I looked at the Chapter Timelines. Erin had just hit level 18 the chapter before the phone call, which is when Richard said he was level 26. Erin is now officially a higher Level than Richard, so perhaps the [Hero] class does NOT improve leveling speeds. Either that, or he’s seen very little combat due to the nature of him being important. We also have to consider that Erin has seen a lot of danger, and has Leveled as [Innkeeper] as a result of her tribulations.

    It begets a question. If Erin is leveling faster in Izril than Richard is in Rhir, then he must be encountering less danger then she has, else the [Hero] class would not have improved Class Leveling. since Rhir is described as much more dangerous than the rest of the world (And yes, Erin had to deal with Crelers, and a Dungeon, and Goblin Armies, and all sorts of things), then Rhir should be the best place to be to level up, especially on someone from Earth, that is, if you’re a fighter.

    If Richard had spent as much time in the Demon Lands fighting monsters and Demons as I think Erin has spent dealing with her own shenanigans, then I feel like he should realistically be around level 55 right now, maybe even higher. And you can’t even bring up the fact that he’s multi-classing [Hero] and [Knight], because we all know that Erin has [Warrior] and [Singer] Levels, 8 between the two. Overall, at least from the Wiki at this time, she has 52 Levels between her three classes.

    So. Of people that come from Earth, who likely have an advantage on Leveling from ordinary people from this world, Those who encounter Danger (Which is also a modulator of Experience) regularly can expect to have roughly 50 Levels in 3/4s of a year. Erin Solstice entered this world in the Autumn, and has leveled that much since.

    I forgot- Class importance and Sway impacts how fast you level, too. Let’s say [Emperor] is a top tier class. Laken is Level 20, last we heard, and also has 9 Levels in [Beast Tamer] He’s encountered his share of trouble, between building an Empire, dealing with Witches, Goblins, etc. He’s also been here since Wintertime, remember, since he came in when the Avalanche happened. we’ll say that from Time flow mechanics, presuming he came in at the same time as Erin, he’d have an extra Season of Experience, and would likely have an extra 7-10 Levels in [Emperor]. Now, a Hypothetical 30 levels to Erin’s 44 in terms of main classes. That’s a decent difference, and perhaps enough to counterpoint my statement about Richard’s [Knight] Class being a lower level now than Erin’s [Innkeeper]

    What We know here is this: People in this world can expect to reach Level 30 by roughly the age of 30, assuming they put effort into the class, and also take side classes along the way. Earthers can Reach Level 30 in about a Year in any class that they choose as their main class, assuming that they don’t just hodgepodge 19 million classes like Lyonette tried to do. In the span of a Year or Two, any Earther who endures and Hypothetically lasts that long fighting stronger and stronger things could literally become Gods in their own right. Think about hitting Level 100 in two years, after fighting your way up there. Nothing can stop you.

    And that leads me to a theory. There are two types of Gods, perhaps even three, in this world. Firstly, we have otherworldly beings. I don’t mean Earthers. I mean Outrealmers of a sorts. The kind of beings that some might consider of Cthulhu mythos or similar. Beings that don’t quite die when you kill them, which is what I assume A’ctelios is. Gods that might go dormant, but their power Oozes, causing illness in the world around them. Maybe the Kind of God that sleeps under a continent of Blight? Secondly, you have People who were Earthers thousands of Years ago. People That became Gods through Willpower and Abuse of the System. People that might include strangers appearing to OTHER Earthers during Winter Solstices, trying to regain power. People like Tamaroth, God of Rulers? and the third is that there is/are (an) actual God(s), that created this world. That much is Implied a couple of Chapters ago by Teriarch-who cuts off of saying that the God underneath Rhir is NOT a god, at least in his Draconic Scope of understanding. If something of that magnitude IS NOT a God, then what is? Something that created this world, and the System that guides it?

    Anyways, I’m done postulating. I posted this mostly to Elaborate on the Difficulties of Leveling, as well as the speed by which you could expect to level in this world, presuming that you really tried, and faced Challenges. Considering that it is a Dangerous world, that you would be without challenges is unlikely, hence why I said that You could expect to be level 30 in any class after a year. Good luck out there, and in case you were curious about my fanfic of the wandering inn, i post it on AO3, under the username Remvis. It follows a [Monster Hunter] [Swashbuckler] named Max who gets dropped in Rhir. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

    • I don’t think the leveling speed of the Earthers is any faster than others to be honest. Its all about their will and the challenge they survive. Opening a new path, facing difficulties like noone before is also a good way to get exp. Look at the actors of Celum. They are natives with classes before actor and still they leveled in a flash, like 20 a month. The secretary or something in Pomle also said that she leveled super fast because of the difficulty. Earthers lvl fast because they have to survive in a completely different world with only the stuff they had on em. Those who were carried or protected by others stayed low lvl, like those in Cara’s group. Teriarch also said that he had seen higher lvl ppl than Erin at her age. Though of course they got 20 years not 1.

    • Powerful classes level slower than others. All the [Noble] and [Royal] classes level far slower. But they are recognised to have more the intrinsic power and more freedom in choice of focus. A Level 30 [King] can match or rival a Level 60 [Mayor] in his own city which was the example given. That is why the [King of Destruction] – who is in his 50’s is considered such a threat.

      A [Knight] is lower nobility and is likely slower to level than [Innkeeper] unless in constant conflict.

      I see Erin gaining a unique class like the [Quarass] if she continues this way. I mean – no [Innkeeper] goes about charging at the head of a [Banner], leading a bunch of [Knights] and adventurers. She got [Bannerlady] for that before she rejected it. The God’s [Game System] is likely struggling to find something that will fit her class evolution.

    • Erin has been facing a variety of dangers, as well as actually using her innkeeper class to run an inn. Richard, otoh, has been doing “training” missions where he’s well protected from dying, and probably facing the same kind of demons over and over again, and that probably reduces the experience gained. I don’t see any problem with Erin leveling faster, it makes sense.

      Also, I don’t remember Tery saying it wasn’t a god, just that what Ryoka was describing about Rhir wasn’t all correct.

      • “And you are wrong about one thing. Rhir. That is not a—your understanding is incomplete.”

        Teriarch changes his speech abruptly to not speak of it like how the Quarass/Fetohep speak of A’ctelios. So it is probably just another Old One like being that was able to bind with the world.

        It has also been hinted that there was/is another one on Baleros that led to the creation of Gazers. I’m also thinking that Selphids origin is also from over the Edge of the World and perhaps that the deep beings the Drowned Folk are oathed to are also like that.

    • You’re wrong! Every class is fair. There’s just less royal stuff to do when they are so many. It’s supposed to be for the few anyway, everyone can’t be king etc.

      As for the hero class making them level fast, you’re wrong again. It was said they levelled faster, doesn’t mean they do. Pretty clear in the narrative that those heroes, which are out of innworld btw, level faster because of different circumstances surrounding their presence in innworld and meanings/opinions/actions differing from the masses, than from being a mere hero.

      Enjoyed the chapter tons pirate wp.

      And to this guy that im replying, think before spreading your misinformed opiniom to others

    • Love all the speculation, Nogard! And I think you are spot on with different classes leveling at different rates. One thing that I might add is how the absurd defensive fortifications on Rhir probably make it safer most of the time (when you are behind the 4th wall, much less the inner walls) than many places might normally be. I imagine monsters are much less common behind the walls (which span the entire continent and make the Walled Cities look puny by comparison) than they are around Liscor, even if Rhir remains legendarily dangerous. When you think about the size of those walls, and consider how large the garrisons would have to be to maintain their defensive readiness, we are talking about millions of soldiers per wall at the very least. The numbers get ridiculous when you start extrapolating, raising questions about how absurdly OP the Blighted Kingdom must be in terms of population, food production capacity, and dominance in skilled trades, even if they are receiving supplies from the entire world. Unless the Demon King commits to a true offensive, using his precious skills that could determine the course of the war for decades to come, the walls hold back nearly everything Rhir has to offer. It takes a world-changing event like a true Demon offensive, or the True Antinium with hundreds of Queens leading them, or the Creller’s first emergence, to punch through the walls of the Blighted Kingdom. Lord Hayvon probably has to keep scheduling Richard and the others to ‘train’ by visiting the fake 5th wall somewhat regularly for them to continue leveling at all. Any combat related class just isn’t going to level much if they are being protected by the Death Star-level infrastructure of the 4th Wall.

      The other thing to note with leveling is the rate at which non-Earthers level when faced with extreme adversity. We know that most people never reach level 30, so it seems like an exaggeration to say that hard work and determination are enough to reach 30 by age 30. Peslas was the highest level innkeeper in Liscor until Erin surpassed him, and we know he reached level 30 a bit later in life despite being a hard worker with a keen mind for the business. Ilvriss considered having just one inn of that quality in a city as comparatively small as Liscor to be somewhat impressive. We know that those who reach level 30 at all are outliers in the total population of Innworld.

      It is really hard to figure out exactly how leveling works because of all the variables involved. The most impressive rate of leveling mentioned so far for a native Innworlder is probably Zel Shivertail. If I remember correctly, during the Antinium Wars when he became known as the Tidebreaker, Zel went from level 18 or something to high-gold rank (low 40s I think) in 2-3 months of endlessly defending against waves of Antinium (would have to double-check to be sure of the exact numbers). That seems way more extreme than what Earthers have gone through to make similar gains, but Zel was facing the same enemy the entire time, and he did jump 20+ levels in half the time it took Erin to cover the same ground. Plus, general is probably a much more powerful class than most others. Still, it is very difficult to directly compare rates of leveling because of these complications. Earthers seem to have an advantage leveling, but how much of an advantage and why they have it remains unclear.

      Another point about the rate of leveling is that we know Innworld is going through a low-level phase. The world hasn’t been threatened by truly world-threatening adversity in at least a thousand years, so the height of people’s levels and skills is lower than it used to be, meaning far fewer gold ranks and named adventurers and equivalents. How much this changes the average level in Innworld is unclear, but there are fewer high-level individuals than there used to be. Speculatively, Earthers might level faster simply because everything is new to them. What feels normal to native Innworlders feels like hard mode to Earthers. If the leveling system measures adversity, at least in part, relative to someone’s experience, then Earthers might be getting more adversity credit for the same actual amount of danger. Just one theory on the reason for Earther leveling advantage.

      My final point about levels regards talent that was already developed before leveling at all. Erin and Richard are outliers even among Earthers. Most have not cracked level 30. The Bushrangers under Daly in Baleros are in their 20s, despite seeing consistent action since arriving in Innworld. Luan and Dr. Scala seem to be in their 30s, and that difference between them and the Bushrangers seems to be due to their skills (not to be confused with Skills). Both Luan and Dr. Scala had trained at their respective jobs before coming to Innworld. Their classes are built around things they were already good at. Richard, a [Knight] in the high 30s, already knew how to ride a horse well, among other things. The same probably explains in part the progress of Tom, Erin, and any other Earthers who cracked 30 as fast as they did. In addition to Earthers potentially experiencing greater adversity than native Innworlders, they also have all of their life experiences contributing to their levels. Native-born Innworlders never gained skills or experience outside of the leveling system. Earthers come with skills and experience that their levels don’t account for at first, and have to catch up to. The Bushrangers under Daly were not combat veterans for the most part before coming to Innworld. Their leveling seems due to adversity and some ingenuity. Scala and Luan had both adversity and a tremendous skillset that the leveling system needed to account for. So, class-compatible experience from Earth + added adversity seems like the formula for a 30+ level Earther in 6-9 months.

      • I think a part of “slow levelling” for Innworld inhabitants is that they don’t actually level slowly. But that they take all the levels they are offered by the system. Notice how most Earthers level mostly in only one class. Some of them outright refuse other or even all classes. As we have seen people who actually want to level in their class and put a lot of effort into it rise very fast no matter who they are – Players of Celum for example.

        It seems to tie in into what Ryoka and Klbch were discussing about classes – overall number of levels in all the classes determines how much “experience” you need to level next. So a level 20 soldier and 5 warrior/5 accountant/5 singer/5 baker will need more or less the same amount of experience. But higher level classes give much more power at around 10 level increment. So unless your low level classes have synergies – like what Ilvriss is doing with raising elite soldiers from his miners – you will be much weaker than pure class person.

        Consider Selys who at the start of the story had comparatively decent overall level but was pretty unfocused. She did her work well but didn’t have many aspirations and didn’t push herself. On the other hand right now her overall level is something like 35+ with Heiress growing pretty fast as she is putting her money to good use and trying to find other parts of the set.

  14. Soooo the summoning ritual used the power of miracles, which is God’s domain, prolly meaning the Earthers have connection to the dead and not so dead Gods. That explains why were they all visited during the Solstice. So the key to the God’s return are also the Earthers. Interesting stuff.
    Also i really want to see the Demon’s side in this fight. It seems like they are basically the same as the humans, just more “corrupted”. I don’t understand why are they in peace with the monsters though?
    To be honest Rhir isn’t a fun place and the cast here is …uh….boring. The only exception is Tom, but he is way too insane, and the rest are just so normal and bland that I don’t think i will be able to remember their names for more than 2 chapters. Its hard for me to say this but this was a chapter in a long while that I couldn’t read easily in one setting. But it also feels like a prelude to something so maybe thats why.

    • The monster girl from Esthelm was great. I was skimming through some older chapters and teared up when her grave was mentioned. But like that nurse was saying, it doesn’t seem like Tom is actually struggling with his cursed skill. He’s just given up and going along with it. Like he’s 20% actually crazy and 80% pretending to be crazy for the attention.

      • My knee-jerk reaction was “people don’t actually do things like that just for attention – when they’re acting in attention-grabbing ways, it’s usually because they genuinely need help” – in the vein of people who accuse those who cut themselves as doing it for attention, I was offended.

        That being said, I think Tom has realized how utterly hopeless and depressing his situation is, even more so because his friends can’t seem to see it, and so laughing is the only way he can keep himself from suicidally shutting down. Rather than saying that it’s either calculated action or mental illness, I think it’s more just a semi-rational defensive tactic taken to necessary extremes. The part of the discussion where he mentions gassing enemy soldiers and Richard’s only response is to try to recruit more? That was heart-wrenching.

      • That joke, or have the girl Tom was leaning on at the end start calling him Mr. T, or have them start calling things Schway for absolutely no reason at all.

        Come on Richard, WhY sO sErIoUs?

  15. I don’t like the Clown, but that’s not why I hate Clown chapters. The Blighted King and his court are ridiculously stupid. Impossibly stupid. I guess that’s why we get the perspective from the Clown, but I can’t stand reading it. It drags the story down. The Blighted King is cartoonish writing.

    I wish we had another perspective of Rhir, just not at the cost of even less Erin/Ryoka/Horns. I wish the Blighted King would be rewritten.

    • I honestly can’t square a character that has lived for centuries and competently fought an endless war with someone who thinks tearing open reality and destroying the entire world is an acceptable risk to beat his current enemies on a continent that has spawned new monsters out of nothing for tens of thousands of years. What’s the plan, just risk destroying the world every 50 years to replace each generation with more heroes to continue the endless fighting?

      • He may be like that since he has lived for so long. He is used to outliving nearly everyone around him and seems to have only fought this war for as long as he has lived. This could mean that he has become detached from every other country and winning the war has become his obsession even if he has to harm everyone else, such as when he drags people from another world to fight his wars or thinks of them as only weapons

      • I totally can. You can see how people get grounded in the wrong beliefs with age, and are slower to change them the older they are. Someone who spent literally centuries confirming his core obsession will have an incomprehensibly strong beliefs, that would just not shatter, ever. Someone like that just may come to a conclusion that no world is better than the world with a thing that he hates. I fail to see how you fail to square, honestly. We all like to pretend that with age comes the wisdom, but that’s often not true. The point is to risk some unknown and vague “world boundaries” for the sake of ending the threat of Rhir once and for all. That is an acceptable trade for some.

      • He is obsessed. He lived for hundreds of years trying to win and he can’t. See how he thinks and behaves. Everything he does is for the goal. For him winning matters more than leaving something behind. He may be playing lip service to the lives of his subjects but if we look at his actions the Kingdom and its citizens matter only as long as they can be made useful to deal with demons. Unless some crisis really shakes him up he won’t even ever admit it.

        Consider how he talked about summoning new people from Earth. Mages warned him that if they pour too much power it may even open a stable or semi-stable portal going both ways and he didn’t even consider the ramifications of that except in the light of possibility of other world having more people and weapons to fight the demons.

        Even though the most likely possibility is that all main players at UN just gonna vote for sending a pacifying force against a country that abducted their citizens.

        TL;DR: Blighted King is more crazy than Tom, he just pretends to be normal.

  16. I think the idea that the demons aren’t evil incarnate is a red herring. The new monster, combined with the reference to previous new monsters like the Crelers, means the beginning of a new age of huge crisis like Teriarch referred to. The next few years in Innworld are going to be full of death and unusually high levels.

  17. I love the [Clown] and I love what he represents. He probably _gets it_ at least as much as Teriarch. Must be hard to write him without giving too much away.

  18. I think the demons are more like the ants… But drifting in and out of the “corruption” for reason of being friendly or monsters.

    Klb had stated the problems of corruption spreading through infecting some of them. There have been points where it had been referenced as the birth of new monsters and new problems that tainted the world. (Aka why they tried to settle, why the gave up, and why they went back.)

    Demons might be like the ants by having the lower ranks like unnamed antium. Sort of sentient, but missing something. Then various levels experiences and distance from the tainted demon heart helps out.

    The bigger question is how they are able to keep using monsters? At first it sounded like beast tamers…. But if they go in where monsters are born and can use crewlers… Then there is something wrong with them since everyone feels the urge to kill the bugs.

    Especially since attempts at beast master tame does not work and their armor/chitton is poisonous, or cursed in some tainted way.

    The druids did want to kill every antium until they found out the “free ants” had individuals instead of the “one will, one swarm” but going for them.

    As for why demons protect the heart? Maybe they believe they are doing a better job? So long as nobody messes with or tries to kill the heart there will not be a new plague after the demons?

    Sort of like how a certain eldritch like entity is left “alone” in the desert as everyone agrees that it is dead and the people tending to the head are doing a good job dealing with it. Not that it might have started to wake up and influence the people living inside of it of course.

  19. We may risk another world meeting ours. But then two worlds will battle the foe.
    Seriously? There sure is a risk of teaming up, but the foe woud not be the one you think.

    Then you have experience. Moreover, both forces are Izrilian.
    Ha, ok then. The inability to consider the reality of other people is a national trait then.

    • It’d be like putting Medieval French and English soldiers under the same command because they’re all from Europe.

    • Yeah, I have to agree here. The guy ourtight abducts the children of another world, has them killed by accident or throwing them into his war that said other world has virtually no stakes in whatsoever and now plans to do it all over, caring nothing for the lives he’s ruining.
      …And he seriously thinks Earth’s nations will side with him instead of…you know…nuke his place out of existence to stop children from randomly disappearing?

      • That would depend on what Innworld has to offer. Call me cynical, but some people would consider the loss of a few children perfectly ok, if it means more money and/or power. As long as it is not their own, of course.

  20. Describing what the new monsters are doing as “cloning” is unnecessarily confusing. What they are doing is a form budding.

    Also, i suspect the the juggalos are going to try eating the little ones before they can grow,

    Personally i found this chapter intriguing. And i don’t mind the large number of characters, it’s appropriate to the size of the work.

  21. [Clown] chapters are always hard for me, but there were a lot of interesting side details in this one.
    1) Rhir has ways of enforcing loyalty on people. (“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.”). Reminds me of the Mule in the Foundation trilogy.
    2) The corruption changes how people look, but not necessarily who they are (Quiteil). We haven’t gotten a demon POV story and they may be simply fighting for survival. Outward appearance is such a stupid way of judging – beautiful people can be monsters as easily as the ugly. But this is SO recognizable.
    3) Rhir views kidnapping people to die in their war as morally acceptable, and thinks all the summoned people belong to Rhir. This is sick beyond words. Somebody needs to get out with the truth and organize a rescue mission. It’s likely that at least a few Earthers ended up in demon-controlled territory – I hope they survived and can tell their story.
    4) Rhir is beginning to feel like northern Ireland, the Balkans and Nazi Germany thrown in a dumpster and set on fire.
    It’s tough to read, but well done Pirate.

  22. I like Rhir, and I enjoy the Clown. I’m interested in seeing Tom struggle with his insanity. This chapter, though, makes it look like Tom has given up on the struggle. He’s stopped trying. I’m hoping we’ll see him inspired to work against his insanity. It’ll probably happen through tragedy, or end in tragedy, but it keeps him a compelling character.

  23. I liked this chapter, it’s good to get another look at Rhir.

    I’m conflicted about Tom, I like him, he is clever, observant and cuttingly direct and while insane is the only one who seems to have a sane view of the conflict. On the other hand, the insanity is a shtick I’m not too fond of. I mean I get it, I can see what he is doing but all this “maniacal laughter until you puke or pass out” is annoying and it handicaps the story more than the character IMO.

    A whole new cast of side characters may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but Rhir is too big to tackle with a cast of coddled Earthers and two ancient eternals who are so old and obsessed with single minded hate that they are no more than caricatures. I’m looking forward to see how this new group will fare in the story, assuming any of them survive this battle. I like Rhir, it’s the closest we get to an actual Deathworld- All of Innworld is one, but it’s much more pronounced on Rhir with the eternal enemy that, so far in the eyes of everyone, is a perfectly evil one the world can unite against. You are born to fight and there is no rest until you die.

    As a whole I’m happy with this chapter, it fleshed out Rhir a little, the Earther’s situation and set the groundwork for future chapters with some interesting insights into the military.

  24. Okay theory time
    That might be a long post, who I am kidding it will be. Why I am doing that to myself?

    The Idea that if the world enters in contact, earth people would help Rhir in its war with the demon was so blatantly absurd that it confuses me. The king is a very old capable man and Pirateaba is too good to make such lousy writhing. But after thinking about it, in context it makes a lot of sense.

    I believe the king of Rhir suffer from a major hero and martyr belief. Maybe not in those precise medical term, I am no psychologist but essentially, he thinks that he is a kind of holy man on a crusade again ultimate evil and can do no wrong in the pursuit of that goal. He also believes that the entire world not only should but must give their all to support his cause. They have to as he is the champion that preserve them for all evil. The one that don’t are fool that don’t see the obvious. Worst he seems to consider his battle and his woes are the only one that matter in the world, all the rest is noise.

    If that sound stupid, it is because it very much is. Yet I see it everywhere in this chapter and his people share that trait. Now to explain my theory.

    First, I would mention that a lot of things make that possible.
    Despite receiving help and reinforcement from all part of the world Rhir is an extremely secluded nation with the fact nobody would want to visit and judging by their interaction with irregular. They either keep them back as a kind of decoration that nobody cares about or keep them in unit make of mostly just irregular. They mix and interact as little as possible. In simple word they had basically no interest in them. This can be seen as the team of necromancers of Rhir was surprised that the drake of Izril were not ok with necromancy. They did not know and were not informed. Just how disconnected must they be for that to happen?

    Nor do they care about them enough to consider them as more than spare sword. I take that from the fact that Bastion-General Quiteil have taken two extremely stupid decision by any standard, that can only be justified two-way if he is given credit that he is not incompetent. They were deliberate insult, which do not seem to fit his personality. Or he just considered their history and preference inconsequential, which no sane commander should ever do. Because, to him they were merely noise, not deserving attention.
    The gnoll and drake have been at war? That no true war like ours.
    They have been at it for a while? We have fought for far longer; your are a blip in history.
    Some drake had lost family and fiend to gnoll, same go for gnoll to drake? So, what, we lost far more, your losts are irrelevant you crybaby.
    So, you are traumatized of undead after your continent got ravaged by somebody that was a menace for entire nation? We don’t care, we know monster, you are silly.

    Those are not even the only occurrence of such dismissal of the reality of other, simply some of the most major. They so persuaded that their woes and difficulty are more important that those of other that they somehow persuaded themselves that the problem of other are nothing more that the crying of children.

    They also think they are basically better in all way. We know level better than anybody. We know necromancy better that you. You don’t know antinium, we do. You don’t have seen real discipline if you do not do exactly like us. That bullshit, more part of the hero complex. They are the champion the only one that can stand the trial of Rhir, the best. Sure, they are good, but that do not mean that the rest of the world is incapable to archive or understand anything.

    Then come their own belief that the fight that they are fighting is inherently good and just. It may actually be true; this is not a post to discuss the nature of demon and the new monster are a danger. However, the people have been fighting for so long and so fiercely that it is an integrated part of their society they have simply stopped thinking about it at all. Like they do not question that the three major group that can have contact with the demon do not want to fight them and even commerce with them. They are just stupid and foolish. They do not question method if it kills demon it is good, regardless if it is an insane clown that stab his own people. They do not even contemplate that some of their people turn traitor to demon. Or that they themselves are capable of committing horror. The king does not consider that some earther could hand up in demon territory and be working with demon. Their war is black and white to them as lest.

    Now come the king that have effectively been brainwashed by living Pirateaba know how many years in this wonderful environment. He believes his own propaganda more than anybody. He is in his mind the only thing that keep Rhir from falling as he has no worthy successor. If Rhir fall obviously, indubitably the world will also fall to the horror of Rhir, as who but them can fight them. Then to him risking the world do not really matter as if he or Rhir fall it is much the same. He also is persuaded that his fight is so justified, so great and so important that this new world will obviously want to support him, failing to consider a few million of thing along the way. One of them is the possibility that earth may be more powerful than Rhir. One other is that they just may strangely be slightly unhappy about him endangering their world, kidnapping and causing the dead of many of their young, or dragging them in a war that absolutely did not consider them. The funny thing is I genuinely believe he did not even consider the last point, he is so used that other nation support Rhir that he came to consider that the natural order of thing, or have come to consider that that tiny number of people dying irrelevant. Honestly, he is basically committing act of war again earth and expecting them to be grateful enough of it for them to help him in a costly war. That insane, so it led me to believe he actually is insane.

    If earth meet him, I know it be war and I think he will die.

    I also have another theory.
    I think that his plan to make the ritual fairer and his ‘’’safe’’ home for the earther is the same. If he organizes a base in a walled city or a Terandria nation. The two option share some fact, one of them is there is a lot of people in those places. A lot of unborn babies to be. It would be fair as they barely contribute to the war and their support have fallen in latter year. The house of the earther would serve as a perfect cover to bring the mage, it would also serve as a place to train the new arrival to make them useful to the war.
    The funny thing with that is Rhir might just spoil it relation with two worlds in one go.

    Honestly after this chapter I find the people of Rhir a bit pathetic, in the way only the powerful can be.

    How do Pirateaba do 30000 word in two day? I call magic!

    • If Rhir does end up doing another summoning ritual I am hoping that a friend of Erin from earth appears as not much information has actually been revealed about erin’s past on earth. I mean we know that she first learned chess from her farther and that she ended up quitting for a while but other than that we don’t know anymore about her past.
      Also if the summons ritual does connect earth with the innworld, their are three possible ways it could happen: everyone or a Large majority of the Population is summoned, the 2 worlds fuse together or something like portals may ape ear between them.
      Another point to consider however is would there even be anyone on earth to summon in the first place as the people previously summoned, even though they seem to have appeared at the same time, came from different time periods. so either the Ritual summons people on earth from anytime or time moves slower on innworld compared to earth.

      • The nature of the scroll and the rift is creates is a huge clue and I don’t know what it means.

        But it isn’t good.

        I’m curious how it all pulls together.

    • This talk about the Blighted King being killed reminds me of the conversations had about this topic from both Flos and Magnolia. It makes me wonder how well Earth armies could handle their Auras when they’ve never experienced them before. It is already hinted that these [Skills] can be used against crowds and I’d like to see how both sides would be affected if at all. This would be telling when the Ol’ Blighter can inspire loyalty in a group if used effectively. I find there’s a 50/50 chance as it was shrugged off with disgust in this chapter.

  25. I’ll be honest here. Rhir I’m not a fan, it’s fewer chapters from Erin and the King suffers from a major “hero”/”martyr” mentality that makes it cringe to read but also makes him feel somewhat realistic considering man been championing his cause for probably hundreds of years. Same with the new characters. I’m expecting 90% of them to die and I’m not attached I just can’t find the will to remember their names besides the commander has a name that starts with C. Tom is an interesting character, but he isn’t Erin so he’s just there. Perhaps when there are more chapters about him and maybe a hint into his insanity that I will get more interested. He stands at my interest between edge of pre-edge Ryoka and the Ryoka with the fae.

  26. I’m a fan of the clown chapters! Tom is kind of a jerk, but I can see why he’s falling apart. At least he’s not as bad as Richard.

  27. I’m happy that we’re going to get an arc away from Liscor. As much as I like Erin I feel like so much happens there and characters that I thought were going to get a lot more “screentime” like Laken, Rags, or even Ryoka (who was initial almost a deuteragonist) feel like they’ve been left behind. While I understand that you can write the same amount of time in a lot fewer chapters, it would be a shame to miss out on some of the more personal or detailed growth and changes like we get to see from Erin and co.

    That said I’m nervous about Rhir. I don’t mind the characters, I don’t mind the explanation for how the Earthers got into the story, and I don’t mind that there’s more of a traditional “summoned to defeat the demon king” feel to the continent. I think it’s cool to have a battle-hardened constantly-at-war part of the world stage too, especially when there’s hints that it’s not all so black-and-white when it comes to the demons and the “real” enemy/ies on Rhir. What makes me nervous is the meta stuff. I really don’t want to see the world flooded with Earthers, and while we obviously don’t know that that’ll happen, I’m really hopeful we won’t see the king’s plan carried out, simply because the whole “people from Earth being a big deal in a fantasy world” setting would feel more spread thin than it already is sometimes. I don’t want it to become Earthers vs Innworld, or Earther-led Izril vs Earther-led Baleros or w/e, and I feel that this “innate superiority” that this and other chapters ascribe to people from Earth, that almost sounds inevitable. The story is obviously a progression fantasy, but if rapid growth becomes a built-in thing for any and all Earthers rather than something amazing for a few people, it feels less special to me, and it becomes about “gaming the system,” as King Othius is obviously trying to do.

    Similarly I’m worried that the overall conflict is gonna turn into something about fighting another planet or fighting god or something and take away from the individual relationships and struggles. Obviously our characters are going to get stronger and stronger, and I think the references to the dead gods and their questionable dead-ness has been very well done so far (very creepy). I’m just hoping that they occupy powerful-but-limited roles in the Innworld, rather than branching into a universal scale. While it’s obviously a well-regarded and oft-compared webnovel series, wildbow’s Worm and Ward completely lost my interest whenever the stakes became fate-of-the-multiverse level. The magic of this story to me is in the (relatively) day-to-day fantasy, and in the juxtaposition of that with well-fleshed-out Earth characters like Ryoka and Erin, which is why I worry that any progression of the Rhir plotline is progression towards The End of All Things and related conflict scale creep.

    Sorry about the essay. I’m very much in love with the story, but I wanted to talk about my hopes and fears for its future re:Rhir plotline.

    • I think the main reason why earth era level so quickly is because they can be considered weaker than everyone else due to all the luxury’s they so any improvement they make is bigger and that since they did not have [classes] on earth there growth can be more focused in one direction. People in innworld, when they learn stuff they would gain a class and then or they wanted to go in a different direction they world have to work harder to get that class and firgure out how to fuse them for the best development whereas The people from earth would already have a lot of information about various topics without having a class related to it slowing their growth in the class they want.

      • I think the biggest difference and advantage the earthers have is that they’ve already got skills when they arrive. Innworlders level slowly as children because they have no experience, no abilities to struggle with, so their accomplishments are small. And by the time they’re the age of the Earthers, they’re levelling slowly because they’ve gotten past the early easy levels.

        By comparison, anyone from earth has already had 20 years of experience, including years of education, even if most people got less out of it than Ryoka. I think if someone from Innworld lived until they were 23, running as Ryoka did, and THEN started to accept classes and levels and so forth, they would also skyrocket up in levels very quickly.

        On top of that, by the time someone from Innworld hits say, level 30, most of their skills and abilities are a result of the system, of their class. They’re not really theirs. Maybe that makes them count for less, in the same way Gazi can’t level up because she has some OP armour, most people can’t level past 30 because they’ve got OP (for what they’re trying to do) skills. It’s like the Earthers have a free stat/skill boost from getting so far without a class to begin with, that they’re performing above par for their level even when they’re pushing towards 60 like Erin is.

        • So basically for the people of innworld the system is doing most of the work for them whilst earthers are less reliant on the system making them level faster

          • Pretty much, yes. It’s been shown that being “carried” (in gamerspeak) by anything, be it good equipment/artifacts/bodyguards or friends slows your levelling.

            It’s not much of a stretch to assume that being carried by your own absurdly overpowered [Skills] would also slow your levelling. Even in-universe, Teriarch acknowledged that the [Skill system]] makes a mockery of hard work and effort. For example, think how the King of Destruction only levelled when he was surprised and threatened in a 1v1 duel, not when he was butchering enemy armies that barely outnumbered him 3 to 5 times, which is nothing for a war leader with such powerful [Skills].

    • good news for you then, this isnt a tom chapter, its an everything but tom with snippets about tom. This was a drake commander chapter and a Richard chapter… I was pissed, cause I am a tom fan and this felt very much like a bait and switch

  28. Hedault will make it possible for Erin to open a door in Rhir, which she will want to help, or burn, whatever making enough noise to wake up a god (i mean, if anyone can it’s her…). She’ll convince him that a god is just a glorified chessplayer, playing a game funier as mortal, or far away from innworld.

    Class consolidation -> [Worldkeeper]

    Put Magnolia in a hole of her garden, drowning it until it sprout either flowers or ant-friendly pink lady.

    The end

  29. Did I miss some Clown chapters? Tom sounds like a broken veteran who got a very bad case of PTSD from massacring too many Demon “civilians”. Except that never happened or did it?

    He gained his monster clown class from seeing a human village slaughtered mercilessly by Demons, including the children.
    The next time we saw him it was the arc where he learns about the terrible cost of the summoning ritual but he still didn’t see any atrocities committed against the Demon “civilians”.
    Now, he’s suddenly having a mental breakdown over the thought of killing Demon children and babies when, for all we’ve been shown so far, Demons might actually spawn fully-formed from piles of filth like the Uruk-Hai from the LOTR movie (not the books). Or Antinium.

    Now, I concede that his Blighted Majesty’s plan definitely means a total extermination campaign against the Demons but it’s not like that is even close to happening, the Blighted Kingdom has been losing the war for the past 6,000 years and building a new wall (or ten) won’t shift the balance enough to threaten the Demon’s homefront “civilians”, if they even exist. So why all the drama?

    Tom’s been there for barely a year, seen and suffered almost nothing compared to anyone who grew up in Rhir. Compare that to the suffering of His Blighted Majesty to put things in perspective. I’m not saying the king is right but at least his broken morality has a cause.

  30. Eh. This chapter was really boring to me. I just don’t care about any of the characters in Rhir. None of them are interesting to read, and even Tom’s character only seems to go as deep as ‘crazy clown playing up the crazy because of a terrible situation’. The central conflict just stinks of caricature-level racism vs. mind-control, and the stakes are pretty much non-existent: is the blighted kingdom or the demon kingdom the worse evil? I don’t care.

    There were all sorts of subtle hints here and there in the chapter about things that make no difference to any of the characters or plot-lines I ‘do’ care about, resulting in the chapter being about 26000 words longer than it needed to be to convey what essentially boiled down to ‘Tom is still crazy and depressed, the blighted king is still going to go ahead despite everyone telling him not to, and there’s a new threat coming from the place where threats come from’, all of which we either already knew or didn’t need to be told. Even the world-building, which would normally justify that kind of length, ultimately didn’t yield anything plot-relevant we didn’t already know.

    All of that could be ok if at least the characters were interesting to read, but none of the characters featured in this chapter share anything in common with any of the characters who I do consider interesting to read. It was like a dark and edgy interlude from the real story, but for someone who actually enjoys the real story, the change in tone was nothing but a downgrade. Whatever happens in Rhir has no effect whatsoever on the rest of the world until it does, and when it does, it would be much better to just go over the key details then. Maybe in a couple of paragraphs being shared by a [Reporter] instead of in a bunch of chapters taking us away from the central characters.

  31. Random theory
    Earth and innworld may have been connected or even one world in the past and what ever separated them is responsible for the gods disappearing. This can be supported by the myths and legends on earth. This could also be why the summoning ritual targeted earth.

  32. Hi fellow readers. l have a question. If l skip the King (K) pov, will l be left out of anything important? Cause for me (K) pov are the most boring of all arc, and one chapter is roughly 20k words, and it is hard reading with phone and to keep me continously interested.

    • You can skip all the K chapters in the earlier volumes but they start being plot-relevant in volume 7 as its obvious the main cast is headed for a collision with the King of Destruction.

      • Nice. Thanks Paul. l’m currently on 6.45 after maybe about 1-2 months of on and off reading. So you see, it was a hassle for me to read something that’ll lose my interest. But if possible, l would like to read it all, someday.

    • Eeh, I haven’t read any of the K chapters apart from the first and I’m doing fine reading the up to date stuff. I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything vital. Pirateba does a lot of (and sometimes maybe too much) restating and recapping when things become relevant, so you can often get the broad impression of what’s important even if you haven’t read every single thing.

      I do wish Pirateba did a bit more of the whole X tells someone else what happened to someone else while they were off screen than taking the PoV so we can see what literally happened. Doing so allows you to condence events that otherwise might take thousands of words but aren’t perhaps that compelling or derail or detract from the coherence of the overall work. Recent, if rather minor, example that comes to mind was Ryoka meeting the Silver Swords on the road. Cute but added very little and took surprisingly lot of space. “If I were the editor on this…” 😛

  33. By golly these chapters make me glad the main story follows Erin and the inn. Can you imagine if Rhir was the main setting? It’d be like… every other grimdark fantasy, basically. At least marginally more interested in this arc since Ilvriss’ Operation Periss might recruit some of these characters.

    Hope the mention of two separate Earther groups per continent, then cut to Rhir is a hint there’s likewise an Earther among the Demons. Really want the Blighted King’s ritual to come back to bite him. Though, like most readers, I finished the chapter thinking evil thoughts of the child-sacrificing genocidal tyrant, but upon calmer reflection I feel more sorry for him than anything. Would you want to be in his shoes, living for centuries guarding a hellhole while beloved wives and children die, seeing nothing but a bleak future with no end ahead? Sigh, so grimdark.

    More Gnolls, yay: my pet theory is they’re behind the Golden Triangle. It only makes sense more Gnolls than Krshia have sniffed out Earthers, they’re heavily mercantile, and many probably don’t see a problem with taking gold from Drakes, Humans, or foreigners. If any Gnolls were likewise scammed, well, in any case they plan to present the spoils at Gnollmoot. (My initial knee-jerk thought was Roshal, but frankly they’re so rich why would they bother risking what they already have.)

    And er, completely off topic, but does Erin know Valceif is dead? B/c if not, would be neat if she found his GoS statue (probably b/c she’s thinking of Couriers after recent events), thus confirming the statues don’t depend on her knowledge. He was such a minor character, but still saddened by his meaningless, trivialized death – especially since the direct cause was his being a good guy, helping out a near stranger! Aaah, if only Saliss could discover one of those potions of true resurrection Maviola was talking about.

    Speaking of Saliss/tangents, my mother recently mentioned Alan Turing to me, who of course I knew as a genius, but I’d forgotten he died by suicide after being criminally prosecuted as a homosexual. It’s weird I thought of turnscales, right? I mean this is still a real-world issue too, though thankfully the modern world has mostly moved past criminalizing. Would love for Erin to hear about the turnscale police and be like: “That’s so… antiquated!” adding fuel to Grimalkin’s (and Chaldion’s?) theory she’s a time traveller.

  34. I can’t imagine hating Tom! He’s my fifth favorite character! Please do not remove him, change him, or reduce him! He’s complex, tragic, and a badass. On a side, racist jokes are not “just bad jokes”, they are racist jokes, which are inherently bad. Saying racist jokes are “just bad jokes” take away from those being insulted by them, by making light of the offense. He’s a bit racist, while being sad, disappointing, etc makes him more real. Not all complex characters have all positive complexities. It gives him room to grow.

  35. One of the interesting details that briefly came up was that the demons used to be human, and became demons as a result of corruption or something. So the original demons were people from the Blighted Kingdom or a precursor kingdom, and their endless war for Rhir turned them into demons because of the corruption. Reflecting on the hate between both sides, it would be an interesting twist if the Demon King turned out to be one of the previous Blighted Kings, Othius IV’s grandfather or great grandfather. If that were the case, then the Blighted King would know, since it appears that the Blighted Kingdom remembers history better than most nations and Lord Hayvon was even aware that the demons used to be people. Whether that or something else, I’m hoping something better explains the motives of the Blighted Kingdom for their endless war against the demons, which seems to distract from the actual blight/corruption that is the real long-term source of their problems.

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