7.35 C – The Wandering Inn

7.35 C

(Volume 2 is now out on Audible along with a 10-page preview of The Last Tide included! Check it out, and this trailer!)

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Lord Hayvon, 5th most powerful [Lord] in the world…allegedly…rode for the walls of Rhir. For the border. He only stopped when the speaking stone lit up.

“Lord Hayvon. By order of Bastion-General Quiteil. Hold.”

The [Lord] drew rein. He turned back and bellowed into the stone.

5th Wall is under siege!

“That is known. But the monster is new.

The precise tone of the master of logistics was infuriating. Lord Hayvon tightened his grip and his warhorse snorted. The air was charged. He rode with his elite soldiers, three thousand strong.

[Lancers]. Veteran [Riders], [Knights].

“We must ride on 5th Wall now, Bastion-General. Even at top speed, I cannot activate my skill until we are at least sixty miles from the wall. I can be there in forty-five minutes.

5th Wall had been built over a hundred miles from 4th Wall—it would expand the Blighted Kingdom massively if done. It was under siege. These were the facts.

“Hold your ground, Lord Hayvon. That is an order from his Majesty. If necessary—we will evacuate the entire 5th Wall and make a stand here. Nereshal is prepared to teleport to the front. Her Majesty is marching from 3rd Wall with her personal guard at this moment.”

The [Lord] gritted his teeth.

“Sir Richard, Sir Tom and the other Champions are at the 5th Wall. If we lost them—”

“His Majesty is ready to use a Skill to cover their retreat. This is not a debate. Hold your ground.

The speaking stone went dead. The [Lord] snarled, but Quiteil was Bastion-General. Even the most powerful [Lord] of Rhir had to bow to his will. Hayvon turned his horse. He roared an order to the cavalry.

Back to 4th Wall. Prepare to sortie at once!”

 

—-

 

Something new. Bastion-General Quiteil sat at his desk. He did not write. This time…he was checking his notes. Calculating.

The second speaking stone was active. Communication across Rhir was paramount. It was Quiteil’s specialty. He was no Hayvon, a combat-born expert. He was a [Logistics General]—in fact, a [Peerless Logistics General]. And that was only by virtue of promotion. His nature was calculation. He would never lead a battle, even from the rear. He would win it on paper, with numbers.

He was Bastion-General of 4th Wall for the same reason. Now, he spoke.

“Your Majesty. The Deathslayer Arrows are ready to loose. I have portal-spells ready to cover the retreat. Your status?”

Your status. He asked the [King] calmly as he ordered Hayvon around.

“I stand in the war room. The treasury is opened. A hundred thousand gold pieces are ready to be spent. What is the status of the battle?

The answering voice was less calm. The Blighted King stood with Nereshal, his commanders in the citadel. Quiteil checked the map.

“Bastion-General Zavarial reports ongoing magical battery of the enemy titan. Demon forces are advancing behind the new monster. I am designating it as Serpent-Titan. Each instance is a ‘clone’ or ‘copy’.”

He adjusted the map. On all five walls, the name flickered into life as the Bastion-General wrote it into the air. The other commanders could see the flickers of magic coming off 5th Wall—a projection of the battle.

“I will use my Skill when Zavarial orders the retreat. I want a scrying spell to show me the battle, Nereshal!

The [King] was snapping. Quiteil didn’t demand the same; he’d already had a [Diviner] on the task. But the Demons were casting anti-scrying spells.

He was calm. The Bastion-General waited. He saw one projection of the Serpent-Titan flicker, disappear.

“It would appear the titans are not as defensible as Demon Giants, your Majesty. Confirming…89 spells cast to bring down one instance. Estimating Tier 3-5.”

He hadn’t waited for the report to come in on the separate [Message] scroll he was reading from, by the way. When the confirmation flashed up in hastily-scrawled letters from 5th Wall, it only reinforced his count. He’d made the analysis by watching the projection on the battle-map and counting the individual flashes of light.

“There are nearly a hundred of them! And they continue to multiply!”

The voice snapped back. Bastion-General Quiteil nodded. His eyes flicked to incoming speaking stones glowing. Nine of them.

“Your Majesty. I will disconnect your speaking spell until reinforcement is needed from the capital.”

Bastion-General—

Silence. Quiteil tapped the stone. He opened another channel, spoke briefly, switched to another.

“Confirm code—”

Bastion-General!

“Your Majesty, I am busy.”

The [Logistics General] muted the stone again. And then he had a thought. He tapped the stone.

“Your Majesty—a question. Exactly how many ballistae are mounted on 1st Wall at this moment?”

What?

“Please confirm the number.”

The thin man leaned away from the speaking stone as the invectives began spewing forth. He muted it again. And turned his attention back to the battle.

Calm. This was not his battle to fight. He waited to do something. Anything. Evacuate the entire 4th Wall, send Lord Hayvon forwards, activate the wall’s defenses.

Anything. Nothing. The Bastion-General’s finger tapped on the desk until he made it stop.

 

—-

 

4th Infantry, hold those gates! [Archers]—hold your fire!

Commander Cirille bellowed as the first serpent-titan fell. She saw something—cartilage?—burning, practically vaporizing as the [Long Range Fireballs] brought it down. They were firing from the walls and the [Mages], and they could have annihilated a normal army.

But as one titan fell, the others walked.

Thump. Thump.

Cirille saw the progenitor being screened by dozens of the now-larger copies. Each time the serpent-monster ‘molted’, another copy-shell of it appeared. The original grew smaller as a result. But over a hundred of the things were walking on 5th Wall. And behind it—

Demons are flanking! Counting six—seven thousand behind the titans!

“I report flying groups, each at least eighty in count, four at coordinates—”

“Monsters. Giant insects—unknown type. Cilewalkers. Some…some variant of slimes? Why aren’t they attacking each other?”

A babble of voices. Cirille saw the monsters, flooding around the huge footsteps. They were different types. Flying hornet-beetles, Cilewalkers, the huge, spiked half-cactus, half-wolf creatures that could scale a wall and tear you to pieces with their incredibly tough hides and thorn-appendages, yellow slimes, running with red in their cores and…bubbling?

Each one a threat. And somehow—none of them attacking each other. The monsters ignored the serpent-titans, save to move out of the way of the steps. The Demons—ranks of them at the back—were ignored by the monsters.

“Damn. Damn, damn—Chief Warrior Merish! I said, [Archers], hold your fire!

The Drake glanced up. Gnolls with massive longbows were loosing arrows despite the Titans being far out of range. The Chief Warrior ignored her.

“They have Skills, Commander.”

Cirille saw that, but the Gnolls were loosing at any target they thought they could hit. Nothing like the volley of Drake [Archers] nocked and waiting.

Thwap. The sound tore the air even among the shouts. The thump of a ballista going off made Cirille jump. She saw them firing enchanted munitions. One hit a serpent-titan—tore a chunk off.

“They’re fragile!”

Lieutenant Ossky exclaimed. Captain Shellc, in charge of 4th Infantry was below. His sword was drawn, and he was ready to sortie from the gates. The Drake Commander looked about.

She was holding her position on the walls. Her Drakes and Merish’s Gnolls were deployed together. The Bastion-General was throwing everything at the distant monsters, trying to bring them down before they reached the walls.

But he wouldn’t bring them all down. There were too many. And 5th Wall, despite being sturdy and high, wasn’t finished. The wall-spells were firing, but they couldn’t last forever. Cirille looked about.

“They’re going to break the walls. If they do, we hold the breach. Ancestors. How do we bring them down? Trip them?”

She mumbled to herself, and as quickly, dismissed it. Her division wasn’t equipped for—giant-slaying. There was enough siege weapons and [Mages] to bring down the colossi. The real danger was the monsters and Demons. If they got a foothold, the defenders would be in danger.

[Archers]. Prepare to loose. Target the Cilewalkers.”

Drakes drew back on their bows. Cirille raised a claw, as the monsters streamed forwards. The first titan accelerated. A mass of calcified serpent-forms, somehow moving. It swung a vast arm up, aiming at the walls.

Someone was laughing. Cirille looked around, distracted. She saw a [Clown], laughing with his insane posse. Cirille turned back—

 

—-

 

A Bone Behemoth crashed into the serpent-titan. It was heavier and the sound of the two colliding drowned out everything. The hollow entity fell back.

“Sweep the leg.”

[Mage-Captain] Hetarria pointed. The [Necromancer] corps raised their staves, concentrating as one. The giant Bone-Drake swung the hammer of bone low.

The serpent-titan’s leg crumbled. It went down, striking at the bone-behemoth.

“Cracking damage. [Mend Bone].”

A dozen [Necromancers] cast the spell and the cracks on the Bone Behemoth healed. It turned, protecting the wall.

Mage-Captain, strike the illuminated target!

The order came down the walls. One of the oncoming titans lit up in Hetarria’s vision as the Bastion-General marked it.

Bone Behemoth—charge. Frenzy.

The [Necromancer] pulled and the combined magics made the giant’s orange eyes flicker. It charged, smashing into a second titan. One against many.

For a moment. Across the walls, more serpent-titans were approaching. A section evacuated as a [Strategist] realized they couldn’t bring down a titan before the serpent-titan approaching hit it. Commander Cirille was moving her Drakes to intercept along with Commander Uxel.

On the left!

Another titan had closed, despite the explosions bringing down more, slowing the advance. Hetarria could barely take her eyes off the one attacking her Bone Behemoth. Who would slow it? Who would—

 

—-

 

Summoning complete.

Ser Vorn heard the shout from the walls. The [Knight] of the Order of the Thirsting Veil saw something rise. He opened his visor just a second to stare.

A roar. Shifting gravel and sand, sounding like thunder in itself. The figure was less sculpted, more primitive than the undead Bone Behemoth.

It rose. The sand-constructs were ‘only’ thirty feet tall. But six of them lumbered forwards, swinging into the serpent-titan. Filling the hollow structure, dragging it down by their sheer weight.

[Summoners] from Nerrhavia’s Fallen. They walked down off the walls in full retreat. Their creations fought for them as the [Mages] left the battle, their job done. Ser Vorn saluted them. Then he heard the first impact shake the walls. He looked left.

“Ser Vorn!”

One of his junior [Knights] had seen the impact. Mortar stone bulged but the wall held. The titan hammered the gap again and the infantry waited. It was coming.

“Hold your ground.”

The [Knight] didn’t turn his head. He was waiting. He lifted his lance, waiting until their section was breached or they were called forth. He heard a roar as the first titan broke through.

 

—-

 

Clear the ground! Let it pass! Then hold that breach!

Captain Shellc was a [Swordsman]. His sword was light in his hand as the Drake saw the titan stumble through the walls. Ungainly. He narrowed his eyes. Then—he saw something move in the dust-cloud.

Forwards! [Unit: Extended Spears]!

Drake formations. The lines of Drakes carrying long, long twenty-foot pikes was meant for fighting anything and everything in this world. And when they charged to cover the gap, the first rank of Cilewalkers ran onto the pikes. For a second, the pikes were improbably longer by four feet.

Which wasn’t much given how long they already were. But it mattered. The Drake [Captain] in the 2nd-rank saw Drakes being thrown back by the impact. The Cilewalkers were huge, ten feet monstrosities of packed muscle under those damn hides! But the spears went deep, slowing them.

Swords, forwards!

The Drakes charged between the spears, cutting at the slowed monsters. Captain Shellc slashed into the monster’s hide with his enchanted sword and was rewarded with dark orange-brown blood. He counted as he slashed, hearing Drakes shouting and slashing as more monsters tried to push forwards. The spears made a wall and the Drakes with smaller weapons fought between the jabbing tips.

“…ninety nine…three hundred. Fall back! Fall back! 3rd rank, forwards!”

The [Captain] counted to five minutes and ordered the retreat. Drakes disengaged, allowing another rank to move forwards. They began applying potions, resting.

It was a microcosm of a larger battle. Shellc heard bows snapping, explosions from beyond the wall. The thump of the titan’s feet.

He didn’t care. Part of Shellc was listening for orders, keeping an eye on the battles to his right and left, but most was focused on his section. He saw a group of Gnolls, fighting in the breach next to him. They had nothing like the Drake’s organization; they fought, snarling, falling back as need be.

Plains Gnolls. The [Captain]’s internal count called to him.

“3rd Rank, fall back! 4th

The Drake heard a complicated horn signal. He turned his head.

Spears, fall back in order!

The Drakes began moving backwards, keeping the monsters at bay. Captain Shellc turned his head. Commander Cirille had ordered a second unit to charge once the monsters advanced far enough. It was a classic tactic—fall back and draw the enemy forwards for a flanking maneuver.

Fall back, Chief Warrior!

Someone was bellowing at the Gnolls. They growled, looking up, confused by the sudden retreat. They fell back more sloppily, without keeping the monsters from advancing.

What a mess. But the [Shamanic Warriors] had somehow downed three Cilewalkers already. What kind of enchanted gear…?

Hold! I said, hold, damn it—

Commander Cirille’s voice. Captain Shellc turned his head, but the words weren’t meant for him. He saw a group of Drakes preparing to charge in. But someone was in their way. A wild group of—Humans?

Let’s go!

Someone screamed. Captain Shellc saw a rush of bodies leaping, cavorting, even twirling past him. Painted faces. The Drake’s mouth opened as the Gloomless Troupe ran straight into the monsters.

Spears—halt! Push forwards!

He shouted desperately, but it was too late. The [Clown] and his followers ran straight into the monsters unsupported. A Cilewalker slashed one huge arm and half a dozen bodies went flying into the air. Captain Shellc cursed. He saw the Humans swarm forwards. And they…

Didn’t stop. The Drake saw a huge insect-creature tear one of the Humans apart. Another, a young Garuda with a beak painted white to match the paint on her face leapt into the air. She tangled with it, stabbing. It had six cutting appendages it turned on her and was three times her size.

The [Jester]-Garuda giggled. She had a knife. She stabbed and stabbed as her blood and feathers fell out of the sky. The insect-thing tore her apart—but only when it separated her arm from her body did she stop stabbing.

“Ancestors. What—”

A [Clown] was climbing onto one of the tall walker’s heads. He stabbed a dagger repeatedly through the brain as it tried to throw him off. Then he vanished.

“[Storm of Stabs]. Hah! This is so much fun.

He landed. The Cilewalker collapsed, bleeding from dozens upon dozens of cuts. Captain Shellc just stared. The laughing Humans were still advancing. They moved up until they were fighting with the monsters.

Fall back! [Archers]—stop shooting!

Commander Cirille was bellowing. The Humans were so far in the other forces were in danger of hitting them with arrows. Still—they kept moving. And they bled. Dozens of colorful bodies were already on the ground. But they laughed and laughed. Even the monsters seemed unnerved by it.

“Madness.

Captain Shellc whispered. He heard a strange tune in the air. Some kind of…cheerful song? His scales crawled. The monsters at the breach hesitated. They began moving back.

Even the outside sounds of the rest of the battle dimmed. The [Clowns] were laughing. They advanced, grinning despite mortal wounds. The laughter was everything in the world. They threw themselves forwards, following their leader.

And the monsters fled. They just turned around, or crashed into other groups of [Soldiers] rather than fight the mad things. Captain Shellc shook his head. The song was in his head and so was the laughter.

“F—fall back. Take position at—”

The Drake caught himself. He hadn’t received orders to retreat. But even his [Soldiers] were slowly moving back. The [Swordsman] caught his breath. He dimly heard a horn. Looked away from the insane troupe—

Another wall exploded as a titan fell on it. More monsters surged over the body. And then—came the Demons.

 

 

—-

 

The walls collapsed in another breach. Cirille pointed.

“Captain Shellc! Redeploy and cover that breach!

She shouted rather than use command signals because the Drake wasn’t listening. He’d ignored her last three orders. Something about the [Clowns]? They’d ruined her formations but they were holding the breach by sheer slaughter and the terror they seemed to be inflicting on the enemy.

“1st Fliers—prepare to support 4th Infantry!”

Lieutenant Ossky saluted. Her single wing of Oldblood fliers took to the air, preparing to swoop down and attack.

Commander Cirille—pull your Drakes back.

The counter order came just as Captain Shellc finally pulled back. The Drake turned. She saw armored figures, wearing strange leather, armed lightly.

Demon [Skirmishers]. They fought amid the monsters as they climbed through the second breach at her position. She looked around. If Captain Shellc wasn’t going to stop them, then who—

“[Giant’s Sword]! With me! Emily, clear the way!”

The Champion of Rhir. Sir Richard rode at the gap as the [Hydromancer] peeled off from the Humans and their escort of elite [Soldiers]. She raised a staff and pointed.

[Tidal Wave]!

A wall of water appeared out of the air. It crashed into the first wave of enemy soldiers and monsters, knocking them back. The water mage wasn’t done, though. Before Richard and the other Earthers thundered into the gap, Emily twisted her staff.

“[Summon Water Elemental]!”

The water swirled up, forming a huge figure that began lashing around at her command. Then Richard hit the first demons on the ground. He swung a massive sword like it weighed nothing. Eddy blasted left with his wand as he slashed wildly. Vincent was on foot—he leapt up, slashing through a Cilewalker’s hide with his enchanted blade.

They were as good as Gold-ranks. Cirille turned away from the fighting as the elite [Soldiers] tore through the Demons and monsters. She longed to be in the fray, next to Sir Richard. His presence was inspiring the [Soldiers] as he cut down a Demon commander unable to stop his forward rush.

But the larger battle was more important. 5th Wall held—but for every titan they dropped, another was there to take the place. What was slowing them from breaking through the stone was the fact that they weren’t that strong or tough given their size.

Strong and tough enough, though. Another breach shook the walls as one finally punched through. An arrow blew an arm off as it exploded—a half-Elf lowered his bow.

 

—-

 

Bastion-General Zavarial. He looked around. He spoke crisply into the speaking stone.

The enemy titans are creating more breaches. We are unable to stop them with wall-spells and standing forces alone.

“Can you bring down the originator serpent-titan, Bastion-General?”

The question was clipped. The Blighted King and his [Strategists] and [General] in the capital were watching the battle. The half-Elf looked around.

There it was. He’d had his siege weapons targeting the thing, and the [Mages] as well. But it was staying back.

The serpent-giant was about half as high as it had been. But it continued to subdivide. The largest of its moltings were downed. But the Demons were flooding the breaches the copies had created. Bastion-General saw them flooding behind 5th Wall.

Missions to raid and destroy. They were taking advantage of the confusion, not intending to win this battle. He gritted his teeth.

Your Majesty—5th Wall will hold. However, I request Lord Hayvon to advance and hunt down the raiding parties. At least four groups of fliers have also violated our skies.”

“It will be done. What of the lead titan?”

Quiteil’s voice. Zavarial looked at it, behind a wall of other titans. It could think. He had the impression each writhing ‘snake’ made up the command-mind. It was smart enough to keep dividing. He…frowned.

“Hold. It’s doing something.”

A few slithering shapes were returning to the figure. And suddenly—it was several feet taller. Bastion-General Zavarial had been a champion of [Archers]; he didn’t doubt his eyes, even though the titan was thousands of feet away.

“I think it’s feeding.”

Feeding?

The smaller snakes were breaking off the body and devouring the dead. Monsters—[Soldiers]—it didn’t matter.

“So that’s how it does it. Your Majesty, the serpents are eating to regain their mass. If it survives, it will grow to its original size. Or larger.

“That must not be allowed to happen. Bring it down, Bastion-General. Lord Hayvon has offered to do personal combat with his forces.”

“No need, your Majesty. I request access to long-range magic. The Arrow of Winter scroll.”

Silence. And then—a terse voice.

“Granted.”

The half-Elf smiled. Despite the battle, he felt a surge of…exhilaration. Slowly, he recited a series of commands.

“Bastion-General Zavarial of 5th Wall requesting access to Arrow of Winter Scroll. Password—”

 

—-

 

“…Confirmed. In transit. One minute.”

Quiteil rose from his desk. Calmly, he walked over to a cabinet and inserted a pendant from his neck. The lock-spell faded. Then he pulled out the key.

“[Mage-General]. The box.”

The other commander in charge of 4th Wall’s magic was already waiting. The box appeared in a flash of light as it was teleported from the capital. The two counted down, inserted both keys they carried.

The instant Quiteil opened the box, every hair on his body stood up. The magical vibration in the air made the [Mage-General]’s nose begin to bleed.

And the cold. Quiteil took the gloves that had come with the box. Despite the anti-freeze enchantments, it still burned his hands.

“Second teleportation in progress. Bastion-General, teleporting to your exact coordinates in three, two, one…”

 

—-

 

Pop.

It was such an innocuous sound. The scroll appeared with a flash of light and the Bastion-General grabbed it. His hands turned white with frost at once. But he opened it in a moment.

Huntress Delezza and half the [Mages] not fighting for their lives turned to look. The half-Elf walked up the walls. Calmly, he stared at the serpent-Titan and amplified his voice across the walls.

“This is Bastion-General Zavarial. Opening a Tier 7 Scroll. Clear the area.”

Horns began blaring. Ser Vorn galloped back with his [Knights], behind the walls. The half-Elf smiled.

 

—-

 

Tier 7? He has to be joking.”

Commander Cirille’s head turned. She saw the half-Elf holding something. The scroll…hurt her eyes. She was no [Mage], but there was something about it that seemed too real. As if the magic contained were unable to rest solely within the ancient vellum.

The serpents were moving. Walking—moving back. Perhaps even it sensed the danger. If so—too late.

The scroll opened. Cirille saw a flash. She felt cold—

 

—-

 

Snow began to fall from the air. Tom sneezed. For a second, his laughing stopped. Richard, panting and retreating for another charge, looked up.

“What’s that…?”

He felt like a kid, remembering the first winter’s frost and snow. He looked up and saw a pale blue light flicker across the walls. It ran from the scroll. Emily’s eyes were round.

“That’s a spell?

 

—-

 

“[Arrow of Winter: Glacius Pillar].”

The half-Elf pointed. The light swept across 5th Wall. It flowed upwards. Magic itself, cold and deliberate. Creating, in the sky, something.

An arrow? Yes and no. Was a pillar of ice, as tall as some of the titans on the battlefield, an arrow? It formed in the air, cold enough to feel like burning to those close enough to it. Hundreds of feet up—it began to rotate. The serpents began to scatter, leaving their titan-form.

Too late. Too late. They had nearly half a minute to run. But when the [Arrow of Winter] fired the entire world shook.

Commander Cirille fell to one knee. Tom laughed as he fell over.

 

—-

 

On 4th Wall, Bastion-General Quiteil felt a tremor that ran through his room. He sat back down, removing the gloves. He looked around, found a cup, and took a drink of tea.

“Cold.”

He grimaced.

 

—-

 

When he reached the walls, after the silence, Richard saw a field of ice. It covered nearly a mile from the place the spell had struck.

“…Fuck.”

Vincent stared over his shoulder. The pillar of ice stood out of the ground where it had cracked and frozen the earth. Around it stood—corpses.

The frozen copies of the serpent-thing. Richard hadn’t known if they were alive or just enchanted somehow. Either way—they were dead. They had been turned to ice.

So had the main body. The…collective was dead. A few forms were oozing away; the ones that had managed to flee to the edges of the blast-zone.

Nothing remained. Not monsters, not Demons. Everything where the Tier 7 spell had hit was gone. Turned to ice by the magic.

The fighting at the wall had ceased. Attackers and defenders alike had stopped to stare. Until Bastion-General Zavarial reminded them of their purpose.

“[Geomancers], seal the breaches! Send forwards all riders—I want that monster dead!

He aimed an arrow and shot a Demon through the chest, armor and all. 5th Wall’s forces advanced. Commander Uxel, grinning, ran through a lumbering Demon nearly as big as he was, with horns and tough skin—but not tough enough. Richard looked around.

“…I think we’re done.”

Emily announced from her point on the wall. The [Knight] looked at her.

“There’s fighting to do. Vincent, Eddy, on me.”

“I’m done. We won. My god. Why do they need us?

The [Hydromancer] just kept staring. Richard went down the walls. Tom was laughing and pursuing monsters past 5th Wall, ignoring orders for him to come back. But Emily just stood there.

She was over Level 30. Level 34—which was insane for a [Mage] to level so fast. In a way, she had eclipsed Richard and even Tom, who hadn’t even used his latest and most horrifying Skill.

But this? This was beyond anything she could imagine.

“Why do they need us?

The [Hydromancer] looked around, repeating the question. It was Bastion-General Zavarial who eventually responded. His keen ears had picked up the question.

He shook his hand out; he had gloves since he was an [Archer], but frost still clung to them. Still—whoever had made that scroll was no idiot. It wasn’t permanent frostbite.

“Lady Emily. That spell might be beyond your abilities today. But it is just a scroll. Even for dire need, we hesitate to use them and the Blighted Kingdom has saved and commandeered every such artifact we can. In times of need, we will spend a thousand times that in a single battle. That is the power of planning—such as Bastion-General Quiteil excels in. Which is why he is the most trusted, glorified commander of the kingdom’s army, serving on 4th Wall.”

Emily looked at him, face pale. The half-Elf went on, still shaking his hand out and looking around, seeing what had to be done to rebuild and chase after the Demons who’d gone rampaging in the now further-unsafe zone.

“…However. In time, you will have that power if you live. That is why you are here. And if you cast that spell once a battle—we will drive the Demons out of hell itself. I promise you.”

“I’ll do that?”

Emily looked past him. The pillar of ice, the arrow stayed in the ground, freezing everything. Her eyes locked on it. An act of god, if god still existed. Since it wasn’t—it was just a spell. Cast by mortal hands.

It lasted for six hours before disappearing.

 

—-

 

“Ancestors.”

Even much later, when her division was mostly rotated off-duty and she was having a drink and cards with the other commanders, Cirille was still shaken. She took another sip of Firebreath Whiskey.

“Ancestors.”

“Look, would you stop saying that? We all saw it, Commander Cirille. Everyone’s shocked.”

A female Centaur, Wehna, snapped. The Drake blushed.

“Sorry. It’s just—that was a Tier 7 spell? Even Manus can’t just throw them around!”

“Yeah. But in context, it’s not that big. I’ve seen scrolls like that used before. The Blighted Kingdom has a number of scrolls.”

Delezza was at the cards table. Cirille was too rattled to play cards, but more officers than just the commanders had joined the cards-night. Captain Shellc glared at his hand; Lieutenant Ossky was also there to play, but she was actually worse than Ser Vorn at her tells. Every time she got excited, you could see light coming from her nasal cavities or earholes.

Actually—she and the [Knight] seemed equally matched. Commander Uxel was coiled up as Viri—who was an officer for some reason—sipped goat’s milk. Just…goat’s milk. Nothing alcoholic for the Lizardfolk.

Merish had a drink too, but it wasn’t as stiff as Cirille’s—an ale. The Gnoll sniffed.

“You say that. But Tier 7 is a magic even Archmages of Wistram cannot cast easily, yes?”

“Not at all. At least, Archmage Nailihuaile can’t unaided. I think she can do Tier 6? Maybe. But that’s with her staff.”

Viri looked up. Cirille nodded.

“And there’s a scroll? And they used it?”

That horrified her almost as much. Sir Vorn looked up from his imitation of a poker face. Ossky narrowed her eyes as if trying to figure him out. Shellc peeked at her cards.

“They do have more, Commander Cirille. Moreover, the spell saved us the danger of losing more portions of the walls. You may look at it like this: Bastion-General Zavarial did not use the spell until he was certain it was needed.”

“Yes, but…Manus can’t—”

Snorts from around the room. Delezza picked another card.

“As I understand it, Manus can throw similar enchantments from its walls pretty easily. All the Walled Cities can. Maybe not Tier 7—but I’d take a rechargeable Tier 6 spell. Anyways—we used the scroll, and it’s over. Big battle for your introduction to 5th Wall.”

It had been. There were still hundreds dead. Not thousands, which you might have expected against so many titans, but the 5th Wall had drained a lot of its magic. There were huge gaps caused by the fighting, but repair work was underway—astonishingly quick.

Some [Geomancers] had literally repaired parts of the wall by raising permanent walls of stone. It wasn’t as polished, but by nightfall, no gaps would exist in the temporary 5th wall.

The real danger was the Demons. They’d used the battle as a distraction to break through across 5th Wall. Unlike 4th Wall’s sturdy enchantments and overwhelming force, 5th Wall wasn’t done so they did this often. Now, every village and settlement past the 4th Wall was in danger. Lord Hayvon and many units were hunting for them and Cirille had been informed her division would be helping with that or patrolling.

“What I do not understand is why the Blighted Kingdom has such spells. Even a Great Company lacks for the ability to use such scrolls. I have no doubt every nation has some in their vaults. But to use one so readily?”

The Gorgon, Uxel, got nods from around the room. Cirille had no doubt Manus had similar artifacts in the deepest vaults. But they’d been reluctant to use them even in the Antinium Wars except as last-ditch spells.

“Probably because Rhir needs to have them, Uxel. They get resources from around the world. Say an Archmage makes…fifteen Tier 5 spells in a year? Hey, how many scrolls can your average [Mage] make?”

Delezza looked around as she slapped a silver coin on the table.

“Archmage Naili could probably make a Tier 6 scroll. Depends on her class. [Spellscribes] can make hundreds, easy.”

“Hmf. Well, let’s say fifty, then. If your Archmage makes fifty—the Blighted Kingdom probably gets at least five. And that’s scrolls we can still produce. They have had thousands of years to build up an arsenal.”

“Okay, then what are we doing here? I got my flight wing torn up dancing with those damn Demons. Walk up to the Demons and cast all the scrolls you have.”

A Garuda scowled. He looked around. Cirille knew the answer to this one. Delezza sighed.

“Flight Commander—sorry, I forget your name.”

“Paxhal.”

“Paxhal, right. Think of it like this. The Blighted Kingdom probably has at least ten of those scrolls if they used one here. Probably lots more, but even so. The armies of the world stand with the Blighted Kingdom. And they still think that if they march on the Demon King’s capital or whatever lies at the center of hell—we’ll lose.”

Another silence. Cirille broke in.

“Besides, artifacts can be lost. Imagine losing even a single relic-class artifact to the Demons? It’s better to commit only to a battle you know you’ll win.”

Manus military doctrine. Shellc and Ossky nodded. But some of the other officers looked intrigued at this basic idea.

It really was astonishing. A quarter of the ‘commanders’ in the room were self-taught, or had never had a formal education to get to their rank. The Drakes at least had a lot of military theory.

On the other hand…it didn’t exactly endear them to the other races. A Selphid [Berserker] rubbed at his head. But her voice was female when it came out.

“Speaking of battles you’ll win—it was something to see other factions fighting. I’ve seen Rhir’s tactics, but those ranks of Drakes lined up were funny to look at. Your lot didn’t press in at all. Gnolls did. And so did those insane Humans.”

The Drakes went still in their seats. Cirille glanced over and made her voice friendly.

“We were fighting in formation. The phalanx? It was hard to coordinate with…other groups. We would have preferred to let the enemy advance and keep flanking. Our tactics are designed to minimize losses.”

“Yeah. It must work really well.”

Silence. Delezza raised her brows.

“Different tactics. Drakes do well at line-holding. You’d have wanted them if you had to retreat, Captain Grexi.”

“Maybe. But my tactic is slicing the enemy up until they run around. Did you see those Humans? They’re not even Selphids and they went as hard as my squad.”

The Selphid [Berserker] conceded. She grinned and the others shifted.

“Mad as loons, all of them. Did you see them laughing? They didn’t care even when their friends got slaughtered.”

“That’s the Gloomless Troupe for you. [Clowns]. Which are like [Berserkers], only they dress funny.”

“I’ve never heard of the class. Someone told me they were like [Fools].”

“They’re definitely foolish. But effective.”

“No, I mean, [Fool], the class.”

“Oh…what’s a [Fool]?”

Cirille broke away from the main conversation, which was a mix of admiration and…fascination with Tom the [Clown]. The Champions of Rhir also got their own nods; they hadn’t done badly. Especially for such young people.

“Our formations would have held those monsters with few casualties at all. And we’d have had a chance to do it if we didn’t get fouled by those damn Humans.”

Captain Shellc was grousing at the cards table. Merish took a seat and was dealt in. Captain Shellc glanced at him and then coughed into a scaled fist.

“Same with the Gnolls.”

“What?”

The Chief Warrior looked at him. The [Captain] glared as Cirille got up.

“You heard the order to retreat. You should have obeyed it. I saw nearly ten Gnolls go down because you didn’t move with us.”

“Perhaps we fight differently. ‘My’ Gnolls are better at skirmishing. Your commander wants us fighting in prolonged engagements.”

The [Shamanic Warrior] growled. He took up his cards, peeked at one. Captain Shellc grumbled, but Cirille went over and leaned on his shoulder. Hard.

“I’m sure Captain Shellc is just venting, Chief Warrior. We saw your forces take down a lot of monsters with commendable speed.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

That was all the Gnoll said. Cirille glowered at Shellc and he dipped his head. Lieutenant Ossky took a drink and nearly blinded the table.

“We were all needed. Even with a Tier 7 spell, you need grunts. [Soldiers]. Wish I had six more flights, Commander.”

The others looked at her. Cirille nodded. She turned to Paxhal.

“Sorry we left the Garuda in the skies, Flight Leader Paxhal. But Ossky’s my only flight group.”

“And no one else can fly. Except the damned Demons and that Human [Knight] with the boots. Say—what were those Demons. I’ve never seen the like.”

Uxel glared about, gesturing at the sky. Cirille hadn’t been focused on the air battle; the Demons had mostly passed beyond the wall, for their raiding missions.

The heads turned to Delezza. The [Huntress] calmly took a drink.

“Oh. Them? You’re going to have to learn to watch the skies. No one on patrol goes without heavy archer or [Mage] compliments. Even a group of [Riders] gets torn out without aid. The Demon’s flying forces love ambushing unprotected groups.”

“But what were they? They looked like Bagrhavens, but they were smaller. Less foul—they used armor and Skills, I saw it!”

Uxel looked at Delezza. The [Demon Huntress] nodded.

“Of course they did. They’re Harpies. I’m surprised you haven’t fought them before, Uxel. But then—you Gorgons scare the wings off them.”

Harpies? Cirille paused with a drink to her lips. Some of the other commanders had never met them. Paxhal had fought them, but never before coming to Rhir.

“I thought Harpies were extinct.”

“Most are. They joined the Demons, though. And as far as I know—there aren’t any left. They used to be on Izril. Harpies and Nagas. Any left?”

The question went to the Humans, Drakes, and Gnoll officers. Slowly, all the Izrilians looked around.

“Harpies haven’t lived on Izril for…a long time.”

“Once, they did. My tribe remembers trading with them. They used to rule a large portion. Once. No longer.”

Merish mumbled. He folded his cards. Cirille glanced at him. But the Gnoll said nothing more.

“They joined the Demons. Gave themselves to hell. Watch the skies. They’re not like us. They don’t have hands, like Garudas, and they’re only good in the air. Even so. They were a people once.”

“What happened?”

The question came from Viri. The [Longstick Jumper] sat on the edge of his chair, perching there. He looked at the Drakes, the Gnolls—no one had an answer for them.

“I guess they just died out.”

Someone muttered. The cards moved across the table. Cirille shuddered.

And the rest became Demons.

What a fate. She had a bit more than she should have to drink. The next day, she and Chief Warrior Merish went on patrol and began joint-command drills.

It did not go well.

 

—-

 

Stay in formation! I said—blow the horn, [Trumpeter].”

The sound for retreat ran out, a single fixed blast. But the furry figures still stuck into the fighting against the smaller Lizardfolk energetically beating on them with sticks and the annoyed Gorgons for a good minute before disengaging. Commander Cirille glowered.

She saw 4th Infantry moving with precision at her commands, but the disengage and flank maneuver was hindered when the other wing of Commander Uxel’s Lizardfolk [Skirmishers], led by Viri, caught Merish’s group and wiped them out.

Well, ‘wiped them out’ just meant more Gnolls had to go off and sit down and the skirmish exercise was ruined. The Drakes retreated as Ser Vorn neatly dodged all of their spear formations and ‘carved up’ their archers. That was Cirille’s fault for underestimating how fast his eighteen-odd [Knights] could move. Her own [Riders] couldn’t catch the Skill-boosted [Knights].

Afterwards, she stomped over to Merish and had it out with him again.

“Chief Warrior, this is the sixth time—

“That was not our fault, no! We disengaged when we heard the horns!”

“A minute late!”

“A minute? We were fighting. We cannot just run off when someone calls the retreat!”

“It was disengaging. Tactical maneuvering! Drakes don’t retreat—

“I have seen them disengage many battles where my warriors won because we did not keep running around to hold meaningless lines! Either let us skirmish or do not give us so many orders!”

“I need to know where you’re going!”

The Gnoll growled loud enough for his other officers—who were more of leaders from each tribe—to hear.

No one knows where the battle takes them!

 

—-

 

“Dead gods. And I thought Cat and Dog-Beastkin fought. Are they always like this?”

Commander Uxel stared at the two arguing commanders as he and his officers relaxed after the practice battle. Three days had passed since the battle for the 5th Wall. In that time, all the irregulars had participated in patrols, but they were mainly there to hold the line.

And practice how to work together. Bastion-General Zavarial was understandably reluctant to send out units who hadn’t drilled together. And because Bastion-General Quiteil had ordered it, the Gnoll and Drake forces were fighting together.

Poorly. Ser Vorn looked discouraged, and he was normally a font of patience.

“I have never been to Izril. But I cannot understand why the two species fight. They both occupy southern Izril, do they not?”

“Yes. Because you Humans drove them south. Sorry, I mean, Humans in general.”

Ser Vorn didn’t take offense as the Gorgon corrected himself. He was only a bit taller than Uxel, even mounted up. The [Knight] nodded at Cirille and Merish.

“But they ally to fight Humans. And the Antinium.”

“And Naga and Harpies. The enemy of my enemy is more of an enemy. But they do not get along. It isn’t Gnolls—it’s Plains Gnolls and Drakes of the cities.”

It was like water and fire. Or ice and fire. Drakes maneuvered, but they loved those tactical formations. Their phalanxes were hard to break and even Uxel had learned to respect the fact that if you attacked the Drakes from the front, you’d end up losing.

His Lizardfolk were better at skirmishing anyways; the Gorgons and Nagas were the fist that added punch to the lighter-weight Lizardfolk, and Lamias and other spellcasters—the main Lizardfolk evolutions—could batter the enemy with spells.

Mobile, adaptable. Lizardfolk came at you full of surprises, which was how they liked it. By contrast, Drakes had organized archers, mages, and of course, their spears and other infantry. They were hard to break up, and they loved forming lines from which to slowly wear you down with ranged fire. But break up their tidy formations and they struggled.

Gnolls were different from both races. They were mobile, but not as fast as Ser Vorn’s [Knights]. They were individually strong, and tough. Not as much as Gorgons or Nagas, but possibly better than your average Drake; Merish’s two thousand were certainly better than the average [Soldier].

They were also excellent archers, and very quick to react. But they didn’t like huge engagements. They preferred to hit and away.

All of that was great on paper. But in practice—the Gnolls just had a different sense of timing than Cirille’s soldiers. They hadn’t drilled to obey an order no matter what was going on and it showed.

“If we don’t make our forces work together, we’ll never leave 5th Wall. Why does Bastion-General Zavarial force those two to join commands? I would switch with Merish.”

Uxel grumbled. Ironically, even the Lizardfolk and Drakes worked together better in their practice battles. They were both scale-folk, and the Drakes, worn down by the Lizardfolk constantly waving and being cheerful, had adopted a grudging respect for them.

But Plains Gnolls and City Drakes. Ser Vorn adjusted his helmet, flipping up the visor. He replied cautiously.

“As I understand it—it isn’t General Zavarial who insists on the match. Bastion-General Quiteil was the one who instituted the change for the march and he has refused to rescind the order.”

The Gorgon swung his head sideways, tongue flicking out. As always, he admired Ser Vorn’s stallion—mainly because he was hungry and he could see the heat emanating off the nervous horse through his infrared vision. The [Knight] effected not to notice the drool.

“Bastion-General Quiteil has his reasons, I’m sure. And before you ask, Uxel—he is Bastion-General of 4th Wall. Which apparently means he is the highest-ranking member of their number. 4th Wall being most important. Rhir politics.”

Both sighed. Cirille was stalking away from Merish, and the Gnoll was talking with his people, clearly just as mad. Uxel checked the sun in the sky.

Very well. Another day wasted. Let’s retire. A game of chess? Go? Cards?”

The [Knight] nodded and they headed back towards the 5th Wall. Ser Vorn checked his lighter money pouch and shook his head.

“I refuse to play Delezza. I can’t help but think that she cheats. Uses her skills or magic.”

The Gorgon Commander’s mouth opened and stayed there. Ser Vorn glanced at him.

“What? I know it’s a dishonorable accusation to throw around lightly, but—”

“No…no. You’re right. But you just noticed that? Now?

 

—-

 

“I don’t know what to do. Why are their tactics so incompatible with ours? Sergeant Rhikel. You first.”

Later, Cirille was frustrated, standing in the temporary war room for her division. Drakes stood around the table. And two Gnolls.

Both were lower in rank and were not normally added to this discussion. But something had to be done. It had been three days and other groups, like Paxhal’s flight, had been chasing down Demons. They were raiding, but until the Gnolls and Drakes could work together, the four-unit army of Ser Vorn’s heavy cavalry, Lizardfolk under Uxel, and Cirille and Merish’s forces weren’t allowed to patrol.

It was earning them derision from the other nations. A Minotaurian [Axe Captain] had pointedly asked Cirille only yesterday over the nightly gambling and socialization—dice that night—if she wanted to trade commands. He’d offered to switch with Merish. Two thousand Gnolls for four hundred warriors from Minos. The [Captain] had implied it was a good trade.

But Quiteil—damn him—had refused the request even after Cirille had made it, despite the embarrassment it caused her.

“Well, Sergeant Rhikel?”

The Drakes stared pointedly at the Gnoll. He was a City Gnoll and looked very unhappy. Rhikel saluted.

“Permission to speak, Commander?”

His accent, way of standing, even method of speech were more in line with the Drakes. Cirille nodded. The [Sergeant] struggled for words.

“I am a City Gnoll. I understand it is…not something Drakes think of.”

“We understand the difference, Sergeant.”

The Gnoll nodded cautiously, and so did a [Lieutenant]. The Gnolls studied the ground or air and Rhikel went on after a long pause.

“Yes, Commander. But I believe—you think of the difference as just location. Plains Gnolls are completely different. Life in the tribes is completely different. When you command a joint force of Gnolls from the tribes, you are not in charge of a number of army units. It is a collection of warriors, each with their own style and tactics.”

“And? I am working with Chief Warrior Merish and Commander Uxel and Ser Vorn. Why is his group the most difficult?”

The [Sergeant] hesitated.

“…Perhaps because his job is the hardest, Commander. Harder than yours?”

What was that, [Sergeant]?

Captain Shellc narrowed his eyes. The Gnoll snapped to attention and stared straight ahead. Cirille knew that expression.

‘I said the truth even though I knew it wasn’t going to make you happy and here I am.’ It was amazing how much you could read into a look if you’d made it yourself.

“Captain Shellc, desist. Explain, Sergeant Rhikel. Chief Warrior Merish has two thousand Gnolls under his command. We have five times that number. Commander Uxel has any number of Nagas, Gorgons, Lamias—and Lizardfolk. And you know what a nightmare they are for military discipline.”

The others chuckled, even the two Gnolls. They had seen Nagas angrily berating Lizardfolk who wandered around, left their duty, or just caused trouble. What a nightmare. Rhikel’s smile lasted a second.

“Yes, Commander. But of the two thousand Gnolls—there are probably over a hundred tribes represented there. Some sent only one or two warriors, but most sent someone. And each is different and…prideful. I imagine Chief Warrior Merish has trouble even…er…getting them to maneuver. Let alone executing precise commands. I’m impressed he has managed to keep them from infighting.”

Infighting? But they’re all Plains Gnolls!”

Dismayed, Cirille looked at Ossky. The [Lieutenant] looked just as puzzled. Rhikel cleared his throat.

“Yes. Some of whom have blood feuds or quarrels. It cannot be easy, Commander.”

The Drake officers looked at each other. After a second, Ossky opened her mouth.

“Thank you, Sergeant. Dismissed.”

The Gnolls saluted and marched out of the room, clearly relieved. Cirille blinked the spots out of her eyes.

“Great. So the Gnoll forces are even more splintered than we thought.”

“Hah. Just goes to show, Commander. They need discipline. We work together and I’m not from the Walled Cities. But I can follow orders, even if I think Zeres is shit.”

Hey!

“Sorry, [Bannerman]. I hate seafood.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Shut up, Captain Shellc. We had three years to drill together. Chief Warrior Merish came what, one year back?”

“…Yes?”

The others shrugged. No one knew. But even if he had less time, Drakes were still [Soldiers]. Cirille began to understand the problem. The question was how to solve it.

 

—-

 

When the officer’s meeting broke up without much resolved, Cirille decided to visit Merish.

It was the first time she’d done so outside of when they’d joined forces. Oh, she had seen him at cards and the mess and other places since their schedules were lined up, but she had the distinct impression he didn’t care for her. The feeling…wasn’t mutual. Oh, she didn’t appreciate working with him and wished her life was easier, but she didn’t hate the Gnoll.

They were stuck on Rhir. In hell itself. She didn’t hate anyone here. Well, except maybe Quiteil. And whoever had swiped her tea rations from home. She suspected Viri. And Delezza winning every damn hand of cards…

But not really hate. When Cirille inquired at the barracks though, she didn’t find Merish.

She did find a brawl. The Gnolls stopped fighting when she opened the door. The Drake stared.

“What is going on here?”

Two groups of Gnolls had been, apparently, kicking the snot out of each other. The others were watching or pulling them apart, but Cirille saw half a dozen tribes on one side and a few of the largest tribes on the other. They stared at the Drake.

“…Nothing? We were just engaging in a…ritual of the tribes. Very magical.”

One of the [Shamans] waved his staff vaguely. It was about as good an excuse as she got under her command. The Drake looked around. The Gnolls did not look very hospitable towards her. But she was a [Commander]. The Drake handled it the only way she knew how.

Officers—to me. Someone get a [Healer] and everyone else—I want this barracks cleaned up in five minutes!

The Gnolls looked at each other. For a second Cirille was afraid they’d ignore her. But then some of the head warriors drifted over. Some of the other Gnolls headed for a [Shaman]. The rest watched Cirille step back. One [Warrior] nudged another.

“Cleaned up? Does she want us to sweep?”

The other shrugged and picked up some sheets.

“Let’s make beds. Drakes love making beds.”

 

—-

 

The fight had been about The King of Destruction. To be more precise—him accepting Gnoll tribes as his sovereign citizens. Cirille looked around at the other Gnolls.

“Why did that cause a fight?”

“He let Doombringers—

Another Gnoll punched the back of the Gnoll’s head.

“Who cares?”

She snapped. The Gnoll rounded on her.

“They’re not called ‘happy-bringers’, you idiot, you! And besides, he took in poorer tribes. Troublemakers!”

“The Dustfur tribe does not cause trouble. You just quarrel with them because your tribe lost a trade agreement eight years back.”

Another Gnoll poked the [Far Hunter] in the side. He whirled, growing louder.

“That’s not it at all! But those Gnolls are sellouts. Pets—

Someone kicked him in the back.

“Say that again.”

Cirille watched the Gnolls hitting each other for a second, open-mouthed. And she thought her Drakes brawled over Walled City politics.

“Alright, enough! Where’s Chief Warrior Merish?”

She shouted and the Gnolls looked at her. Sergeant Rhikel had been right. Each tribe had their own opinion, even if only one warrior had come from it. They conferred and one of Merish’s [Shamanic Warriors] offered the answer.

“On break. He asked [Far Hunter] Deirr to take over, despite him choosing sides—

“Where did he go?

“The unfunny Humans.”

Cirille stared. She wasn’t given an answer to what that meant. But she was given directions. The [Commander] hesitated.

“I’m going after him. Far Hunter Deirr—take your people and all the Gnolls under your command and uh—trade with Viri’s group.”

“Trade?”

The Gnolls blinked. It was the only thing Cirille could think of.

“That’s right. Ask Commander Uxel for permission. You’ll stay in the Lizardfolk barracks. It beats a fight.”

And if you make trouble, the Gorgons will be only too happy to smack you around. The Gnolls looked at each other. After a second, Deirr frowned.

“But my tribe is not the only one who fought with the others. Why are we singled out?”

“Did I say your tribe? I meant all of them.”

The Gnolls looked at each other.

“That is a quarter of the command, Commander.”

The Drake closed her eyes. It was never easy.

“Fine then. Divide up into the groups that actually like each other. I’ll transfer…Uxel’s Lizardfolk into your barracks. And Commander Ossky’s squad and Sergeant Rhikle’s groups…”

She began dividing up the Gnolls into non-argumentative groups and splitting them up. She expected them to fight or object; Drake officers would, but the Gnolls were adaptable. If anything, they seemed eager to get away from each other.

“Even Drakes are better. But please—not the [Knights]? They sing.

Commander Cirille soon found the barracks a humdrum of different species. She looked into it and closed her eyes.

“Ancestors. Merish is going to kill me. At least it’ll hold for a day.

Then she went off to find Merish. What did ‘unfunny Humans’ mean, anyways? The only ones she could think of were—

“No. Why would he go there?

 

—-

 

A [Clown] stood on the illuminated stage. Well, it wasn’t a stage so much as a converted bar. [Soldiers] needed to relax. And 5th Wall had been set up with facilities for any number of things. Of course, the buildings weren’t built into the wall itself, like 4th Wall, but just outside.

It was dangerous, but the wall was under construction. The real one, with the huge moat, would be a much vaster place. Cirille had seen the plans. It was going to be something even the Walled Cities would envy.

For now, though, this was one of the inns—or bars. But the [Clown]?

Tom sipped from a drink of rum on the stage. The audience was quiet. The room dark. Someone had hung a magic lantern and shaded it so it created a beam. It swung to follow him as he walked back and forth in front of the single stool.

“So—heehee—who remembers killing their first monster?”

He giggled into the little speaking stone he carried. Some people raised hands or claws or other appendages. The [Clown] pointed.

“You. What did you kill? First thing.”

“Goblin.”

“Goblin! Ha! Hahahahaha—that’s not a monster, that’s a person! If it levels, it’s alive! Heh.”

He began laughing hysterically.

“Hahahaha—”

The [Clown] caught himself as the audience stared. It wasn’t just his troupe, although they filled the seats, their painted faces always grinning—some thoughtful. The [Clown] paced back and forth.

“Goblins are fine. What about you? Carn Wolves? Okay, okay.”

Another sip. Cirille watched, uncomprehending. Merish was sitting at a table, chewing on some food while he listened. Tom went on.

“See, my first monster was right after we arrived here. There I was, fresh out of training, with a knife in hand. I’d never killed. I was Level 6. I’d seen people dying, though. We just came from the capital after we got slaughtered. Demon ambush.”

The audience stirred again. Some nodded. But this wasn’t the angry recollections. This was…a story? Cirille saw another Human. Sir Richard. He was watching, leaning against the bar.

The story went on.

“So I’m in the capital. But we were told Demon attacks could happen any time. So I hear this screaming as I’m just outside the gates. Not Human. Not a person. I turn to look—and there’s this huge armored thing coming at me. Giant jaws, teeth like sawblades. It’s not big, by the way. Yay high.”

He indicated something around knee-level. Someone laughed. Huge? The [Clown] looked about.

“It looked big, alright? It could still chew off a leg. And it’s coming at me. So—I panic. I look around to run. I’m not fighting it. I was hoping I could get Richard to kill it.”

He pointed into the audience. Heads turned. Tom grinned, huge, maniac. But not as insane as he had been on the battlefield.

“But no one’s there. So—I draw my knife. And I jump at the thing. Well, it jumps me and I stab it. Trouble is—it has armor on its stomach. And at first it’s not biting me—I think I surprised it. So I start stabbing and it starts to trying to eat me at last. That’s about when I shit myself.”

The audience giggled. The Gloomless Troupe laughed, falling out of their chairs. The others just stared. The [Clown] giggled too.

“You think that’s a joke? I think that’s why I survived. The thing was so repulsed by the stench it stopped biting. So I flip it onto its back. And there we are, wrestling.”

He made a knife appear and stabbed with it, pretend-fighting. Cirille edged around the room, trying to get to Merish while she figured out what was happening. The [Clown] continued.

“I’m stabbing it and it’s biting me, and I think I’m winning, but you never know. And there’s blood all over and the damned thing won’t die. But at last—I finally get it. It falls over. Dead. And I’m alive. And I’m a hero. I just killed a knee-high monster!”

He grinned around. The audience murmured. That was in debate. Tom went on.

“I actually drag the thing to the gates. I’m going to show everyone. I’m still bleeding, by the way, but I don’t heal myself. I want people to know how much I fought. Like a tiger! That’s a big cat, by the way. I hear they have them in Baleros. So I find my friends. Richard was there. He remembers this. Everyone says ‘Tom! What happened?’ And I say ‘Demon attack, no big deal. Killed it. Want to see the body?’ And of course, I’m showing it around.”

He brushed at his clown costume, feigning indifference. The [Clown] paused and the audience leaned forwards, feeling the narrative coming to a close.

“So there I am. The [Guards] are sounding the alarm, they’re all asking how it attacked me and I’m ready to accept a medal or trophy. I’m definitely leveling up tonight. Then, at that moment, Lady Emirelle asks if anyone’s seen her pet Skeljaw.”

He paused. The audience went silent. And then those who figured it out started laughing. Some in horror. Others found it genuinely hilarious, like Uxel. Some were appalled, like the [Druid] who looked ready to jump Tom.

The [Clown] grinned around, sweating in the spotlight.

“The worst part is that she’s still mad about it!”

Laughter, conversation as he sipped from his drink. Cirille slid into the table next to Merish. The Gnoll jumped.

“Commander Cirille?”

“What in the name of the Walls am I looking at?”

“Some kind of humor. They do it every night. I thought it was wise to see. It is a ritual of this troupe.”

The Gnoll nodded towards the stage. The [Clown] went on. He pulled out a knife as the audience looked at him again. He had a kind of crazy charisma, Cirille had to admit.

If Sir Richard looked like a young commander, Tom was the opposite of everything Cirille had been taught to respect. It was like watching a tragedy or a disaster—you couldn’t walk away.

“Okay, next bit. I can do magic tricks. See this knife? I’m going to make it disappear.”

The audience stirred. Richard unfolded his arms. He looked concerned. But Tom didn’t ask for volunteer. He held his hand out, palm facing the audience.

“Watch, the blade, watch it vanish—

He stabbed himself through the hand until the hilt was all that was visible. Cirille made a sound. The audience groaned or shouted. Tom held out his hand. Then he turned it sideways, looked at the blood running down the blade of the knife. He wiggled his fingers weakly, looked at the audience.

“…Ow. I didn’t think that through.”

That time the audience was even more split. But Commander Uxel was nearly on the floor laughing. Cirille began to catch on.

“Oh. He’s trying to be funny.

“Sometimes he is. I’m still not sure why he does it, though. Something to do with his class? Why did you want me, Commander Cirille? We will try your formations tomorrow. But we need not quarrel now.”

The Gnoll looked warily at the Drake. She grimaced.

“I…wanted to talk to you, Chief Warrior. I, er, wasn’t aware of how difficult it was managing your command.”

He looked wary and surprised.

“It is my duty. I was appointed Chief Warrior by the others. They will follow my order.”

“Er, yes. But it can’t be easy. I stopped by the barracks, actually, looking for you. There was an incident…”

The Gnoll groaned. He half-stood as Tom launched into another story. It had a punch line; that was the trick.

“What problem? How many were hurt?”

“Don’t worry about it. I sorted it, somehow. Uh—you might not be happy with how. That happens often?”

The Gnoll sat down, sighing.

“You would not know. But the Tribes love to quarrel. Drakes are peaceful compared to some blood feuds. And Gnolls are not as restrained as Drakes.”

Restrained as…? Merish clearly didn’t know about inter-city wars. But apparently, Gnolls from feuding tribes would gut each other if left alone.

“I split them up. Just for sleeping.”

The Chief Warrior blinked, but he didn’t object. He actually nodded, looking thoughtful.

“That may be…best. I did not think it wise to ask, but I had considered it. But what about my command? Our working together?”

“I think…it’s time to revisit how we work. Maybe we can try to work around your slower responses, Merish. Or assign some Gnolls used to military command?”

“Hrr—maybe—”

A knife struck the table and vibrated. Merish and Cirille fell out of their seats, grabbing for their weapons.

Hey! Shut up in the audience or I’ll kill you!

Tom shouted. Cirille got up, hearing laughter from his posse and the audience .The [Clown] glared, then turned it into a grin.

“Where was I? Oh, right. The fire. Bastion-General Quiteil is so mad he’s already threatened to have me jailed or executed. And there I am, with about a thousand magical arrows on fire. So I thought the best thing to do was put them out. Someone should have really labeled those barrels.”

More laughter. Cirille didn’t laugh, but she sat, warily eying the knife as she and Merish had a drink. She had no frame of reference for this. It wasn’t like a [Bard], or even a [Fool]’s act. But it was new. And it spoke to some.

 

—-

 

For Richard, seeing Tom on stage was a revelation of kinds. It wasn’t great standup. The [Clown]’s skills in no way translated into actually being funny. And the kind of engagement a [Mad Clown] did was different from the kind most comedians wanted from their audience.

But he looked happy. This was what Richard thought Tom should be. On stage, trying to make people laugh.

Richard wondered if it would have all been different if Tom were less…responsible. Able to run away and not fight and put his life on the line.

“He put on the makeup after we were slaughtered in the ambush at 5th wall. I forgot.”

“Hm? What was that, Richard?”

Vincent was sitting at the bar, only half-listening as he flirted with a Minotaur [Archer]. The Minotauress looked like she’d kill Vincent and that was if he was lucky.

“Tom. He only tried to become a [Clown] after most of us died. Remember? There were a hundred and then sixty after that. And after that…”

“Don’t remind me. I’m trying to get lucky. Do you think she’d be impressed if I beat her at arm-wrestling?”

Richard eyed the Minotauress. She was an [Archer], but he doubted he’d have an easy time, let alone the [Swashbuckler]. He patted Vincent on the arm.

“Good luck.”

He saw the Drake, Cirille, and the Gnoll warrior leaving after a while. But Richard kept watching, even as the audience changed. Watching the [Clown] flounder, get laughs, laugh uncontrollably. But when he smiled—Richard thought he meant it.

 

—-

 

Commander Cirille had a deeper appreciation for Chief Warrior Merish’s struggles after that night. Let alone dealing with the uncooperative warriors.

But that night after watching the unfunny [Clown] hadn’t resulted in any epiphany about how to resolve their issue of commands.

It was then somewhat ironic that the problem turned out to have solved itself the next day. Quite by accident. Merish informed Cirille she’d discovered the secret.

“Mixed commands?”

He nodded.

“Give me more of your Drakes. I will give you my Gnoll [Hunters], yes? Then I will command just the heaviest warriors with my [Shamanic Warriors]. Mix in the Gnolls and if they see others running, they will follow.”

“But that’s—”

Cirille closed her mouth on ‘not allowed’. This wasn’t the Walled Cities and this wasn’t her taking command of another army. Thoughtfully, she looked at Commander Uxel, who was waiting to trounce her.

“…Fine. Let’s try it. Give me five minutes—where are your best lineholders?”

“That would be the Jadehammers Tribe. Them, over there. Stubborn as goats…damn. I think they heard me…”

 

—-

 

This time, they won. And handily. It wasn’t that they worked better together—it was just that the jarring gap in their styles had closed. And the Lizardfolk, for all they were adaptive, didn’t do well with a battlefield where they couldn’t continually hide or outmaneuver the enemy.

Also—the individual skill sets of the Gnolls and Drakes became apparent in one clash between Ser Vorn and Drake [Riders], the [Knight] himself rode to complain. He had paint all over his armor from arrow strikes.

“Commander Cirille. I must protest! Your [Archers] cannot fire into a skirmish between cavalry. You’ll hit your own side!”

That was military doctrine among Drakes as well. But Cirille had employed the tactic. The [Commander] folded her arms and tried not to smirk.

“I understand that, Ser Vorn. But the Gnoll [Far Hunter] under my command assures me his elite [Hunters] can do so without ever hitting a friendly combatant.”

The [Knight] huffed.

“That may be so for a practice engagement, but would you trust that to an actual battle, as we are simulating, Commander?”

She raised one brow.

“Do you see any paint on the other [Riders], Ser Vorn?”

The [Knight] checked his besmirched armor. Then frowned at the Drakes celebrating.

“…Huh.”

Commander Uxel had lost, but the Gorgon was in such a good mood after discovering Tom’s comedy that he barely cared. In fact, the Gorgon slithered over after the second loss.

“Commander Cirille. I’m interested by these tactics. Give me your Drake spears.”

“What?”

The Gorgon pointed.

“I will give you Viri and a [Mage] division. I want to see what Drake spears do.”

She blinked at him. And then…the pieces fell into place. The Drake glanced at their lines.

“I think, Commander Uxel, we need to practice against some Rhirian forces.”

The Gorgon grinned.

“Only if we can hit them harder.

That did make Cirille smile. Merish too.

 

—-

 

By the end of the day, the formations between the joint army had changed. Instead of Drakes taking to the front, they’d adjusted their lineup. It looked more like this:

Drakes still formed the heavy front line. There was nothing like their tight formations for stopping a charge or giving one. But now Gorgons and Lizardfolk formed key wedges, ready to smash into weak points. They had the offensive power and speed that Drakes lacked.

Merish’s Gnolls joined the archers and heavy infantry, mainly. Where they had to stay in the fighting, the Gnolls with enchanted weapons were best.

And meanwhile, all three species’ spellcasters hung back with the [Archers], sheltered by Drake formations. Ossky’s wing, as the only fliers, kept up aerial pressure and more mobility along with Ser Vorn’s [Knights], who were the heavy cavalry that every other species lacked.

But the kicker that made their formation the best was…well, the Gorgons. Cirille had to admit it; Uxel’s abilities didn’t extend to just venom fangs, the enhanced scales, or his height or brawn.

Gorgons and Medusae shared sight-attacks. Gorgons were weaker; they just made the enemy’s muscles lock for a second or two. But when you were maneuvering, a second or two made all the difference. He’d used it to break Drake formations for the last three days. Now, the mixed army took apart six different groups of Rhir’s forces in skirmishes.

Bastion-General Zavarial pronounced them fit for patrol duty. Cirille shared a celebratory drink where even Delezza’s usual sharp tongue was absent. All the [Demon Huntress] did was smile.

“Took you long enough.”

The significance of the words didn’t sink in until that night. Cirille lay down, inebriated after long drinking with Uxel and Merish; Ser Vorn had declined, citing an aging body. She closed her eyes…and heard it.

 

[Foreign Commander Level 33!]

[Conditions Met: Foreign Commander → Combined-Arms Commander Class!]

[Skill: Copy Weapon Art obtained!]

[Synergy: Gnoll-Drake Command obtained!]

 

Her eyes snapped open.

What? What’s—”

She would find out the next day. The next day—reinforcements came from 4th Wall. Cirille found out about her Skill.

And a [Message] came from home.

 

—-

 

That day, Commander Cirille woke up to chaos in three different barracks. Commander Uxel, her forces, and Merish’s division were all filled with confused soldiers, asking questions and receiving little answers.

Bastion-General Zavarial was not pleased. The half-Elf came striding over himself to find out what was wrong this time. And just when the irregular companies had finally begun working together!

“Report. What is it?”

“I don’t know, Bastion-General. It may have to do with my new…Skill. But it’s not a Skill—”

Commander Cirille’s blush was impossible to see under her off-black scales, but her look of mortification at having the supreme commander for the area dealing with her forces at dawn was visible for all to see.

“Skill? What Skill?”

“I consolidated my classes, Bastion-General! I am now a [Combined-Arms Commander]. I have obtained two new Skills—of a kind.”

The Drake threw a salute. The mix of pride and confusion was also evident. The half-Elf stopped. He flexed his hands and the scales running up his forearm and ending at his elbow flexed. Heritage of his mixed ancestry—Lizardfolk and half-Elf. The blood of half-Elves always threw true, but sometimes they carried influence.

“Congratulations, Commander Cirille. What is this new Skill?”

The door to the Drake’s barracks was open. Cirille heard shouts—one Drake was swearing and clutching at his nostrils. Captain Shellc looked around. And Bastion-General Zavarial saw the Drake was coughing, eyes watering.

“Er—a synergy, Bastion-General? [Synergy: Gnoll-Drake Command]. But I don’t—”

Ah.

The half-Elf suddenly smiled. And he relaxed so suddenly that it caught his junior officers off-guard. The Bastion-General chuckled.

“I see. In that case, I will inform Bastion-General Quiteil of the situation. Your division is excused from patrolling today. Reorganize and assess the effects of your new ability, Commander. And congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir. But what…?”

He was gone before she could ask what had happened. Bewildered, Cirille stepped into the barracks. And she heard Captain Shellc roaring at the others.

You all stink! Who’s not been bathing for the last week? You—[Soldier]! I can smell the horse crap on your tail! Wash!”

He pointed at a Drake, who checked his tail, which was indeed less than clean after being dragged through something untoward. The others looked at the Drake.

“Captain Shellc, what is happening?”

“Commander! We have a serious hygiene issue here! The rank is getting sloppy. Even some of the officers! I’ve chewed out eleven idiots who can’t even clean themselves properly! And there’s mold in two of the bunks!”

The Drake complained as he turned to Cirille. She looked around. He wasn’t…wrong. But the other [Soldiers] were sniffing themselves and finding nothing wrong.

“Captain, it’s just a little funk. I’ve smelled worse. Hells, I’ve slept in worse and never noticed.”

One of the [Sergeants] complained. Captain Shellc pointed a clawed finger at him.

“Stow it, [Sergeant]! I haven’t smelled anything so foul since I was in the sewers back home! You’ll get your group cleaned up or I’ll—”

Cirille sniffed.

“…I don’t smell anything, Captain. I think it might just be your nose.”

The [Captain] turned to his commander, looking appalled.

“But Commander—I’m not the only one! Hey! You all, come forwards!”

He waved, and about a hundred out of the thousand stationed in this section came forwards with complaints about the smell. Cirille blinked.

“One hundred…? What other issues have there been, Captain Shellc?”

“Well, Commander. It’s not as bad as the smell…but there were a few incidents at the mess.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, some idiots bit through their spoons. Damndest thing. And some others decided to copy them. They ‘claimed’ it was just weak metal, but…”

He didn’t know. But the [Swordsman]-[Captain] wasn’t an idiot. He narrowed his eyes as Commander Cirille looked around.

“What about the Gnolls?”

“…Chief Warrior Merish and Ossky were investigating that. That’s…different.”

It was indeed. About a third of the Drakes under Cirille’s command had been affected by certain—traits. A stronger bite, complaints of enhanced smell, or hearing. But the Gnolls? That was when the coin dropped.

“I can’t stop. Every time I open—gah.

Chief Warrior Merish himself had a symptom. He opened his mouth and Lieutenant Ossky jerked her head back before the plume of frost froze her scales off. She turned as Cirille strode into the room, followed by her officers.

“Commander! It’s incredible. Either I’m a Lizard—sorry, Uxel—or some of the Gnolls have developed Oldblood breath attacks.

“Impossible!”

Shellc exclaimed. Merish opened his mouth and exhaled. The Drake leapt back as a cloud of freezing ice swept towards him. It wasn’t as bad as Ossky or some of the other Oldbloods’ abilities; she could be visible for miles upon miles away if you looked at her when she went hard—but it was still powerful.

“So that’s what it does.”

Cirille just stared. A Skill worthy of a class change indeed. She had no idea it even existed. Everyone looked at her. Commander Uxel bared his fangs.

“Care to explain?”

 

—-

 

Synergies are similar to Combination Skills. They require multiple components to work, Commander Cirille. I have adjusted your file to note the advantageous matchup.

Quiteil’s voice was precise and still annoyed Cirille. Mainly because he wasn’t surprised or even noticeably pleased by the development.

“You knew it would happen, Bastion-General?”

Not at all. However, a Drake Commander unwilling to work with another species is not useful. The possibility existed. Synergies are known to Rhir’s forces. Other nations have very little experience in this area due to a lack of mixed-species forces.

The clipped voice came through the speaking stone. Cirille hated that he was right. She chewed on her lip as Merish burped and froze Viri’s face as the Lizardman tried to peer into his open mouth.

“But Bastion-General—Gnolls exist in Drake command.”

Correct. However, they are a minority and function as Drake [Soldiers] do without distinction. I do not have the time to debate the differences, Commander. Congratulations. I look forwards to your second tour. Bastion-General Quiteil out.

He closed the speaking stone. Cirille glared at it.

“It’s just his way. He’s actually pleased. He said ‘congratulations’. You’ll get a bottle of something or some present, no doubt. The brass loves new classes.”

The [Scrier] on-duty assured Cirille as the [Commander] returned the stone. The Drake smiled at the Human.

“Thank you. I…what did he mean by ‘second tour’?”

The Human woman blinked.

“It means they’ll offer you a chance to stay another four years, Commander. That means they think you’re valuable.”

 

—-

 

Valuable? No one had ever applied that word in context with Cirille’s service in Rhir. The Walled Cities had selected her because she was a decent commander who wouldn’t embarrass them—and also because she wasn’t good enough that she would be needed.

Cirille had leveled on Rhir. She would be an asset to Manus when she returned. But now Rhir wanted her.

“Because you can work with other species. Lots of commanders aren’t so flexible. They get sent back. It is a compliment. I heard some of the Walled Cities send Drakes who can’t work with anyone at all. That was why I thought you would be so annoying. I was wrong.”

Uxel informed Cirille. The Gorgon slithered down the wall as they walked together. Cirille looked at him.

“Certainly, I wasn’t…at home with Merish. Or you, Uxel. But aside from the ‘Lizards are enemies’ idiocy, it wasn’t hard to adjust.”

He grinned at her and spat some venom over the wall after making sure no one was below.

“You say that. But some Drakes are as stupid as rocks. And as stubborn as Dullahans. Take the compliment. But will you stay?

“I hadn’t thought about it.”

The Gorgon nodded.

“Think. I will be going back, even if I learn the [Combined-Arms Commander] class. Which I wish to do.”

That surprised her. Cirille glanced at Uxel.

“Even if they ask you to stay?”

The Gorgon shook his head.

“I came here to fight Demons, to level—I have done both. But Baleros calls. It may be foolish—but when I return, I want to challenge my superiors. My company can be stronger. Maybe even a Great Company of Baleros someday. Or maybe we can go abroad and conquer parts of Izril?”

He grinned. That was Gorgon humor for you. Cirille smiled.

“Only the northern parts.”

There was a lot to think about. Synergies were powerful—why did the Walled Cities not know or try to gather such useful abilities in their commanders? Then again, it did require multiple species with their own autonomy.

In the interim, however, making the new abilities in her forces work proved a challenge. Captain Shellc ended up in command of more Gnolls than Drakes—because the Gnolls shared his keen sense of smell.

“I can’t believe how much they stink.

The Drake complained. All the Gnolls chuckled or grinned. Merish laughed.

“You will get used to it.”

“I’m not sure how useful a good sense of smell is on the battlefield. Among our [Scouts] maybe. And the hearing becomes a problem.”

Cirille confessed to Merish. The Gnoll [Shamanic Warrior] nodded.

“It is not always useful. If the enemy uses poison—you will know. And good hearing helps sometimes when the enemy is hidden or maneuvering in the darkness. But what of our…breaths?”

He had managed to avoid freezing everything in sight. Cirille frowned.

“Shellc swears he’s gained some muscle as well. As for Gnolls breathing fire, acid, or what have you—I suppose it’s just another weapon. We’ll show you how Oldblood formations work. Ossky’s an expert; it’s breathe and fight.”

“I lose air when I do it too much and end up gasping like a fish.”

The winged lieutenant grinned.

“You need to practice. It’s like a quarter-Oldblood strength at best, Commander. Maybe if you were double your level they’d all have abilities as strong as mine.”

“And Captain Shellc would be walking around with a coat of fur. Let’s just work with what we have, Ossky.”

 

—-

 

A few observations after a day of drilling: the Synergy was powerful. Not all-powerful. It had limitations.

Firstly, it only affected those under her direct command. So while Drakes and Gnolls stationed with Uxel had new abilities, the Lizardfolk did not, much to their disappointment.

Also, the abilities ‘faded’ the further her command got from Cirille. And if you left her command in any capacity—she had ‘traded’ a group of Gnolls with Uxel—they disappeared entirely.

In combat, it made Merish and the Gnolls even more problematic to fight against. The Gnolls would happily turn your face to ice before smacking you around. On the other side, along with enhanced smell, Captain Shellc happily did press-ups until the ‘regular’ Drakes collapsed.

“It’s powerful, but more in that your [Soldiers] keep your abilities. I’ve seen better [Commander] Skills. Have you heard of [Sight’s Bane Formation]?”

Uxel stood on the walls afterwards, with Ser Vorn, Merish, and Cirille. They were all tired—and some nursing slight injuries by accidental Gnoll-breath attacks. One of them had accidentally breathed a dust cloud onto Ser Vorn and the [Knight] had hours of buffing for his armor.

“[Sight’s Bane Formation]? Never heard of it. What does it do?”

The commanders were all too eager to share knowledge. It was after all, a kind of power, knowing about rare Skills. The Gorgon grinned.

“Turns your soldiers invisible.”

“What, all of them?”

Even Ser Vorn looked incredulous, and he was decades older than the rest. The Gorgon nodded.

“Saw a Medusa-General use it once. Her capstone Skill of Level 40. Turned her entire army invisible for three minutes. They took the enemy apart.”

“I want that Skill.”

Merish muttered. Cirille nodded. That was the difference. A three-minute Skill that turned an entire battle around—or a longer-term Skill? She’d take it, either way.

“Say, you have the Titan of Baleros, right? What kind of Skills does a [Strategist] of that level have?”

The Gorgon frowned.

“I’ve never seen the Titan fight. Good thing too; but I’ve heard he can move across the world from battlefield to battlefield in moments. He can apparently multiply a unit’s power so it smashes through right when you’re not looking at it. Things like that.”

“Gah. [Strategists]. You know, it might be untested, but I’d put our combined formation against one of Manus’ forces. We don’t have as many elites and specialized units, but there’s a lot we could steal from each other.”

“[Knights] especially. Gnolls don’t have [Knights] because armor and fur get hot.

“Nagas can’t ride horses and Lizardfolk are too light.”

“Drakes—have trouble with tail armor. And riding horses is harder. Tails, again.”

All three looked at Ser Vorn. He scratched at his head and smiled.

“And we Humans lack your interesting abilities. It would appear we complement each other.”

The commanders shared a moment’s congenial pause. No one wanted to say ‘I’m so glad we’re working together’ or something sappy like that. They’d probably get tossed off the walls. But the sentiment existed without words.

A trumpet blaring a welcome interrupted the moment. The commanders on 5th Wall turned and saw an approaching procession.

“What’s that? Minotaurs? I thought we already had all of their forces stationed here.”

Cirille spotted a large group moving up towards the walls. They were big, armored figures. Ser Vorn peered with an enchanted spyglass.

“…Ah. Those aren’t Minotaurs. Those are Humans.”

The Drake peered at the distant figures.

“Stop joking, Ser Vorn.”

“It’s not a joke.”

“They’re massive. As tall as Gnolls! Taller! They’re half-Giants, right?”

One of the Humans was eight feet tall if she was any judge, and looked like a half-Giant. But Ser Vorn assured her he was Human.

“There’s only one group they can be. See the insignia on their armor and the welcome?”

Bastion-General Zavarial himself was welcoming the group. As Cirille descended to talk to some more of the irregular commanders, someone finally explained.

“They’re a Unit. You know? One of the special ones? Those are the Queen’s personal unit. Shel’s Cleansenborne. She’s not with them, by the looks of it.”

“They can’t risk the Queen on 5th Wall. Not that she hasn’t been here before.”

The Queen? Cirille remembered seeing her. The Blighted Queen was far younger than King Othius IV, and she was a veteran warrior who carried a mace fit for a Minotaur. A giant of a Human. By the looks of it—she’d passed her traits off onto her entire unit.

“How do they get so big, though? That cannot be a Skill, yes? What, do they grow overnight if she inducts them? Like mushrooms?”

Laughter in response to Merish. Springwaters, the half-Elf [Marksman], shook his head.

“Not at all. They’re trained from youth and go through a growth spurt. They can’t quit the unit, I think.”

“Well, they’re going to be a terror to whoever fights them.”

Cirille remembered the [Flesh Reapers] for a moment. She wondered if being half again as tall as other Humans did something to their physiology. Certainly—the armored warriors marched with unnatural silence, even compared to Drake armies. They didn’t show any skin; they wore helmets and armor, standing still like Golems.

Perfect warriors for a war against Demons. Someone frowned. Paxhal.

“If they’re so special, why are they here now? They missed the fighting.”

A snort. The Minotaur [Axe Captain] looked down at the Humans, glaring as if trying to figure out if they were a match for his troops.

“Normally they’re on 3rd Wall. They must be here to deal with that serpent-titan. Did you hear? Some [Naturalist]’s named it. They’re called Zavaral-swarms.”

“Zavaral? You mean, like Bastion-General…?”

Snorts from up and down the wall. That was a dubious honor. Or the [Naturalist] had a sick sense of humor. The Minotaur grunted.

“Apparently. It’s not a laughing matter. The Kingdom is afraid a few got away. And if they did—or if the Demons kept a few, they could breed them. Send titans like that against the Blighted Kingdom every month. Not just one, either. Dozens, all multiplying. Imagine that.”

The others fell silent. That gave Cirille chills. She imagined how quickly that would wear down even the Blighted Kingdom’s supplies and soldiers.

And yet, to conquer that fear, the Cleansenborne marched. 5th Wall would be launching seek-and-destroy teams. The Hunter’s Guild’s specialists and Paxhal’s fliers had been scouting for the Zavaral-swarms. And tomorrow—Cirille’s forces would join the hunt.

She looked forward to it. Rhir’s Champions stood with Bastion-General Zavarial, meeting the leader of the Cleansenborne and the other, smaller regiments sent forwards to join 5th Wall. All except Sir Tom and his crazies, of course.

The air blew warm from the north, bearing a strange odor with it. The scent of corruption, the odd tang that was Rhir. Cirille wondered if she wanted to do a second tour. Four more years…but why not? She had already gained a new class. In four more years—

“Commander Cirille. Ser Vorn. First Warrior Merish. Commander Uxel…”

A voice spoke on the walls. The others turned. It was Viri. The Lizardman had leapt up onto the walls in a single motion with his pole.

“Viri, get off the walls! Who’s causing trouble this time?”

Uxel hissed, vexed at the Lizardman’s disruption of the ceremony below. Viri just looked at him. The colorful little Lizardfolk didn’t laugh or grin like usual. He pointed.

“Follow me. Hurry. Delezza’s dying.”

 

—-

 

They had brought her in via stretcher. Horses would have torn the wounds open further. Cirille joined the crowd milling around the [Healer]’s stations.

Keep back. What happened?

Bastion-General Zavarial strode forwards, ordering the [Soldiers] and officers back. It was one of the other [Hunters], Sisth, who answered. He had a huge wound running down his cheek to his arm.

It wasn’t healed. Cirille stared at it, confused. They had healing potions. But the [Healers] were applying needles and thread to the wounds, fussing around with liquids—

Trying to stop the bleeding. As the crowd moved back, Cirille saw Huntress Delezza.

Her eyes were open. And she was wounded. Dozens of cuts, arrow wounds had pierced her enchanted clothing and armor. She was breathing. But she bled—and each second the color drained a bit more from her.

“Use a potion! What’s wrong?

Someone demanded. Paxhal fluttered forwards, but the [Soldiers] keeping order thrust him back.

“Poison. It’s not even a strong dose. But it’s new. They ambushed us.”

Sisth was one of two [Hunters] besides Delezza alive. His patrol had been cut down. The [Healer] looked up.

“We do not know what poison it is, Bastion-General. The Demons must have created a new toxin. It doesn’t—do much more than cause paralysis in the joints. But…”

It stopped them from healing with potions. Cirille knew poisons. The bane of soldiers everywhere. It was why [Healers] were still needed.

“Save her. Huntress Delezza must not die.”

The [Healer] bowed. He was high-level. But Cirille saw from the Dullahan’s face he had little hope. They bent to their tasks, trying to stem the bleeding, close wounds with gels that stopped the blood loss. But they couldn’t replace it and that was what Delezza needed. Until they worked up an antidote…Delezza had minutes.

“Let us through. Hey—I said, move!

A voice. High and crazed. Someone shouted. Cirille whirled. She saw a flash of blades. The crowd broke up.

“Tom, stop this—

Sir Richard followed the [Clown] as he advanced with his Gloomless Troupe. The [Clown] wasn’t laughing or smiling like he always was.

“Sir Tom. This is not the time—”

“Shut up.”

The Bastion-General stopped as the knife aimed at his chest. Tom looked around, breathing hard.

“Get—get—get Chole. Where is she? We don’t need [Healers]. Do a blood transfusion!”

“A what?”

Cirille didn’t know the word. But Sir Richard and the other Champions did. They turned to each other.

“What is this transfusion?”

“It adds blood to the body. Chole’s been working on one—damn. All of her equipment’s back at Hayvon’s mansion! We don’t have time to get it.”

“Improvise, then! Someone send a spell to Chole! Ask her—it’s about blood types.”

Step back! You idiots! Someone find a tube. And a jar!

Tom shouted. The [Clown]’s posse kept the others back, slashing with daggers, heedless of being on the same side. Cirille saw Richard trying to explain.

“We need blood. In a container. Then we funnel it into Delezza’s veins.”

Blood?

Everyone in the crowd offered theirs at once. Tom looked around.

“Not Drakes. What’s her blood type? Humans! Non-Humans, piss off!

Humans pushed forwards. Richard looked around. Vincent pushed forwards as Tom grabbed some empty glass jars the [Alchemists] had been using.

“It won’t take if it’s not the same blood type, Tom—”

“Don’t lecture me, Vincent. Chole told me there’s a way to figure it out. How does it go?”

Emily spoke up. She had a finger to her temple.

“Chole says—mix the blood. If—if platelets develop, it’s incompatible. If not, it would work!”

“Do that. Get Delezza’s blood. And mix it with—”

Blood splashed into containers and some of Delezza’s blood was added in. The others were trying to figure out how to do the transfusion.

“We need a needle. No—a drip. Maybe there’s a spell we can use?”

The Bastion-General motioned and a [Mage] ran forwards.

“If you need any spell, we have [Mages] of many varieties. [Blood Mages]—none, though. But what about [Necromancers]? They’re experts at setting bone.”

“Sir, there’s a single [Blood Mage] stationed on 2nd Wall—”

Cirille saw the people milling about. Tom was checking the bloody containers, demanding to know from the [Hydromancer] how long until they were certain the blood types were compatible.

Bastion-General Zavarial and Richard were trying to get two [Mages] from Wistram to create an artificial funnel. The [Alchemist] had completed something he was applying to Sisth’s face before attempting another healing potion—

The lead [Healer] looked up.

“Huntress Delezza is dead.”

The babble ceased. The Earthers, [Soldiers], Cirille—turned. The [Huntress] lay there. Her eyes were still open. But she’d stopped breathing. Tom looked up from the desperate collection of blood in jars. He looked at the body.

He didn’t laugh.

 

—-

 

“Huntress Delezza fought against the Demons for years. She earned the title of Hell’s Warden. I have come to Rhir before and I knew that the [Demon Hunters] under her tutelage were the finest in the world because they learned from her. Her entire family fought in hell and died there. Of Humans—of any species—I think there is little braver that can be said of her. I wish I had more words. But when I return to Terandria, I will speak her name in Noelictus and lay her among the honored dead.”

Ser Vorn spoke, lifting a cup of wine. It was dark, but not as red as Delezza’s blood. Cirille had no desire to drink wine. The Firebreath Whiskey burned as she joined his toast.

The commander’s mess was silent that night. Delezza was dead. Sisth, her apprentice, had filled her spot. But he was still being tended to. He hadn’t taken mortal wounds, but the antidote was being researched with no hope of an immediate cure.

One would have to be found. In the meantime, Bastion-General Zavarial had asked for volunteers to try this blood transfusion tactic, to combat the poison and save lives. Perhaps it would save hundreds of thousands in years to come.

It had been too late today. The Champions had said little after Delezza had been pronounced dead. They wore expressions of guilt. If they had been a few days earlier in pushing it forwards…if Chole, their [Nurse], had been there…

If. It was a familiar word to Cirille. She had lost friends before. This was a familiar scene.

She hated it. Someone else got up to speak. The Drake listened. She drank.

“Huntress Delezza died a hero.”

Huntress Delezza had died in an ambush behind 5th Wall. Not against the titans. Not against some great enemy. The Demons had attacked and fled. She’d killed eight with her crossbow and then her sword. But they’d been low-level. Expendable.

They’d taken a great [Hunter] down today. That was true. It was a reminder that for every big battle the Blighted Kingdom won—this happened. Cirille had seen other officers die in routine patrols, skirmishes, accidents. Delezza had been the first she knew personally since coming to 5th Wall.

“Cirille. Do you want to say anything?”

Merish sat back down. Cirille started. She looked around and shook her head. No one said anything else. Someone had started up a card game. Not because it was fun—but it was where Delezza sat. They left her seat open.

Suddenly, Cirille was sick of being in Rhir. Her joy over her class, her excitement, was gone. She wanted to march on the Demons and end this war.

It was a sentiment echoed across the others. Uxel just sat there, coiled up, refusing to talk. Merish stood with Ser Vorn, talking in a low voice. Cirille got up. She could at least…

“Commander Cirille. A [Message] for you. From High Command.”

It was then that Cirille got the communication scroll, handed to her by a [Messenger]. She opened it, read. The Drake stared at the neat writing, the little numbers, the—

She crumpled it up and tossed it in the fireplace. Merish and Ser Vorn looked up; Uxel uncoiled.

“What was that?”

“A damn message from High Command. No—Salazsar. One of the Walled Cities. Guess what? They want me back.”

Cirille shouldered her way to the bar. She slammed down her cup and money and watched the liquid refill. She drank again, sipping. The fiery liquid hurt and that was fine. It was a feeling, at least.

“They want you back? Is something wrong?”

Her friends sat with her. Cirille bowed her head.

“No. It’s…a separate offer. You get them, sometimes. Some Wall Lord of Salazsar—Ilvriss? He’s one of their most famous ones, I think. He’s offering me a job. A promotion, even. [General]. Of some private army. Good pay, no fighting in hell…probably some political maneuver. He might want me to fight against Fissival. Or the tribes.

She lifted her glass and nearly threw it across the bar. The [Bartender] watched her and the Drake slowly lowered the glass. Her grip tightened.

“Cushy job. Will you take it?”

Uxel looked at her. Cirille laughed.

“If I got it a week ago, I’d have leapt at the offer. But today? Now? Ancestors damn it. We shouldn’t be fighting each other!

Her raised voice and pounding fist made heads turn. Merish nodded, looking at her. Ser Vorn glanced at the fireplace.

“It wasn’t a good time, Cirille. But don’t reply today.”

“Ser Vorn—”

“Listen to me. You are distraught. So am I. Delezza was a friend.”

The [Knight] reached out. Cirille saw he had unshed tears in his eyes. Some of her fury—subsided. She hadn’t known Delezza long. She felt selfish, and sagged.

“I’m sorry. It’s just…”

The others nodded. She didn’t need to go on. Uxel spat venom into his drink, took a gulp.

“This is why I will leave. I will fight the Demons. But I cannot die here. If I thought we would end the war, I would fight until I end. But not…”

“That is why I come back. But that is why I leave. Don’t act rashly, Commander Cirille. Delezza would say—well, something hurtful. Just wait.”

Ser Vorn saw the Drake nod. Or jerk her head at least. After a while, Cirille stood up.

“I can’t…I’m going for a walk.”

She stood up. The others watched her leave. After a moment, Merish followed her.

 

—-

 

She didn’t know what drove her there. Some instinct, perhaps. Intuition. Cirille stumbled through the corridors, the drink burning in her veins. And she found the inn.

The Gloomless Troupe was there. No one else. It wasn’t a night for comedy. But this—wasn’t comedy on the stage either.

The room was filled with laughter. The audience, smiles wide on their faces, laughed and giggled. Insanity. Cirille paused at the doorway, her scales prickling.

A [Clown] stood on stage. No—two [Clowns]. Both identical. They wore patched, blood-stained costumes. And they held huge…sticks?

Ha! HAHAHA! That hurt!

One Tom smacked the other on the head. The second Tom fell over, comically prat-falling. The audience howled with laughter. He got back up.

“You bastard! Take this!”

He pulled out a knife and stabbed the second Tom in the stomach. Hilarity. But the blood was real. The second Tom blinked. Then he kicked the other Tom between the legs.

“Are they real…?”

Cirille watched the slapstick routine. Only—the blood and wounds the two Toms caused were real. She saw one smash a potion bottle into the other’s face. He ground the glass shards into the second’s skin.

Why are you healing yourself? Why are you healing yourself?

Two [Clowns]. It was…a Skill. The [Clown]’s new, deadly Skill. Used in a performance. Two Toms, alike in their insanity.

Laughing like madmen. They laughed, and laughed, as they wounded each other. One hit the other so hard with the stick the other fell down. And then the first Tom was on top of him. He began swinging.

Tell Delezza I said ‘hi’!

He bashed the other one in the head. The other Tom tried to get up. But the bloody stick swung down again. And again.

The other Tom started twitching. The audience laughed. But Cirille didn’t know if that was the real Tom or…she stared transfixed. The other Tom kept swinging even when his clone stopped moving. Again and again, painting the stage with red. He laughed louder as he took a bow for the audience.

It should have offended her. Appalled her. It certainly did, to part of her. But as the Drake stumbled away, leaving the madness to fester, she thought the laughter was just his way of crying. Of expressing his grief.

She hoped that was the case.

 

—-

 

The day after, the [Clown] was alive. So he hadn’t killed himself. Perhaps it had been an act. Or just chance that one Tom died. It was a microcosm, really.

5th Wall did not stop for Huntress Delezza. Oh, Bastion-General Zavarial said a few words as she was put into a casket for honored burial at Terandria—and it was an honor compared to cremating the dead. Noelictus had a practice of entombing the bodies of their fallen.

But the wall did not stop for the [Demon Hunter]. Only one section truly mourned. And 4th Wall? 1st? The capital? If it was mentioned at all, say to the Blighted King, it was just marked as ‘a high-level foreign asset dying. New poison; worrisome.

It made her so tired. Cirille patrolled the next day, marching with Viri and other [Scouts] hunting for Demons. She didn’t get to kill anyone. She wanted to.

But that was how war worked. It was never battle when you wanted it. It was boredom. And then suddenly—

“I’m leaving. I’m going to take the offer. Salazsar isn’t my first choice. But I’d have to wait for another decade to hit [General], I bet. And it’s a promotion. A guaranteed class.”

Commander Cirille gathered her officers and friends. Ser Vorn smiled; Captain Shellc looked at Ossky. Uxel bared his teeth.

“Good! I was going to hit you if you declined.”

“So you’re going to leave? Now? Is that how it works? Can they replace you so easily?”

Merish blinked at Cirille. She nodded.

“It’s not war. The Walled Cities or Rhir can replace me whenever they want. That means I have to appoint a successor or one gets sent. I—I’m not sure how fast this Wall Lord wants me. But I intend to accept.”

“Who will replace you?”

The Chief Warrior glanced at Shellc and Ossky, who were Cirille’s two most trusted subordinates. Cirille nodded at Shellc.

“Captain Shellc is the logical replacement. I’d recommend him for [Commander], and I’m sure Rhir and the Walled Cities would authorize him.”

“Commander!”

The Drake blushed.

“All very good. If you leave soon, we’ll have cause to celebrate. Perhaps—no. We’ll have to make it special. Back in Terandria, my kingdom is preparing to go to war. We might not see each other again.”

Ser Vorn’s graying smile made the Drake look at him. She nodded slowly as the others realized—that was right. When they left Rhir, they wouldn’t see each other. So Cirille took a breath.

“It’s—well. I know you’re all here for another year. At least. Most of us head home by next winter. But you can always be recalled.”

“Ailendamus might insist.”

The [Knight] murmured. Uxel nodded.

“My company could send reinforcements. But I will stay. Someone needs to fight. I imagine Merish’s tribe is the same.”

“Actually…we’re going to leave soon too. Some of the officers. The kingdom has allowed it. They must return for the Meeting of Tribes. Perhaps our groups may travel together.”

The Gnoll growled. The [Commander] nodded. She looked around.

“A Gorgon, a [Knight], a Gnoll from the tribes, and a Drake [Commander].”

“It sounds funny when you say it like that.”

Her friends looked at her. Cirille nodded. She had…an idea. It had come to her as she’d thought about going home, and what her class meant.

“I have a suggestion. When I leave…I’m going to be a [Combined-Arms Commander] leading a mostly-Drake army. Even if I can recruit Gnolls, it won’t be the same. But my specialty, what I’ve learned since coming here, is the power of multiple species working together.”

She met their eyes.

“I was thinking. Well, I asked for a copy of the offer. And it’s a lot of gold. Huge salary increase. [General] class. This Wall Lord says he wants a real commander with experience in battle. Honestly, I think he might be overvaluing my experience. I haven’t seen that much fighting. But if he’s willing to pay for me—I was thinking he might pay for more.”

The others looked at her. Ossky’s teeth shone as she bared her lips for a second.

“What are you saying?”

“Salazsar’s rich. Not sure you know how much, Uxel. But their export is literally gemstones and precious ore. They could…hire mercenaries. Well, they do all the time. Liscor’s army, they buy other cities to fight for them. I don’t know how much a Balerosian company charges. But if a Wall Lord made your company an offer…”

The Gorgon looked at Cirille sharply. Merish’s head turned.

“You want to bring Lizardfolk to Izril?”

“The Walled Cities aren’t used to Gorgons. Drakes, Humans, Gnolls—I want to see a Medusa fighting Antinium.”

The Drake’s heart was beating faster. She looked around.

“And Gnoll tribes have peerless archers. The Plain’s Eye tribe has [Shamans], which the Walled Cities essentially lack. If I made a request conditional on my accepting the offer—would you be interested in another sort of campaign?”

The others looked at her. Ser Vorn was purely astonished. He closed his mouth.

“—Ailendamus would never send me. However. Other [Knights] from my Order might be interested if I talked to them. The Order of the Thirsting Veil isn’t a stranger to crusades abroad. And we don’t induct non-Humans. But I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s an old issue. Or just that an opportunity hasn’t arisen.”

“Your order uses poison, Ser Vorn. Gorgons are a natural counterpart.”

The [Knight] eyed Uxel. The Gorgon grinned.

“Don’t give us horses. We’ll just eat them. But are you sure, Cirille?”

“Absolutely. If I’m going home, I want anything I’m part of to be…new. It might be political, but I don’t have to serve Salazsar forever. And when I’m done, I keep my class. So I’m a [General]. And if I prove the efficacy of a mixed-species army…”

Cirille looked around. Someday, she might come back. But Rhir was an eternal war. And if she wanted to change things—well, you started at home. And when they called, you brought a proper army back. She looked at Merish, Uxel, Ser Vorn, Ossky, Shellc—each one looked thoughtful.

“You don’t have to decide right away. I’m going to lay it on this Wall Lord and see if he jumps at any of it. But I’ll make the same offer to you and—Paxhal, Springwaters, anyone who’s interested. I doubt many more will be. But there it is.”

The Gnoll was the first person to respond. Chief Warrior Merish smiled.

“I’ll think about it. Certainly, we’re going the same way. My tribe will be interested.”

“I as well. I’ve always wanted to see these dreadful Antinium. And see what they taste like.”

Uxel grinned. Ser Vorn saluted.

“My Order will hear your request, Cirille. And if war threatens…”

They stood there for a while. War back home. Old grudges between species. Night fell on 5th Wall, and for a moment Cirille stood there. With a company of people who looked nothing like her. Comrades in arms, nonetheless.

Home felt so far away. The Drake took a breath.

“There’s just one last thing to do then. I’ll let you know what the Wall Lord says.”

Then she went to send a [Message]. And after that…Commander Cirille went to speak to Mage-Captain Hetarria. After all—a [Necromancer] was a hated enemy. Just like Lizardfolk. Or Gnolls. She’d been thinking about that too.

 

—-

 

That night, in Salazsar. Wall Lord Ilvriss was waiting on a reply. Not waiting as in ‘waiting for it right that second’, but anticipating one, even if it was a rejection.

“Wall Lord. [Message] from Rhir. Commander Cirille.”

The little reply came back for him. The Wall Lord accepted the scroll, which had come via Salazsar’s [Strategist] on duty rather than the Mage’s Guild. Security for the Blighted Kingdom and all that. He unfurled the [Message], which had auto-copied onto magical scrolls rather than risk transcription.

What had she said? He did not know this Commander Cirille outside of her record and reports on her. She had been in Rhir three years. Mostly on guard-duty around the capital, which didn’t make her as ideal as he wanted. But she was still solid, with a different perspective. He was taking a risk on her talent.

The Wall Lord read the [Message]. He blinked at it. Then he frowned. He stared at the words, trying to make them make sense in his mind.

“Is this a joke?”

It had to be. But why…? The Wall Lord, completely flummoxed, stared down at the words on the enchanted parchment. It read:

 

‘Salaszar is naught but cowards and thieves. Bring back the Harpies, who used to rule. The Antinium will bring down your walls like cheese. You know nothing, Wall Lord of fools.’

 

Ilvriss stared at the [Message] scroll. He turned to the Drake who’d delivered the scroll.

“Ah—please have the Night-Strategist send a confirmation [Message]. I don’t believe this is what was supposed to be sent. It’s almost certainly not from Commander Cirille. I think someone’s playing a joke on me.”

The Drake bowed and hurried off, embarrassed. Ilvriss sat down, rubbing his head. Who…rhymed ‘thieves’ and ‘cheese’?

That was just stupid.

 

—-

 

Rhir. Hell. Day by day, you could say not a lot happened.

People died. People lived. The war continued. The blight was contained by both sides. Demons, the Blighted Kingdom.

But the war was a stalemate. 5th Wall was being built. But the Blighted Kingdom was not threatening the Demons. It was a war to be won by attrition, time.

On other parts of the world, people did very exciting things. Tried to cure the Yellow Rivers disease. Conquered other nations. Wrote newspapers, etc.

The world changed quickly some years. Some months or days, even. When you left Rhir, with fresh ideas, with friends forged, and visions of the true dangers, the heights of power, the potential for change existed. But hell itself didn’t change.

Until it did.

The single shot rang out loud, despite the improvised headphones she’d put on. Loud—a louder sound than almost anything in the world.

That was one bullet. The revolver she held carried .357 Magnum rounds. Five of them, to be exact. It was a compact model, meant to be a concealed carry as opposed to a larger gun. Sacrificing firepower for size. But she hadn’t been meaning to go to war.

When her father had given it to her as a birthday present, he had meant it for self-defense. If he’d ever dreamed she would be in a situation like this, he probably would have bought her a much more powerful gun.

As it was, the revolver clicked as she swung out the cylinder to show the spent cartridge to her audience. They had a hard time seeing, but she explained.

To someone who understood guns, the evolution in firearms technology had changed massively, such that even small things could…revolutionize combat.

“This is a fast-loader.”

The girl with the gun informed the closest watcher. She showed him the bullets ready to be inserted into the cylinder. She could reload in a heartbeat. Again—in antiquity, earliest firearms had been reloaded manually, with powder and bullets stuffed down the muzzle of the rifle. Giant, ungainly weapons with the accuracy of a toaster.

Now, a young woman from Texas could walk around with a weapon that could kill someone who thought she was easy prey. Very efficiently, incidentally. Even a small firearm from her era had surpassed the crossbow in reloading, accuracy, range, firepower—and it was all in one hand.

Her audience watched. Listening to the explanation. It was not the first time the girl had made it. And she had gotten far, far more questions from every other person who’d ever seen the deadly weapon.

But the ones who listened now…mattered. Well, not in the same way as the others. But she respected them. They awed her.

“…and that’s a revolver. There are bigger guns. Ships. Airplanes that fly faster than anything in the world. We’ve made all kinds of weapons and this is one of the smallest.”

She held the weapon up, unloaded of course—and the sky leaned down to stare at her. Well, not the sky.

“It is small. But weapons your folk make always are. If they are larger, they are larger. Why does it matter?”

One of the last Giants spoke. At last, ponderously. He had taken minutes to reply. It was not that he was slow. It was just that their sense of time differed.

The girl looked up. Flora gestured to the gun.

“It matters because it will change everything. Your world has steel. I mean, swords and spells. This weapon is different.”

“Hm. I see, I see.”

The Giant didn’t move. He just sat there. That one movement had been more than she’d seen him make in all their other conversations. His eyes and mouth were the only things that moved.

“I see it not. It is a small thing. The noise it made was loud. For a small weapon.”

Another voice complained. Female. The other Giants murmured agreement. Flora had to jog around to show it to them. She was panting when she circled back to him.

He was oldest. Tallest. His name was so long that she had given up pronouncing it. It didn’t have the same kind of consonants and vowels—or if they did, it was like the earth speaking. She had taken the first part of the name and called him Callidaz.

The Last of Giants spoke.

“So this weapon is unique.”

“In this world.”

She hadn’t met anyone else with a gun. And she had been assured by people who knew all about war that it was novel. Not all-consuming. If there was just one.

But she was a [Gunslinger]. A class—the first of its kind. She didn’t feel like a daring hero of an action flick, though. She had seen the heights of magic and Skills and they had impressed on her: she could die. Even with a weapon from earth. Hell—even with an RPG.

Perhaps that was why she was here. To remind herself. She had, instinctively, pointed the gun down; shooting into the air killed people since the bullets still had to land. But even if she’d shot at the Giant’s face, she doubted Callidaz would have even blinked. Even if she hit him in the eye.

The last Giants sat in Rhir. Listening.

“So the gun is not the most dangerous weapon. And yet your…world…has many guns.”

“Yes.”

“And these guns are deadly.”

“Yes. And we have weapons that can destroy cities. Even you, Callidaz. In a single moment. With a single weapon. Before you could even blink.”

It wasn’t a threat, although some might have taken it that way. The Giant…did not. He just nodded.

“I see. Your world has weapons that can destroy cities. Can destroy mountains. Can destroy me. They have weapons that will win wars from afar, with superior distance. Despite armor and spell, they will kill. You have a world of such weapons.”

“Yes.”

“Well done.”

She gaped up at him.

“What?”

The Giant looked down at her.

“Your people have made a weapon that is better at killing than the last weapon. Well done.”

The uncomprehending sincerity of it made her blush. It was not a statement with any sarcasm or irony. That was what hurt. He did not know why it was an achievement, but he also believed her when she said the revolver was special.

“Aren’t you…angry? Doesn’t it worry you?”

The question came out of her, almost shyly. The others worried. Mighty as they were, they pressed her, making plans if Earth ever came to their world. They wondered about war. But the Giant had understood the gravity of the gun. And he…cared and did not care.

“Hmm. An odd question.”

The voice came from another Giant. She looked down at Flora. She did not move. Giants—true Giants, not their children—could sit there forever. Or at least, since they had first come here.

Now, the female Giant looked at Flora, puzzled. She looked at the others before addressing the little Human.

“It has ever puzzled me why the little people care about how they can kill us. How well they can do it matters, doesn’t it? To you, it matters. To us, it does not.”

That…didn’t make sense. Flora stared up at the female Giant’s features. So like a Human’s and yet—she was the mountains itself. That was how she seemed to have been born.

“It doesn’t worry you? The danger?”

Flora wanted them to be worried. She wanted them to…say something. Everyone listened to the Giants. Consulted with them. But the Giants seldom demanded or suggested anything. They just waited.

“Ah. I see.”

A chuckle made the ground vibrate. Callidaz was laughing. No—just a chuckle of amusement. He smiled, and it was a gentle thing. He looked at Flora, amused.

“You worry, Flora of Humans, that we will fear your weapons. That we should, for you will kill us.”

“No. Never me, Callidaz. But we could.”

Another rumble. They all chuckled. Callidaz shook his head and earth and stones fell. Flora backed up; she had borrowed a speaking stone to speak to them anyways. They would not hear her even if she shouted normally.

“But you have always been able to kill us. We know that. Even when we walked in numbers far greater than now. With magic. With metal. With will. We have always died to you. So you kill us better now. We cannot fear that.”

They looked past her. The last of Giants. The last in this world. No one talked about reviving their kind. They had laughed when she asked if they ever thought about it.

“…Then. Is it right? The side I’m on? Do you ever wonder if you’re doing good? Or evil?”

She was afraid. Afraid to shoot the gun. In self-defense? Oh yes. But they wanted it for war. The kind of war she had seen only the edges of. Wounded coming back. She had shot an Adult Creler with it and watched the bullets ricochet off the armor.

Am I on the right side? Her…the people who had found her were so like her, but unlike her in appearance at the same time. And they were called…Demons.

This was hell. But perhaps those were only words? Flora had judged them, as they judged her. She had reservations. So had they. She did not think they were evil, or the Demons you heard about mentioned with wrath and hellfire.

Yet they had wrath. And some could conjure hellfire. And they were called…Demons. All these things were also true.

The Giants thought about this. Callidaz was the one who shook his head again. And once more—he sounded mystified. Her concern he tried to understand. That she mattered to him was even humbling. But he had to try to understand.

“You say that. You small people. You come, now and then. Asking if this is right. If this is good. If this is evil. And you worry that they call us Demons.

“Yes. It—means something from home. My world. Something evil.”

“Then do not call us that. We are Giants. They call us Demons. Demon Giants. But those are words. Demon is a word. Giant is a word. They are convenient words. But like good and evil—just words.”

Another voice. Another Giant spoke. He stared straight ahead.

“Good and evil. They sound like words Dragons made up. They are tricky, Dragons. Tricksome. They think things should be so.”

“Yes.”

“Dragons. So tricksome.”

“Things must be to them. Like [Mages]. Always words.”

The other Giants murmured. Flora looked at them, desperately.

“I know the Demons did not start this war. But—but is it right, Callidaz? Maybe good and evil are just words. But is it right? Did the Elves die because of the Blighted Kingdom? Who killed them?”

“I do not know.”

Callidaz calmly shrugged. More earth fell. He went on.

“I do not remember. I am young. By some ways of counting. Elves were before me. I know my people have died. Humans have killed them.”

“And Drakes.”

“Dragons.”

“Lizardfolk.”

“Jinn.”

“Djinn.”

“Gnolls.”

They whispered the words, of every race, living and gone. Callidaz looked at Flora after the echoes stopped.

“All things kill us. We kill all things. Some of us made great war. Some of us fought for peace or other things. If you ask if Giants are on one…side…we are not. Here we sit. We fight alongside those you call Demons. That is all I know.”

It was beyond her comprehension, how they lived. They should rage. Rage, against the kingdoms who had slaughtered them, breaking ancient pacts. She had listened to Silvenia’s lessons, read the books only Demons wrote or kept.

She had hated the Kingdoms of Terandria, who had made war with the giants who built their palaces. The people of Chandrar, who had ended an entire people of Jinn and taken captive the Djinni.

And yet…no one was blameless. So the Giants were right. Here they were. She had to make a choice. The [King] had offered her a choice. Silvenia had offered her many choices.

Flora closed her eyes.

“I wish it didn’t have to be like this.”

“Ah, wishes. But even Djinn cannot grant ours. I made a wish of one once. And she wept.”

The Giant’s voice was kindly. Flora nearly wept herself. She shouted up at him and her voice bounced upwards, echoing, echoing…

“Aren’t you afraid? Of anything? Don’t you feel sad? Your children die. Your people die! Aren’t you angry? Don’t you fear dying?”

The Giants stirred. They looked down at her. And then Callidaz’s body shook. The female Giant to his left shook.

The world trembled. Flora fell to her knees. First she feared it was their wrath. Then she realized.

They were laughing.

They laughed and the mountains shook with their laughter. In the distance—the Blighted Kingdom wondered what moved the earth.

“If we feared death, we would not be here.”

Callidaz told her once the rumbles ceased. He shook his head a final time and sat back. Greenery moved around him. Earth. He sat there, still as stone.

“Anger. Hatred. Sadness. Fear. Of course we feel such things. Smallfolk wonder. But we are alike, you and I.”

The Giant’s lips moved.

“Yes. We wonder. Yes. We question. Yes. We grieve. Our little half-children die. Of course we mourn. But we also listen. They say our children wage war well. They say we are better used here than elsewhere. So we wait.”

“And if you have to fight? And you all might…die?”

“We took a side.”

Another Giant’s voice. Flora waited. But that was all.

They took a side. Slow to rage. Almost ponderous to decide, to act. But mighty. The last of the tall. When the Giants made war—even Dragons feared their wrath.

Callidaz finished their conversation. He looked down at Flora, as she held the gun. He could have snuffed her out like a candle. Without even trying. By accident. Perhaps that was why he sat so still.

“Flora of Humans. You ask if this is right. I do not know. You must choose. We are only Giants. We do not know wisdom. We trust our friends. We listen. We decide. That is how we live. Nothing more. We chose a side.”

The giants nodded. The mountains rumbled. Callidaz looked down at her.

“Someday it may not be our side. That is how these things go. But we saw. We decided. Now—we wait. In time, we will fight and die or live. We wait.”

The sun set at their backs. The darkness filled the skies. And the Giants smiled.

“Flora of Humans.”

“Yes, Callidaz?”

“You worry so over what you bring. Weapons. New things. But that is what your kind always does. You make new weapons. Well done. You change. Well done. Keep changing. It is what Humans are good at. That is why we fade. So take pride.”

He sat back and sighed. The Giant whispered, as the others sat back with him. Slowing. Waiting. Callidaz said one last thing.

“Take heart, Flora of Humanity. Of Earth. When you came here, you brought a weapon that could change the world. But when you came, you already changed the world. By saving a life.”

“I…didn’t do much. It was luck, me being able to help…it wasn’t much…”

The earth rumbled. Callidaz stared ahead.

“No. You did. Rejoice.”

He closed his eyes. And Flora turned and began to walk away. For better or worse. It was a funny thing. She did not feel better, but she knew he was right. It had already happened.

You changed the world.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I think that’s a good way to end it. There are a lot of words I could write that give away everything. Or nothing. It’s not something I’m going to write now, though.

A shorter chapter! I had a very rough time with…life…interrupting me. But despite it being short, I think that you might uh, find it consequential.

Hope you enjoy. Volume 2’s Audiobook is out today, along with the 10-page preview of the comic! If you’re so inclined, check it out and leave a review! I’ve attached the .mp4 trailer to the top of the page and I hope it does well.

But I’m most grateful for your continued enthusiasm. As always, I’ll leave you with some beautiful art! This time, amazing pixel-art by Zelanter! And Hamriepuff drawing a lesson between Cognita and Pisces with absolutely no consequences whatsoever.

Thanks for reading!

 

Awesome Pixel Animations by Zelanter!

 

Pisces’ Cognita Lessons by Hamriepuff!

Lessons by Hamriepuff

 


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