Rebecca Brewer, the editor who worked on 8.11 E, has done a Q&A on the Discord server! Read the transcript here.
Also, she has done an interview with The Fantasy Inn! Click here to read it!
(The author is on break until March 30th for Patrons! April 3rd for Public readers.)
“If you’ve heard this one before, stop me. A team of [Mages] from Wistram—or just a [Mage], I suppose—is sent to take care of former students. Renegades. And bring back Earthers. It is a sacred trust. They come, bearing magic against treachery.”
“I said, ‘if you’ve heard this one before’—stop me. Mage Montressa. Mage Bezale? Mage Palt? Anyone? No?”
The air was hot. The scene? Half-familiar. Like the speaker, it had all the elements of what had happened before. But it was never quite the same, was it?
Wistram Academy sent [Mages] to a small city in Izril. To claim assets they regarded as valuable. The [Mages] stormed in, making a huge fuss, throwing their weight around. Until they were stopped by a plucky [Innkeeper] with a lot of allies.
Until they were stopped by…
The [Garden of Sanctuary] was silent. No one stirred from the frozen bier at the hilltop. A fraction of the number of guests remained in the inn.
Until the spells came crashing down from the nearby city? The Watch advanced on the overconfident [Mages]?
Nothing and no one stirred from Liscor. Few people visited anymore. Even if they had looked from the walls, the [Guards] saw nothing. A normal inn by evening. The illusion magic was simple, a copy of ten minutes ago.
The air. Was hot. Burned ozone stank from discharged lightning spells. The floorboards were ablaze in two places. An invisible fist had knocked everything aside and pressed the Minotauress into the far wall, where she struggled, unable to reach her spell scrolls.
Palt was on his knees, caught by a hail of magical arrows when he’d vanished. Montressa lay on the ground as the [High Mage] hovered there. Pressed down by a crushing force just verging on agony.
Ten levels up—everyone else downed. Three of the Brothers lay in magical shackles. They’d never had a chance. The [Mage] had come with smiles, scouted them out—waited until Montressa and Bezale appeared—then activated a dozen prepared spells in the first moment of combat.
[High Mage]. She was, like a good percentage of the Revivalist faction, a Dullahan. Her head floated around her body in a geosynchronous orbit, as both head and body levitated off the floor.
No Antinium, no Xrn. The [High Mage] had sealed the doors and windows already, and if the Antinium were even aware of a battle taking place in the silenced, illusory image of the inn…
Something moved. The [High Mage] swiveled. The Hobgoblin leapt, sword flashing.
The [Mage] calmly fired a near-invisible orb from one palm. Numbtongue flung himself left, dodging it. She twisted a finger.
“[Spell: Blink Trajectory].”
The [Force Orb] spell vanished, and reappeared in front of the Hobgoblin. It caught him in the chest and hurled him across the inn. He hadn’t even gotten close to the layered barrier spells around her, a match for Montressa’s best defenses.
“Tell it to stop, [Mage] Montressa. I don’t have to kill anyone here.”
“High Mage Merzun! Please, stop! What have we done?”
The Dullahan woman looked down at Montressa. Pity and wrath were equally lacking in her. She looked—annoyed.
“Mage Montressa, as I informed you, you are expelled from Wistram for betraying your faction. Per Archmage Nailihuaile’s request, three Archmages and the Council have expelled you. You are no longer a member of Wistram Academy. As for you, [Mages] Bezale, Palt, your factions have not disowned you. Stay quiet. Now. One, two, three…hm. Three are missing. I’ve heard the [Innkeeper] is dead. Where are Miss Rose and Miss Galina?”
She addressed the paralyzed group of young men frozen in their seats. Imani was slowly moving towards Palt, eyes wide with horror.
The air was boiling. Mrsha hid behind a table, staring at the [High Mage], looking at the open door just ahead of her. She was too afraid to move. Shaking.
Once again. Arrogant [Mages]. The Revivalist faction. Mrsha stared at Numbtongue as he slowly got up, the leather armor on his chest smoking slightly. She wanted to say something. Stop.
The [High Mage] rotated in the air. All was silent.
Bird lay on the floor, motionless. Arms and legs locked up from the [Paralysis] spell, like Ulvama. Only Numbtongue had thrown it off, along with the [Mages].
“Don’t make this more difficult, Goblin. Where are the other two? I cannot believe you betrayed our faction like this, Montressa. That [Necromancer]? Let alone so many Earthers. Archmage Nailihuaile is extremely hurt. Tell me, now. I wish to be gone within ten more minutes with my charges.”
The air grew hotter. The little Gnoll covered her ears as Montressa made a pained sound. She looked to the Garden, the basement. But she was afraid the [High Mage] knew where she was. She quivered with indecision as the [Mage] looked around, eyes narrowed.
It was today.
The enduring fact every species learned in time was this: your strength, your great armies, your fantastical magics, heroes and rulers perished in time.
All turned to dust. Or, at the height of your supremacy, you looked up and saw the Giant laughing down at you.
Every civilization learned this. Every species, every culture and people. Oh, but how soon they forgot.
‘We build from the ashes of lesser peoples, but we shall not be so weak, not make the same mistakes’. That was what they proclaimed ere they fell.
Fraerlings had never forgotten. Their villages, their homes in Baleros were hidden from the world. Seldom did they settle among the tallfolk. Yes, they protected their homes with magic, with great warriors. But most of all, with secrecy. They kept to themselves because any other way was death in time, a village burning because of overconfidence.
They knew they were weak, so they seldom left their homes, built for them. Even after he had left his, seeking adventure, friendship among the giants, he had sworn never to forget.
…He had. And the Great Company he had built? The powerful armies of the tallfolk, his companions, his influence that could move the world itself?
It was going to fall to pieces, because the giant who had built it, most famous of his kind, the Titan of Baleros—was missing.
“Damn. Let me—go—let me go!”
The giant, scaled bird with an elongated ‘beak mouth’ rather than a beak, webbed wings, a cross between lizard and bird in truth, did not let go. It did flap its wings in agitation.
The Razorbeak had no idea how its prey was making such a large sound. A superlatively large voice for such a tiny thing. The Fraerling was only a foot high, a snack for the road or for its young.
It was struggling hard, although the Razorbeak had almost assumed it was dead. Charred, beaten by battle, Niers Astoragon had passed out. Which might have saved his life. The Razorbeak opened its maw, debating biting the morsel’s head off to silence the wriggling and sound.
The tiny [Strategist] wanted the Razorbeak to try. He had woken with a start, and looked around in his prison of scaly claws to realize he’d lost track of Esthelm, the battleground with the traitorous Gold-rank team, the Floodplains and Liscor itself.
Below him now stretched increasingly vertical ground. He knew where he was.
“The damned High Passes. You bastard bird! Let me go! I’ll kill you! I’ll turn you into Foliana’s snacks—right after that team of Gold-rank amateurs! Let go!”
He struggled, bellowing. Again, the Razorbeak twitched with annoyance. He just needed it to open its claws—just once!
His sword was smashed against his side, and he had not the wiggle-room to even cut to any side. At least, he prayed it was the sword he felt. If not—he was bare-handed against a bird that out-weighed him by a factor of at least a dozen, in height as well as mass.
This would not be a problem for some of the Tallguard, the bravest Fraerlings assigned to defending their villages against monsters and people. Some could slay bears by themselves, or giant crocodiles if they had to.
However, Niers was just a [Strategist]. For all his mighty Skills, for all he was considered one of the greatest strategic minds living, he was still a Fraerling.
And he still made mistakes. The Titan cursed, and then gave up, conserving his strength. He was bruised to his bones, burnt by the spells those damn adventurers had cooked him with. One had kicked him and Niers feared fractured bones. If he had his bag of holding! Or the Signim! Or…
“Lost! Over a million gold pieces worth of gear, lost! Idiot! Fool! You were so blind you never saw the trap coming! Peclir! Peclir, you worthless rat!”
Niers howled, not to the bird this time, but himself. And the traitorous [Chamberlain], who was the only person who could have led him to this fate. No one but Peclir and a handful of people Niers trusted with his life had known what he was doing.
Of them, Peclir was the only choice. Niers had trusted him with his life right up till this moment, mind you. But—
The Titan tried to shift. The claws gripped him tighter. He gasped—trying not to pass out—the Razorbeak was trying to squish him as it flew towards its nest. He fought to keep conscious. Wait. If he didn’t, he’d be torn to pieces.
No bag of holding, no gear, no allies. The Titan sagged.
Foliana will know I didn’t make it when I don’t check in. Can Peclir imitate me? Will he go after her? She won’t drop her guard. How much damage could he do? She’ll send help.
But the treacherous, calm voice in his mind replied to his frantic thoughts. His [Strategist] self, which was analyzing even as he alternated between fury and shock.
If she can.
The Razorbeak flew onwards, entering more dangerous territory. It was not that far from its nest, but it had flown downwards to hunt prey without the danger of being hunted itself. It was diving when a rival Razorbeak flew upwards, sensing the bite to eat. Niers heard the angry call, the challenge—
He braced, knowing what was coming as the claws opened. The Razorbeak fought to defend itself. Niers grabbed for a talon, and saw something drop.
“No! Cats take it!”
He flailed for his enchanted sword as it fell next to him. It was the talon or his sword. Niers grabbed the sword. He fell out of the skies as the Razorbeaks quarreled above him.
Straight down into the High Passes.
Master Merxel, the [Spymaster], drank the third Draught of Serenity with a shaking hand. No Calm Tonics for him.
A day had passed since he’d seen the Titan of Baleros. A day, and it felt like ten years. He reviewed his findings.
No, he did not know where Niers Astoragon or the agent of the Forgotten Wing Company, the Drake, Remane, were.
He did know the Cherinion Swords were down to two members, and the corpses of four people and a Drake, likely Remane’s, were lying outside of the city of Esthelm.
Correction—Merxel made a little note in his dossier. Now denuded of possessions and clothing, in the care of an [Embalmer], Miss Souyn, of Invrisil. Likewise for the other Cherinion Swords, despite the living member’s objections. Or rather, the objections they had tried to lodge at the Adventurer’s Guild of Invrisil before being apprehended by the Watch, per Master Merxel’s personal request.
Also in his care? A tiny, tiny bag of holding that had gone unnoticed by Esthelm’s militia when they first noticed the fighting, until he had sent agents to sweep for it.
Merxel had done nothing as stupid as try to open the Titan’s personal bag of holding, even if he could have accessed it with tweezers. But he had noted his possession of it, and was still waiting on the final check.
…That was, for the body of Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros. He had hopes—if there was any to be had—that he would not find it. The two Cherinion Swords had claimed he’d been snatched by a Razorbeak and that had been corroborated by truth spell. Perhaps the Fraerling had lived. Or perhaps his body was torn to pieces and scattered far outside the search radius of two dozen of his people.
If the latter was true, Master Merxel feared for his life. He was a [Spymaster], a former [Spy], and he had contacts, experience, money, and levels. None of that would save him from Three-Color Stalker’s wrath.
At least it was [Strategist] Perorn Fleethoof on the other end of the communication spells for now. Merxel checked his notes—they were sloppy, inconclusive, and nothing of the quality he’d normally adhere to.
He sent them anyways. The reply came in moments.
Merxel read. He sat back. His stomach twisted, more from fear than the Draughts of Serenity. He had too much of a tolerance. Also, he was too afraid.
The Titan of Baleros has gone missing on your watch, Merxel. You handed him over to a hit-squad, and if he dies, you die.
The [Spymaster] got up to relieve his bladder. When he came back, he saw his [Assistant Secretary] nervously poke a head into the room.
She nodded palely. She knew, too. The woman licked her lips.
“Yes, Master Merxel. But you have waiting [Message] spells on priority settings. From your day-night clients?”
Those were the ones on Merxel’s carefully curated list who could get him out of bed or his attention at any point in the day or night. He bit his lip.
“I’ll take a look. Anything from the Forgotten Wing Company comes right to me. How many…?”
“Forty three on the priority list and more coming in. Two hundred, besides.”
Merxel sat down hard in his plush chair, in the expensive room filled with the acquisitions of good business. The [Spymaster], one of the best in the information-network game in Invrisil and this region of Izril, began sorting through the requests in order of priority. Number one?
The Iron Vanguard. Second? Maelstrom’s Howling. Third? The Eyes of Baleros.
“Dead Ancestor’s eggs.”
The Human whispered, invoking a particularly pithy oath of the Drakes, whom he’d lived for many years around.
They all knew. High [Strategists], their version of Merxel, or just administrators were all demanding for him to confirm one little fact, and offering buckets of gold for it.
Is the Titan of Baleros dead? Barring that, was he missing? Was he in Izril?
They knew. Merxel’s mind raced. In short order, he had the entire game pieced together. Treachery, betrayal—and what came next. He reached for the fourth Draught of Serenity with shaking fingers. Merxel checked himself. He knocked the bottle aside.
He grabbed some wine, and began to pour a cup.
Niers Astoragon put together the same picture as Merxel, around the same time.
He picked himself up after falling about three hundred feet straight down. The Titan dusted himself off, checked for more injuries.
None, save for the ones he’d already had.
One of the few advantages of being small was that you didn’t fear the pain of falling. Oh, it could hurt, like if, say, you tossed a hamster over a cliff’s edge. Even so, the hamster had a much better chance of surviving that fall than something a hundred times its weight.
At least his enchanted leather armor was on him. The [Impact Guard] enchantments had done their work. He also had his sword.
“Damned birds. I should have them all hunted down. Traitorous [Chamberlains]…any cracks? Well, there’s something.”
Niers inspected his shortsword. No faults. He had no other major artifacts besides his rings and the leather armor, but this was better than a stick. Far better.
My shortsword is enchanted with Piercing, Durability, and a lower-grade split between Magebane and Severance. My armor has Impact Guard on fast recharge, Spellward, Anti-Hex, and Camouflage. I have Boots of the Grasshopper on, too.
I have an Anti-Identification ring, a Ring of Minotaur’s Strength, an Amulet of Magical Protection, a Ring of Greater Sight, a Ring of Lodestone Communication which is useless on Izril, and…
He glumly checked his hand as he ran towards the nearest cover, a rock with an overhang so the two Razorbeaks wouldn’t go after him. Niers crouched underneath, panting, looking at the burnt line of flesh around one finger.
My Ring of Death’s Protection is gone. Unclear which blow it protected me from. Maybe the [Lightning Bolt]. Maybe that gigantic asshole kicking me.
His mind’s voice was calming. It was at odds with the louder thoughts racing through Niers’ head.
Watch the skies! That damn bird has a mouth of teeth.
PECLIR! I’LL MURDER YOU.
How far in the High Passes did that thing drop me?
No bag of holding—I have to warn Foliana!
The smaller thoughts scattered and he ducked back in the tiny hollow of space as a shadow passed by. Yet, the inner thoughts never stopped their recitation.
…could wish I’d thought to bring my Ring of [Fireballs], or Band of the Vortex at least. I just had to take the most inoffensive, ‘safe’ gear. Well, I do get itchy when they’re on my fingers. I nearly blew my face off picking my nose once.
The inner thoughts were due to [Mind of the Strategist], a separate ‘layer’ of consciousness that could function even as Niers at large was suffering from some outside effect.
It was an improvement on what Niers taught his students; having a head for battle. It came in useful. As Niers was poking his head out from under the rock, checking to make sure if the Razorbeak was coming back, he could analyze Peclir’s treachery rather than dwell on it later, or not take it into account.
By now, this is what will have happened: Peclir will have vanished. Any attempts on Foliana, Perorn’s, or anyone else’s life will have been made. My absence/death will be made known to his employers.
Niers scuttled out from under the rock, keeping his sword raised. He could not stay here. First-principles of survival were kicking in. He had been gone from his village for a long time. Decades. However, you never forgot basic training, or adventurer training.
“Height, secure spot, monster check. Ground’s not porous…don’t think I’m on a nest. Damn—”
He finally saw the landscape around him. He’d fallen on bad terrain. A rocky incline, full of loose gravel or rocks the size of a Human’s foot to small boulders, leading up the side of one of the High Passes’ mountains.
It would have been a hard climb with the danger of avalanches for a Human. For Niers? He could hop across the rocks, but it was hardly flat ground. If they shifted he’d be squished. He looked downhill—to the sides—
“Flat ground, there. Move!”
He ran, panting, clutching at his side as pain flared. Might be cracked ribs? He was going for a solid foundation of rock, eyes on the skies. The birds were one of the greatest predators of Fraerlings. Any one of them could dive, but he couldn’t stay under the rock or wait for nightfall. This was the High Passes and he knew how many enemies there were for normal-sized people. And the rule was that Fraerlings had a hundred foes for every one that Humans had.
Even now, his mind was plotting the events of the now on a grander scale. Peclir. When Peclir left…
Here was what had happened. Peclir Im had vanished, before Merxel had told the Forgotten Wing Company what had occurred. They had searched—they had not found him. Or if they had, they weren’t sharing.
Second? They wanted the Titan found now. The issue was that if he didn’t want to be found, or didn’t remove his Ring of Anti-Identification, no one could find him. Niers had all the protections a high-level individual possessed against easy location, and they were working against Merxel now.
Against his enemies, too, though. Because Merxel received the first speaking stone not long after he sat, staring at the [Messages].
He was conflicted on whether he should tell the other companies Niers Astoragon was missing. The call cleared it up.
“Merxel speaking. To whom am I—?”
“Tulm the Mithril.”
The voice was calm, cold, and Merxel stopped gulping wine.
“…How can I help you, [Strategist]?”
Tulm the Mithril, the Dullahan who wore the expensive mithril armor, the greatest [Strategist] of the Iron Vanguard and one of the Titan’s best former students…was a terrifying individual. As frightening as the Titan himself, but more so because Merxel was not under his employ. The [Spymaster] made no sound as Tulm spoke, with the calm, inflectionless voice that Dullahans liked.
“I am aware that the Titan of Baleros is missing. I would appreciate your factual confirmation that he was present in Invrisil and is now gone. However. I am certain these facts are true, because Peclir Im issued a wide-scale [Message] followed by his disappearance. Baleros knows the Titan is gone. I am also certain the Forgotten Wing Company has urgently tasked you with finding him.”
Because he was professional, Merxel said nothing, in this moment when some would be pressured into some redundant statement. Tulm went on.
“I will match their payment. Do nothing.”
“Strategist, my relationship with the Great Company—”
“—is contingent on them being a Great Company. Moreover, they will understand that another Great Company is prevailing on you. You may benefit more from inaction than action. To that end: check the public bounties.”
Tulm hung up as abruptly as the stone had been delivered. Merxel lowered it, wiped sweat off his brow, and then demanded to see the latest public bounties.
Pisces Jealnet had been only one of the many bounties posted, sometimes worldwide for individuals. Not just ones wanted by the law. Anyone could post a bounty. Whether individual jurisdictions or nations honored it was a matter for them. Some wouldn’t even display them, or let any lawful brokers mention them. But there was always a list.
At the top of it was Niers Astoragon. A brief physical description was attached, as if anyone needed to identify the only famous Fraerling in the world, his probable locations last seen—High Passes, Liscor, Esthelm, Invrisil—and the bounty.
Niers Astoragon, delivered unto representatives of the Iron Vanguard, alive, 800,000 gold pieces.
“No bounty dead?”
Merxel was shaken. Then he looked down.
The next-highest bounty was for him dead. 415,000 gold pieces—roughly. That was because anyone could ‘add’ to a dead-on-delivery bounty, while the Iron Vanguard had just outbid some of the other factions wanting Niers alive. And there were about two dozen offering bounties of lesser size for him alive.
Including the Forgotten Wing Company. Merxel sat down. Tulm’s injunction rang in his head—right before another speaking stone from Maelstrom’s Howling reached him.
Do nothing and we’ll pay you. How much was his loyalty worth? No—now, the [Spymaster] wondered if he’d even manage to protect Niers if the Titan landed on his doorstep. That was a lot of gold.
Niers ran into the first Fraerling-sized enemy as he ran across the rocks. It was probably fifty feet to the safe ground. At a Fraerling’s size? It was a lot of ground to cover, especially uneven.
The first monster spotted him and unfortunately, it wasn’t one of the docile predators who only picked on smaller creatures. It leapt, mouth agape, spiked legs slashing the air, wings opening!
Like a miniature Creler! Only, not so deadly, not so tough. Not by far. One could still bite chunks out of your face. Niers slowed, lifted his sword.
Fraerlings had invented sword styles that larger races sometimes copied. Unlike other sword forms, theirs were completely different, and the great [Sword Saint] of his era, Balthen Bladewing, had studied from Fraerling masters.
Because Fraerlings fought with the assumption they might be surrounded, swallowed whole, or at the least, have to use their swords on foes far larger them themselves. Niers executed a perfect Midway Limb Cut, slashing, pirouetting, lunging. His foe didn’t expect the sharpness of his blade, nor the style of a humanoid fighter and lost its right foreleg. It skidded down, trailing ichor; his lunge put his shortsword through its chest.
It kept jerking, of course. Insects didn’t die right away, so Niers cut upwards. He bisected the biting jaws of the oversized grasshopper, and it went still.
It was a big sucker. Not as tall as Niers’ foot-long size, but aggressive. The Titan studied it, checking for parasites that might squirm out of its body—standing clear warily in case unborn young charged out at him.
He was used to all manner of horrific events, but the grasshopper was just a grasshopper. It lay, dead, and he sighed.
Then he turned. Because where there was one…there were more. The Titan resumed his fast jog, panting. He was already out of breath. Disgusting.
“I’m getting old.”
He listened to his [Strategist]-mind to take his focus off the pain in his lungs, his body.
Priority question for when you get back. Best to sort it out now if possible. Was Peclir an agent of one of the Four Great Companies? Tulm? I could see that. However…instinct says no.
He leapt over two rocks, bounding nearly two feet from ledge to ledge. Fraerlings were strong. Even without his Boots of the Grasshopper, ironic given his dead foe and the second bounding his way—Niers hoped it would just eat its dead comrade, but he was watching it—they could leap higher, and were far, far stronger than their size suggested.
But frail. He swore, lifting his sword.
Impale the Beast! He let the Grasshopper charge onto his sword, twisting left to avoid being bowled over by the carcass. Two more in the nearby area. Watch the cracks in the rocks. Back to thinking.
Peclir’s treachery is too bold, the assassination attempt too audacious. Yet by the same token, it speaks to me of accelerated plans, a sudden checkmate rather than a deliberate, organized strike. That Gold-rank team was sloppily put together; the agent one of convenience rather than a professional killer.
Ergo, Peclir had orders to take me or Foliana out if he could, no doubt, but the message mattered just as much as moving me out of the way. Appearances. He tried for a public-death, not poison, and he had more than a few chances unless he was afraid of Foliana’s [Rogue]-counter Skills. A possibility, but this smacks of grandstanding.
“Rhir’s hells take it!”
Something crawled out of the rocks after the fourth grasshopper went down. A huge centipede, drawn by the blood and motion. Niers took one look at it and kept running as it went for the twitching bugs. It was way longer than he was, and just as thick. He could easily cut its head off, but where there was one…
Sure enough, more began moving from under the rocks. Dozens of dark red-black bodies, thousands of legs, click-clicking as they scuttled upwards, after Niers and the insects.
“I hate the High Passes!”
Then again, bugs were everywhere for Fraerlings. Niers couldn’t remember a summer when he hadn’t punched a ladybug in the face. But those were tame insects in the cities. Here—oh, dead gods. He leapt and landed four feet distant. He’d do that and take the chances of landing in a crevasse.
The other Great Companies don’t need to shout they’re dangerous. Tulm? If he thought it was wise to kill me even if it destabilized Baleros and put his company into war with mine—he’d do it with a whisper and tell people after. Same for Maelstrom’s Howling.
If the Bannermare had known, she wouldn’t have been able to look me in the eye. Would Gwelin keep that from her daughter? Would she think killing me was a good idea given that we’re allied against Iron Vanguard aggression?
Nearly there. Niers panted along. He saw the rock face was on a ledge. He could see where he was, at least. He heard a distant scream and stared up. Yet the shriek was a Wyvern’s…miles distant perhaps, echoing far away.
Niers feared no Wyverns. Mainly because they never bothered with him. Sparrows? Woodpeckers, and so on?
No. Same for the Eyes of Baleros. Unless something’s changed in any of the three Great Companies…
It might have. Other worlds. However, instinct still says this is too much. I might expect Tulm to reach out to me in an alliance if he got ahold of the other world scenario occurring. He’s no fool.
Speculation. I’m assigning an 18% chance at best that it’s one of the Four Great Companies, only if some change of leadership has occurred or they’re trying to take advantage of the other world phenomena.
Let’s just say 22% chance it’s a foreign power. Wistram, another nation—however, I’m only one part of the Four Great Companies. Unless Tulm’s dead…no, no.
4% chance it’s one of the Four Great Companies, hah! 2% that anyone outside Baleros wanted me dead and went about it in this manner, this style.
He reached the solid rock, reassuringly safe compared to the countless rocks with dens for insects behind him. Panting, Niers rested for a moment, bent over, but not willing to sit. He might have to stay moving. He strode to the edge of the ‘cliff’ and crested the rise.
It’s 94%. 100%. I’m sure of it. Another company wants to rise to the top. Peclir’s their agent. Foliana! Perorn! Dead gods, this is going to get messy. I have to—
He looked over the edge of the little rocky bluff, all of three feet high and saw, in the distance, the Bloodfields. A stain of red. The Floodplains beyond. Niers yearned to reach that area—not that far, but the invisible city, hidden by the terrain.
And yet. Yet—he counted the miles. He saw how tiny the Floodplains were, how high he was. The Titan’s racing thoughts slowed. He saw a valley twice as long as the Floodplains stretching between him and the next rise in terrain, sandwiched between two mountains. And past that, more space yet, until he could even dream of descending towards the valley where mortal peoples made their homes.
Niers Astoragon slowly sat down on the ledge.
“…I hate birds so much.”
The first night, Niers Astoragon laid out his plan for returning to civilization. It was simple.
“One or the other.”
He looked at his sword—and then the Ring of Anti-Identification on his hand. Either he took his chances with a rescue team reaching him instead of opposition, or he fought his way back.
It would be a fight, too. He had made a small camp about fifty feet down the safe rocky zone in this rockslide valley. That’s as far as he’d gotten before he realized he had to make camp.
Fifty feet. Not great, even for Fraerlings on the march, but he was wounded, exhausted, and he’d had to get food.
Food, shelter, the basics for any survivalist were of varying difficulties compared to Tallfolk’s needs. For instance, Niers had spoken with [Explorers] who had to struggle to find enough to eat in areas like the Dyed Lands, when they lost their camp or suffered a disaster.
Niers? He’d looked around and in a stroke of luck, found a leafy plant that he thought might be hiding a tuber or something.
It had not. But the roots were still edible; part of the plant, even, but Niers had seen the thistle-like needles coating it and decided not to bother. On the way back, he’d spotted two large beetles.
Dinner. He gagged on it, of course. Fraerlings were not savages like some half-Elves or Garuda. They did not like eating bugs.
But he could find food where Tallfolk struggled quite easily. Fire had been the hard part. As in, Niers hadn’t gotten one. Normally, he kept all the supplies he might need in a bag of holding, but he only had plant matter, no wood around.
So…insect flesh and roots. Niers nearly threw up on his third bite of juice and…but he chewed it down. Fraerlings survived on stuff like this.
“I will survive.”
I will survive.
If he found a berry bush, an actual vegetable, even a single potato or the equivalent, he’d be set for days. Variety in his diet would be a problem, but never the amount.
The harder part had been shelter. Tallfolk, again, needed it too, but this time the problems were reversed. They had fewer predators. In the land of the small, everything was an enemy and small insects were ready to kill you despite a size-differential. And those were the small ones.
Niers improvised. Rather than try to clear out a bug den or something else, or trust to the uncertainty of a dug hole in rock, he…cheated.
“Come on…come on…you’re not some half-baked artifact, you’re close to relic-class! Just slice a bit wider and…aha!”
At last, he managed to cut the wedges of rock out and create a big enough hollow to comfortably sleep in. Especially with some dirt, and a simple [Light] spell that even Niers could cast unaided.
…Lovely. Dirt, hard stone, and the slab of stone Niers rolled to cover his entrance, leaving just enough room to provide an airflow. The insect-root meal sat about as well as the stone cutting into his back, even as he worked with his enchanted sword, cutting the stone to make it better.
Exhausted, Niers lay on his back.
Back home, I’d not have to lift a thing. Killing rat nests was the most of it, and I could hire the Fraerlings my company employed to do it.
I’ve gotten soft. How long since Foliana and I went on a real adventure? Not since the old days. Even if we try now, someone’s holding our hands.
Damn. If I had a bath, I’d cry. I will not cry over hot water and soap! Dead gods, I can feel the insect meat wiggling. Was it full of parasites? I’d see that, surely. You hear about Humans being stupid enough to eat Creler eggs, though…what a way to go.
When I get back, no, the moment I can, I need to covertly send a [Message] to my company for extraction. Something…public, yet with coded locations. Tulm and the others will be aiming for me. I cannot give away my location. Too dangerous. I have a better shot even fighting Gargoyles butt-naked than I do against a team who knows where I am.
It’ll be easier when I get to a city. I can hide among the people there. Like those stories my grandmother told me, about the Fraerlings living in homes, helping out.
…Idiots fixing shoes without pay. Who does that? But it’ll be…easier to snag a [Message] scroll in anywhere…[Mage]’s Guilds…
He began to drift off. Niers remembered that he had actually dreamed of something like that, only with a [King] or [Queen] and him being the dashing Fraerling who saved the day by killing the [Assassin] with a cunning trap, revealing himself to become the sacred advisor of the kingdom.
A hero. Didn’t all boys dream of that, regardless of species? It had actually happened a few times. But he had found…he had realized that dream.
Titan of Baleros. Yet he got bored, tired, because they thought he was so large and scary—
The Titan woke up from his weary slumber when the first impact struck the roof of his cave. He sat up, heart pounding in horror as he realized his mistake.
“Selphid’s tits! No! Rain!”
A storm swept the High Passes. Fat drops of rain began pounding the valley. Niers pushed in his small cave as he knew. Water was already streaming in; he wrestled the boulder aside.
He was going to be drowned!
The Titan hadn’t accounted for this. He’d dug down, not sideways. Even then—he stumbled.
A watery punch laid him flat. What was it? A raindrop. They were hitting the ground hard, and the small Fraerling had gotten one on the face.
His armor began reflecting the raindrops as he got up, as if they were blows. Niers looked around.
The water was flooding down the stone valley already, drowning the more foolish bugs who hadn’t accounted for this. He saw it like a distant crest of water, gathering momentum with incredible speed.
It probably wouldn’t even get more than two feet deep in most places. But a foot was more than enough to drown in! Niers looked at the water coming his way. He looked at the wave—then looked over the side of the rocky ledge.
“I’ve got no choice! If it’s this or…I need to go. And so I need…”
He looked around. It wasn’t hard to find what he needed. Detritus was being washed down the valley. He ran, snagged a stiff leaf, or bit of bark, he couldn’t even tell. Then—he leapt towards the side and began sliding down the mountain, gripping the edge of the leaf like a sled.
Fraerlings had discovered surfboarding, skateboarding, sledding, and all manner of transport. Niers coasted down the slick rocks and soil, laughing like a maniac. He’d done this as a boy! And this time, his enchanted armor took the shocks of impact. This was fun! This was—
He saw the first pothole filled with water, swerved, and dodged. He was still laughing the first ten minutes. Twenty, he was still having fun.
Forty minutes of downhill sledding and correcting his course later, he was losing the fun. Niers had to run with the sled over his head as an umbrella now, paddled with his sword across a tiny lake, then leap and slide down the muddy hill, all while searching for a second place to rest out of the rain.
He found it, before he reached the growing river far below where water was collecting. Niers swung into a cave with a proper overhang, and breathed out. He looked around it warily, holding the [Light] spell up as he maneuvered the bit of bark to form a crude door.
“If there’s anything in here, I’m wet, tired, and peckish! Get lost!”
He drew his enchanted shortsword, and the glow of magic lit up the small hollow. He looked around and saw…
A terrified little bunny, squeezed into the back of its den. Niers eyed the ratty fur, the two eyes staring at him, as the mountain-hare regarded the unwelcome intruder that had stumbled into its cunningly-disguised abode. It was even smart enough to have stockpiled some vegetable detritus, in varying stages of decomposition.
The rabbit’s fur was tattered since it wasn’t a prize-pet animal, but it was a luxuriant brown—with just a hint of purple. And it was panting; Niers could feel the warmth of its breath.
Bigger than he was.
He licked his lips.
“There’s no fire, but maybe I can figure out [Spark] with your fur. I always meant to learn more magic. Here, bunny, bunny. Hold still—”
He tiptoed forwards with his sword held behind his back. Aiming for a mercy cut. The rabbit looked terrified. It squeezed into the corner just as Niers realized he might be able to ride the damn thing around. He was no [Beast Tamer], but—
He wavered a second too long. The rabbit realized it was trapped. Its eyes went wide. Niers braced. His sword came up to kill it before it bit in self-defense or smashed him flat. He whirled the blade up in Impale the Beast and—
The Waisrabbit blinked out of existence. Niers Astoragon stared at the place it had been. He hesitated, then looked at the fur, droppings, and food of its den.
Half an hour later, he bit into some starchy vegetable around the rabbit-fur fire he’d managed to get going after figuring out the [Spark] spell at last. He put his feet up, adjusted the ‘door’ to let the smoke out into the still-pouring night, and sighed.
“Better than nothing.”
Somewhere further inside its den, in a place only accessible via [Teleport], a gloomy bunny wondered when it would get its home back.
Foliana sat in her rooms as Perorn delivered the report.
“Two days. Master Merxel suddenly went quiet. I think we have to consider he might be working against us, or bought off. I’m looking for trustworthy agents, but a lot of our contacts are silent. And the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings claim their best agents and numbers are both depleted or occupied…Foliana?”
The giant Squirrel-woman was sitting in the replica of the huge trees where her people, Squirrel Beastkin, made their homes. She was visible, a rarity since she was normally out of sight, playfully pranking people.
Perhaps because one of the two pillars of her company was missing, she had not been invisible for two days now. She did not turn around as she nibbled on something.
“Foliana—Commander—we could use some guidance. I’m trying to move all the agents we can trust, but I can’t send reinforcements in any numbers. Aside from trying to get them there in time, the Iron Vanguard’s fleets…”
Foliana looked around at last. Her fur, turning greyer with each year, stood in contrast to her vivid eyes. The Centaur woman shuffled her hooves, unable to conceal her agitation.
“…Nothing else? Commander, I’m going to go as far as to ask Niers’ students to try to find him. This is a disaster. We can’t pretend Niers’ replacement [Strategists] are him. Even a body-double—”
“Keep trying. I’m not a [Strategist]. Mm. You find him or he’s dead.”
Foliana sat there. Perorn stopped pacing. The [Rogue] sat on the branch. She looked around.
The one thing missing from her home was this: it was never so empty, so quiet in Squirrel Beastkin homes. They lived with other species too, the few, rare species of Baleros protecting and helping each other. Both she and Niers had come a long way from their secret homes. One reason they had been friends.
“There used to be more.”
Foliana turned back around, shuffling her feet. Perorn hesitated.
“There used to be many more. That’s what everyone forgets. Even him, sometimes. There were many. Then there were two. Now there might be one.”
Silently, the Centaur opened her mouth and closed it. Foliana stared ahead, at the illusory magical sky.
“If he’s alive, find him.”
At last, Perorn saw what Foliana was eating. It was a small, perfectly cut and roasted bit of meat. Pork. From the kind of pig, though, that was fed a magical diet all its life, carefully raised by a [Livestock Breeder] or [Rancher], and then prepared by the finest [Chefs].
Extravagant, decadent, even. A waste of money despite the delicious meat, yet completely justifiable if a single pig could feed a single Fraerling for a year, even with snacks and the spicy cheese or fruits he enjoyed with a little drink on cold nights.
Niers’ favorite food. Foliana nibbled at it, despite not loving meat. Using her Skill to look through the eyes of the person who loved it most. Or trying to.
She was too far away. She closed her vivid eyes as Perorn shut the door and trotted away.
The Waisrabbit evicted Niers the next morning, after the rain had stopped for about two hours. The Titan was snoring—then he was falling again.
He bounced off a rock, tumbled down what was to him a steep cliff face, and landed on his back. He stared up at the sky.
The Fraerling got up with a curse.
Another charm he hadn’t taken was his anti-teleportation gear, like his direct-attack magical artifacts. Obviously, because he had to be teleported here via wine bottle. Even Niers Astoragon could afford to wear only 6 rings with his gear and sword before magical interference reached its limit.
Hah! Six rings? Gold-rank adventurers can barely wear three. I’ve got superior Fraerling gear on me, hand-crafted by the best masters living!
…Not relics, though. There are so few compared to the tallfolk. I could buy relic-class artifacts for someone Foliana’s size. Not me, though. Only one species gets so small.
He began his next day in the High Passes, annoyed at the wakeup. Worse, he couldn’t tell where that damned Waisrabbit’s den was. At least he’d gotten a decent meal, a hot fire, and sleep out of it.
If anything, Niers was impressed. He’d had no idea Waisrabbits could teleport other things besides themselves.
Defensive measure for a creature like that. Extremely sensible. Nothing short of that kind of animal could survive the High Passes anyways. I wish I could harvest its fur and use it, though. I can barely cast [Sparks] and my magical knowledge is limited outside of knowing what spells and certain magical techniques do.
I never wanted to be a [Mage].
Nor had he leveled up as one last night, despite theoretically qualifying for a Level 1 [Mage] or [Sorcerer] class. He would not.
Niers was a [Strategist]. Just a [Strategist]. A [Grandmaster Strategist], true, but he didn’t gain other classes. Honestly, he didn’t know if he could.
I will not gain [Survivor] or [Climber] or any other class here. I don’t need to waste my potential. As for Skills…
Niers thought about it. He had a lot of Skills. However, many were only useful if he had something to command. There were a number he could repurpose or harkened back to his adventuring days.
Yet—he shook his head. He could use a few big ones here, but to little point for simply traversing the terrain. Besides which, the ambush, his lapse in judgment, had shown him how complacent he was.
I’ll climb out of here with my armor, my sword, and my bare hands. I need to shape up.
He gritted his teeth and began to march once more. No Skills, no classes, no help.
…That resolve lasted for about three hours. Then one of Niers’ passive Skills went off in his head.
[Battlefield – Foe Sensor]. [Veteran’s Stealthguard].
Both Skills weren’t active-abilities that he had to call upon. Hence, Niers used them despite his resolve. He froze as they went off.
He was climbing now, passing through the wet mud left over by the storm of last night. The runoff was still there, a treacherous little river that could suck you down.
Niers jumped over it. Boots of the Grasshopper. Essential for Fraerlings. Standard gear among the Tallguard—well, Boots of Jumping for them. His were far superior and could carry him up to eight feet on max-jump, although that was a bad idea unless he really needed to go that high. Birds loved to dive and grab you.
He froze, having leapfrogged his way up the valley. His boots, just short of relic-class, hadn’t even needed to recharge yet. Niers hunkered down next to a dandelion in full seed-mode. He eyed the puffball of seeds balefully and sneezed twice. Meanwhile, he was investigating his sensor.
The [Grandmaster Strategist] had a range far exceeding lesser [Tacticians] and [Strategists]. Basic Skills took on new potential at his level. He realized the ‘enemy’ wasn’t even within a mile of his position. More like four miles.
“What set it off, though? I haven’t designated any foes—unless something’s after me? Let’s see. Damn. No help for it. [Battlefield: Hawk’s Surveillance]!”
In his head, the area around him expanded and took color, life, and nuance. Like the Skills of other experts, he mapped out the entire landscape around him. A [Strategist] had to know his battleground, after all.
Valley, yup, makes sense. Odd flora to the left on that ridge—avoid. Damn. Are those Eater Goats grazing two thousand feet north of me? Avoid, avoid, avoid! Now, where’s this enemy contact? It can’t be a monster if [Stealthguard] activated.
Niers had only a single ‘snapshot’ of the terrain for six minutes, not constant monitoring, although that was still far better than the lowest-level iteration of the Skill, which gave you a single picture. Hah. Some low-level [Scouts] couldn’t even ‘see’, just sense the rough location of foes or traps. He mentally zoomed across the area his Skill had mapped, giving himself a route up the valley away from obvious threats.
Eater Goats. Nasty. He sensed two Gargoyles waiting for prey behind him…and most disturbingly, a group of monsters he couldn’t identify. The High Passes had all kinds of unique threats.
Some kind of fleshy…those aren’t slimes, and their hide doesn’t look tough. Arms without torso or…but no fingers. I can’t see clearer. If they survived the High Passes, they’re not as weak as they seem. Definitely avoid.
They seemed like half a humanoid body, all pinkish, raw-looking flesh, long arms, a rough ‘head’, in a group of seven. Nothing to do with him; they were far off. Just a reminder this was not his territory. He’d be more at home with knowing what fauna and flora he could eat or avoid in a jungle.
At last, he picked up on the enemy. Niers’ eyes narrowed. He spotted no less than six emplacements on cliff faces, clusters of ‘rock’ that his perspective revealed to be hidden camps.
“Drown me in a wine bottle. Those are defensive emplacements. I can’t…see…”
Even his Skill didn’t give him a clear view of what or who was manning the posts, but he thought he saw a ballista poking out of one. There was no help for it. Niers straightened and adjusted his course up the valley. He had spotted them; there was no way any of the six positions had a chance of seeing a Fraerling.
Have I just stumbled across a high-level [Bandit] camp? Or—no. Is this the lair of the Bloodfeast Raiders? Wouldn’t that be the discovery of the year!
He climbed, not jumping anymore but slogging on foot up the slope, secure in the belief his height would make him hard to spot. But wary, even so.
Just who or what was up there? He had his answer after two more hours and a tangle with two overly-large bugs. It wasn’t that they tried to kill him, but he discovered they were actually dung beetles. When he realized they were ready to roll the pile of crap onto him to force the possible-threat away, he objected to their aggression. With his sword.
The Goblin [Sniper] was not Badarrow. Rather, it was a Cave Goblin acolyte named Sharpstick, so named because he used sharp…sticks… as arrows. Goblin nicknames were utilitarian, unless a [Shaman] was doling them out.
He had been trained by Badarrow, though. The Cave Goblin could place a shot on a leaf a thousand feet away from the correct altitude, which was why he was here. He had substituted the old, weak bow, with a new weapon. The Cave Goblin had been dubious, but everything was changing and his class was [Sniper], not ‘bow-person’, right?
Sharpstick, possibly to be known as ‘Theuir’ if he accepted the new nickname of the Flooded Waters tribe’s [Shaman], was conflicted about many things. His weapon, his new name which sounded a bit funny compared to ‘Sharpstick’, and his body.
Everything was changing. The Cave Goblin was now five foot six, and felt stretched. He was turning into a Hobgoblin, one of the first Cave Goblins to make the leap. It was also why he’d been assigned to command of this sentry station, the outpost cleverly hidden in the cliff.
[Miner] Goblins had dug it out, and then disguised it so there was barely any visibility. Sharpstick had also covered all glints of metal, and made the other four Goblins under his command do likewise. They were all smaller, normal Goblins, armed with bows, a horn, and even a Wand of [Sand Spray], for a fast retreat. They could be running back to Goblinhome via their escape route in moments if need be, and were protected from Wyverns dropping on their heads by the rock above them.
However, the main protection was Sharpstick’s new weapon. One of the Thunderbow heavy-crossbows, mounted and trained downwards, ready to ruin something’s day. He was trained with it, and could take down a Gargoyle with it, or a lesser Wyvern.
Gold-rank adventurers, too. Although they’d been safe from conflicts with them by and large so far. Sharpstick was nevertheless vigilant. Watchful. His keen eyes scanned the horizon every few minutes, as the Goblins made sign-language chatter, never speaking.
It was the first of six such watch points, preventing intruders from reaching Goblinhome. Yet for all of Sharpstick’s vigilance, he never noticed the little Fraerling watching him from afar.
Niers untwisted the Ring of Greater Sight and sat down. He was well past the thousand-foot range of Sharpstick. He’d climbed until he had a vantage point of the nearest emplacement.
“Goblins. Nagas help me; it’s a Goblin war camp!”
He understood now why his sensor Skill had gone off. Goblins were not something Niers had been looking for—but he had learned they could be.
“Is that a ballista? No. Crossbow. Huge one, though. Ammunition’s…iron tipped. Could probably down a Level 20 [Heavy Infantry] fighter in a single hit. Single-shot kill on Level 30 if it’s a vital area and their armor isn’t enchanted.”
Niers turned his head, spying on another emplacement. Good vantage points, too. If he hadn’t used his Skills, he’d have had trouble spotting them. You could decimate a squadron with a small force unless they could throw a [Fireball] or similar spell in the small gaps.
Counter-strategy? [Invisibility] spell on a [Mage], single [Delayed Fireball] or similar spell. Doesn’t seem like they’re using magical sensors. Even if they are, make it an [Invisibility] spell or [Camouflage] on a [Rogue] with a wand instead.
Rush the posts. They might get checked in, but storm your forces up the pass in your window. Need a mobile infantry force with a [Roughland Commander] or some equivalent. Looks like mountain, siege fighting. Heavy infantry, strong ranged archers, [Mages] with barrier spell focus.
Give him four thousand of the Forgotten Wing Company’s forces and he could sweep the emplacements and the fortress beyond, despite the strong defensive work of the [Chieftain]. However, Niers was impressed. One of his students would have had a hard time cracking this fort.
This is a smart Goblin Chieftain. Could this be one of the survivors of the battle with the Goblin Lord during the siege of Liscor? It has to be. They rallied, regrouped, and leveled up. That Goblin’s skin tone is grey. One of those Goblins from the siege, but maturing into a Hob. Functional crossbow, albeit built of bone and sinew…extremely impressive.
Reminds me of Velan.
Niers bit his lip. He had lived through one Goblin King. He stared, narrow-eyed at the Goblin’s fortress in the mountains beyond, hidden by the pass but illuminated by his Skills.
He was disinclined to let another Goblin King, or Goblin Lord live. He had met Velan.
Niers had even liked him. Because of that, because betrayal smarted twice over when it was someone he trusted, he would not trust Goblin promises again. However. He didn’t have an army with him. If he did…?
The Titan slithered down the slope, making away from this Goblin’s home.
The leadership of the Forgotten Wing Company was astonished when the Goblin Lord of the growing tribe met them with a formal, sit-down dinner.
“Is this not how it is done?”
His name was Velan. He looked tough, and Merloc signaled to Niers that he was unsure if he could take Velan alone. Or, he signed, with the bodyguards.
If their [Juggernaut] had reservations, the [Strategist] had them. Velan looked like a Drathian expert to Niers. Or [Martial Artist]. Skills that improved natural strength, speed, and such didn’t result in his physical conditioning.
The Goblin Lord was a surprise in more ways than simple etiquette. He was well-read, well-spoken, and well-mannered. Mild-mannered, even. He soothed two incidents along with Niers on the first day. Moreover, he had the answer for their problems.
“Blistering sores? Pops with blood? Yes. I know. My tribe—Goblin’s Lament—had them two weeks ago.”
Niers blinked as he, Merloc, Foliana, and Ginsa sat around. The leaders of the Forgotten Wing Company leaned forwards, eying the Goblins around Velan.
“How bad is it in your tribe?”
The Goblin Lord watched the unsubtle expression on Merloc’s face. The others were more practiced. No less eager, however. The Bloodpop fever was sweeping Baleros and half of his company was infected.
That was what had driven Niers to make contact with the now-infamous tribe which had smashed multiple companies sent against it. A ‘peaceful’ Goblin tribe if you left them alone.
“You cured it? Countless [Healers] haven’t found a remedy so far!”
The Goblin Lord silenced the sniggering Goblin [Warriors] behind him. He nodded.
“Yes. I have.”
Velan shrugged, looking almost amused by how upset Ginsa was.
“Luck? I am better?”
“And you didn’t share it?”
Again, Velan shrugged.
“No one asks Goblins for help.”
Then he looked at Niers. After a moment, the Goblin Lord remarked thoughtfully.
“If you ask, perhaps we can trade. [Strategist]. Will you ask and talk with this Goblin?”
Unlike many, he hadn’t missed who was in charge, leading in secret. Niers looked at Velan. Despite himself, he smiled. They spoke, despite the others’ reservations, in private, and he even shared a drink with the Goblin Lord. That was the first time they met.
Niers had liked Velan from the moment the Goblin asked if they used salad forks, within the first minute of welcoming them to his tribe.
The Titan marched away from the Goblin camp and the decent defensive emplacements. He remembered Velan as he marched.
In time, Niers had forged an alliance of defense with the Goblins. It was not an exaggeration to say that both had risen due to their friendship.
If Niers had not sponsored the Goblins, they would never have been listed as an official Balerosian company, able to negotiate and hold land rather than be considered monsters.
By the same token, the Forgotten Wing Company had grown because time and again Velan had honored his oaths, providing medicine, cooperating on joint goals.
Before the end, Niers had even been attempting to form a Hobgoblin unit of fighters and train his forces with Velan’s. He had thought Velan was special, the chance to uncover the secrets of many aspects about Goblins. A worthy ally. Even a friend.
Then—Velan had slaughtered an entire city, declared himself Goblin King, killed the ambassadors of goodwill and his allies, and made war without end. Niers had seen him on the battlefield. A raving monster whose savagery deserved all of what was said about Goblins. His forces butchered civilians and surrendered [Soldiers].
“What happened to you, Velan? What madness, what curse, lies upon your species?”
Never again would Niers trust Goblins like that. He slid down a hill, making good speed. Vegetation was growing in this area, and while Eater Goats might rip up the roots, a lot more plant life clearly survived to reproduce.
Niers had great hopes of finding food and better shelter for the night.
He looked back just once. That Goblin sniper position was good. Niers shook his head and kept marching.
…He looked back a few more times after that. Good, but not perfect. The Goblins were clustered up too much behind the giant crossbow. The outpost had clearly been excavated from the stone rather than made naturally. If so, the creators should have created an ‘L’-shaped tunnel, only reversed vertically. That meant they could hunker down if someone tried to blow their position to pieces. You’d need an exceptionally-good [Homing Fireball] specialist or a direct attack, then, and there were ways to protect against even that.
Even against magical attacks with limited magical resources of your own. They hadn’t created any rock-fall or other traps for enemies climbing on them, for instance. No anti-[Rogue] mechanisms, and you could do a lot with string and a bell. Perhaps this Goblin had never gone up against [Rogues] of that magnitude.
Niers had. He had seen every way imaginable of taking and holding ground, which was why he taught students. He’d give that emplacement a…C+ if it was his special class. Totally functional, great against mundane armies. He’d hold one of his best students to higher standards, though.
For a Goblin likely without any formal training? Pure talent. Wasted if not honed. Niers kept thinking of that. The talent to make a crossbow out of bones and sinew! Some kind of [Engineer]-[Strategist]? Or did the Chieftain just employ that kind of talent? He wondered…
Niers was growing hungry. Lunch. He eyed the shoots of some kind of plant—a brighter yellow-green. Hopefully not indicative of poison. The narrow valley was a nice place in the relatively barren High Passes.
Had the Goblins maintained this? No, too far from their camps. I wonder why the Eater Goats don’t consume all this? Probably too poisonous even for them. Oh well.
The Titan stopped at the edge of the first grouping of plants. He hesitated as he reached for a leaf, using his gloves, obviously.
One of his Skills was going off again. This time, urgently.
Not [Dangersense]. Niers didn’t have that basic Skill; it was too easy to trick. But his [Stealthguard], sovereign against ambushes and even magical camouflage, was going off.
Niers hadn’t calibrated his [Foe Sensor] against anything but his usual foes from Baleros and Goblins.
He did so now, on a hunch. Avians? No. Goblins? A mess of contacts behind him. Traditional monsters? No contacts. Crelers? Nothing, thank goodness.
The entire area lit up in Niers’ head. He froze. The Fraerling mouthed a curse.
Slowly, very, very slowly, he tugged at the root of the leaf. Gently, gently…he recoiled as the root-vegetable came up. Covered in bugs.
They had infested this ground! They were eating all the plants and making their lairs here! Some were babies, the size of his hand. They got bigger, though. They squirmed as Niers leapt backwards—
But didn’t pursue. He breathed out, slowly, as this particular nest, one of tens of thousands, spilled out, looking for what had disturbed it. They resembled thick, squat, beetles, with terribly sharp-looking pincers. Odd patterns on their back.
Magical? He was certain they could fly, but they reminded him most of one of Baleros’ most dangerous predators.
Army ants. The kind that could swarm and eat you in seconds. Burn them with [Flame Wall] spells or the like.
Niers had none. However, he was making tracks the way he’d come. He was fortunate that he hadn’t set them off. Doubly-fortunate that his Skills could detect the threat. [Dangersense] would only help you probably as you stepped foot into this area. He knew exactly how many of those little things there were, and he was running as fast and quietly as he—
The Fraerling heard the sound from the side. He closed his eyes.
“Please, no. Go away you stupid, stupid—”
An Eater Goat wandered over the edge of the valley, its roving eyes searching for food. It spotted the valley of greens and brightened up. It baahed, and the group of goats Niers had spotted with his Skill all converged.
There were probably two hundred Eater Goats, a large herd that could kill even smaller packs of Gargoyles. They’d eat rocks if they got hungry enough, or each other, and they had amazing repopulation abilities.
They were dead. Niers backed up, looking for a way out of this death-trap as one of the Eater Goats raced downwards to be the first to eat and ripped up the rooty vegetables. It chewed down bugs and plant alike without a care in the world.
Then—the bugs exploded out of the ground. Niers looked over his shoulder.
The beetles were flying. They covered the air, the startled Eater Goats, and descended, biting, consuming their prey. Niers ran for it, but the beetles were on the attack and they were devouring everything they could sense in their radius.
Sharpstick saw the Swarmbeetle nest erupt. He had no idea what adventurers called them. Goblins had given the name, again, out of utility.
“Bad-bad bugs and Eater Goats. Many-bite death. Eating death.”
He commented to the others, allowing himself the luxury as the buzz of wings and Eater Goat’s braying shouts filled the air. The other Goblins nodded, wincing as they saw the Eater Goat group disappear.
They went down fighting, of course. Eater Goats bit, chewing bugs furiously, fearless to the point of suicide. They never had a chance. The bugs just ate them, live, until the corpses lay, food and sustenance for a new generation. Everything nearby was also a target. The baby Armored Crawlers died—the Goblins did not.
The nearest two outposts blocked the beetles from entering with reinforced blankets just for that purpose. A few might trickle in, but they were snacks. Although…those Swarmbeetles had a nasty bite. Magic ran in them thanks to those plants, and so they could actually carve up your leather armor or bite you down to the bone if you let them. Tough, too. Sharpstick shook his head.
That was all he thought about the minor incident. After all—it was just the goats who died. And there were lots of goats.
“You damn goats! You stupid, empty-headed idiots! Venaz has more tact than you!”
Niers bellowed as he ran. Behind him, the beetles were on the offensive. They went after the Eater Goats first, but they circled, going after anything nearby.
Him. Birds. Other rodents or animals. Niers flung himself forwards as he heard the buzz behind him. He needed—
There. The opening was small, even for a Fraerling. Niers didn’t care. He slashed with his sword, widening the narrow passageway. Then he put his back in the cave’s entrance and began to fight.
The first beetle didn’t even see him. He slashed and cut it in half. Tough shell and pincers meant nothing to his enchanted artifact. He cut the next beetle the same way.
Then they flooded him.
Crawling bodies, half his size or larger. Blank eyes. Squirming legs, everywhere. Even in death they twitched.
Jaws, biting at him. The buzz, the click of them. Small ones pushing past the bodies as the adults ate their fallen.
They were on his armor, the tiniest ones, biting—he knocked them clear with his hand. But he never stopped stabbing, slashing.
Economical movements—the entrance of the cave was filled with dead bodies as they pressed in. He was shouting, cutting, stomping, his armor saving all but his face from bites. But thousands of bites made even the magic weaken. The snap of their closing mandibles bruised.
Hours of fighting. And they kept coming. They couldn’t get into the rocky cave, or he’d be dead. He held the opening, slaughtering them as they ran onto his sword, pushing forwards. He was squeezed by the dead into the back of the stone crevasse. Only their hard carapaces formed a second wall.
Blood. Death! A war only Fraerlings would ever know.
“Come on, you vermin!”
Niers smashed a bug against a wall, smearing it, careless of the gore on him. His voice was hoarse. His arm felt numb, but he refused to stop slashing. He switched hands, though his left arm was just as tired.
He refused to die! Not to these bugs! Not to—a face appeared in the bleeding mass of bugs. It bit—Niers stabbed it through the mouth. He yanked his sword back before it could be lost; another bug tried to get at him.
The Fraerling [Strategist] didn’t know it—but at some point he was laughing again.
The onslaught of bugs lessened at some innumerable mark in the attack. They backed up, dispersed, fled back to their lairs.
Niers didn’t know why. But he took the moment. He shoved past dead, stinking corpses, heard the telltale sound—and grinned.
They had noticed the swarm and now played a new part in the circle of consumption. Birds darted around, too fast and too high for the bugs to swarm, hundreds of them. Niers poked his head out of the cave as they moved closer and the bugs began to burrow, hiding from them, their bellies full.
He could stay—or run. Niers eyed the birds swooping around. Not all of them were big enough to eat him, being specialized for the beetles, but there were a lot of potential killers. He thought about it, grunting.
“Stinking cave, more bugs when they leave—or get torn to pieces. Great. Well, I survived the bugs without. So I suppose I’ve earned this…”
He poked his head out the cave entrance, mouthed something. The birds cocked their heads—then opened their eyes wide. They voided their bowels, shrieked in terror, and fled.
Niers marched out of the cave, and left the damned valley of bugs behind. Just a little Skill. He hurried off, though; the fear-effect wouldn’t last long. He needed to wash the stink of bug off him. He wanted a fire, food—
But he was victorious. The High Passes would not best him.
That was the second day. By the eleventh, Niers had nearly passed the sprawling territory under the auspices of the Goblins and he felt like he had a clear shot at the slopes heading down to the Floodplains.
Eleven days, six Skills. That was how many times he’d used a Skill to help him navigate the terrain. Niers didn’t count the accident with the Goblins.
Six was high…but it wasn’t like one per day. He was doing it. Surviving. He hadn’t lost his Tallguard training.
Some encounters had been close. But he’d trusted to his armor, running, putting his back to stone, to survive. His sword had done the rest of the work. Even larger predators like rodents or birds gave up after he cut them a few times.
By now, Niers had improvised and restored some of his missing gear. A ‘cloak’ of fur and strands of grass and plant matter kept him warm at night and added to his camouflage. He had a walking-stick to help him find his footing, and a primitive bandolier to which he’d attached a few carrying items. Some dried meat, his quiver of arrows, and bow.
A bow and arrows. It wasn’t hard. Yes, you needed a proper piece of wood, but a primitive bow could be a decent little stick carved with his shortsword and strung with some dried sinew from a stupid marsupial that had tried to jump him in his sleep.
It wasn’t good. It had all the range and force of a launched toothpick, especially because his arrows were about as sharp, despite him using the shortsword to carve stone arrowheads.
However, it was a bow and arrow. And a sufficiently-fast toothpick could put out an eye, easy. Niers wished it could have been a crossbow. He knew, roughly, how to make one. He was no perfect [Archer], so his old crossbow was ideal.
One enchanted bolt could solve most of his problems, even Gargoyles. However, this back-to-basics approach was toughening him up. Six Skills, only his sword, improvisation…his armor, rings, and boots…but no potions!
When I return, I need to give this experience to my students. I’ve made them do it before, variations of this, but the sheer challenge is something that would benefit those like Wil, Umina. Venaz probably doesn’t need this, but he’d thrive.
I wonder, is this how the first Fraerlings did it when settling a new village? Fight their way countless miles, find somewhere defensible, and just…start civilization anew? Is this my adventure? What I was really here for?
That was what had driven him to Izril. To obsessing over the young woman. Intellectually, Niers had picked over his mistakes time and time again. He’d even let the other-worlds discovery fall behind, the Last Light of Baleros, because he’d been convinced that his opponent held all the answers and he wanted it from her.
Romance. Love. His weak spots. It was more than that, though. It was the feeling of meeting someone who was better than you. He’d risen to the top of the world, him, a little Fraerling. Sometimes he felt as if he’d done it all and gone too far. That there would never be a challenge as great as those he had summited.
He remembered Queravia. Niers stopped as he spotted the third adventurer team far below him. Still hunting Wyverns? He recalled the bounty. He leaned on his walking staff, eying them. It had occurred to him he might steal a [Message] scroll before, but they had been too far away, moving too fast. This group was nearly vertically below, moving across a natural path, talking. He couldn’t hear.
Adventurers. He hesitated. Knowing his luck, they’d mistake him for a monster and kill him or something. He had seen…something…wandering the High Passes. It had looked like a Goblin, a small one, wandering about. Niers had stared at it, wondering what kind of Goblin would be so stupid to do that at night. Then a Gargoyle had gone for it.
He shuddered. It had gone lower after disposing of the Gargoyle. Proof there were nastier things that he didn’t want to challenge in the High Passes. But this? He smiled, eying the adventurers. Then sighed.
Luck? They told stories of his luck, now. He just had to roll the dice to show them, flip a coin. He had once upended a barrel of a hundred dice and they had all been ‘three’. Luck.
“I curse you.”
She smiled, playfully, as the command tent burned. Dead bodies everywhere. Niers coughed. He didn’t know how many people he’d killed himself.
“Command! To me!”
He shouted. Queravia didn’t bother. The Stitch-Woman lay there, one foot gone, taken from the midriff down by the shower of arrows.
The battle was still raging. His company and the other joint forces versus the King of Destruction’s armies. Niers walked towards her. A small man.
But they would call him the Titan after this. Titan—how many of her command had he slaughtered? The desperate attack had killed both his command, his bodyguards, and hers.
“What did you say?”
The [Gambler of Fates], the great [Strategist] of the King of Destruction coughed. If she had cloth, she could have replaced her body parts. She did not. And the fire would kill her. But her eyes were unwavering.
“I curse you. Just so you know. You—you told me you weren’t a gambler. Liar.”
“I don’t believe in luck. I don’t like it. This was a calculated risk.”
“They call me mad. You charged my command. You really thought you’d win?”
He shrugged, moving past a burning carpet. Eyes searching for a trap, a trick.
“I was an adventurer. Queravia of the King’s Seven. You know how this has to end.”
“Can’t I surrender?”
The Fraerling almost laughed.
“In fifteen minutes, I’d be the one surrendering. We both know that. I’m…sorry.”
He lifted his sword. The battlefield was Queravia’s. If she wasn’t removed, her Skills would let her army triumph. Without her—
“If I said I was pregnant, would you stop?”
She smiled as he looked at her.
“I’m joking. Go on, [Strategist]. We both know it wouldn’t stop me. Or you. I curse you with the [Gambler]’s curse. Nothing special. You don’t play a gambler’s games, Niers Astoragon. So win without luck. My [King] will follow after, you know.”
“If he does, I will stop him.”
The Titan looked at her. He lifted his sword. Queravia—
The shadow was his only warning. Niers broke out of his trance, pivoted.
He sliced through one talon, but the Razorbeak grabbed him again. It shrieked triumphantly and the adventurers looked up. Niers cursed. Was it the same damn bird? His memory played on, the [Strategist] self.
I never knew if she was telling the truth. If she was—
The Fraerling twisted. Leverage! A Skill? No—he’d get out of this again! He swore it was the same damn bird, but he’d cut one talon. He wiggled as it called out in pain. He just needed to get his sword and he’d slice out, this time. An arrow? He fumbled.
Gambler’s curse. Just a simple thing. I throw the dice and win or lose without chance. Same with coins. A ‘curse’.
No luck on the battlefield? I gamble all the time. Just not like she did it. I never met a [Strategist] like her. When I return, I need to change. My students…
He found an arrow, snapped the shaft, jabbed the sharpened rock into a scale, digging. Where was his sword? There! He grabbed the hilt, began to slash around the claw. The Razorbeak screamed.
Taking risks. I never took a greater one as when I faced her. But I was too cowardly to face the King of Destruction on Chandrar. I should have taken the entire Forgotten Wing Company and fought him. I stopped taking chances.
The claws opened. Niers clung to one, blood pattering his armor. He tried to slash at the other leg, the bird’s undercarriage. Not the leg holding him.
“Got you, you pestilential bird! Payback! That’s right, bring your head down for me!”
Reinvent myself. Luck. I faced luck and gained a Skill, my title. I should have forced the Iron Vanguard back, formed a navy. Involved myself—I’m trapped on Baleros. When I—
The beak opened. Snapped. The sword slashed through part of the Razorbeak’s jaw, lodged in a tooth.
The [Strategist]’s thoughts ended. The tearing pain, agony, followed the sensation of loss. He stared down. He’d twisted as the beak came for him. But he couldn’t dodge fully.
“My leg. My—leg!”
The jaws closed. His armor held off the rending teeth for a second, perhaps two. The gigantic bird worried at his leg, grinding the magic away. He felt the agony and then a void. Niers looked down.
His right leg was severed at the knee. The Titan—blinked.
He saw red gore, so familiar. A jutting end of broken bone, torn away, trailing blood and viscera. So familiar.
Yet this was his body. Thoughts fragmented. Tiny droplets of blood fell from the air as the huge jaws swallowed the tiny bite above him. He heard the sound, the gurgling rasp of digestion. The stump of his leg.
“My leg! YOU BASTARD BIRD!”
He slashed. But now the Razorbeak bit again and he was in the jaws. Niers thrashed as the teeth hammered his armor.
“I’LL KILL YOU. MY LEG!”
His voice echoed in the air. He screamed, slashing. But the jaws were clamping down and he couldn’t—
The arrow hit the wing and the Razorbeak screamed, dropped him. Niers fell out of the air, disoriented, limp. He heard shouts.
“It can’t be—that’s him! Get him! Get—”
The adventurers. As the Razorbeak fled, screaming, wounded, they stampeded towards his location. One of them stared down in horror.
“He’s missing a leg! Get a potion of healing—”
The [Strategist] was staring down. His leg! His entire life, he had never taken a wound as—they reattached his arm when it was half-severed by the trap. His—
Liquid splashed him, clearing blood. He saw the bloody stump cover itself with flesh. He looked up.
A team of adventurers stared down at him. The [Strategist]’s mouth moved.
“I knew I heard a voice! It’s him. The Titan.”
We have grown complacent.
A hand grabbed his sword-arm. He fought, but he was just—he had forgotten. No Skills? No handicaps? How soon everyone forgot.
He was just a Fraerling.
Niers Astoragon lay in a bird-cage. No, he sat with his back to the bars. Cheap bronze. He might have bent them, but they watched him like a hawk.
And they had his sword. Not his armor; they’d left him with some dignity, but the Gold-rank team, Heron’s Mark, was one of a number of Gold-rank teams in the High Passes.
“Looking for you, uh—Titan. Lord Astoragon. It’s paid work. We didn’t expect to find you. We’ve been searching the last week and a half.”
“All by yourself?”
Niers hadn’t spoken for the first two hours. He was in shock. His leg was gone. Taken by a damned bird. It hadn’t even died. Then, captured by a Gold-rank team.
“Not just us. Multiple teams with movement or reconnaissance specialties are looking for you, Lord Astoragon. There are bounties on you. Our employers, well—I can’t speak for the others, but we intend to deliver you alive.”
“To which Great Company?”
“I shouldn’t say—”
The Titan slowly looked at the young, eager Human man. The adventurer hesitated as the Fraerling looked at him.
“The Iron Vanguard.”
That came from the [Ranger] who’d shot the Razorbeak. Niers nodded. In the silence that followed, their [Wizard] spoke.
“We should tell the other teams we found him, Nomen.”
“I—don’t think so, Chana. Not until we get clear of the High Passes. The other teams—might want to split the reward. Or take it from us.”
The team of four Gold-ranks, the [Warrior], a [Wizard], a [Ranger], and their [Thief], a silent Gnoll, looked at each other. A classic group.
“I know, Nomen. I mean, they might…wonder why we’re leaving. We’re engaged for the entire month. Maybe we should tell some of them in case some teams insist.”
The [Wizard] looked at Niers, and then around. Heron’s Mark looked nervous.
And well you should be. The other Gold-rank teams will kill for a bounty on my head.
Niers’ thoughts were dark. He had begun thinking of escape plans twice. Each time, he stared at his leg.
No mobility. He could rely on a peg-leg, crutches, magical prosthesis, even fix it. But right now? Impaired.
“Who can we trust? The other teams might be watching for one of us leaving the High Passes. In which case, we might have to fight them off us. Which team?”
They debated. At last, a name circulated.
“Wings of Pallass. They’ve got an impeccable credibility rating. Not like the others. I met Miss Bevussa in Liscor. Can you send a [Message], Chana? Tell them we need to talk now. If the others are listening in, say—say we found Crelers?”
As the [Wizard] began to communicate, Niers saw the adventurers staring at him. Like a curio, a legend literally fallen to earth. Smaller than they thought. Oh, he’d heard all the jokes.
He knew he wasn’t impressive now, not with his armor torn by the bird’s teeth, stump of a leg—he shifted his head to look at their leader.
“So you’re taking me to the Iron Vanguard?”
“That’s right. In Invrisil. Rest assured, Lord Astoragon, this isn’t personal.”
The Gold-rank looked nervous.
Just a brat. Has he ever lost a team member? These look like rookies, not a proper battle-tested Gold-rank team.
Niers spoke, shortly.
“Let me make you a counter-offer. Deliver me to my destination, which will be the same amount of work as the Iron Vanguard, and I’ll double your fee. You know I can.”
The adventurers went silent. Even the [Wizard] looked up. Nomen opened and closed his mouth.
“Nomen, it could be a ruse. Remember, he killed over half the Cherinion Swords! Don’t be greedy!”
The [Thief] whispered. Niers snorted.
“They attacked me. You think I need to lie? Let me put it to you this way: the Iron Vanguard wants me. My company wants me. And ‘this isn’t personal’? Boy, I’ve heard that from countless adventurers. I know it’s Creler crap, same as you. It’s personal to me. Now, I’ll be generous if I’m helped.”
“We—we have a contract, Lord Astoragon. No offense, but…”
The adventurer licked his lips. Niers stared at him.
He probably thinks the Iron Vanguard will more than double my offer to get me. He might be right. Greedy, stupid…
He looked up as he heard a distant call. The [Wizard] lowered her fingers and spoke.
“They’re coming. All three of them.”
“Three? I thought it was a team of four, like us.”
The [Ranger] raised her eyebrows. Half-Elf. Cliché on cliché. Her hair was dark brown, her skin tanned. Niers stared at her.
I could prevail on my debts with half-Elves, maybe. Depends on her origins. If she’s as stupid as the rest of her team…maybe not. Can I convince the [Thief] to betray the others? Again—
He just sat there as the second team appeared. This one looked—interesting. Two Oldblood Drakes, and a Garuda. They had been flying along the High Passes, but they weren’t idiots.
Rather than let Wyverns drop on them and any number of monsters attack, they’d been using [Camouflage] spells while scouting for him. Niers might have even missed them, unlike Heron’s Mark.
“Nomen, isn’t it? Where’s the Creler nest? If it’s small, we can take it on together. Or do we need to contact all the teams?”
“Bevussa—Bevussa, listen. It’s not that. We—we actually found—”
He gestured to Niers in the cage. The Titan looked up and saw the beak open in shock. Bevussa recoiled. He saw her companions look around, then stare at Heron’s Mark.
“Is…why are you telling me, Nomen?”
Bevussa slowly looked at the Gold-rank Captain, coming to the same conclusion as he spoke.
“We want to get the bounty on Lord Astoragon and get out of the High Passes without the other teams interfering. We’re considering splitting part of the bounty if you help us out.”
The Garuda’s eyes widened. She looked at Niers. He stared back. And abruptly, he felt sick. From Titan, meeting his grand opponent, commander of one of the finest mercenary companies in the world, to a…a Fraerling in a cage.
“Good evening, Miss Adventurer. Good to meet young Gold-ranks these days.”
The old Fraerling smiled at the children. Like a grandfather, a professor lecturing young, new, promising students. The generation to replace his waning star. Bevussa carefully bowed.
“Titan of Baleros, Lord Astoragon, it’s an honor to meet you. Are we…delivering him to his people, Nomen?”
The adventurer hesitated. Niers sat back, smiling genially around.
Inside…he thought he heard the quiet snapping, like bones, of his patience, his temper, bursting its carefully constructed cage.
Suddenly, no, it was a culmination, a realization born of many days and nights like this, testing his patience, wearing at his carefully controlled temper, his true temper, not the flights of annoyance or irritability he had, came upon the Titan of Baleros, Niers Astoragon. And it was this: his journey, his ‘adventure’ in the High Passes was no longer fun.
No longer fun. It had not been. Nearly dying, the ambush, had not been, nor fighting for his life against insects, eating bugs, surviving mudslides, hiking for days and nights like a younger man. However, it had been by another token. He had felt younger, and in arrogance, tried to do it without using his Skills. Without taking the threat seriously.
His leg was gone. Niers stared at it. His pleasant smile widened.
Bevussa felt a prickle on her feathers. She was trying to talk to Nomen, but she could not look away.
Not from him. The living legend. The Titan.
He looked far, far too calm for someone who had just lost a limb.
She felt like her [Dangersense] was going off. Yet it was intuition.
The Titan interrupted the muffled conversation. The adventurers turned to him. The Fraerling smiled about.
“I’d just like to make a request.”
“Er—of course, sir? Lord Astoragon? You are our—guest. Do you need food?”
Nomen stuttered, at odds with Niers being a functional prisoner and his awe. Bevussa just waited. Niers nodded.
“Yes, yes indeed. I appreciate you wanting to stay alive and keep the money. However, I, personally, have come to a decision. I will not be ferried back and handed over to the Iron Vanguard and have to negotiate or trick my way to freedom. I’m tired. I want a Potion of Regrowth, or a magic leg, and I will not sit in this cage.”
The adventurer captain licked his lips.
“I’m afraid, Lord—”
Niers’ smile widened. Nomen fell silent. The [Strategist] kept speaking.
“I can appreciate ambition. So, here is my offer. Let me out and I will pay you double the current bounty to take me to my destination. I will commend you and make you famous for rescuing the Titan. However, there will be no double-dealings. Both your teams can be rich, and I will help you fend off any problems that may occur.”
The two Gold-rank teams looked at each other. Bevussa stirred at last.
“Nomen? Sounds like a good offer.”
She raised her brows, trying to hint to him…the younger man hesitated. He had gold in his eyes.
“Let’s discuss it. Lord Astoragon, just a s—”
Again, the Titan interrupted. He looked past Nomen, at Bevussa.
“I am not giving you an offer, young man. I am giving you a choice. Listen to me. I am asking you…nicely…to indulge me. I have had a bad day. Let me out. Now. Or you will regret it.”
Wrong move. Bevussa saw the female [Wizard]’s eyes flick to the [Thief]. He shook his head behind Niers’ back. Nomen saw, and his features firmed.
The implied threat made the wavering Gold-ranks uncertain. As well as Niers clearly looking at Bevussa as the more reasonable team. Now they were eying the Wings of Pallass like potential enemies, for all they’d summoned them.
Gold in the eyes, gold on the brain. Enough gold to drown in. To retire on forever. Bevussa felt it too.
“Nomen…why don’t we take the offer?”
“Hold on, now. The Titan is our prisoner, Bevussa. I think it’s a matter of—trust. He already took care of one Gold-rank team. It’s not safe to just…let him out.”
“Are you an idiot? How did you get past Bronze-rank?”
Nomen’s ears turned red. Bevussa bit her tongue as Issa’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth. The two Oldblood Drakes coughed.
At the same time, Bevussa was astonished. Because this was not a smart, strategic move. Niers nearly had Heron’s Mark agreeing, but his tongue was stabbing him in the…only foot he had.
“I think I’ve made up my decision. Chana—can you cast [Detect Magic]? We’re taking Lord Astoragon’s gear off him. Rings. He can keep the armor, but we don’t want to take chances.”
Niers just snorted.
“Really. How are you going to get them off? Break my fingers with a pair of tweezers? You are as stupid as I thought.”
“Nomen! Think about this.”
The [Warrior]’s eyes flashed angrily at Bevussa. He looked at the Titan.
“If you take them off, we won’t have to insist, Niers. You’re in the cage. We’ll take you to the Iron Vanguard or whomever bids highest.”
“No, you won’t.”
Bevussa’s [Dangersense] began going off now. She’d known they were in danger before. Now? She saw the Titan of Baleros slowly push himself up. He balanced, one hand holding the bars of his cage. One-legged, he looked around. His snort? Contemptuous.
“Look at you. I gave you a chance. You—fly away.”
He pointed at Bevussa. Her head swiveled as the warning bell began to ring louder.
“Stop talking like that. You can’t do a thing. If you want to keep negotiating, some respect…”
Nomen’s voice wobbled. The Titan looked at him.
“Can’t do a thing? I’m the Titan of Baleros. You little piece of Creler-bait, I’m sick of this. I don’t negotiate with Gold-rank adventurers.”
His voice was growing louder. Bevussa took a few steps back.
The half-Elf [Ranger] swung up her bow. Heron’s Mark tensed. Bevussa lifted her wing-hands.
“We’re not fighting you! Lord Astoragon—”
He wasn’t listening. The Titan clung to the bars of the cage. His eyes were flashing, his voice growing furious.
“Do you think I need to negotiate to get out of this cage? Me? I was a Named Adventurer when you were dreaming about holding swords! I’ve killed better adventurers than you with my bare hands. You think you can hold me?”
“He’s lost his mind.”
Kin muttered. Bevussa looked around, but the arrow tracking her chest was demanding her attention. If she had to dodge—
“I’ve met Dragons and bested Djinni! I’ve broken the Labyrinth of Souls and seen the words of the architects! I have beheld Elves and broken armies by the greatest [Kings] and [Warlords] of my era!”
He was bellowing. Was he trying to bring monsters down on them?
Nomen had the same thought.
“Shut him up!”
He hissed at Chana. Niers saw the [Wizard] raise her staff. The [Silence] spell didn’t even touch him. One of his rings glowed.
“Gah! I’ll do it!”
The Gnoll interrupted. He reached for the cage door. Nomen was looking around.
“This is a bluff. You can’t do anything! Stop shouting and cooperate or—”
He never got further. His torso exploded.
Niers Astoragon flung up a hand as a ribbon of red splashed the cage. Bevussa flinched—then dove. The arrow flashed past her.
A scream. The [Thief] jerked his paw back. Staring at Niers. The Titan started laughing.
Bevussa howled. She shot into the air with her team. The [Ranger] took aim, but Chana grabbed her arm.
“It wasn’t them! We’re under attack!”
The Gnoll threw himself at his teammates. They hit the ground hard, but it saved their life. The second oversized bolt struck the dirt. Niers gripped the bars of his cage and began to bend the cheap metal.
Nomen was alive. Somehow, the bolt hadn’t blasted his entire body apart. Durability Skills. His teammates were quick. They dropped a potion on him and he began crying out, coughing.
The half-Elf spotted the attackers at the same time as the Wings of Pallass. Bevussa’s eyes went round. She saw the Goblins at the same time as one launched a huge crossbow bolt from the Thunderbow he was carrying.
Sharpstick bellowed as the Goblin war band opened fire. Goblins carrying crossbows and bows began to loose from their positions. They were firing at range on both teams.
“Evasive! [Unit: Speed Wing]!”
The Garuda and two Oldbloods whirled away. The adventurers on the ground weren’t so lucky. Chana threw up a barrier only for three Thunderbow bolts to overload the spell. A bolt caught her in the leg and she screamed, falling down.
“Get to cover!”
“Get the Titan! What are you doing?”
Nomen shouted at his team and Niers. The little Fraerling was still laughing. Nomen wanted to grab at him, but the Goblins had them pinned and more were flanking.
“More are coming! It’s a damned tribe!”
The [Ranger] loosed an arrow as Chana screamed, dragging the bolt out of her leg and taking a huge chunk of flesh. The Gnoll slapped a potion on the wound.
How? Bevussa whirled through the air, seeing even more clearly than the [Ranger]. Goblins were marching down the High Passes, at least sixty so far—and more in the distance! Coming out of camouflaged bases.
But why were they attacking? She looked down.
The Titan of Baleros twisted open the bars of his cage. He had to hop across the ground.
Crutch, he needed a crutch. He ignored the projectiles showering down around him. His armor could take one hit. Niers still laughed, with maniacal humor as fury filled him.
He was the same small Fraerling. Only, with one difference.
He was using his Skills.
“Sharpstick attacking adventurers?”
Rags heard the scrambled report and lurched out of her gloom. She shot to her feet. Half of Goblinhome was already making ready for war.
But she had not ordered it! She ran through the fortress in time to find Redscar. The Goblin snarled at her as his Redfangs mounted up. Across from him, the [Wyvern Riders] led by Snapjaw were doing the same.
“Chieftain! Coming with?”
“No! Stop! Why is Sharpstick attacking?”
The Goblins froze as the [Chieftain] barked. They looked at her.
“Not my orders.”
Rags saw Redscar’s eyes widen. But how—?
She felt a pit open in her stomach.
[False Orders]. Niers Astoragon found a snapped crossbow bolt and shrugged. Crutch obtained.
“We have to get out of here, Nomen!”
The Gold-ranks were seeing more Goblins flanking them from the cliffs. They were opening up—but two Gold-rank teams were fighting back. A [Fireball] blasted the cliff and Goblins took shelter.
“[Volley of Arrows]!”
The half-Elf tossed up eighteen arrows and shot them up, arcing them down on Goblin positions. The [Thief] hurled a bag to the ground and smoke enveloped their position.
“The Titan! Grab him!”
Nomen was crawling towards Niers, heedless of the fighting. The Titan narrowed his eyes. He could sense everything through the smoke. [Foe Sensor]. He casually hobbled left as the [Warrior]’s gauntleted hands swept the ground.
“You bastard! Where are you? What have you done?”
Nomen coughed in the smoke. He heard a cold voice from his left.
“Me? One Skill. Here’s another, you stupid little brat.”
The [Warrior] lunged. He missed. Niers had hopped away with his remaining Boot of the Grasshopper. Yet Nomen had his sword and Niers wanted his sword. The Wings of Pallass, high above, were shouting down.
“Nomen! Get your team out of here!”
Chana howled up at them.
“We can’t! Get rid of those giant crossbows!”
“No, get out of here! You have monsters incoming!”
The first wave of screaming Eater Goats crashed down on the team a second later.
Bevussa saw a second enemy appear as a horde of Eater Goats ran, screaming, at the Gold-rank team. Not just them; the Goblins had seen the Eater Goats surging down the rocky mountainside and adjusted their fire. It was now a three-way battle.
“The Titan just called the Eater Goats down on all of us!”
She screamed at Kin. The Oldblood Drake’s mouth opened.
Bevussa didn’t know, but there was no other explanation. About three hundred Eater Goats were attacking—even the Goblins, who were wearing their red war paint! They were bewildered, but the goats were frothing at the mouth. Furious—
Rage Skill. He just aggravated the entire herd somehow. A [Strategist]’s Skills!
Bevussa cursed. The Gold-rank Garuda banked sharply, avoiding the arrows now coming up more sporadically towards her, eyes trying to pierce the smoke cloud a dozen Eater Goats had charged into. She saw a flare of electricity; Heron’s Mark was putting up a fight.
More Gold-rank teams would see the fighting. Whether they arrived? It depended on whether they realized this wasn’t just a monster attack.
“Send word that Heron’s Mark is under attack!”
“Are we going in?”
“No! We’re grabbing the Titan and fleeing!”
Bevussa snapped to Kin. She was staring down. Grab the Titan. He was everything in this scenario and everyone knew it.
In that way, even Bevussa was still blinded by his bounty. The Titan had told her to run. She thought she was safe, flying high above the fighting. She had still underestimated her opponent.
She was on his [Foe Sensor] too. The Titan of Baleros had lost his temper.
Bevussa felt the air change. She looked up. The clouds were black. She saw the first bolt of lightning lance down as the clouds opened up.
The High Passes were hit by a storm as Niers hid in a crevasse, watching the Gold-rank team fighting for their lives against the Eater Goats.
[Unit: Incendiary Provocation]. That was a [Strategist] Skill that could incite an ally or enemy into losing all sense of reason. The Eater Goats were on a rampage. Yet now, rain, driving down in greater sleets than even his first day of being in the High Passes, was mixed with bolts of lightning, showering down around all forces.
He wasn’t controlling them. The Wings of Pallass dove, frantically, to avoid being cooked alive by the lightning even so, wings heavy with water. The Goblins shouted, losing sight of each other in the melee.
All of it was his Skills. You thought I couldn’t do anything? Niers changed the weather with one of his great Skills.
[Battlefield: Skies of Chaos, Winds of War]. Far more dangerous than [Horrendous Weather]. Some [Strategists] could provoke rain. The Earl of Rains could call thunderstorms.
Niers could call fire from the skies depending on the climate. He waited, eyes narrowed. In this chaos…he leaned on his crutch, the only calm mind present.
“We have to run! Nomen! He’s tearing down the High Passes around us!”
It felt like it. Yet they had to drag Nomen out of the fighting. The [Warrior]’s chest plate was dented in; he felt like the healing potion, potions, hadn’t fully worked.
“We have to find him! It’s enough money for—”
“It’s no use if we’re all dead!”
Eater Goats were still attacking them. Heron’s Mark was climbing, desperately. Rain water was threatening to turn the lower areas into rivers. Lightning kept crashing down, sending rocks flying! And there were Goblins, Eater Goats, and now more monsters, sensing the bloodbath.
A Gargoyle landed, snatching up Eater Goats and flying back up to tear them to bits. Nomen threw up his shield, shouting, as a spray of the deadly rock-projectiles flashed from another’s mouth.
“Damn it! Find us a cave or the Wings! Let’s go!”
His team sprinted from the cover as their [Ranger] took point. She loosed an arrow, hit a Goblin [Archer]. The monster fell with a scream as Goblins switched to melee weapons against the goats and Gargoyles.
More were coming. Were those Carn Wolves flooding down the valley in the distance? Nomen cursed, but his teammate was shouting.
“Here! Here! There’s a cave!”
She screamed, pointing towards a place they could hole up. She had leapt, pulling herself up a ledge. It was too steep for Eater Goats to simply climb; they had to jump.
So did the adventurers. The [Thief] boosted Chana, then leapt, nimbly swinging himself up the ledge. Nomen was last. He bashed an Eater Goat down with his shield, then tossed the shield up to his friends. He leapt, grabbed the ledge, began to drag himself up, arms burning. His heavy armor was working against him, and his team was already sprinting to the cave, fortifying it.
“Nomen! Hurry up!”
The [Warrior]’s shoulders had cleared the ledge and he was heaving himself up when he saw the Fraerling. The Titan, leaning on the snapped crossbow bolt like a crutch, regarded him.
“All of this? I won’t say it was all your fault. Just remember this if you survive: you are an idiot.”
The Titan tensed. He leapt—and stabbed Nomen in the eye with tip of the crossbow bolt. He and the adventurer went over the ledge. Nomen screamed. He hit the ground. Not even hard enough to knock the wind from him, but his eye! He was bellowing, flailing, searching for the Titan, not to capture, but to kill when the Eater Goat trotted over to his head.
Niers hobbled towards the adventurer’s side as the Eater Goat ate. He grunted.
“Bag of holding. Damn—”
He had to undo the knot and upend it; if he reached inside, he might implode or alternatively explode in the bag of holding’s unique containment field. He kicked aside rations, cursing at the oversized potions, far too large for him to take.
His sword. He grabbed it. Then looked up.
The Eater Goat had noticed the morsel. It opened a bloody mouth, showing him rows of gory teeth. Not content with an entire dead adventurer, it wanted one more bite. The other Eater Goats were also trotting over, some going for the cave the rest of the Gold-ranks were in.
Niers looked at the Eater Goat. As dumb as the adventurer. He didn’t have time for this.
Another Skill activated. He should have used them all from the start. Playing games, pretending like this was ‘reinventing himself’. He snarled and the Eater Goat…backed up.
The lunatic animal, known for its tenacity and willingness to eat and fight even Crelers, slowly trotted back, abandoning its kill. The others’ heads turned towards Niers, spotting him despite his size. Yet far from swarming him, they baahed uncertainly. With a touch of fear. Then—terror.
They turned and ran. Niers walked past them. A Gargoyle feasting on dead goats looked around. It spotted Niers, made a booming shriek sound, closer to a bird, and grabbed its prey and fled. The giant stone monster wasn’t the only one.
Skills. To enrage, to change the weather—and he had countless more he could not use because they only worked on people he commanded. To make them tough, to enhance a charge or defense…
The few he could use were the Skills of a [Grandmaster Strategist]. Level 65. Higher than the King of Destruction.
[Fear Me, Your Mortality]. Even Eater Goats realized their fragile existence and fled, rather than confront the terror-effect of the tiny Fraerling. Armies could break before the Skill and the right advance.
Goblins? Tougher stuff. Those caught in the radius of the aura just kept fighting. The adventurers too. Monsters didn’t master their emotions. People could, and whether that was stupidity or courage was up for debate.
Niers began to hop upwards as rainwater and lightning and water covered the lower valley. He wished he could have dragged the bag of holding with him, but even that would slow him too much.
He watched the results of his escape attempt coldly. If he had any sympathy, it was for the Garuda and her team. Even the Goblins he’d used to win his freedom.
Yet that was strategy. Sometimes, they were just pieces on the board.
Bevussa and her team could not fly in the rain. Perhaps they might have risked it with waterproofing spells, but the lightning would kill them dead. They fought on the ground, battling Goblins, monsters, trying to make for safety.
They took down a Gargoyle, eight Eater Goats, and were preparing for a charge on the Goblins. But this was not their element. They were fliers, meant for hit-and-run attacks! Heron’s Mark? Bevussa didn’t know.
“Where are we going?”
“Past the Goblins! Back to cover! Anywhere we can hide! Break their lines! Kin, stay behind Issa and m—”
Shapes marched down the hill. Huge ones. Bevussa whirled. Her shortsword came up. She tensed…then swore.
The two Drakes stared at her in dismay. The first Ogre looked like a damned [Knight]. Crude iron riveted together made the monster appear even more imposing. Worse—they came down in a squad, and two with shields were covering three holding those damned oversized crossbows. Bevussa looked around.
She heard a howl. Carn Wolves bounded down the slopes, flanking them on the other side. Bevussa realized they were dead. She and the two Oldblood Drakes stood back-to-back as crimson eyes flashed in the pouring rain, green skin illuminated by the lightning strikes.
The Goblins didn’t open fire, though. Slowly, one of them, holding a pair of enchanted swords, pointed down at the Gold-rank adventurers. He shouted something.
A boom of thunder hid his words. Bevussa shouted.
Another shout. Bevussa hesitated. The lightning—
The Goblin seemed to realize he wasn’t being heard. He tried again, bellowing, but the thunder drowned him out.
The other Goblins stared at Redscar as he folded his arms, glowering. He refused to try a fourth time and look like a bigger idiot.
It was the smaller Goblin riding with him that swung down. The Goblins lifted their bows and Bevussa tensed. Yet the little Goblin, ignoring rain and thunder, pointed down at them. She drew her own sword—held it out, horizontally—and dropped it.
Bevussa saw the blade fall. She hesitated. She stared at the Goblins. A flicker of thought ran through her head.
Numbtongue and the inn.
“Wings of Pallass?”
“Drop your blades.”
Bevussa tossed her shortsword down. Kin and Issa hesitated, and then copied her. They put up their arms as Rags nodded. She swung her head left and right.
“Grab the adventurers. Get back to Goblinhome. No more deaths!”
She snapped at the wounded Sharpstick. The Goblin lowered his head. Rags searched the dark High Passes, but she had no idea what had caused this—this mess. Goblins dead, monsters still fighting…she cursed as she saw more magic light in the distance.
“More Gold-ranks. They see us. Fight or go?”
Redscar grumbled. Rags sighed.
She turned and the Goblins pulled back. With three prisoners.
Niers kept climbing. He knew the other Gold-ranks were out there. Somehow, Heron’s Mark had survived. It looked like three Gold-rank teams down there, and even the Goblins were loath to bring it to a straight battle.
The bad weather was already clearing. The battle was ‘done’. Eater Goats had eaten or fled his Skill, and the Gargoyles had beaten a retreat as [Mages] began blasting them away.
Heron’s Mark crowded around Nomen’s body. He heard their raised voices. Niers was hopping up the mountain. He had somewhere to be. He listened.
Was that an actual oath of vengeance upon him? Niers narrowed his eyes at the screaming [Ranger] shaking her tiny fist at the sky. She looked as small as he seemed to them at this height.
He was not in a good mood. The Titan pointed back down at the [Ranger].
“You hold a grudge? You hold a grudge? [Highlight Target].”
The half-Elf began to glow. All the other adventurers recoiled. The Goblins, monsters—everything turned and saw the Skill-marked [Ranger]. A second battle began as a colony of giant centipedes—actually giant, three feet wide and a lot longer—poured out of a cave.
The Titan kept climbing.
Three days later, the Titan finally sat down. It felt like the first time he’d sat down in three days. His guest looked uncomprehendingly at him as the Titan motioned her into the chamber.
A home, really. Not the kind he was used to, but a home nonetheless.
“I know you don’t really understand me. I know you were just—living your life. A hardworking mother. You find food, you eat it. That’s how it happens. Well, you chose the wrong meal. It took me a while to find you. However, I’m the Titan. You really can’t tell how dangerous I am, can you?”
An uncertain squawk of sound was his answer. Silence.
Blood in the air. Niers sat down, cleaning his blade. He spoke, conversationally.
“I am not a nice man. I do whatever it takes to win if I have to. Not often. However, this isn’t about victory. You took my leg. See?”
He gestured to the stump below his right knee. He’d whittled a crutch out, but he’d had to leapfrog with his good Boot of the Grasshopper. If he hadn’t known exactly where he was going, it would have taken him months. But the avian nest, no matter how high…he’d had a lot of energy for this.
Broken eggs. Dead little birds. The Razorbeak was making a sound. Did it feel grief? The nest of ferocious little monsters had fought him.
The Titan hadn’t cared. He gestured at the Razorbeak, who still bore her wounds—a missing foot, cuts along her belly and mouth. She had yet to use a potion. He gently nudged the six carved pieces of wood he’d had to drag up the mountain to this spot.
“You don’t understand. I have so many enemies—had—and you’re the one who takes an actual limb. Well, that’s appropriate. Hubris from me. And what do you feel, now?”
The Razorbeak screamed. Niers hadn’t expected a dialogue. The bird hobbled into her destroyed nest, shrieking, mouth opened wide. She would kill him, even if he sliced her open.
…Of course, that was what he was waiting for. The Titan pointed. No bravado, no hand-to-hand.
“[Battlefield: Deploy Traps].”
It was a Skill for an entire battlefield. He had never thought to use it like this. Yet it worked.
The six primitive spike traps were nothing fancy. Just bent wood, a tip of sharpened stone, ready to snap and hit a target. The Razorbeak charged into them.
Crack. Niers got up. He stayed out of range of the flapping wings, the thrashing claw and mouth. He cut—carefully working his way around the strike zone. The Razorbeak lunged at the end—he finally beheaded her.
Niers Astoragon exhaled. He sat back down. Stared at his missing leg.
He didn’t feel better. You didn’t, after exacting vengeance. But he’d wanted this.
For more reasons than simple bloodshed. Niers walked over to the thing’s stomach. If he was very, very lucky…he’d poked around in the piles of crap. He disemboweled the Razorbeak, wrinkling his nose as he went through the digestive tract. But there—
“Damn it. Aha.”
He sighed and fished out his enchanted boot. There was no way he could use it with a stump of a leg of course, but it was worth a lot of money.
Not enough to justify the entire journey up here. However, he had a second reason. Niers removed one of the wooden traps, coughed.
“This place is going to be swarming with insects in an hour. Better work fast.”
He did. About three wooden traps were dismantled, and he harvested what he needed from the adult Razorbeak. He carried the bloody mess away, tying it to a carry-bag around his waist. It slowed him down, but he was very, very strong even without his Ring of Minotaur’s Strength.
He didn’t need to go far, for that matter. Niers sat in his base camp, chasing away tiny bugs attracted to the blood as he worked. He took his time on this one; he hurried, but he refused to be rushed.
Two more days later, Niers Astoragon was ready. Two test-runs had resulted in success. Moreover, he knew it would work. He was just uncertain if he’d managed to copy the designs properly.
“Well, it’s not like I’ll die.”
Grunting, Niers executed phase-two of his plan. First? Vengeance and his boot. Second?
The miniature glider was just pieces of sinew, the Razorbeak’s wings, and bits of wood. He was afraid it would snap in the air, or he wouldn’t control it properly. He was ready to try controlling the weather, although he could only make it nasty.
The wind was strong high up in the High Passes. It blew him eight hundred feet into a cliff the first time. Thereafter, Niers kept low, flying just a few feet over the terrain.
Down, across the High Passes. It took him six more days of flying, carrying the glider, and resting to reach the Floodplains.
This time, however, Niers used his Skills. He encountered trouble only once.
Niers was sitting around a fire in the tiny cave at night on the fifth day. He was nearly at the Floodplains and thinking about what to do next.
Liscor was his destination. He knew he was unkempt, a mess. He was tired. The fire had gone out. Not the one in front of him, but the one in his heart, the childish enjoyment of this…game, this little adventure he could boast about.
What sat in the cave now was the [Strategist] of Baleros, who had chased away monsters and cleared his path with his Skills. He glanced up as he heard the crunch outside his cave.
Something big. He readied the bow he’d remade for hunting. Dinner had been a cave mouse; the animals were getting less dangerous and actual commonplace creatures were more common the further down he went.
[Archers: Triplicate Volley], had brought down the mouse. Another irony. A Skill for an entire battalion let him shoot three arrows. He cautiously drew back on the bow, ready to activate his terror-Skill if need be. His [Foe Sensor] began flickering through possible targets…
“Hello? It’s me. Bevussa.”
Niers started. He saw the bird-like leg, the feathers, as someone appeared outside his cave. He thought all the adventurers were dead. He remembered her, of course, but her ghost had not troubled him. He didn’t remember the people he killed. Not anymore.
He recalled her name. The Garuda stooped. It was her, alright. She had lost her armor, and she looked…forlorn.
“I am very sorry. I would like to m-make amends. Hello?”
She stood outside his cave. Niers eyed her from his position too far for anyone to grab him, half-blocked by a stone. He grunted, lowered his bow, and drew his sword.
“Get lost. Learn better elocution if you want to trick someone.”
Niers snapped at whatever was standing outside. The Garuda stepped back. She regarded him, blinking.
Naked. The voice was right. The appearance? Probably spot on. Niers met the thing’s gaze.
“I’m not in the mood for this.”
‘Bevussa’ rocked on her feet. She opened her mouth—far too wide—the beak stretching unnaturally. Then seemed to reconsider.
She backed away from Niers, tottered down the slope the way she’d come. He heard her voice in the distance, speaking nonsense.
“Goodbye. I am Bevussa. Hello. Hello…”
Niers didn’t untense for a long time. Damn. Higher-level monsters. That was bad, too. It was almost complete if it could do voices.
However, even if Foliana was here, he’d have not gone after it. Niers edged to the opening of his cave. He hesitated.
“If you’re after it, be my guest. Otherwise—piss off. I told you, I’m not in the mood for this.”
He snapped. His eyes locked on something in the distance, along the cliffs. Too far for him to see with his eyes. But his Skill…
Silence. The babble of the monster below was fading away. Nothing else moved in the dark world beyond of the High Passes.
Niers waited, sword drawn. Something…regarded him. Somethings. They seemed to reach a conclusion. Well, why not?
He saw the flicker and dove. The first ‘arrow’—or maybe it was thrown?—hit the mouth of his cave. Three more followed.
Spitting out dust, Niers raised his head. Smart. They thought he couldn’t do much more than call a monster down on them or change the weather. He barked.
“[Superior Counter Fire].”
Five projectiles arced back the way they’d come. Niers heard the distant thuds of impact. He poked his head out of the cave.
A body crashed down the cliff. Niers sensed the other four shapes milling about—moved back. He grunted, pulled back into the cave. He kept one eye open as he rested, but nothing else disturbed him that night.
When he went to find the body the next day, it was gone. Niers looked up towards the higher reaches of the mountaintops, but he let it go.
He reached the Floodplains on the seventh day. Three weeks since he had entered the High Passes, Niers reached the inn on the hill outside the city of Liscor.
He’d had to walk the Floodplains. Niers had gotten rid of the grisly glider after reaching the grasslands, hills and valleys which were relatively safe.
It wasn’t as if he could have flown to Liscor with the terrain-following strategy. Go too high and he was at risk of being blown far, far away. Besides, he took the time to think.
He’d debated going for his bag of holding, but the Cherinion Swords had it if they had half a brain. Now he was finally close to civilization, Niers had to be careful.
The Shield Spider nests were his big danger in the grassy terrain. Niers kept his [Foe Sensor] online, though, and only had to kill three on his entire hike, avoiding nests with ease.
The issue was that now, he was in more danger than the High Passes in a sense. The High Passes…he should have used his Skills.
He stared at the stump of a leg. He’d tried making a peg-leg, but he wasn’t able to properly get it to grip his stump. For now, he used the crutch and his jumping boots to move about.
If he had both legs, he’d have been able to steal a [Message] scroll far more easily. One mistake was all it would take. Someone stepped on him, slammed a door, and he’d be paste or break every bone in his body.
Or if they see me, the Iron Vanguard and everyone who wants me, even third parties, will flood the area with adventurers. And then I’m captured and I could have just let those Gold-ranks take me back a week and a half ago.
Niers had to find a trustworthy ally, or get a [Message] scroll to his company. He felt like the two goals were intertwined with the first, the only reason he had come here.
His opponent. No—
No point denying who he thought it was. Far too long of hiding the truth from himself. Far, far too long…
The inn was so close, now. Niers walked towards it, climbing the hill, staring at it for the last day. He actually camped a hundred feet away from it, in a hollow in the dirt.
He was a mess. Dirty, disheveled, his enchanted armor torn in two places, the remnants of dirt and blood and…Niers was not the dashing Titan he’d dreamed of being, making an appearance.
Niers just wanted to meet her. He just wanted…wanted, so desperately for it to be true. For Erin Solstice to be the genius who had bested him, who was a better chess player. For…a peer.
Part of him felt, knew, that it was like Lord Belchaus all over again. He’d done this stupid dance all his life, his sure-footed guidance on the battlefield turning into a stumbling joke when it came to anything else.
He was born for the battlefield. This? Niers didn’t sleep that night, really. He woke, tried to clean his armor and clothing with a bit of grass. He gave up, wishing for rain. He nearly called it out of the skies, but a fine welcome that would be, with hail or lightning pouring down. Besides, any [Weather Mage] would notice the Skill.
So the Titan just…walked up the hill. It took him nearly an hour, as he searched the inn for anything. He saw a tower with a figure in it, smoke rising from one of the three chimneys. Not much light or sound coming from the inn.
Not many guests. But some began hurrying from the City of Liscor as Niers watched. A Drake, a few Gnolls…and he heard voices from the door of the inn.
Magical door, of course.
His heart was beating so fast. The Titan limped up the slope around back. He hopped, then, impatient, covering far more ground. Hop, hop—towards one of the windows. Niers investigated them. There were always…yes! One was open a crack. He heard voices, but hopped up to the window, levered it a bit open, and slipped inside.
The Wandering Inn.
The Fraerling’s pulse raced. The old [Strategist] halted, hand on a pane of glass, panting. He had arrived. He…
…Looked around the empty common room. The clean tables, but so vacant. A massive room, long and wide, but longer than the inn should be physically. A…Skill. An empty platform on the far end.
A dark kitchen. Stairs leading up, doors leading elsewhere. Carefully cut floorboards, a bit worn in, but wonderfully-made, secure, glass windows. One of the two fireplaces in this large room was lit, but only glowing embers remained, warming the vast chamber not at all.
Boxes with bright little flowers in them, red, violets, native to the Floodplains.
Niers Astoragon sat down. The inn was empty. Was this…all a trick? Had something happened? He bowed his head.
In the darkness, light pierced the gloom of the inn. Niers’ head snapped up. He saw a…door open across from him.
A door that had not been there a moment ago. Bright, beautiful daylight shone from within. A meadow of grass and beautiful flowers, even glowing Sage’s Grass beyond. A pond, a hill shrouded in mist…
The Titan of Baleros stared as someone appeared in the doorway. He saw…a somber Centaur push open the door. A [Mage], wearing a colorful kilt. He turned, clattering around quietly with his hooves, and offered someone a hand.
A dark-skinned Human woman with an apron stepped through. She took his hand and held it tightly. They moved back. Someone else stepped through.
An…Niers’ eyes widened. He almost recoiled from the image he had only seen in illustrations, by magic, from afar. An ant-like head, a beetle’s armored body, complete with a thick shell on the back.
Antinium. A Worker-type. His four arms were clasped, two in an odd gesture, fingers interlaced. The other two held a censer, the scent of cinnamon coming from it. His head was bowed.
Behind him, another Antinium, but far larger, upright, compared to the hunched Worker. Bits of yellow covering his armored carapace. A Soldier. He turned.
“…Will it fit?”
“I think so.”
“Must we do it in the common room? What if we—we hurt her?”
Someone called out anxiously. A Drake hurried through, her green scales and dress the most normal thing here. A civilian, addressing the others anxiously, tail curled up.
Muffled voices. A Human [Mage] came next, shaking her head. Her hair was a bright orange, the sign of royalty. She turned back.
“The Garden’s got all kind of protective spells on the hilltop. We don’t want anything interfering with the potion. Let’s—we can push together some tables.”
Her voice wobbled. Niers Astoragon saw more people coming through, out of the garden. His eyes widened.
He saw a Goblin [Shaman], magical paint drawn on her skin, ushering a little white Gnoll clutching at the Drake in the dress, looking uncertain and worried.
A Hobgoblin, crimson eyes burning, a…guitar?…slung on his back, sword at his side, walking in after an older Dwarf, whose gnarled hands were clenched.
A blue-scaled Drake that Niers recognized, taking a position next to the Antinium.
More and more. Many species, all of whom stood in silence, waiting for something to be borne onto the four long tables they had connected. Niers saw a group of Drakes march forwards, one of the last to appear.
Out of the doorway, not this…garden. There were eight; four of them garbed head-to-toe in powerful, enchanted armor, without gap or weakness. They stared at the Goblins and Antinium, hands on their weapons.
The Drake they escorted held a little bottle in his claws, and he wore official clothing. Niers recognized the insignia of Salazsar’s crest on the rich clothing.
“Is the…Human ready?”
He asked the crowd. Niers saw many look at each other. At last, a Gnoll wearing a server’s uniform pointed.
“They are bringing her, sir.”
Her. Every head turned. Niers watched, bewildered.
Yet now, a dread had come upon him. Instinct, the instinct of someone who had seen…scenes similar to this, intuited from the mood, the way they talked, understanding the moment, the circumstances that had led to this silent inn.
He knew, but he waited.
The last of them joined the silent gathering, forming two lines towards the table. Young man, young woman, both Human. A…Human…girl with hood drawn over her head, skin palest of all here, almost as pale as the Selphid standing next to the Drowned Man and half-Giant.
The Selphid held the arm of a massive Dullahan, who had taken off his head and held it in the crook of his arm. His armor was brilliant, a silvery-white, beautifully forged. His face was somber.
Yet…longing. All of theirs were. The half-Giant stooped, leaning on his staff, looking ragged. A Drowned Man and another Selphid wearing a Gnoll’s body stood next to him.
So many. They would not have noticed the Fraerling, crouching behind the window planter, even if they had looked around. Their eyes were locked on what was coming.
Niers Astoragon had been looking amongst them for her. The person he had come to meet. The object of his obsessions.
The [Innkeeper]. Erin Solstice. He would have spotted her in a moment, yet she was not here. When she did arrive, he realized everything.
That he had come too late. A month too late. That his foolish wait and silly games had cost more than just him.
The Titan had arrived just in time to see them attempt to revive Erin Solstice.
The last procession marched in with her on the frozen bier. They did not hold her; rather, they ‘carried’ the frozen body between them, hovering in the air. Each of the four [Mages] was ready to move, to catch her, however. They were so delicate, so careful. So…
Bezale was first, the Minotauress’ decorated horns flashing as she bent to step through. Her robes at odds with her well-built form, fitting of a [Warrior].
The Centaur was next. He had gone to join the bearers. He trotted in, bereft of his usual cigar or any other treat, though the smell hung around him. His skin glistening with sweat, not from the strain of magic, but stress.
Third? A balding man, older than the other two [Mages], holding a grey wand. His hair tinged a more ordinary orange. The [Enchanter], Hedault, had his eyes locked on the object he followed.
The bier. Cold frost rising from the person lying on it. Someone had folded her arms around the five broken shafts in her chest. Her clothing was frozen, her lips still parted in a smile.
Niers looked at Erin Solstice as the last bearer closed the door behind him. The huge Drake, almost disturbingly muscled, held a wand carefully in his claws. Magus Grimalkin’s face was not exactly blank. Just—concentrating.
They were all watching. The Drakes from Salazsar stirred. The one with the bottle looked at Erin Solstice and the object he held, uncertainly.
A little undead beaver clambered up onto another window, eyes rising just high enough to peek into the inn. It missed Niers, but the two little figures observed the ritual. The…
“I hold the Potion of Regeneration, brought by Wall Lord Ilvriss of House Gemscale of Salazsar. By his great effort, he has obtained this relic and instructed me to use it in the revival of one Erin Solstice. If it is possible.”
Potion of Regeneration. Niers started. He stared at the bottle. He realized…
“She has been poisoned. Will that affect the—healing? I have a Skill that could help. But it does not work. Not on Erin.”
The Antinium with the clasped hands, Pawn, spoke, haltingly. The Drakes turned to him. The Rubirel Guard stared at their Antinium foe. The Drake hesitated.
“Answer the question.”
Grimalkin spoke, briefly. The Drake representative nodded at him.
“A Potion of Regeneration should not be halted by poison. We have made inquiries from the family it was purchased from, and it is a Kemel-type potion, rated about Orichalcum-quality…by the standards of that era.”
“Alchemist Kemel? To my knowledge he would have a potion surpassing mundane potions. I would like confirmation. Miss Octavia?”
Some of the others knew the name. The [Enchanter] turned to the [Alchemist] Stitch-Girl, her dreadlocks half-unbraided, staring with wide eyes at the potion. And Erin. She spoke, her voice uncertain.
“I—I think so. Alchemist Kemel used his Potions of Regeneration—I mean, made them—during the Creler Wars, to save lives before the mass-antidote to their poison was developed. So…it should work for Hectval’s poison.”
Hectval? Yet Niers wasn’t…thinking. He, like them all, was an observer.
“Very well. In that case, I would like to make the attempt. How…shall I perform it?”
“I can pour the potion.”
Palt offered. The Drake refused.
“I must not relinquish this potion to anyone, [Mage]. I am a [Safeguard Representative]; it shall not be stolen or suborned from my possession. Rest assured, I can apply a dosage.”
“Not all of it?”
The answer came from the blue-scaled Drake. Strategist Olesm.
“No. It might not work.”
The air grew thicker still. At last, Grimalkin, the [Sinew Magus], spoke in a deep, authoritative voice.
“We will create an opening to test this potion, Representative Melis. The wounds are centered around Miss Solstice’s chest. Thus, I, Enchanter Hedault, and Mage Montressa will carefully warm the afflicted region to normal. Then, you will apply the potion. Only a few drops. Three. If they do not start to affect her, we will freeze Erin Solstice once more. Is that all acceptable?”
No one responded. The Antinium group bowed their heads. One began to whisper a prayer. The little Gnoll clung to the claws of the Drake in the dress and the [Shaman]. She was trembling.
Mrsha was not the only one. Everyone watched as the three most skillful [Mages] crowded around. They murmured—the others watched. Helpless, intent, trying to see the flow of magic…praying…
Niers Astoragon just sat there.
I came too late. I could have come months ago, when I knew. I could have stopped this. I…
What have I been doing?
His head bowed. He stared at his stump of a leg, then the potion. It was terrible, but he wanted it. Yet—he waited. They all did, as the three [Mages] cast warming spells, carefully, carefully adjusting the temperature, warming just one region of the young woman. Quickly, but not too fast to harm, or so they hoped.
The crowd watched as the Drake stepped forwards and opened the bottle. He had to murmur the release spell. The gilded bottle unsealed with a magical lock that Niers recognized. A true relic of another era. When the bottle opened—he smelled a rich, almost velvet fragrance in the air.
He felt a bleeding gum, torn by weeks without proper care, eating raw or ragged food…begin to close. The air came alive with potential, with healing.
The air itself hummed as the Drake, with exquisite care, tipped the flask. Three drops emerged.
The air flashed. Half the room had to look away or were blinded by the glowing drops of magic. The [Strategist] with the eye patch didn’t even blink.
Three drops landed on the bloody wound. The frozen flesh. So much magic, so much healing…
Of course it did. The [Necromancer] had known. Yet for those present, for Niers, the wait was too long. Each second of the minute they counted down an hour, a year.
Two minutes they waited. Then—the [Enchanter] looked up. He stared at Grimalkin, yet even the [Sinew Magus] had let the minute stretch into two. Hedault spoke.
“Two minutes and three seconds have elapsed. Magus Grimalkin. Magus Grimalkin.”
Slowly, the Drake looked up. He blinked—then moved. He looked at the three drops dribbling down the frozen flesh, onto the table. His head bowed.
“The potion does not work on Erin Solstice without further measures. Magus Montressa. Prepare your freezing spells with me. On three. One…two…”
Niers watched frost recover the young woman’s chest. He heard the sobbing begin. Not from all. Some just stood there, shocked, hope rekindled—lost. The inn seemed twice as dark. Twice as desolate.
“We—must bring her back.”
“It didn’t work? But you said. You said…”
A choked voice from one of them. One of the Workers had sunk to his knees. Pawn, praying. Another person whirled. The Dwarf stomped out of the inn, without looking back.
Another person made an incoherent sound, Moore blundered for the door. Jelaqua reached for him. Others were weeping. An Antinium with a bow sat down and curled up, rocking back and forth.
“Waah. Waaah. Waaah…”
Crying, though he could not shed tears. The Goblin with the guitar followed the frozen young woman. Many did.
Selys’ eyes were overflowing. She hugged the Gnoll. Mrsha was just staring at the table. They had said. They had…
The guests scattered. The undead beaver turned to dust. Many fled the inn, those not seeing to Erin, as if the hell of Rhir itself had manifested in this place. Broken, lost…
Something else. Something greater. The Drake representative spoke with Chaldion of Pallass, Grimalkin when he returned. He shook hands, talked with Selys, Ishkr, exchanging contact information, turned to the guards, and left the inn, head bowed.
Hope was lost again.
Yet. Somewhere else, here and not here, the [Innkeeper] woke up. And the small [Strategist], who had put his head in his hands, saw something glittering on the floor.
Three drops of precious liquid, drying in the air.
The attempt to save Erin Solstice had ended, with absolutely no gain or consequence whatsoever. Just pain, and nothing…
In the silent inn, a tiny man leapt to the floor, he ran, using the crutch, hopping, his ragged armor and cloak flapping behind him. Running for the glittering spot, seeping into the floorboard.
He flung himself down. There was only a bit of liquid left. Yet Niers—he fumbled for his sword.
“Please work. It has to—”
He drew the shortsword, slashed across the base of his healed flesh. The cut hurt, yet in the next second he was splashing the Potion of Regeneration on the wound. For a second, he only felt bloody pain. His sword was so sharp he barely felt it. Then—
Agony. Niers cried out, convulsing. He fell back as flesh began to grow from the stump. Bone! His body recreating itself, shedding hair, skin particles, dirt—he was laughing, sobbing.
Mrsha was crying. She had hid rather than see Erin put back. She was sobbing into her paws, curled up in the inn. She only looked up, briefly, when she heard the faint sound.
Something was crouched over the place where Erin had been. The potion. She saw a filthy, grey-furred-thing, smaller than some of the rats, over there. She looked at it. Mrsha was too sad to kill the rat. She buried her head in her fur.
Niers Astoragon stared at his leg. He put it down, against a floorboard, and almost screamed. His skin hurt! No—wait. It was the sensation.
He had the nerves of a newborn. Like a broken arm in a cast, each touch was electric, nerves hypersensitive after so long. Yet the pain, the sensation was so good he felt tears in his eyes.
His leg was back! Not—the same. His armor was gone, obviously. As well—his toenails were long. Curled up! And he had hair longer than that on his scalp coming from his leg!
The Potion of Regeneration. He’d trim it later. Right now—Niers ran, diving for the basement, as the first people came back. He fled down into the darkness, next to a sack of something and lay there. Panting.
“I was too late.”
That was all he said. Then his head lolled back. He let despair, bittersweet relief, exhaustion, overtake him.
The next day, Niers Astoragon woke up to the sound and sensation of himself retching. He climbed out of his hiding spot on all fours and began throwing up. He dragged himself through his puke, lay there, and then curled up.
His body was burning. What—what–? Aftereffects of the Potion of Regeneration?
No. This feels like—
“Poison! Dead gods damn it—”
Niers spotted the paste he’d run through too late. It had gotten on his bare foot, maybe parts of his clothing. He tried to crawl away—then began throwing up again.
After finding the Children of the Grain Sack in her inn’s basement, Erin Solstice had begun laying down poison against insects and other pests like any sensible person did. She used the most economical ingredients; Octavia had been happy to mash up some of the seed cores from blue fruit with some other toxins.
It was a contact-poison. Rock Crabs had no way of dealing with poison, hence their extreme aversion to the stuff that would build up in their systems.
Bugs, likewise, died fast if they nibbled the little paste placed in corners of the basement and some areas. By contrast, Humans or larger species wouldn’t get more than food-poisoning if they didn’t wash their hands.
Rats, and mammals like Niers, could survive by expelling the poison. The Fraerling survived.
Barely. He remembered climbing into a sack of something, eating—expelling from every orifice, realizing he had to have water. Fortunately, he’d improvised crude water flasks long ago and drained them, praying it was enough.
He wasn’t sure how long he lay, shivering, burning, covered in sweat, as his body tried to detoxify itself. It could have been a day or longer. All he knew was that when he woke up, caked in filth and barley—he was in a sack of barley—something was sniffing around him. A large something.
Mrsha stared at the bit of poison next to the carefully sealed sack. One did not get into the other, obviously, but something had been here. Not a rat, or she thought she would have found the corpse.
Yet, had it gone into the sack? She eyed it, wondering if it was a Shield Spider or something icky. She definitely smelled some poo-yuck in the air. And if there was a dead something in the sack, possibly with Octavia’s poison in it, Imani would want to throw it out.
Mrsha concentrated on this, rather than the sadness of everything. Two days had passed since the…failure. Selys, Ulvama, and the others had kept Mrsha from wallowing. Ulvama the most effectively, it had to be said. Sensing Mrsha’s grief and knowing she didn’t need to be ‘happily cheered up’ all the time like the other fools, she had promptly smacked Mrsha on the head and let the Gnoll fight her.
Enough for Ulvama to need a potion afterwards. Mrsha had started crying and apologized. Well, two days since that.
Hunting rats was all she could do. Mrsha stared at the grain sack. Slowly, she noted the undone drawstrings.
Yup, yup. Imani would definitely want Mrsha to get rid of this. Plus, get rid of the entire barley sack. She always made sure her food ingredients weren’t contaminated. Mrsha opened the sack.
Little, brown seeds stared up at her. Pearl barley, a lot of it that some stupid rodent had decided to foul up! Mrsha glowered. This was good food! Now it all had to go since the rat had pooed in it and dragged the poison with it without having the decency to die somewhere else.
She smacked the top of the barley, hoping it would scare the creature out. Mrsha had less ethics about the slaughter of rats. They were not, as Numbtongue had pointed out, analogous to Goblins. They were rats. They got into things and they deserved to die.
Not suffer. No, not suffer. That was cruelty. But Mrsha would put the rat out of its misery or just toss it out of the inn. Nalthaliarstrelous had taught her that. Sometimes even [Druids] had to curb bad populations like the Shield Spiders. Kindness, though. Only do what was necessary.
Mrsha the Merciful Rat Slayer waited, and saw some of the grain shift.
Aha, you are in there. She sighed. Well—Mrsha’s paw darted into the barley and she grabbed, fishing around. No? No—there! Got you, you stupid—
Niers ran his shortsword through the paw. He snarled and the paw jerked back. A wailing sound came from above him and whatever the hell it was ran off, making a distressed sound.
Bloody, cursing, he lay there, then extracted himself from the barley sack.
“Damned dogs! What the hell—the hell—”
Snarling, savage, half-dead from poison, the Fraerling hopped up the stairs. Like a feral thing, he stumbled across the inn, sword still bloody, ready to kill anything in his way. Kitchen…he needed water. He needed—
Drops of blood led away from him. Niers reached the kitchen, found some of the water, some food in a cupboard and lived. Only later did he realize he’d stabbed a child.
Mrsha ran on two legs, sobbing, holding her paw out. Ulvama sighed and rolled over when she saw Mrsha burst into her room. It was early morning.
“Go away, crying little baby-Mrsha.”
She muttered. But the Gnoll’s voice was plaintive. She couldn’t speak, yet—Ulvama smelled blood and looked up sharply.
“Hurt paw? Get potion of healing, stupid!”
She snapped. Mrsha pointed. She’d tried! But the hole in her paw hadn’t closed! The mouse had bit through her paw somehow, and it wasn’t healing!
The [Shaman] sat up. She stared as Mrsha pleadingly held out the bottle, one of many emergency potions stashed around the inn. She dropped some liquid in and saw the same damn thing as the frozen Human.
“Huh. This poison?”
Mrsha shook her head. She didn’t think so. Ulvama sniffed. Neither did she. She scratched her head as Mrsha whined. That got on her nerves, so Ulvama found her staff, and bonked Mrsha on the head.
“Stop snivel. Pain goes away!”
Mrsha started crying more. She wanted niceness! Not—
She lowered her good paw from her bonked head. And stared at her bloody paw. The pain was gone! Ulvama snorted.
“Now—come with. Hurry! Hold paw so don’t bleed on floors. Gets lots of ants that way.”
She ushered Mrsha towards her work station. Octavia’s shop, rather. Ulvama saw the Gnoll obediently holding her paw tightly, but not feeling the pain. The [Shaman] investigated.
“Hmm. Strange. Super-rat? Super-magic rat with enchanted teeth? Why go through paw? What did it look like?”
Mrsha didn’t know! She danced on her feet, begging Ulvama to fix it and then ask questions! Even if it didn’t hurt now, she didn’t like holes in her paws!
To the [Shaman]’s puzzlement, it was like treating an…injury caused by an enchanted weapon. That was her analogy; a higher-grade magical wound that potions couldn’t just heal up.
“Not Evercut. You lucky. Bad poke, though. Can’t fix fast. Here. Hold still…”
She mixed up a blood-stopping poultice, then expertly-bound Mrsha’s paw. Crestfallen, the Gnoll stared at Ulvama. The [Shaman] pointed.
“Don’t walk on paw. You rest. Stay away from bad rat. Where?”
Mrsha showed her, toddling on two feet. But of course, the rat was gone and Mrsha’s blood was too strong for her to get a solid lock on the rat. Ulvama hmmed, frowning.
“Super-rats. Not Creler or little Gnoll loses entire limb. I put down little pest-traps. Okay? You rest paw.”
Mrsha nodded. She went and got Rose to cuddle her and play movies while exclaiming over her poor paw. But now it was personal. It was…war!
Niers Astoragon nearly walked into the first rune-trap. He backed off from it and swore.
“Do they have killer-rodents here or something? Dead fucking gods!”
He’d nearly died twice this morning. First that child…he felt guilty about it, but he’d acted on instinct, thinking it was a dog, reminded of the Razorbeak. The second time, he’d nearly died getting food.
Something was off with the cupboards in the kitchen. He hadn’t noticed the grain sack, but the cupboard door had shut while he was grabbing some weird triangle of food. The next thing Niers had known, he’d been squashed against half a dozen dishes, nearly compressed into nothing!
“Holding effect. Those damn—”
Shakily, Niers had extricated himself. It didn’t kill you unless there was no space. Rather, the ‘enhanced’ compartments just reverted back to normal when a living thing fully entered it. Hands were fine; he’d used a fork to grab another morsel of food. The grain sack hadn’t killed him because it was exactly as large as it needed to be, so when the effect ‘wore off’, nothing happened.
On the other hand, the cupboard had smashed all the food in it to pieces, pottery and a mush of food. Imani lost about twenty dishes, much to her displeasure.
“We’ve got mice!”
She informed Palt, snapping as she cleaned up the mess. The Centaur sighed.
“I know. Mrsha got bit by one, apparently.”
“Well? Can’t you get rid of them?”
“What? I’m not a [Rodent Bard]. I can lay down a few spells…”
“That would be helpful, Palt, my beautiful, gallant Centaur.”
She batted her eyes a few times at him, and then gave him a pointed look. The Centaur backed up.
“Er…why don’t I do just that?”
Niers was being hunted. It was like a game of…cat and mouse…in a labyrinth full of traps. Physical ones, that damned poison on the ground, and magical runes cunningly disguised.
All meant for rats, true, but they were nasty. The Centaur had laid down simple ones, like repulsion, ones that ensnared you with a bit of webbing, and so on.
The Goblin [Shaman] did not believe in non-lethal rodent spells. Niers had tossed a little pebble onto one and watched a miniature [Flame Strike] spell billow into the air, or the equivalent for him.
A few days had passed since his poisoning. He was recovering from that and his sojourn abroad, still.
The worst had come to pass. He had seen Erin Solstice. Now…he just wanted to go home. He had no idea if she could be cured, but if she could, it would only be with the Forgotten Wing Company’s resources.
Yet getting home was a bigger challenge if Erin Solstice wasn’t here for him to make contact with. He was trying to get ahold of one of the Minotauress’ [Message] scrolls to send a message back to Baleros.
Without revealing himself. Niers had considered it and disregarded the action immediately. He had been willing to trust Erin Solstice. Perhaps there were trustworthy individuals in the inn.
However, he knew Wistram when he saw it. And he trusted all three [Mages] as far as he could throw them. Moreover, even if they were all on a level, they’d be slaughtered by the [Bounty Hunters] and adventurers coming after his bounty. Assuming Niers was waiting here for extraction, this inn might see sieges like six Gold-rank teams joining to claim him.
Far more than the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings could survive. Niers had gotten a lay of the inn, by now, the occupants, such as they were. They were all fairly easy to avoid, with two exceptions.
The traps laid down—and that damned child.
She had a better nose than the other Gnolls in the inn by far. Niers had found soap and water and cleaned himself, and thus most of the Gnolls would never notice his small scent.
Yet Mrsha had a younger Gnoll’s nose, and she held a grudge. On her still-healing paw, she was tracking Niers every second she had free.
Evil mice! She hadn’t seen Niers, except with his cloak on. Twice, she’d spotted him and he’d managed to escape, mainly by finding a small space, then tossing some ground hot pepper spice into her face and running.
Niers had no desire to kill children. But that little Gnoll was persistent! Worse, she’d begun carrying around something in addition to her wand: a hammer. She wasn’t going to risk the ‘rat’ biting her again.
The ‘game’ of Fraerling-and-Gnoll ended in a surprise draw. Mrsha was tracking the mouse again, after her shopping trip with Ulvama in the city that had been so boring. She had her little hammer she’d ‘borrowed’ from Kevin’s room ready. Ready for the smack!
She was sure she was hot on the heels of the evil mouse. Mrsha crept forwards. Sniffing…sniffing…then she scented something sharp in the air. Iron…
Blood. She halted. She was heading down the second-floor hallway. She saw a yawning adult pass by. Mrsha waved at Bezale as she and Montressa went out, working on that blood bank thing.
The Minotauress muttered, eying Mrsha and the hammer. But she made no comment. Non-Minotaur children were strange. She strode after Montressa. Mrsha sniffed around.
Yes, just ahead…she hesitated as she came to a closed door. This was Bezale’s room? She hesitated, looked over her shoulder. Well—the Minotauress wouldn’t mind. Mrsha was on a mission from Mrsha! She pushed open the door and found her quarry.
At first, Mrsha thought she’d gotten it wrong. She looked into the room, but felt like the trail ‘ended’ at the door. It was only when she was leaving when she found…him.
A tiny little man lay against a wall, bleeding. He had a cloak of fur and stuff that might look like a rat at first glance. Ragged armor, a sheathed sword at his side. He had what had been a salt-and-pepper beard and trimmed hair, now gone wild after days in the wilderness.
Indeed, he looked closer to a true savage than any Plains Gnoll. Desperate, surviving without any help or friends. But that was not the shocking thing.
The shocking thing was the blood. His left arm was twisted up, bone peeking through flesh. And one leg looked bad too. Mrsha stared.
Niers had gotten into Bezale’s room. But he’d been too slow. The Minotauress had, in opening the door, caught him. Slammed him right into the wall with the careless force of…a tall person.
Niers didn’t know if he was saying it. He was trying to move. He sensed the Gnoll staring down at him. He wanted to draw his sword. He wasn’t thinking. Just—kill or be killed! He slashed with his good arm. Blacked out—like this? Not even a Razorbeak? A door? A d—
Niers woke up with a gasp. He felt something soft, smothering, retreat quickly. He felt a cool liquid, a familiar sensation.
Healing potion. He grabbed for his sword by reflex. The little paw retreated. Niers looked around.
Mrsha stared down at Niers gravely. The little Fraerling was in her and Lyonette’s room, lying on the cloth and healing supplies she’d grabbed. She was trying to gently dab his bloody body with some healing potion daubed onto a bit of cotton. Niers regained consciousness, looked at her.
The little Gnoll retreated a step, but her eyes were locked on the tiny man. Fascinated. He stared at his leg—it hadn’t been broken or dislocated, but the skin had been torn. Healing. His arm—
Mrsha slowly tipped more of the half-empty potion bottle down. Liquid pooled and she pressed the bloody cotton ball into it. She reached out to touch his arm.
His voice was ragged with pain. Mrsha jerked back. Niers grabbed at his arm. He modulated his tone. The sudden shock of being…rescued faded. He spoke, gritting his teeth.
“Not like that. My arm’s broken. It needs to be set. You’ll heal it wrong.”
She nodded wide-eyed. Mrsha hesitated, scampered for the door. Ulvama!
“Stop. Don’t—don’t tell anyone. I just need—”
Niers was feeling at the bone. He’d set countless bones for healing in his time. He gritted his teeth.
“You see—the bone? I just need to push it in. Here. Just—”
He saw Mrsha come back over. Niers, gasping, looked around.
“That—that. Put that right here. I need a solid surface.”
She slowly edged the potion bottle over. He put his arm against it. Just—apply—
He blacked out for a second with the pain. His bones moved and Mrsha flinched. The tiny little man made a sound, but he was moving his broken arm into place.
“I need a drop of potion. A tiny bit. One bit at a time.”
He panted at her. Mrsha looked around, and then desperately ran downstairs. She came back up with a spoon and put some potion into it. Niers splashed his arm as he set the bone. It looked right—felt right—
He was sweating when it was done. His arm? He could flex his hand. But the potion wasn’t highest-grade.
“I need a sling. Cloth. A stick.”
The girl ran to get him what he asked for. She watched as he made a sling for himself, bracing his arm so it wouldn’t move. He cut it with his sword—her eyes focused on that—and slung it around his neck.
That done, Niers Astoragon sat back. Sweating with pain. His face was pale, but he was alive. Dead gods. He’d nearly died when that clod-footed Minotaur had slammed the door into him when remembering she’d forgotten her damned bag of holding!
Fraerlings died in stupid ways like that. Run over, stepped on—
“I hate doors. I hate doors so damn much.”
He panted. A big, furry head of white fur nodded gravely. Mrsha too had suffered the slings and arrows of someone opening a door on your face. Niers looked up at her.
For the first time, Fraerling and Gnoll met each other’s eyes. All the animosity of hunter and hunted turned into…puzzlement. Niers looked at the girl, who had rescued the not-mouse the instant she had seen him. Mrsha, for her part, was astounded.
They had tiny people infesting the inn! Imani was going to be so mad about this.
He panted at her. She nodded again. Mrsha saw his face contort in confusion. Reminded, she felt at her belt for her handy-dandy—
Aha! She pulled out the quill, a bit of parchment, and wrote.
“You’re very welcome, sir. I am sorry you got hurt. My name is Mrsha, it is very nice to meet you.”
Niers read it aloud. A polite little greeting from Mrsha, courtesy of Lyonette’s tutelage. He blinked at her.
White fur. Gnoll. Already interesting. Can’t speak? He nodded, slowly.
“Thank you. Mrsha? My name…is Niers Astoragon. Do you—know who I am?”
Eyes went wide. A mouth opened so wide, Niers could have hopped in. Mrsha began to write. This time she had only one word.
Eyes as round as could be. The Gnoll stared down at Niers. She had seen him on the scrying orb! But he looked bigger then! Niers coughed.
His mind was moving fast and slow. Sluggish from pain and healing. He nodded.
“That’s right. I’m…far from home. I got into trouble. Dangerous people are after me, understand? Please—don’t tell anyone I’m here. Understand? Not one person.”
He looked at her, trying to convince her of the seriousness of this.
“Many, many dangerous people would do anything to reach me. For everyone’s safety. You understand?”
She nodded, slowly. Mrsha the Super Secretive stared at the Titan of Baleros, whose name was almost as cool as hers. A living legend. The Fraerling smiled.
“Just give me a second to rest—I’ve had a bad week.”
Then his head lolled back. He passed out. Mrsha looked around. She slowly picked him up and looked around. Wh-what was she supposed to do?
Mrsha the Adventurer was one thing, but this was big. Did she tell someone? But he just said not to! She hesitated. He couldn’t stay here. What if Ulvama sat on him with her giant green butt? Then the Titan of Baleros would be dead and it would be all Mrsha’s fault!
There was only one conclusion. She scampered into the [Garden of Sanctuary] and flagged Apista down. The bee was buzzing across the top of the dome.
This is no time for games, Apista! We’re in serious poo! Maximum poo! Look!
Mrsha tried to convey this as best as she could. The bee buzzed around Niers, who was cradled in Mrsha’s paws. Tinier than even Apista! Mrsha ran over to the Fortress Beavers. They grunted as she explained.
No one step on him. I’m going to put him here, okay?
She carefully brought the bit of cloth, some of the potions in case he wanted them, and an entire quiche and a flask of water into a little section where few people went. The jungle-biome, where not even Numbtongue would go. He was here, of course, but hadn’t noticed Mrsha. He just…sat there.
Mrsha squirreled Niers into a little holding spot as Apista saluted her with one antennae. She’d keep this strange little person safe! Mrsha scampered back, mind racing.
The Titan! In her inn! Had he come to beat up someone? Didn’t he have an army? She had to tell someone! But Lyonette, the only person Mrsha would super-trust, wasn’t here. And Erin…
Tell Ulvama? But Niers said not to. He was the Titan. Mrsha wasn’t sure, so she ran about, grabbing things he might need, anything she could think of. Also, she begged Joseph to take her back into Liscor so she could look up news about the Titan! Who was in her inn!
“I don’t know what’s gotten into her, sorry.”
Joseph told the [Scribe] at the Mage’s Guild as Mrsha held out the request. The Drake chuckled indulgently.
“Not to worry. I bet she’s heard. Fan of the Titan, are you? Let me just pull up all the latest news. Have you heard, sir?”
Joseph was fascinated to learn the same thing as Mrsha about the Titan and Peclir Im. He paid for printed copies.
The [Scribe] massaged his writing hand after accepting payment for the brief work. He turned as his superior bustled over as Mrsha and Joseph began to leave.
“Did someone investigate the Titan of Baleros? We’re supposed to make a note.”
“Just that little girl over there.”
The [Mage] hesitated. He eyed Mrsha, then shook his head, sighing.
“That’s for search requests on the bounty. Not…children. Never mind. But make a note of anyone else, understand?”
Mrsha had gotten back and was spreading out the Mage’s Guild news about the Titan. Missing! Bounty! Eight hundred thousand gold pieces alive?
Mrsha the Bounty Hunter…shook her head. She sat there, quivering with excitement. She barely noticed the nice Dullahan [Mage] come in, ask about Montressa, Bezale, walk about the inn. She was scampering over for lunch when Montressa and Bezale walked back in.
“Ah, Mage Montressa. Mage Bezale.”
The two froze as the Dullahan stood up. Mrsha hesitated, waving her papers at Ulvama, who didn’t care. The [Shaman]’s eyes narrowed. Montressa went for her bag of holding. The Shock Orb, her staff.
“High Mage Merzun!”
The Dullahan pointed, and a flash blew both [Mages] off their feet. Ulvama leapt—and the [Paralysis] spell hit her in the chest. More pre-prepared spells began firing off as Mrsha fled under the table.
It was today. The air was hot. Mrsha cowered under the table. The Dullahan glanced at her as Mrsha crept forwards.
“I don’t want more casualties. Little girl, put that down. It won’t do you any good, anyways.”
Mrsha froze. One of Numbtongue’s paranoia-crossbows was in her paws, having come out of a trick floorboard. She put it down. Merzun glanced around, her head still rotating—
Fire struck her shield. Ulvama pulled herself upright. The [Shaman] snarled, creating another ball of fire. She lobbed it and it burst across the barriers, blazing bright, liquid fire—
“I am being indulgent. Must I cripple someone to make my point? [Force Bolts – Volley].”
A stream of those intangible bolts shot towards Ulvama. Mrsha cried out soundlessly. The [Shaman]—weathered the storm.
Her magical paint flared bright and then turned grey, flaking off her body. A dozen spells struck her harmlessly. She spat, and hurled the tankard. It bounced off the shield, and Merzun reflexively recoiled as liquid evaporated on her shields. Ulvama was already leaping.
A wall of vines rose around the Dullahan! She blasted it with fire, impatiently, but Ulvama was gone when she looked around.
“[Detect Magic]. [Bound Spell – Paralysis Bolt].”
The [High Mage] glanced around. Ulvama crouched behind a table until the eyes fixed on her. The [Camouflaged] Goblin…grinned…as the gaze swept past her.
Ulvama shot out from cover again as Numbtongue got to his feet with a roar. She sprayed black liquid into the air, reaching for her staff. Merzun’s line of sight was blocked. She missed the bolt as Numbtongue dodged. The Goblin swung his sword—
It sheared through one barrier, and then was repulsed. Before he could swing again, or Ulvama use a stronger spell, Merzun shouted.
“Enough! [Spell Swarm]!”
She put her hands together. Mrsha saw half a dozen spells, Tier 1 and Tier 2, hit Numbtongue in the chest. He went over backwards and she screamed.
Ulvama was next. The Hobgoblin shielded herself, but the spells wore out her magical protections. Both Goblins lay on the ground, charred flesh smoking as Merzun looked around.
“Enough. Where are the other two?”
She floated over to Montressa. The [Mage] croaked.
“Gone. Leave them alone, Merzun! Liscor won’t stand for this. The Antinium—”
“Hear nothing. If you are counting on that Centenium, I will not be here. You’re telling the truth. Where are they?”
She was interrogating Montressa. Kevin, Joseph, Imani, they were going to be stolen! Mrsha left out Troy and Leon. Bird was still lying, unable to shake [Paralysis] by himself. Someone had to do something! Someone…this big, stupid, Dullahan Wistram-[Mage] wasn’t allowed to do this! It wasn’t right!
He agreed. The Fraerling was still weak. He hadn’t been out long. His arm still ached in the sling. But the frantic bee had woken him. He limped out of the [Garden of Sanctuary], towards the little Gnoll.
“Girl. Girl, listen.”
The [High Mage] hadn’t noticed them. A damn [High Mage]? No wonder she’d walked all over this inn. None of them could match a ten-level difference with that kind of magical output.
And yet…Niers just stared at the Dullahan. His eyes narrowed.
She jerked. She was quivering on the ground. Niers whispered into her ear, so that Merzun couldn’t notice him even if her head spotted her on its orbit.
“That Dullahan is going to abduct the others unless we do something. She’s imprisoned this inn; no one can get in even if they notice. Listen. I need you to help me. I can stop her.”
Mrsha’s eyes were round. She was terrified. Was that Hobgoblin her guardian? Niers remembered the reports, but not a female Goblin. He pointed.
“That crossbow. I can’t lift it. But you can. I just need you to shoot her.”
Mrsha looked horrified. Niers clarified.
“In the leg. Arm. You don’t have to kill her.”
He’d meant kill her. But he’d forgotten his audience. The little Gnoll hesitantly stared at the crossbow. Niers reassured her.
“You don’t even need to hit her. Just…close by. Got it? Trust me. It will save everyone.”
She shook her head, gesturing to the magical barriers layered around Merzun. Niers nodded.
“I know she has shields. Listen. Trust me. I’m the Titan.”
Mrsha the Archer looked at Niers. She looked at Merzun, at Montressa, gasping answers, Numbtongue, still trying to get up. She took a breath.
“Little girl. I would not do that.”
Merzun spoke. Montressa jerked. Even pressed against the floor, she could see Mrsha, sideways to her, aiming the crossbow with shaking paws at Merzun. The Dullahan woman didn’t look concerned.
Her armor was a flashy gemstone-inlaid-into-ceramic armor that could probably stop a weak crossbow bolt. However, the real protections were the layers of shields.
“Put that down. Children should not be wielding crossbows. Where is her guardian? I should take her with the others. Mage Montressa?”
Merzun almost sounded concerned. Montressa whispered.
“Leave her alone.”
“Then stop obstructing me. Why do the Gnolls have Miss Rose? Little girl—I am warning you. You do not want to make me angry, do you?”
Mrsha was sighting down the crossbow.
“Don’t. Run and get help. The garden! Get outside and—”
Bezale barked, and then cut off. Merzun saw the open door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Her fingers twitched and her wand-arm raised.
“Child, I am going to bind you. Put the crossbow down and come over here. You won’t be hurt. Understand? Come over here. Now? Don’t—”
The little Gnoll hesitated. She glanced down, then her features firmed. She aimed and pulled the trigger.
The crossbow fired. The bolt loosed. Merzun’s brows crossed, but she didn’t bother to dodge.
Niers Astoragon used his greatest Skill. He pointed, and activated it. The Skill he had ‘earned’ from killing the [Gambler of Fates]. His last capstone.
A Skill to break any foe to pieces. Even the King of Destruction.
[Battlefield: Even Ground – No Magic, No Luck, No Skills, Only Strategy].
Across the ground, High Mage Merzun’s magic abruptly turned off. She began to drop. Her eyes went wide.
The crossbow bolt punched into her foot, through ceramic. She hit the ground, her head smacking into the floorboards. Niers smiled as the magic suppressing half the people in the inn winked out.
Montressa shouted. She pointed, but nothing happened. No Magic.
Bird raised his arrow, but hesitated as he sensed no Skill activating. No Skills.
No luck, either. For five minutes, you were just what you were. Only strategy. Even Tulm feared that Skill. Bird still drew back on the bow; he needed no Skills to hit his mark.
Palt shouted. He was getting to his feet. He knocked Bird’s aim loose. Mage Merzun? She was screaming in pain.
“My foot! How—how—”
Mrsha had fled into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She peeked out, wide-eyed as the bleeding Dullahan woman flailed. Bezale grabbed her and checked her body into the ground.
It was over. Niers peeked out behind Mrsha’s ear. He’d just hit the people in the inn, not the inn itself. He’d had a hunch they might kill the [High Mage] if freed. Sure enough, he’d been wise to extend the radius.
On second thought, it was bad for a [High Mage] of Wistram to drop dead in this inn. He carefully whispered to Mrsha.
“A Tier 6 Spell? [Magic Null]?”
Mrsha the Glorious Magus nodded a few times. Montressa and Bezale’s mouths opened and closed a few times.
“There is no way she can cast that.”
“There was a book…”
Ishkr shut his mouth fast as everyone looked at him. Niers wiped sweat from his brow. He nudged the bee, crowding the beam where he was hiding.
The giant Ashfire Bee stared at him, hurt, and trotted a ways away. That wasn’t the point, anyways. Niers listened.
High Mage Merzun was captive. She had anti-magic cuffs on her, the same restraints brought to capture Pisces, ironically. Montressa, Bezale, Palt, and the others were debating what to do with her.
“If we hand her over to Zevara, Wistram will bail her out.”
“Not Zevara. She won’t budge.”
“Then it is war. Let me go. I don’t know how that child learned such magic, but she is coming with me. Those Earthers too. Wistram knows where I am. It is well you did not slay me. Do not make your situation worse.”
Mage Merzun was amazing. She had the gall to act as if she still held all the cards, even now. Worse…she was sort of right.
Sort of. Wistram was a big force. On the other hand? Ulvama whirled her staff and smacked Merzun on the head.
The [High Mage] made a pained sound. Ulvama smiled.
“Let’s beat her up. Then decide.”
She looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was murderous.
“No, she’s right. She’s a [High Mage]. She might be able to blast her way out of prison unless Hexel’s upgraded it. Only a [Grand Magus] and the Archmages stand above her.”
Palt was the voice of reason. He looked around, not exactly calm, but seeing more clearly. He looked at Merzun, shook his head, and turned to the others.
“We have to let her go.”
“Let her go? She’ll just come back again! Let’s give her to Chaldion in Pallass!”
Joseph snapped back. Palt shook his head.
“No, and no. I suggest we tell Chaldion—and Magus Grimalkin what happened. And Xrn.”
“Xrn will eat you.”
Bird whispered to Mage Merzun. Her restrained body and head both tried to roll away from the baleful [Hunter]. Palt shook his head.
“If Mage Merzun wants to stick around for all three to object to her—and Watch Captain Zevara—she can. This is a matter for Liscor’s Council. We do not want to be caught up in it.”
“But they know we’re here.”
Kevin looked at Merzun. She was eying him like…Troy and Leon and Imani too. Palt nodded slowly.
“Yes. We’ll have to prepare for that. Merzun dying here is not wise, though. She’s part of the Revivalists. Archmage Nailihuaile won’t react…well. She can be vindictive. Montressa, Bezale, back me up. Mons?”
The [Aegiscaster] wasn’t responding. She just sat.
“I’m exiled? I—”
“One of you is speaking sense. Let me go. As for Mage Montressa, it wasn’t my fault. Stop that! You disgusting creature!”
Ulvama had blown her nose and was wiping the tissue on Merzun’s armor. The Hobgoblin [Shaman] somehow knew exactly how to offend Dullahans the worst.
The others argued. Niers knew the Centaur was correct—at least for now. Wistram would not give up. Those Earthers? Earthers? His mind was racing. Wistram was ahead of him. They had been for months.
Those Earthers were now on a shortlist, unless other factions in Wistram would protect them. Merzun was only the start.
Mind you—if this was his company and Merzun had tried it on his territory, she might not have been in this situation. Yet The Wandering Inn was not prepared to fight Wistram like a Great Company.
It did have Niers Astoragon. Mrsha glanced up at him and he waved for her to pretend he wasn’t there.
“I’ll talk to Ullsinoi. We need…the Revivalists would have gotten all of them. That’s an inter-academy conflict you’ve begun, High Mage.”
Palt was glancing at Merzun. She stared at him stonily.
“The [Innkeeper] is dead, Magus Palt. Similarly, there is no time for dissident factions.”
“I would say the dissident faction is the one clearly grabbing power here, High Mage.”
He replied, putting a cigar in his mouth.
“Enough. If she’s not being beaten up, I want her gone.”
The harsh voice came from Numbtongue. Niers blinked. The Hobgoblin pointed his sword at Merzun. She eyed him, wisely keeping her mouth shut.
“Mage. You come back—you die. Next time, you die. Anyone who tries, [Mage], Archmage, anyone. Understand?”
“I…understand. I will pass your message on to my faction.”
He glared. The others looked at each other.
“Well, let’s roll her into Invrisil I guess. Tell Grimalkin to come over first?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
As Bezale bent to grab Merzun’s body, she spoke up.
“Wait. I meant what I said.”
The others looked at her. The [High Mage] glowered around, then her eyes focused on the Earthers.
“You don’t have to stay here. Come to Wistram. We can protect you. Or have you not seen how dangerous the world is? We have many, many of you there. You can live in safety and luxury. I cannot force you, but surely you must agree.”
The Earthers looked at her. Kevin’s eyebrows were in his hair. Joseph just turned away.
“I need a drink. This is a good excuse, right?”
Imani glared from behind Palt. Even Troy held up two emphatic fingers. No one looked twice at Merzun, even the Brothers were clearly thinking that this was not an honest woman and trying to figure out how to stop someone before they entered the hallway. The truth spells…the inn had to be reopened.
“Alright, rolling time. Miss Ulvama, please stop that.”
Ulvama was now drawing graffiti on Merzun’s back with some extremely hard-to-remove paint. Ishkr had already run to get Grimalkin, Bird to find Xrn.
A quiet voice spoke up as Merzun was hoisted up. Heads turned.
Leon stood there. He didn’t look at the others.
“Leon, are you nuts?”
“No, I’m not. I hate it here. Everyone else has something, I don’t. So I’ll go. This inn—you know what? Fuck this inn, you too, Kevin. I’m out.”
Leon looked around, shaking with nerves and anger. The others looked at him. Even Troy, who had his purpose. Numbtongue stared at Leon, and jerked his foot up.
“Okay. Two go. Get lost.”
He walked past Leon as the young man lay on the ground, clutching at his groin.
So, and so. Niers couldn’t speak to the wisdom of the decision. Nor was the [Strategist] able to make a decision based on his knowledge.
After all the commotion had ended, he rode the Ashfire Bee into the [Garden of Sanctuary]. She buzzed around, and a little Gnoll met them by the hilltop. Niers dismounted, and Mrsha carried him up.
He stopped in front of the frozen bier. Niers stared down at Erin Solstice. He stood there, for a long moment. Mrsha’s head bowed, yet she darted glances at the Titan.
Realer than life. Smaller than his legend. The Fraerling [Strategist] stood there, head bowed. At last, at last—he looked at Mrsha.
No tears in his eyes. Just…tired. He looked at the young Gnoll, and then breathed out.
“If I can, I promise you, I’ll do something. Everything’s fallen apart. Can I ask you to help me put it back together?”
Mrsha looked down. The Fraerling man held out a hand. Slowly, ever so slowly, she reached out. Niers touched the first living being, the first person he hadn’t tried to kill or who had tried to kill him in a month, and gently shook her paw.
Far from home. Bereft of gear, but with all his Skills and experience. Ally? One white Gnoll. One Ashfire Bee. Advantages? No one knew where he was. Disadvantages? Everyone knew where he was.
The Titan smiled. He did like a challenge.
Author’s Note: Back when I first offered Niers in the first Volume 8 poll, I made a mistake. I offered Niers, but I later realized that it was a dark, depressing chapter for the start of Volume 8, especially since it wasn’t all this. This is 2, maybe 3 chapters and plotlines compressed.
Did it work? Did you enjoy it? Did you see the hints?
Well, I hope so. This is my last chapter before my break, but I will be back on the 30th! So…yes.
Also, Rebecca Brewer will be doing a Q&A on Sunday, at 6 PM EST, in the #publishing channel on Discord! Be there! Her interview is also up; if you didn’t see the link at the top of the chapter!
Thanks for reading. I must rest. I must rest, because this has been a tiring month! But I hope you enjoyed the chapters and editing and so on, and I’ll see you after only a week’s break! I…could use a longer one. Bye for now!
Grimalkin and Niers vs Bugs by ArtsyNada!
Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg
Chestburster Niers, Fetohep Guidance, How Erin Really Died (Lies), and more by LeChatDemon!
Flower Niers by Miguel, Commissioned by LinnetMelody!