(Iron Prince by Bryce O’Conner and Luke Chmilenko has just been released as an audiobook! Also by Podium; consider giving it a try if you’re out of chapters of The Wandering Inn!)
When he first arrived here, he thought it was a glorious adventure.
Of course, he’d been confused, scared, intimidated by a world apart. Yet—didn’t everyone dream of falling into a story? If not a book, then a movie, a video game? Like many people, he had thought, ‘if it were me, I’d not make that mistake’, or ‘I’d have done this’.
I would love to have that chance. I should love to be a hero. Because, surely, I can do it better.
In truth, his perspective was that of most of the people who had come here. He had been disabused of the notion.
Not right away. Still, Joseph remembered his rude awakening. Unlike Imani, it had been when he finally got his ‘chance’. After being an involuntary house guest of Magnolia Reinhart, they had been able to become adventurers. He had been armed with enchanted gear, escorted even, to fight monsters.
It was as Joseph tried to hack apart a giant centipede, seeing the flailing legs wriggle horribly even on the bisected parts, blood covering his legs and boots, hearing the sounds his sword made as it lodged in its squirming insides, trying to saw it in half, that the dream ended. Combat was hacking apart people with sharp weapons, not glorious, flashing swords and the thrill of battle.
Magic was studying.
People died. Sometimes in moments, horribly.
And they wondered why he started drinking. Disillusionment had sunk over most of the Earthers that Magnolia Reinhart had relinquished to Ryoka Griffin. They had been useless, worthless, not even strictly worth the effort of holding onto and feeding.
This had been a truth until he met Erin Solstice and seen that it wasn’t this world that was too difficult, too gritty and real, it was just him.
Despair twice. However, somehow, time and a bit of kindness, a bit of willingness to help and see potential had seen Joseph kicking a football around on the grass. Thus, his mundane ability to play his favorite sport turned magical. That was Erin Solstice’s magic.
Now she was dead. If there was a moral to the story, Joseph Ortega didn’t see it. Take away that last bit and it was a hopeful, wonderful story. He woke up, head pounding, sweating and entangled in his sheets, dreaming the centipedes were after him and he’d lost his sword. He sat up, as sunlight streamed through the window. It cast a diagonal line across his torso, warming him. The light wood floorboards and walls, light blue curtains next to the expensive glass windows and wooden shutters were nothing like his home on Earth.
It was exceedingly comfy, of course. The mattress wasn’t spring, but it was stuffed. Joseph had a carpet he’d actually been given, with a wave-pattern around the edges and a stylized Human kicking a football in the center.
Actually hand-woven, a gift. His table and the dresser both held souvenirs, a few cardboard autograph pads, an empty bottle…and the hangover cure potion Joseph went for first. He sat, staring at a map of the known world he’d tacked to one wall, and an advert.
‘Think you can kick a ball? Try out for Liscor’s Soccer Team today! The Flood Crabs are holding tryouts!’
He had carefully crossed out ‘soccer’ and replaced it with ‘football’. Even now, the poster made him smile.
Flood Crabs. A combination of ‘Floodplains’ and ‘Rock Crabs’, once he’d explained some of the naming conventions of sports teams. Of course, it had been a lot of wrangling and half the Drakes wanted to be called ‘Liscor’s Dragons’, which neither the Gnolls nor Joseph had been keen on.
Flood Crabs had personality. It wasn’t generic and it stuck in the mind. Joseph was proud of the poster, he really was. He looked at it.
Hand-illustrated. Someone wrote all those big, block letters, actually painted it, illustrated everything…and they had to copy the design a hundred times.
A printer could copy that easily with ink and power. Yet Liscor’s Council had paid for illustrated posters, and gifted one to Joseph.
It meant something more than a printed poster. Joseph sat there, staring at it, blinking sleepily as the morning light crept upwards. He ruffled his hair, blinking at a mirror—another gift—and seeing a half-naked young man with warm black hair, the beginnings of a mustache and beard since he hadn’t shaved, and a slightly-pained expression as the hangover medicine took away his headache.
Joseph Ortega, from Spain, from Earth. Perhaps the only person from his country in the world; certainly, the only one he’d met.
“Well, Leon gets to find out.”
The young man rubbed at his head, recalling the incident of yesterday. Another close call. Literally paralyzed and held hostage by a [High Mage]. Helpless as a bug before real danger. He shuddered and glanced at the empty bottle.
He kept trying, and he kept failing to quit. Once more, Joseph supposed it was the arrogance of inexperience. He’d assumed (if he’d ever thought of it), that he’d be able to quit an addiction. He knew, intellectually, how hard it was and how people struggled with alcoholism, smoking. Yet it was one thing to recall and another to experience.
Worse still, since he could take Octavia’s sobering potions or hangover cures and not have to pay much for his habit. His head thumped back onto the pillow and Joseph indulged in some good self-hatred for breakfast.
He did not actually rise for breakfast for a while. Because today, Joseph was dreading the harder parts in life, and he knew it was stupid. He had been given a second chance. Found that he was a celebrity for playing football, and not even close to well. His casual knowledge was treated like gospel.
Joseph had made it. Yet he still felt crummy, and felt bad for that. So he lay on his back, until a superior fighter opened the door and strode into the room.
A superlative warrior, a far better survivalist in this world. Also, arguably now the best [Mage] in the inn. Mrsha the Archmage strutted into Joseph’s room, sniffing. She stopped when she saw Joseph.
“Mrsha? What are you doing here?”
He sat up, blinking at her. She looked around, walking on two legs instead of four. Mrsha stared about…then found what she wanted.
Aha! She grabbed something by the door. Joseph saw her pick up the classic white-and-black ball. Harder to make in this world; the [Leatherworker] had had a fit when he understood it had to be white and black, both leathers being hard to dye or acquire naturally.
She picked it up, and waved at Joseph. He waved back. Mrsha pointed at the ball, which everyone called a ‘soccer ball’ much to his annoyance.
“Uh. You want the ball? Go ahead.”
He blinked at it as she nodded, made a ‘thank you’ gesture with one paw, and tottered out of the room with it. Joseph heard a shout from down the hallway. As he fully woke up, he heard a familiar, excited voice.
“Mrsha’s got the ball! Mrsha, Mrshamrshamrsha—pass it here! Is Joseph awake? That’s his personal ball, right? Are we allowed to use it?”
Ekirra. Joseph listened and wished, just for a moment, he could live up to the little Gnoll’s idolization of him. He hid in his room as he heard the little Gnoll racing around downstairs. At last though, he stood up and faced the quiet inn, without Erin. Another day.
It was sort of a downer day for Joseph. Something else Earthers could identify with. Anyone, really.
Niers Astoragon hated children. He also realized he hated soccer, at least in principle.
In general, perhaps. It was something about little children, who were so careless and might step on a six-inch tall person, or throw something in a fit of anger, and a ball larger than he was that was kicked at high velocities that made Niers Astoragon the Fraerling uncomfortable.
He couldn’t have said why. Yet as he started his first day in The Wandering Inn as a proper sort of guest—or fugitive—his one ally in the inn seemed excited enough to kick the bouncy ball around. Niers watched Mrsha and the other, brown Gnoll child kicking it around in the common room of the inn.
He had thoughts. With a tiny bit of chalk, broken off from an actual piece of chalk, the Titan scribbled some notes down.
“Let’s see. Miss Erin Solstice is…frozen. I’m separated from home. I am being hunted. Everyone knows I am in Izril. My one ally is a little Gnoll. A white Gnoll, and I wish to Djinni that I knew exactly what that meant. She’s mute, but she can cast magic—Tiers 1-2. I have limited artifacts, and, oh yes. A magical portal door, in theory.”
There were not a lot of assets to work with, but after some thought, he made some addendums.
“All the resources of an inn, really. Which are considerable for a Fraerling, as well as indirect access to multiple master artisans, not to mention magical assistance from both [Mages] and [Shamans]. In theory. Not so bad. In fact…if I weren’t up against the Great Companies and their agents, I’d call this excellent.”
He turned to his attentive student as, below him, the little Gnoll called Ekirra launched a shot that bounced off a wall and Mrsha ran after it. Niers was sitting on one of the beams high above the common room, which afforded him an unparalleled spying and hiding place.
His student waved its—her—antennae at him. Niers eyed the huge, insectile face and slowly wrote down another point.
“Issue of transportation/maneuverability? Solved: Ashfire Bee. Name: Apista. Somewhat tame, upgraded stinger, dubious intelligence.”
A feeler poked Niers in the back and he swore. He batted at Apista.
Apparently it belonged to a…[Princess]? Niers shook his head. Mrsha had explained, but there were limits even to the Titan’s credulity. Yet he clearly saw the marks of a [Beast Tamer]’s Skills on the bee. He nodded to her.
“Let’s get breakfast.”
He stood up, having assuaged his curiosity as far as watching the inn’s guests and staff this morning. He’d marked a few interesting things; the Hobgoblins, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, and so on.
“Where are the two damned Gentlemen Callers?”
Apista didn’t answer, of course. She waited, lowering herself down as Niers climbed onto her back. The Ashfire Bee was a foot long. Niers was six inches. He could actually ride her around, and she was strong enough to fly with him on her.
She took off, and Niers reflected it was a novel solution to the Fraerling’s issues of travel. Two issues?
One, Apista was hot. Not in a good way either; the bee’s natural temperatures were way above what any insect should survive. Magical creatures. Niers needed a saddle. Especially because of point two—
The buzzing wings generated a hefty backdraft, so Niers clung to her fuzzy body as bits of pollen made his legs sticky. He cursed as she flew down from the beams.
“You stupid bee! I told you to watch out! Watch out. Don’t fly like normal! I’m—”
Apista did a barrel roll. Niers bit off a shout as he clung to her. To Imani, walking out of the kitchen with some food for the table, she just saw Apista doing a cute little twist and turn as she flew towards the Garden of Sanctuary.
“You stupid bee!”
Niers bellow-whispered as they flew into the Garden of Sanctuary. Apista was much hurt. This was not a nurturing relationship! The little man that Mrsha seemed to admire didn’t have much respect for her. Still, she obediently ferried him to his secret home in the jungle biome. Niers landed on one of the trees, walked over to the hollowed-out home Mrsha had helped him make, and promptly threw up.
“I…have never had a flight that bad in ten years.”
He told Apista. It was true; all the birds Niers rode around for fast-travel in Baleros did not spin or corkscrew, or for the joy of it, fly all the way up to the dome, stop flying, and dive-bomb towards the grass and level off just a second before impact.
Apista flew like a drunk albatross. She looked hurt, so Niers eventually relented.
“Here, bug…do bees even eat this? I know wasps do. Damn bastards.”
The bee could get behind that sentiment. She delicately edged over and had some of the honey and bread Mrsha had smuggled out for Niers. It was good, especially since Niers had his pick of succulents.
Salami, six varieties of cheese, pizza, lasagna, eight different fish dishes, ice cream—although that had melted—nineteen flavors of drink…
Most of the hollowed-out space in the tree was just food, and cotton stolen from a pillow that Niers had used as bedding and pillows. He didn’t need more and this was heavenly after the High Passes.
Also, he had a lot of food because he was a Fraerling and Mrsha could steal crumbs and feed him for a week. She’d gone a bit overboard, but then, Niers had gone overboard in feasting after he’d woken up to find his fortunes had finally changed for the better.
His arm still hurt, but he was taking it easy and it was still braced. A few more days and maybe a bit more healing potion would see it right. Niers sighed and sat down. He saw two little Gnolls race into the [Garden of Sanctuary] after a second. A pair of Fortress Beavers watched as the ball shot around the garden, bouncing off the grassy hill, rolling into the mushroom biome…Apista nibbled as Niers murmured.
“Fortress Beavers, Ashfire Bee, a magical garden. Some place, huh?”
Apista wiggled her antennae at him. Which reminded Niers. He grunted as he got up and rummaged around the makeshift home.
“You’re the strangest animal here by far, though.”
She looked hurt—right up until he pulled out the tiny spliff he’d cut from the larger one. He handed one to her and the two began to smoke.
A bee that stole and hoarded dreamleaf. Niers puffed away as Apista lit both with a few flaps of her wings and some ignition from her body. He eyed the bee as she inhaled the fumes.
He had to admit it. Niers began planning his next move, a lot more comfortable than he should have been.
The sound of children playing was odd in The Wandering Inn. Was it…too soon?
Perhaps. Joseph didn’t air the thought, yet he let it ride as Ekirra and Mrsha played. Visma had joined them too.
It might have been Imani shared the sentiment, because she’d exiled them to the Garden. The lower garden of course; they’d never climb up the hill.
She greeted him with a smile. He tried to answer her. Imani clearly made an effort to smile. Why shouldn’t he try?
“Hey, Imani. Uh—how are things?”
It was about as bad a question as you could get. How are things? Yet Imani took it in stride, briskly handing him a plate with delicious smells wafting from it.
“Good. I’ve got work in fifteen minutes. Your food’s hot.”
“That’s not for you. That’s for Kevin. Take it to him, would you? He never showed for dinner so I think he’s passed out in his shop in Esthelm.”
Joseph lamely re-covered the plate. Imani smiled again and he reflected she’d stepped up to her responsibilities.
Perhaps it was teaching [Cooks]. Perhaps that was who Imani had been before trauma and Crelers. The inn had given her back her life and confidence.
Plus, a boyfriend. Palt nodded at Joseph, eyes knowing. Joseph felt it odd that he was used to seeing a giant Centaur trotting about and giving Imani a peck on the cheek.
“Hello, Imani, verdant bloom of the jungles.”
“You told me all of Baleros’ most vivid flowers are poisonous, Palt.”
“Er, so I did. Late night, Joseph? Need a pick-me-up?”
The [Illusionist] and [Smoker] could definitely tell. Joseph grinned lamely.
“I have a potion, thanks.”
Imani swatted it down. Joseph hadn’t been sure he’d have taken it.
“I told you, it’s unhealthy, Palt.”
“And I told you, that’s what [Healers] and potions are for.”
The Centaur was unmoved. Also, Joseph knew everyone save for Galina had tried or used Palt’s cigars from time to time.
“At least not when you’re eating. It ruins the taste! I have to go.”
“Who’s looking after Mrsha?”
Joseph hesitated, pointing to the three playing kids in the open door. Imani glanced at him quizzically.
That was that. Imani left, briskly, not unfriendly at all, with Palt in tow. Joseph looked at the food, headed for the door.
“Going somewhere, sir?”
A surly Gnoll greeted him. She was shorter as Gnolls went, and had the barest attempt at a smile on her face.
“Er—Liska? I’d like to go to Esthelm.”
“Right away, sir. Will you be returning soon? I will check for you in ten minutes, then. Have a lovely day.”
She said it in the tone that indicated her older brother had been lecturing her about proper service. She was in charge of the door, though, and Imani and Palt were already in Liscor. Joseph trotted through, thinking.
Imani had made it and seemed to have no regrets. Erin and Ryoka were the examples to look up to. In the same way…
Kevin was indeed asleep at his desk. He sat up as Joseph opened the door to the back room of Solar Cycles.
“Your Majesty, I’m aw—oh. Hey, Joseph.”
Joseph would have laughed—but that was the eighth time Kevin had done that. Joseph offered the covered plate and Kevin’s eyes widened.
“Is it breakfast already? Dude, thank you. I must have dozed off and…”
He lamely indicated his desk. Lamely, but not to Joseph. The sheets of orders tacked to the walls, the schedule Kevin had drawn up, not to mention the fact that he was keeping inventory, working on new blueprints for the bicycles, and essentially starting a business by himself with international clients was…amazing. Joseph handed Kevin the tray and saw how hungry the young man was.
“No problem, Kevin. How’s business?”
“We’re getting more [Smiths] to work on the mundane bikes. This is so good. Imani’s like, a saint. Sorry, I haven’t eaten all day! I mean, yesterday.”
Joseph rubbed at his head, repeating himself. He was definitely out of sorts today. Perhaps it was the comparisons.
It was a bad idea to compare yourself against people. Especially in this inn, but in general. Even after Erin had…well, it was comparisons that haunted Joseph, he realized.
“I can take your other plates and stuff.”
“Dude. Appreciated. I can get them though…I just have work and a meeting in like—uh—what’s the time?”
“It’s not a problem. Do your thing.”
Joseph grabbed a stack of six plates and cutlery. Kevin gave him a grateful look.
“You’re awesome, man.”
No, you are. Joseph saw Kevin gobbling his food. He had a meeting with Pelt in a few minutes, and he’d be negotiating with a [Merchant] later today.
Kevin’s strengths were his ability to get along with people, his knowledge of how to run a shop, write a ledger, and frankly, knowing how a bicycle worked. The fact that he could get along with Pelt, the Dwarf [Smith] who was cantankerous as any old man Joseph had met, was amazing.
A bit of Erin in him. By the same token, Imani’s skills were managing a kitchen’s supplies, cooking of course, teaching, and having sex with horse-guys.
Joseph thought about that last part. He slapped the side of his head in an unfriendly way. That hurt. Seriously though, how did…?
As he trotted back through the doorway, Liska wrinkled her nose at him.
“Better put those to be washed. I guess I have to do it. Don’t eat anything off them until they’re scrubbed, though. One of them has mold on it.”
“Oh. Thank you, Liska. Er—thanks for getting the door, too.”
He only remembered to thank her this time. She growled.
Yet she looked a bit mollified. Joseph wanted to remember to do things as mundane as thank people for making breakfast and so on.
…But he was not a Kevin. Not an Imani, either.
He was not a Leon or Troy, he was pretty sure. That was a low bar, though. However, Joseph could look at himself and find less amiability than Kevin. A bit more xenophobia, like seeing Palt and Imani together and wondering…did they have sex? More envy, oh yes. Less control with things like drinking.
Less of being the good, or decent person he’d thought he always was.
Imani had put out food for Joseph. A very fine…Joseph’s face fell.
It hadn’t occurred to him as Kevin ate to note breakfast. The [Engineer] had made it vanish instantly, anyways.
Breakfast was pincho, pincho de tortilla, a potato omelette from Spain. Nostalgic, and Joseph realized he must have mentioned it to Imani. Thus, the [Chef] had taken the time to make it for him.
He ate it, savoring each nostalgic bite and felt worse. Comparisons haunted Joseph. For instance, as mentioned, it wasn’t just Imani or Kevin that made you feel bad about yourself.
Feeling proud of being able to bench a hundred and eighty pounds? Stare at the weight room list, or just watch Bezale work out in the mornings.
Think you were good at chess? Play Bird or half of the Antinium. Bird had somehow evolved to the point where he had once beaten Joseph while never looking at the chessboard. He’d learned it from Erin, of course.
Think you know misery? Mrsha, Ryoka, and half the inn could tell you about real trauma.
Of course, all this was a futile effort to begin with. Everyone had their strengths and weaknesses. Each person was able to do something the others were not, and etcetera, etcetera, value yourself. Joseph knew that.
It was just…Joseph finished his breakfast, excitement turning to glumness again. He could wait no longer, though. The sun was rising, the morning begun…he stood, stretched, and saw the little Gnoll race into the common room. Ekirra had smelled he was here, of course.
“Hello, Mister Coach Joseph! Are we going to practice?”
Joseph tried to smile. He fooled Ekirra as Visma and Mrsha watched. The little Gnoll boy, like Mrsha, disdained clothes. Yet he had on the jersey of Liscor’s Flood Crabs and his number, 3, hand-stitched to the back. He looked excited, as a member of the Little Crabs team should be.
The young man sighed, and nodded. He and Ekirra got to work. The [Kicker], Joseph Ortega, headed outside to start his day.
Joseph was a Level 11 [Kicker]. Here were some facts for you: he had [Lesser Dexterity], [Lesser Endurance], [Power Kick], [Accelerated Sprint]…
And his latest Skill was green.
It was nothing special as green Skills went. At least, Joseph didn’t think so.
[Pinpoint Distance Kick]. As the fabled new Skills went…it was not an [Immortal Moment]. However, it stood out to Joseph because it was new.
Thus, no one had ever needed or gained a Skill like this before. A Skill for a game, not battle.
Football. Which made sense when you thought about it. [Pinpoint Distance Shot] was probably some [Archer] Skill that combined range and accuracy, very necessary. Who needed to kick a rubber ball that far, though?
A good player, that was who. Joseph was proud of that. He greeted both teams. Forty six players stared at him.
Twenty three per team. Adults and children, made up of Gnolls, Drakes, and three Humans not including him.
Yes, only eleven players on each team could take to the field at one time. However, substitutions were important and the standard from Joseph’s world meant he’d suggested a limit of twenty three.
Because he’d said it, it was now law. The [Kicker] saw children and adults staring at him, all wearing the jerseys, all ready to start practicing.
It was eerie. Joseph had been a dedicated part of his football team. Yet if he thought high school and middle school dedication was one thing—these players were even more driven.
They were never late. He had to tell them to go back if they were sick or worn out. They’d play even if they really injured themselves and they trained without complaint. Because they were leveling. Because—this was a career.
Football had come to Liscor. They were practicing on the vast, flattened land that Hexel had smoothed for them, kept clear of monsters by the Watch. Liscor’s Council had even paid Viceria to regrow all the grass for a proper turf instead of waiting.
“Good to see you all. You know the drill! Let’s warm up!”
Joseph was not an expert. He had cobbled together team’s training menu from memory. Thus, each day, the Flood Crabs and Little Crabs warmed up the same way.
Jog, first. They ran around Liscor, even the kids doing a lap. The adults were encouraged to run in their own time. Not just run, though; they did all the exercises that an athlete had to perform, which had elicited sniggers the first few weeks.
Not now. Now? [Guards] waved down at the players, shouting encouragement. Some civilians did the same, and kids copied the pro-team, looking envious or hoping Joseph would see talent there.
Ekirra ran with the younger players, having learned to walk on two legs just so he could jog along. Forwards, backwards—and that was the start.
After the lap, they did side shuffles. Skipping, kicks, high knees, hops…exercises designed to build flexibility and muscle. Joseph made everyone stretch, and only after nearly thirty minutes of warming up did they even get to the practice.
“Okay, Flood Crabs—relays! Little Crabs, let’s start with passing.”
There was only one Joseph and since Kevin and Rose were now busy, he alternated the physical training with technical. The adults knew the score and set up; they ran from one line to another, turning around and racing back the way they’d came.
Suicides were another word for the exercise, although the first time he’d used that term, Joseph had caused a small incident, so he called it ‘relays’ instead. Meanwhile, the Little Crabs were practicing passing. They’d long since graduated from just kicking the balls back and forth. These days, they had to dribble and pass between each other, faster and faster, over longer distances.
Joseph watched approvingly as the Little Crabs practiced. They were good. Better than he’d been at their age? Well…not in control.
Ekirra kicked a bit too hard and a Drake ran off after the ball. However, he’d had only a month or two to play! His ears flattened and he shouted.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry, that’s why we’re practicing.”
That was what Joseph thought was ‘too serious’. Ekirra looked afraid he’d be kicked off the team for one mistake! Joseph knew there were tough coaches; he’d had one for middle school. He didn’t want to be that.
He watched with half an eye, then turned to the Flood Crabs.
“Ush! You’re going faster.”
A Gnoll about Joseph’s age stopped and grinned. He was sprinting the relays and Joseph knew he couldn’t match that.
“Thanks, Joseph. Got [Quick Movement] last night.”
“You don’t say? That’s great. We’ll see how this changes you on offense.”
Ush was a second striker, but given his new Skill, Joseph might have to try him in a winger or the main striker position. Skills changed how football was played in so many ways.
In more ways than one. Joseph let the Flood Crabs build their muscles; Skills changed things, but they could multiply hard work rather than just replace it. He watched the Little Crabs go from passes to trying to score on the goalkeeper gamely blocking their shots.
Something was apparent, though. The Little Crabs were behind the Flood Crab team because they were children and the adults could practice longer and picked up advanced techniques, despite the motivation and enthusiasm of kids. Coordination was lacking; that was fine. They’d play against kids their age.
However, Ekirra kept messing up. Eight times, he missed a pass, and a Gnoll or Drake or the only Human girl would go running after the ball he kicked too hard.
“Ekirra, take a break. What’s wrong? Are you trying to kick less hard?”
Joseph flagged him down after the last cycle, where Ekirra’s kick had actually missed the goal and gone off nearly a hundred paces—too far right.
“Sorry, Coach. My aim’s bad. I wanted to practice with Mrsha, but I can’t hit the goal. Please don’t kick me off the team.”
Ekirra’s ears were flat and he looked like he’d cry if Joseph did. The young man squatted down, patting Ekirra’s shoulder reassuringly.
“I wouldn’t do that. You’re fast, you work hard…you pass really well!”
Besides, Ekirra had helped start football in this world. Joseph wouldn’t cut him no matter what, and if that was favoritism, so be it. He looked at Ekirra. The kid didn’t take the game lightly…
“Has something changed?”
Joseph blinked. Ekirra glanced up with one huge, brown eye and kicked the ground.
“You got a Skill?”
“Yep. I’m Level 5 now. And I got [Lesser Strength]. But I can’t—”
Joseph stared as Ekirra babbled nervously. He looked at the ball Ekirra had blasted past the goal. Then he started laughing. Ekirra looked terrified until Joseph ruffled the fur on the top of his head.
“That’s not a problem. Say it earlier! You just need more practice. Come on, we’ll have you get your aim back in. Flood Crabs! Let’s do our practice! Little Crabs—relays! Metas, you and Ekirra will do some passing practice!”
How fast they improved. Joseph felt better as Ekirra brightened up and he was soon working with the adults.
Now they were good. No basic passes with them; Joseph was teaching them tricks. Proper headers, how to evade someone trying to steal the ball while dribbling…was it too soon for two month players?
The answer was no. Joseph had the ball stolen from him twice when he ran demonstrations despite his best attempts.
Ush grinned at him; Joseph had lost the ball despite trying to show off the evasive trick where the ball seemed to stick to your feet as you rotated around someone.
“Just do that in the game.”
Joseph grinned, and the players nodded. They had a lot of respect, even the ones who were older than Joseph by nearly a decade. He’d been worried, but again, Erin Solstice had laid down the path for this.
“Looking good! How about a game?”
Two hours in, the teams looked up excitedly. They were tired, but stamina potions put them right back in the mood for a game. Joseph selected teams, trying to balance them, putting substitutes against regular players, mixing up the standards.
Testing out new Skills, too. Ekirra wasn’t the only player who got new Skills regularly. Ush was a main striker for the first game, then a winger. Ekirra got to take main striker and scored six times in the first game.
Joseph took over for the poor Drake boy who had to try to block the overpowered kicks. Not only that; the football curved as one Drake booted it towards Joseph. He dove—caught it.
“Not bad! What is that?”
“[Homing Kick], Coach!”
“That’s great. Let’s see you do that after a pass in, though. Don’t just run at me; surprise me! Even if it curves, I can get it. Who’s got [Flash Kick]? Let’s set up a combo!”
That was fun. Yes, it did feel a bit…overpowered. Especially when Joseph had to block an Ekirra-kick that hurt. It was like someone ten years older smashing the ball at him!
It made the game more fun, though. Joseph glanced up as a roar came from the other pitch.
“Coach! How are we supposed to stop that?”
Ush bellowed, pointing angrily up. Joseph saw the Human goalkeeper, a brawny guy called Elmoin, angrily punch the wooden goalpost. It looked like four goals from Team A on Team B…all due to a single player.
“Lemiss! Over here! Both teams, take a break! Drink some water—and get a snack! Menua, take over as goalie for me? Little Crabs, don’t kick the ball into her face! I’m looking at you, Ekirra!”
The others did just that. And the main striker, the MVP of the Flood Crabs…flew down to talk with Joseph.
Lemiss was an Oldblood Drake. She was one of two fliers on the team, and had just enabled her team to score four times in a row, kicking the ball in from the air.
“It’s not that she scores, Coach. But how are we supposed to stop her when someone passes to her in the air?”
Ush complained. Joseph saw the problem. Honestly…aerial passes were not a problem that occurred on Earth. Yet he’d brought football to this world, and now the fliers wanted to play.
How did you stop a pass to the air? Lemiss had cheerfully shot the ball down to her teammates, effectively letting them cross the field without a chance of interruption.
“It’s bad enough when half the team are fliers. They just pass from air to air and we have to make sure they never get it or bet on our fliers intercepting. But with Lemiss and Rells…and no one else with us…”
Joseph’s arms were folded and he was nodding. Both Oldblood Drakes had been on Team A, a miscalculation on his part.
The rest of the Flood Crabs drifted over, with water and snacks in their claws, paws, or hands. All provided courtesy of Liscor’s [Shopkeepers] of course. They wanted to support their team. They wanted to win. This was something for Liscor to be proud of. Best soccer team in Izril. And they were playing other cities too! Joseph felt a pang…but concentrated on the issue.
“We took Pallass in the first game.”
Everyone nodded proudly at that. Broadcast across the world! Over three hundred thousand gold pieces’ worth of bets, or so Joseph had been told. A lot of money made because Liscor had hosted the game, and merchandise sold? Not to mention being the stars of their team. All of it was great.
It hadn’t been easy, though. Joseph pointed out the obvious he’d gotten from his post-mortems.
“We won that game because Pallass had far worse technique than ours. They had great Skills and team players—no cohesion. Their aerial game let them score, but if we kept the ball on the ground, we ran circles around them. The tradeoff with an aerial team is they have to take off and commit to the air. They mess up, they expose themselves.”
Literally. It was 17-6; a slaughter. Ush and the others nodded, smiling, but Lemiss raised a claw.
“Coach…what if they get better, though? Rells and I can actually pass across the field if we do it right. With Pallass in the air…they could strike on the goal without ever touching the ground.”
That was true. Joseph hesitated.
What’s the solution here? Get your players Rings of Jumping? Have them do some kind of trick where two of them throw a third up to intercept?
All those ideas sounded impractical. Unbalanced towards a flying opponent. In the end, Joseph exhaled.
“I think I know what it has to be. This is uh, a Human game mostly. So fliers weren’t ever something we really considered. We…banned flying spells and magic, of course.”
The other players nodded. Casual pickup games could use magic, but any real game was only Skills, no artifacts or enchantments. Joseph went on, uncertain, but feeling his way through.
“For a flying opponent…it’s totally unbalanced if they can score with impunity.”
Lemiss and Rells looked worried. Did they think they were going to be cut? Joseph hurried on.
“So I think the way it should be is this: limits on passes. Only one aerial pass is allowed; not consecutive passes from air-to-air players. Also—we’re implementing a rule from another sport. No aerial player can be passed to or shoot ahead of a ground player. It’s not much, but it means they can’t just skim around and use that to their advantage.”
“What about shooting on the goal? Rells just hovered next to the goal and kicked it in.”
“…Then we’ll have a minimum distance on flying players.”
That seemed fair. Joseph saw Rells and Lemiss nodding in relief. He clapped his hands.
“Let’s try it out! Give me Lemiss and Rells on one team again, and pass to them! Really try to drive an edge over a ground-based team. Go!”
It worked. Of course, they had to tweak things, but the new rules radically limited the edge flight could give a player. It was also still risky to shoot to a flying player; if you prevented them from ‘juggling’ the ball in the air, they had to instantly pass it down to another player like a ping pong ball, which meant interceptions were far easier.
Ultimately, it added to the sport, not detracted. Joseph was smiling as he and the Flood Crabs analyzed the game.
“I think these rules work! We’ll practice under them, but remember—those aren’t the rules for the games. We need to see if the other teams agree to adopt them.”
“What? Why do we have to do that? Coach?”
Lemiss stared at Joseph. He hesitated.
“They might not agree.”
“But you’re Joseph. You introduced the game! Just tell them the new rules—I bet there are those spies watching and passing them on as we speak!”
So saying, Ush gestured with one paw towards a hill in the distance. Joseph looked and saw someone duck down. He stood there, and felt it again.
Joseph the Soccer Player. Thanks, Erin. Yet still. Joseph. He wasn’t the person who’d written the rules on the game. He was the game. The young man looked around.
“…Well, I guess those are the rules.”
His team cheered him. The [Kicker] felt his back itching. Presently, to get rid of it, because he’d been watching the game he loved, he made a suggestion.
“Why don’t we play a game? I’ll join Team A, though. I want to try my new Skill.”
They cheered that. Joseph grinned, and his team began wrangling to play with their coach or against, depending on their personalities.
That was his first, real, mistake of the day.
Joseph tried his [Pinpoint Distance Kick] and watched Elmoin’s eyes go wide. He heard the epithet even across the football pitch.
A longer pitch, incidentally. Nearly twice as long. That was due to Skills; players like Ush meant it was justified. As well as a goal one point five times larger. Harder to defend? Oh yes.
Still, the Human [Blocker], who had actually been a [Shield Warrior] before changing careers and coming to Liscor, had the time to activate a Skill.
A light, azure force field blocked the upper-right corner and the hammer shot Joseph had launched from across the entire field at commendable velocity—bounced. At the same time, the [Static Shield] broke.
With a surprisingly crisp shattering sound. Elmoin’s Skill—the reason Joseph had taken him as a goalkeeper—created a shield that stayed in the air wherever he wanted. His was about as tough as thick glass, though; it could block a strike or a few arrows, but it wasn’t as strong as higher-level Skills.
Great for football. Joseph groaned as Elmoin booted the ball to another player.
“Cheap shot, Coach!”
Lemiss laughed as she flew out on defense. Joseph grinned. He ran across the field. No [Quick Movement], but [Accelerated Sprint] was good—even if he was tired. Still, he had [Lesser Dexterity], [Lesser Endurance]. If he had Ekirra’s Skills?
He found himself coming up against Rells, on the ground. The Drake had dodged two players. Joseph slid in, snagged the ball. He began dribbling it forwards, looking for a pass. He wasn’t going to grandstand like the first game where he’d been the ace. H—
Ush stole the ball in a blur. Joseph cursed, but aborted the pithy words when he saw Ekirra and the Little Crabs watching the adults, learning. The little Gnoll’s ears were perked and he stared at his hero.
“Nice job! Get back here!”
Ush laughed. So did the other players vying for the ball; Lemiss got it in a diving kick that caught the Gnoll by surprise.
They loved the game. They took it seriously, they liked to level and they knew this might be a career for life. Ekirra’s parents had high hopes in him, which was why they’d enrolled him. Ekirra, leveling up at his age? They were beyond proud and encouraging.
Lemiss passed. Joseph spun, caught the ball, headed towards Elmoin for a rematch.
He never made it. A second player, Maun, a female Gnoll, snagged the ball. Joseph lashed out—
At least knock it out of bounds, despite the kick. Or someone else would get it! Maun—
“[Evasive Maneuver]! Whoa! Scary, Coach!”
Dodged. And took the ball with her! It jumped Joseph’s foot. He sprinted after her, snagged it back. He was running in the clear now, as other players blocked Team B. He saw Ush coming from the side, but Joseph adjusted his body. They were going to vie for the ball and he was nearly ready to score.
He had [Power Kick] waiting. Joseph took the ball around him. He juked, feinting left—
Ush stole the ball again. He zoomed past Joseph, looking delighted. The young man slowed. Then he felt it.
I am outmatched.
It was a realization. Not a question or suspicion. He’d gotten the ball thanks to being passed to, but even as he ran back to position, he saw it.
Felt it. Joseph lost the ball six more times. He shot twice on goal. Both times blocked.
It was like the one time a college player had decided to bully the high school team. He’d walked onto the pitch and stolen every ball, scored with every shot. Faster, stronger—
More than that, better at the game. Talented enough to win a scholarship. It was that last which Joseph felt now.
Ush was one of twenty three players in Liscor, male and female, chosen for the team. Joseph had picked him during the try-outs for his ability to snag the ball like that. When he’d been teaching them, Joseph had run rings around an amateur. Now?
It was like trying to dodge a hurricane which snagged the ball each time. Trying to steal the ball back? Like trying to kick a spider dancing on a silken thread in the wind. The ball disappeared left, or right, and Ush grinned at Joseph as the young man slowed again.
“Stop taking it easy on us, Coach! Or we’ll get big heads!”
They were moving too fast for Joseph to finish. Which was good because he didn’t have anything to say. That was what hurt most, by the by.
They thought he was better and holding back. The Flood Crabs looked at Joseph, teasing, admiring, after the game ended. Team A won despite Joseph, and they laughed.
Look at that. Taking it easy on us to show us it’s a team effort. Joseph could almost hear their thoughts as Lemiss joked with Ush. He smiled, unable, afraid to tell them the truth. He stood there, Joseph the Soccer Player.
“I think that’s it for today. Good hustle, team. I—oh?”
Some of the audience who’d come out to watch had flooded the field at this. Joseph saw an excited young woman, Human, thrust out something towards him.
“Excuse me—I’m a huge fan. Can I get an autograph?”
“Hey! You can’t just bother the coach! No civilians on the field!”
Ush looked outraged. Joseph saw the young woman’s face fall. He took the quill.
“It’s fine this time.”
“Sorry, Coach. We should really get security. You’re too popular. We are going to crush Invrisil in the next game!”
A player grinned at Joseph as the lucky autographee was escorted away with the other civilians begging autographs or wanting to talk. Joseph stood there. Trying to smile.
And they wonder why I drink. Damn me. Why do I have to be so jealous? So petty?
“I’ll see you all tomorrow. Hope you all level.”
He turned to the team. Ush grinned.
“I just did yesterday. But here’s hoping. Level 17 [Kicker]!”
The Gnoll of Joseph’s age offered a paw to high-five. Joseph…felt his petty evil welling in his heart. So he betrayed them before lunch time. He was sorry.
Yet he was a Joseph. Not a Kevin. Let alone an Erin.
“Of such rank and injust betrayal of all I held dear, my heart could only twist and break and grieve for the goodness now wronged before mine eyes.”
–Mrsha the Grieving, in regards to the time Numbtongue ate her lemon tart.
Little Ekirra loved soccer. Soccer was fun. Soccer was life.
He got to level because of soccer. No one had higher levels than he did! Mrsha said she did, but she lied all the time about stuff.
His parents were really happy about it too. They’d bought him his jersey, and Coach Joseph was great. He was bouncing his personal soccer ball with his team as they chattered on the way through the south gate—then Ekirra’s eyes went wide.
“I forgot my belt pouch!”
He’d left it in the inn when he went to practice with Mrsha before practice with the team! He’d been so nervous that Coach Joseph would be mad. He looked around.
“I can take your ball, Ekirra.”
One of the Gnolls who lived on his street offered. He handed it to her.
“Thanks! And my jersey? Don’t get it dirty!”
Sweat didn’t count, or dirt from the pitch. That was good mess. His teammate, Cheka, sniffed at him. She knew that! Ekirra scampered on all fours back the way he’d come—then remembered and began to jog on two legs.
“Where are you going little fellow? Practice has ended, right? We don’t want you getting hurt before your game with Esthelm in two days!”
One of the big [Guards] at the gate stopped Ekirra. He pointed.
“I forgot my belt pouch at the inn.”
The [Guardsman] glanced at his companions.
“Ah. Hm. Why don’t you use the door instead? Safer that way. We patrol, but there’s always the Razorbeaks who’ll go after kids—and the Shield Spiders.”
“No chance of a Razorbeak with Bird the [Hunter] watching the skies.”
One of the Drakes snorted. The Gnoll shrugged.
“You want to explain to Captain Z? I’ll take you to the magic door. Ekirra, isn’t it?”
The little Gnoll nodded gravely. Guards were always right, or so his parents told him. It would take longer, but then they asked for his autograph.
“If you score in the game, we’ll all buy you a treat! Best of luck!”
They were nice. Ekirra took the big Gnoll’s paw and they hurried to the magic door. By the time they got there…Mrsha was gone. So was Visma.
“Miss Visma has gone back to Liscor. I don’t know…where Mrsha is.”
Ishkr frowned around. He was responsible since Miss Erin was hurt. Up to a point; he let Mrsha ‘play’ with Ulvama and kept regular tabs on her as Lyonette had asked, but Mrsha could evade everyone but Erin when she wanted to. Ekirra nodded gravely. Ishkr sighed.
“I will go look for her. Here are your belongings.”
He handed Ekirra the belt pouch. Ekirra thanked him as the [Guardsman], satisfied, stepped back through the door.
“Good luck in your games!”
Ekirra waved. He was going to go back—but now he needed to pee.
Three minutes later (it was poo), Ekirra opened the door of the outhouse and padded out. He sneezed a few times; it was always stinky. Then he headed back for the door to Liscor. He would have gone straight home, too.
But for Joseph. Ekirra smelled him first, naturally. He was about to ask Joseph if there was anything he should practice and how good he’d done! His tail wagged as he pursued Joseph towards the magic door, now placed in the portal room just off the side of the long hallway with the secret spying holes Mrsha had showed him.
Joseph didn’t hear him. Ekirra stopped as he realized Joseph had changed clothing. He’d washed himself, and changed out of the jersey of the Liscor Flood Crabs, which made sense.
…So why was he wearing another jersey? Yellow and black, like Apista?
Ekirra came to a halt. Joseph headed through the open door, into a sunlit city that smelled like a thousand things. Broad streets, amazing architecture. Ekirra recognized it at a moment’s glance.
Pallass. The little Gnoll stared at Joseph. It could not be. It wasn’t—he saw Liska move to close the door. Without a moment’s thought, Ekirra ran after Joseph. He leapt through the closing checkpoint gate, opened for Joseph, and heard the shout from the [Guards]. Then he was in the street, following Joseph, running from the angry Watch. It couldn’t be.
It couldn’t be, but he had to know. Not the most heinous thing. Not Coach Joseph. He couldn’t be…coaching another team?
He ran a total of five steps before a claw caught him, of course.
The great betrayer walked through the streets of Pallass. Joseph, the sellout! The traitor! The—
“…Coach of Liscor’s team. I don’t think we need to introduce him.”
“Of course not. Good to meet you, er—Mister Joseph. Sir.”
They called him sir. The Drake [Strategist] had even asked for his autograph. But then, she was not Chaldion, far younger.
“It’s a pleasure to be here.”
Joseph mumbled. He felt bad. Mrsha had given the Pallassian jersey a dirty look before she went through to Invrisil. Wait—was she allowed to do that? Liska hadn’t cared.
Thoughts of Mrshas vanished as Joseph was introduced to two more players, and three financial backers, all of whom had been part of the group convincing him to teach Pallass’ team.
“We’re delighted you accepted our invitation to educate our team, Mister Ortega. What can we expect from you today?”
A Gnoll adjusted a monocle, much like Sir Relz. Joseph wondered if he was staring at his levels, but thanks to Erin and Ryoka, he was covered from appraisal and scrying. He seemed impressed with Joseph’s reputation at any rate.
“I don’t have a set plan, er, sir. I need to see where they’re at before I can improve them. Also, there are some new rules I need to bring to Pallass’ attention.”
That seemed to impress the cohort. They nodded; the [Strategist] consulted her notes.
“Ah yes, the aerial rule amendment.”
“You know about that?”
Joseph eyed her. She had the grace to look embarrassed.
“We intend to win the upcoming championship, Coach Joseph. Pallass won’t make the same mistakes again.”
“Especially not with Joseph the Soccer Player giving Pallass’ team his expert advice!”
Another Drake chimed in, and Joseph winced. For multiple reasons.
“Just remember, I’m also advising Liscor and Invrisil’s teams.”
The other faces fell. The Gnoll audibly whispered to a companion.
“We didn’t manage to get an exclusive deal?”
Joseph sighed. If you were going to sell out, you might as well do it so multiple groups had an advantage. Also—it was a lot of money.
A lot of money.
As in…a lot of money. As in…Joseph probably exceeded Solar Cycle’s income at this moment. As in…he just wasn’t as principled as Kevin or Erin, he guessed.
He was so swept up in all of the hustle and bustle as they took him to meet Pallass’ team; handpicked twenty three, some former adventurers, with dedicated family apartments, a huge salary, personal trainers, weights room, everything Liscor could dream of, yet they’d still gotten their asses kicked, that Joseph didn’t have time to really take in Pallass. He only looked around from the people asking him for autographs, a ‘game plan’ for Pallass’ unique strategy, his take on the upcoming Liscor-Invrisil match, when he heard the commotion behind him.
“Let me go! Let me go! I’m a Little Crab! Joseph is my coach! Not your stupid city’s!”
Joseph’s heart sank through his shoes. He turned and there was Ekirra. The little Gnoll stopped, stared at Joseph’s jersey, and looked like he was about to cry.
The sheer look of betrayal hurt more than it should. Joseph opened his mouth—then noticed the wall of muscle holding Ekirra.
“This little Gnoll slipped in past you. Joseph, isn’t it? We clearly need to update the security system, although I’m pleased the ward spells didn’t blast him to pieces. So there is that.”
Grimalkin of Pallass held Ekirra by one huge claw. The [Sinew Magus], the most built Drake that Joseph had ever seen, looked down at Joseph, face impassive. Joseph looked at Ekirra. The little brown Gnoll stared at him. He looked at the bemused backers of the team, the [Strategist], two of the players, and bellowed one word.
Joseph sat in the office Pallass had given him, even if he was splitting his time between three teams now.
Ekirra hit him. Joseph didn’t move. Ekirra punched his leg. Joseph let him. Ekirra opened his mouth—and someone stopped him from biting.
“Listen, Ekirra, is it? There’s nothing wrong with this young man teaching multiple teams. He is not a player.”
A Drake with wings tried to explain to Ekirra. He let go of the Gnoll as Ekirra twisted to bite; the football player backed off as Ekirra spat, looking at Joseph.
“He can’t teach you! He’s Liscor’s coach. It’s not right!”
“Listen. Let’s try to be mature about this…”
Good luck with Ekirra. Joseph rubbed at his aching leg as Ekirra spat, keeping the other players from grabbing him with the power of expectoration. Besides which, ‘be mature about this’? If Joseph heard a coach from his favorite team was teaching a rival on the side…
He understood how Liscor would feel, that was the point. Loyalty. It was just…
…A lot of money. Joseph didn’t have a bigger reason than that. However, ten thousand gold pieces for a month? And that was from Invrisil.
“I’m sorry, Ekirra. I’m not taking sides. Nor am I coaching during the games. It’s just—a career. A really good deal.”
“I thought you liked us.”
Ekirra stared up at Joseph. His eyes were round. Then hurt. Then—he sat down and began to howl and cry.
Joseph would have preferred being stabbed. That was how it felt. Imagine if his heroes had just sold out like that in front of him?
“We should get this little Gnoll back home. The secret’s out, but that won’t compromise much more than the shock value…”
The Drake [Strategist] was trying to speak over the howls. She gestured and a Pallassian Guard reached for Ekirra.
Joseph stopped the Drake. He bent down and picked Ekirra up. The Gnoll instantly went back to punching, but Joseph turned him around.
“I’m sorry, Ekirra. I am. I do like your team and I like Liscor. I hope you win and become a great f—soccer player. I am teaching your team as best I can—but Pallass offered me a lot of money.”
“B-but…don’t you like us?”
The Gnoll was snotting on Joseph’s jersey. The young man didn’t mind. He let Ekirra sniff.
“I do. Er—but it was a lot of money.”
“Like…a thousand gold coins?”
The [Strategist] snorted. Joseph just nodded.
“Something like that.”
Ekirra calmed down a bit. He knew money mattered. He still looked hurt. Joseph looked at him. If this was home? He wondered if he had to worry about being jumped in a back alley. That…might actually be an issue.
He sat there, as Ekirra sniffed and blew his nose on the yellow jersey made with silk. Joseph looked at the waiting team, the [Strategist].
“It’s the game, Ekirra. I can’t be on the Liscorian team. I’m not that good.”
Several incredulous snorts. Ekirra looked up at Joseph and the young man’s heart twisted as he admitted it. Then—he made his peace with that fact.
“I’m not that good. I do love soccer, though. Which is actually called football. Do you like the game?”
Ekirra nodded, wiping his eyes. Joseph smiled. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. Back home…on Earth, you could really like your teams. Enough to brawl or kill people during games. Those were the fans.
Perhaps, if there was something else to change, it wasn’t just the rules. Joseph set Ekirra down and knelt.
“Well then, if you want, why don’t you help me train Pallass? Then you can see I’m not helping them more or less than Liscor.”
Ekirra hesitated. He sat there, looking up at Joseph. The young man offered him a hand. The little Gnoll slowly took it. Joseph looked up. He felt an Erin-feeling in his chest. Was this how she got to feel? Certain?
“Is this young Gnoll going to be accompanying us? I would hate for this to interfere with Pallass’ first training session, Coach Ortega.”
The [Strategist] looked skeptical. Joseph met her eyes.
“This little Gnoll played the first game of football in Izril with me. He might be able to teach your players a thing or two. He won’t slow us down. I’m ready to teach the team. Just one thing though—I have a condition.”
She glanced at the other players as the team stood there. Joseph smiled.
“—just a sterling amount of silver, aha, pardon the pun. Now, I can assure you, Sir Relz, that the quality of the silver won’t appreciably depreciate—another little pun—for at least the next f—”
The droning voice of the [Merchant] over Wistram News Network was fascinating. If you liked economic talk.
Some people did, which was why they’d allocated the hour to business talk with Sir Relz and his co-host.
Usually Noass, but since Noass was sick…Drassi got the job. She was slumped, her chin resting on her claw.
Clearly falling asleep. She kept jerking and trying to look interested, but her eyes were literally drooping, and Sir Relz had given up nudging her. The Drake with the monocle was leaning forwards as if to make up for her lack of enthusiasm.
This was the news. Or rather, the 24/7 broadcast from Pallass. The most fascinating thing looked like it might be Drassi literally starting to snore on air.
…Right up until the Drake [Reporter] glanced up, blinked, and leaned over as someone whispered to her. She broke into the [Metals Merchant]’s diatribe with a bright, overly-loud voice.
“Excuse me! I’m so sorry, but we have a breaking news report!”
Someone began playing a horn in the background, a jaunty tune as the words flashed around the magical ticker tape running across the bottom of the broadcast. Sir Relz blinked, and Drassi began speaking rapidly as someone held up the cue cards.
“This one’s a Pallassian exclusive. If you’re just tuning in…”
The viewer count began going up, as people were notified of the breaking news via their scrying devices. There were categories of news alert.
This was the lowest-level, which meant dramatic news, not wars or cataclysm, which were reserved for the highest-level alert. Even so…it was the news.
Ishkr stopped looking for Mrsha as the scrying mirror lit up. Ulvama, chewing on food, sat up, excitedly.
“…It looks like we’re in for sports news! I’ve just been given word that an upset is coming to the world of soccer!”
Sir Relz interjected, clearly trying to be part of the moment. He adjusted his monocle as he spoke rapidly.
“We’ve broadcast six games around the world, and there’s talk of bringing teams together to play a world-wide championship. Er—what’s the news, Miss Drassi?”
“Well—no, this can’t be right. Do we have a live-feed? Show me! According to this—”
The image shifted. The viewpoint became a [Mage]-on-the-ground. The city of Pallass and the steps stretched below the viewers, and there, in front of them, was a young man.
And a little brown Gnoll. Ishkr spat out his drink of water. So did a number of Liscorians including Lism.
Drassi was just as shocked as everyone else. She stared, then began reading the news.
“It says, Joseph the Soccer Player, whom we all know is…coaching Pallass’ team as well as Invrisil’s? He’s been contracted to coach both teams and—that dirty rat!”
She shot up, shrieking as the copper penny dropped. Sir Relz looked most amused.
“Come now, Reporter Drassi. Let’s be professional—”
“Professional? Professional my tail! He sold out! He’s supposed to be Liscor’s coach!”
“There’s no rule saying one cannot teach multiple teams—”
“What about loyalty? That double-dealing—this just in: I’m going to kick Joseph’s butt! Excuse me! I’m going to cover this one in person.”
Drassi tossed her papers and stormed out of the studio. Sir Relz took over. Yet there wasn’t as much commentating to do, because the image soon became just the feed from Pallass, not the news room.
Joseph exhaled. He looked at the clear blue sky, and the people watching. Twenty three Drakes, Gnolls, Garuda, and Dullahans stood behind him.
A soccer team. Football, really. But who cared? Coaching…Ekirra looked up at him. Joseph adjusted his jersey. He spoke to the [Mage]-reporter, knowing he was on air.
“Yes, I’m teaching Pallass’ team and Invrisil’s. I’m sorry if that upsets Liscor’s team, or people who think of me as Liscor’s, but the truth is that it’s not quite fair to have me teaching one team. It might be I won’t matter, but for now I’m teaching all three teams to the best of my ability. No favoritism. Also, I’ll be donating a q—half of the money Pallass is paying me to Liscor’s team.”
“And what is it you’re going to do here? What do you have to say to threats made on your person by er, Reporter Drassi, and comments about loyalty to city or home?”
The [Mage] pressed Joseph. People saw the young man raise his hands, looking around, alarmed.
“Drassi? Tell her—tell her—”
He looked completely stumped for a second. The little brown Gnoll stared up at Joseph solemnly. At last, the young man barked a short, rueful laugh. He swept his hair back and looked up.
“Sorry. I just…like football. That’s all.”
“Football? Er—what about s—”
Joseph turned and raised an arm. The soccer players broke into a surprised trot as an angry Drake pushed through the crowd behind Joseph. He called to the [Mage].
“We’re going to do a training routine—live! If anyone wants to watch, they’re free to copy it too!”
“What? Give me that—Joseph! Get back here! This is Drassi on the streets of Pallass! How many bones do you break if you get kicked down the staircase? We’ll find out now!”
Drassi snatched the scrying mirror from the surprised [Mage]. She ran after Joseph as Ekirra ran with him, the team following.
…The [Reporter] failed to catch up. She’d sprinted this far, and she found herself panting as Joseph ran down the steps. Ahead of him, the Watch was clearing the way. He held a football under one arm.
“Joseph! Joseph, do you mean it about donating the money?”
“I do! Don’t hit me, Drassi!”
She lowered the scrying orb she was using like a club.
“We don’t have anything but boring economics for this hour. Are you suggesting we broadcast your entire workout?”
“If anyone wants to learn how we do it, why not? At least the warm-ups! Unless Pallass has any objections?”
He glanced at the [Strategist] hurrying to keep up. She shook her head. Drassi turned.
“Hear that, Sir Relz? Someone get me a stamina potion. What’s our first step, Joseph?”
“Roadwork. Building muscles!”
They were storming down the stairs. Twenty three players, in an unscripted, but now live, very public event. A group of Drakes sitting at an outdoor café and watching the television glanced over as the team ran past them, then did a comical double-take as they realized they could see themselves.
“Why is running so important, Joseph?”
“Are you serious, Drassi?”
“No, I’m feeding you questions! Explain!”
The Drake snapped, shoving a speaking stone in front of Joseph. He laughed, and so did Ekirra, keeping pace.
“Well, you might run for ninety minutes straight during a game of football! Which is what it’s called by the way! Soccer is—a—a—colloquial term! We’ll be doing sprints, building up muscle every day, along with passing drills!”
“Even if they have Skills?”
“Especially if they have Skills! Skills don’t replace hard work or technique! Frankly, we might audition more players to see if some have the talent to make the roster! I didn’t choose the team!”
The players looked worried. They accelerated as Drassi and Joseph hit the second floor.
Behind them came Pallass. The [Sinew Magus], who had abandoned the excitement, glanced up from doing one-armed pushups on top of one of the railings that was creaking under his weight on the sixth floor. The narrow space and balancing act was part of his outdoor regimen.
Grimalkin stared at, to his eyes, two thousand citizens and growing jogging after Joseph and the soccer team. His students had increased exponentially, but his mass-exercise proposals and projects had never garnered even a tenth of this kind of excitement. He pushed himself up. They were running. The [Sinew Magus] started jogging.
Joseph ran out of the gates of Pallass, grinning. The air felt fresh and warm. He felt alive.
The City of Invention’s vast, central eastern gate was wide open, letting a flood of people out past him. The team ran with thousands of citizens—those not already exhausted—around them.
“Pick up the pace! If Ekirra can beat you, anyone can outrun you on the pitch!”
Joseph called. Ekirra was running on all fours, but the little Gnoll could match an adult in a run or even sprint for a while. He was smiling. And the smile was infectious.
Drassi was panting, but chugging stamina potions and running with him. Aspiring players or just casual fans and people watching the news saw Joseph lift the ball.
“Let’s see how you can dribble. If you’re good—don’t lose speed!”
He tossed the ball down and watched the Pallassian team copy him with some hesitation. They did slow down! Ekirra began dribbling almost as fast as they were. Joseph shook his head.
“Passing? Come on—”
He kicked the ball and Drassi, panting, kicked it back with commendable accuracy. By this point, someone else was managing the ‘camera’.
“You could have tried out for the team.”
“Pass! I hate running!”
Drassi gasped. The viewer-count was shooting up. After all—it was a topical piece.
The walls of the City of Invention swept up to the jogging players’ right, three hundred feet of enchanted walls. Impressive; the viewpoint swept around the green, safe landscape. After all, this land was Pallass’, and there were few places safer unless war threatened. Joseph was still smiling when he saw the second group emerge and break off from the untidy mass of people running behind him.
Unlike the flagging citizens—they began to speed up. They were running in—formation?
Joseph, Drassi, Ekirra, and the soccer team slowed uncertainly. Was this the Watch, interrupting the impromptu gathering?
Femithain, paused over lunch with Nsiia, saw rows of Drake [Soldiers] running in full armor behind a Drake they recognized.
Grimalkin of Pallass jogged next to Joseph.
“Grimalkin! What are you doing?”
“Exercising! Pallass’ training regiments could use the additional leg strengthening! This is excellent joint-training! If any squad falls behind the soccer players, they will go on water rations tonight! And if any of you fall behind that little Gnoll, you can quit the army! Testicles!”
He bellowed back at the [Soldiers]. They flinched. Joseph and Drassi’s faces were a picture of surprise and bemusement. Suddenly, they were running as thousands of [Soldiers] accelerated, desperately following the [Sinew Magus].
“—That’s Grimalkin of Pallass, taking Pallass’ trainees on an exercise run! If you’re just tuning in, I’m Drassi and this is Joseph, and we’re doing a sample training for soccer, excuse me, football teams! I ask my viewers—dead gods, my legs hurt—how do you exercise? Feel free to send in [Messages] or even demonstrate! Now, passing…”
It was just a silly thing. Joseph and the soccer team did slow much sooner than Grimalkin of Pallass, who wanted two laps of the City of Invention. They began practicing.
A day in the sun. A game of soccer. A simple question. How do you train?
It sparked, as these things do, a flood.
Joseph the Soccer Player ran on the scrying orb, keeping up a running dialogue with Drassi. The sun was already making the players sweat.
Yet just the scene of Pallass’ Engineers, the name of the soccer team, kicking a ball as they ran next to the paved road, past and sometimes on the artfully-cultivated grass and bright flowers that lead to the City of Inventions invited a moment.
The summer heat, the smell of fresh grass, a flight of swallows. Drassi laughing as Ekirra headed a football, leaping around, misery forgotten.
Fun. Casual fun, not anything grand or glorious. Just the lads…and lasses…playing a game they clearly loved.
It could put a smile on your face. It was inspiring too; because, look.
“He’s from Earth! See? It’s one of us! He’s teaching at one of the Walled Cities?”
Agog, the Earthers of Wistram were crowding the scrying orb, looking at one of the most successful Earthers in the world. Who had climbed up to his position of fame by hard work and effort. Joseph—the Singer of Terandria, and perhaps Rémi Canada, although that was a stretch.
Of course, someone had to take it too far. Grimalkin’s death-run with the [Soldiers] of Pallass and Drassi’s comments sparked, as it did—competition. The sight of so many Drakes running in formation, espousing the rigorous training of Pallass prompted pushback.
“It looks like Liscor has some stiff competition in the next game, eh, Sir Relz?”
Noass was still sick, but he’d climbed into the broadcast booth to cover for Drassi. Sir Relz, who’d edged as far to the side as possible, politely nodded.
“Indeed, Noass. Also, a wonderful display of martial training from Grimalkin of Pallass. I believe that’s 1st Army’s elite regiments in training…oh?”
He raised a claw, the signal for viewers to understand someone was giving him new information. Sir Relz consulted a bit of paper held up behind the ‘camera’.
“I think someone has taken our [Reporter] on the ground a bit literally. Are we cuttin—”
Another image appeared in place of the training football team. Sir Relz and Noass recoiled as an army appeared.
An army on the go. The King of Destruction’s forces, with Maresar and Venith, were suddenly front and center.
Running. Practically sprinting, really. With his Skills active no less, so they were eating up ground. Venith, in his plate armor, the King of Destruction, likewise wearing armor sans a helmet, were marching across Chandrar’s arid landscapes.
“I heard someone thinks Drakes field the most fit army in the world!”
The King of Destruction was laughing as he ran, despite the heat and dust caking his armor. Sir Relz hesitated.
“Are we live? Can he—”
“Yes I can. Sir Relz, isn’t it?”
Flos shouted back. The Drake flinched.
“King of Destruction—er, your Majesty Reimarch, is this your way of challenging Pallass’ training?”
“You could say that. We just mopped up a Nerrhavian force and we’re running to catch another one! Damned chariots—I notice you didn’t cover that in your morning broadcast! True, it was a little battle, but I thought I’d prove how a real army moves!”
The King of Destruction somehow managed to shout while running. Behind him, a stream of [Soldiers] raced onwards. In fact—Noass blinked as he wiped at his nose with a handkerchief.
“Is your entire army…running?”
The cavalry had dismounted and were running next to their horses. The infantry were running in formation, and the only group not running were supply wagons at the back.
And Maresar. She was letting her horse canter next to her husband and [King], rolling her eyes.
“We’re headed for the Simel Gulf! Assuming Nerrhavia has the cloth to face us there! That’s about forty miles—I expect to be fighting by late noon! Let’s see Pallass’ army do that!”
Flos bellowed. Sir Relz looked at Noass.
“Er—your Majesty. Is revealing the position of your army, uh, wise?”
Venith clearly shared the opinion based on the scowl on his face. Trey Atwood and Calac Crusland stared at the scrying orb, and traded glances. With resignation, Trey anticipated Flos’ reply before it was even given.
“If there was a choice between being the center of attention or being strategic, I know which one I’d pick! Now—pick up the pace!”
Somehow, Reim’s army found the strength to cheer and speed up. Flos Reimarch actually slowed to run between the ranks of his [Soldiers], clapping shoulders, laughing, thrusting his arm up and motivating his soldiers further.
Of course, the image didn’t stay on him. If you thought the ego of the King of Destruction was unmatched—you’d never met royalty. Or gone for a walk outside, really.
“I uh, think we’re getting more live feeds from forces claiming that Pallass’ training exercise is lacking. Is this—”
Sir Relz went temporarily deaf as the City of War appeared in the background. A force six times larger than Grimalkin’s training group was on the run. A touch faster than Grimalkin’s group, and of course, wearing full armor, carrying their weapons as they ran.
At this point, Noass had a surreptition. He voiced it at the same time as Cara rolled her eyes and started laughing.
“It might be, Sir Relz, that a lot of er, groups, would like to demonstrate their superior conditioning.”
It was a prophetic comment. Soon, the broadcasting studio in Pallass was swamped with incoming transmissions. It seemed like every army and militia wanted to prove they could run faster, and the two Drakes had to remind their viewers that the point was soccer—football, not just showing off!
Obligingly, Flos Reimarch somehow found a football and kicked it into his army. More amazingly, his soldiers managed to field the ball on the run, and it was exceptionally amusing watching an entire group of pikes go sprawling as someone tripped up over it and created a pile.
Thus, he kept the spotlight shifting back to him as well as Joseph and Pallass’ team. Mainly because he was the King of Destruction as well.
However, dozens, and then over a hundred submissions were vying for attention, such that the viewpoint kept shifting, showcasing different armies. Manus got three minutes; Zeres two. Oteslia and Fissival didn’t even get to show up. They were replaced by the Maelstrom’s Howling Centaur divisions, led by the Bannermare, galloping across the ground to show the two-footers how you were supposed to move.
“They’re just showing off. This is going to go on all bloody day.”
Cara O’Sullivan, the [Popstar] of Terandria, didn’t seem too put out by the suggestion. She put up her feet and watched her personal scrying orb as the caravan of the band travelled down the road.
“Not tempted to join in, Cara?”
Rae teased her. The [Popstar] rolled her eyes.
“I’m not running a mile a minute to get my five seconds of fame. You have to stand out, stand out, Rae. No one needs to listen to the Singer of Terandria right now. However! This looks like a lot of fecking fun to watch. Anyone got some popcorn or snacks?”
The comment turned out to be slightly wrong. Mainly because Cara’s voice did appear on the broadcast. Just not live.
“Come on. Just do it.”
Elena was arguing with the [Diviner] in charge of maintaining Wistram News Network. He frowned at her, yet Aaron was backing Elena up with a few Earthers. Trey lingered in the back with some of his [Mage]-friends. Calac was still locked on the scrying orb, hoping to see his parents again every time they flickered on screen.
“I don’t know. This is a news broadcast—”
“It totally fits. Just start playing it when you next cut to another group! Please? We know what we’re talking about. You’ll get more viewers!”
“Besides, you don’t need to hear those two Drakes talking. I know you can loop the sound into the feed. Do we have to ask an Archmage? You know Naili will okay it.”
Aaron added. The [Diviner] gave up.
“Oh—fine. But if they don’t like it, I won’t take the blame!”
He snatched the song crystal. As the image flickered again, Noass and Sir Relz were keeping up their rapid commentary.
“It looks like we’re at uh, House Ulta next. It seems Lady Pryde has taken Magus Grimalkin’s claims as a personal insult. Is that her in the yellow ‘track suit’ leading her personal forces? This is a new style of dress, by the w—what is that sound?”
The two Drakes’ voices were suddenly drowned out by a bomping drum and bass beat. A piano joined in a second later. Then—a voice.
Elena was grinning. In Terandria and her wagon, Cara sat up and nearly choked on her snacks as she heard her voice, recorded via song crystal, playing.
Music on air. For the first time, a recording rather than a live performance. Overlaid by the visuals of House Ulta jogging, almost synced perfectly to their feet striking the ground.
“Is this music? Inspirational? Is someone doing a performance? Oh—”
Sir Relz finally got the missive sent via [Message] and read it.
“It sounds like we’re playing music as a kind of, er, overlay to the scenery. This is, according to my notes, ‘Good To Be Alive’ by The [Popstar] of Terandria, original credit to…a skillet? As in, a cooking…?”
Cara picked herself up from the floor of the wagon, cursing. Abebi blinked at the recorded song playing. It was like a compilation video now. She smiled—then turned to the others. Thien had the same thought and raised his eyebrows.
“Do we get royalties from that?”
“Not invented yet. I’ll get on it.”
It was a fun song, fun competition. There he was too. Joseph.
The young man was, by now, oblivious to the television incident he was part of. He was doing another lap of Pallass, kicking the ball between him and a player, chatting about the minutiae of soccer with Drassi and the new rules on airborne players.
“Of course, that’s only for ground versus aerial players. An all-aerial team can do what they want. We’re also revising our formations.”
“Oh—because it’s too easy to travel the entire football pitch, even with defense. Kicking Skills make it too easy. As players level up, we’ll have to entirely alter how we think about defense and offense. We might even have to put a limit on how high players can fly or pass.”
“Really? Is that too limiting for the game?”
Drassi looked concerned. Joseph shrugged.
“We need to experiment to keep the game from being too lopsided, that’s all I meant, Drassi. For instance—I could pass across the entire pitch quite easily. Hey up there!”
He bellowed up at the walls. Some of the distant [Soldiers] on Pallass’ walls waved energetically, hoping to be caught by the scrying mirror before their commanders reprimanded them. Joseph pointed up at a Garuda [Lieutenant].
“Is it okay if I ask one of you to help me demonstrate something?”
He might not have been audible, but the Pallassian [Strategist] assigned to the team rapidly spoke into a speaking stone. Normally, no one touched the walls, but this was sports. Thus, city-pride and propaganda.
“That’s fine. What were you planning, Coach?”
“This. Going up! Pass it back!”
Joseph kicked the football up a foot—then launched it up. There was a shout as the ball, propelled by his Skill, flew towards the wall. The Garuda [Lieutenant] recoiled, but saw the ball shooting up the three hundred feet towards him.
Faced with the sudden pass, the Garuda had two options. Catch it or let it sail past him and endure mockery, albeit limited, or kick it back. If he missed, he would be ridiculed. On the other hand…if he kicked it?
He went for the kick. By luck or skill, he succeeded, and a black-and-white meteor dropped towards Joseph. The other players on Pallass’ team raced towards it and launched it ahead.
Joseph grinned at Drassi.
“You see? If I can kick the ball that high, who’s going to block that, even with a jump Skill? Height limits. We’ll be practicing combinations with those rules.”
Drassi craned her neck up towards Pallass’ walls, looking deeply impressed at Joseph’s new Skill.
At this point, none of the Earthers watching him could bear it any longer. The music! The game of soccer—at least as they thought of it—and Joseph himself were the most Earth-like thing they’d seen since coming here.
“He’s from Earth! He’s from Earth! We have to talk to him! How’d he introduce Pallass? It looks so—safe!”
Emily was almost crying. Richard was thumping Edward on the shoulder with excitement, and the other young man was doing the same to him. The Earthers of the Blighted Kingdom on Rhir stared longingly at the smile on Joseph’s face.
Completely free from the war weariness, the sight of combat and the fear of death that was visible on theirs. All of them had instantly broken off from the briefing to stare at Joseph.
Red, Chole, Cynthia, Katie, Stacy, Vincent, Keith…all of the original Earthers were clustered around the orb, almost in tears to see one of them somewhere other than hell.
Of course, they had seen Joseph before. Yet he was as much a hero and inspiration to them as the [Heroes] were to…Rhir’s populace. They longed to be there, not here.
The other watchers were less sanguine about Joseph. Lord Hayvon Operland was already glancing at some of his people, a frown written across his face. Similarly, Nereshal bore an expression that failed to conceal how disturbing this was to him.
Tom the [Clown], giggling to himself and standing apart from everyone else, was of two minds about Joseph. Well, everything. Aha. He stifled another maniacal laugh as he wondered if Joseph was as happy as he looked or whether those Drakes had him. Nowhere was safe!
Other Tom was whispering in his head. You just know he’s in a gilded cage at best. They’ll make him happy, pump him for information. Playing soccer. As if that changes anything? What’s Rhir going to do, hm? Grab him? Kill him? Nereshal looks like he’s about to crap himself. Bring him to Rhir to fight the Demons? That would be hilarious. Soccer balls vs the Death of Magic! Ha—
However, a voice interrupted his rambling thoughts. A snort, almost incredulous.
“Is that…soccer? Someone’s playing soccer instead of casting magic and stuff? That’s insane.”
The Earthers—the original Earthers—turned. Tom’s head spun around. Nereshal, Hayvon, and the other [Soldiers] of Rhir looked at the incredulous group craning to see the orb.
The other Earthers. The new Earthers. Over a hundred and ten so far, and more trickling in.
The Blighted King’s harvest. Tom’s teeth ground together as he saw the young man staring at Joseph, more bemused than inspired or hopeful.
So naïve. So excited, some of them. The smart ones looked worried. Not worried enough! He suppressed the laughter bubbling up inside of him.
“Sir Richard, Lady Emily and company, while I understand this moment is important, perhaps we could educate your companions as planned?”
Hayvon spoke gravely. Richard stepped away from the orb with clear reluctance.
“That’s right. Listen—”
His voice trailed off as he looked at the hundred plus Earthers. Some were clutching weapons, others holding spellbooks, artifacts they had been granted from the Blighted King’s treasury. They were dressed in rich clothing, or their original clothes from Earth.
They looked horribly, painfully, stupidly excited to Tom. Stupid idiots, some vibrating with the desire to be adventurers, [Mages]. Half had even bought the line about being chosen heroes, sent to fight evil!
“Where’s that? Can we go there? Look—there are Dragon-people!”
An excited whisper ran through the group, as Richard tried to speak. He lifted his gauntleted hands.
“Listen. This is Izril, not Rhir. I’m afraid the reality is we’re up against Demons. I wanted to talk to you all about what it’s like to actually fight. This isn’t a game—”
They weren’t listening. Tom bit his finger, hard enough to break his skin. He giggled as Emily glanced at him, and then at the Earthers.
“She sees it too! Look! They’re like us, but twice as stupid!”
He giggled to no one in particular. Keith glanced at him and edged away. But it was true! All true!
These Earthers were valuable! The Blighted King showered them with gifts and unlike last time, he wasn’t going to dismiss their worth since he knew they leveled three times, ten times as fast as anyone from this world!
They were the same, though. One of the Earthers was snickering at Richard’s cowboy hat and his armor. They were muttering, unable to even keep silent as Richard talked.
At complete contrast with Rhir’s [Soldiers] and people, of whom even Nereshal and Hayvon were listening to Richard respectfully.
No wonder they thought you were children and worthless! Look at them! Don’t they look pathetic! How do you seem to them? A fat man in a clown costume? Cowboy Richard? Emily, the [Water Mage]? Hah! They don’t know. When they do—what will their faces look like?
“So this is where everyone from the Spirited Generation is going? This is so—cool.”
Tom’s manic smile twitched. Cool. Amazing. Fun. They looked at him, even, like he was a novelty. He’d been compared to the Joker, or other superhero villains or characters at least five dozen times this week alone.
This week, when the Blighted King finally announced the new wave of Earthers that would valiantly join the Blighted Kingdom in defying the Demons. He watched Richard’s doomed attempt.
“Listen, everyone. This is not a game. You don’t come back from the dead.”
“Are you sure? What if we just go back?”
“Have you heard of any of us coming back? Anyone? Ron, Reyanne? Any of our friends?”
Emily interrupted, a tinge of annoyance coming back into her voice. The new Earthers murmured; a girl tossed her dyed hair.
Yet they knew about the missing kids. The Spirited Generation? Hilarious! Tom bit harder, tasting blood. Earth knew! They didn’t know what was happening, but they knew! Fascinating.
Stupid. Look—Richard was trying to get them to take it seriously. Hayvon was demonstrating as they locked swords. That just meant half the guys and some of the girls wanted to ‘give it a try’. Tom was growling, now.
“Tom. Chill. What’s wrong with you?”
Chole looked worried. The [Nurse] edged over. Tom giggled at her and she hesitated, but she was braver than most. Willing to talk to the madman. By contrast, Cynthia cowered if Tom so much as looked at her, which meant he stared.
“Look at them Chole! Look! We survived the Death of Magic blowing us to bits! All those brave heroes being sent back—and look at them! It’s just a game. It’s just a damned game to them.”
His voice was hysterical, he knew. Some of the others looked at him. The smart ones looked disturbed. The others just thought he was acting. Acting!
“I know. They’re like us. We have to teach them. Maybe—kill a monster?”
That might do it. Tom giggled and shook his head, though. His head rotated and Chole flinched as it strained his neck tendons with cracks.
“I have a better idea.”
The [Clown] edged over as Richard, exasperated, tried to raise his voice.
“Listen! This isn’t fun and games!”
“Come on, man. Who put you in charge? Tell us about levels! Are we going to grind for experience or—”
The arguers, who apparently knew more about how this kind of game worked and were ready to ‘game the system’, find out the ‘best classes’, and so on, stopped. As did the susurration of voices. Because the [Clown] had done a handspring forwards, and his posse of similarly-attired followers, painted faces, colorful clothing, too-wide smiles, had set up a cheer.
At least he knew how to command attention. Tom posed on top of a table, turning his head around. His smile? Almost genuine.
“Ladies and gentlemen! It looks like my dear friend Richard is trying to tell, not show you the gravitas of this world! Also, the wonder! I, Tom, the [Clown], will demonstrate. You’ve heard about Skills and magic. You’ve seen artifacts and feasted on the Blighted King’s hospitality. Now see what you get from fighting and slaughtering possibly innocent people and animals! Behold! [My Other Self]!”
His shadow moved. Then—a second Tom stepped out of the first Tom. The [Clown] spread his arms and turned at the gasps and then applause.
Amazement! Surprise! Excitement! Like a carnival crowd, the Earthers stared, gathering closer as the separate Tom appeared. They spoke at the same time, eerily disquieting.
The new Earthers were unwary. Richard was worried, but Hayvon held him back. He was looking at Tom. So was Nereshal, who was stroking his chin and nodding, almost resigned. The [Chronomancer]’s features were of a young man sometimes, when he cared to be. His eyes were always old. Tom met his gaze and smiled wider. Both Toms turned, spreading their arms wide.
“Glorious Skills! This isn’t all! I can do whatever is in my class! See?”
He produced a knife. Then a carrot. Both Toms began to juggle the objects around at each other. Tom looked.
Oh yes, look at the smart ones! That girl, there, who flinches. That young man, who might be only fifteen. Just a boy, but he’s smarter than that oaf with his stupid friends. That pallid idiot who thinks playing games on a computer will let him become the hero he wants to be! Now—
Both Toms met the other’s gaze. They stopped juggling. A carrot bounced off a face.
Laughter at the gag. Tom dreamily stared into his eyes, and then around at the Earthers.
“All you could want. All the potential in the world. And with great power comes…oh, you know. Death.”
The knife flicked up in his hand. He turned, and with all the casualness in the world, slashed at the other’s face. His knife went through cheek—bounced off teeth. The skin parted, unveiling what looked at first like sticky red cloth beneath. The other Tom—
—was faster. He put the knife in the first Tom’s eye. Lodged it deep, twisted—
The first Tom vanished. The real Tom spat blood out of his mouth and grinned. Blood ran down his face, out of his mouth and his cheek.
The laughter, the applause—the voices—suddenly went silent. Only his troupe began to laugh at the joke.
“Oh my god. He just—”
The Earthers stared in horror at the sudden display of violence. The other Tom had vanished as soon as he was murdered. Someone began to laugh—incredulously.
“Thank you, thank you. No need to applaud. But I don’t think the point has sunk in yet. Can I get a volunteer to help me out? No? Well then, you, sir.”
Tom pointed at the nearest young man, a football player—American football—and leapt.
Richard shouted, but it was too late. Tom’s hand flashed. The crowd scattered back and the horrified eyes saw him plunge the knife into the bigger young man’s stomach, his legs.
At first, the pain didn’t even register. The football player knocked Tom aside. Then he saw his guts hanging out of his stomach. The bloody cuts on his legs. He began to shout in horror. Then—scream.
First him, then those around him. Yet Tom hadn’t stopped moving. He turned, and threw the knife into a girl’s thigh. She went down, shrieking.
“Sir Thomas! Stop!”
Hayvon roared. He and his people strode into the crowd, but the stunned Earthers began fleeing. Too late, too late—Tom was pulling more weapons out of his invisible bag of tricks. He threw knives, lifted a wand and blasted a group with fire.
Flames ignited clothing. The [Clown] leapt, doing a spring, slicing, attacking the Earthers at random. Emily blasted him with a jet of water, but only knocked several Earthers flat as he dodged.
Richard tackled Tom in the end. It didn’t matter. He laughed as Richard slammed a fist into his face.
He’d done his job. Screams of pain, crying—the tiled floor ran with blood.
“Why so angry, Richard, old chap? Nothing a healing potion won’t fix.”
He grinned around his gash of a mouth and bleeding nose. Richard stared at him, fist raised for another punch. He looked around.
Nereshal stood there, watching reality sink in. He looked at Tom and nodded once. Almost in gratitude. The [Clown] laughed and laughed. He bellowed up at the ceiling.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of Earth! Welcome to hell!”
Of course, the good vibes of the day were only ruined on Rhir. Elsewhere, Joseph’s soccer lessons and the other groups showing off continued to be the trivial excitement for the day.
Empress Nsiia, formerly of Tiqr, and Magus-Crafter Femithain of Illivere, for instance, quite enjoyed just watching the scrying orb.
Typically, Femithain was working as he did, signing documents with one eye on the scrying orb. Nsiia leaned on the table, watching.
What else was there to do? She couldn’t just gallivant off. She was a prisoner, however nicely accommodated. Similarly, she had no desire to watch the new Golems that Femithain was working on be produced one scrape of a chisel or swing of a hammer at a time.
Femithain was now the [Golem Artificer] of Illivere, as Domehead had proven. The grand champion of the arena was still smashing heads in, and proving the possibility of creating more Sentient-class Golems at last.
Nsiia wished Domehead were assigned to guard duty here. She was bored, so this scrying orb was the only entertainment. She spent far too much time watching it, often for news of the King of Destruction.
It gave her both heart and annoyance to see him front-and-center. She wished he would win his wars, while knowing Reim was under attack from too many sides. Yet Tiqr lay beneath the conqueror’s boot while he wasted time!
“Femithain, do you want to play this game of football-soccer?”
She rolled over on the table, stretching like a cat. The little cat, with an ash-blonde pattern of fur of little rings, rolled over, copying her.
Yinah, whose lower half had been supplanted by Golem prosthetics. For all that, she didn’t seem to mind.
The Magus-Crafter raised his eyebrows as he retrieved some papers from the bored former-[Empress].
“It has some popularity in the federation, Nsiia. However, I personally am not inclined to try. I did draw up a Golem capable of defending one of the goals or kicking the ball for amusement, though.”
She accused him. Femithain just raised his brows higher.
“Is this a revelation, Nsiia?”
The woman sighed and stared at the ceiling. In some ways, Femithain was an ideal captor. He rose to little bait, and for all he was polite, and they had a friendship, he also kept strong boundaries.
Seducing him had failed. He watched her carefully. If she had thought she could suborn him, or gain her freedom, Nsiia would have done whatever it took. Yet he cleverly rotated the Human staff in and out, and used Golems to guard her.
For all she was idle, too…Nsiia stared up blankly at the ceiling.
“Hm? What, Femithain?”
“I said, would you like to play soccer? I am sure a game could be arranged. Perhaps even one that avails you of the scrying orb.”
The [Empress], for all her casual demeanor, folded her arms and stared up at the ceiling on the veranda. Chandrar’s hot, dry air was familiar, reassuring. She would have loved to run and play this silly game any time had she been in Tiqr, put aside the duties of the crown to play with her subjects.
Yet Tiqr is gone. My subjects are [Slaves] or fight for their land against my foes even now as I recline, growing fat and indolent. They despair and I wake knowing I failed them, as I do every day.
She lay there, depression overtaking her. She still stayed in contact with them, despite being [Animalfriend Exile], no longer [Empress of Beasts]. Her trusted [Wild General], Vasraf, still led a resistance from the steppes, raiding the enemy armies holding Tiqr, freeing her subjects from slavery and bondage.
She communicated with him via the birds she had tamed around Femithain’s mansion. Perhaps the Magus-Crafter didn’t know, or couldn’t figure out how to stop her from using her animal contacts. Perhaps this was the small kindness he allowed her.
If so, it was no kindness but a cruelty disguised as one. For all it let Nsiia do was send empty words of comfort to Vasraf. Hear of her people’s suffering.
‘They despair, your Majesty. I do not, yet time and their dire hours take its toll. Have you hope to offer us?’
The last missive which had reached her after one of the brave birds had flown day and night to reach her had been as an arrow into her chest. Nsiia clutched at her heart.
They fight. Can I offer them nothing?
No Golems of war. She was not the [Golem Maker] she had tried to become. Moreover, Femithain had discovered her projects and confiscated them. She was free to train her class…under supervision.
Domehead…no, no. Even if she could suborn it, him, the Golem was a single one, however intelligent, and would never make it to Vasraf. So, Nsiia lay there.
Until she had a thought.
I can offer my subjects nothing but myself. If they take any heart, let it be all I can give.
So she rose and looked at Femithain.
“I may try to get on the scrying orb after all.”
The Magus-Crafter blinked, having forgotten the conversation already. Nsiia sprang to her feet.
“If you wish it, I will send word for a [Mage] to broadcast you. In fact, perhaps Armsmaster Dellic would care to put together a small group to demonstrate Illivere’s…physical acumen.”
Femithain hesitated over that, since this was not a title to which the Illivere Federation could really lay a claim. Nevertheless, Nsiia was grateful. She began to stretch. At least let them see her! If it helped at all—
Yinah took over Nsiia’s job. She rolled over Femithain’s desk, meowing, until he began to pet her with his free hand. Nsiia went to get her moment on air.
That would be harder than it looked. As many groups were finding out.
Politics, fortune, fame, and, naturally, entertainment–value, were what allowed one to get on Wistram News Network. Yes, some generous contributors could get featured by being ‘randomly chosen’ out of the now thousand-plus submission count coming into the broadcast studio, from [Mercenaries] to full-fledged armies.
However, unless you had that advantage, or that of fame, only entertainment value or luck would get you a coveted slot, and your five minutes of fame.
Or five seconds. It was all so…political. For instance, The Glorious Kingdom of Medain…was not featured on the broadcast despite King Perric graciously taking time out of his conflict with Khelt-Jecrass to organize a showing of his Golden Ranks.
By contrast, Ailendamus got nearly thirty seconds of showing off their armies jogging towards another battle with the Dawn Concordat because it was topical and war. Not because they were more interesting than any of the other dozens of sweaty people in armor doing the same.
That was just it. At some point, the novelty wore off. Yes, they were running in formation and that was interesting. Yet watching that got old after about eleven minutes.
So Rabbiteater couldn’t fathom why the Order of Seasons wanted to copy that. Then again—being on the scrying orb was an allure of its own.
“Come on, Ser Solstice! Let’s show off our Order! We’ve put in a request to Wistram—how am I supposed to use this thing again?”
The Summer’s Champion accidentally kicked a ball straight into the Spring’s Warden’s chest plate. She let it drop and fielded the ball back, with a considerable amount more dexterity than he.
“You pass the ball, Ser Greysten. Like so.”
“Are you two seriously considering this?”
Knight-Commander Calirn looked pained. The Winter Knight had declined to armor up, but the two heads of their Season were determined to get on television and showcase their order.
Egos, [Knights], [Knights]…Rabbiteater didn’t see the point. Oh, it was vaguely fun, he had to admit, but he’d been on television a few times. He hadn’t told them that, though.
The Goblin was game to join the two hundred [Knights] of Spring and Summer who were going to do the passing exercise as they ran around their keep, too. So he set off, passing the ball to Ser Markus, as the Order waved upwards.
The new way Wistram could showcase so many groups was [Scrying] spells. It was ingenious, really. You sent coordinates to them and they [Scried] your location. Some places were warded against such spells, of course, but the Order of Seasons had dropped their wards just to get on the news.
By contrast, Chaldion of Pallass had told Wistram flatly to use their [Mages] and scrying gear. Pallass would not drop their wards for a second.
Thus, [Knights] waved at the sky, hoping to be seen, while they passed the soccer balls back and forth with a good degree of accuracy as they jogged along. They were warriors after all.
Rabbiteater saw the Summer’s Champion excitedly checking the scrying mirror he carried as more [Knights] watched from the keep’s walls. The [Knights] did a lap of the keep…then two…
“We’re not showing up.”
Ser Greysten slowed, the huge [Summer Knight] looking perplexedly at the Spring’s Warden. She shrugged.
“Wistram hasn’t selected our group for viewing.”
“What, are we supposed to keep running and waving until they do? We are the Order of Seasons!”
Greysten was a bit petulant. The [Knights] slowed, some looking a bit hurt. Surely their famous Order would garner attention?
…Compared to the King of Destruction, the Walled Cities, other nations, and every other Knight Order who’d had the same idea in the world? Rabbiteater took a sip of water through his visor with a straw. He saw the latest showcase in between going back to Joseph and the soccer team were actually [Knights]. Only—they were a bit smarter than the Order of Seasons in how they’d gotten attention.
Wistram was still playing the [Popstar]’s music during the showcase, which really added to the visuals, it had to be said. In the spirit of such compilation videos, the best and most inspiring antics were being chosen.
To the fast, energetic chords of an electric guitar and of course, the drums and vocals, two [Knights] appeared on the scrying orb.
In bed. Not the same bed, mind you, but it was enough to throw an audience expecting another running Courier or group of exercising soldiery.
Even so, two very toned, muscular men sat up at the same time, almost overplaying yawns and stretching. Then an alarm bell rang.
“What in the name of Troll dung am I looking a—”
Greysten’s outraged voice was shushed by the Spring’s Warden, who could appreciate the view. Similarly, a number of outraged Drakes and Dullahans—mostly male—began sending in complaints to Wistram. By contrast, Redscar pushed aside a few Goblins to stare with more attention.
Rabbiteater saw the two [Knights] shoot out of their beds as if launched. They looked outside, decided they were needed in armor now, and blasted out of their dormitory-style bedrooms in naught but briefs.
That didn’t last long, though. Whoever had the scrying mirror backed up down the stairs ahead of them as they pushed and jostled, running down the stairs. One of the two [Knights], blonde, with a trimmed beard and an impish grin, had a bag of holding and was chucking pieces of armor at the other. His fellow, with orange hair that suggested some aristocratic blood tinged with a bit of purple at the roots, slapped on pieces of armor.
They were running down the stairs now, and the first [Knight] tossed the bag of holding at a pair of [Squires]. To Rabbiteater’s entertainment and amazement, they were donning their armor as they ran.
By the time they were running through the keep they were based at, their [Squires] and the [Knights] had half their armor on.
Ser Markus whispered to Rabbiteater. The cheerful song was about four minutes long, which was as long as it took for both [Knights] to be out of bed, running out of their keep in full armor. It was an impressive display of preparation, showmanship, comedy, and something to look at.
That was entertainment. Ser Greysten was much unimpressed.
“The Chevaliers d’Omerra. Showoffs.”
“Don’t be petty.”
The Spring’s Warden teased him. Yet it was also proof that the bar was rising for good submissions. Kicking a few footballs around and running in straight lines was not enough.
Proof positive, the next view was a familiar man who had taken the world’s attention a few times. Lord Bel, the Lord of the Dance wasn’t running. He was gliding across the floor. Someone did throw a soccer ball at him, and he kicked it up, keeping it on a leg as he turned, flicked it back with a smile at another [Dancing Warrior], who caught it between shoulder and head, then, with a display of muscular coordination, flicked it onto the other shoulder.
“Is that even legal?”
Drassi turned to Joseph. The soccer coach hesitated, but Grimalkin boomed behind them. They’d stopped to stare at the unfolding event.
“Who cares? What excellent control of musculature! That group of muscles there! Finely developed! And did you see how coordinated they were, to disguise their movement by sliding their feet across the ground? It’s a dancing technique, but the control required—”
“Moonwalking. Or something.”
Joseph murmured. The Lord of the Dance cut away to another display, this time as the other species of the world stopped Humans from hogging the spotlight.
A headless Dullahan kicked a ball, which was headed by a second one in armor. A third Dullahan, most mobile of the group, leapt up and kicked the ball into the goal, wearing cloth armor to allow such acrobatics.
The goalkeeper had missed, but he went into the goal to pick out the ‘ball’. Which…was a head. The first Dullahan had launched herself at the goal, and looked smug as could be. Unphased by the kicks! All the other Dullahans applauded gravely, rather than jump around and shout.
“This is amazing.”
Joseph could barely tear himself away from the game, but he realized he was still supposed to be teaching the soccer team. How was he supposed to live up to that?
“—I think we have to try something big.”
Drassi waved her camera-[Mage] into position as Joseph turned to Pallass’ team, who clearly felt the same way. He gestured.
“Let’s set up a game. Only—we’re going to work on a goal-breaker.”
“A what, coach?”
The team gathered around as Joseph stood around a map to sketch out some tactics. He was unaware of the television viewpoint shifting to him. He addressed the [Strategist] from Pallass as little Ekirra excitedly held up his football, panting.
“A way to score on a good goalkeeper. Liscor’s has a great shield Skill and if you give him time to let it recharge, he can block most shots you can field. We need to work on better combos for scoring. Now—I’ve seen Pallass score in the last game. You let one person kick on the goal.”
“…Isn’t that how you do it?”
“Not at all. A good technique is to pass and score. The keeper can’t keep up, you see. So let’s say you—”
“Yes, you’re coming at the goal, Rea, on the ground…you’d feint, pass left to Virr, here, and he passes again to someone here. See? Three directions and the keeper might fall for any one of them. Besides which, player three in the corner here has the best, most direct angle in. That’s how you score.”
“Of course. Of course!”
The [Strategist] was making rapid notes. Joseph smiled. The game was more complex than just kicking the ball!
“Plus, now we have an aerial component. So I’ll be playing and we’ll be setting up scoring opportunities. Obviously, the defending team should try to stop us. We’ll improvise some strategies. Let’s fill the field!”
Ekirra raced out with the attacking team. Bemused, the Pallass team let him wave his arms as a kind of mascot. Joseph grinned as he took aim.
“No Skills this time! Rea!”
He shot the ball to her. She went for a run on the goal. True to Joseph’s comments, if you could set it up right, multiple passes to make the goalkeeper uncertain was a nightmare to defend against.
“It’s rare you get that much time, though. Normally it’s a few players at best coming at the goal. This is an ideal situation. However—let’s try with Skills!”
Joseph was shouting. Sir Relz and Noass were commentating, timing out the game until the next person slated for viewing—a group of Garuda who wanted to pass the ball an entire mile between themselves without letting it strike the ground.
“Not a bad showing, Noass, although we are getting some incredible displays of physical prowess.”
“Indeed, Sir Relz, but let’s not forget, this is Coach Joseph on his first day. It might be too much to expect him to fully grasp Pallass’ unique capabilities.”
Noass sniffed, mostly due to his cold, and helpfully set up the moment for what would come next. The two Drakes were looking benignly, condescendingly amused as they sipped some restorative tea. Joseph shouted.
“Aerial combo one! Rea!”
This time he launched the football from the center of the field. Without a Skill, but straight at the Garuda. It was a risky move, and two fliers tried to dodge.
“Miss Drassi, can you commentate on the dangers of aerial passes?”
On the field, Drassi nodded as Rea lost the ball, failing to pass it properly and the team reset for another try.
“Yes, Sir Relz! Aside from interception, you have to instantly pass. Which is a pain in the tail, or so it seems. The real danger though are the fliers. Broken ankles.”
“Broken ankles, really?”
“Oh yes. Garuda and fliers at that angle and speed? I’m told you can easily break something. However, Coach Joseph is doing his best—oh! Before you cut to something else, it looks like they’re trying a Skill version of this!”
Sure enough, Joseph had lined up. This time—Rea dove as he shouted.
“[Pinpoint Distance Kick]!”
The ball shot across the field. The Garuda dropped, just under the established height of thirty feet for an aerial pass, and screamed. Joseph hadn’t ordered her to, but she’d clearly seen how fast the ball was coming up and realized her leg might not survive the impact.
Unless she used a Skill.
Joseph’s eyes widened as the Garuda dropped and her clawed foot hit the ball. The impact was like a thunderclap in the air.
He was amazed the ball didn’t explode from the pressure, but Pallass used enchanted equipment, of course. The ball ricocheted down to earth like a comet.
Missing the two players set for the pass. Rea didn’t have fine control with her Skill, so it hit the turf in front of the goal like a meteor. Dirt fountained up about ten feet in front of the goal as the ball began to bounce up. The goalkeeper was ready, but no one else was there. Cursing, Rea dove—
A little brown head came up and head-butted the ball midair. By luck, by accident, the little Gnoll racing around in excitement had been close to the impact.
Ekirra’s head smacked the ball and Joseph heard a ping in his head at the same time as the ball bounced. Straight into the Dullahan goal-keeper.
The Dullahan had set himself, arm raised. He had a blocking Skill, and Ekirra shouldn’t have generated that much force. In truth, the little Gnoll might have knocked himself silly given the dangers of such an impact. Yet something…happened.
The goalkeeper’s eyes widened a moment before the ball struck him in the chest. Grimalkin, idly watching from the side—blinked. The [Sinew Magus] saw the Dullahan, steel armor dented, fly past his head. He whirled, pointed.
He caught the Dullahan before the goal and keeper hit the ground. The impact had been more than just the ball; it had blown the entire goal back!
Ekirra lay on the ground, head spinning dizzily. Rea, the other players, Joseph—Sir Relz and Noass’ mouths were wide open.
Drassi picked herself up, looking astounded and at a loss for words for once. Grimalkin was already bending over the Dullahan, making sure he wasn’t injured badly. As everyone came running over—Joseph to check on Ekirra—he stood up, nodding.
“Dented armor. Maybe cracked ribs at most. Not a problem. The child?”
He didn’t look as concerned for Ekirra. Sure enough, the Gnoll boy was dizzy, but grinning stupidly.
“What in the name of scales was that?”
One of the players demanded, wide-eyed. Grimalkin boomed the answer at the same time as Sir Relz bellowed it.
“Combination Skill! They just pulled off a Combination Skill live on—”
Every head turned to Joseph. The [Kicker] stared around. Yet it was true. It had gone off in his head, as if he was about to fall asleep, but while he was fully awake.
[Combination Skill – Meteor Guardbreaker Shot obtained!]
Drassi threw up her claws. Pallass team began shouting. Joseph looked at Ekirra, then around, as clearly confused as everyone else.
This was maximum entertainment.
“If you’re just tuning in, a Combination Skill has just been discovered, live! On Wistram News Network! Noass, can you explain to the viewers what this rare phenomenon is?”
“Of course, Sir Relz. It’s a technique that only occurs when multiple Skills activate at once. It can then be redeployed by any of the participants, but it is a highly situational, highly powerful phenomenon.”
The two excited Drakes’ voices were echoing through Wistram, who were as excited as the rest of the audience. It turned out little Ekirra had used a head-butt Skill, one of the three total he possessed.
The rest was history.
No, wait. The rest was maximum viewership and television! In the Wistram News room, every [Seer], [Diviner], and so on were sorting through submissions, talking rapidly to people who wanted a piece of this moment.
Not only them. [High Mages] and higher-ranking members of Wistram were ‘helping’, so it was no surprise to see Viltach shilling for Human submissions, and arguing with Nailihuaile.
“Give another [Knight] Order a chance! I have the Order of Seasons—”
“Boring! I want to see something amazing! Those—put those on after the soccer team!”
The Star Lamia was excitedly waving her arms. She pointed and the obliging orb and broadcast, on a five minute delay, shifted to another viewpoint.
Pomle. A group of [Martial Artists] were spread out over about four hundred feet of ground in a rough circle. They were leaping, kicking, or punching a ball that was ricocheting around. Orjin, Strongest of Pomle, hit the ball so fast that the [Scaled Fist] missed her punch. It hit one of the oasis’ trees, bounced off the tree, and cracked it in half. Viltach spluttered of course, but the [Knights] were clearly outmatched by that kind of entertainment.
Of course, the live broadcast was still on Ekirra, who was smiling, still a bit cross-eyed.
“I learned how to head-butt before I played football! Guardsman Relc tried to teach me Relc Headbutt, but I only got—”
The broadcast was filled with excited [Mages], interesting sights—far overshadowing the poorer submissions.
Which were, to their respective disappointments, the Order of Seasons and Nsiia, both of whom couldn’t match the excitement of the best submissions.
Into this moment strode Eldavin. The lesser [Mages] parted like a swarm in front of the half-Elf. He looked around.
“What are you all doing?”
The [Mages] looked at the upset Dragon. They hesitated.
“Grand Magus? Is something the matter?”
“I should say so! I am seeing this display of ability from every corner of the world! Yet where are the [Mages]? Where is Wistram’s pride?”
The half-Elf stared about. A few jaws dropped.
“You mean—but we’re not [Warriors], Grand Magus. And this has been a decidedly, er, physical event.”
One of the [Mages] blustered, and then recalled he was talking to Eldavin, who looked like a Grimalkin of half-Elves. He was fixed with a stare by Eldavin that was practically a [Frostbite] spell of its own.
“Young mage. Tell me something. Is there anything that can be done that Dr—[Mages] cannot do better?”
The arrogance of…[Mages]. The group of spellcasters looked at each other. Eldavin sniffed.
“That’s what I thought. Put us ‘on air’ in fifteen minutes. Anyone wishing to join me is free to participate. Students, teachers—I think outside the academy will do.”
He pointed at the Archmages.
Rabbiteater sat on the grass, sipping from his water flask with the handy straw. The other [Knights] of the Order of Seasons sat around glumly.
No featuring for them. Greysten was complaining to the Fall’s Sentinel, who was personally talking to [Mages] in Wistram.
“No luck, I’m afraid. Look—Wistram is next.”
“That’s sheer favoritism—”
The Summer’s Champion hesitated. For there, on screen, was Grand Magus Eldavin and nearly a hundred [Mages], students and older, demonstrating the art of grandstanding.
“Now, how does the expression go? Ah, yes. Pass the ball.”
Eldavin gestured. Then, with a good show of it, the white-haired half-Elf with the beard who looked like he was pushing two hundred casually kicked the [Fireball] left. The [High Mage] turned dead white, but she fielded the ball, and kicked it ahead.
The [Mages] were running too, incidentally. On…Rabbiteater blinked.
The surface of the ocean, around the Academy of [Mages]. One of the [Mages] passed the ball up towards someone else running on a [Light Bridge] spell. Eldavin harrumphed. He caught the eye of the ‘camera’ and closed one eye, smiling rather arrogantly.
“Just a bit of magical finesse. Even [Mages] must indulge in such things. Keep running, students! [Tidal Wave]!”
He pointed to some lagging students and an obliging wave swallowed them. Ahead of Eldavin, the [Mages] were vying for the ‘ball’, throwing it around with telekinesis, laughing—and showing off of course.
“I believe that would be the spectacle to beat.”
The Fall’s Champion remarked drily. Greysten threw his hands up in exasperation.
“This is too bloody amazing. Someone get me a [Teleportation] spell.”
Daly looked around as the [Mages] came onto the scrying orb. Ironically, the United Nations company and the Earthers there weren’t as excited as other groups across the world.
Mainly because Luan was missing. Even Daly was trying to force the mood a bit. He looked about, and then dropped it. Paige was looking at the orb, grimly tuning a crossbow.
Luan was gone. Probably…dead. There was no body, but the [Bounty Hunters] had been arrested once it had been clear they’d hit him with a [Fireball] at sea.
The scrying spells had failed to pick Luan up. Given that he didn’t have anti-scrying gear…it meant he was likely dead. No Luan to scry.
Daly knew that, but he’d led three water expeditions to where Luan had been. No good. He sat there, staring at the television without smiling much.
Another reminder of mortality in Baleros. Yet Joseph’s appearance had still had an effect. Ironically, not among the more sports-loving members of the United Nations; Daly, Dawson, and the others were somber.
So was Geneva Scala. Yet she was determined as she slowly packed up the best copies of each surgical tool and instrument. Also, the jar donated by the Hundredfriends Courier, her notes and samples of other poultices, healing methods or experimentation…
“Geneva. Geneva, please, let’s talk about this!”
She spoke. Or rather, her mouth moved. It was not Geneva who spoke, of course, just the other person inhabiting her mouth.
“I’ve made up my mind, Idis. The Yellow Rivers plague is being managed.”
It was far from over, but the cure was out there. Geneva was busy packing. It was the first step, although she had to go to Daly and Paige right after this. Perhaps they’d be upset.
Idis certainly was.
“Right, right! But you promised! What about my people?”
Geneva hesitated. The Selphids who had come to Talenqual had beseeched her to help with the sickness afflicting their kind. The wasting of their species.
“…I’m aware and I will do everything I can, Idis. However…”
She closed her eyes. Her medical self weighed the ethics of her choice. An entire species versus one person?
“…The Wasting disease has not killed Selphids over this many generations. It may be callous, but there is a patient who needs my direct supervision now. They have already failed to revive her and they might well kill her before I arrive. More than that?”
She stared at her personal scrying orb, which she seldom watched for recreation. Yet…Geneva looked at Pallass, Joseph bouncing the ball with Ekirra.
It looked safe. Safer than Baleros, the continent plagued by so many bloody battles. Perhaps it was petty, wrong of her. Yet for once, she had done as Okasha always wanted. She was putting herself, or rather, her company ahead of her class.
“I will return. The United Nations Company might not go. Yet…we might be able to journey to Izril relatively quickly.”
“It’s too dangerous, Geneva. It will take weeks! Look, please talk to Calectus! You can’t just decide this!”
“I’ve made up my mind, Idis. I am asking you not to stand in my way. The Bodies of Fellden can join us, of course.”
Geneva’s hands were steady as she packed up her equipment. The truth was she wasn’t sure this was the right move. What had forced her to choose was a number of decisions.
The first was Luan. It was one too many lives lost. Geneva could—would—save lives here, as many as she could. Yet the other Earthers didn’t deserve this.
“A bounty. They killed him over a bounty.”
The second reason was Erin Solstice. Geneva could not help Erin beyond formulating strategies without being there. Not to mention a Potion of Regeneration might save countless lives if she figured out how it worked!
The third reason was contradictory with her medical teachings. Yes, one person, even from Earth, did not outweigh the needs of a species afflicted by this Wasting disease. If Geneva measured by the QALY quotient—quality-adjusted life years—her decision was clear. Like a triage or other measurements a medical professional had to make in choosing who to help, Selphids as a people required assistance perhaps only Geneva could give.
…It would have been easy to rely on that. Except for Idis. Except for Okasha. Except for Calectus and the Bodies of Fellden, the Selphid mercenary company, however well-meaning they were.
If one tenet of Geneva’s practice was to ‘do no harm’, and to save as much life as possible, another was not to endanger her patients. She felt now, stronger than ever, that Baleros, and this Selphid company which had come here for her interfered with that second clause.
It had taken a lot of time, making Idis her friend. Establishing the rapport she should have truly built with Okasha. Now was the moment, though. Geneva breathed out. There were actually few valuables the United Nations Company could not grab and run with. Their lease? They’d lose it anyways. Gold? Possessions?
She stopped as she put it all into her bag of holding. Not her choice. Geneva Scala’s heart was beating fast, yet she felt the Selphid slow it reflexively. The [Doctor] spoke, as persuasively as she could.
“Idis. I am asking you to help me. I know what your orders are, and your company. Please. Assist me.”
The Selphid hesitated. Geneva Scala stood there, unable to move her body. For a moment, a long moment, she feared that she had failed, even after all her hard work getting Idis as an ally.
Then her hand moved up and grabbed the doorknob.
Idis didn’t say anything. Yet she did not stop Geneva from twisting the handle. The [Doctor] actually smiled, knowing Idis sensed it.
“Thank you, Idis.”
She had to tell Daly and Paige, and then move now. The United Nations company was not the Bodies of Fellden’s target, anyways. That was why—
“Huh. You know, there’re not many Drowned Folks here. I suppose it’s hard to play this game on the water. Always feels a bit land-biased to me, though, don’t you think, Erek?”
The orangutan looked at Seve-Alrelious, the Hundredfriends Courier. It was the second time that Seve had been here in as many months and he knew he was attracting attention. His tattoos stood out across his body, and he smiled, but declined to chat. He was waiting for his passenger.
She had prevailed on him, and of course the Hundredfriends Courier had answered the call. He understood there was some trouble, but Geneva Scala did not have to explain. She had to ask and he would answer. That was the debt he owed the Last Light of Baleros for saving so many selflessly.
To wait, he checked the scrying orb, watching, while keeping an eye on the harbor docks. Geneva had told him it might be another hour or two, so he was game to wait. The trick was not to draw attention to her plans; he pretended he was waiting for a delivery, not intimating who the cargo was.
Seve waited, watching the splendid little diversion on the scrying orb with Erek, the glowing orangutan bound to him by magical tattoos.
…After three hours, Seve sensed something was wrong. He threw caution to the winds and made his way to the United Nations Company, then Geneva Scala’s clinic.
Of course, by then he was too late.
Geneva Scala, Last Light of Baleros and [Doctor], opened the door. A tall Dullahan, still bearing the body’s death-wounds, blocked it.
“Calectus. What a surprise. Are you injured? How can I help—”
Geneva stepped backwards. She was not a good actress. Nor, as it turned out, would that have helped. The Selphid looked down at her, smelling of the faintly formaldehyde-analogous preservatives Selphids used.
Calectus, [Honor Guard] of the Selphids looked down at Geneva in silence. His features were dead and though he mimicked his host-species’ naturally less-emotive states, he was plainly disapproving.
Reproachful, even. He adjusted the loose Dullahan’s head attached to the body and spoke.
“Geneva. I had hoped that the actions of my people earned us more trust than this.”
The [Doctor] fell silent. He knew. Calectus was not alone, either. A group of four Selphids stood behind him. However, she still made the best attempt possible.
“What, I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about. I—”
“Izril is too far. Too dangerous. Did you not promise me you would help me save my people?”
The [Honor Guard] stood there, stiffly. He was disapproving. The other Selphids—less so. Geneva hesitated.
The truth was impossible to hide. So she stood, straighter, and faced him directly.
“Calectus. I intend to fulfill that promise. However, a patient needs my care in Izril.”
“One Human? You cannot risk your body, your life when we need your abilities here!”
A Selphid she did not know the name of scoffed. The [Doctor] met his gaze.
“It is not your right to tell me who I must treat. I am aware of the suffering of Selphids. However—”
She hesitated, but it was time to say it. She looked at Calectus again, then slowly touched her back, indicating the wound that had left her paralyzed. Then her chest.
“…This is not an equal relationship, or an unbiased one. Calectus. Okasha was proof of that.”
His eyes flickered. Some of the other Selphids exchanged glances. The [Honor Guard] inclined his head slowly.
“Nevertheless, Doctor Scala. My people die and suffer. Will you not reconsider? The Bodies of Fellden and I have orders regarding you. Orders which I must carry out. However—I would like to cooperate.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Let us provide escort to your company. Perhaps act in your stead. If you wished the rest of your company to journey to Izril…”
“Calectus, that is not within the scope of our mission.”
“It could be.”
The Selphids were not united. Calectus’ head swung around to address a Selphid behind him, looking irritated at the lack of unity in front of Geneva. The [Doctor] peered at him, trying to gauge his reactions.
“If I promised to return? If you went with me…?”
Calectus frowned. Again, the Selphid in robes, one of the [Mages], answered for him.
“The Minds will not allow this. Need we ask for instructions, Calectus?”
The voice was warning. The [Honor Guard] shook his head after another second. He met Geneva’s eyes, looking torn.
“I am sorry, Geneva. Hollow words though they are.”
She exhaled, slightly. Lifted her hands; they were sweaty.
“…Then I will abide, Calectus. I will remain here. Perhaps if the United Nations company were given escort instead of me—that would be amenable.”
He began to nod. The other Selphids hissed. Calectus held up a hand and stepped back.
“A moment, please, Geneva.”
They began arguing, one of them deploying a [Silence] spell. Geneva saw Calectus began to speak—then gesture more emphatically. The angry [Mage] retorted—Calectus lifted two fingers. Then lowered one.
The other Selphids went quiet. Geneva’s skin prickled as she felt, as she had on the battlefield, the propensity for violence or…
“Calectus. I will stay and treat the Selphids. Do no harm. Any of you.”
He looked up and nodded. Geneva looked at the other Selphids.
If only it could have ended at that. However…the [Mage]’s eyes narrowed. They put a hand to their temple, and their eyes widened, then became triumphant.
“That is no longer a possibility. Calectus. The Hundredfriends Courier is docked at the harbor. She plans to escape with him! Do you think our company can or should clash with a Sea Courier of his reputation?”
Oh no. Seve! Geneva saw Calectus’ face change. He gave the other Selphid the same look—then his face was anguished.
Then resigned. He straightened and sighed.
“It seems you are correct, Magus.”
Geneva looked around. The window? She began to edge over. And her feet abruptly stopped. She tried to make them move. Yet…the [Honor Guard] was looking at her now. He spoke solemnly.
“Doctor Scala, I respect your desires. However, the Minds of Selphids gave me clear instructions. Idis.”
Geneva’s body had already stopped moving of course. Now, it straightened, with a [Soldier], a [Warrior]’s precision. Even saluted the other Selphid. Geneva heard a whisper from within her.
“I’m sorry. I warned you!”
They had known from the start. Geneva was helpless. The Selphid [Mage]’s eyes were triumphant. Yet—even as Geneva struggled against her own body and knew she would never win, she wondered how they had known she was leaving to begin with!
The answer became apparent as Calectus looked around and glanced over his shoulder, his head rotating a hundred and eighty degrees.
“It seems we must engage our contingencies. Make the company ready. Doctor Scala is mostly prepared, which aids us. Grab any additional tools. Prepare to move out.”
Selphids moved into the clinic, smoothly grabbing additional supplies. Geneva tried to move her mouth.
“This is a mistake. How did you even…?”
She saw Calectus gesture. One of the Selphid [Mages] walked over to a wall. He rubbed at the blank plaster—and a glowing rune appeared.
A listening spell. They’d bugged her clinic! And Idis had known—that was why she’d been arguing out loud—
Geneva stood there, at military attention as Calectus looked at her.
“Doctor Scala, your level has risen high enough. I must insist you accompany us.”
It wasn’t even hard. Idis moved Geneva’s body so there was no struggling. No fight to give. She just sat in the coach after leaving the clinic, lying to her staff’s faces. Only when she was given her tongue back did Geneva look at the Selphids.
“Do you think you can force me to help you?”
The Selphids looked at her. Calectus looked slightly ashamed, yet he was still direct. He spoke, quietly.
“Frankly—yes. I’m afraid your moral convictions are clear, Doctor Geneva. We are desperate. We cannot risk you dying on Izril. We…I am sworn to defend my people. Thus, my class. Even if I must cast aside honor to do so.”
He exhaled, though it was an unnecessary gesture. Geneva saw him turning, and felt her pivoting to walk with him.
“Don’t do this, Calectus. Please.”
The Selphid [Honor Guard] looked at her. Then he gestured.
“Your company will be untouched. They will not be able to follow us. We are taking you to one of our bases. The Minds await. Move out.”
That day, the Last Light of Baleros—
Vanished. Straight out from under the noses of all the observers, Niers’ students, and her company.
It was football. Or soccer if you were weird. Really, it depended on perspective. The point was…was it coincidence, or was it football that caused this kind of day?
This…Empress Nsiia had gone through the worst days of her life. Yet the problem was, it was never a single day.
It repeated. So, she shed a few tears. Armsmaster Dellic and some of Illivere’s fittest warriors hovered, uncertain of why she was crying.
Surely not vanity? It was not that.
She just wanted them to know she was alive. Yet she couldn’t get onto the stupid news. Nsiia sniffed. She would cut off a finger to give them something…some of the cheer pervading the news.
In fact, the news, which often gave no truth to tragedy. When it was happy, the ‘world’ was happy. When some arbitrary people decided everyone should grieve, that was what you saw.
How quickly they had stopped saying Tiqr’s name. How fickle the world was. Nsiia saw it as some vast, ever-changing thing. Not like an animal at all, but some hive which could be capable of great good, or wrath, but forgot faster than anything.
Not like elephants. Not like Thef. A glorious and petty thing.
So how did you get its attention? Nsiia wiped her tears away just outside of Femithain’s mansion, in the streets. She looked at the [Mage] and realized, ironically, the sight of the Empress of Beasts bawling her eyes out might have gotten her the attention.
…It might have, indeed. Nsiia came to a sudden realization. Her eyes widened. She crouched and before Dellic could react, started running. The [Mage], who had been yawning, snapped his head up as Nsiia put into action her plan.
Her conclusion was the exact opposite of Rabbiteater’s. The frustrated Order of Seasons hadn’t figured out how to top the displays on television. Aura blades and so on couldn’t match the magic now sprinkled into these viewings.
Rabbiteater had been giving it a good think himself, game to help these nice people. However…he had to admit he wasn’t that smart.
He didn’t have some unique way to blend Skill and talent such that Wistram would have no choice but to showcase the Order of Seasons. Perhaps a smarter person would have. Like Chieftain Rags. Or…Erin.
Rabbiteater missed her. He thought about it, as he sat in the grass. Then he had his idea. He trotted over to the Fall’s Sentinel and made a request.
“What, Ser Solstice?”
The older [Knight] looked surprised, but he was perfectly content to put Rabbiteater’s slightly-audacious plan into action. The Spring’s Warden and Summer’s Champion glanced up, slightly hopeful. Rabbiteater smiled.
Where the Empress of Beasts had found a clever solution born out of her understanding of, well, people, the Goblin had taken a different tack.
He just cheated.
The event was winding down. Joseph was tired, and Ekirra was falling asleep on his feet after working out so hard twice. But the little Gnoll was smiling.
“Do you know his parents, Coach Joseph? Pallass might want to make them an offer of citizenship…we could always use strong players for a junior team.”
The Drake [Strategist] was looking at Ekirra appraisingly. Joseph had no idea how to respond to that. He was almost snoozing himself as he waited to go back to the inn. Drassi had returned to the booth, ejecting Noass.
“It’s been a great day of submissions. I think we’ll be playing more all night that were recorded, but we have a few more live ones to get to…”
Joseph’s head nodded as he and Ekirra sat down, sweaty, exhausted, despite the stamina potions. He drifted off for a second.
[Conditions Met: Kicker → Football Player Class!]
[Football Player Level 14!]
[Skill – Fast Feet obtained!]
[Skill – Second Wind obtained!]
Not so vast. But new. Joseph smiled as he opened his eyes. He’d suspected that would have happened. He began to get up with Ekirra in his arms as the door opened. Yet he’d done so too soon.
The second notification hit him loud as, louder than the first. And—odd.
[Coach Class Obtained!]
[Coach Level 16!]
Joseph walked into the wall. Yet it wasn’t done. The voice in his head kept shouting, as if it was as amazed as he was.
[Conditions Met: Coach → Famed Coach Class!]
[Conditions Met: Famed Coach → World-Renowned Coach Class!]
[Skill – Eyes of Talent obtained!]
[Skill – Unveil Potential (Magical) obtained!]
[Skill – Legendary Reputation obtained!]
Joseph felt Ekirra wake up. He saw the little Gnoll yawn. Wide-eyed, Joseph looked about.
“Oh my god. I broke it.”
He practically ran into The Wandering Inn, holding up Ekirra, wanting to stare at the news. It had to be that! How many people had seen Joseph? How many people had treated his advice as a lesson? It was the class. Teacher to the world. He held Ekirra up as both stared at the scrying mirror. Ekirra’s eyes widened as it flicked to another viewpoint. Joseph blinked. He forgot about his new class for a second.
Two seconds later, he tossed Ekirra out of the common room.
Empress Nsiia of Tiqr, or at least, what they called her on the news, did a juggling trick with a soccer ball. Then she kicked it.
It bounced off Armsmaster Dellic’s face. Nsiia laughed as he jerked in surprise. No one else was really fielding the ball, either. So she just ran.
The [Scrying Mage] tracked her with his eyes as she ran. Incidentally, Nsiia knew she was live.
General Vasraf was summoned from his tent by a shout. He stared at the scrying orb, and his eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Salii, letting the [Martial Artists] continue their training exercise despite the cameras not being on them, looked up at the shout. The citizens who had fled Tiqr were staring at one of three scrying devices that all of Pomle had. Some were staring. Others…laughing. Or cheering.
Why? Salii glanced at her orb. She blinked, checked her spectacles.
“Oh. How clever.”
Sir Relz lost his monocle. Drassi was blinking, half-using her notes as a shield. She turned to the Drake.
“Uh—who decided to show this?”
“Not me! It’s indecent! There are children watching it!”
“Wow. So someone in Wistram is a pervert.”
Drassi smiled. Then amended her statement.
“I suppose it’s topical. Er—this is almost definitely Empress Nsiia, formerly of Tiqr, the Empress of Beasts. Is this how she normally exercises, or do you think it’s special?”
“Why are you asking me?”
Sir Relz snapped. Drassi gave him a look.
“Well, I wouldn’t know.”
She gave another glance at the scrying orb, which was getting a lot of angry [Message] spells. Eldavin strode into the scrying room.
“What is wrong with you people?”
But it was too late. Someone had indeed decided it was exceptionally topical to feature Empress Nsiia running around the walls of the city. She wasn’t doing anything special or running particularly fast. A few Golems were chasing after her, with blankets, as Magus-Crafter Femithain realized what she was doing.
Yet she had gotten herself on television. The only way she knew how.
Nsiia was not topless. Because that implied there was other clothing on her. She was running, laughing, waving an arm at the [Mage] keeping her in view as Armsmaster Dellic and some of the soldiers followed. They seemed uncertain of what to do. Nsiia had begun removing clothing and, well, gotten a lot more attention from the [Mages] screening the submissions.
General Vasraf stared at the Empress of Beasts evading a chasing Golem trying to insert a modesty-blanket into the scene. Sir Relz and Drassi were arguing—Sir Relz actually to keep it up.
“Er—well—she’s clearly making a statement, so if we’re showing her—”
“What if it was a naked male Drake! Gah! You’re disgusting! Noass, get in here! I’m leaving!”
Drassi frowned as someone approached her with a [Message]. Chaos in the studio.
Vasraf saw Nsiia’s head turn. She looked at the viewer. Across the world, people got a good view of…everything, as she stopped and faced the viewers.
Was it sheer vanity, madness, the King of Destruction’s desire for attention that had prompted it? Certainly, it had an effect on a number of people.
Including the Siren of Savere, whose eyes narrowed dangerously. Reminded of her nemesis. Queen Yisame delicately averted her eyes, but both glared.
That did not look like a miserable prisoner under Femithain’s aegis, did it?
It was not for either one that Nsiia did this. Not for attention. She looked into the scrying mirror, and the world’s second nudist on television’s smile wavered.
The [Wild General] felt like…she was staring at him. The warriors who had been looking at their leader looked at her eyes. Everyone else didn’t notice her expression at first.
“Get me a recording.”
Ieka whispered to a [Maid].
Saliss of Lights just rolled his eyes.
Then he saw Nsiia lift an arm. Her tanned skin glistened in the fading sunlight. Surely some [Poets] were already composing verses about curves and glistening and whatnot, as they did.
They were welcome to it. Nsiia had stopped smiling. She lifted her hand up and clenched it into a fist. For this moment, she had abandoned modesty, as if she needed it. She looked into the orb, at Vasraf, at her citizens who might see her wherever they had gone.
“People of Tiqr!”
Nsiia shouted, as loudly as her lungs could fill with air. The [Mage], Dellic, and the others stopped. Even the Golems hesitated. The woman went on.
“I am no longer your [Empress]. I have failed you time and again! Even now, some of you labor in chains, stolen from your homes. The herds have fled, our mighty friends lie dead. I am a prisoner in a cage made of kindness.”
Femithain looked at the scrying orb, hearing the voice shouting, then a delayed copy coming from the orb. Nsiia’s eyes shimmered with tears.
“Yet this I swear: while I live, while our people still fight for our home, Tiqr has not died! While my heart beats, I will find you wherever you have gone. So—live.”
“Shut it off!”
One of the [Mages] turned to adjust the spell. This wasn’t casual nudity, which Wistram could condone. This was—
Eldavin calmly kicked the [Mage] behind the knees. Down they went. Eldavin looked around.
“Let her speak. This is news.”
He looked at the [Empress]. She was still speaking, knowing her time was running out. Eldavin gave her the moment. Brave girls. He saw her, like so many, point at him. At…
“Vasraf! Don’t you dare die until we meet again. I command you.”
She spread her arms, unashamed, and shouted. Crying, thrusting an arm back up in the air.
“Tiqr falls! And Tiqr stands! Never forget! And give them no quarter! Tiqr stands! Tiqr—”
The image went blank. Then, turned to the two stunned Drakes in the studio. They said something—Vasraf didn’t hear them.
He was laughing. Tears running down his face as he laughed at his silly [Empress]. So too were the people in the tent. In Pomle, wherever they were.
Empress of Beasts. She wiped the tears from her eyes. Nsiia knew that when she slept, they would give it back to her. It was not a burden she craved. Yet for them, she would bear it again. She accepted a blanket from the Golem staring down at her. She saw Femithain walking out of the gates.
“You have quite made a mess of things, Empress Nsiia.”
That was all he remarked when he looked at her. Nsiia wiped at her face, and smiled.
“Would you expect to easily cage the Empress of Beasts, Magus-Crafter?”
He gave her a rueful look.
“I suppose I was quite arrogant.”
“Okay, I feel like I have to issue an apology here since no one else will. I didn’t authorize that. Someone did.”
The image had stayed on Drassi and Sir Relz in the booth. Although the other Drake seemed too embarrassed to come on set for the moment. So Drassi had command. She was sorting through [Messages] printed in-studio as she spoke.
“I think this message puts it best—‘While I am aware some viewers may find this sight full of attraction, I must complain on behalf of my subjects about the indecent nudity expressed on Wistram News Network. Younger audiences may have been inappropriately subjected to the indecency of monarchs displaying less than appropriate grandeur’…wait a sec. That didn’t go where I thought it would.”
Drassi frowned, checking the sender.
“Er—that’s by the Ruler of Khelt, Fetohep, of whom we can all agree with. Less than appropriate grandeur. Right. I see this one wants more naked people on air. Well, ‘Oney Eminith’, I don’t agree. [Merchant] in Izril, incidentally. That’s right, I’m calling you out!”
Drassi slapped down another [Message]. She glowered, putting peril into the flood of [Messages] coming this way. Drassi checked another one, frowned, blinked—and then glanced up.
“Wha—no way. That’s not—”
She stared at the [Message] in silence until Sir Relz hurried onto the set.
“Something inappropriate, Miss Drassi? I am assured Wistram will not be broadcasting any more nudity, and we will in fact warn and perhaps set up a channel for indecent—”
“Shut up, Relz. I…hey. Get me in touch with Wistram. There’s something you need to show. Here—here’s coordinates I guess. Just do it. Why? Because I’m your [Reporter].”
Drassi looked rattled for a second. Then she went back to speaking.
“I think this day has given us all some things to think about.”
Sir Relz colored as she stared at him.
“Not what I meant, Sir Relz. The football practice?”
“Not to mention the wonderful displays of amazing talent around the world. In fact, we may be showing them later. I don’t know, my time’s up and I’m going to relax on my time off. However…someone’s sent in a rather unique training montage.”
“More so than all of what we’ve seen? Drassi?”
Sir Relz adjusted his monocle. Drassi nodded slowly. She stared ahead, waiting. And her tone was suddenly distant.
“Yes indeed…ah, here they are.”
At last, so they were. The Order of Seasons appeared in the scrying mirror. Waving, kicking the ball around.
“This is the Order of Seasons, no doubt. Around their keep, running, passing the ball—I see nothing extraordinary, Drassi. They are a renowned Knight Order, but what is the extraordinary event that prompted you to select them, may I ask?”
Sir Relz looked skeptical. He turned to Drassi. She was searching the [Knights] running about as the aerial [Scrying] spell moved.
There he was. Rabbiteater saw himself, delayed on stream, waving up at the sky, turning to look at the orb, as the Summer’s Champion beamed and slapped him on the shoulder. The Spring’s Warden saluted, and the Fall’s Champion looked quite delighted for their moment in the waning sun.
“Oh, it’s more symbolic, Sir Relz. You see, I’m being told that someone’s issued a…challenge? A commendation? ‘From Liscor to Terandria, here I am.’ You were there, weren’t you? I don’t think you played soccer. Definitely baseball the first time it came here.”
Drassi was speaking quietly, looking into the scrying orb. Sir Relz glanced at her.
“You mean, the first game of baseball? Wasn’t that around—”
“The Wandering Inn. Yes. Celum, if you want to be more accurate, but he was there. So was I. This…viewer…is calling in from Terandria. They made it all the way there, or so I gather. A guest of the inn. A personal friend.”
Joseph’s head rose as Ekirra banged on the door he’d propped a chair against, demanding to see. He looked around. Ishkr turned, blinking, confused.
“Who could that be? There’s no way…”
“Who is our mystery caller? That [Knight], there, in the unadorned armor? I don’t see a crest.”
“It’s…a Ser Solstice. Although he gave me a different name. He—the name’s secret. But he—he likes eating rabbits. There’s your hint.”
Drassi was breathing heavily. Her eyes were sparkling with tears. Sir Relz looked at her uncomprehendingly, not sure what had set this off in his co-host.
Ishkr dropped his cleaning dust rag. Joseph looked around. He didn’t see—
He ran to get Numbtongue. He never made it to the door; Bird smacked straight into him, bowled him over, and ran, all four arms waving, into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
The Hobgoblin ran out just in time to see ‘Ser Solstice’ raise an arm. Numbtongue’s eyes were wide.
It could not be. Yet—he remembered Erin receiving the ransom notice. There he was.
His armor hid his face. But look: the crimson cloak swung around his shoulders. He still carried Headscratcher’s axe. Numbtongue reached for the mirror.
Drassi was hiccupping. She managed to stifle it. Because there was another layer to this.
“Ser Solstice writes—‘I am playing this fun game. Challenging the [Innkeeper] and inn when I get back. Very nice [Knights] here.’”
“Ser Solstice. The name is familiar. The [Innkeeper] has to mean…”
Sir Relz looked at Drassi.
Rabbiteater saw the Drake’s anguished face at last. He slowed his waving and smile behind his helmet. Because, of course, she had realized something.
He didn’t know. In this world, the guests of The Wandering Inn had gone far and wide. His last ‘message’ from Erin had convinced Rabbiteater she was fine. He didn’t know.
Today, the news reached the second-last person to hear it. Drassi’s tears were trickling down her cheeks.
“I’m—so glad you’re okay, Ser Solstice. I thought you died. There’s something you should know, though.”
Magnolia Reinhart said nothing. She sat, watching in silence, genial mood lost again. The third-last and fourth-last people, Magnolia and Ressa, listened to the news as Drassi broke it.
Tried to break it.
“The thing is…Ancestors, I don’t know how to say it. I thought everyone knew. Erin—she helped bring baseball here. She’s—was—the [Innkeeper] of Liscor. Famous in Liscor. Pallass too, if you don’t know. I’m sorry. It’s just. She’s…”
Rabbiteater stared blankly at the orb. The Spring’s Warden, Summer’s Champion, Fall’s Sentinel, and Knight-Commander Calirn had all halted.
They knew from cadence and tone, just Drassi’s face. It was not something Rabbiteater could imagine, though. He stared, confused. Until it hit him.
It was not Drassi who delivered the news at last. She couldn’t get the words out. Sir Relz, almost callously, spoke, finally snapping his fingers.
“Erin Solstice. Yes, I recall her. The proprietress of The Wandering Inn. She is…dead. Isn’t she? Killed during a raid by the city of Hectval in…oh.”
Drassi looked at him. Sir Relz scrambled to clarify.
“A terrible tragedy. Hectval—to inform our viewers, the city of Hectval launched a raid that—I understand measures were taken to preserve her life and Liscor and Hectval are in a state of war—but the [Innkeeper] known as Erin Solstice passed away roughly…”
He went on. Rabbiteater didn’t hear it. He had dropped the scrying orb.
The Spring’s Warden said something. Greysten turned to Rabbiteater, mirth forgotten. Ser Calirn reached out. Too slowly.
Rabbiteater felt the world sinking around him. He realized it was not the world—he was.
He fell backwards, darkness closing in. He had never passed out, not in battle, not when he was wounded, bleeding. For the first time in his life, he let oblivion take him.
Rather than face the truth.
It was the last note of Drassi’s broadcast. She left, unable to continue recording and Sir Relz took over to apologize.
It was a sad moment to interrupt all the entertainment of the day. Too much reality, interjected into television.
That was the distinction between life and media. Uplifting, depressing, pure melancholy, slice-of-life—each to their own moment.
Silly and grand. Action-packed and trivial.
“So. Another one of us is gone.”
Rémi Canada slowly exhaled. He slowly crossed her name off the list. He had worked so hard to uncover it. Yet like so many…they were gone when he looked for them. Like the group he had parted ways from at A’ctelios Salash.
A cruel world. A realistic one. He slowly turned back to what he was working on. He would pray for Erin Solstice later, if he could find the words and belief.
Today? He turned to the head of the broadcasting studio. Not—Wistram’s, but the elegant Stitchwoman, Silk-caste, of Nerrhavia’s Wonders, the Chandrarian-broadcast studio.
“Bad news, Journalist Canada?”
She attempted to look properly contrite for his loss, but Rémi just shook his head.
“No one I knew personally, Emir Elanna. Is everything prepared?”
The woman flicked her fingers slightly as she replied, a refined gesture with multiple layers of meaning.
“To a modicum of satisfaction. Such a barbaric game. Yet you assure us that Wistram will find it of note. I can well assume the spectacle will attract such event. Such that Nerrhavia’s splendors will acquire their deserved place in the spotlight.”
That was a ‘yes’, which Rémi interpreted after a moment. He nodded, and the Emir gestured elegantly.
“Let us begin the spectacle.”
She intoned, and into the air, the [Journalist] looked.
Of course, he knew Wistram was making an event of football. The Canadian [Journalist] was also aware people who met with Wistram’s agents tended to disappear, probably to Wistram. He had watched the [Popstar]’s performance, after all.
Well and so, Rémi had mixed feelings on how to influence global events, if at all. This? This was more in giving Nerrhavia and by extent, Chandrar, a bit of fair ground in the war for attention.
For Earthers, a hint that not everything came from Wistram.
…And mainly because it was a lot of fun.
“Grand viewers of Chandrar and the world over! I am Emir Elanna of Nerrhavia’s Fallen! It is my delight to introduce you to another new ‘sport’, that has not been showcased before on live broadcast!”
At least this woman had the right stage presence for the job. As her broadcast came to life, Wistram News Network itself began to lose viewers as Nerrhavia’s Fallen literally bought attention.
Also because it was new. Trey Atwood nearly choked to death as the competing broadcast came to life. The Earthers of Wistram looked up, confused at what sport they’d had left to introduce? Basketball? Hockey? They saw Rémi Canada of course, and Elena was out of her chair, pointing. The [Mages] in a furor.
“Him and that Joseph! Why are they at large? How could High Mage Merzun have lost against Montressa in Liscor?”
Naili hissed at Beatrice. Eldavin, listening in past their shoddy spells, frowned. He hadn’t excluded Liscor from Wistram’s greed. He’d forgotten there were more.
A reckoning would have to come. He drummed his fingers on the table, then glanced at the scrying mirror set against the banquet hall’s wall.
“Am I to take it from your reaction that this is another aspect of Earth?”
Archmage Valeterisa eyed Elena with interest. The [Beautician] was spluttering.
“Yes! No! It’s—sort of, but we can’t play it!”
“That madman. That genius!”
Aaron stood up and applauded Rémi as the young man explained.
“This is a game dearly, dearly beloved in my homeland, Emir Elanna, and I can only thank the munificence of Queen Yisame that she has graciously recreated it for me here. To anyone who recognizes this—the game is known as the famous, nay, renowned sport of…”
Trey’s jaw dropped.
“What is it, Troy?”
Goelv asked, the Gazer’s eyes curious. The [Sand Mage] breathed the answer as his fellow students stared at him uncomprehendingly.
The carpets rose into the air, and two actual broomsticks. Nervous Stitch-People holding bats, the enchanted balls, and of course, the golden object of possession all hovered higher. An enchanted sphere zipped about as Rémi explained.
“You see, this is a [Mage]’s game. I am surprised Wistram didn’t know about it.”
He raised an eyebrow. The Emir, clearly enjoying the ribbing at Wistram, laughed politely.
“Yet, as I understand it, players may hit these dangerous objects at each other? Even knock each other from the vehicles? Which is why all are warded with falling enchantments, of course. Such a violent game. Barbaric, even.”
“Ah, Emir Elanna, you know [Mages]…unconventional. However, I thought it would be lovely to showcase. Perhaps Wistram lacks the artifacts to field their own team?”
“We have to play! How did none of you think of it?”
Aaron bellowed as he left the table. George pointed at him.
“How come you didn’t?”
A barbaric game? They were laughing, clamoring to play! The first game of the fictional game from Earth that had never been realized in actuality took place as the [Mages] susurrated. Hardly barbaric! Trey shook his head. It was amazing! He realized he’d given away his cover, though, and was scrambling to explain to his friends—
…Right before the first fatality. A novice [Carpet Rider] lost control of her carpet.
She was of the String People, yes. Yes, she had enchantments. However, hitting the ground at nearly a hundred miles per hour meant none of that mattered.
The audience, Rémi, and the Emir all went quiet. Eldavin snorted quietly at his table.
The Quarass did likewise, as she watched the same broadcast. The reason no one played that game was that flying was incredibly dangerous.
There was a benefit to the death, however. Not to the grieving fiancé, the family, or the broadcast, which had to be terminated and all the hard work ended by the fatality.
However, there was a benefit. Just not for the living.
The bewildered ghost arose where she had died. Correspondingly, as the reality of her death set in, she was not lost to shadows, consumed. In fact, she was welcomed by the lines of ghosts, practically dragged before a council of royalty led by Khelt’s dead.
“Tell us what is happening in the world, child.”
The First of Khelt spoke, staring down at the little [Carpet Rider]’s ghost. For how else would the dead know what was happening in the world?
There were very few ways, Erin had learned. Séances, summoning rituals to bind dead to the living, were out of fashion because of course the ghosts had been fleeing the…things…all this time.
Now, it would be impossible in Izril, or virtually. Plus, the living had to make the effort in most of the ways. For the dead to call on the living?
Only a few methods remained, and the easiest—via Khelt, wasn’t working.
“Fetohep has left Khelt!”
One of the rulers cried aloud, frustration clear on his face.
“To give it life and expand the borders. We understand the reasoning, if not condone it. Yet the timing is ill indeed. Perhaps our enemy commands luck itself. Fate.”
“Take heart. Now—explain to us once again. What is ‘soccer’? We understand Wistram’s broadcast.”
The half-Giant ruler bent down and boomed to the quavering [Carpet Rider], staring at the dynasties of Chandrar’s greatest rulers and heroes.
“So as before, now again. Mass-communication spells link this world. In my era, it was naught to be surprised at.”
An Archmage sneered, as some of the rulers looked mightily impressed at the phenomenon. A [Sage] prodded her in the back.
“Your era was marked by the end of magic for nearly three hundred years, due to the experiments your academy conducted.”
“That was an accident!”
“Accident? Countless millions died screaming from what you unleashed! Magic ended.”
“It came back!”
Ghosts argued and bickered, silenced only when the greatest among them restored order. It was a sight to see, the conclave of the dead. If Erin could have watched, she would have.
However, Califor dragged her away from the ruckus to the eight.
Eight. An auspicious number, but Califor made nine, and Erin made ten. So…less auspicious. They didn’t care.
Eight [Witches] sat or stood in a former throne room of old. They looked at Erin.
[Witches]. Each one far greater than Califor had been in life. The greatest of their eras.
First [Witches]. Later—[Sages], [Heroes], [Monks], [Mages], and all the others who were vying to teach Erin Solstice. However, Califor had convinced the Rulers of Khelt to let [Witches] be first. How she’d managed that, Erin had no idea. Perhaps the First of Khelt simply agreed that their classes shared common ground.
“Ah. The living soul walks among us.”
One of the [Witches]’ souls was so old she had forgotten what she looked like. She was more wisp than person, and kept coming back into focus. When Erin did look at her, she saw a grand woman, reclining with fur instead of robes, legs crossed, a smile like mischief itself on her lips, and a feather in her witch’s hat.
All style, in short. Another [Witch] had eyes like a storm front itself was contained in them. Yet another was tall as two floors of Erin’s inn. Her skin looked like bark.
Legends. They sat, waiting, as the [Innkeeper] halted in front of them. Faced with the greatest of witch-kind that had ever died on Chandrar, Erin Solstice stopped.
Then she walked over to the nearest [Witch] and held out a hand.
“Erin Solstice. Nice to meet you. Wanna hamburger?”
She offered the [Witch] of trees a hamburger of memory, Imani-style since all the ghosts liked that. The [Witch] stared at her. Califor made a strangled sound in her throat.
After a second, fingers like twigs took the burger. Erin went around the circle, smiling and talking.
“Hi, I’m Erin. Have a hamburger. Hi, I’m Erin. Hamburger? Erin—burger? Um—spaghetti?”
She conjured the memory of a good spaghetti with alfredo sauce. Califor reached out and smacked it out of Erin’s hand. The plate hit the ground, shattered, and vanished.
One of the remaining [Witches] looked disappointed. Another, who sat in the center, did not. She raised one eyebrow and spoke.
“We did not come here to gorge ourselves on memory and regret, girl.”
Erin looked at her. Even the [Innkeeper]’s cheerful bravado wilted for a second.
An eye stared back. A vast eye, joined by smaller ones, opening and closing, shrouded by a single, vermillion witch’s hat. Each iris a different color.
That was all Erin could make out. There were…limbs…yes, but the [Witch] beneath the hat was shrouded by darkness. It wrapped around her, yet Erin saw the flash of sharp teeth as the mouth spoke.
“You are everything Witch Califor says. More and less. The courage to face down what we will not name. The arrogance to make nothing of your talents, to be satisfied with mediocrity.”
Erin Solstice stared at the [Witch]. The things Erin had learned were these:
Gods were petty, ghosts were chaotic, and [Witches] were rude.
“…But you’re dead. It’s just a burger. Don’t you want—?”
She was about to say that the [Witches] might never get a second chance to remember food or the joys of the living, but the [Witch] snapped back a reply.
“We are dead, with the infinity of the afterlife before us. Yet somehow, you still manage to waste time.”
Erin hesitated. Califor took her place, and the nine [Witches] looked at her.
“You must learn something, Erin Solstice. We believe your nature matches ours. Will you at least listen to what we have to teach you?”
The [Innkeeper] bit her lip. She fidgeted in front of the [Witches], glanced around.
“Me? But I don’t really fit in. Are you sure there are no legendary [Innkeepers] or, like, amazing [Bartenders] I can learn from? Really, that’s more fitting than…”
She trailed off in front of the stares of the [Witches].
“A fish dances on the line less desperately than you. What fear you, Erin Solstice? You have died. What is there left to fear?”
Another [Witch] commented, her voice bubbling, hat concealing half-aquatic features. Erin looked around.
“I’m just not um—[Witch] material! I like your hats! It’s just—”
“As stubborn as teaching Dragons manners. You said as much, Califor. I wonder why.”
Yet one more [Witch]. She crackled, sitting opposite the [Witch] of trees. She wasn’t exactly fire. More like the memory of it. Thus—charcoal skin. Ash, as if she were flaking apart as Erin looked at her. This ash-witch leaned forwards. She had one eye; the other was a socket.
“What do you fear? Not the power of it, I think. Yet something holds you back.”
In front of the nine stares, Erin Solstice hesitated. Why did she resist? She was dead. The world was in danger. She had always wanted the power to help her friends. Dreamed of it. Longed for it in those dark days. Why…?
The answer slipped out of her.
“What if I’m not special, though? What if I can’t live up to those expectations? I don’t think I’m capable of changing things. If you give me all this knowledge and put me in that place where everyone counts on me—what if I fail and they all suffer and die because of me?”
It was her great fear. A true answer, perhaps one of the truest she had ever given. Erin hung her head as she stood before the dead women.
The Drowned Witch sat back. The others looked at each other. Two hats nodded. Then, almost as one, the coven began to laugh at her.
Bubbling chuckles, laughter like crackling wood. A hearty, booming laugh from the oldest among them. They laughed at Erin.
“Hey. I was being heartfelt there. This is hurting my feelings.”
The [Innkeeper] protested. Yet, the [Witches] just guffawed in her face. The one made of wood spoke. Her tones were hollow, like that of Giants.
“SO SAYS THE CHILD WHO STOLE FROM THE ___S THEMSELVES. WHO STOLE THE BLADE OF KINGS!”
A leafy bough lowered, holding a hat made of leaves. The [Witch] looked Erin in the eye, not unkindly. That was just it. None of them were incapable of kindness. They might refuse to offer it, but it was in them.
Great kindness. Terrible wrath. And a desire…two vast eyes fixed Erin with a knowing look.
“IF AN ARMY STOOD BETWEEN YOU AND A SINGLE FRIEND, WOULD YOU LET IT BAR YOUR WAY?”
The reply came out of Erin.
“No. But I wouldn’t fight them. I’d—”
Another [Witch] interrupted. The Gazer blinked at Erin.
“If a wrong exists, will you not right it, if it is within your power? Do you let injustice walk before you?”
“That’s not—no, but—”
“I see foolhardy bravery. Burning passion. Cunning—so deeply hidden it fools even herself! All she lacks is the courage to admit what she is! I see all that is a [Witch].”
The others nodded. Erin felt like they were running over all her protests and objections, which of course was exactly what they were doing. She spread her hands.
“—What if I fail, though?”
Califor stood up. The [Witch] adjusted her hat, and looked Erin straight in the eye.
“To be a [Witch] is to try. You need not even bother to try. Do you think we would leave it to chance? You can struggle or protest or run. We will make you a [Witch]. Yet we will ask. Will you give it your all?”
The [Innkeeper] met her first teachers of the dead. She looked from gaze to gaze, ancient beings, terrifying power.
Women, people who had once been like her. None of them had forgotten it. That was the difference between them and Belavierr. Between them and the six…gods.
They waited. Erin sighed. Not in denial…just letting go of something. Excuses, probably. They drifted away in the land of the dead. It did not change her in any visible way, or who she was.
Perhaps, though…slowly, Erin relaxed her shoulders and straightened her back. She nodded.
“I guess I can try.”
The [Witches] smiled. As one, they nodded their pointed hats. Erin slowly sat as her lessons in the land of the dead began. She had already received her first one.
A game of football. That night, Joseph relaxed in his bed, feeling more secure than he ever had before. Oh—Liscor’s people weren’t happy. Several had come to shout at Joseph, including Lism.
However, it could have been worse. What truly mattered though, was his class.
He was no great football player, for all he was the first to get the class. Joseph could accept that. However, he would try to become the world’s best football coach. He’d fight for that, especially with the head start he had.
A day in the sun and shine with consequence all around.
Geneva Scala was missing, and her disappearance threw Talenqual into chaos, not least her allies.
Empress Nsiia had regained the attention of her enemies. Tiqr fell, Tiqr stood.
The Grand Magus, Eldavin, prepared to shake Wistram’s foolish ways apart.
Mrsha had gone to Invrisil with a friend.
Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice, awoke to learn the world had ended.
Erin Solstice studied in the lands of the dead.
More, of course. Yet for now, the last thing to happen of any note was the little broadcast that most had missed.
The tearful words of a Drake to the Goblin who had not known. It played the world over of course, but aside from making some people sad, it had no impact, no connection with most who saw it.
Those that had known had already known. Except for those who had known wrong.
Even the skeleton had known. Even the Goblins and Antinium. Even Healing Slime, and the blind [Emperor] and little rats in a Minotaur’s enchanted cell.
The last person in this world to learn the truth watched and listened to the broadcast, chuckling, making comments. Then choked, sprayed the noodles out of the bowl he was eating after his shift.
The stall owner objected, but the person didn’t react. He sat there, holding the bowl until it cracked—then tossed down money and left the stall, shakily.
He walked the unfamiliar streets of a different city, attracting indifferent looks as he walked to his temporary apartments.
Senior Guardsman Relc stopped to lean against a building. He was fumbling at his belt pouch. He—his clawed hand was shaking. He yanked something out.
How could it be? How? Had they forgotten? Had they—
The letter was neat, printed from the Mage’s Guild, and now he looked at it, too sparse in details. They detailed the war, which he’d been worried about. But in each one, now, he saw the truth the Drake had carefully written around.
His daughter’s neat handwriting, just above her signature on the latest letter, stood out to Relc Grasstongue.
Everything is fine over here.
Relc slowly slumped down the wall. All lies eventually bore out, even the best-intentioned of them. He sat there, processing what had happened long before he had known, that everyone else had gone through before him.
It changed nothing for Relc. He sat there for a long time. In a city far from the inn where he should have been.
What came after that was a different story, for another day.
Author’s Notes: This is not the side story chapter with the theme of ‘Paradigm Shift’. I was surprised it won, but I will write it! Maybe next chapter?
However, this—is me writing what I want to write, and need to write. This is not ‘Uplifting’, or ‘Slice-of-Life’, but it has elements of a lot of the side stories put into one whole, unlike Paradigm Shift, which gets its own chapter. As you might infer from the downer parts.
Some things like Geneva’s section were pieces I didn’t know how to incorporate and left hanging too long, perhaps. They could have been chapters of their own, but I put them in here.
Writing choices. At any rate, I’m back. I hope you enjoy this first chapter, and the amazing art of Enuryn’s that has just been done! The Wandering Inn’s menu, in high-res detail! All the things you can’t eat at the moment!
Thanks for reading for now, and look forwards to more stories. Let me know which one you’d like, in addition to the one you’ve voted on, of course! I’ll let you know when you get that one. For now, I’m away!
The Wandering Inn Menu by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!