Interlude – Luan the Giant

Sentry Leader Ekrn marched through the halls of his village, ignoring the fact that he was tracking mud, blood, and debris across rich carpets or the spotless floors.

His…village. Not how he would have referred to it; Paeth, or Paeth’s Tree by the Coast if you wanted the full, pretentious name, was a nation unto itself. A country, a power…among the small.

Fraerlings. Tiny folk. The legends of Baleros, whom you might live your entire lives near by and never see. Only one had ever become so famous as for the world to know his name. The Titan of Baleros, Niers Astoragon, was the most famous Fraerling living—possibly one of the most famous to ever live, really.

He was not all of them. Nor, as Ekrn would happily point out to anyone he talked with, was the Titan a good representative of the Fraerling people. But then, he seldom got a chance to rant on one of his favorite topics; a Fraerling didn’t need to be told, and the number of Tallfolk, non-Fraerlings that he got to speak to instead of putting an enchanted crossbow bolt in their eye were…six.

That was six more than most Fraerlings. Ekrn strode past office after office, ignoring the shouts of outrage and the heads poking out.

Sentry Leader, you’re tracking mud onto the carpets! Do you even know the expense? Slow down! They’re meeting and you can’t—”

“Take the cleaning costs out of my vurel if you want. Don’t stop me! I’m Tallguard and on business!”

The man snapped back at the [Secretary] rushing to stop him. She slowed, trying to block him as he marched towards Paeth’s leading body. They were called, in Fraerling expressions, like ‘vurel’, Signim, and so on, the Architects. There were six of them, and they ruled Paeth.

The [Secretary] was scandalized by the dirty, bloody Tallguard marching through the rich halls of the top floors. This was not how it was done! His boots coated more tiles with filth, and she shouted.

“Halt! You cannot do this! Security!”

And then she grabbed at him. They must have paid her well, or the power had gone to her head, because Ekrn felt the other Fraerling woman drag at him, although she nearly let go when she realized he had blood on his armor.

That was too much for Ekrn, though. The Sentry Leader was tired, had just been fighting swarms of scavengers outside that had gone after that giant Human currently napping in front of his ‘village’, and he’d seen good Tallguard die fighting. He turned.

“Hands. Off.”

The man drew his sword. Well, half-unsheathed the enchanted blade, just to threaten the [Secretary]. He had no intention of using it, of course. However, it halted the slightly-burly Fraerling security-guards and the [Secretary] instantly let go of his arm. She took one look at the sword, and Ekrn realized he’d made a mistake.

She screamed and fled backwards. The two ‘[Security Personnel]’ froze, their own hands on their Paratons. Ekrn eyed the two weapons, arguably more enchanted than his sword. Yet he didn’t even have to draw the blade for the two to nearly soil themselves. He snorted, and gave the two a withering look. They backed up and he strode on.

No one stopped him. Everyone had vanished the instant the Sentry Leader had bared his blade. They hid, quivering, and he growled as he stormed towards the Architects’ meeting room. He sometimes forgot.

Tallguard. That was the thing to remember, if nothing else. They were all Fraerlings. Ekrn, the [Secretary], every person here was six inches tall. Tiny! And the hallway Ekrn strode through would have been too small for some breeds of rat, for all it was spacious for him.

All of Paeth, this great city, one of the more prosperous Fraerling cities in the world, frankly, although that was almost exclusively Baleros, was contained in a single tree.

A giant tree, true. A breed of redwood, massively stout and wide, enough to house over seven hundred thousand Fraerlings. Well, with a bit of magic. Rich, diverse; Ekrn had been forced to take a galift for nearly twenty minutes just to reach this spot from the ground entrances! Every person in the upper floors, these bureaucrats, probably had a salary and vurel many times his own.

Thus, it gave the Sentry Leader no small satisfaction as he stormed into the Architects’ meeting room and interrupted them. Six Fraerlings looked up in mild shock; their security on both doors having let Ekrn through.

Tallguard, demanding an audience with Paeth’s Architects! I sent five longcalls up—this is urgent!”

The Sentry Leader strode into the room and looked around. For a second all was silence. Then someone rose to their feet.

“Sky fall on me! What is the meaning of this?

Citivican Loust was on his feet first. Of the six, he was responsible for managing Paeth’s, well, everything. The wellbeing of the citizens, the condition of roads, employing the many officials of the law, excepting Ekrn and the Tallguard, everything. Ekrn glared around.

“I told you. Didn’t you get the message? We have a Human lying outside the city and he’s bleeding and attracting every predator in a mile!”

Gasps arose from two of the six. Hadn’t they even been told? Ekrn looked around.

Six Architects. Architects of the Great Plan. Of course, it was a title, so not all directly worked towards that goal. Citivican Loust, for instance, just managed Paeth.

Alchimeer Straesta, on the other hand, probably did do a lot of contributing to the plan, but she managed the [Alchemists] and so on, and was more official than her old job.

Enchanter Ilekrome—well, his title was the same as always. Technically ‘Lead Enchanter’, but it was abbreviated like that.

The other three, were, in order, the Judiciary, of law and order, Farspeaker, who both watched and spoke for threats, Ekrn’s nominal superior…but not really, and last but not least, Guidance. The people’s choice, as opposed to the other five, who were elected by other councils.

The Guidance this year was all about making sure oversight was had on the most expensive projects, that had cost too much vurel. Making sure they had enough food—she looked sharply at Ekrn and he didn’t even know her name. She knew his, though.

“Sentry Leader Ekrn. It is not typical for a member of Paeth of your position to interrupt the Architects’ deliberations.”

She spoke, mildly reprovingly. Ekrn flushed slightly. He was a Sentry Leader, and while the job had any number of benefits and was well paid, it was certainly not high, socially speaking. Frankly, it wasn’t even in the social conventions of Paeth. He responded briskly.

“I may only be Sentry Leader, Guidance. However, the Tallguard is still the Tallguard. Skywatcher’s gone, and I have every right to demand your attention if need be. And I need it now.

“Just—just how did a Human come to be here? We received the report, but it seemed like you repelled the attack? It never even reached the entrances; you might have left the Tallfolk alone.”

The Farspeaker spoke up tentatively. He was aware of the danger, more than the other six, but he had a different take than a Tallguard did. Ekrn glowered.

“He ran right towards us, of all the bad luck. We could have let the scavengers get to him—maybe they would have eaten him, and left, if they didn’t decide to occupy his rotting corpse for the next two months. You can imagine the stink, I think? I don’t believe the air filters would keep that out!”

The Farspeaker turned green. Guidance opened her mouth, but Ekrn went on.

“And that’s all assuming the scavengers didn’t notice, as they were sitting about, the fact that we’re way over our allotment! If that happened, it would be fighting in all the entrances. Armies of ants, roaches, and that’s before the big ones came in. We already had to kill a cat—”

All the Architects flinched. Ekrn went on.

“—so I need authorization, now, to deal with the Human.”

They looked at him, uncomprehending. If only the Skywatcher were here. Ekrn sighed.

His immediate superior was on an important mission—the Gathering Run. That was why a lot of Tallguard weren’t here, including all the ones who could make the call. Ekrn wouldn’t have wasted time coming up here, but he was only a [Sentry Leader]. He really couldn’t make the call.

They didn’t get that, of course. Citivican Loust spluttered very much the same question.

“I appreciate the Architects have superiority over the Tallguard—even if it feels very much like we are rarely consulted and only lectured from time to time—but why do you feel the need to march up here, threatening people with swords and ask for our opinion?”

“Because, Architects, [Sentry Leader] is not of sufficient rank to make decisions for the city, which dealing with the Human is. Ekrn of the Tallguard—which outpost do you claim?”

Guidance spoke, and now Ekrn looked at her. She knew the code? He studied her, top to toe, and saw, at last, how she was different.

The Fraerlings up here were all paler. Oh, they had all shades of skin, but it was always a touch less suntanned—well, not suntanned at all, not like Tallguard, who stayed in natural light. If there was tanning, it was artificial. They had soft skin. That was how Ekrn thought of it. They wore no armor, and stared at his gear and sword like he was a [Barbarian].

The clue that Guidance was different was subtle, but now he looked it was there. Her hair was striped, a pinkish red with dark brown. Possibly hereditary; more likely than not she’d had it done. The Farspeaker had hair like a whirlwind, purple twirled up in a spiral that had to have cut into his vurel to keep it up; even a gel couldn’t have kept the hair like that.

Enchantment or not, it wouldn’t have lasted five seconds in the outside world. None of them had ever been there, of course. Except that Guidance…maybe.

She had a scar running down one arm. Not wholly unusual; accidents did happen, but Ekrn realized it was too jagged to be a machine-cut, and on the measure…

“Trainee?”

“Failed. My name is Heish, Sentry Leader. Guidance Heish, which I’m sure you knew.”

She smiled and it all clicked. Guidance Heish saw Ekrn blush and study his muddy boots for a moment. Then he looked up.

“You’re correct, Guidance Heish. To your question: I’m Tallguard of Feiland. I can’t decide the Human’s fate because it is a matter for Paeth, even though I’m bound to defend it. If it were more urgent…”

His moderation of tone and explanation made the Architects finally relax a bit. The Alchimeer sat forwards, nodding.

“Well then, Sentry Leader. What are our options? We obviously can’t have a Tallfolk around—and this Human—do they know we’re here?”

Ekrn winced.

“I’m afraid so. He saw us fighting.”

All the Architects exchanged glances. Now, they understood. A Tallfolk had found a Fraerling Village, for all Paeth was a metropolis. They knew the stories, the danger—even if it was more distant for them than the Tallguard, who lived to avoid such things. Another Architect shook his head.

“We can’t have that. Alright, Sentry Leader, we can see you are here on a mission of importance. What would you like to do? What are our options?”

Ekrn sighed. He tried to be diplomatic, but he wasn’t good at it. Even his idiot subordinate who’d gotten them all into this mess, Noa, would have been better. Still, no help for it. He tried to lay it out as gently as possible.

“I’ll be honest with you, Architects. Trying to wipe his memory isn’t feasible, even if we had the allotment to spare on the project—and we don’t have that kind of draught, let alone in the quantities to drug a Tallfolk.”

“Enchantments? We could try a forgetting spell.”

The Enchanter suggested. Ekrn shook his head.

“Too big. A linked spell? Tallguard records show the Tallfolk remember, especially if they find magic’s been done. I’ll be honest, all I need is authorization. Then, we’ll lead him off, clean up the blood, and find some nice place—maybe the river if I can mount an expedition out that far. Gnomes laugh at me, he’s already unconscious. If we could roll or drag him…well, we’ll make sure he’s unaware, or we’ll put him to sleep. Then—one crossbow bolt through the ear should do it. He won’t feel a thing, and no one ever finds out.”

The Architects had been listening, even nodding to the entire plan Ekrn outlined. Right up until he mentioned ‘crossbow bolt through the ear’. Then their expressions changed to ones of pure horror.

Sentry Leader Ekrn! You can’t be suggesting we just murder someone like that?”

Ekrn sighed. Damnit. Damn it all to cats and Tallfolk children. He stared up at the ceiling as the horrified, fundamentally decent Architects reacted like anyone in Paeth might. They weren’t murderers. If he could ask the Skywatcher, he’d probably have gotten authorization to do it in seconds. The Tallguard stood, arms folded, in the genteel interior of Paeth. Far from where he did his rounds.

“He’ll wake up eventually. We had to treat him to make sure he didn’t expire; we’d have had to cart him out in pieces in bags of holding and the corpse would have attracted every scavenger in the world. You want us to keep healing him? Feed him? What about letting him leave knowing where we are? Architects! I can do it myself!”

But of course—this was Paeth. So Ekrn listened, argued, and cursed, and wished he’d never met the giant lying outside his home.

Luan Khumalo lived. By nightfall, Ekrn was shouting at his Tallguard, cursing nonstop as more of the Tallguard’s [Healers] attended to disparate sections of him. Already, there were crowds clustered at the entrances or the viewing windows for a look, and people protesting the danger.

A giant had come to Paeth. That was the problem. He was just one man, but Luan alone towered over the rest of the smallfolk. He was little threat to Paeth, even if he was strong. The problem was—there were a lot of giants out there. So many.

They could never find Paeth’s Tree by the Coast. For, as every Tallguard knew—

That was how Fraerlings died.

 

—-

 

When Luan woke up, it was almost…reassuring to find how like a story it was. It proved he hadn’t been rendered insane by his time at sea, by his meeting with—with—whatever it had been during the Summer Solstice.

That was because stories were predictable. If you knew the story, you knew at least a bit of what came next. Hopefully it was a good story, not those old fairy tales. A modern rendition, not the original Red Riding Hood, and so on.

Luan had read Gulliver’s Travels, some version of the fable at least, as a boy. It hadn’t left the hugest impression, but it was one of those stories everyone remembered. The classic giant meets tiny people, or the reverse, the tiny people living amongst giants.

Either way, what he recalled was that, as a boy, he’d noted how none of the Lilliputians looked like him. All fair-skinned, well, like a lot of fairy tales.

Commentary on fables aside, that was Luan’s background to waking up and finding himself tied to the ground by a bunch of tiny ropes. He stared around, tried to move his neck.

“No way.

It wasn’t a dream! Luan saw some figures draw back, call out.

Tallfolk’s awake! Get those idiots at the entrances back! Where’s the Sentry Leader?”

He saw, sideways and upside-down, little people running about. Luan realized he was in shade; someone had set up a tent over his body! Or rather, multiple tents all joined up. He was in some kind of enclosure reminiscent of Geneva’s own surgery-tent…a temporary setup to house him in.

Someone had even hung up bunches of lavender. Why? Because he stank? Luan had been swimming for weeks in the ocean, so he could believe that.

Every part of his body hurt. He had been baked by sun, dehydrated, swimming non-stop, and to top it all off, he’d nearly drowned during the Summer Solstice and when he’d finally reached land, piranhas, crocodiles, and every manner of Baleros’ worst wildlife had tried to finish him off.

Luan was a [Rower], an athlete, but this had pushed past all his limits. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but he was content to lie there for a moment, and just—be alive. Stories. He was actually living one. Now there would be something to tell his son. He had to live. Luan closed his eyes, and breathed in air.

He wasn’t one of the Drowned Folk. He had refused. He couldn’t live in the sea. He had to live, return—hopefully this would be a better story than all the ones he’d seen play out thus far.

He had hopes, despite the ropes. After all, Gulliver made it all work out, right? Luan felt something touch his shoulder—a ladder?—and then someone walked onto his chest, up, towards his face.

“Alright, Human. We’re letting you move your head. Let’s chat. Cut the ropes!”

Luan tilted his head up a bit as he felt dozens of tiny strings snap free. He craned his stiff neck up gratefully, and saw a little man standing on his chest. Pointing a crossbow loaded with a glowing bolt straight at his nose.

…They didn’t mention this in the storybook. Luan froze.

“That’s right. Let me talk, then you get to say whatever you want. My name is Sentry Leader Ekrn, Tallguard. Not that it means anything to you—I’m a Fraerling. My job is to keep my village safe, and you’re sitting right next to it, attracting all kinds of things that want to eat you. Congratulations! You found a Fraerling Village. There’s no pot of gold. We don’t grant wishes; that’s Djinni. We won’t fix your disgusting shoes—even if you had any.”

Luan wiggled his toes, remembering he’d cast his shoes off to lighten himself while swimming. Ekrn went on, grimly.

“We’re small, but try to hurt us, run off, or do anything stupid and we’ll kill you. Frankly, I’d have put you out of your misery already, but it’s not my choice. You are…a guest of Paeth, until we figure out if we’re going to kill you after all or let you go somehow. You are my biggest headache ever. Nice to meet you. Now you can talk.”

Luan’s mouth worked. He stared at Ekrn, and the little man gestured impatiently.

“Cat ate your tongue?”

“…Water.”

Ekrn stared at Luan as the man croaked. Then he sighed.

“Dead gods damn it.”

 

—-

 

Noa was a [Sentry]. One of the Tallguard; she’d passed all her training, and she had earned her enchanted weapons. Crossbow, shortsword, and any number of tricks like the rope swings they used to travel around the perimeter of Paeth.

She was still low-ranking, and that was acknowledging that Ekrn wasn’t exactly the greatest member of the Tallguard either. Well—he was [Sentry Leader], which meant he protected all of Paeth from attacks. The name only fooled Tallfolk; the Fraerlings had no real army. Just the Tallguard.

She was in huge trouble, though. She sat, nearly two days after the Human named Luan had collapsed; it had taken him two days to wake up! He’d been treated, his infected wounds salved, potions and such administered.

So much. They’d carted it out, hundreds of healing potions and cauldrons of brewed salves and poultices for the best [Healers] to apply—those not terrified of going out, or being near one of the Tallfolk. The Tallguard’s [Healers] did a lot of the work, but a few brave souls had come out for the first time in their lives to gawk at the Human.

There were probably thousands watching. However, around her were only Tallguard. Occasionally her friends and comrades would slap her on the shoulder and jokingly say something.

Nice job, Noa! As if we weren’t worried about food already!”

“Got any more Tallfolk you want to lead to our door?”

“If the Human relieves himself, I’m not shoveling anything. You can do that. We’ll get you a wagon.”

To her relief, that last hadn’t happened, but the hundreds of healing potions wasn’t an exaggeration, unfortunately. The Human had been more dead than not, and she’d feared Ekrn would just let him expire. However, the Sentry Leader had his marching orders from Paeth’s Architects and despite his irritation, he did have his own sense of honor. He was a warrior, and he’d seen how far Luan had come. Letting him die now? It had felt wrong.

Noa rose as Ekrn stomped out of the tent they’d set up to keep the sun from baking the Human—and keep predators from catching his scent.

“Boss, is he…?”

“He’s awake! And thirsty. Hey, I need kegs of water!”

“Kegs? Of water? What, you mean like our sentry provisions?”

The [Sentry Leader] shrugged.

“Something like that. Or we could run a hose from the city…? No, that’s way too far. Damn. Get me kegs! Barrels! Something to dump water into that Human’s mouth!”

“We could let him sit up…?”

One of the Fraerlings suggested. The others were scrambling; the Tallguard had provisions, but water was not a huge issue given that they had bags of holding. In the end, they filled up bags of holding or barrels that had to be emptied of other contents first.

“We’re letting him sit up. Damn Human’s weak as an aphid, though. He must still be thirsty, even though we pumped him full of potion. Noa, with me.”

“Um—what for, Ekrn?”

The Fraerling gave her a look.

“You started this mess. So I’ll be kitten-bait if you’re not going to be as miserable as I am.”

That was how Noa found herself rolling in barrels and dumping bags of holding into them for the Human to drink as he sat cross-legged under the canopy of trees, far, far overhead. A sky unto itself for the Fraerlings. Luan gulped the ‘cups’ of water down.

[Body: Water Retention] had allowed him to survive against all odds at sea, but thirst was still thirst. His first real, wonderfully cool water went down so fast he had to slow down. He knew he’d puke if he drank too fast, so he tried to sip and talk.

“You’re Fraerlings. I thought you weren’t secretive, though. The Titan of Baleros is a Fraerling.”

That was the first thing he thought to say. The two little Fraerlings, the angry man in charge and the young woman who looked up at him, awestruck, both exchanged a look. The younger girl looked amused; the man just growled.

“Yes, yes. Every Tallfolk knows the Titan. The most famous Fraerling ever! And you think you know us? The Titan’s a damned adventurer and head of one of the Four Great Companies! He’s an insane loon who left the Fraerling settlements when he was young. We’re not like him, so any ideas you have of us—forget it. We’re not like the ones in his company either.”

“Okay. I’ve touched a nerve. I’m sorry. Thank you for saving me.”

“You’re welcome! We saw you swimming here! I mean, I did. It was amazing! We couldn’t help; you were far too far for us to even think about it, but it was incredible! Are you a [Sailor]? Did you survive a shipwreck?”

Ekrn glared at his sidekick.

“This is Noa. She’s the idiot who didn’t shoot you through the head before you blundered into our perimeter.”

“Perimeter? Oh—the exploding wires?”

Luan suddenly recalled running into what felt like a minefield. Ekrn sighed.

“Yep. The area around here is secured against predators, so don’t run out or you’ll hit something. Mind you, I’m amazed you didn’t die when you ran into all our lovely, lovely…expensive…traps.”

He glowered. Luan felt like he was talking to someone determined to hold a grudge. He was disoriented, but he had been around Ken long enough to appreciate diplomacy. So, the South African man just grinned.

“I’m sorry for living, sir. I’ll do better next time. I’m no [Sailor]; I’m actually a City Runner. Sea, not land. And I can pay—I’d repay you for saving me as well!”

He fumbled for his side, and realized his bag of holding was gone. He glanced at Ekrn.

“…Unless you want to help yourself?”

The Sentry Leader grinned inadvertently—then scowled and coughed.

“We went through your bag of holding. Nice crossbow. Did a monkey make it for you? We don’t want your gold; we don’t need it.”

“A friend of mine made that. What do you mean, you don’t want any gold? I’m happy to pay—”

Ekrn sighed.

“And what would we do with gold, Human? Well, gold would be great for the [Alchemists] and [Enchanters]. Shame your coins have less gold than pyrite.”

Now Luan leaned forwards, reaching for another barrel. He looked down at the Fraerlings, greatly intrigued.

“You don’t use it? For trading with us? Humans? Lizardfolk, Dullahans and Centaurs?”

Noa laughed incredulously, then caught herself. Ekrn looked up at Luan, and now he did look amused.

“When I said we were nothing like the Titan of Baleros—we’re not a village that sends people into market, Human. We don’t trade regularly. If we need something, really need something, we can send for it, but that’s a mission unto itself. No one ever traces one of us back here. No one should know we exist. There is exactly one Tallfolk in the world who has even a vague idea of where we are, and that’s because of a pact we struck. Everyone else? We’ve killed Tallfolk who found us before. Are you beginning to see the problem?”

Luan did. He slowly sat back, thinking. At last, he nodded.

“You haven’t killed me yet. Am I valuable to you? Can I make a plea for my life?”

Ekrn gave him a weary smile.

“You got lucky, Human. That’s all. I don’t know what’s going to happen, and frankly, I don’t like talking to you if I have to do what I must.”

“It’s Luan, Sentry Leader. Luan. I’m a father, and I just want to get home to my family and friends.”

The Fraerling gave him a pained look.

“Thanks for telling me. I’ll still shoot you if I have to. Alright. If you’re drinking that much—do you need to use the restroom? Because I’d rather you did that far downwind, and far away from here as possible. Food? Then—well, I think some people are going to want to talk to you.”

Thus, Luan found himself being escorted by a tiny band of Fraerlings a good fifty feet away from the giant tree to do his business. He couldn’t run, and was distinctly aware of some loudly humming people trying to give him privacy around a tree. Then they led him back and Luan realized that all the stories he was told in this world of Fraerlings had gotten it wrong.

Fraerlings weren’t secretive people who lived in little villages secluded from the world. At least—these people didn’t. What people forgot was this: they were small, and in danger from everything in the world. Tiny folk.

The same people that the Titan of Baleros had come from. In short—the highest-leveled species in the world, and the shortest in stature.

 

—-

 

“Alright. Tell me how this isn’t the single stupidest idea I’ve ever heard in my life?”

Sentry Leader Ekrn looked exasperated as he argued with an [Alchemist] hard at work. Luan stared down at the tiny glass vials, the recipe being followed diligently, and the argument. The [Alchemist] kept staring up at Luan.

“Not my job, Sentry Leader. They want to talk to him, and they’re not coming out. So he goes in. We’re not taking him in, in. So there’s no risk he reverts and explodes.”

“Uh. Explode?”

“Inside the city. I imagine it would be your body versus our architecture, and everything’s enchanted. So your bones would probably lose the battle, and if that’s the case…well, I’m sure it would be a disaster. Many lives lost. Including yours.”

The [Alchemist] seemed cheery about the idea. Which was missing the point to Ekrn.

“And if he goes back to the outside world and tells them what’s inside a Fraerling c—village?

He looked pointedly at Luan. The [Alchemist] shrugged.

“Not my decision. Besides, he’s already found us. I suppose the Architects don’t think it can get worse.”

They’re not thinking at all! Sheltered idiots!”

Ekrn stomped towards Luan. He glared up at the man.

“Well, that’s that.”

“That’s what? You just told me I’m going inside that tree and I might not explode if I turn back.”

Luan apprehensively edged back, until there was a shout.

Aah!

Noa ran around him and he froze. Ekrn kicked at her.

“You idiot, Noa! Rookie mistake—never get around anything large enough to crush you!”

“Sorry.”

Both Luan and Noa apologized. Ekrn sighed. He pointed at Luan.

“You’re not being shrunk down. That’s stupid. Do you know how hard it is to change size? We’re not paying for that, even if we did have all the recipes to brew a shrinking draught—let alone enough for you! No, we’re doing something simpler. See this? Know what it is?”

He held up something and Luan stared at it.

“…Is that an eyeball?”

“Fresh.”

The [Alchemist] recoiled. So did Luan, slightly. It wasn’t just an eyeball; it was floating in a jar. A small eye. Luan didn’t want to know what animal had given it up.

“It’s not exactly a scrying spell; we don’t allow those anywhere near the village. How it works is—well, you explain, [Alchemist].”

Ekrn turned to the Fraerling man, who was pouring himself a vial of the cauldron’s contents. He inspected the clear liquid that nevertheless had trapped ‘bubbles’ of multi-colored orange and green, and then looked up at Luan. He eyed the Human, poured the vial back into the cauldron, and indicated it.

“You drink all of this, Human. That will put you to rest; mainly so you work with the spell. Then we perform a bit of magic and you’ll see through this eyeball. Even talk!”

“I’ve never heard of magic like that before.”

Luan looked uneasy. The Fraerling chuckled.

“Nonsense! Even Tallfolk know this spell. It’s a basic scouting spell; Tallguard use it all the time, even the Farspeaker! It’s just a bit of necromancy…”

Necromancy? Hold on—”

The Fraerlings convinced him. It was mostly Ekrn telling Luan it was perfectly safe and that he had no choice that did the trick. Also—him telling Luan to his face that he’d be one of a few mortals who ever saw the inside of a Fraerling Village.

“It’s just so stupid. This is the problem with leaving it to the Inners.”

“That what-ers? These Architects? Your leaders?”

Ekrn shook his head. Noa, who’d already befriended Luan, waved cheerily. She had dark skin, not as dark as his own, and moss-leaf hair. Dyed, apparently. She wasn’t allowed to make it any vivid, unnatural colors, but green was fine for the jungle they were in.

“He means non-Tallguard, Luan. It’s like…non-[Soldiers] for you, I guess. The Architects aren’t the problem; everyone inside Paeth probably hasn’t ever seen Tallfolk before! Let alone gone outside!

Luan stared at the tree in front of him. It was huge, a giant among giants on Earth, possibly a contender for one of the largest trees in the world there. Even so, he couldn’t believe it was home to seven hundred thousand.

“You’re telling me there are Fraerlings—Inners—who live their entire lives without seeing the outside world?”

“Yup. Tallguard are different. Special. We’re the only ones who go outside to make sure there are no threats. Anyways, there’s plenty of room inside.”

“Even with so many?”

“Yep. It’s bigger on the inside than the outside. Dimensional magic. Like Wistram, they say. Haven’t you seen something like it?”

She gave him a round-eyed look of innocent mystery, as if this was normal. Luan glanced at Ekrn, and the [Sentry Leader] gave him a significant glance. It seemed Ekrn understood more than even his other Tallguard why Luan’s peek was so worrying.

They had magic that Luan had never heard of. True, he hadn’t been here long, but—he took the cauldron, nearly dropped it, and swore.

It’s hot!

“Oh. Sorry. I normally have a vial. You might need a glove. Maybe a leaf?”

Gingerly, Luan lifted the cauldron, blew on it twice, and drank the scalding liquid. He gasped.

“That tastes—good!”

Well, of course it does. Do you know how hard it is to get people to drink potions if they tasted like their components?”

The Fraerling looked amused. Luan opened his mouth.

“I’ve tasted healing potions and they taste like—”

His head drooped. Noa looked up as the Human began to keel forwards. The [Alchemist] screamed; Ekrn just whistled. Dozens of ropes shot forwards and caught Luan, dragging him down backwards. A [Mage] pointed.

[Featherfall].

It took six to make Luan slowly drift backwards towards the ground. His eyes were closed. They began preparing the next spell as the [Necromancer] yawned her way forwards.

 

—-

 

“—scrapings out of a trash can. What—”

Luan stared. Suddenly, he was staring around and the world was different! He was…looking through the world like it was a single, fish-eye lens. It was so disorientating he didn’t realize at first that the view was of a completely different place than he had been.

Everything was huge. He saw a few figures, and then a man bent down.

“Well, well, well. Not so huge after all, are we, Human?”

He was Luan’s height; maybe a bit shorter since Luan was a tall guy, but distinctly around the same height. Six feet, Luan would have guessed…if it weren’t for the fact that he knew Ekrn was six inches tall.

A woman of roughly the same height waved at him.

“Hi, Luan! You look—creepy!”

The floating eyeball rotated in the liquid, but couldn’t see itself. Luan’s voice, when it came out, was slightly muffled, but lacked the echo he expected.

“I’m…in the eyeball?”

“Basic possession magic. Don’t get attached. Literally. Sometimes people keep seeing out of the eye after it’s done—we’ll get rid of it. Okay! Into Paeth to show Tallfolk all our secrets because why not?

“I think it could be helpful, boss. You know Paeth’s over its allotment. And the Tallguard had to go on the Gathering Run—what if he helped?”

“And what if we lived in a city and Humans visited us all the time? You know your history, [Sentry]! Stop believing in fairytales. He’s not some ‘magical Gnoll’ who washes ashore and fixes all wrongs.”

The eyeball swiveled from Ekrn to Noa as Luan adjusted to this new, temporary body. He interrupted as Noa lifted the jar with a grunt.

“Wait, you have stories about Tallfolk meeting you?”

“Yup. Historical accounts which aren’t so pretty, but every child reads the classics. What, you tell stories about meeting us? Hah. That’s funny. Fairy tales both ways.”

Ekrn looked amused. Now he was taller than Luan, or rather, speaking to the eye in the enchanted jar, he seemed less wary. Or maybe he was just resigned.

 

—-

 

As they walked, Ekrn explained what Luan was about to see. Which was counterintuitive, but, as the Fraerling man said, it wasn’t what Luan was going to see that mattered—it was what he wasn’t going to see.

“That makes no sense.”

The [Athlete] countered. He was feeling…slightly unwell, despite the spell working without a hitch. It was mostly because he had no legs, arms—no body at all. He didn’t even know how he was hearing or speaking. They claimed they’d looped in a basic speech and hearing spell with the necromantic possession, but the more Luan thought about it, the sicker he got.

“Don’t focus on it or you’ll drive yourself mad. Listen. Paeth isn’t your typical Fraerling village. Village. Hah! Well—it fits some of the settlements across Baleros. There are places where there are actually Fraerlings who farm, and make a basic living—in touch with nature. I’ve had to guard some of those settlements and it’s a nightmare. No magic, which does mean less threats…no allotment to argue about…”

“Allotment? Slow down. So Paeth isn’t a village? I didn’t think seven hundred thousand fit a village, but aren’t they called…?”

“Nope! It’s a city. Villages are just what we call it to fool big people. Hoi there! Tallguards of Feiland, coming in!”

The entrance to Paeth wasn’t guarded by Ekrn or Noa’s forces. Rather, it was Paeth’s internal security, which mystified Luan until he realized they called themselves Tallguard of Feiland.

“We don’t belong to Paeth. We’re Tallguard. No allegiance but to guarding against animals and so on. A few of us do duty inside—they call us in if there’s some kind of incident. Killers. Monsters or something inside. Easy work.”

“Really?”

Ekrn snorted.

“Oh yes. We have crazies, just like you Tallfolk, I imagine. The worst was a [Serial Killer]. Sixteen dead…they called me in to get him and once I tracked him down, it wasn’t exactly hard. Fraerlings, the Inners, aren’t fighters. Most never pick up a sword. I imagine its foreign to you.”

“Er…no. Sounds like home.”

“Huh. I heard Tallfolk saw monsters with some regularity. Big city dweller?”

“Oh yes. Not this crowded. Not one tree, but it’s fairly big.”

“How many people?”

They were waiting in front of huge, metal doors. In fact, a series of them and a checkpoint. It was rare for anyone to go in and out, and Luan saw, briefly, multiple defensive checkpoints.

“Only a few million people.”

Ekrn snorted incredulously.

“What? You must be from a capital. Or one of the Walled Cities. Which continent? I don’t know names aside from the old history books.”

“Um…Terandria.”

Noa and Ekrn both stared at the eye in the jar as it swiveled around.

“Nice lie. You don’t have a face and my niece still tells better ones.”

Luan just sighed. There was so much to say and not say, and it was all happening so fast. His heart was beating—he could still feel it—rapidly.

This was magic.

They halted in the checkpoint.

“Hold on! Identification! Wait for the [Appraisal]!”

“Wonderful. They know who we are. Looks like the Architects are mad I walked all over their fancy carpets.”

Ekrn grumbled. Luan felt a tingling, and then there was a shout.

[Sentry Leader] confirmed. [Sentry] confirmed—identities match up with given names! Tallguard of Feiland!

Luan was fascinated to see the [Security Personnel] at these checkpoints were completely differently adorned compared to the Tallguard. They wore, well, modern-looking gear, at least to the Earther. The ones in the outer checkpoints had carried weapons like the Tallguard, but these ones held batons at their side; no armor, but lighter stuff, more like a policeman’s outfit than anything.

“Are those batons at their side? Not weapons?”

“I told you. Inners don’t have monsters. No wild animals…those are Paratons.”

“What do they do?”

Luan fixed on them. He saw what looked like a delicate rune etched into each one, glowing yellow. Ekrn bared his teeth, and the [Security] eyed him nervously.

“Paralysis spell. Paralysis baton. Sorry, forgot you wouldn’t know. They hit you, you go limp and numb. Imagine fighting a cat with that.

“Don’t be mean, boss! They helped fight off the ants!”

“Yeah, I guess. We had an ant army come at us. Steel-eating bastards. They sensed the magic—I told them we were over allotment! Human, have you ever seen animals up to your stomach with armor and teeth that can chew a leg clean off in seconds coming at you by the thousand?”

Luan shuddered as he thought about it, but he wasn’t willing to let Ekrn walk all over him.

“I don’t know about the size, but I did just escape a bunch of piranhas. Sound familiar?”

The [Sentry Leader] laughed.

“I forgot! City Runner…right. You would be closer to us than this lot.”

He nodded at the guards as another shout came out.

“Appraisal done! Luan…Khumalo! K-h-u-malo! Level 28 [Expert Rower], Level 16…[Athlete]? Level 4 [Medic], Level 6 [Soldier]…”

They read out his levels and some of his Skills as the Fraerlings looked at Luan. Ekrn raised his brows.

“Level 28? Well, well. Looks like we have someone hot on Level 30 here!”

Luan felt just a bit smug about that…right up until Ekrn laughed.

“And what level are you?”

Luan retorted. Ekrn winked at him.

“Let me put it like this, Luan. I know Level 30’s important in your world, but down here, Tallguard fight what your Gold-ranks do on a regular basis. Level 30’s the minimum for my job. Alright, let’s go.”

He sauntered on. Noa whispered to Luan.

“It’s still impressive! Ekrn’s just showing off.”

Then they were in Paeth’s Tree by the Coast. Luan saw them march past the checkpoint, as Ekrn exchanged insults with a guard that might have been genuine or just bravado. They walked forwards and came to a halt.

There was only a wall. Carved wood in front of them. Luan stared.

“Um. Trap door?”

Noa and Ekrn exchanged a look of anticipation. They were clearly looking forwards to this part.

“Not exactly. Never been on a galift before, Human? I’m told they don’t exist except maybe in a few places anymore. Look down.”

“A galift? What’s—oh my god.

Luan shouted, because he looked down just as the elevator began to move up. He saw a glass panel in the center, a strange roiling substance below—and saw the doors had closed. They were shooting up in an elevator!

Noa laughed and Ekrn looked amused, until Luan began to speak.

“It’s an elevator! You have an elevator?”

“Damn. My friend lied to me. I thought they didn’t exist.”

Ekrn was clearly crestfallen that Luan wasn’t shocked beyond belief. He tapped his foot, eying the walls passing through a glass window, but Luan was demanding to know more.

“I know what this is—but how? Magic?”

“No! Well, only a bit. Even some of the non-magic villages have stuff like this, although they use pulleys and weights. Running an elevator all day though would eat up way too much of our allotment. It’s a galift. See? It’s powered by gas.

Down Noa pointed and Luan saw the same pulsating cloud blowing them up. He stared.

The Fraerlings used an alchemical compound that had the same qualities as Helium—but a lot more lift. It could power these elevators, and their [Alchemists] brewed up as much as they needed.

“It’s an actual substance, apparently. See, it goes up to a certain point until it builds up—then it sinks. I’m amazed you know about it. My friend said…”

Ekrn glanced at Luan. The man was lost for words. He realized Fraerlings had so much that Earth did. Or rather—this city was a place with so many technologies not eaten by the Creler Wars, Rhir, or the thousand other disasters he’d heard about.

It was a paradise.

 

 

No. Not a paradise. A certain ruler of Khelt would have strenuously objected to that qualification. It might seem so to Luan, but the best of the Fraerling settlements still had crime, still had need and desire. They were above your average city, but Fetohep of Khelt would have opined that a Fraerling ‘Village’ was, by its nature, unable to be classified as a paradise due to the inherent risk.

Monsters and animals could attack it, unlike Khelt or Samal, where such things were just…stories. Paeth was, then, in that rarest of all middle-categories between paradise and ‘hole in the ground’.

Not a paradise, but a splendiferous city that occasionally came under attack. The closest example might be First Landing, or a Walled City.

To Luan, though, it was the closest thing to a city from Earth he had ever seen. A modern city, with countless indications of technology beyond what most could accomplish. No dirt streets. It was either wood, long-smoothed from where it had been cut, or metal walkways, or…ceramics.

He stared down at laminated tiles, like that which you might find in a mall! Paeth was massive; there were even skyscrapers built into the heart of the tree.

The Fraerlings had hollowed out their tree. The walls were the hollowed out trunk, but Noa had not lied; some dimensional magic was at work here, because there was no way this would all normally fit inside.

The city within stretched up, and up, and Luan saw the center was the remnants of the wood, turned into buildings, while entire blocks and floors had been constructed in other places. If you could fly, you might well go up most of the tree without needing a galift—although it wasn’t a straight shot in most places.

Some windows let in light from the outside world, but most of the lighting was artificial. Magical. That was what made Luan stare.

Fraerlings had copied much of Earth’s conveniences—with magic. The first thing he saw as the galift’s doors opened was a sign of what was to come.

A harried-looking group of Fraerlings were making for the lift. Some had tools, or cases with supplies, others were clearly [Mages], [Alchemists]—Luan was grateful not to be able to smell, because as they rushed past Ekrn and Noa, the two Fraerlings held their noses and the group of people heading to work groaned as the [Alchemist] moved in.

“I’m sorry! Skunk gland—”

Hold the galift! Hold the galift, please!

It was like a scene from Earth, albeit somewhat of a cliché. Here came someone, who, while not exactly wearing a suit, had on a piece of formal attire. Fraerling dress, Luan would later realize, was more fashion than function for the inner world. They could style their hair, so even their ‘business people’ chose attractive, trendy outfits.

Still, give this Fraerling a briefcase and pop him into a black suit and tie, and Luan would have thought he was normal in any city on Earth. Okay—also dye his white hair and red tips that stuck up and reminded him of a paintbrush.

Luan saw the doors of the galift closing and the unfortunate Fraerling wasn’t going to pull the doors open; they were sealed hard to let the gas-elevator work. Nor were the Fraerlings willing to wait with the smelly [Alchemist].

The Fraerling was running too slow; he was no [Athlete]. However, as he realized this, he gasped, murmured something—and Luan saw his feet blur towards the elevator.

The man zoomed into the gap, nearly colliding, and turned, beaming smugly. The others sighed. Luan stared. The man stared back at the eyeball in the jar as if Luan was the weird thing—and only mildly weird at that.

“What was that? An artifact? Boots of Speed?”

I want one! Luan’s inner desires began to spill forth. This. This was what he’d dreamed of when he came to this world. Magic! Anime! He loved anime. It was a hobby…that was how he’d picked up enough Japanese to talk to Ken and Aiko.

Ekrn dashed his hopes with a laugh.

“Boots of Speed? Nah. You think that fellow would buy that? If we could get Boots of Speed that easily, I’d arm every Tallguard with them before a single Inner, no matter how much they squawked.”

“Ah. A Skill, then. [Can’t Be Late for Work]?”

Luan was deflated. Obviously, obviously. Noa shook her head.

“Nope. It’s just the citywide spell. [Speed]. Everyone gets one minute per day.”

What?

They dashed his hopes just to show him more anime! Luan’s shouting became so loud that Ekrn plugged his ears.

“Gah, you didn’t blink at the Galift and this impresses you? It’s a damned waste. This isn’t necessary! This is why we’re over our allotment and monsters keep coming by.”

There was that word again. Allotment. Luan looked around.

“What is allotment?”

Ekrn gave the city a sour look. Noa, an affectionate one. She was a Tallguard, but she had grown up in cities like this one.

“It’s magic, of course. See?”

There it was. As they walked through the city of Fraerlings, Luan saw it everywhere. Wherever technology would have normally been—magic took its place.

In every example. For instance, he couldn’t feel it much to his disappointment, but the glass jar clouded a bit because the air had grown cold as they passed by what he only could describe as a supermarket. Food lay in bins, preserved by magic, and the air was colder! Because someone had created a Rune of Cooling.

A child was throwing a little airplane—no, it was a bird with wings! She threw it up and laughed, chasing after it, directing it somehow as it zoomed about.

From toys to cooling to…Luan saw someone knock over an object in a shop with a crash. There were mops and presumably, cleaners, but the [Shopkeeper], in a hurry to not lose time or sales with the broken glass, found a talisman and waved it. The glass and liquid collected into a ball, which she flicked into a receptacle.

Ekrn looked at it all and had none of Noa’s affection or Luan’s longing.

“Fraerling settlements that run on magic have something called ‘allotment’, Luan Khumalo. I don’t know if your Tallfolk cities do; Wistram might not, but it’s a special case. Allotment means that you can’t use up too much magic in stupid enchantments like ones that let you fly in certain rooms, or speed up. It’s wasteful and Paeth has been over the last three months. They need to get it under control, by reducing, or blocking more from reaching the outside.”

“Why’s that important?”

The Fraerling gave Luan a look.

“You’re a City Runner, aren’t you? Think about it. Magic. Ever heard of how [Farmers] grow Sage’s Grass? We don’t need as much magic for our spells, but in a city like this, we produce far, far more than any ten Tallfolk [Mages]. What do you think that does?”

Luan thought about it. He had an answer, but wasn’t sure if it was right.

“It…attracts monsters that want it?”

“Yep.”

Noa and Ekrn chorused at the same time. Ekrn looked around.

“Allotment is a limit the Tallguard sets. We can tell how much magic leaks from a settlement. Too much, and hungry things come after it, thinking we’re animals or plants—they don’t care. If it gets too high, we can’t defend a place like this and Paeth is bad with it. Too much wasteful stuff.”

“It comes and goes. The Guidance gets what we want each month, and they cancel old spells to keep us under. Or they used to.”

The [Sentry Leader] sneered.

“Inners don’t care. The Architects don’t understand. Not ‘we’, they, Noa. We tell them every time and they think we’re paranoid fools. None of them have ever seen a nest of roach eggs or had to crush them and burn the things alive! No one here has seen a cat eating their prey and torturing them to draw the rest out. Look!”

He pointed around, and Luan saw that Ekrn and Noa were outsiders. More than him. A floating eye in a jar got less looks than two Fraerlings wearing armor, carrying swords. A child pointed, and he heard a single word.

Titan.

Just like the Titan. Tallguard. Luan saw a few more, young Fraerlings, children to the full adults, glance at the Tallguard, and there it was. A kind of…romance. Distant for most, stronger in the children.

Like how kids looked at Daly or other adventurers. Noa waved, smiling. Ekrn slapped her arm down.

“Don’t encourage them.”

“We always need recruits, boss.”

“Almost all wash out. Nineteen out of twenty. Did you know the Guidance this year was a washout? But she got to actual fieldwork…she got further than most do. Well, Luan. This is the city of the Fraerling. A primitive village where we make shoes and hide pots of gold. Hah! What do you think?”

The Human was silent as Ekrn looked at him, reminded that the Architects were letting him see all this and in a bad mood again. He waited, and heard Luan’s voice, distant. Longing.

“It’s beautiful. We don’t have this magic. This is amazing. It reminds me, though. Of home.”

Ekrn glanced sharply at the eye in the jar. Home? He looked around at the city no Human could dare match. He hadn’t told Luan this, but he had seen cities of Baleros. He was one of the Tallguard who had gone on missions to cities—even great ones—and he knew.

There was no city like this, not even Pallass. Unless he was far off.

Yet Luan didn’t sound like he was lying. Ekrn’s anger and wariness began to shift. To curiosity. He began to realize that if a great secret had been unveiled by Luan finding them…perhaps they had found something here too in him.

After all. How else could you explain the strange device in his bag of holding? The one that had no magic, but glowed? Ekrn rubbed his chin as they went to meet the Architects.

 

—-

 

The meeting with the Architects took two hours and was surprisingly…normal. They asked Luan a lot of questions and he answered.

He was a City Runner who’d survived a freak accident at sea. He wanted to go home; he wouldn’t tell.

Obviously they had problems letting him go, and they debated that with Ekrn.

“Look, if we wipe his memory—it never works. That’s how stories get out.”

“What about a [Geas]?”

“You can break those. It’s my professional opinion that you can’t keep our secret safe without a dead Human—and even then, [Necromancers] talk. So you chop up the pieces and feed them to the crocodiles. No offense, Luan.”

“Much taken.”

Noa was nervous, but Ekrn’s heart wasn’t in it. Nor were the Architects going to do that; they were civilized people.

Exceptionally civilized. They were like people from Earth, who did not kill, did not contemplate fighting for their lives. It was refreshing to Luan, although he realized they could still be petty, vindictive, and evil. Just in a different way.

They could also be good, intelligent, and kind, and he thanked them for that.

“We respect the institution of City Runners; much like Tallguard, Mister Luan. You have put us in a difficult place, but perhaps we can help each other? Paeth has long been sufficient without Tallfolk, your people, about, but perhaps an exception can be made?”

Citivican Loust smiled at Luan. Ekrn muttered under his breath.

And that’s how a settlement ends.

Anyways, the long and short was that Luan was a guest and he got to tour more of Paeth for the last hour they had. Noa did that; Ekrn had stomped off to send a message to their Skywatcher, the Tallguard leader of the Feiland.

“You see, Feiland’s an outpost where we train. A fortress; we go to other settlements. That prevents one from being biased. We divide up, and they all give us what we need. Artifacts, see?”

She had an enchanted crossbow and weapons; her armor was enchanted too. Amazingly enchanted. Almost no magical leakage. When Luan said that even a Gold-rank adventurer might not have six artifacts, while Noa had eight, she looked surprised.

“Why not…? Oh, right. The magical difference. ‘Tallfolk get all the power, but it shrinks by the hour. The small are meek, but our magic’s more complete’. That’s a nursery rhyme they teach us.”

“What does it mean?”

Noa grinned.

“It means we have better spells. It takes less magic to do what we want, after all! We can’t fight big, but we can do a lot of little things!”

That was how Paeth existed. Consider it, and it was easy once Luan got going. A piece of Sage’s Grass could make a healing potion for a normal person. Or help a [Mage] with a spell.

But imagine how much it could do for a Fraerling [Mage]. Power any number of spells they might want, and only one plant! Of course, obtaining such resources was tricky, but if you needed the skin of a salamander, one salamander was enough material for a week for the entire city’s worth of [Alchemists]!

No wonder they had so much resource. However, the rules of allotment meant that Fraerlings couldn’t build the city of paradises. That was the one complaint that they had. Too much magic attracted attention.

“That’s why we have allotment. And each citizen gets a vurel. More depending on their rank; but even kids get a set amount.”

“What’s a vurel?”

It was a kind of measure of magical power. Like…the amount of power in a [Fireball] spell for a Tallfolk [Mage]. Luan expressed disbelief, but Noa clarified.

“You get all that power per year. So how it works is—let’s say you really, really want a fountain that um, automatically purifies the water. You can put part or all of your vurel to that project if someone works on it, and it gets authorized! The Architects campaign on stuff like that; the [Speed] spell got approved because almost a hundred thousand people put part of their vurel towards it. No matter what Ekrn says—it’s great. See?”

She blurred and ran halfway up the wall, with her boots letting her stick to the surface. Noa waved down at Luan for a moment before gravity dragged her down. She pointed.

“I can run all the way up that building, see?”

It looked forty feet tall to Luan. He asked to see, and Noa’s face fell.

“I’d show you—but I got in trouble for doing it last time. A lot of people tried to copy me and they weren’t Tallguard. And didn’t have my boots!”

“I wish I could be here. This place is—amazing.”

“As amazing as Chandrar? Or is it Izril? Rhir? Drath? I don’t believe you’re Baleros if we’re all new to you.”

Ekrn strode over. Luan glanced at him. He hesitated.

There was a standing rule in the United Nations company that no one, not even close allies, knew about Earth. Not anyone you dated, not the Gravetender’s Fist company…no one.

It just made sense and he hadn’t even quibbled with it, like some who argued they should use their knowledge to buy favor with a company. Now, though, Luan wondered. Of all the people in the world, what harm would it be to tell Ekrn and Noa? They were Fraerlings.

And unfortunately or not, Ekrn had seen his smartphone. The Fraerling gave Luan a long look as they paused to eat; Luan had to watch. Noa had offered to sprinkle her sandwich crumbs into his jar.

“The Architects want your ‘Tallfolk’ powers to help us with some of the problems around Paeth. As if this solves them sweeping the allotment issue under the tree’s roots for the last few months…looks like you and I aren’t the only ones reading fairytales, Human.”

The Tallguard grunted, biting into something that looked delicious. Luan’s stomach grumbled in his real body—until he was told it was fried lizard.

“It’s good. You know, we have lots of [Chefs], but it’s hard to get actual fruit. Tallguard have died on gathering runs, even with bags of holding.”

“Birds. We can provide for all of Paeth if we kill a boar or something, but imagine harvesting it and ferrying it in? Plus—meat gets old.

“So what’s the solution?”

Ekrn grimaced.

“Gathering Runs. For alchemical goods, for food—Tallguard go out and we grab everything we can, haul it into bags of holding…that’s what Inners don’t get.”

There were mining colonies that harvested steel, places where they grew or monitored wild Sage’s Grass, all the things that a place like Paeth needed. Getting it though? That was the problem.

“Okay, here’s a problem. Our water-condensation spell broke last month. Took two weeks to get fixed, and while it’s refilling, everyone’s been on water rationing. I say ‘water rationing’, but they get more than Tallguard sentries get regularly!”

Ekrn slapped his knee. Then he looked at Luan.

“…It’s a dangerous trek and takes lots of Fraerlings with bags of holding, even larger containers, to fill enough water and bring it back from the river. The Architects, in their infinite wisdom, pointed out that if you brought a damn bucket—or your bag of holding—you could refill our water reservoirs in a few trips and then some. I don’t like it, but we’d give you an escort.”

And here came the story again.

The Giant thought about it. He looked around this wondrous city, and didn’t need to think to reply.

“I’ll do it. Only if…you do me some favors too. And stop threatening to shoot me. Deal?”

For an answer, Ekrn sighed, then pulled off some of his sandwich crusts and tossed them into the jar with the eyeball. Luan and Noa glared at him.

“Oh, fine. I’ll play nice.”

 

—-

 

That was how Luan found himself doing, well, chores for Paeth. Chores that took advantage of his giant-ness.

Hauling water was the first step. He left his possessions in the Tallguard’s care, walked to the river, filled his bag of holding up with water, and walked back. He did this three times, and solved a city-wide water crisis.

Mind you, the hard part for the Fraerlings was figuring out how to process that much water.

Dead gods, look at that! We need to purify it first!”

They pointed at a fleck of scum in the river water, which, to them, was as large as they were. Another representative of the city, an Inner, staring around as if he expected a bird to carry him off any second, added anxiously.

“And a container! Human—I’m so sorry, Luan, we need to figure out how to get this inside. Can you…help us store it? Maybe pour it into the barrels or…we’re going to need hands. Thousands! Tell the Architects we need every container they have!”

Luan was only too happy to watch the army of Fraerlings pour out, and their ingenuity. He was careful not to move, as both he and they were wary of a Fraerling being squashed.

Within half an hour, they’d constructed a miniature aquifer with his help. [Geomancers] opened up a pit—Luan helped remove a stone—and they descended into it, wrapping metal to form, well, a giant pot next to the tree, welding it together with fire magic, and making sure it was water-proof. Then, Luan filled it and watched as they constructed a long irrigation funnel back into their city to let the water be transported up to their actual internal plumbing systems.

The fun part was getting the water, because Luan had been apprehensive about crocodiles or predators in Baleros’ jungles himself. Even if he was bigger, he remembered the angry cat, not to mention the serpents Daly had fought and the thousands of other predators.

“We’ve got that covered, Human. Just don’t trip or sneeze or jump, got it?”

Twelve Tallguard rode shotgun on Luan’s shoulders, head, or attached themselves to his clothing. Each one carried a crossbow and ‘trigger-happy’ didn’t even begin to describe it. On his first trip, Luan saw Ekrn blow apart a woodpecker, which he was asked to pick up for food, Noa nailed a crocodile eying him from afar with a miniature bolt that exploded like lightning, and at least fifty one mosquitos died.

The Tallguard regarded them as mortal enemies who’d suck you dry in an instant, and Luan saw more than once a Tallguard race across his arm to behead a mosquito trying to suck his blood.

In short…it was awesome. Yes, Luan wanted to go home, yes, he was worried about the United Nations company and his friends, but this was a story. Not least because he got to learn the last great secret of Paeth from Ekrn himself; how all this was possible when so much had been lost. Why the Architects were called the Architects. In a trade where Ekrn learned about Earth.

 

—-

 

After a week in his stay at Paeth’s Tree by the Coast, Luan Khumalo finally felt healed from his trials.

He hadn’t known it, but the toll had yet to recover, even after he’d been healed. The first signs were him being antsy, rather than content to sit about and talk to Noa or the other Fraerlings, or visit via eye-spell.

They’d created a shelter for him with that same Fraerling construction style which had so fascinated him before. Without bags of holding, he imagined it would take far longer, as they ferried up pieces of timber and so on. With it?

Well, it was amazing. Luan knew regular construction; he’d been around the world and seen everything from huge machines to bamboo lattices that workers used to create buildings; some places were less careful than others and gave their workers no safety harnesses, but most places with decent codes demanded some degree of care.

Fraerlings? They would give a safety inspector nightmares. They swarmed up a tree, anchored themselves in with grappling hooks or boots that clung to the tree like Noa’s, hammered in fixtures and created a mini-house so Luan could sleep without being eaten by bugs. If anything, their issue had been the amount of lumber and steel needed, not the creation.

They fell. Luan saw a Fraerling fall almost on her head and tried to catch her, but missed. She landed, swore, and got back up as the others laughed at her.

They didn’t fear falling! And what they made was very high-quality. That was something else Luan appreciated; they may have had tiny, tiny screws and nails, but that just meant what they produced was like finely-stitched fabric, as opposed to huge, loose stitching in cloth. He tried to push at the roof and found all the little nails and even basic enchantment made it hard as stone!

Well, Luan was as delighted as he could be to find himself among the Fraerlings. Especially because they were as fascinated by him. A lot of Tallguard weren’t as hostile as Ekrn and came up to Luan to talk after the first two days. Even some Inners wanted to speak to him, although he had to go to them. It was everything from questions about where he’d been, to what it was like…being big.

“You actually have cats as pets?”

A few children screamed as Luan sat in a school, an actual school and talked to Fraerlings. They looked horrified, but their [Teacher] waved a hand.

“Remember, everyone. They’re small to Tallfolk. Harmless.”

“That’s right. They’re quite cute to us and a lot of us have them as pets.”

“Insanity.”

Some of the Tallguard accompanying him grumbled. Even Noa looked troubled. Luan looked around.

“Don’t you have pets?”

“Sure do. Reasonable ones.”

Luan recoiled as someone actually brought out one of their pets—apparently the school let them take some to class if they kept quiet. He stared at the pale, squirming…beetle?

What is that?

“An aphid. What? Never seen—oh, right.”

Even for Fraerlings, aphids were small, so these were like…hamsters, Luan supposed. Horrible hamsters. He didn’t fear bugs like some people, but his discomfort around them amused the Fraerlings, who then insisted on showing him their menagerie of animals.

Everything from ladybugs to aphids to an actual, tamed roach could be a pet. Although they rode the eight-inch long cockroach like a horse. That was too much for Luan.

“Some places have ants—but they’re tricky and it leads to ant-wars and such. They’re not for everyone. Frankly, your ‘cute’ animals are worse to us.”

“Even rabbits?”

“Biting bastards. Take your arm off. Dogs? Eat you whole and aggressive. All teeth and fur and…gah! You do know that Miphir-Roaches are herbivores, don’t you?”

Luan shuddered as the huge ‘safe’ roach waddled past him. He could have lived without seeing what was, to him in this moment, a horse-sized cockroach.

 

—-

 

He was still a prisoner, or rather, guest. Luan talked with the Architects and Ekrn, but he realized he wasn’t about to leave unless they had some assurance he would never tell. His word, even on truth spell, wasn’t enough, though they liked that he was honest about his intentions.

“We’re working on a [Geas] spell. But it’s not common, so we have to contact other settlements and see if they have one in their records. You can go after that. Missing your Tallfolk friends?”

“I’m sure they’ll think I’m dead or lost at sea. There’s—something I need to tell them.”

Ekrn nodded, not unsympathetic as Luan did press-ups. Noa and a crowd of Fraerlings were watching. His energy had returned, and with it, restlessness.

The funny thing was, the Fraerlings hadn’t asked much of him that had tested Luan’s actual abilities. Hauling water? Not exactly hard with a bag of holding.

They’d hunted down a Stelbore, much to Luan’s astonishment. He hadn’t even seen the fight, just been asked to help transport it in chunks with his bag of holding. Fraerlings had been covering the Stelbore, keeping it secure as he hurried it back to Paeth. There, [Mages] had erected a ‘scent cordon’ where his nose had stopped working so they could process the meat in peace.

However, that wasn’t hard either. Dragging some rocks over so they had a supply of stone? Helping dig? Luan was amazingly useful to Paeth not by virtue of his class, but his size. There were simply some things a giant could do that Fraerlings could not. For instance—their best bags of holding could hold one banana at most. He walked back from a tree they were familiar with, with enough bananas for the entire year and some for himself.

So Luan was actually a bit bored—physically. His [Rower] class was also unfamiliar to Fraerlings, for all they lived ‘close’ to the water. The sea, even a stream, was a much more dangerous place for them, so while they had pools and Tallguard could swim, he fascinated them by telling them sculling was a sport.

“Are you sure I can’t send a spell?”

Luan panted as he worked out. Ekrn shook his head.

“No [Message] spells, no scrying. Sorry. We don’t make exceptions for Tallguard; longcalls are for Paeth only.”

The problem was, apparently, those spells were all banned around Fraerling settlements. They could be intercepted or ‘hacked’, which was somewhat worrying news to Luan. Fraerlings thus had a harder time communicating and relied on messengers, ironically like his class. The Tallguard handled that.

Longcalls were interesting too. They were huge metal tubes which Fraerlings could speak into. Much like a kid’s toy—only, magic sent the voice flawlessly to the other end. As for how they delivered city-to-city—it wasn’t by foot.

More Tallguard had arrived over the week, ostensibly just as security for the ‘Giant’ in case he drew more monsters. Luan had seen them arrive; a pack of non-descript, brown or green birds had fluttered in.

No cardinals, no blue jays—no attractive colors for hunting birds. The Tallguard’s flying mounts were drab, ordinary—and the Fraerlings rode the birds! It was still dangerous, but this group of Feiland’s patrols had been summoned by Ekrn.

It was as Luan was finishing up that Ekrn barked to the Fraerling audience.

“Alright, clear off! Enough staring at the Human—get to your posts or get lost! Luan, stink bomb the place for me so these idiots stop loitering.”

He meant fart, which could clear every Fraerling in a dozen feet away if Luan did it. The man did not, as he was already embarrassed by the few giant-class things he’d done, like blow his nose; a horrifying sight for Noa and her friends.

“Sentry Leader here. Give us some privacy, would you?”

Ekrn found a [Mage] and Luan sat in his ‘house’, which was a very small shack, albeit with a door and tiny air holes so that even mosquitos wouldn’t find their way in. It had no cooling spells, so he usually kept out, but Ekrn wanted a word. The Sentry Leader waited until a silencing spell was cast, then hopped up onto a ledge by Luan’s head at sitting-height.

“How can I help you, Ekrn? Need something?”

The Fraerling man took his time adjusting his bandolier of crossbow bolts. He sat back, sighing, and looked at Luan.

“I wanted to talk, Luan Khumalo. Man-to-man. As Tallguard—and as someone who’s seen more of the world than most Inners—or even Noa. At this point, I’m pretty sure the Architects are going to want to let you go, with some kind of privacy spell.”

That was good news. Yet Luan waited. Ekrn didn’t want to talk to him about that. He stared up at the ceiling.

“—Even if you go, though, the damage is done. That idiot, Noa, the others who keep talking to you—you’re going to kill them.”

“How? That’s a bold claim.”

The Sentry Leader glanced at Luan.

“You think so? Consider this, Luan. They’ve talked to you. You’re the friendly, amazing giant that everyone loves. You can bring back an entire cluster of bananas with one hand! Amazing! Imagine what the rest of the world might be like! You know what they’re going to do, don’t you?”

“Leave the Fraerling settlements?”

Ekrn sighed.

“Yep. Do you know how many books of the Titan’s stories are being reprinted at this moment? How many children are saying they want to join the Tallguard, and then see the world?”

“I…understand the danger. But how will I get them killed?”

The small man fixed Luan with a keen stare.

“Because they will die if they leave. Tallguard or not, Noa has as much chance surviving a week in a city—any city in the world—as you did on that insane journey here. I wish the Titan had never become famous, frankly, because it makes people think Fraerlings are like him. Luan, have you ever met him?”

“Yes.”

“Wh—really?

Ekrn hadn’t expected that. He stared as Luan nodded.

“Briefly. At Daquin.”

“Where?”

“The…games at Daquin?”

“What games?”

The Fraerling hadn’t heard about the Titan’s games! He shook his head when Luan gave him a brief history.

“That sounds like him. We don’t keep in touch with the outside world…just all the big news whenever one of us has to visit a city or someone who’s from a village that does that comes by. That’s another difference. Listen, Luan. I met Niers Astoragon once too. I grew up hearing stories about him. Do you know what he is?”

Ekrn leaned forwards and hissed.

He’s insane. He joined the Tallguard, he was one of us! A damned good one too, but he left to become an adventurer. He’s like—no, he is one of your Named-rank adventurers. Have you ever met one of them? He’s like that. Most Inners can’t even think about stabbing a rat to death. For them it’s like, like—”

Like fighting a bear on Earth with a sword. Or even a gun; Luan could imagine it. It might be a…fairer fight than the Human deserved, but what kind of a person could do that? Actually do that?

“That’s what the Tallguard are, aren’t they?”

Ekrn shrugged.

“We’re the people who want to fight. Who can’t live in Paeth or other places…you want for nothing. I admit it, I like fighting. I like adventure! But there’s a difference between that and going out. Tallguard work together, we know our spaces. Do you know what kills Fraerling kids who see the city?”

“Tell me.”

Ants. They go with you, some big, friendly Human, and they’ll be adventurers, friends! Live with their big friends. The first day? Their big, giant friends find them dead. A rat killed them. A cat disemboweled them in their sleep. Ants attacked and they fought hundreds, thousands alone. Because the giants had them in their safe houses, the inn, and never noticed. Why would they? A cat’s a pet to them.”

Luan’s skin prickled. He could just imagine it, the horror of a city. He shuddered and Ekrn nodded.

“That’s why we don’t live next to Tallfolk. It’s why we can’t.

“The Tallguard are strong, Ekrn. I couldn’t kill a Stelbore—I have friends who’re a Silver-rank team who have to plan to kill even one.”

The Sentry Leader accepted the compliment.

“That’s true. If you were an evil Gold-rank, we could probably have gotten you even if you turned violent, Luan. We can take on monsters—hell, we survived the Creler Wars! True—Paeth is our new settlement, we had to abandon the old one, but we survived it. The problem is we can take on one threat. Even big threats. But any Tallfolk army in the world could destroy Paeth. Think about that.”

The Human did. It just boiled down to…numbers, ironically. If the Tallguard could slay a team of Humans, the problem was, funnily enough, that the Tallfolk could come in such numbers that the Fraerlings just ran out of ammunition, even if they wiped them out individually.

“So that’s why you’re afraid of Tallfolk finding out where you are. Have you ever tried?”

Ekrn smiled.

“Every Tallguard recruit asks that. I did too. I have a book—well, you’re not going to be able to read it so I’ll just tell you. Yes, we tried. It never works out. Think about us living next to a tiny Human village. Here’s what happens: we trade, we get a lot of stuff for cheap! Humans can give us enough food to last a lifetime for nothing, a single bottle of alcohol…dead gods. And we can help too! There are things Fraerlings can make.”

“Like your magic.”

“Exactly.”

Ekrn indicated his superior crossbow, which he’d ragged on Paige’s simple wood one for. It was sleek, metal, and Fraerlings had screws, nails, and quality steel because they could never run out of raw metal, unlike Humans.

“It’s all great for generations. Until one day, a Rhir-damned Human brat decides he’s mad and throws a stone at a Fraerling village. It’s always children. They swing a fist, and murder a Fraerling man. Or—someone lets a puppy roam about and it sees our home and comes in to take a bite.”

Luan winced.

“And then?”

“The Human or dog loses an eye. Or we kill. Tallguard don’t play games. But imagine what happens then? It gets ugly. It just takes one drunk, Luan. One careless step…and when Tallfolk and Fraerling fight, one side bleeds, and the other gets squashed.”

So there it was. Ekrn had laid out the issue. Luan didn’t really need telling, but he appreciated it from Ekrn’s perspective. He sat, hands on his knees.

“I don’t want to endanger Paeth, Ekrn. I could swear on truth spell again. Truly, I don’t. I admire your community and I would do anything to keep it safe.”

The [Sentry Leader] looked at Luan. He scratched his head, looking…well, different. Not as hostile. Not—Luan realized—as deliberately hard, thinking he had to kill this Tallfolk to preserve his city. Somehow, the giant and the man had made friends, and that was what Ekrn was wrestling with.

“You know, I believe you. If I’d thought otherwise—I believe you’re a decent Human, Luan. It’d be easier if you weren’t.”

“I’m sorry for being decent, sir. I’ll do better.”

Ekrn laughed, and then glowered.

“Stop making me laugh! Listen, Luan. I’ll make you a deal. The Architects will come up with something to make sure everything’s ‘safe’. But right here, right now, you make me a promise. You never tell anyone. Not your friends, not your lover. Maybe you’ll slip up. Maybe the Architects’ trick doesn’t work, but you don’t ever let trouble come here. Or else.”

“What’s the threat?”

Ekrn fixed Luan with a stare.

“The threat is every Tallguard in Baleros knowing your name. Maybe Paeth vanishes. Maybe you wipe out all of Feiland. Someday, you’ll be walking along and a tiny little man will put a Tier 6 scroll in your pocket. Or you’ll be sleeping and someone comes through a crack in your window. That’s my threat. Got it?”

The Human giant was tempted to say something in reply. Something about threats or…he met Ekrn’s gaze and just accepted it.

“Understood.”

“Good. Threat’s done.”

Ekrn sighed hugely, and sat back down. He groaned, massaged his neck—then looked at Luan again.

“I had to tell you what the stakes are. Now—let’s negotiate. Worst-case scenario, you keep silent because you know what’ll happen. Best case…?”

“We become friends?”

Luan smiled. Ekrn snorted.

“You sound like a child.”

“I’m a big believer in stories where everything works out well. The giant and the little folk meeting. Or didn’t you say you read the same stories?”

The Sentry Leader looked ruefully away.

“And here I told Noa she had a big mouth. Damn.”

The two started chuckling. The air had been tense a moment ago, and Luan had believed Ekrn meant every word. He had also believed the Fraerling was a friend, by now. So they relaxed. Ekrn nodded. He fished around, and came out, with all things, some gum.

No cigar, no other vices…just gum, natural gum the way it had been before people processed it. He actually blew a bubble as Luan watched, envious.

“Alright, you got me. Threats done, we both know where we are. Tell you what—since you’ll probably be our friendly giant, I’m willing to share a few secrets about Paeth. Things you don’t know, if you do likewise.”

“Do I have lots of secrets?”

Ekrn ignored Luan’s innocent look and snorted. He chewed.

“Yep. I just bet you do, and more than threats, that’s the way to make sure we’re willing to trust you. I’m not sure what it is—but you’re from somewhere interesting, aren’t you?”

“How’d you figure that?”

Luan sat back, heart beating faster. Ekrn glanced at him.

“Because you don’t blink at Paeth. Oh, you like our magic, but the galifts, longcalls? I have been around, Luan Khumalo, and no Tallfolk can just waltz into a Fraerling settlement and not be stunned. Nowhere is like this. Yet you don’t even question it. I’ve heard galifts exist in one other place in the world, but they don’t have longcalls there. So…where are you from Mister, ‘not from Terandria, not from Izril, not from…anywhere?’. And what’s in your bag of holding? Nice mage-images, by the way. Clock, ‘apps’—very nice device with lots of pictures.”

Luan grabbed his bag of holding.

“You bastard. You unlocked my phone? How? You knew this entire time—”

Ekrn laughed at him. Luan had no idea how he’d done it! He had the password on his phone…then he realized.

“You could see my fingerprints?”

“What? No! Do you think we bothered to taste all that grease from—that’s disgusting, by the way, we washed it. It was easy. We just cast an unlocking spell.”

“That works?”

“6822?”

Luan swore again. He was learning a lot today, about technology and the way it intersected with magic. Ekrn leaned forwards.

“So how about it? I’ll tell you some things. I bet you’re wondering why we call our leadership the Architects, aren’t you? Information for information. Where’s China?

Luan looked at the back of his smartphone. He eyed Ekrn, then laughed.

The Fraerling had him over a barrel. But the truth was—Luan didn’t mind.

“Alright, you’ve got me. I’m happy to talk.”

“Really? I thought I was going to have to twist it out of you.”

Ekrn eyed Luan. The [Rower] took his time in replying.

“It’s a big secret, and some of my…friends…wouldn’t want me to say anything. But you know, and you have secrets of your own. Like Signim.

The Sentry Leader narrowed his eyes.

“Remind me to kill Noa after this.”

“It wasn’t her. Anyways, that’s what some of my friends would say.”

Like Geneva, in her own way about guns and bombs, Daly, Paige…Luan remembered the discussion about the gunpowder, and he agreed. Agreed and disagreed. He wasn’t like them. He looked at Ekrn.

“Secrets get out. More than that, I’d rather tell you. Because trust exists both ways, yeah? You could have just asked me.”

He looked at Ekrn and the little man shook his head. Ruefully. He nodded at the giant and sighed.

“You are the most jolly, good-natured, fairytale giant I’ve ever met.”

The anime-loving athlete from another world grinned as they rose to continue their discussion outside; it was getting stuffy in his home.

“I like that kind of story.”

 

—-

 

Ekrn’s negotiations with Luan went well. Noa got to be part of the second deliberation. This time, Guidance was here, as well as three more of the Architects.

The Alchimeer and Enchanter had never been out of Paeth, even a few feet out, and looked jumpy, but Guidance took it in stride. Farspeaker Humalepre adjusted his spectacles.

“That you would vote to tell our Tallfolk friend everything surprises me, Sentry Leader.”

“If you’re going to let him run about, we might as well have an ally, rather than a hostage, Architects. Besides. Like I said, I think this Tallfolk has more to offer us than most.”

Luan nodded. They’d had a discussion where Ekrn convinced the Architects to be open with him. About everything. His heart was pounding. At last, he could tell someone! And who better than the small folk of Baleros?

“I guess we get to go first. Good faith and all that. Hey, Luan. What’s your guess on why the Architects have their name? Second question: what do the Fraer-folk, the Fraerlings want?”

Luan eyed Ekrn as Noa grinned, dancing from foot to foot in delight. He thought hard, and she knew he was smart.

“Let’s see…because they’re building a Fraerling city? I have no clue. Maybe—because Paeth isn’t done? You’re planning on making it big enough to support millions. Maybe dig into the earth. As for what you want—you want to stay safe. That’s your biggest goal.”

All the Fraerlings shuddered. Ekrn replied.

“Half-right. Dig into the ground? Do you know how many bugs are down there? As for the Architects—right and wrong. Who wants to tell him?”

Me, me—

Noa waved her arm. It was the Guidance Heish who spoke. She smiled up at Luan.

“Architects are a name for Fraerlings who rule any settlement like ours. Not your Fraerling villages, but the ones who embrace magic. Our full title is ‘Architects of the Great Project’.”

Luan’s eyes were keen, even sparkling.

“What’s the Great Project?”

“A dream among all Fraerling settlements. Why us Tallguard stand out here and fight and die. We’re not just living. We’re pursuing the dream. We have setbacks. We lose a lot in big disasters, even entire settlements. But the Great Project started so long ago it’s the earliest thing we remember.”

“A way to keep all Fraerlings safe?”

“In part, yes. Technologies every Fraerling village can use. Things like galifts—we share it all. But it’s more than that. It’s completing a work given to us long, long ago. If we finish it—some day—then we’ll be safe. Safe from Tallfolk, from threats, and that day we’ll have the power to walk among you as equals. That was what we were promised.”

“By whom? Dragons?”

The Fraerlings laughed. Ekrn replied.

“You think they’d talk to us? No. When we were young, and the world was hell around us, only one group took pity on the smallest folk in the world. They said, so the story goes, that they would give us a hand since we’d replaced them.”

Luan’s skin began to tingle again. Who? Who…?

“Gnomes.”

 

—-

 

Gnomes existed. So far back that they were stories. So far back that only Fraerlings even invoked their names. The genius, short people had taken the Fraerlings in under their wing.

They had been geniuses of another era. Magic, technology—it had all been theirs, but they had already been dying out by the time they met the Fraer-folk. Why wasn’t clear and they refused to say.

However, they’d taught Fraerlings, given them the edge they needed. The Great Project, also known as the Great Promise, was a set of blueprints, hints.

Homework. It was everything from the basis of the galifts to hints on what came next. The Alchimeer, the Enchanter, and Paeth had Fraerlings who devoted their lives to uncovering clues, progressing technology.

Luan sat back and thought of it all. Dead gods.

“This is amazing.”

“Now you know. It’s one reason why we’ve kept so much magic that Tallfolk keep forgetting and relearning. There are multiple parts of the Great Project; tricks to keep places safe. Like I said, some of our people just live in villages—Paeth still works on it. Now, it’s your turn. What’s Luan’s big secret?”

The Fraerlings waited, a bit smug at the Human’s reactions. They felt they were on equal ground, perhaps that their secret was even a bit bigger than whatever their friendly giant was hiding.

Oh, but they were wrong. Luan looked at Ekrn, Noa, and the Architects.

“Me? I come from another world. Another world, without magic, where there are only Humans and other species, magic, it’s all a story. We’re here now. A bunch of lost people trying to get home. Nothing big.”

He watched five tiny jaws drop with some satisfaction.

 

—-

 

How would you describe Earth to someone else? Luan had the satisfaction of watching Noa running around, arms waving. Ekrn cut through the babble of questions and pointed a finger up at Luan.

“I half believe you’re joking, Luan. Half. Explain it to me. How? What? And would you stop screaming, Noa? You’re Tallguard, not some Inner! Act like it!”

The other three Inners shot him a glare, but Luan was grinning.

“Let me think. The best way for you to imagine it is—you know Paeth? Your galifts, your longcalls, even your schools?”

The Fraerlings nodded. Luan spread his arms.

“That’s what we have. We invented galifts too, only, we call them elevators and they run on electricity, with pulleys, not gas. We have longcalls—telephones. We can even fly, although we use machines. Everything you made with magic, we made with steel and gears and lightning. We have no magic. And the entire world has that level of technology. All Humans. No monsters—only animals, and not big ones. No other people. No magic.”

The reaction Luan got was everything you could have wanted, because it was all spectrums of possible reaction. Alchimeer Straesta ran to a longcall tube back into Paeth to tell the other Architects to get down here.

Noa believed at once and began asking a hundred thousand questions, ‘what happened to the other species?’, ‘how many Humans were there?’, ‘the entire world? All of it? Is it like ours?’, and so on.

Guidance was instantly the opposite, more skeptical, asking if Luan could prove this. Ekrn wanted to know if more Humans were going to appear, if another world was going to begin bothering this one.

Enchanter Ilekrome tried to talk five times, realized he was being drowned out by the hubbub, and snapped his finger. Everyone kept talking—but suddenly even Luan’s voice was gone. They all looked at him and the [Enchanter] spoke.

“As I was saying, I believe the Human Luan has proof.”

He gestured and Luan nodded.

“Ekrn already found it. Here.”

He placed his smartphone down in front of the Fraerlings. The rest was history.

 

—-

 

Proof of Earth was simple—all you had to do was bring something that was clearly, undeniably made of Earth.

There was no magic in the smartphone. Yet it glowed. It wasn’t a lichen or something you could just make; the material was too advanced, too unique. It was a product of machinery, industry.

The Fraerlings recognized it at once. Now, Luan felt like the stuff of stories again because over three hundred were gathered around the smartphone. He watched, apprehensively, as they took it apart.

Oh, they’d marveled at the screen, the apps, but Ekrn had already seen it and what fascinated the Fraerling was different than other species. Other species saw the smartphone and investigated what it could do; Fraerlings wanted to know how it was made.

“Can we take it apart?”

The Alchimeer had asked Luan. The man had given them a quick lecture on the fragility of electronics, the problems with putting it together…but the Fraerlings were insistent. They were also convincing, and Luan wouldn’t have let a Lizardfolk do what they were doing next.

“Steady—steady—keep everyone back! Tallguard, double-postings! Nothing gets in here; we’re sitting bugs on a log if a hawk dives! I want eyes!”

Ekrn was exhorting the Fraerlings as they worked. Luan watched as first, a very odd, metallic sheet was laid on the ground. Then huge panes of glass—they were making a containment area! An observation spot while a group of six worked within!

“I’m told this can be [Repaired]? Then we have a contingency.”

Enchanter Ilekrome looked at Luan as one of his subordinates worked. The United Nations company had discovered they could charge devices with the spell, and that it did save valuable electronics from cracks and minor breaks. Luan nodded.

“Not that we’ll be doing any of that. Enchanter, what’s the call? [Room of Weightlessness]?”

“No. Not null gravity; the pieces cannot be moved. [Room of Stasis].”

“Understood. Linking up!”

This was a lesson for the Human as well as the Fraerlings. The smartphone was their size, but before they even opened it they’d created a room devoid of outside interference. Even, he realized, air. The [Enchanter] was touching each Fraerling who entered, muttering. The iPhone, carried between two, froze as the spell activated.

Not ‘hovered’, but froze. Literally froze midair, trapped as it had been. As the Enchanter had said, it wasn’t a gravity spell, but something else.

Then they took his smartphone apart and any ideas of Earth superiority in technology were put to the challenge. Because it took the Alchimeer, two [Engineers], the Enchanter and their respective subordinates less than two minutes to figure out how the smartphone was opened.

“I can see the joining seams here…aha! Screws. Looks like they’re a bit big—I need a custom-sized screwdriver, here! Damn, interesting cuts…is it to keep us out? We might need to adjust what we have.”

The tiny screws in the iPhone, the little ports, everything was a lot bigger for Fraerlings. In moments, one of the [Engineers] had found the two he needed to remove. He waved for some others crowding to see, but the Enchanter’s [Mage]-Fraerling just snorted.

“You can do a mold of that later. Let me.”

He eyed the opening, and conjured a magical cylinder, with teeth to match the slot! It rotated both screws out in moments and the Fraerlings checked the casing for any other cunning locks.

Luan had never actually seen an iPhone being opened, and so was little help. The Fraerlings looked at each other.

“Looks like it’s just stuck on there. We’ll have to pull it apart. Now that’s a dubious decision; they could have sealed it with more than two screws. Tallfolk. You’re going to trust important contents behind the same principle as a cork in a jar? Tsk, tsk. Alright, on three. One, two…”

The iPhone came apart and the Fraerlings gasped. If they had needed proof—here it was.

The microchips, battery, and component parts of the iPhone hovered in the air. The Fraerling team looked at it all, keeping well clear of touching any of the internal workings. They just spoke, amid the outside babble. The Alchimeer cleared his throat, turning to the others and Luan.

“Human—no. Wait. I want some unbiased observations first. Speculation.”

“Well, it’s certainly all components. Amazing.”

One of the Enchanters paced around the iPhone, staring inside. He eyed the battery, but the [Mage] was focused on the actual computer-electronics themselves. He squatted lower, frowning. One of the [Engineers] grinned.

“Hm. Hah. That’s hilarious. This is micro-work, even for us. Can you imagine the technology a Tallfolk would need to make this? But we can still see ways to improve it. That Tallfolk could cut and lay lines of metal…what is the purpose?”

The [Mage] scratched at her chin.

“Runework, obviously. Only for electricity? Yes. Of course! This is how you transfer what’s needed. Like a magical spell—but so neat! But what’s the composition of this stuff?”

She pointed at the case, and the plastic itself. One of the [Alchemists] grunted.

“Let’s get a piece and try to break it down into components—unless the entire casing needs to be maintained for perfect working?”

They pointed at the plastic frame. Luan shook his head.

“You could…take a corner of that part, there? But the computer chip can’t be damaged.”

He indicated the harmless casing. Alchimeer Straesta huffed.

“Obviously! I can see it’s a complete thing. It’s so funny, though.”

She indicated the iPhone.

“All of the inner workings are only half of the device itself! The other half’s your power source, the ‘battery’, and so on. You could make this half as large, easily!”

“But I wouldn’t be able to hold it in my hand.”

The Fraerlings looked up at Luan.

“Oh, right. Tallfolk need bigger things. I bet you if we knew how, we could make something just as tiny…damn. If we can’t reverse it in a cauldron, let’s do analysis spells. Unless that’ll damage the thing?”

“Shouldn’t do. It’s all non-magic. Alright, stop crowding! I need one [Mage] for analysis spells on component material. One—one of you idiots!—gets a part of the casing. Take it up and render it down. Now, what’s this glass? Seems—treated—can we activate this and see if we can trace how it’s working, or is that dangerous?”

It was the Guidance who turned and called out.

“Find me all our [Librarians], [Historians], and experts. Go over the blueprints and see if you can find a match with any of this! This…might move us forward centuries!

The Fraerling hubbub intensified. This, Luan realized, was more valuable than Earth’s tech alone. The Fraerlings of all people wanted to use this to uncover more Gnomish secrets. He couldn’t wipe a smile off his face. They were properly impressed by Earth’s technology.

“Oh, wipe that smile off your face. You didn’t make it.”

Ekrn glanced up at Luan, but he couldn’t hide the satisfied smirk on his face either.

 

—-

 

After that, everything changed. If Luan had been the friendly giant, but one with an uncertain fate, well, after that he was a proper guest. A friend.

Of course, accidents occurred. And it was due to the Fraerlings’ vigilance that it didn’t get bad. They actually determined they could take small chunks of everything with careful, careful [Repair] spells, and had even begun determining the various component parts of what each material was made of—if not how to create it.

It all went well right up until they investigated the battery. It turned out batteries did explode. Fortunately, the Fraerling who’d made the incision survived the first flare of fire.

“[Forcewall]! [Lesser Teleport]! [Repair], now! Everyone back!”

The battery was saved, much to Luan’s relief. The [Engineer] was teleported out so fast that the flare of acid or whatever was reacting didn’t touch them, and the hole was plugged and it was sealed back up in moments.

“Not a bad energy source! A shame we can’t convert the…well, maybe we can. [Aeromancer], can you detect the latent charge of this battery-thing at what Luan calls 100%? Then, convert it into a magical figure. Let’s see how it stacks up compared to your average Sage’s Grass plant. Four-months of growth versus one phone battery.”

A bunch of Fraerlings bustled around and showed the Alchimeer a figure. He took one look.

“Double-check that. That can’t be right.”

“Already done. Unless we’re off…”

The Human watched as another [Mage] specializing in lightning magic put hands on the battery, frowning.

“Something wrong?”

“Maybe it’s how this thing converts to electricity. Human Luan, we’re getting, well, our math isn’t off, but this is below 1% of a Sage’s Grass plant’s energy, converting electricity to magical force. Here.”

He had to draw the numbers bigger, but Luan could see that there were a lot of numbers after the decimal.

“Magic might just be more powerful than Earth technology, Alchimeer. Phone batteries have to be recharged each day and we don’t have healing potions.”

“Makes sense. The amount of energy to knit muscle…so we have an edge on energy. I guess there go hopes of replacing Paeth’s entire mana supply on your ‘solar’ or geothermal stuff. Wait, am I an idiot? If your entire phone runs on this much power, we could power all of Paeth at a fraction of the cost if we can convert mana to your energy! Now. How do you make air conditioning?”

Luan had no idea. Which disappointed the Fraerling [Engineers] no end, but he attracted their attention back again.

“Paige studied this kind of thing. If anyone could tell you more, it’s her. We also have other devices.”

That, of course, led to the Architects meeting.

“More Humans? This is exactly the problem. I have to overrule this. Maybe more devices, but more Humans goes into matters of security, Architects.”

“Even if it advances the Great Project a thousand years? Gnomes guide us, Sentry Leader—and I think they are—this is more than just Paeth! Farspeaker, you intend to contact every other settlement within hailing distance, don’t you?”

Ekrn hesitated. The Farspeaker was nodding to Citivican Loust.

“We have to share this. Human Luan is an acceptable risk given what we’re reaping. Frankly, I can already see the possibilities.”

“Turning into a Fraerling settlement with ties to the Tallfolk isn’t a light decision, Architects.”

Guidance Heish nodded. She looked around.

“We can’t be quick. Sentry Leader, what would you propose?”

Ekrn frowned.

“I trust Luan, but at this point, I want the Skywatcher and all the Tallguard back from their Gathering Run before any other Tallfolk even hear of this spot. Yes, we can trust Luan. I advise we give him all due help.”

“How are we doing with that, Alchimeer?”

The Fraerling was distracted, clearly wanting to go back to analyzing the dearth of information. He chewed at one lip.

“Oh, fine, fine. I tasked some [Engineers] and Enchanter Ilekrome’s people with Luan’s project; they don’t need me. My vote is for him to get back to Talenqual. Maybe not bring the Tallfolk back, but I see no reason to hold him up.”

The Architects were agreed on that. Luan was to be trusted. More technology was wanted—if not more Tallfolk. It only remained for the Tallguard to make their choice, and Ekrn wasn’t as certain they’d share the same sentiments.

 

—-

 

“The problem is, the Tallguard of Feiland are a force unto themselves, Luan. Feiland is a fort where we train, but we don’t defend it. Paeth is one of the big settlements—one of two—that Feiland guards, and we have a wide net. The Skywatcher is doing a Gathering Run, but they’ll want to talk to you when they return.”

“They’ve been gone for at least a week. Is that normal?”

Ekrn shrugged.

“Sure. They’re visiting all the collection spots. Food, alchemical ingredients, you name it. And visiting every small settlement including Oierdressql. That’s the other big city. They’ll bring back news, resources, to Paeth. Not long now, I think; I sent word to them. They might decide to send more word to other Fraerling settlements. Or…the Titan himself.”

Luan stooped and looked up.

“The Titan? You can talk to him?”

Ekrn paused before nodding.

“That’s a secret, but Feiland and all these Fraerling villages are under the protection of the Forgotten Wing Company. Only the Titan knows exactly where some of us are—and maybe not even him, but we can prevail on him for help. It’s part of the deal. There’s only one Tallfolk who knows about Paeth and that’s Three-Color Stalker. Know her?”

“Foliana of the Forgotten Wing Company? So that’s how you met him.”

Ekrn grunted. Luan stared at the Sentry Leader.

“You’re not a fan of his.”

“I told you. It’s not about liking or not liking him. He’s just crazy. We might tell them about you…but probably not. You’re not an issue, like someone sniffing around. We give the Titan what he wants, and he gives us what we want. A bit of protection now and then, monster-clearing for some places, and access to some of the rare stuff it’s hard to get, like sulfur. Paeth doesn’t interact with him much at all, but we do send him some Signim.”

Ah. That’s why he does all that. No wonder he wants your help. He can’t produce it himself?”

Ekrn laughed.

“Unless his [Alchemists] are as good as ours? No. And it costs far too much as it is, so even he gets only a bit. Enough. The Titan’s a busybody—if he gets wind of you, he’ll march over with his entire army and you don’t want that. You’re our secret. As soon as the Skywatcher gets back, you can go. We should be done by then.”

Now that they were working together, Paeth had devoted its considerable resources—however small in scale—to helping Luan. The man began to understand some of the legends about Fraerlings as well.

They said that Fraerlings could make boots, like brownies or faeries in Earth stories. That they had pots of gold—well, those were the legends Tallfolk told. Luan had been told by Ekrn at the start that Paeth had no gold, but Luan realized that wasn’t true.

They had gold. They had value beyond belief! That any Tallfolk might want. He bent down to talk to the [Engineer] in charge of working with him, a woman named Vuiel.

“Do you think you’ll be done in the next few days?”

“With a team of two hundred? Sure! If you were a regular client, we’d be on this job for months, but the Architects have the best teams on this job—all those not figuring out the new secrets!”

She beamed up at him, happy as could be. She waved her arms as she indicated the blueprint and Fraerlings hauling tools around behind her.

“No vurel needed! No allotment to worry about! We can dump as much magic into this as we want and not have to worry about containment—well, not more than the basics. It’s not staying at Paeth, so the tree branches are the limit! It’s a dream come true!”

Luan grinned as she pointed to the project in progress: a scull, being built by the Fraerlings from the ground up. An enchanted scull. Not a converted Lizardfolk canoe, or kayak, but a sleek, modern design that would be faster than even his old vehicle.

Fraerling-enchanted. From the paddle to a custom-sewn spray skirt, even clothing! They were sparing no expense, magical or otherwise.

“Are you sure you can make it properly, Engineer? Fraerlings don’t paddle.”

Row.

Luan frowned at Ekrn. Vuiel scoffed at Ekrn.

“You think we’re idiots, Tallguard? All our prototypes work! There—”

They had indoor pools, and a Fraerling was indeed sculling about in the outdoor testing area with a miniature design at this very moment. Ekrn shrugged.

“Alright, Luan’s the one who has to live with it exploding in the water or something.”

Luan doubted that would happen. The Fraerlings were working on it with their best, and so far the only arguments had been how to make it as lightweight and strong as possible; they didn’t have plastic, but they had been prototyping with everything from enchanted cloth to metal. Predictably, wood seemed like the best option, and now they were testing enchantments.

Engineer! Anti-gravity spells are a no-go. Lightweight, but not reverse thrust!”

One of the testers called out as the Fraerling trying to scull across some simulated waves went over one—and then flipped as the enchantment overcorrected. A few Fraerlings dove in to rescue the tester.

“Damn. Also, a shame we can’t bind a few [Fireball] spells into it, but it’s no good for a Tallfolk.”

The [Engineer] sighed as she made a note on the blueprints. She looked up at Luan.

“Sorry, Human Luan, but we can’t arm you for that. We’ll focus on protection and speed. Maybe even stealth.”

“That’s more than enough. And I am going to have some self-defense, right, Ekrn?”

The Sentry Leader grinned.

“That’s right. We can’t make enchanted bolts, but I think they’ve nearly ‘fixed’ your worthless crossbow.”

Rather, the Fraerling [Blacksmiths] and group devoted to that project hadn’t even touched Luan’s old crossbow, just built a new one from scratch. The new crossbow would be hand-held, smaller, but three times stronger. Luan wondered if he could ask for one for Daly. It might be a present on the way back. He walked over to field-test it. Ekrn was grinning as Luan lifted the plain, wood-tipped bolt and aimed the crossbow at a target they’d set up for testing firepower.

The crossbow bolt went through the armored plate—and part of the tree behind, although it couldn’t survive the impact and it was actually shrapnel that did as much damage. Ekrn grinned and Noa danced in delight—right up until they heard the cry of pain.

Luan had broken his hand with the crossbow’s recoil.

 

—-

 

It wasn’t a bad break; just a fracture, but the [Engineer] team got chewed out, and Luan’s hand ended up in a brace while [Healers] fussed around it, even numbing his skin to make an incision and apply a gel directly to the bone itself so it knitted.

It took two days for a full-recovery, which was the result of them being able to get at Luan’s bones…and call for a [Necromancer] to check for the exact fracture points and help knit it up. Luan bore no grudge.

He was interested to note that cutting into his hand and applying the gel was the limit of their surgical expertise. The Gnomes had, apparently, not focused on that aspect of medicine as much as their other areas, so Geneva Scala had a considerable march on the [Healers], who asked for a copy of her basic doctor’s manual.

“Let’s see. I need to bring back samples of every electronic, other smartphones, Geneva’s manual, eighteen different ingredients from an [Alchemist] shop, a block of silver, actual gold—”

“Don’t forget the scrying orbs! We want to see this news!”

“We’re not doing that. We’ll find a way to do it ourselves, Luan. If there is a worldwide network, we’d watch only if we could make sure they can’t see us. Which I doubt.”

Ekrn growled. Noa gave him a hurt look and Luan crossed it off his list.

“—And as many fruits as I can grab.”

“Can you get us some er, goods from abroad too? Not strictly necessary, but we used to have some Firebreath Whiskey. An entire keg would last us a generation. We’d share it with other cities.”

Luan grinned. Ekrn sighed. Paeth had a wish list so long for such a small place. He turned to the Architects.

“There’s no way that Luan can cover all this on his City Runner’s salary.”

Luan eyed the scull, which he’d have to carry to the sea. No bag of holding would ever fit it, as enchanted as it was.

“I consider it less than what you’ve given me, truly. And I’m happy to do it. It might take a while…but I’ll come back.”

“Boss. Boss, can’t I go with him?”

Noa pleaded. Ekrn snapped.

Absolutely not. No offense to Luan, but I’m not sending anyone to get eaten by a dragonfly or get sat on. Remember, we’re a secret.

Noa looked disappointed and Ekrn glared at her—then Luan. The man raised his hands. He’d been asked, privately, by Noa and no less than a dozen other Fraerlings if he wanted a companion, and he’d refused, mindful of Ekrn’s stories.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Within the week! I just need to tell everyone I’m alive.”

And run about. Luan did feel a bit cramped, as he had to stay in the ‘safe zone’ around Paeth. In short though, he was all set to go. He had food—some of the Stelbore, salted and dried, and some other provisions, although Luan hadn’t taken much, mindful of Paeth’s supplies.

“We’ll watch for you at the inlet. Just return there and you’ll meet with our team.”

Ekrn went over how they’d make contact again; Luan wouldn’t have a map right back to Paeth, and frankly, he didn’t know if he’d be able to make the jungle-trip even if he wasn’t running for his life. It was hidden in the maze of green.

“We’ll have to have a farewell. Inside, of course.”

Citivican Loust glanced back at the tree, shuddering as he indicated the outside world. Luan smiled, nodding. One last eye-trip. The Human was heading to his ‘house’ to lie down.

He wondered how he’d tell his friends about this without giving the secret away. Would he tell the leadership, Ken, Daly, Geneva, and the others? Maybe…Geneva. She’d want to know about their alchemy, at least. Come to that—wait a second.

“I need to ask for that recipe for her anesthesia!”

Luan would ask when he was small. The [Necromancer] bustled in.

“Alright, Luan. We’re brewing up another batch of that soporific again. Just a moment…”

He glanced at the door. Luan had heard it too. In the distance, someone had blown a warning siren. It sounded like a birdcall, but he was familiar with the Tallguard enough to know that it was an owl by day, a bird by night, so they didn’t get mixed up.

“Trouble?”

Luan sat back up, reaching for the modified crossbow. The [Necromancer] hesitated.

“Let me check. Stay there.”

Luan hesitated as the man ran out. He loaded the crossbow, just in case. He didn’t want to get in the way of the Tallguard; if they were swinging around and fighting, he might hit one.

Another owl’s shriek sounded—then stopped halfway. Luan waited.

“Ekrn! Noa?”

He called out, going to the door, but someone met him—he stopped as Noa slipped in, nearly striking her with the door.

“Luan! Stay there!”

“What is it, trouble?”

She didn’t reply.

“I have to go! The boss needs all of us—just—just stay there.

A worried note was in her voice. Luan hesitated. However, Noa was gone in another moment. He listened, but no one blew the alarm again. He did hear…shouting. Luan listened, wavering between going out and not. He peeked out the door and then saw it.

All the Fraerlings outside of Paeth had returned, the Architects and Inners hurried into the city out of danger. Only Tallguard remained, taking up their usual posts around the clearing, ready for combat.

But…something was off. Rather than stick to their posts, Luan saw hundreds of Tallguard running. All those not keeping watch were heading one way. He cracked the door open further and saw.

Tallguard of Feiland! Deploy! Move, move! I want [Bird Riders] in the sky! Keep us clear! Kill everything that moves! Signim free! Go!”

That was Ekrn, and the Human had never heard the note of—panic—in his voice before. Luan was just about to thrust the door open and demand to help. That was when he saw it.

In the distance, stumbling past the higher tripwires, traps against other animals, Fraerlings were entering the clearing. Fraerlings…but not Tallguard. They ran forwards, meeting the Tallguard, pointing back.

Hundreds of them. No…thousands. At first, Luan thought it was a war, but if it had been, Tallguard would have been swinging through the air. These ones were just on the ground.

And they weren’t Tallguard. Some carried weapons, wore armor, but he saw impromptu spears rather than enchanted blades. They were—ragged. He realized in a sudden jolt of adrenaline these weren’t warriors at all.

Get them inside!

Ekrn ran past his field of view, Noa following. The Fraerlings were crying out, and he heard voices.

“—all gone! They came at dawn—”

Where’s the Skywatcher?

The door opened further as Luan looked out. One of the Fraerlings wore the same garb as the Guidance of Paeth. He was pointing, shouting.

“They all stayed! They were dying, even with their Signim—we lost the last a week ago.”

“A week? When was this? How many? Monsters?”

“No, it was—”

The Guidance looked past Ekrn, dazed, as a stream of countless Fraerlings emerged from the forest. Weary, bloody, wounded—clutching their possessions. Noa, horrified, saw tens of thousands, maybe over a hundred thousand—but so few.

This was the Guidance of Oierdressql, and that city was larger than Paeth! If not as old—they had all fled. They were wounded, and the Tallguard were securing their retreat. The Guidance was babbling at Ekrn, but then he froze. He pointed.

There! Human!”

The Fraerlings moving towards Paeth froze. Their stream stopped—then they began to stampede backwards, screaming. The Guidance pointed at Luan, peeking out of his house.

It wasn’t a good moment. Luan’s head had been just peeking out, like some giant of nightmares. But that wouldn’t have terrified Fraerlings normally—Ekrn swore.

“That’s—”

The Guidance seized him, shaking him.

“Did you do this? Traitor! Was it Paeth? I can’t believe it!”

“Do what? Do…”

And then they realized. The Guidance pointed at Luan.

“They did this. It was an army of them. Tallfolk. They’re coming.”

The Giant of Paeth looked at the terrified Fraerlings amid the chaos. He looked as Ekrn and Noa turned back to him, in a horror reflected on their faces. There would be no celebration, not now.

The Tallfolk had destroyed a Fraerling village. They were hunting the small. Why? For what reason? Luan didn’t know. He couldn’t know. After all, he was cut off from the world. In the chaos, as Ekrn established that there was no way Luan could have treacherously revealed the location of a Fraerling village, not under watch, the truth came out. The news so delayed, that changed it all.

The Titan of Baleros was missing. The Forgotten Wing Company was under attack.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I’m tired. I often am, but I’m trying to fix a bad sleep schedule and busy…so it’s shorter chapters. As in, sub 20k, if you can believe that.

I hope you still liked it! This is the side story chapter…in a sense, half the story unfolding at the moment. The other half is the United Nations company perspective, Foliana’s…well, it’s one big story. I’ll probably tell it soon, but there are other places! Oh, so many plotlines, but that’s good and bad.

Hope you enjoy. I’ll get more rest and be back strong next chapter! Thanks for reading! By the way, the edited chapter is coming up, with Diana Gill soon…I’ll let you know when it’s happening. Expect big things. Or small things, which are just as good. Thanks for reading!

 

Fae Gateways by Light Resonance, commissioned by pirateaba!

 

Ekrn and Cute Pets by ArtsyNada!

 


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61 thoughts on “Interlude – Luan the Giant

    • “live your entire lives near by and never see.”
      live your entire life nearby and

      “appreciate the Architects have superiority”
      appreciate that the Architects have seniority

      “far away from here as possible.”
      as far away from here as possible.

      “Now he was taller than Luan,”
      Now that he was taller

      “I imagine its foreign to you.”
      I imagine it’s foreign

      “clearly looking forwards to this”
      looking forward to this

      “laminated tiles, like that which you might find in a mall!”
      tiles, like those you might find

      “No wonder they had so much resource.”
      they had so many resources.

    • Superb chapter. Howevee, it shows pirateabas one worldbuilding weakness: she does not care about or cant keep up with her data. In one moment fraerlings are 15cm or 6 inches, while they live in a giant tree as a community of 700.000. That would have to be a world tree to support that many individuals. At that size they should have no problem to carry two bananas each for example. But they need only a few buckets of water for a year supply? Are they now thimble sized or the size of two large apples stacked on top of each other? Also, didnt Niers just have 1 million gold – relic class equipment? In this chapter, every tallguard seems to have at least equal equipment. I enjoy this series to no end, but imagining the world gets hard if you have to rethink the scales every few chapters.

  1. Fun chapter! and certainly interesting to read of the fraelings. The end was part of why i wanted the Umina chapter, as we’d get more info on Baleros reactions to Niers absence.

    It was obviously a long planned event. But this is the first we hear of the actions of whatever company that spent these years prepairing to take down the Forgotten Wing once their agent finaly managed to engineere the Titans disappearance.

  2. I love the Fraeling villages, the world building is really cool, especially the gnome connection!

    The only thing that seems a little odd is the sizing. An 8 inch roach wouldn’t be a horse when you’ve said the Titan is actually 12 inches tall, or did I get that wrong? The feel of their size in the text seems to vary from a couple inches to a foot.

    • 6 inches. It seemed to go to 12 at one point, but it was pointed out just how much more visible a foot tall figure would be. It’s been back at 6 inches since then.

    • Am important thing you learn about this story is that if a specific number is given it isnt cannon. Pirate is notoriously bad at numbers be they height, distance, or weight

  3. I really enjoyed this deep dive into tiny people culture, however I don’t understand what the eradication serves to do.
    If it is to lure the Titan out then they have to admit to the world that they are exterminating and massacre villages of innocent people which I believe would be a war crime and if they don’t reveal it to the worlds then the Titan has no way of learning about it. This does mean we will be learning who is behind all of this soonish

    • You forgot which continent this is one. War crimes are common here even if people shout “that is a war crime”.

      Poison gas is a war crime yet it was used in the fight between two companies. Having people on corpse bury duty pressed into service for fighting living people is wrong… Yet neither side cared.

      Killing a medic is wrong… Yet both sides tried to do it anyway.

      Killing ” small folk” is wrong… But wars do not care. If a warlord thinks a ferling settlement might have some use to the company with a Ferling Leader… Then ash and dust shall be its fate until the soldiers crush the Forgotten Wings.

      Yes… This continent sucks almost as Mich as Rehir.

      War Crimes are made and listed here. Everyone else just point and say “That is why it is illegal”…

    • They don’t have to reveal that they are targeting Fraerlings to lure the Titan out only that they are moving in certain areas. That’s enough to make the Titan worry since he knows it is happening but not the extent they are going towards.

      Even if it does become public well whoever is behind the attacks doesn’t have to be doing the attacking themselves. Baleros is filled with small mercenary companies for hire. Also even if this doesn’t lure out Niers it could still lure out Foliana.

      As for who is behind this, my guess is that servant that betrayed Niers. He disappeared after alerting everyone that Niers was gone and he should have spent enough time with Niers to know a few secrets about Fraerlings.

  4. Yes!! All I expected from a Luan chapter and more! We got to know more about a new race and we saw Earth tech be way more useful than we could imagine. Though we are left with another mysterious race now: the gnomes.

    The only fraerling-sized nitpick I have is that I would have welcomed more information on fraerling culture but seeing as how they are connecting to the main plot, I’m sure it’s coming.

    Killing fraerling villages to get to Niers was so unexpected. Don’t they know Niers is on Izril? Or is it just a precautionary measure against him? After this, I can’t wait to read the Foliana chapter.

    Take care Pirate.

    • Neirs is a Ferling. There villages are too small to easily exploit. Commanders see burning them as denying resources to the group they are invading.

      If it makes you feel any better then they are probably doing the same thing to small “Tall Folk” villages.

      • I honestly wasn’t thinking of it as a full invasion but what you’ve said is plausible. It could just be Peclir Im’s company making sure Niers can’t get any fraerling size stuff made ever again.

    • Suggests to me that it’s personal for whoever’s going after Niers; they’re trying to hurt Niers Astoragon specifically, not just knock the Forgotten Wing Company off its perch.

  5. This is great! The contrast between the Fraerlings and cities that rely more on levels and conventional magic over technology and magitech is fascinating.

    That’s one of my favorite aspects of the setting, honestly, how leveling and magic paradoxically hold technology back, so it was great to have a chapter judt about that aspect.

    • Still love the part with them realizing that while earth batteries would not make energy cheaper… Earth technology would make things less costly.

      And the first question was how to make an air conditioner.

      To be fair that makes sense as the same logic could be applied to refrigerators which Do a lot in keeping things safe, cool, and edible for future consumption.

      • Amusingly, the thing that the Fraerlings specifically said was on the fritz in the city? An air conditioner would also do it’s job. Water. Condenser.

        Also it’s disappointing how little practical knowledge any of the Earthers have. Like I know the spells mostly snatched high school and college aged kids, but with the thousands they’ve apparently snatched, not a one was a science or engineering geek? Air conditioners are very simple tech, I could have told you the broad strokes of how they work as a tween. I couldn’t have told you how to build a compressor, but the actual principle of compressing a gas into a liquid state, running it through a radiator to bleed off heat, and then having it run through your actual cooling coils as it reverts to a gas, thereby quickly chilling them? That’s the most basic of basic applications of physics.

        And of course, the chill causes any moisture in the air to condense on the outside of the cooling coils, so if you collect that water as it drips off the coils… Well, there’s your water condenser.

  6. Awesome chapter! Very interesting to see more of how fraerlings look at and interact with the world.
    That part where the fraerlings examined the phone was so cool! I’ve been waiting for a scene like that!

  7. Magic having 100 times the potential energy of electricity is very interesting. I’m no engineer, but I do recall reading that solar panels convert about 15 percent of solar energy to electricity. Dunno how that stacks up to fossil fuels, but I imagine they’re better.

    So if you used magic to generate electricity (using it to run a turbine or something) you’d have the equivalent of cold fusion; cheap, clean, abundant, renewable energy. It’s probably the first step towards a post scarcity economy.

    It also fixes the problem golems had with population growth. Instead of running their whole body with magic, you give each golem a magic “brain” and run the rest with electricity, either through batteries or some sort of magic engine.

    • I just thought of something awesome but probably impractical: Fraeling mechs/gundams. The square cube law means that giant creatures are often too big to support their own weight (although in Innworld I assume dragons and giant’s etc use magic to compensate), and the mechanics of motion at giant sizes are more complicated. But Fraeling don’t need something Godzilla sized, they could just build to “Tall Folk” standard, i.e 5-10 feet tall. They could even use that eyeball in a jar spell to pilot a mech without leaving their cities.

      Magitech robots piloted by tiny people, armed with enchanted crossbows (or better yet magic powered railguns). Now that be epic.

      • I was totally thinking of Iron Man suits for the lot of them. Miniscule amount of metal required, magic to make the nanotech doodads and voilà, you now have fraerlings who can escape from most bugs and fly about.

        This also leads to the [Iron Man] class which gains the [Jarvis, Keeper of the Suit] and [Memory of Tony Stark] as mid level Skills.

      • And it wouldn’t be hard to sell the Fraerlings on the idea of looking down at the Tallfolk from the cockpit of a 100-ton assault mech. I really hope someone from the UN company introduces them to the idea.

    • It is not a 100 Times strenger or something like that. A Sage plant has simply around a 100 Times the potential energy so fromm an avarage of 2900mah or 2.9 ah to 290ah on 5v so about 1500kw…so like a very small car battery.

      Also magic is extremly ineficent but can effect all of Reality and thus allowing you to cheat a lot

      • Hmmm, that’s still pretty impressive, a car battery’s worth of power from what, a blade of grass? A renewable resource too. Only problem is being careful not to produce more magic than you consume, otherwise you attract monsters

        • its the entire plant not a singe bade of grass.
          Yes it seems impressive until you realize that to equal one mid sizes nuclear plant you would need around 6000² Km of Sage plant (at an average size of 15cm² per plant) so good luck planting and maintaining a continent of fickle grass

    • It’s not powerful enough to measure up to fusion or fission – both of them are thousands of times more energy dense than fossil fuels which are in turn better than lithium batteries,
      But you don’t need to run any turbines with magic – it would be much more effective to use lightning based enchantments and go directly to electricity.
      Or use golem hearts to create electro turbines that use ambient magic to work if you want maximum sustainability instead of maximum output.

  8. So who do we think is attacking? One of the other great companies I’d assume. They’re in the best position to take advantage. It seems to dishonorable for tulm and the iron vanguard though. They put a bounty on luan for endangering kids after all, I have to imagine fraerlings fall into the same category as someone they wouldn’t target given how fragile and secretive they are. They said it was tallfolk and pointed at luan when they said “they did this” so that implies humans. Isn’t the lizardfolk great company supposed to have a good amount of humans? I wish I could remember their names but I skim most baleros chapters.

  9. Outside the box time… A Fraeling village inside a gollum! Make a wood one as a house servant or farm helper. With space folding magic a village in the chest would work.

  10. And now I am picturing Erin opening her Garden to the Fraerlings.

    That won’t happen of course, but one can dream.

    • Yeah also just found out since the new series I started reading contains a pretty fitting tribute (both good and bad, so fitting). Copy-pasted below (from Dungeon’s Pet, https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/43346/dungeons-pet):

      Aahhh one of my favorite series of all time just left Royal Road! I think I created my account back in the day to more easily follow The Wandering Inn (as a lurker), and Dungeon’s Pet was at least somewhat inspired by it… and especially by the two major problems I have with TWI. Now hear me out, it isn’t always the case that love creates rose-colored glasses. Actually, in this case, you might say love created my problems.

      First, I fell in love with the main character, Erin Solstice, and yet I felt like I was constantly begging to read more chapters of her. It reached the point I would’ve been happy to see her in just half the scenes! Surely that wasn’t too much to ask, right? Fine then, a third, pretty please? Instead, no spoilers, but something happened that reduced her role even further.

      Second, I fell in love with so many other characters (though none as much as Erin), and yet the author was happy to kill them off or make them suffer. I can’t count how many times I cried while reading, and before the start of “adventures,” I was filled with not excitement but dread. When still catching up on the series, I would sometimes take whole days off to mentally recover from chapters or prepare myself for upcoming ones. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this problem, since the top-rated review last I looked — and now lost forever? — basically praised the series and also said the reviewer was quitting because they cared too much.

      Thus, Dungeon’s Pet was partially forged in the fires of my love and… hurt? frustration? heartbreak?… for The Wandering Inn, and I’m a little sad to see we’ll no longer share a site. But of course I’ll keep reading (and laughing, and crying). After all, you do you, Pirateaba; keep marching to your own beat!

  11. i wonder if there finding the Fraerlings by there magic? might make earth tech more useful forcing them to not relies on magic to be found energy not as effective but it cheap and not known so it throw them off the scent

  12. guess the frealings weren’t as well hidden as they thought, just any big orgsnization that found out didn’t have enough to gain to make it worth picking a fight with niers.

    probably a completely lop sided rout if the attackers had some idea of fraeling capabilities.

    Start an enormous fire from far enough the tallguard has no chance of retaliating, follow it up with a nice flooding, some poison gas bombardment (doesn’t need to be strong enough it might hurt your own forces, fraelings get 100 times the dose after all)

    A weather spell to make bird riding impractical while you’re at it.

    done properly there isn’t even melee combat until the mop up stage,

    depending on how big an asshole the enemy leader is there might be a follow up seeding the entire area with absurd amounts of every type of insect and such that is vicious to fraelings and harmless to humans, both making the city basically unreclaimable at any reasonable timeframe and killing most of the surviving refugees, hunting down fraelings is hard, unleashing an insect plague is basic magic and logistics.

    • It might not have been that lopsided of a rout. Remember, the Fraerlings are fighting on their trapped, fortified, and unscryable home turf; have highly proficient mages and are likely to have a fair few emergency magitech tricks plus a significant levels advantage, with higher leveled members of the Tallguard being equivalent to named rank adventurers.

      Also, whoever’s attacking is very unlikely to have any prior experience fighting Fraerlings, and are highly likely to have underestimated their opponents given how many capabilities the Fraerlings keep secret.

      Ranged attacks do pose an issue, but you’d expect the Fraerlings must have countermeasures planned, and some of the attacks you’re proposing, such as poison gas, have significant disadvantages.

      Most of all, the refugees made it to this city, meaning that the defenders were at least able to tie up the attackers rather than being routed right away.

      • True.

        looking at the number of survivors (hundreds of thousands) indicates either a badly botched attack or that the goal was the city rather then the population in which case leaving an escape path for the enemy makes the job easier.

        the cynical mind option is that a possible goal of leaving so many survivors is having a nice moving clump of life to be tracked to any other fraeling cities and villages that intel might have missed.

        after all nothing but a fraeling city has the infrastructure and safety such numbers of inner city fraelings so either more settlements are found or they die anyway.

        • You’re not wrong, and this statement in particular does rather support your position:

          ‘ “They all stayed! They were dying, even with their Signim—we lost the last a week ago.” ‘

          We’ll have to wait and see just who this “Army of Tallfolk” are, how competent they are and what their end goal from the attack on the Fraerlings might be.

          • I am very afraid it is the united nations company, testing one of their shiny New weapons, and not noticing the fraerlings…
            Or it could be the company that rules their city.

        • Yeah, I think they left the survivors flee on purpose to track down the other cities/shelters.

          However, this raises a lot of questions about how the mostly “Inner” civilian refugees managed to reach their destination:
          – Is it just that close?
          – the refugees still have some high-level to protect them on their journey (so not all the Tallguard was making a last stand) or at least use movement [Skills]?
          – were the attackers keeping the more hungry wildlife away from the refugee column just to see their destination?
          – or was it a straight up death march: if more than a million Fraerlings fled their city, it’s not impossible that a few tens of thousands would have survived all odds stacked against them…

  13. Didn’t Umina know where at least one “village” is? She cleared out some monsters with a rookie Bronze team that were menacing it for one of the Titan’s assignments. I doubt she betrayed it intentionally but her foolishness could have been the reason it was discovered by enemies.

    • As I remember it she had an assignment to coach a bronze team to exterminate some “low level” threat in the area, but did not know about the Fraeling village.

        • She may not have had an exact location, but she knew that there was a Fraerling village in the area, which was why she chose that target specifically. And the adventuring team she hired was hunting in the area for several days, so if it had traps and defenses like Paeth then they probably would have run into those.

          One explanation could be that Paeth is a special case because it’s a full-blown metropolis, and that smaller Fraerling villages are less secure (but also have less need for security).

  14. I wonder what Luan meant when he said that his encounter with the Fraelings tying him up was nothing like the stories he heard. Gulliver first met a Lilliputian with a bow and arrow and they were willing to shoot him with these same arrows as mentioned in the book. Do you think he grew up with a Bowdlerised copy of Gulliver’s travels? Or is it something else he expected from them?

  15. I really hope for a time this gets to be translated to Spanish. The word for lift is “ascensor” so it will make it just too beautiful to be called gascensor. It’s already calling for it.

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