(The Wandering Inn is on break! The author (me), is also going on my first vacation in…two years? At least a year! We’ll be back on July 13th, 2024 for Patreons! See you then!)
So they left their homes, each one for a different reason.
Different species, united by a common cause.
To war, battle, perhaps certain death.
Because it mattered.
Because it was right.
They might die within the first hour, the first day, or month. They might eventually go back home; either way, their stories would only rarely be known, perhaps never told.
That glorious army—armies representing the world disembarked from their homes. When they arrived—they did so piecemeal, or in vast fleets. The brave, the reluctant—it mattered not.
They came to the Blighted Kingdom, the continent of Rhir, the most deadly land in the world to hold the Demons to justice.
Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans, Lizardfolk, Humans, Stitchfolk, Centaurs, Selphids and more…every species you could imagine. They were bound by ancient pacts, and galvanized by the atrocities of the Demons’ ritual.
Every major power had sent far more [Soldiers] and materiel than normal. The desultory contributions that sometimes led to piecemeal armies had ended.
Here came entire navies. Escorting ships filled with troops. Hundreds of [Knights], sworn to avenge loved ones. Even minor nobility.
It was the first wave, the outraged response against the Demons. It could not have come sooner, for the Blighted Kingdom. After all—
The Deathless were coming back. As they always did. The greatest leaders of the Demon King’s armies.
The Death of Magic, Silvenia, had shown her face at last. She alone provoked nightmares among the top [Strategists] of the Blighted Kingdom. A [Mage] without equal, who had practically destroyed 5th Wall by herself. Holding her back if the Demons made incursions would be a task worthy of legends.
Archmage Zelkyr and the Necromancer of Terandria had both failed to defeat the Demon King’s Deathless. Here were real legends of centuries past, still threatening Rhir. Perhaps—responsible for the tragedy that had struck at the world.
It was also a concern, because for all the nations of the world were sending reinforcements—no one wanted to send their national treasure or greatest [General], especially if they were fighting wars at home.
Especially if the Deathless would tear them apart. It was a prescient thought in the normally stolid Drakes of the combined Walled Cities, a joint task-force sailing with Zeresian escort. They had put aside their differences to guarantee safe transit to Rhir.
The journey had been long, tiring; they couldn’t skip across powerful currents and they were mundane ships, not crewed by famous [Captains] with Skills or magic. The Drake [Soldiers], renowned for their quality training and formations, were restless. They were ready to take the fight to these damn Demons, but the Deathless…
“How can we fight something like that, [Charge Commander]?”
One of the Drakes asked the Gnoll [Commander] from Manus. The Gnoll grunted, casting eyes at the one [General]—a Fissival [Magic General]—sourly. He stood with his group; Manus. Not a lot of Gnolls, here. Oteslia of course, and a handful from Zeres; he hoped he’d find more of his people from the tribes to mingle with.
Some of the Drakes from the smaller cities who’d joined the ‘tithe’ to the Blighted Kingdom—which was referred to as ‘Defenders of the Blighted Kingdom’ for obvious symbolic reasons—had never fought side-by-side with Gnolls. There had been a few brisk fights onboard while the cooped-up reinforcements stewed.
He answered out of the corner of his mouth.
“We don’t fight that, [Infantryman]. We hold the line.”
“With hell’s fire raining down on our heads?”
One of the others called out. The Gnoll snapped back.
“Drakes don’t run, soldier!”
“Nor do Gnolls from Manus!”
Someone from his command shouted back. There was mixed laughter. The [Charge Commander] grinned, but suppressed his nerves in his tail and kept his face calm.
“We’ve got [Mages] too. No one person can fight an army. We take out the Demons on the ground; leave the high-level targets to our best. I’d like to see the Death of Magic take on an army alone! And keep a lid on questions like that; we’re going to show these Blighted Kingdom [Soldiers] what real discipline looks like.”
The Drakes nodded, even the ones from other cities. That, they could get behind. It was something, but in this moment, even the Drakes and Gnolls felt a kinship towards the soldiers from the Five Families; they’d been sailing close by, and insult had turned to banter.
If Drakes or Gnolls, or one species couldn’t be the best, well, they’d damn well have some Izrilian pride, eh?
The [Charge Commander] smiled as he heard the other Drakes start talking about sloppy formations of other nations. He hoped no one would start singing national anthems; that always provoked jeers and a fight.
Privately, though, he rephrased his statement to the [Soldiers]. He’d said what he’d said to keep morale up, but…he’d heard that the Death of Magic could solo an army. After all, if she could cast area-of-attack spells from oh, ten miles straight up in the air, what was he supposed to do? An army? He couldn’t even shout at her and hurt her feelings!
Well, the [Charge Commander] had to have faith Rhir knew what it was doing. They were nearly there.
The first sight of the Blighted Kingdom was not what most non-Rhirians expected. When you imagined embattled Rhir, the name of the Blighted Kingdom, you tended to expect a lot of grey, militarized zones, land torn by spells and damage. Perhaps dead bodies lying out to rot.
There was all that, of course, although the dead were properly-disposed of, or used by the [Necromancers], but the first sight of Rhir’s capital, Paranfer, and the coast, was, well…startling.
“Hey. That’s nicer than home!”
One of the Drakes called out, staring at the terraformed farmland, the verdant greenery—and the rather impressive coastal defense fortresses scattered at regular intervals.
Paranfer itself was as impressive as any great city in the world; arguably richer and larger than even First Landing. It was a match for the Walled Cities.
Why not? The Blighted Kingdom received funds from almost every nation in the world along with [Soldiers]—sometimes in place of soldiers. It had magic, resources—and Paranfer lay behind 1st Wall.
Few Demons had ever seen past 1st Wall. Even the Antinium had not tried to storm it.
Paranfer was gorgeous, and the lands around it were given over to agriculture, which always looked pretty from afar. Rhir did not, actually, specialize in much mining, textiles—in a broad sense—or the varied national outputs of other countries.
It had amazing [Smiths], [Mages], and [Craftspeople], but it imported a wealth of goods. What Rhir did focus on was food; you could import swords and repurpose blades, even ones used by Demons. But a starving army died even if it was covered in adamantium.
As the ships came into harbor, they were also greeted by parades, magical lights off the coast, launched by the guard towers. They were by way of being both communications and greeting.
Never let it be said that Othius IV, the Blighted King, was a foolish ruler when it came to statecraft. He knew how to make his visitors feel honored. Within the next few days, as the transports were speedily unloaded, cargo efficiently catalogued and stored, there would be further celebrations, honoring each nation and species.
However, the key issue laying before General Vors of Fissival was this: he didn’t know how he was going to handle a Human ordering him about. Let alone his people serving with, well, non-Drakes.
Other Drakes were bad enough. There had been fights onboard. The [Magic General], recently graduated from Fissival’s small martial academy, knew all the long grudges between Walled Cities. There was a saying about Drakes fighting over dust at the end of the world—well, that was nothing compared to Humans, Gnolls, and Drakes in the same room.
He’d seen the Tribes had sent countless warriors of their own. They were occupying some of Zeres’ ships and Rhir’s sent to transport them. The Tribes didn’t even have a fleet of their own, by and large.
Vors didn’t think he was…prejudiced. He could certainly envision taking orders if they were the right ones, but would he get a commander who didn’t understand Drake tactics? Who didn’t value Fissival’s unique focus on magic and physical combat? He’d fought Gnolls of course, and other cities, and wondered if they’d hold a grudge or make assumptions.
The [Magic General] shifted. He’d been ushered off the ship with a tremendous amount of ceremony, which he appreciated. But while his [Soldiers] had been settled in with a kind of efficiency even the Manus-led ones admired, he’d been called here.
To a rather small, cramped room in some kind of military outpost, to talk to Rhir’s High Command.
Vors glanced around the room, noting how plain it was. Chipped walls? There was a bowl of nuts on the table and he swore he’d seen something moving in it.
“It just goes to show. All that glitter on the outside and they can’t even design a room large enough to swing your tail about in. Unless this is large for them?”
Dead gods, that would be a nightmare. What would his personal quarters look like? Also—was he expected to sit and smile with some Gnoll [Chieftain] or [Tribal Warrior]? Vors shuddered—then reminded himself he’d volunteered for this. His poor brother—and he was the commander of this Drake force!
He could work with a Gnoll. Hadn’t he thought it was a shame about them being butchered on Chandrar? Even if they were unpredictable and their tribes sometimes looted settlements?
Well. Vors had been waiting for nearly ten minutes, and he was losing his goodwill towards the hospitality of the Blighted King. None of the chairs were comfortable—or sized for people with tails!
“Damn Humans. I thought they got Drakes regularly.”
The floor was a bit dirty and if he had to wait another ten minutes, he was going to find the High Command and complain. Or complain to the Walled Cities about how their reinforcements were being treated. Was this what his predecessors from Fissival had had to face?
Vors murmured. He’d heard the [Charge Commander] talking and he knew they’d run straight into the Death of Magic on 5th Wall. He shuddered. Sat there, determined to make a first good impression.
Vors waited for twelve more minutes, and then lost his temper. He stood up.
“Excuse me! Has there been some kind of mistake?”
He opened the door, calling into the corridor for one of the aides who’d brought him here with no explanation. He found…no one.
The hallway was as shabby as this one. Vors stepped out into it.
Where were the orderlies? The [Tacticians]? Someone to run messages? Was someone playing a prank on him? He walked out, wondering if this was, in fact, some kind of Demon-attack. No. Not in Paranfer. Still…he edged out a bit further, casting a cantrip to locate others.
To Vors’ surprise, he felt the spell bounce right back with a contact and then someone probe him. Vors whirled, and a door opened.
“Strange. Is this some kind of test?”
A door right next to Vors’ opened and—a Lamia slithered out. Vors instantly recoiled, and saw the Lamia, with decorated armor over her scales, do likewise, but in surprise.
She was wearing armor over orange-and-green scales, a very colorful mix, unlike that of Drakes, who were monochrome by and large. The Lamia had some kind of intricate paint insignia on her side, and her serpentine body ran down to a tail; no legs. She was a Lamia.
Lizardfolk. Vors’ jaw instantly clenched. He’d known he’d have to serve alongside them, but of all the coincidences—!
“Greetings, Miss. General Vors of Fissival. Are you in charge here? Do you know where the High Command is?”
She eyed Vors and lowered the object she’d been holding. A staff with shards of glass embedded at the top; clearly magical.
“Not at all. I am [Battlemage]-[Commander] Tusxe of the Roving Fireball company, contracted to fight for Rhir for the duration of the war. You’re…from Izril?”
“Fissival. The Walled City of Magic? Greetings.”
Vors crossed his arms, unwilling to shake the hand of one of the Drakes’ enemies. An old one, true, but the wars they’d fought…
To his surprise, the Lamia just nodded coolly.
“A pleasure. You’ve just arrived? I did as well. Do you know where the leadership is?”
“I was just asking. I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes. Well, do excuse me. I’m off to see why this place is so empty.”
Her tone made Vors draw up. He turned back to the Lamia and saw her raise both brows.
“Something the matter, Miss?”
“That’s Battlemage Commander, General. I’m just impressed you waited ‘twenty minutes’. That’s the famous Drake impatience for you, I suppose.”
The Drake’s brows crossed instantly.
“I suppose you’ve been waiting longer?”
“Nearly an hour.”
“An hour? And you just stayed here?”
He was incredulous. Tusxe frowned at him.
“I hardly twiddled my thumb-claws, thank you. I was practicing magic until your spell bounced off my wards. You need to put yours up, incidentally. And why shouldn’t I wait?”
The [Magic General] blushed at the omission, but he was irritated and growing more so.
“I came here to fight for Rhir against the Demons and represent Izril. My time is not to be wasted lightly, Battlemage Commander.”
She smiled thinly.
“And I suppose your time is far more valuable than Rhir’s High Command’s? We are outsiders, General Vors. If they have a reason to make us wait, I am willing to wait rather than disrupt their chain of command. It might be there’s a crisis.”
“All the more reason to know about it.”
“Why? So you can lead your army through an unfamiliar city and not know who’s fighting who, what they look like, and without communicating your intent? You’ve never fought in unfamiliar territory, have you?”
He had not, being familiar with most of the battlegrounds Fissival chose. The Drake turned red right under his scales. The two glared at each other; well, Tusxe had a slight smirk on her face.
Vors was just about to say—something—that he didn’t want to be lectured by a mere [Mercenary], that he didn’t have to stand for this coming from her, something about their peoples not getting along—when the door opened.
“I say, is it my turn to meet with the [General] of this place? I’ve been waiting for quite some time, you know. Not that it’s inconveniencing or anything…”
The Lamia and Drake both turned around and saw a man peering out of his room. He stared at the two non-Humans in clear alarm.
“Are you my, ah, liaisons?”
Vors looked at the [Lord] in his late thirties.
“Lord Solvet. The Kingdom of Avel. How do you do? Er—sir?”
The man looked as bewildered as Vors felt—the difference was that he showed it. He was garbed in dress clothes of all things, not armor like Vors’ enchanted cloth, or Tusxe’s metal. He looked incredibly confused as he came out of his room.
“You wouldn’t happen to know when I’m meeting with General Idecan, do you? I was scheduled for a meeting two hours ago, but—”
The two commanders chorused in horror. Vors instantly turned to the man.
“Why didn’t you ask what the delay was?”
“Well…that would hardly be fitting. I am representing nearly six nations, and I am quite aware of Rhir’s status—it was also a long journey, so I confess to having nodded off.”
The [Lord] of Avel was embarrassed, but to Vors’ surprise, stuck out a hand as he bowed slightly.
“How do you do? I apologize, sir. I haven’t asked your name.”
“Er—General Vors of Fissival. Exceptionally pleased.”
Solvet blinked at Vors’ clawed hand and hesitated, nearly withdrawing his hand. He was wary of Vors’ claws. The [General] was amused and shook the man’s hand without scratching him. Tusxe did likewise.
“A pleasure. It looks like we’re all sitting around. Do you think they’ll mind if we talk out here?”
“It certainly beats my room. It’s—cramped.”
Vors glanced around, unsure how much to say if someone walked in on them. Solvet hesitated before nodding.
“It ah—lacked for certain refreshments. I suppose Rhir pours its budget into the defense of the nation—commendable! I might suggest to his Majesty—of Avel—that we add a bit more to our contributions, however. My room was, ah, slightly stuffy.”
Tusxe glanced from man to man, and snorted.
“My room was a craphole; I’ve had better stays in inns in a village in the middle of the jungle. I could swear there was something moving in my bowl.”
The two chorused before they could help themselves. Vors and Solvet exchanged glances.
“—Hang on. Would you mind if we looked inside your room?”
He turned to the Lamia. She shrugged.
“It’s not like I’ve got anything in there. Come on.”
She opened the door and the two followed her. Solvet and Vors found exact copies of their room, down to the bowl of nuts.
“There it is again! What is—”
Solvet recoiled in horror as a beetle scurried out of the bowl. Tusxe made a noise of disgust—Vors lost his temper.
“That’s it. I’m finding whoever put us in here. If this is some kind of a joke—this is what they’re serving to the High Command of our nations? What are they feeding the soldiers?”
“Isn’t that uh—different—for your species? Could that be construed as a snack?”
Solvet suggested timidly. Vors stopped, halfway out the door. He turned back and Tusxe and he exchanged an incredulous look and stared at the Human. Tusxe spoke first.
“Excuse me, Lord Solvet. Do you happen to eat bugs?”
“Me? No, no. I just—”
“Well, I don’t either! Get a Selphid for that. Who eats bugs?”
Vors had to admit, he’d heard that Lizardfolk might eat bugs—from some rumor, but Tusxe and he being put into the ‘scaled people eat bugs’ category was offensive enough. Solvet raised his hands, trying to apologize.
“I’m sorry! I just assumed—I wouldn’t have dreamed Rhir would have an infested bowl of foodstuffs! And there are bug-eaters in Terandria. Half-Elves, you know.”
The Drake was agog, and actually had to stop again. Solvet nodded. Tusxe was just as surprised.
“Really? But you think of half-Elves as these…mystical…heirs to magic! Descendants of Elves! Fabulous cities of craft and marble and such!”
“In forests, you mean? Is that your image of half-Elves?”
The Drake and Lamia nodded. Solvet sighed.
“Well, they tend to be connected with the forests. Deeply. City-dwelling half-Elves are one thing, but I have seen them lick moss off boulders in the villages.”
Vors couldn’t suppress the cough of amusement. Tusxe grinned. It was right then when he heard a curious sound.
Something was in the hallway. He turned, hearing the slight sound. Solvet glanced up; for all the [Lord] seemed oblivious, he’d heard it too, instead of Tusxe, who was asking about worms.
The three went to the door. Now, they all had a feeling something was up, so Vors relaxed the blade at his side. He saw Tusxe check her staff. Solvet? He had a belt knife and glanced at it, dismayed.
“You don’t suppose there is a crisis, do you? I ah, may have been eavesdropping—I’m without weapons.”
“You don’t have—what did you think you were coming here for, a dance?”
The Lamia cast scornful eyes at him. The man huffed a little; he had a slight wavy mustache, Vors realized. The Drake stared at it, having never seen that kind of facial hair around the mostly Gnoll and Drake peoples.
“I apologize, Commander Tusxe, but I use a longbow in battle. It’s considered slightly indecorous to walk around with a six-and-a-half foot bow when greeting dignitaries.”
“Really? You use a bow?”
“I do come from Avel.”
The Drake and Lamia had another blank look for the man. The [Lord] was dismayed.
“Avel? The Kingdom of Bows? Renowned for their archers?”
“Never heard of it. Hold on—I’m sensing something outside.”
Vors sent a spell. He saw Tusxe twist her claws and did the same thing. Both frowned—then glanced outside.
“That can’t be right. Is that a…”
Something went oink outside the door. All three leaders recoiled, then peered outside and found…a pig.
It was a small pig roaming the corridor! Well, ‘small’ for a pig, as Vors had seen some gigantic ones. It was probably four feet long, low to the ground, and had the oddest skin and coloration he’d ever seen.
Some of the pig was a rosy pink, even trending towards white on the underbelly—no dirt at all. The rest? It had some kind of…goldish…armor on it. Like scales or plate!
“What the hell is that?”
Tusxe pointed at the pig. Solvet’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
“My goodness! Is that a Goldflake Pig? What’s it doing here? And…just running about?”
Vors looked about the corridor, but he saw no one, nor where the pig had come from. Solvet explained as the pig sat on its haunches and looked up at the bemused three.
“It’s a rare breed of pig. It eats minerals of all kind. Well, the name gives away what it does. Goldflake. Nicknamed the Goldfake Pig.”
“Because that isn’t real? Does that hurt? Hey, hold still, you. Is anyone checking if it has an explosive spell embedded in it? Hostile artifact?”
Vors snatched his claw away from poking at the gold ‘scales’ growing out of the pig.
“Who would do that?”
“Hello? Hostile Demons? We’re three high-value targets—you haven’t ever had to watch out for that?”
The two non-Baleros leaders looked aghast. Tusxe snorted. She scanned the pig, leaning back.
“…It’s clear. So that’s not gold on it?”
“Not at all. Come here, you.”
The pig was skittish, but Solvet made a clicking sound and it froze. It turned, trotted over, and sat down. Vors was doubly impressed.
“It must be trained.”
“Ye-es. For wardog commands. I really didn’t think that would work. Hm…it’s not shedding, and someone’s kept the fake gold trimmed. You see, they eat minerals and produce fake gold.”
“Pyrite. That’s actually useful in spells. I guess this must be the property of someone in Paranfer.”
The other two looked at Vors. The pig glanced up at Solvet, then got to its hooves again. Tusxe blew out her cheeks.
“Well, now we’ve got pigs roaming around and bugs. A fine welcome. Feels like home.”
“Agreed. Perhaps something is wrong?”
Solvet hesitated. Vors was about to suggest they all go searching, but Tusxe beat them to it.
“Let’s check. And stay on your guard, you two.”
They headed down a corridor, the three of them, leaving the pig behind. Vors sensed the Lamia tossing scouting spells—he just began casting his own battle-spells from a list. As an afterthought, he tapped Solvet. The man jumped.
“What? What are you—?”
He blinked as Vors’ [Mage Armor] spell appeared on his body. Tusxe eyed it. Solvet was surprised, but nodded at Vors.
“Um, thank you.”
“Just in case. Do you need a backup weapon? I can lend you my Wand of Fire Bolts.”
The [Lord] hesitated, eyed his belt-knife, and nodded.
“That—would be appreciated. I shall try not to waste the charge. I have aiming Skills.”
“Good. Don’t worry, though; it’s rechargeable.”
Tusxe glanced back as she came to the end of the corridor. Something was on the door; a bit of paper clumsily tacked to the cracked wood.
“Really? Fancy. How do you do that? I’ve heard you can recharge wands, but mine just break when used.”
“Fissival-made. Rechargeable sidearms are standard.”
Vors smiled smugly. Right up until he saw the note on the door.
Apologies for the delay. General Idecan is unavoidably detained. Please help yourself to rfrshments.
‘Refreshments’ was misspelled. Vors stared at the note. He was tempted to crumple it up and stomp on it, but he held back, aware he was in company.
“No way. They just put that up there and…? Without telling us?”
Tusxe stared at the note. Then at Vors. Then both she and Vors recoiled as Solvet raised the wand and blasted the note with a bolt of fire. Vors stepped back from the flash of heat, but Solvet just handed the wand back.
“Apologies. I lost my temper. I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention that to General Idecan.”
The three looked at each other, and then back down the miserable corridor. As they turned back, they saw a little roach scurry out of the corridor, heard a squeal, and then the Goldflake Pig caught the bug up in its mouth and crunched it down. It stared at the three, wagging its spiral tail as Vors, Tusxe, and Solvet stared at it.
They looked at each other, the pig, and then burst out laughing.
Thirty minutes later, Vors found himself flipping peanuts at the pig as it stood on hind legs, opening its mouth to catch them. It even did a little hop, and fell on its back, all four legs flailing.
He started laughing, and so did Solvet, but Tusxe helped the pig get up.
“Don’t laugh! Alright, you’re okay, you stupid pig.”
It smiled up at her, or looked like it. The Lamia gave it a pat on the head.
“This pig is the best part of the wait, accident or not.”
Vors offered. Solvet nodded. He flipped a peanut high into the air, and the pig jumped and caught it in its mouth. He had a lot more dexterity with his ‘flat’ thumbs than the Drake and Lamia did with claws. Vors saw Tusxe admiringly shake her head.
“Was that a pun?”
She grinned and Vors sighed, but all animosity was drained from him. They sat in his cramped room, the door open, hoping to hear from whoever was in charge. They’d debated leaving—right until they’d found the door was locked.
Solvet had kicked it so hard he’d sprained his foot. The man could be surprisingly hotheaded, Vors realized, for all he tried to be polite. He was massaging it now, but declined to use a potion.
“It would hardly do for a [Lord] from Terandria to need a potion after encountering a door. That would be the last thing our contingent needs and I am sure my fellows would not thank me.”
“No one would say that.”
Tusxe coughed into her arm as Solvet looked at her. The [Lord] glanced at Vors, who murmured something about ‘all being in it together’. He offered the pig another nut, sighing.
“We do have ears, you know. We know what other peoples—no, other continents think of us. Soft Terandrians with [Knights] and ineffectual leaders.”
“We don’t say it just about Terandrians. Drakes tend to direct that mostly at Izrilians in the north.”
“There’s a difference?”
Tusxe missed her own face with one of the nuts, which were actually palatable despite the bugs in each bowl, and laughed at the other two’s expressions.
“I’m joking. Of course I know there’s a difference. Something. Look at this goofy pig. They have pigs like this in Terandria and Izril? All of ours are Stelbore; covered in armor and mean as can be. Big.”
The pig was lying on its side, begging for Vors to toss it a peanut. The Drake tried and missed; the Goldflake Pig stared at the peanut lying five inches in front of its snout.
How could you? Its eyes reproached the Drake. Do you do this just to make me suffer?
Highly amused, the Drake flicked a finger and the nut soared into the animal’s mouth. Solvet tossed a peanut unerringly into the pig’s jaw and the oink made them all smile.
“I must admit, you two were ready for battle more than I. Keeping my longbow on me would be the germane thing to do, wouldn’t it? Rhir’s highly martial…ah, General Vors, that wand of yours is quite nice.”
Solvet was admiring Vors’ custom-designed wand. Wistram manufactured wands; so did Fissival and a lot of magical institutions. However, his was custom-contoured to his grip, and had a tiny addition; a magical lens built into it such that it showed what you’d hit.
“Thank you, Lord Solvet. I made it myself.”
That impressed the Lamia. [Battlemage] she might be, but Tusxe hadn’t his classical training. She was quite good with spells, though.
“I bought everything I have. Staff included. Glad I didn’t have to use it—or injure this pig. They shouldn’t let it roam about; I might have hurt it!”
She indicated the staff with glass embedded at the top. Vors eyed it. It was Solvet who asked.
“Is that a…viable weapon, Commander Tusxe? Forgive me for asking, but it isn’t what I’d expect a [Mercenary Captain] to use.”
The Lamia grinned at him.
“Solvet, have you ever seen someone hit by a bunch of glass bottle shards in the face? Or seen a bottle smashed into your scales?”
Solvet shook his head, fascinated and horrified. Vors raised a claw.
“I have. It doesn’t seem that much better than a sword, though. Even enchanted…a sword kills. Glass maims.”
The [Battlemage] winked at Vors.
“Yes, exactly. Which would you like to be hit by, though? A stab to the face or…?”
She flicked the staff, indicating a blow to head-height. Vors winced. Tusxe went on.
“The thing is, I’m a [Mercenary], as you said, Lord Solvet.”
She nodded at him. The man raised his hands.
“I didn’t mean to imply there was anything to do with rank…”
“Well, I did. And I wasn’t sure if I’d have to work with a [General] or whatnot…I’m leading a mixed-company, but mostly Lizardfolk. And I’d have hated to get some idiot who can’t figure out how to use a Lizardfolk in battle, no offense, Vors.”
The Lamia looked at the Drake. Vors hesitated, but then he ducked his head.
“You know, I had the exact same thought. I suppose that since we’re here and since no one’s coming…”
He glanced out the door at the hallway. The other two nodded. Vors leaned forwards.
“How does one use a Lizardfolk—er—[Infantryman]? I’ve studied other species’ tactics, but I focused mainly on tactics I’d see in Izril. Baleros is famous for its ambush-tactics in difficult terrain.”
Solvet edged a bit closer as the pig begged for another treat. Tusxe dropped a peanut onto its belly and they watched it squirm as she replied.
“That’s what everyone talks about, but if it’s a standup battle, Lizardfolk don’t melt. Well—okay. They don’t hold ground, but that’s because Naga-variants are better. You’re talking your basic Lizardfolk? They’re not…[Infantrymen]. They’re probably [Fighters].”
“Just [Fighters]? Not [Soldiers]?”
The Lamia rolled her eyes. She looked at the other two.
“Your average Lizardfolk isn’t conscripted or wants a fight. If you get them in a company, they might just be…a kid who wants to earn money fast. They can use a sling, and they’ll have light armor. Good leather, maybe. And a spear and buckler? The trick is, you have them whirling that sling every moment they’re not fighting. They can do a lot of damage with stones and stones are cheap in Baleros.”
“Like a [Shepherd], or other village boy. A [Peasant] or [Villager].”
Solvet was nodding. Vors just shook his head.
“We don’t have the same traditions. Slings are Gnollish…most Drakes in a city might learn to use a bow or crossbow, but not slings.”
Tusxe gave him a toothy grin. Vors realized she was staring at Solvet. Not at him, or in awe of whatever physical attraction the Human man had; he was entirely too fleshy for both of them. Both she and Vors kept staring at his little wavy mustache in fascination.
“Well, I’ll see how good the Gnolls are. But all Lizardfolk can whirl a stone. Do you know if there are any Gnolls with us, Vors?”
“I have a [Charge Commander]—but he’s from Manus. As for the Tribes? No idea. Each one has a specialty.”
“Er—what is Manus? I thought the Drakes came from the Walled Cities…which are not alike, obviously.”
Vors didn’t take offense. He reached for the bowl of nuts, and Tusxe pushed the Goldflake Pig’s head away from the other bowl it was trying to drag off the table. She listened as he spoke with Solvet.
“Manus is the City of War. They do have a very martial tradition, but every Walled City has a standing army, you see…”
One more hour had passed, and the three had just learned that the Goldflake Pig, who had been nicknamed ‘Nutball’, for its propensity to curl up with satisfaction after eating a nut it liked, could do tricks.
Like an actual backflip. And it could actually use the gold armor it grew. In response to being horribly endangered—Solvet taking one of the nut bowls so they could eat it—Nutball had dropped a gold scale, re-consumed it, and spat a cloud of powdered pyrite into the air.
The glitter-bomb was distressingly hard to get off your scales or armor, and it also got in the eyes. But Nutball redeemed himself with the trick and was oinking as the three clapped their hands to a song, ‘singing’ for them, when the door opened.
Vors rose to his feet as a Drake, a Human man, and a Lizardman walked in. They were all smiling, and all, he noted, wearing insignia that denoted high-ranks. The Drake stopped.
“Sir! Apologies for the wait, General Vors!”
He gave Vors a crisp salute. The [General] blinked as the Human man bowed to Lord Solvet, and the Lizardperson made a claw-sign with neck frills slightly opened that Tusxe clearly knew.
Captain Shellc looked at General Vors, with a slight smile on his face. The war veteran of Rhir looked at the confused [General] as Nutball ran over. The pig sat down and raised a hoof as if it were trying to salute.
“What’s going on here?”
General Vors demanded, but one look at the three who had come to meet them and Solvet groaned. Tusxe caught on, but the Drake had to be told.
Rhir had not put them up in this tiny hellhole as a way of punishing them, or because they had not enough money. In short order, Vors found himself sitting in a far nicer room, relaxing, drinking some wine and having snacks with the others, and laughing, a bit embarrassed.
After all—it was a test. The Blighted Kingdom had been observing—not spying exactly, but making sure they didn’t kill each other. The rest was easy.
“Everyone gets locked together, General Vors.”
Captain Shellc was explaining. The Drake had wounds from his battle, but he was being fitted with a prosthesis for his amputated limb, but he had refused to actually leave Rhir.
“Everyone in a position of command, you mean.”
The [Captain] nodded. He was up for promotion, but had been assigned as Vors’ liaison. Not least because it had been unclear Vors would be assuming command of the Drake division here.
“Not everyone passes so well, I take it?”
Lord Solvet looked for his Human subordinate for confirmation. She nodded.
“The test is to avoid them killing each other, sir. Groups of two or five at most. Cooperation is hoped for, and the test is designed to be as miserable as possible…”
Solidarity in misery. Hence the nuts with a bug, the cramped rooms and chairs designed to make you want to leave, and even locking the door to the area.
Nutball was also part of the test. The Blighted Kingdom was used to having mixed-species conflicts, and so this was all engineered to bring together foreign leaders and have them work together.
“Sometimes they ‘fail out’, and are sent home, or relegated to guard duty in the capital. And they really hate that!”
The Lizardfolk chattered to Tusxe, who had an air of patience as she listened to her excitable junior member of the species. The little Lizardfolk [Tactician] gestured at the door.
“Other times the participants do weird things. They break down the door, sometimes! The area is warded, but one time, I heard a [Commander] thought there was a Demon attack and everyone was missing, so she told her [Queen] to sound the alarm!”
“Anyone ever get hurt?”
The three foreign leaders were astonished, Vors especially. He could see himself coming to an altercation with Tusxe, but not to the death! Shellc grimaced.
“Duels. A pair of Humans—Izril and Terandria—dueled to the death one time. [Ladies], not [Lords], with enchanted daggers. The other time was…uh…allergies. A Dullahan didn’t take to the nuts well.”
“And you keep serving them?”
“Well, allergies are a great conversation-starter, [General]. And if the Demons can kill you by leaving a bowl of nuts in the same room as you…it was a huge diplomatic incident. They do test for that, you know. Didn’t you notice the bowl of nuts on the pier? The one just sitting there by the people ushering you in?”
“I saw that! I just thought someone left it there—so they watch for people who run screaming? That’s…clever!”
That was how Vors came to know Rhir. He, Solvet, and Tusxe were already familiar after the test; it was likely they’d be asked to join forces in one of the mixed armies. Rhir had no intention of letting Drakes stick with only Drakes, and this had broken far more ground than Vors could have imagined with simply introductions.
“You can meet the other leaders tonight, all but two of whom passed the test, General Vors. For now? Welcome to Rhir. I hope I can serve under you. It was…an honor to serve with the last mixed-army before.”
Shellc shook Vors’ claw again. The [General] nodded solemnly and everyone lost a bit of their levity.
The pig oinking restored that. Vors glanced down and Tusxe laughed.
“So what do we do with this pig? I hope we don’t eat him; I liked him.”
“Oh, he’s going with you. The new army gets a mascot and that’s—did you call him Nutball?”
The three commanders looked at each other. A mascot? Apparently, Rhir also included free pets. Vors’ last shock was the cunning look the Goldflake Pig gave him. Captain Shellc gave the pig a respectful, and even wary nod.
“Trained by Rhir’s [Beast Masters]. Normally they do Wyverns and other combat animals, but pigs like this and other animals for scouting, companionship—they have Waisrabbit scouting bunnies. Nutball is a decorated survivor of eight engagements and can actually fight, with the trick with the dust. Two Demon kills.”
Nutball stared up at the rookie. It saluted Vors again as the Drake stared at it.
Welcome to Rhir, soldier.
When it came to the affairs of state, and the growing Unseen Empire, Laken Godart was prepared to deal with a lot of issues.
Monsters, altercations between the Goblin and non-Goblin populations, attacks from abroad, reprisals from the Circle of Thorns. Dead…somethings…
Even the possibility of intervention from another world, either in knowledge, or visitors like the fae. The dangers of war or the same things that had killed Erin Solstice, a creature like Belavierr.
Of all the things that he was told to fear and expect and prepare for…a plague of Sariant Lambs, the world’s cutest and most affectionate animal, was not the crisis he was expecting.
It began as Laken was looking into the issue, of, well, running his empire better.
Of course, he had a number of worries he was juggling. The [Emperor] of Riverfarm did not exist in a bubble, although one certainly had been around the remote village, ignored by all. Now though, the bubble-empire was getting big enough to start pushing on other interests.
…Well, if Laken tallied up the problems, the first was some kind of border-war to the west, the first he’d heard of it. Local nobility in conflict.
Second? Ryoka Griffin and the case of the missing Mrsha, both related? Unrelated? He heard she was cursed, which pretty much summed up Ryoka’s charmed…cursed…life for him. He had asked some of his [Witches] to look into it.
As for Mrsha, Laken wasn’t sure if his Gold-rank team, Griffon Hunt, would be returning or not. He had been preparing to celebrate them and the Halfseekers on their return trip from the Village of Death, but if they went, they went. The [Emperor] had no clue what had gone down in the south—except that Belavierr had been involved.
So, he made his priority that day two-fold.
First? He summoned his advisors.
“Eloise, Hedag, Prost, Durene…let’s say Ram and Beycalt too. And Mister Hemlag.”
Laken named the people he wanted to speak to out of the number of officials. Ram, the [Head Farmer], and Beycalt, the [Construction Supervisor] weren’t as important as Prost was, but Laken liked their insights. Hemlag was Rie’s replacement.
She was still gone. On her trip that only Laken knew about. Hemlag was an [Accountant], and a good one, so he was part of Rie’s ‘faction’.
They all arrived, the [Accountant] being first, and nervous to be included in the group, but Laken’s order of business was simple.
“I plan on meeting with Wiskeria later, so we shall make this brief. I would like you all to consider and propose items, activities, even new buildings all for Riverfarm’s entertainment and wellbeing.”
The others reacted with interested murmurs. Hedag? She laughed, as Laken knew she would.
“Entertainment, your Majesty? Have you heard much complaint? I haven’t. Riverfarm works well, not that we would turn our noses up at a festival or [Bard].”
Laken nodded to Prost as the [Steward] queried him.
“I’m eternally impressed by Riverfarm’s work ethic, Prost. However, everyone needs leisure time and work has been nonstop. Since we became an empire, it feels.”
Prost and Durene had to nod at that, and Gamel, hovering by one of the windows with the small squad now under his control. Laken went on, glancing around to mimic meeting people’s eyes; it made them feel better than him speaking and never moving at all.
“You see, where I come from, we do have access to a number of books. Toys, games…not that Riverfarm is lacking. People can swim in the river—”
“Downstream of where we draw our water or there’s hell to pay.”
Ram muttered. Laken smiled as the man flushed.
“No, exactly, Mister Ram. A dedicated pool? A library? I would like these things, and whatever you suggest. Even song crystals. Something to reward Riverfarm’s hard-working folk in their time off. After all, children need to play, don’t they, Witch Hedag?”
“Of course, Emperor-lad. So you want us to propose items and such?”
“Festivals, objects. Mister Hemlag, that’s why you’re here. We’ll devise a budget…”
It was refreshingly simple these days. In the past, Laken would say something like ‘what if we did this?’ He would always get agreement, dissenting opinions if he chose the right people rather than sycophants, but what the [Emperor] had learned was to act. If he asked for someone to do something, they would come back to him to confirm it.
This time? He heard out suggestions, told them to make more proposals, and had the project in the works within the hour. It would be funded. It would be done.
Toys for Riverfarm. A library…what had surprised Laken the most was the unexpected suggestions. Paints and an arts room for anyone interested, of course! He didn’t think of that. Spellbooks for anyone who wanted to see if they had an aptitude?
He put it out of his mind as he went for his true objective for the day. It had become plain to Laken that there was a crisis named ‘Belavierr’. Riverfarm had endured it once, but the Stitch Witch was a walking calamity. He had no idea how you could oppose her—short of throwing every [Witch] in Riverfarm at her, and the odds were they’d just run away. The only trump card he had was Wiskeria.
And she…was interesting. The [Witch] was his [General] and also a ‘witch of law’, a new kind of [Witch]. She had sworn to stop her mother, even if it meant Belavierr’s death.
On the other hand, she had also convinced Belavierr not to attack Mrsha, at least physically, and Laken had heard she baked a cake and put it into her hat yesterday.
He hadn’t realized how—odd—Wiskeria was. Mainly because Wiskeria was good at hiding it. Laken had been clandestinely observing her in his mind, and now came to talk to the [Witch].
This was how Wiskeria was a bit odd; she was normally her spectacled self, wearing blue robes and a pointed hat, the quintessential [Witch].
She was also a Silver-rank adventurer, responsible, even unremarkable if you’d met Revi or someone with a very strident personality. She was the kind of ‘second in command’ she’d been when Sacra, posing as Odveig, had led their team here.
A sensible organizer and leader. She remained that way until Laken had realized she was Belavierr’s daughter. And that posed a question to the [Emperor].
You’d think that the daughter of one of the greatest [Witches] of all time would be a bit weirder, wouldn’t you?
He’d run a ‘test’. The fruits of that test were apparent as Wiskeria raised her voice.
“No. He didn’t.”
She was gossiping with some of Riverfarm’s women, from various positions in the village. It was just…relaxing, having some of Eloise’s famous tea. Wiskeria looked shocked.
“Cheating? Did you ask a [Witch] to sort it out? Miss Yesel? Or…?”
There were internal judiciary systems within Riverfarm. The young woman shook her head tearfully.
“No—and please don’t ask, Miss Wiskeria! I don’t want him to lose his head, if Hedag were to hear…”
“She wouldn’t do that. And something should be done.”
Beycalt was frowning. Wiskeria nodded, looking disturbed.
“He’s your fiancé, isn’t he? You have to do something, Elaiere! I could talk to Prost or even—”
“Not his Majesty! I’ll…he said he’d make things right, break it off. It was only once!”
The others looked at each other. Laken, leaning against a windowsill, made a mental note not to intervene or pretend he’d heard about this. Some things an [Emperor] did not need to deal in, and this?
“It’s not once.”
Wiskeria’s hat swiveled back and forth as Beycalt glowered and the poor Elaiere defended her unfaithful fiancé. Fascinating as this was, Laken only focused on Wiskeria. Because…she was genuinely disturbed.
Disturbed, upset on behalf of Elaiere, the [Seamstress], a talented young woman, whom Wiskeria had befriended. Given tips to—of course Wiskeria knew how to sew. And it made sense! You’d support a friend who realized she was being cheated on, wouldn’t you? Be upset?
“All checks out. That’s genuine emotion right there. Wouldn’t you think, Gamel?”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The [Knight] hovered, palpably uneasy at eavesdropping, although his [Emperor] had insisted. Laken nodded to himself.
“So—how did Wiskeria react to the other tasks I asked her to oversee and help with?”
The [Knight] didn’t have to think.
“She helped cull a bunch of animals, and butchered them without a blink. Even some of the [Farmers] were surprised by how chatty she was. Then she went and helped the [Mortician] with…”
He gulped. Laken nodded.
“Preparing the dead bodies. And have you ever seen her look upset while fighting? What about when we were burning the Creler bodies? Anyone?”
The [Emperor] asked the other warriors who were on bodyguard duty. They shook their heads. Laken nodded.
That was Wiskeria’s secret. She never stopped being normal, even when she should be. Seasoned warriors could fight in a battle, but even they might blanch at culling and butchering animals. Wiskeria? Not a bat of the eyelid.
Crelers, dead bodies—spooky [Witch] apprentices. Laken remembered her chasing them off. Nothing fazed Wiskeria, except, apparently, infidelity.
Emotional, social matters. She raised her voice behind Laken, visibly upset.
“Elaiere, you can’t let him get away with this. This is more than just being unfaithful! He made a promise to you! An oath of love! You have to resolve this.”
The [Witch] thought about it.
“For someone who breaks the vow of love? You could break his legs.”
Laken sat back up. Gamel, and the rest of the squad turned. Wiskeria was pacing back and forth in front of the women. Beycalt laughed, but Wiskeria shook her head.
“I’m serious! It’s a broken vow! Demand something of his—you can’t trust oathbreakers. The engagement’s off. Demand—I don’t know, I’ve never been engaged. What’s the penalty for breaking an engagement?”
“There’s not one, Wiskeria! It’s…love.”
The [Witch] whirled on her friend, angrier—Laken realized, angrier than any of the other women for different reasons—and pointed at Elaiere.
“And love demands a price. He’s broken his word. You were going to get married! Demand fair recompense, Elaiere. Demand…I don’t know, one of his testicles.”
The [Witch] looked around.
“She doesn’t need to cut it off herself! It’s just—that—that’s not what you’d normally do, is it?”
She hesitated, as she saw the other women looking at her. Wiskeria opened her mouth, then promptly shut it.
And that was the mystery of Wiskeria, partially solved. Laken strolled out of the home, and looked at Gamel.
“Ask Beycalt later if anything’s done. Otherwise—Prost can handle it. No testicles being removed.”
The [Knight] nodded, glancing back towards the circle of arguing women. Laken walked on.
The thing about Wiskeria was that she slipped. You had to catch her. He just bet that the talk about breaking promises was something she’d learned from her mother.
“Woe to anyone who ever broke a promise to Wiskeria as children.”
“Ah, well, we all have our complaints, Emperor Godart. But if you wanted to know Wiskeria’s differences, you might have asked us.”
All of Laken’s company jumped and half his bodyguards nearly drew their blades—but they saw Eloise standing there and relaxed. The [Witch] had snuck up on them all!
“Eloise, you caught my spying.”
“An [Emperor] does not hide well. Are you wondering what makes Wiskeria different?”
Laken ducked his head, a bit shamefaced.
“Wiskeria has always dodged questions about her past. I did not wish to push. Eloise, I don’t suppose you can elaborate?”
The [Tea Witch] considered the question and Laken knew she was weighing her ‘service’ to the Unseen Empire against the code of [Witches], whatever that was. She gestured.
“Shall we walk, your Majesty?”
They did, towards the river and the fields, as Eloise hummed, then spoke.
“You noticed Wiskeria doesn’t blink at most things; well, many [Witches] could say the same. If you want to truly see how Belavierr changed her, look no further than how she talks to her mother. Or—had you any [Murderers], [Bandits], or other unsavory folk in Riverfarm, you would have noticed it already.”
“I tend not to enjoy that kind of person, Witch Eloise.”
“Oh, I know. They would have been—instructive. You know Wiskeria has sworn to kill her mother? They both know it.”
“Yes. Her conversation was entirely polite, though.”
“That is Wiskeria. She can speak to a monster—a true monster, regardless of the face—and deal with them in a friendly way. Then kill them in the next hour. Both she and her mother know that one day, one of them might die. They can still be mother and daughter until then.”
Laken drew in his breath.
“So that’s it. And that…sounds entirely like Belavierr. Practical.”
“Able to differentiate. I can be your mortal enemy, Emperor Laken, but offer you tea. It is not a skill many Humans learn. Many species at all. Will that satisfy?”
It would, and Laken thanked Eloise. Of course, the [Witch] had sought him out today to propose more lessons in tea for anyone interested. Maybe a few tea sets?
“And while we discuss it—the new fields are doing well, and your ‘greenhouses’ would allow crops of all seasons. Perhaps I could petition you to grow some plants? Tea sells quite well.”
“Of course, Witch Eloise. Shall we visit Mister Ram?”
She smiled, and Laken pointed in the direction he sensed the [Head Farmer]. It wasn’t exactly payment for just Wiskeria’s background, but he reflected that the [Witches] certainly knew what they wanted. Eloise had an empire’s worth of customers, and it seemed, might have cheap access to all the tea leaves she could want.
It was at that point when the plague arrived. Laken slowed as he realized the [Farmers] had abandoned their stations.
“Hm. They might have found something. They’re all gathered in the field.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
The [Emperor] realized Gamel could see what he had observed; his [Emperor]-sight didn’t trump regular eyes all the time. The [Emperor] began to walk that way, and noticed more people coming.
Durene, Prost, even Hedag and Wiskeria and a few others, noticing the lack of work. Beniar’s [Riders] too, calmly assembling.
“Is there danger, Emperor?”
Eloise was standing on her tip-toes to see, being shorter than the others. Laken frowned.
“No. They’re all clustered around…hm, it must be nearly six dozen…did one of the pens break loose? They look like baby sheep.”
The company relaxed instantly. Unless they were carnivorous, or even if they were, that didn’t sound like monster-class threats, and the [Farmers] would have raised the alarm if they were.
However, it was Eloise who suddenly lost her smile. She looked ahead.
“Baby sheep? Lambs? You don’t mean those wretched—”
Laken glanced at her, interested, and then heard the cutest baah he had ever heard in his life. He arrived with the others just in time to find that the [Farmers] were petting, cuddling, and feeding scraps of vegetation to their unexpected guests.
“Your Majesty! It’s wonderful! I’ve never seen so many, and they just came up and started nibbling the corn over there! They’re beautiful and friendly as you want! They’re—”
Eloise hissed. Laken could not see, but he sensed the [Witch] recoil from the adorable, seventy-plus herd of lambs that had waddled over, mewling and baahing. Laken Godart raised his eyebrows.
Today was a weird day.
Sariant Lambs were known the world over for one thing: they had obtained the record as the world’s cutest, most adorable and beloved pet.
No other animal beat them. You could object and say, ‘dog this’, or ‘cat that’, or ‘fluffy bunny whatever’. You would be wrong. It wasn’t that any other pet was less cute or adorable, but Sariant Lambs were better. Superior fluff! Superior cuteness!
One touch of their fur, ranging from white to black with some surprising shades in between, and you couldn’t help but feel like you were touching what a cloud should feel like. They would beg to be picked up, their little eyes and heads staring up, lick your cheek—they never got as big as regular sheep, being a dwarf breed.
All of Riverfarm that heard about the animals flocked over. The Sariant Lambs didn’t run; nor were they even skittish. Other animals needed to be trained, and even the best got nervous in large groups. Sariant Lambs loved the attention.
“It’s so cute! Mother—mother! Can I have it?”
A girl shrieked as the lamb nuzzled her, running up to her parents. The others had lambs in their arms—Durene was tentatively, tentatively scratching the stomach of a little lamb who’d rolled over winsomely.
Laken Godart heard similar sentiments—people were talking all around him. Prost turned to Ram.
“They just showed up, you said? They’re valuable! Each one’s worth a fortune.”
“Prost, you don’t want to sell them? This is a miracle! We could have them in a home, one to a family. They don’t need much to eat—this could solve his Majesty’s worries about entertainment! Who needs books when you have this cute thing?”
The lamb baahed and burped in his arms and both men laughed. Sariant Lambs were more than just cute—one was gamely playing tag as a toddler ran away. Another was hopping like a bunny, mimicking an actual bunny pet.
It was…the most memetic display Laken had ever ‘seen’ in his life. He had never seen cat videos, or dog videos. The blind man got absolutely nothing from that kind of thing when a friend was showing the video around. And someone saying ‘look at the dog as it takes a bath!’ was not actually fun.
In his head, the Sariant Lambs were doing all these things to the delight of the people watching or interacting with them. Laken was glad the lambs were bringing some levity and enjoyment to Riverfarm, but what he was really curious about was the reaction of the [Witches].
They had gathered at the news of the Sariant Lambs. Unlike the people of Riverfarm, they hadn’t flocked forwards to pet and touch the creatures.
The [Witches] were standing in a line, apart from the cooing people. They were not impressed. Rather, as Durene whispered, they were ‘giving the lambs a look like slugs in the wheat field.’ Which Laken was quite amused by.
“What’s the matter, [Witch] Hedag, Eloise?”
The two senior [Witches] were staring at the lambs. Hedag flipped her hat up.
“Looks like you’ve got parasites, your Majesty. Didn’t expect they’d show up, but I’m glad you’re not cooing over the little things. Happiness leeches is what they are. Affection slugs. Shoo.”
She kicked at a Sariant Lamb as it waddled over and it made a distressed noise that immediately made Durene pick it up and hold it protectively away from Hedag with a glare. Laken got what Hedag meant. He smiled.
“Competitors in the same field?”
Eloise’s head slowly rotated around, but her rare look of extreme displeasure was lost on the blind [Emperor].
“I didn’t think you were that tactless, your Majesty. Hardly. Sariant Lambs are parasites—just not shaped like them. Parasites for people and culture, not animals. Is it a surprise [Witches] don’t care for such things, as lovely as their appearance might be?”
Parasites? Laken Godart glanced over. He heard a whuff, and then a caw. Instantly, he held out an arm—winced—
Frostwing landed on his shoulder, having taken off from her usual perch of Bismarck. The Mossbear and bird had both come over to investigate the noises. Instantly, one of the Sariant Lambs broke off from the crowd, and approached Bismarck. The bear sat back on its haunches, but then stared as the little Sariant Lamb made an approximation of a growl, like a bear. Only, cute.
It came over, inspected his paw, and to Laken’s amazement, found a little thorn that had been troubling the Mossbear and pulled it out with its teeth. Bismarck instantly perked up, bent to nuzzle the little lamb, and everyone was doubly impressed.
“It even got the bear. Let’s kill them when everyone’s asleep.”
Laken heard Witch Agratha mutter. He turned.
“Just what is the problem? That seemed like a wholesome interaction.”
A line of angry [Witches] turned to face the [Emperor], arms folded. It was Wiskeria who gave the explanation Laken needed.
“They seem nice now, Laken. But they’re buying your affection. In a week? They won’t be as ‘helpful’. They’ll demand feeding, petting at all hours, or they’ll start crying. In a month? Half of Riverfarm will be fighting to win their affections. They’ll turn households against each other, starve all your pets, and if the empire collapses, they’re on their way.”
The [Emperor]’s head turned. He could not see the Sariant Lambs, and perhaps that was a good thing. But suddenly—Laken Godart wondered if the ‘smiles’ the Sariant Lambs were apparently giving to the Humans were actually more like disguised smirks. He stepped back and looked at Wiskeria.
“Tell me more.”
“There’s a rhyme for the little [Witches]. ‘A good [Witch] adds more than they take. Even the bad one takes, and uses it to create. A [Witch] who leaves naught at all is a mistake.’ Compared to us—yon lambs? Parasites, more like.”
Hedag laid out the fundamental difference between Sariant Lambs and [Witches] like that. [Witches] used emotions. So did the lambs.
The difference was that Sariant Lambs had zero qualities of their own. Their wool was fluffy and had market value, but like sheep, they were incapable of shearing it themselves and suffered if it grew too much.
Their tiny size meant that Sariant Lambs could neither run, nor actually obtain food that easily. Sheep, for all they were herbivores, had a number of survival mechanisms.
There were no rams among Sariant Lambs—they had both genders, but both were cute and cuddly despite age. The way they survived was by finding someone else to protect, house, and feed them.
If that seemed like a stupid self-defense mechanism, well, Laken saw all seventy lambs already being fought over as people wanted to have one in their homes—no, two! And it didn’t stop at people.
“Sariant Lambs can get anything to like them. You saw your bear? Well, they’ve done that kind of thing to no less than Wyverns.”
Laken turned to the [Witches].
Wiskeria just snorted.
“I wish. They’re not big enough to be even a mouthful. They’re exceptionally intelligent; they can understand what you say, and they can make themselves useful and beloved. For a while. There are cases of Wyverns protecting the stupid things, even fetching plants to feed the lambs.”
“Do they have any natural predators?”
“Sure. Crelers, undead…Eater Goats. Sariant Lambs fear them like the plague. Anything that can’t be bought by cuteness.”
Laken was beginning to understand, but still, this beggared his belief a bit. He gestured at the lambs. Cute they might be, but…
“Surely other predators would eat them. Like Bismarck if he was hungry.”
Eloise gave him a patient sigh. She walked over to one of the lambs.
The [Tea Witch] bent down and seized a lamb by the scruff of the neck. She produced a belt knife, and the lamb freaked out. It opened its mouth and—began to wail.
It cried almost like a child, but—cutely. Instantly, every person looked at Eloise in horror.
“Witch Eloise! What are you doing to the poor creature?”
Even Bismarck came over to protectively shield the lamb. Eloise gave it up without much more of a fuss, and walked back to Laken.
“That sounded like a baby! A cute baby!”
Laken was rattled. His head tracked the lamb, but all he could ‘see’ was its outline. Eloise nodded, adjusting her hat and tucking her knife away.
“It’s just as well you can’t see them, your Majesty. Their charms aren’t working on you. Which is also why we came here, to warn you about the danger. Sariant Lambs are intelligent, and they know what they’re doing. They sought out Riverfarm, so don’t be fooled—they’ll be a pest worse than Vorepillars in the fields since you can kill one, not the other.”
The Unseen Emperor nodded slowly. He had to admit, that the [Witches]’ commentary and his own lack of insight was revealing the Sariant Lambs as little, cynical manipulators rather than the cute, helpless animals.
As if they suddenly sensed that the leader of this place wasn’t being won over, one of the lambs broke away from the crowd and trotted up to Laken. It stopped in front of him, on its bottom, all four hooves raised, and waved them.
It was an adorable display. Laken Godart didn’t pick it up.
“It wants you to hold it, your Majesty!”
Miss Yesel called out. Laken bent down. The Sariant Lamb stared up at Laken’s face.
His face, with his closed eyes. The man frowned at the little lamb.
“Hm. It sounds cute.”
The Sariant Lamb backed up, clearly confused at this lack of pure adoration. The other lambs glanced at each other. Then one baahed, and came forwards. It moved past the first, and began nuzzling Laken’s leg.
It was so soft! Laken put out a hand and the second Sariant Lamb began to nuzzle it. He blinked, then smiled despite the [Witch]’s warnings.
“You clever little sh—”
Wiskeria actually kicked at the lamb, but Gamel blocked her. It ran away, crying piteously until it was scooped up. Laken stared at his hand.
“I’ve never felt something so soft!”
“Don’t let them fool you!”
“Witch Wiskeria! Please! I don’t know what you’re talking about, but this won’t lose us productivity or start fights! Your Majesty, we can’t leave these creatures to be eaten up. Won’t you let us take them in?”
The [Emperor] sensed more lambs crowding around as Prost made an appeal on behalf of Riverfarm. He hesitated—then stood and backed up. Behind the line of [Witches].
“Hedag, Eloise, Agratha, Wiskeria—senior [Witches]. Quick conference.”
Laken had to shake off the soft touch of the Sariant Lamb. The [Witches] gathered around him.
“Alright, what’s the actual concern if we allow them to stay? They’ve already won over everyone here.”
The [Witches] glanced at each other. Laken was almost more wary of the lambs now than before, having experienced their charm. It was almost like magic. It might be magic.
“Well, they’ve come to Riverfarm, and fallen right into our trap, your Majesty. This flock’d run if it thought we were hungry or weren’t fat enough to feed them. They didn’t know there are [Witches] here, though. Give me five minutes with an axe and we can have fine eating for the next few days.”
Hedag grinned. Even Laken gave her a look of horror.
“Witch Hedag, those are thinking animals.”
The Hedag of swift justice scowled. Laken wondered if it was the Sariant Lambs already having twisted his mind—but murdering a bunch of animals wasn’t something many people from Earth were at home with.
“So’re leeches. Bah, I can see that’s not going to work. We can sell them, but [Beast Tamers] are wary of the devils. They like to breed and it’s hard enough to cull regular animals, let alone them.”
“Let’s say we let them stay. What will happen?”
Hedag growled, thinking.
“They steal other animals’ food, distract people from work, and the things’ll breed until they get so large a smaller herd splits off to infest somewhere else.”
“On the plus side, they will be helpful and motivate people for a while, your Majesty. They won’t show their true colors until a week or two when they’re ‘settled in’.”
The [Emperor] nodded. He glanced at the Sariant Lambs, and wasn’t oblivious to the mood of his people. He turned to the disgruntled [Witches].
“I don’t believe there’d actually be a revolt if I ordered them all killed, but I doubt we can drive them off without people disobeying. Let’s see what the lambs do first, [Witches]. We’ll make plans based on that.”
The [Witches] protested of course, but Laken could either give an order he knew wouldn’t be obeyed, or slaughter a bunch of lambs in front of the children and adults. He let them keep the lambs, refusing an offer of one and had Prost divvy them up between households.
The [Witches] hated it and glared daggers at the little lambs as they were carried off and everyone got, reluctantly, back to work, although some of the [Farmers] found the lambs following them around as they worked, to their delight. The women with hats stomped off. Laken distinctly heard Agratha muttering to the others.
“So ends Riverfarm.”
The next few days passed by with the Sariant Lambs continuing to delight, and doing everything from ‘trying’ to make a bed, to proving to be perfectly house-trained, to enjoying baths and dancing together for fun.
They were a bomb of adorable, and it was a bomb, because Laken began seeing the fallout that the [Witches] had promised within three days.
He sensed it because the lambs were clever. But after twelve incidents, Laken summoned Eloise and a small group of [Witches] to his home.
“Witches, I believe you’re right.”
“Now he listens?”
Laken had to admit, he’d been a bit dubious, but he explained what he’d observed.
“I just sensed twelve instances of a Sariant Lamb stealing food from a dog bowl. One of them was actually eating from a horse’s trough and the animals just—let them do it!”
“We told you they were parasites. They won over animals and folk alike.”
Hedag growled. The [Emperor] agreed at last, reluctantly. The [Witches] hadn’t exaggerated the Sariant Lamb’s true natures—much.
They were little bullies. When no one was watching, they took food from the other pets. They demonstrated that in increasingly needy ways; one even competed with a baby for attention, wailing more piteously and with much more cute rewards when the parents fed it. An infant was inherently stupid; Sariant Lambs were smart.
Too smart. They were stealing food from the other animals in Riverfarm. Mostly sheepdogs and ratters and such—but also horses’ food. Laken fixed it, of course, ensuring that the food was placed higher up and that the animals were fed.
In response? He actually had to walk into a barn as the lambs fled and touch the ladder they’d dragged over to a food trough to believe it.
The only benefit Laken had in this shadow-war was that the lambs clearly didn’t know he could sense what they were doing. In front of him, they pretended to be as cute and helpless as could be, and they clearly knew he was the [Emperor]; no less than six followed him around if he was outside, much to the envy of his subjects.
They were turning Riverfarm into admirers, that much was certain. Durene loved the wretched things and even though they’d been told, all of Laken’s counselors couldn’t quite bring themselves to even suggest getting rid of the lambs.
Not that the Sariants found Riverfarm as easy pickings as other places. The [Witches] were responsible for that. The Sariant Lambs couldn’t charm even the apprentices, and the [Witches] reminded people—loudly—of their worse qualities, like trying to steal literal food from babies. The lambs had to be helpful around the [Witches] to prove the hat-women wrong.
Nor did their food-stealing trick work on one type of animal. Even Frostwing would let a lamb sniff her bowl of meat—although Sariant Lambs were herbivores—but the Sariant Lambs tried their food-theft trick on the wrong group.
On the fifth day, one sidled up to the pile of meat scraps, and grain and other crops promised to Witch Mavika’s crows, who kept the fields clear. The birds cawed warningly, but the bold lamb just tried to cuddle one crow, charm the rest. They let it do it—right up until it began to eat one of the corn cobs.
The crows ate the lamb after they pecked it to death, much to the horror of Riverfarm’s folk. True to Eloise’s word, the lamb screamed loud enough to distress everyone in several thousand feet. But it was dead before anyone sprinted over.
Witch Mavika refused to comment on the dead lamb, when the people of the Unseen Empire wanted to take her to task over it.
“A pact was sealed, and no one will break it. Not lamb or woman. Would you like me to show my displeasure on these little pests?”
Thousands of crows cawed warningly and the lambs instantly ran into houses. The people backed away as the [Crow Witch] tilted her head.
The [Witches] played no games. Indeed, on the sixth day of the Sariant Lamb invasion, Wiskeria brought it up to Laken over breakfast. Durene wasn’t with him; she was off feeding her lamb scraps of corn mush she’d personally prepared with a bit of spice the lamb wanted, and Laken was beginning to get sick of the needy lambs—he had refused to have one with him.
“They’re certainly showing their true colors. Why do lambs want flavor in their food?”
“Why do you?”
Wiskeria retorted. Laken had to admit, he’d invited that one. Apparently, all the Sariant Lambs had refused to eat breakfast until they had properly prepared food, and some of his [Cooks] were whipping up gourmet lamb breakfasts.
“I can see I was wrong, Wiskeria. These lambs are getting worse and they’ll be even more annoying in a week. What do you propose?”
His [General] hesitated. She looked around, for a lamb, not Human eavesdroppers, and leaned over the table.
“Laken. If…say…all the lambs were to vanish overnight, with no one knowing how it happened, with no blood or traces ever found, how angry would you be? No one would ever know—well, be able to prove anything.”
The [Emperor] stopped eating and raised his head. Wiskeria sat back. Laken Godart swallowed, and then burst out.
“There has to be a resolution between keeping them here and murdering them all in the night, Wiskeria.”
“Well, I’ve never heard of one. Either sell them or figure out something, because the [Witches] can see what’s happening as well as you can.”
The [Witch] snapped back. She was genuinely worried.
“They’re just lambs. They’re not a threat beyond—disruption to work and stealing from other animals! Parasites, not like Crelers. Right?”
The [Witch] was silent. Laken faltered.
“…You must be joking.”
Wiskeria fiddled with her glasses, and looked around again. She leaned forwards.
“Let me put it like this, Laken. We, [Witches], that is, don’t think they’re actually an organized threat. They’re just manipulative little geniuses. However…Queen Geilouna of Desonis owns one. I know there’s a Sariant Lamb owned by the Queen of Ailendamus, the King of Avel…and that’s just Terandria. There are Sariant Lambs owned by the rich and powerful—because that’s what Sariant Lambs like, to be pampered—across the world. If they were subtly manipulating their owners, who could tell?”
This was the stupidest conspiracy theory that Laken had ever heard. Yet he couldn’t quite deny it; the lambs were intelligent.
Case in point; one had apparently unlocked the warehouse door with a key it had somehow ‘found’ and they’d gorged themselves on food. The fact that a lamb had figured out which key was in Prost’s house, gotten it to the door way over its head…
No. The lambs were a problem. What Laken wanted to know was, why Riverfarm?
“These cute things could have gone to Invrisil. They could have bothered Magnolia Reinhart or a [Merchant]. Why Riverfarm? We’re not rich!”
“You have everything they want.”
Eloise gave Laken a cynical smile. She was walking along as Prost hurried—with a lamb in a carrying sling—to chivvy some of Riverfarm’s people to get back to work. The lambs protested; they wanted their fur hand-combed and all dirt and specks taken out! And hoof-manicures!
The [Tea Witch] gestured around the village.
“Riverfarm might not be as rich as Invrisil, but Sariant Lambs value safety over luxury, Emperor Laken. Your empire is a byword in safety; no bandits, no monsters. Believe me, many people are coming just for that. Why not the Sariants? More than that, however…a big city is more dangerous than somewhere like Riverfarm. Sariant Lambs can be run over, and many would steal them to resell. They like to stay together; they are a herd.”
“Hence Riverfarm being their paradise. Wonderful.”
The problem to Laken wasn’t killing the lambs. He’d had enough of killing sentient species, thank you. It was more that the lambs were cute and cuddly. People liked having them about and they were keeping people smiling. If it wasn’t for the other things, they’d be fine.
“Do they ever stop infesting a place?”
“It would take months. A settlement loses its prosperity, or quarrels too much. Or…the animals run them out.”
“Really. But the dogs and horses…”
“They can only starve so long, your Majesty. Cats, now. Intelligent cats, or animals owned by [Beast Tamers] would do it fastest. They won’t let the Sariants kill them off.”
Laken rubbed at his face.
“This is such a stupid problem.”
He stopped as something went baaah in front of him. A little lamb rubbed against his leg; they were still following him and kept trying to touch him.
It actually reminded him of how Rie had tried to manipulate him, so Laken wasn’t fooled. He squatted down, and turned his closed eyes to the little sheep.
“How smart are you?”
It backed up a step, and then tried to climb his leg innocently, begging to be picked up and held. Laken didn’t like that answer. He turned to Eloise, who was—aiming a wand at a lamb trying to come up to her. She put the wand away as the lamb fled.
“Could they perform some kind of duty like the dogs do? They are as smart—smarter—than any animals I’ve met. Smarter than monkeys back home.”
She glanced at him and Laken recalled he hadn’t told the [Witches] his big secret. He would—perhaps only to spite Tamaroth—and they knew it existed, but it was one of the things he was currently waiting on. He had no idea how they’d react.
Hedag strode up, aiming a kick that missed one of the lambs who hopped out of the way. The Hedag laughed, but even her laugh had an irritated edge to it.
“That’s the issue we put before you, Laken-boy. And you see it clearer than most, eyes or not! They might work, since they’re smart’re than most, but they have a weakness that makes them not worth spit.”
Laken Godart sensed Hedag lean down. She whispered the Sariant Lamb’s fatal flaw into his ear.
Two weeks had passed and the Sariants were driving Laken crazy. Riverfarm’s people still defended them, but they were taking up more time. They wanted special food, petting, affection—and they had begun to breed.
They’d spawn like rabbits, and by now, Laken was sure something had to be done. He had sat in…conversation…with one more advisor and received an amusing response.
Apparently, they got even on a certain bearded man’s nerves. But that just made Laken want to object. He came upon a good solution, and an obvious one, when he entertained a rare visitor to Riverfarm.
Lord Gralton Radivaek was closer than Yitton Byres, and sometimes dropped by.
“Heard you had a bunch of Sariants.”
He grunted, bringing his usual armada of dogs, who were usually instantly played with. This time? They came up to people fawning over lambs and barely got a scratch. The dogs sniffed the lambs, who wiggled their noses, cuddled—and promptly backed away.
The [Dog Lord]’s hounds weren’t fooled. Laken glanced at Radivaek, and couldn’t read the man’s face from his [Emperor]-senses, but got a rumbling chuckle.
“Hate the buggers. I came to ask if you had a bone in the Oswen fight.”
“The—? Oh, the border dispute with House Veltras’ people?”
It was one of the new political events Riverfarm was now big enough to weigh in, being close-ish to the group that was feuding with the swamp-region over some kind of hunting territory dispute. Radivaek nodded.
“I’m on Oswen’s side.”
“About the hunting lands and the legal territory…?”
The [Dog Lord] gave Laken a blank stare as he tore into some meat and tossed the bones to his dogs. Laken let one climb into his lap; he liked the hound a lot more than the lambs; the dogs were genuine. They got bored with you, they didn’t act. When they wanted to play, they asked.
“Who cares about who’s in the right? I’m on Oswen’s side because they do right by me. Was hoping you’d do something.”
“Nope. Just agree Oswen’s right. Might tip the scales; they’d thank you.”
“Hm. Well, how many repercussions might that invite?”
Laken wished he had Rie, or Yitton. He had learned that Gralton was far more complex than he indicated—but the man still liked to pick fights. Gralton, predictably, had no idea.
“Maybe they’ll get snotty. You have your totem-things. Listen, Oswen’s good people. They have great dogs. Ever seen them? Hold on—I think I brought some with me. Trotter! Find me Waterskip and Droplets!”
One of the warhounds bounded off and came back with two more dogs. Laken had no idea what the dogs were—only that they were fairly large. His senses as an [Emperor] meant that features weren’t visible, so he reached out with his hands and found smooth, oily fur. He felt at the long dogs, their webbed feet, long ‘tails’, and laughed in astonishment.
“Gralton! What are these?”
“Otterdogs. Crossbreeds that pull Oswen’s water sleds. I knew you’d like ‘em.”
“You have Oswen’s breed?”
Gralton laughed in Laken’s face. He was Lord Gralton! He had every dog breed.
The otter dogs were affectionate, playful, and as fast in water as their cousins were on land. They had been bred with magic or something to be natural-born swamp hunters. They were delightful.
A bit smelly, but Laken didn’t object. He had to go down to the river and see them race through the water.
“Brilliant fellows. Not much use on land compared to a hound specialized for that, but Oswen’s got them hunting fish, pulling their water sleds—y’see, you shoot down game from their homes on stilts, and you send a dog out to fetch the kill. I’ve visited for fun; it’s a great place to relax. You should take that Durene and some of your folk and visit. They’ve got hot baths too. Unicorn horns embedded in the biggest one.”
“Think so. Some old pact back when you had the horned things wandering about.”
Laken scratched a wet otter-dog as the liquid ran off its fur. He smiled.
“You know, I like these Otterdogs a lot more than the Sariants already. I asked if you’d consider selling Riverfarm more dogs—how are the kennels?”
“Booming. Lots of puppies running about. Why, you want some dogs?”
“Maybe some Otterdogs? We could use some fun creatures about that don’t want you to trim their hooves every two seconds.”
Gralton folded his arms and thought about it.
The Unseen Emperor straightened in surprise.
“No? Why not?”
Gralton glanced around Riverfarm and shook his head.
“Not enough wetland. Not enough water. Maybe if you expanded to the marshes to your east…then you can have some.”
“You…don’t want me to pay for your dogs?”
The [Dog Lord] fixed Laken with a look the [Emperor] felt. Like an aura of a beast, pressing on his. He realized Gralton was offended by the offer.
“My dogs are meant to work. They need a purpose. All animals do. I won’t sell them to grow fat and discontented. I’ll give you more terriers and sheepdogs and the Otterdogs if you have someone needing help in the marshes. And only if you get rid of those thieving sheep. I know they eat from the dog bowls and there’ll be hell to pay if I find a dog’s hungry.”
Chastened, Laken slowly nodded. That was why he respected Gralton.
“You’re right. I apologize.”
“Good. Now, if you want a dog that sees in the dark for your Darksky Riders—I’ve got a new breed in…”
The issue of the Sariant Lambs came into relief as Gralton extended his stay. The two Otterdogs did eventually come to live at Riverfarm, because Laken was planning on going into the marshes. So he asked for Waterskip and Droplets to try themselves out with one of the [Marsh Hunters] who’d fled the fires, but wanted to resettle his home. Ryoka had met him on one of her runs.
As for the Sariant Lambs? Gralton was the first person to agree with Laken.
“You can’t just kill all of them.”
“Thank you. I’ve been told to either let them parade about or to murder all of them in cold blood. What would you do?”
“No idea. I just run them off if I find them.”
Laken covered his face. Gralton laughed.
“Cheer up! Maybe there’s a secret power you’ll get from having so many. Seventy? That’s a lot! Bound to be twice that in a few months with them breeding. Now…me? I like—changing with my hounds.”
He meant his secret ability, to turn into, well, a Werewolf. Laken had been astonished to learn he could do that, although it was more like a Weredog. Gralton grinned at the [Emperor].
“You could become half-sheep.”
“No thank you. I think…it’s time to make the Sariants an ultimatum. I won’t have them disrupting Riverfarm, and I won’t kill them. If I drive them off—they might just come back, or my people will hide them.”
Laken Godart frowned. Then he realized he had another special guest, who’d come out of her domain to greet Griffon Hunt. They were inbound. Laken snapped his fingers.
“I know just who. Excuse me, Gamel? Please bring me…”
Pebblesnatch. The Goblin [Cook] met with Gralton and Laken. She was an emissary of her people, one of the few who ever left the Goblin Lands. Usually to ‘borrow’ cooking supplies or visit Nanette.
She stared at Laken and the [Dog Lord], quite unimpressed by both. After all, she had beaten the [Emperor] with a ladle and neither forgot that.
“Pebblesnatch, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I was hoping you could take a look at Riverfarm’s newest…pets.”
Laken had Durene’s Sariant Lamb in the room, but he’d exiled his lover and all other busybodies except Gralton and the [Witches]. Pebblesnatch blinked at the lamb.
“A Sariant Lamb. It’s—”
The little sheep stared at Pebblesnatch and interrupted Laken as it came over, mewling cutely and staring up at her with huge eyes. It nuzzled the Cave Goblin, who retreated, then bent to stare at it.
Pebblesnatch had never seen a Sariant Lamb. The Sariant Lamb had never seen a Goblin.
The lamb did its best. It cuddled up, sniffed at Pebblesnatch, did a little flip on its hooves, and licked at the Goblin’s palm. All classics.
The Goblin felt at the soft, cuddly creature, and listened to it mewl and soothe her. She smiled. Then she sniffed the lamb. The Goblin experimentally opened her mouth and bit the lamb on the neck gently.
“Yum. Soft. Is good meat. I get?”
The lamb instantly freaked out. It began wailing, and Laken covered his ears, but grinned. So did the [Witches]. Hedag laughed.
“It doesn’t fool the Goblin’s stomach!”
Durene was summoned to rescue her lamb. Laken consulted with Pebblesnatch after the Sariant Lamb was gone.
“You didn’t think it was cute enough not to eat, Pebblesnatch?”
The [Cook] gave the [Emperor] a narrow-eyed look, as if trying to figure out if this was a test. She shook her head in the end. Yes, the Sariants were cute, but ‘cute’ didn’t fill her belly.
Laken clapped his hands together. At last! A species immune to the Sariant’s charms!
Goblins were in the unique position of being pragmatists; unlike monsters or animals, they’d be damned if some furballs would live if they starved. And unlike ‘civilized’ peoples, they didn’t like the idea of wasting resources on layabouts even if they were flush with food.
He grinned as he stood. It was not a nice grin, and both Durene and the Sariant she held looked apprehensive as Laken summoned them back in. He turned to Gralton and the [Witches], and smiled.
“I think I have a way to deal with the Sariants. Find them—all of them. No objections. We’re going to give them…shock therapy.”
Pebblesnatch glanced up. She began thinking of lamb recipes as Durene began protesting and the lamb squeaked in horror.
“This is the issue. Sariants cannot breed out of control. They can’t demand to be pampered. A bit, yes, but they have to eat corn without wanting spices on it. I am willing to have them here! Just not at the expense of Riverfarm’s other animals. Lord Gralton has issued a complaint on how the dogs are being neglected.”
Riverfarm’s people listened with dismay as Laken laid out the issue. They stared at the nervous sheep, who were under [Silence] spells. Yet they could hear Laken. He sat on his throne, in front of the mass of supplicants and the lambs.
This was the weirdest throne room deliberation he’d made thus far, but Laken pretended nothing was untoward about it. He leaned over the armrest of his throne and turned his head to the Sariant Lamb’s ‘leader’.
“I am aware the Sariant Lambs are intelligent enough to be helpful—that they chose not to be is their choice.”
The lamb tried to baah at Laken, but he spoke over it.
“That they haven’t been so far is disappointing. The Sariants do seem to have a kind of charismatic power over Riverfarm’s people…so I’ve decided to give us a break.”
“Your Majesty, if the [Witches] convinced you to—”
Ram began hotly, but Laken spoke over the man.
“No one is going to kill them. Be silent, Mister Ram. I am [Emperor] of Riverfarm. Not the Sariant Lambs. I do not intend to kill them. However, they will not be coddled—and they will be absent. For one week. In their place I have asked Gralton to lend me his dogs, to be affectionately cuddled and taken care of.”
The people of Riverfarm muttered, but more dogs didn’t offend most. Only the most strident dog-haters around would object to that.
“Where will the Sariants go?”
Laken smiled nastily. The little lambs looked like they were ready to head off to greener pastures, but Laken wasn’t letting them off that easily.
“Why, I have prevailed on our allies to take care of the lambs. Without eating or harming them. It should be a fun week.”
The Sariant Lambs looked left—then right—then realized who Laken meant. Pebblesnatch grinned. She smacked the ladle into her clawed hands and pointed to the object Gralton had given her with a laugh after she’d come up with it.
A little dog-sled. The Sariants stared in horror at the sled and Pebblesnatch.
She pointed. They began to wail, but they were under [Silence] spells and the [Witches] herded them off. Laken ignored the objections and Gralton’s dogs bounded forwards, reminding the spellbound people of Riverfarm there were other things than lambs in life.
In truth, Laken suspected the Goblins mostly left the Sariants alone, Pebblesnatch’s fun aside. They weren’t actually cruel.
They might be hungry, though. But the Sariants were charming enough and even if one or two vanished…well.
A week of shock therapy did the trick. A bunch of ragged lambs came back, with grass stains on their fur, no owners to comb them or feed them on pillows; they’d had to find food, slept under the rain and lightning that a few malicious [Witches] kept conjuring, and fought off bugs, ticks, and, apparently, a really hungry giant centipede.
Laken Godart met the herd of Sariants before they were allowed back into Riverfarm. The Emperor of the Unseen Empire knelt down as the lambs stopped, staring at him.
“Here is my deal, Sariant Lambs. I know you can understand me. I am happy to let you eat, reproduce—in safe numbers—and have people look after you all your lives. But not if you take up all their time. Everyone must work.”
Gralton had reminded Laken of that. The [Emperor] went on.
“You will want for nothing in my lands, but you will not bother the other pets. If you are helpful, you may stay. If you continue as you have the last few weeks? I will have to force you to leave.”
The Sariants glared at him. Laken smiled thinly.
“I’m sure you think you can persuade your owners to get you to stay, and I have no doubt they’d try to smuggle you in. Which is why if I have to exile you—I will declare open season on Sariant Lambs. Not among my people, you understand. I’ll simply let the [Witches] keep Riverfarm clean of pests as they see them.”
Witch Mavika, Hedag, Eloise, Agratha, Wiskeria, and the others stood behind Laken. They stared at the little lambs and the lambs…hesitated. Laken Godart got back up.
“Let’s get you to your owners. Think about what I’ve said, would you?”
He let them go, and turned back to Wiskeria. Laken Godart rubbed at his forehead.
“…This is so stupid.”
He walked off and went to sleep to put an end to this debacle once and for all. But—well.
The world had the last laugh.
[Natural Allies: Sariant Lamb obtained!]
[Pact: The Hard-Working Lamb (Sariant) obtained!]
The next day, Laken Godart followed some lambs around in his head. They helped tidy up the houses, nuzzled their owners, then lay down to sleep. A few followed their owners to work, and in general, lazed about.
“I suppose that’s as hard-working as a Sariant Lamb gets. But they’re not demanding attention or pampering.”
“You actually struck a deal with Sariant Lambs?”
Wiskeria tried not to laugh over breakfast. The [Emperor] regarded her, in his mind’s eye. For the daughter of Belavierr, she clearly found this normal, if funny. He shook his head, resigned.
“I don’t know what I find more offensive. The fact that I can strike a pact with Sariant Lambs, the fact that they are Riverfarm’s natural ally—or that the Skill isn’t new. Someone’s done this before.”
Wiskeria just shrugged.
“As long as you have the deal, we’ll abide.”
Laken Godart nodded and sighed. More of Gralton’s dogs had gone to stay, but the Sariant Lamb…he sat up and cursed.
“No! Absolutely not! Wiskeria, get Hedag and her axe!”
He shot to his feet, but it was too late. The growing empire of Riverfarm had fought over the seventy lambs. The empire, already into the tens of thousands, would not have to anymore.
Over the next three days, six more Sariant Lamb herds converged on Riverfarm. Laken Godart, the [Emperor] of lambs, decided to spend more time with Bismarck and Frostwing. Mossbears. Now, why couldn’t it have been Mossbears?
[Emperor Level 25!]
[Empire: Will of the Beasts obtained!]
Pets across the world. Useful and useless.
Pets, not Healing Slimes or skeletons. Pets—animals who had a unique relationship with their owners.
Like the Fortress Beavers of The Wandering Inn—they weren’t pets. Not exactly. They had been left behind, abandoned the [Garden of Sanctuary]. They were Defenders of the Cave, and the pond, however lovely a retreat, was simply too small for them.
Animals needed to work. The inn was abandoned by even the animals. Selys Shivertail did have a reason to appreciate the Fortress Beavers.
She stared at the groaning [Thief] who had been after the Heartflame Breastplate, still breathing heavily. It hadn’t even been in her apartments; it was always on lease, but idiot [Thieves] didn’t know that.
The Fortress Beavers sat on the Drake who had sixteen broken bones. Somehow, they had snuck into her apartment and then proceeded to rescue her. It turned out a knife might threaten a Drake—but not a Fortress Beaver whose fur was so powerful, Mrsha had a Skill based on it.
Fortress Beavers, the beavers who could build dams so impressive they stopped entire rivers. The same beavers who had once dammed up a river with a fortification so impressive that two hundred Drakes had failed to dislodge them and been beaten back by the den, hence the name.
Selys was going to buy a big house with a water feature for them. She watched as Beaver Gang slapped their tails, giving the bemused Watch a side-eye.
…But they weren’t pets. The Defenders of the Cave were separate from The Wandering Inn’s only true pet. She buzzed along, intelligent, but still someone’s beloved animal. Selys realized…she hadn’t seen Apista. Nor would she find the bee when she went to check the next day.
Not in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Not in the inn, tending to her hidden little honey nest. Nor about the inn, on the flower-hill. Apista was nowhere to be found, because she had left the inn.
They all had. The brave and foolish, leaving home to rescue that silly little Gnoll. The bee buzzed along, determinedly keeping up, avoiding the Gnoll [Sergeant] who kept swatting at her.
“Are you sure that thing’s part of the inn? It’s got a stinger longer than my finger!”
Sergeant Gna pointed at Apista. The bee did a barrel roll past her face. But she wasn’t high. There was no time for hedonism. Her little white creature was gone! Her pet, who fed her things. Apista had to get it back or Lyonette would be heartbroken.
The faithful bee buzzed ahead, ignored by most of the others. Octavia, fiddling with her supplies, ill-at-ease on the horse, Fierre with an umbrella, Fals and Garia, jogging along, Antinium, Goblins…
Only one of them glanced back at Apista and realized the bee meant business. Apista was angry. She was furious. She buzzed, a bee as large as your hand. Her dark stinger was poised and she was no ‘one sting bee’. She was a princess of bees!
She had been taking it too easy. Sitting complacent in the inn. That time was over. Someone had stolen Mrsha. That stupid hat-thing had hurt her.
It was time for the world to see Apista’s true form. Training wings off. She had to unleash her full potential.
The others mocked her, or tried to shoo her back to the inn. They didn’t understand. Apista wasn’t the weak one here. That was probably…uh…someone else!
It was Ulvama, the lone experienced spellcaster of the group who did a double-take and eyed Apista warily. She rode forwards and nudged Numbtongue, who was riding ahead, eyes set on the road.
“Hey. You see that? What that?”
She pointed warily at Apista. Numbtongue glanced back, irritated—then frowned. Both Hobgoblins peered at the Ashfire Bee. Apista gave them a salute with one antennae.
That’s right. Fly wary, I’m packing real heat.
Ulvama leaned back as Apista buzzed past her face. She stared at the tip of the bee’s stinger. The glittering tip that caught the light. Her jaw dropped as she recognized what it was.
The Naq-Alrama needle glittered on the tip of Apista’s stinger. Apista had tried to ‘glue’ the fragment of needle with beeswax to her stinger until she’d accidentally jabbed it in frustration. It had lodged in the already-sharp queen-bee stinger, and the tip of it poked out. Apista had decided it was an upgrade. She buzzed angrily as she scouted for someone to poke.
Oh boy, she was going to sting someone in the eye with this.
The most dangerous, anti-[Mage] bee in the world buzzed ahead.
After her beloved little friend.
Author’s Note: I am done! And I’m on break for two weeks.
I’m about to fly off, so this might be up tonight…or I have to figure out how to send it on-the-go. You see, I’m taking a longer break, which I feel bad about…but I’ll be on vacation!
Also, I’m dying. Of exhaustion, nothing else. I could really use a longer break, so I’ll take it in order to write better. I’ll be back in two weeks—not three!
Someday, I will take a three-week break. When I visit London or something, next year. Hint: I’m not from London. I know I fool you with my amazing accents and characterization of Trey and Teres…
I’m rambling, I’m tired, and this was a short chapter for once! Still…still 16,000 words. I’ll see you after some rest, and try to get that revised chapter out by the time I’m back. But it really is good to have a travelling vacation. I think. We’ll see how recharged I am later! Thanks for reading and remember—don’t leave your pets behind. They’ll rise up.
See you later!
Maid Erin by Sedeto!
A Frying Pan received by Andrea Parsneau, narrator of The Wandering Inn!
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Horns of Hammerad Sketches by pencilpine!