Mythological Creature Fact: The musk of the Demonsoul Skunk, the Balerosian native creature that deliberately sprays its victims to communicate mating instinct across a wide area, can last long enough to be two months old when scented by potential mates.
The mating pheromones of the adult female Wyrm can last up to three decades.
Sergeant Relc Grasstongue, former [Soldier] in the Liscorian army, current Senior Guardsman of Liscor in assigned posting to Cellidel…did not know why this was a salient fact.
He closed the book, one of the many bestiaries he’d checked out of the local library. Cellidel had a library. This was one of those books that had ‘fun facts’ about creatures on some pages littered with biological and other bits of information about monster species, terrain, and so on.
Relc imagined the average Silver-rank adventurer, screaming as something tried to break through the barricade at a cave’s entrance, didn’t have time to appreciate such facts.
“How do they know it lasts three decades? Do they keep sniffing them? Is it obvious or something?”
The Drake asked the really important questions as he scratched at his neck-spines. He frowned.
“Demonsoul Skunks. Now, there’s some bastards. Don’t they spray people for fun instead of to protect themselves? What was their bounty when some showed up? Like…fifty gold a head?”
He shuddered. The book wasn’t that interesting, though, so Relc pushed it under his uncomfortable bed and sighed. His cheap room in one of Cellidel’s apartment complexes for the transient was about as bad as the old one he’d had in Liscor.
However, the book came from a library.
Liscor did not have a library. Which city was better? Based on pure book-economics, it had to be Cellidel. They even let you check out any book you wanted.
One at a time, and you paid a deposit of two silver that you got back when you returned a book on time. You also had to be a citizen of decent standing—no major arrests. Relc, being a Senior Guardsman, didn’t have issues checking out the book.
Free reading, unless I don’t turn it in or mess it up. And I just bet those [Librarians] have [Repair Books] or something.
Relc thought that was neat. He wasn’t a huge book person, but he’d been bored and had heard of the library, a novelty for him. This book had been illustrated, so why not?
Cellidel had an entire class of [Librarian] that Liscor lacked. All their Skills and unique abilities were thus available to this city bordering the Great Plains to the south, which Liscor lacked.
Mind you, that was probably only the ability to track down people who didn’t return books. But it was still a big difference. On the other hand, if you were going to play that game, Cellidel didn’t have half as many [Guards] or [Hunters]. And not one of them had ever hunted a Hollowstone Deceiver.
It had no supply of fresh seafood except by trade and some fish from lakes, but mined ore was also an actual commodity, rather than a given for Liscor with their proximity to Esthelm.
Cellidel and Liscor could have traded fairly equally on a number of issues—probably why Relc had been assigned here by a well-meaning Zevara. Liscor had the magic door, though. And that changed everything.
Oh, yeah. There was one more thing that Cellidel had that Liscor lacked at the moment. Relc sat up and his gut clenched as he checked the time. The sun was setting; his experience told him he had to start getting geared up. He was now on night-to-dawn shift, one of the more dangerous shifts for [Guards]. And…a different Watch House. The Drake lay there, then swung himself onto his feet, groaning. He picked up his spear.
The other thing Cellidel had that Liscor did not was a ‘Gnoll problem’. Which was now a ‘Sellme problem’ given the unrest. What it had, when you boiled down to it, was a problem Drakes had with Gnolls.
And it ran from the Watch to the Council, all the way to the streets.
“Senior Guardsman Relc, reporting for duty!”
Relc’s life had been one of routine. He had been, in his own way, a [Peerless Master]. Not of spear-fighting, or soldiering, and certainly not guardsman…ing. Rather, he’d been good at going with the flow. Routine.
Two weeks ago, he’d fit into Cellidel with ease, despite having come from Liscor. He’d been able to daydream while walking his beat, and he’d practically been part of the regular Watch unless something big happened.
Now? Senior Guardsman Relc left his room, walked to the Watch House nearly forty minutes away from his apartment, the ‘Hot House’, as it was normally known for its highest arrest-rate and [Guard] turnover, and strode through the door.
He stood to attention as he opened the door. He didn’t miss a step. When he went to his locker, he slapped on the pieces of leather and metal, and was standing to attention before the others. Drakes and the few Gnolls eyed him side-long, whispering. Relc paid no attention.
The Watch Sergeant of this division of Cellidel’s Watch couldn’t find anything on Relc, no matter how hard she tried. And oh, she did try.
“As you were, Guardsman Relc. Your partner’s sick. So I am authorizing you for solo-patrol.”
“Yes, Watch Sergeant!”
She stared at him. She was a veteran of the Watch, and had scars to show for it. Relc had more. Her scars were from knife-wounds, even a stray spell from a wand. His came from war.
Even so, she was good at her job or she wouldn’t be here. Any other time, Relc would have taken her orders with only a bit of joking; you had to trust your Watch Sergeant.
In Cellidel, he trusted no one, and was rewarded for it. Case in point? His partner for the patrols had been ‘sick’, ‘missing’, ‘on holiday’, and so on for two weeks.
Senior Guardsman Relc was Cellidel’s least-popular [Guard] among the Watch. He had committed the biggest mistake you could make: going against the Watch. Like the army, the Watch protected its own. So if you weren’t one of your own…
Relc strode out of the Watch House. He marched down the street, not at the lazy [Guard]’s amble, but at a marching pace.
Some people turned as the big Drake strode along, his bright green scales flashing under the light. Relc was big, to the extent that Gnolls, who often outsized Drakes on average, still looked a bit thin compared to him. His arm-muscles were huge, and he had an ugly face—for a Drake. His tail especially. It was long enough, but too stout, without much of a curve or actual subtlety to it.
Relc had once explained to a confused Erin that for a Drake, it was like seeing a really ugly leg or butt or something. However, the Senior Guardsman had never traded on his looks. He had a huge smile when he grinned with all his teeth, and he maintained his scales. Normally he walked with a saunter, smelling of stall-food and maybe sweat or armor polish.
Today he marched along with his head on a swivel, eyes sharp, but not focusing too long on any one thing. Unfocused even; he had eyes in the back of his head too. Relc also had one more thing.
Over his plain leather armor, worn but carefully maintained and patched, and chainmail undershirt was a gleaming icon. A polished bit of metal, more ornate than the regular [Guards]’. A badge. It gleamed in a way that caught the eye. More than light allowed. Like…a promise. Trust.
[Guardsman of Trust]. [Wear My Integrity]. That was his new class, and one of his two new Skills. Relc walked down the street, on his own beat. However, he didn’t loaf around like normal. He hummed, and some people murmured—especially those of a furry persuasion.
They’d heard there was a new [Guardsman] in Cellidel. A new, new [Guard] who did things that had earned the ire of the rest of the Watch. Moreover, who had a class.
Someone you could trust. Of course, they also picked up what Relc was humming, which either added to or diminished the Drake’s reputation depending on how you looked at it.
“♫ Boom, boom, bum, dum, if you’re a Relc, you do it right. I’m a Relc! Relc, Relc, Relc—something something rhymes with elk. ♪”
How did Bird do it? Relc hummed to himself, pumping his arms and inhaling the fresh…evening…air. People were packing up, getting off the streets, groaning and tired from jobs worked all day.
By contrast, Relc had just woken up. He was used to changing when ‘morning’ was though, so he was fresh. The city of Cellidel was winding down. People were going to the bars, following the colorful paint on wood, or sounds of merriment and drink in the air. They were relaxing, taking their time off, and then slumbering for the next day.
…Of course, that was when work for the Watch picked up. People tired or who’d worked hard got snappy. Drink only exacerbated problems. So, amid the hubbub, the shouts of people navigating the street and driving wagons, talking, gossiping, laughing or arguing, you’d soon hear that familiar cry.
…Actually, no one ever shouted that. They usually shouted, ‘help’, or ‘I need a [Guard]!’. Or if they really felt eloquent, ‘dead gods, someone save me, I’m going to be murdered’!
Then the nearest patrol or numerous ones would run, or walk, or sprint if they heard the whistle that meant someone was in trouble wearing their uniform. Relc was used to it all. However, before he heard that cry, someone sought him out.
“G—Senior Guardsman Relc?”
He slowed. Turned. The Drake looked over at a nervous Gnoll. She was a young woman; she might not have even been two decades old. He blinked at her.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
She hesitated, looked around, and nodded as a few more people glanced his way. Relc saw her hurry forwards and lower her voice. He had to lean in to even hear it; possibly other Gnolls wouldn’t have heard her.
“I…I was told you are a good Senior Guardsman, who helps people.”
“I’m a Senior Guard. That’s what I do.”
The Gnoll girl hesitated again, and this time more palpably. Relc took pity on her.
“How can I help you, Miss? I’m here to help.”
She nodded a few times. Then a few more…she was clearly nervous. Apprehensively, she looked around, but then bit her lip. She could not keep it silent. So she leaned in, in a way Relc had grown to recognize, and whispered.
“I’d like to report a crime. Um…there’re some drunkards in a pub. Where I work. Only…well, they’re drunk.”
She looked at him. Relc straightened.
“Yes. Not violent, but we can’t get them out so the [Pub Owner] sent me to…”
Him. Not the nearest Watch patrol. There were many things in this scenario that Klbkch would have sagely observed were ‘anomalous’, whatever that meant. In Liscor, Relc would have agreed.
In Cellidel, it made a kind of sense. This young Gnoll had come to him at the request of the owner of the pub rather than him just shouting for a [Guard] patrol or flagging down one while the drunkards caused trouble.
Why? Well…Relc’s badge shone as he straightened.
“I can sort it out. Peacefully. Where’s the problem? No one needs to be arrested if I just whack a few people over the head or make them leave.”
He added that last part on purpose. The Gnoll looked relieved. She pointed.
“This way. It’s just…”
She began to lead Relc with such speed that he wondered if the drunkards were more of a problem than she’d let on. Well, if they were coming to him…he picked up the pace. The Gnoll [Server] was so relieved that she didn’t see Relc murmur or his own eyes and badge flash for a second.
He used a Skill, then followed her with confidence. He was alert, of course, wary, braced to act, but confident she wasn’t leading him into an alley or place where he’d be jumped by someone who wanted him dead.
His second Skill helped make sure that didn’t happen. Relc was a [Guardsman of Trust], and the badge conferred something onto him that made people like this young woman seek him out. His second Skill made sure he didn’t need to doubt his actions.
[The Law Upheld]. Relc could use it about four times per his entire shift, but it guaranteed she wasn’t lying. So he strode along.
As it happened, the drunkards were Gnolls. It was a Gnoll pub, in a Gnoll district, with an almost-exclusively Gnoll population. Relc doubled the number of Drakes in the pub by walking in.
“Senior Guardsman. Alright, who’s being drunk and disorderly?”
The Gnolls whirled. They had clearly been carousing and there had been a fight by the looks of it; Relc saw a table knocked over, and shards of pottery and food. So they might have been too loud and been asked to leave, or fought with someone else. There were a hundred scenarios and Relc didn’t care.
They tensed when they saw him.
“We didn’t do anything, Guardsman.”
One of the Gnolls was big. Relc recognized a [Laborer] when he saw one, perhaps someone who’d gotten lucky with [Enhanced Strength]. He also could recognize a [Drunkard] when he saw one.
Which wasn’t fun because they got lovely Skills that made them more dangerous when drunk. Well, some just got fun Skills like ones that let them buy more alcohol, or handle it better. Relc had known a [Guard] who had [Sober Up], a Skill that let him drink five minutes before going to work.
Great Skill. He patiently held up his claws and slipped into routine. In Liscor, it was simple. Someone causes trouble? You get warned. If the place has a [Bouncer] or security, they might handle it. If it’s a problem like this lot clearly were? Three Gnolls, tired, drinking too hard, and belligerent?
You called the Watch and they could be arrested or leave quietly. The trouble was in Cellidel…the Gnolls watching tensed.
“They’ve just been a bit disorderly, Guardsman. Nothing like a fight. Sherr, there’s the Watch here. Leave quietly.”
The [Pub Owner] himself spoke to Relc, then the three troublemakers. Relc had seldom seen the owner of an establishment defend the customers like that. Nor—he eyed the three drinkers and saw how tense they were—was he used to this level of hostility directed at his badge.
It played a different way in Cellidel. Relc had learned the routine, and didn’t like it. Say the [Guard]’s reasonable request was ignored, and he believed they still made it. Say the Gnoll [Drunkard]-[Laborer] spat at him and Relc gave an ultimatum, and he pushed out of his chair swinging a huge fist.
Well…Relc caught the fist and had the satisfaction of seeing the big Gnoll’s eyes go round. He didn’t often run into people with his Skill. Nor was he used to meeting someone who was stronger because he trained even with the Skill.
Relc’s punch almost laid him out. Sherr’s buddies stared at the Gnoll as he staggered back, reeling. Relc hadn’t actually knocked him out, but he’d certainly punched all the fight out in one go. A pretty tough guy; he’d have given the average [Guard] a fight if they didn’t trip him up or use a Skill. They froze, realizing how badly they’d underestimated this fight, as Relc turned to face the three.
Here was where Cellidel and Liscor differed. Relc looked at the trio. He did not slam Sherr into the table and arrest all three. Nor did Sherr break his jaw from another punch or three. They were not locked up. He dusted his claws.
“Alright. Pick him up and get lost. Don’t let me catch you causing trouble this week, got it? Or do any of you want a [Relc Punch]? Look out for it when you level up. Best punch there is.”
They stared at Relc. After a second, one of Sherr’s buddies shook his head.
“Sorry, Senior Guardsman. Sherr. Sherr, let’s go.”
They scurried out, tossing coins on the table when Relc ‘reminded’ them. The Senior Guardsman glanced around and all the Gnolls turned to their tables. He approached the [Pub Owner].
“All seems sorted. Give me a holler if you have more trouble.”
“Of course, Senior Guardsman…Relc. Thank you.”
The Gnoll glanced at Relc’s badge. He hesitated, a paw almost trailing to his side. His money pouch. Relc turned, and walked out of the pub before the Gnoll could make up his mind.
The entire event was a disgrace. Not to Relc; he’d acted perfectly in accordance with the law. And yes, punching drunkards was a-okay by Liscor’s standards. Oh, Klbkch would have probably talked them down, but it was fine guard-work by even Zevara’s standards.
It was the reactions of everyone else that stood out to Relc. How they expected the three to be cuffed and led out, possibly with injuries. How the [Pub Owner] had worried what Relc would do, and why they went for him.
I wonder if there are [Guards] like that? The ones whose names and faces you memorize?
It should not be like that. But it was. So Relc walked out of the pub. No routine, save for the one he employed. He shook his head.
“…This sucks. It’s way too much work.”
Then he marched back off onto his beat. The Gnoll [Server] was not the last person to approach him for a problem that night. Relc might have had all the subtlety of policing as a fist to the face. It beat Cellidel’s regular law enforcement.
And that was everything. That was why he was here.
Relc’s shift ended at dawn. The Drake returned to his rooms after signing out of the Watch House. The Watch Sergeant reviewed his report.
“Twelve reported crimes. One arrest.”
“Minor incidents, Watch Sergeant.”
Relc stared over her head, at one of her neck-spines in a way he knew was annoying. The Watch Sergeant tapped the papers on the table.
“Not worried about repeat offenders, Guardsman Relc?”
“Just saving us the cost of jailing them, Watch Sergeant. Crime doesn’t repeat itself after I punch it.”
Someone snorted. The Watch Sergeant herself nearly laughed, but replaced it with a glare. How dare you make me smile?
“Well…good. That will be all, Senior Guardsman.”
So he signed in his armor, and sauntered back to his apartment with his spear. On the way, he bought some food from a street vendor; one of those fried fruits of theirs they loved so much. Prelons. It was so good Relc went back for a second. Then he gave up and bought six and called it dinner as he went back, scarfing them down.
That was his new routine. Work, ignore the glares, carefully dole out the law while citizens waited for you to smash someone’s face in, and go home.
…Aside from the citizens’ apprehension, that was sort of like his life in Liscor when he was loafing around. Yet Relc felt tired. Exhausted.
“Ancestors. Klb, buddy, I could have really used you. Then everyone would glare at the Antinium, not me. Even if I smashed Pos’ face in.”
Relc sighed. The irony was, he was behaving just like Pos did. The Senior Guardsman—who was back at the central Watch House and had been sick until Relc was reassigned to his new area—had shown he could differentiate between crimes like all good [Guards]. There had been a [Thief], a street-kid, and he’d refrained from cuffing the poor brat.
In the same way, Relc did not need to arrest everyone he met. Warnings were enough. Punches did the job. An arrest cost the city money, so no [Guard] arrested every person who commited a crime.
The only difference was that Relc made no distinction between species and Pos did. It was the most strange, idiotic, aggravating thing Relc had run into.
“Reminds me of being on tour with the army.”
He grumbled as he stuffed another Prelon into his mouth. He could fit three at once, to the amazement of a little boy walking past. A little boy. He had fur, but he was a kid. Gnoll? Who cared?
All of Cellidel’s Watch, apparently. Relc kicked at a loose cobblestone. He’d always known there were cities like this.
Tribes like this too, to be fair. Cellidel had a fairly big Gnoll population by the standards of cities around here, but they were still a significant minority; Relc doubted they comprised even 15% of Cellidel’s population. However, tensions were high.
Gnolls stole more, got into trouble more, caused trouble more, and were generally more savage, having come from the tribes. Indeed, it was the Gnoll tribes who often clashed with the cities, sometimes leading to bloodshed, that led Drakes to say that kind of thing.
Relc had fought Gnoll tribes as well as Drake cities. He got it.
“Anyone who’s ever run into a Gnoll deer-trap and had ten of the bastards come charging out of the grass doesn’t like Gnolls after that, right, buddy?”
The stall-owner selling a lovely fruit juice gave Relc the side-eye.
Relc patiently waited for the Drake man to serve him Prelon-juice, with a generous helping of sugar mixed in. You could do everything with the damn things, apparently.
“Deer traps. Plains Gnolls. See, you get these [Trapsetters] who are also [Warriors]. When the Plains Gnoll tribes go to war, they love to help ambush patrols or even armies. They toss some of those down, you step on a camouflaged one with jaws like steel thanks to Skills, and there goes your leg. Or tail. Then they come out of hiding, shoot you with a few arrows, stab your buddies in the face, and retreat. Do it again until you want to hide behind the walls.”
One of the other customers was frozen mid-order. The stall owner blinked at Relc until the Drake put some coppers on the counter.
“I’m not saying I hate all Gnolls, but it really ruins your day. Of course, there are those bastards on the walls of enemy cities that flip their tails up at you, shoot arrows, and gloat just because they have the high ground. One city used to stockpile crap. Literal crap, and they’d hurl it at you out of catapults.”
He ambled off, grumbling. Damn Drakes. Also, to hell with Humans and their [Knights] who just loved to do cavalry charges. Goblins? Sneaky little bastards and those huge Hobs who raided innocent people. Drowned Folk? Damned [Pirates], striking now and then on the coasts. Don’t even get him started on hunting down Garuda [Raiders]…
Relc had fought countless species. He had lost friends in battles, even seen his l—even seen his w—even seen Embria’s mother die in battle. He had quit because he was tired of it. He could find a bad thing to say about every species in the world.
It took him nearly two weeks to figure out why Cellidel was still bad. When he did, Relc woke up in the middle of the day (that was when he slept) and shouted it.
“Because it’s not everyone! Aha!”
He had been thinking on the issue the entire time he was here. Relc was now ignored by the Watch—they had tried hazing him, and he’d promptly taken out two [Guards] who pissed on his armor and broken their teeth. They had tried disciplining him, but Relc could pass a truth stone test that he hadn’t broken the law, and he was a Senior Guardsman; it would be a problem if they brought up exactly why he was in trouble.
So they were ignoring him. Cutting him off from support. Relc had not yet blown his whistle for backup. He wouldn’t, because if he did…no one would come.
That was how you died. Even Relc, who was the best [Guardsman] in all of Cellidel and Liscor by virtue of his level and experience as a [Spearmaster] in Liscor’s army, would eventually run into trouble that he couldn’t solve alone. He would die, or be forced to leave. They wanted him gone. Watch Captain Terigrals had offered to send Relc back without so much as a spot on his record.
So why was he here? Relc lay awake thinking of it, sometimes. He supposed it was because…he felt like he was needed. He was doing good by not being a [Brute] with a club. By being a Liscorian [Guardsman]. By being Relc, Senior Guardsman Relc.
Only, how could he do more? How could he…fix the problem? Relc really wished Erin were here, or Klbkch. Or Zevara.
He was Relc.
What was he supposed to do besides hit things?
When he finished his shift, it was dawn, but Relc didn’t sleep right when he got back. True, he had a dinner, or sometimes lunch, but he was used to six, or even four hours of rest and then a battle after a day of marching.
He could go until midday before he slept. So how did he fill that time?
Well, spear-training. That was a classic. In the first days, Relc had practiced alone in the courtyard at dawn. Now? He still did, although it wasn’t right when he woke up. And this time…
“Senior Guardsman Relc! Look! Look, I have a Skill! [Spear Flurry]!”
A little Gnoll girl prodigy ran up first thing that morning and stabbed at the air with the blunt staff, a short spear with a very crude ‘point’. Then she blurred in a series of punishing jabs marred only by the fact she was a little girl less than ten years old.
It still probably hurt like hell. And it was a basic [Warrior]’s Skill across any fighting discipline. Not flashy, but it could kill if you had a steel tip and the enemy wasn’t wearing armor in that spot. Relc took one look at the Skill used by the kid, a rarity among children, and spoke.
He was going to be in so much trouble with the girl’s parents. But the girl, whose name was Hickery, assured him her parents were happy she had any Skill at her age.
Relc actually saw the two hurrying off to work, eating as they ran. They waved at him and he waved back, smiling guiltily. He didn’t comment on letting their daughter stay here alone; he’d been raised like that. If there were [Carers] in Cellidel, he doubted they could afford them, so maybe Relc was the ‘safe’ option?
“Good job, Hickery.”
He ruffled her hair. She beamed, and Relc saw more of his students, Gnolls and Drakes, but given the apartment’s residents, mostly Gnolls, waiting to join him, or practicing the spear drills he’d shown them. He saw one he recognized on sight.
“Vok. Look! She’s got a spear Skill! Isn’t that amazing? I’m amazing for teaching her too, obviously.”
Vok glanced at Hickery, who was obviously beaming, not realizing how that made the Gnoll twice her age feel.
Relc noticed and slapped Vok on the back.
“Nice Skill. Practice matters more, though. Although…Hickery, I bet your [Spear Flurry] only goes four times, no matter how much you try to use it, right? What’s the recharge time?”
“Tw—three hours. And it’s only four!”
Relc had counted the strikes, which were quick. He nodded and the kids and young adults clustered around.
“See, three hours means you get to use it once a fight. Not even more than once a battle. And it’s not faster. I can stab better; it’s just good for you. Now, if you level up you get more stabs and you can use it better. If you build muscle? Same. And if you get really good, you get to do this. Watch—[Consecutive Spear Flurry]!”
His audience stepped back as Relc began to jab at the air—then the enchanted tip blurred and began to lance an invisible target. It was far faster than Hickery’s strikes, and…Vok blinked.
He couldn’t even count how fast Relc was striking, but he was over eleven…then thirty…
“No way! He’s still attacking!”
Relc’s arms burned and he stopped after fifty eight. Panting, he leaned on his spear.
“Get it? I burn stamina. I don’t have to stop unless I get tired. That’s how you hold off a charging line of enemies.”
He’d used it many times, to make attackers back off or run into a spear through their chests. Yet it had downsides. Relc slapped his chest.
“It burns energy like nothing else, though. Probably three times as much as it would normally. Also, it’s slow.”
Vok was incredulous. Relc winked at him.
“Slower than [Triple Thrust]. That’s three strikes at the same time. Spear-skills are all about knowing what works best. Believe me; I know a Senior Guardsman, this guy Jeiss, who could take off my arm if I tried [Consecutive Spear Flurry] on him. What you do is you build Skills for every scenario.”
“Can we get that Skill instead of just Hickery?”
Someone whined, jealous. Relc shrugged.
“Sure. You think you get it from luck? Practice your thrusts! Come on! Who’s doing a thousand a day? That’s basic. If you want to level…”
He began exhorting the children, many of whom took to the drills with more discipline than you would have guessed. But these were bored street-kids. And they were levelling. They saw how good Relc was.
And some…Relc glanced sideways at Vok, who was practicing with a determination that went beyond Hickery’s desire to improve and enjoyment. He practiced with a frown, hard, sweating at it.
He wanted to protect himself. Himself, his friends, his family, his neighborhood. Relc could understand that most of all.
The Drake practiced with the kids, watching them, and noting who came and who didn’t stay. He mostly watched the older ones; already, one group had been arrested for having the practice spears he now collected after the dawn session and entrusted to Vok. The Watch did not like potential [Spearfighters] being levelled.
Was he doing good here? Was he needed? Well, in another time, Relc thought this would have been a pleasant diversion. He would have stuck around for a month, gotten frustrated, punched some idiot, and been sent to Liscor and that would be that.
Cellidel had problems with Gnolls. Grass was green. That was how common it was, and Relc might have given up and gone to his city he missed so much. To Erin…he closed his eyes.
Hickery stabbed him in the stomach as he failed to block one of her stabs. He shrugged, rubbed at the spot, and went back to absent-mindedly blocking her. He couldn’t do it blind anymore; she was a natural.
In other times, Cellidel’s system would just make life miserable for the Gnolls, many of whom might quit the city or just…endure. Endure, until they tired or snapped or left or were killed. However, these were not normal times. Cellidel had met the balancing force to everything the Drakes had. The thing that made the streets tenser, that put Relc’s scales on edge. Why he stayed. Cellidel had a nightmare that was bringing all these things to light. And that nightmare was called Sellme.
An observer was watching the spear drills. As he always did. He was a pale white Drake, his clothes those of a [Scribe]; neat, tidy, as white as his scales, which had only the slightest hints of yellow and pink.
Sellme was small. Shorter than Selys, even. He was slight and young; if he stood next to Relc, he looked like an actual child. His face, though, was often combative for someone of his stature, and when he was angry, his slitted rose eyes flashed and his tail would slap the ground.
He smelled of an earthy cologne, the kind of thing you wore to hide real bad smells. Not of acrylic paints, and his robes never had any color. It was a good guise; if Relc hadn’t seen him before, he would have never guessed that this was the [Magical Painter], Sellme.
“Yo, Tesy. Want to pick up a spear today? We’ve got light ones! You could be pretty good!”
Relc shouted. The young Drake man made a face.
“No, thank you. I need my hands for writing!”
Drawing. Relc wondered if there were traces on Tesy’s scales which made him reluctant to practice. Then again, it could just be Relc. Relc was a [Guardsman]. Tesy was Sellme and he had opinions on the Watch. He seemed to like Relc.
“Hey, I was on the beat all night. Not actually beating more than a few [Drunks]…”
Relc winked at Vok. He turned his head, pretending to look around.
“…Anyone seen a new Sellme? It’s getting pretty hot on the streets.”
That was putting it lightly. Each painting caused a bigger scene. Sellme exposed corruption and there was a lot of it in Cellidel, like every city. [Merchants] had fled, laws had been passed, and the Watch was being screamed at by powerful people who did not want to be the target of the next Sellme painting. Monsters were being unveiled…often to mob justice.
People had died because of what Sellme had drawn on a wall, or a bridge, or even the street. Yet what they really wanted, many people, what was boiling under the surface, was the Gnoll conflict with the Watch. Relc had already seen large protests that the Watch had broken up—always when he was off-duty.
He felt bigger ones might be coming. And if they did? Well. Apparently entire cities had gone up in flames thanks to Sellme.
“Not today, but everyone thinks it’ll be soon.”
One of the Gnolls called out. Relc glanced around.
“Aw, come on. I was hoping to hear about the latest one before I slept. Weren’t you, Tesy?”
He glanced at the Drake. Tesy rolled his eyes.
“Who pays attention to Sellme all the time, Guardsman Relc?”
“I sort of like him.”
“Really, you? You who—”
The Drake bit back something. Relc grinned.
“I don’t like that people get hurt, or when people are attacked because he draws something. Or when people think they caught Sellme.”
Tesy’s eyes flickered.
“No. That’s terrible. But at least monsters are getting what they deserve.”
“Yeah. And sometimes people die because the Watch didn’t arrest them and instead that person and everyone in the way got torn apart. I mean, hey, the Watch didn’t do anything. That’s our bad. But there’s a lot of angry people.”
“They’ve got reasons to be angry. I haven’t been here long and even I can see it. I got arrested, remember? Some Watch [Thugs] beat me up?”
“Sure, sure. I’m new to Cellidel too. Hey, I was even there. I’m just saying…you know.”
The two barely looked at each other as Relc whirled his spear about in his drills and Tesy leaned on the balcony of the third floor. So much went unsaid. Did Tesy hear it too? Relc smiled.
If he arrested Sellme, the problem didn’t go away. Sellme was not the problem.
But was he making it worse or better? Relc didn’t know. He might have arrested Sellme if it was Liscor, but the Drake reminded him of Erin. Relc stared up at the sky as his spear never faltered in its course around him.
He missed Erin.
Relc had been the absolute last person to hear what had happened to her. In the same way…Lyonette forgot to tell Embria, who obviously didn’t tell him what had come from Chandrar.
Relc had no idea at all about Mrsha, or anything else. He’d just been wondering what that little rascal was up to, and wishing he’d taught her some spear-drills. Then again, Lyonette would have killed him. Mrsha got into enough trouble as it was.
Wing Commander Embria and Zevara had decided not to distract Relc.
They came out of the wilds. The savage infiltrators. The untamed, unwashed masses. Criminals and fools all.
A plague upon Cellidel. A plague brought by the ‘so-called’ injustices. By Sellme. By the time the Watch noticed, it was too late. Of course, they tried to bar the gates against the rest of their kind. Too late once more. The rot was in the city.
The first [Anarchists] arrived as Relc was finishing up his day. Spear practice over, he just ambled about, visited the sites, returned that weird book, and enjoyed his life. He did not know that Sellme’s followers had arrived.
They came through the gates, bypassing the appraisal Skills. They weren’t one class; they were [Rebels] and [Dissidents], [Anarchists] being a high-level class. They were an army, of a kind, but not one that the Watch would know to look for.
They were not all Drakes. They were not all Gnolls. They were young, many of them. They tended towards clothing that could be pulled over the head; hats or hoods for preference, or masks, scarves.
And as armies went, well, this one had no scouts. It didn’t reconnoiter. They knew what they were here for.
“Fuck Cellidel! Down with corruption! Down with the walls! Sellme’s here to expose the truth, and we’re going to burn down the damn Council and all these money-grubbing assholes!”
Relc passed by a young Drake woman in the streets. He watched, yawning, as she shouted to a crowd of passersby.
Senior Guardsman Relc did nothing about her. He was off-duty. One of the [Guard] patrols did come striding over as the young Drake came shouting.
“You’re all blind! Blind like Follower Chickens! Wake up, people! Can’t you see how bad it is?”
“Hey! Who’s shouting nonsense?”
The [Guards] spotted her and strode over. Quick as a flash, the Drake turned and bolted. She was quick! She pushed into the crowd, and Relc actually lost her.
“Camouflage Skill. Huh.”
He stared at the hooded individual who pushed past the [Guards], who rolled their eyes, assured the person who’d complained they’d keep an eye out, and walked on. Sloppy, but then again, they weren’t good at anti-detection measures like Relc. Besides, it was hot, it was just some idiot shouting…
That was all Relc thought about it. He had no idea this was occurring a hundred times in different places at the same moment. By the end of the day, Watch Captain Terigrals would get reports of nearly four dozen pieces of unauthorized ‘art’ on walls with insults against Cellidel’s governing body, or Sellme-type works. People shouting insults and slander. Someone attempting to incite a mob.
Relc met with his personal dealer right before he went to sleep. He’d just been cruising one of the market-streets when someone flagged him down.
“Hey. Relc. Is that Relc? Drake’s Ancestors, I didn’t expect to find you here!”
A Human man trotted over, waving a hand. Relc glanced up. It was rare to see a Human, and true to form, the only person who regularly walked Drake cities was a [Merchant].
“Is that Bilt? Hey!”
He grinned, and waved a claw. The two met as a few [Merchants] glanced over. Bilt grinned.
“I was just wondering if I was going to head north to Liscor again! Long time no see! What happened? Decided to move cities?”
“Long story. You know, reassigned. I’m here for a bit.”
Bilt was a savvy [Merchant]. Not the highest-level one, and his merchandise was a bit…eclectic. However, he was canny enough to know when to drop a subject.
“Fair’s fair. Everyone likes to travel. It’s amazing we met! I was just leaving…my instincts are telling me now’s the time. Say, that’s not why you’re here, is it? This Sellme business. Bad stuff. Opportunities, but bad stuff.”
He lowered his voice. Relc saw Bilt’s travelling companions, some he actually recognized, packing up. Bilt often travelled with other Humans, [Traders], combining their security and potential to attract crowds. He saw a woman with a nose-ring glancing around, as if her [Dangersense] was going off.
“Like you wouldn’t believe. Listen, Relc. You’re a good customer and I know you’re the Watch, but we’ve seen Sellme across a dozen cities. Often imitators, but this looks like the real thing. Well, that’s why we’re here…but it’s time to go. No more opportunity.”
“Getting a Sellme! What, you think their name is a joke? I was trying to see if we could pull off one of their art pieces, but the damn brick walls…do you know how hard it is to tear down a wall? Let alone cart it, or pay someone for it? Anyways, we got one piece.”
He nodded at one of the illustrations Relc had seen; the one with the corrupt Merchant’s Guild. It was lying on the back of a wagon, having literally been taken as a huge chunk of masonry. Relc shook his head.
“You [Merchants] are weird.”
“Says the Drake who lives in a city that floods every year. I got stuck in Liscor one spring. Never again. I thought the walls would implode every second I was there. Nightmares.”
Bilt was afraid of water. Hence travelling from north to south Izril by land despite the Bloodfields and other hazards. However, he was connected, and as he talked with Relc, his eyes sharpened.
“Actually, now that I have you…maybe this is coincidence, Relc. Because I just happen to have, er…the good stuff.”
The Senior Guardsman had been yawning, wondering if he had the energy to have a drink with the [Merchant]; maybe even send a letter to Liscor if Bilt was headed there direct. It would be cheaper than a City Runner. Now, though, his eyes sharpened. He leaned in.
“You don’t say? The…good stuff? What kind of quality are we talking?”
A few customers passing by eyed the Drake and Human. Bilt gave them the side-eye. He edged over.
“I’ve never gotten finer. Nor have I unloaded any of it. I’ve got six. And you’re one of the few people who I’d give access to. I have them in the back. They’re hot. Fresh.”
“Fresh? As in—new?”
“New as new, Relc. Believe me, once you get a taste…”
Someone went over to inform the [Guard] on duty there was some kind of illicit activity going on. The Drake glanced over, on alert—spotted Bilt, and rolled her eyes.
So did one of the [Merchants] who knew Bilt and Relc. She watched them go into the back of Bilt’s wagon and rubbed at her face.
“What are they doing, exactly?”
One of her customers asked nervously. The woman sighed.
“Puzzles. They’re talking about puzzles. Damn freaks.”
Bilt was an odd merchant. He sold any number of things, but he also sold blacksmith’s puzzles, little trick locks, and the like. He had [Thieves] as well as upstanding citizens who loved his merchandise.
However, he refused to sell his most high-quality products to anyone but a ‘true mind’, as he put it. Someone who could solve his puzzles and didn’t cheat by asking for the solution. Relc had demonstrated his acumen, so Bilt led him into his personal trailer, past the weak little wire puzzles, wood block games, and into the back.
“No one’s solved it so far. I have six. And they’ll cost you nigh on four gold, Relc.”
“Four gold? Am I made of money?”
Relc was appalled. He clutched at his money pouch. Bilt held up his hands.
“It cost me nearly two gold per puzzle! And I do have to get it shipped and earn some money! Believe me, Relc. I’m taking a loss on these, almost. They’re just for the best. You’re one. I’ll even offer you credit.”
“Well…okay. So this is new? How’d you get ahold of it? Is it a Wistram? A Samal? A Destrui? Did you get your hands on a Destrui?”
Relc named some of the best puzzle-makers across the world. You knew the companies or individuals, like the famed puzzle-maker from Baleros.
“Hah! You think I have six of his? No, this is a new player, by which I mean an old puzzle-maker. She’s back, though. Feast your eyes on this. The Archmage of Izril just came out with her Gizeal Puzzle!”
Bilt hefted a huge cube up and Relc stared at it. He owned a lot of puzzles. Wire ones, wooden locking mechanisms that you twisted just so. He even had a few magical puzzles, where the trigger was even speaking or sunlight. They were devilish, but he had gotten onto Bilt’s list by solving four.
This? This was a cube with transparent glass and metal panels. A glowing orb inside, but one panel was rotating at all times. He saw, as the metal plate moved, an interior glass design of intricate metalwork, pins, and sliding mechanisms—before it was obscured.
There were three keyholes on the cube, all far different from standard ones. He saw a large cylindrical hole at the base, and what might be a sliding panel on the side. His pulse skyrocketed. His claws trembled, like a [Drug Addict] seeing a chest full of powder.
“Bilt. This is the good stuff. This is only four gold?”
“It’s a mystery. I think the Archmage of Izril is putting these out as a sampler. She only made a hundred; I was on her list. So she gives these out, hooks people in, and they shell out for the next one. She’s been out of the business for ten years, but they said she was the best. What about it, Relc?”
The Drake was already opening up his money pouch. He paid one gold and two silver—all he could afford, and cutting into his food budget—and carried the cube back to his room. He had a project.
By the time he had to sleep—two hours past when he should—Relc had discovered the sliding panel revealed an inner mechanism, a fourth lock. There was even a lockpicking set attached and he worked at it for a good twenty minutes before he realized—of course! The lockpicking set didn’t match any of the four locks. So he inserted a curiously wavy pick of bronze into one of the tiny holes and opened up a slot with a green lens.
Then he had to go to sleep, but he was beaming as he did.
“So, it’s got this green lens and it turns out that you have to shine light through onto this glass section for it to pop out a part of a puzzle. But, see, you have to have solved these two other pieces for the three to join up. So it’s a puzzle in a puzzle you have to assemble…”
The Watch Sergeant stared at Relc as he stood for muster. The other [Guards] had fingers in their ears.
She tried to get him to leave twice before he went.
…And I found out that it wasn’t actually sunlight I needed, or moonlight. See, to get the green lens thing to activate the mechanism, you need candlelight! Firelight! I have no idea how you do that kind of thing.
Anyways, once I did that, I was turning it over and over and that’s when I realized there was this little ‘clicking’ sound. So I thought—huh, I’ve done puzzles like that before! I realized you have to turn it around in the right order to get something inside to move. Like a little ball? I’ve gotten to left, right, back, back, up, left—but I keep messing up. Maybe it’s a diagonal?
IT WAS A DIAGONAL. Also, kid! There’s this glowing orb in the center! I think it’s a prize or something; there is no way this was worth two gold, or even four! I think this Archmage is a real puzzle-person. I’ve been up late and I think the lockpicks are meant to do more than that one part I wrote about.
See, maybe you dip them in water or something to get a code? This is like, combining every puzzle I’ve ever had. There was one where you dipped a tool in water in order to get a secret code you entered…
Wing Commander Embria stopped, with her claw at the paragraph, and skimmed down. Then she turned the page. And the second page.
“Nothing. He wrote you three pages on the blacksmithing puzzle before he got to me, Watch Captain?”
Zevara and Embria were comparing notes. The Watch Captain looked amused.
“At least he’s got a hobby. I never knew Relc did blacksmithing puzzles. Is he good?”
“I think he solved a Destrui puzzle once.”
“A famous puzzle. Something like ‘there are less than ten thousand people who have ever solved it ever’. This [Merchant] gave him a bottle of wine. I think he got put on a list of people who…like puzzles.”
“Huh. I had no clue.”
That was the kind of dialogue that marked out the amateurs from the real puzzle-heads who knew what that meant. Embria went back to reading her father’s letter. She was glad. Her stomach still hurt. Two weeks ago, she’d received a simple message.
I know what happened to Erin.
Senior Guardsman Relc had not returned to Liscor. He had…a new class, and a new calling. This was the happiest letter she’d gotten from him. She knew he had some friends, and a lot of problems and worries, although Liscor had its fair share of worries she hadn’t told Relc about.
The army had left and was heading south. Liscor’s new army, that was. Hectval had made it clear they weren’t going to relent. Embria’s 4th Company had stayed for security, another problem…
Well. She’d write back. She kept reading. Zevara’s lips moved as she read another aspect of Relc’s puzzle-solving battle.
“There’s a way to hum and open a slot? He’s making this up, isn’t he?”
“See? I told you! Hum like—huiiighghg—and it opens!”
With a pop, a slot shot out and nearly punched Tesy in the face. The Drake [Painter] recoiled and Vok shot back in his seat. Relc, beaming, offered around one of his two cups.
“Anyways, who wants water? I can’t afford more than Prelons and water, but it’s great, isn’t it?”
Vok and Tesy sat in Relc’s room for a morning chat. It was a bit of a custom; none of them had many friends, Vok being the most social of the lot and having grown up in Cellidel. Tesy? He kept to himself and Relc’s buddies were in the Watch. Since that had soured, they had ended up sharing some meals or drinking or talking.
“I knew it. I’ll bring some wine over.”
Tesy sighed. He got up and came back five minutes later with a bottle of wine. And snacks. The Drake had more money than the other two and watched as Vok and Relc fought over some dried Prelon chips. Truly, anything could be made of them.
“So you really like this cube, huh?”
Vok tapped the cube. Relc hugged it.
“It’s the greatest thing ever. So what are we doing? Cards?”
Tesy had a deck of magical cards, which awed Vok. Relc had played with such decks. He would have questioned where Tesy got the money, but Sellme also had dice, and other games to pass the time.
“Sure. What are we wagering?”
“Weeeeeell…if Tesy brings out those nice spicy chips, we could all use them as money.”
“Ancestors! Am I buying all the food?”
The Drake grumbled, but soon they were bidding on chips, and the winner—Vok—got to eat them and then share them as he gulped water. That was fun. Relc was having fun.
“There he is! Kill him!”
The Drake ran. Relc saw him charging and tensed, but the [Plumber] just dove behind the wall of [Guards]. They had tower shields, batons. The mob slowed, but only just.
“This is an order from the Council! Disperse!”
Relc saw something flying at him and raised his shield. He blocked something—a Prelon. The sewer manager for Cellidel cowered as a [Guard] dragged him back.
Sellme’s latest painting had revealed that the sewers—a Drake city phenomenon compared to a lot of Human ones, which still used chamber pots in many places or conventional, dug outhouses—had not been suffering from ‘bad luck’. Rather, as the colorful illustration of a Drake dropping dung onto passersby as he lined his pockets with gold indicated, it had been deliberate neglect.
Corruption, again. Countless streets had been plagued by backups, rats, and the like for years. Bad smells, even sewage getting into the well water.
They wanted that Drake dead. It was the Watch’s job not to let that happen.
This was the third protest Relc had seen so far. Each time, it was a Sellme that kicked it off. Even Liscor got this kind of thing.
Usually, the Watch held the line. With big shields and armor, a mob didn’t generally pick a fight with them. They just shouted insults, threw things like the Prelons, and got tired after a while. The Sewer Manager would be arrested, the matter investigated.
This time was different. The [Guards] stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Relc, his bad blood forgotten, at least for now. No one wanted a gap in their lines to incite the crowd.
They were outnumbered. Barely three dozen [Guards] and a few hundred angry citizens. The Watch was slowly moving back, because of course what terrified them most was being surrounded.
Terrified? Yes, Relc sensed it on the other [Guards]. They were tensed. Worried. This was not what they liked; every single veteran had seen what a mob could do to you in seconds if you were swarmed.
Relc was more tense than afraid. He’d seen worse. Even so…his [Dangersense] was muttering in his earhole. This time, something was off.
The last two riots had been shouting, a few people who nearly approached the line of guards and had to be warned off. Then showers of rotten Prelons, a few stones before the [Guards] barked and kids or idiots fled.
This time? The Prelon came first out of the crowd which Relc blocked. Not a bad throw; just a lobbed fruit. Something to vent anger. But then his [Dangersense] purred and Relc heard a voice.
“Look at them, protecting this monster! Damn the Watch! Damn the walls!”
From out of the crowd, a figure in a hood jumped up and threw an object. Properly threw one, with all the force and speed of a rock leaving a slingshot. Relc saw a whirling bottle flash past his head, strike a shield, and shower the [Guards] with glass.
Someone shouted in the ranks of the Watch. It was a cry of surprise. Fear? Relc saw a shield lower.
“Don’t lower your—”
He saw a second rock shoot out of the crowd and hit a [Guard]. But for the helmet, it would have hit them right across the brow.
Someone in that crowd had a throwing Skill. Relc saw the [Guard] stagger. He shoved someone aside and yanked the shield up.
“Heads down! Someone’s tossing danger!”
He shouted. The Watch backed up further, but now a shower of more dangerous debris was coming out of the crowd. Relc guarded his face, ignoring the impacts on his armor. He had [Iron Scales] and [Thick Skin]; there was little they could do to him, even if whoever had the best arm hit him square-on. The rest of the [Guards] weren’t so lucky. A glancing hit hurt if it got you, and someone was clever.
Glass bottles exploded and the shrapnel didn’t cut you if you wore armor often, but it was scary. Then someone threw another bottle and it struck the top of a shield over their heads. Relc heard the difference in the sound before a [Guard] shouted.
“What the f—”
Relc smelled the urine as it showered down. The [Guards] shouted in disgust and fury. Then someone snapped.
A Drake pounded out of the line of [Guards]. Relc cursed. Someone else shouted.
The [Guards] hesitated—then charged after her. The crowd saw the enraged [Guardswoman] coming their way, stinking of urine. They hesitated. Someone threw one last stone that bounced off her chestplate, but the crowd was full of angry civilians.
Mostly. Three figures among them were last to toss what they held and run. They all had hoods, and Relc saw the rest of the crowd take to their heels first. Those last three, though…they were who made his [Dangersense] tingle.
“We have [Rebels] in the city. So-called [Dissidents], and [Anarchists], even. Sellme’s lot. No one breaks rank, understood?”
Watch Captain Terigrals himself came to address Relc’s Watch House. He walked down their lines as they stood to attention. He even met Relc’s eye—before glancing past him.
The mob had broken this time in front of the angry [Guards]. But it had been close. If Glorisa hadn’t gotten them to come after her, or they’d been a bit angrier? The Watch Captain stopped in front of her and poked her in the chest.
“No one breaks rank. You go after them, and you endanger everyone.”
The Drake’s scales were dark with her blush.
“But Watch Captain, they were throwing bottles of piss! What are we supposed to do, just take it?”
“—There are a lot of rabble rousers in the city, Guardswoman. We will not provoke more violence, understood?”
“We’re not the ones starting this, Watch Captain.”
One of the [Guards] protested. Terigrals held up his claws.
“I am aware of this, but the Council is concerned. You all just raise your shields. Ignore it. We’ll get through this; I have our best Senior Guard patrols dedicated to tracking down these people, and Sellme.”
The [Guards] murmured, before being called to order. Catch Sellme? It was true their troubles might end, but no one had caught the [Magical Painter] yet.
Nor had anyone asked Relc to do that. He still stank. They all did. The Drake fidgeted as Terigrals walked past him.
“We’ll get through this. There are some criminals in the city. We hold the line, we do not go after civilians and give them ammunition, and they’ll calm down. It’s people like Sellme who do this.”
And the Sewer Manager. Relc held his tongue. But he couldn’t help but wonder. Was it just the bad apples, the bad Prelons in the city being targeted by Sellme? Or was this unearthing all of the problems that had always been waiting for a moment like this?
“You stink, Relc. Ancestors—Vok, open a window.”
“I got hit by a bottle of pee. Someone tossed it at us when we were covering the Sewage Manager. People wanted to kill him. Another Sellme painting. Seems like there’s only trouble when one appears.”
Tesy glanced up over their game of cards as Vok went to open the window. His tail curled up and so did his lip.
“And you did? Typical. That Sewage Manager let hundreds of people go without proper plumbing for weeks. People got sick thanks to him!”
“So we should just let him die? Mind you, I think someone in the Watch kicked him in the guts. We don’t like him, but we had to arrest him. That’s how the law works. Or something.”
“Or something. You’re a Senior Guardsman. Why didn’t anyone do anything before?”
“I think the Council was looking into it.”
Relc studied his cards. He plucked one, tossed it down. Tesy instantly trumped it and Relc sighed.
“A fine job they did.”
Vok glanced from player to player as Relc and Sellme played for coppers. He studied his hand. Relc shrugged. He glanced at Tesy over the top of his cards. He toyed with one.
“Someone in that crowd was throwing some pretty dangerous stones. Good arm. I hear there are [Rebels] in the city. People who support Sellme. We could have gotten hurt.”
The white-scale Drake hesitated. His claws held a card up before he played it, slowly.
“Sellme’s got a lot of followers. So I hear. They hate the Watch. You should be careful, Relc.”
“Me? I’m Relc. No one’s taking me down. All I’m saying is—we didn’t do anything wrong. Why does someone have to throw bottles of pee at us?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong today.”
Relc slowed in picking up a slice of buttered bread, his dinner. His eyes focused on Tesy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“So uh, it’s been nice weather of late, right? Nearly turning to fall.”
Vok tried to interject, playing two cards hurriedly that joined into one as they glowed. Tesy ignored the comment. So did Relc. The [Magical Painter] leaned forwards, tail lashing agitatedly.
“Why did no one fix the problem with the Sewer Manager before? He was investigated? The problem was here for months before Sellme arrived. Over a year and a half! Where’s the Watch when you really need them? Sure, you stop small crimes. What about actual gangs getting people killed? There’s a p—”
He hesitated. Relc’s head moved up sharply. Tesy went on, claws suddenly tight on his cards.
“There’s a new Sellme on that corner with the domed building. Brand new.”
Vok and Relc’s heads rose. Vok blinked, excited. Relc just looked at Tesy.
“What’s it about?”
“Crime. Some [Guard] looking the other way and lecturing a low-level [Thief] while a real monster beats down someone for coin. You know that section of the city? The one past the big [Butcher]’s shop down—whatever they call it—Brassflame Way?”
Relc’s pulse was steady, but it upticked a bit.
“I know it. Tough neighborhood.”
Tesy smiled bitterly.
“Well, it’s not patrolled by the Watch nearly as much as other places, is it? The Gangs rule there. Where’s the Watch then, Relc?”
The Drake slowly picked up his bread, and bit into it. He chewed, slowly, determinedly.
“The Gangs are dangerous. Good [Guards] die every year—in Cellidel and Liscor—fighting them. You want to tell a patrol to go into a place where someone will take a crossbow and aim at them? We keep the peace, but the Watch isn’t the army.”
“Well, they should send the army in, then.”
“The Gangs’ll go to ground. They’ve done it before. If you send a huge force, they run. Small ones? They take shots at you. You have to work at it. That’s why—”
Tesy snapped. The Drake hurled his handful of cards at Relc.
“Well, you’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you? This is why Cellidel has problems, Relc! This is why Sellme’s here!”
Relc brushed a card off his lap as the Drake stormed out of the room. He sat there, head lowered, staring at the last piece of bread, the heel. He only moved when he heard a sound. Vok nervously, nervously laid down a card, fidgeting.
Relc had completely forgotten the young Gnoll was here.
Senior Guardsman Relc thought about Tesy’s argument later that evening, during his patrol.
Obviously, Tesy was young so Relc had let him storm off. Throwing cards in someone’s face wasn’t exactly the most mature way of ending an argument. Then again…he had a point and he didn’t.
Organized crime plagued every city. From Terandria to Chandrar…even Rhir, although Relc bet they kept their heads down. The fact was that the Watch could never stamp them out.
Maybe in that nation everyone was talking about—Khelt—maybe you could. But you’d need eyes on every street, and the willingness to kill anyone who broke the law—or deal with it some other way.
The Watch? Well, here was how to look at it. Relc was the highest-levelled [Guard] in all of Liscor. In all of Cellidel. Perhaps all of Izril, frankly. No one besides a Watch Captain was close to his level, and he had two classes…three, now, with [Guardsman of Trust] that were high-level. A Level 20 [Senior Guard], which was the baseline requirement for the rank, could not run up against the worst criminals in Izril.
A Level 40 [Thug] like those Gentlemen Callers could wipe out two squads of Senior Guards. Did Tesy want them to risk being slaughtered? Rather, if this was the problem, it wasn’t that the Watch didn’t care, it was that they couldn’t do what they wanted to.
That was it. The Watch could take on the Gangs, but it just wasn’t practical to ask them to. Besides which, everyone knew the Gangs had laws of their own. They knew when to lie low—the smart ones, at least. In a sense, they were better to deal with than a bunch of random criminals; you could always smack the gang because they were a target.
“I wish I could think of these things when I’m arguing! Argh!”
Relc growled to himself. Mister Soot was a good example. Liscor had a good Watch. It had a better Watch than Cellidel’s, and Mister Soot had been there as long as Relc had been in the Watch. He was just…untouchable. He kept his illicit activities hidden for the most part, and the Watch, including Zevara, could never nab him.
Put another way—Mister Soot’s gang would never trouble Erin Solstice or Selys while they were about their business. They were criminals, yes, but they were inconspicuous ones.
Tesy wanting the Watch to take them on? Well. Relc stared at the Sellme illustration grimly. The crowd was not happy and he was glad he had his badge off.
“It’s the Shank Gang. It has to be about them.”
Relc interrupted a muttering pair. The Drake and Gnoll glanced at him warily, but one explained.
“They rule this district. They mug people, rob others. The Watch has never gotten rid of them. They barely patrol near their base.”
The Senior Guardsman frowned.
“They have an actual base? And no one stops them?”
“Who’s going to? They have…a Face. You know, one of their high-level gang members? Who’d take them on? Not the damn Watch patrols. Those murdering…”
“Shh. They’ll hear you!”
Relc stood there, chewing on his lip. He stared at the painting. There was the [Guard], arresting a scrawny little [Thief] stealing a Prelon, while a huge thug beat down on a Gnoll reaching out for the [Guard] who was clearly ignoring them. You had to hand it to Sellme; it was well-done. And about as subtle as Tesy.
So it was a bad gang. And a high-level criminal. Relc was stuck on his Gizeal Puzzle. He poked at it, listlessly, thinking that morning.
Trouble was, Tesy was right about this gang. That wasn’t how Mister Soot operated; if his gang attacked people, it was usually rival gangs. The other trouble?
Well, it was sort of a self-inflicted wound. Like someone shooting their own foot with an arrow. Cellidel’s Watch patrolled some parts of the city more than others. It just so happened that the Shank Gang occupied a Gnoll district. Perhaps because of the gang—or maybe the Watch’s inattention caused it.
“Ancestors damn it, do you think about this kind of problem? Huh? Terigrals?”
Relc growled, and raised a fist to punch the cube. He stopped, sighed.
He didn’t think of this kind of thing. His head hurt. Relc had never thought about the implications of taking down a gang; he left that kind of thing to Zevara. Just point Relc at a problem and let him loose.
Now, though? If Gnolls thought the Watch didn’t protect them, they had every right to be mad. How did you fix a city? Fix a Watch that wasn’t liked, and the people who didn’t trust them? Relc sat there, and his heart began to pound with anxiety and fear. But he had a thought.
You had to restore their trust. Show them, show Tesy that the badge meant something.
The sun was setting, and the heat was leaving the streets of Cellidel. Light bounced off glass windows, or more often, paint on shutters.
The cobblestones on the street were cooling too, and Cellidel’s people were hurrying out of one street that had another backed-up sewer reeking. They hurried down this street, though; the huge, former warehouse with permanently closed windows was not a place they liked to linger.
The ‘Shank Gang’ was known for killing people who didn’t cooperate, hence the name. But they didn’t actually murder many people each month as the Watch couldn’t ignore it. Still, they had a reputation, and the [Gang Boss], Shanker Ellic, was in charge of so many people all he had to do was keep order, rather than earn money for the gang himself.
He got to relax in the warehouse, and his only complaint was the closed windows when the summer’s heat baked the inside and brought out the last traces of what the place had been: a cold house for the butchers’ meat. It always began to smell a bit of that, and the odor was so annoying the Shank Gang actually hung up mint and other sprigs of natural scents to relieve it.
The city was hushed; the Watch was out in force, and the latest Sellme had people talking. Quietly, in that deliberate way of worried people. The pedestrians hurrying back to their homes glanced at the hideout.
There were no Watch patrols here. They usually stopped three streets out. That was the demarcation line. Beyond here, the Shank Gang kept their order and you were safe…so long as you paid protection. Or paid them if they gave you the ultimatum; a knife or your money pouch. Well, either way, you gave them your money pouch.
The quiet street was starting to be invaded by the septic scent. Rotted meat and sewer stench mixed with the slightest old mint smell. Shanker Ellic snarled.
“Damn sewers! Someone get the scent wand.”
He growled at some of his loyal people. A Drake, coughing, went to check as the [Gang Boss] sneezed into a handkerchief he’d dosed with strong vinegar. He was just grateful he wasn’t a Gnoll; he couldn’t imagine how bad this was for them.
Into this quietly unpleasant but mundane day came the most unusual of sights. People on the street looked up, did a double-take, and grabbed the others nearest to them. They pointed.
“What is…? Is that…?”
A [Day Laborer] halted his wife. They both stared as a figure came marching down the street. Light shone on leather armor. Chainmail shone, flashing from underneath, and on his breast gleamed an object rarely ever seen here.
A Watchman’s badge.
The citizens of this district stared at the Senior Guardsman as he marched along. Many of them knew him. The new one. The one who patrolled alone. The [Guardsman of Trust] that you could trust, or so they said.
Guardsman Relc. He had to be new, or he wouldn’t be here.
“He’s alone? There has to be a patrol—”
“I heard he didn’t have a partner. Maybe he’s that good? He shouldn’t be here. If a Shank Gangmember sees him—”
“Should someone tell him?”
Possibly, but who? Right next to the headquarters of…? The citizens stared at Relc as he marched along. They heard something, as he strode closer. He was…singing?
“Boom, boom, if you’re a Relc, here comes the Relc. Nothing rhymes with Relc!”
He was headed straight for the Shank Gang’s hideout. People stared in horror, like watching someone who had never met a Demonsoul Skunk before walking towards one as the tail slowly rose.
Senior Guardsman Relc, oblivious to the looks of horror and dozens of people trying to catch his eye and mouth ‘turn around’, consulted a little sketch he had.
“This one? No. This one? No…wait. Yes. Aha.”
The Shank Gang’s sleepy, stinky evening was interrupted as Relc marched up to the door behind which a door guard was snoozing, nose-plugs in. He stopped, cleared his throat.
And then he began to hammer on the door.
“Hey! Hey! This is the Watch, open up! Surprise! It’s inspection time!”
The door guard fell out of their chair in surprise. Inside the warehouse, Shanker Ellic looked up.
“Who is making that idiotic racket…?”
His first thought was that there was some gang member of his or an outsider who wanted a word. Or favor. He pointed and one of his cronies went to investigate.
Outside, the civilians had frozen in horror. The door guard scrambled to his feet. He had been napping, and had clearly not heard that right. He came to the door and the slot opened. He glared at Relc, missing the badge.
“You moron! Don’t hammer, knock! What’s the password?”
He was met by a beaming grin of white teeth. Relc had excellent dental hygiene. The Senior Guardsman stepped back, and the badge came into view. Then…he raised his voice.
“Password? This is the Watch. Open up!”
His voice reached the inside. Shanker Ellic froze. The gang glanced up, and a lounging figure put their feet down. The [Gang Boss] glanced over to a Drake whose eyes shone as she tossed up a glowing dagger and caught it. He whirled.
“The Watch? What did you idiots do?”
His answer came from outside.
“I’m told there is an illicit group of people mugging people on the street, extorting money, making threats, and other blackmail attempts. This is illegal. Pretty sure it is, anyways. In the course of my investigation, I demand you open up at once! Any something something in the way of my duties means I get to hit you and arrest you. You have five seconds.”
“No Crelering way. There’s a [Guardsman] out there, boss!”
One of the gang members came back to confirm what was happening. Shanker Ellic froze.
“How many more?”
“None. Just one.”
The [Gang Boss] stared. His sudden panic resolved into…he stood up, incredulously.
“You mean there’s one idiot out there? It’s not a raid?”
The [Thug] shook his head.
“Nope. Some idiot. New. I know that guy—he’s that Senior Guardsman from another city.”
“Well then…he’s a real idiot. Get rid of him.”
Ellic didn’t have to think twice. He nodded, and four of his [Thugs] grinned. They gestured.
“Sure. Just shut him up. Make sure no one sees you! Clear the street first, idiots.”
The [Gang Boss] sat back down. The [Rogue] with the enchanted dagger glanced at him.
“Want me to handle it?”
“Nah. Maybe they’ll level.”
Besides, you’ll charge me more for ‘helping out’. The Face, known as Halfblade, shrugged. She lay back down. Halfblade? She used two daggers. The reason for the name was because you only saw half of the daggers at any time—usually in someone’s throat.
Ellic waited as the Senior Guardsman went silent. It would take up to ten minutes for the [Thugs] to get some buddies to clear the street and then ‘sort it out’. He might not hear about it, but there was no way that idiot would get into the warehouse. The door guard would stall him, but the door was the kind [Information Brokers] used. Steel. Even mildly enchanted. It would—
The [Gang Boss] had just sat down when the sound made him jolt to his feet.
“Dead gods! D—no, nooo—”
There was a shout from inside. Then a scream and a thump. Ellic froze. Then he heard the same, jovial voice.
“Doors cannot stop the [Relc Kick]! That’s why you pay for reinforced walls, idiots! Ow. My foot hurts.”
“There is no way. Someone—you all, go check. No, wait.”
The [Gang Boss] snarled, but he was hesitating. Had that guy just gone through the front door? Even so, there should be four [Thugs] all over Level 15 right behind—
“Whoa! Who are y—”
A shout, and the sounds of fighting. There was a thump—Ellic relaxed. Right until he heard a roar.
“Ow. That hurt!”
Whumph. Something hit the wall. Someone yelped, a high-pitched Gnoll voice.
“Relc Kick! Relc Kick! Don’t run!”
Another scream that turned into another whumph of impact. The people inside the warehouse heard a final voice.
“We’re sorry! Don’t do that! Don’t—putmedownputmed—”
The last crash was followed by a scream and whimpering. In dead silence, Ellic rose. He pointed and the bodyguards moved to the door leading into the big room.
The entire Shank Gang was here. The [Gang Boss] didn’t panic. The four he’d sent out had gotten jumped rather than doing the jumping, idiots. This [Senior Guard] was good—maybe he had [Preferred Foe: Criminal] or something. But everyone would have heard that, so the converted warehouse’s entire rooms full of gang members would—
The scream was so loud it tapered into a shriek at the end. Ellic heard screaming, shouts of panic—then running footsteps. Then the voice again, thundering from within the warehouse.
“In the course of my duties I am authorized to use force! You don’t want to die? Back up! Your friend will live. Anyone else want to run straight into my spear?”
The shriek died down—either whoever had been screaming passed out or…
Dead silence. Ellic listened.
Every few seconds, there was a shout, or the briefest cries of fury and attack. They turned into gurgling, or the thump of a body hitting a wall. Or—and this was the hardest to hear—a scream of pain.
“He’s…coming through the warehouse, boss.”
“Crossbows up. He comes through that door? Kill him.”
Ellic overturned the table. He drew his own crossbow and aimed an enchanted bolt at the door. He had the name ‘Shanker Ellic’, but he wasn’t above doing the shanking from afar.
Halfblade was on her feet. She paced around, listening, then glanced at him.
“I’m going to take my spot. Don’t wait on me.”
She glided over to one of the support beams and vanished. Ellic cursed her. If she was running—but then he heard a voice.
“In the course of my guarding duties, I have been attacked! That means whoever’s in here is screwed. You’re all under arrest.”
“We haven’t done anything! Who the hell are you?”
Ellic bellowed back. There was a chuckle from outside.
The gang members inside waited, tense, crossbows drawn and aimed at the door. Ellic felt sweat dripping off a neck spine. He frowned. Then he heard a mutter from outside.
“…Relc? Wait. ‘Your worst nightmare’? Nah. Senior Guardsman Relc? I’m the consequences! Hah, that was really great. Hear that? I’m the consequences! No. It really just doesn’t work when I say it.”
The voice trailed off. Someone coughed in the hallway outside. Only one door separated them, and once they came through it…
Fingers tightened on triggers. Ellic sighted at the door. He waited, as the dimly lit warehouse became taut with tension. As seconds dragged into eternity…
Then he realized. It had been a minute. The other [Thugs] stared at the door, and then at each other.
Another minute passed. The men and women inside waited. A Gnoll hissed at the [Gang Boss].
“Boss, maybe he’s not coming?”
“There’s only one entrance from that hallway. Just watch. Just…”
Ellic glanced at the back door. He pointed, and three of the gang shifted their aim. Ellic hesitated.
“Wait. Maybe that bastard’s going to take aim at us from above?”
There were windows high up that let in some light. The Shank Gang looked up. They all had the image of a bastard with a bow sighting down on them. Ellic cursed.
“You lot get out the back and make sure we aren’t flanked! We’re not getting boxed in!”
“You heard me! G—”
The door exploded inwards. Everyone turned and a dozen crossbow bolts flew through the gap. Ellic’s detonated. Too late, and too slow. Also—off by nearly fifteen feet.
Relc came through one of the walls in a shower of wood. The Gecko of Liscor charged into the room and saw the nearest [Thug] recoil in horror, scrambling for a club. Relc ran into her. He didn’t stab her, he didn’t punch. He just body slammed his entire weight into the figure and knocked her down.
Then it was a fight.
Relc was so scared he thought he was going to wet himself. But he never did, and his training took over. But he had never jumped into a warehouse full of criminals alone.
He’d charged into robberies by himself, but he’d always known there would be backup seconds behind. This?
This was like he was back in the army. Charging into enemy lines to take someone’s head. Only, he couldn’t run.
He hated it. He was scared, but his claws didn’t tremble as his spear flurried around the room. Relc was terrified, but he attacked.
The first [Thugs] were too slow to stop him. He crashed like a bouncing ball into three of them, throwing his shoulder into the last’s chest. Then he performed ‘The Frog Bounds Higher’. A spear technique. He threw the butt of the spear onto the ground and leapt with it, a rising move, not an offensive attack.
It was instinctual. It also saved him from the second crack of crossbow bolts and thrown daggers. Relc landed, whirled his spear left, and hit someone in the chest with the butt. He punched with his free hand, caught the second [Thug].
That was when the first blow hit him on the side. Right along the ribs. It stung, but he swung his fist again and the [Mace Thug] dropped.
Speed. He would never take them if they organized. Relc gritted his teeth.
[Extended Sweep]! He swung the spear around and three figures went down. Relc strode over, kicked a head down, and blocked a thrust from some idiot with a sword.
Someone tagged him from behind. The Drake felt a small crossbow bolt punch through his shoulder, but he’d whirled and kept it away from his spine. It lodged halfway in his shoulder.
Powerful bow. That’s enchanted. Nothing else would have hit Relc’s scales like that. He whirled—saw a figure jerk in surprise.
That’s the Face. Relc saw a [Rogue] or some kind of [Dagger Duelist] or something vanish behind one of the pillars. He snarled.
Relc whirled and backhanded someone. They flipped over the table and he charged.
Someone had an axe. They swung the axe. Relc blocked it with his spear. The axe bounced off the enchanted spear’s haft. Relc was still charging, so the butt of the axe smacked whoever was swinging it and Relc knocked them flat. Then stomped on their stomach.
Two more [Thugs] went down in a whirl. Relc’s spear thrust out, under a guard, and tapped someone’s ribs. Then broke them. That was when Halfblade appeared and tried to run her two blades through Relc’s sides. He whirled, bellowed.
There was a curse. Relc saw his spear lance out, striking three places at once. He…
The figure cried out, after the fact. Relc saw a female Drake leaping away. He charged after her, and saw her dart behind a beam. Relc crashed around it, aiming—
Someone shot a crossbow at him. It hit his armor sideways; barely went beneath one scale. Relc whirled, snarling.
“Stop shooting me!”
He realized they actually stopped. The rest of the Shank Gang in the room were running for the doors. Relc debated stopping them for a second. Then realized he’d have no chance.
This time, he didn’t dodge whatever the Face tossed at him. Relc felt something kick him and he landed, armor smoldering. And there Halfblade was. She aimed the crossbow at him—
Relc’s scream of desperation and [Whirlwind Dodge] caught the [Rogue] by surprise. He threw himself to the side so hard he landed on his feet. He charged.
His jabs hit only air. He tried to track her, but again the Drake blurred, weaving, deflecting one spear thrust, moving to the side. She stood there, rather than duck behind a support beam again. The two stared at each other. Relc gritted his teeth.
“Damn. I hate high-level opponents with dodging Skills.”
“What kind of Senior Guard are you?”
The big Drake grinned.
He lunged and thrust. The spear nearly went through her face. The Face dodged, cursing, and leapt back, unnerved. She threw another explosive bottle, and Relc leapt back. She vanished. Then appeared and tried to stab him.
This time she got through his armor. Twice. Belly-cuts, and they burned. Flame-daggers! Relc roared, swung an arm, and sent her sprawling, but she flipped onto her feet and retreated.
A second staring contest. Relc checked himself.
Not badly hurt. He eyed the Face. She was unnerved.
She had to be over Level 30. [Dagger Duelist] or [Stabmistress] or some class like that. Evasion, armor-penetrating stabs. Simple, effective. Stealth too.
Relc’s highest-levelled class was [Spearmaster] at Level 36. In theory, they were matched, especially because she clearly had gear he lacked. He had on [Guard] armor, and his enchanted spear might be better than her daggers, but it was an armor and mage-killer, not a [Rogue]-hunter.
In theory, they were matched. What was making Halfblade nervous was that she could tell Relc was better. But not why.
[Armored Advance]. The [Spearmaster] came in, jabbing, refusing to give her a big opening. She retreated, slashing, realizing that he had way too much range. She threw a dagger and it touched him—exploded. He cursed.
“How many things go boom in your—”
She nearly stuck a dagger through the bottom of his jaw in a vicious lunge-in. Relc recoiled.
[Counter Backstep]. He moved back, and in, and scored a hit through her armor. She was too quick! But she clutched at her upper right breast, gasping. Her fancy armor hadn’t stopped his spear.
She stopped, circled. They hit each other twice more, both times fruitlessly. But she couldn’t hide her dismay.
How am I losing? The answer was simple. They had roughly equal classes and gear, so it might be anyone’s game. But Relc?
Relc was a [Sergeant]. And a [Guardsman of Trust]. Neither class was over Level 30. But he had more Skills. Case in point? She tried to use her stealth Skill, but a weaker one. His [Eyes in the Back] saw her coming and he struck with the butt of his spear, sending her stumbling back.
Outlevelled. He had more experience, anyways. Relc saw his opportunity as she cursed, stumbling, and took it.
He threw the spear at her face and she reflexively dodged. But it wasn’t even a javelin’s throw; he’d just heaved the spear lengthwise at her. She raised her daggers—and Relc grabbed her wrists.
Halfblade’s eyes went wide. She went for a kick to the groin. It bounced off a codpiece.
“Let go! Let—”
Relc didn’t dare let go of one hand, and he had no spear. She was so nimble she might have dodged a kick. But those were problems for people who were not Relc. The Drake began accelerating. Halfblade realized what was happening in an instant and tried to drag free.
“No, no, no, no—”
It had gone terribly silent inside the Shank Gang’s warehouse. The crowd watching fearfully from afar had thought the Senior Guardsman was dead, even when he kicked the door in. Especially when he hopped on one foot, swearing for a good fifteen seconds.
But then the [Thugs] had come running out of the back and they’d hoped. But now? It was so silent. Gnolls glanced at each other, and their ears couldn’t pick up what was happening inside the enchanted warehouse. A Drake peered on the tips of her toes. Where was the rest of the Watch? They’d shouted for a patrol, but it was too l—
Relc crashed out of a wall with Halfblade. The crowd screamed as the two hit the wall so hard they busted through it in a shower of splinters. Relc cursed.
“That hurts! Alright, let’s do it again!”
They hit another wall this time and cracked it. It hurt like hell, but Relc was tough. [Rogues]? He saw the lolling head and the two daggers slipped from her claws. He dropped her, secured the daggers in his belt, and reached for his cuffs. Then he remembered she was a Face. It wouldn’t work. So he just picked her up by one foot and began trudging back to the warehouse.
The Drake stopped when he saw the crowd staring at him, and the trashed Shank Gang. All by one person. Relc stopped. He grinned, thought, then held up one thumb-claw.
“That’s Relc style. No, wait, that’s still terrible.”
Relc had been afraid someone would yank his spear, or that he’d missed the boss of this gang. As it turned out? He’d backhanded the [Gang Boss], Shanker Ellic, and that had been that.
Halfblade had been the problem. When the Watch patrol slowly picked their way down the street, a full three-squad patrol armed with the same tower shields they’d used in the mob fights, they stopped.
Relc stood over a line of comatose [Thugs], [Rogues], the [Gang Boss], and Halfblade. In point of fact, he had a foot on Halfblade’s back; she was the only one he couldn’t cuff. People were pointing, cheering, and shouting his name.
“Relc! Relc! Relc!”
“That’s right! That’s my name! That’s how you do it!”
The Drake [Guardsman] grinned, on top of the world. He waved the Watch over as the [Guards] stared at Cellidel’s biggest gang, in chains. No less than Vok and Tesy themselves pushed through the crowds, and stopped. The word was all over the city. One Senior Guard had just crushed the Shank Gang!
Relc grinned as he stared at Tesy. How was that? How was that? Did you believe in the Watch now? Tesy was blinking at him, eyes wide. Relc heaved a sigh. He had done the thing that he was good at. And that…
At first, Relc thought it did. After all, well, he got in trouble, but he didn’t at the same time. They hauled him into the Watch Captain’s office where a [Counsellor] was protesting that ‘Mister Ellic’ had done nothing wrong.
Terigrals glared at Relc, but he refused to release Shanker Ellic, on the grounds that he was a [Gang Boss] and any other arguments were stupid. Relc happily stood through the lecture about ‘backup’, and ‘evidence’ and tuned it out to his own theme song he ran in his head.
If you’re a Relc, do it like a Relc. Do it like an elk! Welk! Relc!
This wasn’t like the silly story Mrsha had tried to tell him about, where the ‘Watch’ or ‘po-lice’ of these Humans was corrupt. If you had a [Gang Boss]…you had a [Gang Boss] and a [Counsellor] was not a lawyer. Whatever that was.
There were some asterisks on the victory. For one thing, when it was announced, it was ‘a victory for Cellidel’s Watch’ that neglected to mention one Drake had done all the heavy lifting and the rest had just carted the others off to jail. Mind you—Relc didn’t envy whoever had to watch Halfblade. [Rogues] were hard to keep in a cell.
However, Relc got a parade. He got a grudging commendation from the Watch Captain, delivered by a more sincere Council who weren’t up on ‘reasons to hate Relc’. He got to hear them cheer him and felt good because the big gang was in jail, weren’t they? People like Tesy could see the Watch could do it if they had a Relc.
He was going to sleep in his apartment complex, but everyone had to stop and congratulate him. Vok gave Relc a wide-eyed look.
“You took out an entire gang? By yourself?”
He stared at Relc for injuries, but all of Relc’s were healed; the cauterized wounds from those daggers would take longer, but Relc was tough. The Drake gave him the Erin gesture she called ‘finger guns’.
“All about the spear. And hitting [Rogues] really hard into walls. You just need practice! Who’s coming for spear practice tomorrow, huh?”
His students all cheered. Relc looked around, beaming. Then he saw a pair of Gnolls waving at him.
“Senior Guardsman Relc. Have you seen Hickery?”
Relc realized that he hadn’t seen the Gnoll girl among the parade. He dropped his smile and the finger-guns.
“No. Is something wrong?”
The Gnoll parents hesitated. The father, whose fur was glistening with some kind of—what was it? Oil? Grease?—looked at his wife.
“She hasn’t come back yet.”
“Is she missing? I can go look—”
“No. We thought…”
The female Gnoll smelled of wood dust and had some on her fur, even a whorl of wood shavings. She looked at Relc.
“A [Guardsman] took her to the Watch House. Because of her spear. I think she was training in the courtyard. We thought…”
Relc glanced back the way he’d come.
“I can check. I’ll be right back.”
The parents’ names were Orell and Maxireffa. They were a [Carpenter] and [Wagon Wright], respectively. Hence the grease on Orell’s fur. They had been new to Cellidel; their jobs could take them anywhere, but Hickery was young so they had wanted the safety of the walls; they were City Gnolls.
Relc knew all this because forty minutes later, a sobbing Hickery was in her mother’s arms. He’d led her out of the Watch House. There was shouting inside and Relc had to leave to return.
As it happened…a [Guard] had seen Hickery practicing with the spear. She had been hauled in four hours ago for possessing a weapon, and endangering others. Of course, children were hauled into the Watch House now and then for throwing stones through glass windows, and so on.
Relc wasn’t good with them, but Beilmark and some of the parents were a deft hand, and could get out whether there was trouble at home, or whatever was the cause. Sometimes there were repeat offenders.
He had never heard of a [Guardsman] shouting at a frightened little girl for nearly an hour, threatening to put her in the overnight cells, and cuffing her until Relc arrived. Hickery had been sobbing—silently because she’d been told to be silent—but burst into tears anew when he walked in.
When Relc finally emerged, the parents greeted him. Hickery was still crying, but clinging to both. Relc’s head hung low. His tail dragged on the ground.
“It’s not your fault, [Guardsman] Relc. We heard what you did today.”
“What? Oh yeah. The gang. I didn’t—this [Guard] hauled Hickery in because he saw her practicing. I…know him.”
Pos. Relc tried to explain. He found he didn’t need to.
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. It won’t be the last. I’m just glad Hickery wasn’t arrested and you were here, Senior Guardsman.”
Orell tried to smile, but he was angry. Who wouldn’t be? He glanced into the Watch House, still loud with internal commotion. He stood up.
“Let’s go home.”
“I’ll walk with you. I—I’m sorry, Hickery.”
“I didn’t do anything wrong!”
She cried. Her parents carried her in silence. Relc stared back at the Watch House.
“No. You didn’t.”
How could you be up so high and then low in a moment, like that? He felt as if he’d been standing on clouds and someone had yanked the flying carpet out from under him.
Pos. But not just Pos. Orell and Maxireffa were silent until they were two blocks outside the Watch House. Then they began speaking.
“It really isn’t your fault, Senior Guardsman. A child with a weapon…”
“It’s a training spear.”
“Nevertheless. It’s happened. Hickery will just have to not practice. Or do it out of sight.”
“But it’s the courtyard! I have to…”
The little girl was sniffing and crying. Relc couldn’t look at her. He glanced at Orell. The Gnoll was shaking his head.
“It will be fine. She’s a [Spear Trainee], isn’t she?”
He glanced at Relc. The Drake ducked his head again.
“Yeah. Talented as I’ve seen.”
“Then that’s wonderful. Hickery might have a future as…well. A lot of things. I don’t like to imagine her fighting, but a good class is a good class. Skills are Skills. This? It’ll work out. Maybe it’s time to move again, Maxy.”
She nodded. Hickery clung to her mother.
“I don’t want to go! I like it here!”
She shouted it, despite everything. Heads turned, and some people called out to Relc. He tried to smile and couldn’t.
“I don’t know what to say.”
He tried to apologize again, but Maxireffa shook her head.
“It wasn’t your fault, Guardsman Relc. We are used to it. It will all shake out in the levels in the end.”
Relc blinked. Orell nodded.
“What comes down brings you up in time. Hickery, why don’t we buy you a little treat? We have to celebrate your class anyways.”
She sniffed. Relc instantly fished in his money pouch.
“I can give…”
He realized he didn’t have much; taking down the Shank Gang hadn’t come with a monetary reward. The two Gnoll parents waved it away.
“We can’t thank you enough. Hickery’s level…don’t worry about it, please.”
The Drake reluctantly tucked away the light pouch. He glanced at Maxireffa.
“That was the Book of Levels you were quoting, wasn’t it?”
“It was. Hardship lets us level. It’s a source of comfort, sometimes. And it will turn out for the best. We’ll outlevel anyone who steps on us.”
Relc nodded. And yet…he glanced over his shoulder. Shook his head.
“That wasn’t right. A Senior Guardsman…”
His fist clenched. Orell tried to smile, but his look was one of resignation. He glanced at Relc.
“There are good [Guards] and bad ones. As long as we have someone like you on the streets, Senior Guardsman Relc, I feel better.”
It was the right thing to say, but the wrong time. Relc stopped. He stared at Orell, so long that the entire family turned. Relc’s look was distant, pained, and all of his triumph, from risking his life, the terror of it?
It turned to ashes. It changed nothing.
“Senior Guardsman? What’s wrong?”
Relc stared at the sky.
“…I’m not on the streets. I’ve been put on suspended leave for a week.”
The trio stared at him. It was a lighter punishment than Relc might have gotten. Even so—the Watch Captain had given it to him for breaking Pos’ jaw.
Relc did not serve his entire week of probation. He was needed too badly by the fourth day.
Tesy had been right, damn him. Relc had cleared out a major gang. Restored the Watch’s image.
…But it just begged the question, why had the Watch let that gang appear in the area in the first place? Why hadn’t they done anything about it?
And—it might be a bit self-centered, but if you were the victim of the same kind of guardswork that Hickery had suffered from, it didn’t matter if Cellidel stopped ten gangs. Because they were lumping you with the very same [Thugs] and [Murderers] they arrested.
Relc realized he was a fool. That his big answer had been pointless.
“It wasn’t pointless. Stop beating yourself up. Here. I brought some more Prelon chips.”
Ironically, Tesy was the nicest the Drake got in the four days Relc was cooped up. Hickery showed up to practice red-eyed, but talking about a cupcake she’d been bought the next morning. Relc practiced, and hung out with Tesy, who brought snacks and…well. Looked at Relc and didn’t bring up the Watch problems.
Sellme did, though. Tesy didn’t bring it up, nor did Relc mention it, but rumors were everywhere of the image of the Watch menacing a crying Gnoll girl with a club. Of course, there the picture lied because Pos had only shouted and Hickery wasn’t holding a spear. But it was true enough.
“The Watch only protects Drakes! Who let the Shank Gang exist in the first place? Do we need foreign [Guards] to come and sort out Cellidel’s problems?”
Relc heard that one from a [Shouter], bellowing in a heaving tavern until the Watch broke up the gathering. The fact that he was there didn’t endear the others to the Watch, only him. Now a lot of people knew his name…and that he was suspended. It only made them angrier about it all, if the ‘one good [Guard]’ was in trouble for doing good things.
Unrest was growing. The [Rebel] class was easy enough to pick up. Of course, you had some experts who knew exactly how to deal with the Watch. Tripwire? No problem. Egg to the back of the head as they sauntered around? Easy. A foot to trip up chasers, a bucket from the rooftop…
But all the amateurs needed was encouragement, and something to be angry about. It started with being unhappy.
“What’s the answer here?”
Relc didn’t know. He thought he’d done something right. Tesy just shrugged. He poured a drink. Vok reached for it; Relc slapped his paw down.
“That’s for adults.”
“I am an adult!”
Relc eyed the sixteen year-old Gnoll.
“Have a half cup. Tesy and I will drink.”
“Tesy’s only two years older than me!”
“Yeah. And Tesy bought the wine.”
Tesy also knew how to drink. Relc and Tesy tapped wooden cups, and then Tesy sighed. He shook his head.
“You’re a good [Guard], Relc. But a few good [Guards] don’t cure the rot. It’s in the Watch; you’re the one who doesn’t fit in.”
Relc didn’t like that.
“There are lots of good [Guards]. I think. I bet. Some are cool.”
“Yeah? Who else was with you at the Shank Gang’s warehouse?”
The big Drake frowned, trying to think of a response. He nudged the Gizeal Puzzle with one foot.
“That’s not fair. Most [Guards] aren’t me and they have orders. A lot do their jobs.”
“Oh, fine. Sure. They do their jobs. But I don’t see anyone but you objecting when a little kid, a child gets hauled in with the criminals!”
Tesy was getting angry again. Relc was getting angry. He nearly cracked his cup, and released his grip.
“…Right. But there’re rules.”
“See? Corrupt. You’re fine, Relc. But it’s reasons like that, that that piece of shit…Pos…hey. I just thought of something. His name…get it?”
Tesy laughed. Relc sighed. The problem was? He couldn’t argue with Tesy. How did you solve this? He thought, with all the Relc-power in his Relc-brain. Then he came up with a Relc-solution.
Watch Captain Zevara stared at the letter she’d gotten via the Mage’s Guild. Which she’d paid for. Well, that wasn’t really a concern. She was more concerned by the contents.
Why did Relc give her headaches even when he wasn’t in her city? Then again…she had to admit. This was her fault.
“What an Ancestors-damned mess.”
It was such a Relc-move to ask her for help. Then again, it also meant he was taking his job seriously. As for the issue?
Zevara wished she had an answer. She had thought she was sending him to a city with a small crime problem, not a bigoted city plagued by this ‘Sellme’. Him taking out a gang by himself, like the late Mister Soot’s?
She wouldn’t have authorized it in a million years. It spoke to how bad the problem must have been, for Relc to do something that crazy. That no one had backed him up?
The buzz of background conversation stopped once more. It had been going on in the back of Zevara’s consciousness, but had lulled every time she gave voice to her opinion on the Cellidel situation. Now someone tapped on the table.
A click of claw meeting wood. Zevara glanced up and saw the rich table, carved from a single piece of huge wood, sitting in the comfy meeting room of Liscor’s Council.
Unlike every time in history, though, this one was different. Gone, gone was the snack buffet table, and instead they had functional catering. There were books, records on one wall, and someone had dragged in a bookshelf so they could collate things.
A map of Liscor hung on the wall, Hexel’s blueprints next to it, and there was a huge war map of the entire area next to both. The Drakes and one Gnoll sitting around the table were all staring at her. Zevara stared, and saw the claw-tapper was Lism. The [Shopkeeper]-[Councilmember] fixed her with a stern eye.
“Watch Captain, I agree the situation isn’t ideal, but ‘disgraceful’ is going a bit too far, don’t you think?”
“Er…I’m sorry, Councilmember Lism. I was referring to something else.”
The purple-scale Drake paused and his usual look of annoyance replaced itself.
“Oh. Well then. Is it salient to this discussion?”
“No, Councilmember. Go ahead.”
Zevara blushed a bit, and folded her claws behind her back. She was here as the head military advisor, along with Wing Commander Embria. She gave Zevara a side-long glance; Embria could recognize her father’s handwriting. Lism went on, oblivious, as Elirr, Jeiss, Alonna, and the other two Council Members that Zevara had no respect for, so didn’t memorize their names, listened in.
“As I was saying, since the New Liscorian Army is now going to war with Hectval, we have to support them. Food, supplies, finances, healing…well, we’ve agreed to it. The problem is…Drakepower. Manpower? What word is pan-species, Alonna?”
The [Mage] supplied. Lism clicked his claws.
“Exactly. We’ve lost good people against damned Hectval. More are joining the army. Well…that’s fine. [Soldiers] are needed. But that means other classes lose out. And we already sent a lot of our [Soldiers] to our other army…the one that’s not here.”
He glanced at Embria and she squirmed. The only Gnoll in the room raised his paw. And that was notable in Liscor—Zevara wondered if Cellidel could even imagine a Gnoll on their Council.
“I see that we have an issue, Lism, yes. But we are growing. New Humans come in every day, yes?”
“Not enough. I’ve done the numbers, Elirr. Hexel is building the new city…and that’s wonderful. We have so much gold being invested from Salazsar and Pallass of all places. It’s, well, it’s that damned [Innkeeper]’s fault.”
The room went still. Lism had invoked the name few brought up. The [Shopkeeper] went on, grading his papers against the table.
“Yes, it’s her fault. She made Liscor too popular as an investment place. So we have countless buildings going up—it might double the size of the city again! Not enough bodies to fill it. A problem of too much expansion! All her fault for giving us such an opportunity.”
His heart wasn’t in the insult. But Zevara saw the problem. Jeiss tapped the table.
“We’ll look into solutions. Right now, I’d like to go over Olesm’s plans again. I know we’ve done it, but let’s just take another look and see if there’s anything we can do as the Council.”
The others agreed. Embria was all too willing to pull up Olesm’s plans—he had left as [Strategist] leading the army. However, it was Zevara who coughed and raised a claw.
“Councilmembers, I’m afraid I must leave. I have some pressing work I must get to, and if we are just retreading strategy…”
The rest instantly nodded. Alonna smiled at Zevara.
“Of course, Watch Captain. Anything that need concern us? That we can help with?”
Zevara hesitated, and waved a claw. She lifted the missive from Relc.
“No. Just one of my Senior Guards. Guardsman Relc, on deployment to Cellidel. He has a small issue, so I just need to draft a reply.”
If I have anything good to tell him. Zevara was proud of Relc, but how was she supposed to help him? Tell him to drag all of Liscor over to Cellidel so she could slap some sense into that idiotic Watch Captain and their Watch? Find an Erin? The truth was…
“Relc? What’s happened to that oaf now? Don’t tell me he’s gotten hurt?”
Zevara blinked. Jeiss was standing up, concern on his face. Alonna, Lism, even the other Councilmembers looked up.
“Is Guardsman Relc alright? I hadn’t seen him around but I didn’t know he’d left the city.”
“Indeed. You need time? Take all the time you need, Watch Captain. He was always a bit obtuse, but a fine Senior Guard. Is he well?”
To Zevara’s surprise, the entire Council was concerned, even Zalaiss and Tismel. Senior Guardsman Relc was Senior Guardsman Relc. A face everyone knew in the city.
“He’s…well. It’s complicated.”
Zevara ended up telling them all about it. Lism hammered the table.
“Gnoll issues? Shouting at a child?”
He nearly spat fire himself. Elirr raised a weary eyebrow.
“Imagine that in a Drake city.”
His comment provoked intense, embarrassed silence, but Jeiss shook his head.
“I…taking on a Gang without support? That’s a problem.”
Embria stared at Zevara in such a way the Watch Captain knew her father hadn’t told her about this. Zevara waved the letter.
“That’s why I have to get a response back. Excuse me, Councilmembers…”
She walked out of City Hall and spent the next three hours walking around her city, trying to figure out a response. She came up with the best one she could, and was headed back to the barracks to draft it. It wasn’t great, but it was all she could do.
When she got there, one of the Senior Guards leaned out past the desk.
“Watch Captain. A word?”
“Mm? What’s the matter, Yill?”
Senior Guardsman Yill, the Desk Sergeant, glanced at Zevara. A few other [Guards] stopped and gathered over as they realized she’d returned and she tensed. But Yill just glanced at the letter in her claws.
“We heard old Relc’s in a bit of trouble. Anything we can help with?”
“What’s he gotten into now, Watch Captain? Heard there are some bastards who need his [Relc Kick] up their asses in Cellidel.”
Another [Guard] chimed in. Before Zevara knew it, the rest of the Watch not on duty were gathering around, demanding to hear the story. How had they…?
She glanced up and saw Jeiss wink at her. The Councilmember trotted out the door. Zevara stood there, with Relc’s friends and coworkers asking after him. She wished she could show him that.
‘To Senior Guardsman Relc. In regards to your query, as Watch Captain of Liscor, I have to tell you there are no easy solutions. As you yourself wrote, it is not a matter of bad individuals, but a culture.
In my deliberations, with input from Liscor’s Council and fellow guards, who all wish you success, I have concluded that it is an uneven balance of power. A solution within a Drake-led Watch, with almost only Drakes and a Council that is made up of the same opinions, cannot address inequality with Gnolls because it lacks any perspective.
I would suggest, firstly, meeting with any Gnolls in positions of power in the city. Secondly, within the Watch, if there are any upstanding [Guards], I would seek them out. Also in regards to individuals like Sellme, I have historically…’
Relc read Zevara’s letter. Then he read it again. Then he pulled out a book he had almost never read, but picked up when he got the letter.
The actual handbook of Liscorian law. Relc read that one too…okay, he skimmed the parts she referenced.
It was perhaps the first time he’d ever read it. The Drake was reading it now, and taking her seriously. What Zevara said was this: he was in trouble. The Watch was bad, and she knew it. However, she told him to find Gnolls and ask what they would do.
…Which made sense. Relc was a Drake. Gnolls were Gnolls. He hadn’t known about Hickery. He didn’t know what was making them mad. What he saw was a fraction of the bug pie, and Cellidel’s bug pies tasted a lot worse than Garry’s.
[Guardsman of Trust Level 21!]
“Whoa. Reading books makes you stronger! Yeah!”
…But only that one level. Relc didn’t level from what had been a fairly easy, if dangerous fight against Shank Gang. This? This was [Guardsman]-ing, so he supposed he’d earned it.
His head hurt from reading the book, anyways. Thinking on this?
It was so much work.
Relc took a break by trying to figure out the Gizeal Puzzle. Valeterisa’s work was fiendish. He had solved, to his count, eighteen mini-puzzles and they had only gotten harder after the easy ones he’d done in the first few days.
He sat with a tiny magnifying glass, going over every inch of the cube from the outside, then inside, waiting for views of the interior and doing mini-sketches with charcoal and parchment to get clues as to how to fix it. It was relaxing and soothed the soul. Relc finally uncovered the mini-ridgelines of wood you slid across the exterior of the puzzle, eighty two slots in total, over four hours, and finally collected the first jade key.
That was a good time. Then he went to meet with the Gnollish authority in Cellidel.
The burned stall had come from a Drake who refused to sell to Gnoll customers. Relc watched ashes being swept away, then turned to the old Gnoll with silver-grey fur.
“It’s getting worse of late.”
“It is, Senior Guardsman. Please, sit.”
The two sat at an outdoor cafe. Like Krshia, Relin Seftail was a business Gnoll first. He kept Pawprint Bites, the cafe, open even after the commotion, and was sitting with Relc. They had some tea.
“…So about my question?”
Relc prompted the Gnoll when the silence grew overlong. He felt…odd. This was not a Relc thing to do. He had asked for a meeting with the Gnoll, feeling foolish, and now?
Well. Some Gnolls glanced at him, hostile. The fights had been getting worse. The Watch had arrested everyone at a Gnoll gathering, and the [Anarchists] had retaliated by burning a Watch prisoner wagon by tarring it with a fiery pitch and setting it alight. The Watch had retaliated by arresting more people, who were injured in the arrests, two badly.
It had ended with this stall being burned. Here was what chilled Relc.
The stall owner had gone up with the stall. They’d found the owner, charred, and rushed them to the [Healer]. It had been the fire and smoke that killed them, despite the [Healer]’s best efforts, but someone had hit the owner and left them to burn as the fire blazed.
So now a Drake was dead. A Drake who had been outspokenly against serving Gnolls, but who was dead. It was a Watch matter.
“This is a terrible business, Guardsman Relc. The Watch has never…gotten along with us. But we’ve been amicable. Or have I just forgotten how bad it gets? I can’t tell, some days. It feels the worst it’s ever been, but the tragedy is that it’s not worse than it ever was. Does that make sense?”
Relin spoke at last. He looked tired. Relc nodded.
“I’m grateful you’re speaking with me, sir. I want to help.”
The [Cafe Manager] stared at Relc for a while, over the tea with wisps of pleasant, aromatic Prelon leaves filling the air instead of smoke and…burnt meat.
“You know, Guardsman Relc, I believe you. If it were anyone else—any other Drake in a position of authority, I’d not have answered your request. But you?”
He glanced around. The hostile looks prickled Relc’s scales, but the instinctive anger faded when they saw his badge. He was back on duty; after today, Terigrals needed all [Guards], even Relc. He could calm the angriest crowds by being there.
“But it’s Relc who we remember. No one else stopped the Shank Gang. And you have a name for being fair. Not corrupt. You don’t let criminals go when they’ve done wrong, Gnoll or Drake. Fair. This city needs Drakes like you, and Gnolls, but it’s too late, I fear.”
Relc ducked his head. He stared at the stall again.
“Sellme’s making this worse. It was always bad, I get that. But this…”
“Sellme didn’t do this.”
The Gnoll’s voice was quiet. Relin looked at the stall, his face bleak.
“Sellme’s followers, then.”
The Gnoll shook his head once more. Relc’s head moved slightly. He glanced at Relin.
“No. They started it and they cause it to get worse. These days? I think many young Gnolls—and Drakes—are fed up. Cellidel was never perfect. Sellme is the crest of a wave, Guardsman Relc. But not the body of it. This is just Gnolls who are tired.”
Relc looked at the silver Gnoll. He leaned forwards, urgently.
“How can we fix it?”
Relin took his time in replying. When he did, he smiled, ruefully.
“I would have been so happy to talk to you a month ago, Guardsman Relc. Before? I would have said this: put us on the Council. Put us on the Council, even just one Gnoll, and we’ll see hope. Give us a fair spot. Put more Gnoll Senior Guards in the Watch! Maybe not as Watch Captain; I understand Drakes would be hesitant if it looked like we were taking over. But give us a say in places that matter. Do that, and we’re already further ahead than we’ve ever been.”
Relc was writing this down. This was exactly what Zevara had said. Come to it…his claw slowed.
This was what the Silverfangs had done in Liscor. He looked at Relin.
“If you got…let’s say. Three slots on the Council, uh, a third of the Senior Guards in the Watch as Gnolls. Would that stop the riots?”
The [Cafe Manager] sat there. He looked at Relc, and sighed, putting his tea cup down, untouched.
“We’ve waited a long time, Guardsman Relc. That would be progress. That would be more than I could dream of, realistically. Are you asking if it would stop the riots? Maybe. Probably. Is it enough? Never. But if we had that, I could believe Cellidel would get better. Give us hope. Give us tangible progress. That’s what we’re lacking. Without it? This.”
He waved a paw at the burnt wreckage. Relc nodded slowly. He stared at the list. How was he supposed to get Senior Guards into the Watch? There weren’t enough active-duty Gnolls to even fill that slot, and Senior Guards needed mass approval.
If we got Gnolls to vouch for them…it would probably fit the requirements. But you need more Gnolls or you won’t get the right ones. Not everyone can be a Senior Guard. So you need more Gnolls in the Watch. But who wants to join up when Pos is there? As for the Council?
His head hurt. But he felt like there was something there. At least he had Relin’s perspective. That was something.
“Thank you, Honored Relin. Can I call on you again? To ask more questions?”
“Any time, Guardsman Relc. I hope you can help. And if I can say—”
The two were rising and shaking hands when Relc saw the quiet, practically empty cafe’s back doors open. A voice called out.
“I can still smell her, father. It’s—it’s in my mind. I can still—”
A Gnoll came stumbling out of the back, far younger than Relin himself. He looked pale, haunted. His fur smelled of soot and some of it was burned along his paw and legs. Relc stopped. Relin turned quickly.
“Ashel, we have a guest. Senior Guardsman Relc, my son. He’s been resting. Go inside, Ashel.”
The young man had stopped the instant he saw Relc at the table. One look conveyed so many things. Sudden terror, apprehension, guilt…
Relief? Then the young man started. Relin stepped over, guiding Ashel back. Relc stood there.
Oh no. Suddenly, a few things Relin had said, his certainty, fit into place. Relc stared at Ashel. Burnt fur? I can smell her?
When people thought of crimes, they used to think of the [Serial Killer] Relc and Klbkch had caught one time. Yet even that was gathering a bit of evidence, seeing a pattern, and waiting.
Many crimes? They were…easy. If there were hard crimes, it was career-criminals who knew how to run and hide.
“Mister Ashel, isn’t it?”
The two Gnolls stopped. Relc spoke, around a leaden feeling in his stomach. He willed himself to be wrong. Relin had turned. So had Ashel, and the look on his face…
“Senior Guardsman, my son is tired. He was…caught up in putting out the fire. Perhaps we can speak another time?”
Relin looked at Relc. And again, the Drake hesitated. It would be so easy to agree. He didn’t know anything.
Except he knew. Except one look was enough. He was not on duty, but he’d brought his badge, hadn’t he? Relc stared down at it.
If he turned away, did the light fade? Or would it fade now? He didn’t know. But he knew what Zevara would do.
“I won’t be long, Honored Relin. I would just like to ask your son something about yesterday. Just for a second. We are still seeking the individuals involved in the death of that [Shopkeeper]. Could I ask…?”
Ashel was shaking as Relc stepped forwards. Some of the people gathered around the stall were turning, as Relin blocked Relc’s way.
“Guardsman Relc. Please.”
That was all he said. He looked Relc in the eye. Relc had to force himself to meet Relin’s gaze.
“I’m a [Guardsman of Trust], Relin. I do not choose to do my duty, but I must be fair. Fair. As we said. I only need to ask one thing, Ashel. [The Law Upheld]. Can you tell me what happened last night?”
Relin closed his eyes. Tears began to fall from the corners.
“I…didn’t think she’d be there. It was—”
The [Cafe Manager] collapsed into a chair as Senior Guardsman Relc reached for his side, and realized he had no cuffs. He didn’t bother to cuff Ashel.
But he did arrest him. Gnolls saw the Drake clasp Ashel’s arms behind his back. They began to shout. Then bombard Relc. He had to blow a whistle to call for backup. By the end of the hour, he had arrested a murderer.
His name tarnished as fast as people could speak it. How quickly it happened, even if you did your job. That was why…Relc came to a conclusion as a rain of stones pelted off the Watch House’s windows and roofs.
That was why it couldn’t be one person. Everything was wrong. He stared at the report he was writing and felt the second puzzle he was working on, even more complex and invisible than the Gizeal Puzzle, tangle even further in his head.
Here is how it broke down. After Relc arrested Ashel, he and Tesy fought. About the arrest. About having to arrest Ashel.
Relc went to work in the evening. He stood in line with the other [Guards] as they blocked a road, pelted by debris. That was easy.
The crowd screamed, like enemy soldiers, but altogether too close. The other [Guards] were tense. Terrified.
Like rookie [Soldiers] facing their first battle. No wonder they lashed out and tried to break up gatherings. They knew they were outnumbered, and panicked.
Relc? Relc had charged alone into that mass, into what looked like death. He faced them down quietly. It was not bravery, or a kind of superior resolve. If anything, it was a greater cowardice.
He knew he’d survive. Even if a thousand civilians charged their lines, and every [Guard] ran—he, Relc, would live. He could run faster, take more on. Relc could afford not to kill the Shank Gang because he was high-enough level to take the risk.
It wasn’t about him. It was about them. Why couldn’t they just treat Gnolls like…?
And why did those bastards have to make it so damn hard? Yes, protest! Yes, be angry! But this?
Bottles of piss and crap were the least of what hit the [Guards] these days. The [Anarchists] were great teachers. They showered the [Guards] with sewage waste, telling them to experience what people had suffered through for months. They tossed rocks, some with deadly accuracy.
And when you arrested them? They could undo your cuffs, all but the magical ones, and run off, blend with the crowd. The worst had camouflage Skills—they were specialists at fighting the law. Relc endured the hail of projectiles, protecting his face at all costs. That was when he saw it.
“Fire flask! Get out of the way!”
The first alchemical weapon arced through the air. [Guards] tried to break formation and run, but it was too late. It showered over them, burning two badly as the liquid gel clung to armor and burned. Relc saw the crowd draw back at this unexpected display of violence.
“Stop right there!”
He charged at the figure who’d thrown it. The [Dissident] had not expected that. They turned to run. Relc tackled them, civilians scattering out of the way.
“Get off me, you Creler-bastard! You armored—”
He ignored the punches and cuffed the shouting Gnoll. Relc got to his feet, looking back at the [Guards].
“One for lockup! Use of a deadly weapon on [Guards]!”
He bellowed as the crowd shouted at him to let go! Relc dragged the Gnoll back, ignoring blows, kicks that came out of the crowd from the friends of the fire-thrower. He only looked back when he felt a strange feeling.
Weightlessness. He realized he was dragging air. The Gnoll was bolting away, having freed himself from the manacles via a Skill. Relc stared.
The Gnoll was leaping, vaulting a wagon, running for it. Relc ran after them. He bellowed again.
The Gnoll ran for a corner and Relc knew he’d lose him if he turned the corner. In this short sprint, the [Dissident] was faster than the Gecko. Probably [Outrun the Law] or something. Relc would never catch up. So he raised his spear, whirled it so the butt was facing the Gnoll, not the spear tip, and threw.
The cast caught the Gnoll in the legs. Relc was on the [Dissident], not a high-level [Anarchist] or anything, in moments. He got the criminal.
He also broke the Gnoll’s leg. Relc had given the kid every chance, but it was a bad break and the screaming boy was loaded into the prisoner wagon. She had tossed a fire flask at a group of [Guards]. Clear assault. He’d broken her leg, to stop her fleeing.
All these things were facts. Relc had acted as he thought best in the moment. Presumably, Tesy acted in what he thought was the best way too, when he heard.
The next Sellme picture was of a huge, brutish Drake that looked like Relc breaking a Gnoll’s leg.
“There has to be something I’m missing. Work, damn you.”
That morning (he was on night shift), Relc stared blearily at the object in front of him. He was no longer smiling. He was no longer happy.
It mocked him. The Gizeal Puzzle sat there, and Relc was getting to the point many people got to hours, and in this case, days before he did.
Why won’t this damn puzzle just solve itself? It was at the point where he had used every trick, fiddled with it to no avail for hours and it just…wouldn’t…work.
After twenty eight puzzles, Relc had run into a problem that had stumped him for the last six days. In between trying to solve Cellidel’s crises, getting pelted by trash, having to arrest that poor kid who’d burned down the stall, he’d been coming home to work on this cube. It had been fun. Right up until this point.
Relc stared at the magical box. Apparently, there was some last puzzle that let you…open the damned box and get at the countless more inside, but Relc couldn’t figure it out. It frustrated him because he knew there was just one last thing.
Countless compartments, sliding panels, and even indentations along the outside had been opened, their contents plundered, and neatly reset. They added up to three shining keys, each of which fit into the locks Relc had seen on first inspection.
All three keys were in the locks. He’d unveiled the hole and pieced together the missing component that would let the cube turn and open, exposing the next layer…
What was he missing? Relc stared at the cube. There was one thing, he was sure. And he…couldn’t find it. One magical arrow to slay his problems. The cube mocked him.
It was a metaphor for his life and Relc was about to punch it.
Sellme’s picture painted a target on Relc. People knew Senior Guardsman Relc as the Drake who’d taken down the Shank Gang. They also knew he’d arrested Relin’s son.
And this painting? Well. How quickly they forgot. Or maybe it just failed to matter, despite Relc risking his life and everything. Relc stomped into the Watch House and halted.
Watch Captain Terigrals took one look at the tired, filthy [Guards] and they drew up. Their grousing, shouting, died down.
Relc saluted. Terigrals looked at Relc. Actually…looked at him.
The two didn’t see eye-to-eye on anything. Especially because Relc was taller. But Terigrals had the gaze of someone haunted. Worn down by this unrest.
“Guards, fall in.”
The Watch Sergeant barked. She looked nervous. Relc stood in line, smelling the stink of countless foul odors. Outside, their replacements were already shouting for the crowds to move back.
“Guardsmen, Guardswomen. You’ve worked splendidly this day. As you have every day. I’ve come to talk to you—personally. The riots have gotten worse. Two more buildings have been torched. I won’t lie to you. I might, to the rookies, but not to you. These [Rebels] and Sellme are tearing this city down, piece by piece. The Council is worried. More citizens are seeing the Watch do their utmost, but these…fools…!”
Terigrals gave his speech and the back of Relc’s neck prickled. You did not want to see your Watch Captain displaying emotion like this. Being uncontrolled like this. He felt the unease among Cellidel’s ranks.
Ironically, he respected Captain Zevara a lot more now. She had faced down undead hordes, the Goblin Lord, and monster attacks and not cracked. Terigrals?
He was on the edge. The old Drake was pacing. Another bad move unless it was excited pacing, like ‘let’s get over that hill and take it to them, lads!’ kind of pacing. He came out with it, slowly stopping and looking at them.
“…Given the unrest, the Council has come to a decision. I protested against, but…the army is moving back from its deployment along the Gnoll Plains. Six whole companies, and more if need be.”
The Watch stirred. Relc’s eyes widened. He spoke before he could help himself.
“That’s a bad idea, sir.”
Some of the [Guards] turned. The Watch Sergeant opened her mouth to bawl him out, but Terigrals nodded. He looked Relc in the eye. He might not have been a good Watch Captain, or even a decent one. But he was still a Watch Captain.
“Tesy. Open up. Tesy.”
Relc rapped on the door. He still stank, and Vok, holding a paw over his nose, was staring. Some Gnolls had come out of their rooms to complain, but they stopped when they saw Relc.
The Drake knew that the [Painter] was inside. He had heard voices before he began knocking. Multiple voices.
“Tesy, it’s Relc. I am not on duty. I need to talk to you.”
He heard a voice from within. A loud whisper before it was silenced.
“It’s the fucking boots!”
Relc sighed. No guesses on who was keeping company with Tesy. ‘Boots’ was a name for the Watch. He knocked harder.
“Tesy, I have to talk to you! Something’s happening!”
“I’m busy, Relc. Go away!”
There was a moment of silence. Then Tesy snapped back, in his usual way.
“Well, this is my room, and I’m not opening the door. By law, the same law you protect, you can’t come in. So knock as much as you want and I’ll call the Watch. Or the [Landlord]. Oh, wait. What a coincidence—”
There was laughter from within. Relc lost his patience. He stepped back.
“I am going to kick down this door in three seconds. Three.”
“Whoa, is he serious?”
Vok yelped. Tesy had gone silent within. It might have been an idle threat from anyone else; cheap as they were, the doors were still…doors. Relc? One look at his face made everyone step back.
Tesy yanked open the door. He glared up at Relc. Half a dozen figures ducked back, warily, as Relc folded his arms. Relc thought he even recognized two.
“You’re breaking the law. How dare—”
“Under the law, I can open any door I need to. Martial law has been declared, Tesy. The Watch isn’t the only force on the streets. Six companies of the army have been called in.”
Vok and the others listening gasped. Tesy stared up at Relc. Relc watched the [Painter]’s expression. He wasn’t surprised. Nor were the others. They stirred, almost eagerly.
“The boots are getting the Golem-brains as backup. Oh wow, are we supposed to be scared?”
Golem-brains? It must mean ‘soldiers’. Relc got the insult. He stared at the group inside. They didn’t seem nervous. But then—they might be like Tesy. The best at what they did.
“Is that all? I don’t see why you’re warning me.”
“I know who you have in there.”
Relc saw the group tense. He stared past Tesy and spoke for everyone to hear. He looked at Tesy, really looked at him.
“The Watch are not [Soldiers], Tesy. We’re not great. But do you think the army is better? There will be [Soldiers] on the streets, and they know nothing about crowd-control. They know how to fight. The instant someone throws a bottle of fire at them, they’ll attack back.”
“And that’s different from the Watch, how?”
A Gnoll sneered. Relc glared past Tesy; the Gnoll had a black eye and a wet cloth over it.
“Watchmen don’t use their blades on civilians. It’s going to be ugly. Tesy, if you know anyone who’s…making this worse, tell them not to lead civilians straight into Cellidel’s army. Not unless you’re trying to get innocent people killed.”
Tesy stiffened. So did the group behind him.
“You think we’re stupid, Guardsman? We know how to fight—”
Someone kicked the speaker. Relc just stared past Tesy.
“I just bet. But everyone else in a mob doesn’t. Vok—that goes for everyone here. Keep inside. It’s going to get worse.”
The army wasn’t a sign order was restored. It was a sign things had gone from bad to worse. [Soldiers] were bad at keeping order, as Relc had said. And even if they did bring in twice as many companies? They were still outnumbered. It just meant the [Soldiers] would fight civilians. Sure, they might be better at that, but it meant Cellidel was going to war with itself.
“Is that all, Relc?”
Tesy glared up at him. Relc nodded.
The door slammed in front of his face. Relc debated kicking it in. Then he turned and stomped off.
The [Anarchists] were good at fighting. Relc thought about it as he had a patrol free from crowds protesting for once. Six of Cellidel’s companies were in the city, and they had frightened the angry mobs into hiding. It wouldn’t last; Relc had already seen figures pitching pots and stuff from rooftops at [Soldiers] who weren’t allowed to shoot back. Once the people lost their fear of the armored faces and weapons, it would get bad. Then a [Soldier] would snap…
It was like the stupid Gizeal Puzzle. He was running out of time. He wasn’t smart, but Relc had to find the solution! How did you reestablish trust in the Watch, alter the mentality of the governing bodies, put Gnolls into power…stop Sellme and his lot…
Well, I could always beat all of them up. Relc thought if he kicked the door down and just arrested everyone inside Tesy’s room, he might get most of the highest-leveled ones.
“I just don’t get it. What am I supposed to do?”
The Drake rubbed at his head. The gang of six young people stared at him, frozen in the act of stealing from a shop. The terrified [Shopkeeper] peered over a counter as the getaway wagon’s horses snorted.
A Gnoll lad with a dagger glanced at Relc, and his eyes slid sideways to his buddies. He had five friends, and his eyes flickered to a point behind Relc. The Senior Guard waved a claw at them.
“So, okay, here’s my problem. You’re looters. Thieves. I dunno. Is your class…[Robber] or just [Thief]? Where do you start? Not the problem. Obviously, you’re committing a crime. On the other tail…it’s bad in the city. People are hungry. This is a food shop, but you’re also stealing the safe. So I don’t know your motivations.”
Relc was ticking off points on his claw. The six [Thieves] hesitated. What the heck was he doing? Some people looked out from their hiding places.
A figure burst out from the cover of the wagon. A much larger Gnoll lunged at Relc’s back with a club swinging.
Relc turned, punched the Gnoll into the wagon, and turned back to the six. The Gnoll [Thug] lay with his head resting against the cracked wood splintered from the impact. The six young people were now terrified blocks of ice.
“See, that was a career criminal. I can arrest him, put him away because he’s clearly done that for a while. But you? Let’s say I arrest you. Do you put up a fight?”
Relc stared at the shaking dagger in the Gnoll boy’s hand.
“If I punch you, I have to take you to the [Healer]’s. If I was a lower-level [Guard] I’d probably use a crossbow rather than tangle with six fighters at once, or not spare my club or sword. That’s two and a half silver pieces. See, the [Healers] give us a discount, but the average price of tending to someone we apprehend is two and a half silver. Per person. That adds up! I got that from my Watch Captain.”
Relc had a list of figures. He consulted it, glancing up at the six youths.
“Of course, if I hit someone it’s two or three times that, especially if I break their bones.”
They began to tremble. The [Thug] was still just lying there, completely unconscious. Relc sighed.
“Best case scenario, I don’t beat you up, but I arrest you. It still costs the city money to put you in lockup, and feed you, and put you into a jail cell. But you know what my old Watch Captain said? It costs the city more because now you have a record, and you’re more likely to get a less well-paid job, and that makes you more likely to do this again.”
He rubbed at his head. Four Gnolls, two Drakes. Species didn’t matter; they were all poor kids.
“So how do you stop that? I mean, if you want to be really…evil…the easiest way to stop crime forever is to kill you all. But I’m a [Guardsman].”
A Gnoll girl whispered. There were six of them, but they were scrawny, underfed young adults. Relc? He was a six foot six tall Drake, who weighed twice as much as any two of them without his armor, with muscles that Magus Grimalkin had once called ‘impressive’.
Relc waved a claw.
“No, no. That’s just exploring every option. I had no idea what to do, but see, in Liscor, we actually have a system. If there were some brats like you who did this, we’d haul them off, and make you join the army, or work in a mandatory job for two weeks. You even get paid. It’s ingenious, you see? You might even get your class if you’re apprenticed to fillet fish for a month. Or you join the army…that’s how I got into it. Cellidel? I arrest you, and you’re always ‘criminals’.”
That was the Gnoll problem, in a way. You arrested a drunkard? They had a record and no one, Drake or Gnoll, wanted to hire a criminal. Nevermind that the offense was slight. And that was the other key. That little street-kid that Pos had grabbed he let go. Vok? He’d been ready to arrest Vok for having a tussle with his friends.
The street kid had stolen. Vok had arguably been in a fight with other people who were eager participants, he might have even been defending himself. In both cases, neither one was a huge criminal, but the difference was species.
Which was stupid. Relc laid this out for the six kids as he slapped the [Thug] into cuffs. The big Drake turned to the six, who’d dropped their weapons.
“So what’s my solution here? Do I go full-Relc and break some legs? Do I arrest you?”
They looked at each other, too afraid to say anything to the [Guardsman] who was clearly losing his mind. Relc sighed. He picked up the groaning [Thug] and looked at the kids.
“Alright. I can see we’re not getting anywhere. So.”
They tensed. Relc stared at them, terribly, frighteningly silent. Then he waved a claw.
“…Get lost. If I see you again, I’m arresting you.”
The six [Thieves] stared at each other. Relc glared. They fled. He turned to the [Shopkeeper], who was staring at her ruined shop and the weapons lying on the ground. Relc sighed.
“See, even if I do that, the damage is still done. So who pays for the shop? We’ve already lost gold, and so the problem with crime is—if it happens, we’ve already lost. But then again…”
Relc’s head hurt. It hurt day and night. He was thinking so hard he thought his brain was going to come out his earholes.
People were dying. Two civilians were dead, and one [Soldier]. Relc had not been there; he’d arrested the [Thug] and heard about it. Of course, the army said the [Soldier] had died and they’d defended themselves.
Three people were dead. And everyone, Drakes and Gnolls, were turning on the army. And Watch.
‘Like the blood on your boots, you monster?’
Relc stared at the scrawl on his door in red paint. He chewed on the Prelon, glanced around. He saw a face duck back behind a corner. Tesy’s friend?
Relc shrugged. The half-eaten Prelon hit the graffiti-artist so hard it knocked them flat. Then he went inside and stared at the Gizeal Puzzle.
He sat down, prodded it. Shook it. Turned it upside down. Inspected the keys, fiddled with them. Hummed. Shone some light on various places. Re-checked some of the puzzles. Used the magnifying glass to peer around…and then realized someone had peed on his door along with drawing on it.
The roar woke up the entire apartment complex. Vok, practicing with Hickery, looked up just in time to see Relc throw the Gizeal Puzzle through his wall, the railing, and into the courtyard below.
The shattered wood and stone rained down as Hickery and Vok scrambled away, staring. Relc stood in his ruined apartment, staring at the door. It had a huge hole in it, and so did the balcony, now missing a guardrail. He closed his eyes.
Someone had to pay for that. That…that was a Tesy move right there. He didn’t have to pay for what was burned down.
A frozen [Dissident] was holding a paintbrush just in front of the hole next to her head. She looked at Relc and ran away, screaming.
Relc slowly descended into the courtyard to pick up the broken puzzle. To his amazement, he saw the cube was lying on its side. Intact. Relc stared at it.
Then he saw one of the glass panels light up, and glittering words projected themselves a few feet into the air. The Drake…read the words.
Feeling annoyed or frustrated? Contact Archmage Valeterisa or the Terras faction of Wistram for support, hints, tips, and tricks for a nominal fee!
Relc’s lower left eyelid twitched. He opened and clenched his claws, then saw a second message appear, tracing itself underneath the writing.
Of course, a true mind would solve any puzzle without help.
Relc muttered. People were coming out of their rooms and the [Landlord] was staring up at the devastation and at Relc. He looked at the puzzle. Then he started laughing.
It wasn’t happy laughter. But at least he laughed for a second.
The worst fighting took place the next day. Relc was sleeping in his new room, after paying a lot of money for repairs and helping board up the railing one moment.
The next? It felt like he was sweltering in the hot armor, underneath the helmet he had to wear to protect himself from projectiles.
“Stay back! Do not throw objects!”
The civilians were…counter levelling. This mob was the latest to attack Relc and the Watch, who were deployed alongside six companies of the army. The thing was—they weren’t levelling as [Warriors] or [Soldiers].
Why would they? The Watch had handcuffs out. Oh, they smashed heads, knocked people back, but they weren’t killing anyone. People were dying or getting hurt, but for all Tesy and his friends called it ‘blood on their boots’, Relc longed to tell them this wasn’t a war.
If it was a war? He held his shield up, holding back the impacts from people smashing clubs, makeshift weapons on it. He stared into a snarling Gnoll woman’s face.
They’d all be dead. He could almost see someone stabbing her, running her through before a [Mage] threw a [Fireball] into the crowd. It would be so easy…too easy.
The [Mage] cast a spell.
“[Sticky Webs]! [Earbreak Siren]!”
The wail of sound made every Gnoll scream and clap their paws to their ears. It hurt Relc, and his hearing was way worse. The sticky webs tangled people up. He relaxed a bit, but they would come back. They always did.
The hours on duty were beginning to blend together. There was just the mob, chasing after [Looters], being hit by projectiles from roofs or windows, until it was time to stop. A [Guard] shouted.
“They’re coming down Greywater Street! They’ve got weapons!”
Relc heard groans. He turned with the wall of [Guards] and set himself. He was miserable, filthy, hot…
But what hurt most was when he saw the new group being led by the kids holding familiar training spears.
The Senior Guardsman stopped. So did the four Gnolls he vaguely recognized. They had proper training spears. Tipped with only wood, but someone had taken shards of knife blades or something else and attached them to form a killing weapon. Relc saw them holding the spears at guard-rest, ready to stab or whirl up.
Just like he’d taught them.
They hadn’t expected to run into Relc. They stared at the Senior Guardsman, who was identifiable from his badge. And from his size and the spear he carried.
The Watch slowed as one of their number broke ranks and advanced forwards. Relc ignored the calls to come back. He wasn’t afraid.
He was…angry. The four spear-wielders hesitated, but someone was egging them on. They were probably the vanguard of this group; able to actually harass anyone. Were they [Looters]? Were Pos and Terigrals right?
“I said, drop them! Now!”
They wavered, but refused to drop them. The crowd was jeering, but they backed up a bit. Nevertheless…Relc saw a butcher’s cleaver, a pitchfork, a pruning scythe—all deadly weapons if you swung them right. He halted; if he came into close contact with the crowd, they’d be all over him.
He didn’t need to. He looked at the makeshift weapons and the four spears. They were real weapons. You could kill someone with anything. A rock, a stick. But…
A spear? He brought up his enchanted spear and the four trainees flinched. One jabbed, but Relc knew the length of his spear and thus, theirs, perfectly. He swung his around so the butt, the plain wooden end, faced them.
Relc took a step forwards. And the trainees saw his spear rise.
Such a…long weapon. Not as long as a pike, or the weapons that could reach over ten feet. Even so. Eight feet long, taller than Relc. The kind of weapon he always lugged around, using as a walking staff, back-scratcher, balance-beam…
Until he held it, and you realized how long it was. How simple. A piece of metal on the end of a shaft of wood. But unlike a pitchfork, it was designed to be simple. It had one purpose, which meant it could be so many things.
If you choked up on it, it was a short, slashing, jabbing weapon. You could plant it in the ground, use it as a quarterstaff. And…
The [Spearmaster] took two more steps in. The four spears rose. The trainees knew what he was doing. The long-range thrust was simple, basic, and even a child could pick it up. Anyone could dodge it, in theory.
But an entire rank of spears jabbing you before your stupid little swords even got close enough to swing? That was how you won a war. They aimed at Relc. He might be strong, but—
They realized he was stepping in. The spears wavered. Relc’s own spear shot forwards. One of the trainees recoiled.
The flat of the spear’s base tapped a skull. The spear-holder stumbled, nearly went down. One of the Gnolls tried to stab at Relc, but one-handed he slapped the tip of her spear down.
Contemptuously. Relc’s eyes were staring. They had never seen it, not in all of the morning practices. A stare as focused as the edge of a blade.
You think that’s a stab? He could knock it astray with a claw. It would never penetrate armor.
“I’ll block him! I’ll—”
Some idiot had a shield. A big kid, maybe twenty years old, held a half-rusted shield up. Sloppy.
Relc hit him in the stomach and he doubled over, puking. His spear jabbed. Once, twice…
People screamed. He was hitting them hard. Not hard enough to break bones, but only just. A few began to run forwards. They ended up on the ground, curled up. One tried to charge and ran into a spear that hit them so hard in the knee they curled up, clutching at it.
The spear-holders saw Relc standing there. Just…standing. Daring the crowd to advance. He hadn’t even used his Skills. If he reversed the spear, if he used [Spear Flurry]? Could they even get close to him before he killed them all? They would have to climb over the dead bodies impaled by that spear.
“That’s your last lesson.”
The Drake spoke, and the Gnoll kids started. As if he could read their minds. They looked at the spears they held. Then…
At the [Spearmaster]. Relc stood there, holding down the entire street. No one could block, or dodge, that simple thrust that broke every block, and was impossible to knock aside. A spear thrust.
Three spears hit the ground. The crowd backed up. Relc picked up the four spears, letting the last trainee he’d knocked down stumble away.
“Relc. Aren’t you going t—”
The Watch had seen the entire tableau take place. They looked after the four spear-wielders as they hurried off. Their instinct was to arrest them.
Relc held up one of the spears he’d made for them. A good, strong shaft of wood…with a shard of glass attached. Was there blood dried on the tip? He stared at it. Then—held it out lengthwise, and flexed it with his arms.
The spear cracked. He snapped it with a grunt. Tossed it down.
The [Guards] stared as Relc did the same with the other three spears. Someone muttered an uneasy oath.
You…should not have been able to do that to a spear. Not with regular strength.
“Let’s keep working.”
Relc walked back to them.
No one said a word. Especially about going after the other trainees.
Relc marched with them in silence. He needed to go home. He needed…his partner.
Klbkch. Not the Slayer. Not Klbkch the Revalantor. Good old Klbkch. Relc was a Drake alone. In this moment, he was with the Watch. But a Senior Guard needed a partner.
Klbkch could have stopped that idiot instead of me needing to break her leg. He’d have tripped her up. He’d be the one telling me not to teach kids how to use deadly weapons. He’d…have a solution.
I miss Klbkch.
In that moment, Relc realized something. He missed Klbkch. Needed his buddy.
Possibly…perhaps…Klbkch needed Relc too. To be the relaxed guy. To be the Drake instead of the uptight Antinium. To tell him Pawn was okay. Relc should have been a better buddy, rather than let Klbkch get to where he had. He’d leaned on Klbkch so long that without him, Relc kept falling over.
Maybe the two friends needed each other. That was a nice thought. Could Relc send him a letter? Did the Antinium take mail? Maybe—
The screaming made Relc break out of his thoughts. He saw the Watch halt, in confusion.
A rush of people were charging down the street. Reflexively, the Watch brought up their shields and clubs, but they weren’t here to fight.
They were running. Relc saw masks, helmets and hoods askew, tools to keep them from being identified forgotten. People running, blood on their clothing. Blood, open cuts, wounds…
He heard a familiar roar behind them. Voices raised in anger, until you forgot there were words.
Cellidel’s army came down the street, [Soldiers], Drakes advancing in tight-knit formation, blood on their blades, following the crowd they’d clashed with.
The Watch Sergeant gasped. The crowd fled around the Watch, screaming, a few people falling, being trampled. Relc saw the [Soldiers] coming on.
Not in a mass like the crowd. In formation. That was the scary thing. They were out for blood, but they fought like a unit. Unless they were greatly outnumbered, they’d crush a mob, [Anarchists] or not.
“Watch Sergeant! They’re going to run the civilians down!”
One of the Senior Guards barked in horror. He saw a [Soldier] kicking at a fallen figure as they marched after the crowd. Relc guessed someone had killed one of the [Soldiers], and they were out for blood.
The army sticks together. The Watch Sergeant tore herself out of her stupor. Hatred for her or not, she was still a Watch Sergeant. She took a breath and bellowed into the stone that magnified her voice.
“This is the Watch! Hold your ground! We have this street under control!”
The [Soldiers] didn’t stop. They had some kind of [Captain] or [Lieutenant], Relc saw. The [Captain] was bloody-faced. Idiot didn’t have a helmet. The officer pointed and a wall of armed Drakes came at the Watch.
The Watch backed up. If there was a hierarchy of violence, they were also below the army. And the [Soldiers] saw the crowd pressed around the Watch. They saw the opportunity to trap the same people who’d been deviling them for the last four days. Take vengeance.
“Back up! Let the civilians run! Back up—”
The Watch tried to move to let the others escape, but they were hemmed in by the press of terrified people. Relc saw everyone shoving, and the [Soldiers] were pounding forwards, roaring…
“Watch Sergeant. I can stop them. Give me permission.”
A hand grabbed the Sergeant as she shouted, pushing frantically. She turned.
Senior Guardsman Relc stared at her, amid the blood and terrified faces, people pleading, screaming. His face was covered in grime, and the helmet, but his bright yellow eyes locked on hers. She held his gaze in that infinite time when everything seemed slow and fast.
Not an immortal moment. But…then the Watch Sergeant nodded.
“Go. Clear ranks!”
The Watch moved back as a [Guard] strode through the civilians, pushing through them like a rock through the current. The [Soldiers] saw a solo figure break through the wall of bodies with their backs to them.
They didn’t slow. Why would they? The Drake was big, but he was one Drake. And they were an army.
They did slow when they heard the voice. It was a bark. Not a roar. A loud voice. It had more than just volume to it; it was the voice in your earhole, that you didn’t ignore.
“Company, halt! Move your tails and I will pluck them off and shove them so far up your behinds you can chew on them!”
The [Soldiers] skidded to an uncertain stop. The voice was unfamiliar. The threat? Even the other [Sergeants] winced and stopped.
The [Captain], blood running down his face, stared at the Senior Guardsman. He looked at his company.
“What are you waiting for? Advance! I said, advance! Get those b—those criminals!”
The [Soldiers] stepped forwards uncertainly. The spear-Drake planted his spear on the ground.
“Take one more step and I will arrest you and you will be eating soup out of your boots for the rest of your lives! This is not a war!”
“I said, forwards!”
The [Captain] was losing the shouting match. But he was the [Captain]. The [Soldiers] hesitated.
Then Relc lowered his spear. He took a posture they all recognized. The [Spearman]’s guard. As if he were in formation.
“Come any closer and I will run you through.”
That was when the [Dangersenses] began to go off. A [Sergeant], a fellow officer, met the eyes of the [Sergeant] standing across from him.
“Captain. That’s…a high-level [Soldier].”
The [Captain] felt it too. One second he was clutching at a burning face, enraged beyond belief, running down the pests who were attacking his people.
The next? The air felt hot. He felt as if he were standing on the battlefield, facing down an army.
“Who the fuck is that?”
He looked around. The [Soldiers] had no clue. But now they were at a dead stop. Threats aside…they did not want to advance.
The civilians and Watch had slowed their mad flight. They turned back to look at the lone [Spearmaster] holding down an entire company of Cellidel.
“The 2nd Spears will advance on the enemy!”
The [Captain] roared. He activated a Skill. [Reinforce Will]. The [Soldiers]’ weapons swung up. Relc cursed. He stared at the [Captain].
“Alright, you Creler-brained idiot. Do you want a war?”
The [Spearmaster]’s posture lowered further. He was crouched along his spear, but no longer in a set stance. Like a springer, his weight shifted from his back foot to the front.
A hunting posture. Like an animal. His head lowered further. Beneath his helm, two bright yellow orbs stared at the [Soldiers].
Their blood chilled. That was…not the look a person gave them. It was like an animal staring at them. Or the kind of veterans of so many battles that these low-level [Soldiers] couldn’t even dream of how many blood-soaked grounds you had to see to look like that.
Then Relc activated his Skill. The Skill of battlefields. It had been a long, long time since he had used it. Not when Skinner attacked. Not when monsters threatened.
A Skill for the battlefield.
“[Officer Headhunter Mode].”
The [Captain] didn’t hear the voice. Yet he saw the air around Relc change. It turned…darker. He squinted, incredulous.
“What is that? What is…?”
The [Sergeant] glanced at his superior. Then he saw it too, and recoiled.
The street was the same. The Drake was the same in height, build. But what did they see lying there?
Bodies. Was that blood on his armor? The [Sergeant] and [Captain] saw a hand grasping out. A staring face.
A dead Drake, wearing epaulets and the crest of a city they didn’t know. Yet perfect in every detail. Someone who had once been; not a figment of their imagination. He stared at them through a hole in his throat.
Another Gnoll lay, her chest bloodied by three stab wounds that had gotten through her armor.
Officers, like them.
The [Spearmaster] stood with the dead officers lying around him. Crouched. The air smelled like blood.
The [Captain]’s eyes were wide. He saw his death on the tip of that spear. Now he knew the name. Now he remembered.
Did you hear there’s a Senior Guardsman in Cellidel? They say he was a [Soldier] once. Some kind of a stupid name. What was it, again? Oh, yes—
The Gecko of Liscor. Relc Grasstongue. The veteran who had slain countless officers in battle.
Laugh. Go ahead, laugh. What a funny name. What a…
The air stank like carrion. The [Captain] saw something lying there. He saw a body, reaching out, eyes blank, flesh rotting through the hole through the back of the head and mouth.
He looked himself in the eyes.
The [Soldiers] got only a fraction of Relc’s Skill. It was not for them. It was not an aura, but a directed attack. A buff, a boon to help Relc accomplish a deadly goal.
They smelled something. Looked back, saw the Captain’s dead white face under his scales. A [Soldier] stared down at the wet ground incredulously. The [Captain] choked on his words.
He turned. The [Soldiers] lost their unity. They turned, and backed up, bloodlust gone. Relc stood there, breathing heavily. He tasted blood. He went back in time and hated it.
It was…hard to stand up. When he did, though, his shoulders relaxed. He rubbed at his neck. When he turned around, to the silent crowd and Watch, it was Relc, Senior Guardsman Relc, who grinned and shrugged.
“See? I guess they can be reasonable after all.”
He smiled innocently. It was the better Relc who looked up at the sky and sighed. He put his spear over his shoulders.
“Man. I hate working hard.”
Relc was still shaken after signing out from the Watch House. Mind you—everyone was. The stares he got, the people who looked at him differently—it was why he hated it.
That mode terrified him. That Skill terrified him. Relc was sure he’d scared the [Captain] if the Drake actually wet himself, but Relc could have died on that street. It was…the scariest thing in the world, charging alone into enemy ranks. Kill the officer or don’t come back.
Well, both sides were scared. They’d started putting bounties on the Gecko before he’d quit. What kind of front-line officer wanted to go into battle knowing he might appear?
“Equal distribution of this sucks. That’s Relc-style.”
Relc smiled to himself, but he was shaken. Cellidel? Cellidel was a nightmare. The four trainees—
He was off-kilter. Yesterday, he had thrown his puzzle through a wall. Today, as dawn broke and he finally returned to the apartment complex?
The Senior Guardsman slowed as he saw the commotion. Shattered wood, broken shutters. A crowd of people, some with weapons—not a mob, but people afraid for their safety.
Then he saw the spear on the ground. The bloody tip. The Gnoll, surrounded by older adults.
Vok. The young man looked up as Relc moved through the crowd, knocking people aside.
“What did you do?”
Relc seized Vok. He lifted him off the ground as people scrambled back. Vok’s eyes went round as Relc ran him into a wall.
“What did you do?”
Vok, terrified, stared down into Relc’s face. Relc was snarling. His heart—he looked at Vok, his nose bloodied, one eye blackened and already swelling. He had two wounds on his body—Relc heard a roaring sound in his head, like the roar during battle that cut all but the most pressing sounds out—
“—Guardsman Relc! Senior Guardsman Relc, please!”
Someone was trying to grab him. They tried to break his grip, realized they had no chance, and tried talking.
“Vok didn’t do anything wrong! He was protecting us!”
Relc heard that. His eyes widened. His claws opened.
Vok dropped, coughing. He stared up at Relc as the Senior Guardsman stopped, and the murderous look on his face turned to one of confusion. He turned around and met the eyes of Vok’s parents. They stared at him wide-eyed, as did the [Landlord], and the other residents.
Relc took in the scene again. Broken bits of wood, shutters—the spear with blood on it. Evidence of a fight.
Vok had stopped a group of [Looters] trying to go through the apartments. The residents, hearing the short fight, had come out. His black eye was from someone who’d thought he was part of the gang and punched him before they realized what had happened.
Relc breathed again. He looked around, at Vok, at the crowd, and…breathed. In. Out. The Gecko faded. Senior Guardsman Relc worked his mouth.
Tesy watched Senior Guardsman Relc from one of the balconies as Relc stood in the courtyard, the reduced trainees standing around him after dawn. Vok stood there too, his injuries healed. Relc had given him a healing potion.
The [Painter] couldn’t understand it. Was this the same Drake who people said stopped an entire company of Cellidel’s Golem-minded bastards from slaughtering innocent people? There was a name on the wind, on people’s tongues that hadn’t been said for a long time.
Gecko. A silly name to insult your enemy. But also…
The Gecko of Liscor.
Tesy watched the huge Drake as Relc just stood there, spear in hand. Thinking.
The four Gnolls who had taken the spears for violence, to join the mob, weren’t here. If they had shown their faces…Relc looked at Vok.
But he had helped defend this place. Little Hickery was here, despite all that had happened to her. His spear-training classes gave the kids something to do. But it was teaching them a deadly weapon. So was Pos right, or Relc? Was neither?
Relc was tired, stressed out, and he really just wanted to sit in an inn and toss popcorn at a little Gnoll girl while he talked to a young Human woman as she played chess, or just sat with him. He wanted to poke a grumpy Antinium and…laugh.
But he was here. So he stood there, mind blank, until he thought of something.
“Oh. Wait a second. I’ve been teaching you all wrong.”
His students and their parents, including Vok’s parents, who had taken time off work, all blinked at Relc. He didn’t know what they thought of him, this weird Drake who was teaching their kids how to fight. Vok’s parents…certainly hadn’t seen Relc at his best.
Vok rubbed at his still-tender nose. The Senior Guardsman looked around. He could still feel the battle-rage, the same fury. That was the Gecko. No more. Not even if that was the Drake that Embria loved. He was the same kind of thing as the [Soldiers] ready to slaughter civilians.
“I’ve been teaching you all how to use a spear, guys. That’s…stupid. That’s my fault.”
“Aren’t you a [Spearmaster], Mister Relc?”
Hickery sneezed at the smells coming off him; he still hadn’t washed. Relc shook his head.
“I am. But you’re not. [Spearmasters] fight alone. Because we’re awesome. You’re not. You guys are kids. You’ve never fought a battle. You couldn’t beat one of those Cericel, even the weak ones.”
His students looked at each other. Was this ‘be mean to students day’? Relc went on.
“Vok nearly got himself killed because he tried to take on three guys. If it had been thirteen? He’d be dead.”
“I stabbed one!”
Vok protested, but weakly. Relc shook his head. He looked around with clear eyes. This apartment complex had been attacked. That was from looters, true, but how bad was it? The Watch fought with the mobs, and so did the army. No one was keeping order.
“Nah, nah. You’re doing it all wrong. I’m doing it all wrong. See, I can’t just teach you the spear. That’s…”
He stopped. Smiled sadly.
“…That’s just how you make a [Soldier]. A good one, but that’s all she knows. I should have…I should have taught her how to be a [Guard].”
Who was ‘she’? No one knew. Relc didn’t elaborate. He just looked around, then pointed.
“Hickery, you stand there. Right next to Vok. You, and you. Also next to him. Time for some lessons. Stand there. Spears up. That’s important.”
The students stood, confused, a group of four, side-by-side. What new spear-technique was that? Relc paced back and forth in front of them.
“You don’t lower your spears. You don’t fight unless you have to. That’s important. Rule number one? You don’t start the fight. Not unless it’s a monster. But you don’t let them come to you. If they’re inside the range of your spears, you’re in trouble. So here’s what you do. The first thing you do is issue a warning. Then you issue a second one. Only then are you allowed to lower your spears. Obviously, if the situation calls for it, you can go straight to defending yourself, but in cases where deadly force is employed, you should always try to give two warnings, got it?”
“But what if they’re attacking at night? What’s this about, Relc?”
Vok protested, confused. However, one of the parents watching was staring at Relc sharply. The rest were just perplexed. Relc looked at Vok, seriously. He faced the young Gnoll.
“Then you warn them. Twice. You don’t have to get close. You don’t have to argue with them. Warn them twice, then lower your spears. You don’t advance. You choose a spot, and hold them off while you shout for help. Most idiots can’t get past a good spear wall. You never advance into a fight. Hold the best defensive spot. That’s what rookies learn.”
His students looked at him, fascinated. Relc nodded to Hickery.
“Next? You never fight alone. You attack and defend in tandem. I should have taught you all that. You four, lower your spears.”
They did so. Relc stood in front of them.
“Imagine I’m a bad guy. I want you to jab as one. When I get close. Not by yourself, Hickery! Together!”
“But I have a Skill!”
“Yeah, but you’re still weaker than you are as a squad. That’s what rookies have to learn. Never leave your squad! Got it? You fight as a squad. I don’t care if someone’s wide open five feet away. You never leave your buddies. That’s how you die. Okay, give me a jab. We’ll all practice. One, two, three, four—”
He made them jab as one. They were uncoordinated because they’d never done this before. One of the adults watched as Relc exhorted them to watch each other, even coordinate breathing.
“Guardsman Relc, are you teaching these children to fight? My girl’s a bit too young for that!”
The mother protested nervously. Relc glanced up. He looked around and shook his head.
“No, Miss. I don’t want them to fight. But if they need to defend themselves…if someone comes calling, and there aren’t any adults around, I’d like them not to get hurt. This is just basic teamwork. Basic squad-work.”
“For the army?”
Relc smiled. He shook his head, and Tesy stared. One of the parents, Orell, murmured, as Relc jerked a thumb at the badge on his chest.
“Nah. That’s how [Guards] do it.”
Vok, Hickery, and the others all gaped at Relc. The Senior Guard turned to them, smiling.
“And it’s not all fighting, either. It’s a bad time in the city. No one’s safe. I wouldn’t teach you this normally, but you need to be safe. So here’s Rule #2. Never fight in alleyways. Never hide. You’re out in the open and you fight in the open because if people don’t see you, they don’t know if you’re doing the right thing or not. They know your names. So, here’s what we’re going to do…”
Before he slept that day, Senior Guardsman Relc did something for the first time in the apartment complex. He went from floor to floor, all six of them, and knocked on every door. There were hundreds of people in the complex, maybe as much as a thousand! Relc hammered on the doors, and when they came, irritated, some working night-shifts like him, they saw the big Drake smiling at them.
And Vok. And the squad of older Gnolls and Drakes holding their spears. Relc waved at the confuzzled people.
“Hey there. I’m just introducing myself. Senior Guardsman Relc. These are the uh, Apartment Trainees. They’ll be patrolling the block, so if you see them or hear a shout, watch out!”
Apartment Trainees? Vok had a piece of cloth on his head. Just a white headband. That mattered.
“Why are we knocking on doors, Relc? Shouldn’t we be practicing?”
“That’s only half the job, Vok. Sure, fighting is good. But the guy who punched you didn’t know you were on his side, right?”
Relc gestured at the family staring at Vok from within their small apartment. He had never met them before in his life, and had been tickled to see a Human. He nodded at them.
“Now they know who you are, and that you’re a good guy. That’s guardwork.”
And that was what Cellidel’s Watch lacked. Mind you, they were still far above the handful of rookies that Relc had decided to teach, but it beat them getting into trouble themselves. And they would; it was dangerous everywhere. If they were going to get hurt, Relc would prefer they had a fighting chance.
That was how he found himself giving them a crash course in, well…being a [Guard]. He roared to a large group, many of whom were forbidden from actively patrolling. Only those over sixteen could do that, but Hickery and children as well as interested civilians all attended his lecture.
“Listen up! You are not full-time [Guards]! You’re rookies! You are not instated by the city, and there aren’t enough of you. You have no armor, not enough training—so you’re defending this street. You don’t run out. You don’t break formation. And?”
He looked at Vok. The crowd chorused as one.
“You don’t lose your squad!”
“Exactly! So when you see trouble, you call in backup. You fall back until you’re safe. Not ‘we might win or lose’, but safe. You don’t pick fights, you just hold them off. Got it? If some bastards come calling, form up at the entrance to the plaza—here. Right by the gates. People on the higher floors chuck stuff at them. They’ll have to climb over the walls or go through you, and either way, they’ll run into a lot of spears. You can hold off an actual army like that. As long as they don’t have [Mages]. But if you do this? No mob or band of looters can get at you.”
What was he doing? Relc had no idea. He was forming a Watch out of kids and civilians. Yet…he had to. Law was failing, so in response, Relc made one in his apartment complex. He shouted at them, organized them into shifts and squads, and made sure they could hold off at least a Level 5 [Fighter] mob or make them think twice.
Exhausted, Relc lay down, too tired to even stare at that damned Gizeal Puzzle. He closed his eyes.
[Guardsman of Trust Level 22!]
[Skill – Squad: Incorruptible Watchmen obtained!]
[Guardsman of Trust], Level 24. That was Relc Grasstongue after a week. He didn’t understand it.
It wasn’t the fighting. It wasn’t facing down the mobs.
It was training Vok and the kids, and seeing them actually run off bands of opportunistic thieves, people preying on the weak during the chaos that did it.
Relc got one more Skill.
[Squad: Unity’s Coordination]. He assigned both to Vok’s ‘squad’, and the result was when one of the squad jabbed, they all did. They moved in lock-step, almost as good as a regular squad of [Guards].
Naturally, people noticed. Watch Captain Terigrals barked at Relc about ‘unauthorized training of civilians’. Some people came calling, asking if ‘Vok’s Squad’ could come and just walk around to keep the peace.
It was like…the Watch. It was a second Watch.
In another story, in another time, they might have become a citizen-militia, a Watch of younger people, with actual inclusion of Gnolls. Relc might have found himself the Watch Captain of a better Cellidel.
…But he wasn’t. He was not Zevara, and Relc knew it. It was tempting, to expand Vok’s trainee squads, to chase the next level.
However, he was a [Sergeant]. He had never risen in Liscor’s army or the Watch because he was good at being…a [Sergeant].
Moreover, this might have worked if not for Sellme. The [Painter] and his followers were tearing Cellidel apart.
An entire block of houses went down to fire. Who started it? [Anarchists], the Watch or [Soldiers]? An accident? No one put it out because there was no unity. The city…was being lost. It wasn’t ‘someone died in an accident this week’. It was multiple people, dying of wounds, dying by being trampled, every day.
Relc had heard of cities falling. Sometimes to monster attacks, sometimes to war. This was the first time he had witnessed every stage of a city eating itself.
And he couldn’t fix it. He got further. He worked at the problem, but like the Gizeal Puzzle, there was a point where he ran into impossibility. There…Relc counted eight hours of fruitlessly being stuck on the puzzle.
There had to be an answer, surely.
Tesy halted when he saw Relc. The Senior Guardsman lifted a cup.
“I’m buying this time. Come on in.”
The white-scaled Drake hesitated, then sat with Vok, across the bubbling pot of soup. It was over a small magical hot-plate that Relc had been lent.
“Smells good. Who made it?”
“Me. Vok’s mother gave us a nice soup stock. Prelon soup.”
“Dead gods, seriously?”
Relc burst out laughing. So did Vok, and they relaxed a bit. It had been a while since they’d met like this. But…well. Relc had invited Tesy and the [Painter] had finally agreed to rejoin their nightly—or daily—chats.
“Not really. It’s fish stuff. I have some Gnoll paste from Liscor. Nice stuff. I know how to cook one thing, a decent fish stew.”
“Really? I wouldn’t have guessed.”
The power of bachelors was not to be underestimated. Relc could make a decent fish stew! Spicy, with that lovely sour thrown in via the fish paste. Also? Relc’s secret ingredient was…butter. Just a bit of butter to make it rich.
It was an awkward meal in some places, at first. Tesy didn’t apologize. Relc didn’t bring up the [Anarchists]. Yet…there was a finality to the meal that Vok sensed. He didn’t know why Relc had invited Tesy.
They were on opposite sides. Vok didn’t know who Tesy was, but he guessed a high-level [Anarchist] who’d come to the city. He was almost completely right, and also wrong. Relc? Relc was the Senior Guard keeping this entire district from imploding.
They sat on opposite sides of the pot, making light conversation about the best kinds of fish. But then Relc put down his cup, offered the wine bottle around without giving Vok a half-cup like usual.
“Right then. Let’s talk. You know, Tesy, I’ve been talking to everyone about this Sellme thing. And the Watch.”
The [Painter] tensed slightly, his wine cup at his lips. He looked up at Relc, cool as a winter Prelon.
“Yeah? The Watch isn’t doing so well at keeping the peace.”
Relc smiled as Vok winced and tried to nudge Tesy. His eyes never wavered from Sellme’s face.
“No, they’re not. So I guess all the [Anarchists] talking about how corrupt and evil we are…are right. I’m tired. I get shit thrown on me all day. Actual poop. People are dying, the army’s making it worse…”
He stretched out, sighing as he stared at the ceiling.
“…I didn’t sign up for this. I might actually just quit. Leave the city, you know? Or stop being a [Guard]. This is stupid. I’m not the only one. You know, we lost eight [Guards] yesterday? No one wants to be in the Watch like this.”
Vok’s eyes went wide and he looked at Tesy. The [Painter] smiled thinly as his tail curled up.
“Yeah? You think so? Is less [Guardsmen]…good, Tesy?”
Relc fixed him with one eye. Tesy hesitated.
“It’s better than all the corruption. All the violence against Gnolls.”
“Right. But there’s also more theft, more violence, more crime. We need the Watch.”
“Not this Watch. This Watch protected the city, but only part of the city. Only the part that was like them.”
“I don’t think anyone’s seen Cellidel as bad as it is right now. Gnolls or Drakes.”
“You say that, but if you saw—”
Tesy’s heated voice was interrupted by a mutter from Vok.
The [Painter] looked at Vok. The Gnoll felt like an intruder in the confrontation, but he hunched his shoulders and spoke.
“Relc’s right, Tesy. It’s never been this bad. I don’t like the Watch, but this? This is really bad. Like…”
He searched for words.
“Creler-bad. You know?”
Tesy hesitated, thrown by the unexpected betrayal of the actual Gnoll in the room. Relc didn’t smile. He just sat there. Waiting.
“Tesy’s not wrong either, though. I just wondered…I wanted to ask you, Tesy. In case I don’t get another chance—what does the ideal Watch look like to you? The best city, even? Sellme’s pointed out a lot of problems, but how do you think we can fix it? You and your buddies, sorry.”
The [Painter]’s head snapped up. He gave Relc a searching look, and the [Spearmaster] just sipped at his wine.
That was the conversation of the night. Relc had tried Gnolls. He’d tried the Watch back at home. He’d tried his brain, never a good idea.
So he asked the Drake who spoke for the angry and the discontented.
Sellme and the Gecko of Liscor.
Relc and Tesy. Relc was smiling, gently. He was calm. He was tired beyond belief, worried, headache-y, or he had been—and worn down by banging his head against a wall.
Two walls. Something had given way today, though. He had received a [Message]. Not from Embria. Not from Zevara, both of whom were giving him regular correspondence and hang the cost.
He had received a [Message] from Bilt. The [Puzzle Merchant] was extremely apologetic. Almost in tears, really, if you could convey that from the [Message]. He had offered Relc a full refund, with deepest apologies.
It turns out the Gizeal Puzzle can’t be solved by non-[Mages]. I am so sorry, Relc. The Archmage of Izril keeps defending herself that all you need is a low-level spell, but…
Relc smiled to himself. Apparently he had gotten as far as most. And if he could but see magic, he’d see how to activate it with a simple bit of mana. Archmage Valeterisa’s credibility among the puzzle-making community, that vastly powerful body, was in shambles and she had issued several apologies.
It was just a story. But it explained…well, Relc sighed and listened to Tesy, letting him talk, collect his thoughts, clarify.
Sometimes you couldn’t solve the problem yourself.
Imagine a city. A truly perfect city.
Not perfect? Okay, imagine a city like…as close as you could get to perfection. How did the Watch operate in a city like that?
Well, in the ideal world, you didn’t need a Watch. People would watch each other, and there wouldn’t be a need for that kind of policing because there weren’t these powerful, rich people who only looked out for themselves and that was the point of—
That’s not practical? Fuck you. It could happen!
But…okay, if the Watch had to exist, it needed to have higher standards. Equal divisions of Gnolls and Drakes! No, if the city was majority Drake like Cellidel…put in a Gnoll Watch Captain! To ensure that there wasn’t a bias against a minority. Have Gnolls in the Council.
And most importantly? Make the Watch better. Because they weren’t. The Watch was made up of people like Pos. Speciesist, and the corrupt, and the plain lazy. It should be a place where the best and brightest went. A place with more than one ‘Relc’, which could take on gangs, which watched itself. Not a [Guard] who would beat down some kid with a dagger because he was scared.
That was the Watch Tesy envisioned. Of course, it took a while for him to get to that place, but…Relc leaned back. The wine was flowing well, and it loosened all tongues. He let Tesy finish.
“Sounds like Liscor.”
Hah! Vok sprayed wine out of his nose. Tesy just snorted.
“It’s not Liscor. That’s a perfect city. You told me your Council didn’t have Gnolls on it until recently!”
“We’ve got them now. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Yes, but…they should have been there for generations!”
“Well, we’ve got them now. Isn’t that pretty good? Anyways, that’s interesting. You want a Watch with a city’s best signing up?”
“Yep. The most responsible. It shouldn’t be easy to be a [Guard]. It should be…a…a calling. A higher service.”
Tesy searched for a way to describe it. Relc understood. Guarding was hard work. The Watch, in Tesy’s opinion, should only take people who knew the challenge, who could be that better Drake or Gnoll in every moment.
Sort of like Klbkch, in a way. Relc thought about it as he refilled his bowl. Then he started laughing.
“That’s so stupid.”
Tesy flushed with anger.
“What do you mean?”
Relc took a huge gulp of fishy soup. He smacked his lips and looked at Tesy, not without sympathy, but with much amusement. The Senior Guardsman shook his head.
“I mean, that’s never going to work, Tesy. You want a [Guard] who can always be calm, always be responsible? Who’s good at fighting, treats this job like a higher calling? We have…two of those [Guards] in all of Liscor. And that’s not me. You’ll get three [Guards] in the entire Watch.”
“Well, it should be better than it is! Or are you saying the Watch is fine?”
Tesy stood up, claws clenched. Relc waved him down.
“I agree! Listen, Tesy, I agree. The Watch is bad in Cellidel. I’m just saying…you can’t expect them all to be perfect. It’s like…you want someone who can both lead and fight. Who can keep their head? Who can know what to do at any moment, and treats this job with all the respect it deserves? That’s what you guys think is a perfect [Guard], right? By the way—I agree that’s a great guard.”
Tesy and Vok nodded. Relc gave them a thumb-claw up.
“Great. We can all agree they’re good. The problem is…that’s a [General]. And you only have one of those in most armies. You can’t expect every [Soldier] to be like that. I think there’s a better way to make the Watch better.”
“Oh, and what’s that? Give them more weapons?”
Tesy sneered. Relc rolled his eyes. He leaned back on his one pillow, and murmured.
“Nah. Just make it easier to be a [Guard].”
Tesy stared at him, incredulously.
Relc gave him a fish-eyed side-eye.
“Yep. It’s not easy, Tesy.”
The [Painter] opened his mouth and Relc sat up.
“Vok, you know what I’m talking about.”
The Gnoll glanced at Tesy. Ducked his head. The [Junior Watchman] mumbled.
“No, sorry, Relc.”
The [Spearmaster] sat up. He scratched at his neck-spines. He’d just thought of it, but now it came to him, the words flowed out.
“Well let me see if I can explain it. Y’see…guarding is hard. I’m only a [Guardsman] because it pays well. A lot of guys are. Don’t shout, Tesy! That’s just how it is. It’s a job. We didn’t sign up to be perfect. No one can be perfect except Klbkch and like…Jeiss. Or my Watch Captain. The job should be easier.”
“You mean, less laws?”
“I mean, less strain on us. When a [Guardsman] is in a fight and he sees some kid with a knife, or he has to debate arresting a [Street Thief], he’s got people’s lives in his claws. That’s a lot to ask of us. It would be easier if we could just punch bad guys and not have to be the law. If that were the case, Pos wouldn’t be a problem because he wouldn’t be in charge. And it means you don’t have to have the best. Make the job easier.”
Vok sat up, intrigued by that idea. Even Tesy was frowning, opening and closing his mouth as his tail lashed.
“How would you do that, Relc?”
The Drake scratched at his head.
“I have no idea. Maybe…maybe you can arrest everyone but you don’t charge people? You have some kind of system in the Watch House? It might cost more, but just take the hard work out of a [Guard]’s claws. Then all he or she has to do is make sure no one gets hurt. Some kind of big argument over hedges? Go settle it with the uh…someone else. The point is, I’m a grunt. Give me grunt-work. Not moral questions.”
There was a thoughtful silence for a moment. Then at last, Tesy sighed. He stood up, and began pacing around the pot.
“That—might work. But Cellidel will never go for it. Don’t you see how bad it is, Relc?”
Calmly, Senior Guardsman Relc filled his cup. With water. Tesy was a bit drunk. He was agitated, angry. He was angry all the time. Vok knew how that felt, but Tesy was far angrier than even he was.
“Nothing’s right. Nothing’s fair. Cellidel’s run by crooks and Drakes who don’t care. Maybe your Watch is better, Relc, but nothing’s changing now. You can’t fix this city!”
“Yeah, well, your buddies burning it down doesn’t help either, Tesy. They’re getting people killed. That’s not right.”
The [Magical Painter] slowly turned. Relc sat up. The two locked gazes. Relc’s eyes were very calm.
“I see what’s happening. The [Anarchists] are gaining ground. They’re arming people. They want to tear down the Watch, take out the Council.”
“…Maybe. I don’t know.”
Tesy’s eyes flickered to the window, then door. Vok saw Relc wave Tesy down, but the younger Drake didn’t sit. Relc slowly drained his cup.
“Are they planning on killing the Council? The Watch Captain? Don’t answer that. Let’s say they did, or somehow got rid of them. What would that do? Would that help? If they got every single [Guard] to quit tomorrow, what happens next?”
“The city will be free—”
“And then what? Then there’s crime, burnt buildings, and there’s no plan! Tesy! I’ve heard Sellme’s crashed nearly a dozen cities! They don’t get better, they just collapse until someone rebuilds the government!”
“It’s a better one afterwards. The people can choose who they want to—”
“Cellidel’s army will march in and reinstate a Council of their choosing. Don’t be stupid.”
Relc snapped. Tesy’s eyes flashed.
“Then Cellidel’s people will take on the army! You think we’re scared of a bunch of [Thugs]?”
Relc was on his feet.
“You’ll get people killed. ‘Sellme’ isn’t helping anything! All he does is point out the problems. Your friends are going to make it worse. Tell them to get out of the city.”
“Or I’ll arrest them. I wanted to talk to you, Tesy. But if it’s them or Cellidel…”
“You think you can intimidate me?”
Tesy went to shove Relc and just pushed himself back. The Drake [Spearmaster] looked at Tesy. The [Painter] went for the door, pointing an angry claw at him, crimson with anger.
“Every time I think you’re on our side, you do this, Relc. It’s not about compromising! It’s about bringing down evil people! That’s why Sellme does what he does! You can stop me, but you can’t stop Sellme or everyone who sees what he does.”
Vok was transfixed, staring at Relc and Tesy. The Gecko of Liscor folded his arms. He looked at Tesy. Straight at Tesy.
“I think I can stop Sellme if I stop you, Tesy.”
The angry young Drake didn’t realize what Relc was saying at first. A sneering response was on his lips. Then his brain caught up.
He…looked at Relc. Vok looked at Relc, then Tesy. His eyes tried to pop out of their sockets and run around screaming. Vok stared at Tesy.
Tesy turned pale under his already-white scales. Relc looked at him.
“Sellme. I want you to stop causing riots, or get out of this city. What’s it gonna be?”
Sellme, the [Magical Painter], stood frozen. Found out, identified for the first time by a member of the Watch. Relc glanced at Vok out of the corner of his eye.
“I totally called it. Told you I was the best.”
The screaming Drake running out of the apartment was followed a second later by a huge Drake. He roared.
It wasn’t Tesy and Relc any longer. The Drake whirled. His scales flashed, and dropped the Skill. Vok, scrambling out, saw a fleeing Drake with paint flecks on his white scales, made colorful by the very colors he worked with. A brush flashed out of his bags, and a painter’s palette.
Relc just charged at him. The Gecko leapt—but Tesy jumped over the railing. Relc cursed, vaulted after him, and then did a double-take in midair.
Sellme stood on the air. He’d just drawn a little ledge and Relc—
Caught himself on the railing one floor down. He caught himself on the second floor, and raced up to the third floor.
“Relc, he’s in here! Relc—”
Vok pointed. Tesy was back in their room. Relc charged through. He saw Tesy jumping out of a…
Hole in the wall? Relc saw Tesy turn, flip up a finger, and leap. Relc shouted.
Wham. He ran straight into the painted hole in the wall. It was so perfect it had turned, via Tesy’s Skill, into actual space.
Not for Relc. He staggered back, paint all over his scales.
“G8! G8, come in! Someone’s found me out! I have to run! It’s Relc!”
Tesy shouted the code-name of one of his highest-level friends. He heard a scrambled voice coming from the mana stone.
Tesy was running. Tesy was terrified. Relc knew who he was! His picture would be all over the cities! He’d be hunted! He ran out of the apartment complex, his Ring of Feather Falling glowing. At least he’d escaped.
The [Painter] squeaked. He looked back. It was impossible! Relc had been on the third floor! It had been less than fifteen seconds since Tesy had jumped out of the room.
The Gecko was racing out of the courtyard, a blur. A gigantic blur. Tesy instantly whirled.
There was a stone wall, some building right there. Tesy’s brush blurred, so fast even the Gecko was impressed.
[Speed Painting]! [Recreate Image]! [Art Becomes Reality]—
Tesy leapt through the hole in the wall. He raced through someone’s kitchen; a restaurant’s empty working area at this hour. He’d lose Relc. That idiot couldn’t predict which wall he’d come out of—
Relc came through the wall.
“SELLME. GET BACK HERE SO I CAN PUNCH YOU!”
“Get away from me!”
The [Magical Painter] had evaded countless members of law enforcement. He had never seen someone go through a wall like that. Relc didn’t even slow down. The world’s greatest [Guardsman] (self-proclaimed) charged after Tesy.
Both had movement Skills. Tesy whirled. [Evasive Dodge].
“Relc kiii—oh shit! You bast—”
Relc’s kick carried him into the hole in the ground. Tesy’s painted hole dropped him into the sewers and then the Drake tossed some white paint on it and the hole closed. Relc landed in the muck and darkness.
“Oh no, oh no, oh—”
G8 and a group of [Anarchists] met Tesy. The [Magical Painter] was wide-eyed, terrified.
“Tesy! You lost the boot? Come on, why are you so worried?”
“He’s still after me! G8, he’s—”
Tesy grabbed his friend’s arms. G8, the female Gnoll, glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes went round.
A Drake covered in tar, sewer crap, masonry, and eight more substances Tesy had drawn to slow him down, charged down the street.
Nothing had stopped Relc. Not the tarpit. Not the sewer trick. Not a brick wall that Tesy had drawn in the street. The [Magical Painter] ran on, screaming.
“Let’s stop this bastard! No one attacks Sellme! Come on! Down with the walls! D—”
Relc saw the [Anarchists], a group of eight, turn towards him, weapons in hand. He crashed into them and scattered them like pins, without slowing. One tried to stab him. He punched a face.
People turned. They saw a blurred face—some saw a leaping Gnoll, with a mustache and mask of bright colors. Others saw a female Drake with a hood and the words ‘Sellme’ stylized across the back. One saw a Human, someone else a Centaur.
Relc saw Tesy. He shouted the name as people turned, seeing the Gecko of Liscor running down the famous [Painter] who had caused so much trouble. The riots, the fighting came to a standstill.
Why were they throwing things at him? It was all…all going wrong.
Tesy raced across the ladder on two buildings’ rooftops. Relc halted. He knew better than to try and cross the painted ladder. People were pointing up as the Gecko of Liscor eyed the thirty-foot gap, and Tesy.
“You’ve ruined everything, Relc! You’re not saving this city! I liked you! Why couldn’t you help?”
Tesy screamed at Relc. It was the truth. He felt betrayed. How long had Relc known?
Why hadn’t he arrested Tesy before? The Gecko snapped back as the [Magical Painter] wavered.
“You don’t even see what you’re doing! You’re making the situation worse!”
Sellme raised his paintbrush as if to throw it down.
“You think you’re helping? You can’t fix the Watch! You can’t solve everything with your stupid fists!”
“And you can’t solve everything by burning it down.”
Relc was calm. Well—he was still pissed, but he was used to being covered in filth. He eyed the gap. Sellme pointed at him.
“You can kill me, but you’ll never stop us! You—aaaah!”
He saw Relc race to the edge of the building and leap, using the spear as a vaulting pole. People below pointed up, scattering. Look! The Gecko leapt through the air in a graceful arc. He was flying! He was—
Wham. Tesy heard the impact. He winced, gazed down at the prone figure who’d gotten only about two thirds of the way across and hit the street. He turned, drew a slide, and went for the walls. Magical or not, he could draw a door out.
He was just finishing the door when he saw a blur coming his way. Tesy whirled. He raised his brush—
Relc grabbed his wrist. The [Magical Painter] looked up into Relc’s face. Relc was panting, tired, and he’d smashed his face repeatedly into rocks.
But he’d won.
“I…you did it.”
Tesy tried to pull at his captor’s arm, but he knew he was caught. He would have used the brush, but Relc had it in his hand. Tesy stared at Relc in defiance.
“You got Sellme. Congratulations, Relc. You win.”
“You idiot. I never wanted Sellme. If I thought arresting you would have helped, I would have done it a long time ago. Maybe it would have, but it didn’t fix anything.”
“Well—well, you’ll never fix the city! You can hide your guilt, the guilt of the Watch, but everyone will see your true colors! Arrest Sellme and—”
“Gah. Shut up! [Relc Headbutt]!”
Relc had had enough of Tesy’s rhetoric. The thwok of two heads meeting echoed loudly in the alleyway. Tesy went cross-eyed. He shouted through the pain.
“You can silence me, but you can’t silence—”
Twock! Tesy bit his tongue. He opened his mouth. Relc bent his head back. Tesy cowered, trying to shield his head.
“Are you done?”
Sellme stared up at Relc. The Senior Guardsman panted. He looked at Tesy. Just…just an angry kid. He wasn’t like Erin at all. But he sort of was. Relc raised the Fist of Relc, debating one punch for the wall of brambles, the sewer trick, the brick wall.
Then he lowered it. Relc let go of Tesy’s arm.
“Get out of the city. If you come back, I’ll tell everyone who you are.”
Sellme staggered back. His brush went up, and he traced a brick so fast Relc was amazed. His brush didn’t need to be dipped to change the colors of paint. That was the trick. Then Tesy stopped.
“You’re…letting me go?”
He was incredulous. Even angry. Relc Grasstongue looked him in the eye. He glanced back at Cellidel. Miserable Cellidel. Cellidel, which was still on fire. Still in chaos. He pointed at Tesy.
“Yeah. Like I said—if I thought I could fix Cellidel by arresting you, I would. But the problem is…you’re right. Sellme is an annoying brat. A stupid [Magical Painter] with a stupid brush and a stupid face.”
Relc kept talking. He stomped on the ground, shouting.
“But he’s not why Cellidel is broken. I get that! So…you’re useless. Cellidel can’t be saved by you, and arresting you fixes nothing. So get lost. Think about what you’re doing.”
Tesy gaped at him. He looked…angry.
“You think I’m nothing? I’m Sellme!”
“You’re a pain in my tail. Don’t make me hit you. Get out of here.”
The Senior Guardsman retorted. Tesy hesitated. Common sense might have been interjected into his brain via multiple headbutts…or he just knew he couldn’t do anything. If Relc told Terigrals who Sellme was, his picture would be over every city and that was that. He backed up towards the wall, already flicking his paintbrush and outlining a door.
Yet he had to, just had to turn back, as a blue door with a handle appeared and he opened it.
“You’re going to save Cellidel after I leave, is that it?”
“Tesy—I swear to the Ancestors, I will break your tail. Ever had a broken tail?”
The [Magical Painter] yelped and jumped through the door. Even so, he peered balefully out of the door, prepared to slam it.
“You and I both know Cellidel is rotten. What are you going to do, Relc?”
Something…Relc looked at Tesy. The younger Drake was angry. But he did care. That was why he had come here. Everything he was doing Relc disagreed with. But he and Relc were on the same page here.
The [Guard] shrugged, tiredly. He massaged one shoulder and felt the magical, painted tar and other substances fading away. Relc shook his head.
“I…I don’t know. I don’t think I can save it, Tesy. You can’t either, so shut up. I know one person who could. But I’m just—Relc.”
He stood there and admitted it. Relc rubbed at his face.
“I’m just Relc. I can’t solve this. But I am Relc.”
Tesy gave him a strange look. He saw Relc tap at his chest, grin, weakly. A thought had occurred to him. He looked around. Yeah, that was true.
“Relcs aren’t [Innkeepers]. We don’t wave white flags or set them on fire. I—we—don’t make speeches.”
Set flags on fire? Sellme mouthed silently. Relc was seeing something else, though. He punched a palm with one fist.
“But you know what? When someone waves the flag? When someone shouts, ‘I am the consequences’? We’re right behind them. That’s a Relc.”
His head slowly rose. Relc grinned. He relaxed. He laughed. He looked at Tesy, and there was something bright in his eyes. Sellme, Tesy, the white-scaled Drake looked at Relc’s sudden confidence, confused.
“…What are you going to do?”
He didn’t understand what Relc meant. He didn’t know who Relc was referring to. And that was alright. Relc had realized something for him. He put his spear over his shoulders, and chuckled.
“Me? After you leave…I’m gonna pass this problem, this work, on to someone more qualified. And do whatever they want me to do.”
He beamed, self-satisfied, triumphant. Sellme goggled at him. Relc gave him finger-guns.
Watch Captain Zevara stared down at the letter she’d received from Cellidel, top priority. She turned it over. She thumped her head on her desk.
And then the Watch Captain burst out laughing. She leaned back in her chair.
She could almost see him smiling, a bit guiltily, as she prepared to bawl him out over wrecking half a dozen shops in a brawl. This? This was top-tier Relc.
Dear Watch Captain Zevara,
It’s me, Relc. I have a tiny bit of a problem. Cellidel’s gone to hell. It’s literally on fire. I see this building burning over here…I’ll sprinkle soot on the paper so you can see. The Watch is bad. The Council’s bad.
It’s all bad is what I’m saying. I’ve done my best to restore order, but I’m only a (Level 24) [Guardsman of Trust]. I am asking you, as a Senior Guardsman of Liscor, to help me intervene.
It is my stated intention to offer the citizens of Cellidel, including a number of [Junior Watchmen] and talented Gnolls, escort to Liscor. Because Liscor is better.
I don’t know how we’ll pay for it. I don’t know if Liscor has room. I don’t actually know which way Liscor is.
However, I consider this a matter for Liscor’s Watch to solve because Cellidel is terrible. I would appreciate any assistance you can give. Sincerely,
—Senior Guardsman Relc
She looked at it. It was a conclusion Relc had come to, clearly after much thought. Leave Cellidel? She wondered how many Gnolls would actually join him if he asked. Then again—how bad was it?
Come to Liscor. Come to a city with Gnolls on the Council. Come to the place where Senior Guardsman Relc was not the outstanding [Guardsman] alone, but one of his kind.
And the way he wrote it? I cannot solve this alone? Zevara looked at the letter. She couldn’t answer him.
Not alone. So she rose, and strode from the Watch House.
“Well, absolutely. Let’s scramble 6th Company. They were headed north, weren’t they? Wing Commander Embria, send word for the nearest company to escort Guardsman Relc! Dead gods, we can pay for a few wagons. How fast could we get a hundred [Guards] out through Pallass?”
Jeiss exploded as he slapped his claws on the table. Embria and Zevara straightened.
“If that’s the will of the Council, we could certainly have them turn.”
“Will of the Council? Damned right it is! What, are we not going to help?”
Alonna exclaimed. Tismel and Zalaiss closed their mouths. Elirr was already nodding.
“The problem is—it’s a long way. We can cover that. Security, transport…I just think Relc won’t get more than a few families. Which is a shame, but who’s going to uproot themselves and lose their homes, their city? No matter how bad it is…”
Alonna mused out loud. She shook her head. It was Lism who frowned and tapped at his lips.
“Yes…Guardsman Relc is clearly in the right here. Let’s send word at once. Wing Commander…?”
She was already out the door. Zevara breathed more easily at that.
“I say we tell them they’ll be safe. Offer them homes for a month. It’s the least we can do. We have all this room.”
Jeiss was nodding. Tismel began to object. But Lism threw a bowl at him. In the silence as the Cobbler’s Guildmaster dove under the table, Lism held up a claw.
“Wait. I have something. We have a…labor shortage. Cellidel is a city. It’s clearly an inferior city to Liscor, but every city has high-level individuals, doesn’t it? Good Gnolls. Drakes too.”
His head was turning. He was…scenting something. Sensing something, like a wolf on the plains, or a warrior hearing the distant thrum of battle.
Only, as a [Shopkeeper] sensed things. Lism’s eyes focused suddenly.
Elirr glanced at him. Lism pounded the table with a claw.
“We do it in the markets! Get a good apprentice. Get a good worker! Stealing! We steal them!”
The other Councilmembers stared at him, not comprehending what Lism was on about. Ironically, it was Tismel who poked his head over the table and got it.
“We can’t do that! They’ll be furious!”
“What are they going to do? They’re about to implode! Dead gods, it’s brilliant! Doesn’t Invrisil do it? Let’s steal them all!”
He stood up, outlining his idea. The Council of Liscor leaned forwards…and Zalaiss and Alonna actually applauded. Zevara blinked. Then she grinned.
Senior Guardsman Relc called for backup from his city. And backup came. He was alone in Cellidel. But Liscor always had his tail.
That was how, at the end of it all, Senior Guardsman Relc stared at the scrying orb. Vok was still arguing with his parents. Hickery’s family was on board, but while a lot of Gnolls had said they ‘might go with him’, the prevailing mood of Cellidel was just gloom.
Sellme was gone, and a lot of his followers, but the city was still gripped by chaos. Watch Captain Terigrals had accepted Relc’s transfer request with relief, despite the loss of Relc himself. When Relc had told him his plan, he’d laughed in Relc’s face and said ‘good luck’.
Who would follow even the [Guardsman of Trust] to another city? Uproot themselves? Risk it all? Maybe if Liscor was closer, perhaps. But they didn’t know Liscor. Relc was resigned to taking maybe sixty Gnolls at most. He’d been prepared to guard them himself, with Vok and a few trainees.
But then Embria had written back to him. Check the news this morning.
Relc did. He was already grinning when Drassi appeared. Wistram News Network had a local exclusive.
“I’m in the City of Liscor, my home city, where I am interviewing Councilmembers Elirr and Lism, who are putting together a new law. Or act?”
“A new opportunity, Miss Drassi. And thank you for taking the time to interview us!”
Lism broke in. Elirr nodded. Drassi glanced at them and the camera, an excited look in her eyes.
“So what is this new law? I was told you’re…giving money to people moving to Liscor? That can’t be right.”
Elirr, [Councilmember] Elirr, the caption read under him, nodded in a stately way.
“That is exactly right, Miss Drassi. We have proposed and passed a new law that will grant money to anyone moving to Liscor to work. A modest sum for all, which goes up for a family. And your level. Anyone over Level 30 will receive a large stipend and free housing; everyone else will have rent-free housing for certain periods. If you possess some of the classes we are looking for, we can also offer more.”
Lism had been nodding rapidly. He jumped in, like the sales-Drake he was.
“We are talking real gold, in your claws. We want the best. We can afford the best. If you come from some Creler-infested city and you want to go to a real city where the Watch doesn’t beat you with clubs for sneezing? Come to Liscor!”
Every head turned to Relc. Somewhere, Watch Captain Terigrals was choking on breakfast. Lism had just said that live on the scrying orb. Relc could have…gotten someone else to kiss him!
“Wow. This is an opportunity. I’m told Magnolia Reinhart has done this with Invrisil. Are you basing it on her model?”
“Not exactly. We don’t need to copy Humans…not that Humans can’t do things right.”
Lism harrumphed, then caught himself. He gave the camera a strained smile and hurried on as Elirr sighed. The Gnoll looked at the scrying orb.
“This is a law we all agree on. Gnolls and Drakes. No matter where you are—Liscor is open. And I promise you, there is opportunity for all.”
He nodded into the scrying orb. Councilmember Elirr. He could have stood there and he would have said more than Lism and Drassi combined.
After a moment, Lism nodded. He clapped Elirr on the shoulder.
“…Thank you, Councilmember Elirr. I can’t say it better myself. We are doing this now, Miss Drassi, due to the opportunity and the vast monetary reserves we are just itching to spend. In order to make more money for Liscor! So we are delighted to pass our law. The Celli’delr Maurons law.”
“What a fancy name. Why is it called that?”
“Oh…just something we say in the Council now and then. So, as I was saying…”
Everyone else was frozen. Everyone in Cellidel. But there he stood, a huge Drake with a spear. Not a great mind, but a true mind, a true puzzle-solver. A Senior Guardsman.
And the Drake who would be leading the largest departure of Gnolls that Cellidel had ever seen soon. The city would protest, of course, but who was going to stop him?
The Gecko of Liscor. And Liscor itself would soon find more than just Cellidel’s Gnolls knocking on their gates.
Unexpected consequences. He didn’t care. He was just Relc. He saluted the sky, and Liscor, which was north. Not even that far north. It felt like another world.
“Thanks, Captain Z. That’s why you’re the Watch Captain.”
Senior Guardsman Relc of Liscor. Relc smiled. He prepared to go home. It would not be easy. Things would change.
He would change. He was changing. But at long last, Relc Grasstongue felt like he was a [Guardsman].
The Gecko got a new class.
[Trusted Sergeant of the Watch].
He was just a little…no.
He was really proud about that.
Author’s Note: When I write some chapters, I have an ‘arc’. I know how it ends. I know all the story beats. It’s different when I just write with all the plotlines and details I have.
It means sometimes, I write long because I want to get to my part. In this case? I expedited the plot like mad and barely got here.
I should probably wing it more. This is, ironically, the problem of prep.
And also the end of my writing month. I like to think of it like this. I have ‘back from break pirateaba’, who is warming up. Then ‘energy pirateaba’, who can write the best chapters of all. Then ‘tired aba’, which is now.
Everything goes down. All my stats. Writing endurance, happiness, my prose, such as it is, and all the rest.
But sometimes you just have to Relc a chapter. And we did. Is it perfect? No. But it’s Relc. That’s Relc-style.
…Hope you like it. One more chapter until I take my week break in August! Thanks for reading! That’s all, folks!
Boom Bark Trees by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!