8.35

[The Wandering Inn is on its monthly week-long break! It will be back on the 14th of whatever month this is (August?), and after that for Public readers!]

 

Editor Contest Announcement: I am delighted to announce that the first editor I have chosen to work with from the applications is Navah Wolfe! I will be reaching out to work with her, but given how many good editors there are, I will be reaching out to a second one this time in August and will announce it as well.)

 

Oierdressql had fallen. Few Tallfolk knew what it meant. One of the Fraerling cities was gone, and hundreds of thousands of their people were dead, or fleeing into the unforgiving wilds.

One group of nearly two hundred thousand refugees, Fraerlings who had never even seen the outside world, had made the week-long trek through the wilds of Baleros. They had taken great casualties, despite the remnants of the Tallguard and their own high-level [Mages] and other classes trying to protect them.

“Two hundred thousand…?”

The Architects of Paeth sat in silence. It was disaster after disaster. First Oierdressql’s fall. That was a city larger than Paeth. Tallfolk had destroyed it? An army? Why?

Second—only a fraction of its population had survived to come here? And the Skywatcher of Feiland, their very best, had died to hold the army of Tallfolk back?

Disaster, disaster…they might have sat there in stupefied horror. The Alchimeer was white and frozen, her hands at her best ingredients and reagents. Enchanter Ilekrome’s chest heaved up and down; he had family in Oierdressql.

It was the Guidance who rose to her feet.

They’re all outside? Under attack?”

The Judiciary stood at the same time. He commanded Paeth’s internal security. The panting [Secretary], who’d run the message as it came up the tubes nodded.

“The Tallguard have deployed! They are demanding the gates be opened! Every security personnel that can be spared—”

At once! Issue a Devastation-level alarm!

The Judiciary pushed past the Guidance. He found a single tube the Architects never used and barked into the Longcall tube. The slender wooden tube, enchanted to carry his voice across the interior of the tree that housed Paeth on the Coast, vibrated slightly as he shouted.

By the will of the Architects! Issue the Devastation-alarm! Lock down the city! Everyone indoors! Arm the defensive enchantments!

Enchanter Ikerome stirred. The other Architects looked up. The old Fraerling hesitated.

“But the allotment—”

Then fell silent. Paeth was at war. Damn the allotment!

 

—-

 

Outside of the gigantic redwood tree, Luan stood in the middle of a battlefield. Thousands of little people, only six inches, were rushing past him, screaming. They were just like him, but scaled down. Bloodied from fighting off monsters constantly on the way here.

Not just ‘monsters’, but giant insects. Rodents. Anything that considered a six-inch tall person a meal would go after them. And two hundred thousand?

It was like when birds found a migration of fish at sea, or a spawning of baby turtles. Luan had seen predators attacking vulnerable groups of animals on nature television before.

This same scene was replaying itself as all of the local hunters in Baleros’ jungles came out. Only, their prey were people who screamed and ran. With faces…

Back! Back!

Luan smashed a tree branch like a club over a snarling bobcat or something. It yowled, exposing strange, glittering teeth, the tips like razors. Its fur was similarly sparkling, bits of gem-like fur tufted here and there. Suddenly, the gem-fur stopped shining and became dark, mossy, as it bounded into the underbrush. The predator slunk back and Luan shouted at it, keeping it away.

It was just one of the animals around. There was blood in the air, iron and the stench of fear coming up from the little people. Insects were slithering out of the underbrush, giant snakes, and overhead Luan could see birds circling.

Nightmares for the Fraerlings. Most were ‘Inners’, who had never desired to leave their homes, perfect little paradises hidden in Baleros’ jungles. They wore clothing like Luan had worn on Earth; brightly-colored cloth that was made to a quality beyond what you could normally attain outside of a Level 30 [Tailor]. Dyes that cost a lot of money for a pre-industrialized society.

They were shell shocked, terrified, running towards Paeth after their nightmare-trek. But what cut Luan deepest, like someone running him through with a cold dagger, was how they pointed to him.

Tallfolk!

The same creature that had destroyed their old home. They were threatening to stampede back into the forest. Only Sentry Leader Ekrn and the other Tallgaurd stopped them.

Into Paeth, now! Ignore the Tallfolk!

The Guidance of Oierdressql joined in the shouting, and Luan heard his voice magnify to a point where all the others heard it. His Skill helped direct the confusion, but the animals were shooting out of the brush.

It was probably seeing Luan, that first moment of panic, that had sent the wave of fear into the air. Pheromone or aura—that was what was attracting Baleros’ hungry to a free meal.

Or so they thought. Luan looked for a weapon, but the tree branch was all he had. That, and the compact crossbow. He loaded another bolt, aimed—fired.

The kick was all he felt; he never saw the bolt fly. He did see the Gem Bobcat crumple without a sound. Luan stared at the crossbow.

“Whoa.”

It was far more powerful than anything Paige had dreamed of, and it was a third of the size! He broke out of his stupefaction; a shout was going up from the back of the column of Fraerlings, from someone he recognized.

Rats! An army of tinkering, gear-stealing rats!

Noa, the Tallguard Fraerling he had befriended, was waving people past her. She aimed a crossbow and shot; her own magical bolt thunked into the skull of a rat larger than she was.

Then exploded. The rat’s brains scattered over a huge radius and the other rodents jerked aside, staring at their comrade. Some began devouring their friend, the rest came on. And oh, there were hundreds. Thousands themselves.

A rat colony! Luan looked at the swarm in horror. He began to stride forwards, but someone bellowed.

Luan! Stay where you are!

Ekrn was in the air. He was swinging himself up via a grappling hook; the other Tallguard were using the ropes attached to branches to maneuver over the heads of the Fraerlings on the ground. He fired two crossbows, then dropped onto Luan’s shoulder to bellow.

“I have to—”

The [Rower] protested. Ekrn snapped.

“You’ll trample the Fraerlings! Use that damn crossbow and keep the big predators down!

“But the rats—”

Don’t argue! Do it!

The [Sentry Leader] took off, his Boots of Jumping kicking Luan’s shoulder so hard it was like someone punched him. He flew upwards, grabbing a rope, and bellowing into an amulet.

Architects! Where is my magical support? Damn the allotment! Fire off all spells! This is not a joke! I want enchantments on the ground yesterday! I will come up there and throw all of you out of the nearest window if I don’t get—

Luan realized he was right. There were so many little people on the ground, running every which way, he’d smash them if he moved. So he took a knee, and reloaded the crossbow, aiming it around. Where…?

There. A snuffling shape in the underbrush. A boar? Luan fired, heard a squeal, and was firing again as something jerked, the powerful bolts blowing through the Stelbore’s armored front. It ran away, but it was one among many.

And now the bigger predators were coming to feast on the smaller ones, like some damn cartoon! Luan saw the situation cascade as a huge bird, twice as large as he was, with a vulture’s ripping beak and bright yellow wings, an angular body that let it swoop down like an arrow, landed and picked up the dead cat he had killed.

“Oh my god!”

Luan aimed the crossbow at the predator and hesitated, not sure if he wanted to attract its attention. He didn’t have to choose; a crashing sound from the underbrush made him whirl.

“You have got to be—”

A giant snake, kin to the ones that Daly’s entire team had faced down, came slithering out. It ignored the Fraerlings completely; rather, it hissed at the bird, which flapped its wings, warily flying up.

Activate your Signim! Where is my magical support? Where is—

Ekrn was screaming. The Fraerlings caught between giant predators, fleeing the rat swarm, and running for the tree as fast as they could, were shrieking with fear. Luan saw a giant crocodile coming up from the coast. He raised the tree branch as the giant serpent caught sight of him. It reared up, a dizzying nine feet, displaying two massive fangs dripping with a clear liquid. He aimed the crossbow up, swearing, realizing he couldn’t dodge without crushing someone.

Luan!

The voice was a cry from Noa. She reached for her Signim, hanging around her neck, and prepared to drink it. So did half the Tallguard. Ekrn had the cork in his teeth when he saw a flash. He looked up, blinked.

From Paeth’s Tree on the Coast, the innocuous, giant tree with its vast trunk and healthy leaves, lit up. Part of the cunning illusion enchantment undid itself. Sentry Leader Ekrn looked up and saw something he had seen only twice before.

The branches on the top were glass. No, crystal. The ‘leaves’ were observation ports. But they had faithfully kept to the tree’s design. Natural magic. The natural flow of power. They’d just replaced parts of the tree. He saw an entire branch light up.

And then a line traced itself across his vision. A perfect line, shooting down from the glowing branch, a searing fiery orange. Ekrn swore, blinking, but the afterimage remained. He turned as Luan shouted—

The giant snake collapsed backwards, a neat, smoking line carved straight through its head. Luan’s little crossbow bolt was lodged in the scales next to its mouth. He looked up.

Paeth’s tree fired another laser. It blew off the head of the bird as it tried to take off, alarmed.

Lasers?

The Human whispered. Then he saw more branches light up. A voice chimed in Ekrn’s ear.

This is the Guidance. Sentry Leader, activating enchantments. Sorry for the delay. What do you need?

He saw something begin flashing out of another branch. Miniature fireballs, but two a second. They curved, arcing to hit the swarms of rats. He didn’t stop to think.

Give us speed and ironskin! We have to fight on the ground! Keep the majority of the swarm off us! And include the Human in the network!

One second—activating.

Luan blinked. He saw something flash. Then, as fast as the wind, a latticework of light spread out of the tree. It flashed over him. Like a visible radar, a net that passed over everything. But it had specific targets.

The Tallguard of Feiland began to glow. Noa ducked a rat leaping at her. She speared it in the gut with her shortsword, slashed, and rolled out of the shower of blood. She came to her feet as the rat landed. Everything was slower, suddenly. She realized what had happened.

 

—-

 

“[Speed] enchantment is active! Activating [Ironskin].”

Include the Human! I need his magical signature, now!

Enchanter Ikerome was coordinating the spells. Fraerlings were rushing past him, loading ‘cores’ of condensed mana into the activation slots. They were burning more mana in this moment than they would all month. Paeth lit up like a lighthouse to any predator of magic.

It didn’t matter. There were Fraerlings outside. Enchanter Ikerome received the scrambled signal that was ‘Luan’, aura and magical nature translated into an attuned crystal. He slotted it into the ritual focusing the magic onto the figures in Paeth’s radius.

Active! Now, [Ball Lightning]! Scatter those birds!”

 

—-

 

Outside, Luan felt his skin tingle just in time. Some kind of angry bird swooped down at the Human, and disgorged what looked like miniature quills, spraying him with sharp needles. He shouted, shielding himself—but the needles just bounced off his skin.

A Fraerling flashed past him, leaping up. He threw a grappling hook which wrapped around the bird’s talon. As it flapped upwards in surprise, the Tallguard climbed up, aimed a crossbow, and blew the bird’s head off.

The Fraerlings were retreating past walls of stone and fire, even [Forcewalls] being raised on the ground to shield them. The Tallguard, buffed by Paeth, were slaughtering the predators.

“How did that other city ever fall?”

Luan wondered aloud. They hadn’t even activated their Signim yet, and the crisis was already coming under control.

The rat swarm was ironically the hardest to stop. The rats just kept coming, now to devour their kin. Tallguard, including Noa and Ekrn, fought in ranks, keeping the ones not blasted to bits from reaching them.

Damn! How did a colony of magical rats get so close to Paeth? I need reinforcements! Stop flashing magic at them—they’re a Packmana colony! Luan, get over here and throw a tree at them or something!”

Ekrn bellowed. Luan didn’t see the problem at first. Then he saw the milling rats, racing all over each other, begin to activate magic of their own.

For every [Fireball] that blew groups of them apart, a rat would manifest its own mana. They were eating magic. He saw a rat look up, blink out of reality, and appear to the left as a bolt of lightning tried to tag it.

Another actually created what Luan could only describe as a forcefield, albeit like a filthy bubble of ‘soap’ that made the Tallguard hacking at it swear and back up.

The rain of spells stopped, no longer empowering the rats. Luan saw most of the Fraerlings were running for the doors, and strode forward.

There! Block them! Throw that at them!

Ekrn bellowed. Luan looked left at a huge, fallen log of wood, eight feet long and three feet wide. He looked at Ekrn.

Me? I can’t lift that!”

“Damn Tallfolk! What good are you?”

Ekrn roared. He demonstrated the inherent difference in their physiques as he lifted a rat’s corpse and threw it into the milling mass of them, distracting the others who devoured their buddy.

“Boss! Reinforcements are five seconds out! Tallguard Crelerbreakers deploying!”

“At last.”

Ekrn whirled. Figures were launching out of ports higher in Paeth. It had only been minutes; an eternity in a battle, but he saw them leaping to land like comets on the ground. He bellowed to the Tallguard forming a line.

Fall back! Armor coming in!

He ran back as Luan kicked a wall of rats and shouted as they raced up his leg in retaliation. They tried to bite his enchanted skin, then tried to eat his enchantment. He retreated, knocking them flying.

Then the Human saw the Fraerlings’ last line of defense.

Crelerbreakers. His first impression was that there were Fraerling Dullahans. War Walkers, the [Juggernauts] in armor like Xol.

Then he realized they were regular Fraerlings, just coated in a kind of dull orange-red armor. No…Luan squinted. It wasn’t rusty, but some kind of deeper color. It seemed plain at first, but he realized the color kept shifting depending on how the light hit it. They strode forwards, battleaxes and claymores in hand. No shields.

The rats swarmed over them as the hundred Tallguard formed a line. They vanished and Luan feared they were dead. He began to stride forwards, but Ekrn called him back.

Don’t bother. They have this.

Luan looked and saw a squiggling mass of rat’s tails and faces, biting, squeaking. Then the first sword cut through one as a Fraerling slashed around him. He or she emerged from the mass, unharmed, rats biting the armor and squealing in dismay.

“What is that?

Luan pointed at the armor, so perfectly made that there weren’t even airholes in the visors; just glowing crystal eyes so the Fraerling could see out of them. If he had been to Salazsar, he would have realized that the Drakes had a similar group of armored infantry.

The only difference was that Paeth had only a hundred. And that the Walled City of Gems’ ‘elites’ were a lot cheaper than Crelerbreakers.

Ekrn snorted. He stared at the armor, some of it so ancient that it predated the term ‘Crelerbreaker’ that came from the Creler Wars, six thousand years back. It did not rust, nor decay. Nor were rats going to eat through it, even the ones who could gnaw on diamonds.

“That? That’s Adamantium, Luan. What, never seen it?”

Luan’s head swung back. His jaw dropped.

 

—-

 

“We need to open all our food stores. We’re brewing more healing potions as fast as we can. It’s space we need. Food…”

“We’ll activate our garden’s spells for quick growth. We’re already over our allotment. But we need food, to find a place for them all…and to know if other settlements are under attack.”

In the aftermath, Paeth took stock. The attack of scavengers had been defeated with ease. So much so that Luan had been right to question Oierdressql’s fall.

Enchanter Ikerome shook his head as he surveyed the damage.

“I can’t understand it. Oierdressql had similar spells. A village I could understand falling. But Oierdressql? Sentry Leader…how could it happen?”

The Guidance of Oierdressql opened his mouth, but he was shaking, adrenaline leaving him as he was wrapped in a blanket enchanted with [Warmth] spells. It was a tired Ekrn who kicked a rat’s head over to a group of [Butchers] salvaging as much meat as they could before the rest was disposed of. Somehow.

The Human was digging a hole and helping cart it away so more scavengers wouldn’t come. But the plain fact was that all the magic Paeth had unleashed had turned them into a lighthouse. Normally they’d worry about even Tallfolk noticing. Given the situation? Ekrn knew they were already coming.

“We could kill even an Adult Creler with our defensive spells alone, Enchanter. Maybe. Bastards soak up direct magic spells. However, that’s one Creler. How many times can we fire the [Beam of Zillac]? A hundred times? A thousand? Tallfolk can muster armies of tens of thousands, and we have to use our best spells to take them out. They can just…overrun us. It’s like the rats. Just six feet taller.”

The Architects of Paeth looked at each other. Then at Luan, as he trudged over to haul more bones and scraps away. A [Necromancer] came running over.

No, stop! I need those bones!

Something had to be done. Guidance looked at Ekrn.

“We must find out why this is happening. I need someone to reach the Forgotten Wing Company. The Farspeaker is already talking to other settlements. And…food, supplies? Even mana stones?”

Ekrn nodded.

“I’ll have ten volunteers within the hour, Guidance. As for the rest? I’d say tighten our belts and do what we can. However…”

He and all the Fraerlings glanced up at the Human tossing bones out of the pile for the [Necromancer], who needed them to perform bone-mending spells. Luan glanced up, sensing the gazes.

As it happened, Paeth, the reclusive village of Fraerlings, the hidden settlement known to only a handful of Tallfolk, could no longer sit in isolation. It needed…a delivery.

The City Runner got his most unusual job yet.

 

—-

 

Conflict was the event of the day. Also, the month. Year?

Conflict, war, battle, engagements, altercations, crusades…they got old. Sometimes, you had to wonder—didn’t you get tired of it all? Of so much killing?

Ryoka Griffin was not made of the right stuff to be a [General]. She had known that for a while, of course, but she truly lacked what could give someone the will to fight as a way of life. To go from battle to battle, even as a ruler of a nation, war to costly war.

That was arrogance. That was…ambition. Desire. A callous indifference for those you sent to their deaths. A driving greed, or hunger. Something which, in Humans, set them apart. The warlord that could unite a hundred tribes or countries.

It was a characteristic more suited to the being twining around itself, scales rippling, who could rise to the top of the four hundred foot high room, who…inhabited Ailendamus’ palace, and had made his den out of entire wings of the royal quarters.

‘Duke’ Rhisveri. Rhisveri Zessoprical, the uncle of King Itorin II. That was who he pretended to be, using a puppet, rather, no, exactly like Teriarch did with Eldavin.

In actuality—a Wyrm. A true mastermind behind the throne.

Wyrm. Cousin to Dragons. A serpentine nightmare, often spoken of in legends without the Dragon’s temperamental nobility; a force of evil in many stories, like Jörmungandr, the World Serpent from Norse mythology.

Yet, Ryoka realized that the stories were stories. They failed to capture the truth of Wyrms, or at least, this one.

Rhisveri was beautiful. His grandeur was not the metallic shine of Teriarch’s brass scales, which could reflect the light like gold itself, a rippling mane of bronze hair. Yet he was larger than Teriarch, who was the size of the largest aircraft in Ryoka’s world.

And his scales were jade. His eyes were green, like Ryoka’s, but both they and his scales were variations of jade. Not ‘green’, which evoked grass or plants, but the lustrous stone considered to be among the most valuable in Ryoka’s world.

Nothing else would do but jade to describe his scales. They had a kind of glowing luster; Ryoka realized they might be semi-transparent, so that you could see how they deepened to a gem-like quality.

Nor was Rhisveri’s body any less impressive; the green faded to a pale white or even beige, like the sand of a beach on his underbelly. White jade. Jade came in all colors, after all.

He also had two claws; just two, which he could use to support himself as he looked down at her, or adjust his posture.

So, not a Wyrm which had no limbs at all and was entirely serpentlike. Technically…a Lindwyrm, which had two claws. Just like how a Wyvern had no front limbs, unlike Dragons who had all four.

Dragon-facts. If that was a magazine, Ryoka would have been the #1 subscriber.

There were differences between Rhisveri and Teriarch, however. The biggest being that Teriarch had not chased Ryoka across Izril, zapping her with curse spells and sending an army after her. Nor had Teriarch installed himself in a position of power in Ailendamus.

Lastly? Ryoka had been sprayed with mating pheromones by Sikeri, the damned Wyrm she’d met at the party of the fae in Riverfarm. She stared up at Rhisveri.

Mating—mating pheromones?

He was giving her a similar stare, almost goggle-eyed, turning one huge eye to gaze down at her, then swinging his head the other direction as if the other eye would reveal something the first had not.

Ryoka stood protectively over Sammial. The little boy was unconscious, and the Wyrm had forgotten all about him. He’d tried to kill Sammial, just like that.

Not like Teriarch at all. Ryoka was sweating. Incredulous. She had thought she was coming here to negotiate with a Dragon, allay his or her wrath, and steal or barter for the mysterious scroll that Ivolethe had said could help Erin most of all.

Instead? Wyrm. That wasn’t bad—off-target, but not bad.

Sammial being here? Very bad. Whoever had killed that [Knight] mid-teleport? Exceptionally bad.

Ryoka being turned into an interdimensional love letter for a hookup?

…Insulting, really. If she and Sikeri ever met again, why, they’d, they’d…Ryoka would probably run for her life. But she’d say something as she ran screaming! Something pithy.

Ryoka got to see the Wyrm decision-making process and personality at play. You ran into a Dragon’s cave dying, insulting him, or literally having your heart explode in front of him? He healed you. Now, maybe that was one Dragon and this was a generalization, not to be taken as a whole indictment or generalization for the species…

But the second…wait…fifth Wyrm that Ryoka had ever met took one look at her, appearing in his private abode after he’d kidnapped her, smelling of a female Wyrm, and came to a conclusion.

“This is a trick. A Dragon’s odor and a female Wyrm? What a pathetic gesture. Which one sent you? Tell me. Right before I kill you.

Ryoka went for her Faeblade, despite it having shattered on his scales. The wind formed a wall—

Something smashed her flat, then lifted her into the air. She floated in front of Rhisveri. The Wyrm snarled.

Which one? Tell me! Then, Thief, you will suffer for invading my treasury. Did you think you could escape? Did you think one of your precious Five Families would make me hesitate?”

Ryoka liked Wyrms a lot less than Dragons right now. She gasped, as an invisible hand gripped her.

“I—I didn’t know I was covered in pheromones. Listen to me, I didn’t know I was stealing from Ailendamus—”

Lies. How did you get in? Which one wanted that scroll? How did they find out I had it? That damned salamander, spitting fire? Is he alive? Or is it the monster of war? That arrogant fool under the waves? Which one?

Ryoka’s eyes were round. Three? She knew one. ‘Salamander’? If she ever met him…hadn’t Teriarch mentioned them too?

None of them! I’m serious! I met…I met one. But listen, I did meet a Wyrm. She was—”

Do not speak our name, mortal. You have no right.

Something squished her. Ryoka screamed. It was not a warning gesture; she felt something tear as her organs compressed. She hung there, limply.

My people lie dead. I do not know which fool it was, but I will kill you over a thousand years if you taunt me one moment further. The last female Wyrm died ages ago.”

Rhisveri roared. He was…angry. He whirled around the room, his huge serpentine form moving fast. His voice—Ryoka, swimming in a red haze, came to one thought amid the shattering pain.

It ached. She heard his voice boom again, but she was seriously hurt. Seriously…

“Worthless little thing.”

Something splashed over her. Ryoka jerked. She felt her bones and internals begin to knit. She realized blood was running down her mouth. Looked up.

Had he just…spat on her? Ryoka spluttered out some faintly greenish-yellow liquid. Rhisveri glared at her.

“Where is your artifact? How are you lying?”

He shook her up and down, flipped her over. Ryoka yelped.

“I’m not lying! Stop! St—”

Her clothes vanished. Ryoka turned crimson as she spun in the air, but the Wyrm just glared at her, searching her for…

“Some kind of spell? Whoever tried to stop me wasn’t that good at magic. How are you lying? How are you—

Put me down! Give me back my clothes!

Ryoka had had enough. She shouted. The Wyrm ignored her. He was muttering another spell as Ryoka inhaled. She didn’t know how she did it. She was just—furious. He wasn’t listening to her puny voice; he could mutter and be louder than her a hundred times over. But she shouted and the wind boomed.

 

—-

 

King Itorin II was holding court. Or rather, making his royal appearance as he ‘heard the pleas of the citizens of the realm’. It was for show; he had a bureaucracy in place which took care of most problems.

However, this was a good show. He knew what the issues were, of course, and had his answers ready, but he made a show of hearing them out as his people watched, in awe of his proclamations and cunning replies. He was leaning over his throne to hear a weeping woman tell him about a murder, when a voice rang through the palace.

“Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui!”

It was not a ‘voice’ as you normally heard it. It sounded female, and there was pitch and cadence. Yet it did not transmit through the air. The wind itself screamed it.

The throne room echoed as people whirled. The [Knights] surrounded their [King], but Itorin II had already sensed where it came from. He raised a hand.

Damn him. What now?

“I believe a spell has gone astray. I was informed this might happen. Pray, continue. I shall not ignore my people’s plight.”

He calmed the people in the throne room and they looked at him in awe. Itorin II cursed internally. But he would ask…carefully…what his ‘uncle’ was up to. Later.

 

—-

 

The Wyrm had stopped, mid-rant. He looked at Ryoka. The roar of the Wyrm’s name had also surprised him, as much as Ryoka’s act in itself.

“That…that is not the name of any Wyrm I know. That…what strange magic is this? You have no classes. No levels. Are you a throwback? Some strange…?”

He twisted around her, staring. Ryoka was still naked and deeply resented that fact.

“Put me down. I did not lie. You know I didn’t lie. And—give me back my clothes!”

“It has to be a lie. If it’s not…? This is that she-Wyvern’s doing. Only she would be this cruel. The other two might be arrogant lizards, but they could not be this evil. I thought they were all dead. Or at least…”

He ignored her. Ryoka got angrier. Rhisveri murmured and her skin constricted again, but not with physical pressure; more like someone wrapping cling-wrap around her, invisible, powerful.

Tell me the truth.

“I met her. Sikeri! A Wyrm! And three more!”

“How is this thing lying?

Rhisveri stared through Ryoka. He flipped her upside down and shook her repeatedly, as if to shake out some secret relic. Ryoka lost her temper twice.

I—am Ryoka—will—down—

She nearly threw up. The shaking didn’t stop and then Rhisveri was drawing closer. He sniffed her and it happened again. Ryoka couldn’t speak for being rattled around. But the wind roared in her voice.

In the name of the Faerie King, put me down!

Rhisveri froze. He tilted Ryoka up. Her clothes didn’t reappear. Nor did she float downwards. The Wyrm eyed Ryoka, then spoke.

“Is that what they’re styling themselves as, now? That’s a stupid name.”

Then he went back to inspecting her from all angles, rotating her for a better view like someone inspecting a toy.

Ryoka was so thrown by the lack of comprehension she was stunned. Right up until her legs spread apart.

You bastard!

“Relax, thing. There is absolutely nothing I could be interested in.”

Rhisveri replied absently. He frowned.

“Do I have to cut you in half? Did they write the spell on your bones?”

The Wind Runner’s eyes snapped open. Her blood was boiling. It was one thing to insult her, to stare at her, to strip her naked…no, actually, that was everything wrong.

But also, the Faerie King? He didn’t know? He didn’t…? She howled the name.

By the will of the King of the Fae, put me down! By his name! Oberon!

This time, she fell out of the air. Rhisveri caught her with magic a second later, but she saw his entire body twitch. He stared at her, and then around.

“What was that name? That’s not the name of a Treant. That’s…don’t say that name again, you wretched Human! How…? The gateway folk?

Then his eyes went round. Ryoka was satisfied. She pointed a trembling hand at him.

“Give me my clothes. Put me down. Speak to me, Wyrm, by his name! Oberon!”

Stop saying it!

He looked around, nervously. Ryoka said it.

Oberon. Oberon! OBERON!

The air shook. Rhisveri flinched. Ryoka hit the ground, clothed, as the Wyrm reared back, his eyes flashing. In a defensive stance. The air hummed as he and Ryoka waited. The wind went still.

But no one came.

Rhisveri relaxed, slowly, and almost smiled. Almost. But he couldn’t deny the power in the name. Ryoka stood there, breathing slowly. She looked up at Rhisveri.

“I am Ryoka Griffin. Friend of the fae! Friend of the other world, and the name even you must respect, Wyrm. I have met your kind. I have met Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. I did not mean to steal from you, and I came here to make peace. Will you listen to me?

She spread her arms wide as Sammial stirred. The boy twitched, and Rhisveri looked at him. The Wyrm slowly bent lower, and he looked at her.

Not through her, as he had been this entire time. As, perhaps, Ryoka realized, he had been from the start. ‘Thief’, he had called her, without even knowing her name.

Now Rhis’veri Zessoprical, whose full name she would learn later, looked at the Wind Runner from another world. He met her eyes, and the full weight of his presence struck her. His eyes drew her into a void of their own. Not mismatched. Beautiful, a serpent’s eyes which saw time itself.

Of course. Did you think we were like Dragons? You have met one. What a strange creature you are.

The thoughts struck her. The Wyrm narrowed his eyes, and Ryoka heard his voice, in its way as loud as he was.

Strange. This has been an exceedingly strange day. The Deathless awake. I smell my kin I thought long dead inviting me to mate. A girl commands the power of the wind without Skill or class and invokes the name of a king that rules no land in this world. A strange day.

“I call that Tuesday.”

The Wyrm blinked at her remark. Ryoka turned red. It had just slipped out. Ryoka-snark. She saw his eyes narrow, and feared the worst as his mouth opened, scales bulging. The Wyrm looked down at her, and then barked.

Hah!

Wind knocked her flat, the acrid tones of acid, chemicals, and other scents, not actually unpleasant. Not like bad breath; just the breath of a creature as otherworldly as Teriarch. She realized it hadn’t been an attack.

He’d…laughed. He tried to stifle the laughter, but he snorted, then glared at her as if it were a weakness exposed. Rhisveri sniffed her.

“…So one of my kind lives?”

“Y-yes.”

Ryoka saw him frown. He peered at her again. Then, Rhisveri did the smoothing trick, rubbing his head against part of his body. He coughed.

“This…Sikeri’val-Toreshio-Maresssui. She truly is a female Wyrm? Not one of my kind.”

“Um. No, no legs.”

“And she truly exists? She came here? Somehow? I had no idea…”

“She did.”

“I assume you do not know her full name, then. But ah, was she large? How many hundreds of feet? What coloration?”

Ryoka stared at him. She had a sinking feeling…she hesitated.

“I never saw her full size. She was uh—variable. But she was up to two hundred feet in the air at one point. I think her scales were obsidian? Deep purple.”

“And that wasn’t her full size?”

Ryoka shook her head. Rhisveri hummed.

My. Did she have fins? Those curved fins along the side of the head that—”

Then he caught himself and glowered at Ryoka.

“Not that I believe you, Thief! This is all very, very suspect. But I can see I have underestimated the prey I’ve caught. And you…”

He frowned. Now he inspected Ryoka, his head easily moving around her from all angles. Ryoka covered herself protectively with her limbs. Rhisveri rolled his eyes.

“Please. What kind of degenerate lusts after mammals? Get a Dragon for that—or are you used to it? I know one of them is part of it. No…what a strange weapon. You have anti-magic cuffs on you. They are working. But the wind listens to you. Why does that work?”

He eyed the Faeblade, deactivated. Then his eyes frowned even further.

And what valuable treasures are these?

He stared down at something lying on the ground. He’d been able to take them off her, but even his ‘clothing disintegration’ magic hadn’t removed Nama’s footwraps. Rhisveri stared at them, then sniffed the air.

“You have…a number of very valuable things. That’s worthless. Why?”

He stared at the Faeblade. Then he frowned at the footwraps.

That’s valuable. That’s as valuable as…and what do you have? S…eleven priceless artifacts? Give them to me.”

He twined closer around Ryoka, his appreciation of Sikeri’s pheromones turning to pure avarice. Ryoka started. Eleven?

She couldn’t imagine most objects she had were valuable to someone like him. But…eleven?

That just happened to be the number of autographs a certain trio of the same King had given her. One to keep, some to give away, or barter…

“Don’t you dare take them from me!”

The Wyrm glared down at Ryoka, genuinely insulted.

“Do I look like a thief, Thief? I don’t steal. I earn what is mine by right of conquest and war! You have something valuable. Give them to me.”

“What, just like that?”

“Let me see them and I will make you a boon. I may spare your life after all. I may return this brat of a Human back. You have incurred my wrath. But give all eleven…whatevertheyare to me, and I will be most generous. Do you want to trade?”

He purred. Ryoka saw the Wyrm’s demeanor change at once. He turned his head.

“I’ll give you a block of gold. I have a hundred pounds of it. Or a flying carpet. Humans love to fly. Show me what you have. Come on.”

His personality had changed instantly, to someone bartering for a collectible item. That…that was the closest to Teriarch that Ryoka had seen. She fished in her belt pouch, reluctantly. She needed to speak to him.

“I won’t give you this. But if I show it to you, will you let me explain?”

Bah, you’re in trouble anyways. Give me one for free and I may relent. Yes. I may even let you go! But I want answers. Show it to me. What’s so valuable?”

He sniffed, scenting…what, value? Ryoka hid the scrap of paper. Mere cardboard, but written on by the King of Chivalry himself. Rhisveri peered at it, fascinated. So, Ryoka reluctantly held up the signature by the King of Camelot as he lay dying on the hill, waiting for Sir Bedivere to relinquish Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.

That glorious, imperfect King of Knights. It was the second-most valuable signature of the three to her. After the boy who was bravest of all, the failed King who had done his utmost and failed.

A reminder.

 

King Arthur Pendragon.

 

Rhisveri’s eyes focused on the letters, written so beautifully in flowing font, the same handwriting that graced royal decrees, practiced countless times over a life.

His voice caught in his throat. The Wyrm reared back. Ryoka thought he was amazed at first. Then she realized.

He saw something in the letters she did not. Like Sammial. Like Tyrion. Only, the Wyrm did not kneel. He took one look at the signature and shouted in a voice that resounded through the halls. Quieter than Ryoka’s wind, caught by the spells of silence and secrecy here.

But a scream, a shriek of mortal terror. The castle boomed as Rhisveri bellowed.

[DRAGONSLAYER]!

He was halfway out of the vast chamber and slithering away before the instinctual terror subsided. Ryoka saw the huge, slithering back of Rhisveri disappear—then the sounds of movement stop. There was a dreadful minute of embarrassed silence. Then his head poked out of the hallway, glaring at her.

It took all of Ryoka’s willpower not to laugh.

 

—-

 

At the same time as Ryoka was experiencing the joys of exhibitionism, the colony of natural nudists, the Antinium, were undergoing a kind of…renaissance.

After all, Antinium Workers and Soldiers didn’t wear the mostly pointless loincloths or any other clothing in the Hive. That wasn’t the point.

The point was that there was a new Individual in the Hive. Or maybe, if not Individual…an Antinium of note.

Silveran, Garry, Belgrade, Anand, Pawn, Yellow Splatters…the names were increasing in number. There were the two female Antinium, Chesacre, Thaina, the Flying Antinium who were Garry’s apprentices, and more.

This was all good. However, something was now apparent that had not been before. Only by this new Antinium’s existence was a trend revealed, and it was this:

All of the Individuals were beloved. All of them were respected, insofar as the Antinium understood it.

Of course, that was natural. What kind of Antinium would dislike another Antinium? If anything, the Individuals were as to heroes of their kind. Those who exemplified some great trait.

For instance, Antinium were working under Silveran’s Cleaners, a business started because Silveran was too good at cleaning. He’d expanded his work to the entire street, and his cleaners also did store work!

That was the kind of thing a single Individual Antinium could do. How could that be negative?

Well…the most hated Antinium in the entire Free Hive was somehow not the late, and debatably great, Klbkch. His name was Furfur. Fur…fur. And yes, that related to his entire role in life.

There were new inhabitants in the Free Hive. Little, mewling balls of fur that played around, wandered from place to place, and had a horde of fascinated Antinium following them at any given second.

Cats. And three racing little barking things called ‘puppies’.

They had all been abandoned when Silveran found them. Someone had tried to wedge a basket into a sewer grate. He had found the puppies running around, feral.

So Silveran had brought them back. Now, the Antinium’s first pets roamed about, bringing something that even the regular Antinium had never experienced before.

Petting a cat and feeling it purr as it fell asleep in your arms. Playing fetch with a little puppy.

It was like drugs to the average Soldier and Worker. It was a considerable problem, as a single puppy could halt the entire Hive in the area if it ran through their transportation tunnels. Thus, the animals had to be contained. A few ‘doors’ were installed, and Antinium coveted the right to be in their area.

All was well, right? Right?

Wrong. The problem was self-evident to anyone who knew animals. Which, because this was an Antinium Hive, had been almost no one.

Yes, the average Antinium could give 200% of the pets, scratches, and combings to a cat as the inferior Humans, Drakes, and Gnolls. Yes, they had more unconditional love than even the doggies did for the beloved creatures.

And that was the problem. The kittens and puppies soon realized that their experience of starving to death on Liscor’s streets was now replaced by a group of insects who would instantly clean up any poo, feed them the instant they were hungry, and pamper them nonstop.

Even Sariant Lambs couldn’t dream of an existence this hedonistic in their evil little brains. And that was the problem.

If you learned you could poop or urinate anywhere, and it would never be a problem, well, you were going to. If no one stopped you from running anywhere you wanted, breaking or clawing at anything you wanted, you were going to be a nightmare.

And that was where Furfur came in. After all, he had worked as a [Laborer] in shops like Elirr’s. He had even gained [Animal Feeder] as a class. Today? Today, he was a [Pet Raiser]. A class unlike [Beast Tamer], because, well…kittens were not beasts.

He was also the most hated Antinium ever. Look, as he plucked a cat off a line of Antinium who had gone still as it sniffed their terrible feed! Stare in horror, as he potty-trained a puppy!

He disciplined the animals. Made the cats use an actual area to poop in. Forced the puppies to stop playing and go to sleep, keeping to regular hours.

If there was a poll for ‘Most Hated Antinium Ever’, Furfur would have won it. What was especially egregious was the fact that the pets…loved him. He would walk around with a kitten napping on his head. Napping right between his antennae! Because of course, he had [Friend of Fur] as a Skill.

The jealousy, the hatred, the drama sweeping through the Hive was unprecedented. But that was pets for you. The Free Queen allowed it all because she considered that any class was useful.

Of course, she didn’t really ‘get’ it. She was making more attempts, in between trying to speed Xrn’s recovery, monitoring the many events of the Antinium, and so on.

“Garry, I desire sustenance.”

She rang a bell and one of the Flying Antinium instantly came out with a trolly of food. The Free Queen liked that and considered these helpers, if not as nice as Garry, good for letting him provide even more food to her. A net plus. She nodded at the Flying Antinium.

“Also, bring food. My pet is hungry.

She peered at the last pet of the Free Antinium, unknown to all but her. She was trying it too. It was just…

“…I think. Are you hungry, Deferred Sustenance?”

Deferred Sustenance scuttled away as she tried to pet it. Or…the top of the baby Rock Crab. It snapped a few claws as the Flying Antinium put a semi-raw steak on the ground and scuttled over. The Free Queen nodded to herself.

She had a pet. She was failing to see the point so far, but she had to admit—Deferred Sustenance ate. She ate. They had much in common. She had pet it now and then. It had yet to purr, but she assumed it would in time.

“More food for both of us!”

The Free Queen waved an indulgent feeler.

Eating in company was good. Also…she didn’t know if this was acceptable or not, but the Level 4 [Pet Owner] indulgently petted Deferred Sustenance on the head. She was keeping that class to herself.

 

—-

 

The Painted Antinium marched out of their Hive in ranks. [Crusaders]. Soldiers and Workers wearing armor. They had left the pets behind. Left life behind. They had been told that all that lay ahead was death.

The sky was dead. Someone had slain the [Innkeeper]. So there was only wrath.

Hectval would burn.

The army had left the city three days ago. Not to fanfare. Not to triumphant speeches. Only because it had to be done. Twice, Hectval had attacked Liscor. Their alliance was a threat. And Olesm, [Strategist] of Liscor had realized a foe with no fear of retaliation would never stop.

They were Drakes. Petty, vengeful. When an enemy came, they would stand together. Their good qualities and bad meant that this war was inevitable. So Liscor’s new army, formed of the Watch, [Soldiers] newly-trained, was sallying forth to do battle in the hills around the Bloodfields to the south.

4th Company would stay in Liscor, but that was only because they were being held in reserve. They would advance with Liscor’s army soon enough, via the magic door.

That was Olesm’s secret weapon. He could receive supplies, fresh troops via it. And he would use this door. What he could not do was move large numbers of troops or supplies at one time.

Hence the army traveling conventionally. They ran into resistance within the first two days. Hectval’s alliance saw them coming and harried their advance. The true fighting began soon after that.

However, that was a war. A longer story. As it pertained to Olesm, now, he realized something after taking command of his joint force for only two days. They had drilled, practiced formations and orders, so he hadn’t realized it.

He’d been too worried about having Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, and Antinium in the army. For all Liscor had Antinium, it was one thing to tolerate them and another to fight with them. Olesm was worried about 4th Company’s attitudes, or even the regular rank-and-file.

The Drake was so focused on that, he’d failed to wonder about the [Soldiers]’ classes. He had known they were [Crusaders]…but the full implications of that didn’t strike him until the first clash between soldiers.

They’re coming over the hills! Spearbreak formation, now!

The [Strategist] bellowed. He wished he had one of Liscor’s [Generals], or anyone else. What he had was Wing Commander Embria, and some lower-level officers.

Even so, Hectval had taken a beating in their battles. This probing attack was [Hill Riders]; Drakes on horseback who peeled off at the first sight of Liscor’s army lowering their spears, bracing for a charge.

They appeared a bit dismayed; Olesm suspected they’d been hoping for this army to be as disorganized as the huge, outraged force that had come at them last time. Certainly, their sudden charge would have worked on them.

Flanking charge! Ambush!

He was preparing for the attack from the north, over a rocky ridge that the [Riders] had come screaming down from, when a second attack through a natural valley was called. Olesm turned, swearing, but it wasn’t so much an ambush as a second angle of attack.

His forces had plenty of time to spot the threat; fast moving heavy-infantry. They were going for a flank.

“[Mages], find spellcasters and shut down [Fireballs]! Forget the heavy-infantry!”

Olesm was aware that a [Fireball] wouldn’t do much good, and knowing them, they had anti-lightning spells. He elected to prevent his own army from taking casualties with his limited [Mage]-core.

First Antinium, prepare to take the charge!

He bellowed, and saw the wing of a thousand Antinium turn, smooth as could be. Olesm didn’t watch; he trusted them to fight. They were new, but they were Antinium. He was busy showering the two angles of attack with his archers. Wing Commander Embria was coming through the doorway.

Where do you want us?

She snapped. Olesm held up a claw.

“Circle through the pass there.”

“You don’t want us to hit them…?”

The Drake was ready for a fight, her crimson scales flashing. Olesm had heard from the city that something was up with Relc. Embria was clearly blazing to vent her anger and helplessness. He shook his head.

Circle. Stealth up that ridge—they can’t take us. I’ll give you half our [Riders]—wait until they’re in retreat and get that commander! Or take them prisoner.”

Embria’s eyes sharpened. She lifted a claw.

“[Stealth Wing]. You heard him. Go, go…”

They shot forwards, leading the Drakes and Gnolls on horseback to the side. Olesm covered the action with more offensives—and flashes of light to hide the move.

His was a green army. He was relatively untested in battle, although Olesm owned the Kaalblade. Yet Olesm had a trump card in Wing Commander Embria, part of Liscor’s feared army, and the ample funding—not to mention fury—backing Liscor’s forces here.

The armored advance from Drisshia, one of the three cities in the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance, almost passed him by. He was watching the skirmishing line of Drakes coming over the ridge clash with their counterparts, snarling Gnolls and Humans who backed up their Drake buddies; Hectval’s forces were almost all Drake, with that first line of Gnolls.

Strategist! The left flank! What’s happening?

Olesm had made the mistake of staring too long at one spot. Rookie—he cursed himself, hearing his Manus instructors screaming in his ear. He turned and saw the Antinium lines waiting for the [Heavy Infantry] Drakes. But…something was wrong.

What was happening? Olesm trained his Ring of Sight on the spot and saw…the Drake charge faltering. The Antinium were braced against them. Yet it seemed like Drisshia’s momentum was going out from under them. Drakes were staring ahead, looking for their officer, wavering…Olesm murmured.

“What the heck?”

 

—-

 

At them, you limp-tailed bastards!

The Drisshia [Charge Captain] was shouting at the armored Drakes. They were coming across the rough ground, the broken rocks, and the packed dirt of the foothills. The air was hot, and blood was on the wind.

But the true thing that made them run, shout in fury, was the smell. That alien, insectile smell coming off the Antinium. They stood there, with helmets and armor like they were an actual force.

Antinium. Invaders! If Liscor had been damned once by the Council talking about their unprovoked attack on Hectval, it was twice-damned. They had lost all reason. Mad-Drakes, who let Humans and Antinium into their city.

These were still rookie [Soldiers]. Drisshia’s best were going to stomp all over them. The Antinium stood in a line, weapons lowered. Waiting. They hadn’t even fired their crossbows; a mistake Olesm had made because he’d failed to tell them to ‘fire at will’.

They waited, seeing the Drakes who had killed Erin. Of course, Drisshia’s forces saw the damned Antinium, so the enmity was equal.

For Drisshia! Death to the bugs!

The [Charge Captain] pounded forwards after two ranks of Drakes keeping in more or less even formation, spears lowered, roaring. Their shields were up, catching the arrows coming down, but no spells yet; the [Charge Captain] had activated [Grounded Advance], to nullify lightning spells.

They were no less than two hundred feet away from the Antinium and could see their blank, insectile eyes when something began to change. The Drakes felt like they ran into a wall of invisible cold water.

Something…the first charging Drake’s footsteps slowed and he was nearly knocked flat by his friends. But they slowed too, hesitating.

The air felt stiff here. It felt a bit…harder to move. As the [Charge Captain] entered the area, he looked up and snapped.

Aura! Keep moving, you cowards!

That brought the first lines forwards again. The heavy air, the feeling of an invisible obstacle…the [Charge Captain] searched for the enemy officer. He didn’t find one. Yet the Drakes kept going, refusing to give into mere pressure. But their advance halted again when they heard…

The voices.

How could you describe them? They were certainly voices. But they had no pitch. No cadence. They were…more like thoughts. Whispers in your head, but foreign.

They said:

 

Death.

 

The Drakes looked at each other. The [Charge Captain] heard another voice.

 

Burn. Hectval. Burn Hectval. Die. The Sky is gone. 

Die. Die. Suffer.

Wrath. You are cursed.

Cursed.

Curse you. We curse you.

 

It was unnerving because the line of figures across from the Drakes were silent. Like statues. Unnerving for the [Heavy Infantry]. Then?

Terrifying. Because they realized something.

They were hearing the Antinium’s voices. And Antinium…did not speak. These ones did. As the Drakes hesitated onwards, the world turned dark.

As dark as their tunnels. They thought they saw something, as they began to hallucinate. The Antinium’s eyes. The multifaceted eyes began to shine beneath their helms. Burn with flames. White, painful to see. They spoke. They raged. They cursed the Drakes.

Then the order came and the [Crusaders] moved. They began to stride forwards. They began to charge. When they screamed, it filled the Drakes’ heads.

Wrath. A Skill. Of course it was, but how could the poor Drakes have known that…this Skill hadn’t existed for a long time?

It came from a class that was born neither of magic, nor pure martial prowess. It had elements of other classes, but it was based in something they had never seen.

Faith. And this Skill? A Skill for a low-level [Crusader].

[Combined Skill: Wrath of the Righteous].

A thousand [Crusaders] charged, screaming, though they never uttered a word. The closer they came, the louder their thoughts assailed their foes. Their pain, their loss.

 

In the name of the Innkeeper of Solstice, perish! 

Heaven waits for us. Nothing for you.

This world ends. End with it.

 

The Drakes of Drisshia broke and ran before they even closed. [Crusaders] began to fire their crossbows, and when they clashed with the fleeing Drakes, it was four arms, four weapons versus two.

 

—-

 

Olesm watched the Drisshia advance turn into a rout with his mouth open.

“Is that what their Skill does? But they got it at Level 1!

His head snapped around. He had to talk to their commander. Belgrade had informed Olesm of their capabilities and he was sitting in their second group, but he hadn’t talked about this.

Olesm wasn’t certain what exactly had gone down over there, but he was certain of this:

He had two trump cards. Not one.

 

—-

 

They still had yet to call themselves something. If they had someone from Earth with them, the band of disparate species and peoples might have called themselves ‘The Fellowship of the Inn’ or something stupid like that.

The Titan thought of them as an army. But then, everything was an army to him. He sat in the little leather envelope that Bird had supplied with food and water, and listened to the outside world. Occasionally he dared to peek out, using one of his few stealth-Skills to avoid someone noticing him.

However. The problem was he was bored. Niers Astoragon knew this was a diversion. That the People of Fraer were under attack. At the same time? He had promised to keep that little girl safe, damn it!

He had to trust that his entire company, the Forgotten Wing, and Foliana could do what was necessary. Meanwhile? The Titan busied himself by turning this rag-tag force into something that would survive. For surely they would not. He could have annihilated this group with a hundred regular [Soldiers]. And if he could…who knew who would come after this group? Antinium meant all six Walled Cities were not an outside guess.

“Bird. Bird.”

He poked Bird hard. Then, since the Antinium had few nerve endings if any at all on his carapace, kicked him hard through the pouch.

Bird felt that. He reached down, realized he was marching in the column, raised his head, and shouted to the group.

I must excrete. I will return!

The [Liar] saw heads turn. Sergeant Gna’s face was a look of disgust. Some of the others were not bothered by the act of bodily functions in and of themselves…they just really wished Bird hadn’t told them.

Bird hurried off. He opened his pouch as the others kept moving at a slightly slower pace; he could catch up if he ran. He placed Niers on a rock.

“Hello, small man.”

“My name is Niers Astoragon.”

“You are also a small man. My statement is factually correct.”

Niers sighed. If he stayed on this, he had learned he’d never get anywhere. He nodded at the group.

“Listen. We have work to do. I need you to do me a favor…”

Bird listened, tilting his head left and right. In the end, he nodded.

“I will do this because I agree.”

He picked Niers up and the Titan really wished he had a way to speak in Bird’s ear or ride from higher up. He said as much to Bird.

“It’d be a lot more damn convenient if we could communicate—or I could with you—without me having to pull you aside.”

Bird nodded. He stared at the belt box that Niers was sitting in. Then at Niers.

“I wish you could speak into my head. But you are not True Antinium, thus, inferior.”

Niers paused. His head moved up sharply.

“Is that a power of True Antinium?

Bird gave him a blank look.

“Yes?”

He sounded so dubious that even Niers couldn’t parse if this was uncertainty or a lie. He folded his arms.

“Which is it?”

The [Bird Hunter] tilted his head playfully and waggled his antennae.

“I do not know if I should tell you. You are a dangerous person. Maybe we have powers. Who knows? I am a [Liar]. Even I do not trust me.”

Niers groaned. He put a hand over his face. Of all the Antinium he had to be saddled with…but then he felt Bird pick him up.

“Wait, what are you doing?”

Bird was striding back towards the caravan, but he hadn’t replaced Niers at his belt. The Antinium spoke, happily.

“A smart thing. You are lucky you have me.”

 

—-

 

No one else knew what to make of Bird. One second he was unveiling a new Skill, and making grand proclamations. The next?

“What’s he want?”

The Antinium had been arguing with one of the group for the last fifteen minutes. He had come back, shouted, ‘I have something to tell you!’, and then realized he had something to do first.

The others craned their necks as they walked or rode, in the way people with absolutely nothing to do on the road did. Bird finally finished his negotiations.

“Thank you. I needed it.”

He turned from the duo who had something he apparently needed. Apparently wanted, that was, because…well, the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings had not seen it the same way as Bird.

Nevertheless, if there was someone with a spare hat lying around? Bird turned, with his antennae sticking out of a huge…top…hat. Badarrow, drinking water, sprayed it out of his mouth and laughed so hard he nearly fell off his horse.

It was one of the more ostentatious hats that the Brothers used. And for that reason, even the two Brothers weren’t wearing it. Bird had altered the hat to fit him; part of the reason they’d been unwilling to give a good hat away.

“Why does he need that?”

Sergeant Gna looked at Bird askance. He had somehow become even less threatening.

“I will get a new one and repair this hat.”

He assured Normen, the junior Brother, and adjusted the top hat. Niers was pacing around on top of Bird’s head, muttering something about ‘this is so stupid’. Bird happily adjusted the hat.

“This is a nice thing. I could hide something inside here.”

What are you doing, you idiot?

Niers screamed silently, such that only Bird heard him. Normen gave Bird an odd look.

“Fellows have, although it’s a normal place to check for any [Guard]. What would you hide?”

“Birds?”

That checked out. The two Brothers sighed and looked at each other. The rest of the group put it down to ‘more Bird-isms’.

And thus, the lie is doubly a lie because I told the truth and then lied. Bird the [Liar] grew in power every day. He rubbed two of his hands together. Then got to work.

“Numbtongue. Sing.

The [Bard] gave Bird a look as he sat on the wagon, taking a break and eating lunch with Octavia.

“What?”

“You are a [Bard]. You must sing.”

Someone kicked one of Bird’s antennae and he clarified.

“Play your guitar, that is. A [Bard] has songs. Sing songs. Make us happy or fast or something. You damn idiot.”

The Hobgoblin’s mouth opened. Bird smiled happily at him. Niers slapped his face. Why was this so hard?

Yet Bird was able to communicate Niers’ will, and by that, what Niers knew would work. He was still a [Grandmaster Strategist], and he had observed inefficiencies or simple faults in this group already.

They had a Level 35 [Bard] and he didn’t so much as hum. Numbtongue crossed his arms. However, Bird happily climbed onto the wagon and began poking him, like a Goblin.

“You are a [Bard]. I know you are sad and quiet, but a [Bard] must level by being a [Bard]. Your songs help us. I know you have Skills. Use [Song of Rejuvenation] and we will go even faster.

“How do you know I have that?”

The Hob blinked. Bird tilted his head.

“I have a good memory?”

The [Soulbard] chewed on a sandwich, glanced at Octavia. She nodded enthusiastically.

“You play really well, Numbtongue. I think we’d all like marching music. Bird…has a point.”

“I have all the points, thank you, Miss Octavia.”

That was how the Goblin was bullied and cajoled into sitting at the top of the wagon. He took a while to get started, harumphing, having to be poked by Octavia, but then he began strumming on his guitar.

He did not sing. But he did strike up a chord that was electric. They weren’t necessarily ‘marching tunes’, but Bird, or rather, Niers, was right.

The group heard the music, and it took something from them. The monotony of the journey. And…their exhaustion. Their steps picked up; not that they’d been flagging, but even the best [Marchers] lost the spring in their steps. With Numbtongue’s music, they accelerated on their long journey, and had something to listen to.

“Damndest music I’ve ever heard. The Bannermare would kill for someone like him in her army. Alright. Keep working.”

Bird nodded to himself and adjusted his top-hat. He rather liked it. If he stood still, would a bird land? Maybe he should have a hat that had one of those bird-houses. It would be…a trap.

His next move was to march over to Ulvama as she rode. Bird poked her leg. She smacked his shoulder.

“Stop that, little Ant-thing.”

She was grumpy; there were no cookies on this journey into the unknown. Mainly because she’d eaten all of them in the first two days. Undeterred, Bird poked her again.

“You are a [Shaman].”

Salkis watched Bird out of the corner of her eye. So did the Goblins and Fierre, jogging ahead with Fals and Garia; everyone did. He was just too entertaining. Sergeant Gna saw Ulvama roll her eyes.

“Yes.”

“You are a bad [Shaman].”

The Hobgoblin’s head snapped around. She glowered at Bird, who returned her gaze innocently.

“You have [Shaman] powers but you do not use them. Fix it. Now. You damn idiot.”

Niers hadn’t even added that last one in, but Bird had repeated it because he liked it. He listened to Ulvama’s choking sounds with a bit of satisfaction. He whispered to Bird, giving him the salient information as the two argued.

A [Strategist] was well-versed in many classes. Niers knew [Shamans]. There were many kinds, and their powers were different from [Mages]. Not weaker like many idiots thought. Just different.

For instance, a straight firefight where two classes meet and attack each other in a vacuum, with no preparation? [Mages] took it three fourths of the time at equal levels. But who fought like that?

[Shamans] prepared. They were generalists who could make medicine, enhance aspects of living; [Mages] had to read spellbooks constantly to learn the next big spell.

If Ulvama were a certain type of [Shaman], she could have been working on a construct, a fighting creation that she could deploy in battle. Another kind who specialized in healing could make poultices, brews.

Niers knew what kind of [Shaman] Ulvama was at first glance. As Bird explained, Ulvama was lazy. Ulvama was incompetent. Ulvama was—

At that point she blew a cloud of dust into his face and he retreated, coughing. The itching dust didn’t do much to Bird, but Ulvama’s secret was out.

She was a shaman of magical paints. That was obvious. Gnolls had their variants. So, what Ulvama should have been doing was applying said magical paints to everyone. She had already repaired most of the damage from her fight with Belavierr, and Niers had seen her mixing and sending the Goblins to gather ingredients—and raiding Octavia’s stores.

What she hadn’t been doing, and Bird now pointed out, was applying said paints to anyone but herself and a few Goblins. He slapped his stomach happily for emphasis, making a dry cracking sound.

“We are a team! An army! You must give us all magic paints! So you can activate them in battle! Not just Goblins! I am angry!”

The [Shaman] folded her arms. She was then poked in the side. She whirled, fist raised, and Badarrow stopped grinning and leaned over.

“Bird has good point. You should do magic paints to them.”

“They are not Goblins!”

“We all go to save Mrsha. Give paints.”

The [Shaman] grumbled. She did not like extra work. Nor did she like giving out her expensive, hard-to-manufacture paints to people, usually Goblins, who tended to die fast. In the Mountain City tribe, her gifts had been a highly sought-after favor. Not here. Not with Niers on the job.

That was how, at their next rest stop, Numbtongue began accepting requests for marching songs, and Ulvama reluctantly stomped over and pointed at the first startled Worker.

“You. Lots of Pears. Sit.”

Infinitypear looked around. Ulvama had chosen him because he reminded her of Raidpear. So she began doodling on his armor, tracing magical paints—until he pulled away.

“Stop moving!”

She snapped. Infinitypear shook his head. He gestured at the sign on his chest and Ulvama realized she’d nearly gone over the symbol of his being with a brush.

She hesitated. The [Shaman] nearly said ‘so what, it’s not magical’. But…she held her tongue. Grumpy as she might be, she looked at Infinitypear’s design.

“I will not touch. This is you, yes?”

She gently reached out and tapped just below it. The [Adventurer] nodded, nervously. Ulvama snorted.

“Fine. Then…like this. See?”

She drew around the Infinitypear symbol, taking great care not to mess with it. The Antinium watched, relaxing. For all the Goblin was mean and sounded annoyed, she respected their symbols far more than anyone else.

Of course, she varied her markings. Sergeant Gna saw Infinitypear adorned with a silver-blue paint, predominantly. Ulvama was an artist of kinds; she had bright spots of yellow around what looked like a connected ‘map’ of inner rings and lines. However, she promptly decorated the Redfang with a crimson addition to her warpaint that made the Goblin look even more fearsome.

“Is she just painting whatever color she feels like?”

Sergeant Gna grumbled around, but no one was her friend to chat with. Bird happily stopped and explained before Snapjaw or Ulvama herself could.

“No. She is assigning different markings because they have different powers. Blue is often a symbol of defense, or warding like silver. I thus deduce because I am smart that Ulvama has given Infinitypear a defensive marking. In the same way, the Redfang Goblin there has one to enhance her strength in battle.”

The [Sergeant] blinked. Ulvama whirled around, nearly dropping her brush. Snapjaw was very impressed. Bird lifted his arms happily.

“I would like paints to make me better at hunting birds!”

“I give you some to make brain better.”

Ulvama grumbled, but she eyed Bird with more respect than before. And confusion.

“What’s the composition of the paints? Is there ah, any inherent magic or is it all shamanic? I’m asking for…me. I want to know if I could sell them and if they’re useful.”

Octavia sidled over to Ulvama. The Goblin waved her away.

“Paints are power. I give more power if I want. All power. But mine.”

“You’re using my ingredients.”

The Stitch-Girl gave Ulvama a big, happy smile that made it clear she was not reaching for the club at her side. Ulvama gave her a toothy grin.

“Yes. So? My paints. Big secret. You pay me, I give.”

She turned back, chortling. Right before someone poked her in the side.

It was a Goblin tradition, but wow was Ulvama getting tired of it. She turned, snarling, and stared at an empty vial. An empty vial…until Octavia gave it to Ulvama and the Goblin felt the weight.

“I’ll trade you how to make one of these for paints.”

The [Shaman]’s eyes went round as she focused on the Invisibility Potion. No Goblin knew how to make that in any of the tribes she’d been in. She and Octavia locked gazes. Then Ulvama waved her over.

“Also how you draw it. See? Like this…”

It was something that Octavia would not have dreamed of doing a year ago. In the same way, it was this point in time that was creating unusual events.

Rasktooth was making a snack. Infinitypear was striding about, feeling good. [Spirit of the Wild] was making the Worker feel…well, excellent. The further they got from Liscor, and especially now, marching without a city in sight, Infinitypear felt alive. More alive than ever before.

He was on an adventure. And he’d level again that night.

 

—-

 

There was another angle to the group, though. One not instigated by Niers, but a product of…well, the species involved. It occurred during the same rest stop.

“Okay. Alright! Okay! We’ve got a break and I’m still full of energy. Let’s do this, Fierre.”

Heads turned from Ulvama happily slapping paint on Sergeant Gna in the most ugly coating possible to see Garia and Fierre relax in a patch of shade. The City Runner grinned.

“Unless you’re too tired in the day? What with being a…”

She mouthed ‘Vampire’. Fierre glowered at her, alarmed. She rolled her shoulders, staying in the shade, and gave Garia a toothy grin. She was wearing all black, and always had a hood on. But she was feeling a lot stronger than she ever had.

So was Garia. So the [Martial Artist] beckoned. And the two began to spar.

It was something they’d begun back at the farm. Now? Fals sat there, watching Garia move into a jumping kick.

“Careful, Garia! Don’t hurt—dead gods.

His jaw dropped. He had never seen Fierre fight. And while it was true she was not a [Martial Artist]…and had little fighting experience…

She was also a Vampire. She dodged, leaning back with incredible dexterity. Which made Garia instantly go for an axe kick. But Fierre just blurred left and went for a punch.

“Bad form! Fierre, you have to stop punching like that!”

Garia halted her friend, and pointed to Fierre’s terrible posture; she’d tried to throw a big haymaker from the side as she dodged back. Fierre growled.

“Oh, come on! Let me at least fight…”

“Not if you’re going to do it like that.”

Fascinated, some of the other warriors watched. Fist-fighting was alien to Salkis except as a non-lethal way of hurting someone. Sergeant Gna snorted at anyone using their fists in a battle.

However…the Redfangs were approving. Badarrow nudged Numbtongue.

“Not bad, huh? Huh? We better?”

“Nope.”

The [Sniper] glanced at the [Bard], surprised by this lack of bravado.

“Not better? You ever fight?”

He pointed at Garia. Numbtongue nodded. He rubbed at his side.

“Jump kick stupid. Don’t get hit by it. Rib-break death.”

“Ooh. You like her?”

Badarrow’s grin made Numbtongue shove him off the wagon. He was more talkative than Numbtongue remembered. It was probably Snapjaw’s influence.

After all, Goblins were exceptionally social. One of the most social groups in their own community, in fact. Just…not with words all the time. As it happened, they were sharing a space with a similarly insular group that saw everything as new.

Antinium. Fierre and Garia transitioned from sparring to practicing kicks, punches, and even how they stepped. They knew they had an audience; it made Fierre a bit embarrassed, and wary, although she didn’t show off any Vampire-specific powers. Garia clearly revelled in it.

However, one observer became obvious when they saw him imitating them. The two young women turned as they stopped punching to stare at the copycat.

Instantly, the Antinium turned away innocently, as if he hadn’t been doing anything. Garia laughed and called out.

“You can join us if you want! Bird! Bird, tell whoever this is…”

Fierre stared a bit uncertainly, but Garia was at home with the Antinium enough to beckon the Soldier over. Shyly, he walked over. He was unpainted, as of yet, but not unnamed. Pawn had helped name the Soldiers and Workers who had volunteered to join Bird, and while he hadn’t figured out what he wanted to make his sigil…

“Who is this, Bird? He can join us in practicing martial arts, right?”

Pivr had hurried over to reprimand the Soldier for fraternizing with the ‘flesh people’, but Bird happily nodded.

“More classes are good. This is good. Shut up, Pivr. No one likes you. You damn…”

He tilted his head and decided not to say it. Pivr looked hurt.

“No one likes me? I am beloved in my Hive. This is a fallacy, Bird.”

He looked around for support. Everyone was silent or looked the other way. Pivr’s mandibles slowly opened wide—then drooped.

“This…”

Bird peered at the Soldier, realized he had no paint, and turned to the others. He didn’t actually know this Soldier as well, but he remembered the name quickly enough.

“Ah. Yes. This is Touma the Great.”

Fals sat up. He eyed the Soldier, much impressed. Garia also blinked.

“Whoa. What’s so great about him?”

Bird gave her a blank look.

“That is his name.”

The City Runner grinned, thinking he was telling a joke.

“Touma the Great? But you can’t call yourself ‘the Great’, Bird. You have to have a reason.”

“You do? Why?”

That stumped the [Martial Artist] so much that she eventually went back to practicing punches. And this time, Touma the Great joined her and Fierre. Incidentally, he had chosen his name based on a storybook. And Mrsha. If you were going to have a name, it might as well be a fantastic name, shouldn’t it?

So much for the Antinium side of things. However, there was another watcher of the sparring group. It was just that she wasn’t as obvious because she had latched onto one person. And it only became obvious the next day.

 

—-

 

Touma the Great, the new [Martial Artist], was clearly wondering if he should wear a top like Garia’s that exposed his abdomen. Then again…since he didn’t wear clothing to begin with outside the loincloth, he considered he might be more [Martial Artist] in this sense than her.

Fierre was the one who noticed her copycat first. She turned her head twice as Goblins pointed and some snickered, catching on. She began to kick up a fuss around mid-morning.

“Hold on. Stop following me around. And stop doing that! Numbtongue. Numbtongue, this Goblin’s insulting me!

The [Bard] stopped listening to a marching song Sergeant Gna was trying to teach him, having grown exasperated with all the non-marching songs she had to listen to. Everyone looked over. Fierre was pointing at a Goblin. Bird did a double-take.

“What? What’s up this time?”

Niers wanted to see, but he had to tilt up a bit of Bird’s hat; he was making spy-holes. Bird opened and closed his mandibles.

“…I have no idea.”

Fierre was pointing at the Cave Goblin who was riding behind her on a pony. It was one of Rasktooth’s peers. And like Touma the Great, and indeed, many of her kind, she had begun to copy something she liked. After all, with so many unique role-models around, the Goblin ability to steal ideas or techniques was hard at work.

But…Fierre? What did that look like? Why Fierre? She was fast, strong, but she had taken great care not to show off her true Vampire traits. As it turned out…what this Cave Goblin, who like many, had no name had stolen wasn’t Fierre’s Vampire nature.

It was her look. Snapjaw landed to see what the argument was about. She took one look at the Cave Goblin, at Fierre, and guffawed.

The Cave Goblin had naturally grey skin rather than green. This particular one had even paler pigmentation than most. Probably why she liked Fierre, who was the most albino of the entire group. She had clearly thought Fierre was onto something.

So, the little Goblin had borrowed some charcoal and turned her hair black. She’d messed it up a bit, so a wisp fell over her brow. She had adjusted her garb so it was all black, and even tried to mimic Fierre’s parasol. She’d gone a step further with black eyeshadow. Why? Because it looked good. Style was the only reason you needed.

Fierre pointed it out with outrage to the laughing Hobgoblins.

“I don’t know how she’s mocking me, but she is! Make her stop!”

“How? She looks like you! She even acts like you, see?”

On cue, the little Cave Goblin glanced with disinterest at Fals. She went pwuh, and blew her long bangs out of her face with a dismissive roll of her eyes.

I do not do that.

Fierre growled, her hands clenching dangerously. Even her friends had to object. Garia coughed, holding a hand in front of her face.

“Really? Hey, Fierre…you know Yvlon? I heard that we might have located her in Chandrar. Her family, House Byres, is going to see if they can get her back…”

The Vampire reacted instantly.

“House Byres? Those…peh.

She blew air out and rolled her eyes—at the exact same time as the Cave Goblin. Fierre realized what she was doing, turned red, and stomped off. The little Cave Goblin followed her, delighted by the Vampire’s style. What she wanted to tell Fierre was that she approved.

She was still curious where her new class had come from. After all, she wasn’t a whatever-Fierre-was. The Cave Goblin wondered what a…[Goth] was.

 

—-

 

There was no way for the little Goblin to know how this class had attached itself to her. She fit the criteria, but the class?

A young woman was arguing with a young man.

“I am telling you, it happened! My [Goth]-senses are going off.”

“Bullshit.”

“Go fuck yourself, Roodney. Someone else has the class!”

Lord Hayvon had been listening to the conversation. He strode over.

“Miss Beclaire. Did you say you thought someone else had your…new class?”

The world’s first [Goth] looked up. She had come from Earth, with the countless other men and women. Children and adults. Many had asked to be made into [Mages], [Wizards], [Warriors], and more.

She? She had refused. She knew exactly what she was. And her class was a mystery to the Rhir-born experts. She nodded, as Roodney rolled his eyes at her dark makeup, her attire of two colors; black and white.

“I’m as surprised as you are that it’s a class, Lord Hayvon. But it makes sense. It’s a way of life. Being a [Goth], that is. I told you it could be a class.”

Her triumphant look at some of the others made Hayvon nod.

“But what does it, ah, do?”

Beclaire pursed her lips. She tried to explain, as a [Strategist] hurried over, taking notes.

“Being a [Goth] is about culture…some people will tell you we’re dark and depressing, but in truth, a lot of us love music, poetry, writing, and so on. It’s about elegance. You see…”

She kept talking, as the [Lord] and [Strategist] exchanged glances. They began to realize…this was not a combat-class. His Majesty’s great warriors were…

Interesting.

And now there were two of them in the entire world.

[Goths].

It was just one of those things that happened.

 

—-

 

It was about Earthers. Which one did you get? Sometimes you got unlucky, and they had the lifespans of mayflies.

Other times you got the lucky card. With significant downsides like a Tom. Or a Ryoka which was…well, Ryoka. What was the value of an Erin? A card that started a revolution in your deck was interesting, to say the least.

And sometimes you got the kind of young man who’d jump on a Wyvern because a [Spice Chef] invited him to.

A…Kevin.

Goblinhome was in the middle of fortifying itself. Goblins were preparing for a fight. What was new? Goblins loved fighting, or it seemed to outside observers. Rather, Goblins might say ‘we’re preparing to defend ourselves because we keep being killed’, but it was semantics.

Poor Goblins. Goblins so sad. Goblins die. Goblins have tragic lives of persecution. As if they were the only species that had a target on their foreheads.

It got old. So if there were clandestine observers in the High Passes, watching Goblinhome, from, say, oh, a cliff three miles higher up, they’d get pretty tired of Goblins being Goblins. Especially since they knew Goblins. The little dangerous man and those adventurers had been more interesting.

So normally there wouldn’t be much interest in the Goblins, even though it was clear they were gearing up for a big fight. They’d added more walls, dropped the pretense of hiding their base, and were creating even more traps. Tamed Wyverns were flying around, ferrying supplies to another base.

Boring. But this? The cliff was filled with camouflaged shapes, pointing. Now…what was this? Their eyes locked on the lucky, wild card.

Kevin shot down the slope, screaming.

I’m going to die—

The magic skateboard was going too fast. In theory, skateboards, that precision machine, should only have worked properly with a flat slope, which you could get from certain natural geographical phenomenon, but really belonged to the world of concrete and industry from his world.

That was, until a mad Dwarf created mithril-alloy ball bearings and an ultra-light frame out of Titanium and married it to an [Enchanter]’s over-tuning such that the board nearly had negative weight.

And then cast a [Grease] enchantment on the wheels, so the usual friction didn’t apply.

There was a reason skateboarders wore helmets. Kevin had chosen what he’d thought was a gentle gradient on the High Passes. He went screaming down the slope as he chose the wrong way and dropped nearly a hundred feet on an accelerating skateboard.

Even so—he saw a natural ramp coming up and took a risk. Kevin uttered a prayer without word and ollied off the ramp.

His audience watched, hundreds of Goblins with their mouths open, as Kevin flew overhead. It was a beautiful death. The young man should have died, flying off his piece of wood as he launched over the roof of Goblinhome, past the smoke chimneys with their black exhaust, and promptly breaking both legs before tumbling head-first into one of the cooking chimneys and burning alive.

He did not. Like magic, his feet seemed to cling to the skateboard. He landed, and shot down the natural incline, turning, whooping, and then did a 360-degree turn…

Straight off the top of the fortress. That time he did lose control and went tumbling head-over-heels. Goblins scattered and the rest covered their eyes. Kevin hit the ground and bounced.

“Whoa!”

A ring on his hand flashed and the young man sat up. He was panting, but his eyes were as wild as his hair. Goblins stared at the non-splattered Human as he kicked the skateboard up into his hands.

That was incredible!

They looked at each other. The crowd on the cliff pointed at the interesting person.

They liked this Human.

 

—-

 

Everyone liked Kevin. What natural charisma let some people ingratiate themselves with whoever they met?

It was probably the willingness to go with the flow. A lack of judgement or going ‘huh?’ every two seconds.

Rags liked Kevin, and she was surprised. He was just so…uncomplicated. Rags had known Erin, who was like a puddle you stepped into and began drowning in. Ryoka? Ryoka was like a two-headed Ogre, with one head who told you lies, and the other one told you the truth, but both heads hated each other and the Ogre kept running around screaming about her personal issues.

Kevin? Rags watched out of her window as Goblins scurried around her, building into the stone cliff. They were expanding Goblinhome from a single base into multiple areas. Preparing for a fight. You didn’t want to have all your forces in one spot; too easy to nuke.

Which was something else about Kevin. When you asked him something, prepared to bribe, bully, or beg, he told you.

“I’m from Earth.”

Just like that. No arm-twisting. No torture. He just…came out with it. Without even being asked. He came over, after touring Goblinhome, asked for a meeting, and said ‘I know you’re Erin’s friends. Can I help?’

Not to say Kevin was an idiot. Rather, it was just the young man taking a good, hard look around. At the many factions competing for Earthers. Wistram, Liscor, Pallass, and more. And then at the one group that had always had Erin’s back. He chose a side, and educated them.

Rags’ head hurt. She was still digesting the big news, that Erin was from another world. Of course, she’d known that, but a world full of Humans? It explained so much.

Would Erin have told her? Well…she watched Kevin show off one of the objects he’d brought in his bag of holding. He wanted to get back to Solar Cycles, and she wanted one of the bicycles he’d promised her. For now? He was the most popular Human that Goblinhome had ever known.

Way better than those annoying Gold-ranks. Goblins were watching Kevin try a tri-flip; he was out of practice, but he had Hedault’s ring that protected him from almost all falling injuries.

A skateboarder’s dream. And not even that; Goblins practically carried him up the slopes, begging him to go down an even steeper gradient. Kevin was protesting, but mildly. They were pointing and Rags could read what they were saying.

If you’re not going to die from falling, do a jump off that! The Human took a look at a wood ramp two Goblins were dragging over.

…At the bottom of a three-hundred foot hill as steep, possibly steeper than Pallass’ ramps. They were asking him to do a jump off that and a skateboard trick through the air. He looked at the certain-awesome-death ramp, checked the ring on his finger, and looked at the cheering Goblins.

Because he was Kevin?

He went for it.

 

—-

 

At the same time, a little Goblin was stomping out of Goblinhome to shout at the happy people. She was in a bad mood.

Poisonbite was one of Rags’ top lieutenants, especially with Snapjaw and Badarrow being away. She’d joined Team Rags from the start, and had been rewarded for her loyalty.

The problem? She was short. As in…physically short.

She wasn’t a Hob. Oh, she’d grown a bit, but not like Rags, or Redscar or a lot of others. It was clear that the [Poisoner Rogue] wasn’t high-enough level yet. She had worked her way from being a [Stabber], a [Poisoner], into her class as a higher-level Goblin.

But she just didn’t have whatever made Hobs…Hobs, rather than regular Goblins. And Poisonbite resented it. She had a deep fear that being a non-Hob would mean she’d lose her place; a trait inherited from Mountain City politics.

So she’d been sulking, snapping at her group of stealth-Goblins, the mostly-female band who employed poison. Everyone was turning out to be better than she was! Even Greybeard had turned out to be Greydath of Blades, Goblin Lord and one of the most powerful Goblins ever. She was still mad about him hiding in her ranks for all this time.

She was a Hob in the making, but her height had yet to sprout up like a sunflower. Poisonbite was angry, and as she strode outside, she saw Kevin shooting down the ramp.

Poisonbite had heard of the Human that the Chieftain had brought back. She hadn’t been impressed. Now? She caught her first sight of Kevin just as he went off the ramp.

The [Mechanic] shot up into the air. His skateboard floated past him as Poisonbite’s jaw opened. She and ten thousand Goblins watched as Kevin’s arms spread. He grabbed his skateboard, floated his arms and legs out to form a cross, and performed a backflip Christ air through the sky.

He broke every Earth-record as he soared for no less than thirty seconds. Over Goblinhome. Over the heads of Poisonbite and the others.

Over the cliff.

Oh shiiii—

He survived, of course, thanks to Hedault’s ring. There was no fear for Kevin. He had bypassed the simple law of ‘if I land wrong, I might break every bone in my body’. The world was open to him. Of course…Hedault was even better at skateboarding.

Poisonbite knew none of this. She just ran to the cliff and saw Kevin signalling for a Wyvern to pick him up. She stared down at him.

It was love at first sight. When Kevin landed amid the cheering Goblins, Poisonbite strode over. She looked up at the Human.

Then she took his skateboard.

Hey!

Poisonbite lovingly stroked the beautiful object. Then she took off running with it. She shot down a hill, minus Kevin’s ring. Poisonbite didn’t care. This was—

Kevin watched the little Goblin wipe out on a stone. Poisonbite flew—hit the ground—bounced—he winced. Then covered his eyes.

Oh no.

 

—-

 

Rags watched one of her lieutenants lying as a Goblin [Healer] laughed his ass off at her, then applied some healing potions. She shook her head.

“If good Goblins die to skateboards…”

It looked like a lot of fun. Deadly fun, but what other kind was there? She looked back at her interesting guest.

“Sorry. I really didn’t expect her to just yank the board and…go. No one skateboards like that. We have skating parks where it’s safe. Not cliffs.”

Rags waved a hand.

“Poisonbite is stupid. She likes you.”

“Is that the Goblin who wiped out like that? She’s cool. She could be a [Boarder]. As in skateboarder.”

The Chieftain of the Flooded Waters tribe hesitated.

“That a good class?”

Kevin hesitated. He poked at a frittata that was loaded with Calescent’s spices. It was probably not bad, but neither Rags nor Kevin touched the snacks in her new, personal office.

“Uh…it’s all about skateboarding. I heard some kids in Pallass got it.”

“So…it’s about doing tricks on skateboards?”

“Mhm. Ah, it’s really...good. And not too spicy! Is something wrong with Calescent?”

Kevin chewed on a frittata. Rags tried one after that. She wondered if the [Spice Chef] was sick.

“No [Boarder] class, then. Waste of levels.”

“You’re the Chieftain. Uh…sorry. Should I call you Chieftain Rags or…?”

“Rags is fine. I call you Kevin.”

The Goblin flicked her fingers. Kevin grinned in relief.

“Cool. Thanks.”

She eyed him. Looks were deceiving. Kevin might be more of an Erin-puddle, rather than just a buffoon.

“So. You want to tell me about Earth?”

Kevin was checking a second frittata for telltale spices. He glanced up.

“What? I mean…yeah. Anything you want. You said you were thinking it over. I can tell you about all kinds of stuff. Magnolia—that was, Lady Magnolia—made us organize it all. I can give you most of it in order. Anything that helps. Gears. I have tons of gears and stuff; that might help. I’ve seen your ballistas and stuff. It’s amazing.”

He meant her Thunderbows, the oversized crossbows made with Wyvern bone and sinew. Rags nearly smiled at the compliment, but she studied him.

“…Why? Why are you being so open?”

Kevin popped the second piece of frittata into his mouth. He and Rags waited as he chewed and swallowed. They were deeply suspicious of Calescent’s motives, but they didn’t realize he’d gotten a new Skill. [Hot Enough For You]; a way to save the tongues of countless Goblins. They would celebrate it later when they found out.

“I…don’t mind telling you. I mean, there’s all kinds of stuff.”

“Guns. Bullets. Fighter planes. Nukes.”

Rags watched Kevin cautiously. The Earthers all tended to emphasize the scale of war on Earth to non-Earthers as a way to build perspective. Nothing like telling someone you could vaporize a city to reassure them your planet was nice.

“You tell us all this very secret stuff. Things Erin and Ryoka told you never to share. Not to Wistram. Not to Magnolia. Not to anyone. To Goblins. Monsters. Why?”

Kevin glanced up. He chewed on the snack, then reached for Eater Goat milk. Rags didn’t see a vapid look in his eyes when he glanced up.

“…Because it seems like Goblins have the short stick. I mean, everyone calls you monsters. Erin told me you guys saved her life. You said you were going to help bring her back. Pallass has an agenda. I don’t really like Grimalkin. He’s not stupid; he’s ruthless. Chaldion scares the crap out of me. Wistram tried to kidnap me. Twice. Magnolia is just as scary. So…you guys seem like the best out of everyone. You have to trust someone. I’ve rocked out with Numbtongue. No one else is half as cool.”

Rags blinked at Kevin. He gave her a look and she upgraded her assessment of his intelligence. He was a social, easy-going Human. But not an idiot. It took a special kind of person to know how to make friends with Goblins by doing something stupid.

“Alright. Tell me more.”

The Goblin’s crimson eyes glittered. She’d call in her lieutenants for this. Later. Her mind was spinning with all the information Kevin had.

And it was true—a lot of it was useless. Okay, there were things called guns. How did you make them? Gunpowder. How did you make that, or the mechanisms inside?

Long-term projects. However, Goblins were nothing if not opportunistic. Case in point? Redscar had sat in on Kevin’s crash course on the history of warfare on Earth. He wasn’t shaken like many military minds were. He was just trying to figure out how you fought a war without line-of-sight against Humans.

Deep underground, in mazes, probably. Watch out for landmines. He didn’t have a way to copy their weapons. What he did have was one of the new Redfangs who had tamed a Wyvern.

The female Redfang was lying on her sleeping cot, uncomfortably trying to nap as a [Shaman] handed her a sleeping draught. Eighteen Redfangs crowded around her. They were chanting, loudly, then softly as she tried to fall asleep.

[Fighter Pilot]. [Fighter Pilot]. [Fighter Pilot]. [Fighter Pilot]…

It could work.

 

—-

 

Rags had drawn the lucky card with Kevin. Not because he knew how to make gunpowder. Not because he was the most expert at the fundamentals of math, or groundbreaking ideas that would revolutionize the world in ages to come.

Rather, because he was a mechanic who knew bicycles and just enough about metallurgy to be the most helpful Human ever. He took one look at her crossbows and nodded.

“Alright. So they’re not ballistae, see? They’re crossbows.”

“What’s the difference?”

Kevin scratched at his head.

“…Something to do with how they’re wound. See? You have that big limb.”

He pointed at the ‘bow’ in crossbow. Rags nodded. It was a source of aggravation to her. She pointed at the oversized weapon that had dented even the Wyvern Lord.

“That is the biggest crossbow we have. Big problem; we can’t move it.”

Kevin eyed the straining Wyvern-bone bent back to take all the force it needed to launch a bolt through armor.

“I bet not. That’s like…the difference between ballistas and regular crossbows. They have this other winding technique, see? Torsion.”

Rags’ ears perked up. Some of her Goblin [Tinkerers] slid off their perches to wander over. Tell us more.

Kevin, the mastermind behind gears and bicycles, was thinking of the same thing Paige had. A lot of Earthers, really. Torsion; the style of winding thread together to create the same force as crossbows.

Ballistae had been made with them as early back as the Roman empire. Why not make a crossbow like that?

…Well, because there was no point. It worked, but if you could enchant a crossbow limb or make one out of spring steel, you could get all the force you needed.

Unless you wanted to make a giant crossbow. Or you’d found that even Wyvern bones snapped under the forces you wanted to subject them to. Rags’ eyes lit up. Kevin scratched at his chin.

“Gears, too. You could make a winch really easy. They have them in Liscor. Heck, I bet you could even make titanium; you’ve got some right there.”

Where?

Rags stared about. Kevin tapped her crossbow.

“It’s titanium. That’s what ‘Dwarfsteel’ is. I asked Pelt—the Dwarf I know—and he told me to keep it to myself. I bet no one but them knows how to make it. But the trick is you just have to heat it up super hot. Most forges could never do that, but…hey.”

He spread his arms. What did he know? He was here to help. Kevin eyed the six Wyverns, patiently being loaded up with supplies and Goblins. They were preparing to kick the hornet’s nest. All for Erin Solstice. You had to help people like that.

Besides…he eyed some Goblins already trying to put together crude skateboards of their own. Kevin grinned.

They were his kind of people.

Rags stood there, looking at this Human. She saw a huge Hob waddle out of the kitchen. Calescent. He pointed at Kevin, himself, and waggled his eyebrows.

Good job, eh, Chieftain? 

How about that spice set?

 

—-

 

They told her Pisces was a [Slave]. They told her Ksmvr was a prisoner of Illivere. That Ceria had not been found.

They told her these things…perhaps to make her angry. To curry favor, like Rexel, the [Storm Bandit], or Leprel, the [Thief].

She was sick. The master of the Arena of Rust had seriously considered sending for a [Healer]…but Yvlon had one arm, and the wrath of the Champion of Rust, whom she’d insulted to his face.

He had elected to keep her in the first match of the week and month. The Arena of Rust was showing off the ‘new blood’; the prisoners and [Storm Bandits]. And Yvlon. They’d be participating in a mass-gladiatorial bout.

No monsters. No unique hazards like a [Flame Floor] spell. That had made Rexel and Leprel sigh with relief. Right until they heard that the Champion of Rust and all the elite gladiators would be participating.

“What’s the problem?”

Yvlon was gritting her teeth, her abdomen twinging with pain. She was still able to move, but her guts hurt. They were cheap [Gladiators]; she wasn’t rated for a [Healer].

“It’s bad, Silver-killer! The Champion of Rust is participating. Normally the veterans wouldn’t do much to us—maybe go after competitors, a dangerous newcomer they don’t like.”

“Yeah. So?”

The Champion of Rust is holding a grudge. Or do you not remember what you said to him?”

The blonde-haired woman didn’t respond. She sat there, her jagged stump of silver metal glinting; her good arm flexing, hand clenching and unclenching.

Twenty minutes to the bout! Last check!

One of the arena’s guards came marching down the rows of cells. Again, it wasn’t the treatment Yvlon expected. He stopped in front of every cell.

“You four. Weapons. Any to change?”

“What?”

She glanced up. The Stitch-Man grunted impatiently, and muttered.

“Foreigners. You—you have a longsword as preference. Want something else? Battleaxe? We have a flamberge, rusted, but you might get it if you ask. We’d give you a shield if you want to strap it to…”

He indicated her stump of an arm. Yvlon shook her head, slightly.

They actually asked what weapons she wanted? Rexel requested a short sword instead of her daggers, and a shield instead of a second one.

“Can I get a throwing set?”

“We’ll see. I’ll write it down. Remember! You get rusted gear or good ones if the Arena Master decides otherwise or you have a patron! Or get lucky! Alright…”

They went down to the next cell. Yvlon shook her head.

“Madness.”

“Just remember the plan, Silver-arm.”

“Would you call me by my name?

Leprel looked at Rexel. The Stitch-Woman nodded slowly.

“Sure, Yvlon. Remember. We stick together. We just have to survive until enough fall or forfeit. We do it right and the Champion might not go after us. He might throw a spear or two…we can get stitched up. You can’t.”

Yvlon nodded, head lowered, clearly not really listening. The two Stitch-people exchanged concerned looks. They’d gambled a lot on making Yvlon their ticket to surviving until they were full-time [Gladiators]. But between a full-scale bout and the Champion’s enmity…

Ten minutes! Last chance!”

The Arena of Rust’s gladiatorial rooms lit up. Yvlon found her cell unlocked. She glanced at the far doors, but they were enchanted and reinforced. She flexed her hand…then turned.

The [Gladiators] were mustering in their areas. The regulars didn’t share rooms with the newcomers, who had essentially upgraded cells. Even here, though, Yvlon saw them collecting their gear. She eyed a rusted longsword with distaste.

Iron.

“Someone doesn’t like you. And someone…ah, Nerrhavia’s end! Someone likes me!

Rexel beamed as she found a pack of four throwing daggers she could strap to an arm or thigh and a shortsword and shield. Yvlon stood there, longsword in hand and looked around.

Prisoners and the lowest-ranking [Gladiators] were talking. Some were shaking, refusing to talk to others; others weeping. However, many of the ones who had survived just looked…alert. They checked their weapons, murmured, made last-minute pacts.

She saw a Human woman lift a little pouch and sniff from it. Her pupils turned huge in her face.

“Uh oh. Selphid dust. Keep out of her way. Someone’s intending to make an impression. You can gain a lot of favor and fame in the mass-bouts. This is the biggest match of the week.”

Leprel muttered. She eyed the woman who was about to go on a similar berserk spree to Selphids Rampaging—hence the name.

Yvlon hated it all. She thought of Pisces, then the coming melee.

Five minutes!

The prisoners lined up. A lot fought to be near the gates. A man with a single metal armguard, mismatched amid faded leather with holes in it, stitched up, shoved a Dullahan woman wearing wooden armor to the side. He peered through the grates.

“Looks like pillars and broken walls! Good cover!”

He shouted. More fought to be first. First to be out and getting the best positions, Yvlon thought.

A game of blood. She stood at the back of the throng. The other prisoners were watching her, and the gladiators. Yvlon’s head was lowered. She could hear the crowd roaring outside, and someone bellowing. A female [Announcer]?

In the Arena today we have the first mass-battle of the month! Here is our beloved Champion—

A scream of noise. Yvlon gritted her teeth. The [Announcer] was reading out names of gladiators, to greater or lesser cheering from their fans.

“—And the blood for the Arena’s sands! [Storm Bandits], [Thieves], runaway [Slaves] and volunteers seeking fame and fortune! We have a special contender the Champion of Rust himself has named, though.

Yvlon started. Rexel groaned. That was not a good sign. The voice shouted on as the grates began to rise, hefted upwards.

A [Warrior] who slew over two hundred [Guards] before being apprehended! Only one arm, but you might recognize her—a Gold-rank Human! They call her the Silver-killer, One-Arm, the Slaughterer of Silver…

“You must be joking.”

The gates opened and [Gladiators] and prisoners ducked under it before it even rose to head height, sprinting out into the arena. Some of the veterans and the champion were already out there, taking their places. It would not begin until the bell rang, and they had less than a minute to get out there.

Everyone was shoving at the front; the smart ones kept back, biding their time until the press cleared. Leprel was pushing at Rexel and Yvlon.

“Stick to the plan! We find a corner and cover! Come on, Yvlon! Come on—”

The woman didn’t move. Rexel slowed, her sprint turning into a walk as she looked back.

“Yvlon? Come on, Silver. Don’t protest now—they’ll throw you into it if you stay inside.”

She and Leprel wavered as Yvlon stood there, head down. Her one good hand opened and closed around the longsword’s hilt.

“I hate this. I did nothing wrong. This nation is corrupt. This is a farce.”

“Yvlon—”

Leprel hissed. This was not the time! She heard the crowd chanting down to the bells, and some of the [Guards] were peering through the doors at the back of the waiting rooms, seeing them standing there.

Did she run and take her chances alone? She waited, trying to push the [Armsmistress]. Yvlon was still talking.

“This isn’t a battle. This isn’t a raid. This is just sport.”

“You’ll die if you fight back. This is the only way.”

Rexel faced Yvlon, licking her lips. The doors were opening and a [Guard] was pointing.

“Get out there!”

“…twenty, nineteen…

“Yvlon…”

The woman reached out. Or tried to. She stared at her broken arm. She had lost it in the Village of the Dead, a continent away. In a real battle with a monster. She met Rexel’s gaze.

“I know that. But I don’t have to like it. Fine. Fine.

She walked to the edge of the arena’s portcullis. Yvlon stared out into the silent arena. People were crouched behind pillars, some armed with bows or crossbows; [Mages] were preparing to cast spells.

And there he was. The Champion of Rust, redolent at the back, surrounded by his allies, searching for targets. For her. He spotted her and it seemed they locked gazes even across the vast distance. Rexel groaned. Yet Yvlon was still muttering.

“They want me to fight?”

Five! Four! Three!

The roar grew louder. Rexel couldn’t hear Yvlon, but she saw the woman’s lips moving and the faintest of sounds over the thundering of her heart, the rumble in the air. The grimy lips moving. The look…in those sapphire eyes.

They don’t get it. Fight? Start fighting?

Yvlon Byres whispered. Her hand locked around her sword. The [Silversteel Armsmistress] stared ahead.

I never stopped.

This entire time since the Village of the Dead had been a break. The bell rang and the doors swung open as [Guards] came to shove out the [Gladiators]. But all too late.

Yvlon Byres sprinted out of the waiting room. Rexel and Leprel turned, mouths open as she charged into the rust-red dirt of the arena. The [Gladiators] looked up.

Begin!

The clash of metal on metal heralded the battle. The audience roared, pointing as the Human ran out onto the sands. There she was! They recognized her, and gasped. Was that…? From the television…?

The [Arena Master] was talking with a [Mage].

“I don’t know. Broadcasts, yes, but the Champion of Rust is eh, artful. Saved battles might not be as flashy.”

“It’s easy. We just ‘record’ it. It’s storing the damned stuff that’s so hard. Wistram has the jump on that, but for a small fee, we’ll record any match you think is good. Then you get a cut of the profits if we sell them!”

“Not much of a profit! See—”

The roar of the crowd made the [Arena Master]’s eyes perk up. Now that was louder than normal. Had someone just been decapitated? He looked towards the arena and saw her.

A Human woman, storming out of the waiting rooms. The Gold-rank…he looked at the [Mage].

Well, record that!

The [Mage] fumbled for a scrying mirror. He held it up just in time; the [Arena Master]’s Skills were tingling.

[Sense for Spectacle]. He hurried to the front of the observation booth.

 

—-

 

Remember the plan! Silver—Yvlon! The plan!

She had forgotten the plan. No, she was ignoring the plan. As [Gladiators] began to fight, and the first arrows and figures leapt across the ground to score first blood, the Gold-rank charged forwards.

Straight across the arena. Straight through the rookies fighting with veterans. Rexel and Leprel slowed in horror.

Ah! There’s the Silver-killer! Look! She’s trying to unseat us, eh? Let’s see how good she is.

A [Veteran Gladiator] posed, turning, magnifying her voice. The Stitch-Woman grinned as she swung up two hatchets to cheers from her fans. She whirled, placing herself with three [Gladiators] who, by unspoken agreement, had decided to take her on.

“[Power Throw]—”

The woman drew back one axe, ready for a mighty throw. A shame she was Human; a Stitch-Woman would easily take the loss of a limb. But the [Gladiators] did not like unknown quantities who didn’t necessarily know to wound rather than kill. Besides, the Champion had made it known he would be quite happy with anyone who took her out.

So—this really wasn’t personal. They saw the woman raise her sword, fifteen feet out. The [Gladiators] wavered.

[Foresight: Injury]. The screaming alarm went off in all three brains. The [Axe Thrower] stopped her Skill. She yelped.

Nerrhavia’s tits—

[Sword Art: Curve of the Moon].

The cheering audience saw a glittering crescent cut across the Arena of Rust. A shining flash of a blade—the roars of approbation faltered.

The [Axe Thrower] tried to pick herself up from the ground. Dead gods. Dead gods, was that her best Skill? That maniac had just used—

A foot kicked her in the face. Not Yvlon; Rexel stopped to give the [Axe Thrower] two more kicks. Another [Gladiator] was scrambling away, bravado forgotten. The last was staring down at his arm.

My good arm!

He wailed, tearing out stitches so the bleeding would stop. Yvlon ran past all three, followed by Leprel and Rexel. She had just used one of her best Skills. The rusted longsword in her hand was bent from the force she’d put on it.

“Piece of trash—”

She kept running with it. It kept the other [Gladiators] away. They’d seen her unleash that Skill and scattered rather than fight a maniac who had nearly bisected three of their buddies. Yvlon didn’t care. She wasn’t focusing on them.

The [Armsmistress] was charging at one figure who was watching her, perplexed. The Champion of Rust.

Are you coming at me? Me, woman?

He shouted, spreading his arms and trying to gesture to the crowd. But Yvlon didn’t even give him time to mock her; the gleaming Stitch-man with his glorious Silk cloth-skin saw her charging. He lost his smile.

He had an axe and shield. A powerful, crushing combination where he had literally rammed his shield into foes so hard they broke bones, or sundered armor with his weapon. He could be artful; he had a net and spear he used when it wasn’t a killing matter.

He drew the axe and shield now, gleaming with magic. Yvlon had her rusted longsword. People were pointing. This new adventurer was going after the Champion of Rust? Was she mad?

She was angry. [Berserker’s Rage] was driving Yvlon on. But she could see him through the blood-haze. Watching her. The Champion of Rust flicked his shield up.

“[Projection: Shield Ram].”

The [Armsmistress] saw a giant copy of his shield, spectral, glowing, appear as he heaved it at her. She leapt sideways with an oath; the projection hit Rexel and sent her flying. Leprel scrambled after her buddy as Yvlon rolled, picking herself up. She saw the Champion of Rust dart in, axe raised.

He was quick. He had [Longstep] or something—he slashed. Yvlon knew better than to parry, so she went for an exchange as she lowered her stump of an arm.

You stab me? I stab you! The Champion cursed, and flicked left; he avoided being impaled by the rusted longsword; Yvlon was not struck by the falling axe blade. He stepped back as Yvlon slashed, slowed.

Felt at her cheek. Red blood was spattering the ground.

“How…?”

A roar. First blood! The Champion of Rust lifted his axe, grinning. Yvlon’s blood was on it. She hadn’t even seen the blow!

“[Free Cut]. Did you think [Gladiators] didn’t have our own Skills, Silver-Arm?”

He taunted her, circling left with strutting steps. Yvlon felt her blood, warm, trickling down one cheek.

An unstoppable cut? A blood-letting blow, to disconcert and disorient. The kind of thing that looked great.

Pathetic.

His brows snapped together as she sneered at him, in an expression worthy of Pisces. The Champion of Rust shrugged.

“I warned you not to take us lightly, Silver. Now—”

He came in fast and low, mid-sentence. [Cleaving Scythe]! The crowd roared as he went for Yvlon’s legs. She?

She brought her sword down as she charged. The Champion caught it on his shield, grunting, as his slash towards her legs was blocked. By—what? He didn’t see, only felt it.

Yvlon had no weapon on her offhand, but dead gods, she was strong! He staggered, but saw what he had wanted.

Her blade bent. The useless iron couldn’t stand up to the first blow! He grinned as Yvlon dropped it. His axe came up to punish her step back.

It never came. Yvlon balled a fist and threw a punch.

The Champion’s [Foresight] Skill went off. He pivoted, and the [Impact Punch] knocked him stumbling backwards. Cursing, the Stitch-man set himself.

You—

She ran at him. The man incredulously swung his axe down. This idiot thought she could take him on bare-handed—?

His axe met her arm and sparks flew. Yvlon stared at the notch in her arm. So did the Champion of Rust. The audience stared at the sight. Then Yvlon swung her stump of an arm up. The Champion saw the jagged stump point at him. What was…?

The silver flesh rippled. Then—it morphed, elongating into a stabbing point. It shot towards his cheek.

Gyaaaaaah!

He threw himself left, with a shriek that was completely unplanned. The Stitch-man rolled as Yvlon checked her arm.

“No blood.”

She heard shouting. The crowd was on their feet. What was that? Had they seen her arm morph? The [Armsmistress] turned.

“You—what are you—?”

The Champion of Rust realized the danger he was in too late. Yvlon shoulder-charged towards him. He blocked her, and the two rammed into each other desperately. Now, though, he realized what had stopped his strike.

Her arms could transform! He saw a short-blade coming out of her ‘useless stump’ of an arm, a cutting edge made out of her flesh! She slashed at him and he leaned back, sweating.

“Stop—let’s stop this. Let’s—”

She slashed, shouting, and he backed up. The Stitch-Man ducked another telescoping stab of flesh, slashed at it. But he failed to sever it. Yvlon grimaced as if she’d felt the blow, but then she was charging again.

The Champion of Rust had had enough. He was going to net her, back up, and take her down from afar. He just had to knock her back. So he lowered his shield with a roar, swinging his axe down.

[Dust Bomb]!

Blind her, and retreat. They’d fill her with arrows or blast her with spells! She was a deadly warrior and could not be allowed to live. That was clear.

[Foresight: Mortal Wound].

The Champion of Rust’s eyes went round. He broke off his Skill and slashed.

Leprel screamed, aborting the two daggers to his back. She saw the huge Stitch-man bellow at her. Then—whirl and slam his shield down on Yvlon’s punching arm. She staggered. His axe rose for a sweep.

[Armform: Telescoping Flesh].

The man stumbled. The audience, on their feet, never saw the Champion’s blade descend. What they did see was him stand there, stunned, and then tear away from Yvlon screaming, dropping his blades, and clutching at his face. His chest. His…

Then they saw her. In the later recordings, from other angles, it would become obvious what happened. The [Arena Master], on his feet, stared in horror as the Champion of Rust clutched at the bloody socket that had been his eye, his body, perforated by…holes.

Yvlon Byres, the Slaughterer of Silver, One-Arm, the Silver-Killer stared at her arm. Or…what had been her arm.

Leprel and Rexel looked at the jagged tips of silver metal. The…spines of it that had shot out of Yvlon’s arm like a porcupine, lancing the former Champion at close-range.

The blood ran onto her silver. Yvlon’s arm slowly morphed back to a hand. She stared at it.

“What am I?”

Rexel didn’t know, but she also knew. She thrust up Yvlon’s arm, gingerly, as the arena shook. In her first match? Rexel shouted as she raised the new Champion of Rust’s arm to the sky.

Yvlon the Silver Arm.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Today’s chapter was written because I’m tired. At the end of my writing cycle and more tired than usual, somehow. I am writing the author’s note in advance, live on stream, to say it was under 20,000 words.

…Whether or not I lied is irrelevant. Given the Patreon side stories poll which has three days left (one or two days as of publishing, I suppose), I thought it only fitting the chapter be a sort of catch-all advertisement for each option listed. Can it flip anything? I sort of doubt it, but who knows! It might not be the full course meal, but having a lotta snacks is good now and then, right?

Anyways, I’ll be recharging my batteries for a week, so thank you for reading and supporting the story! Go listen to the Book 4 audiobook or…read something else while I’m gone. Thanks for reading!

 

Palt’s Secret Catalogue by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!

Portfolio: https://enuryndraws.art/

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/enuryn

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Enuryn_Nat

 


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60 thoughts on “8.35

    • he had family in Oierdressql. ->
      he had (a) family in Oierdressql.

      animals were shooting out of the brush. ->
      animals were shooting out of the (bushes).

      • Well to be quite frank, “a family” would be wife and children, or maybe a mistress and bastards? while just “family”could be that and extende family. i say i have family inlondon because my uncle lives there. Its a matter of perspective.

        And brush is correct. As in
        “The under ‘brush’ of the forest”

    • Naming Typo
      In this Chapter, Rexel is the [Storm Bandit] and Leprel is the [Thief]:
      …. like Rexel, the [Storm Bandit], or Leprel, the [Thief].

      But in Chapter 8.25 KH, Rexel was the [Thief], and Leprel was the [Storm Bandit]:
      Rexel:
      The female [Thief] shivered. Her name was Rexes, and she was a Cotton-caste [Thief]. ….
      (Name misspelt Rexes instead of Rexel)

      Leprel:
      …. but then Leprel, the [Storm Bandit] who’d first met ….

      (Pleas Note that in Chapter 8.25 KH, “Rexel” name is spelt with an “L” at the end, and written like so 12 times, but the first time her named was revealed she was named as “Rexes” with an “S” at the end, and written like so 3 times.)

  1. “If they had someone from Earth with them, the band of disparate species and peoples might have called themselves ‘The Fellowship of the Inn’ or something stupid like that.”

    I feel so attacked here! 🤣

    • I’m not too fond of the breaks either. But I do realize that they are necessary for the continuation of high-quality writing and also to avoid burnout. so they need their break no matter how disappointing it is for us readers.

  2. You might consider rewriting those few lines about ‘she-wyvern’, Pirate. I and few other were confused by the way it was phrased, sure that there’s the fourth mythical creature, a wyvern. There’s something confusing about the way it was written.

    • I believe the ambiguity is on purpose. My reading is that the “she-wyvern” is either a very old Wyvern who gained intellect like the Wyvern Lord that attacks Pallas or, more likely, it is a old female dragon that the Wyrm is insulting by calling her as a brute a mere she-wyrvern.

  3. Nice. You don’t have to be Belavier to sense the threads of the story beginning to come together. I think in the final battle against the gods, it will be the new clerical powers of Pawn and his holy warriors that will hold them back while other forces mount the attack.

  4. That was something of a roller coaster. The horror of the Fraerlings being massacred. The Queen of the Free Antinium becoming a pet owner and comically missing the point. The first [Goth] Goblin had me desperately stifling laughter. And then Yvlon. That was somehow the worst. Principled, noble Yvlon as a killing machine… Nope :(

  5. I like how for Pawn his Class and wrath Skill are red but for the [Crusader] Antinium it is white, and how they memorized Pawn’s hatred ‘speech’ from the first battle.

    I wonder would happen if the [Goth] Goblin outleveled the first [Goth]. Also the Blighted Kingdom thinks [Goth] isn’t a combat Class but they do realize their highest level and strongest Earther is a [Clown] right? Like watch the Demons throw themselves on their own swords when [Goth] girl uses [Mosh Pit] and [Cut My Life Into Pieces].

  6. Good Chapter! The shifts in tone between happy and horror were a bit discombobulating, but I was glad to get updates on Luan, Ryoka, Silveran and his pets (more!) and Yvlon especially. And I love the Goth Goblin.

    One detail I’m unclear on: were Yvlon and her circumstantial comrades still wearing the metal underwear from 8.25 KH or did any of them get some real armor? I assume it’s the former and that the [Arena Master] would keep them outfitted Red Sonja style for the sake of spectacle (it could be worse: Roman gladiatrices usually fought topless, iirc,) though I can’t see stoic Yvlon allowing the attempted indignity to really get to her for long. Cleaning dried blood out of your navel probably sucks though. I assume Prince Zenol will show up eventually, but whether he’ll oppose his nation’s powers that be to support someone he has called a friend but doesn’t really know that well remains to be seen.

  7. Best line of the whole chapter.
    “Ryoka? Ryoka was like a two-headed Ogre, with one head who told you lies, and the other one told you the truth, but both heads hated each other and the Ogre kept running around screaming about her personal issues.”

  8. Thanks!
    \(^^)/

    *rubs hands* It’s all coming together, muahahaha. All the different perspectives were great, The Fraerlings’ Death St— ehm, Tree, Rhisveri’s reactions, the Fellowship of the Inn bonding, hopefully future [Fighter Pilot], and Yvlon’s new ranged Skill.

  9. If wyrms are unrelated to dragons, might they have given rise to lizardfolk the same way the dragons gave rise to drakes? Maybe one of the reasons Baleros hasn’t fallen to the dead gods yet is that its defenders include wyrms…

    • That’s actually a pretty interesting ,and possible sounding, theory that Wyrms gave rise to the lizardfolk in Baleros.
      The only problems in it I see are that it doesn’t explain where the lizardfolk got their maturation evolution trait from.
      And there is a pretty big personality difference between the few Wyrms we’ve seen and most lizardfolk. Drakes and Dragons have more common personality traits than the former two.

      • Maybe wyrms saw how similar traits in drakes and dragons led to a schism, and deliberately made lizardfolk, the masses, cheery and opposite.

        But rememeber how when the lizardfolk evolve their personalities mutate drastically, into pride for nagas, domineering for quezacoatl, and i dont know whqt personality trait medusae have in common. I think the star naga in wistram has great greed and posessiveness of people and information.

        But its like lizardfolk have lust as their base sin, then they level up into different sins and greater power, and Wyrms are kinda all the sins.

        • That’s actually a valid theory, and it would explain why drakes are so antagonistic towards lizardfolk.
          Only point/problem is that’s it’s dependent on the lizardfolk coming into existence after the drakes.
          And so far apart apart from certain species being stated to have gone extinct (or demonized)
          Not a lot of background is established on HOW they went extinct or in what order they went

  10. Hmm, since I re-read TWI over the last break, it’s too soon for another re-read. Haven’t re-read the Lensman series in a few years, so I’ll be back after the Children defeat Eddore.

  11. This chapter was really good. This is exactly how you should write in the future, with the individual story length increasing or decreasing, as is needed. That way all your countless side stories can perfectly catch up with the arc tempo. Several small stories fit the current size of your universe much better.

  12. That was great! Stupid (ex-)champion of rust. Plots to kill a woman then is surprised when she doesnt go along with it.

    • To be fair, ensuring a lower leveled opponent gets issued a pretty useless weapon for their first day in the arena and then newbstomping them while they get their bearings was a pretty solid murder plan.

      • To be fair, antagonising a gold rank adventurer whom has been an actual threat to guards and such without gear and whilst bound is not a very good plan nor is it really newbstomping since the vast majority of their skills do carry over. It’s the same with the bandits.

        • An antagonistic relationship wasn’t plan A. His first response to her arrival was to ally with her. When that was robustly rejected, he switched to plan B, which was to eliminate her.

  13. What!!!
    Not one of ye mentioned Birds awesome Tophat or the fact that he scrounged it from the Brothers… ( My imagination has been playing with the facial expressions of what the Brothers must have been processing as they figured out that Bird wanted to take one of their hats etc etc)

    Or
    Poke….poke…. Numbtongue is bad Bard… Sing… You damn idiot.

    Poke….poke…. Ulvama is bad Shaman…. lazy… paint army…. You damn idiot

    Or
    Kevin joins with Rags. Brilliant. Perfect match. Cannot wait for aftermath, it is gonna be Epic. Already we have maybe Goblin Skateboard Skirmishers with Wyvern Fighter Pilot overwatch. The high passes are gonna be Goblin country.. mega uber cool.

    Kevin is gonna crank out Goblin hand crossbows for skateboard ambush bandoleers full of Calescent bombs of Death spice etc.. Its gonna be like Mad Max shags the Gremlins and a Goblin steam punk era of magic and machine erupts… lol.. loving this.. ;;))))

  14. I actually quite liked how this chapter touched bases with more than one main plot thread, there are so many pots in the fire atm, that I appreciated the quick recap chapter that didn’t really move anything forward.

    Also rather digging Yvlon being so very over this part of the story. It’s like a DM in dnd forcing a slave pit arc in and the player going, “kill everything you say?”
    And the dungeon master cries as all of his carefully crafted npc’s with their intricate motivations and plot threads become irrelevant in the face of the player just wanting to get out of that section of the story as quickly as possible.

    • Speaking of D&D, I had been wondering if it would be possible to level up a class you have by drawing up and playing d&d with a similar class in Innworld, just as tacticians and strategists can level by playing chess or go. DM, meanwhile, might be a class all of its own…

      • You’re words have merit but there is a inherent flaw in them.
        Strategists and Tacticians level from chess because there is a form of strategy in the game similar to the class.
        Taking DND as an example, if you’re a [Warrior] and you play as a warrior character in the game you still won’t level because there is no actual fighting or risk in the game.

        • Probably. I imagine partly it would also depend on the mood and intensity of the game. There’s also no risk to tacticians and strategists, beyond their reputations, in simply playing chess, so it’s clearly not an essential component.

          There’s definitely room for a lot of experimentation with regards to different games and classes. Imagine if someone arrived with a bag full of eurogames, and found that games that replicated running an estate (eg Castles of Burgundy) could level up low level Lords and Ladies.

          Or maybe any and all board and card games would only be useful for tacticians, gamblers and idlers, depending on how they’re played and with what intent. It would be interesting to see the experiment, though.

  15. Has anyone seen an Innworld chess set? Thanks to the story, I’m learning to play, and I’d really like to get a set like Erin uses. I can’t find one on Amazon, at least not yet.

    • I doubt there is one, given that the combination of chess player and TWI-Reader would be somewhat rare. Personally I think, Erin is very focused on the game instead the board, so would be happy to play on any old board. Heck, she was at some time using cardboard to supplement her lack of chess sets.

      How about trying to find one with a fantasy theme? I found a rather nice one on Amazon (german) searching for “Schach Fantasy”, you might get lucky too.

  16. Am I the only person who hates chapters like these? Nothing *narratively* happened – people did things but nothing meaningful occurred. Entire chapter can be cut and the only plot lost would be a bit of Ryoka/Wyrm relationship building, Neirs’ [lack of] justification for leaving hundreds of thousands to die and Yvon regrowing her arm. Everything else could happen off screen with no loss except word count and potentially been more impactful if revealed later.

    • These chapters are for those of us, who read TWI for the Slice of Life. I would be perfectly happy to read more of this, even though, yes, I want Erin back. But that would be mainly because I love the Erin-centered Slice of Life.

      And I do not agree, that nothing happened.

      – There is character development. Bird learning more about being a leader. Let’s face it, those rescuers were more of a bunch of people, who happened to walk into the same direction (Mrsha), not a team. Now not only Numbtongue and Ulvama are learning more about being part of a team, but that entire lot will improve.
      Heck, even the Queen of the Free Antinium is shown to experiment with something new, as a matter of fact:
      – The very existence of pets in the Hive of the Free Antinium shows how much they have changed in order to even the queen keep a pet, something that many would consider utterly useless. Those pups and kittens don’t serve as defenders or food but as a sort of emotional support animal. And we all know, that emotions were not really a Thing among Antinium. So I would actually consider this important.
      – Yvlon being shown on TV means her whereabouts get more widely known and a rescue gets that much more likely.
      – We see the first time that a faith based Class, aka the Crusaders, are going to war and battling enemies using a faith based Skill. This will likely have consequences and I can’t wait to find out, how the various [Strategists], [Generals], etc. will react. Manus might well implode from the shock.

      • You’re not wrong, and also partly why I read TWI, but slice of life is normally a single coherent piece with focus on details. I’d be happy with a chapter dedicated to each of the topics, but most of *this* is random exposition. It tours unfinished scenes instead of meaningfully progressing them. Cake icing served without cake and suffers for it.

        Most of the points you mention can be brought up at any time, and are missing huge chunks of detail. To zoom in on 2 particular scenes with rhetorical questions:
        – What’s going through Birds mind that he’s leveling as [Liar] from working with Neir?
        – How far behind Mrsha is Mrsha’s rescue party? Are they gaining or losing ground?
        – How is [Goth] relevant to either continent and plot?
        – What does being ‘hated’ means for FurFur? Are they treated differently?
        – When and how did the Queen get her pet, and why a Rock Crab?

  17. Chapter was amazing, but I just keep thinking about Relc… my heart is still so darn proud of him! It’s the greatest of compliments to Erin working magic with memory only. And Birds leadership skills… and bug stew! Happy Vacay –

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