Interlude – Of Vampires and Fraerlings

From the moment she was old enough to crawl, Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle had been told that the day someone who wasn’t family or another Vampire found out what she was—she would die.

Her family had, with well-meaning intent to keep her safe, and arguably bad parenting, traumatized Fierre with nightmares about being staked to death, or left to burn under the sun. The boogeyman was not under her bed; he was outside with a mob of torches and silver.

It…understandably made Fierre worried about her identity, especially when she saw how different she was. Cravings for blood, allergies to sun, garlic, and silver—if far milder than the stories indicated, sickness combined with inhuman strength and speed, and no levels.

When Ryoka Griffin had revealed she knew who Fierre was, the Vampire girl had nearly had a heart attack. However, she’d gotten over it because Ryoka was, well, Ryoka. The Wind Runner who consorted with immortals.

Later, through an accident and coincidences purely beyond her control, not born of uh, negligence and overconfidence, no less than four people had learned Fierre was a Vampire when she manifested her mist-form powers.

Mrsha, Alber, Garia, and Ulvama. Now, it being not her fault, Fierre had still been desperately terrified. True, two out of the four were a mute Gnoll girl and a Goblin [Shaman]—unlikely to do more than blackmail her for cookies—but the other two were Humans.

Humans, who had pushed her kind to the brink of extinction, forced them into hiding, and, as it turned out, had been systematically poisoning them to death for millenia. Or House Byres had, at any rate.

Fierre had packed her bags that night, even as she desperately explained, begged them not to tell. She hadn’t trusted even Garia and Alber, her friends. Not entirely. In the back of her mind were her mother and father’s stories about Vampires trusting others and waking up tied down as the evil non-Vampires fetched a wooden stake and hammer…

Just a bit of childhood trauma. If you asked Fierre, she would have described herself as ‘perfectly normal’. Nevertheless, she had waited for the betrayal, the mob, the pitchforks…

And waited…

…and waited…

Then all the bad things had started to happen because Erin was gone. Then the attack, and Fierre was getting into her job, Ryoka got into more trouble, Mrsha got kidnapped, horrific [Witches] nearly summoned monsters into the inn, armies, saving Mrsha, and…

Now she was on the march, or rather, ride with a bunch of Antinium, Goblins, and more through Drake lands, to save a little Gnoll girl, in the company of one of the world’s greatest military minds.

Life was weird. Of course, at the inn Fierre had pulled Garia aside—and Alber—to ask why they hadn’t reacted more strongly to her being a Vampire, predator of all those with ichor in their veins. Vampire, the legend of old! Vampire, the story so famous it existed in multiple worlds! Vampires, the—

…Somewhat forgotten fable, if you were being honest. Ulvama knew what Fierre was, but called her ‘Bloodbiter’, which Fierre was beginning to suspect was either a Goblin nickname, a slur, or both.

However, Garia? The [Farmer]-[Runner]-[Martial Artist] had slapped Fierre on the back, given her a hug, and told her it didn’t matter what she was!

“So you’re a species in hiding. It’s not like you’re a Selphid hiding in someone’s body and pretending to be alive. No offense to Jelaqua, but that’s a bit creepier. You could have told me you were one, and had Selphid-powers and I would have believed you, honest!”

Fierre had given Garia a dumbfounded look and then realized…they had no cultural context. No one told stories about Vampires anymore. Alber had just asked if that was why she was so strong and quick, and looked a bit envious until he heard about the sun-allergy thing.

They cared, but they weren’t afraid. Neither were they awed. Fierre was a Vampire. Cool. Hawk was a Beastkin. Hey, you know there are all types of Beastkin? Wolf Beastkin? S-snake Beastkin? 

Wait, isn’t that a Lizardperson? 

That’s so interesting. Have you met Anith? Jackal Beastkin. That’s so fascinating. Do you think there are Bear Beastkin or something? Let’s all talk about that. So cool. I’ve never met one.

It hurt her feelings a bit. Just a bit. Not that she wanted to be feared as a creature of the night. It was just…y’know…she was a Vampire and all. Sort of a big deal. A true Vampire?

To make up for her lack of dramatic fanfare and possible assassination by pointed object, Fierre rejoiced in having someone like Garia to show off to and talk to, as well as Alber.

Ryoka was all very well and good, but if you got her in one place for more than a week, it meant you’d broken her legs or she’d broken them saving someone’s life. And she’d probably be crawling off after the week was over.

Although…it had to be said Garia wasn’t the most subtle secret-keeper ever. As she jogged alongside Fierre’s horse, the City Runner winked a few times.

“Hey! Fierre! Is it uh, shady enough for us to do some sparring while we travel? Or is it a bit too bright? I know you don’t like sunlight.

Fals gave her an odd look; Fierre’s penchant for shade was obvious and well-known. Fierre closed her eyes. Then she checked the position of the fading sun as they marched down the road.

“…I think it’s shady enough in two hours. It’s still way too bright. I sunburn easily.”

“Right. Which is natural! People have skin ailments all the time! Perfectly natural.”

Oh dead gods, shut up! The City Runner kept winking as she jogged next to Fals. Fierre could have done the same, but the motion threatened to dislodge the scarf, hat, and copious amounts of dark clothing, usually black, that she wore to block the sun’s rays.

In theory, white was more reflective, and a Vampire could wear all-white clothing. But it stained so.

“Okay, two hours. Great! No problem—just let me know when it’s not sunny enough! Because…it’s normal that…”

Garia was getting flustered trying to logic her way out of the hole she’d dug. If she wasn’t so attractive, with sweat rolling down her neck and her blood pumping in that fit, nay, thin body, with her muscled stomach exposed with all that delicious [Martial Artist] blood…

Fierre licked her lips. Garia’s hair was black, but had blue streaks running through, and she had an altered shirt that covered her chest, but not her stomach. She liked her thin weight, not that Fierre had ever met her before she’d become a [Martial Artist], and her confidence—according to Ryoka—had skyrocketed as a result.

Compared to the City Runner next to her, a young man who was long-legged, blonde-haired, and tanned, but not as noticeably…noticeable, Fals, Garia stood out. Which made it all the more surprising that he was the higher-level and more senior [Runner] in their Runner’s Guild.

However, before Garia could go on, Fals tapped her on the shoulder. Normally they got on like two old friends did, albeit somewhat more awkwardly than before. Garia had had a crush on Fals until their situations changed and now she was eclipsing his position, much as Ryoka and Persua had. At this moment, though, the young man glanced at Fierre and then whispered to Garia.

She shouldn’t have heard, but her ears were as good as a Gnoll’s, her eyes as sharp as a Garuda’s, and she could smell/sense hearts beating. Vampires were impressive!

“Garia. It’s not polite to bring up someone’s skin condition. She burns easily under the sun. We get it. It’s called ‘albino’, I think. Stop making her feel bad and just drop it.”

“Oh. Um. S-sorry, Fals. I’m just joking around.”

Joking? We didn’t make fun of Deitle and his teeth, did we? Okay, Persua did and we put a stop to it. I can’t believe you’re being this inconsiderate. You keep referencing it. Is it an inside joke or something? If it’s not…”

Fierre’s mouth opened and closed a few times, exposing pointed teeth. They really didn’t remember.

The albino young woman…no wait, the Vampire still got to spar with Garia. Just in the evenings. She rode all day, chatted with the group that had set out to rescue Mrsha, and just…rode.

Southern Izril. Fierre was used to the north, and especially Reizmelt, where the area had plateaus that descended into the windy plains of Reizmelt, which either transitioned to a more rocky north before it got to the shore, a forest and a local boggy region, or headed south to more fair terrain—perfect for [Farmers] or [Herders] like her family.

The south wasn’t a single landscape, of course, but Fierre was surprised by how…well, a bit warmer it was.

A few degrees. It was noticeable; a certain increase in humidity, but not anywhere close to Baleros. It did mean vegetation could get denser. The Bloodfields, an aberration on the land, had turned into hills, and then into thick, wading grass that could go up to chest height, filled with little bugs. Ticks, burrs…the group had fought through that for two days and nights already.

When they’d found a hunting trail they’d been so grateful they’d all unanimously voted to go there, instead of through the tough ‘grass’. More like arid shrub-stalks to Fierre’s mind; they were hardy specimens that lived in the less fertile areas and crowded everything else out.

“I thought the Great Plains were the widest fields and plains in all of Izril! What’s this about? Gah! Another tick! I hate these damn things so much!

Sergeant Gna saw none other than Lady Salkis, of Pallass, make that comment, as she removed another tick from her scales. The Gnoll gave her an odd look, but the Pallassian Drake really hadn’t travelled as much. And when she did…it was not the riding line, with Fierre and the other mounted people ranging ahead, with Octavia’s wagon and whoever wanted a rest in the middle, and followed behind by the Antinium column and the Goblins, some riding pillion if they were both small and not Hobs.

They moved at a decent clip, stopping only when the Wyvern, Icecube, swooped down so Snapjaw and Badarrow could issue course-corrections, or Bird, their leader, decided it was time for a break. A snoozing [Shaman] slept in the wagon, a [Bard] strummed on a guitar as they rode.

And they were moving slowly. Salkis grumbled. She was used to flying carpets, teleport spells, or enchanted carriages! At least! She yanked another huge tick off her scales; the damn things loved to burrow into everyone but the Antinium’s chitin, which they couldn’t penetrate. After one day of walking, everyone had realized the yellowed stalks were loaded with the damn things.

Ironically, it had pissed off one person the most. Salkis rode forwards.

“Hey Fierre, you see any more of the ticks on me?”

“Four on your horse’s belly, one on your right arm. Kill the bastards.”

Fierre instantly appraised Salkis. She glowered at the competition. Salkis found the tiny insect and dug it out with a dagger.

Rather than squish it, blast it with fire, or toss it, she did the most malicious thing possible.

Hey! Who wants to eat this thing?

Every Antinium raised their hand, except Bird, who was craning his neck to see if he could spot some prey. Salkis flicked the bug at Touma the Great, and the Antinium happily munched the little morsel down.

“Thanks.”

Salkis didn’t bother with her horse, but Fierre nodded as the Drake rode back, rubbing at her arm. Sergeant Gna stared at the Antinium with disgust. Then she promptly rode over to the bloodsucker for her checkup.

Interesting friendships had formed. Some more easily than others. Gna didn’t like Antinium. Gna didn’t like Goblins. Salkis was wary about the Antinium, but interested. Fals was wary of both, lacking contact, but was fairly genial, if reserved. Xeu and Pivr kept to themselves, being foreign Antinium. No one liked Pivr. The two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings were fairly blasé, having been in The Wandering Inn for quite some time, Normen especially.

…Aside from that, they mostly got along. But the friendships…ah, that was the interesting bit.

Rasktooth, the Cave Goblin with a tooth necklace, a [Cook], really got on with Fals since both helped prepare meals. And Infinitypear, because the Goblin had never eaten a pear and the two were both obsessed with the fruits now. He, riding a pony, would occasionally nudge Infinitypear, the Worker.

“Pear.”

“Pear.”

The Worker agreed, a rare moment of speech. Rasktooth admired the pear on Infinitypear’s chest.

“Juicy?”

“Juicy. Juce.”

Juce? Juce! Juce pear!”

Then Rasktooth began laughing so hard he nearly fell off the horse and Infinitypear tried to copy him.

“Haha. Ha. Haa. Ha. Ha. Ha? Ha.”

Actual children. No one else got the joke—well, two of the Goblins and some of the Antinium did, but they didn’t think it was funny.

Fierre rolled her eyes, in an exaggerated way. Instantly, the little Goblin riding next to her on another tiny destrier copied her.

“Stop that!”

Fierre hissed at the [Goth] Goblin. She got a heavy-lidded glare, beneath dark eye-shadow, charcoal-darkened lips, glowing red eyes…and a distinctly black-on-black style dress and attitude reminiscent of Fierre’s.

Puh. You make me.”

The Cave Goblin retorted. Fierre glared. Then she waved a hand.

Numbtongue! Numbtongue! Make her stop!

From up ahead, the idle tune from the guitar faltered—and then Numbtongue deliberately pretended he hadn’t heard Fierre. The Vampire glowered.

“Make her—”

Gothica.

“That’s not your name.”

“Is.”

Gothica retorted. Fierre glowered at her.

“You can’t name yourself after a class! [Goth] isn’t a class, anyways! I’ve never heard of it!”

“Bad ears. My class is [Goth]. Deal.”

The Cave Goblin went ‘puh’, and blew at the fringe of black hair in a manner distinctly similar to Fierre’s.

Numbtongue! Ulvama!

You had to appeal to the Hob to get a Goblin to do anything. Said Hobs continued to ignore Fierre. Ulvama had woken up from her snoring. She scratched at her side, yawning, as Octavia mashed some ingredients into powder using a mortar and pestle.

“It food time yet?”

“Nope. We ate an hour ago, remember?”

“Only slept an hour? Drat.”

Ulvama lay back, but she couldn’t get quite comfortable on the food and supplies, despite all the blankets she had piled about herself.

“Too hot. I want food.”

“Well, Bird won’t stop unt—what are you doing?”

The [Shaman] looked up innocently as she put an iron pot on a corner of the wagon and drew a glowing orange rune on the wood. She flapped her claws at Octavia.

“Go back to make powder. Nothing, nothing.”

Octavia craned her neck. She was actually helping Ulvama make more of her paints in exchange for lessons on how they were applied and trading information. The lazy Hobgoblin didn’t like doing it if she could get someone else to, and Octavia didn’t mind; there wasn’t much else to do, and mixing potions and bumpy wagons did not go together.

She stared as Ulvama dumped some water out of a flask into the pot. The rune was glowing, and Octavia put her hand out, felt the heat, and edged backwards in alarm!

“You’ll set the wagon on fire!”

Touma the Great, the aspiring [Martial Artist], watched as Garia began trying to practice jump kicks on the march. He glanced over as Ulvama calmly ignored Octavia’s panic.

“Hush. Only heat. Not fire…not unless silly cloth girl starts one. Hot enough to boil. Yum.”

The ‘yum’ was because she had waited for the water to boil—very quickly with a second spell to help the heating—and then she dunked four fat, lovely eggs in from the goose Bird had shot.

She was boiling the eggs. Octavia’s mouth opened and closed. Ulvama glanced at her.

“What? You want? Fine. Boiled eggs is good.”

She put another one in with a sigh, and then lay back, counting. Octavia glanced around. Everyone else was marching or riding.

“…You’re just making boiled eggs?”

“Yup.”

“Just like that?”

“Mhm. Boiled eggs is nice. You—get Sally-peppers.”

She meant Salamander Peppers. Octavia snatched them back as Ulvama went for the vial.

That’s an alchemy ingredient!

“Boo. Okay, just pepper and salt. Mm.”

Ulvama waited exactly four minutes, then pulled out the eggs fast, cursing as she peeled them with a minor heat charm, and ate them, sucking out the gooey insides. She gave one to Octavia, who juggled it and then guiltily ate.

She noticed one of the Redfang Goblins, her face painted with combat paint, staring accusatorily at her. Octavia pointed weakly at Ulvama.

“She was making them. I didn’t! It was…”

“Give.”

Octavia stared at the hand, but she had no more boiled egg; Ulvama slapped her hand when she tried to take one of the remaining three, but the Redfang didn’t care.

“Egg. Egg!”

She impatiently clapped her hands until Octavia tossed her a raw egg. To the [Alchemist]’s mild surprise—not horror—the female Hob instantly cracked the egg into her mouth, then jumped from her saddle. She had something in her claws, popped it into her mouth, and chewed.

“Yum.”

Sergeant Gna stared back at the female Hobgoblin.

“…Did she just crack a raw egg into her mouth then add a handful of dirt? Is she eating that eggshell?

“…Yep.”

Salkis nodded slowly. The Hob smacked her lips with every sign of relish.

“Gothica, what was that?

Fierre asked the [Goth] Goblin since the Cave Goblin was now chattier, and refused to leave. Gothica glanced at the Redfang dismissively.

“Dirtbite snack.”

“Dirtbite snack?”

“Yep. Add dirt. Find worm? Add dirt. Find egg? Add dirt. Find…is good. Makes belly fuller.”

“Why?”

“Not enough to eat? Dirt good salt. Peh. Makes forget about hungry until you die. But die with belly full. Bad poops, though.”

Gothica seemed uncertain if that merited another scoff; she was a low-level [Goth] so far. Fierre looked at the Hobgoblin who was nodding to herself, chewing the eggshell.

“Dead gods. Everything you Goblins do is depressing.”

Salkis announced after a second. It hadn’t taken her long to pick upon a commonality between a lot of Goblin habits. She peered at the Redfang Hob.

“And who is she? Or is she another Goblin who doesn’t have a name?”

The Hobgoblin glanced up. She grinned, and waved. Jabbed her chest. Then, without any warning at all, exhaled a cloud of dust at Salkis and Gna.

Both swerved their mounts to avoid the spray of dirt particles. Gna swore like a [Sailor]. Salkis had a hand on her dagger.

“That? That is Dirtmouth. Dirtmouth, do black soot trick!”

The other Goblins egged the Redfang on; she had once learned this trick from a certain Goldstone Tribe’s Chieftain. She took a bite of something she carried.

A…was that a bit of charcoal? Coal? Dirtmouth chewed it, swallowed a bit, then spat a cloud of black dust forwards.

“Nice combat trick. Goblins have all kinds of damned underhanded moves like that.”

Gna grudgingly admitted. She meant it as an insult. Salkis, though, just looked interested.

“…Could she do that with nails or glass? If I could spit that in someone’s face, I’d give it a shot.”

The [Sergeant] gave the apparently prim and proper Wall Lady of Pallass an odd look, but Salkis had ridden back to speak with Dirtmouth.

That was just one part of the ongoing conversation as the group travelled. They were moving at a good clip; they knew they were in danger if this hunting trail led them into contact with Drakes, Gnolls, or anyone. They were searching for Mrsha, because her life might be in danger.

But they still talked. Each one, in conversations that would never have happened if fate hadn’t thrown them together.

“I just do not understand. I am Pivr. I am clearly beloved; how else would I have the Prognugator/Revalantor designation of the Flying Antinium? The Flying Queen loves me. Therefore everyone else does. Is that not so, Xeu? You like me, do you not?”

Pivr fanned his wings. He looked unexpectedly hurt by the revelation of two days ago; he had been deadly silent for an entire day, and then hadn’t shut up yesterday or today.

He addressed the only other foreign Antinium, who had blended to look like the off-yellow stalks. Xeu rubbed her scythe-arms together to keep the blades sharp. She considered a deeply thoughtful and comprehensive remark, then spoke.

No.

That was already extraordinary enough, but in the realm of possibility. The weird part was where the young man tipped his hat, and Normen addressed Pivr, at the back of the caravan.

“It seems to me, sir, that you’re conflating the two, as it were. That one woman loves you doesn’t mean all do. A fellow has to appeal to all sorts of chaps and ladies. It’s hard work.”

“Really. I am important, though. Does that not confer instant likability?”

The two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings exchanged glances.

“As much as a fellow with a diamond or lots of gold, sir. It’s like, but only so long as you’re important to folks as might benefit. The instant you ain’t, you’re not, if you understand me.”

Pivr fanned his wings.

“Fascinating. Fascinating. I have no idea what you mean. Elaborate.”

A dozen conversations. A dozen meetings. Bird happily craned his neck back to stare for a bird. Inside his hat, a little figure cursed as the floor suddenly rotated under him.

Niers Astoragon was slowly going insane.

 

——

 

We are moving too slow.

Niers hissed at Bird. The Antinium reluctantly stopped staring up, looked around, and realized Niers was right.

Let’s talk about a mile. A mile, a unit of measurement as it pertained to distance. 5,280 feet. Often ridiculed as being highly unintuitive compared to a kilometer. After all, whose feet were you using?

Well, only Earthers had another unit of measurement to go by. In the void of Niers’ rapidly-deteriorating mental state, he thought about a mile.

There were countless miles between Liscor and Pallass. Between Liscor and Invrisil. Four hundred, to be exact.

Izril was thousands of miles long. That was a lot of miles. Even if you assumed only half the length of Izril—since Liscor was roughly in the middle, that was a lot of distance to cover to any port or harbor.

“I know Izril is big. Please stop shouting in my hat.”

Bird retorted. Niers just glared as he paced around the top of Bird’s head.

“I’m bored and I can’t even sit in the open without being noticed! Someone’s got to learn something or I’ll start eating this damn hat. So let’s have a logistics lecture. You can be my top student.”

“I would not like to be the top student. I will be the eighth most competent, please. For maximum lack of expectations.”

Niers stared at one of Bird’s antennae blankly.

“…Okay. Fine. How long would it take you, Bird, without Skills, to walk a mile.”

“…How fast am I walking? Please stop kicking my antennae. Twenty minutes?”

“Great! Thank you! Twenty minutes. So let’s do math.”

“Must we?”

Assuming you walk for…hm. Eight hours? How many miles could you travel? Let me help you—do you know how to multiply? Divide? I can teach you that. That would be an hour broken down into segments of twenty. Three per hour. So—”

“I will walk 24 miles in eight hours. Yes. Why am I learning this?”

Niers blinked. Bird stared blankly at a tick trying to bite his arm. He was going to call this tick ‘Ineffectual Biter’. It would be his pet. He would become a [Pet Owner] and…

Aha! Got you, you little pest!

Fierre grabbed the tick, squished it, and triumphantly tossed it to the ground. Bird stared at the tick. Then he went back to listening.

“Twenty four miles isn’t much. It would take us…let’s see. Isn’t Pallass 380 miles south of Liscor? So at 24 miles per day—”

“—It would take me 15.83 days. Yes. This is indeed math.”

This time Niers had to stop. He sat, thoughtfully.

“Are all Antinium as good at math as you, Bird?”

“We do not use math. Math is boring. I was taught by Erin Solstice.”

Instantly, Niers was distracted.

“Really. Tell me more. Why did this happen?”

Bird tilted his head. Niers slid sideways, but didn’t remonstrate him this time.

“…Because she was teaching Mrsha? Mrsha did not want to learn. She taught me because ‘I am a child and should know basic math’. I did not want to learn either. Therefore, Erin told me she would cook me my favorite bird food ever if I solved her math questions.”

“What’s your favorite bird food ever?”

“Cookies in the shapes of birds. But it was only my favorite food that month. She made it for me four days in a row. Mrsha got none. Even when she tried to steal.”

Bird smacked his mandibles together a few times happily. Niers was fascinated.

“So you solved the problems four days in a row?”

“For bird cookies. They were hard at the last part. Erin made Pisces check the questions because she did not know the answer, proving that teaching is hypocrisy.”

The Titan of Baleros decided to go back to his lecture because there was nothing else to say.

“16 days, roughly, is terrible. For us to get to Pallass in that time? That Gnoll who grabbed Mrsha is moving far faster. Let’s say you ran. The average Human—not Fraerling—not Antinium—can run a mile in about…oh, twelve minutes? Not a trained one, obviously. Not including Skills. And not for many hours. But let’s say you can run a mile every ten minutes. That means…”

“I can run 48 miles in a day. Which would mean I get to Pallass in 7.92 days.”

“Correct. Bit better, eh?”

“If you are going to tell me about speed, what about horses? I am riding a horse.”

Bird patted the horse’s head. Said stallion gave Bird a mistrustful look; twice now Bird had tried to feed the animal bits of cooked bird. Niers settled back.

Ah, well, now. If we want to talk averages…it used to be that a decent [Soldier]—one with all their gear, mind you, not bare as we’ve been talking, weighed down, could march twenty miles a day. Other standards are higher. Depends on terrain. But twenty miles in any situation without Skills, on foot, is a good benchmark. I hear some armies test their people’s fitness like that. How far do we go if we don’t activate a Skill? Now, on horse? You can go, oh…30 miles a day with cavalry? Armor, and so on?”

“That is a 50% increase in speed. Which would take you to Pallass in—”

“Yes, yes! No need for more comparative math, thank you. But isn’t that figure interesting? Bird, if you ran at the speed we discussed, you would beat a trained [Rider] on a horse—without Skills—if you could keep it up eight hours.

“I am better than a horse. I knew it. Do you hear that? It is because you do not eat birds!

“Bird. Stop taunting your horse and listen. Everyone’s got different standards. Some people are faster; with Skills you can break five minutes a mile with a lot of average City Runners. Or sustain that kind of speed. Rarely both. But…it’s still slow.”

Bird tilted his head.

“48 miles in a day is slow?”

“Yep.”

“We are not running at a pace of a mile every ten minutes. We are trotting. I believe we are too slow. Hello, everyone! We are too—

Niers shushed Bird before he could shout.

“It’s fine, Bird! Do you know why I make my students do all that calculation when I introduce them to the logistics sections of their classes?”

“…Hm. To see if they are good at math or not?”

Niers smiled.

Ah. Good answer. Yes. And to get them to a point where they can calculate speed on maps. But yes. We establish baselines of speed. Then—I have them take their hard-earned calculations—which they spent all day on, or all week if they were learning their multiplication and division, unlike you—and tear it up.”

“That is excessively cruel. Go on.”

“That’s because those numbers don’t matter. Not with high-level armies. Not with monsters. Certainly not with Couriers or anyone who’s…anyone. Anyone who’s rich, high-level, or powerful enough can get to Pallass faster than someone who runs eight hours, runs all day and all night. We’ve been beating all the numbers I tossed out.”

“Yes. We passed Pallass already.”

Niers nodded.

“Because of my Skill. We. Are. Faster. But it doesn’t just have to be me. Say you had to get to First Landing in a week. And you had an unlimited budget. You could definitely do it, right? Give me a way to do it, Bird.”

“Yes. I would buy a scroll of teleportation.”

“Even without one, you could still do it. Give me another example.”

“Will I get a cookie if I do?”

“No.”

“Hm. My motivation has decreased, but I would hire a carriage. Although if it is too slow and the horsies tire…”

“…You hire another one. Ever heard of a messenger line? Do it with horses. You ride them at full gallop, nonstop, until they’re tired, jump off, and get another one. Use stamina potions. Use healing potions! Anyone with enough money can do that. The clever ones combine things. Like hiring someone with movement Skills, riding nonstop wagons with enchanted wheels, a damn carpet—anyone can move. That’s our problem. We’re chasing after someone who can move with Skills and artifacts, and we’re boosted by my Skills. But we’re still going too slow. Do you know why?”

“Your Skills are inferior.”

Niers Astoragon sat there for a moment. He breathed in. He breathed out. He smiled. Calmly.

“Bird? I am over Level 60.”

“Yes.”

“You have seen my capstone Skill—you know, the Skill that disabled an immortal [Witch]’s protections for five minutes? I can do it to an entire army. You could put all of Wistram in front of me with every Archmage in the world, and give me an army of Level 5 [Archers] and I could kill them.”

“Okay. I have still seen your greatest Skill. And other ones. I have not been overly impressed.”

Niers chuckled darkly.

“Bird. Bird. Bird. Bird.

“I am beginning to think you are upset. Yes?”

You’ve seen my Level 60 capstone Skill. How about my Level 50 Skill? How about the Skill I got at Level 62?

“Oooh. I am still unimpressed.”

Bird was enjoying making the tiny man upset. It was a good way to pass the time. He was also levelling up in [Liar]. He was already Level 6! One more and he might get a shiny new Skill.

Niers didn’t take the bait, unfortunately. He just muttered and then spoke to Bird.

“The point is, Bird—all my Skills work on armies. [Strategists] are force multipliers. We talk about that in class theory.”

“Class theory? Am I taking another lesson?”

“No. It’s just strategist-talk, and I can tell you’re getting bored. Say a [Warrior] is a linear addition to most armies unless their class is complementary like [Vanguard]—a [Mage] is a multiplier. A [Mage] can multiply a [Warrior]’s power. A [Warrior] doesn’t do more than ‘add’ to a [Mage]’s power because their Skills don’t synergize the other way. Mind you, a [Warrior] keeps the [Mage] from getting shanked, so there are dimensions, but a [Strategist] is a pure multiplier. We need armies to work. Without armies—we have no power. Unlike a [Warrior].”

“Ah. So you are saying since you did not have an army, that is your excuse for letting Belavierr get away and Mrsha being stolen.”

Niers sat in a state of zen on Bird’s head. After a while, he spoke.

“I was leading you to the conclusion that my Skills are boosting our speed, but we’re going through rough terrain. Not on open roads. I can make us go faster, and we need to pick up speed. But we can’t stick to the backcountry. We have to take to the trade roads. I know that takes us within literal spitting distance of some cities. I have a plan. But we need the kind of speed a wagon—and people on horseback—can’t sustain without a flat road, even a dirt one.”

Bird thought about this and nodded.

“All this makes sense. Why didn’t you say so from the beginning?”

He heard nothing from the tiny man for a long time. After a while, Bird clapped a hand to his head.

No! Don’t—

Too late. Niers kicked a hole out of the side of the hat he’d cut with his enchanted sword, and exhaled a cloud of smoke from the little Dreamleaf rollup. He leapt—and landed on the back of the bee he’d summoned. He offered Apista the rollup and flew off. Bird lifted up the hat and stared at it.

My hat!

 

——

 

Problems at home. Stranded on a continent without help. Hunted. Dead [Innkeepers]. Strange confluences of events.

Annoying Antinium.

There was a reason Niers Astoragon did not go insane. He’d seen it a lot of times. War heroes who couldn’t adapt to peace. The cure was more war…or an actual cure. His academy, his company actually maintaining and working on projects was why the Titan of Baleros didn’t go insane. He needed work, a project like instructing the next generation—and even then he had dozens of schemes he worked on at any time.

Foliana was different. She could literally hide in her tree-room and eat…gravy biscuits or something disgusting all day. Personality. Even now, Niers couldn’t tell which of theirs was actually better for the success they’d enjoyed.

Here, bereft of many diversions and on the road, in disguise with only Bird to talk to? Niers kept sane in other ways.

Griffinwing dive! Spiral-roll!

The Titan dove out of the air four hundred feet overhead. A little Ashfire Bee dove after him, wings folded, in the classic hunting form of a Terandrian Griffin. A move used aerially by all flying regiments over a certain size; you literally smashed an enemy below you in the air.

Apista broke out of the dive into a complex roll in the shape of a spiral; no aileron roll, but a spinning evasive tactic designed to throw off ray or beam-based spells. She caught Niers and he clung to the improvised saddle.

“Pitch drop! Ha! Hahahaha—

It was an impressive technique to go from moving forwards into a near vertical dive. Niers had seen experienced [Wyvern Riders] and other fliers who couldn’t pull off the little bee’s tricks. But then, their mounts were famously temperamental. He was impressed Snapjaw even had control over her Frost Wyvern; it would have eaten a [Rider] it didn’t respect. Watching Snapjaw literally chew through stone had made an impression on Icecube.

Maybe that’s the trick. If a Wyvern thinks you can eat rocks…that’s almost stupid enough to work. I have to test it when I get back.

Apista levelled out of the snap-dive and Niers gave her the rest of the blunt he’d been smoking as a reward. The Ashfire Bee flew too high for even Badarrow to see the Fraerling, or so Niers hoped. He was too busy scouting around, anyways.

To keep himself entertained, Niers taught Apista flying combat tricks. Like she was a [Wing Rider] of Fissival’s Wyvern-squadrons. Or a Fraerling warmount.

Below him, the others were camping for dinner. They’d continue into the night. It was Niers’ plan, which Bird had faithfully implemented.

They needed to travel across Izril. Logic dictated they travel into night and early morning. From dusk till full morning, they travelled; this was ‘breakfast’. And that was good because it meant less traffic and they were harder to spot from afar.

Not that it matters with this terrain. Niers cast a look around the tick-infested wilds. He hated the damn bugs too; they could drain someone his size of blood completely.

They needed a road. More danger meant more speed and more reward. Niers was a bit put out, actually.

“Not one monster attack. Not one enemy group. What are the Drakes doing, sleeping? Hello! We’ve got Goblins and Antinium here! Come attack us!

He shouted into the wind. Apista, fanning her wings lazily as she smoked, considered that Niers had just done his job too well. He had concealment Skills, and had chosen a route past the Bloodfields that had let them skirt Pallass and any major engagements.

Not that she could speak.

Well, bored Fraerlings aside, there was a lot of interesting things in the caravan. Niers sighed, then backflipped off Apista’s back.

“Catch me fifty feet off the gr…”

Apista sighed then floated down after him. Neither one was really worried; terminal velocity among Fraerlings was a joke.

 

——

 

On the ground, Fierre flew past Apista. The bee did a double-take. So did Niers.

Numbtongue just grumbled as he sat with his brother, Badarrow, and Badarrow’s…what was the Erin-term for it? Girlfriend?

That was almost completely wrong, but they were also not married. Nor were they going to bother with any formal system. They were a couple.

Numbtongue was still glad, heart-mended to see the Goblin he’d thought was dead after the battle at Liscor. However, this new dynamic? Not uncomfortable…just different.

Badarrow, the recalcitrant [Sniper], the grumpy [Archer] who was a Goblin-Halrac as Erin had once joked, was being cute. Tickling Snapjaw, feeding her ticks and grapes…and she was different, too.

“Numbtongue. Numbtongue, good songs. You know more Goblin-songs? I have some.”

She tried to hum a Goblin song from the south; she had lived in this part of Izril. She was sociable. Numbtongue had been a Redfang, but the company of his brothers—all brothers, the warband sent to kill Erin—had made him a bit unused to females of his species.

Not bad. Just…Numbtongue saw Snapjaw snap a giant centipede she’d found in half, and offer it around. Both he and Badarrow refused. Numbtongue was happy for Badarrow. But even for a Goblin, Badarrow’s girlfriend ate weird things.

Then the [Soulbard] looked up and grunted.

“Incoming.”

Both he and Badarrow rolled left. Snapjaw watched as Fierre thumped into the ground. She had been impressed by the flying as well. But she was fairly certain that you didn’t try to land on your head.

Dead gods, Fierre, are you okay?

“I’m okay!”

The Vampire girl hopped up onto her feet, a bit dizzily, but assured Fals that the fatal way she’d fallen hadn’t snapped her neck. She charged back…and then went flying again.

Fierre! Stop jumping! I’m going to punch you straight into the fire—or into a cloud!”

The Vampire’s ‘flying’ was due to Garia smacking her through the air. It was astonishing how far Fierre could fly. She was fairly light, and she leapt about with considerable vigor, but even so…Numbtongue watched.

“[Enhanced Strength]?”

Snapjaw poked him in the side. He grunted.

“Mm. Oh. Nope. [Greater Strength] now.”

Ooh.”

The [Eater] nodded at Garia appreciatively. The rest of the group watched.

“She’s going to have head-damage if she keeps it up.”

Sergeant Gna warned. She winced as Fierre took a full-force kick to the stomach. But the Vampire kept going, even though Garia knocked her sprawling countless times.

One had enthusiasm. The other had [Martial Artist] as a class and, by now, some experience in fights. Fierre was quick, but whenever she drew blood, metaphorically or literally, she lost her head and leapt in. She was too powerful, and the same problem she’d suffered in Invrisil was what she was trying to work on with Garia.

It was a nice floor show, though. A frustrated Fierre smacked the ground on her back next to Sergeant Gna, and the only friends she had.

“…Do you have a five?”

“Nope.”

Octavia frowned at her cards. Ulvama scratched at her side, yawning. Sergeant Gna glared at the Hobgoblin until Ulvama shook her head.

“Argh!”

“Fierre! Jumping attacks are really stupid. No one hops around like that.”

Fierre’s flying kick looked like something out of a movie. And it was about as practical in a fight.

“It’s just—I know I can punch and block, but I want something incredible! Don’t you feel that way, Garia? Numbtongue! Don’t you think a flying attack looks cool? Imagine jumping off that rock with your sword!”

The Vampire protested as Garia, sweating but exhilarated, tried to debrief her combat failings. The [Bard] looked up and glanced at the rock Fierre pointed at.

He and all the Hobs laughed.

“Jump? Sounds like good way to land on pike.”

Snapjaw chortled. Fierre’s face fell; even Salkis and Gna looked disapproving.

Amateur fighters. She acted like a Bronze-rank adventurer, all flash—but with some actual strength and speed to back it up.

“I just think—I know it’s not practical, but I just uh, levelled up! I want to fight like it! It feels…incredible. Like a Gold-rank. Why can’t I fight like that?”

“Hah. You want to be an adventurer, miss. They can show off; real [Soldiers] don’t flash around like that. Even our Wing Commander. She can do tricks like that with her spear; she’s as close to a [Spearmaster] as anyone. But she doesn’t, especially not in battle. Economy of movement.”

Sergeant Gna retorted as she lost three coppers to Ulvama. She threw down her cards in disgust. To make her feel better, and because it wasn’t her food but the group’s, Ulvama offered her a boiled egg. The Gnoll woman hesitated, then bit into it and chewed, grumpily.

“But…”

Fierre was crestfallen as the veterans assured her that no, she was stupid. Garia bit her lip—right up until Bird wandered over and sat down.

“There are flying fighting styles, Miss Fierre. I would know. I am Bird. Tell her, Pivr.”

“There are?”

Pivr looked up. Bird glowered as his antennae, poking out of his hat, waved idly. Fierre glanced up.

“There are, Bird? How do you know?”

“I am smart? There are [Martial Artists] who fight in midair. You are just doing it wrong and Garia cannot teach you.”

“…Can you teach me, Bird?”

“Nope!”

The Antinium [Bird Hunter] threw up his hands happily. Fierre sighed, but she glanced at him. And his hat.

“…So what should I do?”

“Figure out why you are being punched in the face. Don’t do that. I had a st—I mean, I know of a [Strategist] who practiced the ‘Steel Feather’ school. Garuda. Drop kicks and many leapings. I am also Bird. So my contribution is that you are not fast enough. Every bird in the world laughs at you. I wrote an article on the Terandrian Galewing because I am a column-writer for a newspaper. They are faster and more agile. Garia hits you because you always jump at her. Evade.

Bird actually added to Niers’ advice. Fierre blinked for a bit to decipher his confusing rant, but she nodded.

“Garia! I’m ready for another try!”

“Are you sure?

Even Garia, who knew Fierre’s nature, was astonished at her resilience. Niers, sitting in Bird’s hat, stroked his beard.

She was tough! He frowned at Fierre. She was a minor curiosity. He would have guessed she was a Selphid in hiding with that kind of physical superiority. Maybe her mother had passed on some kind of super-traits via Skills?

The little advice actually did a lot for Fierre. In that she didn’t take as many punches or kicks. She began to leap around; it was still easy for Garia to tell her trajectory. But…Fierre twisted in the air. What if she could execute an aerial dodge? What if…

 

——

 

Fierre took Garia aside, so they were fighting out of range of the campground on the pretense that they’d nearly hit the fire a few times.

“Garia. Garia, try hitting me now. Don’t hold back.”

The [Martial Artist] leapt at Fierre and the Vampire girl did a leap that defied gravity; she could jump ten feet straight up. Garia, with her [Greater Strength], was still envious of Fierre’s agility. Fierre landed, hopped, and dove as Garia advanced, grounded, striking and punching.

But Garia had many Skills and Fierre had only a handful.

“[Flash Kick]!”

Fierre leapt backwards, taking the kick on a cross-armed block, just like Garia had taught her. But her jump, again, was the most obvious thing in the world.

[Footwork: Half-circle Reposition].

Garia swept towards Fierre in that circling movement, like Grimalkin had taught her. She set up a roundhouse kick to Fierre’s back as the Vampire twisted in midair. She saw Fierre’s eyes glow red, and then—

She vanished. She turned to mist, just for a half-second, and changed directions in midair. Garia recoiled.

Aaaaaah!

[Sway Dodge] made her lean under a wild haymaker from Fierre. The Vampire girl could have pressed her attack then, but like the amateur she was, she stomped her feet.

“I nearly had you! I did it on the first try! Come on, Garia, couldn’t you let me have just one good punch?”

The [Martial Artist] just blinked at Fierre. She lacked Skills, but she could make up for it with her natural abilities. She just needed…

Practice.

 

——

 

Niers didn’t see the hidden sparring, but he didn’t need to. Fierre was fairly bright; if she didn’t work anything out, he, and her friend, would get her to adapt to a more grounded style.

Just a kid. Never seen a real fight. He agreed with the others’ assessments.

However. Fierre wasn’t wrong. If the Goblins and seasoned warriors laughed at her desire to be ‘cool’, Niers laughed at them. It was amazing. Her desire to be…well, a Gold-rank? A superhuman individual? That was what you needed.

At any rate, Bird had more tasks that night. Like squatting next to Gothica.

She confused the hell out of Niers. The Cave Goblin, rather than join Fierre, was mixing more eye-shadow. Bird asked about it when Niers prompted him.

“Gothica. What is a [Goth]?”

“Psh. Don’t know. [Goth] is [Goth].”

The Cave Goblin sneered. Niers prompted Bird again.

“Was your class…new? In your mind? I am asking because I have never heard of a [Goth].”

“Not new. But good class.”

“Can you tell me anything about the nature of [Goth]?”

The Cave Goblin had the same problem as Niers; her class didn’t have a helpful tutorial. Rather, like new Skills, it was something you learned, or knew about.

And Niers, who knew more classes than almost anyone in the entire world, didn’t know her class.

Of course he was interested. He narrowed his eyes.

Bird, acting as his voice, talked to Gothica. She had some intuition.

“[Goth] is look good. [Goth] is…like that one.”

She pointed in the direction Fierre had gone, and gave a wickedly sharp smile.

“Good teeth. But also good dress. Like…this color.”

She gestured to her clothing. Dark, brooding. Gothica tilted her head.

“…Should get good music, too.”

“Numbtongue plays good music. He is in a band with Kevin.”

Bird pointed out. Gothica made her ‘puh’ sound and swept her bangs back.

“Not good enough. Too light. Too…”

She searched for a word.

“Happy. Pop. Bleh.”

There was a twang as Numbtongue’s music slowed down. He raised his head. Gothica stared at him defiantly. Yeah. You heard what I said.

Niers got the distinct impression that Gothica liked annoying the Hobs and Fierre.

“Interesting. Reminds me of an [Anarchist]. [Rebel]. But the dress being a requirement she can sense…that’s closer to a [Jester] or a class with distinct dress requirements. [Chevaliers] have to have a certain style of dress. Hmm. Hmmmm. [Nudists]?”

He was trying to recall other classes with dress-based requirements. Gothica remained helpfully unhelpful, and Niers eventually told Bird to let her keep making her unique dress and makeup. She’d even begun to add to her parasol, in a copy of Fierre’s. Although Gothica, a Cave Goblin, aware of their mission, had begun to try to alter it further.

As in, she was trying to add razors to the edges and had sharpened the tip into a miniature dagger’s point.

Some combat potential there. Her class must at least be intrinsically linked with violence. Or she was adapting it to that. Niers was fascinated for another reason, though.

It sounds like a weak class, but it must be something…well, maybe there’s only one benefit. But it’s a damn good one.

He was definitely going to look into that. But later. Niers was distracted from telling Gothica about the thing she might not have realized yet herself. Because at last, there was some action!

Infinitypear, the new [Adventurer], had disappeared with Rasktooth for a second. Touma the Great, who had been covertly watching Fierre and Garia spar, and wondering if he could learn to turn into mist, edged out of his hiding place and hurried over to the commotion.

Adventure! Adventure!

The Goblin was waving something about. He and Infinitypear had had an adventure! They’d gone for a little walk to find supplements for the food, and then it had happened!

“We found a key.”

Infinitypear stood proudly, and couldn’t have known how his words made every senior Goblin and Niers look at him.

“A…key?”

Numbtongue glanced at Badarrow. Snapjaw had come alive, recalling something Reiss had wanted. The others gathered around. They had found a key! Rasktooth told them all about it. Niers sat forwards…then scowled.

“A little racoon had key. Shiny key. We followed. Key! And racoon.”

Salkis glanced at the skinned, red pile of flesh Infinitypear was carrying. She grinned.

“What about the key?”

“Looked about. Was in little den. Had a box! See? Look!”

They’d found…a key. Which a racoon had hoarded, along with a little lockbox. When Bird trooped out with the others, they found an abandoned homestead.

The little lockbox held the owner’s fortune. Which was fifty six silver pieces, two gold, and a gold ring.

Niers Astoragon needed a drink. Rasktooth and Infinitypear were beaming over their find and ‘adventure’, which had involved a bit of quick tracking and exploring.

A Level 5 [Adventurer]’s…adventure. Something an Antinium, who had an income of exactly zero, and a Cave Goblin, who had a similar economic background, thought was amazing. The racoon was worth more than the gold to them, but Infinitypear shared the ‘loot’ with Rasktooth, and the Cave Goblin wore the unenchanted gold ring proudly while Infinitypear got the shiny coins—and an invitation to the gambling with Ulvama, Gna, Octavia, and the Brothers.

“Dead gods dammit.”

Niers groaned. Where was his real adventure? Where was his conflict? One monster! Just one! There had to be one Gold-rank…berserk Tebrebull or something around here, right? What about a nest of horrors, drawn to the unusual prey so far from usual civilization?

He had been a Named Adventurer! He was the Titan of Baleros! He was…

Hell’s Warden. Niers kicked around in a bored rage in Bird’s hat until the Antinium shook it.

 

——

 

Niers was right. There were actually multiple Gold-rank threats in the region, some of which had actually noticed the group’s passing.

Even the very same creatures which had a title attached to slaying them. A small nest.

…The Cetoire Hunter, an old, biological, artificial creation crossed paths with the Creler nest. Nearly two dozen tiny Crelers and one larger, Juvenile one scuttled past the Gold-ranked monster. Both of them were heading away from the presence they’d sensed.

At top speed, so fast they didn’t even bother to kill each other.

The problem Niers Astoragon didn’t realize he had was that he was leaking his true nature. And the very same monsters could sense it. They took one look at him and left.

Even the Crelers. If they had a thought-process at this stage in life, it was something like this: they sensed him. Hell’s Warden. Crelerbane. Someone who had killed their kin! And that drove them into a ravening fr—wait a second. How many had he…?

Oh god, oh god, oh no, oh no—

And then they ran. Every species tended to defecate before a situation that required fast movement; it was a flight-or-fight response and Crelers were no different. They expelled the waste—what little they could not digest—along with the food meant to keep them growing and fled as fast as they could to somewhere away from this bane of their kind.

It was a peaceful night.

 

——

 

The next day, the band of travellers in pursuit of Mrsha found one of the trade routes stretching across Izril.

Snapjaw came swooping out of the air around two hours to dawn. Everyone stopped, wondering if she’d lost the trail.

The trail for Mrsha was not easy to follow. Sergeant Gna’s nose and her tracking Skills literally kept them on track; without her [Regain Pursuit] Skill, and her ability to direct Snapjaw and Badarrow in the right directions, the Goblins would never spot the minute trail.

What they could spot was thanks to Ulvama, who had given Badarrow a magic stone to sense powerful magical residue. They essentially dowsed the trail that Wanderer had left; neither scent nor magic were strong enough to let either side follow without the other.

And both failed without Niers, incidentally, who had to give both Gna and Ulvama’s magic the extra oomph to track the Gnoll. But Snapjaw wasn’t here to say she needed Gna to ride ahead; she jumped off Icecube’s back as the Frost Wyvern stared at Xeu.

Xeu stared back. She scuttled forwards and poked Icecube in the talon. The Frost Wyvern huffed a bit of cold breath and Xeu scurried back. But not far.

Friendship had been established yesterday.

“Big road. Paved. Nice stones. Big, wide—not many travellers, but is road. Have to cross and hide, but is flat like this, and road goes next to huuuuuge lake over there. Too hard hide unless we run to forest…very far.”

Snapjaw gave the others her assessment of the problem. The problem also being that Mrsha’s trail was heading south-east, across the road.

“Well. Snapjaw can try to keep tracking if she flies really high, but the rest of us need to keep out of sight. We could have the others wait until night again and catch up? And send…?”

The issue was the Goblins and Antinium. Fals raked at his hair. Salkis, Gna, Garia, Fierre, Octavia, and even the Brothers could all travel without too much suspicion, unless Salkis’ family was after her as she thought, but what of the two species who were kill-on-sight for most of Izril?

Splitting up the group was inherently dangerous, as Bird’s Skills only affected the people with him. Then again, that might let them keep up…

Bird was not part of this discussion. He had taken a nap on the wagon because he was sleepy even with the promise of hunting night-birds.

“Niers. Niers.”

“What? Shut up, Bird. I’m listening. I think I can deal with this. I need you to tell them what I’m going to say. I’m going to coach you. One sec. Is that Goblin incapable of talking in actual geographical details? She’s a [Chieftain]!”

He was glowering at Snapjaw as Bird sleepily raised his head. The Antinium regarded Niers.

“Okay. Then I did not level and I will not tell you about my new fantabulous Skill.”

Niers glanced back at Bird.

“You just levelled up?”

“Yes.”

“Well—tell me. And fantabulous is not a word.”

“Yes it is. Erin uses it.”

Niers glared at Bird. The Antinium happily annoyed the little man.

“What’s your new Skill? Come on, Bird. We don’t have time! I need you to repeat my words exactly. No making up anything this time. We have to convince them…”

“There will be no need. Because I am a superior Bird. I am now a Level 7 [Liar] because my lies are so big even I cannot believe them. Would you like me to tell you?”

“Yes, Bird. Tell me.”

“Say ‘please’.”

Niers snapped.

Just tell me already! Levelling up is not impressive, Bird! It’s Level 7.

Bird looked hurt.

“But I am already a [Bird Hunter] over Level 30. I am also a [Singer] and [Tactician] and [Revalantor] Level 4. My quick levelling with so many classes is thus extraordinary and I deserve a pat on the head. Maybe an egg.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

No, it’s not, Bird. Because I’m Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros. You’re not levelling faster because you’re an amazing [Liar]. It’s because I have [Swift Levelling] and I’ve been using it on you all since we started travelling.

Bird dropped the egg. He looked at Niers. Then he opened his mandibles to protest that Skill did not exist or everyone would try to get it. And then he looked at the greatest [Strategist] with all his Skills.

“…My accomplishments have been invalidated and I am now sad.”

“You still have to earn them. Just…what’s your Skill?”

Bird sulked for four seconds, then cheered up since he was levelling. Niers rubbed at his head. Everyone loved to tell him it was cheating. Cheating? At what? Erin Solstice clearly had the benefit of that Skill. No one hit Level 40…he wondered who’d boosted her. That Grand Magus?

“I am now able to use [Marionette’s Imitation]. Praise me.”

Niers’ head snapped up. He looked at Bird. Then he developed the most evil grin Apista had ever seen. The Ashfire Bee grabbed one of the eggs and flew off. Good for Bird.

 

——

 

Something was different about Bird when he strode into the meeting about the road and their problem. Oh, he was the same Bird, wearing his weird new hat. His voice was the same…but it had a sudden authority, a difference in cadence now and then.

Bird would say something without the correct body-language to convey it, at first, but he began to act more normally—for Bird—soon enough. Even so.

“We are going to go across the road. Now. Listen to me, because I am Bird and I have a superior plan.”

The Goblins, Antinium, and others looked at him incredulously. Bird happily moved his mandibles in time to Niers talking. This was quite fun. He waved all four arms, gesticulating in how he felt Niers would like.

The others listened. They argued. Badarrow did not like the idea, but Snapjaw had heard of it working before. Numbtongue eventually smiled, and that was that. Pivr and Xeu expressed concerns, but agreed to try it.

They could always run away.

 

——

 

The trade roads of Izril were safe*. And that asterisk applied for any trade road in the world. Safe, until it wasn’t.

It just meant you weren’t going through untamed wilds, or ill-used roads, which were more dangerous because there were less people there.

[Bandits] could still hit you. Rogue monsters could come out. And so on and so forth. But there were more people on the road, it was paved, closer to nearby settlements who had a vested interest in keeping them relatively secure…

Safe*. For the Drakes and Gnolls who frequented them, it was still a good idea to be cautious. If you had a caravan, you had [Guards]. If you were travelling, you were either doing it when you knew the roads had enough security, or you could defend yourself from a [Mugger] as you went from inn to inn along known safe areas.

A trade road could still be empty for an hour with no one in sight—or as crowded as hell. Entire armies might use them for war, ironically invalidating the name. The traffic you could expect, however, was generally sporadic until you neared a larger city.

Even so, if you had a bunch of Goblins or obvious [Bandits] riding down it, you’d see them pretty fast. It would be stupid for a group to travel down it comprised of the hated Antinium and Goblins. Of course, who would ever imagine that could happen?

“This is the stupidest thing we’ve ever done. Why are we trusting Bird?”

Sergeant Gna was sweating so hard her fur glistened in the morning light. So was Fals as he jogged down the road. He waved at a wagon passing by.

“Gna, shut up. They’ll hear us. Uh—hi.”

A Drake riding past gave the Human a long, askance look. He didn’t reply.

Humans.

Someone muttered loudly. The Drake glanced over, saw Salkis lounging in one of the wagons, and grinned. He waved at her. She nodded, her onyx scales glinting in the light. One of the sleeping travelling companions in the covered wagon—a bit ramshackle, but decent transport—waved a gloved hand.

“Morning to you.”

The wagon passed by. Fals and Gna, sweating, saw Salkis nudge the figure with a hood over his head. They high-fived.

Madness.

Sergeant Gna glared so hard at Numbtongue that the Goblin started laughing again. So did some of the others in the wagon, or riding along. Like children. Like they wouldn’t die if they were found out.

What audacity. Salkis was grinning so hard that she couldn’t help but drum her feet against the wagon. It was brilliant.

No one expected Goblins or Antinium on the trade road. That would literally be the most obvious thing ever. But…if you saw them as you were just passing by, by new light or dusk? Who cared if you didn’t see all of the hooded figures, some wearing travelling cloaks on foot, which looked a bit like blankets with holes cut in them the closer you got?

Now, if you saw a line of hooded, suspiciously bulky characters you might stop and obviously look closer. Same with a bunch of people who you couldn’t quite see in one of the wagons, or a huge lump—Pivr, since Xeu could camouflage—lying under a pile of supplies?

Instantly suspicious. But that wasn’t what it looked like.

What it looked like was Salkis sitting next to a friend with a hood. And who would guess that the person was a Goblin, not just another Drake or Gnoll? If you saw Fierre and Garia riding along, you didn’t care about the others; they were just Humans.

Perspective. Assumptions.

Niers Astoragon was having a lot of fun. Of course, he wasn’t just trusting to the disguises, but he wanted to see how far they got with just them. This reminded him of being on campaign, like pretending an entire battalion of Selphids were reinforcements and sneaking them into the enemy camp.

“Your audacity is inspiring, Niers.”

Even Bird was impressed. He tilted his head, regarding the group moving through the dawn and early morning.

“We’ll stop by midday. Pretend we’re taking a rest. Move far off the road; we don’t want someone wanting to share our camp. If we see a huge group, move’ em off the road for something. Not a broken wagon wheel. Too many busybodies just looove to help.”

Bird addressed Garia, who was running ahead as a City Runner. She nodded, seriously, with the same awe that they were getting away with it. Which they had been for only two hours, to be fair.

“What do we do?”

“I do not know? I will improvise. I am Bird.”

Privately, Bird thought that Niers was not doing a good job pretending to be him. But it fooled everyone else. Niers went on.

“Pretend you are having the Yellow Rivers. That fools people because they will not like to get close. Or cough a lot. This is logic. I am Bird.”

“Got it, Bird.”

Garia jogged ahead. And…scene. Niers sat back, enjoying everything. Especially because the caravan got into it.

Some, like Gna and Ulvama, looked like they wanted to pee blood with the stress this was causing. But the Goblins and Antinium began to get really into it.

Hey! What’s the news?

Numbtongue shouted at a passing City Runner—on horseback. The Gnoll growled.

Can’t talk! Armies on the road, you know how it is. Get a scrying orb!

Come on, anything new?

Numbtongue galloped forwards a bit. The Gnoll growled.

“Oh—fine—I just heard that the King of Destruction’s so wounded he can’t move and they’re sieging Reim on all sides. There!”

“Ooh. Nice.”

“Thanks. Hey, take a bath! You’re a bit whiffy!”

Numbtongue shouted an insult and the City Runner galloped onwards. He returned, chortling, to Octavia and Ulvama, who both tried to kill him. Salkis had dared him to do that.

It was too fun. That was the problem. There was something intoxicating, to the Goblin mind, with being able to get away with being a normal person, how do you do fellow normal people, let’s not kill each other, on the road.

Like Gothica, who could wave behind a hood and little mask on her face at some Drake children.

Want to trade toys?

They shouted eagerly as their family urged them onwards. Gothica reached for a dagger. At that point Dirtmouth had to stop her since there was such a thing as going too far.

To the Antinium as well. The invisible Workers and Soldiers first just marched along in petrified silence. Then, they began to wave every time a group passed by because they would wave back. It was so much…fun.

“This is incredible.”

Fierre muttered, staring at the mastermind behind the entire event with awe.

Here was the thing. Bird, or rather, Niers, had done his job too well selling the group on this. They were relaxed, and it added to the cover, because he’d convinced them this ruse was going to work, 100%.

…It would not. Sooner or later, a Gnoll was going to sniff out a distinctly alien scent, or someone with a keen pair of eyes would see a glowing crimson eye, or the wind would blow and they’d be discovered.

Even by day and night, they had a limited window. The sun was rising and traffic was getting steadier. They were going to be found out.

But for Niers Astoragon. So he was relaxed because he could keep the lie going, even if something bad happened.

“Almost time for us to leave. Send word to Snapjaw or—no, get Gna to find us a campsite a few miles off the road.”

Niers was muttering to Bird. The Antinium was looking around for Gna when it happened.

Soldiers! Soldiers!

The cry came from—behind. Fierre twisted in her saddle, heart pounding, as Fals ran forwards. The group slowed as the figures in the wagon or riding along stiffened. The Antinium column slowed, bunching up to shield themselves behind the wagon. Xeu, pacing next to them, raised her scythe arms.

By now it was getting dangerously crowded on the road. The only reason Niers had kept them going this long was because this was a lot of fun for him, pushing the envelope.

…And because their group was moving so fast that all but City Runners couldn’t pass them and they literally only had time to wave before they passed by envious groups admiring their foot-speed. The Antinium only moved at a jog, but they travelled further than they should with each step.

Drake [Soldiers] were coming up the road. It sent reality jolting back into the group. Numbtongue reached for his crystal sword, wishing Badarrow and Snapjaw were here. They’d see the fighting and they’d have air support. But…

“How many?”

He snapped. Bird had ridden back. Fals had run back to make sure.

“Nearly four hundred! Armed, carrying weapons—coming up the road. Do you think…?”

“Calm down. It could just be a patrol or they’re after [Bandits] or—something! It’s not uncommon. What’s their sigil?”

Gna snapped, keeping a cooler head than the rest. Fals shook his head; he didn’t know the colors of Drake banners, so she cursed and rode quickly.

“Keep calm. Keep calm.

Bird’s voice was laced with such quiet confidence that even Numbtongue stopped tensing as much. The group moved tensely onwards, a bit faster. However, for all their speed, the Drakes were somehow gaining! And that was twice as strange, because as Gna reported, they were on foot.

“Definitely not a patrol. Not an army either. I don’t recognize their city; it’s some local one. Not a big force. You’re not going to believe this—it’s a training group.”

Everyone started, then relaxed. A…what? Fierre peeked backwards, then remembered she was a ‘Human’ and relaxed further.

Hup, two, three, four! Let’s hear the Salamanders roar!

And there they came. A group of quick-jogging Drakes, carrying weapons and armor. Niers took one look at them through his spy-hole in Bird’s hat and snorted derisively.

“Bird, remember our conversation about marching [Soldiers]? Look at these idiots.”

The [Soldiers] were a group of [Soldiers] training for, well, soldiering. They were marching in full gear, armed with spears, behind an energetic [Captain] exhorting his [Soldiers]. They were in fairly good spirits, even if they were clearly feeling the strain.

You’ll run like this in battle! Come on, lads! Another four miles and we’re turning back! You’ll be the Zephyr Salamanders’ finest! Keep it up!

He was a younger Drake than Grimalkin, that kind of bright military officer fresh out of Manus. A bit older than Olesm; old enough to have received the [Captain]’s rank in whatever city he was in, to Gna’s eyes.

He was also noticeably different from Magus Grimalkin, the only other person that Numbtongue, Bird, and a few others could base a military trainer off of. Not just in body shape. Attitude. He was…cheering his men on. Not screaming invectives in their ears, and they weren’t running so hard that some had to stop and puke.

Even as they watched, the [Captain] slowed and grabbed the shoulder of a male Drake, as young as sixteen, slowing, panting.

Keep up! We don’t leave anyone behind! What’s our motto?

Run like the wind and fight with one tail!

The [Soldiers] shouted, then laughed. The [Captain] laughed too.

Fierre recognized an [Energizing Touch] when she saw one, because the flagging [Soldier] sped up, breathing lightly and looking gratefully at the [Captain]. From the way he charged back to the front and kept shouting, he was clearly in the best shape of all of them.

Not bad. Not great; the Redfangs among the Goblins weren’t impressed by this level of athleticism. Mainly because they were running at a decent clip with armor and weapons, but it was all flat. Redfangs trained in the High Passes so they’d do this exact same thing—minus Garen Redfang being nice—but up a slope.

The Antinium thought much the same thing; they weren’t bothered about the speed or intensity, but the Drakes didn’t have perfect, ruler-straight rows and were therefore objectionable.

It was a decent group to Gna. They’d form one of the better groups in an army, not some hastily-thrown-together unit that was little better than a [Militia].

Each a different perspective from representatives of fine military groups of their own. Not unfair, but it was for whichever city this group had come out for a training run. They didn’t have to be Izril’s finest.

The group of Drakes were slowly, slowly gaining on even Niers’ group. Which was going to be a problem. But Niers was working on countermeasures. He paused a second, but turned back to Ulvama.

“Can you make what I want?”

Their group was heading out of the ‘north’ of Drake lands, which was where the true rural cities and border settlements were, along the High Passes. Liscor was so north as to be remote. The covert band would have to do this trick more than once, even with Niers’ Skills, so they needed more insurance.

One of them was on the job he’d put to Ulvama and Octavia. Both looked amused by the project.

“Paint?”

“Or dye. Something to put on them. It does not have to be perfect.”

Octavia just blinked at Bird. He was so…forthright today.

“Just to clarify, Bird. You want us to make dye for the Goblin’s skin?”

“Yes.”

The Antinium spoke, then his mandibles opened and rose. Bird smiled.

“Oh? Oh! That is such an interesting idea!

Someone kicked him in the antennae and he collected himself.

“…Which is why I thought of it. Naturally.”

Okay, that was more like Bird. The [Alchemist] relaxed. Ulvama just started laughing. She pointed at the color palette.

Skin dye! Hah!

It made sense, though. Why, slap some Human flesh tones on a Goblin and you might mistake them for half-Elves or Humans at a distance, right? The red eyes were a giveaway, but it would mean only the Antinium stood out.

“I do not care which color you make it. Just hide the green…and make it natural enough to fool others. Come to think of it, can you make a smell to fool Gnolls? Something to rub on with the paint?”

The two began debating dyes and if they had enough as Bird rode forwards. The Drakes were drawing alongside the group, and it was a problem.

“Maybe slow down in a minute. Pretend someone’s thrown a shoe.”

Niers muttered. Bird nodded. It wasn’t just the [Soldiers], who had waved at the Antinium. It was that [Captain].

He had glanced at Fals and Garia, recognized Gna as a [Soldier] herself, and now he was looking at the hooded Antinium and Goblins, craning for a better look now and then. Damn, was he a specialist of some kind?

“Don’t let that group beat us, men! Pick up the pace! You can do it!”

The Drake cheered the others on as he turned his head back, keeping them safe for another moment. He was competent, and the [Soldiers] clearly liked him. Now here was someone they’d follow into battle, the [Captain] who brought them up from Level 1, who cared for them, probably knew all their names by heart.

Niers Astoragon appraised the Drake, just like Numbtongue, Gna, the Antinium, had all looked at the [Soldiers] to establish their worth.

…He hated that [Captain]’s guts and it had only been five minutes.

Bird! Bird! Trouble!

“Oh, what now? Shut up, you idiot.”

The [Captain] and Niers both received news at the same time. News of the worst kind. Garia had come running back from up ahead.

“There’s another army ahead of us! An actual army this time! I recognized the banners! It’s…Fissival!

“What?”

Fissival? The Walled City of Magic, the most eastern of all the Walled Cities? Niers cursed. It made sense; if they were heading to any western point on the continent, they must have passed through one of the mountainous passes.

“We can’t run into them! They will see through our disguises! Oh, dead gods we’re dead!”

Gna moaned. She was well aware of the Fissival [Mage]’s power to [Appraise] and any [General], natural foe of Goblins or Antinium?

“How close are we on their back ranks?”

Too close! W-we have to…”

Niers was still not worried. He was getting excited. But also…annoyed. What was Fissival doing? An actual army or had Garia exaggerated? He saw a tiny figure and sensed Snapjaw returning from overhead; she was definitely not going to fly over them. They had Wyvern Riders of their own.

Even the others, tagging along the caravan from afar, decided now might be a good time to run. Despite Niers’ best efforts, his caravan had been spotted. Although not in any way he could have predicted. The little Goblins, staring at the many powerful Hobs from afar, were about to slink off.

As Niers thought calmly about what to do, that annoying voice intruded in his thoughts. And it irked him.

Lads! Three more miles! There’s Fissival ahead of us; we’ll greet them, show them what the Salamanders have! It’ll be something to see an army on the march!

He was encouraging the Drakes as they almost reached the back rank of the cloaked figures deliberately facing forwards, not revealing their faces to him. One of the [Soldiers] groaned.

“Captain! We can’t keep going! I’m dying, here!”

The Drake turned back and gave his group a radiant smile of encouragement.

“Just a bit more. Come on! I won’t ask you for much more! Give it your 100%! You can’t ask for more than that!”

The [Grandmaster Strategist], sitting in Bird’s hat, turned his head slowly.

“What did that moron just say? He’s never seen an actual battle before in his life.”

He got distracted again. The tiny Fraerling had to stand up to pace around.

“Bird, tell them not to worry. There’s a lot of ways this can go and I can get us out of it. Tell Gna to find us a place off the road. That’s the easiest thing to—”

Bird began to repeat his instructions, but once again Niers was distracted. It was that Drake [Captain]. He didn’t matter, but the way he cheered his [Soldiers], coddled them along? They were groaning, begging for a rest and then he said it.

Alright, alright! One more mile! We’ve done a damned good job. One mile and we’ll break.”

You just said three more miles. You idiot! What military school did you graduate from, the school of kittens and puppies and hugs?”

Niers began to shout in Bird’s hat. The Antinium, with his keen intellect and [Liar]’s intuition, decided that wasn’t meant to be repeated.

The Titan of Baleros peered out the hole in Bird’s hat. He looked at the [Soldiers]. He looked at the road, as his battlefield Skills pinged and revealed the first group of Fissival’s forces in the distance. He looked at the suspicious travelers on the road, who had begun to wonder just who was under the bulky cloaks. A Drake or Gnoll carrying packs under a travelling cloak? But it wasn’t raining.

A huge, manic, terrible smile spread across Niers’ face. The Titan of Baleros stepped back as the Drake [Captain] went down his lines.

“Say it. Just one time. Say it.”

He was slapping shoulders.

“Well done, lads. You’re a fighting force to be proud of.”

That was it. Niers’ face turned into a happy smile of pure evil. He snapped.

“Bird. Follow my orders exactly.

The Antinium listened. Then his mandibles opened.

“What? No. I will not do that. That is insane. I am supposed to be the silly one. Not you. Let us return to those old roles. I liked that.”

He had been having a lot of fun at the Titan’s expense. Too much. Bird should have realized something. He wasn’t the insane one.

Niers was the insane one.

 

——

 

“Hey. Who are that lot? Humans and a Drake and a Gnoll. But what’s that group in hoods about? Some have masks on.”

“Dunno. Some kind of weird class? Gnolls?”

A travelling group of Drakes weren’t the only ones to notice the swift-moving group. Many had passed by with idle curiosity, but this one was on the group’s heels and had been keeping up, if not gaining, like the training regiment.

It was faster than any would have liked, but the Gnoll [Caravan Leader] had pushed the horses a bit faster because she kept staring at them in curiosity and sniffing their odd scents. It wasn’t as if ‘Human’ and ‘Drake’ were that different in scent, but she didn’t know what she was smelling. And the longer she looked at one of the bulky figures jogging along—why were they jogging if they had packs? They didn’t look like travelling packs.

But the more outlandish theories she had just couldn’t be true because that would be insane. Right? So she just…tried to get a better view.

One of the leaders was riding back, hood drawn over his face, no, actually shielding it as he stopped, talking to the other riders, the passengers on the wagon, and the jogging figures. They all looked stunned, began to argue. Someone began to shout.

You’re insane, Bird! Ins—

The [Caravan Leader] picked up something on the wind. Her eyes widened as she finally placed the scent.

“It can’t be.”

She had smelled that before, oh, yes, she had. Last time she’d nearly died during a surprise ambush. It was probably that they’d run into the monsters on the road, spilled blood.

…She didn’t smell blood. Did they have some prisoner? She craned her neck, then decided she had to ride forwards and see.

At the exact same time, a City Runner on the road had caught a flash of something that looked too insectile to be believed and slowed, turning back from the group of friends she was running with. The Drake jogged back, ignoring the desperately friendly calls of the two Human City Runners—already odd—to get a better look.

A crimson flash of light. An antenna, waving on the breeze. The positive Drake [Captain]’s mantra faltered as a figure rode to the front of the suspicious group. There were shouts, nervous cries. People trotted over as more attention began to unravel the entire mask and all the flaws.

Then it happened. The wind picked up. That treacherous wind, tugging at a hood, cloth, as the wagon began to turn, the horses were moved back towards it, two more hitched up for speed. The entire group slowed.

And then the Antinium with the bow on his back turned and faced the road. He threw back his hood. His cloak flew off his body, slapped the [Shaman] in the wagon on the face.

“It’s time! Off the horses! Get. Ready!”

Everyone on the road stared in stunned silence as Bird roared. The voice was authority—as the rest of his caravan froze, the order shocked them into movement.

“Wh—wh—”

The Drake [Captain] blinked. The Gnoll [Caravan Leader], the Drake City Runner, stared. Goblins leapt off the wagon, their horses, Cave Goblins, regular, Hobs, and Antinium threw back their hoods, slung packs into the wagon. They were tense. Crimson light flashed from eyes. One had a hand on a crystal sword and a guitar.

No one moved. Bird the Hunter looked around. At the wide-eyed terror in Fierre’s eyes, Gna, shielding her face so they wouldn’t pin her in this company. Numbtongue, looking at him…then he turned.

Follow my orders. The Antinium thrust one hand high in the air.

The Titan roared in Bird’s voice.

With me! Let’s show them how it’s done! One, two, three, four!

The Antinium turned—and began running down the road. There was a moment of hesitation—then the horses, all without riders, began to race behind the wagon as it picked up speed. The Goblins, Antinium, Humans, Drake, Gnoll, all looked at Bird’s back.

They looked back at the silent road. Did they run?

You had better believe they ran.

Bird ran. He knew Niers’ Skill was working on him, but he sprinted, the fastest run Bird had ever run in his entire life. On his heels were Goblins. Small or big—they ran with every fiber of their being down the road as the wagon, now controlled by a terrified Ulvama and Octavia, shot after them.

Niers must have used something to command the horses, because rather than bolt or stop, they galloped after the people on foot.

They were all dead. This was it. Fierre pumped her arms and legs, keeping up with the others more easily; aside from her, Fals, and Garia, everyone else was at their max speed already, and terror was pushing even the City Runners. She heard surprised shouts from behind. A roar from the Drake [Captain].

Hey! Wait! W—after them!

“Oh dead gods, dead gods, silver and blood and we’re all going to die!

How did they handle it? Numbtongue’s teeth were bared, and he ran with one hand on his blade. Salkis was laughing. Gna was cursing as she pounded after the Goblins, who were laughing. Laughing like the dead. The Antinium just ran, terrified. Pivr scuttled after them.

I am not part of the Flying Antinium! This is uh—the Armored Antinium. Xeu, you and I will shout that when they catch up—

Terrified momentum. But for all they ran—Fierre chanced a glance over her shoulder and saw a furious regiment of four hundred Drakes charging after them at full bore. Not just them. A good deal of [Riders] were galloping to keep up, staring, shouting.

Were they all using movement Skills? Fierre saw the ground flash behind her. Even [Expeditious Retreat] wasn’t this fast, but the others were following! And what about those ahead? What was he doing? She stared at Bird, one hand on his hat as the other three arms pumped.

She had known he was as crazy as a loon! Crazier than Ryoka! Oh, dead gods, why hadn’t she said anything before now? They were going to die! They were going t—

The Drake [Captain] sprinted and somehow caught up with the first Goblins and Antinium. Gothica, running, having tossed her parasol and heavier clothes into the wagon, turned, a dagger in one hand. She wasn’t going to make it. The Drake stared at her. Then he shouted.

Excuse me, miss. One second—

He jogged past her. Gothica nearly fell flat on her face. The Drake jogged straight past Touma the Great, who stared at him.

Sir! Sir! What are you doing?

Bird the Hunter’s mandibles opened wide. But then ‘he’ just bellowed back in the [Captain]’s face.

Showing you Zephyr Salamanders how it’s done! Keep up if you want, [Captain]! You heard me, you slow-as-slug bastards! I said, run!”

The Titan roared at the Antinium, Goblins, and other people following him. They looked at each other as the Drake [Captain] spluttered. Then they realized two things.

The Drake regiment was moving as fast as they were. So were those on horseback—the Skill was hitting everyone on the road. Second? The Drake [Captain] stared at Bird.

“I thought I smelled Goblin. Who’s that handsome Gnoll?”

The [Caravan Leader] pointed at the figure in armor, charging at the head of the group of assorted Drakes and Gnolls. She turned to the [Merchant]. The Drake shrugged. She eyed the bare-chested lot, wearing only loincloths.

“I have no idea.”

 

——

 

He was roaring with hilarity at the expressions on their faces. Even Bird. One antenna was waving around, smacking into his shoulder, but the Titan laughed.

Do you really think I was a one-trick [Strategist]? I am the Titan of Baleros! The Titan!

He didn’t try plans he knew were going to fail, not without backups.

[They Marched as Friends, Until the Hammer Fell]. The Drake in armor turned and bellowed at the Zephyr Salamanders of Rosiit. The [Soldiers] in training stared at the group of hooded figures who’d revealed themselves to be some kind of…what? [Mercenaries]? Fellow [Soldiers]?

Niers shouted at Captain Hoseev.

“You call that running? You call that training? I’ve seen one-legged Dullahans run faster! Run, you worms! You worthless rats! Run!

Numbtongue had never heard Bird insult anyone like that. He looked left, where a furious group of Drakes were trying to either prove Bird wrong—or get close enough to throw a punch. The fact they were disguised did nothing to quell the instinctive fear.

The [Bard] ran faster. The Goblins were all natural sprinters…in that if you weren’t, you got caught. The Antinium? Only Klbkch had ever been seen to ride a horse before recently.

They sprinted, but the thing about a sprint was that it was something you kept up for bare minutes at the most. Even trained [Soldiers] were only prepared to launch a charge in battle to capitalize on the enemy’s opening; you didn’t keep going.

Niers demanded that of them. The Titan roared as one of the Workers began to flag.

Do you want to die? Slow down and find out what happens!

The terrified Worker instantly ran faster. The Drake [Captain] looked askance at the [Drillmaster] from hell. However, Niers wasn’t just insulting the [Soldiers]. That was certainly part of it, and the same strategy that Grimalkin to Niers’ own officers employed at times.

You think I’m being mean, do you? There’s no place for rest on the battlefield! Push yourself! Faster!

His voice, somehow, grew louder, despite the pace that sucked the breath from everyone else. Now, everyone on the road was staring as a roaring figure charged down it, leading a group at a speed that…

Drakes’ Ancestors!

The City Runner on horseback who had passed them a while back looked behind him and saw a charging mass of people on foot coming after him. He tried to race forwards—and they passed him. He saw a Drake pointing at him.

Get off that horse and run! You call yourself a Runner? Show me you know how to run!

It was an order. The Gnoll leapt off the horse. By now, lungs were burning and were it not for the terror of falling behind, half the group would have stopped. Fierre saw Rasktooth gasping for air. But then her head rose, and her own red pupils widened.

Bird was looking right back at them, and that voice, in his tone, but with that command that far exceeded Bird’s personality and levels, was speaking in her ears. She listened to it, panting, as even her legs burned and her skin hurt under the harsh, draining light of the sun.

“I don’t want to see a single person slowing down. Don’t waste breath telling me you’re at your limits. Your limits? You’ve never pushed your limits in your life. When you drop dead, you can complain you hit them! Did you come here to just ride along? Or did you come to fight and die for a reason? Weren’t you prepared to sacrifice everything to save someone’s life?

The Goblins and Antinium looked up at him. The figure bellowed at them.

“Legends. I have seen legends. I have led heroes into battle. I have fought in more wars than you could dream of. I am telling you to run. Just run as fast as the men and women I’ve seen. So. Run. Faster.

Bird sped up. [Charge of the Strategist]! But it extended to him and him alone. The column behind him desperately tried to catch up. Somehow…Bird saw the ground widen as he accelerated, then begin to shrink.

The words coming out of ‘his mouth’ were ridiculous. Who could believe that? If Bird said them, now or in any other moment, they would laugh at him and call him a silly Bird, because he was.

They didn’t come from him. Niers Astoragon, the Titan, was screaming them at the people running. Gothica, Fierre…the Drake [Captain]’s eyes widened.

“What is that?

 

——

 

It was a question echoed by the first [Scouts] and a [Brigadier-General] on the march. They weren’t expecting trouble on the road. Not yet. But given who they were going to meet, and the reasons behind their deployment…

What is that?

The Drake, a [Mage]’s wand at his side and a sword on the other, as befit his city’s way of fighting, stared up at something. The other [Soldiers] looked blankly at the clear, blue sky. A few clouds, where a feral Wyvern had flown.

Some of the officers squinted, almost seeing what he meant. A few did, and stared wide-eyed at something. A [Scout], panting, pointed.

“They’re coming! It’s a thousand people and counting!”

“What, running? Some kind of training exercise?”

The [General] just kept watching something growing closer. It was almost on them, engulfing part of his army, throwing it into chaos. It was…he felt like he was staring at an invisible Giant, from the old tales of when they walked Izril.

The aura was the largest thing he’d ever seen.

 

——

 

The Drake ran past [Soldiers] on the march of another army. They stared, as hundreds, no, a thousand figures swept up by his demands charged after him.

Run, you worthless worms! I want to see you—run! Break your limits and throw the worthless things into the void! Ignore the pain! This day, this moment, you are levelling up! Every second you cough blood, every step you take, you are pushing past the worthless selves you’re leaving behind. Anyone who falls behind has no place in war! Nor glory!

He charged past a [Mage Lieutenant] from Fissival. The Drake took one look at the running officer who he couldn’t place. His authority was immediately overrun, overwritten. Half the Drakes took the figure racing ahead of them for a [Commander] and went after him. It was instinctive.

They couldn’t keep this up! Numbtongue was a fit Hobgoblin. Maybe he’d been slacking in the inn, but—he clutched at his side. His ribs felt like they were going to break! How long had it been, ten minutes? Eight? Fifteen? Yet Bird…no, that voice dragged him on.

Stop looking down. Look up. Look at my back. Focus on my voice.

They did. It was that or think about how much they were dying, and if they did, they’d stop. The Titan carried them onwards.

“I know your lungs are bleeding, that you cannot think! But run, run even if your legs break! Run even if you tear every muscle from your bones! Run, because in this moment, you are the greatest legend you have ever known. To yourself. There has never been a you that ran this hard, that fought so hard! Run! Have you ever dreamed of being better than you were? RUN.

Who was running with them, by his side? More people were caught up by the procession. No, by the crowd.

The army, running down the road. The collective of faces—Numbtongue looked left and saw a panting Drake City Runner. On his right? Was that Drake wearing ceremonial armor? Who were they?

Gothica saw a foreign Goblin wearing white face-paint and a strange claw-handprint on his chest panting and running next to a Gnoll in [Merchant]’s clothes. And still, the voice kept on in their ears.

A second more. A minute more. Right now, you are the greatest army the world has ever seen. I should know, because I would lead nothing less. Do you understand me?”

Silence. A beat, a heartbeat of rushing blood, and then the voice roared at them.

I said, do you understand me? I want to hear it! Say ‘yes’!

“Yes?”

It was a bare whisper—there wasn’t enough air for anyone to speak. That was obviously not good enough. The Titan howled at them.

I can’t hear you! Look at you! You are surpassing my expectations, but you can’t even say a word? Listen to me. If the ground opens up in front of us and drags us over the end of the world—if the Deathless and every Demon in Rhir appears right here, right now. If the King of Destruction appears on the horizon. You will fight them and win. Do you have the courage to charge hell? Answer me!

“Yes!”

Can you overcome any foe against you?

Yes!

Then it was a roar. Somehow, Touma the Great found the strength to shout it. He had no words, but he shouted something for the first time in his life. The [Soldier] saw the Drake [Captain] shouting. He looked forwards and Bird screamed at him. Or whoever it was. An Antinium like the stories of Centinium.

Will you ever fall in battle? Will you ever die?

“No!”

“That’s right! Let me hear it! Give me a roar befitting the world’s greatest warriors! What do you say? ‘Us’! Who can shake the Walled Cities and turn back the Black Tide?”

“Us!”

They were past pain, running on exactly nothing. Giving over whatever you called their maximum. Even the lead figure was flagging, but the voice demanded more.

“Listen to me. Follow me, for one last push. Look around you. Look to your right, your left, at those you are running with. In this moment.

Touma looked at the Drake. The Drake’s eyes flickered. What did he see? Touma nodded, and the Drake bared all his teeth.

There they were. Flying down the road. So fast, each truly felt like they’d left something behind. Some had been on horseback, or flown with a Wyvern or used spells.

They had never won their speed. Not like this. Each step had been agony. Now—it vanished. They entered a state beyond pain, the same place [Soldiers] and [Runners] went. For some it was the first time they had ever felt alive.

The heat of battle. The roar of blood in your ears. Numbtongue knew it well. This was what the Redfangs chased. He returned to a simple world where all he had to do was run, just like the voice said, and leave behind his doubts, his fear of death, and everything else behind.

Because they were together, it was even stronger. Look right, and look left. Look at this army of countless species, charging down the road.

Travellers, entire cities, saw an army on the charge. They fled the road and stared. Cities sounded the alarm, for here was a force without fear. Just a bit longer. Until this feeling evaporates—

A [General] looked left. Was that an extraordinarily pale Human running with a toothy grin on his left? Was that a Gob—no, a short Drake girl running with them? He looked right and saw, for a second, an Antinium Soldier with no markings running next to him. He faltered, looked ahead, but couldn’t have stopped, or broken out of this moment if he wanted to.

Then his head turned right again. Who was that Soldier? The huge figure ran, arms and legs pumping, plain carapace scarred in thousands of places, but whole. He belonged in that army, right here, with this voice.

The Titan pointed at the warrior fitting of his vanguard. What stories did they never tell about you? He ran with every fiber of his being. Living. Breathing, as they strained towards infinity.

“Live louder. Breathe deeper. Fight, for every second, to be better than anyone has ever been before. Listen to those myths of old. Learn the legends. But tell yourself you will write one greater. Or you never will be.”

At last, exhaustion crept into the roaring tone. The figure ahead slowed, and, like a giant ripple, so did the rest.

“Push! Don’t you dare slack off. Not now. Not at your greatest triumph. Slow…slower…that’s it. Fight. Ten seconds. Nine, eight…”

Infinitypear had never fought to keep his legs moving like this. He felt like he’d torn parts of his body. Even so—to stop was unthinkable. In agony, he moved.

“Three…two…one. Stop.

They had gone from the mad sprint to a slower pace. Then the group stopped. An army on the trade road halted, horses without riders wheezing. Figures who had only seen the storm pass by stared into the distance where they had been lost, at the cloud of dust they had left behind. Distant fliers, Wyverns in the air flying desperately to keep up, as much as an hour away.

For a second, just one second, there was no pain. Just some kind of glorious feeling behind their eyes, in their heads and hearts. Breathe in—

Then they coughed. Then people collapsed, crying out, clutching at legs, hacking so hard, unable to draw breath, literally crawling around if they didn’t just pass out.

Niers Astoragon stood there as Bird dropped like a stone, on top of the little Antinium’s head. He looked past Bird, at an army of people on the ground. He laughed.

That was how you trained [Soldiers]. With a few Skills, yes. But none to give them endurance. Only to magnify the speed they had created by pumping their legs and arms. Inspire them, with words, not a damn [Motivational Speech], to do what they thought was impossible.

He still had it.

 

——

 

The unknown commander’s run had done a lot in a little time. Barely any time in the grand scheme of a day, to be honest. But the distance covered?

The Zephyr Salamanders missed returning for the end of their training day. They were now days out from their city. And levels higher.

In Fissival, one of the top [Strategists] was summoned from her rest by an anxious tactician.

“Strategist—3rd Army. Brigadoon Mages.”

“The ones sent to reinforce Wall Lord Dragial? What about them? Don’t tell me they ran into a Gnoll tribe or a city attacked them?”

The [Sorcerous Strategist] sat up, worried. The [Tactician] meekly consulted his notes.

“No. Not that. Th-they…they just broke their land-speed record. For all of Fissival’s armies, actually. They’re three days ahead of schedule.”

“…Huh?”

The [Sorcerous Strategist] reached for a cup of tea. Then, since it was clearly defective, splashed her face with the scalding tea instead.

 

——

 

[Training Captain Level 22!]

[Skill – Exceed Yourself, Suffer Later obtained!]

[Skill – Madman’s Sprint obtained!]

[Ski—

 

The voice interrupted him, which was a shame because he’d been Level 19 until just this moment. The Drake groaned, and felt his lungs tear and coughed at the iron.

A hand slapped him, kindly, to wake him up. Then three more helpfully slapped for good measure.

There was a chuckle and the light battering stopped.

“Son. Wake up.

The Drake opened his eyes, tried to stand. Someone was standing over him.

“Sir?”

The Drake looked down at him. It was impossible for the [Training Captain] to place, but his voice was calm, even grandfatherly. Authoritative.

“You’ll have to get your [Soldiers] in order. Listen. They’ve torn muscles in their legs and lungs. You need to get up, and administer some healing potions. Pay attention. What’s your healing potion rating?”

“U-um. Halflimb damage?”

The [Captain]’s mind was discombobulated, but he gave the answer instinctively. The Drake nodded.

“Good. Then…three drops in the mouth. Two per leg. Only that many, got it? Takes the damage off, but leaves the rest to heal and toughen up. Remember that. Repeat it.”

“Three in the mouth. Two…”

A coughing fit in his own lungs made the [Captain] reach for his potion. The unknown [General] nodded.

“That’ll do. Take care of your lads, and remember—that’s how you do it. Tell your [Soldiers] that whenever they want to level, remember this day.”

The [Captain] searched for something to say. But before he could rise, ask the questions, or even say something like ‘thank you’?

They were gone. And Fissival’s entire army was sufficiently grounded—the ones who’d joined the mad run sufficiently burned out, and separated from the rest of their forces—to be disorganized for days, although they had made up considerable ground to their target, if they had gone too far south without enough west to reach the Great Plains.

That was what happened when you got swept up in the Titan’s path. He saw travellers realizing they were way off course, people who had levelled—

Not just as [Soldiers] or [Captain]. He wasn’t sure if the [Bard] had levelled. But he was fairly sure [Goth] to [Adventurer] was covered. It wasn’t about running. It was about breaking something in half in your head.

The people on foot, plus Ulvama and Octavia on the wagons, were gone in a trice, before the others could apply a healing potion and restore their torn lungs and muscles. Bird himself had been unable to move until Niers helped him with a potion.

“I levelled up. I…”

“Yep. Ride and shut up. Let’s get out of here. My Skill won’t keep us hidden if this lot scrutinizes us too close. It barely holds up when we’re chatting with one person.”

Bird slapped the horse’s butt and a swaying Pivr followed the horse carrying a half-dead Gothica just lying on the saddle. The others clung to the animals, who got a full dose of a healing potion and a shot of stamina potion too. Niers offered some to Apista, but the little bee just clung to the wagon. Whew, what a workout, eh? The bee wondered what level she’d get.

Fierre was going to be as sad as Apista. Even so, her eyes were on Bird. Or rather, his hat. Even he took it off after a while and just lay in the wagon.

“I am dead. I am sorry for doubting…me. Please do not talk to me. I am going to level up now.”

Then passed out. Fierre, lying on the back of the wagon, was tired. Garia looked like even she had run herself to death; the thing about Niers’ Skill was that even though she was faster than some of the others, they’d all been neck-and-neck. Her speed had dragged everyone slower than her up a notch.

So she’d run herself to death. So had Fierre, to be fair, but she was a Vampire and more conscious than the others. Fals was literally being tied to a horse by Ulvama as they made tracks.

Fierre stared at Bird, in much the way the rest of the Antinium, Goblins…everyone had. Sergeant Gna kept looking at him. With more confusion, because his boasts had been real. Real, or he couldn’t have motivated them like that, with the confidence of someone who had been there, seen legends. But how did she square that with…Bird?

Bird the Hunter.

The Opener knew the truth. She stared at the hat. Slowly, Fierre looked around as the wagon lurched on and the rejuvenated horses trotted off. She saw no one paying attention and the hat was below the lip of the covered wagon’s sides, so…she lifted the hat. Stared at the little man.

He stared back. Waved. Made a ‘lower it’ gesture.

Fierre put the hat back. She lay down, heart racing. She hadn’t imagined the tiny heartbeat in the hat.

She knew it was risky, but she just had to see him.

 

——

 

By night, the caravan rested for once. They had to; they had gone an insane distance. The only problem was that Snapjaw would have to re-discover the trail with Gna, but the news might help.

People were trying to coordinate the search for Mrsha, and they had a trail of places she had last been found…maybe. Fierre had a scrying orb and Garia would go into the city; apparently some of the Plains Tribes were helping search.

That didn’t matter. Infinitypear had levelled. Gothica had levelled. Touma the Great had levelled.

It was easier to say who had not levelled.

Which was: Octavia because she hadn’t run, Snapjaw and Badarrow, much to their horrific disappointment. Numbtongue. And Ulvama because she was lazy.

Apista and Fierre would never level. Not like that. It was unfair.

“The world is unfair, Fierre. I think your [Martial Artist] friend envies…whatever you are.”

The little man looked up at her. The Vampire, holding him on one shoulder, bared her teeth nervously.

“I…what are you going to do?”

“Hm. What’s logical. For now, you have my word that keeping my secret earns my gratitude. I remember my friends. Believe me, I’m one of the best people to keep secrets. I’ve met more than one group that has secrets.”

She nodded, heart pounding. It was true, the Titan had knowledge of her. She had knowledge of him. One would decay, but in this moment?

He was helping her. What was that worth? The Titan looked back at the camp.

“Proof positive. You’re strong. You’re quick, and you’re tough. But what you have that Garia Strongheart lacks is this.”

He pointed at her.

“No potion. No need for it. You trashed her in sparring.”

“Well, yes. She was exhausted. You made me do it!”

Fierre felt bad. Niers just laughed at her. Guffawed in her face.

“So what? She’ll level up. And you…you just beat your friend. Because she cannot keep up with you. Whatever you are, you have the endurance a Selphid would turn green at. Keep them away from your body, incidentally.”

She nodded. Fierre’s heart was beating fast. The moon shone vividly out between the passing clouds. She felt…alive.

“But I am weaker. I cannot level. Not…not as easily. Is there a way for me to get stronger?”

The Titan’s eyes glowed.

“There is. I feel it. I am the Titan of Baleros. Go and join them, and follow my orders. I’ll whisper it in your ear.”

The Vampire looked at the group he had gathered. Niers had chosen them, out of seemingly nowhere. Because he had sensed something from them. He was no expert. Especially at this—but he knew how to train everything.

A Soldier. Gothica. Ulvama and Fierre stood together, looking confused. Snapjaw hurried over.

“Had to pee, sorry.”

“That’s fine. Um…we’re going to walk. Or run?”

“More training?”

The [Shaman] sneered at Fierre, but she had a curious look in her eyes. How much did she guess? She stared the Vampire girl up and down, but didn’t spot Niers’ hiding place in Fierre’s hair.

“Why are we walking?”

Gothica wobbled on her feet. Fierre replied as Niers had told her.

Because we might discover something about ourselves. Do you want…power?”

The others looked at her. The Soldier tilted his head a few times. Why me? He didn’t even have paint. Fierre didn’t know either.

“Follow me.”

Under the moon, their shadows stretched long across the grass. Fierre looked at her shadow, many times taller than she was. She imagined the Vampire she had dreamed of being from those old stories.

Fear, yes. But awe, too. Awe at the stories of the night hunters, who were tall.

Graceful. Beautiful, undying. Masters of powerful magic. She had been cured by Ryoka. Yet Fierre didn’t feel like that.

The air was cold. Some of the others shivered; summer was passing. But the air felt…charged. The moon disappeared behind some clouds as they walked. Without purpose. Then…Ulvama looked back.

“Camp’s far away. What is happening? You using a Skill?”

She peered at Fierre. The Vampire girl started. She looked back and saw the camp was far away. How fast were they going?

Fast. They were striding along, exhaustion forgotten. Even Gothica and the Soldier. But something else was different. Was the camp…smaller?

The answer came as the moon appeared from beyond the clouds. Fierre turned. She gasped, as she saw the shadows stretching below them on the grass.

What vast shadows. The grass looked so tiny, that even with Fierre’s eyes, she could barely see the blades of grass. She looked at the others, confused. Nothing seemed wrong.

Then Gothica cried out. She pointed down.

How…?

Something looked up at them, wide-eyed. A fox, emerging from its den. It stared up at the group of five, then backed up, turned, and fled into the hole in a pure terror.

Not just because one was a Vampire, and there were Goblins and Antinium. The others realized what was happening and cried out. They looked down at the tiny fox.

It was smaller than they were, which it always had been. But Gothica, a Cave Goblin, was still short. In this moment? Now? She towered over it. She would have towered over Numbtongue.

“We’ve grown! I don’t want to be bigger Goblin!”

Ulvama shrieked. She felt at her body, but she saw no huge, rippling muscles like Tremborag’s war-form. She whirled, eyes wide, and saw Fierre’s pupils glowing red, like her own.

Niers. The Titan was laughing.

[Giants on the March]. The five swept around, bewildered. Then the Titan whispered, through Fierre.

Can you feel it? Look at the moon. Can you sense it? Power. You have broken your limit. But there is more to power than a [Warrior]’s might. More to magic than [Mages] know. Do you sense it?

He urged them to realize it. Could they feel it? It had come out of him, unguarded, as he inspired the others to run. Untrained, largely. But the Titan still had it. Not as powerful as a royal’s, or someone dedicated to the power like the Order of Seasons.

Yet no one could ever force him to kneel. No one could control his mind. The Titan unleashed what was essentially another manifestation of his ego. His will.

It was one of the reasons they had given him his name. A Fraerling with the aura of a Giant.

Titan of Baleros.

Did they feel it, as they stood above it all? By night? The Titan saw the Vampire girl’s eyes widen. Ulvama looked up, and realized she stood inside…

“What is…? Where?”

She was confused. She didn’t need to focus on him. Snapjaw’s eyes widened.

All of them.

[Chieftain]. [Shaman]. Snapjaw and Ulvama felt something rising in them, provoked by the Skill, the moment, the other aura weighing on them, forcing them to acknowledge what was in them.

Everyone had it, but some classes were drawn to it. But what of the other three?

Fierre and the Soldier—was it their nature, personality? Sometimes you couldn’t tell. Sheer potential. A force of will. Chance? No, there was always a reason. The Soldier stood there, the same one both the Titan and even a Drake [General] had identified. No one had ever asked for his story, but he belonged here. No, on a far greater stage. The Titan would uncover it, his hidden worth and valor.

It felt familiar to Fierre, like a part of herself she had never noticed. She reached for it, struggling. Niers studied the others. But his eyes were on the last.

What a strange class. Perhaps it was just chance. Uncertainty in what the word actually meant. Or maybe that was just how it was.

The little Cave Goblin, Gothica, opened her eyes wide. Under this moon. The darkness. As tall as a Giant. All it needed was some sombre music and it would be perfect. Her eyes gleamed and she smiled in ecstasy at this moment.

I look at nightmares and laugh. I would leap into the abyss to see what lay down there.

The world’s first Goblin [Goth] manifested her aura, and the moonlight turned to shade around her. She began to laugh.

Fierre swept around, eyes shining. Reaching for her aura, as the others manifested theirs. 

How the Titan laughed. How he roared.

Bird, silly Bird. Do you think I am incapable? What do you think happened when I levelled and got my newest class?

[Grandmaster Strategist]. We make excellent pacts, don’t we? You help me, and I’ll help you. It’s not like I have an army to return to. It will be a while before I can use it again, but I was saving it for now.

His finger rose as he stood in the grass, and the Vampire leapt into the air, unable to keep still. Screaming for her blood to awaken. The Titan’s finger wavered. From her, to Ulvama, to Snapjaw, to…Gothica…back towards the camp. He could sense them, if not see them.

At last, he used the greatest Skill he owned. Higher than his Level 60 Skill. The Skill of a [Strategist] who multiplied everything.

Niers Astoragon spoke.

[Promote the Pawn: Class Ascension].

 

——

 

It broke over them like a wave, as they slept, as the extra Goblins curled up, unnoticed, happily levelling themselves. Snapjaw tried blearily to count them, but fell asleep, too tired for some reason.

 

[Conditions Met: Goblin Chieftain → Chieftain of the Maw Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Big Eater removed.]

[Class Consolidation: Beast Tamer removed.]

 

[Chieftain of the Maw Level 31!]

 

[Skill Change – Huge Chomp → Yawning Bite!]

[Skill – Unit: Yawning Bite obtained!]

[Skill – I Grew With Every Bite obtained!]

[Ski—

 

Someone poked her. Someone poked her. Badarrow cuddled the Hobgoblin as he entered the blankets.

“Want to—”

Ugraaaah!

She kicked him.

 

——

 

Not just her.

 

[Conditions Met: Magic Paint Shaman → Shaman of the Old Ways Class!]

[Shaman of the Old Ways Level 31!]

[Skill Change – Memory of a Hundred Lifetimes → Memory of a Thousand Lifetimes!]

[Skill – Memory of a Thousand Lifetimes obtained!]

[Skill—]

 

Ulvama’s eyes opened wide. She looked around. Alright. That was not earned.

Who was doing this?

Who was watching her? Who was…?

 

——

 

The little man, counting, choosing. Elevate the best. Bring up the worst. He failed once.

 

[Class Consolidation Failed. Unable to Advance Assassin.]

 

Fierre’s eyes opened wide. She sat up bolt upright as a Goblin curled up happily. Another voice was stuttering in Gothica’s mind.

 

[Conditions Met: Goth → Dark Knight Clas—]

[Conditions Met: Goth → Soulsteal—]

[Conditions Met: Goth → Abyssal W—]

[Conditions Met: Goth → Midnight Goth Class!]

 

[Midnight Goth Level 8!]

[Skill Change – Dark Aura → Aura of Midnight!]

[Skill – Aura of Midnight obtained!]

[Spell – Shade Barrier obtained!]

[Skill – Basic Concentration obtained!]

[Skill – Magic of Will obtained!]

 

——

 

Nobody knew his name. He did not have a name.

A Soldier who hadn’t been lucky enough to be painted. A unit in the rest of the Hive. Someone who had seen it.

He had been there when Skinner died and torn pieces out of nightmare.

He had slain [Assassins] and moths and more.

He had crushed armor to pieces as others fell. Because he was better? Luckier?

Because he was he.

 

[Conditions Met: Veteran Warrior → Exemplar Warrior Class!]

[Class Consolidation: Survivor removed.]

 

[Exemplar Warrior Level 17!]

[Skill – Aura of Battle obtained!]

[Skill Change – Armored Blow → Full Armor Onslaught!]

[Skill – Full Armor Onslaught obtained!]

[Skill – Phantom Sword Slash obtained!]

 

The Antinium didn’t roll over or move as it woke up. Was that the same Skill as the [Assassin]? It lay there.

What a lovely birthday present. 

He was six years old.

 

——

 

Last of all. Six for six.

 

[Conditions Met: Tracking Sergeant → Goblinfriend Bug-Captain Class!]

[Goblinfriend Bug-Captain Level 25!]

[Skill – Squad: Minor Swarmblades obtained!]

[Skill – Squad: Hob’s Strength obtained!]

 

She jumped to her feet, screaming.

“No! It was just a game of cards! It was just a game of—

Too late. Too…late. It wasn’t how she thought. It was how it looked. To a certain, slightly confused point of view.

 

——

 

The Fraerling chewed on a stale cookie. He chuckled. He listened to the shouting and sat back, smiling like he was thirty years younger.

Now they understood.

This was what it meant to be the Titan. This was how you should be alive. Shaking, until you could only sleep by exhaustion.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Nothing to see here. Short, boring, slice-of-life interlude. Glad you agree.

I realize, with all this hubbub around The Last Tide Kickstarter which is still ongoing, and the chapter…I haven’t done the poll!

…I’ll do it before next chapter or as the next chapter comes out. I’m tired. But it’s okay if I procrastinate because I’ll take my break after the 4th! One more chapter! One more chapter!

Anyways, I did keep it below 20,000 words this time! Nice, short chapters. And for once it might have kept the quality I wanted. Did it? Let me know.

It’s nice to sit back and just lower everyone’s expectations with a dull, boring chapter about running and boiled eggs. Thanks for reading!

 

The Wandering Inn by Eurayle!

 

Erin and Pisces Portraits by Eris!

 

Infinitypear, Gothica, Pawn, and more by Gridcube!

 


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68 thoughts on “Interlude – Of Vampires and Fraerlings

    • “If we see a huge group, move’ em off the road for something.”
      move’ em -> move ’em

      “An Antinium like the stories of Centinium.”
      I think “Centinium” should be “Centenium”, though I haven’t the time to check archives, sorry!

  1. Thank you for the chapter pirateaba!

    I wonder what class advancement/consolidation Salkis was granted. Also, pity that Fierre was not able to benefit from Niers’s skill.

    • I don’t think Salkis got Class advancement. It said six for six and there are six Class Consolidations including Fierres failed one.

  2. Wait, so if Fierre didn’t level or change class, what changed? Did Nier’s thing actually work, or did was he wrong and he failed because she was a Vampire?

    Goth as an starting class for Dark Knight is very funny and good though, I like that a lot, and it opens up a lot of possibilities for similar classes to like… convert aesthetics into actual powers. A fascination with darkness and edginess transforms into actual, powerful dark powers, and the fantasies become reality. It’s really neat, and it’s made me like Gothica quite a bit more.

    • It seems like Niers Skill did work on Fierre (cause she got the System message) but the System failed to advance her Class. Whether it failed cause she is a Vampire, doesn’t have enough Classes/levels for direction, or simply doesn’t actually want to be an [Assassin] is the question.

      • I have of course no proof, but I’d bet it’s because she’s a vamp. Vamps, or more accurately True Vamps(tm), seem to only level up by eating the blood of people until they kill them. They “steal” their classes, so to speak.

        For Fierre there were no classes to steal here, so no consolidations nor level ups.

        Kind of a bummer. On the other hand, a true vamp with a steady supply of high levels victims would be absolutely terrifying, even though I bet there is diminishing returns. Kinda take the “Vampire were overlord once” story in a new light, if, say, there was once an aristocracy of people needing to eat a thousand mages a day for unlimited levels.

    • There were two powerups. The first one, with the separate small group that became bigger temporarily was them obtaining auras, which Fierre got. That’s what Niers sensed he could power up in her.

      The second was the class-up thing which he did when they got back to camp.

  3. For some it was chaos, but for others it was just another day.

    Still could not help, but laugh as the System struggled to figure out how to define or upgrade what a [Goth] was. Even with all of the experience and changes to the world… There are still things that throw it for a loop.

  4. 6 years of life and death battles and only lvl 17… Doesn’t make sense unless he got his class and levels from the Erin effect or got abandonedin some battlefield. I wish we knew more about this nameless antinium’s story and his relationship with Niers to get targeted by the skill…

    • Just because he is 6 years old doesn’t mean he has had a class six years. In fact none of the regular antinium had classes until erin showed up and started making them individual.

    • He did also have some survivor levels.

      I think the problem is the same as most antinium they goe through life like an robot. They do what they are told when they are told they always do there job, but never more. You can work on an assembly line produsing cars all your life, but if all you do is sit down at a table and screw in 8 screws every time an part is put infront of you. You do not get better at building cars only those 8 screws.

    • Remember, Antinium *don’t* level normally, or only to very, very low levels.

      He’s probably got those 17 levels in the past year/few months.

    • That’s very high for a non-individual Antinium. Six years of survival is _amazing_ for a soldier, considering what their attrition rate has been shown to be.

      Dead gods.

    • His relationship with Niers? We saw the entirety of it this chapter. He just noticed there was something about him while running. And clearly there is. Most antinium don’t even live to be six years old, especially soldiers. And for an unnamed/unpainted antinium who is supposedly not “individual” level 17 is shockingly high. With that and his [Surivor] class it’s pretty obvious he’s been in a lot of battles, some of which he was among the last soldiers standing.

      Basically he’s gone through some shit.

  5. In my opinion, we have already seen how people’s personalities and aesthetics can manifest in to actual power with the order of seasons. I would love to see her become a Shadowmancer.

  6. Sergant Gna is going to have a thing or three to explain about this adventure when she gets back.

    > “No! It was just a game of cards! It was just a game of—”
    LOL

  7. the pixel portraits are amazing, I’m going to appropriate them for my next CRPG run.
    Probably the kingmaker sequel whenever people are saying the bug-fixes are in. As Kingmaker (understandably, they’re a small studio) didn’t launch in the best of states.

    • I wouldn’t say Wrath of the Righteous is bug free, but I haven’t noticed any showstoppers in my time with it, just minor annoyances. Should be safe to pick up.

      It’s overall way better than Kingmaker in every other regard too.

  8. Well, damn.

    Can I say how much I love bits like this? Seeing the truly high level characters of the world let loose with their skills.

    No wonder Neirs got a nickname like ‘the Titan’.

    Also I love that the Crelers felt his aura and went running, he’s probably killed enough Crelers to get his own wing of the Blighted Kings palace at this rate.

    • I think one of the things Niers is famous for is killing an Elder Creler so it would make sense they ran off screaming. Then again Grimalkin said there hasn’t been an Elder spotted in over a thousand years but that might have just been Izril/Drakes.

  9. Why didn’t Niers elevate Bird’s “Bird Hunter” class? That is prime fodder for something better. Feels really weird that he wouldn’t.

    • Perhaps because Bird identifies as a Bird Hunter and would not like something different, being Bird.

      Being a Strategist, a Singer or a Liar. That is all nice and I doubt he would object to a consolidation/elevation for THOSE classes, but Bird Hunter being gone would be out of character. I think.

      • Plus Bird’s definition of bird is so wide that Bird Hunter is kinda amazing. It let him go around one-shotting Ice Wyverns, and I’ll bet that it’d work against Dragons too.

    • Truly OP. But only in a support role. Put him up against other high leveled characters one on one and he’d really be in trouble. Similarly, some of the situations that have caused him a lot of trouble would be laughable to, say, Mars or Greydath or Az’kerath or the Death of Magic.

  10. I really liked the the line:
    It broke over them like a wave, as they slept, as the extra Goblins curled up, unnoticed, happily levelling themselves. Snapjaw tried blearily to count them, but fell asleep, too tired for some reason.
    So it appears that the Fellowship of the Inn passed too close to a nearby goblin tribe and picked up a few extras to fluff up their group. Since they were at 42 already (including Aspista and Icecube) I wonder how many are now in the group?

    Thanks for the chapter Pirateaba, it was a nice end to my day.
    Kind regards,
    Stephen

    • It was said during the run the saw unfamiliar goblins. They may have been a raid group or a little tribe swept too by the skill. Don’t think they would have left them to be killed by the army even if they didn’t know who they are

      • I think, a little tribe:
        “Even the others, tagging along the caravan from afar, decided now might be a good time to run. Despite Niers’ best efforts, his caravan had been spotted. Although not in any way he could have predicted. The little Goblins, staring at the many powerful Hobs from afar, were about to slink off.”

        Before “the Run” they most likely followed, wondering, what those Hobs were about, what with the company they kept.

  11. one thing no one has talked about yet is that we finally heard birds level when he told the titan. But one thing we need to remember is he is a liar now. He could have lied to neirs in an attemptto level up that class. Even though the level he told the titan is respectably high, I always thought of him as being higher.

    Especially with how easily he had taken out the wyverns and how like magnolia and her maids I feel like bird stumbled on a class he can consistently level up without actually putting himself in much danger by just doing what he does everyday in his tower.

    What do you guys think? did bird lie about his level?

    • I don’t think so. Bird’s level is already enormous for his age, I find it implausible that he’d manage to hit level 40 in such a short amount of time. That’s reaching past Gold-rank in adventurer terms, and amidst the likes of Erin Solstice and Gazi Pathseeker.

      Levels seem to work on a logarithmic scale, so it’s roughly ten times harder to get to level 40 than level 30, which means that far, far fewer people ever reach it. For all his experience hunting birds, Bird seems only to be on Relc’s level, combat-wise, which jives with him being in the thirties. Impressive, noteworthy, but not overwhelming.

    • Ooh, I bet Bird lied.

      Bird just found out he can lie absurdly… and if hes confident in his lie being him telling the truth, then no matter the lie people will believe him. He just has to fake it till he makes it, naturally, faking it actually makes it. Now, go conjure waterbirds.

    • He may have lied or he may have not. Don’t forget that Bird is a genius or pretty close to one and is capable of acquiring skills, not Skills, at astonishing rate. Case in point just in this chapter he explained how he blitzed through at least whole school level math in just four days simply because Erin was making him cookies. He is also probably the third best chess player in the whole world after Titan and Erin. Well maybe fourth depending on how he stacks up to Teriarch.
      Anyway he learns incredibly fast.

      And he spent more than a year doing nothing but shooting birds and whoever tried to attack the Inn.

  12. That was great! Titan OP. Wait, that was the Skill he got from playing Erin? Erin OPer. Does that mean a chess engine is OPest?

  13. I feel that there is a clear drop of quality this chapter. There were good moments, and the plot points were interesting, but the execution was a little lacking. It felt hasty and a bit thrown together. Lots of of moving parts, sudden transitions, but most of all, unclear description of events that confused me.

    And that’s okay.

  14. i wish there was a page for the character chart to see there stats there lvl and skills like did are vampire level or did she change class at all?

  15. Thanks Pirate. I felt like I won’t be able to truly appreciate the running bit without running myself, it was a literal moving narrative.

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