(The author is on break until the 8th of February! Look out for the chapter then if you’re on Patreon and vote in the poll! I’m tired. My shoulders ache.)
The sky was beautiful. Everyone knew that, save for those who had grown up under lands perpetually shaded by cloud and darkness, like Noelictus, or where the sky was another place where danger could come from.
So, on the other hand, it was not a universal truth. Perhaps, though, many who did find the night sky beautiful forgot the first time a little child or even a baby had looked straight up into the first evening sky they ever took notice of.
Or the night sky resplendent with a million shining points of light.
If there was anything that Elena Othonos could ever admit—it was that this world had a more glorious night sky than hers. And she had been born in Greece, where they had seen great constellations and the very faces of deities staring down at them from the shifting aether.
This one, though…if you gazed up at some of the stars on Earth, like Capella in the northeast, you could see that it was golden. Some trick of its composition countless lightyears away and whenever it had looked like that in the past—because light and time were complex that way.
But faintly yellow. This night sky? Elena looked up and saw every color she knew, and more she didn’t. She was a [Beautician], and she knew color.
It was simply that there were variations she couldn’t see on Earth. A shade or quality like the harsh neon that she could call magical. But, of course, such things needed names.
Each star blazed with a different color, and two moons hung in the sky. One was silvery, almost like Earth’s, but instead of that yellowish glow, it was blue, and would sink to deep purple unlike the red that Earth’s moon could develop.
The other was a light green, like the palest refraction from an emerald or piece of glass. Oh…and someone had nibbled at one. Giving the sphere the tiniest little imperfection.
She wondered what that was about. Elena knew the sky, and she appreciated it and the vastness in the air—the sense that this world somehow had more space between her and the stratosphere. Clouds so distant overhead she could focus on them and find a world of detail.
If only she had a telescope. But as Elena looked up, the salt wind blowing on her hair, the faintest memory of pain on her back from where some idiot had shot her with a spell, lungs still burning from running and shouting, distraught, betrayed, and free of Wistram—she did realize she had forgotten to appreciate what the sky meant.
After all, she had lived under it so long, able to just step out whenever she pleased. But for someone who had dreamed of it for months…for an Antinium who looked up for the first and possibly last time in their life—
It was worth far more to them. A figure floated high above the moving pirate ship, arms spread, and, Elena guessed, eyes closed.
Archmage Amerys. She just hung there, flying through the air. Letting rain fall on her. Enjoying it, like a girl playing in a storm.
It pattered off a glowing veil above Elena, the Illuminary’s personal magical barrier. She was grateful for that; the wind wasn’t blocked, and it was chilly at night.
Of course, they could have blocked wind, as surely as they blocked water when the Illuminary dove. As magical vessels went, this was state-of-the-art. It combined the aptitude of Drowned Vessels for diving with the weaponry looted from Minos and a magical hull that glowed like a lighthouse—not to mention a speed practically unmatched on the ocean.
It could even go onto land—for a while—thanks to its [Captain]’s Skills. State of the art. Which meant it had probably been made in antiquity.
“What a strange world.”
Elena looked up, and someone heard her.
“You have more of a right to say that than anyone else, for you have known two. But if it is only because you compare it to yours, those who travel worlds will surely laugh at you.”
Elena jumped. She looked left and saw a slightly pointed nose. Someone who even looked vaguely like her—aside from the darker skin. The faintly yellow eyes. Oh—and the fact that the girl looked like she was only eight.
And eight thousand.
“Um. Excuse me?”
The Quarass of Germina had changed clothing. Instead of the demure [Lady]’s garb with frills and fashion imported from Terandria, she had a much more relaxed kind of toga. A bit more complex, but Elena felt like someone was pranking her.
Or maybe that was just what she saw, because this was one of Germina’s traditional styles of dress. But it was also…well, her people’s, again in antiquity.
The girl looked at Elena, and when she spoke, it was disconcertingly off. Just like her eyes; her voice had a cadence and deliberate quality to it. Elena had always thought children sounded like children because their voices were just ‘younger’, whatever that meant.
However, she now knew it was because they tended towards certain patterns of speech. Tripping over themselves, eager, struggling with expression, and wandering. The Quarass, like someone far older, knew what she was going to say and took her time enunciating each word.
“Your world. I have seen pictures of it. I have never been there, but I have heard it described. It seems outlandish to me. Positively unreal. You express the same sentiments of mine. I have heard it being described as a ‘game’, or ‘fantasy’ by one thoughtless girl. I would call yours a bad joke if I were equally rude. Yet we understand that we are comparing two different worlds.”
“Um. Uh…yes? Emirea…no, that’s not your name, is it?”
Elena was still taken aback, as most people were when they met the Quarass. But she knew this was not the shy girl that hung out with Troy, so she rallied magnificently fast. The Quarass watched the [Beautician] take a breath.
“You’re…the Quarass of Germina. A Shield Kingdom of Chandrar.”
The Quarass nodded. She watched Elena approvingly; she wasn’t panicking or shouting or in disbelief. Rasea Zecrew had rescued her, and the [Pirate Captain] always stole the most valuable things. Elena’s features wrinkled, and the Quarass noted that she’d dyed her hair. Platinum mint green perhaps, if it was a dye Earth had. Not bad, and not a Skill either. Maybe the dye was, but she’d made it herself.
Very good. Someone who understood mixtures and the basis of alchemy.
“…Are you saying that neither your world nor mine is normal?”
The Quarass smiled.
“No. One might be archetypal. But who could tell? Only someone who has walked enough worlds to see a pattern. Now, I wonder if humanity is that common link. But we only have two examples, so it is a poor guess. It might be Garuda or some other species. Do you understand what I mean? We look at things as if our experiences are indicative of all, but we only see two marbles in a bag of holding full of them.”
She wondered if Elena would get the example, but the young woman’s eyes lit up.
“Oh. Our sample size, you mean? We could be outliers—we have no idea how large the data set is.”
The Quarass’ ears perked up.
“Interesting. You understand my example. Your world seems to understand such concepts better than mine. At least, without the Skills to comprehend it. Skills have weighed down our advancement. I see that now.”
Elena looked at the Quarass, startled, and ducked her head.
“I’m hardly a good student. I’m sure someone else could tell you even more. I dropped out of high school to work. I just took a few math classes.”
“Ah. So poverty strikes your world as hard as mine? Trey and Teres mentioned it, but they were not destitute.”
“Trey Atwood’s sister.”
“Trey—so that’s his name. Troy Atlas? Trey Atwood. Oh, come on.”
Elena groaned. She looked over at the young man who was sitting, letting a little Lifesand Golem try to drag her shortsword as she climbed into his lap. She had trouble because she’d lost so much of her body-sand mass.
The Quarass lifted a hand.
“Do you bear a grudge?”
“Of course I do. But that makes…sense. I always wondered why Trey seemed a bit aloof. I put it down to him having seen combat. But—that camera. The King of Destruction. It all makes sense. Do you know…what he saw? At A’ctelios Salash?”
The Quarass nodded.
“I was there. I also know of the promise the King of Destruction made with him.”
“To wipe that place from existence. To scour one of the four remaining Shield Kingdoms of Chandrar to earth…which I am pledged to support and defend until my bitter end.”
The ruler of Germina paused, and Elena eyed her. However, the girl just produced something and offered it to Elena.
“Enough. That is a conversation for later. A great moment has occurred. Will you speak with me, Elena? What is your last name?”
“Othonos. Elena Othonos…Your Majesty?”
“You may refer to me as the Quarass or ‘Quarass’. I have no true name.”
“You don’t? Excuse me—what are you? I don’t know much, but I heard people talking about you when the King of Destruction…cut off your head?”
The Quarass saw Elena look uneasily at her. She smiled, and the young woman wondered if the Quarass were like a Hydra, or if she reincarnated, or if she just flitted from body to body.
She was close, but the Quarass shrugged.
“I shall explain, briefly. And you shall tell me of your world. I have no name because each new person, young, old, man, woman, any species who becomes Quarass, becomes one of the countless number who have worn my class and duties. The girl who I was was young, poor, and grew up on the streets of Ger. Perhaps you understand that.”
Elena had worked because she had to, rather than continuing to stay in school. In, appropriately, a beauty parlor. Then she’d gotten herself through university. By herself.
There was a connection there, so she leaned against a railing as the Quarass spoke. Every now and then, her eyes would go up to the night sky and Amerys—or look at Trey.
People were dead because of what he’d done. The largest name among the casualties was Archmage Nailihuaile. Also damaged—although not people—were Gazi Pathseeker’s armor and Dawil’s axe.
Wistram’s reputation, their monopoly over Earthers, his friendships and relationships with people he had liked, like Eldavin…
Trey regretted the dead. He felt guilty—and guiltier still because he didn’t know who had died, and the few he did know, like Nailihuaile and Timor, the [Lord] he’d stabbed…didn’t bother him as much as they should.
He’d killed someone, and it didn’t bother him enough. He would be struck like by a hammer if it turned out Sidney had died, or someone he found innocent. But a cold little part of Trey thought that the world was better off without Timor.
“We’re not changing for the better, Gazi. Teres and I? We’re turning into people like Flos. I don’t want that for the others.”
Trey looked across the deck, towards Elena. She glanced over and met his eyes, and he was the one who looked away.
The Earthers here. More had escaped; more had been recaptured or just never left. The Drowned Folk had some, the Drakes, others.
Of the ones here? Elena was the one that Trey knew best. There was also Lamont, the [Sailor], Erik Muller, the [Actor], two kids from China that he had seen with Shun and Xiang, and some others.
He would get to know them all, Trey suspected. They looked at him like he was a monster. Fair.
Gazi Pathseeker was running her fingers down the crack in her famous armor. She looked at Trey, and then her eyes shifted to the children.
“You and Teresa are my lord’s obsession, in part. He drags you two with him, and so you see war from his perspective. The others need not do that. Nor will they. If some wish to be safe, or leave, I think he will allow it.”
“Flos? You don’t think he’ll say ‘you have no rights, I’m the King of Destruction’?”
Gazi glanced at Trey. She almost smiled, then nudged him hard in the ribs with one foot.
“He might. But if they do not like him, he may be persuaded, especially if we speak our minds. As you know—he does not care for the company of people he dislikes. Those he wishes to like him…that is different.”
Trey nodded. That was as good as he’d get for now. He still felt slightly shocked by how it had all gone down. He lay on his back, and Minizi hopped on his chest. She had abandoned her oversized sword, and the two-foot-tall Golem stood proudly with a tiny twig like a claymore. She waved it at Gazi, and the Gazer smiled.
She too was enjoying her freedom. But unlike Amerys, what Gazi was doing was eating. She had a bowl of the [Chef]’s food in one hand and was eating with two chopsticks. She was also checking her armor, but the main reason she could do that was, well…
Because she’d taken it off.
It was the first time Trey had ever seen Gazi take her armor off. That she had done so at all might have had something to do with a month or two of sitting underwater day and night. Underneath her armor, Gazi wore what was surprisingly like a modern, form-fitting skinsuit. She was fairly lithe, as she stretched out.
Oh. And she had three-toed feet, and bigger toes per digit. Trey stared at them, and Gazi wiggled her toes as Minzi looked at her stumpy feet; Trey had only made little plodders without digits. The Lifesand Golem gave Trey a look of betrayal for his artistic license and began to poke at her feet, rearranging them into a copy of Gazi’s.
Gazi being out of her armor was as close to naked as Trey had ever seen, which made him not look at her—especially because the form-fitting fabric fit her form perfectly. Gazi seemed amused as she realized that.
Meanwhile, one of Rasea’s crew was feverishly sketching Gazi in her repose. Not just for the…art…of it, but because they had a suspicion that selling the artwork would earn them as much as their share for the raid on Wistram if they found the right clientele. [Pirates] were, after all, an unscrupulous lot.
Mostly, though, the oddly intimate scene, the relaxation, Gazi’s armor, was undercut by one thing. Trey coughed.
She turned, and Trey looked around.
“…Maybe you would want to swim once the Illuminary stops moving? Or step into the rain? I think I have some soap in my bag of holding. I, uh—do Gazers have a strong sense of smell?”
She gave him a quizzical look until she realized that the two had a radius—even with admirers like Rasea Zecrew herself. Gazi had that two-month-armor smell, and Trey was doing his best to be polite…but even Goelv had retreated from his idol, trying to cover his nose-holes.
“Ah. Pass me that soap. I was in my armor.”
“Right. I know.”
“I couldn’t remove it.”
“No, I know that—”
“I keep clean regularly. Every day that we’re not on campaign. My armor as well.”
The Gazer insisted. Trey nodded as he passed her a bar of soap. The Gazer kept trying to explain what didn’t need explaining.
That was when Amerys moved. She stopped hovering in the air and flitted across the sky. Trey looked up, as did Elena, and one of the Earthers pointed up.
It was just a comment. Because that was what it looked like. They had seen Eldavin’s armor, which evoked another type of hero…but this was more primal than even seeing someone flying in magic armor.
This was just…Amerys. Arms spread, flying down, whipping across the sea and waves, turning, as if it were the easiest thing in the world, and flying down to the decks with a spray of water.
Even Trey, who didn’t like heights, felt an instinctive urge to do the same. Magic. Superpowers. If there was anything left to wonder at—
It was that.
Of course, instantly, someone had to ruin it.
“Superwoman doesn’t exist. It’s Supergirl.”
“She’s not a girl, idiot.”
“Well, then, Wonder Woman.”
“Wonder Woman has an invisible plane.”
“That’s even dumber. She can fly!”
“Only in the latest movies. Canonically—”
The best of them and the worst of them. Trey looked for the comic book expert as Amerys laughed. She came striding along the decks for three steps, then fell flat on her face.
It was a slow collapse. She lay on the ground as everyone stared at her and tried to inchworm forward. Then she floated up a bit and floated over, turning onto her side.
“My legs don’t work. Trey, Gazi—you stink.”
“Stop telling me that.”
The Gazer was already lathering up. Amerys chuckled, and Trey got a better sense of her now that she wasn’t a prisoner speaking to a possible enemy or conspirator. She was, well…casual.
On the meter of the Seven plus Orthenon, with Orthenon and Takhatres falling on the ‘prickly’ side with Gazi as perhaps more of a scary medium, Amerys was on the Mars and Flos side.
Unless you’d seen her fighting. That was a good way of describing it. Now that all had passed, she was like a stormcloud that had vented all its static. Relaxed…until the time came again to get intense.
She floated past Trey then came to a halt, slightly off the ground between the two. Her slightly glowing, electric eyes fixed on the two.
Trey and Gazi. And the Quarass and Rasea.
“I missed what it was like to fly. I almost broke down crying so many times in front of them—but that my captors were watching me every moment was why I didn’t. You know, they offered me freedom. I just had to sign in blood and great magic not to aid him.”
Gazi looked up.
“You held out well.”
Amerys smiled, a weary, relieved smile, and met Gazi’s central eye.
“One year. I said—one year. One year, and I’d break. I didn’t know if he’d make it there before now. He can get swept up in his wars. Trey Atwood, isn’t it? Not Troy Atlas.”
Trey tried to get up, but the Archmage lifted a hand.
“Rest. I owe you my freedom, Trey. You, Calac Crusland, you, Gazi, but we are bound by service and blood. The Quarass, too. I count my debts. Where is Calac Crusland?”
“Resting. The Quarass slipped something into his drink. He can mourn tomorrow.”
Amerys’ eyes shifted to the girl on deck.
“Ah, as cruel as ever. This one seems inclined to aid us, though?”
She looked at Gazi, and the half-Gazer shrugged.
“She broke you out.”
“And stole the Serkonian Lance. Not entirely altruistic. The Nagas will throw ten kinds of tantrums, and there will be repercussions. No doubt that was why she did it. Well, better a viper in hand than one we don’t see. Just so long as we have an antidote in the other hand.”
Amerys remarked lightly. She sighed.
“No politics. Maresar is dead.”
Gazi stopped washing herself. She looked up, and her slight smile vanished.
Amerys closed her eyes.
“Poor Venith. I always thought he would die first. Maresar was so clever; she ran from every fight she knew she’d lose. But if it was him or her…so goes the [Bandit Lord of Changing Sands]. One of twelve. Rasea Zecrew! Did you lift a glass?”
She turned suddenly, and a pair of boots stopped as they strode along the deck. Trey saw a pointed grin—and sharp teeth on the Drowned Woman’s anglerfish side. A light shone from Rasea’s eye on that side, and the Human one glittered.
“Of course. I’d never not, though I did it in the moment. One of twelve passes. But we’ll roll out another keg, and I’ll lift the first glass with you if you’ll drink with me.”
“Alcohol. After so long. I’ll drink even your worst—but after that, some proper wine. Just a bit. I haven’t eaten for two thirds of a year! Aside from fingers and Trey’s snacks. Now I’m starting to feel hungry.”
Amerys licked her lips. She turned, floating over, then tried to levitate herself upwards and stand. She drifted forwards, stumbled—then hovered. Trey watched as Amerys figured out how to ‘walk’, like a puppet held up by invisible strings.
There was something graceful and eerie about it. Like the Archmage of Lightning was dancing. Rasea Zecrew watched her and then looked at Gazi.
“Will you join us, Pathseeker?”
“Give me a minute.”
Gazi was washing herself briskly. Rasea Zecrew looked at Trey.
“And you. Do I know you? You’re the lad who broke Amerys out yourself. Do you know me?”
“You’re the [Pirate] who attacked Flos at Medain.”
The [Pirate Captain] laughed and swept off her hat to give him a bow.
“No hard feelings, eh!”
“All the hard feelings.”
Gazi muttered. Rasea eyed her but gave one of her fearless grins.
“You wouldn’t hold it against me on my ship as a guest, would you, Lady Pathseeker? Why, we’d have to duel, then! And I don’t stab my guests…much.”
“Want me to put on my armor and find out?”
Gazi bared her teeth. Some of the [Pirates] oohed, but Amerys lifted a hand as she turned.
“Gazi. Don’t provoke her, Captain Rasea. She’s protective of our [King]. You rescued me, so he might offer you a drink rather than go for his sword.”
Rasea shrugged. She was turning when Amerys remarked.
“Besides, if you and Gazi quarreled, I’d have to sink this ship. And I don’t like incinerating my rescuers.”
Oho. The [Pirates] looked at Amerys in silence as the Archmage turned her head. A little spark flashed from one eye as she winked. Rasea held still—then she burst out laughing and hugged Amerys.
The Archmage…squeaked slightly at the huge hug.
“I love you. Archmage, there’s a place on my vessel for you if you ever quit this King of Destruction business. Hey, open up the best barrel for the three fiercest women on the sea!”
“And what will you have?”
Someone drifted over. Rasea Zecrew turned as the Quarass shanked her from behind. She took the cup meant for Rasea, and the [Pirate Captain] was met with howls of laughter from her crew. She took her hat off ruefully.
“Quarass of Germina, you wound me. ‘Course, it’s four. I thought a mite-sized ruler might not drink?”
“One glass for an occasion like this is acceptable. I have been [Bandit Lord] before. Raise a glass. And I’m a [Drunkard] with over a hundred levels in the class cumulatively. You do not understand my thirst.”
The Quarass sighed. She peered into the barrel and frowned up at them.
“…Is this a barrel of Fissivilian scotch?”
Rasea winked at her.
“You don’t make kegs for [Pirates]. Or [Mages], as it turned out. We got a good haul. Alright, let’s get this right. First, to Maresar the [Bandit Lord]! Second, to breaking Amerys out of Wistram! Third, to raiding the Academy of [Mages]!”
Rasea scooped up a glass and fearlessly downed what had to be six shots in one go. Amerys took a shot-glass and lifted it before sipping. The Quarass hesitated with a similar portion to Rasea in hand and emptied all but a single shot before sighing and drinking it.
The [Pirates] cheered and went for drinks, and that was how Trey experienced their sailing away from Wistram. Without much in the way of regrets. Just relief.
It was done. If the same had passed and they had all failed and it had been for naught? He imagined that and shook his head.
“Freedom. I’ll fly to Reim as soon as we land. I could carry you with me, but we need passage for the Earthers. Nerrhavia’s Fallen is broken at Reim; we must make sure it stays that way. Liberate allies, like the Mad Ones…or the Monks of Sottheim.”
Amerys broke her vow of talking about the future shortly after the toast. She floated bites of sushi in front of her, nibbling at them—her stomach was shrunken from disuse, but she savored each bite—as Gazi did likewise. The Gazer blinked one amused eye at Amerys.
“Someone already got Sottheim.”
“The Empress of Tiqr. She is gathering more of our allies. She has Loquea Dree too, in a bid to retake her homeland.”
Amerys blinked. She tripped again as she lost concentration and went floating head-over-heels before she came to a stop in the air and turned.
“Wait, Tiqr fell? What else has happened while I’ve been out?”
Gazi thought about it as a mischievous grin came to her face.
“Do you remember the ruler of Jecrass? The current one, not the old [King].”
“Um…um…Raelt? Ordinary, fairly low-level [King], likes oranges or something? What, did Jecrass get wiped out? They leaked some of that to me.”
Amerys snapped her fingers. Gazi snorted.
“He challenged the King of Destruction when our lord was set to take Belchan’s capital—you won’t believe what happened next. We have a lot to tell you, Amerys.”
“And a lot to do. I want someone to trim my nails. I want to bathe. I…I need to walk through a forest and smell the air. And beat Nerrhavia into the ground.”
Amerys stretched. Trey watched her, worried, and had to say something.
“As long as you remember your promise.”
Gazi and Amerys looked at him, and Gazi blinked.
She didn’t know. Amerys looked at her and then at Trey with great amusement.
“You mean, Gazi didn’t put you up to it? I thought of any of the Seven, she might have had a hand in it. I made a promise to Trey, Gazi. He told me to my face he wouldn’t free me if I refused.”
Gazi’s eyes widened as she looked at Amerys. The Archmage whispered in her ear, and the Gazer swung around to stare at Trey. He smiled, and Amerys nodded at him.
“I will keep it, Trey. Not just because I am a [Mage] of my word—but because I have agreed, in part.”
Trey and Gazi chorused. Amerys rolled her eyes. She had a glass of wine now, and floated it around her with the sushi. She reached for something.
“I’m so glad I raided my rooms before I got out. Hmm…ah, here.”
She placed something on her nose—a pair of spectacles—and produced a little book with a flourish. She floated it in front of her, and Trey’s suspicions were confirmed. For all her idiosyncrasies and penchant towards war…Amerys was still somewhat scholarly. Somewhat…
“I have a list, here. Of things I was going to say to Flos when he woke. Let me just add that in…there.”
The quill she floated scribbled, and, with a flourish, Amerys closed the book, let it float into her bag of holding, and looked at Gazi and Trey’s expressions. She scowled.
“What? I write things down. Not everyone has an eidetic memory or Skill for that. Nor am I turning into Valeterisa, who can remember what frog burped twenty-three years ago in a pond, but can’t remember to put on her robes some days!”
Offended, she floated back down to sit cross-legged in front of Trey and Gazi. She met the young man’s eyes, serious.
“It has always seemed to me that Chandrar was the only continent to export [Slaves] in great number. In that sense—we provided a supply to a demand that might have cropped up elsewhere. And for that, other continents have mocked us. Because we trade in lives. Ransoming prisoners has fueled Flos’ victories in war, and my sympathies never went beyond that. I disliked Roshal as most of Wistram does; spending months in chains has changed my perspective. You have my word.”
Gazi exhaled slowly. She looked at Amerys, almost angrily.
“Years we argued. Queravia and I. Tottenval too, but Drevish wouldn’t commit, and the others…”
“Of course he wouldn’t. He needed Djinni for his grand designs, and he studied in Merreid. Well, Trey has convinced me. It will not be easy, you know. Nor simple.”
The [Bloodglass Mage] sat up. Elena had edged over, and the Quarass was calmly listening in with some of the [Pirates] on their conversation. Rasea wasn’t even trying to pretend, but making one of her crew take down their entire conversation, grinning all the while. He didn’t care. His attention was on Amerys.
“I know that. But you…will do your best?”
“I have said it. But we must be ready. After all—when he changes his mind, they will stand against him. And Roshal? Roshal has all of Wistram’s might—and they all fight like Ullsinoi when their backs are against a wall. They might be the greatest foe of his return, Nerrhavia’s Fallen be damned. But once we gather, Gazi, I, Orthenon, Takhatres, Mars, and…Drevish…no. He won’t be joining us, will he?”
Amerys trailed off. Gazi hesitated. She looked at Amerys, and her features changed as she realized the last thing that Amerys didn’t know. She closed her eyes a second.
“Second-greatest, Amerys. There is one last thing you need to know. Come. Let us go for a walk. I must tell you how he died. And who did it.”
Amerys looked at Gazi. The Archmage stopped smiling. She rose.
“They’re still alive?”
The Gazer lifted her arm, and Amerys leaned against her. The Archmage looked at the Gazer, and, leaning on her for support, the two went for a walk. They traveled off the decks of the Illuminary and began to walk across the air and dark sea, fearless of what might lie below.
“Now there is a magic I’d pay for. An Archmage unchained.”
Rasea Zecrew followed them with her eyes, and Trey couldn’t help but nod. He looked at Elena. The young woman came to sit next to him. She looked at Trey, the scar on his neck, the Quarass—the freed Archmage and Gazi.
She didn’t say anything for a while, just sat. She asked him one question.
“Trey. Was it worth it?”
He looked after Amerys and sighed. But Trey didn’t hesitate.
Was it worth it?
Not Amerys’ breakout, but the whole of it. After the battle was over, and the army of Nerrhavia’s Fallen surrendered, at last, the King of Destruction came out of his palace.
He had been there throughout the battle, save for the one time he had emerged to throw the javelin. Not in fear or expectation of the end, as it turned out. He had known about the Quarass’ troops.
Rather, he had not shown himself because he’d been…hiding.
Hiding in shame.
He was still bandaged from head to foot, burned beyond healing. He should not have been on his feet, but he walked nonetheless, surrounded by [Healers] and bodyguards.
To see Maresar.
Venith knelt in front of her. He had folded her arms, but then retreated to sit two dozen paces away. Because he had to.
Her body was partly charred from fire, and the arrow had done terrible damage where it struck her on the side. The [Bandit Lord] looked like she was resting bitterly, but almost peacefully.
Venith Crusland sat away from her, staring at her. When he looked at the King of Destruction, two cores of broken metal seemed to pierce outwards—not just at Flos, but everything.
He sat in a cone fifteen feet wide of…destruction. The ground was torn up, the stones cracked. Everyone walked wide of him.
Wrath. It had snapped arrows, torn flesh, and it continued. An aura unchained.
Flos Reimarch said nothing. He just knelt too, his bandages bleeding red.
How many more? How much longer, and for what?
Venith didn’t say it out loud. Nor did the young woman, weeping, her wounds bandaged. Teresa Atwood looked at Maresar and saw only her, the one casualty in this war.
Nawalishifra shouldn’t have been alive, but she was. She wandered among a charnel house of the dead.
Burnt corpses. The Quarass of Germina had struck terror into Nerrhavia’s Fallen at the end of the battle, with one of the many ways she knew how. Fire. Fire and ash.
It made it less bloody. Almost less gruesome because she found only ash; Stitch-folk had burnt away, cloth and all.
Nawal was sick. Sick at heart. Sick with guilt. Lady Maresar, a living legend, was dead. Her husband had sacrificed a blade to free Nawal of her debts.
Even when I tried to die, I couldn’t make amends. Nawal did not know what would happen next. She had seen the King of Destruction come down from his palace, but he had no eyes for her. She had been forgiven by Venith.
She was Nawal…
Just Nawalishifra. No longer of Clan Tannousin.
It was not that Venith had the power to take away her ties of blood and home. He did not have the class or authority over her.
He had simply told her what she’d known, deep down. The day they had abandoned her, let her cast herself on his wrath…
She was no longer Nawalishifra Tannousin. Now, she was Nawal.
Freedom was a terrible thing. She didn’t have anything left. No pride, no belief in herself. Only her hammer to offer, and she had sullied the thing lying in the blood. Nawal had cast it down, and she would never pick it up again. Not after what she’d done.
The [Smith] looked around and saw at least one group of people were happy, even exuberant. Reim’s people were exhausted, mourning Maresar, but hard at work.
Stripping Nerrhavia’s Grand Army. [Soldiers] by the thousand were removing their gear, placing it down, filing past the warriors to stand or eat what was given to them. Silk, Cotton…the Hemp-caste looked darkly pleased as the Silk-warriors protested and were offered a choice to strip or be stripped.
They outnumbered Reim’s forces, still. But the fight was out of them. Not just because they had lost their command—but because of them.
Germina’s people. The [Assassins] and warriors of Ger were surrounding a figure, two figures, and cheering them.
“The Quarass lives! The Quarass triumphant!”
“Ger shelters her! She shelters us!”
Khalid, the Quarass’ [Champion], and Vaitsha, her [Highborn], transformed by poison into someone whose very touch was deadly, were surrounded by Germina’s people, who were cheering some great victory the Quarass had apparently won.
No one got near Vaitsha, but Khalid, who had posed as the Quarass, had led them into battle.
A great victory.
It was. Nawal was no military mind, but she saw it. Nerrhavia’s Hordes had brought their best weaponry to Reim. Enchanted weapons, potions, scrolls—even what some of Reim’s warriors were calling a ‘hwacha’, a mighty weapon of war.
Now, all of it was Reim’s, and they had truly captured the armory to forge the King of Destruction’s armies anew.
Will I make blades for him? More blades? Am I needed? Where do I go?
Nawal had no answer. Only the sense of being alive when she felt she should have died.
She wanted to live. That was what the [Smith] realized. She looked around at the bodies littering the ground. The broken walls of the city. Exhausted faces. The [Smith] felt tears running down her bloody cheeks.
She was alive. Nawal sank to her knees.
Alive. Dishonored, class lost, clan gone. She closed her eyes.
“I picked up my hammer and forged the blade of my end. I looked into my heart and saw it reap a hundred lives. I made a blade as rare as Naq-Alrama steel, and I have made the Jewel-Metal of Zeikhal. I have forged the swords that command that highest price in the world.”
She plucked her veil from her face and let the dirty piece of fabric fall.
“It was not enough. I need something more. There has to be something more than that. Than blood and filth. Something more than a sword.”
The [Peerless Magic Smith] had turned into a [Fallen Smith].
Now she was simply a…[Forgiven Magic Smith]. She looked back towards Venith, Reim, and then at the battlefield and what lay beyond it. So many dead bodies.
A sword would only have added to that carnage. A weight in death. That was no legacy. Even Naq-Alrama blades broke.
“All I did was give another weapon to this slaughter. This meaningless…a woman died. A brave woman. Tens of thousands of men and women died in fire and agony for a war, and I forged a blade out of their suffering and death.”
Nawalishifra wiped at her face and stared at the blood and tears there. She raised her head.
“Until I find something better. Until I find a meaning or metal worth putting an edge towards, for strife or something that matters more…I, Nawalishifra of Chandrar, will forge no more blades. There must be something more to my class than this.”
She lowered her head to the ground for a while. Then she rose. To eat and survive. And find a reason why she had lived.
[Vow of the Bladeless Smith declared.]
Nawal lived. They buried Maresar. And time rolled on, as word spread.
Time was a funny thing. So many things were happening so fast that they overlapped, or seemed to happen all at once.
For instance, Grand Magus Eldavin’s dramatic entry into the Ailendamus conflict with the Dawn Concordat seemed to come moments before news that Rasea Zecrew, Gazi Pathseeker, the Quarass of Ger, and the Golems led by Cognita had sacked the Academy of [Mages] and liberated Amerys.
Which was because it had been within four days of the events happening. Which was bad news for Ailendamus, because Tyrion Veltras had made landfall on Terandria two days before Eldavin’s announcement.
Also? Concurrent-ish with the Wistram drama—which was also highly inaccurate, by the way, because it missed a lot of the actual details going on—rumor had the Horns of Hammerad all appearing in the news for one reason or the other, although obviously they were far less important.
Save for the fact that Nerrhavia’s Fallen had moved an entire Grand Army just for one of their number.
Oh—and if you were counting timelines, this was all set against the backdrop of the Meeting of Tribes, which was ongoing, had been ongoing, and was now clashing with Drake armies.
Why did this matter? It didn’t. Not at all.
“And more than you can know. This isn’t random; someone was watching Eldavin for when he left to make their move. The same with Eldavin declaring war on Ailendamus merely two days after House Veltras established a beachhead.”
Niers Astoragon was someone who made timelines. The [Strategist] was plotting out dates and events and swatting at falling debris landing around him. He eventually looked up and cursed.
“Would you stop eating that? Or learn to chew with your mouth closed!”
His audience looked at each other, and all of them checked their snacks of rather crumbly sevi-crumbs. A Gnoll favorite that didn’t have anything to do with meat; it was a sweet flatbread made even more sweet and mixed into a bar with fruits and honey, a delightful snack.
It also meant that crumbs kept falling on Niers, and some were half as large as his head. Bird nibbled his; he was the messiest eater since mandibles did not make crumbly food less messy.
“Tyrion Veltras and Eldavin know each other. Or they’re after something. But what? Neither one’s an idiot from what I’ve observed.”
Numbtongue raised his brows.
“Tyrion Veltras isn’t an idiot?”
Niers snorted and pointed a finger at him.
“I like you, Numbtongue. Keep it up, and you’ll earn your [Sarcasm Bard] class. But let’s be honest. Yes, the man’s like a stubborn stone welded to a bull’s head, but he’s one of the world’s most competent [Battle Lords].”
The Hobgoblin blinked slightly uneasily at Niers. That was the thing about the Fraerling. From anyone else, it was a joke. From Niers?
Well, that was why it was so funny. The Fraerling glanced up and kept writing. It looked less like a series of lines…like a timeline…and more like a strange spiderweb of connected lines.
He saw the lines. No one else did, but they watched.
Rather like an audience watching something odd or marvelous. Like a blue rabbit that did backflips and cast Tier 2 spells, but more interesting.
“Don’t you all have anything better to do? This cannot be interesting.”
The Titan of Baleros looked up after a minute of writing. His audience glanced at each other.
They were riding along on a wagon as the Fraerling occupied a pedestal to let him see and be seen and not be squashed. Not that this was a wagon used for supplies anymore.
A Tribe was on the move. Multiple tribes, in fact. Not just the Lomost Tribe, or the other Gnoll tribes who’d joined them. Day by day, they were increasing in number.
Gnoll tribes versus Drake armies. Or, to be more accurate, Gnoll tribes fleeing Drake armies who were on the offensive. They were vulnerable, especially given that the highest-leveled Gnolls in most tribes were at the Meeting of Tribes.
Disastrous, another time. This would mean war. Since it already looked like it thanks to the revelations coming out of the Meeting of Tribes—the Drakes had jump-started their side of things.
And they would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Fraerling. Also, the Goblins.
The Ghostly Hand tribe was on the march too, and, for the first time in most people’s living memory, Goblins and Gnolls were marching under the same banner.
Which was Niers’. He kept checking his [Message] scroll. Not very high-quality. It was only something a Gold-rank adventurer might buy. Which meant you could still intercept [Messages] and whatnot, but it was the best artifact he could find.
He was writing to his company in code. Fierre peeked over Niers’ shoulder and got nothing.
Not even a sentence or two. She stared for a good half minute at the strange, stick-like characters before giving up. Even if she could read one of Drath’s tongues, the Titan was sure she wouldn’t be able to crack the interior code.
Things were not well at home, either. But there it was. They knew Niers was alive. Mostly because they were looking for him, but word was spreading. Niers wasn’t in hiding. Soon, little Rock Crabs hiding in their shells would know the Titan was here.
The Fraerling put down the scroll he’d been laboriously writing large upon; no one made Fraerling-sized equipment anywhere in Izril. He looked back at his events-list and swore.
“Bird! I will shoot you!”
He went for his crossbow, and a tiny bolt buried itself in Bird’s left upper arm. The [Hunter] looked at the tiny arrow.
“You don’t have teeth, Bird.”
“Then can I not have a toothpick? This is very rude, Octavia. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Bird carefully picked up the tiny bolt and tried to scrape some food off the side of his mandibles. Octavia Cotton looked at Numbtongue, then at Niers, who was swearing and trying to erase the stylized bird that Bird had drawn by connecting events.
There they were. The band of adventurers from Erin’s inn. Ulvama was peeking at Niers while pretending to sleep on a bed she’d made out of supplies. Numbtongue sat with Badarrow as Snapjaw leaned against the [Sniper].
Icecube waddled after the wagon, sighing, but perking up each time Gothica tossed him a scrap of meat. Octavia was mixing up some of Ulvama’s magical paints, and Captain Gna kept peeking at them as she rode next to a group of marching Antinium.
Salkis would have joined the group in the cart around Niers, but there was no room. So she rode by as Rasktooth and Infinitypear ate…pears.
The same as always. But more tight-knit. Niers didn’t have to look around to see more…familiar interactions.
The Antinium had always been Antinium and the same species, most from the same Hive, but now they looked animated.
As if someone had given sentience to Golems. An odd parallel, but it was true. Instead of marching along stolidly without a word, the Antinium…fidgeted. They had oddities.
Like, Grass Shell would now stop for a second, squat down awkwardly, then hurry off after the others. He’d trundle off to the side and come back with a flower or interesting piece of grass and add it to his shell. It was colorful now and had elements of plant matter beyond grass, despite the [Shaman]’s name.
What was interesting was that the clippings and flowers didn’t look like they were dying. Even days after being picked.
In the same vein, Infinitypear and Rasktooth were a duo, and the Cave Goblin and [Adventurer] Antinium even slept next to each other, though one slept sitting up and the other rolled into a blanket with a dagger in one claw as he snoozed.
Perhaps the most notable change, though, was Pivr and Xeu. The solitary Prognugators, aloof and unhelpful when they did speak, were different.
Pivr most of all. He scuttled next to the two Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, talking, as one of them, Normen, usually, would tip his hat and dispense sage advice.
Or what Pivr took as sage advice. Alcaz and Normen, the two Brothers who had volunteered to be the last men to carry their perceived dues to Erin—they didn’t look like men walking to their deaths anymore.
As for Xeu, she was still hard to spot. But she followed someone around who belonged to a group of his own.
Soldiers and warriors. Even Salkis would head over and talk with some respect, and she was the person who had opened up least. A few Soldiers and the Redfang Hob, Dirtmouth, were included in this group—as well as Captain Gna.
The heart of it was The Crimson Soldier, for whom Xeu had developed something of an obsession. She would quietly follow him, moving left and right, always watching with interest.
Perhaps because…he always knew where she was. The Crimson Soldier could see or sense Xeu, or his instincts were just honed from literal years of war. It even commanded Gna’s respect. Niers thought the [Goblinfriend Bug-Captain]—what a class—was beginning to develop the abilities of officers of her rank.
A sense for the experience, aptitude, or simply career of a [Soldier]. Niers, of course, had known The Crimson Soldier was no ordinary Antinium from the start.
However, now The Crimson Soldier—and you had to use the ‘The’, just like Touma the Great was an entire name—showed it. He was a crimson red, obviously, like blood or a thousand sunsets he had never seen. The blood of other species, mind you. His was green.
If Gna entered into the weird, exceptionally rare line of classes like [Swarm Lord], he was going to laugh until he threw up.
Mind you, that’s what Niers wanted to see. There were classes or variations or just tricks on display with this group he had never seen.
Ulvama, by contrast, the [Shaman of the Old Ways], was as boring as you got. Her memories were an interesting trick, but that was bog-standard Goblin. For anyone who knew Goblin classes.
Numbtongue’s lightning song and his guitar? More interesting.
Fierre the Vampire and Gothica the [Goth]? A class that had never existed as far as Niers knew until recently, yet was not green?
Fascinating beyond belief. Niers wanted to stay here and just see what happened to this chaotic lot. What class would Badarrow get when he advanced past [Mountainrange Sniper]? Niers wanted to know, and he would bet the answer would surprise him.
But he had a job to do. And the friends of the inn…the Fellowship of the Inn? No, that sounded stupid. Their growing sense of camaraderie forged in battle wasn’t all that had changed.
They were the center of attention for Gnolls and Goblins marching around them. A tiny group—followed by the Ghostly Hand tribe, and amidst and following Lomost and other Gnolls who’d joined up after their rescue.
Thousands so far, and most of them non-combatants. The highest-leveled fighters were actually the…group of mixed species around the wagon. Which was fine; he had several Level 30+ warriors and [Mages], and besides, these were Gnoll noncombatants.
Every second Gnoll marching or riding along the ground had a bow or sling. Even children could hurl a stone hard enough to crack your forehead.
Not that Niers placed them anywhere near where a sneak attack might occur, if anyone could sneak up on him. But it was the kind of trick that made their perceived threat-count double or triple in an enemy [Strategist]’s [Threat Analysis] Skill if they just went by unit.
That was the kind of mind-game the Fraerling employed. You had to know how the Skill worked, know how to trick it…Niers glanced up as a Drake [Lady] peered around.
“They’re still watching us. Do they get bored?”
It was like an exact replica of his comment. The Goblins, Antinium, Gnoll, Drake, Stitch-girl, and Humans stared at him like some strange relic because he was Niers.
The Gnolls and even Goblins stared at each other and the group riding along like the oddest carnival in the world.
Little Gnoll cubs would race over, sniffing at the strange group, then be called back. Which was a good sign; the adults were losing their wariness of the Antinium and Goblins.
The first few days, they’d refused to move out of their group and had their paws near their weapons. Now? They weren’t comfortable, but after four days of not being stabbed by Goblins in their sleep?
The trick was exposure. Exposure to the Antinium and Goblins made them less of a threat.
It also helped that Bird was there. There was nothing quite like seeing Bird dueting his silly songs with Numbtongue reluctantly playing backup to jar the image of dread Goblins and the Black Tide out of your head.
“Do something interesting, then, Salkis. Juggle knives or something. Anyone?”
“We’re the Fellowship of the Inn, Lord Astoragon, not travelling [Performers]!”
Fierre remarked. Niers scowled.
“Stop calling yourselves that. Who came up with it, anyways?”
Numbtongue raised his hand. Niers rolled his eyes.
“And what are you basing that on? You know ‘Fellowship’ implies you’re all male?”
“Stories I’ve heard. Sounds good.”
The [Bard] was completely unruffled. Niers grumbled.
“It must be a really stupid story, because I’ve never heard of it. Who told you that? Goblins? In which case, I take it back or something.”
“No. Miss Erin told us. You are rude to her. Apologize.”
Bird poked Niers happily in the back. The Fraerling stumbled, raised his crossbow, and Bird drew his hand back quickly.
There they were. Their objective was questionably absent, though Niers had a funny idea he might know what she was calling herself—if not exactly where she was. He glanced at the [Message] scroll.
Then he looked up and inhaled. Numbtongue kept glancing at little Gnoll children with brown, black, red, and blonde fur watching him. He played a little riff on the guitar, and his claws flashed with sparks. One struck Snapjaw’s knee, and she jumped, so Badarrow poked Numbtongue and got a swat in return.
An army on the go, or a people who needed a hand after so many scaly claws had done them an injustice. A Titan on the wrong continent…thousands of moving furry people. Goblins chattering and laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Even Shaik, the Chieftain, riding on a giant Shield Spider, looked in good humor. The only other outstanding members of the tribe were the two white Gnolls. A little girl riding in the center of an odd formation of Gnolls on a wagon next to an older male Gnoll, scratching at his neck uneasily now and then.
And the entire time, the people looked at Niers or the strange circumstances in which they found themselves, amazed. Amazed that he was so calm.
As if he hadn’t been here before. As if the stories of him didn’t tell you that. The Antinium? These Goblins? Never. But Niers remembered the first time it had gone like this.
Slightly miffed, riding along while laughing Lizardfolk [Hydra Riders] dared him to see if he could walk on the practically microscopic lily pads and scum floating in the marshes and Foliana tried eating dragonflies.
Spoilers: he could not, and dragonflies could be poisonous. Then two children came running up.
“Lord Astoragon! Lord Astoragon, I think it’s working! How do I look? Have I changed my class?”
“I—I think I’m getting the hang of it too. Should I keep going, sir? Lord Niers?”
The [Grandmaster Strategist] looked over at the children. Slightly bigger children, but the two City Runners were still young.
Garia Strongheart was sweating and grinning. Fals was just sweating. Niers cheerfully raised his quill and spoke.
“No consolidations yet! Keep at it! I told you—I’m not an expert, Garia. But there’s a reason you practice tricks. Give it another thousand and see where you get.”
Garia nodded, rubbing her hands. But she obediently trotted back to the slightly-amused group of [Shamans], Gnolls armed with rechargeable wands of [Light Arrow], and children. She braced herself, took a breath—and they began to throw mud, fire off arrows, and cast other spells.
She did not dodge. That was another type of training. Instead, Garia did her darndest to deflect each missile coming her way with only her hands, twisting her torso or leaning slightly to the right or left.
Close-quarters deflection and training. Keep it up, and she might learn a Skill.
Of course, the net result was that Garia was soon covered in mud and bruises, but she had the kind of personality that suited her class. Like a [Farmer]’s daughter…she didn’t go insane from repeating her training.
Fals, on the other hand, looked maudlin as Niers told him to do another lap of the army. It might have had something to do with the literal chains and weights tied around his ankles.
“It seems cruel.”
“You mean hilarious.”
Salkis corrected Octavia as the [Alchemist] watched Fals running around the laughing or cheering Gnolls. Niers just shrugged.
“The boy wants to level up and gain a real advanced class. That’s one of the ways to do it.”
Fierre looked at Niers and raised her brows as she adjusted her big hat; she was already beginning to tan despite her layers.
“What if he breaks a leg? It takes like…weeks to heal a broken leg without potions, and you have to be careful of infections if you do use them.”
Niers carefully trimmed his quill with his enchanted sword. Everyone else turned to eye Fierre; she had guessed how long it would take, and she was still off.
“If he breaks a leg, he’d be halfway towards going through what that other City Runner survived. Fals is careful, a classic Runner’s Guild City Runner. He takes few risks, he’s practical, fairly well-liked from how Garia talks about him, and he will never break Level 30 before he’s actually 30 at the rate he’s going. Breaking a leg would help him. So would pushing himself. Running fifty laps with weights on his ankles isn’t half as hard as dodging [Assassins]. If he can’t do even that, he should give up on wanting levels. Which is respectable, but you can’t have both.”
Niers looked up at the silence. Gothica spoke, turning from Icecube to smile at him.
“I’m being honest. People assume honesty is me being mean. Believe me, when I’m mean, I’ll do more than hurt someone’s feelings. And people assume rudeness is being straightforward.”
Niers snorted. He went back to writing and sighed.
“What you working on now?”
Ulvama looked curiously at Niers as he folded up the piece of paper twice his height; he’d been writing hard on it to make it legible. She kept speaking in bad grammar, though he knew she had proper diction.
“Something for Numbtongue. Here. I’d recommend you check out a library later and read these books.”
The [Bard] stopped riffing and took the piece of paper with raised brows.
He unfolded a list of titles on two columns. Niers smiled.
“Books. Stories and anthologies of songs. Don’t let me stop you from playing.”
“You told Garia to practice blocking magic, and you’re giving Numbtongue a list of songs? What about a weapon art? Can I have one? Know any for daggers?”
Salkis protested. Niers sighed.
“Does his class say ‘[Warrior]’ or ‘[Bard]’? You want a weapon art?”
Salkis shot up. Instantly, four hands did the same.
“No, me! I am great warrior!”
Rasktooth waved wildly. Snapjaw raised her hand and made Badarrow raise his hand for her.
“Lord Astoragon! Do you know any alchemical recipes?”
Octavia begged. Niers sighed.
It reminded him of class. He looked at Salkis.
“Alright. Take your daggers, form a cross across your chest. Think—stylized [Assassin].”
Salkis did it eagerly. Niers nodded as she adopted a straight-backed pose, like some warrior flashing their daggers before leaping at you—which was a bad idea since that gave you plenty of time to activate a Skill, but whatever—he nodded and smiled.
“Now, stab yourself through the chest, pray like heck you survive that, and spray the enemy with your own blood. Then you do a leap forwards and slash them. Works like a charm. Trust me, they never see it coming.”
Salkis wavered. She gave Niers a narrow-eyed stare, and he gave the Drake whose class he couldn’t read a calm one in reply. He didn’t have to read it.
He knew a killer when he looked her in the eyes. Niers turned and whistled for Rasktooth and Infinitypear.
“You two. You’re low-level enough that you can level. Go challenge two Gnolls to a match. No blood, no death. But I guarantee you’ll level if you do what I say.”
Rasktooth and Infinitypear looked at him curiously, as did the other [Warriors], as Snapjaw laughed at Salkis, and the Drake sulked. It was a real Skill, but you had to really commit to learning it. And invest in healing potions before you got the Skill.
“How we level?”
“Go challenge one of them. Goblins work too, but between you and me, I’d challenge average Gnolls over Hobs. And when you duel them—Infinitypear, put that gold you found with Rasktooth on the line. Rasktooth? Your necklace…or your dagger.”
The Goblin and Antinium looked at each other.
“But that’s Infinitypear’s only possession, Niers. And Rasktooth’s necklace…”
The Goblin protectively covered the tooth of a Raskghar, which he had taken when he’d won his freedom. Niers nodded, meeting Fierre’s gaze.
“That’s why it matters. That’s why they’ll fight like they mean it. And any Gnoll will want a bunch of gold or a Raskghar’s tooth. Sacrifice. Sacrifice and stakes. Remember that, people!”
Fierre shuddered as Niers used the S-word. His students looked at Niers and began to figure it out. Ulvama was leaning over to prompt the [Strategist] to say something to her, and Octavia was elbowing Badarrow, who wanted to know if there were any bow-themed weapon arts, which of course there were. Bird wanted another story about fantastic birds and where to shoot them.
It was convivial, and Chieftain Orni of the Lomost tribe was riding over to humbly ask Niers for something—perhaps guidance for her warriors. A few Gnoll children were trying to saunter like the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, and Niers Astoragon was turning back to his [Message] scroll to keep talking with Altestiel, Perorn, or one of the pests who had located him.
Then his head snapped up. His eyes narrowed, and the words left his lips.
“Ambush! Straight ahead and in the grass, there!”
He pointed and shouted, and everyone whirled as a patch of slightly tall grass moved, and a group of Gnolls surged to their feet. They were surprised, but already preparing to loose arrows from the bows they held.
Also, the second shout that came after Niers and the short struggle as a bounding little figure—a Lizardman?—leapt up and shouted.
“Look out! Look out, they’re going to—”
Right before a Gnoll tackled him and roared. The other warriors surged to their feet, twice betrayed, and nocked arrows.
Niers had actually predicted their attack, which was practically unheard of, even for someone with [Dangersense]; it told you that you were in danger, but it could be fooled until someone shed their cover Skills or activated a trap.
The Titan, though…he had about thirty seconds on an ambusher sometimes, a lifetime of time. For larger groups or an army in wait? He could sense them up to an hour away.
Even so—off-guard they might be, but they had lain in wait. Now, the Gnolls rose.
Gnolls. The Lomost Tribe’s guards hesitated as they saw groups of Gnolls rising in small pockets. Nearly forty in total; well-armed, wearing magical paint, and holding enchanted weapons.
[Warriors] of the Plain’s Eye tribe. Five groups of roughly eight, in different spots around the marching group.
Five groups stood; Niers pointed at the one closest on their left.
“[Covering Fire: Archers]!”
Over a hundred arrows shot towards the Gnolls, and they dove. Three went down, magical armor or not. The bow shots had been immediate, before the Gnolls even thought to fire.
The second group lifted their bows, and Niers roared.
Again, arrows shot towards them, but not hundreds; eight, one for each Gnoll. He heard a howl as they suffered their own attack, and a spectral arrow exploded in flames among their ranks.
The arrows snapped and exploded off a barrier in midair. Niers saw the Gnolls cursing, but he was turning. The wagon had exploded into chaos, and his pedestal rocked as Snapjaw surged to her feet—and knocked him off-balance. Niers cursed, falling, as Numbtongue leapt off the wagon, drawing his sword. Ulvama tried to scramble up and got a foot in the stomach as Gothica leapt off her.
Damn! The Titan had gotten three groups at speed; his Skills were as fast as him looking at them and focusing. Two more Gnolls had a bead on their target.
They loosed a volley of arrows each, and the crossfire homed in on their target.
The two white Gnolls.
The little Gnoll girl looked up, uncomprehending. She had barely heard the Titan’s shout, but the older Gnoll tried to cover her. So slow. Neither one was a warrior.
Neither one was a Doombringer. Ulvama’s paint had coated their fur white, and even that had taken some convincing. Niers rolled to his feet just in time to see sixteen arrows, three glowing with enchantments, two more with Skills, home in on them. He looked at the Gnolls—
And grinned as the Gnolls around them snapped up their shields.
A ring of shields rose, and a curious, patterned barrier flickered into life in the air. The arrows snapped or exploded against the combined shield-Skill as the Gnoll [Shieldguard], [Shielded Warriors], and even [Missileward Lineholder] blocked the ambush volleys.
It wasn’t his Skill. But it was his formation. The curious group of Gnolls had been marching in a strange circle-pattern around the two fake Doombringers, which they had kept day and night. They’d kept their shields mostly hidden, but even if the ambushers had seen them—they were just shields. Unless you could fly or toss them up, it wasn’t going to stop arrows unless you were right next to them. Right?
And that’s why you attacked. Howls of alarm and dismay were sounding around Niers as he got to his feet and shouted.
“Guard the Doombringers! Hold your [Cascade Shield] and don’t move for anything, or I’ll gut all of you! Numbtongue! Gna—kill those bastards. Leave me four and that one. [Mark Target]!”
He whirled and a Gnoll jerked as he lit up. The same Gnoll who was wrestling with a little Lizardman, beating him ineffectually with a staff.
“A Lizardman? Here on Izril? Keep that one alive too!”
Niers whirled and saw the first figure go storming across the ground. Numbtongue, his Dragonblood crystal sword drawn. He was clinging to Salkis’ saddle as she charged, knives out.
She didn’t try Niers’ Skill, but Gna, the Antinium, and the rest of the Fellowship of the Inn were charging too. As well as the Lomost tribe’s warriors. Ah. That was a mistake.
“[Hear Me]! Fall back! Gna—[Speed Raid]! [Rapid Advance]! You lot—get those Gnolls! [Assault Formation]! Archers—those Gnolls! Loose!”
It was a mess of orders from the Titan, but his Skills meant that each group heard him as he intended.
Gnoll [Warriors] slowed in confusion as the elite Doomslayers tried to break for it. Meanwhile, Numbtongue’s group sped up and hit the first Gnoll group.
A second group of Goblins looked up at Niers’ voice and charged with whooping cries at the Gnolls nearest them. Archers loosed on a third group, and Niers turned to personally command a group of Gnolls closing with the Doomslayers he thought they could take.
Simple reasoning, for a [Strategist]. The ordinary [Warriors] would get diced up by what looked like elite [Shamanic Warriors] with enchanted weapons. However, Hobs and enough numbers and his Skills and command would win fights.
No one was going to die except them. Niers Astoragon grinned as the Plain’s Eye hunters tried to run.
“Killing children? Even on Baleros we don’t do that.”
He could have captured them all. One of his Skills was [I Left the Carrion None of Their Due]. A skill for someone who was sick of bloodshed and death and didn’t want to slaughter a foe.
He could always use that Skill.
Niers watched as the Gnolls started dying, but he made sure some survived.
He had questions for them.
The Doomslayers of Plain’s Eye knew their task. They had never stopped to wonder if there was another way.
Until the Lizardman asked, and they looked at him with his horrified eyes. But they kept going. With wrath. Wrath and fear for doom.
What they were not prepared for was wrath in return. The Gnolls had all the anger for the nightmares of their people in their hearts.
The Goblin who charged at them with that crystal sword of blood exceeded that. His eyes flashed with red light, as if it were made manifest. When the Antinium with the feather tucked behind his top hat rose, he didn’t hesitate and put an arrow through the first skull.
They had found their quarry. The Doomslayers looked up, and some saw the giant pointing down at them.
Slaughter them. What did the Plain’s Eye hunters see in the mirror? Just Gnolls?
What the Goblins, Antinium, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, that fellowship saw were dead people. They tried to make it a reality.
A [Shaman] stood up and threw the first burning arc of lava into the air. The righteous anger of the Doomslayers clashed with the howl of anger from a Goblin—a monster—and, somehow, it lost.
So they fled and fell, or fought and died.
It was almost a relief. A Gnoll warrior whirled with two axes in his paws. He tore around him, slashing down an arc of lava, and an arrow buried itself in his shoulder, but the magic on his fur protected him. He was fighting, lashing out, forcing a red Antinium Soldier to sway back.
Red? He didn’t know what was happening. He was roaring for them to run, but the other warriors and hunters were being cut down before his eyes.
He was fighting his friend. A little Lizardman hit him with his staff, stabbed him with the sharp tip, fleeing. He had tried to stop them. Called them…
Merish raised his axe, and he could have cut Viri in half. He didn’t. He whirled, threw the axe, and the Hobgoblin with the sword parried it out of the air. He was—good. He whirled it, and another Gnoll went down.
“Retreat! Retreat to the walls!”
Merish was howling. The other Plain’s Eye Doomslayers were running. They didn’t know what he meant, but they understood.
It was over. Merish, though—he saw the Hobgoblin with the sword advancing, blood running along the blade, and the crimson Antinium—more coming. Goblins riding spiders, arrows raining down. So he roared.
“5th Wall stands! It stands—”
The little Lizardman looked back once as the Gnoll spun, lashing out around him. Another arrow buried itself in Merish’s arm, deliberately missing his vital spots. A Goblin [Sniper] calmly shot his other arm.
The Gnoll kept shouting as the Hobgoblin slowed. A voice was telling him not to kill Merish. He wavered.
He very much wanted to. Merish turned.
Nearly forty of Plain’s Eye hunters were whittled down in a moment. They were still shouting at him, but the Gnoll was looking around. Where were they? Cirille? Where were Paxhal’s warriors? Where was—
Here he died. Some part of him knew it and was relieved. It had just been delayed. The Hobgoblin with that blade stepped forwards, eyes glowing, until the Lizardman leapt forwards. His staff met the sword and caught the first slash. Viri stumbled as the blade cut through his staff.
“Merish, run! Run!”
He landed on the peg-leg, and his staff met the [Bard]’s sword in a flurry of blows that hacked away at his weapon.
Merish heard the voice, amid the dream of Demons. He looked up and saw Viri shouting at him. He turned, blinking.
It looked so far away, but the Gnolls were shouting at him. Merish looked back at the Hobgoblin and the webs that struck Viri.
The Gnoll began his final charge, but a voice roared in his ears. Loud, booming.
“Are you an idiot, warrior? Retreat! [Warriors Fall Back]!”
Something snapped him out of his rage. Merish turned and ran, and another arrow struck him from behind. But he—looked around as more Gnolls came charging past him?
Chieftain Shaik howled, and Niers spun around. A second wave of Gnolls streamed over a ridge that had managed to hide their swift approach.
“What? I’ve been ambushed? Me?”
The Titan saw a wave of Gnolls cut off the pursuing Goblins and the Lomost tribe’s warriors. They didn’t clash hard; most were on horseback or aided by some kind of speed Skill; they threw nets and other slowing spells.
Distraction. Numbtongue was pursuing the leader of the attackers, though. But someone had seen the [Bard]’s charge and high-level warriors. So…they’d come right at him. Niers saw a group charge straight at Numbtongue.
“I’ve been ambushed. Me.”
He repeated the words slowly. His eyes spun across the battlefield, and there that idiot was, greatsword in hand. A gemstone blade, sweeping forwards as Numbtongue pivoted. The Hobgoblin blinked—and Venaz’s charge carried the two blades into a clash that rang through the air like a crystal bell.
The Minotaur roared as Wil, Peki, and Merrik charged into the Fellowship of the Inn, shouting. Niers took one look at them and began swearing.
“You idiots! You Sariant Lamb-brained, toad-licking, four-fingered, bumbling, incompetent—”
He glanced towards the last Doomslayers. They were getting away. And meanwhile—
“Cover their retreat! With me! With me!”
Venaz met the Hobgoblin with the crystal sword in the first charge. He’d picked him out as some kind of leader. Goblins and Gnolls?
Wil had wanted to find out what was going on, but Venaz had seen them trying to kill the Gnolls and acted. He saw Goblins? He knew which side he was on.
A master-crafted blade. The Dragonblood sword was superior to even an ordinary enchanted blade. However—Venaz bore something made by just as great a master, and his was enchanted.
The Diamond Greatsword of Serept sang as it met the Dragonblood sword and threw Numbtongue back. Venaz whirled the blade, and the Hobgoblin barely survived the next strike. The Minotaur was throwing his weight behind each blow, and he was bigger and stronger than Numbtongue.
What made the [Bard] blink was how fast Venaz was.
[Haste]. The Minotaur blurred across the battlefield, leaving a faint afterimage with each motion. He lifted a blade and deflected an arrow.
“Venaz! Fall back, fall back!”
“No! Push on! Rout them or we’ll not get away!”
The Minotaur knew he was right. They had to beat back this first wave, then run for it. The tribe they were with, the Hekitr tribe, could hamper pursuers with their trapsetting experts, but they were at the mercy of outriders.
Besides…he locked eyes with a second Goblin who appeared, aiming a bow at him with a snarl.
They had [Snipers].
“Bows! Down the bows!”
The Gnolls in his ambush party showered the enemy archers, and they had to take cover. But that Goblin was putting a bead on Venaz. He drew back—
“Hah! Goblins and Antinium? This is a real fight! [Sundering Blow]!”
Honored Berr appeared with a laugh. He tossed up a hatchet—then threw it.
The hatchet whipped through the air and split Badarrow’s bow. It exploded with a curse, and the Hobgoblin lurched back. But not just that—Gothica, waving her parasol, screeched as it too exploded. Gna’s paw rang, and she cursed; it felt like she’d broken her fingers! She peeled off as Salkis raced past her.
The hatchet had taken out three weapons with one throw! Honored Berr looked up as the Bloodfeast Raider leapt from her saddle, daggers flashing at him.
He dug his foot into the ground and kicked a spray of dirt into her face. Then he headbutted her. Then the famous [Berserker] gave into one of his rages.
Gna ducked as Salkis went flying past her, then another of Lomost’s warriors. Venaz whirled his blade back and clashed again with Numbtongue as the Wild Wastes [Mercenaries] entered the fray.
[Berserkers], running into the Lomost tribe’s warriors and thrashing them, outnumbered or not. Venaz shouted.
“Peki! Where are you and Merrik? Get your short legs over and—”
He swore, backing up as the [Bard] slashed at him. He was good! He moved like a sword-expert suddenly, and Venaz found himself trading blows.
Not that he needed to order his fellow students.
A Frost Wyvern was diving, poised to ice the entire wave of attackers, when Snapjaw heard Niers shout.
She looked up. She hadn’t encountered a foe yet who had outmaneuvered her in the skies. But that was because she fought Drakes.
Peki snap-kicked Snapjaw out of her saddle, and the Hobgoblin went screaming over Icecube’s wing. Ulvama pointed desperately up at her to slow her fall, and Icecube tried to dive, snapping at the thing that had attacked it.
“[Anvil Kick]. [Rapid Fire Punches: Incendiary Fist]. This is stupid. Venaz is an idiot.”
Peki dropped, hit Icecube in the forehead, then flashed across the Frost Wyvern’s front. Her fists left a burning trail across his scales, and he dropped, disoriented, out of the sky. She dove as a Dwarf led a charge.
“[Unit: Stone Skin]! Take them down and fall back in order! Venaz, you clod, you’re in too deep!”
The Minotaur was dueling Numbtongue, and the Hobgoblin’s minute was running out fast. Merrik charged straight into Gna, who had recovered her blade, and she swung down, hit his stone-body Skill, and the [War Leader] took her down.
[Body of Stone]. Even stronger than his unit Skill. [Ram’s Charge] knocked Gna flat, and Merrik raised his hammer.
The quaking impact made everyone lurch, and the group of Gnolls advanced on Lomost’s warriors. Meanwhile, the Fellowship was going after Venaz and Merrik.
Rasktooth stabbed Merrik from the side as he brought his hammer up and nearly shattered Gna’s jaw. The Cave Goblin stared at his dagger as it failed to pierce Merrik’s armpit, and the Dwarf backhanded him. Infinitypear lashed at him with his spear, but the Dwarf with a body of stone nearly caved in his chest.
Bird’s arrow saved Infinitypear; Merrik swore as an arrow glanced off his brow.
“Archer! Archer! Peki, take him down! Wil!”
“On it. Fall back, will you? [Ram’s Charge]!”
The [Lord] was on foot, which was odd because he preferred a horse. But the reason for that was because—
A [Lord] rode into battle, and two more charged past him. For a second, Bird thought he was hallucinating because he saw triple. One was on horseback, but all three had the Diamond Shortsword of Serept, the aptly-named Threefold Mirrorblade.
The Skill caused another crash as the Wild Wastes tribe happily smashed into their opponents. It was looking like a slaughter—only Merrik didn’t see any blood.
The roaring Human [Berserker] from Terandria had his axe raised to kill a downed foe when one of the Gnolls from Berr’s group knocked him flat. He kicked a Gnoll down and disarmed another—they weren’t killing their people.
The same wasn’t clear about the Goblins or Niers’ students. Numbtongue’s Skill ran out, and Shorthilt’s expertise left him. Venaz whirled his sword and took a chunk out of his arm. He would have cut Numbtongue’s leg off, except he whirled and deflected a slash from Badarrow. The [Sniper] had dropped his bow and gone for his sword.
Two Wils ran into battle, one of them hesitating when he saw Gothica, and then backing up as the Goblin slashed wildly at him. Another swung his sword and cleaved through Normen’s blackjack, then slashed through Pivr’s side, scoring a line of green from the Prognugator’s flank.
Bird calmly took aim at Venaz. The Minotaur was closest to killing one of his friends. Pivr did not count. He drew back, looked up, and murmured.
Peki kicked him out of the wagon. Bird landed on the ground and flailed wildly as she took off for a decisive falling blow. Peki dove—and someone launched themselves up. The Garuda twisted, and the kick from the young Human woman missed her.
Peki landed. Garia twisted, raised her fists, and went for a punch. The [Martial Artist]-[Lieutenant] twisted, pushed the punch sideways, and turned the push into an elbow. Garia staggered and threw another punch. Just like Ryoka had shown her.
A classic, knock-you-flat punch with all the weight of [Greater Strength] behind it. Peki saw it coming, grabbed the arm, and threw Garia. She saw the Human girl’s eyes go wide and learned that Garia had never figured out how to break her fall.
Peki turned to Bird and then threw up an arm. Fierre’s kick sent her flying, but the Garuda caught herself in the air, landed, and charged back.
“Garia! Are you al—”
Fierre took a taloned kick to the chest and slammed into the wagon so hard she cracked the wood. She and Garia got up, and Peki whirled. It was the Antinium [Archer] who…
Bird rubbed at his back shell as he went to sit down next to Ulvama in time-out. The Garuda stared at him, then saw Garia charging. Fierre did a jump-kick. Peki stared at it and dodged as she threw a flurry of counter-punches that Garia took half of. She was in the thick of it, and Garia’s eyes went wide as she found herself losing. But Peki kept thinking it.
Hm? Something was a bit—
Honored Berr was thrashing the Drake with the knives and taking on the Antinium and Goblins in a whirlwind of punches, but one of the Wild Wastes Gnolls and Hekitr tribe were clashing with the majority of the Lomost Gnolls, backing up the strange group of irregulars. A howling Gnoll with a sword was charging another with a spear when the other raised his paw.
“Wait! Wait! Hekitr tribe?”
The sword-Gnoll slowed and nearly ran into the raised shield.
They stared at each other as the Gnolls, who hadn’t gone instantly for the kill unlike the ambushers, hesitated. One of the Wild Wastes Gnolls stopped punching faces in. The attackers and defenders looked at each other.
“…Why are we fighting?”
They stared at each other, and both sides lowered their weapons, save for the Human, who once again had to be tackled before he attacked everything in sight. The Goblins had already pulled back.
It was only the [Strategists] who were fighting…and the little voice that rang in both sides’ heads advised them to keep up the ruse. The Gnolls vaguely waved their weapons at each other.
“What is this about? I thought you lot were to the east.”
For a moment it seemed like the battle was continuing long enough to fool the fighters. It was a good lesson.
Merrik swung his hammer into a patch of shade surrounding the angry Goblin with the parasol, and felt like he was trying to hit her through water.
Since he could swing a hammer underwater, it sent her reeling back. He felt another punch to the back of the head and whirled. The Crimson Soldier backed up and watched Merrik with an unnerving—the Dwarf whirled his hammer around.
The same with Wil. One shouted.
While the other two held off his opponents so he could score a wound against a cursing Normen. Three of the same [Lord], working in unity.
They fought, back-to-back-to-back, using their Skills and the enchanted blades to hold off their opponents. Wil was proficient with a sword—
Venaz knew how to use his greatsword, and he was winning. Two Hobgoblins were flanking him, and the Minotaur blurred from one to the other, riposting one’s slash, and cutting deep across the other’s arm with his swing back.
The two Redfangs were losing. It was an unfamiliar experience, even with the artifact speeding him up. The Minotaur was grinning, eyes red with battle fever. Peki put Garia into an arm-lock and gave her a knee-strike straight to her chin.
The Fellowship was losing? Bird and Ulvama watched. The [Shaman]’s arms were folded, and Bird was inching a hand towards his bow.
The Titan of Baleros pointed at him. Bird frowned at Niers, his mandibles clicking together.
“What is the point of this?”
Badarrow and Numbtongue were losing. It was life-or-death, but the thing the Hobgoblins felt most in that moment?
The Minotaur had the biggest smile on his face. Eyes red with battle-rage, and he moved from cut to parry with ease, watching both sides.
That was not a [Blademaster]’s form, but a warrior’s. A [Fencer] could die protesting you weren’t allowed to attack from more than one side. This Minotaur expected it.
Badarrow tried to kick dirt in his face, and Numbtongue charged in low. Badarrow nearly got impaled, and Numbtongue ate a [Swift Kick]. The [Bard] rolled back.
Reiss was watching. So was Pyrite, but he didn’t volunteer. The thing was—Numbtongue looked at Badarrow and saw the exact same expression on his brother’s face.
Which was…embarrassment. They were losing? The two Hobs braced themselves as Venaz lifted his other hand up.
“[Break Their Morale]!”
An intimidation Skill. Both Hobs felt it wash over them. Badarrow scuffed at the ground. If Garen could see this…Venaz turned, eyes glowing, and both Hobs ran away. He blinked at their backs.
He was surprised by their flight. But then Venaz saw a shape flicker behind him, and his internal battle sense told him to turn. He whirled, the diamond greatsword raised and…stopped.
That was the only thing the Minotaur said. He looked across the somehow less chaotic battlefield at a figure who halted, four arms half-raised, curled into fists. An Antinium, who Venaz had longed to fight.
But this was no ordinary Antinium. Venaz could tell in a moment. For one thing…
The Crimson Soldier was red. For another?
The [War Strategist] locked eyes with the [Exemplar Warrior]. Was it the [Aura of Battle] he felt or something else? Venaz was a Minotaur of the House of Minos. He had fought, before going to Baleros, with veterans of their famous army.
What did you see in that battle-worn carapace? Those blank, insectoid eyes? Venaz saw what Niers saw. What the aura began to let other people see.
Ten thousand battlefields. Foes made of metal. Giant monsters in the deep. Bugs and giants. Crawling hordes.
[Assassins]. Traps. Dead Soldiers, dying like flies to a monster who stole their heads.
The Crimson Soldier remained. The Antinium watched Venaz, and the Minotaur’s victorious expression turned to one of wariness. He aimed his sword at the unarmed Antinium and saw The Crimson Soldier do something peculiar.
Veteran of battle. He raised one of his four hands and opened the stumpy digits. Put two together and…beckoned Venaz.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Venaz breathed. His eyes flickered around and he saw Berr happily pressing a foot down on Salkis’ head as he swatted away Touma the Great’s fists. He hesitated, looked at the imposing foe and the easy way out—
Then he holstered the greatsword on his back.
“Venaz, you idiot!”
Merrik roared, but the Minotaur was already charging in. The Crimson Soldier?
He smiled. Big warriors always did that.
Merrik was fighting an unusually skilled group of warriors. They couldn’t hurt him—but they were shielding each other. The hammer missed a screeching Goblin protected by…some kind of strange aura.
He turned, advancing on an Antinium with a strange symbol on its chest. Fruit? What was going on? Merrik felt like something was off.
Then he nearly tripped. He checked himself, pulling back as a slashing Antinium materialized, and Merrik swore, lifting a shield.
Xeu and Pivr scuttled around, and Xeu slashed—but failed to strike through Merrik’s armor. She seemed puzzled as Pivr leapt back.
“Back up! Back up!”
Gna was shouting. The Antinium, Goblins, and lone Gnoll moved back as Merrik saw their formation change. He narrowed his eyes, raised his hammer for a strike. Take out that [Captain].
Merrik’s charge was fast, unexpected, and had taken down foes in the thick of battle who didn’t think a Dwarf could move that fast.
It also failed because he nearly tripped again. Merrik swore and this time looked down. What was he—
A little loop of grass clung to one armored boot. He stared down at it.
Grass Shell was waving his staff and dancing about behind the others. It was working! It was working!
[Grow Grass]! A spell with absolutely zero utility…unless you had seen either Eldavin or Mrsha use it. He tried to shake his behind and waved all four arms around like he was at some kind of rave.
Ulvama stared at him. Was that Antinium copying her? She was highly offended. Merrik changed targets in a moment. But then he heard a Goblin whisper and saw the one dressed all in black with black lipstick and makeup point a claw at him—also painted black.
And the lights went out.
[Aura of Midnight]. Gothica cackled as she figured out a new trick.
“What the—I’m warded! I can’t see! Backup! Peki, Wil!”
The Dwarf swung around blindly as something enveloped him. But it shouldn’t! His helmet was supposed to be protected against hostile spells like this! He didn’t waste time trying to figure it out but tried to retreat—and nearly fell over another loop of grass.
And then someone was stabbing him and his [Body of Stone] deflected the blade—but not the little, biting insects that swarmed over him. Which was just…annoying. Merrik flailed around blindly.
One of Infinitypear’s stones bounced off his armor. Rasktooth ducked back as the Fellowship pelted Merrik, and the Dwarf stumbled left and right, swearing a blue streak.
And he wasn’t dead? The Dwarf slowed and looked around. Blind, he caught onto something faster than the others. A familiar…concealed presence.
“Is that you?”
Slowly, with a grin, he dropped his hammer and raised his arms. Gothica threw a rock into his face, and Merrik swore.
“Give them a hand.”
Ulvama stood as Peki ducked a punch from Fierre and gave the Vampire girl an uppercut. She cast a single spell.
A cloud of darkness rose as Peki whirled and dodged—but it streamed up, blocking the sunlight. The Garuda eyed Ulvama for a second, but turned.
“Hiyah! [Flash Punch]! [Half-Circle Reposition], [Leaping Fish Combo]—”
Garia came at Peki with a fast punch, stepping right around her, and throwing out a series of punches that mixed an upwards jab into the attack.
Peki shoved the first punch away, twisted, and her claw-hands blocked or deflected each blow. Garia stopped for a second in dismay and Peki’s [Incendiary Fist] lit her hair on fire.
The Garuda saw the Human stumble back, shouting. She was…tough. The other one was quick and strong but even less adept. She frowned around.
The Antinium with the bow wasn’t shooting at her, and Peki had been holding back every high-level Skill because he made her…nervous. She had a feeling he might be able to hit her.
She glanced at the cloud overhead. It missed. Not that it would have helped; she could fight blind, and she didn’t think the other two fistfighters could. She turned—
That was fast.
And something blurred past her back. Peki turned, and it leapt again. The Garuda threw an elbow backwards and hit Fierre in the face. She thought she heard something crunch—and felt a blow to her back. She flipped through the air—
That hurt! Peki landed, and the Vampire came at her. Overhand, claw slashing, uppercut, bite—
Peki used a Skill.
[Close Counter]! She timed it—then hit Fierre with a knockout punch that sent the Vampire girl reeling right…
Peki was looking for Garia when she saw the girl adjust her head and grin at her. Were those red pupils glowing? Peki frowned.
The [Martial Artist] launched herself forwards with a Skill and went for a kick. Peki dodged with ease, but the Vampire leapt—
“[Ground Dance: Taurus of the Desert].”
Peki’s attack was less like a combo of punches and more like a series of flowing moves, so fast Garia’s jaw dropped. And—unfortunately—each punch, kick, and blow was designed to hammer Fierre in the face, chest, stomach, legs, as the Garuda advanced in a savage series of attacks.
The Vampire girl reeled, bloody, dazed—and Peki whirled towards Garia—
And Fierre grabbed her arm.
Peki was astonished. The strange girl had definitely broken six ribs and her jaw. And Peki had torn some muscle, and she thought she’d dislocated that arm! But her grip!
“Got you. I got—whoa!”
Peki lifted her arm, and Fierre slammed into the ground as the Garuda used Fierre like a hammer and the earth like an anvil. Yet she didn’t let go. And Garia—
Peki turned and, one-armed, tried to block Garia’s punch. She felt her arm compress—then her ribs—then she was trying to fly, but that stupid girl was holding on—
Uh oh. Peki looked down just in time to see a girl with glowing red eyes and sharp teeth raise her fist. She and Garia hit Peki at the same time.
Venaz and The Crimson Soldier charged towards each other. The Minotaur was taller than the Soldier, heavier, and higher-leveled. His first punch threatened to shatter The Crimson Soldier’s armor.
But it stopped. The Antinium took the heavy punch on a crossguard block with two arms. The other two? Venaz blocked a fist and took one to the side.
Four arms. He grunted and threw a jab. The Crimson Soldier blocked it again. Venaz leaned backwards from another punch. Stay out of range—
The Antinium appeared under his guard. Venaz took a punch to his side and swore as he lashed out. That was a Skill!
He circled left and aimed a kick at the Antinium. The Antinium tried to grab the leg. Venaz backed up even further.
The Antinium charged. Two red mandibles snapped, and Venaz saw two fists rise. He raised one arm, and The Crimson Soldier spun. The arms on his left raised for a blow were a feint. The other two arms held low swung up with all his weight. He pivoted, and the uppercut made Venaz’s arm groan. The Minotaur swore.
This warrior knew how to throw a punch.
He didn’t realize it, but the other Antinium had stopped fighting. They were staring, at the Crimson Soldier. Venaz threw a flurry of jabs, using his longer arms to keep out of range. He saw the Antinium’s four arms rise and block.
Four arms. It looked like such a universal upgrade at first. Other species saw the Soldiers of the Antinium had four arms and felt threatened. It worked, too. Soldiers in the Antinium Wars were famous for overpowering their foes.
What was untrue was that it made them stronger. Antinium Soldiers had to control four arms compared to other species, who only had to manage two. And their feet. And what you saw if you really, truly knew them—something that even Erin Solstice couldn’t boast—was that they were…clumsy.
They tended to use their arms in sync for a movement, or they had to focus because they weren’t good at using their arms. Of course, even a new-born Soldier could throw a punch on both sides.
But it wasn’t using their body. For the first time, the other Free Antinium saw The Crimson Soldier raise his arms, and all four appendages moved independently of the other.
Two arms captured one of Venaz’s as he moved in, and another went to block Venaz’s right fist as he swung down with a roar to break free. The fourth hit Venaz in the side again, just below the ribs.
It hurt! But another fault of the Antinium was that they didn’t swing with their entire body; they were so compact they couldn’t put their full weight into a punch like other species. Venaz roared, and The Crimson Soldier reeled despite his guard, letting go of the arm. The Antinium stepped back as Venaz went for a straight punch to his mandibles to shatter his face.
And again, he pivoted. He turned, and all four arms moved. Two on his right going back while the other two went forwards.
Like a tree blowing in the wind, or how Peki or Garia punched. Redirecting his entire body into a punch.
“Oh. That’s how you’re supposed to do it.”
Bird murmured. He saw Venaz and The Crimson Soldier hit each other and the Minotaur’s face change as he took two hammers to the ribs and stomach. They staggered back, and Bird saw it.
Most Soldiers lived a year at the utmost. Even Workers lived longer. Most Soldiers fought well enough, but they had been engineered by Queens, who had only one template to work off of. Galuc the Builder—and he was not all Antinium of Rhir.
For the first time, Bird thought he understood how Galuc had fought. Not like some mindless, charging beetle, but constantly moving, swinging on both sides like a pendulum.
Venaz snarled. Was he losing? He couldn’t tell—that Antinium hit hard! His fists were more like spiked knuckles than flesh, and they tore Venaz’s skin and fur open. But the Minotaur ignored that.
I’m losing this way. He kept trying to circle and throw long punches, but the Antinium had four arms for his two and kept coming. So Venaz knocked back one arm and rushed him. He tackled The Crimson Soldier, taking a blow to the head.
But the Minotaur had seen the Antinium’s weakness. Their shell-backs. They had no spine. And what did a beetle or pillbug do when it was on its back? It was helpless.
The two went down, and Venaz raised a fist to beat the Antinium into th—
The world spun. The Antinium rolled off his rounded shell, and Venaz’s head slammed into the dirt. He looked up and saw the Antinium raising four arms. He began to hammer Venaz’s face and chest.
A Skill! A Skill to erase the problem that the Antinium himself had seen. He—
Venaz threw the Soldier off him with a roar. The Minotaur was bloody-faced but raging. Both warriors got up fast. They pushed themselves up—and The Crimson Soldier was charging Venaz at the same time as the warrior from the House of Minos charged him.
Most people standing up took the time to at least think. Before he was even up, The Crimson Soldier was running at his opponent. Fight or die.
He took a fist that shattered part of the carapace on his shoulder, and Venaz took two punches to the side. He lashed out and glanced off the Soldier’s back-shell—and ate two elbows in perfect harmony. The Minotaur looked down—and stepped back.
He was losing the infighting. Too compact. Too many punches! When he threw a haymaker in desperation, the Antinium captured it with two arms and tried to break his arm by bringing an elbow down.
The Antinium watching had never seen these tricks. A man with a hat, Alcaz, slowly took it off.
“I’ve never seen someone fight like that.”
The Brother of Serendipitous Meetings stared at the four-armed fighting style with the Antinium around him. Learning.
Venaz retreated as the Soldier came at him. He took a breath.
One blow, one death. His eyes, which had regained their usual color in shock—turned red.
“Uh oh. Stop him—”
The Fraerling looked up from his perch, but Venaz howled, and his last charge was a replica of how he had defeated a fellow Minotaur at the Games of Daquin. One blow, with all his weight behind it, aimed at the head.
The Crimson Soldier saw it coming and began to turn. Venaz saw he was shielding his face with two arms on his left so his trajectory changed to the shoulder.
Break the shoulder to pieces and cripple him for life! The Minotaur struck The Crimson Soldier like a sledgehammer and heard a gutteral voice
The Antinium spun with the Level 3 Skill. Spun, and Venaz’s fist missed the shoulder as The Crimson Soldier twisted, and two arms on his right came up to crack four of Venaz’s ribs. The Minotaur roared and stumbled backwards, hand on his sword. He couldn’t win this fight with his fists.
The Crimson Soldier’s duel with Venaz had stopped most of the fighting, which had already closed out, but Wil Kallinad and his two clones were still holding their own. The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings and Antinium had skirmished with him, but the [Lord] was frowning around the odd encounter when two Hobs ran at him.
Two Hobs versus three [Lords]. The three Wils moved in concert, spreading out to flank their foe. Which was a mistake, because the first Hob with the crystal blade clashed with the first two Wils—backed up as the second parried a swing—and both turned on the third Wil.
Wil #1 deflected Badarrow’s slash, and Numbtongue calmly ran him through the side. The other two Wils blanched as the Hobgoblins calmly ganged up on the [Lord]. Seeing it, they tried to close ranks.
The two Redfangs spread out, so both Wils were back-to-back. Badarrow and Numbtongue watched each other, and the Wils realized that their teamwork was almost as good as—
Badarrow shouted. He charged with a giant swing overhead as a feint as Numbtongue leapt forwards with a thrusting strike then backed off before he ran into the tip of Wil’s blade. Both Wils backed up and slammed into each other.
The Redfangs took the moment and Numbtongue tossed his sword. He tossed his sword, and Wil #2 parried it, looked up, and saw the guitar descend down on his head. It made for a fine mace.
“Don’t kill the last one, Badarrow!”
The Hobgoblin grunted as he heard the voice. He and Wil slashed at each other as the off-balance [Lord] tried to fend him off. Badarrow waited for his timing, slapped Wil’s sword down hard, then jumped forwards and booted him between the legs as hard as he could. The [Sniper] saw the [Lord] go white and keel over. He grunted, putting his sword down.
He didn’t like swords as much as bows. But that proved it. He still had it. The Minotaur was just good. The Hobgoblin put a foot on the fallen [Lord]’s chest as Numbtongue, chortling, claimed two magic gemstone swords. Now that was an investment. He almost touched the sword before Niers warned him to stop and sighed.
Three [Strategists] were down, and the last one had drawn his greatsword. Venaz saluted The Crimson Soldier grimly as the Antinium backed up. He began to blur with the [Haste] spell and then realized his friends were down.
Dead? No. And Berr and the Wild Wastes tribe hadn’t been fighting. Indeed…they hadn’t gone to the rescue of their valuable clients, but had instead been watching with huge grins.
Even in his battle-haze, Venaz could realize something was off, and the Minotaur was looking around when a familiar voice rang out. Peki, staring up at the sky as Garia and Fierre high-fived; Merrik, blinded and surrendered; Wil, probably in too much pain to hear properly with Badarrow standing on him; and Venaz all heard that familiar voice.
“Students! The simulation is over. Your test is complete. You will now wake up from the illusion spell and receive your final grade.”
The Titan of Baleros stood on his pedestal and looked around. Just to see their expressions. The laughing little giant who cackled at their incredulity in his battle where no one had died—just thought they might.
And people wondered why he had enemies. Ulvama and Bird glanced at each other, then Bird flicked Niers off his pedestal.
As soon as Niers had seen the ambush and realized who it was, he had located Berr and told him to stop fighting. The Gnoll had seen his kin with Goblins and hadn’t decided to go into a blood-crazed slaughter anyways.
That the Titan had let his four prized students fight with the Fellowship of the Inn was because he wanted them to level. And test each other. One could argue his four students had been outmatched from the start in terms of sheer numbers, but Niers had told the really dangerous combatants—and one slightly incompetant one, Fals—to hang back.
Bird, Ulvama, and, naturally, Apista, had all been forced to stay on the sidelines because of their sheer unadulterated killing prowess. The bee hadn’t been mentioned by name, but she knew she was too good for that fight.
As for the students? Well, all of them had still been outnumbered, but the ones who looked truly shamefaced were Wil and Peki. Venaz kept staring at The Crimson Soldier as the Antinium stood, the silent victor surrounded by awed Workers and Soldiers.
“Alright. Who here thinks they did the worst? Class? Let me give you a hint: it’s not who you expect! We’re excluding Venaz for the sheer idiocy of putting away a Relic-class sword to fist-fight an Antinium.”
His students looked at the beaming Professor, rubbing his hands together, strolling about on a little pedestal of wood. Talking as if they were back in class. Wil kept pinching himself just in case this was actually an illusion.
He was a terrible little man. His eyes twinkled, and his greying hair was less well-combed than usual; he hadn’t his flamboyant dress, more like something cobbled together as best as the [Sewer] in the Lomost tribe could do on short notice, and he looked thinner than last they had seen him.
But it was certainly Niers Astoragon, the Titan. A half-foot tall man who dominated every room when he wanted to be known, with a presence a hundred times his height. A twinkle of pure mischief in his faintly violet eyes.
“No one? Alright, let’s start with Peki, who did magnificently, taking down the lone aerial threat, sniping the [Archer]—and then giving way to [Martial Artist] pride and fighting two young women hand-to-hand when she should have been maneuvering around the battlefield. And then losing. Second place—again, we’re exempting Venaz—is Wil, who fancied himself a Gold-rank adventurer and put his real body at risk rather than sending his two copies up as expendables. Third?”
Wil shouted. The Titan stopped and turned to Wil.
“Is that you, Professor? How are you here?”
Merrik was rubbing healing potion on the bug bites, and he was covered in filth. Venaz had cracked his ribs and taken other wounds, but he was ignoring them and just staring around. Peki was rubbing her own arm and ribs, and was tilting her head back and forth. Wil felt—dumbfounded, which he had associated with Niers long ago.
But even so! This was something else. Niers beamed at him.
“It’s a long story, Wil. Let’s just say we both found our adventures, eh? Now…unless we’ve gotten those bastards who tried to kill the ‘Doombringers’, which I doubt, I’m afraid, we have only a few prisoners to interrogate and a lot of catching up to do. Students! Fall in.”
And they did. It was so instinctual that the students found themselves following Niers as Touma the Great carefully lifted the pedestal and brought him over to the prisoners.
The Hekitr tribe was clearly amazed, but the students had been trained to adapt to new events. Honored Berr seemed the most calm out of his company, who were watching the Goblins with visible distrust, but the Fellowship of the Inn were also fairly adaptive.
Some of them. Numbtongue was still peering at Peki, and he realized they were the [Strategists] he’d seen at sea! His jaw dropped.
“This is insane. Goblins? I can understand the Professor appearing with a Gnoll army and a high-level group of fighters. That’s just expected. But Goblins?”
Venaz stomped after Niers. Merrik raised his brows.
“What about Antinium?”
“Pah. He was near Liscor. He must have picked them up. Obvious.”
Peki’s head swung from Merrik to Venaz, and she began nodding as if it were. Wil was still stuck on…well, the bee holding a cigar. He’d noticed it buzzing around, and that was one thing, but he had the distinct impression the bee was actually smoking it.
“My eyes. I think I’m dreaming—or dead. I died on the 5th Wall, and it’s just been a bad dream for the both of us. Is that…the Titan of Swamps and Jungle? The Marsh-parter? The second of the Forgotten Wing Company? Named Adventurer?”
A little figure was lying down—well, sitting—looking haggard and distraught with a few of the Gnolls who’d tried to kill the decoys. He sat up as the Fraerling chuckled.
“Go on, don’t stop with my nicknames. How in the name of Elves did a Lizardman happen to be travelling with a Gnoll kill-squad? Did I hear…Rhir?”
Viri, the Lizardman [Longstick Jumper], Merish’s friend and one of the irregulars from 5th Wall, where he would always be, in part, looked up at the Titan of Baleros with tears in his eyes. He sat up and bowed.
“Lord Astoragon. It’s good to see someone from home. I’m Viri. Viri Taxshirul, from the Stone Gaze company? We were in Rhir. I came here to…to attend the Meeting of Tribes with my friend. My detachment was wiped out, so I was given leave for…am I dreaming?”
Niers Astoragon knelt, looking down at Viri. Someone had trained the little Lizardman; he didn’t blabber like his kin, but gave something of a direct report. The Titan nodded, frowning.
“I know Stone Gaze. Auspicious. Gorgon-led group, or Medusa? 5th Wall? Then you’re the ones who ran into the Death of Magic.”
“You knew about that?”
Viri glanced up, eyes wide. The Titan hadn’t recalled which groups were there, though he remembered the report. It was simple deduction. But he was also the Titan, so he lied.
“I did. Your detachment fought bravely, didn’t they? What was your commander’s name? Forgive me, I’ve forgotten. Gorgon or Medusa?”
“Uxel. He was a Gorgon. But we also had a Commander. Cirille of Manus. She died too. Merish was there. Did he…is he alive?”
Niers shifted to look for Shaik. She shrugged.
“Your Gnoll friend? The one with two axes? I think he got away, thanks to my students’ untimely attack.”
“Good. He’s not a bad Gnoll. But his tribe is crazy.”
Viri relaxed slightly. The other Gnolls from Plain’s Eye were glaring at him, but they dared not speak. They stared at Niers with sheer disbelief, as many people did when they met a Fraerling for the first time.
“They were going to kill a little girl! And that other Gnoll. All because they have white fur. I told them—I told them you could dye your scales in Baleros. What did it matter? But they call them Doombringers. Lord Astoragon, Merish isn’t a bad Gnoll. But he’s going crazy.”
Niers nodded. He looked around and gestured.
“Separate Viri from the others. He’s not to be chained. I want a word with you, Viri, and for you to tell me everything—from Rhir to how you got here. I saw you try to warn us, and I’m taking that on credit. Do you swear by Nagas you had no idea what you were doing and tried to stop your friend and the others once you knew what you were about?”
Viri gulped and raised a claw.
“By the Nagas and Stone Gaze, I do, Lord Titan. I kept trying to talk sense into Merish, but with all the others about telling him he had to kill them…please don’t kill him. Please.”
Niers held his stare for a moment, then nodded. As if he could strike down a Gnoll from afar just by willing it.
“Good. Then we’ll see if we can find out what this is about.”
He rose, turned back to his students, and looked at the two Chieftains of Gnoll and Goblin tribes.
“Chieftains, let’s strike camp. I think we have another Gnoll tribe nearby—I’m sensing a mass of Gnolls to the north. Can someone tell them we’re not holding you lot hostage before we have a third ambush? Students? Get healed, meet me in the command space in fifteen minutes. Everyone else? You’re free to attend if you’re important. Who’s the [Mercenary] over there who kicked the stuffing out of everyone?”
“That would be me, Titan of Baleros.”
A small, old Gnoll strode forwards with a huge grin. Niers looked at him as he straightened.
“Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
The Gnoll [Berserker] grinned wider with appreciation.
“Berr of Wild Wastes. But I must be Berr, to the Titan of Baleros, who is beyond honored in his lands.”
Niers smiled faintly. Ah, yes, it was coming to him, the proper address.
“In that case, I will be just Niers, and I’ll call you Berr—I think that’s appropriate. May I invite you to have something to eat with me? Thank you for keeping my idiotic students safe, and for pulling your punches.”
The [Barbarian] grinned as the other Wild Wastes Gnolls chuckled.
“Only a [Berserker] can tell when it is time for strife and time to avoid breaking teeth or bone. You are well said, Titan. I accept. Do you have good food?”
Niers waved one hand.
“I’ve got Goblins, Honored Berr. I’ve noticed that they tend to collect the stuff.”
“Goblins. Professor, I understand the rest of it. You don’t have to regale us with stories of your escape—though we’re sure to listen and hear it—but why Goblins?”
Half an hour later, with wounds patched and everyone sitting or standing in a broad tent and the Hekitr Chieftain joining Shaik and Orni, Venaz was still protesting the one objectionable detail in this unexpected reunion.
Badarrow rolled his eyes as Snapjaw sniffed and gobbled down pumpkin tarts. She was still put out about being kicked out of the saddle, and a whining Icecube was being fed half a cow after his upsetting run in with Peki.
The Minotaur glanced at the [Sniper] and stared at the other Goblins. Merrik was eying the Antinium, and Peki and Bird kept staring at each other. Neither one had blinked, and it didn’t seem to occur to Peki that Bird was never going to blink since he had no eyelids.
Wil? Wil just focused on Niers, because he was positive the Titan was the center of all this. Niers clicked his tongue impatiently.
“Venaz, you are the most brilliant idiot I’ve had the misfortune to teach.”
“That’s a virtue of my people, Professor.”
“No, it is not. I’ve taught Minotaurs before, and you are the most egotistically stubborn one yet. You had the brilliance to actually take me off-guard, and the stupidity to try and fist-fight the most veteran Antinium Soldier in existence. We are facing an inter-species war across Izril, my company is under attack, and there is a sapient bee who smokes Dreamleaf over there, and you’re focused on Goblins.”
Niers pointed, and everyone looked at Apista, who was huffing a cigar while Rasktooth waited for a turn. Venaz blinked, slightly taken aback. Wil sat up.
“He actually ambushed you, Professor?”
Niers rolled his eyes and raked a hand through his hair.
“Yes, he did. I was focused on the other ambush, and it was commendably fast. Sneaking up out of my radius and then a fast charge in. Well done. Don’t let it get to your head.”
“But we ambushed you? You, professor?”
A delighted smile spread across Merrik’s face. The Titan scowled as Peki’s face brightened up, and Wil exchanged a significant look with Venaz.
“Yes, you ambushed me. Celebrating that is only acceptable when we’re at the academy. You’re leveling up. You are…leveling up. How’s Yerranola?”
The Titan quelled their excitement with a single question. Wil looked at the Fraerling, who had given him the start to the adventure.
“She’s better, Professor. We found something like a miracle medicine that stops her pain. I want to take a sample to Baleros but…she’s better. But she paid for my mistake.”
Niers Astoragon stopped pacing, and gave Wil a genuine look of sympathy.
“Now there’s a proper commander’s way of thinking. Yes, absolutely. You led the campaign, a friend paid the price. Remember that. Remember that, and never let it distract you or drag you down when you’re making the choices that have to be made. Only remember it. It’s good you found an antidote. Feshi’s alive, I take it?”
“At the Meeting of Tribes. We were headed north to find you, actually, Professor. The Wild Wastes tribe were our escort—until the war broke out.”
Merrik explained. Numbtongue raised his eyebrows as he looked at the four students. Badarrow nudged him, and both Redfangs plus Dirtmouth all turned to Honored Berr.
The old Gnoll was listening, cross-legged, eating almost as fast as Snapjaw and Ulvama and half the Antinium. He twitched one ear as the Redfangs looked at him with something approaching reverence.
Old warrior. He looked…tough. Numbtongue wanted to be him when he was older.
Oddly, though they had just been trying to kill each other, Numbtongue didn’t feel the hostility he might have—mainly because no one had died. Also? He saw the [Lord] eying him with wariness, but not an instinctive hatred.
The Minotaur, now…there wasn’t much Erin in him at all. And it was Erin whom Numbtongue thought of.
A chance. But Venaz folded his arms.
“How did you come here, Professor?”
The Titan stopped pacing back and forth, having heard Wil’s account of how they’d gotten here. He turned, and, for a second, everyone—especially the students—waited for one of the Titan’s thrilling tales of survival against all odds. It was in Niers’ eyes…and then it faded.
He looked at Numbtongue, and the silent inn, Mrsha’s kidnapping, and the rest was written across his face. He sighed, sat down on a tiny carved wooden stool, and shook his head.
“I made a mistake. I’ll tell you everything tonight, students. But the point? To summarize it all, I went on an adventure looking for a grand old time, and I made a mistake. But for luck, as much as my resourcefulness, I survived. I kept making silly mistakes because I thought I was the Titan of Baleros. I ended up here, in a warzone, chasing a kidnapped girl and investigating a plot to kill children among the Gnoll tribes. Meanwhile, someone is attacking my people—Fraerlings—and trying to take down my Great Company. I have myself to blame, and I will.”
His students blinked as the Titan sat there, looking weary. Then Niers raised his head and gave them a sardonic smile.
“Never let it be said your Professor doesn’t admit when he’s wrong. Trust me—I’ve had a lot of people remind me. In the last months, I’ve been wounded more badly than I ever have since my adventuring days by a damn avian, been outlevelled, and surprised too many times to count. Betrayed, too. Peclir Im is a traitor and a dead man.”
His students were astonished, but Niers clapped his hands.
“That is a story—and you are all invited to hear it—but not the point. Right now, I need us all on the same page. Students! I’m here, in front of you. No, this is not an illusion.”
Peki opened her beak.
“But you said—”
“I lied, Peki. I lie about things for fun and because it amuses me.”
The Garuda frowned and raised a fist.
“He lies. He is a bad man. A bad man who is bad at chess and being nice to people.”
Everyone turned to Bird, and Niers scowled.
“Shut up, Bird.”
“Antinium. I’m looking at Antinium and Bird the Hunter, no less. I thought you were on Pallass’ walls.”
Merrik pointed at Bird, recognizing him. Bird tilted his head.
“You recognize me? I am banned from Pallass. I came here because I am looking for Mrsha. Are you a Dwarf? Do you know Pelt?”
Merrik growled in exasperation.
“Why does everyone think all Dwarves know each—”
Then his face changed into one of recognition.
“Wait a second. I do know Pelt. How do you know Pelt?”
“How about Dawil?”
“I—yes, but he’s a Gold-rank adventurer! These examples don’t count!”
Bird happily slapped his knees, but The Crimson Soldier put out a hand and everyone turned back to Niers. He nodded.
“Merrik. You just had your first conversation with an Antinium. One of the infamous Black Tide of Izril. Soulless, mindless killing machines, I’ve heard them called, from Rhir’s hells. If I told you Bird is actually more representative of their species than not—despite being weird, I will admit—what would you say?”
The Dwarf’s eyes closed, and his blocky expression turned thoughtful. Thoughtful. He looked at Bird with a quality Numbtongue recognized, like when Erin would sneakily drop her guard before pulling one of her stunts. Only, this wasn’t subterfuge, just thought.
“Honestly, Professor? It would knock me flat as a coin—a month ago. But after watching the Ksmvr of Chandrar series—I can believe it. People are people. Seems to me we’ve misjudged the Antinium or they’re changing.”
“A- thoughts. Mainly because you had help, but beyond satisfactory. Keep it up, and apply it to Goblins. At least, the ones here. They’re all on the same page—rescuing the little Gnoll who was attacked. A Doombringer, and if you have insight into that, I’ll give you a passing grade for the entire next semester.”
The Titan smiled proudly. Merrik nodded, and the Antinium stirred as the [Strategists] looked at them thoughtfully. Peki pointed at Fierre.
Fierre spluttered. Peki narrowed her eyes without a word. Niers chuckled.
“A special Human with special classes, Peki. Drop it. May I present…”
A pained expression flitted across his face.
“The self-described Fellowship of the Inn? Ask them what it means. Goblins, Antinium, Gnoll, Humans, Stitch-Person, Drake, and I suppose I complete the bunch. A group of irregulars, plus two Gnoll tribes and a Goblin tribe. Those are the forces—this is not a simulation or a game. Together, we’re going to make war on Drake armies, Gnoll tribes, and conduct rescue and defense operations. Sound easy? Because I assure you, this is going to be difficult.”
The students blinked. Merrik rubbed his hands together, Peki began to nod with visible excitement, and Wil gulped.
“Professor. What about Feshi and Yerra…?”
Niers waved a hand.
“I want them, too, obviously. And if Weatherfur joins us—I’ll take any ally running, Wil, but we have a multiple-objective scenario. Halt the Doombringer killings. Uncover whatever plot that is, which might just take us into conflict with the largest Gnoll tribe in existence. Get me to a port—but only after we halt the Drakes trying to wipe out every Gnoll tribe and put our finger on the scales of this war. Lastly? Learn as much as we can and level up.”
He looked meaningfully at the Antinium and Goblins. The students stood there, daunted by his objectives. Yet Niers was looking at each of them.
“You’re all [Officers] and [Strategists]. I could have six of my best students helping me—and you’re all old enough and experienced. Plus, you have three Relics from Khelt no less. I won’t beat around the bush; you found me. Congratulations. You can claim whatever Perorn or Foliana offered you, or sell the information to my enemies, and I’ll see you in the academy for the fall semester. Or—you can accept immediate commissions to battlefield officers in the Forgotten Wing Company. Paid positions, and I will tell you I’m paying double-rates, and you can use me as a reference or enlist once this is over. You’ll level or die, but I could use your help.”
What a strange offer. Yet Niers was their Erin, and Numbtongue realized—they were Niers’ Goblins. That was how he rationalized the moment, because the way they reacted couldn’t make sense to him otherwise.
Merrik just laughed and rubbed at his hair. Peki was nodding instantly, and Wil hesitated, looking around before giving Niers a slight nod.
“If we can ask questions, I could see that, Professor.”
It was only that stupid Minotaur who obstinately folded his arms. His glare was boring a hole in Numbtongue’s head, so the [Bard] glared back.
“Professor. The Goblins.”
“Bird. Hand me my crossbow.”
Niers began to aim it at Venaz’s chest, but the Minotaur raised his voice.
“Professor! I am not being merely bigoted or intolerant of other species! I see the Antinium and Goblins here and both are exceptionally dangerous species who have attempted to or wiped out nations! I am a son of the House of Minos, and we fight Goblins!”
At this, Numbtongue couldn’t hold his tongue any more. The [Bard] rolled his eyes.
“Hah. Everyone fights Goblins. Big deal.”
Venaz turned, snorting, to glare at him, as the Goblins all laughed. However, two Goblins didn’t immediately laugh. Shaik gave Venaz a long stare, and, sitting quietly and trying to pick up some of the snacks…Pyrite’s ghost glanced up.
Careful. You might be wrong.
Numbtongue and Shaik looked at Pyrite, as the ghost of the Goldstone Chieftain glanced at Venaz. The Minotaur [Strategist] looked at Numbtongue and then away.
“I don’t answer to you, Goblin.”
“You challenged Numbtongue—that’s his name, by the way, Venaz—and Badarrow to a fight. I was already going to upbraid you for your fistfight, Venaz. Do I have to do it twice?”
“I noticed this wasn’t a true battle, Professor. I respect whomever that red Antinium is. Are you going to tell me I wasn’t right to engage a warrior with a magic blade at the onset of the battle, knowing how dangerous they could be?”
Niers blew out his cheeks, visibly annoyed.
“So taking on two Hobs by yourself isn’t bravado, Diamond Sword of Serept or not?”
“I had confidence I could win. They’re only Hobs, and the Goblins on Izril are known to be inferior to the ones Minos faces. But I object to working with either.”
Every Goblin in the room stopped chortling at Venaz’s expense. Slowly, the three Redfang’s eyes narrowed.
Niers? He glanced at Numbtongue’s expression with raised brows.
“Bold claim for you to make. I didn’t see you exactly wiping them out.”
Venaz shifted. He gave Numbtongue a grudging look, and Badarrow the same.
“They’re…more proficient than I expected. Almost as good as a regular warrior of Minos, Professor. So I underestimated them. I recant that, but not my comments about Goblins in general.”
“You think you know good Goblins? Hold still. I’ll cast [Lava Orb].”
Ulvama glared. Her claws glowed dangerously, but Niers waved her down.
“Venaz isn’t wrong. Listen, Venaz. I’m losing my temper, and you’re being obstinate. Before I shoot you, explain your comments. I know what you mean, but the rest of the world doesn’t actually follow the House of Minos’ every move with fascination. They have no idea about the Island of Goblins.”
Numbtongue’s ears perked up. Reiss, Pyrite, Shaik—even Snapjaw and Ulvama—all turned with a sudden, true interest. Venaz hesitated.
He looked around. Wil, Peki, Merrik—some of his fellow students were frowning but with faint recognition. Berr raised his paw.
“I know what he means, yes? But I’m old.”
Niers raised his brows. Venaz looked the most shocked since the entire conversation began.
“But they’re—no one? There is a reason Minotaurs, wherever they travel, will sometimes take on contracts to battle Goblins for no cost. We’ve fought them since the House of Minos was incepted! No one remembers?”
He looked outraged. Niers sighed.
“Leaders of nations are aware, and people who travel the sea. Venaz, the truth is that Minos is quite adept at keeping them contained, if not eliminating them so no one worries. Unlike Rhir, who attracts our attention by virtue of being in danger of losing their war rather constantly. Explain.”
“Yes. Explain. You’re not that good, Minotaur. I know one more dangerous.”
Venaz turned and peered at Numbtongue for the first time like a person, rather than an intelligent monster. He hesitated.
“Who would that be?”
Numbtongue shut his mouth. Niers looked amused, and Venaz ground his teeth.
“Your name is Numbtongue. I can hear. You’re not the most dangerous Goblin I’ve ever seen either. Not by far.”
The [Bard]’s eyes narrowed.
“I know I’m not. I know a Minotaur called Calruz of Hammerad. Strong Minotaur. Honorable…sort of.”
The [Strategist] of the House of Minos blinked.
“Calruz of—is he consorting with Goblins as well as dishonoring all of us?”
Numbtongue snorted. Niers’ finger twitched on his crossbow’s trigger.
“Professor! He surely knows—alright. Alright!”
Venaz took a deep breath. He looked around the room at Shaik, her bodyguards, the other Hobs, and eyed the Cave Goblins. He pointed at Rasktooth.
“Huh. A species variant. Unusual.”
Rasktooth pointed at his chest with a thumb claw then at Venaz.
“Me unusual? You unusual!”
The other Goblins went oooh and backslapped him. Venaz peered past Rasktooth at Gothica with a huge frown.
“Stick sword up bum.”
Gothica made an expressive gesture with both claws. Fierre patted her on the shoulder with approval. The Goblins didn’t lack for sass, but Venaz didn’t seem surprised they could talk or had classes, like Wil was. He was on a different level of surprise. He knew Goblins.
“Hobs, regular Goblins, and one [Shaman]. If I am dismissive and thought I could take any Goblin tribe, it isn’t because I’m a fool. Rather—I understand Goblins move the world over. Occasionally Goblin Kings arise, but the Goblins of Izril are rated as fairly unlikely to require intervention—especially with their Goblin Lord dead—by the House of Minos’ strategists. And we do watch them. I’m surprised by their martial prowess, but now I recognize Redfang, which were a named tribe.”
Badarrow and Numbtongue blinked, and Dirtmouth’s mouth opened as she chewed some clay for variety. A Minotaur kingdom knew of their tribe? She blushed, putting her hands to her cheeks. They’d made it!
“Why are we not strong?”
Venaz shrugged in answer to Badarrow’s question.
“Individual Goblins? We had a Tremborag listed, as well as a high-level [Witch] and one of your Great Chieftains in the north. In the south…”
He counted briefly on his fingers.
“…about the same number of Goblins, Chieftains or otherwise, we were uncertain of. I’m sure these Redfangs might be skilled warriors, and you were…good. What’s your name?”
“Hm. That’s not traditional Goblin naming. Nor does the House of Minos underestimate your intelligence or ability to adapt. It’s just…in all of Izril, you have one singular Goblin Chieftain confirmed as being one of the Great Goblin subtypes. A Fomirelin, as you call yourselves. He has as many as, what, ten of his kind in his tribe?”
The Redfangs and other Goblins stirred. Rasktooth frowned around.
Ulvama was watching Venaz like a hawk. Even Niers was rubbing his chin with interest, though he knew the term. Venaz snorted softly.
“You don’t even know. A giant Hob—massive, far taller than normal. Unto half-Giants as to regular Humans, I suppose. With more abilities than just that. Most of you don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s a Fomirelin. Your most dangerous tribe in all of Izril has ten. When the Goblins of their damned floating isle clash with the House of Minos every year, we have seen two dozen in battles regularly. A Goblin Lord haunts that isle, and it is the reason the House of Minos must fight to deplete their numbers. No force has ever taken that isle, but we keep them contained.”
Numbtongue’s jaw dropped. Pyrite had gotten up and was peering at Venaz. He looked at Numbtongue and nodded.
The isle of Goblins. Greydath had told Pyrite about it, once. A Goblin King’s legacy.
“Fomirelins? Great Goblins? An island? Is this true, Professor?”
Wil turned to Niers and the Titan shrugged.
“The House of Minos clashes with them once a year. A bloody affair. The island floats, you see, and it has strong magical protections. The Minotaurs have always laid claim that they keep the Goblins more or less contained by way of attrition, or else the Goblins would send out groups to lead other tribes—which they do, despite the Minotaurs’ best efforts. I have often wondered, though…who is containing who?”
Venaz’s look of satisfaction as he surveyed the room turned to one of astonishment as he glanced at the Titan. Niers met the gaze calmly, and Numbtongue remembered the powerful army of Minotaurs who had beaten the King of Destruction.
There were Goblins who could fight them? Who had their own island?
A city. Reiss was whispering it, but Venaz just folded his arms once more.
“I am sworn to prevent another Goblin King occuring, Lord Astoragon.”
“And you think I’m not? Venaz, you pig-headed idiot, I knew the Goblin King! I spoke with him! Who regrets Velan the Kind more? Me or you?”
Niers roared, and the Minotaur looked embarrassed. Everyone turned to Niers, and Ulvama gasped.
“You spoke with the Goblin King?”
The tiny Fraerling stood, the focus of so many crimson Goblin stares, and looked past them all. His right hand twitched.
“I shook his hand. I counted myself as his tribe’s ally, and I thought he would be the Goblin Lord to make a better way for their people. Then he went mad, butchered his allies, my people—and fled. I tracked him down to Izril, and I swore never again to ally with Goblins. So here we are.”
He gazed at Numbtongue, and the Hob saw the Titan’s weary gaze narrow.
“Goblins and Antinium and more. Venaz, they won’t become Goblin Kings from this, and these ones…have done nothing wrong but defend children. Enough. Walk off or help me, and learn something about Goblins that you can take back to the Minotaur King. If you want to know whether it was right or wrong, go back to her once this is over. But I have met her too, and she respects honor. Go back and tell her you didn’t fight against child-killing monsters and a war of aggression from Drakes because you couldn’t stand with Goblins when the time came.”
Venaz jerked in outrage—then slowed as he and the Professor came face-to-face. A tiny man on a pedestal, clothes blowing as Venaz snorted. The Minotaur looked at Niers, then at the Goblins.
“I will report everything I see, Professor. This is larger than you or I.”
The Titan never moved. The [Grandmaster Strategist] looked Venaz right in the eye, then slowly turned his head. To look at Numbtongue, Snapjaw, Ulvama, and the others.
“Yes. Before I die—I want to know the secret of the Goblin Kings. Are you with me, Venaz?”
The Minotaur took a long moment. Then he saluted.
“Lead on, Professor.”
And there it was. The Fellowship of the Inn grew, by a Gnoll tribe, some mercenaries…and four [Strategists]. Venaz stepped backwards as Niers began to redistribute their organization, inquire about supplies, locations of other tribes, and he interrupted less…but he still interrupted.
Numbtongue didn’t like him. However, he was gratified not to have shed more blood, and the students looked at the Antinium, Goblins, and introduced themselves afterwards.
“I am Peki. You are a [Martial Artist].”
“Y-yes. But only a bit. I mean, I learned a few punches and kicks, but I didn’t have a teacher, not really. My friend, the one who—she left.”
Garia was so flustered she tripped over her words. Peki stared at her, then at Touma the Great.
“You…are a [Martial Artist]?”
He clasped his hands together, all four, in that fist-into-palm greeting, and Peki’s eyes widened. She put a wing arm on Garia’s shoulder.
“You move bad.”
“I know, I—”
“You need training. You fight with me. We train. You too.”
She pointed at Touma the Great, who looked at the [Martial Artist] from Pomle with surprise. Peki looked around.
“And you, whatever you are.”
Fierre hissed, looking around warily. Peki raised her brows.
“Uh huh. You all train. You all level. We will be the best warriors and you will be with me.”
She patted them happily on the arms, then went to show them how to fight. She didn’t have a way with words, perhaps because she had learned how to do a high-kick before she learned how to speak.
Merrik, on the other hand, was shaking hands with Gna, who was bowing to Honored Berr.
“Liscor’s army? Didn’t we fight you one time? Well, a few dozen times, but you’d remember the last one…”
The Gnoll was rubbing at his chin as some awed Goblins surrounded him. A careful Goblin poked him, and the Gnoll looked down.
“You. You big Gnoll in fight.”
A timid Goblin asked. She was a regular Goblin, one of the Fellowship. Berr grinned.
“I am a [Berserker], yes? I get bigger when I get angry. And I only get truly angry when it matters.”
She opened her mouth.
“You get big when you get angry? And strong?”
Berr nodded. The Goblin looked around.
“You get strong the more angry you get?”
He nodded one more time, eyes twinkling brown. The Goblin grabbed his legs.
If ever there were a class for a Goblin, surely it was that! Berr looked highly amused, and Merrik glanced back over just in time to see a giant, invisible bug staring at him.
Xeu poked Merrik and scuttled back. He eyed her.
“What are you?”
“Er…well, put it here.”
The Dwarf took off a gauntlet and held out a hand. Xeu tried to offer a scythe-arm, and Merrik drew the hand back quickly.
“I can do this better, Xeu. Watch. Salutations, sir. I am Pivr, who will not despoil your lands, ravish your women, or steal your purse.”
Pivr brushed her aside and held out a foreleg. Normen and Alcaz sighed as Merrik hesitated again. They came over to help their wayward friend as Apista buzzed by.
Wil kept staring at the bee, but he looked up as a Hob approached and stared at Numbtongue.
The [Lord] was actually more ill-at-ease than Venaz given Terandria’s customs. Numbtongue nodded.
“Hello. I’m Numbtongue. You’re Wil Kallinad. A [Lord] from Terandria.”
“You know who I am?”
“I watched you. On the scrying orb. Very entertaining. Nice sword.”
Numbtongue gestured at the Diamond Mirrorblade. Wil started.
The two looked at each other, so awkwardly that Ulvama could have cut a slice out and eaten it if she were a [Witch]. She rolled her eyes, stuffing food into her bag of holding as Numbtongue searched for a way to open the conversation to say…
Do you hunt my people because you don’t understand who we are?
Can I tell you about an inn and an [Innkeeper] in hopes that you will change, or you’ll take that story onwards?
What is it like, being a [Lord]? What is Terandria like? What are your thoughts on the Ailendamus-Dawn Concordat conflict, because I have a [Princess] I know who’s quite invested in the subject? Also, my idiot brother might be running around disguised as a [Knight]—don’t tell anyone.
Can I have an autograph?
He hesitated, and his mind went blank. Embarrassed, the [Bard] blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
Wil looked at Numbtongue as the Hobgoblin turned red. Numbtongue tried again.
He gestured at Wil’s clothing. The [Lord] looked down at his armor.
“Y-you mean the Terandrian style of dress? That’s out of fashion.”
“Um. Yes. I heard it was very big. Very big. I never knew why. So much lace and frills. Seemed stupid.”
Wil heard the very sensible, common byline among most young men who’d had to buy that kind of clothing when it was going around Terandria. From a Hobgoblin’s mouth. He took his time and tried to say something as if he were talking to someone from home.
“Yes, well…you know, it began because a rather lacy dress saved the Countess of Merrimorn from plunging to her death when she fell over the balcony at a masquerade? She was saved because all that thread caught and kept her suspended long enough for people to pull her up. And Merrimorn practically sets some trends.”
“Really? I had no idea. What’s…who’re Merrimorn?”
“Oh, they’re a noble family—do you, um, know Terandrian kingdoms?”
“I know someone from Calanfer.”
“Really? I mean—I’ve been to Calanfer! Er, I, uh, the war’s not going well.”
“Mm. Ailendamus, right? You ever been?”
“As a matter of fact…”
They began to actually talk to each other, and Wil found he was curious about the Dragonblood crystal sword, Numbtongue’s guitar, everything, really, and that damn bee!
The last of the [Strategists] was alone. No Goblin wanted to talk to Venaz. Even the other Wild Wastes Gnolls were more popular. Ulvama was flirting with them, and Venaz looked around for someone to talk to.
And there he was. Bird wandered over and looked at Venaz. He was eating a raw egg.
“You’re Bird the Hunter. Do you want to converse about your species or mine? Venaz of the Beriad.”
Niers glanced over, and his eyes lit up as he saw another fellow traveler walking down the roads to perdition. He did not stop Venaz.
“I am Bird, hello. You are Sir Cow. I am told this by the Dwarf to call you this. No, wait. I have gotten it wrong. It is Sea Cow or Sir Bull. I am sorry.”
Venaz’s face went slack as the [Liar] tilted his head back and forth. Was he a silly Bird? Even he didn’t know.
“You…are mistaken. My name is Venaz. I prefer the proper forms of address. Are you called Bird?”
“Yes. You may call me Revelantor Bird the Hunter, Ballistae-Protector of The Wandering Inn, [Bird Hunter], and good singer. Every time you talk to me.”
The Minotaur scrutinized Bird’s face and listened to the playful tone.
“I did not know Antinium had a sense of humor.”
“I do not like you. You are mean to Goblins. But I will speak to you if you tell me if the House of Minos has lots of…”
Bird hesitated. He leaned in and whispered.
Venaz looked around to try and tell whether he was being pranked. He looked at Bird, and the Antinium happily ate more egg yolk.
“Are you…would you take tea? Is that a…custom Antinium have? Do you have any hobbies? I will converse with you, but I don’t quite know what would be socially acceptable. I doubt we can go on a hunt. Walk?”
Bird tilted his head back and forth.
“I could play chess. It is a silly game, but I will play with you. I have beaten your teacher so I am the best chess player in the world. I have also beaten Erin.”
The Minotaur just stared at him. Niers shouted grumpily.
“You beat me when I’m relaxed, Bird. Or when I let you have a pawn or two to make your stupid pictures!”
Bird happily ignored Niers.
“I could…play chess with you. I do find the game interesting. Do you know other games? Go? Shogi?”
“I was there when it was invented, silly Minotaur. Let us play. Then we will sing.”
“Sing? Wait, say that part again? You’re from Liscor. Do you know…who’s this Erin?”
The [Liar] happily walked past Venaz, humming under his breath. The Minotaur followed, to his later regret. Apista buzzed around happily.
Look at all these new friends! She landed on a furry head and Berr went cross eyed as she deposited a cigar into a paw. He blinked at her, then grinned and took a puff. Apista gave him a salute with one feeler and Wil rubbed his eyes.
Lo, the Doomslayers have been repelled, though some escaped, but enemy turned into friends reunited with teacher! Onwards! Now, onto war and salvation for the little child.
The bee buzzed around the tent and came to a stop next to the Titan.
To war and victory. The Fraerling eyed her. Apista waved an antenna at him, and he grudgingly passed his own blunt to her.
“Alright, alright. Let’s both go kick some heads in.”
Author’s Note: If I were planning things out with the full energy and not playing it by ear, I’d do one more chapter at least because I like to work into the next month.
But I’m calling it here. You did not see the 41,000 word chapter—yet—but it is off to the editor and you will get it soon enough. I think it was a good one, and I was satisfied by the Wistram-Reim arc.
But that was a lot of words. Killer, really. I don’t have the same arm pain I used to, because I’ve learned stretches and practices, but I’ve had sore shoulders like you would get from exercise from…typing.
I need a rest. Especially to write quality. That’s why this chapter was short-er. The quality just decreases without rest, so I’ve learned that not writing is as important as writing.
I’ve told you this before. I’m just saying…I’ll be back and I hope you do like this chapter well enough, but brace for some good stuff. Thanks for reading this month! Gravesong is out for recording for the audiobook and we’re working on getting it to publishing mainly with audio rights delaying it, but it was a lot of revising during my ‘two week break’. I will take a longer, fuller one. After Volume 8.
Until then, just one week off. See you soon, and hope I recover! By playing video games, watching fun videos, and reading my own great stories! Later!
Amerys, and Gazi attack by Pkay!
Minizi’s New Sword by ArtsyNada!
Ieka, Zanthia, Numbtongue and more by Tomeo!