8.73 R

The war against the Dawn Concordat, as mentioned, was a gripping affair concerning the fate of now five nations, given Pheislant’s involvement, and continental repercussions in the short term at the least.

It got little billing abroad. Yes, updates were shared daily by Wistram News Network and the other burgeoning magic-television networks to fill air time—a problem that they were all realizing they’d face—but by and large, no battles or speeches or singular events were shown.

For instance, an ordinary conversation abroad might be…

“What’s new about that Ailendamus thing?”

“Uhm…still at war, I think.”

“Ah. Pass the fried oats, will you?”

The average cosmopolitan Centaur household did not care about the war or find it that interesting, especially in Baleros. Mind you, the average household did not fry oats. Some Centaurs were just weird.

When the Wind Runner of Reizmelt tried to kill the Archmage of Memory and then a [Princess] and [Lord] were exploded on-screen, that was when the war returned to the forefront of the news. The greatest betrayal ever—or possibly a sign she was mind-controlled? Corrupted? Or just an asshole?

It was fascinating—but even someone like Lyonette du Marquin, who had been watching from the start as she prepared to go after her daughter, in her own center of attention in a worldwide event—even she could not see what lay behind the scenes.

Everyone knew what Ryoka had done, but the why, the investigations into the attack on her life?

That—was ongoing.

 

——

 

The room was dark. Well, not just ‘dark’. It was a literal void into which magic, sound, and other sensations vanished.

The only things allowed in here were what the interrogators wanted. And that was the very essence of fire and darkness—but melded together.

The odor of the Lucifen was not brimstone, which smelled like bad eggs, but oil and metal. Like a nation which ran smoothly on crimson liquid as thick as blood. When they smiled, it was sharply. Like the swing of a headman’s axe.

“Someone tried to kill Ryoka Griffin. You may be aware of this fact.”

The suspect said nothing but shook like a leaf as Viscount Visophecin himself sat down. There was a way to interrogate with kindness, guile, and whatnot.

He didn’t bother. He placed a dagger, point-first, into the wooden desk to which the suspect was shackled, driving it into the wood. Two eyes followed the dark dagger—then met the Lucifen’s gaze. He was angry. Two pinpoints of searing crimson stared back.

“You are a suspect. No verdict has been rendered. If you speak, you will be judged fairly—and treated far better than any other…conspirators…for honesty. If you have nothing to say—we will let you go and continue our investigation.”

Fair—even if this was not exactly a pleasant conversation. Almost, the suspect relaxed until Visophecin, turning away to one of the Lucifen, looked back.

“If it is you, or we find you were involved in any way and do not inform us—you will suffer for eighteen years. In the interest of honesty, I will tell you what will occur over all eighteen years. Rest assured…you will survive till the end.”

Two eyes went wide, and the suspect struggled to get free. Visophecin began to speak, conjuring a rather vivid image from memory. It was rare that the Lucifen employed all of their knowledge in cruelty. But they did for the right crimes. He waited for a confession or clue—

But all he got was panicked bleating. The Sariant Lamb claimed it knew nothing.

The other Lucifen watched as Visophecin tormented the lamb. Was it on the top of the suspect list?

“…Gadrea is going to object if she hears of this.”

Igolze was recording the moment for posterity and the rest of the family. Azemith and Paxere, who was still adjusting to one less finger, both nodded. Azemith turned to her partner.

“Are you suggesting we not interrogate all of the Sariant Lambs, Igolze?”

“Not at all.”

He smiled. In truth, the Lucifen expected almost nothing out of this particular interrogation. They were hunting for the truth—but this was more akin to stress relief. Still…

“It is not an outside chance they know something, you know. They are intelligent. And they once poisoned a [Regent] to death.”

Paxere and Azemith stopped eating popcorn and turned to Igolze. Paxere hesitated.

“They actually did?”

“Yes.”

The Lucifen turned back to watching the Sariant Lambs under interrogation. What was notable was that Visophecin was actually, genuinely, angry. He was one of the most controlled Lucifen, and that was saying a lot.

Did that mean he was truly searching for Ryoka’s assassin? Or pretending? Igolze carefully watched. He had his own opinion, but he glanced at his wife and got nothing but a smile in her stare. They were probably thinking the same thing, so Igolze smiled back.

Who had tried to kill Ryoka Griffin? Mortal? Immortal?

And…why? For rescuing Paxere alone, Igolze would give some good faith effort to the task. Besides which, this sudden suspicion among even the ranks of immortals? Sedition, the possibility of treason or a powerful actor that had eluded even Ailendamus’ security?

The Lucifen man smiled.

This was so much fun.

 

——

 

There were less fun things to watch, and thus less well-broadcasted, despite them being hugely topical to an anxious [Princess] watching the pivotal moment in the war. But all people could talk about was Ryoka, interviewing people who knew her, speculating on the assassination, what had happened.

All the while, the Great General of Ages was holding Krawlnmak’s Pass against the Dawn Concordat. No—not just them.

House Veltras, the Dawn Concordat’s armies, Archmage Eldavin, and his Terras faction were all engaging the greatest army Ailendamus had sent yet. Lest you think it was a boring battle…it was not.

Mind you, it was not pleasant to watch. Nor did Rabbiteater, viewing it from the fortress of Kaliv in which they were besieged, get to see all of it. From the battlements, he had a view of Ailendamus’ rear forces.

Their main army had actually marched down the pass and left a smaller force encircling the keep. By far, enough to keep the defenders from dreaming of sallying forth. The Great General of Ailendamus had been far too cunning to waste time on a mere fort.

Krawlnmak’s Pass, the Archmage’s Pass, was a famous place in Calanfer’s history. The Dawn Concordat had held off massive armies, and it was a symbolic place to win the war. It was also, frankly, a strategically sound location for a defensive army to hold.

The land sloped upwards after descending through a tiny valley, up to a much wider place to fight in. Any army had to climb to the very place where Perril Chandler had once stood and then descend once more. Then the pass narrowed, such that you could fight on open ground, push reinforcements downhill, or retreat and choke the opposition.

The pass itself was also tall but unhelpful, in that it didn’t have high, flat spaces for the enemy to take. It was the most naturally annoying place for an attacker to fight in. As a Redfang, Rabbiteater understood all of this.

Which was why it was really regrettable that the Great General, Dionamella, had already taken the flat center of the pass. There, she camped her forces and dared the Dawn Concordat to advance.

Behind her lay three [Princesses] of Calanfer, who would be captives very shortly. If the Dawn Concordat still retreated—she had the pass and could start rampaging into Calanfer, which had been hither-to free from conflict. And Calanfer was not Kaliv, who kept fighting as the lowlands were held. The Eternal Throne was no fortress-city. This was the pass to win or hold at all costs.

Oh—and one more thing. The defenders could not wait in the narrower pass to hold the enemy and bleed their advance. They tried, and General Dionamella fired the Greatbows of Ailendamus and the famed Lance-Arrows into shield walls and unleashed spells from above.

Faced with only two real options, retreat or advance, the Lightherald, Calanfer’s great champion, elected to attack. House Veltras, wavering on retreat if their demands were met, joined them. As did the furious Archmage of Memory and every other warrior who could be spared.

Rabbiteater watched the fighting with the rest of the Order of Seasons. He saw Talia Kallinad, Markus, Meisa, Ilm, and the others standing on the battlements and coming to a conclusion the Goblin had long ago realized:

They were ants in this war.

It actually rattled the Humans, the Hobgoblin was amused to note. The [Knights] had never seen a foe like this, that was so overwhelming that there was no hope of them swaying the odds. That was because they had been raised as the Humans’ protectors and champions.

Rabbiteater had been raised as a Goblin. He looked at the battlefield and didn’t have the wherewithal to talk about numbers or exact strategy. He didn’t think it actually mattered, really.

The Great General didn’t have that kind of weakness. He saw exactly four things that kept her from just rolling the Dawn Concordat on the first day.

In order of magnitude:

Eldavin, the Archmage of Memory.

Tyrion Veltras and three of the Five Families.

The Lightherald of Calanfer.

And…the Griffin Prince of Kaliv.

The Order of Seasons was not present on this front, and even if Talia, Rabbiteater, and everyone else in the keep had been right in front of Dionamella, they would not have mattered.

Three thousand fresh [Soldiers] wouldn’t have mattered. Rabbiteater saw Dionamella stop Kaliv’s army cold when they annoyed her. A charging wing of Kaliv’s tough infantry stopped, and then three volleys of arrows cut them down.

Time. However, the brave Level 30 [Shield Captain] leading a group immune to arrows—!

—Ate a beam of light that turned into a searing blast and engulfed hundreds of [Soldiers], sending them into oblivion.

Hence, four things were opposing the Great General. Rabbiteater watched.

 

——

 

First, the Archmage of Memory. He alone could match her, spell-for-spell. In fact, he did the most damage to Ailendamus’ massive army, such that they had to split apart.

He could not kill Dionamella. He tried on the first day, and that firefight was so blinding that Rabbiteater only saw him flying away. After that—he was cautious. The Lance-Arrows and the army could still possibly harm him, but he flew, using the Terras faction for long-range spells and as a second mana battery.

Pillars of light exploded, summoned warriors fought Ailendamus at no cost to Eldavin, and he rained down magic on Ailendamus’ forces. The Great General had to keep maneuvering her people to stop him from simply erasing entire battalions—but he couldn’t kill her. Nor she him, but if she broke the Dawn Concordat, he would be one man versus an army.

The second problem, though, was Tyrion Veltras. He was no Eldavin, capable of vast spellcasting, but Dionamella struggled to kill him, too. The [Lord] dodged one of her railgun spells with ease; he rode like lightning across the battlefield, erasing his opponents in a single charge before peeling off. And he had [Lords] and [Ladies] and artifacts to boot.

The Banner of House Veltras was a relic-class artifact that one of his people carried. Rabbiteater saw a woman planting it just once as he glowered at Tyrion.

Get hit. Get hit—damn.

Talia gave Rabbiteater an odd look as the Goblin cheered for Ailendamus, just for a second. Just in this case! But no, that stupid [Lord] was quick.

Worse, he might be counter-levelling. It was rare that Tyrion would face a foe beyond him, but the Great General of Ailendamus was just that. And his stupid banner…

…Conjured two Earth Elementals.

Not big ones, not nearly like the ones Rabbiteater had seen on the scrying orb of Gaarh Marsh and the Gnolls. But they appeared and began fighting around the banner—before the Great General blew one to bits.

It seemed like it took two days for them to recharge.

“Stupid banner.”

Goblins didn’t have banners. They didn’t get shiny armor unless they looted it. All of this stank to Rabbiteater, but he had to admit the most surprising third element in the resistance to the Great General was…

The Lightherald of Calanfer.

Rabbiteater had heard, throughout the entire war, the Order of Seasons ragging on the Thronebearers. Indeed, from what he saw, the [Knights] weren’t great. They lost to the Order of the Hydra. They lost to the few Drell Knights. They lost to the Order of the Thirsting Veil and to some regular [Soldier] groups en masse.

Yet the Lightherald fought.

“To me, sons and daughters of Calanfer! By the Eternal Throne, give them not one inch!

His voice was so loud that Rabbiteater heard it from the fortress. He stood, sword and shield raised, his ancient armor shining like a second dawn, even by night. He did not ride upon any mount; the poor animal would have been dead from the light and probably the weight of that armor.

“‘Tis the armor of no less than Queen Marquin herself. I have heard it is an entire relic-class set bequeathed to the champions of Calanfer.”

Ser Ilm was familiar with the armor. Rabbiteater grunted as the [Knights] watched, fairly in awe of the most knightly, chivalrous sight in the world.

A single man, the Lightherald, standing in the fore of battle, daring any warrior, even Dionamella, to down him, day after day. It was the most glorious, most stupid thing ever, and Rabbiteater…admired it.

He also had a thought.

“Marquin was a big lady.”

Ilm hesitated, and Talia, Markus, and the other [Knights] all turned to him. Rabbiteater just looked back blankly.

What? It was true. That armor was huge.

Still, even a relic-class suit of armor was only armor. The man inside counted, and what surprised Rabbiteater, and probably everyone else, was that the Lightherald…refused to die.

The Great General sent [Knights] against him, and he battered them down. She threw spells which his armor absorbed. He took Lance-Arrows to the shield and was surrounded by the enemy, and he refused to die.

His aura was bright and blinded Ailendamus’ forces. But more than his contributions as a warrior—which were somewhat lacking compared to Tyrion—where he stood, the Dawn Concordat held the line.

Elsewhere, they broke and fled Ailendamus’ forces, but they fought like lions around the Lightherald, from Thronebearers to common folk. The Great General’s frustration was evident as she tried to fight all three fronts, Archmage, Tyrion, and Lightherald at once.

The Griffin Prince was there too. He and his small wing of Griffin Riders couldn’t do nearly as much, but the [Prince] himself was immortal. He literally dropped on a Greatbow, severing the siege weapon, and Dionamella cut him in half with a scythe of metal. Rabbiteater watched the [Prince]’s body knit itself back together and leap back up, catching a Griffin, which dragged him to the next front.

“A cursed [Prince] fights on our side. I cannot believe it—that chills my soul just to see it.”

Markus remarked. Rabbiteater thought it was pretty cool as well. An invincible [Prince]? Kaliv had neat things.

That was the war Rabbiteater saw. For four days, the battle raged, and he watched it. Under siege, in the castle with three [Princesses].

Mind you, he didn’t spend all that time watching and doing nothing. As the Great General considered her next moves, he got to know the inhabitants of the castle.

Including the [Princesses] of Calanfer. Rabbiteater had met a [Princess] of Calanfer, though he didn’t realize it. But his conclusion after four days was…

They were all weird.

 

——

 

In the first, panicked hour after their gallop away from the massive army into the keep, Rabbiteater just sat down and breathed.

That was a big damn army. He had never seen the like! Even Tyrion Veltras had not brought so many. And that aura!

It filled the world. Time, shifting, stopping…he saw the waxy faces on the Order of Seasons and knew they had seen the true power of the Great General, just like he had.

“She has an aura greater than the Knight-Commander himself. Ser Ilm—send word. No less than two of the Seasons’ leaders must stand against her. If they could even reach her amidst that army!”

Talia Kallinad was giving orders as the [Knights], Pheislant’s leader, Marshal Huges, and the others all broke out into a babble. The [Fortress Keeper] pushed forwards, sweat on his face.

“Honored [Knights]! Do I have the honor of addressing the Order of Seasons?”

“Sir Commander! We are grateful for you lowering the drawbridge! We might have perished or been taken captive, else. I am Dame Talia Kallinad of Summer, pledged to fight with the Dawn Concordat.”

Talia instantly crossed the room to him and bowed. The [Fortress Keeper] wiped at his forehead under his helmet.

“You are most well met, Dame Kallinad. A famous name! I fear that army will be upon us within the hour. We must discuss preparations immediately. Our gates and walls are strong and reinforced, but that army—

“Yes, Commander. We’re at your disposal. Ser Ilm—to me! We have a list of our forces…”

Rabbiteater’s head rose, and he picked up Headscratcher’s axe. Shorthilt’s blood ran in the Cloak of Plenty around his shoulders.

Of course. A fight in the keep. Good, no arrows. They could last a long time there, before they died.

Dame Meisa and Markus, as less-senior [Knights], were free to talk with him. Meisa put her hand on Rabbiteater’s shoulder.

“That army is the largest I’ve ever seen. Rabbit…we might make a stand here. But if it comes to it, we might surrender. You, though…

“I know.”

If his helmet came off, he died. Markus clapped Rabbiteater on the shoulder.

“On my honor, Ser Solstice, I will not let anyone remove it. The Order of the Hydra seems honorable; they’ll not pry. But it may be a stand to the last, either way.”

“Yep.”

Both Spring Knights waited for more, but Rabbiteater just rolled his shoulders. He was ready. He watched Talia for a hint of where he’d be fighting. Battlements? His axe could do a lot of damage if they were coming up on the ladders.

Amid the babble of discussion, people greeting each other, panting, requesting news of where Calanfer’s forces were, and how the Order of Seasons and Pheislant had got there, a sudden bubble of silence emerged and swept the room. Rabbiteater saw everyone stop talking, turn, then kneel.

Meisa and Markus did likewise, and Markus tried to pull Rabbiteater down. The Goblin shook off his hand, and so he was the only one not kneeling as three figures entered the room.

Princess Aielef, Princess Vernoue, and Princess Seraphel of House Marquin, daughters of the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, looked around the room, saw Rabbiteater, and hesitated. But Princess Aielef, chin raised slightly, voice imperious, addressed Talia as the [Knight] rose.

“Dame Knight of the Order of Seasons. Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing? I am Princess Aielef of Calanfer. 3rd Princess to the Eternal Throne. I regret that we have not met under more auspicious circumstances, but I offer the safety and friendship of my keep to your forces.”

“Rabbiteater, kneel! They’re [Princesses]!”

Markus hissed up at Rabbiteater. The Goblin just folded his arms.

“Don’t want to.”

His legs hurt from running alongside his horse. He saw all three [Princesses] eying him—and Calanfer’s people with considerable anger—but he was busy scrutinizing the three.

The [Princesses] were interesting. Each one different. They all had red hair…but the shades were slightly different on each.

Princess Aielef had bright, brilliantly fiery red hair. Vernoue’s was far darker with strands of purple, and Seraphel’s a mix in between. Red hair was interesting to Rabbiteater because no Goblins had it, obviously, and he had only seen a few people with hair like that.

They sort of looked like Lyonette? Well, all were older, but Vernoue was the youngest by far. Aielef and Seraphel were in their thirties, but late, and early thirties respectively.

You could also probably categorize them by height. Seraphel was second-tallest to Aielef, who was close-ish to what Markus would have probably called ‘willowy’, and Rabbiteater, ‘underfed’. Vernoue was bookish, like Olesm, and Seraphel looked just sort of middle ground. None had much fat, which Rabbiteater put down to the [Princess] thing.

They looked rather like the picture book stories of a [Princess]; each one had a dress, albeit more practical, like a riding dress on Seraphel and a comfortable one on Vernoue you could lounge around in.

Indeed, the youngest [Princess] had a book under one arm. Aielef definitely seemed in charge though, and the most aggressively royal by far. She gave Rabbiteater another look, but was busy speaking.

“I trust you will fight in defense of these walls, Dame Talia? We took a risk, but we could not let brave [Knights] and our own people die outside these walls like dogs.”

The Dawn Concordat and Pheislant’s people looked up with deep gratitude at that. However, Princess Seraphel gave Aielef a look of deep incredulity. The [Fortress Keeper] himself hesitated. Rabbiteater instantly suspected that Aielef had not been the one to raise those gates.

However, Talia’s face was the image of respect as she bowed again to Aielef and kissed the proffered hand.

“It would be our honor, Your Highness. I must beg forgiveness; there may be but minutes until Ailendamus attacks.”

“M-minutes?”

Aielef’s confident facade wavered noticeably. She glanced at the [Fortress Keeper].

“But they’re quite far off…we are [Princesses] of Calanfer. They are no doubt here to take us prisoner for the war. I trust you all know we must be defended?”

“Absolutely, Your Highness. However—their Lance-Arrows might reach the walls even at this range.”

They’ll fire on us? But we could be killed!”

Aielef’s voice squeaked. However, the other [Princess], Seraphel, just made an impatient sound.

“They are not about to hand out flowers and come knocking at our gates, Aielef. We have protections. Let’s get out of the way of our defenders—unless you want to stand on the battlements? I’d wager your tiara could take one shot from a Lance-Arrow. Care to try?”

The glare Seraphel got from Aielef was intense, but Rabbiteater grinned under his helmet. He knew which [Princess] he liked already.

Talia bowed until the three had retreated. Vernoue had not said much, but she had nodded to Ilm, who had bowed slightly; she must have been a spellcaster.

The rest of the hour was a blur of getting into position. Rabbiteater scarfed down some potage and wished he could have savored it, but it was just there to fill his stomach in case of battle.

For an hour, he sat as [Soldiers] filled the inner keep, hallways, and took up positions on the battlements. He was not in the courtyard open to the air; Ailendamus might hit it with spells.

He was inside, in the inner keep, ready to fight in close-quarters with Meisa, Markus, and Ilm. They waited as Ailendamus encircled the keep…and waited…

And then the first offer of surrender came. Rabbiteater got word of it; a runner came down the halls.

“Ailendamus’ Great General has offered surrender and repatriation to our countries without harm or ransom for all if we surrender, save for the [Princesses]!”

The others stirred. Rabbiteater’s head rose.

“Ooh. Good offer.”

Markus elbowed him, but even Rabbiteater wasn’t inclined to actually take it. The young man panted.

“The [Fortress Keeper] replied that we will hold these walls until our deaths!”

“Ah. Less fun.”

Rabbiteater! This is serious!

Meisa scolded him, but the Hobgoblin just grinned. What was wrong with joking in the face of death? Ilm was covering his visor to stifle his chuckles.

The runner went off, and Rabbiteater waited. He expected battering rams, those Lance-Arrows, siege spells, or just people warning about ladders incoming. He hadn’t seen any siege towers, but maybe they could go in bags of holding?

Trebuchets?

He got nothing. No shouting, just periodic updates to say that the army was moving past the walls—that the [Princesses] had praised the courage of the defenders—that His Majesty of Calanfer and the Griffin Queen were aware of their siege by now—

Rabbiteater realized there was no attack coming an hour and a half after arriving at the fortress. He tossed down his axe and lay down, pulling out a ragged pillow.

Rabbit! We’re on guard!”

“They’re not coming. It’s getting dark. They’d come already if they were. Or started shooting arrows.”

The Goblin’s words turned out to be prophetic. Indeed, Markus and Meisa decided to relax, and so did Ilm and the others. He was the most experienced warrior, they all realized, and Talia gave the order to relax thirty minutes after that.

Ailendamus had encircled the fort, but declined to attack. A token force was going to keep them boxed in while the rest of the army marched down the pass. Rabbiteater was relieved not to face death, in a sense, but he groaned as he realized something.

“We’re stuck here. Going to be really boring.”

He supposed he’d have plenty of time to work on his new auras. At least Hearth—Bravery wasn’t going to be used much unless he had to start eating bugs. In fact, after some debate, Talia and the Order of Seasons, Huges, and the [Fortress Keeper] came to the same conclusion.

Sallying out of the walls was idiotic; the enemy had their crossbows and a few Greatbows trained on the keep. They were effectively shut out until this Great General forced the issue or retreated, so they might as well settle in. Everyone resigned themselves to a protracted siege; at least there was lots of food in Aielef’s personal keep.

Rabbiteater expected the days would drag, filled with aura training and maybe special time with Meisa. But he had made one miscalculation:

The Goblin Knight was not prepared for the shenanigans of [Princesses].

 

——

 

[Princesses] could not stop being [Princesses] even in a siege. And with three of them, their instincts made them do what they always did.

Which was squabble, vie for attention, and generally demand some kind of drama.

At least, that was how Talia put it.

“They are still [Princesses] of Calanfer. Treat them with utmost respect…and, ah, heed their invitations.”

“Invitations?”

Rabbiteater was in her company, and she glanced at him. They had that wary not-quite-friendship that had lasted since she had come to his aid, but the road to reconciliation was long, and Rabbiteater was doing no jogging here.

Indeed, there was little training, just a bit of morning practice, even for the [Knights]. They devoted their time to watching scrying orbs, debating the war, and refining their auras—or memorizing spells, in Ilm’s case. Apparently, there were some high-level spells he’d just been sent from the Fall’s Sentinel.

Rabbiteater had practiced making aura-pizza until his head felt like it was splitting. Any practice was good practice, although the Order of Seasons had a lot of training and tricks. Markus was still a bit upset that Rabbiteater could manifest his aura already…and that it was a pizza slice.

While he waited for his head to stop hurting, the Hobgoblin talked with Talia, and she was going around lecturing the Order of Seasons on how to behave.

“I have already received a dining invitation from Princess Aielef and her closest circle. Ser Ilm, you are representing the Autumn.”

“Ah…is this crucial, Dame Talia? I may well learn a Tier 5 spell.

Ser Ilm didn’t seem happy about the invitation. Talia glowered at him.

“You are representing your Season, Ser Ilm. And this is Calanfer. They would remember the slight; it’s a dinner with the 3rd Princess.”

“Argh. Oh, very well.”

The Fall Knight threw up his hands, and Rabbiteater leaned over. They were having a rather fine meal of eggs. Not just eggs—some kind of weird but delightfully hot and tasty baked eggs recipe. It was using a lot of the most perishable ingredients, and Rabbiteater had almost done a backflip when he realized that was what they’d be eating.

Unlike other sieges, it was the fortress that changed how the siege went. Aielef’s fortress had a lot of faults that Rabbiteater would soon learn—but a lack of food was not one of them. The 3rd Princess had cuisine and ingredients from around the world, and because this was her home, it was preserved by magic.

The defenders would not be starved out of the keep any time soon, and Aielef’s own [Chef] was making food for the [Knights].

Still, the prospect of good food in Aielef’s company did not appeal to Ilm. Talia just turned to the others.

“They are bored, cooped up—and once this war ends, they will still be royalty, so it behooves us all to act on our best manners. I know you do not know…etiquette, Rabbiteater. But try to listen to whatever Markus says.”

Meisa bristled at Talia’s tone.

“He’s not an idiot, Talia.”

“He didn’t bow to the [Princesses]. You must understand, Rabbiteater, this is not—Izril. Ignoring manners has its consequences.”

Only Ilm didn’t understand Talia’s meaning since he didn’t know Rabbiteater’s nature. The Goblin just shrugged.

“I don’t kneel. I’ll be nice.”

Talia sighed audibly.

“I’d hoped they wouldn’t notice you, but it seems they’ve seen you on the scrying orb. Ser Solstice’s charge of Ailendamus is public knowledge. So—Markus, Meisa. I will hold you two responsible for any slights. Just—keep him out of trouble.”

Even Meisa eyed the Hobgoblin as Rabbiteater scratched at his arm.

Did that mean the [Princesses] were interested in him? He didn’t know if he liked them that much.

For one thing—they had terrible taste in fortresses.

 

——

 

Dame Talia did an inspection of the keep to see just how well they’d hold if Ailendamus did attack. She’d done the obvious at the start, but she and Rabbiteater got some nasty surprises later that day as he joined her on a tour.

The keep was placed with its back to the very same pass; a nice, sturdy bastion of stone. It had decent, thirty-foot walls. Nearly Liscor’s height, and they were enchanted.

It was a better-than-average fort, Rabbiteater understood, and it was full-up since the peasants had been admitted inside the walls. The outer keep had a courtyard open to the sun, and the gates were not the greatest.

A portcullis as opposed to solid gates, and no moat. The approach was no winding path for archers to pick attackers off either; it was just a nice, gentle road.

Still, that was not the flaw. The inner keep was spacious and even had a catacomb, albeit tiny. There was a lot of richness inside, from carpets to Aielef’s personal touches.

…Among them being the central tower and higher floors, which were her personal rooms and living space. She had taken over the entire top of the keep where she and her husband, the absent noble of Kaliv, stayed.

All fine. Totally understandable, right? [Princesses] needed their own space, and Aielef was free to remodel! She had her own rooms, including some balconies no one was going to use, obviously, but it was in the center of the keep, so it wouldn’t be a huge strategic threat until the enemy took the walls, and even then, they could just seal the top floor off and retreat deeper.

The…flaw…was probably—as Rabbiteater, a non-[Strategist] saw it—the giant glass ceiling with a view of the sky.

“The 3rd Princess removed the roof and installed a glass ceiling. In a fortress.”

The [Fortress Keeper] looked embarrassed as he defended it to Talia. Which wasn’t that fair; Aielef had ordered it.

“Her Highness insisted, Dame Talia. It is enchanted glass. Possibly as strong as stone! Ser Ilm, could you ratify the strength of the magic?”

“Why did she—she knows this is a key fortress, surely?”

“Her Highness insisted, Dame Talia. I have naturally told her that if Ailendamus attacks, she cannot reside there, but she refuses to leave her quarters.”

Talia pulled at her hair, and Rabbiteater got his second impression of Aielef. She was, uh…

Stupid.

 

——

 

“Not stupid, Rabbiteater. Don’t say it in front of Calanfer’s people or they’ll fight you.”

“Huh. Good idea. I could use a fight.”

Meisa dragged Rabbiteater back and scolded him. Markus, Meisa, and Rabbiteater were talking about the [Princesses].

Why not? They were interesting, and Rabbiteater was curious. He had never met a [Princess]. He had expected more of someone who ruled a nation, honestly.

“Each one is different, Rabbiteater. There are no less than …How many are there now, Meisa?”

“I think—seven? Three [Princes]? I don’t know, I’m no Thronebearer, but it’s common enough knowledge, Rabbit. Calanfer is fairly well-known, and their royal family is all unique. At least, I’ve heard enough [Bards] extolling their virtues.”

“Ten children? All from the same father and mother?”

Rabbiteater was impressed. Markus nodded.

“The King of Calanfer hasn’t remarried. And it would be scandalous to have a bastard in the family. Not that it doesn’t happen…”

Politics and the intrigue of nations weren’t something Rabbiteater understood yet. But he did understand this. He whistled.

“Lots of sex. Calanfer’s royal family sounds good.”

Rabbit!

A Goblin’s perspective was…straightforward. Meisa and Markus were scandalized, but Rabbiteater thought they were the odd ones. You didn’t get ten kids without a lot of tries. Even Goblins would have respected that!

“Let’s just—get back to the [Princesses]. There are seven. Unless Her Majesty’s expecting?”

Markus coughed, red-eared. Meisa glowered at him as he turned to her.

“I’m not a Thronebearer, Markus. Let’s find Ilm!”

Ser Ilm was still reading his new spell, but he put it aside to talk. He rubbed at his head, and Rabbiteater suspected he too had study-headaches.

“Let me see. You want them all in order? And their titles?”

“They have titles?”

Rabbiteater was interested. Thus, he was introduced to the nicknames and virtues of each [Princess] and some of their personalities by Ilm, who did know what he was talking about.

“Let me see. Shardele the Radiant. First in line—married to a Calanferian noble. Radiant is a standard title for the 1st Princess, after Queen Marquin herself. She is a rather inspiring person, I’ve heard. Echoes the Eternal Throne and can even grant wondrous visions.”

“I believe I once met the woman when she was on tour. She seemed rather removed from the rest of the court. Not aloof—visionary.”

Markus offered. He had been in Pheislant at the time. Ilm shrugged. Neither [Knight] had the real context on Shardele, who was often aloof, and higher than the clouds overhead.

“She may well rule after Their Majesties if no issue emerges. Next is…Menisi the Watchful. Seldom seen and married to another nation. I’m blanking on which one, but she is somewhat scandalous. I don’t know much, but that is her reputation to me.”

Rabbiteater didn’t really care about the [Princesses] not here and said so. Ilm smiled.

“Fair enough. Of the three here, Princess Aielef is 3rd in line, hence her marriage to a historical ally in Kaliv. Aielef the Fierce.”

“About as fierce as angry little dogs.”

All three [Knights] slapped Rabbiteater on the shoulder, but Ilm just sighed as he rubbed his hand.

“Kaliv’s reputation and their nicknames…do not always align, Rabbiteater. I do know—and this is scandalous, but might be important—that she, ah, has had trysts that are somewhat public. Then again, so has her husband. Her two daughters are of royal lineage, though.”

Rabbiteater hadn’t met either one, but he knew Aielef’s daughters were here. His lips moved.

“What’s tryst?”

Meisa whispered, and this time Markus waited for Rabbiteater’s take. He was starting to privately enjoy them, and sure enough, the Goblin brightened up.

“Oh, sex with other people. Isn’t that bad if married?”

Ilm sighed.

“…Yes. Not to be spoken of, understand?”

Rabbiteater dutifully nodded. Ilm went on.

“Aielef is rather social, returning to the capital often; of the three here, she’s the most outgoing. The most conventional. By contrast, her sister, Vernoue the Enchanting, is a [Mage]. She never attended Wistram, but I am told she is a competent spellcaster, and I think she sent me a request to meet. I have not checked my rooms.”

They had been allotted rooms, and it surprised Rabbiteater that Ilm had gotten a written invitation. But it seemed one did not just walk up to ask someone to hang out as royalty. Ilm coughed and eyed Rabbiteater.

“Is it, ah, that foreign to hear of nobility in the tribes, Rabbiteater?”

Ilm!

The Autumn Knight looked slightly guilty as Meisa glared at him, but Rabbiteater’s reply was bland.

“Maybe. So Vernoue knows magic. [Fireball]?”

“Not combat magic, no. And she isn’t married—her engagement is likely to be soon, but her, ah, magical penchant has made it more difficult. I believe three [Princesses] are unwed. The youngest, Ellet, is far too young for anything but a later engagement. The other one, the 6th Princess, has been quite subdued. Now she is fairly interesting in the scandals she’s produced—”

“Wait. What about Seraphel?”

Rabbiteater held up a hand, and Ilm blinked.

“Oh, Seraphel. I’m sorry, I got out of order. Princess Vernoue is a scholar, so she is by way of being somewhat ‘normal’ like Aielef. But Princess Seraphel…it doesn’t do well to gossip, but everyone knows. She is Seraphel the Dutiful. Or, as some would have it, Seraphel the Cursed.”

That was when Rabbiteater heard of Seraphel’s reputation and marriages.

“First it was that old [Lord] who died in bed. Then the failed marriage to a [Baron]—did he die?”

“No, the woman he ran off with. Then there was someone else…and now Noelictus. That’s, uh, three if you count the poor girl.”

“It could be coincidence.”

The [Knights] gossiped, but lightly since they were mindful of where they were and of Seraphel’s reputation. Rabbiteater was intrigued. If Seraphel did have the ability to kill people with sex, or just in secret, she was far more interesting.

Ilm ended his lecture there.

“I don’t believe any will cause issues…aside from the remodeling of the fortress. But they will likely invite many of the Order of Seasons to meals or conversation. Tea, at the least.”

“Why?”

Ilm raised his brows.

“They’re bored, Ser Solstice. And a bond made, even in siege and war, might endure. Calanfer’s [Princesses] play politics from the cradle, or so it’s said. Just take care not to get entangled; but they aren’t the worst sorts of individuals for a [Knight] to meet and make a good impression on.”

Sure enough, the [Princesses] began to send invitations by the second day of the siege. It might not be a long siege, but they had nothing to do but talk and wait. And [Princesses] did what they did best, especially together, and especially because all three didn’t like the others that much.

They vied for attention, favor, and whatever influence or entertainment they could get. And since the Order of Seasons was here, the most interesting people were the knights of Pheislant.

And the mysterious Ser Solstice. Rabbiteater got an invitation from all three over the next three days. He would have ignored them, but Meisa told him ‘no sex’ unless he went.

 

——

 

Ser Markus was a common-born [Knight]. Because he was in the Order of Seasons, he had been able to rise to the class, and he was profoundly grateful for that.

He had learned politics—but he was no Thronebearer. Still, Markus might have been obtuse in some ways, but he was canny enough, a good enough fighter, and not an idiot.

All of that meant that he was incredibly stressed-out on the evening of the second night. He’d wormed and tried to refuse, but Princess Aielef had insisted. She had requested his presence in a ‘personal encounter’ and perhaps repast.

And yes, that was the exact wording. Markus had heard from Ilm about Aielef, and he was nervous.

Clandestine affairs were regular even among royalty and they could be denied or laughed off as lies, of course. But Markus did not want to get entangled in Calanferian politics.

Then again—refusing a [Princess] to her face if she bared all would also be a terrible move.

“Excuse myself as fast as possible.”

He kept muttering to himself. Maybe if he spilled wine or whatnot? He had gone in armor, lacking any kind of other clothing, and he had considered locking the pieces into place.

Ser Markus of the Season of Spring was nervous as he ascended the stairs and waited, a few minutes early, to meet with Princess Aielef in her personal, very private top floor of the keep. He wished he was imagining this, but the wording of the invitation had been unlike any regular teatime social or whatnot. She had not mentioned guests, and the hour was…late.

Past dinner. Markus, then, was a man really considering his future. Aielef was not unattractive, which was the hard part. However, the consequences…

The problem was he was no Winter Knight, or even Knight of Autumn. Spring was vibrancy and youth. Markus was worried—until he saw the second figure come up the stairs.

Rabbiteater stopped when he saw Markus.

“Oh. Are you here too? I got a message. Said to come alone.”

Markus wavered. For a second he was relieved—then he got more worried. Rabbiteater just bounced on his heels, clearly bored, but Markus hurried over.

“You got an invitation? Let me see, Rabbit. Dead gods. Does Meisa know?”

“She told me to go to any invitations.”

The Goblin sulked, but if Meisa had seen this invitation…Markus sniffed it. Yep, definitely perfume.

“This is not good, Rabbiteater. ‘I hope to gaze upon your face if you may be so willing…’. Rabbit! We might be in a lot of trouble here!”

The Goblin looked blankly at Markus until the Spring Knight said it plainly enough for him to get. Then the Goblin chortled.

“Oh. Oooh. Interesting. I wonder how many [Knights] are coming. Maybe Talia too?”

Rabbiteater!

Scandalized, Markus leapt back. Rabbiteater just shrugged.

“Ah, right. [Knights] are weird about sex. Not creative.”

“Are you considering doing…anything?”

Rabbiteater shook his head.

“Nope. I have Meisa. Plus, she isn’t nice.”

That relieved Markus. Right up until Rabbiteater turned to him.

“But it’s bad to offend her, right?”

“Yes. Hence my dilemma. If you’re right—”

“—I sacrifice you. Have lots of fun.”

Rabbiteater clapped Markus on the shoulder. The [Spring Knight] looked at Rabbiteater, aghast. The Hobgoblin gave him a huge thumbs-up.

“I have your back. Not really—but I’ll be supportive.”

I do not want support in this engagement!

The two bickering [Knights] were, by now, loud enough that their whispered argument was echoing down the hallway. But no one was here, and then—the door opened.

“Ah, Ser Knights. Gentlemen, thank you for being so prompt.”

Markus and Rabbiteater turned and saw Princess Aielef, in a retiring evening dress, somewhat starry, sequins sewn onto dark fabric, standing in the doorway leading to her personal venue. It was a rather fetching dress, and Markus could see it at a more intimate ball setting.

His mind raced. A few facts were obvious—Aielef had not had a [Servant] open the door. Ergo, no [Servant] was present. This was definitely not a mixup in invitations.

Rabbiteater bowed, helmet still on, and Markus, helmetless, bowed too. Aielef looked keenly at Rabbiteater, then smiled.

“Shall we adjourn to my parlor to begin with? And do I have the fascinating privilege of meeting—the renowned and mysterious Ser Solstice?”

“Maybe.”

She laughed at that and then beckoned them in.

Uh oh, she’s being informal. Markus tried to catch Rabbiteater’s attention, but the Hobgoblin happily dragged Markus in, and he was strong.

The doors shut behind Markus, and he realized one last thing. They were definitely soundproofed.

 

——

 

Forty minutes later, Markus saw a side of Aielef he never would have dreamed of. They had not lasted long in the parlor, but moved to her most private rooms that even Seraphel and Vernoue had not seen.

As for intimacy—he and Rabbiteater were so intimate that neither one would ever look at Aielef the same again. Markus’ body trembled in repose with some actual physical effort.

Rabbiteater just stood there. Watching.

“…And turn your head just a bit to the side. Perfect. Your arm is a little down again, Ser Markus.”

The [Spring Knight] lifted it, and Aielef du Marquin industriously kept sketching his form with her brush. Then she made him change positions as she eyed her canvas.

She was painting him. And Rabbiteater, but Markus had a more involved pose. Rabbiteater just stood, arms folded, a grim sentinel with perhaps that flash of red in his eyes. A cloak of red blood spilling around him, and the enchanted axe leaning against one leg.

He was a look unto himself. Markus, helmetless, was trying out poses so Aielef could capture them on canvas.

Not, as it happened, lure them into an intimate encounter of the slippery kind. Rabbiteater kept staring at Markus and he knew that if the Hobgoblin told Talia or Meisa, he would never hear the end of it.

It was a young man’s ego that made him assume that any clandestine meeting was about one part of him. Aielef was a [Princess]. If she wanted something, she could get it without much fuss.

But what she had wanted was…well, this.

The two [Knights] stood in her personal observatory at the top of the keep. The strategic weakness of the ceiling lay above them, but Markus understood now—it was a definite flaw, yet it was not just vanity that had made Aielef du Marquin overrule any objections to have it installed.

It was a pure, beautiful view of the stars. Twinkling lights of every color lay above them, and Aielef retired here to paint. She had painted every way the constellations changed as the year slowly turned.

They hung around the room, dark swirls of black and blue mixed with the delicate colors of stars, how the sun fell or rose on Kaliv.

Aielef painted the landscape—and people. In fact, she had one of those classic ‘apple’ paintings, an apple as a bird pecked at it.

It was so real that Rabbiteater kept staring at it. He was no art expert, and, in fact, Aielef was the first [Painter] that Rabbiteater had ever met and talked to. He was fairly certain he’d once raided a caravan and bonked a [Paint Merchant] over the head, but that didn’t count.

Aielef was a style of painter that veered away from abstract or surreal and refused to leave the area of lifelike. In that sense, some might disparage her art since it was only what you saw, and a spell could do that.

Rabbiteater, if hearing that opinion now, would give the speaker a damn good kick to the shin. Because Aielef’s ability to capture the world she saw was extraordinary.

And she was fairly quick!

“This will be a far rougher painting, I’m afraid. I shan’t keep you two overlong. But how…is this?”

She showed them the canvas, and both [Knights] saw Ser Markus, holding a sword and cloth, polishing it as he stood next to the silent Ser Solstice, covered in his champion’s gear and artifacts.

It was a good portrait! Rabbiteater loved it.

“I look good. You too, Markus.”

“Extraordinary, Your Highness!”

Aielef smiled at Markus, who hadn’t stopped looking embarrassed ever since he figured out what was going on. She offered them the olives and snacks she’d provided. Much to her disappointment, Rabbiteater had refused to take off his helmet, but she was happy enough to paint them.

“A memento from the war. I fear that’s all; I’m a low-level [Painter].”

“You do good art. It looks real.”

Aielef blushed slightly and nodded to Rabbiteater. But then she turned and gestured around the room.

“It is overly kind of you to say, Ser Solstice, but if I had many levels—my paintings offer you little. They cannot shift with time or capture some vitality or aid those who view them. It is just…the world I see. I have one little Skill, and I will add it now. But what…detail? If this is over, I will gladly send the canvas to you, that we might remember this moment. Elsewise—it will be a fitting memory.”

Of your deaths. But Aielef clearly painted this for them. So as not to forget. Markus thought it was thoughtful. Rabbiteater?

He smiled. That was what every Goblin would treasure. They, the Redfangs, would have all wanted such a painting.

“That is the best gift of all. Thanks. What is the special detail?”

Aielef fussed around the painting.

“I have…[One True Detail]. What would capture your essences? Some quality?”

Markus hesitated. Rabbiteater shrugged, rolling his shoulders, and Markus smiled.

“I fear, Your Highness—”

That’s it! Wait!

The two looked at each other, and Aielef worked in silence for a few minutes. When she was done, she brushed at some paint on a finger and showed them.

[One True Detail] was her only capstone Skill at Level 10. It allowed her to create a moving painting.

But not true movement, and only one true detail. And that was that as the two [Knights] beheld themselves, they saw Ser Markus’ lips move upwards slightly, in a quick, genuine smile. The same man who could befriend a Goblin.

And if you watched, Ser Solstice would roll his shoulders, a practiced movement, as if ready to leap into action.

Just two little details. It took a while, and you had to watch the painting.

That was all Aielef could do, and it was all she had. She gestured to the food as the [Knights] complimented her on the work.

“I will touch it up—but do help yourselves. Please. [A Refreshing Repast]. I have…two Skills I can employ. Little else in this siege and in general. But I thank you for your time.”

Markus cleared his throat.

“I thank you, Your Highness. It was an unexpected joy to see you at your passions. May I ask—do you illustrate other pieces? The quality is so fine, you might well create something for a book or whatnot. If I am not being too forward in presuming on your time.”

The 3rd Princess of Calanfer stopped and looked at Markus and Rabbiteater. Aielef brushed at her hair and left a tiny smear of paint there. But then—she dyed her hair already.

“I…do not paint outside of what I can see, Ser Markus. I used to, in my youth, but I find that the real world is all I care to bring to the canvas.”

“May I ask why?”

Markus’ talent was that he was truly genuine. Naive, sometimes to the point of being a fool, but he got out of Aielef a brief confession as Rabbiteater listened. He, who did not care for the 3rd Princess’ way of speaking or behaving or designing fortresses, saw a [Painter], still royalty, and still very much a [Princess]…hesitate. When she did speak, it was in a pained voice, which she covered as best she could.

“If one dwells on…what might be, what could be, or fiction, things grow terribly difficult. I only look at what is—the rest is a painful exercise in futility, and my sisters, save dear Shardele, fail to understand that. Daydreams are wonderful, but if you keep pursuing them, you will only hurt yourself. I stick to what is real and I can touch.”

Ser Markus looked at her, struck, and then with a sudden, painful sympathy. Rabbiteater said nothing as Aielef realized what she’d admitted, then politely dismissed them.

“She’s sad.”

He said that outside of her rooms, with surprising tact. Ser Markus turned to Rabbiteater.

“A [Princess] must sometimes feel trapped, I suppose. I have a sudden respect for her, Rabbiteater.”

“Me too. And you thought she wanted sex. Shame on you.”

Markus turned red, but Rabbiteater punched his shoulder, then went to tell everyone that he could find about Markus’ misunderstanding. Because that was fun.

But he did understand something about Aielef, then.

 

——

 

Rumors of Ser Markus the Indiscreetly Sexual were probably not the reason why he recieved no invitation to Princess Vernoue’s tea party the next day.

Probably.

The 5th Princess of Calanfer, Vernoue, was also far more direct and less mannered than her older sister.

“Do you have a weapon or shield not enchanted? Ah, I see the shield’s not. Give it here.”

She had Rabbiteater’s shield in her hands and was producing a wand within moments of his arrival. Rabbiteater, Ser Ilm, and one more Knight of the Autumn were the only invitees. Rabbiteater because he was ‘Ser Solstice’.

The other two because they practiced magic. Her gift to the [Knights] was not art, but a spell.

“[Royal Casting: Reinforcement of Steel]. It won’t last more than a week, but that will be fine for now. That’s my spell for the day.”

Vernoue handed the shield back to Rabbiteater, and he longed to test it out. But he just thanked her, and she shrugged.

“I have access to a royal spell via my class, but it’s not the same as superior spellcasting. I find it analogous to a higher-level Skill to enhance magic, but broad. Ser Ilm, what did you think of my form? The Skill?”

The Autumn Knight looked at the [Princess] with some respect, spellcaster to spellcaster, and they began to jabber about the difference between how a [Knight] cast magic in the Order of Seasons compared to Vernoue’s training.

Rabbiteater liked Vernoue less than Aielef on his internal princess-ranking system. The [Mage]-[Princess] was more straightforwards, but after asking him to take off his helmet and making a few guesses about his identity—to which he refused to give her any clues—she left him alone and talked magic with the Autumn Knights.

She was a passionate scholar more than a [Princess], and while she had the other’s etiquette and manners, she forgot it for love of talking magic. She wanted to try out Rabbiteater’s Cloak of Plenty with her tea, which he refused, and studied his axe.

Oh, and she was keenly aware that she was not a great [Mage], and that her position meant her self-studies and tutors limited her from true magic.

How did Rabbiteater know?

“…I would have joined the Centrists I think, not the Revivalists, but Wistram seems all about the Terras faction. Have you been to the Walled City of Magic in Fissival, Ser Solstice?”

“Nope.”

“Ah, well, I correspond to a number of [Mages], even Archmage Viltach in Wistram. Have you heard about the breakout of Archmage Amerys? Obviously, Wistram’s Council must have had their reasons for imprisoning her, but politically…”

In the first ten minutes, she said ‘Wistram’ thirty-four times. Rabbiteater counted. Vernoue was obsessed with magic, from Archmage Valeterisa’s reappearance to the Gnoll’s book on magic and their suppression as a species.

If she knew Rabbiteater’s connections with other [Mages], she might have included him in the conversation, but she didn’t and he wasn’t talkative like Numbtongue could be, so he stayed silent.

Rabbiteater was far from bored after a while, though, because he soon found that if Ser Markus had impugned Aielef’s character based on broad assumptions—it was really Vernoue he should have been watching out for.

“Ser Ilm. I thank you for your notes on how the Season of Autumn casts magic. Tell me—the Fall’s Sentinel is practically equivalent to an Archmage in magic, isn’t he?”

Ilm was a far smoother courtier than Markus, at least with Vernoue. He bowed slightly as he drank some tea infused with a mild magical restorative.

“A broad exaggeration, Your Highness. I believe you are referring to an old quote? That would assume the Fall’s Sentinel, in armor and with all his martial capabilities, faced an Archmage. He is one of the most magically knowledgeable men on the continent, however.”

“How old is he?”

“Sixty…two?”

Ilm and the female [Autumn Knight] conferred. Around there. Vernoue nodded.

“And is he married? Does he have children?”

“Not to my knowledge, Your Highness. The Fall’s Sentinel, Lord Venoriat, is married to his Season as most leaders are.”

Vernoue smiled as Rabbiteater ate a fifteenth slice of the lovely cut sausage and drained his cup again. He poured himself another drink. It was good eating.

“Wonderful. In that case, do you believe if Calanfer were to offer…my hand in marriage, the Order of Seasons would consider an alliance?”

Some tea sprayed out of the female [Autumn Knight]’s mouth, and Ser Ilm blinked. Rabbiteater chortled.

This was getting good.

“To the Fall’s Sentinel?”

“Yes. It might be the perfect match—especially after the Order of Seasons’ valorous contributions to the war. I could suggest it to my father and mother? If not the Fall’s Sentinel, perhaps someone else in the Order of Seasons? You do have a famous library.”

Ser Ilm had to regroup for a second, and Rabbiteater leaned forwards.

“You want to marry the Fall’s Sentinel?”

Vernoue hesitated.

“I…am open to an alliance. It is inevitable, and I must do my part for Calanfer. I am hardly like my younger sister.”

“Who?”

Vernoue gave Rabbiteater a suspicious look, but waved it off.

“My younger, impetuous, dare I say, bratty sister. She actually ran off—though that is strictly private. I must be wed, so why not to someone to whom I could fulfill my passions for magic? I am sure the Fall’s Sentinel is a most elegant man. Not all are.”

“He is…pardon me, Your Highness. Knight Hiyev seems to be taking ill.”

Ilm hurried his comrade away. Vernoue turned a bright…and desperate smile onto Rabbiteater.

“Of course, if the war goes south, perhaps that choice is false, but do you know anyone who might suit? A powerful [Mage]?”

Rabbiteater grunted.

“Only…Xrn. The Small Queen.”

Vernoue’s mouth fell open.

You’ve met the Small Queen?

“Eh.”

She had visited the inn sometimes with Zel Shivertail. Not together, but Rabbiteater shrugged.

“You could marry her.”

“You are so…delightfully witty, Ser Solstice.”

Vernoue laughed, and Rabbiteater decided to pretend it was a joke.

“Hah, hah. I am funny. Other [Mages]…other [Mages]…”

“You must have been in or near Liscor, then. Have you seen the magic door? I hear the greatest [Mage] is Grimalkin of Pallass. He certainly seemed imposing from the scrying orb. Is he unwed?”

Vernoue was quick. Rabbiteater blinked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never met him. The other only ones are, uh. Falene Skystrall.”

“Who?”

“A half-Elf [Battlemage]. Gold-rank adventurer.”

“Oh! Is he eligible?”

“She’s unmarried.”

Princess Vernoue gave Rabbiteater a long look. And yes, this time he was doing it on purpose.

“Also Moore, a half-Giant. Or Typhenous. Old man.”

“I doubt Gold-rank adventurers are appropriate, Ser Solstice. A Named Adventurer willing to pledge their lives for Calanfer…perhaps. But as you can see, my options are limited. I had considered Archmage Viltach until I learned he was already wed, and Archmage Feor does not intend marriage. Archmage Eldavin on the other hand…well. Again, I must wed, so I hope I can persuade my parents to choose a match I am fond of. I would not like to be Seraphel.”

There was something sad about her, too, and Rabbiteater didn’t like it. He gazed at Vernoue’s auburn hair and decided to change subjects.

“Who’s your sister who ran away?”

“Oh, she is a fool. Her name is—”

“Ser Solstice, would you help me for one moment? I beg your pardon, Your Highness.”

Ilm reappeared, and Rabbiteater had to leave the [Princess]. He found himself in a huddle with the two Fall Knights as they whispered.

“Is she mad? Ser Venoriat is over sixty! Do we decline on his behalf or let her propose this? If it comes to an actual offer…”

Ser Ilm and Dame Hiyev were taking Vernoue far more seriously than Rabbiteater. He thought all this was hilarious, but they saw the actual political implications.

“What’s the problem? She wants to marry Venoriat? Fall’s Sentinel is a man. He probably has sex.”

The two Autumn Knights gave Rabbiteater horrified looks of scandal, and he started to get annoyed. Venoriat was a man in his sixties in great shape for his age.

Why did Humans assume that they stopped having sex? He felt it was ageist.

“…Even assuming the match were possible, and I grant you, there might be some truly diplomatic reasons for it, Venoriat is three times Princess Vernoue’s age, Rabbiteater. It would be untoward.”

Ah, that Rabbiteater got. He nodded very reasonably.

“Okay. So he marries her.”

Ilm opened his mouth, and Rabbiteater went on.

Doesn’t have sex.”

“A marriage of convenience? Why would the Fall’s Sentinel entertain that?”

Rabbiteater rolled his eyes and nodded to Vernoue.

“So she can be happy, read books all day, and do magic. Duh. Venoriat would do that.”

When Ser Ilm looked at Rabbiteater, it was with genuine respect.

“…Yes. Yes, that would align with his notions, wouldn’t it? It is still a dramatic request, but you have some of Fall’s wisdom, Ser Solstice.”

“Yep.”

They headed back to the discussion, and Ilm promised to forward the idea to Venoriat, much to Vernoue’s clear delight. It was obvious she didn’t often get much progress on that idea.

Rabbiteater felt pleased with himself and liked Vernoue like any other [Mage]. She was weird about magic. But not that bad. Besides, it was a good idea.

Vernoue started with a ‘V’. So did Venoriat. You had to look for that kind of thing.

 

——

 

Still, both 3rd and 5th Princesses were sort of sad. So Rabbiteater was prepared for the [Princess of Depression] herself, the Cursed Princess Seraphel, not to disappoint.

Markus, Meisa, Talia, and Ilm met with Seraphel. In fact, she entertained more [Knights] than the other two [Princesses] for short gatherings. It seemed that Seraphel didn’t have as much of a selfish reason other than politely filling their time, and she had written as much. The [Knights] were free to occupy their time with any pressing matters, but curiosity seemed to motivate even Ser Ilm to attend.

Princess Seraphel du Marquin was the most interesting [Princess] by far for a few reasons. Firstly, she was the first [Princess] who didn’t ask Rabbiteater to remove his helmet because she’d heard about his vow. Second?

She looked far more at ease than the other two [Princesses]. Still under duress, but the pressure of the siege and fear had loosened the tongues of the other two. Seraphel?

She’d done this before.

“I have had the misfortune of surviving two sieges last year. In quick order. It rather gets old. Although I prefer this genteel siege to the other two. The first one had undead clawing at the walls day and night. The smell of it was dire enough.”

“You survived an undead siege, Your Highness? I heard of that. A rogue [Necromancer]?”

Seraphel’s face fell. She ran a hand around her cup, then kept pouring tea for the small company.

“Afiele, yes. A terrible time. I thank you all for your bravery in fighting this war. I only regret that Aielef, Vernoue, and I can do so very little. If it were a battle, I could at least distract the enemy—but I believe we’ll surrender if they get to us.”

“Interesting. You have a battle-Skill? What is it?”

Rabbiteater leaned forwards, but Talia pulled him back subtly. Meisa glared at Talia, and Seraphel’s expression was wan. Which meant sad.

“Nothing to boast of, Ser Solstice. Just a few levels gained during the siege. I was not pivotal. Others…made the true difference. And the one Skill I do have that could change the odds—cannot work on you.”

All the [Knights] blinked at this. She had a Skill that could actually move the battlefield?

“May I ask what its nature is, Princess du Marquin? Perhaps it can be used.”

Seraphel waved this off, looking flustered. She gazed at Ser Ilm, then sighed.

“I suppose I’ve put my foot in it. Believe me, Ser Ilm, I would have volunteered it if I thought it were applicable. It is not. I could strengthen your company, [Knights] or [Soldiers]—but only if you were dead.

“Ooh. Tricky.”

Rabbiteater was the only person who spoke into the silence with an understanding nod. Everyone else exchanged glances.

…Noelictus no doubt…

Talia murmured to Meisa. The conversation changed fast, as if this were scandalous. Which Rabbiteater felt was too bad, because he just bet there was a reason a [Princess] had a Skill that worked on the undead.

But no, everyone else had manners. Seraphel was indeed depressing. They did not go into her marriages, but it was all over her. A kind of resigned frustration.

“I quite admire you, Ser Solstice. I have been the observer three times now to others risking their lives and doing great deeds. That is a [Princess]’ lot. I can hardly wield a sword.”

“Want to learn how? You have to get hit, but you can practice.”

Again, Talia elbowed him, but Seraphel just laughed.

“I think I’ve passed my prime already. Twenty eight, and a [Princess] is a bit too specialized to take up arms. Forgive me, I’m maudlin. I realize now that I have—let opportunity pass me by. But I did everything because I was expected to. In that sense, my sister might have a better idea—if she weren’t running away. That’s hardly better.”

Rabbiteater frowned as Seraphel spoke. He was really starting to wonder who this legendary runaway was, but he couldn’t drop what she’d said.

“You want to be strong and fight? Even Ailendamus? Risk your life?”

“I’m sure Ser Solstice doesn’t mean to impugn your honor, Your Highness.”

Talia interrupted him, trying to step on his toes. In reply, he kicked her so hard her eyes watered. Stop doing that. Seraphel just waved a hand.

“I’m quite aware of the difference. Call it bravado, but I have been in danger before, Ser Solstice. In that time, I wished I could fight like my champion, Ser Dalimont, did. He himself wished he had more strength. If I could do something…I would. But a [Princess] is not exactly a class meant for war. [Battle Princesses] are rare.”

“Ah. But you can get strong. Strong as a Gold-rank. Want to know how?”

Every [Knight] turned to Rabbiteater. Even Talia stopped trying to clutch at her leg and looked at him. Seraphel blinked.

“Really? Strong as that. How?”

Ser Solstice leaned forwards, and his blank visor seemed to conceal great secrets. Everyone else leaned in, and he spoke, confidentially, imparting to them a great secret.

“Every day…do one hundred situps. This keep is small. Maybe do two hundred laps in the courtyard. If you go outside? Twenty laps around entire keep. Pushups, fifty at least. Also, you need to get some wood and pull up and down. And then—”

He had an entire training regime, and his audience listened to him try to describe how to do half of them before Talia interrupted.

Ser Solstice. What are you talking about?”

Rabbiteater saw Seraphel smiling uncertainly, as if she thought he was mocking her.

“I don’t believe sheer fitness is the way to reach Gold-rank, if you don’t mind me saying so, Ser Solstice.”

“Why not?”

He looked around, a bit hurt by their skepticism. Rabbiteater touched his chest.

“I did that. That’s how you start. Then you do more. Every day. You practice. When I was small, I did that. Until I could beat Gold-ranks with my brothers. Now? I can beat them myself.”

There was no lie in what he’d said. If you worked hard, you would gain more than others, levels or not. That was what Garen Redfang had taught them, and it was true. That was Rabbiteater’s very ethos.

Yet Seraphel just shook her head.

“I…do take your point, Ser Solstice. But a [Princess] has duties. I have married and done all for my nation. For the Eternal Throne.”

“Why? If you hate it, why not just leave? Or do what you want?”

Rabbiteater countered. Talia tried to interrupt, and so did Markus, so he kicked both of them so hard they doubled-over. Seraphel gazed at him. But not certainly. Her eyes flickered to his visor and then around the room.

“Duty, Ser Solstice. I have had the same thoughts, but I did what I did…for my family and crown. We must do these things.”

“No, we don’t.”

Rabbiteater emptied his teacup into his visor, sucking it down a straw. Meisa winced at the loud sound, then he put the cup down.

Something interesting was happening. Of all the [Princesses]…Seraphel was making him the most irritated by far. And he suspected the feeling was mutual. Rabbiteater tapped his breast.

“I have done what I wanted. Many things I was told to do, but I did them because I believed I should. When I was young, my father told me I would die a warrior and never grow old. But he taught me to be proud and strong.”

Garen Redfang, a father to all his warriors. Talia glared at Rabbiteater, and he saw the familiar distrust. A dislike—purely of who he was.

Goblin.

“That is a terrible destiny to give a child, Ser Solstice. That father of yours…can you claim he was a good man?”

Rabbiteater looked straight at her.

“I don’t know. Was your father good?”

He ignored her and looked back at Seraphel.

“I followed his orders until the day I didn’t, because I believed it. But I never did anything I didn’t want to do. Sometimes I didn’t know, so I followed my brothers. But I would never get married if I didn’t want to. Maybe I would if I thought it helped. You want to get strong? Pick up a sword and practice. Everything else is a stupid excuse.”

The other [Knights] were caught in a terrible, awkward silence, but Seraphel’s eyes flashed.

“You are painfully blunt, Ser Solstice. Thank you for teaching me how to bear arrow wounds. I am sure Ailendamus’ archers will be a pleasant break from this conversation.”

He grinned at her. Yet it was Talia who burst out. She turned to face him, and Rabbiteater realized that what they had never truly discussed was coming out now.

Maybe it was his words. The way he spoke down to a [Princess] and a [Knight] with royal blood.

Maybe it was kicking her twice in the shins, but Talia Kallinad was a [Summer Knight] and lost her temper.

“You speak surely of duty and freedom, Ser Solstice, for someone who followed us to war. You told me yourself you had no purpose, but it is duty which impelled me to race back to fight in defense of my home. I would not dare question a [Princess]’ resolve for her country, or even a [Knight]’s, as you lack either.”

Dame Talia, retract your words or I will have you retract them at the point of a sword!

Meisa rose, and Ilm and Markus grabbed her.

“You are in the presence of a [Princess], both of you. Princess Seraphel, we withdraw with greatest apologies—”

Ilm tried to pull them away, but Rabbiteater had been thinking of what to tell Talia. Now, hearing her words, he just faced her.

Her and Seraphel and the Goblin [Champion]. The [Knight]’s voice rasped under his helmet.

“I had no purpose because my brothers died, and my people died. Because they died, and I could not save them, and I wandered around. Until I met you.”

Talia Kallinad paused and saw Ser Solstice, first the mysterious Goblin Slayer, next, the enigma, a man with honor. Then…a Goblin.

A Goblin who had bested a [General] with his bare hands and rescued them all. Markus wondered how Talia could see him otherwise. Meisa was glaring, restrained by Ilm, but she let Rabbiteater speak.

He was not eloquent, but he had still learned enough. Rabbiteater pointed at Talia, for once, angrily. And not for the reasons she thought.

“You say I followed you. As if it were light. Into war. Now—now we see a Great General destroying armies. And you think this is a terrible thing and face death. You waver; I see it. I? I knew I might die when I stepped on that boat in Izril.

She blinked at him, and Rabbiteater slapped his chest.

“Do you think I didn’t? I came across the sea to fight in your stupid war. Not because I was without purpose. Because…I liked you all. I knew I might die. But I went.”

He looked at Markus, Meisa, and Talia.

“I know death. More than any one of you can dream. I knew it, but I came because I wanted you alive. If I could keep you. Do not tell me I do not know duty. I know duty—it is you who do not understand death. You are not ready for it. You have no resolve.”

He lectured the [Knights] and the [Princess], sneering at them. Seraphel’s eyes were wide with outrage, but Rabbiteater just turned and pointed.

“There. That corner.”

Everyone stared at a corner of Seraphel’s guest room. It had a patch of carpet that was slightly peeling, which had annoyed the hell out of Seraphel the instant she saw it. Trust Aielef to give her a bad room.

“Er…what about it, Rabbit?”

Rabbit? Ilm and Seraphel blinked, but the Goblin just looked at the others.

“Will you die there? Will you fight with sword and spell and bleed and die with your stomach in your hands—there?”

What, there? Everyone was confused. Rabbiteater pointed.

“I will. I will fight and die in that corner for someone I met. A second ago. If I believe they should live. I am ready. You are not. That is what it means to be a [Knight]. Any battle, any fight may be my last—but I do not need big words or reasons. I went to this war for you, Talia. You and all the others.”

He pointed at Talia, and she went pale. Ser Markus exhaled, just once. He saw it.

A Goblin [Knight]’s honor. He saw Meisa and Ilm were similarly struck. But perhaps Meisa had seen it all along.

It was Princess Seraphel who interjected into the silence, and everyone turned, almost forgetting she was there.

“I begin to understand you, Ser Solstice. But tell me—if we all have one chance, why do you keep risking yours? You, who have seen and done so much?”

The curious gaze of the 4th Princess of Calanfer met the [Champion]’s. Rabbiteater spoke shortly.

“Because someone must. And we did. I survived. So I’m still doing it. Why did you not run, after the second marriage? The third? Why are you still doing it?”

Seraphel flinched from the glare and looked at Rabbiteater. Distantly, as if looking at someone else, wearing armor, standing there, she murmured.

“I suppose because I was afraid to do anything else after wasting so much in service of my family. Then—I thought I could be happy. That my journey to Noelictus was for the best. But even hope like that died in the Kingdom of Shade. I wonder. If I had been like my sister, would I be happier? She ran. But I will only know when Dalimont reports back what became of her.”

“Who?”

Rabbiteater wearied of this. He felt tired, no longer angry. Disappointed in Talia, and—he looked at Seraphel, and she shrugged, blandly surprised he didn’t know.

“Lyonette du Marquin.”

The 4th Princess waited—then saw him slap the side of his helmet.

“…What?”

“Lyonette du Marquin. Lyonette the…oh, what’s the name? Lyonette the Fiery. She’s run off and still vanished, though that’s probably a secret.”

Seraphel was too annoyed and distracted to keep the secret. She reflected this was at least an entertaining conversation, but to her surprise, Ser Solstice didn’t move.

He was no Dalimont, or Ser Dalius. He was rather rude, seemed to think she should have arms as wide as kegs, and she was angry, nettled by how he viewed the world.

Yet when he heard that name, he hesitated.

“…Is Lyonette…female?”

Everyone just stared at him, but Rabbiteater went on.

“Does she look like you? Red hair…bright skin…walks stupid?”

“I beg your—yes. Yes, my younger sister has royal red hair—she doesn’t dye it like Aielef! She also has a waspish tongue, no sense of when to shut up, struts around calling people peons, and she is the rudest person I have ever met. Present company excepted!

Seraphel snapped, finally at an end to her patience. She had met a lot of varied people over the last year, but she was still a [Princess]! Yet Rabbiteater, Ser Solstice, just looked Seraphel dead in the eye and shrugged.

“She never called me a peon. You forgot the pet bee.”

Seraphel gazed at Rabbiteater, then stuck a pinkie finger in her ear and wiggled it for a second.

“…Excuse me?”

“The pet bee. And she serves drinks. And has a Mrsha.”

“A…what did you say?”

“She works at an inn.”

The Goblin was being helpful, adding salient details. The [Knights] of the Order of Seasons swung their heads between him and Seraphel like they were watching a ping pong rally—which had yet to be invented. Seraphel hesitated.

“No, you’re quite wrong. It must be an unbelievable coincidence. This other Lyonette might have red hair—”

“And blue eyes. And once blew up a shop with a [Fireball] ring.”

“…that airheaded, dung-sniffing…she’s in Oteslia. My champion has informed me of that. He mentioned a d…no. What’s a Mrsha?”

Seraphel’s voice was very uncertain. Rabbiteater gave her a mysterious shrug.

“I don’t know where she is. But she was at Liscor, in an inn. Serving drinks. She had a pet bee called Apista, and she was nice to me.”

“To you. With—without a helmet?”

Talia had to interject. Rabbiteater rolled his eyes at her.

Without a helmet, stupid. Me and my brothers. She served acid flies to Antinium.”

Seraphel looked like she was in mortal fear that this was all some elaborate prank. Yet Rabbiteater was confident. It had to be Lyonette.

Why?

Because it had been The Wandering Inn, and these coincidences…he closed his eyes.

How to prove it? How to tell her—ah. It was so simple.

Seraphel du Marquin and the Order of Seasons, all experts in auras, felt something engulf them. Seraphel began to push back with her own presence, instinctively—but this was not an aura clash.

She heard laughter and abruptly found herself sitting on a harder chair. The table in front of her was higher and had scars on the wood. Someone had dropped something sticky on one side. She looked around and stared at a mug.

Markus found himself smelling inviting cooking smells from a warm…he turned his head, and the illusion faded, but if he sat still—

Meisa looked down at a white face staring up at her, which darted away, scampering around like the biggest squirrel she’d ever seen. Seraphel looked around and saw laughing figures, indistinct, seen only out of the corner of your eye.

Drakes and Gnolls. An inn, bustling as someone performed on stage, a giant room. Then she saw a familiar face, weaving through the crowd, balancing a platter on one hand with practiced ease, calling for Mrsha.

For a second—Seraphel saw her sister, clear as day, but unlike the Lyonette she knew.

Then the Aura of the Hearth faded, and Rabbiteater was left panting. He looked at Seraphel as she and the Order of Seasons sat there. The Goblin pointed at the [Princess], jabbing his finger so aggressively he would have caused a minor incident in a royal court.

“She may have run away from home. She might be young. And she’s probably stupid. But I look at you three [Princesses]. You’re…Meisa. What’s the word for…”

He turned to Meisa and rattled something off in a screeching tongue. Meisa hesitated, because she wasn’t learning Goblin fast, and Rabbiteater snapped his fingers.

Depressing. You. And Aielef. And Vernoue. Lyonette ran from duty. She may be a bad [Princess], but I think she was high-level. And guess what?”

He leaned forwards, and Seraphel leaned back. She thought she saw the hint of…a face? Was that a flash of red? Rabbiteater spoke right to her.

“When she smiled, I believed her.”

Then he turned, furious, stalked over to the door, and hesitated. Everyone saw him turn back, kick the chair he’d been sitting in across the room, then storm over to the door and slam it on the way out.

In the dead silence, after about fifteen seconds, Rabbiteater opened the door.

Do something with your life, stupid!

He pointed at Seraphel—then slammed the door again.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was so uncharacteristically mad at Seraphel—more than Talia, more than almost anyone he’d ever met—that he forgot the war was going on for a bit.

Even Tyrion Veltras hadn’t infuriated him as much. Because he looked at Seraphel and saw a brave person hidden behind a wretched [Princess]. All of them, Aielef, Vernoue, Seraphel—

They would have made for happier, better Goblins.

Rabbiteater wished they had met Erin, because he felt like she would have hit them with a frying pan and helped them.

He could not. Among other reasons—on the fourth day, Ailendamus’ Great General remembered the keep.

Four days of bitter fighting and she must have come to a decision that having three bottled [Princesses] in theory wasn’t worth much as three in hand.

In short, she decided that they’d make good captives and perhaps force the Lightherald out of the battle. Or force him to try and rescue them.

Only Eldavin could have interceded in the battle, or the Griffin Prince, and neither one seemed to think the three [Princesses] mattered that much. Everyone else would have to cut through Ailendamus’ entire army and the token rearguard that outnumbered the defenders.

To take down the keep, which was still a proper fortress of Kaliv, and steal the [Princesses], General Dionamella entrusted the [General] holding this spot with an elite guard of [Knights]—including three hundred Knights of the Hydra from the capital—with four Greatbows.

Four.

She had already insulted the worthless honor of the Order of Seasons with the bare thousand soldiers holding them in check. They would have sallied forth…if not for the fact that there were three hundred Order of the Hydra [Knights], unmounted, two dozen Order of the Thirsting Veil [Knights], and three Drell Knights.

Talia Kallinad was aware that if they tried, the Order of Seasons would get kicked just like last time.

The four Greatbows she added to the thousand-some [Soldiers] were insulting. Unless you’d seen them in action. Rabbiteater eyed the crossed bows, an ‘x’ shape made up of two bows joined at the center. They were metal, sleek, and so huge that a team had to crank them back to fire the Lance-Arrows, which were giant metal arrows that could kill a low-level [Knight] in a single hit.

When Ailendamus’ creators had planned for their battles, they had spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the most economical way to create a fighting force was. One of the things they’d settled on was the Order of the Hydra—a superior class given to common folk that would outnumber any other Knight Order on the continent in time.

They had waffled between magic and conventional weapons, but decided that [Mages] took a long time to train.

Whereas with proper industry…you could create a weapon capable of killing a high-level foe that even an idiot could use.

Hence, the Greatbows and crossbows that Ailendamus’ forges could churn out. Four were sent on the fourth day.

They took down the gate in three hours.

 

——

 

“They’re going to attack! Man the battlements!

Of all the stupid things for the [Fortress Keeper] to say…that was one of them. Rabbiteater had seen the Greatbows moving and braced himself. For three hours, everyone heard the terrible thwoom of impact as giant, enchanted bolts slammed into the stone of the castle.

“Destroy those bows! They are going to break our walls!”

Aielef could see the stone shuddering from the terrible impacts. Enchanted munitions. Ailendamus was using very high-level ones, and the impregnable walls of the fortress…were getting pretty pregnable.

But the worst part was that the [Fortress Keeper] was unable to oblige her. They had a grand total of six archers capable of even hitting the Greatbows. When they tried to man the battlements?

Evacuate! Evacuate—get off the walls!

The first dead of the siege were the defenders on the walls. Rabbiteater saw one being hauled down, limp—and he had been knocked flat by the blast radius of an arrow.

“We cannot even put soldiers on the walls?”

Talia looked at the other [Knights] as they realized—anyone on those walls would be hit by the arrows. Even hunkering behind the battlements, the explosive projectiles would kill you. They could keep sending soldiers up there and hope Ailendamus ran out of ammunition, Rabbiteater supposed.

They needed a Badarrow. Or to sally out and destroy the bows.

Or…just wait for the enemy to come to them. Since they had no Badarrow, and sallying out meant charging at a bunch of Greatbows and at Ailendamus, who could reinforce the few thousand with a ten-thousand strong army the instant they wanted, everyone just waited.

The mood was grim. Rabbiteater hummed as he watched the Greatbows firing from an arrow crenellation. So this was it.

He looked at the odds. Bad. The Greatbows were targeting the gates, blowing the outer portcullis to bits. They stopped firing, and he heard a report.

They’ve smashed the enchanted gate. We’ll have to hold it—but Ailendamus looks to be making ready for an attack. Ladders are being drawn up.

“But we can’t even shoot them. They’ll have walls and gate.”

Markus groaned. Rabbiteater was no [Architect], but he guessed that if the Dawn Concordat won this war, they’d be changing their fortresses to something less prone to this scenario.

Someone interrupted the discussion. Dame Talia strode over. She hesitated, glanced at Rabbiteater, but addressed everyone with a grim face.

“They won’t need the ladders. I just took a look at their invasion force. Please—Ser Ilm, where are the [Princesses]?”

“With the [Fortress Keeper]. Why?”

Talia Kallinad hesitated, then bowed her head.

“I am going to suggest to the [Princesses] that we surrender after thirty minutes of fighting. Or earlier, at their discretion. Ailendamus has just detached another six thousand troops. I counted over sixty [Battle Mages], and the [Knights] now number over five hundred.”

There were less than a fifth that many of the Order of Seasons. Everyone went silent, and Rabbiteater stopped humming.

“Ah.”

He decided to look himself. No one stopped him; if he went onto the battlements or through the gates, he died. Some unlucky [Soldiers] had already gotten shots taken at them, and the Greatbows were manned by marksmen.

However—Rabbiteater could see well enough.

“Yep. Two thousand riders. Four thousand soldiers.

They didn’t need much to take this fortress. Those [Riders] would storm the gates. Probably crash through the first wave. And so many?

Oh, I get it. They’ll use [Light Bridge] to get to the walls. Clever.

Rabbiteater was adjusting to a new way of using tactics. All he had to do was imagine what he’d do if he had unlimited funds or magic. It would be an equal fight, defenders and attackers by number.

Not equal by classes or quality. Regular footsoldiers would be squaring up against the Order of the Hydra, one-to-one.

We can hold them in the passageways for a while. Unless the [Mages] gas us. Or use acid. It’s what I’d do.

Rabbiteater calculated that they’d have surrendered or be dead by nightfall. He eyed the setting sun and sat there.

Now. Now came the moment where he saw the Lightherald fighting in the distance. The champion of Calanfer probably saw the danger, but no one could intervene. The Archmage of Memory was furiously battling the Great General. The Griffin Prince…

Could not stop six thousand on his own.

Neither could Rabbiteater. But he saw this moment as pivotal. A small battle. But the one he was at. So he asked himself one question.

What would Erin do?

No. More like—what would she tell him to do? These were different things. Firstly, what would she say? What would that great [General] say?

 

——

 

The Goblin had no boon. He had no magic to bring that moment back and make it immortal. His aura was not that powerful and, perhaps, never would be.

All he could do was remember and guess. So he did. He could do anything. He might not be good at anything, but he could try to do anything.

Erin Solstice and Zel Shivertail sat at a table. This was not a fight with a single [General].

But it mattered.

“This is not your war.”

“I know. But I have fought and killed. So it is mine. I can walk away, but what about the dignity of people I’ve killed?”

The Tidebreaker nodded. Or would he shrug? Rabbiteater was also more eloquent in his imagination. And he was more handsome.

I don’t want you to die.

Erin Solstice offered him a cookie. Even in his imagination, it was only vanilla. Rabbiteater munched on it anyways.

“Me neither. What can I do?”

“White flag.”

Erin offered it to him, and the Goblin laughed. But yes…that was it.

He would not die without a reason. He had told Seraphel he would die in that corner—but only if it mattered.

Only if I can matter. Was there any way to do that?

For some reason—Rabbiteater thought there was. He checked his artifacts and wished he had the Bell of Really Painful Ringing. But he didn’t. He had his brother’s cloak and his other brother’s axe and some armor. It would have to do.

But how did he stop all those damned fighters? Maybe if it was a no-[Mage], no-[Knight] situation, Rabbiteater would take these odds. They could win that, definitely.

But the [Knights] were tough. Stupid—but tough.

Unlike that [General], they’ll fight you with everything they have. The Order of Seasons underestimated them, but you know better. Commonfolk. The Order of the Hydra are still true [Knights].

Zel was analyzing them. Rabbiteater nodded. As brave and good as Redfangs; there could be no higher compliment.

“Yep. Their only weakness is they have stupid rules.”

They were like Talia. Painfully good and straightforward and, perhaps, incapable of change. He hoped she would. But the idea stirred something in his head.

Hey, you want this flag or not? It’s getting heavy. How did I carry it all battle?

Imaginary-Erin waved it at him. The Goblin’s head rose. Erin saw he had an idea and smiled, trusting him to run away if it got too bad.

Have an adventure. She turned the flag and offered the plain wooden haft to him, like a sword. Rabbiteater rose. He looked at her, her smile—and wished and hoped they’d see each other again.

Then he walked through her without taking the flag. Imaginary Erin vanished with a sigh.

Aw. Rude.

But she sounded proud.

 

——

 

Ailendamus was coming, and Rabbiteater was nowhere to be found. Seraphel heard Talia, who was standing with them for their decision before heading to the fighting, discussing the issue.

She wondered if Ser Solstice had decided there was nothing for him here.

That was a cruel thought, but she was still upset by their conversation. And thinking. But as they watched the advance of Ailendamus, she knew that they weren’t going to last thirty minutes.

So many [Knights]. How can one nation field so many?

Aielef was pale as she saw the glittering forms in armor advancing. Seraphel resisted the urge to tell her that it was all about the size of the nation. But Aielef had a point; the Great General could send six hundred [Knights] to take this keep like Calanfer could spare…six…casually. Her escort into Noelictus—for a [Princess]—had been two dozen.

The Greatbows of Ailendamus volleyed—once. Soldiers trying to take the battlements to loose arrows fled or died.

Thunder. Seraphel saw the last fight drain out of the [Fortress Keeper] with that. He had a Skill, a good one.

[Defenders: Resistance to Arrows]. It would have made them difficult to fell from any ordinary army. It did almost nothing to the giant Lance-Arrows.

“[Princesses]. We will fight as long as we can. I will…let you know when there is no more time. I hope you will make the best decision. By the Eternal Throne and Kaliv. To arms!

The man turned to them, and Seraphel was the only one of the three who nodded. Talia also moved to leave and fight with her people. Ailendamus’ war drums were sounding, growing louder as they cheered, as if they had already won. Only silence in the keep.

Then Seraphel saw Ser Solstice. He walked out of wherever he had been waiting, and that mysterious [Knight] who had met Lyonette appeared.

Like a figure from stories, he passed through the lines of the infantry in the courtyard, braced for the first push. They parted, and Seraphel saw them exclaiming. When some saw what he was doing, they almost tried to stop him.

“Is he taking his place at the vanguard?”

Vernoue was confused. But Seraphel’s eyes widened.

He had changed nothing about his armor. A cloak of red billowed behind him, blood. He had said it was the blood of his brother.

He carried a single, golden axe with jade-green edges, and the shield that Vernoue had enchanted. The armor of a [Champion] gleamed on his body. Not all one color and scratched in places.

The Goblin Slayer of Izril.

Even Ailendamus knew his name. He had defeated three [Generals], or so Seraphel heard.

But was the man mad? Surely he was, because he did not stop at the head of the courtyard. He walked through the shattered gates still steaming with the heat of the magic that had ripped them aside, over broken stone, and out of the gates.

There was only one thing he could be doing. Seraphel’s lips moved. Aielef got there first.

“He’s surrendering. Of course! An Izrilian [Knight] can do it without loss of honor! I could kiss him.”

She put a hand over her breast and sighed in relief. Seraphel looked at her older sister. Then she stomped on Aielef’s toes.

You idiot.

There was only one thing any reasonable person could think he was doing. The Goblin Slayer stood in the broken gate as Ailendamus caught sight of him. He had even put a feather on his helmet. He raised the axe high overhead—and then cast it down. He planted the blade in the ground, lifted his shield, and faced the army of Ailendamus.

Then he gave them the middle finger.

The advancing warriors of Ailendamus saw the Goblin [Knight] standing in the open gates. The [General of the Line] calmly spotted the officer-killer and identified the threat. He halted the advance of Ailendamus forces’ a second and raised a hand.

“Greatbow One. Loose.”

A Greatbow fired like thunder.

 

——

 

“Rabbiteater!”

Meisa shouted, and Markus’ voice joined hers. The rest of the Order of Seasons had been fighting to get to him, but the Dawn Concordat and Pheislant’s forces were stopping them from dying with him.

The Greatbow of Ailendamus loosed a bolt, a solid chunk of metal possibly only…what? Fifteen pounds?

At a velocity sufficient to punch a hole in plate armor with [Unerring Aim]. A low-level Skill. Even an [Innkeeper] had that kind of Skill.

It flew towards the gates and the open figure as [Soldiers] stood aside from the opening even as they readied for attackers. It could punch through six of them lined up, and it would knock even more flat if they didn’t evade it.

The [Knight] never moved. He saw the flash and the dark iron bolt flying at him.

It’s slower than I th—

Then it hit him. The impact was the heaviest thing that Rabbiteater had ever felt. He had never, truly, felt Greydath hit him. But it was the only thing that Rabbiteater could imagine that was—

The [Knight] reeled. His friends screamed his name, and the [Princesses] covered their mouths. Vernoue covered her eyes—then peeked.

The gore as the bolt went through his body and pinned him to the ground like a metal butterfly, red viscera seeping from—

“Huh? He’s not dead?”

What they had expected to see didn’t happen. The [Knight] went stumbling backwards, slamming into one gate. But he was not dead.

He was swearing as loud as they had ever heard. In a mix of regular language and that strange, chittering tongue as the Lance-Arrow, bent, dropped from his shield and he kicked it away.

“Did he just…block a Lance-Arrow?”

Seraphel couldn’t believe her eyes. She hadn’t considered that was possible. Or, even if she thought you could gain the Skills for that—who would try it?

But yes, Vernoue squeaked as her shield and a [Champion]’s Skills revealed a dent.

Just a single pockmark in the center. Rabbiteater was waving his arm around so it wasn’t broken—but he’d possibly cracked the bone? Yet he hadn’t died.

The sight of anyone standing after taking a Lance-Arrow was one thing. Everyone expected him to retreat—but the [Knight] didn’t. He set himself.

And another Greatbow fired.

The [General of the Line] might have been as surprised as anyone by the [Knight] surviving, but if you couldn’t kill him with one, try again. Everyone knew that.

Another arrow flew at the [Knight], and he reacted.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater was really regretting his life choices. He hadn’t expected that to hurt so badly. And he was convinced he wasn’t going to survive more than a few more shots.

So he changed tactics.

He had walked out there trusting to a few Skills. [Reinforced Armor (Steel)]. [Champion’s Gear]. [Improved Block]. Vernoue’s magic.

But most importantly—the one Skill that he could activate.

[Aspect of the Champion: Greater Endurance].

It had let him take the impact. But after feeling it once—Rabbiteater wasn’t going to do it again. So he did the only thing he could. Defense? Gone.

[Aspect of the Champion: Greater Speed].

The world slowed. Rabbiteater saw the bolt coming at him fast. So he raised his shield, but didn’t move to block. He surged, throwing his weight, angling his body. He threw his entire force behind the shield—

And parried the Lance-Arrow.

Okay, he deflected it. He hit the tip mid-trajectory with all of his weight and sent it glancing into the wall. The explosion and ringing impact in his arm and shield made everyone duck.

When they looked up, there he was. Rabbiteater checked himself.

That feels a lot better. He swung his left arm, shaking out the tingling, raised his shield—

Then he heard the cheering.

It came up from behind him. [Soldiers] shouting, as much to give awe at the mad display as anything. Mixed with it were other voices, telling him to come back.

But Rabbiteater didn’t move. He looked up. The mad cheering kept going before they realized what was happening.

You see—the Hobgoblin was not an idiot. He was a veteran warrior and, unlike Ryoka Griffin, knew the value of stabbing an apparent corpse. Because he knew that, he saw the other two Greatbows fire simultaneously.

Two Lance-Arrows, targeting him. Rabbiteater didn’t blink. He pivoted, stepped left—

Knocked one aside. The other plowed through the open gates as it missed him and nearly took Markus out at the legs. He leapt back as the Goblin turned, setting himself. A third Lance-Arrow missed him by inches. He leaned out of the way.

 

——

 

Rabbiteater! They’re not stopping! Get back!

Princess Seraphel heard Talia’s shout and started. What did they call him? Rabbiteater? What kind of Gnollish name was that?

Everyone knew he was a Gnoll. He had survived four shots, but the fifth came from the same four Greatbows. Because…they could reload. And fast—probably with a Skill.

He dodged it! But he—

“He can’t keep doing that forever! What is he trying to do, exhaust their ammunition?”

No one understood Ser Solstice’s apparent madness. No one could follow the logic at first, but he stayed there.

Again, he knocked a Lance-Arrow aside, but this time staggered. He nearly lost his arm and clutched at it as he misjudged the timing.

He could not do it forever. He drank a potion with one hand, diving left and coming upright. The fact that he was facing the Greatbows was saving his life; he could see the arrows coming and dodge them. They were, after all, arrows; if you dodged them you were safe.

It was just insane anyone would try.

Even the Goblins watching the [Knight] weren’t sure what the hell he was doing. They sat on the tops of the pass, and more watched from the scrying orb, knowing who he was. Wondering what he was doing.

Because—of course you knew the scrying orbs were showing this. Roses were red, violets were blue, and Drassi would take Octavia’s club and bash in Noass’s and Sir Relz’s heads if they didn’t show this.

They’d do it themselves if they missed it. This was television.

But what. Was. He. Up. To? The [Commentators] jabbering away, Rabbiteater’s friends and people and Lyonette—had no clue.

Perhaps it was his companions of the Order of Seasons, who knew Rabbiteater’s view on the class he had. Perhaps they had the first inkling.

 

——

 

The Goblin staggered upright. The figure-in-armor’s cloak swished as he raised one fist to the sky. The other held the shield at the ready. Then he whirled and dodged the eighth shot.

The Greatbows were firing, but now the [General] ordered them to synchronize their shots. Four at once. Enchanted munitions.

They nearly killed him. The [Knight] saw the bolts coming, saw the glowing tips, and dove. He came up in a roll, and the explosion as all four hit the ground nearly kicked him off his feet.

But he caught himself, and his head rose. This time—he lifted two arms.

Battered metal gleaming to the sky. The [Knight] looked like he was celebrating. The [General] wondered if he was taunting them. Did he know the Greatbows had, each, two hundred and thirteen shots left?

“[Instantaneous Reload]. Greatbows One and Two, fire, one second delay, then the other two.”

The [General] spoke crisply through his speaking stone. But he hesitated on giving the order to fire as something happened within his ranks. What the mysterious [Knight] of Izril had been waiting for.

A…riot?

Of all the things that the [General] was ready for, a mutiny in the ranks was not it. Yet that was what happened. The neat lines of warriors ready to charge devolved. He hesitated, saw arguing, fighting—

[General] Rel, what is taking so long?

Great General Dionamella was impatient. Somehow, in the midst of commanding, she had noticed them slow.

“Possibly confusion spells. Or airborne alchemy. I am seeing—fighting?”

At first, General Rel did not know what he was seeing. The front ranks were turning, and he wondered if it were an [Insanity] spell by the Archmage. But no—it wasn’t bloody. Yet even as he watched, a group of riders broke for him.

Halt!

His bodyguard raised their weapons, but the [Knights] dismounted.

General! Please halt your advance!

Three [Knights] all advanced past their comrades. All six hundred had suddenly turned. A representative of the Order of the Hydra, the Order of the Thirsting Veil, and the Order of Drell all strode to the [General].

“Explain.”

It is a disgrace, sir! One [Knight] stands at the gates and takes on our Greatbows! He is challenging us.

The Order of the Drell’s representative gave the most coherent answer. The [General] looked at the [Knight] and now saw the mysterious Ser Solstice gesticulating again.

He was slamming his bare hand against the shield as he waited for another volley. He hadn’t picked up the axe he had dropped; there was no point. The meaning was as obvious as could be.

Come on. Hit me!

Now the [General] saw what he was doing and gritted his teeth. The [Knights] were riding down on the confused Greatbow archers, blocking the way.

“General, we demand to fight this brave [Knight] alone! He is the same one who has defeated three [Generals]. Ser Solstice, the Goblin Slayer of Izril. I have heard his name from the Order of the Hydra. Sir, we petition you for the right to duel him as honor demands.”

Absolutely not! This is a ruse to buy time!”

“Even so! Our class demands it!”

General Rel was not ignorant of honor. He himself had felt a twinge at ordering the Greatbows to rain fire down on the helpless defenders, but this was a war. And he saw what Ser Solstice was doing.

But then—so did the [Knights]. The Order of Drell’s highest-level warrior was Level 41. He drew closer.

“General, I will go myself. But we must answer honor with honor. The eyes of the world are upon us.”

The scrying spells. There was no help for it. General Rel reported to the Great General, frustrated, as the first [Knight] rode up the hill towards the gates.

There he met the Goblin Slayer. The [Knight] picked up his axe as the Drell Knight asked if he preferred mounted combat.

He was a Level 41 [Knight], exact class unknown. He did not know Rabbiteater’s class, and could not know he faced a Level 30+ [Champion] and [Knight] below Level 20.

But he did not take his opponent lightly, and he was armed in the Order of Drell’s Cinterglass Plate. Enchanted gear.

He did offer Rabbiteater a potion to heal his wounds and a stamina potion, but the [Knight] declined. He was tired from dodging and parrying the Lance-Arrows, but he was ready for a fight.

 

——

 

Level 30 vs Level 40, though. It wouldn’t matter if Rabbiteater were Level 39; a single capstone Skill made all the difference in the world.

Markus’ fingers were in his mouth, and he was biting his gauntlets. Meisa just watched, hands clenched.

Rabbiteater had to know that his opponents might be higher-level than him. The Drell Knight had an untrained aura by sheer virtue of his level. And…he had an axe.

An axe that wavered in and out of existence. Some kind of phase-weapon? That was a Skill or enchantment so dangerous that Meisa couldn’t gauge it. No—a Skill, because she saw the enchantment on the axe was a dripping trail of water that gleamed faintly.

Yet Rabbiteater faced the Drell Knight, just as he wanted. Just as the clever Goblin planned. There was only one way for him to even have a chance of slowing the attack. Meisa knew and admired it in him.

But how callous. How silly of the [Spring Knight]. She was already realizing they could duel the other [Knights] once Rabbiteater fell. They would inevitably lose; there were six hundred [Knights], but they could do it with honor and buy a day, two, perhaps, and see if this battle would turn.

In short, Meisa did Rabbiteater the largest disservice since she had known him, because she thought that was all he had planned. The Redfang, the [Champion], the [Knight], hated losing. Losing was death to him, and it might well be.

He would have only stood here, in front of these gates, if he could beat them all.

The Drell Knight had dismounted when the Goblin Slayer of Izril lifted his axe. The Drell Knight didn’t flinch; if he were attacked while preparing, his opponent lost all honor and the Drell Knight’s order would champion him.

What he was not prepared for was what Rabbiteater did next. The Goblin saluted his foe, who was as strong as could be. Then he lifted Headscratcher’s axe—

And tossed it to the side. The shield followed suit as the Drell Knight wavered.

“Ser Solstice. What are you doing?”

A [Knight] without armaments spread his arms wide as those within and without the keep gasped. They stared at his armored form—as Ser Solstice raised his fists and gestured.

Come on, put up your dukes.

Dukes, being an archaic word for fists appropriate in this setting. The Drell Knight stared as voices of outrage rose behind him.

And every Goblin in existence watching laughed themselves sick. The live feed of this scene saw the Drell Knight, inaudible at a remove, arguing fiercely. Pointing—they even put probable subtitles under him.

Pick up your weapons, Ser! I demand a fair match!

Up yours. Fight me with your fists!

Ser Solstice brandished his fists, taunting, mocking the [Knight] as the Orders of Ailendamus booed and jeered. Yet—the Drell Knight was stuck.

He could not strike an unarmed opponent, and this was a legitimate form of combat. Even genteel in the sense that neither one would likely die.

Even so, no honorable [Knight] would ever dream of doing it. None—except perhaps a Goblin who wanted to win. And it was still a Level 41, now fairly angry, [Drell Knight of Shifting] versus a Level 34 [Champion].

Also—the first punch the Drell Knight threw turned into a feint as he vanished, reappeared on Rabbiteater’s left, and threw a full-body punch. Rabbiteater’s elbow hit him full-force in the face, and then the Goblin grabbed the arm and threw him. Then he mounted the Drell Knight and began to punch, hammering the man’s face into the ground.

A Redfang warrior, trained in hand-to-hand combat along with every other weapon under the sun. Unlike [Knights] who almost never trained in fisticuffs since they’d always have a weapon, and, besides, could fight well enough on their own, Redfangs were prepared to have no weapon at all.

Erin Solstice used to wake up to the sight of five Redfang Hobs kicking the hell out of each other in four-on-one fights sometimes.

For forty agonizing seconds, the Drell Knight was unable to throw Rabbiteater, and the [Knight] punched him in the helmet with his armored gauntlets, putting his full weight behind each blow. When he did finally manage to shift out of the pin, he ate a flying kick from Rabbiteater.

The Goblin was as good on the ground as he was at striking. [Knights] were not [Grapplers]. They had no concept of joint locks; the best they could do was restrain an opponent. Climbing all over your enemy was not to be done unless it was a Giant.

Rabbiteater took the Drell Knight down and then broke his arm. The armor, which could withstand arrows and magic, still contained mortal flesh and bones that snapped if you twisted it up, up—

That was hard enough to watch, but the Drell Knight kept fighting. He was a brave warrior, and with one arm, he kept fighting for seven more minutes. When he finally went down, Rabbiteater had dented his helmet into a twisted shape, broken one arm, and an ankle.

Then he pointed down the hill and challenged the next [Knight]. By now, he was facing the outraged [Knights] of Ailendamus, who saw the trick and disapproved. They hadn’t minded him standing there, but hand-to-hand fighting? Pins? Grapples?

Even the Order of Seasons were aghast. But [Knights]…

They came up the hill and challenged him. The next was a Thirsting Veil Knight, who spent fifteen minutes demanding he pick up the blade she offered him. At last, enraged, she dropped the sword, and he kicked the crap out of her.

Third was the Knight of the Hydra, and they traded punches and kicks the longest, the [Knight] being most familiar with fighting.

Three [Knights] downed, Rabbiteater looked up and a Drell Knight dismounted.

I challenge you, Ser.

Seraphel, in the audience, saw a [Knight]’s logic and honor at play. Rabbiteater straightened as the Drell Knight dismounted. There was no arguing this time. Nor did they give him a chance to recover, just gulp down a stamina potion.

They were [Knights]. He had picked a dishonorable way of doing this, keeping them from attacking and trapping them by their logic.

Well, you could almost admire that; the [Strategists], dishonorable folk, and [Martial Artists] certainly enjoyed Rabbiteater’s fighting. But the [Knights] were simply willing to call that bluff.

Very well. If you will fight us—you fight all of us.

Three [Knights] before four [Knights]. And they began lining up. If you bring us down, ten, or even twenty, we will challenge you until you fall.

Sound, knightly logic. It looked stupid to Seraphel as anything. Not Rabbiteater; she had to admit the [Knight] was a genius. But she would have simply ordered him taken down.

But not in front of the world, and not if you were a [Knight].

 

——

 

Ser Solstice began struggling on the sixth [Knight]. By now, the [Knights] had realized he was possibly the greatest hand-to-hand specialist in the entire keep. So they didn’t send the highest-level or most senior members against him, but [Knights] who could fight and had the Skills.

Order of the Hydra, mostly. And Rabbiteater might have been a veteran Goblin and [Champion]—but he was still fighting people until one of them was unconscious or unable to rise.

A [Knight] knocked him flat three times, and Rabbiteater’s arms shook as he got up. He took a flurry of punches and reeled.

“Ser Solstice! Give!”

He heard someone shouting at him to stop from behind. Worried for him? The Goblin touched at some blood leaking from his helmet and looked up. Through his visor, he saw the Hydra Knight waiting for him.

He leapt at his opponent and tackled them down the hill. Rabbiteater got lucky and grabbed a leg, broke it—

A seventh [Knight] dismounted and waited for him.

The Goblin’s breath wheezed in his lungs. Then it whistled when his ribs cracked. His eighth opponent allowed him a potion.

The ninth waited as he got up; his opponent was being dragged from the field. The Thirsting Veil [Knight] spoke.

“There is no shame in surrendering, Ser. You have bested eight of our number, however trickily.”

She waited as the dented helmet slowly rose. A rasping voice replied from behind the dark visor.

Ten is a good number.

The [Knight]’s eyes narrowed, and she slapped her visor down.

“If it could ever be reached.”

The tenth [Knight] saw Rabbiteater kneeling there. Not to him, but just tired. Yet when the [Champion] looked up, the [Knight] hesitated. He raised his fists and waited for Rabbiteater to move.

 

——

 

The eleventh [Knight] realized something was wrong too late. It was too late when Ser Yoriven, the very same Hydra Knight that had met the Wind Runner at the capital, stepped forwards.

He was a former [Fistfighter], a tough on the streets of Ailendamus who had impressed a [Knight] he’d punched and been given another chance.

This was not how he expected to fight this war, but he was exasperated and even a bit impressed by this crazed [Knight].

Yet he had seen the [Knight] growing weaker after ten opponents. Yoriven had heard the others speculating Yoriven would take him down; ten was a good, honorable number. It proved he was not just a desperate fool.

This was not how Yoriven wanted to fight, and he asked the same question.

“Will you heal, Ser? I regret that I cannot offer you a potion. Adjust your armor? Remove your helmet?”

The helmet was dented—badly. Yet the strange [Knight] shook his head. He took another moment, panting. Then he rose.

Let’s fight.

Yoriven felt a chill run over him, sudden goosebumps. He looked around—and realized the strange [Knight] had an aura. It was not threatening, or the other [Knights] now watching would have intervened.

Yet he heard it. Cheering voices. Shouting for Rabbiteater to get up.

Bravery.

And at the same time? Yoriven’s eyes widened.

What do I see?

Confusion. Two ideas mixing at once. Bravery and home. Yoriven felt like he was home, in his mother’s kitchen. He also saw the [Knight]’s resolve.

What did that look like to you? What it looked like, perhaps to this [Knight]—

A flicker of fur. An anxious little ball of white fur, a dog? No—a little girl offering him a towel? Someone clapping him on the shoulder, a pointed grin. Yoriven could almost see green…

Then he saw the [Knight]’s head rise. No…

The [Champion]’s. Heavy chains of exhaustion weighed down his limbs. Yet they rose. And his gaze seemed to burn behind that helmet. And Yoriven realized they had made one mistake.

They had assumed that this [Knight] thought he would ever lose. Yoriven said it, gasping, as his friends picked him up. Whispered through a broken tooth as he slipped into unconsciousness.

He’s…counter-levelling.

 

——

 

[Champion Level 36!]

 

[Champion Level 37!]

[Skill – I Burned Brighter Ere I Fell obtained!]

 

[Aura Knight Level 17!]

[Skill – Second Wind obtained!]

 

First his hands felt like they were on fire. He threw every punch with the last ounces of his strength and they hit his opponents like avalanches. Then he heard that Skill and howled.

 

——

 

A Goblin stood at the gates, an army in front of him. They realized what he was doing. Twenty [Knights] fell. And then they realized he would not fall.

Honor chained them. They could have broken it, but the [Knights] refused. He stood there, blazing like the sun. As they drew back, called on the Order of Seasons to remember their honor, he punched at the air.

Shadowboxing. Taunting them. When they jeered at him, demanded he surrender, he stood there and raised his arms to the sky.

That was when Dame Talia Kallinad realized the truth. She saw the Goblin raising his arms to the sky as each opponent fell.

Like the [Boxer]. Like a [Warrior] on every battlefield as he looked up, breathed in, and knew he lived.

A Goblin’s [Knight], with peculiar honor. A monster…

But look at him.

She had always assumed he didn’t deserve his class, [Knight], when she had realized the truth. Then she had asked why he was allowed to have it. She had treated him as someone who had to work for the right he had been granted and assumed that was how he saw the world.

That was a Human’s bias. She looked up at him, as his auras flickered and twined and merged, and saw him.

A Hobgoblin, bellowing at the sky. Catching a potion Markus tossed him. Surrounded by his brothers. By memory and glory and…

Proud.

He was the proudest, the most confident, the genuinely, truly, overwhelmingly satisfied [Knight] on the field. It was not vainglory. He stood in the middle of his valor and dared the [Knights] of Ailendamus to break themselves against him.

The [Knights] looked up at him and stopped the [General] from firing. Their classes stood in that gateway. And if they broke the faith he placed in them, they would lose it all.

So they waited, as the 30th [Knight] stepped back. Then—their army withdrew.

 

——

 

It was a mark that Rabbiteater was still a Goblin that as he stepped into the cheering keep, amid the people who looked at the legend of Ser Solstice, a hundred thousand times larger, as his friends embraced him and held him up and found him food, that he still had time to point at Seraphel.

“See? Told you.”

Goblin pettiness knew no limit. [Princesses] had no idea. The Goblin stood and breathed in.

An [Indomitable Champion].

But not Level 40.

 

——

 

If it could have ended there, it would have been the perfect tale. The journey of Ser Solstice through Ailendamus’ war. The next day, in such a story, Ailendamus fell back as the Great General was defeated, and she did something like salute him as she left, a rueful nod and a wink.

Or she was defeated or…

That was it.

Stories like that were not stories ever told for Goblins. Rabbiteater had never expected it. Perhaps the others had.

The keep stood. The [Princesses] all had invitations for Ser Solstice as he stood at the gates, if he cared to meet them afterwards.

But no army came. They held back, and even the forces of Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat didn’t meet.

The Lightherald strode forwards to bring battle to the Great General, but then stopped. Great General Dionamella had not attacked this morning at first day, not because she was considering retreat or even defeat.

Only because this moment required it. The honor of a Great General, the respect of the General of Ages, warranted no less.

Horns blew, drums beat, and voices roared as Ailendamus’ ranks pulled aside. But they did not need to step aside to show the figure who walked this ground.

She towered over everyone. The Lightherald looked up, and Rabbiteater watched from the battlements as a woman wearing armor, a [Knight], just of a different kind, raised her sword to the sky.

Again, he saw the Dame of the Hills, The Hill-Knight. The Great Knight, Merila. And Seraphel saw the half-Giant point her blade at the Lightherald.

“No.”

He could have refused. He could have run. But like Ailendamus…the Lightherald advanced, ignoring the warnings of the [Lord] who rode forwards. His ancient armor rose, and he returned her salute.

Tell him to stop. I have seen the Dame of the Hills before!”

Seraphel pleaded with the others, and Vernoue cast spells and sent [Messages] streaking through the heavens. Seraphel’s voice cracked.

I was there. At Ovela! She has bested greater [Knights]! Even the ghost of a knight from the days of myths could not beat her!

Rabbiteater looked at Seraphel. Then he gazed ahead.

The cheering died down quickly thereafter. Rabbiteater and the Order of Seasons, the [Princesses], and the soldiers watched.

Ser Markus was the first to turn away. Princess Vernoue hid her eyes and looked and then retched with sudden despair.

Princess Aielef? She produced a wine bottle after stepping into the pantry, filled a glass, downed it, and filled it again in moments. As she waited for oblivion, she watched, a glassy smile on her face.

Seraphel looked on as the Lightherald lifted his head. Talia Kallinad whispered.

Yield. Yield!

“He cannot. He might win. And if he does, he will no longer take the field.”

Ilm’s voice trailed off. Meisa whispered.

“He will not take this field again.”

In dead silence, they watched. Rabbiteater gazed at the Lightherald. The Goblin spoke into the silence.

“He is a true warrior to his end.”

The Dame of the Hills dripped with blood, her own and another man’s, as it ended. The half-Giant was still mortal. And a mortal had challenged her. A brave man without end.

But mortal.

She saluted the Great General of Ailendamus, then stepped back. The battle began, and the Dame of the Hills took no part, but walked to the small army besieging a fortress.

She had already taken the only life needed. As she rested, as her wounds healed and the last battle began, her helmeted head rose.

She pointed her finger at Rabbiteater, and the Goblin [Knight] saluted her.

[Knight] to [Knight].

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Day 5.

…I’m pushing. But this chapter—assuming I push it as I have just finished after about seven hours of writing—is right where I want to be for this chapter at least. I’d still like to be a chapter ahead.

But I’m on Day 5 and just wondering if I can do the last two days. They are not any less ambitious…than this chapter.

I think you know what’s coming next, but we’ll find out what happens tomorrow. Wish me luck. pirateaba out.

 

Ser Solstice by pkay!

 

Femithain, Rose, Persua, and more by Tomeo!

 

Stained Glass Erin, the entire process, by Momo!

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50 thoughts on “8.73 R

    • This is a possible continuity issue.
      I the last few chapters when Rabbiteater’s armour has come up it is described as serviceable but non magical. He looted this as spoils of war from an Ailendames General who was not wearing a helmet…to be fair I have just assumed that it was magical in some fashion.

        • Iirc his armor doesn’t necessarily have ti be magical. He has a [Champion] skill that changes his equipment. I think it turned rusted chainmail and weapons into like new/well cared for versions while he wore it?

          • This is it exactly. He has both [Champion’s Gear] and [Reinforced Armor (steel)]. Both enhance what would otherwise be standard steel armor to the equivalent of gold tank gear.

          • Agreed. If rusty > like new armor. Then generals ?slightly magical? armor > magical armor would make sense. Then hes also gaining levels which would further improve the effect from the last time it was described. Which should have been many levels ago indeed :)

    • He was slamming his bare hand against the shield
      Vs.
      He was slamming his gauntleted hand against the shield

      since a bare hand would indicate people could see his green skin.

  1. An amazing chapter, had me on the edge of my seat. I love Rabbiteater so much. Really looking forward to tomorrow. Hope your hands are not getting out in pieces at the end of the week tho.

  2. Really love the goblin chapters especially Rabbiteater. I think not saying Lynottes names until the 3rd princess was a bit odd since they talked about every other princess by their name. I knew you wanted to make it a surprise for Rabbiteater but it just felt odd. Except from that a fantastic chapter 🦈🥀

    • I thought it was fun teasing. Had it been big stakes where a huge plot point is stretching out because characters refuse to communicate, I would be annoyed, but this was a mainly unimportant point played for fun and I thought it worked great. Like a series of winks where the readers are in on the joke.

      • Yeah i get it but i just have a personal problem with those kind of obvious overlooks. Dunno how to explain it but it just feels annoying to me.
        I wouldve liked it more if the princesses said Lyonette’s name but didn’t elaborate further because of misunderstanding. And Rabbit could inquire further on the 3rd princess and have his moment. It just felt too jarring when the princesses where saying the names of their other sisters but just skipped Lynottes name. Or maybe they are just jerks who don’t love their sister and not even mention her name until prompted…

  3. I don’t think its tedious or slow since i like the characters. It gives time for everyone to shine and feels like a slice of life in a round about way without just being in one place. I get what you mean but it has been so fun for me to read all of my favorite characters evolve and move their story forward 🦈💖

    • completely agree with this sentiment. And something that comes from chapters like this is that it revitalizes why i love these other characters. Every new chapter has me debating who my favorite is (Minus our Kentucky Fried [King], the way he acts just doesnt vibe with me). Been reading this story since the start of summer last year, and started a slower re-read a month or two ago when i needed another hit, and i cant wait for a print version to put on a shelf.

  4. ONE PUNCH MAN reference..thank you <3

    and somehow i can feel that Elden Ring was played in the last 2 weeks! (the description of the Bolt doging was VERY ELDEN RING)

    loved this chapter

  5. Rabbit eater is a freaking beast. This chapter was awesome. But if teriarchs body gets taken by the god of magic cause he wont leave his simulacrum imma yeet my laptop out the window

  6. Pirateaba has the bit in her teeth… checkmate in ? more chapters. If I were her opponent I’d be laying down my king… except that I want to know how she’s going to play it out.

  7. Another amazing chapter. But really, the highest ranking [Champion] is Pirateaba with [Aura of the Worldmaker]. You just need to achieve [Hands of the Automaton]. And maybe [Iron Butt].

  8. Rabbit Eater is simple if brutal, but he did state the truth. The other knights simply are unsuited or not ready for war. Before it was done with the yield trick and knowing that while you fight in the war the odds of you dying are not that bad.

    Seeing an army that beats you… He still fights because he has a reason to while everyone else was ready to raise the white flag.

    Got to love how they kept saying that he had no honor… Which meant it was okay for him to surrender for them… Because obviously they are too “honorable” to surrender.

    Five KOs in and they think he is doing his best to slow them down so that they continue the duels to buy an extra day or two. Better odds, but not goblins odds.

    Keep swinging until you fall or the enemy falls.

    Best (and worst) bit had to have been the half-giant [Knight] signaling that tomorrow… She is having her swing at him and Rabbit Eater acknowledged the duel instead of trying to find a way to flee.

    He might have better odds at surviving if he fights her with fists… But those are still bad odds as he has only a day to figure out what to do next.

    Then again… He earned the right for the next duel considering how he risked his neck just to get the chain duel offer.

  9. I found it very odd that the hill knight could kill the light herald, who must be high level with relic gear and a crazy powerful boon, when she was nominally losing to the summer champion, who is maybe a bit higher level but without boon or relic gear.

    • I think the hill knight is supposed to be equal to a named rank adventurer on her own. The Lightherald seemed to be a high gold rank with a noteworthy buff, but as was mentioned in an earlier chapter (I think it was Tyrion’s) the Thronbearers stayed in the back lines way too long.

      In TWI, wars are determined in no small part by high level individuals. As we saw in Olesm’s Hectval arc, soldiers will level throughout a war by facing battles and surviving. It’s callous, but a good general will throw low-levels into the meat grinder and put higher levels in positions where they are likely to fight and survive to gain new levels.
      Both the Hill Knight and the Summer’s Champion have likely been leveling throughout the war, so even if they weren’t as strong as the Lightherald by the start of it, It’s not surprising to see that they’re stronger than him now.

      At least that’s how I think it’s supposed to go. It speaks more to the diminished state of Calanfer’s Thronebearers and/or the sheer power of the summer’s champion and Hill Knight than anything else.

    • Yeah but I Think his aura was more problematic. He could heat up her weapon and armor which is bad considering how large she is and how much it encompasses her body.

      • Yeah. Remember that the heat was intense enough that Greysten was literally -melting- her weapons from sheer proximity to his aura, and her squire kept having to throw her new ones.

        The kind of durability required for a person, even a half-giant, to survive something like that without ending up as a carbonized corpse or Kentucky-Fried Flos implies either top-tier enchantments on her armor, levels and defensive skills that would put her on par with a named-rank, or both.

  10. I’m just ready for Erin to be back already. It has been way to long and feels dragged out. Thought she would be revived 20 chapters ago. It’s not the same without her character.

  11. Damn, I forgot how entertaining Rabbiteater chapters are, he got the perfect blend of blunt honesty while still being nice and funny to be in the head of.

  12. Great chapter,
    Loved the UFC style beatdowns rabbit was dishing out at the end. I could almost imagine a pro wrestling style breathy TV interview after the fight.

  13. So if I’m reading this right, goblins have the same ability as antinium? Are those the only two races that don’t require sleep in order to level?

    But then why would the goblins chant “fighter pilot, fighter pilot” as Fightipilota was going to sleep? Something seems wrong.

    • I think microsleep might be the answer here, or just plain falling unconscious for a couple seconds from fatigue, which seems likely after so many fights.

    • Initially it felt like deus ex machina to me. But when I think back, isn’t counter levelling in the middle of battle (not during sleep) a well known phenomenon? Unless I misinterpreted and that’s actually only when the battlers sleep

  14. Have to wonder if the Dame of the Hills had instructions to make the death of the Lightherald particularly bloody and brutal so as to break the resolve of the army of Calanfer. And/or if she had some spell buffs or enchanted items to specifically counter his known abilities, so as to leave nothing to chance. (The latter would seem very Rhisveri).

  15. Y’know, when Erin died, I was sure she wasn’t going to be resurrected until the end of this volume. Now I’m beginning to wonder if she’s going to be resurrected at all.

    And this particular arc doesn’t have anyone I care much about, so I hope it ends soon. If Erin’s not coming back, how about the Horns, or Relc or the Antinium, or … well, even Laken?

  16. As much as I like the back-to-back releases, I’m looking forward to waiting between releases. I feel like there’s something lost in these quicker chapters, and I think it’s character insight and character development.
    Characters are still developing, but I feel like if these chapters were given more time then we might see more.
    For instance:
    I feel like we might have seen Aielef level up in her [painter] class thanks to making a piece of art that gets truly appreciated in a way none of the other pieces were.
    We might have even gone deeper into what Seraphel felt and how she reacted to seeing her sister happy and away from war.
    We might have even gotten insight into the actual fight between the Lightherald and the Dame of the Hills, their mindsets, or even just a scene depicting the fight.

    Smaller stuff like that, but still important. But at the same time I totally understand why these chapters are being churned out too. This arc has already dragged on for a very long time and quite frankly some stuff needs to resolve at some point within the next century.

  17. “You’ve met the Small Queen?” – he didn’t. Also, he have seen Zel only once, the day Erin took Redfang 5 and the general left.

    “She served acid flies to Antinium.” – during their time at the inn acid flies were not in menu.

    “recieved” – received.

    • I don’t think so. By this point we more-or-less know that becoming a goblin king is tied into recovering a specific racial memory. Near the beginning, we saw that the more goblins in Rags’s tribe, the more racial memories she could see, and the older they were.

      Leading up the siege of Liscor, the goblins could sense the goblin lord as a psychic beacon that made them come to him and obey him. We also heard that Velan the Kind had had a similar, if stronger, beacon effect. (And Erin had a werak one, probably because of [Natural Allies: Goblins].) This suggests to me that goblin lords and goblin kings are similar phenomena, which in turn suggest that Rabbiteater cannot become one without being the chieftain of a large tribe.

      (Graydath does not have a tribe, but I think he didn’t have a beacon either. His goblin lord status may be honorary.)

  18. Great chapter.
    When Rabbit stood in the gate, and thought about what he said about his reason for fighting, I recalled another thought from an earlier chapter.
    In it it was put that if death itself could be fought with arms, then every person in the world would take up arms and would make such war against it that this world never seen before.
    See, goblins are very familiar with death. When he said he would fight so that others May live, he was basically declared, that he would fight against death itself. That alone would have been enough to make the chapter epic, but he even does so cleverly!

  19. I’m confused. Dame of the Hills was powerful enough to kill the Lightherald? Then how did Summer’s Champion survive his many battles with her? I don’t have the impression Summer’s Champion is stronger than the Lightherald?

    • Especially since Rabbiteater put Lightherald in the same category as Eldavin. I don’t think Summer’s Champion is on the same level as Eldavin

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