8.76 B

The Titan of Baleros was on Izril. Not just on Izril, he was leading a Gnoll army with Goblins in tow—and Antinium—and Doombringers, whatever the heck those were—against Drakes.

Classic Niers. When news of his confirmed survival spread, many who knew him or his reputation were unsurprised. However—that did not mean all was well.

The Titan had found his adventure and a war. Another had snuck up on his company from behind, and to anyone with a brain, his entanglement in Izril…could not come at a worse time. If anything, those who put themselves against the Forgotten Wing Company hoped that Niers Astoragon either lost horribly…or won so much that he didn’t come back.

Actually, it didn’t matter. Even if the Titan took a Courier by sea, even if he evaded the Iron Vanguard casually hanging out on the eastern coastline—even if he took birdflight to Elvallian…

He might well be too late. The fall of the Forgotten Wing company was not months or weeks in the making, but days.

Fraerling cities were under attack. A foreign company and the traitor, Peclir Im, had planned their moment well, pressuring the Forgotten Wing to move their forces to their wide holdings. In hindsight or now-sight…it was obvious.

 

——

 

Perorn looked down at a map and counted. Just…counted. Hotspots.

She counted fifty-two.

Fifty-two major crisis areas. Niers called them something else. She referred to them as ‘pivot points’ in class. Areas where one side could, by triumph, gain momentum or force another opponent back.

One was something that Niers himself would almost always check on, even if he left it to an underling. Fifty-two?

It was not just one enemy. Perorn knew that. The problem with Baleros was that everyone was for hire, and there were things that you couldn’t pay anyone for…

But if you had enemies, things got cheaper. Or deferred payment became an option.

For the Forgotten Wing? Their land was as much a lure for their enemies as gold itself. So for payment or just because they saw this was the time—even the other Great Companies were moving in.

“The Bannermare is raiding our trade routes. The Adaz Plates are encroaching on a gem mine—and the alchemical city of Fizzyxel has just defected. Reasons as yet unknown. I advise giving up on the Bannermare; just lock down the trade roads. We need to force the Adaz Plate to abstain from an attack. Poison, armor-piercing, or high-magic forces might deter them…unless the Iron Vanguard makes war official. In which case, our entire border is suspect. Barring that? We can go after Fizzyxel or let whoever’s claimed it go. I recommend letting them go.”

“Mm. No. Send someone to fix it. Which would be who? How many? How many do we have left?”

Perorn’s legs ached. She had taken wounds, and the infamous Fleethoof still remembered when one of her best students, Tulm, had injured her to the point where she would never run again—not without major magical help or…a [Doctor].

She put that aside. No time for such things. It only came up because she would paw the ground with one hoof when she was annoyed, a visible tic. She was doing it on the shag carpet because she was exasperated.

“Foliana.”

“That’s commander. Mm. Or captain? Can we do it without…a lot of forces?”

“Yes, but—”

“Do it. How many? Where? When?”

The Squirrel Beastkin scratched at her fur. She had burrs stuck all over it. Little, annoying burrs that a servant was gingerly removing one-by-one without tearing her fur.

“I…can send our Pale Divisions. Two could do it. Three’s safer. No losses.”

“Send three. Next?”

Perorn looked up, hissing in exasperation, and met Three-Color Stalker’s eyes. They had known each other for a long time. So long that Perorn had been a filly—a young Centaur girl—when they had first met, and Foliana…

…Had definitely changed. Decades lay between them, and they had not always served on the same side of the battlefield. Foliana had been a Gold-rank adventurer, Named Adventurer, retired, the leader of a new company called the Forgotten Wing company, and then leader of a Great Company of Baleros. Someone who remained constant all that time was odd. Odder than Foliana herself, even.

Even her eyes changed. There was a time when Three-Color Stalker had only had one color to her eyes. Then two. Then three. Perorn still remembered when pink had entered her eyes, bleeding into the green and yellow which had mixed together, like liquid. She had never asked, but she suspected it was a Skill. That—or a byproduct of some magical event. It was not hereditary, Perorn knew.

Foliana had not always been like this. There was a time when she did not go ‘mm’. She had picked up that habit…when? Ten years ago? Twenty? Dead gods and hoof rot, that was an age ago.

A secret about Foliana few knew: she interjected ‘mm’ into all her sentences because she thought it made her sound distinguished.

Times past, she would have been easier, more talkative, and far less…stubborn. Perorn rested her hands on the table.

“Foliana.”

“Commander.”

“Commander Foliana.”

“Supreme commander?”

Commander Foliana.

“Mm. Pity. What?”

Perorn gestured at the table.

“I can deal with all three hotspots. I can deal with nine, or even fifty-two. I’m no Niers, but the Forgotten Wing company is more than just him, and we’ve built it into a true Great Company. We will not fold over just because one army comes calling, or eight. But if we deal with all fifty-plus crises in the same way, if we keep dividing up—”

“We expose our hearts. I know. You said.”

The Centauress [Strategist] had seen the danger coming months ago. Yet still Foliana insisted they take from the one place where Perorn knew they had to keep their strength: here.

Elvallian. Where the prestige, resources, and heart of the Forgotten Wing company lay. Where Foliana, Perorn, and a number of the most high-ranking officers of the Forgotten Wing company were. Niers’ academy—if it fell, it fell, and there were times when Perorn would abandon it. But a Great Company that lost its headquarters? That was a sign.

It would have been easier if they were the Howling Maelstrom, or Iron Vanguard, or even Eyes of Baleros, all of whom had headquarters deep within their territory. The Iron Vanguard had a fortress, Howling Maelstrom had theirs in the center of the plains—which was Centaur land a hundred miles in every direction—and no one knew where the Eyes of Baleros’ was exactly; it was in the deep jungle.

But Niers had wanted his as a trade capital, as a beating heart of Baleros. It made them rich. It also made them a target, and this was no Walled City.

“You have to abandon some places. Listen. I’ll make a list of our lowest-value holdings and—”

“No.”

Foliana peered at Perorn, and her eyes narrowed.

“I am Foliana. Supreme Commander of the Forgotten Wing Company. Supreme…Muffin…Almighty Commander of the Forgotten Wing Company. I promoted myself just now. I order you to keep it all.”

And there it was. This was not an issue that normally cropped up with Niers, but what did you do as a subordinate, as the acting second and top [Strategist], when your boss was giving you bad orders?

Perorn ran a hand through her hair and changed tack.

“I…Foliana. We know who the enemy is. These attacks? The ones who went after Fraerling villages, the companies who have suddenly gone quiet or begun moving in our direction? The Silscale Company? Featherfolk Brigade? Tailtail Army? They hid it at first. but we figured it out; they can’t keep it secret. and they don’t have to any longer. It’s been Lizardfolk. Not uncommon in any army, but the Fraerlings reported Naga of all types joining in the attacks. Medusae, Lamia, Gorgons, Quexals, Indishei, and more. It’s Lizardfolk. It’s…the Jungle Tails Company.”

Foliana said nothing. She just nibbled on some silkap. Gnollish delicacies. Did that mean she was trying to figure out what was happening in Izril? Or did someone enjoy silkap here? Or…did she just like the food?

Perorn waited for a response as Foliana nibbled. Jungle Tails. Niers had famously overturned them—Foliana too, but Niers had essentially pushed them so hard they lost their status as a Great Company. They wanted it back, clearly, and this was a long-laid plan.

And a worthy foe. Few groups could challenge a Great Company—even nations would think twice. But a former Great Company who’d removed the Titan, waited for their chance to strike?

When Foliana did speak, it was classic Foliana. She glanced up and shook her head.

“If we die, mm. I will never live down the embarrassment of losing to them. Let’s join Iron Vanguard first. No, Howling Maelstrom. We all cede ownership. Mm. Good plan.”

Perorn rubbed at her forehead.

“Foliana, I’m being serious.”

“So am I. I will write a letter. We’ll put it somewhere in here. If Niers and I both die…wait, you’re dead too. We’ll have someone post it before a full surrender. Just so no one writes we lost to them.”

That was the…pettiest thing, but for some reason, Perorn smiled. She liked it. Even so—Foliana brought up what Perorn had been afraid to so casually.

This could be it. It could really be it. It felt unreal. But Niers had nearly died in an assassination attempt—he was a continent away.

And they were coming.

“We are playing into their trap, Foliana. Tell me you have a plan. Tell me you have a plan…and I’ll keep taking from our forces here.”

That was all the Centaur said. For answer, Foliana put down the bowl of silkap and looked at Perorn.

She had been perched on a stool in the war room, like any squirrel, big or small, in existence, nibbling as Perorn zoomed in on different parts of their magical map. This was a private conference, and so no officers sat in the chairs or stood around, or were fiddling with other maps, strategy boards, or furiously arguing. It felt empty. The academy was not holding classes, and many students had left…on their teachers’ advice. Their safety could not be guaranteed.

It was tense. And yet—Foliana just sat down fully and tangled her furry feet on the stool. She looked calm. Incredibly calm. Niers swore, got mad, and paced, turning into a flurry of movement—albeit tiny movement—when the worst came to the worst.

Foliana? She never seemed upset. Perhaps, Perorn realized, because she lived in stress. She was a [Rogue]. Part of her job description was deactivating traps that would literally blow parts of your face off if you made a mistake. Perhaps that was why she was the commander, not just Niers’ aversion to the highest posting.

“Perorn. Do you know how to defuse a trap?”

“Specifically, or is this an analogy?”

Foliana hesitated, then narrowed her eyes. She dipped her paw into the silkap bowl and flicked some at Perorn. The Centaur swore at her, and Foliana went on.

“I know traps. I see traps. This is a big trap. Laid long in advance. Peclir…mm. He always seemed very loyal. Too loyal. Too good. But he never slipped. I should have fired him.”

She frowned.

“But I did not. This is a trap, and it is still springing. Niers is alive. We have a chance. But you want to get us out of the trap. I don’t. You know why? Because I know traps. Even Level 5 [Thugs] know that to defuse a trap…you set it off.”

“And you die if you’re standing in it. You want to take that blow? We don’t have to. We evacuate the capital. We push towards another base, consolidate, and bleed, but wait for Niers to get here, maybe leading a Gnoll-Goblin army and with an Antinium alliance. I don’t know. Stranger things have h…no, that would be new.”

The Squirrel-woman scoffed.

“No. No. See? This is why I’m in charge. Not you. You know something? After four years…Peclir never understood me. He was always uneasy, and that was genuine. He knows you. He knows Niers. You two are strategists. You’re acting like one.”

The Centauress raised an eyebrow.

“By prioritizing valuable assets? By being logical?”

Exactly. We can do it your way. Or we can do this.”

So saying, Foliana slowly curled up, squirmed around on the stool in an amazing display of dexterity and gymnastics, and then sat on her head. She balanced on it as her tail drooped over and Perorn stared at her.

“Unexpected.”

“I can see our enemies trembling already.”

However, Perorn was seeing what Foliana was getting at. It was certainly unexpected, but was that smart? In chess, moving a queen into a sacrificial play for a single pawn was unexpected…and also just plain stupid. Yet Foliana was confident.

“Let them come. They’re coming here, you said. I have made preparations. Niers has.”

“Even with that…it’ll be an army, Foliana. I can’t guarantee we’ll survive it.”

Three-Color Stalker never blinked even as she balanced on her head.

“I know. Make a bigger target. Push our limits. This is a gamble. Niers does not gamble. He is unpredictable. But I am unexpected. I gamble. And because I do, it’s a better bet than your way.”

It could all be true. Perorn gave up. She felt better now that they were committed, so she sighed and nodded.

“Then it’s a gamble with the fate of a Great Company on the line. Supreme Muffin Commander Foliana, it will be done. I’ll make the orders—just one more thing?”

Foliana frowned at Perorn. Then she hopped—rotated in the air—and landed in her familiar perching position.

“Hmm?”

“Most of the incursions aren’t bad, and we’re essentially countering them with a force so they won’t come to blood—at least not with third parties. Jungle Tails will want a fight, but they’ll think about where they want to bleed. But there’s a big problem. Them. We’re honor-bound to it, but the Fraerlings will be an issue.”

This time, Three-Color Stalker nodded.

“Yep.”

Perorn had no markers, no lists, and the locations were too important to even put on the war table. But she nodded up to a little door set in the wall with a ramp that led downwards. Tiny passages for tiny folk.

“I have eight representatives of eight major Fraerling settlements all demanding our aid. Not all are directly affiliated with us via contract…but all eight claim they are in danger of falling.

Fraerlings, Niers’ people. Suppliers of Signim and assets that even other Great Companies lacked. Valuable, fragile allies. Damn Peclir. Did he have no morality? A single settlement would have hundreds of thousands, maybe millions? At least one had been wiped out. Perorn looked at Foliana.

“They want eight armies. Eight armies, each of which can repel a mid-sized company. I can’t spare that, even if we spread thin. You need to address their demands; I don’t even know where half are.”

Foliana exhaled. She looked…upset for the first time in that briefing. The Squirrel Beastkin tried to hide behind her tail, and she grew fainter, slowly fading to invisibility.

Commander.

“I don’t want to. I don’t like them.”

Now there was the Foliana that Perorn knew. The Centaur glared at the invisible patch of air. The main reason Foliana didn’t like the Fraerlings who had come to beg for aid wasn’t because of their distress, incidentally. Or any prejudice against Niers or anything important.

It was only because Foliana kept trying to sneak up on the Fraerlings…and kept failing.

 

——

 

Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish were the two representatives of Paeth on the Coast, one of the largest Fraerling settlements in existence. A proper, true, First Founding descendant city. They had come, at great risk, with a small escort of the Tallguard of Feiland, of whom Ekrn was one, to demand assistance.

Paeth was in danger, and their location had somehow been leaked—if not the exact coordinates, enough for their fellow city of Oierdressql to fall. A disaster.

More than a disaster. Such a loss of life Ekrn couldn’t process it. A full half of Feiland had died, including his commanding officers. Hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled, and far fewer survived the journey in the wilds to get to Paeth.

All from Tallfolk. From, if the Centaur, Perorn Fleethoof, was to be believed, the Jungle Tails company or their cronies.

There will be a reckoning. Ekrn vowed that, but he was concerned most of all with making sure Paeth survived. Oierdressql was not a First Founding, but it had been functionally equivalent to Paeth…and larger in population.

To survive, Paeth had to hope it was either too well-hidden—a poor hope given their neighbor had been found—or that they found allies. Tallfolk. Right now, they had one hope in the Forgotten Wing company and another in Luan.

Of the two, Ekrn trusted Luan more than the Forgotten Wing Company, for all a Fraerling was second-in-command. But he expected material aid from a Great Company more than…Luan.

Which was why he was so angry, distressed, and confused by eight settlements, including himself, all demanding full armies from Foliana.

“This is a disaster. I didn’t think the Titan was an idiot—a pompous, arrogant hothead, yes, but not an idiot. How could he have leaked intelligence about eight settlements—eight or more, since they’re all representing different regions? To a [Chamberlain]?”

Guidance Heish shrugged. They were guests of the Forgotten Wing Company and residing in Fraerling-sized guest rooms. Since there were so many guests, they had to live in the staff quarters. Ekrn didn’t care; he’d learned to sleep strapped to the underside of leaves while raindrops as big as your head were landing all around you. A bed was paradise compared to that.

Guidance Heish was young, a popular Fraerling voted into her role by Paeth’s citizens as the Architects, the leaders of a Fraerling city, were. She was beloved, progressive, something something—Ekrn didn’t care. Inner-Fraerling politics didn’t matter to the Tallguard that much, but he had to work with Heish.

He was glad she wasn’t a complete fool, as some Fraerlings were, who had no idea of the outside world. Heish had actually failed out of Tallguard training—not really a black mark. If anything, Ekrn had more respect for her than the others. Tallguard training was intense.

“I don’t believe the Titan was that careless, Ekrn. I don’t think he knows the exact locations of so many settlements.”

“Oh, then we’re all suddenly under attack purely as coincidence?”

Heish gave Ekrn a frown, and he moderated his tone slightly. The Sentry Leader adjusted his bandolier and checked his weapons purely out of habit. Even here he went armed; the shortsword-crossbow combo was standard across most Tallguard scouts. Along with a panoply of other Fraerling-quality artifacts, which meant real magic. Grappling hooks, boots that let you stick to what you touched, enchanted armor—Fraerlings had magic Tallfolk didn’t dream of.

However, for this trip, Ekrn hadn’t taken chances. Since he was the leader of Feiland, he had pulled out some weapons from their armory that were generally reserved for dire emergencies. So he had Vortex Bolts—which generated tiny fractures in space that tended to kill whatever they hit—and he’d upgraded his Shortsword of Lightning—which gave most big creatures a damn good jolt on every strike—to a Shortsword of Vampirism. Ekrn hated the feel of sucking life out of things, but it might be useful. His armor was likewise top notch, but the real deadly weapon he’d requisitioned was a ring on his finger.

It was perfectly blank, pale white, and made Ekrn itch while he wore it. Itch with nerves. He had triple-checked the manual on using it, but even so.

The Ring of Disintegration was the kind of weapon you only pulled out if you were going up against a Mothbear or something. True, it was a Fraerling-sized [Disintegration] spell, but that was Tier 6 magic.

Heish probably had no idea what Ekrn was wearing. She had been given a sword and crossbow for the journey, along with significant protective artifacts, and she had been given a Sword of the Dancer.

In short, a sword you pulled out, tossed into the air, and watched as it cut your foes while you hid behind a bit of bark or something. Credit where credit was due…Ekrn would have taken one as well if it wouldn’t have put him over his magical interference threshold.

“If Niers Astoragon didn’t know where the Fraerling settlements were, why are they under attack?”

Ekrn turned to Heish, and the Guidance shrugged.

“I don’t know. But he didn’t know where Paeth was, only the general region. We’re not allied with him; we’re friendly. We didn’t tell him where we were, and I very much doubt Feiland did.”

“Us? Never! But one of the previous Architect groups probably…”

“Sentry Leader Ekrn. I don’t insult Feiland. Give us credit. We did not tell him where Paeth is. Not my group or any predecessors. Some things are too important to be fools about.”

Heish snapped, and Ekrn recoiled. He saw her glare and slowly ducked his head.

“Apologies, Guidance.”

“Taken well, Sentry Leader. Or is it Commander?”

“…Sentry Leader will do for now. We don’t have enough to fill the ranks. Is there any word from Paeth?”

Heish consulted something on her wrist. They didn’t dare risk [Message] or any other spells. Keeping Paeth secret was essential, but Fraerlings had ways that couldn’t be traced, even among their own kind.

“I have had no word. Which is good news. I will only be updated if a crisis emerges. So back to your point, Ekrn. The enemy, Jungle Tails, might have some idea from Peclir Im where our settlements are. But I doubt the Titan was careless, do you?”

“…No.”

He might have been the Fraerling who interacted with Tallfolk, but Ekrn had met Niers. Once. Well, a few times, but once personally. A Fraerling who had served in the Tallguard and grown up in a big city wouldn’t ever forget the most important rules.

“So how did all eight get attacked, then?”

Guidance Heish shrugged.

“I suggest we socialize. Mingle. It’s not often we get to talk to other cities, and some are ones I’ve never heard of—or heard of only in that they exist. Would you be willing to join me?”

Ekrn hesitated. Then he nodded.

“Of course. We have to share intelligence, and we’re all of the same height. Lead on, Guidance.”

Then he was grateful for her help. Especially as the Fraerlings of Paeth soon found that they would be staying longer than they wanted. Aid was not immediately forthcoming from the Forgotten Wing company for a few reasons. Mostly because the Jungle Tails began to move in the open soon enough. And…other reasons.

 

——

 

While Ekrn and Foliana remained at Elvallian, facing what could be said was the pivotal moment in Balerosian politics, a Meeting of Tribes was going on and the Ailendamus-Dawn Concordat war. All three events were concurrent, but it was notable that Baleros got lowest-billing news wise.

It wasn’t a visible war, and battles were so common on Baleros that few cared. The Titan was on Izril anyways! Plus, there were no cameras where all the action was really happening.

Mainly because no Fraerlings studied at Wistram. Another pity because, if they had, the Academy of Mages would be learning from them. It might have been small stuff—but when Fraerlings got up to anything, it tended to leave an impact.

For instance, magic. Fraerlings had magic. Most species had magic.

Fraerlings had better magic than you. Not just ‘Selphids’ or ‘Drakes’. They had better magic than you, your aunt, your Gold-rank friend, and anyone else you knew. Including most Archmages. They rarely showed it since they rarely showed themselves or left their cities. And when they did, attracting attention was something they disliked.

Plus, the Titan of Baleros was a [Strategist] and had no magical ability. Fraerling magic was smaller; even their [Fireballs] were Fraerling-sized, so no one noticed. Perhaps Peclir had communicated to his superiors just how advanced Fraerlings were, among the other reasons why he had justified the attacks on the settlements. In any other time, Fraerlings would never share their knowledge.

But for Luan Khumalo, a man from another world, for a friend of Paeth, because this was a desperate hour, and because a single [Mage], Resk, had left his home on this mission of mercy, Fraerling magic was loose. And Fraerling-magic was…

“[Fortification of Mithril]. Whew. That takes it out of me. Pour me another cup of mana potion? I’m close to getting mana poisoning, but I can do two more today.”

Alchimagus Resk was not a pure [Enchanter]. He just happened to know the spells. So a non-specialist in the field cast the Tier 5 spell on the crossbow strings, and Paige nearly died on the spot.

“Wh—but—mithril? How long does it—how long does it last?”

Resk looked up as Noa dangled her legs on the mana potion and scooped out a big cupful from the giant bottle, taller than she was, with a ladle. Resk crooked a finger, and the ladle and potion floated over and he sipped from it. Tallguard Kessice, the last of the three, kept writing down notes as she stood over a giant map of Baleros.

Paige, Luan, Ken, Daly, Aiko, Kirana, and Siri looked down as Resk exhaled after draining the entire draft of mana potion. He made a face, grimaced, and wiped at his mouth with a sleeve.

Phaugh. What was that, watery Sage’s Grass? I need another cup, Noa. Hmm? Young woman, what do you mean, time limit? It’s a mithril enchantment. Lasts until you cut the string or something. Good to put on your crossbows. I’d enchant the wood, but it’s too much for a non-specialist.”

Paige’s mouth fell open. Noa peered upwards and realized she could have walked into Paige’s mouth if she ducked a bit. She gave the Tallfolk much the same look as they were giving her.

Wonder, shock, awe, and on Luan’s face, a delight in sharing their existence. For their part, the Fraerlings were nervous. Kessice especially seemed like she was on pins and needles, for all she was playing it cool. Noa was elated. And Resk?

Resk just looked amazed as he poked at something floating in his second ladle of mana potion.

“It’s a bit of magemint. Just…a giant bit of it. Floating here. Disgusting. Unground, poor-quality, and I just bet the water isn’t even purified—thank you for the hospitality! I’m sure you don’t even notice what you’re drinking.”

He beamed around at the Tallfolk and fooled exactly no one, including himself. Resk looked embarrassed, amused, and perturbed. He stared around the room that everyone was crowded into, a bit too warm in the Balerosian heat, even in the fall, and distinctly hotter from the shut doors and windows.

That was as secure as the United Nations company could get for Luan to show his friends to his people. They had been amazed he was alive, but to even show Noa and the others, Resk had elected to cast several privacy wards.

Now, he waved a hand, and a gust of cold air blew from him, cooling the room down. The Alchimagus shook his head.

“Wood walls. I mean…decent wood. Looks lovely. Unenchanted wood walls, dirt streets…not a single mage-light I saw. And your windows don’t have glass? I thought Tallfolk cities were—different.”

He was trying to be diplomatic and failing. Noa glowered at Resk, but he didn’t really notice. He was from Paeth and, unlike Tallguard, had no understanding of the outside world.

Ironically, that meant that he was on the same level as the Earthers. Daly just rested his head on his arms, blinking like a boy.

“Fuck me. Am I dreaming? Pinch me, Siri.”

She stomped on his foot, but lightly, and he yelped. Kessice looked at him warily, and Daly held up a hand.

“Sorry! I’m…what’s the name for them? I’ve seen giant serpents and monsters and zombies, but this is…wow.”

“Lilliputians.”

Paige muttered. Noa frowned at her. She’d heard of Luan’s fairytales of small people and resented the comparison. Yet Resk was just nodding.

“And I, young man, have heard of your world, and I must say, it was more what I was expecting. Roads of stone, glass and metal…not too far from Fraerling cities, the big ones at least. We have lifting tubes and farspeakers. You have—what did you call it? Air conditioning? We have cooling spells. This city is…well, I suppose I didn’t realize we were near a provincial town.”

The United Nations Company traded glances. Talenqual didn’t have stone roads, but it was still a fairly active port city held by a rather well-known company, the Featherfolk Brigade.

“The Walled Cities are more your speed, Resk. I’ve heard they still have a decent amount of technology in them. This…Talenqual didn’t even exist on some of our maps. You’ve lost five cities in the larger region. Our intelligence is wildly, wildly out of date. The immediate area is fine, but our maps are thirty years old.”

Kessice interrupted. Everyone looked at her, and Luan took a seat. They had been talking and introducing themselves, so the shock and elation was mostly over. Still, Daly stared, and Siri gazed in delight at Noa, who waved at her with a giant smile.

“She’s so cute. I want to hug her!”

Aiko whispered to Kirana. Luan looked up.

“No doing that. Be very careful with them—and we have to make sure they’re safe from rats and other pests.”

Aiko nodded guiltily, and Kirana spoke up.

“Can I…can I offer you some food? Are you hungry?”

They were ravenous after Luan’s amazing trip, so all three Fraerlings plus Luan looked up.

“What do Tallfolk have? A single…apple would do us all. No, wait. Um, one roasted rat, please, Miss!”

Kessice nodded at Kirana, and the [Housekeeper]’s face went blank. Where Resk expected more, Kessice expected less.

Noa, the happy middle since one of their number, Tallguard Cotm, had vanished on his own mission, was just enthusiastic about everything.

“Kessice! Luan’s civilized! What do you have? Wait…do you have a Nali-stick? C-could I get one?”

“What, one? For…oh.”

All three Fraerlings looked up. A single Nali-stick, while thinner, could be taller than them. The pure sugar treat? Resk’s eyes lit up hopefully as Kirana listed some foods.

“We have curry, some roti from last night, but if you’ll wait just fifteen minutes, I could make—paneer? And get you Nali-sticks! But I’ll have to make a smaller meal—”

“Ah, Kirana. Don’t bother. Get them all a bowl. Each. They might not finish it all, but they’ll probably eat it.”

Luan had seen Fraerlings packing away their body weight in food. And indeed, the idea of good food cheered the Fraerlings to no end. Kirana hurried away, and Ken himself brought back refreshments.

When Kessice saw a glass of cold tea with ice as tall as she was, she changed her tune on her dire mission at once. Noa took a giant stick of white sugar and stared up at it, eyes sparkling.

“You’ll actually give yourself health problems if you eat all that, Noa. The [Healers] would probably let you eat only a third. So give a third to me.”

Resk commented as Noa chopped the stick in half to share around. It was still a log of pure sugar, and she couldn’t fit the entire stick into her mouth, so she took a giant bite and began vibrating instantly.

“Hah! You mean diabetes?”

Daly asked with a grin. Resk turned to him, scratched at his pink beard, and hesitated.

“…You mean, eating too much sugar and developing problems? We call it Callisic. Fascinating. Luan didn’t get enough time to tell us all about Earth. So you Earth-Tallfolk have figured out problems like that, too? Amazing!”

Amazing? All the Tallfolk gazed at Resk in awe, then Paige broke out of her stupor. She scooped up the strings Resk had enchanted.

“Wait a second. Alchimagus Resk, you know about medical conditions like that?”

The Alchimagus was insulted.

“Of course we do! Paeth is a modern city. Villages where Fraerlings are living out in the wild and banging hammers on metal to get steel might not be able to treat it, but even they have encyclopedias. Sometimes we get frontier-folk who make the trip back so our people can cure them.”

Luan sat there, accepting a bowl of reheated curry and a promise for a lot more food asap from Ken, and just enjoyed being alive. Learning about Fraerlings was his favorite.

They didn’t have time. Paeth was in danger. But, for a second—he just listened and realized that Fraerlings had advanced in technology—or rather magic—in ways Earth had yet to dream of. This was the magic he had come here for.

Paige and Resk were swapping terms for diseases and other phenomena like physics while the Fraerlings ate. If Geneva were here…well, even a layperson’s understanding was enough to shock Resk.

“We have no idea about atoms. Magic gets weird the smaller you go. Maybe that’s what our finest [Engineers], [Alchemists], and such stare at all day, but there’s all kinds of damn particles. Mostly magical. We can make sure something’s almost completely pure, though. Explain that thing again? Where your skin grows out of control?”

“Cancer.”

“Uh…ah, I know what you’re talking about. Overgrowth Syndrome. Occurs mostly naturally, but a few spells can cause it. And some damn rocks and monsters. Solved it.”

Solved it?

The Tallfolk chorused. Resk picked at his teeth.

“Yep. Same with your diabetes. Give me another.”

“I…that’s two of the biggest. What else? The Black Death? Herpes? The common cold?”

“We can cure the common cold. What, you can’t? I bet Tallfolk in this world can.”

Everyone turned to Aiko, who was a [Nurse] who helped Geneva. She shook her head.

“No…Geneva told me never to give someone a potion who had a cold. It makes it worse, sometimes.”

Resk slapped his knees.

Healing potions you mean? Of course you can’t give that to—Eir-gel based potions are accelerants! Get yourself a purifying-based healing potion at once!”

He looked around.

“…You don’t have them, do you? Wait. Please tell me you know about basic sanitation?”

“We wash our hands, yes.”

“W-with soap?”

How low could you go with Tallfolk? Resk’s eyebrows, which, again, were pink like the rest of his hair, rose upwards and stayed there. He looked…incredulous.

“Let me understand you. You do have a level of machinery even we lack. You can fly without magic and have engines of oil. I suppose someone who can’t cast [Flight] finds a way—our top [Engineers] were raving about Luan’s concepts. But you didn’t bother to solve—hair loss? I went bald for a bit. Then I drank a tonic when I realized my head kept getting cold. I colored it pink too. Can you do that?”

The dream of balding men everywhere. Daly and Ken, who had a history of hair loss in their families, focused on Resk’s bountiful and styled hair. Paige, now on the defensive, pointed at her own hairline.

“We can dye our hair. I’ve done it a few times.”

“Dye?”

Even Kessice was incredulous as Paige explained the act of bleaching one’s hair and then proceeding to dye it—as if that were a natural thing. The Alchimagus slowly raised one hand.

“I drank a potion. My hair’s pink. All my hair. Forever. Want to check?”

Everyone stared at him, and he showed them his armpit. Pink. Resk began to look dismayed.

“I know your world lacks magic, and this one clearly suffered some disasters. Kessice, why are five cities missing?”

“Goblin King, probably. They were big ones, too. Tallfolk regularly suffer calamities.”

The Tallguard looked sympathetically at the Eathers. The Earthers…began to look a bit stung.

Luan was not, because he’d seen the inside of a Fraerling city and seen citizens casually flying around thanks to their city-wide enchantments. He had seen their Crelerbane forces, garbed in Adamantium armor. And they had made his scull, which could let an amateur beat the fastest man or woman on Earth by sheer virtue of the magic.

But he understood the Earthers wanting to say they had something Fraerlings did not. Like a worldwide industry! Airplanes! Television! And Fraerlings did lack that. Tallfolk also had a lot more of what they had. But Fraerlings did have magic.

“Listen. Fraerlings are alchemy-magic experts. We fall behind on metalworking and your electronics, it seems. But we follow the Architect’s plans, and they came from Gnomes. Gnomes, the greatest inventors of any age. We follow their plans. So yes—props to your flying machines. I can cast [Levitate]. Your interwebs and this smart-phone truly do impress me. But Fraerling cities still sound nicer than yours.”

Kessice and Siri were arguing over who had better what. It turned out Siri, who came from Sweden, had some patriotic pride. Mostly around the quality of living. They were trading arguments.

“We have moving pictures.”

“So do we. It’s called art. We—oh. You mean movie things. Well…we could do that with illusion magic!”

Resk coughed behind Kessice.

“Nope. Definitely not on-demand. Even if we charted out an entire ‘movie’, mass-producing that sounds like a pain. We could probably do one spot…”

“Shut up, Resk. We have literature. Plays! That’s this concept where we have a fictional world, Miss Siri, and…”

“We have plays too! And we can communicate across the world with the internet.”

“Really? Well—we could do that if it weren’t dangerous! What do Tallfolk do for fun? Count your cabbages you grow?”

“How about karaoke, or going on trips, or swimming by the beach? We can travel anywhere in the world.”

“If you have enough money.”

Siri glared at Daly, and he retreated. Kessice looked at Noa and Resk, who refused to wade in.

“Well…well…we have giant monsters larger than we are! Most Fraerlings can’t leave our cities, it’s true.”

“So Earth is better! Safer! Sort of.”

“Yeah, well—”

Kessice spluttered. She turned to Resk, as did Noa.

“Resk!”

He jumped and nearly stopped trying to eat a cube of paneer as large as his stomach. He looked quite happy and hesitated when he saw Kessice glaring.

“Yes?”

“You’re from Paeth proper. What do you do for fun?”

He hesitated.

“After my job? Well…if I were in a relationship, I’d probably go home, kiss someone, ask my child what they learned in school, and pet my aphid or something. Since I would rather die—I would socialize with some friends, go for a walk in the park, swim—”

“Wait, you have indoor pools?”

Resk shrugged.

“Indoor seas, yes. They double as our backup water supply. Don’t worry—it’s purified. You should see the sunbathing on the canopy level. Libraries…I have a huge book collection. I suppose it really comes down to what you’re willing to spend your Allotment on for the real entertainment. Tallguard get a huge amount when they vacation, and I have seen things.

He shuddered. Noa and Kessice hesitated.

“What’s Allotment?”

Daly asked and had to be told what the Fraerling’s magical allowance was to keep themselves hidden. Everyone got a stipend per week, and they could ‘give’ some of theirs to big projects in votes or use it individually. Tallguard, as valuable members, got large amounts to spend.

In fact, Resk, as an Alchimagus, often catered to their whims.

“It’s not just enchanting crossbows. Oh no. I cannot tell you how many Polymorph Potions I have to brew for Tallguard holidays. And there’s always some idiot who doesn’t stay in the confined zone and goes out as a bird and gets winged by some citizen.”

“P-polymorph potions?”

Resk nodded.

“Yep. It gets boring. I tried turning myself into an ant, a doggo-thing, even a cat…Fraerling-sized, obviously. It’s so hard to walk with four legs. And what’s the point? Smelling exactly how bad everything is? Flying? With wings? I’ll hover, thank you.”

He shuddered.

“That’s the biggest Allotment expense I have to cater to. Mind you, we can afford shapeshifting alchemy reagents. Someone who wants a permanent shapeshift to be a different identity has to join a queue. There’s also, uh, Potions of Ecstasy, but I’m not delving into that one, and I think we banned them two years ago. Children sometimes petition for things like Potions of Firebreath, but that’s a bad idea…what?”

He looked around and saw the Earthers staring at him. Paige sat down, and the Fraerlings realized that Resk had won the war. Some things that Earth wanted were realized in Fraerlings.

But the one thing Fraer-folk would never have…was a world ruled by one species. Not that they were necessarily dreaming of conquest, but Fraerlings were not the dominant species by far. Anything from a hamster on up was a threat. And that was why they’d come. Daly extended a finger, and Noa fist-bumped the tip.

“We could use your aid in getting everything Paeth wants. Hopefully to keep hidden!”

She beamed at them all, but the expression slipped as Kessice glanced towards a window.

“I know it might be a lot, but I hope you will keep our secret. Not that you know where we are exactly. Luan does…but we trust him. We need to hurry, though. If Paeth is found—we can stop a hundred Tallfolk. Or even a thousand. However, an army destroyed Oierdressql.”

Everyone sombered, and Luan nodded.

“You have our help. Anything we can do—we’ll do. Right?”

He looked around, and Daly, Ken, Aiko, Kirana, Paige, and Siri nodded instantly. The Fraerlings smiled, but they were worried smiles. Noa beamed up at Luan, on the adventure she always wanted. Kessice was reserved, wary, but trusting enough. Resk? He looked around and shook his head.

“Not like home at all. I’m sure you’re all very happy. But I always thought being taller meant you’d be happier.”

That was all he said. It was such a silly comment that no one responded to it. A comment fitting of a sheltered Fraerling. Taller? Whyever would that make life better? There was always something or someone bigger.

 

——

 

Daly Sullivan, no relation to Cara O’Sullivan, left the Fraerlings to secure a safe spot to rest and left Luan to actually lie down. The newly-minted Courier had rowed an amazing race just that morning, survived a shipwreck at sea, and swam to shore after all.

“That guy isn’t Human. He’s a monster.”

Siri nodded. They’d both noticed how the [Athlete] had kept up with the Bushrangers and how he’d never been exhausted…physically, that was. Luan had the kind of physique you saw on television.

Actually…not. He only showed anything like a six-pack when he was super-dehydrated. Daly still thought Luan was more in shape than even Gold-rank adventurers. Hell, probably even Named-rank.

He was in a league of his own, but what Luan couldn’t do, what even Geneva couldn’t do when she was here…was be Daly and Siri. Occupy the role that was the Bushrangers and, to a greater extent, security for the United Nations company.

United Nations. How had they come here? Daly still remembered the days when he had appeared in Baleros, not knowing what the hell was going on, with an entire crowd from an airport. He remembered some of them splitting off, the poor Americans…

If he’d known what he did now, he would have told them to stay. Stay—taken charge, knocked heads together, and saved them. Instead, they’d died and leveled and later formed this company after the harrowing battles as a suppression company where they’d met Geneva Scala, the Last Light of Baleros.

When they had formed this company, the name had been unanimous. No one had really had any other ideas. What sounded of Earth but didn’t sound too foreign? What linked them? United Nations, a concept, an organization from Earth.

Of course, there was a lot of irony there too. The United Nations, as Daly well knew…was not exactly the gold standard of international communication and teamwork in most countries’ eyes. Ken hadn’t known as much about it, but Daly could list grievances, and he didn’t even keep up on it.

Bias, a small group of nations who made all the real decisions, power-games, and an inability to actually hold other nations to account. It also did good work and had some organizations that did real good like the World Health Organization and so on.

However…Daly was being haunted by the name they’d chosen on the spot. Not because Australia was about to dictate how everything would go to the mixed nationalities or they were about to disband. Mainly because the advent of the Fraerlings, as wondrous as they were, was making him very, very nervous.

“Did you see how he enchanted Paige’s strings for the crossbows right off? Mithril-grade toughness. Fraerlings can do that. Just—an average Alchimagus bloke.”

Siri nodded as Daly closed the door to Paige’s workroom, the only other place he was sure was free of any eavesdropping. He inhaled a burnt scent, metal, sulfur, wood, and varnish from the crossbows Paige made. This was one of the largest rooms in the basement, behind a metal door, and everything was laid out, secured, and widely spaced.

So there was little chance of anything falling or breaking. Even so, Daly and Siri didn’t touch anything, especially not the secured jars of dark powder.

Daly stared at the blackpowder now. He kept going.

“They can make mithril enchantments. Luan said they have Adamantium gear? That’s Named-adventurer level. And did you see that Noa girl?”

She’d walked up a wine bottle to stab it with her sword and lever the cork out. Magical boots. Daly would kill for the Bushrangers to have boots like that. In fact, Noa had demonstrated how she could zip around with her grappling hooks, and one look at Luan’s crossbow and Daly had realized the Fraerling Tallguard were a complete version of the Bushrangers.

They had the gear, training, and levels his Silver-rank team didn’t. Siri nodded. She sat down on a chair in front of a half-finished crossbow design with wooden pulleys and looked at Daly.

“…And despite all that, they fear someone’s coming after them. Someone is trying to destroy their city. Someone nearby…with an axe to grind against the Forgotten Wing Company. A powerful force. Maybe a company?”

The two traded looks again. Neither one wanted to say it. But when you said that…even rumors aside of the weakened Great Company? Even if you made an idiot of yourself and took out any other relevant information like the testimony of Fraerling survivors about the attack…

There was only one major company in this city. It was conceivable there was just this second, random company skulking around in the jungle attacking Fraerlings. But then, either they were also stealth masters, or the Featherfolk Brigade knew about it.

And if it were them? This situation just got a whole lot more messy.

“Paeth might be able to hide itself. I dunno. What do they want?”

Siri had a copy of Resk’s list.

“Ironically? Not much mithril. They just want a lot of basic stuff. Sage’s Grass, raw iron ore…no steel. That’s underlined.”

“Must be shite stuff compared to what they can make. Give it here? Yeah…we can get that. Maybe Paeth hides. But honestly, Siri. Do you think it could be Fezimet and his company?”

Siri looked up, and Daly glanced around the room as if the walls had ears. The [Ranger] chewed on her lip.

“If they are, the Fraerlings might see them if they’re wandering around in the forest. I doubt they were stupid enough to put their badge on their uniforms. But if they are—they’d have put a lot of people on the job, right?”

“Right. Do you know if they have?”

Siri gave Daly an unhappy look.

“As it happens…I’ve heard a few divisions are on a training exercise. Not on a regular contract.”

Daly began swearing instantly. He paced around the room, then stopped. He turned to Siri.

“We can’t fight an entire company!”

“Not alone. We’ll keep it secret—no one but us knows about the Fraerlings. We get them what they want asap. But if it is the Featherfolk Brigade…”

“…We hope they don’t find Paeth.”

“And if they do?”

The Swedish girl waited. She looked around the room at the secret project Daly and Paige had been working on. The thing that had caused so much trouble with Geneva. But that was for a Gold-rank team. Self-defense. Not for taking on a company with over ten thousand soldiers in it. Daly sat down. He heard footsteps descending and saw Paige open the door. She slipped in with the four enchanted crossbow strings.

“You all had the same thought I did? This…could be really bad. What’s the plan, Daly?”

She looked at him as if he had more than a dozen members of a Silver-rank team and some other teams that worked with them, like the Rustless Guard led by Captain Eldima, a Dullahan that Daly rather liked. His stomach churned at the idea of Fezimet learning the Fraerlings were here—aside from him being an overt enemy. He’d met the Quexal, and Fezimet had struck him as a cold, pragmatic bastard with an ego.

There was no actual army in the United Nations of Earth. They had a peacekeeping force, and what they did was draw from their individual nations. If push ever came to shove, and two major nations—their membership—came to war, they relied on words and pressure to stop a war.

And that didn’t work. It, historically, did not. The United Nations company of Baleros was not at war. They were helping Paeth. But just in case…hypothetically…Daly looked up.

“Paige? Let’s get Ken. I think we need to send word to our allies to head on by.”

The only ones they had. Paige glanced worriedly at Daly, and Siri just nodded.

That very night, Ken sent word to the only company affiliated with the United Nations company, an actual army. Gravetender’s Fist acceded to their request to talk on the very same day that Commander Fezimet of the Featherfolk Brigade publicly announced that he was ejecting the Humans and the United Nations Company from Talenqual.

Relations further broke down after that.

 

——

 

Fraerlings under siege, a missing Titan, a war between Great Companies, past and present. Earthers, worldwide events…amidst it all, here was a question no one was asking:

Whatever happened to Quallet Marshhand?

Quallet. Quallet Marshhand. The [Mercenary Captain]—well, now [Mercenary Commander]—of Gravetender’s Fist. Famous for…his involvement with the Last Light of Baleros and subsequent United Nations Company, which included Luan Khumalo, the Rower?

That might explain more about Quallet than anything else. He was famous by association. Quallet had a career as a [Mercenary] that most companies would respect. He could walk into any company in the world and probably get a job.

Even a Great Company would take a look at Quallet’s Level 36 class and say ‘that’s someone who could really become an asset if we get those last four levels’. He was honorable, brave, a good fighter, and he’d led forces through really hairy situations, like the time when two companies had attacked neutral parties.

But famous? No. If anything, Quallet felt that he should have made his name in five years. Five years to hit Level 40 and really launch his company. By then he’d be old as roving [Mercenaries] went, but he’d have the last of his thirties and forties to really build up—maybe take some land. Either join a greater company or make alliances. By fifty? He’d hopefully have a real legacy.

Quallet’s vision of the future kept neglecting finding family, and he always tried to squeeze it into his plans. Just…fall in love, get married, have children, uh, soonish.

The truth was that Quallet was a career mercenary. He had big dreams, but he lived understanding the next battle might be the last. He had lived like that into Level 30, which was a huge marker and told anyone that he survived, win or lose.

An intelligent leader would respect Quallet not for his outstanding talent in one area, but because he had pulled himself up to this point, sometimes with piranhas and mud trying to eat and drown him. Quallet himself considered his doggedness his best asset. Not that he made dog-like metaphors. He’d call it his Dullahan-headedness.

…Which was why Quallet was a bit perplexed by the state of Gravetender’s Fist now. He attributed it with little difficulty to recent events. Even so. It was wild.

 

——

 

Four months ago had been when it began. Gravetender’s Fist, hot off nearly getting murdered in a horrible war between the Roving Arrow and Razorshard Armor company…suffered a 60% attrition rate in casualties and the enlisted soldiers quitting the ranks.

A disaster. Frankly, Quallet was so grateful he could have wept. That was not a battle where you counted casualties. That was one where you woke up, sweating, like he did, and thanked the Nagas he’d survived it.

Evercut Arrows. War Walkers. The Tripartite Law company spreading plague and fire. And both companies ignoring the code of war and attacking his forces?

Both companies actually disbanded after that battle. Not immediately, but in the two months that followed, the sheer stain on their reputations and the way they’d massacred each other meant that they had no chance of holding onto the damn gold mine they’d fought so hard over.

The irony was not lost on Quallet. But as the United Nations company eventually found Talenqual, he hung in the area, rebuilding Gravetender’s Fist.

It was at that time Paige and Daly would provide his forces with crossbows and Geneva gave him medical advice and checkups. Quallet hung around Talenqual, although he was careful to cosy up to Fezimet and the Featherfolk Brigade. His company was small Lizards compared to Gorgon-class companies like theirs.

They didn’t really care at first, and Quallet was busy recruiting, turning Gravetender’s Fist into a full mercenary company, and finding work. He’d decided he was out of suppression company work; he’d nearly been killed, and he might as well have a proper army.

Besides. He had higher-level survivors to build a good force around, and Paige made a lot of crossbows. A lot.

Cheap, wooden ones at first. Then weird, experimental, torsion-style crossbows that looked ungainly—and were—then iron, steel, even changing the design. She did it cheap, and Quallet essentially only had to pay for parts and labor. It benefited Paige, who was designing them for her Bushranger friends. Quallet? Quallet got a lot of crossbows of varying design, and all he had to do was feed her gold.

He did, for a few reasons. Firstly, he thought the mysterious Humans were good to have as allies. Geneva alone made up for it by identifying illness and treating patients at low cost or doing what [Healers] couldn’t. During Yellow Rivers, his company was spared of that plague because of her stringent measures.

Second? Crossbows. Quallet began revolving his entire company around that one tactic.

Crossbows. Other tactics too, but when you got down to it…mostly crossbows. Bolts were cheap, reusable, and even if some bows were crap, hand every single [Soldier] a crossbow and you had a lot of free archers. And what couldn’t they solve?

Charging [Knight]? No problem. Crossbows lanced armor.

Ranged [Archers]? You had more crossbows, and even an idiot could point and click.

Spellcasting [Mages] with barrier spells? More crossbows.

[Innkeepers]? Well, Quallet didn’t have a problem with any specifically, but crossbows were exceptionally effective there too.

…No, but there were a lot of enemies that didn’t acknowledge crossbows as a valid tactic. Entire Skills could nullify a ranged advantage, so Quallet learned.

Metoish One-Eye. Now there was a nasty battle. After the first month of reorganization and proving Gravetender’s Fist was excellent on guard-duty thanks to their ranged capabilities, Quallet took on a very lucrative contract to push the One-Eyed Bastards—a company named after their leader, a Medusa.

They were raiding a collective of settlements over a fifty mile radius, and it spoke to Baleros that they were still able to be called a company and find work when they got bored of pillaging. Quallet was given a handsome offer in tens of thousands of gold pieces.

…If he beat Metoish. Failing that, he’d be paid for every confirmed kill and the effort. Quallet had to try it. It was a sizable war chest. Unfortunately, he ran into the first enemy that crossbows didn’t instantly solve.

In the first battle, he was reminded why the various types of Naga on Baleros were so well-respected at high-levels. Metoish was his level or higher.

True, the Medusa had lost one of her eyes and some of her snake-hair, and contrary to popular belief, they didn’t grow back in a blink of an eye. But even so, her gaze had turned bolts to stone, forcing Quallet to charge or retreat.

He retreated.

Quallet was an old hand at this. He’d chosen to retreat and divide up, inviting the One-Eyed Bastards to come play. The vanguard under Metoish did well and pushed Quallet’s forces, but those without her magical gaze ate crossbow bolts…then learned to ambush Quallet and nullify his ranged advantage.

Two weeks of fighting in a running war, and Quallet was grimly counting costs. He could recover arms, and soldiers were cheap to replace; you could always find volunteers. But if they didn’t get Metoish or she won…

This was when it happened the first time. Someone walked into Quallet’s tent, muddy from fighting, with a slight hobbling gait. Quallet looked up and saw Quexa.

She was a Lizardgirl [Sorcerer]. One of the survivors of the ill-fated contract he’d taken where he met the [Doctor], the beginnings of the United Nations company, and put aside the suppression company work for the life of a full mercenary commander.

However, she’d elected to stay with his company, and he’d taken her on and let her command Lizardfolk in his forces. Quexa was now his [Sorcerous Captain]. Not a bad class, if slightly generic.

“Tell me Metoish hasn’t received reinforcements.”

A weary Quallet stared at Quexa as he tried to find a way to encircle Metoish on the map. The ever-optimistic Lizardgirl just gave him a big, tooth-filled grin.

Since he was a Balerosian swamp-lad who’d rubbed shoulders with Lizardfolk all his life, and Dullahans too, Quallet took that as a good sign.

“Nothing like that, boss. Just a quick question. Um…do you want to hire a War Walker?”

Quallet’s face went slack.

“Do I want to hire…”

Quexa hurriedly raised her claws.

“Sorry! I misspoke, commander.”

“Ah, of course. Not a War Walker.”

Maybe a Dullahan on the way to becoming one, changing their armor up as they grew and grew. Quexa leaned on her good foot; the other was a peg-leg. If they ever became famous, Quallet had promised to buy her a magical prosthesis and damn the cost.

“Do you want a free War Walker, boss? No hiring fee? And about fifty veteran Dullahans?”

Quallet Marshhand had one of those faces that reacted to surprise by turning stony. Rather appropriate given his current foe. As Quexa waited, he was aware this might be a prank.

There was a way with Lizardfolk to make sure this was not a stupid game—and they’d play stupid tricks at any time, even during a siege.

“Swear to Nagas?”

Quexa instantly touched her chest.

“Swear to Nagas. It’s real, boss. I had to check myself…but just come and see. They’re with Xor on the rear.”

Xor had rearguard duty since he’d been injured. The [Sergeant] had promoted himself to [Captain], but he’d fallen behind Quexa, ironically. Still, he was a stoic, good fellow…and currently in awe as he held his head up to address the giant figure patiently kneeling in their camp.

One look explained it all. Quallet Marshhand saw a familiar War Walker and familiar Dullahans too. He stopped, and the War Walker instantly rose and placed his head on his shoulders.

“Commander Marshhand. I am Bastiom. If you would hire my fellow Dullahans and I, we would fight under your banner. We came together, not apart.”

The Dullahans turned, and Quexa nudged Quallet. He just looked up, and it all came flooding back.

This was Bastiom, a giant of metal. Unlike half-Giants who were flesh, Dullahans were part-metal, part people. Like crabs—a comparison that would earn you a punch if you made it—they wore armor over their vulnerable insides.

Bastiom was hardly as glowing as Xol of Ingrilt, but his armor was still reinforced steel. Unlike regular Dullahans, though, his armor was scarred from battle and clearly patchworked in how it had been repaired.

Most Dullahans would die of shame; poorly-maintained armor meant you were poor, but a War Walker was so vast that covering their bodies was expensive beyond belief. Some wore wood or lesser materials, and even then—

They were a terror. Large targets that could die fast, but still, there was nothing that made the infantry break like looking up at a figure with a foot raised to stomp you flat.

However—Quallet introduced himself on autopilot and asked Bastiom how he and the fifty-odd Dullahans all wearing steel had come here. To buy himself time.

He was thinking hard and fast.

Did he want a War Walker? Even a free one—and they could charge enlistment fees in the thousands?

The answer was not always ‘yes’. An idiot said yes at once. War Walkers were a problem for any commander. Not just in how you kept them alive; they required a lot of food. And maintenance. If one broke an ankle? Repairing that armor?

War Walkers made the choice to become large to fight, sometimes for a cause, others, sacrifice or just because they desired strength, but they were a drain in times of peace.

Moreover, these were Razorshard Armor veterans. Even if he hadn’t known Bastiom, there was only one reason they’d come to Quallet. As Bastiom explained in his operatic voice—

“We have no recourse. No other Dullahan-led company will take us after our disgrace. The Razorshard Armor company has disbanded, yet I am impelled to battle. I cannot exist in peace, and my fellows joined me to find you.”

They needed employment. Bastiom’s words were a bit artful, but he was telling the truth. He’d die of starvation without some job to pay his costly food bill and so on. Quallet came to a decision fast.

“Do you stand behind the Razorshard Armor company’s actions, Walker Bastiom?”

The giant Dullahan’s eyes flashed; he had a small head compared to his body. That was one aspect of the Dullahans that didn’t change as much.

“No. I refused to desert and survived by luck. However, I resigned my commission the instant our battle-contract ended.”

…And he was the one who had helped save them by guaranteeing Geneva’s passage. She had saved him in the most amazing medical procedure that Quallet had heard of; reattaching his arm sinew by sinew. The War Walker waited.

Nervously, though the Dullahans hid it well. Quallet looked them over.

Steel-grade armor. Veterans, all. There would be problems with his people who remembered what they’d done. If he had any of the United Nations Company, they’d be really upset because it was the Dullahans who had executed some of their number. The ‘Americans’.

However, Quallet had made up his mind. He turned to the Dullahans and nodded.

“Will you…discuss a contract with me over a brief repast? We are heading towards a battle come mid-morning, so it must be regretfully short.”

Ken had taught him that. Quallet knew Dullahans, but he went the extra mile and sat with their heads on pillows, as formality and their customs dictated. They had a contract within twenty minutes.

That was how Quallet got himself a War Walker. Metoish herself turned pale at the sight of the giant Dullahan taking the field. And he didn’t acknowledge her stone-gaze. She instantly tried to kill him, of course, armor-piercing arrows and spells taking him as a target.

But Bastiom was still someone with levels and Skills. Before he could become a focused target, he charged across the battlefield with the veterans. Quallet ordered a full-charge after the War Walker and saw him fighting Metoish.

Give credit to the Medusa—she dodged the first terrible swing of the axe, avoided the shield, even dodged a [Flash Blow] during Bastiom’s [Rampage Run].

She backed up from Bastiom as he whirled, screaming at her forces to climb him and bring him down! Bring him down! The Medusa backed up—straight into the Dullahan veterans. One hit her with a [Dizzying Shieldbash], and she stopped just long enough for that axe to come down.

That was the end of the engagement, and Quallet reported his victory to the amazed and relieved employers who were as good as their word when it came to pay. Bastiom’s presence probably wasn’t necessary; you had to have a good reputation, and Quallet might turn into a bigger problem than Metoish if he weren’t paid.

However, no one argued over their contract when he stood there. Bastiom was the first War Walker that Quallet hired, and the cheapest by far.

The Centaurs from the Roving Arrow company came later. And the other War Walker a month after that.

 

——

 

Most Centaurs from the Roving Arrow Company wouldn’t get near Gravetender’s Fist for fear of retribution. Quallet would have spit on them or done worse if they’d asked to enlist.

Except for, perhaps, one group that had also demanded a ceasefire. Guess which Centaur group asked if Quallet wanted a group of archer-specialists?

The very same ones that had demanded Geneva Scala’s aid in rescuing their [Captain] came to hire on. But not every story was a neat one; the Dullahans almost resigned when they heard Quallet had employed them, and it took a visit to Talenqual and Ken’s diplomacy to keep them happy.

Also…the male Centaur leading his reduced band was their leader. Not the female [Captain] that Quallet remembered. The same woman who Geneva had worked so hard to save had died in the fighting after it resumed.

That was a mercenary’s lot. However, Quallet took the Centaurs on, and they fought in far fewer life-or-death battles. With a War Walker and so many veteran fighters, Quallet could literally earn money from guard-duty.

As in, he could garrison a town or occupy a location and dare another company to attack. You could get paid for that kind of guard-duty, although it could escalate. But a War Walker?

Monster hunts were now available. Yes, a Hydra was a terrible threat, and Bastiom could not take one on alone without considerable danger. But he was all too happy to charge with a bunch of soldiers pinning the Hydra down and begin hacking.

The second War Walker was almost inevitable after the first. Quallet had not studied War Walker economics, but he learned that War Walkers tended to join companies if they heard one of their own was there and happy.

Companionship. So Quallet was now fielding two War Walkers, expert Centaurs, Dullahans, and he kept growing; success was like a mudball rolling downhill. It picked up momentum and speed.

And he owed it all to the United Nations company and Geneva Scala. Quallet knew it. That…was an odd feeling. He didn’t just ‘owe’ them for Bastiom and the Centaur [Captain], Ekeroof, either.

Quallet began getting veteran [Mercenaries], even smaller groups reaching out and asking if he was affiliated with the Last Light of Baleros. Those cured of the Yellow Rivers or seeking employment gravitated towards Gravetender’s Fist for that dream.

If I’m wounded, the Last Light might save me. If you were looking for someone to join, why not at least bet on a company like Gravetender’s Fist, who had her friendship?

During the Yellow Rivers pandemic, which mostly quieted down after a cure was developed, Gravetender’s Fist made money hand-over-claw-over-hoof. They feared the disease far less, having Geneva’s expertise in mitigating the risk. Quallet engaged in four major battles over the intervening time, all of which were victories.

By the time Kenjiro Murata sent him a request to move Gravetender’s Fist to Talenqual to assist in a difficult matter, Quallet was wondering if he should find a place to claim. He had sped past every goal he’d set in his thirties. Which was why the request was so difficult.

He had known it would come, someday. The thing about debts was that someone always called them in. And Quallet…sat with his [Sorceress Major], Quexa, Bastiom’s head, Ekeroof, and his other officers as he pondered his reply.

“It’s obvious why Ken’s asking us to return to Talenqual.”

Quallet spoke at last. Ekeroof turned; he was kneeling on some cushions. The Centaur frowned.

“It is?”

He was…not exceptionally bright when it came to matters outside of where to gallop and shoot people. Quallet just nodded.

“Think of the current situation around Baleros. The United Nations company…the rumors about Jungle Tails making a comeback. There’s only one thing they could want.”

He sighed.

“…They want us to back them up and keep the Featherfolk Brigade from evicting them from Talenqual.”

It was obvious if you read between the lines of Ken’s message. Ever since the Last Light had mysteriously vanished, the United Nations company’s position had been in jeopardy. They were not a company like Gravetender’s Fist, who numbered close to ten thousand by now—and they were still far smaller than the Featherfolk Brigade, who were four times as large.

However, another company in Fezimet’s city must have gotten under the Quexal’s scales and feathers. Quallet’s officers muttered.

“We cannot take the Featherfolk Brigade in the field. They are almost exclusively Lizardfolk, but they have a Naga contingent in the hundreds. Possibly as many as a thousand combined.”

Bastiom pointed out the obvious. Quexa saw Quallet scratch at his chin.

“We don’t have to. It’s a standoff. How much are the Featherfolk Brigade willing to push the issue? It’s not fun to have us as an enemy. But we get to weigh how badly we want to make enemies of a bigger company. I’m…considering the issue.”

Bastiom and Ekeroof eyed Quallet, and he glowered.

“I said, I’m considering it. Do you want to fight the Featherfolk Brigade?”

He knew how they’d vote if he asked. Even Quexa, perhaps. Quallet though—was conflicted.

The United Nations Company called for help. And what did Quallet Marshhand do?

He didn’t dislike them. On the contrary, Quallet was grateful, he saw their useful knowledge, expertise, and…background as invaluable, and he liked individual members.

Am I willing to go to war, though? How far was he willing to go? How much did he owe them?

“The Last Light—”

Ekeroof began. Quallet cut him off.

“—Isn’t there. Frankly, I’d tell the Humans to pack up. I know they made a place for themselves, but it isn’t worth a hostile company. If Fezimet wants them gone—they’ll be gone. Even if we keep him from evicting them, do you really want a hostile company running the city?”

That was true. It was a stupid request. Even so…Quallet sighed.

“Let’s march.”

Quexa looked at him, alarmed, but Quallet clarified.

“I’ll talk to Ken and whoever’s in charge with Geneva Scala gone. The least we can do is escort them to another city. Strike the camps. We’ll leave just enough forces to satisfy our current garrison contract. Quexa, tell the Featherfolk Brigade we’re entering their territory and planning on escorting the United Nations company.”

Now that his company was so large, even entering another company’s territory could spook them. Quallet did not want to make an enemy of Fezimet, but he knew he had to answer Ken’s request. He’d lose Bastiom and Ekeroof if he refused.

However, he had no intention of coming to blows with the Featherfolk Brigade over a damned lodging issue. Quallet was braced for an unhappy Quexal’s response as Bastiom marched down the road, leading Gravetender’s Fist to Talenqual.

What he was not prepared for was a cordial response from the Quexal inviting him to Talenqual at all haste. And a personal contract on a search-and-destroy objective in the nearby forest. What, exactly, the Quexal left unclear, but he was offering a joint contract to Quallet.

That was when the [Mercenary Commander]’s senses began telling him that he was about to enter another hairy situation.

 

——

 

Umina Caxical’s head hurt. Mostly because someone had just hit her.

Umina!

The shouting in the night and figures fighting in the dark jungle, crashing through bushes that sometimes unleashed their wrath upon anyone stupid enough to touch them, was chaos. Umina’s head rang, but the enchanted helmet saved her once.

Tallguard Cotm raised a crossbow and shot the Naga through the hissing mouth before it could run Umina through with the sword it held.

A tiny bolt…which promptly exploded and blew the entire top of the Naga’s head off. Umina recoiled, staring up at a Naga, one of her people’s leaders, as the corpse fell, headless. Oh Nagas…

Marian galloped forwards, loosing an arrow through another Lizardwoman’s chest as Cotm reloaded, aiming around.

Retreat! Retreat! Ambush—

That came from the enemy side. The Featherfolk Brigade were trying to flee, and this scout-group was running in every direction. Unfortunately, sometimes they ran into enemies.

Lizardfolk were fighting Lizardfolk, and the confused Featherfolk Brigade had at first assumed the friendly group was one of their own [Scout]-parties. Right up until a Centaur had galloped out of the trees and put an enchanted arrow into the Lamia leading them.

Unfortunately, things hadn’t been so textbook after that. The ambush had gone south when two Nagas charged, and Umina nearly died. The Lizardgirl aimed her wand around, still reeling, as Cotm spoke.

“Both Nagas down. I’ve got eight unfriendlies left. You see them?”

“[Friend-And-Foe Vision]. Yes.”

Umina felt sick. She bent over to throw up as the Lizardfolk mercenaries attacked the confused scouts. The Featherfolk Brigade just saw fellow Lizardfolk—their armor was a bit different, but they hesitated.

Umina’s hired mercenaries from her home city of Nassiquel didn’t hesitate. Mainly because they could see the enemy. Umina’s Skill applied to her entire unit—perfect for confused melees like that.

“Did any of them get a [Message] spell off?”

Marian was panting. She trotted around, and another Centaur emerged from the brush. Umina jumped, but Cotm was already inside her belt pouch again.

“Strategist Marian. We’ve cleared the last of the enemy. Positioning?”

“Fallback Point 1. Umina, get on my back. Let’s go. [Quiet Hooves]!”

Lizardfolk and Centaurs streamed through the forest, not bothering to do more than loot the fallen of potions and weapons and bags of holding if any carried them. They had to move fast.

Umina clung to Marian’s back, still sick, and the Centaur shuddered.

“Umina. Please tell me you’re not wiping your claws on my flanks.

Umina stopped, guiltily, as she wiped the vomit off her mouth.

“…No? How’d we do—the ambush, I mean?”

“I think we lost one.”

A little voice spoke in both Marian and Umina’s earpieces—speaking stones. High-grade ones, but so tiny they had needed to attach them with sticky glue next to or in their ears. Earhole, in Umina’s case.

Fraerling magic. Umina was still spinning on that, but the ambush…

“Confirmed. You lost one.”

The Tallguard Fraerling was a serious fellow. Or was gloomy the word? He seemed depressed…when he wasn’t throwing up like Umina.

Apparently, Cotm was a Tallguard, a defender of Fraerling cities like Paeth, the very place that Umina and Marian were trying to protect by wiping out the Featherfolk Brigade’s scouts. Umina didn’t know where it was, and Cotm refused to even give them a rough area.

They were under attack; one city had fallen. He demanded their help as students of the Titan, and Umina and Marian had agreed. Cotm had taken a huge risk coming to them, but the Tallguard was resolved to die in defense of his city and stall the Featherfolk Brigade or keep them from finding the location.

He was not prepared to ride in defense of his home city, though, or row, or locomote in any other sense of the word. Cotm could maneuver through the trees like an airborne predator. He was a crack-shot with his crossbow.

And he threw up if you so much as jiggled him on top of a box while riding a wagon. The Fraerling hadn’t realized he got sick from vehicles either; he did not make a habit of riding Luan’s scull or Centaurs.

His voice, then, was slightly trembling as he went on.

“I…urp…didn’t detect any [Message] spells outgoing. And you assured me that’s all average Tallfolk [Mages] can cast.”

“You’re not a [Mage], though.”

The Tallguard [Arbalest] muttered under his breath.

“I have sensor artifacts. And I graduated Tallfolk basic camp.”

“…Which means?”

Umina and Marian exchanged a glance. Cotm hesitated.

“Basic magic training Tiers 1-3. Don’t Tallfolk have training camps? I thought you two were [Strategists].”

“Not Tier 3 magic for non-magic users!”

“Oh.”

Like other Tallfolk, and like other Fraerlings, there was a definite disconnect between what the others expected and what they got. However, unlike Resk, or Noa, or Kessice, Cotm just fell silent.

Kessice was his partner, and the [Ranger] was better at talking. Cotm wished she were here. The two giant female [Strategists] were whispering, and he heard them.

“…We didn’t account for the Naga charge. It’s not like practice.”

“But we mostly got them. We shouldn’t have led the encounter, but I have my bow and you have a wand…”

“Right. But we’re acting like Venaz. Next time, I’ll take up a sniping position with you.”

Cotm’s analysis was that the ambush was fine. It sucked, but it was fine. He tried not to throw up in a corner of the jolting pouch that bounced him up and down.

Tallguard ambushes would have them in the trees and planting trap spells in advance. But they had to be that precise. Cotm would happily sit in position for three hours rather than spend another ten minutes riding on Marian’s back. If Kessice were here, she’d be talkative. He was not, but he was still glad she wasn’t with him. He wished she were here and was glad she was not, if that made sense.

…Because he was going to die far from Paeth’s walls.

Cotm just knew it. The odds of Fraerlings surviving alone were remote. Even the bravest Fraerlings who founded villages without the magical protections Paeth and the largest settlements enjoyed—crazy even by Tallguard standards—didn’t do it alone.

Here he was, leading four [Strategists] and various mercenaries in defense of Paeth against over forty thousand Lizardfolk, and they were in service to a Great Company. Cotm was a dead Fraerling.

But if he died…the Fraerling felt the world vanish under his feet. For three seconds the Fraerling flew as Marian leapt something and kept him weightless, pressed up against the top of Umina’s belt pouch.

Then Cotm landed and covered his mouth. Umina and Marian winced as they heard a loud and horribly precise sound of someone upchucking what they’d eaten.

 

——

 

“Ancestors. Are they dead? What is that sound?”

Kissilt nearly tore the tiny speaking stone out of his earhole as he heard the horrible gurgling splutter and coughing. Cameral winced as he consulted their map in their camouflaged camp.

“Cameral. Checking in. Marian?”

“We’re fine. One down…our ‘guest’ is, uh, sick.”

“Ancestors.”

Kissilt repeated himself. It was about the eighteenth time he’d said it this entire week. The normally-prickly Drake looked at Cameral, then turned to the others.

“Attack Group 2 is incoming.”

“Roger, Strategist.”

Someone crisply saluted then performed a hand-gesture, and Kissilt nodded. The Drake irregulars sighted Marian and Umina’s force a second later—and still called it in.

“Counting thirty…five on approach. Numbers line up.”

The Drakes watched as Centaurs and Lizardfolk slowed as they approached the camp. One called out.

“Hail. Salazsar’s Gems?”

“Fuck you. We’re not doing this every single time.”

One of the Lizardfolk, perhaps Umina herself, made a rude gesture. The Drakes glowered back, but opened the camp they’d set up. The Lizardfolk and Drakes glared at each other.

Kissilt met Umina and Marian and felt less of that instinctive hostility between Lizardfolk and Drakes. But it was there.

Drakes hated Lizardfolk. As it turned out, it was not an entirely one-sided dislike, although Drakes certainly harbored a grudge from old wars and the Naga Incursions.

However…Drakes could get on Lizardfolk nerves, which was actually fairly amazing to Dullahans, Centaurs, and Baleros’ Humans. It was all their regulations. The Lizardfolk had not appreciated having to call out passphrases that changed every day whenever they went for a walk or used the latrine or just at random.

What a weird force. Kissilt was a Manus-trained [Strategist]. Umina and Marian were natives to Baleros, and so was Cameral, although he came from much further north. In this camp, Lizardfolk, Centaurs, and Drakes were all joined in small numbers, less than a hundred total, to fight the Featherfolk Brigade.

Just three weeks ago, Kismet Securities had been the Drake’s focus, but now he was conducting a sabotage guerrilla operation that might land him dead if it were discovered in service to one of the mythical Fraerling cities.

All things considered, he felt like he was finally moving up in the world.

“How’s our ‘guest’?”

The first thing they did when they entered the command tent was check on Cotm. Cameral was orchestrating their three attack groups. No Dullahans…they were too slow, too notable, and he hadn’t been able to pull a group without going through official channels.

Marian, Umina, and Kissilt had, so Cameral was in charge of all the busywork to make up for it. The Dullahan felt like he was letting them down, and since he was, Kissilt was willing to let him make it up to them.

The Drake, on the other hand, had provided no less than thirty veteran mercenaries from the few Drakes abroad in Baleros. They’d all responded to his Grade-6 clearance passport and asked no questions.

By contrast, Umina had hired some local Lizardfolk from her city, who were decent fighters…but so unprofessional. Marian had only gotten six Centaurs from her herd-tribe or whatever it was, but they were all expert archers.

“Cotm? We’re in the tent. I—oh Nagas.”

Umina pulled Cotm out gently and found he was covered in—Cameral hurriedly offered a water-flask, and Kissilt plugged his nostrils.

Just wonderful. The sick Fraerling recovered after a few seconds, and at least he was professional.

“Group down. Are you…what is our status?”

“The Featherfolk Brigade have lost three scout groups. I’m detecting a larger force enroute; we’ll strike camp and fall back.”

Again? We’re ten miles away from the furthest they’d search, Kissilt.”

The Drake glared at Marian, who looked weary.

“I’m not risking it. One whiff of us and they’ll encircle our location. Do you have a location, Tallguard Cotm? Any path?”

The Fraerling shook his head instantly.

“None. Pick whatever direction you want.”

Kissilt sighed inwardly. No hints, even by obfuscation, of where this ‘Paeth’ was, then. Not that he’d sell out the Fraerlings! But Manus would like to know.

“I’ll send the order. Cameral, strike camp.”

Marian glared as Kissilt nodded at the Dullahan, and Cameral strode out. She disapproved of Kissilt taking command, but he was in charge.

What a rag-tag organization this was. Here they were, attacking scout groups—admittedly with a wonderful kill-to-death ratio—with no idea what they were protecting, underforce, and with multiple groups of varying military disciplines not used to working with each other.

Kissilt would have never done this normally. In fact, he would have balked at even involving himself in the affairs of the Featherfolk Brigade and direct Cotm to the Titan. But here he was, risking his life for an admittedly noble-sounding cause.

In fact, he’d used Kismet Securities’ funds to hire Umina, his, and Marian’s forces. A small fortune! He was laying it all on the line because he was definitely going to level…

And because Cotm was paying well.

“I have a list of our targets, sir. We can expand it if I pull more forces. Umina could hire a local Lizardfolk force, and Marian assures me she has trustworthy Centaurs. A Dullahan force is much slower, but we might drain the Featherfolk of nearly a thousand. I’m not willing to commit to an all-out battle as it reveals our position and the Featherfolk Brigade are fast. However, if you would like to upgrade our services…”

“Dead gods, Kissilt.”

Marian rolled her eyes as the Drake showed Cotm their statistical breakdown of the damage they’d done. At the very least, they’d slowed the Featherfolk’s progress considerably. Cotm eyed Kissilt with dour approval.

“I guess I have to pay for all the rest?”

“Or Paeth. Happy to help, sir. In fact, if you’d like time to leave and, ah, acquire more goods in kind, I have a wishlist of items I’d happily invest gold for. We have a budget underlined here…”

Kissilt had nearly six thousand gold pieces to invest in Cotm’s war. Not all earned from Kismet Securities; he’d written to the Merchant’s Guild and been assured he could take a loan out. Manus had good financing; Kissilt’s debts would not default, even if he died.

He was willing to spend all of that and more for Cotm. Mainly because the tiny, tiny transceiver crystal that the Fraerling had given Kissilt was worth it. True, Kissilt had to manipulate it with a needle and amplify the sound via [Loud] spells, but it was his.

And it picked up every speaking stone in a ten mile radius.

Fraerling magic. Cotm sighed.

“I can request…what do you want? Ring of [Greater Invisibility]? Ring of [True Sight]. Ring of Protection. [Steelscale] or [Steelskin] equivalent…”

“Or an amulet. I’m not picky. Just so long as it works and transfers the effect to me. So something my size…”

“What about us, Kissilt?”

Marian snapped. Umina nodded rapidly, and Kissilt glared at them.

“I’ll pay you back. Umina’s got her Belt of Dexterity. You’ve got, uh…I’ll pay you back!”

Cotm looked up and gave Kissilt a level glance.

“I gave you my artifact already. That’s worth six thousand gold pieces to Tallfolk since you don’t have it.”

Kissilt began to sweat a bit.

“Yes, Tallguard, but this is a risky situation. And—Manus is capable of the equivalent magic. Swear on a truth stone.”

Although it was something only a top [General] would ever be able to requisition. Cotm paced about, eying the list. He seemed to be willing to negotiate, though—or he just knew Drakes.

“I’ll leave for…five days. No. Three.”

“Can you make it wherever you’re going in three? Let alone back?”

Everyone looked carefully at Cotm, and the Tallguard glared about. Kissilt itched for a quill to write down…Paeth possibly in range of three-day travel by Tallguard. But how fast could an [Encyclopedia Scout] move? He had no data.

“Who said anything about me coming back? Keep fighting. You…any one of you. Meet me in Talenqual. That room that Umina has.”

“Hm? Talenqual?”

The [Strategists] were surprised. Cotm nodded.

“I’ll be there. Three days. Just put me outside the camp.”

“Do you need a Skill or…? I can boost your speed a lot.”

Marian trotted to the door, eying Cotm. The Tallguard just shook his head.

“I’ll manage.”

He was…doing something. Kissilt squinted and saw the tiny, half-foot man adjusting something on his wrist. It was making tiny, tiny clicking sounds. Was that a bracelet? He had no idea what Cotm was up to.

 

——

 

The thing about Cotm was that he wasn’t stupid. He knew Drakes. He’d read up on them, hadn’t he? Kissilt fit the classic Drake archetype.

Greedy. They had an actual desire as a species to accumulate. Just like Lizardfolk needed socialization. Cotm was also aware the four [Strategists] were intelligent enough to want to know where Paeth was. He didn’t trust their intentions.

Like Kessice, Cotm was a serious Tallguard when it came to security. Noa was the overeager one, the adventurous sort. But Cotm…no. So he fiddled with the odd object that Kissilt had seen.

It looked like a bracelet made up of tiny, pale stones, each with a letter. There were nine, all strung on a band of mithril with a little tag that read, ‘#31’.

Each of the nine stones was cut such that it represented four facings, and a tiny letter had been inscribed on each. Or number.

What Cotm was doing was turning each stone to the letter or number he wanted, and then clicking the final stone, which had only two settings. And what he was doing was using a trick of Fraerlings, especially abroad.

Guidance Heish, Ekrn, Kessice, and all the Tallguard had one of these. In fact, Kessice’s bracelet was moving in exact accordance with Cotm’s at this very moment. As was a series of stones in Feiland’s headquarters being monitored by a specialist.

Fraerlings were well aware that you could hack [Message] spells. They could cast long-range communication spells, but it was so damn risky, and their entire motive was secrecy. So they’d developed simple counters that even [Archmages] couldn’t easily hack.

One of them was…lodestones.

Lodestones were neat objects that moved in-sync with each other. The Titan himself had commissioned a board on that principle; when one piece moved, the other did likewise. Cotm’s bracelet was much less magical and thus less noticeable; it was just that when one of his stones moved, say, to a letter, two other lodestones moved with it.

Thus, what he was doing was moving each letter, then twisting the ‘confirmation’ stone to indicate that was the letter he wanted. It was slow, arduous…but Cotm could send a message back to headquarters. Or to allies. And he could use the bracelet in his sleep.

This was his message when written down:

 

Ctm stp. Retrieve reqst stp. Monitor stp. Friendly Tall stp.

 

‘stp’ was short for ‘stop’. The rest told Feiland who Cotm was, what he needed, and the situation.

By the time Marian put him down on a branch, Cotm was receiving a response. He hid his bracelet from her curious eyes.

“Three days. I’ll have something worth it. Make sure that Drake pushes the Featherfolk Company, got it? I’ll pay his price—and all three of yours. Whatever you can get—whatever you can call in without revealing yourselves openly, do it.”

“Very well. But do you need a Skill? We can’t trace you, and it’s safe.”

“Nope.”

Marian hesitated, but ducked her head and stepped back.

“Best travels, then.”

“Thanks.”

Cotm aimed his enchanted grappling hook upwards and caught a branch. He tensed as the enchanted hook caught—then felt it yank him upwards. He jumped in tandem, activating his boots’ jumping magic, and soared.

To the Centauress, it looked effortless as Cotm leapt upwards, before alighting on a branch just below the top. There, he deployed a camouflage spell to keep the damn birds from attacking him. Cotm had a crossbow drawn, and he checked his corners.

No evil caterpillars, no bugs, no horrible squirrels…clear. He saw the Centauress lifting a hand, watching him go.

She kept watching, incidentally, for a good minute…then two…before realizing Cotm wasn’t going anywhere. He sat, legs dangling on the branches, and washed his mouth out with some barley tea. Then he pulled out a snack, a bit of cheese that Umina had given him, and sat there.

“Um…are you waiting for light?”

It was dark in the forest, and Marian could well imagine nocturnal predators interfering with the Tallguard’s progress. Cotm replied.

“Nope.”

“Do you…okay. Er…should I go?”

“If you want. I won’t take long.”

Marian stood there, staring up at Cotm as he finished communicating with Kessice. Telling her ‘no’, he didn’t want to meet even though he was going to Talenqual.

The [Strategists] should not know he was there. Cotm had gone on his quest. Paeth had to be saved. So, he waited.

After another minute, Marian glanced over her shoulder and saw her fellow [Strategists] peeking out of the camp at her. She looked back to Cotm and blinked.

The semi-invisible Fraerling sitting on the branch looked up as he finished his cheese. A small…ring of light appeared around him. He held still and calmly looked down at Marian as her eyes grew wide.

“No way. You can do that?

“It beats riding. See you th—”

Cotm vanished as the teleport spell yanked him. Marian’s jaw fell open in a very pleasing way.

 

——

 

Teleportation didn’t make Cotm sick, which was why it was so upsetting that everything else did. Yes, the feeling of warping through dimensions for a few seconds had been known to make even veteran Tallguard vomit, but Cotm didn’t mind it.

It was not common that Tallguard requested it, and it was a huge waste of mana. Desperate times, though. Besides—

Feiland was being abandoned.

Cotm reappeared in headquarters, and five Tallguard were waiting for him. One, the [Mage] who had scried his position and pulled him in via the handy marker stones that let them calculate exact coordinates, was already loading up the marker stone he’d put in Talenqual.

“You’re working for Tallfolk now? Report. Ekrn’s upset.”

“They’re part of Forgotten Wing. They already destroyed seven scouting parties. I, Scout Cotm, made the decision to engage their services on my own volition. Can I request resources or is this going to the top?”

The Tallguard Fraerlings nodded at Cotm and led him through Feiland. It was not in Paeth; they had a headquarters that spanned multiple settlements. However…it was being abandoned.

Recruits were packing everything in sight, and they were actually in the process of transferring their gear. One of the other [Sentry Leaders] grunted.

“The top is Ekrn or me. Everyone else died at Oierdressql. The evacuation order has gone through to every settlement outside of Paeth. We’re running escort missions nonstop and evacuating to Paeth as well. You’re not going to have another teleport aside from Paeth…and it’s under lockdown for any outgoing magic.”

“How’s the Allotment? How close are they getting?”

“We’re hiding our signature. As for the Tallfolk…they’re combing the forest. Nowhere near Paeth yet, and our [Druids] are riling up the wildlife. Carefully. What do you need?”

Tallguard had a lot of autonomy. A [Sentry Leader] was not a low-level position. Nor was even a basic Tallguard. They were few in number, but each was issued a Signim, hugely expensive to manufacture even for Fraerlings, and any one of them could pull rank.

“I need some gear—Tallfolk sized. Bribes. Can I get it from Paeth?”

The [Sentry Leader] chewed it over.

“Sure. We’ve got a chipmunk or you can wing over. Bluejay, I think.”

Cotm turned pale, and the other Tallguard laughed. His aversion to travel via animals was well-known.

“Give me wings if you can. And can we send something to Paeth?”

“Lodestone room. Send it in. The Architects will have to approve it…but they’ll approve it.”

Within ten minutes, Cotm had his order put into Paeth, and then he was strapping into the Bluejay flight. He wished he hadn’t eaten the cheese as the Fraerling [Sky Rider] looked at his passenger and groaned.

I have to teleport back to Talenqual. But that means I’m doing it from headquarters, so that’s two Bluejay rides, there and back.

The horrible bird took off, and Cotm flew into the air. Every Fraerling ducked as he turned white, then green.

 

——

 

Paeth on the Coast was flooded with refugees, and the normally-peaceful Fraerling city was in chaos.

No…it was often in chaos. Paeth had lots of problems. For instance! They had that horrible scandal where it was revealed that the manufacturers of aphid and other pet-related foodstuffs were instituting terrible, low-quality goods and even semi-rotted grain with a few purification spells mixed in!

Fraerlings had gone to prison for that. Also, the voting this year had been contentious around the ‘magi-limb’ issue. That was the trend of young people replacing body parts with magical prostheses even if they didn’t need them.

Guidance Heish’s election had come over a much less progressive candidate, who had been about to ban all non-critical augmentations. And then there was…

Well. City politics. But Fraerling city politics. That a full First Founding settlement like Paeth didn’t qualify for Paradise-status was only because the rest of the world had no idea what they were like.

And moments like these, when every life was in jeopardy. Paeth was in true danger, and all those old worries and arguments…seemed so small.

Right now, the yearly Allotment was being burned through on a daily basis, and all their stockpiled nullifiers were being used to keep Paeth hidden. Fraerlings were not using their Allotment for personal gain; all the magic was needed for real issues.

Like [Geomancers] currently shaping hundreds, thousands of homes in the stone for people who needed housing. [Druids], [Farmers], and other sectors of agriculture doubling stocks. They were also harvesting animals and plants nearby, but the greatest use of magic was going to the manufacturing.

Alchemy, magic…and steel. All three major sectors were working around the clock.

Producing arms for a war.

The Tallguard had equipment, but the regular security in Paeth used stun-batons, paralysis-enchanted gear. Now? They were producing attack wands, crossbows, weapons designed for use against big opponents.

It was one of the smithies that got Cotm’s order ahead of his arrival. A [Master Smith] turned.

“A Tallguard wants what?

“Two rings and a bowstring. Mithril. Oh, and you’ve got to pull whatever you have. Adamantium or truegold. He wants…”

The [Smith] got a request for an odd shield-pattern design in metal. He rubbed his face, then turned.

Cats and cockroaches damn it! That’s more mithril than—does he have to have mithril?”

“No…it’s for a bow. A Tallfolk bow.”

That got the [Smith]’s attention. He bent over the further, more comprehensive description and grunted.

“Oh. Gear for Tallfolk? Are we working with more than just that Giant? Luan?”

The messenger hesitated.

“I don’t know, but the Architects approved it. It’s priority.”

“Well—we can do the rings. They’re just bases.”

The [Smith] dismissed that at once. The [Enchanters] just wanted two rings that could hold the magic. He whistled.

“Hey! Get two rings set up. Big. Tallfolk. Pull out the molds and fill them with something. Uh…uh…Burnished Ruby and maybe just pure magicore for the other.”

“That means we have to lacquer the other one. With what?”

One of the junior [Smiths] groaned. The [Master Smith] snapped back.

“Quartz. It’s enchantable. Just get it done. Now…halt the main press! I have an order! We’re making mithril-alloy!

The thing about Fraerling [Smiths]…was that they tended not to hammer on things with other bits of metal. A huge, magical press stopped pounding raw metal and rose, steaming, as the Fraerling strode over to confer with the others to calibrate the smelter and smithy.

They had the closest thing Luan would ever find to a modern foundry—just magical. For instance, instead of a smelter with charcoal or something else providing the heat, the Fraerlings just created a sealed chamber and made it hot. It was akin to how Naq-Alrama smiths did their work. Although even Fraerlings thought that Tannousin were freaks about cleanliness.

Truegold? This Tallguard wants Truegold, Adamantium, or…does he think we’re made of rare metals?”

Adamantium was rare! So rare that the Crelerbane forces were using armor thousands of years old, forged in desperation during the Creler Wars. And he wanted how much?

Even if Tallguard knew the outside world, they could be idiots about metal. The senior smiths running the manufacturing smithy spent a good ten minutes cursing Cotm’s name—then they got to work.

The thing was, Cotm wasn’t stupid. He was actually intelligent enough to know that Kissilt was trying to rip him off, and so he was willing to play the Drake’s game. But just not give him a Ring of [Greater Invisibility], thanks.

Two [Enchanters], including Enchanter Ilekrome himself, came to enchant the rings as they cooled in the molds. Ilekrome nodded.

“We need to make this Tallfolk grade? That’s a lot of magic…but fine. Reusable. Resizable? Basic protection on each ring. What enchantments on each?”

Someone offered him the wishlist Cotm had sent. By now, Cotm was landing at one of Paeth’s entry points and navigating through the city’s outer security. Ilekrome sighed.

“Link eight and draw from our mana reserves. First enchantment…[Fireball]. No. Wait! Ah…[Invisible Fireball]. One cast per day. Second ring? [Deepwood Barkskin]. What do we put on the bowstring?”

“Strengthening and long-range shots, Enchanter. It’ll be done.”

“The armor plate thing? What…is that?”

It was like a giant shield—no, more like a kind of stylized heart. But it wasn’t a shield; no one was cutting holes in it. It was slightly curved and was made of gleaming orichalum cut with mithril. The [Master Smith] sighed as he rubbed at his face.

“Protection, Enchanter. Can you do it within the hour?”

Ilekrome made a face.

“It’s just Tier 5 advanced magic at most. Enchanting it for permanency is a pain, and making it Tallfolk grade would kill our Allotment any other day. But we’ll get it done.”

The [Master Smith] nodded and went back to supervising the shield-thing. One of his apprentices ran over, excitedly waving something as the Fraerlings worked.

“Master! Master! I did it!”

The [Smith] turned and saw an odd tube-thing at the end. It looked…useless. Maybe you could use it as the casing for some kind of weapon, but it was plain steel. Oh, and there was another perfect cylinder that you inserted into it via a metal prong.

“Apprentice…”

The warning rumble in the Fraerling’s voice didn’t stop the excited young Fraerling. She showed it to him.

“Sir! I figured it out! This is that cylinder-thing the Human Tallfolk was talking about! See? You’d attach this to a few fulcrums which you could get to constantly pump. I’m not sure about the combustion, but we were thinking—”

The piston-cylinder in her hands disappeared as the [Smith] snatched it. In front of the staff, he bent the steel prototype and then shouted.

Stop wasting time on your stupid projects!

The apprentice wilted. The [Master Smith] roared around.

Paeth is in danger! You can fiddle with steel all you want later—shove it up your butts if you want! When Paeth is safe, you can have fun. Until then, I want every hand working on weapons or armor! Get moving!

Ilekrome looked up as the [Smith] hurled the piston to one side. It was the kind of thing that would seriously put his job in jeopardy as the apprentice ran off, shocked. You didn’t say that kind of thing in Paeth. But then—the [Master Smith] was Feiland’s. The Tallguard were coming here to make a stand.

And the other settlements were evacuating.

 

——

 

Cotm pressed through Paeth and had never known it so crowded. Fraerlings from other settlements were arriving non-stop, and the entryways were packed. Tallguard were running escort on the ground, sky…

Fraerlings would die just by travelling, but if Oierdressql had fallen, nowhere was safe.

Not even Paeth.

That was why everyone was preparing for the worst. And if putting all the Fraerlings in one city sounded stupid, well, it was. But they were not coming to be idiots about it. Paeth was a First Founding, and that mattered.

But also, it had the most resources, the most magic, and it was a proper place to stand—or evacuate.

“Forty of our Crelerbane forces? Forty?

The Judiciary was pulling his hair out. He was arguing with a distinctly different Fraerling duo. Man and woman, both from different settlements. They didn’t have ‘Paeth’ clothing—which was machined, beautiful cloth.

And indeed, they had no colored hair, fun accessories or tattoos, and so appeared a cut below the city Fraerlings who were looking at their cousins with deep surprise. Cotm recognized them and slowed a moment to hear what they were saying.

Frontier-folk. These were Fraerlings who founded towns or villages. Tallguard still protected them, but instead of Paeth’s magic, they had literal small settlements with as much magic as they could enchant. They fought off raids of insects, hunted larger animals…

They were true [Adventurers]. Fraerlings did long for the outside world. Sometimes young Fraerlings trained all their life, created a movement, and…left. It could be disastrous. Or they could found a city that would one day become as large as Paeth.

Still, they were all maniacs. The female Fraerling had armor that was enchanted, but as much style…no, it was all style, little accessory.

Her armor was made of bones of magical creatures and enchanted. Whereas the male Fraerling was bare-chested but had a cloak of some jungle predator on his back. They were leaders of their cities and in talks with the Architects, who were as much put upon by their counterpart’s odd style and confidence as the aggressive negotiations.

“We can’t keep that many civilians safe. Forty Crelerbane and some of your Tallguard; we’ll provide the rest of the security. Every Fraerling in my village can fire a bow—but we can’t take all the children and kids.”

“Nor are we going to risk a long trip. I’ll take them north to Staetnere. The riskier trip is by sea. But I need a list and people ready to go. If Paeth is found.”

They were preparing the evacuations. One by land, one by sea. If Paeth fell…or came under siege, they’d take as many as they could.

The Fraerlings had known they might lose this place a long time ago. So they had two contingencies. A land-tunnel that took them a long way north, underground, and a giant ship.

To Humans, it was probably only the size of a smaller ship. A dinghy? But imagine how many Fraerlings could ride in it with Paeth’s dimensional magic?

Even so—crossing the sea meant running into predators, storms, and even [Pirates]. These were desperation measures, and both leaders, despite being monster slayers—for their size—were demanding twenty Crelerbane warriors armored in pure Adamantium. Each.

Cotm hurried on as the Judiciary argued…but eventually gave in. Thus far, Paeth hadn’t even been found by the scouts. If he got his way—he’d keep them from finding it.

“Your gear, Tallguard Cotm. Are you going to take it?”

Cotm stared up at a giant plate of metal made of orichalcum and mithril taller than he was. He looked at Ilekrome and saw the two rings and long, coiled string of enchanted metal. He shook his head.

“I need to take it to Feiland and teleport out to Talenqual.”

Teleport this? Are you mad?”

Ilekrome’s eyes popped. The ring and maybe even bowstring would fit in Cotm’s bag of holding, but his wasn’t large enough to carry the metal plate. Cotm folded his arms.

“Not mad, Enchanter. I need teleportation. A few [Mages] could do it.”

“We can’t do it! We’re busy using every mage to locate the Tallfolk—”

“Three days, Enchanter. In three days.”

Ilekrome stopped raving. He lowered his hands and some of his hair, which he’d actually torn out, and hesitated.

“Oh. We can do three days. Carry on.”

Cotm nodded and studied his bribes for the [Strategists]. If they didn’t pull out everything, he would personally shoot that Drake.

“Can I find the Tallguard’s [Quartermaster], Smith Rittl? I need to pull more gear.”

The [Master Smith] smiled at Cotm.

“Making Tallfolk friends?”

“More like making them fight each other.”

The [Smith] laughed. He slapped Cotm on the shoulder.

“That’s proper Tallguard fighting! We have a headquarters here; I’ll let you rest. Three days? We could have waited on the gifts! Ah, well.”

“I’ll teleport out tomorrow if I can. One of them—a Centauress—might be able to make it back in a day. There’s no time to waste.”

Rittl nodded. He gestured at the gear.

“Bribes? Tallfolk don’t have that kind of magic.”

Cotm nodded. It wasn’t what Kissilt wanted, but it was enough to really impress him and keep him hungry. Cotm would promise him more if Paeth survived.

But what the Drake would get was a ring of [Invisible Fireball], [Deepwood Barkskin]—powerful protection and offensive spells that Cotm thought would go to the Drake and Umina. Especially since the Lizardgirl put herself in danger.

The bowstring was obviously for Marian. She could get a bow made—and the [Bowyers] would actually kill him if he ordered it—if she saved Paeth.

Each gift was practical and meant to make the [Strategists] use everything they had. The final gift was actually meant for the one who had been most reticent to call upon his resources.

Rittl nodded at it.

“What’s this last one? Too small by far even to be called a buckler. For us, it’s a giant shield, but you didn’t want handles or anything. I didn’t know why. But I’m guessing the edges are the clue.”

Cotm had ordered them beveled slightly and given an interior edge to clasp something hard. You could lock it into place with a solid, simple mechanical connection. Even a Tallfolk [Smith] could probably work it out. He nodded at it.

“One of my Tallfolk that I need to bribe is a native of Baleros. Want to guess which?”

Rittl looked back sharply at the metal piece. He narrowed his eyes. It looked like a rough heart, minus the divot in the middle. A shield-like plate of curved metal that would go perfectly in…Rittl snapped his fingers.

Genius. Dullahan!”

It was a bit of metal that you could easily socket into a suit of armor. Dullahans normally wanted all of their armor to be one plate, but if you put an orichalcum metal over your heart, say, you have a nigh-unbreakable bit of metal protecting a vital organ. And the envy of every Dullahan who saw it.

“You get to make more. A gauntlet or something if we save Paeth.”

Rittl grumbled.

“Making each finger will take me a week! It’s one thing to make a sheet of it—we’ll do it. Make sure that Dullahan brings something to the table.”

“Oh. He will.”

Cotm promised. When he went back to Talenqual with his four pieces of payment in tow, Kissilt took out a four thousand gold loan. And the other [Strategists] began calling all their favors in.

 

——

 

Luan Khumalo’s first shipment of goods arrived in Paeth two days after he left. To be more precise—it arrived and was picked up.

By now, Paeth was under lockdown. Cotm had left for Feiland’s headquarters to teleport out and had been advised that he would not have a route back. The Fraerling city was hidden…and not even Luan with Noa, Resk, and Kessice would be able to so easily return.

However, they did have goods. A canister of mithril dust, as much Sage’s Grass as could be bought, magicore, elements to hide Paeth’s magical signature, and raw iron. Even things as mundane as fish.

Not magical fish. Not alchemy-usable fish. Just…fish. Paeth needed food. Fish was nice. Crab too. Someone had begun ordering a hundred pounds of shrimp before Guidance Heish reminded everyone at the time that this was not what they wanted but needed.

A huge amount of the stuff. How would Paeth get it if Luan didn’t carry it back?

The point was, it was a lot of goods, even for Luan to carry. So to let the Fraerlings haul it to Paeth, Luan deposited it at the shore. They’d have to take a Crelerbane unit to haul it back—but not much, even giant crocs, would want to tangle with them.

But so much stuff. It would take so long for so few to make the trip—unless they did it in one big trip. With, say…

A chest of holding. Luan had nearly bankrupted the United Nation’s coffers to make all these purchases, even with his Courier delivery. He’d promised to repay them, and Resk was doing all the enchanting Paige asked for; he’d even drawn cooling runes, which alone justified the price tag to most of the company.

However, the real reward was seeing twenty Fraerlings lift the giant, enchanted chest onto their shoulders and march with it through the jungle. A croc stared at a moving chest, then the snack-sized people walking past. Right up until one of them shot it in the tooth.

“We’ll get more of what they need. Don’t worry. We’re in lodestone communication. And if they’re still asking for goods—Paeth is safe.”

Resk assured the others as Luan rowed away, pretending he hadn’t seen the tiny folk. It was a very short stop, and no scrying spells were on him, but he felt nervous.

Nervous and hopeful. Apparently, someone was helping distract the Featherfolk Brigade. Kessice was cagey on who, but Luan knew it was Cotm’s doing. Quallet was on the way, and even if Fezimet had announced he wanted the United Nations Company gone by next week…they could move. Just so long as Paeth survived.

 

——

 

However, things were not going nearly as well at the Forgotten Wing headquarters. Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish learned they would not be immediately receiving an army, and Ekrn lost his temper.

This company is attacking our cities because of your company. What do you mean, you can’t spare it?

Strategist Perorn addressed him, eyes narrowed, but trying to be civil.

“I did not say that. I said that it will be difficult supporting Paeth if we do not know where it is, Sentry Leader. And since it is not found—I can put two thousand jungle-experts in your hands. In fact, I believe some of our students are actually attempting to stymie the Featherfolk Brigade—the company searching for you—as we speak.”

Ekrn had heard of Cotm’s plan and, after blowing his lid, had admitted that Cotm had done the right thing. Credit to the Tallguard. He was far less impressed with the response of Niers’ company.

“Why not an army? You know the Featherfolk Brigade is behind it—deal with them!”

“Sentry Leader, hear Strategist Perorn out.”

Guidance Heish was the other person present in this personal meeting regarding Paeth. The other Fraerlings were talking with Perorn, but privately. They were all Fraerlings, but the locations—even in vague—of their cities were private.

Which was funny, because they probably knew where each other’s cities were more than Perorn or even that Foliana-person. But they had to hide it from the Tallfolk.

Perorn trotted over to the map of Talenqual. It was Heish who had identified the problem, and Perorn repeated it to Ekrn.

“We cannot attack a neutral company like the Featherfolk Brigade out of nowhere, Sentry Leader. Even if I were inclined to spare the forces necessary to eliminate them on their home ground—what do you think would happen if the Forgotten Wing did that at random?”

“You could call them allies of Jungle Tails.”

“Yes…but why would we attack them? To save a certain Fraerling city? The cure would become as bad as the issue, unless you disagree?”

Ekrn growled, but that made sense. Perorn shook her head and rubbed at one hoof with another. She had a scar running down that leg, a pale patch of fur over chestnut.

“I will send our forces at once, Sentry Leader, but unless Paeth is in imminent danger…it might be best just to hide. You are a Fraerling city. You can evade most regular detection, can’t you?”

“Yes.”

It was true that Paeth had a lot of functions, but Ekrn didn’t like it. Perorn gave him a tired bow.

“I am sorry, Sentry Leader, Guidance. But all seven representatives have also requested forces, and some are not only nearby, but claim they are facing huge armies practically upon them as well.”

Just like Paeth. This was a disaster on a scale that Ekrn couldn’t imagine. To his knowledge, Fraerlings only had Baleros. They might be…elsewhere, but if they were, they were so far that even Paeth had no records of them.

If all those here were wiped out, almost every major Fraerling settlement, and most of the minor ones in…the middle two thirds of Baleros, would be dead. Dead or homeless, which was almost as dire.

Paeth was a First Founding descendant. That meant…

Well, Ekrn clamped his mouth shut. He couldn’t demand more aid because of that. It wasn’t fair; all Fraerling cities were equal. But it did matter.

Perorn gave him a tired nod.

“You can stay here as long as you wish—although I must warn you, our headquarters may come under attack, Guidance, Sentry Leader. I will update you on our forces’ progress. They will be enroute by nightfall.”

“Thank you, Strategist.”

Heish answered for Ekrn, and the Centaur nodded. The two Fraerlings returned to the Fraer-ways, and Ekrn kicked a wall.

“A damn waste of time. We should have just tried to make contact with a more distant city.”

“I think we must talk to the others. Seven more cities…we have to know what is going on.”

Ekrn agreed with that. So, rather than leave as soon as they got Perorn’s few forces and an offer to send more if Paeth was in immediate danger—Ekrn and Heish met the other Fraerlings.

 

——

 

Other Fraerlings. They were not all cityfolk, but most were. Five out of eight represented cities like Paeth, if not as sprawling, and three came from smaller collectives.

Of them all, Guidance Heish was the most senior and surprised all the Fraerlings who met her.

“An actual Architect? Paeth must be in danger indeed—but Reiryul is as well. Reiryul Crystalhome. Not that we told that Tallfolk Centaur that last bit. How is Paeth on the Coast doing?”

“By the coast. Very well—until recently, of course. Feiland have ably protected us.”

“Until Oierdressql fell. Feiland allowed that?”

The representative of Reiryul was direct, wore semi-luminescent clothing that came from a polymer made of the crystals of Reiryul’s environment—and almost as rude as Ekrn. The Sentry Leader still had him beat as a member of the Tallguard, though. The city-Fraerling saw the Tallguard turn and glare at him and almost hid behind his bodyguards.

Bodyguards armed with stun-batons. As Ekrn had observed of Paeth, he could take them all on with his bare hands and probably win. He was actually amazed this [Emissary] had made the trip. But desperate times…

“Feiland’s seniority are dead. I am Sentry Leader Ekrn, Emissary Vuul. Over two thirds of Feiland died at Oierdressql. Not just our commanders, but Crelerbane armor as well as Tallguard veterans. Level 40 Fraerlings. They still died.”

The Fraerlings had been chatting in a large room over very plentiful food that the Forgotten Wing Company was only too happy to provide…since it was about the cost of fine dining for a few people.

Everyone turned to Ekrn, and Vuul paled.

“Your Crelerbane forces fell?”

“You have Crelerbane armor?”

Someone else demanded incredulously.

“Less, now. Paeth is a First Founding.”

Ekrn said what Heish was too modest to, and there were several gasps and murmurs of respect. The dynamic…shifted as Vuul looked both embarrassed and indignant.

Even among Fraerlings, there was a kind of ranking. A First Founding city like Paeth had…the Plans. Not just a copy or fragments they got from other cities. The full, unedited version of the Gnomes’ plans. Their last gift to the Fraer-folk, which had included Signim and most major advancements of their kind. And The Last Box.

Stupid name for it. Something that gave Ekrn nightmares at night should have a better name. Like the Gnomien Ultimatum or…no, wait. The Last Box would do.

“Crelerbane armor. And Oierdressql still fell?”

“The Tallfolk came by the thousands. Even the best enchantments fail if you hit them with a thousand [Fireballs] from Tallfolk. No matter how advanced we are.”

That was the blunt truth of it. The other Fraerlings nodded, and another came to introduce themselves.

“It’s true. But we’ll fight them to the last. We’ve got nowhere to go; they found us. Even in the cave. Keshel in the Dark. We’ve been under attack. Dosiel. [Emissary].”

Ekrn saw a pale Fraerling, his clothing tattered and far from the fine enchantments of Heish. No citizen of Paeth would wear that unless it were some stupid fashion. Not any magic on…

“You’ve been under attack? Actual attack?”

Dosiel nodded tiredly.

“Just a few. They loose arrows, try to break our walls—obviously not working, but they know we’re there. Strategist Perorn is sending an army, but our [Mages] counted so many…I hope they’ll make it. I’m petitioning her for more. I know you’re all in need of help, but—”

The other six groups began voicing their grievances as well.

“They’re almost on top of us—

“Not more than a few thousand despite the Lizardfolk knocking on our doors!”

“My city was attacked too!”

Two cities had been found, and the other wore decent clothes…but no magic on them either! Ekrn saw silk cloth, but far from high-quality. Even so, the Fraerling strode over with an air of importance.

“My city and Keshel are both in great need. I understand the rest of you have Tallfolk nearby—but we’re in danger. And the other settlements in our area!”

“What city is yours, exactly? I am Heish, Guidance.”

“Ah, the Architect of Paeth? Well, my city is Seelda Under Rains. First Founding, obviously.

Yes, obviously. It only mattered because of The Last Box. Ekrn rolled his eyes as Heish played nice. This Fraerling had clearly seen better times…but thought her city was still the best.

The other five groups, even Reiryul, were in less danger and had varying degrees of equipment. One had a Tallguard escort, who nodded at Ekrn, recognizing his ring. The rest weren’t Tallguard, but the smaller villages had tough Fraerlings with gear that Gold-rank Tallfolk would have thought was fitting. Or the stupid stun-batons.

Both cities in danger had armed their escorts with simple steel and plain weapons. It must have been bad. Ekrn had a terrible suspicion that these escorts might not have been the first.

Sending Fraerlings out in hopes one made it to the Forgotten Wing Company. Disastrous. Ekrn couldn’t fault Reiryul or Seelda for demanding aid. In fact, after the first meet-and-greet, Heish revealed something astonishing.

“Reiryul actually told Perorn where they were. They’re that desperate. I suppose if their enemies know where they are…”

Ekrn shook his head.

“That’s madness. Desperate madness…and Seelda?”

He’d seen their snooty representative pulling Heish aside. The Guidance shook her head, looking pained.

“She…asked if they could send children to our city. I told her I couldn’t guarantee safe travel. It would have to be air—or a mass teleportation, but even if they had the mana for that—it would reveal us.”

Ekrn gnawed on his lip. He checked his crossbow.

“…Do they have any experts? If they pushed out during a lull, if they’re not encircled, we could—could call that damn Rower! If they get to sea?”

Heish looked up. Ekrn was counting, trying to figure out how many Tallguard he could conceivably send. How would Luan transport them? A raft? If they created a giant container or sent their emergency vessel…

 

——

 

Reiryul and Seelda’s plight was not lost on the other Fraerlings. That evening, one of them asked to meet with Ekrn.

“[Explorer] Gindal. Torteth of Colors. Not that it’s anything to brag about. Dyed Lands.”

“No.”

Ekrn politely looked at the Fraerling, who wore a kind of strange hide armor even he couldn’t place. For answer, the Fraerling man offered him a dagger.

“There’s still poison on the damn thing, even though the tooth of the snake-thing I took it from is now eight years old. A gift.”

“I…thank you. I can’t offer…”

Flustered, Ekrn checked his gear, and Gindal glanced at his belt.

“I’ll take your crossbow if you have a spare. Are those enchanted bolts?”

“Vortex.”

Vortex. You First Founding types are impressive. Although when I saw poor Seelda, I thought it didn’t matter. Trade?”

It wasn’t equal, but Ekrn traded at once. The tooth came from a beast that even an Adventurer’s Guild couldn’t name. And this Fraerling…lived on the edge.

“Why in the name of Gnomes would you settle on the edges of the Dyed Lands?”

Ekrn demanded—politely—when they sat down for a drink. Gindal just laughed at him.

“The Titan isn’t the only one who craves adventure. The Tallguard told us we were mad to do it.”

“They were right. I wouldn’t patrol that area even if you were in my radius.”

“And we don’t ask them to. We’re on the cutting edge. Some of what we find has helped with the Plan. You know the discovery by Gais on the Rocks? Fifteen years back?”

“The…depth discovery? No. Containment.

Contained space, for deep-sea exploration. Or perhaps even building something in the deep, thousands of feet down. Gindal nodded.

“We helped come up with that. There’s a creature—well, it’s contained almost perfectly. To survive an area where even the air is so toxic that it’ll seep into your skin and kill you. We sent it to Gais, and they figured out how it worked.”

That was the kind of Fraerling who pushed the limits. Ekrn, despite himself, admired the tough [Explorer]. But the Fraerling just waved it off.

“The one thing we don’t stint on is magic from the cities. I have to confess—I stole your crossbow for a gift. A trophy for something you can replace. I need these bolts. There are things in the Dyed Lands that I would use that ring you’re wearing to distract them. The brave ones are the Tallfolk. They go in there with enchanted rocks and live.”

That prompted Ekrn’s memory. He leaned forwards.

“I…happen to know a story about a Tallfolk who was an [Explorer]. Lived by himself for months.”

He didn’t mention Luan; the other Fraerlings would flip if they heard a Human had found Paeth. Although Earth…the Architects would get to spread that message, later. Gindal frowned.

“Which zone?”

“I don’t know. Only that he passed away.”

Oh. I think I know what you’re talking about. Chalk-white? That’s one of the zones. We noticed him. Interesting Human. Was it a Human?”

“Yes.”

The Fraerlings kept track of most Tallfolk in the Dyed Lands. Gindal had seen this Human, if briefly.

“Something got him. He was sharp. A real [Explorer]. Then one day in the winter—something rattled him. He got sloppy. I’d say unlucky, even.”

Ekrn felt his skin prickling. Luan had not said much of…why…he had been swimming for weeks to shore after being marooned, but he had mentioned something at sea.

“Unlucky? What, are there luck-monsters out there?”

Gindal hesitated.

“There’s all kinds of nastiness. To tell the truth, Sentry Leader, the Tallfolk sniffing around our home seem as nervous of the Dyed Lands as we are of them. But they’re close to one of the cities, so they begged us to come and plead their case. And if there is an attack—well, it’s only two dozen adventurers, but kill them and more come.”

Ekrn froze, lips touching a huge tankard of the Titan’s own drinks, plundered from his cupboards.

“Wait. Two dozen? I thought there was an army!”

The [Explorer] shook his head.

“I never said that. An army might follow—that’s Reiryul and Seelda who are under siege. We heard them shouting that, and the cities got worried. So they sent us. By the sounds of it, Paeth is in danger.”

The two were sitting in a glass sitting room in the Fraer-ways, actually exposed to the Tallfolk’s domain. It let the Fraerlings who were in Niers’ academy mingle and talk…and it was about then that Ekrn realized they were being watched.

So did Gindal. The two Fraerlings turned their heads and slowly glared upwards.

After a second, a very upset Squirrel Beastkin appeared. She glowered down at them, a rare look of dissatisfaction on Foliana’s face. It had been less than five seconds since she stalked over, and they saw her.

Foliana, who had crept up on Named Adventurers and leaders of nations. Discovered in moments. Why?

Well, firstly, Fraerlings were higher-level than average. They had magical counters on par with one of the Great Companies of Baleros, and Gindal and Ekrn were veterans of fighting giant folk.

…But mostly, Foliana was just too big. She did her best and pouted as she stopped on the rich carpet.

“How did you see me? I didn’t make the carpet move.”

Indeed, she stood on the bristles of the carpet, not disturbing a single part or revealing herself by her weight. Ekrn snorted, and Gindal pointed up.

“Dust. We can see you breathing.”

Foliana looked up. Her magical gaze focused on the bright motes of dust floating in the air through the moonlight. She scowled.

“I told the [Servants] to dust. Ever since Peclir left…grumble. Grumble.”

She hopped away. Ekrn rolled his eyes. Gindal looked at him.

“I must say, I was disappointed to hear the Titan was gone. One of the reasons I came was in hopes I’d meet him.”

“Spare yourself the trouble. He’s charming, but arrogant and mad as a loon. You think [Explorers] are insane? The Titan’s worse.”

Gindal’s eyes lit up.

“Met him, have you?”

“Once.”

Ekrn reluctantly confessed. Gindal leaned forwards.

“Tell me! And if Paeth comes under attack—let me connect you with our group. I can’t promise aid, but if they reach us…they’ll be safe.”

“Thank you.”

 

——

 

“Grumble. Grumble.”

Foliana’s voice died down after she left the Fraerlings. Then she was a shadow in the night, an invisible force flitting across her academy. An unseen—

“Commander Foliana. Please stop trying to listen in on us!

Someone threw a cup, and Foliana ducked as Guidance Heish and Vuul turned. She looked incredibly hurt.

“How did you know?”

She’d spent a good fifteen minutes listening to the two argue about a mutual aid pact. But the two Fraerlings had begun noticing her as she peeked into an open window. Invisibly, yes, and she’d hidden her breath, but…

“Body heat. The room got warmer with a giant Tallfolk furnace around. Is this really a good use of your time in a crisis?”

Foliana glared at Vuul, and the [Emissary] promptly hid behind Heish.

“It is if I think it is.”

Well, that was two-for-two. Enough being discovered for one day. Foliana followed a [Servant] around for the next twenty minutes, happily stealing towels as the bewildered man kept trying to put fresh laundry around.

That made her feel better. She left him with a gold coin tucked behind his ear and heard his shout of alarm thirty seconds later.

Fraerlings were far more adept. They were hard-mode, and Foliana appreciated the challenge. But she would have been far more appreciative if this were not a crisis.

Aid to the cities. Jungle Tails. Stupid name. Niers doing Niers things on another continent. Danger. Danger. Grumble. 

She retreated to the top floors and prowled around her shared rooms with Niers, the dining room she didn’t use because it was too empty, and thought [Rogue] thoughts. She was waiting. Doing a bit of prep work with her hiding, getting into gear.

But waiting.

A single thing made Foliana stop her invisible rounds as she paced by one room. She went to the door, frowned at it, and slipped through the door without opening it.

Even so, there was nothing inside. Just Niers’ room. A glowing chessboard sat on the table where his bed was, and his immediate files. Around the room lay reference materials, the opening to the Fraer-ways…Foliana walked over to the chess board.

It had not moved for a long time. She stared at it, then messed with the pieces. Foliana walked left, looking at his notes, his strategy. He lived for his job. So did she.

“The company is our life. Or we live for the company? He does. It’s mine.”

She confessed to herself in an autobiographical way. This was her company. Everything was hers. She didn’t know what Niers got. A challenge? A cause? Foliana sadly went over to his table. She put her head down, ear to the wood. Then she spoke.

“Even if you [Muffle] yourself, I sense your vibrations. Mm.”

The Squirrel-woman rose and slapped the table so fast her body was a blur. Even so—she missed. Her eyes swung around the room, trying to track a tiny figure bounding about.

[Haste] and [Greater Invisibility]. Foliana cursed. She leapt for the Fraer-ways, to block them. Her eyes scanned the room and saw the ring of light on the far end.

Fraerling magic. They can telep—

Foliana’s dagger hit the place where the invisible figure had been, lodged in the wood, and then exploded. The bang of sound put the entire academy onto immediate alert. Perorn came running, half-naked, a sword in her hand, to find Foliana staring at the dagger.

Foliana! If this is some kind of prank—

The Squirrel Beastkin was perched on Niers’ desk. Perorn stopped and saw Foliana sorting through some papers that had been taken out. The Squirrel Woman looked up calmly as Perorn halted.

“We have a traitor in our midst. Again.”

 

——

 

Traitors amidst the small. The very possibility of it made Ekrn sick to his stomach because it explained so much.

If true.

They only had Foliana’s word for it, but it said a lot that the Fraerling guests were now not so welcome to leave. Perorn had politely requested they stay until this was all sorted out.

How well the Centaur or Foliana could act on that request was…questionable. Ekrn had told Heish he could get them out. They were far too far for a long-range teleport from Feiland if headquarters were active, or probably even Paeth, but Elvallian was still a Tallfolk settlement. The Fraer-ways were convenient access to all of the academy, and they were optional.

Not to say that there weren’t Fraerlings on the staff of the Forgotten Wing Company. It was just that, by and large, they were young.

“You’re not being prohibited from leaving your quarters, Tallguard. But access to the aviary is prohibited for now.”

A Fraerling guard informed Ekrn very politely. The Tallguard [Sentry Leader] looked up at the young man, who might be in his twenties at best.

The Titan’s recruiting children. More like the ones who wanted to see the big world, but weren’t able to do it alone. So—Tallguard new recruits or city or village-folk.

Ironically, the Titan would never find Fraerlings to match his stature if he recruited them from settlements or even Tallguard. The real crazy ones were like…Gindal.

Gindal, who lived in the Dyed Lands with other Fraerlings, a thing considered suicide by Tallfolk. Was he really from there? Vuul from his city?

Suspicion was a terrible thing. Once it infected you…Ekrn was worried.

And it was here Guidance Heish, most proactive, most sensible of Paeth’s Architects, let Ekrn down.

“It might have just been someone wanting to see the Titan’s quarters, Ekrn. He is our hero. Besides—can you really say you weren’t tempted to check on his files for any information? I was.”

Ekrn turned on Heish.

“I understand that, Guidance. But I’m thinking of what that Squirrel said. [Greater Invisibility] ring—that’s not casual equipment we have lying around. If it were someone just looking, they’d be far less prepared. They went there deliberately.”

Heish fiddled with her luggage. She hadn’t brought much, but she had brought a few record-crystals, so she could chart her experience. She was going back through them now, but Ekrn wasn’t in the mood to play detective.

Perorn was asking some questions of the representatives, and Foliana had vanished. The problem was…the Tallfolk weren’t going to find answers.

“I just can’t imagine someone would act against our people. Fraerling settlements disagree, naturally, but traitors? Are you suggesting someone’s…selling us out?”

Giving away locations of Fraerling cities? The look of disbelief on her face was absolute. And naive, to Ekrn.

“Fraerling cities have made war against each other before.”

Heish spoke politely.

“…No.”

“Feiland’s records record it all. Paeth probably has some.”

“I’ve never seen any, even in our records—”

“Maybe the Architects didn’t like highlighting it. We’ve gone to war. If there is a traitor to the small here, it’s on us to find them.”

That was the problem with city-Fraerlings. With Tallfolk, too. Foliana might be the greatest [Rogue] on Baleros for all Ekrn knew. The Great Company could investigate the issue.

But they wouldn’t find the truth, even with truth spells. At least—their truth spells. Fraerlings could do all kinds of nasty things to truth stones, from evading the spell to disabling it and making it look like it was glowing.

High-tech vs low-tech. The irony of it wasn’t lost on Ekrn. Heish murmured as she checked her crystals.

“Let me see if I can find anything useful. I…have a lovely view of Elvallian. Meeting Commander Foliana, Perorn, those precious students, and our tour of the academy.”

“And absolutely none of other Fraerlings.”

Heish looked abashed.

“I have a few of our introductions, but no…that’s not the kind of thing I record. I’ll check my records.”

Ekrn nodded curtly.

“Do that. The Tallguard will escort you wherever you’re going from now on. Bathroom, walks—don’t leave their side.”

Heish frowned at Ekrn.

“That sounds paranoid. And what will you do?”

Ekrn checked his shortsword and ring. The activation word was buzzing in his mind. One word and it would be primed, ready to fire.

“If we have a traitor or an idiot, I’ll find them. I have a good idea where to start, too. I gave my crossbow to someone. I’m going to get it back.”

Heish watched as the Sentry Leader vanished into the Fraer-ways. She went back to her recording crystals, but after a second, put them aside.

Neither one was exactly a [Detective]. Heish couldn’t believe it herself. So she rose…and slipped out of her quarters as well. This was a matter for the small. Even Commander Foliana couldn’t help; she could hardly fit into the Fraer-ways, and she was so…obvious.

 

——

 

Fraerling secrets were hugely important. Their most important secrets were the locations of their homes. However, when they trusted you, or you just happened to make their acquaintance and they really needed your help, well, that was different.

Luan Khumalo thought the true binder between them that had won even Ekrn’s respect, was because it was a secret mutually shared.

He knew where Paeth was roughly. Paeth knew of Earth.

There were more secrets to be had, of course. Resk and Noa shared a few. They actually didn’t seem to think their high level of magical advancement was that secret. However, some things were still slightly confidential.

Like…The Last Box.

“What is that, exactly? A doomsday weapon?”

The United Nations company was a flurry of people moving about. Ken was meeting with Quallet and trying to talk Fezimet out of eviction. Word had spread about the United Nations Company leaving, and the Rustless Guard and Captain Eldima had formally protested the decision.

Some of the citizens of Talenqual were more expressive. Luan wondered if they were still throwing mud at the Featherfolk Brigade’s headquarters. Lizardfolk were quite direct; chase them away, and they’d be back again in minutes.

Geneva Scala had won a lot of goodwill for her clinic and work in the city. Everyone from their [Landlady], Miss Hastel, to a lot of the general citizenry were on the Humans’ side.

However—Fezimet was the least of Luan’s concerns. His army was a lot more important. Daly himself had stopped by after arming the Bushrangers with the newest Fraerling-enchanted technology. He’d tried them out on Stelbore, the tough-as-nails creatures that the Bushrangers couldn’t kill.

Luan remembered Daly telling him about that encounter where the Stelbore had shrugged off the crossbows. Luan had lent him the one Paeth had made, and Resk had enchanted the rest to be far more deadly.

Dawson was still raving about it as Daly let himself in.

“We hit them so hard that every crossbow bolt shattered, but they felt it. We’re going to need to use steel from now on! I aimed at this bird a thousand feet up or something, and guess what I’ve got to eat, Kirana!”

“…Did you get it plucked? How old is that, Dawson?”

The young man spluttered.

“Nevermind that, I guess. We also just sold an entire Stelbore to the [Butcher], and we’re eating pork tonight! We were hitting it, but like I said, we still couldn’t break through its hide. Then Daly pulls out the crossbow Luan gave him, and one shot—!”

Straight through the eyes. Daly offered the crossbow back.

“I tried to find the enchanted bolt, but I think it went all the way through and into the earth.”

“Keep it for now. I’ll get it back when I’m on a delivery.”

All these weapons. Luan had not ever wanted to be a [Soldier], but it was inevitable. Paeth was in danger, and yet everyone still gathered around to talk with the Fraerlings.

Because they were so…fascinating. Noa had been given a bunch of fat, purple grapes, and she was stacking them in a pile as she yanked them off the sprig that Resk was holding. She sliced one in half, and Resk ate it. They were as large as watermelons for the Fraerlings, so he held it up and took big bites.

Noa used the biggest grape as a stool. She bounced on it, delighted, as Resk frowned.

“The Last Box? That’s confidential…but I suppose it can’t hurt to give the basic details. You know what the Architects do, don’t you?”

“Follow the plan the Gnomes gave you? Fucking Gnomes. Are you sure they’re dead?”

Paige looked heartbroken at the thought. Resk sighed.

“To my knowledge, the last ones died on Baleros long, long ago. All we have are records.”

“Why? Don’t tell me something got them.”

“Got…oh, you mean like the other species? Harpies are mostly extinct, Halflings and Jinn. Spiderfolk died out thanks to Centaurs winning that nasty war. I hope we still have Minotaurs?”

“We still have Minotaurs.”

Resk sighed.

“Good. Good. Well, Gnomes didn’t get wiped out by any one species if that’s what you’re asking. Elves did die out completely.”

“Wait, you know Elves?”

“They definitely existed. But if you’re asking for exact records…we don’t have much. Almost every First Founding city in existence was destroyed at one point, and records are patchy. They existed—and slowly became half-Elves. Genetics, you know? Elves can only produce Elves if they co-mingle. And there weren’t any left. So you have half-Elves who always create more half-Elves…it’s like Dwarves.”

Luan itched to write this down. But he didn’t—mainly because Siri was already taking notes. Daly noticed and nudged her.

“Hey Siri, write this d—goddamnit, Siri.

She kicked him so hard that Luan’s shins felt it. That was probably a joke she’d heard too many times. Resk was still going on, but Noa was laughing so hard at the amusing Tallfolk she fell off her grape.

“Do you want something to eat, Noa?”

Aiko offered. She had an obsession with watching the Fraerling nibble on food. Well, fair was fair—so did Luan. Noa sat up.

“What about…do you have some ice cream Luan was talking about?”

“I’ll get some!”

By the time Aiko came back, Resk was done pontificating on the loss of knowledge in Fraerling libraries. However, he beamed around.

“The one thing that’s never lost are the Plans, though. Thanks to The Last Box. You see, the Clockmakers had the kind of foresight to predict calamities—if not the exact ones. The Last Box is indestructible, almost immovable unless some very specific steps are taken—”

Paige interrupted, stuttering.

“W-what did you just call Gnomes? Clockmakers?

And there it was again. Resk’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, of course. It was one of their names for themselves. Or attributed to them? You see—and this is something fascinating, I should have brought one—we have these things called clocks. They tell time accurately, far more than your sundials. You don’t have to look at the sun or use hourglasses—”

We know what clocks are.

The name! Luan looked at Siri as Resk stared at a smartphone.

“My word! You aren’t complete savages after—I mean, Clockmakers. Gnomes have tons of nicknames. Noa…what are the others?”

Kessice glanced up from her lodestone bracelet as Noa stared at a bowl of ice cream and her mouth fell open. Aiko had even gotten a cherry and whipped cream.

“Aiko, you’re going to kill her with that much!”

Resk instantly hurried over and waved at Kessice as Noa climbed onto the edge of the bowl and looked down.

“Not with me helping her, ah—carrying this burden! Kessice, do you want some?”

“In a second.”

“Where was I? Noa, give me half of that cherry. I love cherries. Names. Gnomes called themselves a few things. So did we.”

“The Wise Giants?”

Resk chuckled as he was handed half of the cherry.

“Oh yes. Fraerlings called them that. Other races had names like the Laughing Tricksters of Baleros. Gnomes did love their pranks. That’s recorded. So intelligent they made every other race look slow. They liked referring to themselves as Clockmakers and—this is an odd one—‘the Second-Farthest Travellers’. I have no idea who the furthest were.”

The clues. Luan felt his skin tingling, and if a certain other Courier were here…well. Resk sighed.

“But they did pass away. Not of war. Old age, actually. They were famously aloof to all but our species. Nations tried to hunt them, and Gnomes would laugh and trick their armies and greatest champions.”

“Old age? But didn’t they repopulate?”

The Alchimagus shook his head.

“They refused to. I don’t know why. Their last great work upon this world was to give our people, the smallest, their Plans. It has kept us alive as a species, and we will always be grateful to them. The Last Box is that plan. Oh, we can share blueprints and copy knowledge, but The Last Box is a puzzle. We solve their assignments and discover magic and technology. We’ve been doing it for thousands and thousands of years, and we’re still finding more.”

It was like homework across aeons. Luan’s mouth was open. No—it was like if aliens had come to Earth and left clues, like people thought the pyramids were.

“So what’s in The Last Box? I assume there’s something, then. Hasn’t anyone solved it? Or do you know what’s inside?”

Resk grew serious as Noa looked up from lifting a giant teaspoon of ice cream to her face. Aiko handed her a napkin, and the Tallguard smiled up at her.

“Inside? Oh, that’s a question that every single Fraerling has speculated on since they were first given to us. No one knows what’s in Paeth’s box. But each one is different. And…The Last Box can’t be opened until every puzzle is solved.”

Now that sounded…ominous. The Humans looked at Resk.

“So you have no idea what’s in there. No one’s tried using force?”

Resk lifted a few fingers.

“Indestructible, immovable—unless you know exactly how. They don’t even seem magical. You can waste Skills on them and nothing works. Not that it’s wise to try. We don’t exactly want to destroy our Last Boxes, you know. Not every city has them; only First Foundings do.”

“You keep mentioning Paeth’s one of those. That means an original city?”

“A descendant, yes. It means it has a Last Box. That’s all. So Paeth falling is as terrible as Oierdressql…but it also means that if it falls, someone will have to retrieve the Plans, no matter the risk. As for opening it—do you know the sixth continent of Tiernas? The Continent of Glass, built by peoples of every race?”

Luan shook his head. Resk’s face was somber.

“Well, to my knowledge, The Last Box was only ever opened…or perhaps cracked? Once. [Archmages] and corrupt Fraerlings on Tiernas conspired to open it. Geniuses of every class, to force open all the knowledge.”

“And what happened?”

Paige whispered. Resk looked around gravely.

“…Do you see Tiernas anymore?”

The entire room went silent with deep unease. Resk gazed into Luan’s eyes—and started laughing. Noa fell over the bowl, and Kessice rubbed at her eyes.

“Just kidding! No, Tiernas died for completely other reasons. No one’s ever opened one. Can’t be done. [Archmages] loved to try.”

Fraerlings. Luan exhaled hard as Daly laughed and Siri crossed out a note, looking amused. She turned to Resk.

“But Tiernas did exist, then?”

“Of course it—once this is over, I’ll get a history book and bring it back, alright? The things you don’t know.”

Frankly, Resk had done a lot of illuminating to Luan. The Last Box was one of those big mysteries, but Luan had only one more, burning question.

“You’ve really answered all our questions, Resk. Can I ask one last thing? What…does Signim do?”

All three Fraerlings looked up, and here Resk hesitated.

“Oh. Signim. Well…that’s tricky. You are a friend of the city, but if you don’t know…hm.”

“He’s a friend! Come on, Resk. It’s not like the Titan doesn’t have them. In fact—”

Noa was giddy on her sugar rush and beaming around. She began to speak, and Kessice was there. She grabbed Noa.

“Excuse me, everyone. Noa, come here.”

“But I—”

Right now. By the Gnomes…”

She dragged Noa away, and the younger Tallguard lost her smile. Resk turned, but kept eating, and Kessice dragged Noa around a giant teapot on the table. Luan, exchanging looks with Aiko, Daly, Paige, Siri, and Kirana, heard two whispering voices.

Whispering…but Fraerlings had loud voices when they wanted, and the room was so silent it was fairly audible.

“Have you lost your mind, Noa? Signim are Tallguard secrets. They are not to be shared, even with Luan and his friends!”

“But we told them about Paeth and the rest—”

“That’s Resk recounting history. Not military secrets. I don’t care how much of a friend you think you are with Luan, you are endangering us all and I expect you to be professional. Resk is a city-Fraerling, but you’re treating this like some big game when everyone’s life is on the line.”

Resk slowly popped another bit of cherry into his mouth and eyed the others. Luan heard Noa protesting.

I’m just—

“You were about to tell them what Signim does. You know we’re trusting Luan, but we can’t be sure. Cotm is risking his life out there, and Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish are too. I know you’re brave enough to volunteer to come out here, but stop acting like a child. You are a disgrace to the Tallguard.”

“I—I—just—”

“Stop stuffing your face and keep an eye on your lodestone bracelet. Got it? Now, when we go back out there, I want you to focus and get these Tallfolk moving in Paeth’s defense. Not acting like some kind of [Performer].”

“Okay, Kessice. I’m sorry.”

“Alright. Alright, I know this is an adventure. Don’t cry. Here. Take this and blow your nose. You can have ice cream. I like it too—just don’t tell them about Signim and secrets?”

“Okay.”

Someone blew their nose faintly, and after a few more moments, Noa, slightly red-eyed, walked around the teacup. Kessice smiled up at everyone.

“Sorry about that. Signim is a bit…classified. Let’s all have ice cream and discuss next steps, shall we?”

Resk eyed the Tallfolk, and Luan looked at the others. Kessice’s bland smile faltered a bit.

“We heard all that.”

The two Tallguard and the Alchimagus looked up at Luan, and both Kessice and Noa turned red.

“What? No you didn’t.”

Paige leaned on the table.

“We definitely did.”

Daly lifted a finger.

“Yeah, and we can hear when you pass gas too. And smell it. Shit’s loud.”

Resk coughed and instantly created a breeze spell. Kessice and Noa exchanged looks. Luan rose.

“You’re right, though, Kessice. We don’t need to know everything. Paeth is in danger. So…what can we do? I’ll do another delivery run, but Daly?”

The Bushranger grimaced.

“We’ve got funds from that Stelbore to give, Luan. I’d take the Bushrangers into the wild and harry the Featherfolk’s [Scouts], but…we’d get torn to pieces. We’re not used to fighting people, and we’re outlevelled. Maybe we have weapons now—but we don’t have the numbers. Quallet’s forces…”

He trailed off. Luan nodded, and Kessice coughed.

“You…may not have to worry about the scouts. The Featherfolk Brigade has been stymied fairly well. They’re advancing, but Cotm has checked them.”

“What, by himself? Cotm?

Resk and Noa exclaimed. Kessice smiled with faint pride.

“Yes. So just focus on getting us deliveries for now, eh? But on that note—”

She sombered and looked at Luan.

“—You’re a Courier. Do you know how to cross the sea? Have you learned how to use the Archmage’s Jet?”

“What? No. That’s—I’ve heard that’s almost suicide unless you have an amazing vessel.”

Which he did have, come to think of it. But Luan wouldn’t try that unless…Kessice shrugged.

“Something to bear in mind. One option I just got from Sentry Leader Ekrn revolves around fixing this entire situation with the Forgotten Wing Company. And they need their Titan back.”

Everyone turned to look at Luan. He gulped. Sculling at a record-breaking speed along the coast was one thing. But the ocean?

“How are things at the Forgotten Wing Company? Did Ekrn say?”

Kessice’s face didn’t change, but she flicked her eyes to Noa, Resk, and decided to tell everyone.

“Bad. Fraerlings might have…a traitor.”

 

——

 

The representatives of eight Fraerling settlements did not meet or walk about as freely. Like their people, they retreated to their own corners, and only a few exited to walk the Fraer-ways.

They were so quiet. So…empty. Niers had clearly designed the carpeted hallways and many meeting rooms and exits for countless Fraerlings.

They had never shown up. He had a staff, but he was a Titan alone. It was not safe.

It was never safe. Ekrn walked past a hallway clearly in-progress; it led to a dark dead end devoid of furnishing or wallpaper. He wondered what the Titan’s end plan was. Make an entire Fraerling city in Elvallian?

Perhaps. And perhaps there was something there—but this incident would ruin his credibility with the settlements.

Unless it turned out one of their kind had betrayed all. In which case…

“—Not sure where Paeth is coming from. Feiland’s apparently destroyed, but Oierdressql falling is something we only have their word for. I didn’t hear of—”

A few Fraerlings broke off speaking, and a fellow Tallguard looked up from talking with a frontier-Fraerling as Ekrn passed by. He slowed.

“Have you seen Gindal?”

“I think I saw him up two floors. That atrium place with a view of the city?”

“Thanks.”

Ekrn walked past as the Fraerlings eyed him. Then he turned and stomped back.

Feiland fell in defense of Oierdressql. Get your Farspeakers to check!”

“We would, but our cities are hiding. Locked down. Awfully convenient, Sentry Leader Ekrn. Force Commander Nobre—not in charge of a First Founding city, but I lead the Tallguard of Yaeth. We’ve met.”

Ekrn briskly shook the Fraerling’s hand and looked at the other.

“And you’re…”

“[Monster Hunter]. One of the frontier villages. We’ve got Tallfolk poking around the region. They have no idea where we are, but they’re making a ruckus.”

Ekrn grunted.

“And you want a damn army.”

The [Monster Hunter] shrugged.

“Do you want to fight a thousand Tallfolk? Like everyone’s saying—kill a dozen and a hundred follow. We need the Forgotten Wing to run them off. We know they’re looking for us. They’re not exactly subtle. They’re asking to ‘negotiate’ with us, and they’re placing offerings like we’re intelligent animals or something.”

“Really? They’re that direct?”

The Fraerling snorted as Ekrn blinked.

“Oh, aye. They’re miles off sometimes. They have no clue where we are at all—but they know our location. Which is interesting because even the Titan wouldn’t know where we are…but yes. A few hundred Lizardfolk.”

“Wait a second. A few hundred? I thought you needed an army.

Ekrn turned to face the frontier-Fraerling, and the [Monster Hunter] froze slightly.

“We do. We don’t want to go the way of Seelda and Reiryul.”

“But you don’t have more than a few hundred. We have an entire company of thousands breathing down our necks!”

“So you claim.”

The Force Commander noted. Ekrn felt like he was close to bursting a blood vessel. Yet both Tallguard were eying the [Monster Hunter], who raised her hands defensively.

“Listen. We do not want to get wiped out. Maybe we exaggerated a bit, but we’re not the ones poking around the Titan’s rooms.”

“Care to swear on a real truth spell about that?”

Ekrn challenged her, and the Fraerling shrugged.

“Sure. Got one?”

“…No.”

That wasn’t something Ekrn needed. He wasn’t a [Guardsman], and the Tallguard fought and patrolled, not administered the law. He stared at the two foreign Fraerlings then turned and pointed.

Would you stop that?

Two giant, glowing eyes stared through a glass window at the three Fraerlings, and all three groaned. One even took off their shoe to throw at Foliana.

“Damn.”

“This is unacceptable, Commander. I know you want to find out the truth—but it is really discouraging for the highest-level [Rogue] in the Forgotten Wing company to act so…shoddily.”

The Force Commander glared at Foliana as the [Monster Hunter] hopped over to retrieve her shoe. The Squirrel-woman backed up.

“So hurtful. I’m doing my best.”

She waddled off, vanished in a corner, and then left the room for good when the Fraerlings pointed out they could still see her.

[Invisibility] just wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. [Greater Invisibility], now…Ekrn frowned.

 

——

 

He found Gindal in the glassy atrium, frowning around.

“I could have sworn I saw…oh, it’s you. I thought it was that [Rogue] sneaking up again.”

He noticed Ekrn, and the Tallguard snorted.

“Not exactly the stealthiest, is she?”

“Tallfolk. I wager that [Invisibility] Skill is good enough for most of them. My eyes see invisibility by default.”

Gindal tapped his eyes, and Ekrn noticed for the first time that they were square pupils, set amidst cloud-grey irises.

“Huh. Is that your class?”

The [Explorer] smiled, but far more guardedly than last time they’d met. He was carrying Ekrn’s crossbow, the Fraerling noted.

“You’d be surprised how many monsters in the Dyed Lands are invisible or camouflaged. All that color…well, not surprised, actually. Hey, have you seen an unfinished corridor?”

“Back that way. Two floors down.”

“Huh. I could have sworn I saw it around here. Nevermind. I’ve been checking out the Fraer-ways that the Titan built. Quite nice. But as we know—unguarded. His staff are young. They wouldn’t notice someone with a real infiltrator artifact or Skills sneaking by. Seems like a flaw.”

The two Fraerlings faced each other, and Ekrn placed his hand on his belt. He had the poisoned fang-dagger he’d been given, and Gindal noticed it.

“True. But the Titan probably didn’t think he’d ever have to worry about his own kind.”

“The Titan making mistakes? Well…I guess we all know it can happen. Do you need something, Sentry Leader Ekrn?”

The Tallguard hesitated a moment, embarrassed.

“I…do. It’s unfortunate, but I’m going to have to ask for that crossbow back, Gindal. Given the situation. I’ve brought your dagger.”

The [Explorer] watched as Ekrn drew the knife and offered it to him.

“I’d rather like to keep the crossbow, actually. The Vortex bolts are genuine. I tested it; nasty. High-grade magic. You’re definitely from a First Founding city.”

“…Waste of a bolt. I only took twenty-four.”

Gindal shrugged.

“I had to know. And you know—that’s the kind of magic us frontier-Fraerlings don’t get. The kind that could make a [Greater Invisibility] ring.”

Ah. So that was why he was so suspicious. Ekrn folded his arms.

“Funny. I was about to say that an [Explorer] in the Dyed Lands was already hard to believe. But if I did believe it…it sounds like that kind of spell or ability would be really useful too.”

Gindal raised a finger.

“One point for me, one for you. But I know I’m not the one. So you’ll forgive me for being suspicious. Then again—you’re probably thinking the same thing unless you’re lying. So—impasse.”

Everyone was suspecting one another. Ekrn pointed at the crossbow.

“I’ll have that back.”

“No, I don’t think you will. And before you try and grab this one, just know that I passed out the Vortex bolts among my people. Just in case.”

Ekrn had never had reason to regret his generosity now, but his pale white hair was beginning to rise. He calmly muttered.

Abeixis. That’s just too bad. Listen, I think we can sort this out. All we have to do is prove we’re innocent.”

Gindal had a hand on the crossbow.

“Surely. What did you have in mind?”

“Oh, I was going to question you first. After I got my crossbow back. We don’t have to be stupid about this. If there is a spy or traitor among us, all we need to do is identify who’s faking their city being in danger. I’ve already learned that your settlements and at least one other aren’t facing actual armies.”

“We may have exaggerated. So what did you have in mind?”

Ekrn gestured with his non-ring hand.

“I have my Guidance with me. She brought some memory-crystals.”

Gindal’s expression didn’t change.

“Oh, so you want to check her footage? Good idea—but you can fake memory-crystals. And I don’t think we’re qualified to investigate, do you? I’m an [Explorer]. Frankly, I’m just going to head out. With the crossbow.”

Ekrn’s teeth were clenched. He was watching Gindal hard.

“Not my intent. I have something to show you…the Guidance didn’t get a convenient full-sweep of all things happening here. But she did take a recording of Oierdressql’s refugees.”

Along with Luan the Giant. You could fake images, but that…?

That was if Gindal could trust him, and if Ekrn was willing to turn his back on the [Explorer]. Which he wasn’t about to do. And yet Gindal looked just as unwilling to follow Ekrn.

“So I just go with you to an empty room?”

“Get a friend. Get three. Equal to us Tallguard. My Guidance is waiting in her quarters.”

“No, she’s not.”

A third voice entered the mix. Gindal and Ekrn turned and saw a group striding forwards. Seelda’s. They were all armed—and very nervous. Ekrn spun, and Gindal frowned.

“What’s this?”

He looked at Ekrn hard, and the Seelda representative turned to glance over her shoulder. The haughty Fraerlings gazed hard at Ekrn.

“Are you lying, Sentry Leader?”

“I’m not. Guidance Heish should be in her rooms.”

He’d just left her there! But the Seelda Fraerling shook her head instantly.

“She’s not. I just saw her. She and [Emissary] Vuul just met—right before he arrested her with his people, and went after Dosiel and Keshel in the Dark’s group!”

What?

Both Ekrn and Gindal turned. Vuul had done that? Where was Heish’s Tallguard escort? But if those idiotic guards were actually high-level Fraerlings pretending to be incompetent…

Or if Heish had gone out alone like an idiot city-Fraerling? Ekrn cursed.

“Where are they? Let’s find one of the Tallfolk—no. Let me get my Tallguard.”

The Seelda representative nodded, face pale.

“Hurry! He’s arrested multiple groups.”

“With stun-batons?

Gindal was incredulous, but Ekrn was stepping back. Seelda’s representative was eying him, and she turned to Gindal.

“Can we join your group as well, Explorer Gindal? Given Vuul’s actions, I think we can safely trust each other.”

“Maybe. Or maybe not. Ekrn’s activated his Ring of Disintegration.”

Every Fraerling froze and stared at Ekrn’s plain ring. The Fraerling Tallguard saw Gindal’s hand on his crossbow handle.

“Hold on. Stop. Stop…this doesn’t have to come to blood. You two are armed—let’s not be hasty.”

The representative of Seelda said it as she boldly…hid behind her bodyguards. She peeked at both with her silk robes trailing the carpet as she shocked her bodyguard with static electricity. Ekrn and Gindal relaxed slightly.

“No one wants Fraerlings to kill each other. Abeixis.”

Ekrn slowly deactivated the ring as a show of goodwill. Gindal took his hand off his crossbow hilt.

“Paeth is definitely a First Founding city. I’ll give you that…but you can be everything you claim and still be a traitor. I agree; let’s find my people first, then yours, then we confront Vuul. Agreed?”

Ekrn looked at Seelda’s representative. The odds weren’t high that both were working together, so he nodded.

“If Seelda joins us…your people first.”

The Seelda Fraerlings breathed in audible relief as Gindal nodded after a moment. The [Explorer] jerked a thumb.

“This way.”

He led them at a brisk trot towards his area. Seelda’s representative was chattering in relief.

“Thank goodness. We have to stop Vuul! First Founding cities have to stick together. And, er, the doughty [Explorers] on the front.”

She smiled and went to link arms, and both Fraerlings edged away. Even the woman’s bodyguards stayed away from her—again, because of the silk trailing on carpets.

Static charge. Just enchant the stupid silk robes! They even had nubs—the imperfections in poorly-spun silk. Huge ones. Someone’s city was far from Paeth.

“Right.”

Ekrn sighed as the representative chattered on.

“This business with traitors aside, we must have aid. I know your cities are in danger from Tallfolk in the area, but Seelda is under siege! Why, we’re considering moving our Last Box out with any children we can. I asked your Guidance if she was willing to take our people—if Seelda falls, perhaps Paeth can keep them safe?”

Ekrn frowned as they passed by that blank corridor again. The [Explorer]’s head turned.

“…I know that wasn’t there.”

He looked back at Ekrn, and the Tallguard raised his brows. He knew that too, and he was sure Gindal would remember the layout of the Fraer-ways perfectly. Seelda’s representative didn’t notice. She went to hold Ekrn’s hand.

“Tallguard. Would you consider…?”

Ekrn jerked his hand away before she could touch him. The female Fraerling blinked as her fingers missed the Ring of Disintegration. Ekrn spun, drew Gindal’s dagger, and planted it in the ribs of the Fraerling trying to sneak up on him. Gindal aimed his crossbow up, and Ekrn shouted.

You’ll kill us all!

Gindal cursed as he realized it was loaded with the Vortex bolt—which would drag them all into the abyss. He dropped the crossbow, drew a fang-blade, and ran a Fraerling from Seelda through as they grabbed their weapons.

Traitors! Abeix—

Ekrn bellowed as he drew his own shortsword. Someone struck him across the face, and he stumbled, swearing.

Kill them! How did they realize it?

The traitorous Fraerling hid behind her bodyguard as they attacked. Gindal backed up, springing nimbly away, but Ekrn wasn’t so fast. He made it five steps as a sword glanced off his armor, and he swung around.

Steel weapons. A few were enchanted, but on the level of Gold-rank Tallfolk. Of course, Seelda could be desperate and poor.

However, a First Founding city? One clue was their representative’s poor robe that shocked people and was made of Tallfolk silk. Only they would think those giant imperfections in the cloth were worth it. Unenchanted? She had neither city-guards nor Tallfolk as bodyguards.

But the real clue that had tipped Ekrn and Gindal off was the request to take refugees from Seelda. A fair ask…but the Fraerling had made one mistake as someone not of a First Founding city.

You didn’t move The Last Box. The fact that she’d said that had confirmed they were walking into a trap.

Even so—Ekrn’s shortsword severed one blade and went into a chest. He felt his body surge with terrible vitality, and the deep gash across his jaw closed slightly as a Fraerling died.

Ekrn! Back up!

“No! Get your people and—”

Gindal was hesitating, but Ekrn could count. It was sixteen versus two and gear or not—his shortsword whirled and met a blade. Ekrn threw back one sword and four more struck him.

Three glanced off his leather armor. The third broke the enchantment or bypassed it. He stumbled backwards, bleeding onto the carpet.

Traitors amidst the small. But three were dead, and Seelda wouldn’t escape so easily. Gindal was running, and Ekrn retreated, trying to fight eight at once. His Shortsword of Vampirism was the only thing keeping him alive; he smashed a potion against his bare flesh, but they were pressing him backwards.

Ekrn stumbled down the hallway and felt sick. Signim? No. I can’t. Not here. He looked around and ran towards the dead end. The traitorous Fraerlings chased him, thinking they had him cornered.

They did. Ekrn backed into a padded wall, his footsteps heavy. Put your back to a wall and die well.

Tallguard tactics. Ekrn shouted as blood ran from the hole across his mouth, multiple stab wounds.

Tallguard of Feiland! Come and get me!

The traitors hesitated, looking at his shortsword, but Ekrn didn’t have his crossbow. He could have used it. One bolt past them and…

“Kill him! Hurry up or we’ll be caught!”

The Fraerling screamed, and they advanced. Ekrn saw five charge at him and knew he’d never dodge five blades. If only he were in the open with room to maneuver—

Take two down. Ekrn raised his blade—and something dripped onto his head. The floor moved, and the Fraerling almost stabbed the ground as the floor…carpet…tongue…moved.

Foliana closed her mouth on Ekrn and then grabbed two of the Fraerlings with her paw. The others saw Ekrn vanish, giant ivory teeth descend, and the amazing, piercing eyes of magic, the wide stare of Three-Color Stalker appear. Then her paws lashed out, striking into the Fraer-ways.

Half of Seelda’s Fraerlings died so fast that Ekrn didn’t even hear their cries. Not that he could see—Foliana spat him into her paws, and he saw they were bloody. Then he saw the bodies and the fleeing Fraerlings.

“Wh—how—?”

The Squirrel-Woman calmly produced a potion and dunked Ekrn in healing liquids. Then she peered into the hatch she’d opened in the Fraer-ways.

“Damn. Running.”

A screaming Fraerling and a few others were pounding down the hallways away from the Tallfolk. Foliana had killed half their number in her sneak attack. Ekrn saw their mangled bodies. She hadn’t stabbed them with daggers, and the two she’d grabbed hadn’t fallen victim to a Skill.

She’d just punched them and broken every bone they had.

Tallfolk.

Yet how had she snuck up on him? She…the greatest [Rogue] of the Forgotten Wing Company that they’d spotted so often…

So often that they thought it was easy. The [Rogue] answered that question for Ekrn.

“Mm. Fraerlings are so arrogant. Deceive your allies first.”

Ekrn scrambled up as she put him back in the Fraer-ways.

“It’s Seelda. They’re traitors. We have to catch them!”

Foliana nodded instantly.

“Trickery. Can you subdue them with help? Mm. Or do we need to do it for you?”

Ekrn didn’t need to think.

“Get me to my Tallguard safely and we can. They’re not armed well. They’re not from Paeth or a real city—but they’ll hide, and we might lose them before they leave the academy!”

Fraerlings were impossible to catch, even by their own kind. The world was too huge! Yet the Squirrel Beastkin shook her head.

“Nope.”

She raised something to her mouth and spoke into it crisply. A speaking stone.

“Lock down the Fraer-ways. Emergency code: Titanfall. Or something.”

It took twenty seconds, but then someone began blaring an alarm, and Ekrn saw the hatch Foliana had opened snap closed. He saw a magical warding rune appear…locking him in.

From the outside. Suddenly, he found himself in a sealed environment and looked around.

No windows out. Doors sealed…he looked at Foliana, and she shrugged.

“Niers made sure he could defeat his own kind. Let me find a map. We can turn off the air except for where we want. And close entire corridors manually. Box them in.”

The Titan had thought of everything. Ekrn glanced uneasily at the hatch and then down the corridor. It shifted as Foliana pressed it into the wall. Locking Seelda away from Ekrn.

“That wouldn’t…stop dedicated groups. Like Crelerbane. You can’t crush them or take away their air supply.”

“I know. But we want these ones alive.”

Three-Color Stalker turned to Ekrn, and he looked at her. The cunning [Rogue] who was hardly as incompetent as she appeared nodded to him, and he saluted her with his sword, briefly.

“The Titan plans well after all. Thank you, Commander.”

She just sighed.

“Don’t thank me yet. Your city is in danger. They’ve wasted our time. Come. Let’s get them.

 

——

 

It did not take long to capture the renegade Fraerlings. Seelda’s representatives surrendered, asphyxiating, and Ekrn himself took them prisoner with Gindal.

It turned out they were on the same side. Shamefaced, the [Explorer] offered Ekrn the crossbow, and Ekrn let him keep it.

They hadn’t been sure, and Foliana had been following Fraerlings around trying to see who was doing what. She had been clever—but ironically, the most clever person was Guidance Heish.

Seelda had fed Ekrn and Gindal a half-truth. It was true that Heish had left her Tallguard and gone to Vuul. However, that was because she’d had an idea.

“Truth detection. Tallguard don’t maintain the law, but the one group that would be able to enforce law and order would be Fraerling [Security Personnel]. Vuul put me into protective custody, and together we began clearing other groups. We confronted Reiryul and took the entire lot prisoner—that was when Seelda panicked.”

Two groups of the eight had been fake! Reiryul and Seelda, both of whom had claimed to be under actual siege to panic the other representatives, were full of fake Fraerlings. Or rather, Fraerlings who didn’t belong to any great settlement.

It explained their low-quality attire and why they had been so stridently adamant they were under immediate attack.

So they could steal the Forgotten Wing’s forces. And take a look at the Titan’s personal files.

Perorn Fleethoof was beside herself with anger. She paced back and forth in front of the Fraerling congregation.

“After some checking—very discreetly—Guidance Heish has informed me that neither Seelda nor Reiryul are where I directed my forces. Nor, as it transpires, is either city in danger. They sent no representatives.”

It was all a trick that played on the paranoia of Fraerlings. It had almost worked, too—and it had in the sense that the Forgotten Wing Company had lost precious time. Ekrn was ready to stab all the Fraerlings under custody, but he had one question they all shared.

“Why? Why would you sell out your own kind?”

He looked at Reiryul and Seelda’s traitors in turn, and the Reiryul [Emissary] raised his hands.

“I’m sorry. They found our town. They promised to let us go if we found out where another city was.”

You’d sell us out?

“They have us captive! One [Fireball] and we’re all dead!”

The Fraerling looked at the others, and Gindal swore. Force Commander Nobre turned to Ekrn.

“If this is true—if—we have to rescue them. The Tallguard will do it. This—will not go unpunished. It also seems like some of the reports of cities under attack are false. That’s what threw my settlements into a panic.”

“Paeth is not lying. We need forces now.”

“We’ll send them.”

Perorn promised Ekrn gravely. However, the Reiryul Fraerling pointed an accusing finger at the Seelda Fraerling.

“Wait. They’re not from our city. I don’t know where they’re from, but it’s not a settlement. They worked with the Nagas on this plan to find our city—they pretended to be fleeing, and when we took them in, they led the Tallfolk right to our door.

Ekrn saw Gindal load a normal crossbow bolt, and everyone turned to the seven surviving Fraerlings. Their leader sneered at Ekrn as Gindal glared at her.

“What’s your reason? Answer, before I lose my temper.”

“Careful…we need to interrogate them.”

Perorn cautioned Gindal as he aimed at one of the seven Fraerlings. In response, the [Explorer] aimed right between the Fraerling’s legs. Yet the female Fraerling garbed in silk still looked defiant.

“You haughty cityfolk think you’re all of our kind. You d—”

Twang. Gindal fired and put another bolt into the crossbow. The enchanted crossbow had enough force to punch into the wood floor of the Fraer-ways. Nothing else slowed it. He aimed at the female Fraerling’s groin next.

“Trust me—it hurts no matter who you are.”

A screaming Fraerling went under a [Silence] spell as the others began to speak. Ekrn listened and realized who they were.

Exiles. Outcasts. The Fraerlings who were kicked out of a city because they were truly unable to fit in. Some—most cities like Paeth didn’t have a death sentence and prison for decades…they just exiled Fraerlings instead.

However, the jump from criminal to active traitor was still a big step. The female Fraerlings gave the only explanation that made sense to the outraged representatives with a huge smile.

“Potion of Gluttony.”

“…What?”

Heish looked incredulously at the Fraerling, but the traitor just smiled dreamily.

“If I drink it—I’m able to eat without filling my stomach. I can eat as much as a Tallfolk or more, and it doesn’t fill me up. I’m never hungry, but I always taste food as if I were starving, and I can eat without stopping. Every bite as good as the last. Everything. Tallfolk have so much. Do you know how easy it is for them to make a keg of mead? I can drink all day and night without stopping. If I succeeded, I’d do that every day for the rest of my life.”

“Just—just so I understand. You’d throw over hundreds of thousands of your people, entire cities—for yourself.”

Heish whispered through pale lips. Gindal aimed up, and Ekrn stopped him. The Fraerling grinned up at Heish.

“They’re not me.

Perorn Fleethoof was consulting with a [Mage], who was frowning at the Fraerling. She looked at the representatives, some of whom were stunned.

“Every species has the unredeemable. Although…the Naga of the Jungle Tails Company might have had a hand in creating her. She’s compromised. Her class is [Hedonist].”

“What?”

Ekrn stared at the dreamy contempt for anyone but herself in the Fraerling’s gaze. Guidance Heish murmured.

“Oh. The disease in the heart of paradise.”

Everything had its class. And this was one that struck in places like Khelt or the Kingdom of Keys or so on without management.

Foliana was done with the treachery of Fraerlings. She turned to Perorn.

“Paeth is in most danger. Mm. Send forces to them.”

“If we can. It’s far, but I will pull every soldier I can, Foliana. Just…”

Perorn was looking at the Fraerlings and then at Foliana. Ekrn had a sinking suspicion as well.

“What is it, Strategist?”

The Centauress shook her head.

“If I were the one sending saboteurs into the enemy—I’d arm them with death spells if they had important information. Perhaps…unknowing death spells if I were that cruel. But if they were expendable, I’d just give them a way to let me know they’d been found.”

Ekrn glanced at Heish, and Foliana stopped chewing on a victory muffin. She looked up and nodded.

“Ah. At last. Here they come.”

 

——

 

The trade-roads of Baleros saw their advent first. But they were everywhere. Neutral cities, mostly of Lizardfolk, began to fly a familiar banner. The [Messages] flitting across Baleros contained a name:

Jungle Tails.

They were back. Their supporters talked about it like a comeback, a triumphant resurgence against their enemy.

Their foes called it treachery. But even their worst enemies had to admit—it was well-planned.

The trade-roads that connected Elvallian to the rest of Baleros were the most direct route to the Forgotten Wing Company’s capital. Also, the easy way for the Great Company to send reinforcements to other locations like Paeth. They had no sea route thanks to the Iron Vanguard’s control over the water.

So the forces marching down the trade roads were both attackers and a way to stymie fast reinforcements. The [Soldiers] heading for Elvallian came from many neutral companies like the Featherfolk Brigade. A continent-wide muster to kill the leader of the Forgotten Wing company and seize their capital.

Naga by the thousands slithered down the road. Not just ‘ordinary’ Nagas garbed in armor, but Medusa, eyes locked ahead as their ‘hair’ of venomous snakes hissed and stared in other directions. Mighty Gorgons, towering above almost all their kin.

Quexals too, fluttering with wings as they glided across the landscape. More species as rare as Lamia—although Star Lamias were so rare that Archmage Nailihuaile would have still been unique amidst this horde.

And Lizardfolk. Countless Lizardfolk, whooping, cheering as they followed their older kin.

They were going for the Forgotten Wing’s heart. A bit too early, but the Fraerlings must have failed. It was still going to plan, though; the plan was robust enough to account for variance. All they had to do was slay Foliana, Perorn, and sack the capital or occupy it, and the Forgotten Wing would be dealt a blow they would never recover from.

If the Titan had already been dead, everything would be perfect. But plans didn’t work out perfectly.

Indeed, Peclir Im, watching the grand emergence of the Jungle Tails company into Baleros once more, had one regret. And that was that this part of the plan, which was arguably as important as killing Foliana, was not going well.

He had done his part in removing Niers Astoragon from the game…but Peclir realized he missed Niers.

The traitorous [Chamberlain] missed the Titan. Oh, not the man himself. Not the buffoon who had an ego larger than a Giant’s. The strutting fool who couldn’t see the truth before his eyes. Who was like a child when it came to affection and love.

Niers, who’d walk around at night, bored and depressed by turns when there was no war or excitement in the last five days. Who couldn’t see himself with anyone who wasn’t a [Queen], Level 50+ expert, or the world’s greatest in some way.

That narcissistic gloryhound who always had to have the last word, laugh, and be the center of any room. No, Peclir Im did not miss him.

What he missed was the efficiency of the Forgotten Wing Company. When Niers Astoragon said to do something, it was done. If it were not done, you were clearly a problem. Or the system was. Either way—that problem would not happen again, and it would be fixed.

When Peclir helped reorganize Jungle Tails, he’d keep that part. Even the leadership had admitted the old company had lost focus, hence their fall. Perhaps no one was more emblematic of that weakness than the nervous Quexal watching the scrying orb and Peclir.

The [Chamberlain] had stayed in Talenqual because Fezimet and the Featherfolk Brigade were incompetent. While everything else was going smoothly…

“Setbacks, Commander Fezimet?”

Peclir stared out a window—and then walked back far out of the range of sight and any [Snipers]. He hadn’t gotten this far by being a fool.

“Come now, Peclir. This isn’t the time to discuss such matters. Jungle Tails has returned! I will put the banners over Talenqual!”

The Quexal was trying to be ingratiating. It stank to Peclir of excuses—something Niers didn’t tolerate. The [Chamberlain] refused to be distracted.

“Your forces have slowed their search in the jungle. Why? Paeth must be found and taken.”

Fezimet was a Quexal with feathered wings, gloriously radiant scales…and no actual hands. He twisted up around himself nervously, but there was also a good bit of annoyance as he replied. He did not like a Human talking down to him.

“We…have encountered forces who are attacking our lead elements. Centaurs, Lizardfolk, Dullahans—even Drakes.”

“The [Strategists]. And you haven’t killed them…why?”

Peclir knew Umina, Marian, Cameral, and Kissilt had been here. He’d even told Fezimet who his opponents were. The Quexal spread his wings defensively.

“Peclir, it is not my business to gainsay a representative of Jungle Tails, but you do not understand war as well as I, a [Mercenary]. They are striking from nowhere. Falling back—it is classic guerrilla tactics.”

The [Chamberlain] looked at Fezimet.

“I understand strategy. I served the Titan under guise. You are a company forty thousand strong. You have deployed less than six thousand into the jungle.”

And they were searching for Paeth tree-by-tree. In a rather simple way: they hit a tree with an axe, and if it could be damaged, they marked it and moved on. It was how they’d found Oierdressql. Fraerlings would begin to attack once they got too close.

Peclir was willing to let Fezimet employ that rather stupid tactic, but the raids were taking the Featherfolk Brigade to a standstill.

“By rights, you should have twenty thousand soldiers combing the forest. Paeth is not without means. Before Fraerlings organize—and they will—you must bring it down.”

Paeth was important. It was a First Founding, and Peclir knew what that meant. The agents sent to the Forgotten Wing Company had been tasked with finding more First Foundings—but at the least, buying time for this one to vanish.

Fezimet bit back something and responded, a touch more curtly.

“Hah. You say these things lightly, [Chamberlain]. But you should know of all people—yes, the Featherfolk Brigade are mighty! And yes, we may be forty-three thousand strong, but we control Talenqual and the entire region. My company are the Watch in part, army, enforcers, judges…we patrol roads, occupy strong points, fight bandits. I can’t just muster them all, and I sent you several thousand of my finest.”

He reminded Peclir sulkily. The [Chamberlain] didn’t snap back deliberately.

“Jungle Tails requested them, and you pledged yourself to their cause in response to their aid. If you cannot muster all forty thousand—then more than six. These [Strategists] cannot have more than a thousand in the jungle. Send eighteen thousand. Strip garrisons if you must; you can return them quickly.”

The Quexal lifted his tail like someone raising a finger hesitantly. He knew he was failing, but even so, he writhed.

“The cost of having eighteen thousand soldiers in the wild each day…”

“You will be reimbursed for all you’ve spent, Commander Fezimet. I’m sure you’re keeping a tally.”

Fezimet’s eyes flashed, but Peclir knew he was right. The thing was…Fezimet was clearly unwilling to mobilize so many for such an involved task. The expense would be high, and he…

He was hedging his bets. No mercenary liked unpaid work. He was supporting Jungle Tails, but just in case they failed…

Peclir decided enough was enough. Fezimet, like many commanders, took Peclir Im as the useful Human who’d removed the Titan, the useful traitor. Peclir walked over to Fezimet’s desk and leaned over it.

The Quexal swayed back, then held still, so close that the two could feel each other’s presence. He narrowed his eyes, but Peclir spoke directly to him.

“The Nagas know your name, and they know exactly how much you are contributing to Jungle Tails’ revival because I am here, Commander Fezimet. I am not a flunkie. I am giving you orders and watching you carry them out. Exactly how well you carry them out will be noted in my report.”

Fezimet’s eyes widened. He wavered between anger and obsequiousness and chose the latter swiftly.

“But Chamberlain Im—I am working as hard as I—you told me Paeth needed to fall, but we are making progress. Eighteen thousand, you said? I will muster as many as I can! Within the hour! Talenqual’s garrisons will send them out by nightfall, you have my word.”

He smiled in an oily way at Peclir, and the [Chamberlain] reflected that at least Fezimet was unlikely to have him assassinated. But he heard Peclir.

The [Chamberlain] was still a [Chamberlain]. And a good one at that. He knew how to manage people. That was the poison. Time for the nali-stick. He turned to the window and walked over to it. Like Fezimet would, staring down at Talenqual.

Peclir felt vaguely ridiculous, but he motioned Fezimet over, and the Quexal sulkily joined him. He seemed to perk up at the position of power over his city, and Peclir spoke.

“Paeth is more than one target. The leaders of Jungle Tails want it gone. Not just the Naga, but the top. Wyrmgraced themselves have conferred with Dragontouched and sent me to you, Fezimet.”

“Really? It’s that…important?”

Fezimet’s eyes lit up with curiosity, and Peclir nodded. He leaned over and murmured.

“I will share this—but Paeth’s technological insight is what Jungle Tails needs. You know how advanced they are.”

“Slightly more than we are. Yes, I suppose.”

Peclir did his best not to roll his eyes. Arrogance. That was another thing Niers tried to beat out of his subordinates—but not himself.

“Not just slightly, Fezimet. Hard as it may be to admit—no Lamia in Jungle Tails has a tenth of the knowledge that a Fraerling city like Paeth has. They have…something…there that will not only help put Jungle Tails back as a Great Company, but elevate it beyond all the others. Do you know that Fraerlings can change their forms like Lizardfolk? [Polymorph] spells. They have them when [Archmages] of today have forgotten.”

Fezimet’s eyes widened.

R-really? And more magic like that? I can see…but they’re so small.”

Peclir shook his head.

“We can copy their magic. A few survivors, their…records? And we will experience an advent to end our decline. Not just that. Fraerlings have knowledge, magic we lack. Think bigger than what you are.”

He poked the Quexal gently on one rainbow scale, and Fezimet looked at him, surprised.

“Greater Naga, Fezimet. Beyond Quexal. Do you think you have achieved beauty, fame, the peak of Lizardfolk’s evolutions? Think again.

The outrage on Fezimet’s face faded, and a naked greed shone there.

“I…I can see why Paeth needs to fall. Before the Fraerlings evacuate or reinforce it. I’ll send everyone I can, absolutely.”

Peclir still wasn’t satisfied. Now that the attack had begun…it meant the Fraerlings knew they’d been duped. It wasn’t out of the question for every city to send a force of their Tallguard, and if they did…they could hold off the Featherfolk Brigade long enough to steal away with their entire city. If five Paeth-sized cities all sent forces and magic…

There had to be a better way than just hitting damn trees. But [Mages] couldn’t find Paeth as long as it was magically hidden. They had to force the Fraerlings over their ‘Allotment’ or do something else. A shame they didn’t have a prisoner—they should have sent some.

The Human had studied Fraerlings for a long time to get this much knowledge. He was mulling over how to expedite Paeth’s fall when Fezimet interrupted his thoughts.

“Purely as a question, Chamberlain, but will you answer a burning question on the tip of my tongue? I must ask…you have done so much in service to Jungle Tails. What is your reward? I know mine is to be a vaunted position as a [General]…but what will you receive?”

For what reason would Peclir work for so many years and make an enemy of Three-Color Stalker and the Titan? It was a fair question, and because they were on the topic, Peclir felt compelled to answer.

“Look at me, Fezimet. What do you see?”

The Quexal stared at Peclir. Peclir, the plain, slightly balding man who wasn’t heavy or lightset. Fairly nondescript. A competent middle-manager who turned out to be one of the best middle-managers…but hardly more than that.

“A loyal servant to Jungle Tails?”

He hazarded a guess. Peclir gave him a flat smile.

“I want to be taller, Fezimet. I would like to be as fit as a Named Adventurer.”

Or that Courier, Luan. The Quexal frowned.

“You could…train yourself. There are Drathian tonics. And some classes—”

“No, Fezimet. I don’t want to work for that. Or try to gain a rare Skill in a class. I want to be taller. I want…a different face. In fact, I want to be a Gorgon. Or a Minotaur.”

The Quexal wavered as Peclir felt at his body. Peclir had grown up around Lizardfolk and seen them dreaming, expecting to change if they were deserving enough. The [Chamberlain] looked into his reflection in the mirror.

“I want to be what I want, whenever. Whom or whatever I want. I don’t want to work for that. I will be rich for my service to Jungle Tails. But you know the richest man in the world? Or close enough?”

“Emir Yazdil?”

Peclir nodded. He smirked bitterly.

“He can afford to change forms now and then. He might be a Naga. He might be a man. He can shape-change sparingly because it is so costly. So out of reach. I want everything I can dream of. I want to fly, have all the magic of old. And they have it.”

Paeth on the Coast. Peclir Im looked sightlessly at that city filled with power. If there was one thing he and Niers truly agreed on, it was this:

If you wanted it, take it. That was the law of Baleros.

He turned and saw Fezimet staring. Peclir’s face returned to its bland mask. He’d said too much. He saw Fezimet turn and hurriedly brush at his desk.

“A wonderful dream, Peclir. Truly…Lizard-like of you. I will send my forces, as I said. Please—join me for a drink in celebration of the Jungle Tails’ resurgence! I note they didn’t change the name. Recognition. But about that name change? Let’s have some wine and proper lighting—damn.

He was pulling out a wine glass and bottle and lighting a rich, scented candle when he knocked it over. The desk must not have been enchanted, because Fezimet blew at the fire hurriedly. And that…gave Peclir an idea.

“Of course. That’s so simple. Burn it down.”

Fezimet looked up from his desk and the candlewax.

“…Excuse me?”

Peclir walked back to the window and looked at the jungle encroaching onto Talenqual from all sides, growing into the road. Paeth on the Coast…it could be anywhere in a stretch of countless miles of undergrowth. Check each tree? What if they hid themselves and faked it?

“Burn it. The entire forest. Everywhere north of Talenqual—start a fire and wipe out everything until you find Paeth. Either they cook or have to extinguish the fire. Or they’re the last tree standing.”

He turned and saw the Quexal’s mouth open. Burn an entire jungle? A hundred miles of…

It was not easy in humid Baleros. But the rains had passed, and…if you started a large enough fire? Yet the Quexal seemed horrified by this.

He had pontificated long about the reasons to kill the Fraerlings, and Peclir was sick and tired of hearing the Quexal inventing excuses to moralize his point. But this was apparently the step too far.

“Chamberlain Im. That…the wilderness provides us with hunting, wood, food, alchemy reagents. Talenqual—probably over half of the jobs and income are based around the forest being…there. If we eradicated the jungle? It’s not all ours. It would ruin everything.”

Peclir frowned.

“And? Paeth is worth more than a thousand miles of forest, Fezimet.”

“Yes, but this is my city.”

The Quexal was growing agitated. He looked around.

“We don’t even have a full claim on—if I burned it down, every settlement and company neighboring ours would be up in arms! The [Druids]—Nagas!”

He was making up objections, but Peclir saw how simple it was. No guerrilla force could hide in ash. It was fast—fire was very fast, and a wildfire was something even Paeth feared. He strode over to the desk and grabbed one of Fezimet’s wings. The Quexal was very strong and jerked away, but Peclir looked him straight in his slitted eyes.

“Burn it and I will make you a Nagatine Scion of the Jungle Tails Company. Up to a million Lizardfolk under your direct command. Second only to the top of Jungle Tails.”

That was far more than the command of a hundred thousand that Fezimet had been promised. The Quexal’s eyes went round. He looked out at his view of the city, then the forest beyond. Peclir put a hand on his shoulder.

[Orders from Above]. He saw Fezimet’s head turning, and the Quexal wrestling, thinking…then his look at Peclir.

“I…will empty Talenqual. I expect my promotion by nightfall, you understand. And a declaration—I will make a formal declaration that the Featherfolk Brigade has joined Jungle Tails.”

A public announcement that Jungle Tails would have to ratify. So Fezimet couldn’t be denied his rewards. He was all-in.

No turning back. The first fires of Paeth’s burning lit themselves in the Quexal’s eyes as Peclir nodded.

“Very good, Commander Fezimet.”

 

——

 

The first fires were lit by nightfall. A kind of madness that would destroy Talenqual’s future as well as Paeth’s. Luan Khumalo saw thousands of protesting Lizardfolk shrinking back as a Gorgon roared at them, trying to argue with the fires.

“Madness. Fucking…”

Daly Sullivan watched as well. He turned to the others, Kessice, Noa, Resk—and realized Cotm’s intelligence, the other plans were going awry. They were all marching towards a crossroads.

“What—what do we do?”

Kirana looked uncertainly from the Fraerlings to Luan. Ken was hesitating, staring up at Fezimet’s tower. Could he negotiate his way out of this one?

Could Luan deliver anything like hope to Paeth? If Geneva Scala were here…Daly nodded to himself, and everyone turned to him. Sometimes, yes, sometimes it fell to this. Just like he’d thought.

“Time to make a choice, everyone. Fight or flee—if we can flee. Count our allies and think really carefully. Then we take a stand and draw a line in the sand.”

The fires licked higher, and Daly watched as they spread. Paeth on the Coast watched as the fires drew closer. Ah, now the coin dropped. They boarded their evacuation vessel and opened their emergency stores. All those contingencies you made, the plans you thought, in the back of your mind, you’d never use?

It was time.

The Tallfolk were coming.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I have been plagued by spotty internet while writing this one. It made my job super-frustrating.

I’m…somewhat recovered from that seven-day marathon? We’re into Baleros and I am on-target for my plans. But I’ll let you know after next chapter, the last of the month, where I think we are.

Let me know how you found this one. From Terandria to Baleros…there is a plan. But I’m not a Gnome. I think.

Gnomes are cool. I don’t see many in the stories I’ve read but I don’t read as many modern tales anymore. I should get back to reading as much as writing, but maybe after Volume 8. For now, thanks for reading. One more chapter before my break! Yay! Celebrate for me.

 

Diplomacy by onion little!

 

Merila by pkay!

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

Fraerling Distress (Cotm, Resk, Kessice, and poor Noa) commissioned by Linnet, by ArtsyNada!

 


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65 thoughts on “8.76 B

  1. Leave a typo for Fraerlings! Small folk! Tiny people! Wait, are all these bad names? No one shoot me with a crossbow.

    (Small readers: M Wiggles, Litwickee, Gorexn, Quynin, Axel Terizaki, Splutty, Metamere, Maladal, ZachO, Brohan)

    • “The fall of the Forgotten Wing company was not months or weeks in the making, but days.”

      This sounds like it took only days to plan. You may have meant “in the future”.

      “alright” -> “all right” x3
      Yes, they are in conversation. But the rest of the conversation is in proper English.

    • Sorry but I’m a bit confused about Emissary Vuul. Isn’t he the Emissary of the fake Reiryul, so why did he work together with Guidance Heish to expose the Fraerlings traitors?

  2. Kinda bummed that the first chapter after such a long break is a Baleros ones.

    Yah, I said it! I’m not a fan of Baleros!

    It has some interesting characters, but most of the chapters that focus on them feel more like backstory, all so that we’ll care a bit when they finally do something plot important.

    It’s just kinda hard to care about a war in Baleros when you have the reader’s perspective of knowing that all of the actually important stuff is happening somewhere else.

    • I think it’s sort of hilarious that so many readers think that ANY of the storylines are unimportant. Or that there’s a main character even, tbh.

      • It’s obvious that Pirate is trying to expand the importance of many different characters/sections of the world. Unfortunately, I don’t find them interesting. Anything that isn’t Erin or Erin adjacent, is of less interest.

        Are those characters/storylines bad? No. I try and get into them. But ultimately, I find myself speed reading through them with the purpose of processing the knowledge of where the story is progressing. Not because I care about them, but because I care that at some point it may have some slight impact on Erin or the Erin-adjacents.

        There have been a few times where I was won over. I thought the Horns going to Chandrar would be a nightmare and ended up loving that part of the story. Fetohep and Khelt are amazing.

        But for the most part, these chapters expanding on other aspects of the story are undesired in that they could have been another chapter about the Antinium. Or the Goblins. Or Lyonette. Even Azkerash.

        I’m still waiting for the consequences of the assault on the Village of the Dead to occur. I want a horde of undead to sweep out across Izril supported by relic class artifacts. And I want Azkerash to redeem himself in that moment by coming to the aid of those who have (rightfully) maligned him.

        Most of all I want Erin.

        So yes, you are correct. The push of the story is to make a cast of characters. Unfortunately, I only find myself caring about half of them.
        I don’t hate the other half, but it’s like being at a party where everyone wants a piece of you. When instead you would have preferred a more intimate affair with the friends you actually wanted to hang out with. As much as those extra people don’t suck, and may serve a purpose… you kinda wish they’d had car trouble so you could spend more time with your good friends instead.

        • Really well said, and exactly how I feel. Although I am not even able to spead read it. I just skim through, check if what happens is interesting, and then skim further or read depending on the content.
          I can’t bring myself to care for anything or anyone in Baleros right now. The only one I really cared for was Geneva, and she is with the Selphids.
          And Luan, but this chapter isn’t really about him. :/

      • Great chapter. The Foliana bits were excellent. Pretty sure the united nations company runs, if they fight most of them would die. They haven’t really acclimated to Innworld well, just like the Magnolia group. They grouped together and tried to make it like home but that safety makes them weak in the long run and a bit of a target. Wonder if they take some casualties for the first time in a while.

    • Such a long break? Pirate skipped a single Tuesday after doing 7 days in row. And you call that “such a long break?”

      Ingrate.

    • I really need to agree with you here. I’ve always kind of glossed over Belaros’ stories. Geneva is interesting but a single character cannot not carry a continent. Niers and his students are interesting and fun to follow but they’re in Izril right now. A lot of people are being nice and phrasing it as “Belaros isn’t as important as other places at the moment.” But I’ll be a jerk and just say that I get to wait a week or 2 until an arc i actually WANT to read comes along. -_-

      On the other hand, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if the gnomes and their mystery box has any relation to goblins and their mystery treasure? I’m guessing the goblin treasure is in a box if it requires keys to open.

      • Not sure why i typed “not” after cannot, making a double negative.

        But to add to the theory that the goblin king’s treasure could be related to the gnomes, Velan came from Belaros. He could have gotten it there.

      • “I’ll be a jerk”

        I’m glad to see that the forum invites all kinds of frank feedback. However, please be more kind to our authors.

        What would Erin tell you? Honestly, you two, just don’t say it. “But I was just being honest.” Go write 8 million words and then come back and provide negative-only feedback. Sheesh.
        If CasualFarmer or Rhaegar were to make that comment, great, they’ve earned the right. But when we have great authors complaining about burn out in our world and this is your thanks? Double sheesh.
        Here is how to do it: make a positive sandwich. Say something positive, then your negative thing, then something encouraging. I know, it should be called a negative sandwich because the negative is in the middle, but whatever. That way you are both a jerk and helpful. Here you’re just being a jerk.

        I love the Fraerlings, their cloistered misunderstanding of their own world is hilarious. Also, Luan is the only character who actively remembers earth, not just its inventions, and so might be the real hope.

        The BB Burning them out sounds like an invitation to fairly use explosives.

        If anything, I’d say the cliff was in the wrong place, but that sounds like me asking for more.

        I agree, less happened this chapter. But you can be nicer about it.

        • Your implication that the right to have a harsh opinion, or that the right to express an opinion harshly must be earned is objectively false and downright unhelpful.
          There is a difference in tone that holds meaning when expressing an opinion rudely vs nicely. When someone is tactful it dulls the edge of the critique. There is a definite tone shift between delicately saying “There are other parts of the story I’d like to see unfold instead” and “I absolutely hate Belaros chapters”, so I’ll be proportionally harsh to how much I express my dislike of them. How else is the author supposed to know their reader’s feelings on something?
          Furthermore, I disagree with the idea that we should coddle the emotions of artists and authors in regards to critique. Dealing with mean comments is as much a part of the experience of sharing a craft as earning genuine praise.

          You are right on one thing. There are limits to being a jerk. If someone makes a personal attack/insult, I think that goes over the line. Short of that, “I’ll be a jerk” and express my opinion on parts of the story as I like thank-you-very-much.

    • I like this chapter but i kinda agree that this feels extra because it was placed at a wrong time. If this chapter was released before or after big events like ailendamus then this would feel a lot better.

  3. Baleros isn’t insignificant but the only significance that I find is that the gnomes are the second farthest travelers and that they left puzzles as their legacy. The violent competition between free companies is not news, it’s just their normal state of affairs.

    I am interested in the fate of the United Nations and the Last Light but I don’t see it going anywhere.

    After the blood bath before Liscor wiped out half the cast dramatis, I have reduced my investment in any character, as it appears they are all expendable. Only Rags and Rabbiteater continue to pique my curiosity.

  4. Mixed on this chapter as there were a lot of good parts… But this continent also feels the least important.

    Horns of Hammer preparing for the conflict with clashing armies with someone preaching the word of ___ to the point it starts breaking through to regular people?

    A wyrm and a band of immortals fighting for their kingdom while things happen beyond their knowledge in the Land of the Dead and the Far Realms?

    The struggle with the Gnolls and the knowledge of earth as moment of trying to revive Erin comes into play?

    Ferlings dealing with a betrayal and we find out they are the magic equivalent of earth? Neat…but it feels like it is missing the impact the other places have since we are short the Horns of Hammer with their arc before the Erin revival.

    Good chapter and probably will enjoy, but not one expected to see with the other conflicts happening.

    Now time to see if the United Nations can pull their weight.. Or if they suffer the same problem as their counter part. Able to say, make commands, and do stuff… But not able to really enforce it.

    Sure they have an army coming in to aid the along with enough good public will that Erin could probably rally up an army to take over the city and kick the Feather Company out of it… But we have no clue if they can pull that off.

    Which is part of the point I guess.

    • you should have expected to see this if you paid attention to the polls, this was in the polls alongside other options that were mandatory for the finale, which were the other conflicts with only ostelia out of the options being pushed to next volume… ask yourself why is this, gnoot hectval and terrandria all were mandatory to fit in before the finale that is around the time where erin snaps out of it and the seamwalkers finish walking over the edge and it raises interesting otpions

  5. Considering the gnomes were described as tricksters, I wonder if there’s actually anything significant in these boxes – it seems like the ultimate prank to pull on an entire civilization.

    I also think the Fraerlings should invite Relc to take a look at the box – he’d probably get it open within a month or so.

    • Hardly sounds like a prank to me – more like the ultimate teaching aid. Fraerlings have learned and discovered so many amazing things that no other species in Innworld is even close to, by completing the tasks set by the boxes.
      As for what’s in the middle of these boxes – my guesses are either a message like “well done on all the knowledge collected and skills learned to get to this point” (and perhaps “it’s the journey not the destination …” if the Gnomes wanted to be extra annoying); or instructions on how to follow the Gnomes to whatever world they moved to (I suspect they relocated to either the Fae lands or some other world, rather than became extinct).

  6. I find wonderfully appropriate the mentality of Peclir as he critique every one else arrogance like it is some sort of idiot ball. Yet, he seems blissfully unaware of how his own ambition are the height of arrogance. There so many reason that even if his plan go perfectly, he would still be extremely unlikely to get what he wants. There likely are a bunch of reason why despite all the time that passed the Fraeling are still the only one with those boxes. Also, the whole of Fraeling species have been using those since they got it, which resulted in their ability being what they are now. It is absurd to think that by getting their hand on one they somehow would be able to do the thing Fraeling do in Peclir lifetime. Even if they get their hand on it, I very much doubt the Fraeling leave a book on how to use the box for dummy with it and it have to be at least somewhat Fraeling oriented in its usage which would make it even more of a pain to be use by Lizardfolk. The whole idea also dismisses the expertise that the Fraeling have built over the years. So, in short Peclir is being played as even more of a fool than the [Hedonist] by the Jungle Tails Company as at least they can make her dream a reality while she is still alive.

  7. “Gnomes are cool. I don’t see many in the stories I’ve read but I don’t read as many modern tales anymore.”

    Huh. I’m trying to remember what gnomes I’ve seen since I started reading fantasy again after a long break, and I can only think of couple. In video games, you meet a bunch of fun gnomes in Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous if you take the Azata mythic path. In literature, the only one I can think of is the gnome magical-prosthetic maker in Skyclad. https://www.royalroad.com/fiction/21361/skyclad/chapter/328575/interlude-the-broken Anyone else know any good gnome stories?

    • Gah, I forgot: one of the player’s companions in Pathfinder: WotR is a very unorthodox gnome. He’s so un-gnomelike that it’s easy to forget he is a gnome. Anyway, it’s got a lot of gnomes. A gaggle of gnomes? Hmm.

  8. Really loved this chapter. Always great to see baleros and glad we are getting more on the fraerlings and UNC.

    Plus unless I am mistaken we got two extinct things this chapter those being Spiderfolk (Wonder why we haven’t seen any in the land of the dead) and the continent of Tiernas.

    I wonder if that continent exists in the land of the dead or if there are a bunch of ghosts sitting in the ocean or they got destroyed or moved to other ghost continents.

    • I just assumed that Tiernas is the mostly-sunken continent where Drath is now.

      I think we heard that ghost Drath was still holding out against the Six. Although given that they are right up against the Last Tide, they are probably the first ones going down before the Seamwalkers.

  9. I’m always amazed at how big and rich the innworld is. Which is like a curse since every part deserves Pirateabas time but she has finite of it to give 🦈

  10. Interesting…but nice if Erin adjacent chapters appeared instead. It felt (for me, don’t attac) that the ascend to erin-vival drooped with this CH but maaaybe the titan being invested RN with the Izril cast makes this CH important than being a balerosian interlude only

  11. If there was a least one last box on Tiernas before the continent disappear and those box are both Indestructible and immovable. Do it mean that somewhere above on or slightly under the ocean sit the most terrible of all ship breaker?

    • It would be HILARIOUS if it’s in the archmage’s channel; just imagine some ship at 200 knots be SHREDDED by a box the size of your head.

  12. Always thought that it would be neat if there was a Dullahan Warwalker that was armored in playing cards (kinda like if you made a house of cards into scale mail) that had Fraelings secretly living inside of it.

  13. Perhaps in the end, the gnomes will return and repair the fairies’ interdimensional portal hub.

    Great chapter. If only i could use Parallel Thinking to folow every plotline.

    • I was wondering if the gnomes might have maintained a secret island or skybase somewhere. Possibly they could even be whom dwarf master smiths sail off to consult on metalworking?

      It would be a classic trickster move to convince everyone you’re dead while actually you’re hiding away somewhere.

  14. “Gnomes are known as the biggest tricksters on this universe, mocking nations and armies.”
    “Gnomes have given us their big black box that nobody could open or even displace. They contains the biggest technologies advances that we use since a lot of years.”
    “What ? Be warry of the Gnomes Black Boxes ? No, I don’t see Why, we totally trust them.”
    Am I the only one to see something suspicious here?

    • I think everyone but the Fraerling see something suspicious there. But the box are massively useful in themselves and the Gnomes did not sound actively malicious. So I would not think whatever trick it hide is harmful. Well if open the proper way.

    • The trick is fairly obvious if you’re a sci-fi fan: by presenting Fraerlings with such an easy way to unlock technology (“do X task, mystery box rewards you with Y technology”), they are prevented from advancing down any other tech-path.

      Remember the smith apprentice who had figured out guns (?) but master smith didn’t want to even look at it. Fraerlings are taught that the only worthwhile technology is the one the gnomes are willing to share.

      • It looked like they figured out an engine piston. And to be fair, the master smith wasn’t wrong that it was an absolute fucking crisis mode moment

  15. Maybe someone needs to point out that without Geneva and her subsequent story Erin is not coming back to life. So the fate of Geneva’s friends is Erin adjacent. .. …

    Also to bring Geneva back we have to know what her company has experienced in her absence.

    putting that aside: Gnomes were Masters of Magic, Mechanics, Engineering, Space travel [moon trips mentioned], (dimensional travel?) and Crafting of all kinds and the fraerlings are still only grasping at the basics of what was left behind. There is a lot of room for “miracles” to come from helping fraelings and working on those “Last Box” puzzles/doomsday weapons.

    Admittedly Peclir, just became pretty basic and a lot less menacing. His motives were small and narcissistic after all. How did Flos put it “if you wish to defeat me your dream must be bigger than mine” [paraphrase]. Perhaps that is why his sections seem a bit tedious, none of the characters want to be there talking to each other and all the readers want him to just die already. Well, Patience. At this rate the Lizardfolk will crowd surf him and a few nagas into a monster pit.

    So yes, perhaps it wasn’t obviously Erin related, but this is all directly related to at minimum 2 very important people required to bring Erin back to life safely.
    Involves an ongoing Battlefield between Geneva and Leaving Belaros.
    Puts the Titan In a position were he must choose between Erin/Gnolls/Goblins and returning to Belaros, or as has been stated would it even matter unless he could teleport instantly.

    Thank you P.A. for sticking to the Arc and telling us the whole story.

    • Exactly. And do not forget, that since Geneva made peace with the Minds, there is that one Selphid only company the Bodeies of Fellden, that is yet to move. And guess what will Geneva ask from the Selphids, when she realize that UN company is about to be wiped out?
      So, yes all those complaints about ‘not the most important continent’ are stupidly ignoring that without Geneva Erin stays dead. Like there is an unimportant CONTINENT… Yeah, right.
      Anyway, if some thing is less important it is clearly Terandria, there is only three mainish characters, Eldavin, Rabbit and Ryoka, who all recent arrivals anyway.

  16. Finally, Baleros!

    I’ve been itching for more Daly and Paige for what seems like forever, and more Umina & co is also a treat. Honestly I enjoy the whole Baleros cast and it sucks that we don’t get more bushranger chapters, haha.

    Really looking forward to see how the UN gets through this trial by fire.

    Foliana talked about the trap in her previous appearance and the whole first part of this chapter and I still got fooled by her. I thought she was sneaking around the fraerlings because it would provide her leveling opportunities… Which I suppose is the same thought they had and what let her fool them too.

    So many lore bombs dropped in this chapter too, the second furthest travelers, the elves, the spiderfolk and the damn signim is teased again. I think the earthers in the UN can provide insight into some of the puzzles the fraerlings have yet to crack. They all have wildly different educations, knowledge bases and perspectives, it’s going to be interesting.

    • I know right?! I’ve been WAITING for Baleros and the fraerlings, it’s just so Interesting with all the lost magic. Honestly it’s more entertaining than the knights for me.

    • And everyone ignoring the glaring new info that the Lizard-folk are likely Wrym creations.

      Which adds an extra layer to why they and the Drakes dont like each other… and why their biology is the way it is.

  17. I’ve done it! Caught up to the current chapters!

    What’s amazed me most about this series is how much knowledge you seem to have in a number of different areas. It’s made me wonder just how much research you have had to do for some of these chapters!

    Thank you for adding something wonderful to my life and undertaking this big project.

    I miss Erin!!!!! *Insert cry face*

  18. Feedback as requested

    Honestly, this chapter wasn’t the best, when compared to your usual standard.
    It jumped around too much. The flow and rhythm were off, and it was less evocative and less gripping than it needed to be. The villain reveal was also a bit of a letdown tbh.

  19. “[Innkeepers]? Well, Quallet didn’t have a problem with any specifically, but crossbows were exceptionally effective there too.”

    …rude.

  20. Roads, roads that are used to form the basis of your trading empire. Roads that you use to send reinforcements down,

    Roads that enemy armies in the jungle-continent of Baleros will use to march down.

    Roads that are traps.

  21. If I had to guess, the gnomes tricked everyone into thinking the gods were dead, used their tech to make it stick (broadcast an anti-god wave like what hit pelt that one time), and then once they’d scrubbed everyone else’s records they let their own culture die out instead of running the risk that their overly-clever gnome children would do the magical equivalent of a 23 & me test and find the old gnomish records of deities existing. Just to make sure SOMEONE was around to fix anything if their plan went FUBAR, they uplifted the fraeling race and gave them an “in case of apocalypse, break glass” box. To make sure the fraelings KEPT the boxes, they made sure it’d spit out good ideas every once in a while so they wouldn’t question the wisdom of keeping a mystical artifact from a lost precursor race in the middle of town.

    …. at least that’s my take on the situation

  22. “keep it secret. and they” – And

    “Paige’s mouth fell open. Noa peered upwards and realized she could have walked into Paige’s mouth if she ducked a bit.” – how wide does her mouth open? If ~6′ Noa only ‘duck a bit’, it must be about 5.5′. Which is impossible for humans.

    “Of course we do! Paeth is a modern city.” -on Earth modern means advanced, but in the Waning Age it would be the opposite: old/ancient = advanced. I suggest to change ‘modern’ to ‘civilized’.

    “but we can’t take all the children and kids.” – how are they distinctive?

    “unredeemable” – irredeemable.

    “Peclir put a hand on his shoulder.” – Fezimet is armless.

  23. I didn’t know I wanted Spiderfolk until I knew they were dead, boo!

    then again I’ve always been obsessed with driders et al so that’s mostly a me problem

    • You might like ‘I am a spider, so what?’ in that case. Clearly the manga, The anime turned out to be… not bad, except for the animation which is down right shit.

    • Awesome as always. Pirate, it never fails to amaze me that loyal “fans” feel so free to critique your work when it follows an arc they dislike. These so-called fans not only can’t write (as is apparent from their own poor use of grammar, sentence structure and typos, but also from their lack of critical thinking). Your chapters have a purpose and your writing builds on itself. I for one am amazed at the breadth and scope of your vision and hope you never change that vision because of a few negative people. I wish I could write, but I can’t. Instead, I eagerly follow those who can and do write with passion. I love what you do, I love this arc and I look forward to more from you. Thank you for this wonderful saga. I hope you continue to follow your heart and your vision for Inn World, and I pray you can ignore the feeble mutterings of those who are unable to appreciate what you share of yourself each week.

  24. Hi Pirateaba!
    I just had an idea for an April fools day: the MC in my little story just wakes up in a special wandering inn and is confused and unsure where the heck it can be.
    As the MC just went knock-out in the chapter before this would fit nicely in the story and I hope it will be fun. I started reading the Wandering Inn at Royal Road and suppose there are many people there who remember it :).
    I hope you have no problems with this joke.

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