(The author is on break until the 9th of April! Be ready. We’re closing the volume.)
They were burning it all down. Enchanter Ilekrome watched the blazes spreading. Lamia hurled [Fireballs] into the wet brush, but mainly it was Lizardfolk with actual torches slowly setting blazes. Fanning flames.
They were bad at it at first. It was harder to burn a jungle than simply setting a torch; Baleros was an entire natural habitat, not some artificial creation like wide farmsteads or pure grass that dried out and became fodder for blazes.
In fact—a natural setting like this had far less tinder like fallen branches or sticks. Baleros consumed and turned most material into mossy mulch rather than dried leaves.
It was all flammable. The Featherfolk Brigade were slow at first, but they quickly re-learned the fundamentals of fire.
Not just flame itself, or mere heat, but fuel. Oxygen—they brought in [Aeromancers] after the first day, and that was when Ilekrome knew Paeth was in danger. Strong winds began blowing embers, smoke, and fire straight into the brush. The heat dried out the landscape, and once a critical mass of fire was created, hot enough to continue the inferno—the entire jungle became fuel.
It was a kind of madness. Centaurs had employed it once, burning the land to create their flat plains. This…this killed everything.
Not just rare plants, or all the jobs and income revolving around the forest. Animals died or fled. It would shatter the balance of life in this area. Allow certain animals to move in on the remains. It was so destructive, in fact, that the ashlands that remained afterwards would be nearly worthless until life regrew. At least…at least a decade, Ilekrome guessed. He was no [Druid], but even the blind could guess how poor a choice this was.
Indeed, that was why this decision was being protested so hard. The [Enchanter] was watching via scrying spells, no matter the risk; Paeth had to know where the fires were, and their magic outstripped the Tallfolk.
But he was also monitoring their communication spells. So he got to read—even hear some conversations.
Commander Fezimet was dealing with mass protests by horrified Lizardfolk in his city, already unhappy with his eviction of the Last Light’s Company. This? If it weren’t for the Featherfolk Brigade’s strength, there might have been actual riots, but thousands of soldiers were joining the burning and clamped down on the streets.
Curfew was in effect. However—other companies were just as curious.
“This is not your land, Commander. We claim it, and you are threatening to burn it all!”
A Medusa was snarling at Fezimet as Ilekrome watched. Yet the Quexal was superior to her smaller company, and he hissed back.
“I will halt the fires once they reach your land, Marsh Leader Yuise. I have an objective, and I am working for Jungle Tails.”
“You cannot do this! Even a former Great Company—”
The Quexal was unsettled; he was already brusque in the short argument, but Ilekrome saw him react to Yuise’s comment with sudden and ferocious anger. Fezimet bared all his teeth in a snarl.
“Should I report this to Jungle Tails, then, that your company is their enemy, Yuise? Will I see your company on the field?”
The Medusa went silent. Fezimet drew back.
“That is what I thought. Build your fire breaks—Talenqual is burning the land it possesses. I will—will brook no argument!”
He was lying, of course. Ilekrome thought even the Medusa knew it. There was no stopping this kind of blaze once it reached the threshold. It would stop when it ran into a river—and it might even jump vast stretches of water if the winds continued.
However—it was that name.
Jungle Tails. A Great Company of Baleros, even a former one, was enough to scare the companies who objected with words rather than force. Any Great Company usually didn’t care about smaller affairs, but if they did…your tiny company would get squashed. It was like a Giant; it stepped and crushed only a small area, but it scared the hell out of anyone nearby.
“Welcome to the Fraerling’s world.”
Ilekrome muttered gloomily. Fezimet was invoking their attention as a threat, and they had publicly recognized him as one of their Nagatine Scions. Essentially, [Generals] second only to their foremost leaders—a council of symbolic titles that came with actual abilities if Jungle Tails retained the methods.
Dragontouched, Wyrmgraced, Serpentborn, and so on. Representing the various facets of species related to Lizardfolk.
“In older days, Dragontouched was a title reserved for actual Dragons—or Oldblood Drakes. When were they that friendly?”
Ilekrome had put in a research order and gotten a lot of information about Jungle Tails’ history. However—it did little good.
Someone had ordered the fires started, and this was a stupid, crude, wasteful, and effective move. Someone without an inch of scruples for Talenqual, the region, or the future had ordered it, and Fezimet was in too deep. He could only defend his actions.
And defend he would. Ilekrome took a bit of bitter comfort from the fact that this decision would haunt Fezimet for the rest of his life.
Luan Khumalo had told Ilekrome about Earth—which apparently had suffered a kind of problem like this. It got hot because Earth-people couldn’t restore their atmosphere with magic, and they had eradicated forests on a level no one could imagine. Ilekrome had thought that was awfully funny. He had assumed…naively…nothing like that could happen here.
Mostly because of [Druids]. They were overzealous about protecting grass, had a lot of stupid rules—even Fraerling [Druids]—often smelled, and had a lot of objectionable habits that clashed even with Paeth’s views on how to use or live with animals and plants. Some spoke for the trees, and that really got annoying when you needed to chop a few down.
Some were radicals, too, and preached things like burning a forest to let new life grow, or wiping out an invasive species. However, where they unified was on matters like this. Burning a forest that was a stable environment for no apparent reason?
Commander Fezimet got a call from the leader of the Sea Shepherds, the [Druid] fleet. The Quexal tried to explain himself, but [Druids] didn’t beat around the bush. Especially when it was on fire.
“Commander Fezimet. Fezimet Tusqual. Do you like your family? I’m asking if there’s anyone in particular you like because I’d think of them. And yourself, of course. Have you ever seen someone die of blowfish poisoning? It’s very fast.”
“Is that a threat?”
Fezimet’s voice was ominously low. But the [Druid] just raised his brows as he stood in a chamber of bone—the remains of some great fish in which he captained his vessel.
“Not the blowfish poison. That’s fast. Hullborer Snails though…that’s slow. And even if you have an antidote, believe me, when it gets into your veins you’ll wish you were dead.”
“I am under Jungle Tails’ authority. Are you going to attack them? I dare you—no, I invite you to! They fear no tiny armada!”
Fezimet blustered, and the Sea Shepherd [Druid] narrowed his eyes.
“You may have a company, Fezimet. And Jungle Tails may be a Great Company, but I promise you this. You, your officers, and all their families and loved ones will be marked from now until the day you die choking on the foam of your own blood. Stop burning the forest.”
“You do not give me orders. If you so much as touch my company, I will destroy your ships!”
Fezimet snarled back. The [Druid] folded his arms.
“No force in the world can catch our ships. The Iron Vanguard cannot. You’ve been warned. I’d also advise you, free of charge, never to open a box from a City Runner, Street Runner, or Courier again. Stay away from the water too. And be careful what plants you keep in your home. Also, if you have a pet, be aware it might vanish. Or you’ll wake up with your favorite parakeet plucking out an eye. As for horses—”
Fezimet cut the call after that, and the brief view Ilekrome got of the Quexal was of a rattled [Mercenary]. The Fraerling watched his expression.
Of all the threats and protests—the [Druids] scared Fezimet the most, and well they should. They did not play games.
Yet, still, he continued. A Nagatine Scion might well be fearless of most assassination attempts, but Ilekrome feared that Fezimet was just blinded by greed and in too deep. He wanted Paeth’s knowledge. More than that?
If he stopped now, he lost it all. All his contributions to Jungle Tails—gone. He was their enemy and the enemy of everyone else. Sink or swim—burn it down and claim the rewards, or quit and lose it all.
A very clever person had orchestrated that. Someone who made Paeth’s Architects look bad at their jobs, because the truth was that Paeth didn’t need this kind of organization. A certain [Chamberlain], Peclir Im, had picked his Quexal well.
So the forest burned. And Paeth…Ilekrome closed his eyes and cycled back to the fires spreading across the forest. There was nothing they could do. That was—there was no other choice but this.
The Fraerling began to pen his order, which would be an announcement to Paeth and any Fraerling settlements nearby. The Architects would ratify it, but he was the one in charge of magic. And what he wrote, dictating it to the enchanted pen, was this:
“I am Enchanter Ilekrome. By my authority, under the articles of self-defense of Paeth on the Coast, I am bypassing our Allotment. Every [Weather Mage], [Hydromancer], and [Aeromancer] is hereby conscripted for weather magic without limit. [Pyromancers], [Geomancers], and other [Alchemists] and applicable classes as necessary.”
He paused. Almost every magical class might be called on. [Pyromancers] could try to fight flame, and there were inventive ways to deal with fire. [Enchanters] could fireproof land, [Geomancers] help create fire breaks…
But they’d be fighting Tallfolk magic with their own. They had to—Paeth might be fireproof in the walls, but that much heat would bake the city and leave it exposed.
However…the magic to do this was going to make Paeth a lighthouse. Either way. Ilekrome’s voice trembled as he went on.
“Tallguard of Feiland are to mobilize for combat. Crelerbane Armor and volunteers will prepare to defend Paeth in a five mile radius. Conscription of every able-bodied Fraerling not evacuating will begin tomorrow.”
It was so terribly, terribly…weak of him. But his voice shook and tears began to roll down his face before he was even done. He snatched the paper away and walked over to one of the tubes that could send messages across Paeth.
War. Ilekrome had never dreamed Paeth would go to war against the tall. Much less…fall. The Enchanter could have cast a spell to alter his mood, or stopped the tears, but he didn’t. It was right to mourn.
“All of this…for greed. For greed and…we never should have left them be. We should have poisoned their wells like other cities. Chased them off.”
For a moment he thought the other cities who had been so radical were right. But it wasn’t all of Talenqual or even all Lizardfolk. It was just the Featherfolk Brigade. Ilekrome sent the message and then sat down.
“Oh, Clockmakers. Did you foresee this?”
The Last Box was a room of puzzles, a dimensional box far larger than any Fraerling, but only about three feet high and wide. A perfect square that you could walk into.
It was enchanted such that its true space was unknown. The first Fraerlings had walked around the outside and studied the basic theorems there. Even now, Ilekrome thought the explanations and theories of how magic was truly cast were intelligent.
Puzzles—sometimes pictograms, other times code or magical symbols, invisible ink—all lined each layer of the puzzles, and some day, Fraerlings would pass all the walls and reach the inside.
Ilekrome stopped at a mysterious archway made of glowing stones, each one different. It was almost complete, except for three empty spots. That was the portal to the next puzzle—and the reward was probably clues about dimensional magic.
Each Last Box was different, and Paeth’s Architects for three generations had understood that this archway was a giant clue that revealed stones, magic, and the foundation of dimensional magic. They’d solved two of the five missing spots and realized some materials were actually quantum-entangled between dimensions.
For all they knew, the other three stones were somewhere…else.
At other times, Ilekrome loved the challenge, wondering what great revelation would be uncovered in time. Now, though, he pressed his hands against the archway—it was unbreakable, so he had no fear of moving the delicately-placed stones floating next to each other.
“Planners, Tricksters! Paeth is in grave danger! Can you…can you help us? Please?”
He begged the box, as if expecting the unseen architects had put in an emergency ‘pull here to open everything’ lever.
Alas—even the Gnomes were not that kind. Ilekrome knew this because they were that kind—and had been.
Last Boxes in other cities had been opened during moments of terrible crises. When Fraerling blood spilled upon them, secret compartments had opened—when death magic had reached a peak, Fraerlings had looked in and found the first plans for weapons to guard themselves.
Signim, Adamantium armor, high-level spells…Fraerlings had obviously copied the ways to open the boxes and discovered weapons to keep themselves safe.
However, Paeth was a First Founding descendant. The city that had housed this Last Box had been destroyed before. Twice, in fact.
They cannot solve everything. Ilekrome rested his head against one of the glowing stones. It was down to Fraerlings. Small versus tall, armed with the wisdom of Gnomes.
The Tallfolk might come, but they would bleed every step. Ilekrome closed his eyes as Paeth went to war. If he believed in miracles, he might hope for something here—or from Ekrn.
However…help was not coming from the Forgotten Wing. Jungle Tails was on the march. If there were any last haven, it would come from the friendly Giant.
Jungle Tails marched across the trade-roads, closing in on the Forgotten Wing’s headquarters. Not just closing in on Elvallian—they made their presence known in other cities, strategic points where companies like Fezimet’s declared for them, effectively painting the map in their colors.
They also moved closer to places they wanted. Armies of Lizardfolk that independent or smaller companies could fight, negotiate with, or assimilate into.
It was not unopposed, of course. The Forgotten Wing Company was spread out across its holdings—it had diverted most of its armies to keep all it could, in fact. A Great Company of Baleros was not going to take this lying down.
Unfortunately, the only three forces who could definitively wade in and stop Jungle Tails from re-emerging didn’t really want to.
The Iron Vanguard, Maelstrom’s Howling, and Eyes of Baleros had increased their presence on their borders heavily, a warning to the Lizardfolk company. But they were watching and perhaps hoping the Forgotten Wing Company took a blow. After all…if two Gemstone Crawlers fought, you got to pick up the pieces, eh? Both Forgotten Wing and Jungle Tails might well be most nervous of what happened after one or the other came out on top and borders restabilized. Because three Great Companies might be waiting to tap them on the shoulder for Round 2.
So there wasn’t as much blood as forces moving, retreating, and seeing where the other was going. It was—ironically—less bloody than any of the other continents.
At least in most places. The Titan’s academy was going to have unwelcome guests very, very soon, and that would not end without a lot of death.
The roads were still scary as Lizardfolk stopped every traveler and caravan—sometimes just to check their cargo and ask a few questions before letting them on, or detain their enemies. Mostly just to make a statement. Jungle Tails was back, and you’d better start answering to them.
That made their enemies’ lives a lot harder. Like, say, a badly burned Drake who was fleeing after nearly being incinerated in a forest and fighting his way out of the Featherfolk Brigade’s forces. Kissilt was almost positive he was dead if Jungle Tails found him.
He would not believe even a Lizardfolk company was so incompetent as to not realize he was Niers’ student and the one who had led a successful guerrilla operation. He was dead if they got him, and yet he had to go for help.
They didn’t have the forces to save Paeth. Kissilt needed to borrow, beg, or outright steal any forces who could be spared to delay the attack on the city. It wasn’t just that he wanted more artifacts to compliment the Ring of [Invisible Fireball] he’d been given—which had saved his life twice already by blowing enemy groups to bits.
This was personal. They’d nearly burned him to death. Him! A Drake! And…he had to admit, in his scaly heart, that the Drake was on the Fraerlings’ side. They had a grand city, even if Cotm refused to let him know where it was, and like a good son of a Walled City, Kissilt would happily kill any bastards who wanted to tear down the walls.
So, he was on the move to the port-trade city of Moxy. Yes, ‘Moxy’. Lizardfolk liked the word, so they named an entire city after it—mainly because it took a huge pounding whenever the waves decided it was time to hurl forty-foot-tall ones. Not exactly fun for a trading port? Well then, you’d never seen how fast you could enter and exit with the tide. [Merchants] hated or loved it, and they had these wonderful checkpoints with gates that allowed ships to float upwards to the upper port and city proper.
Not bad for a Lizard city, in short. And it wasn’t Jungle Tails; it might have been Lizardfolk run, but it was neutral and in fact had a Centaur for a [Governor].
And the largest group of Drakes you could find on this damn continent. If Kissilt wanted to hire mercenaries and an actual army of anywhere over a thousand—it was there.
Still, he had to go in person. Marian had risked the trip by hoof; she was going to nearby Centaurs for help, and Umina and Cameral had also thought they could get by on disguises.
However, Kissilt was a Drake. So getting to Moxy was tough. Interestingly, though…for all the presence on the roads? Jungle Tails throwing their tails around?
They didn’t have much control over the water at all. Even if they did—the Drake was pretty certain his transporter could outrun most threats.
“I don’t know where we’re going. I’ve never been down the Whitewash Channel. Do you mean Whitewater Channel?”
The dark-skinned Human stopped paddling, and Kissilt stopped holding onto his back. The Drake [Strategist] relaxed his death-grip hug on Luan and was glad the [Rower] didn’t mention it.
Kissilt had sailed through storms to get to Baleros and seen a Sea Serpent attack that was less scary than how Luan rowed. Seeing it on the scrying orb? Looked sort of fun, right?
Luan skipping his scull-thing over the water into the air made Kissilt want to vomit. Then he realized how low to the water and light the craft was—and how even a large wave could capsize them. Then they’d run into sharks.
Luan had jumped the sharks and carried them across the coastline. Then he’d run into piranhas that leapt out of the water. Kissilt had punched one. Then they’d run into Reefeyes.
The Courier’s scull was one of the fastest, most agile vehicles on water in the world, and Kissilt had suspicions about where the Human had gotten it. Especially because Cotm had suggested Kissilt take a sea-journey to Moxy.
However, the Drake had been too busy screaming to interrogate Luan, and he was so relieved to enter safe waters again that he didn’t bring it up. Luan’s vessel might be fast—but it was also the most dangerous thing to pilot, being so small. Compare that to a warship, which might be slow, but was safe. Or the Iron Vanguard’s Krakenbane Destroyers.
“It’s Whitewash. You’ve never seen the channel? Seriously? I suppose if you never sailed up here…we’re about midway through Baleros. It’s famous. One of the trade ports.”
Luan nodded. He’d slowed his mad paddling—or rowing or whatever, he was picky about names—but he still cut up the channel at an amazing pace. Kissilt wasn’t sure he could run as fast as Luan was going, and this was the slowest the Courier had gone all day.
“You know, I’m grateful about this—speedy delivery and all, but you don’t need to get me to Moxy by tonight to earn a tip.”
The Drake hollered at Luan, and the man turned his head slightly. He checked the mirrors; he was rowing backwards, another reason why Kissilt was so nervous. The Drake could have sat across from him if it were a two-person scull, but Luan had a kind of passenger seat that was little more than a hole right behind him.
Right now, the young man glared at Kissilt. His skin stood out with sweat and salt, but he kept going in those full-body sweeps of the oars. Even Zeresian [Oarsmen] would be impressed, Kissilt felt.
“I’m not planning…on wasting time. If you can get your mercenaries—I’ll take you back tonight. Otherwise, I’ll pick you up…when you ask. I’ll head to Onous’ port next.”
Kissilt nearly fell out of his seat.
“That’s nearly sixty miles north of Moxy! That’s a Dullahan city!”
“Cameral told me I could pass on a message.”
“You’re doing all this in how long? A day? Two?”
“We have no time.”
Luan looked back from his task, and Kissilt saw his eyes. They were…focused. And that both answered the [Strategist]’s question and shut him up. Kissilt leaned back and checked the belt strapping him in.
“You’re the Courier. Alright, up Whitewash Channel. Not far; Moxy’s actually inland. It’s too bad; if it were the right tide, water would sweep down the entire channel, through all of Baleros. You’d be able to sit back. It’s not Igawiz’s Jet, but it’s something. Ah—here, see? Whitewash.”
Luan looked up, and the oars stopped dipping into the water for a second. His breath caught, and Kissilt saw a look of wonder over the man’s face.
“Oh my gosh.”
As exclamations went, it sucked, but the expression said it all. Kissilt smiled as they passed into a huge, huge channel thousands of feet across flanked by stone and sometimes vast bridges. The walls on each side were sometimes reinforced—but mostly?
“Chalk deposits or something. Hence the color of the water. Er—don’t drink any. It’s seawater and chalk, but it looks nice, doesn’t it?”
When the waters picked up, it was more turbid than white, brown and dirty, but right now the pale blue-green waters of the coastline—pretty in their own way, especially if you ran into one of those lovely beaches—had turned pale white. Like another world.
“This…this is a channel? How long does it go?”
“Eh, across all of Baleros, I think. Not a straight line; they worked on it over thousands of years. This is just the first carving.”
Luan turned to Kissilt. He nearly said something, then muttered.
“The Panama Canal—”
The Courier shook his head. He seemed familiar with the grand waterway, though.
“This must let trade cross through the continent. But this w—it’s not round—that is, why do you need a channel through Baleros?”
Kissilt raised his brows. For such an athletic man—he wasn’t too bright.
“To…get to the other side? Seriously, it’s one of the easiest ways to get from east to west, and Baleros is huge. You do realize that Baleros is the only continent that has such easy travel? You can’t even get from First Landing to Zeres without months of travel. And then you have to get through the High Passes…or you sail around the entire damn continent. Mind you, I hear there’s some kind of weird door around Liscor—that’s a city right in the middle. But this? This was foresight.”
Luan looked across the vast canal, which did indeed have vast ships slowly moving up against the current like they were, or more speedily coming down the canal. Whitewash Channel was at the mercy of the tides such that the water would reverse directions over the course of the day, and as Kissilt mentioned, sometimes accelerate a ship to amazing speed.
“Who dug this out? It must have taken lifetimes, and so much effort…”
“Dug it out? What, you think some kind of…[Shoveller], [Digger] did this? It was mostly magic. Legend has it someone cast a Tier 8 spell and blew a line straight through Baleros. Oh—by the way, keep to the far left. There’s rules of sea traffic, and I don’t really want to see if those [Captains] can stop their boats.”
Luan nodded and began rowing again. His scull skipped up the inlet so fast that Kissilt nearly grabbed him again, but relaxed—mostly because they were being watched.
“Hey, it’s Luan the Courier! I saw you on the scrying orb!”
Someone recognized Luan from one of the huge bridges over the channel. Luan and Kissilt looked up, but the excited person was long gone. However, some boats also going upriver noticed the fast craft and its two passengers.
“Ahoy! Is that a Courier? Want a drink? Bound for Moxy?”
A friendly Drowned Woman was shouting from what looked like a simple schooner, two sails blowing her upriver. She invited them aboard as Luan caught up and passed. He was concentrating and so let Kissilt answer.
“On delivery! Can’t stop! Kissilt of Manus! [Strategist]! And Luan!”
“Hey, someone burn you or something? At least stop for a minute!”
The seafaring craft was at odds with a Lizardman on a trading barge, who was jovially moving upriver as cursing rowers did all the real work. Luan didn’t slow, and Kissilt waved a claw.
“On delivery! Sorry—”
“Hey! Are you trying to get killed?”
Luan sped up, slashing across a startled Dullahan’s prow. She almost turned her boat into the walls of the channel, but he was moving so fast there was no fear of him getting hurt.
Kissilt began to regret telling Luan to take the far side of the lane where smaller vessels were. He was so fast he surprised the owners of each vessel as he zig-zagged around them. It was like one of those old stories—a Waisrabbit zooming around Bastion Turtles as they meandered upriver.
However, it certainly put them at the center of attention, and that didn’t hurt Luan’s reputation or Kissilt’s ego one bit. The Drake got recognized a few times, which made him smile, but the Courier was the one people knew.
“Hey! I’ve got a delivery for you! I’ll pay in gold and in advance!”
“I’m booked for the month! Apologies!”
Luan shot that one back, and a disappointed Human shrugged. Another laughed as she climbed to the head of her vessel.
“At least let us buy you a drink in Moxy!”
The mood was so jovial and this channel so fun that Kissilt could forget that Paeth and the jungle were burning. You couldn’t even see the smoke, they were so far. Yet Luan’s face was set.
What Kissilt didn’t know, of course, was that Luan wasn’t about to forget Paeth. Not only did he know the city, having been there before—but Noa was stowed away in her hiding spot. She’d only gotten to peek now and then with the stupid Drake about, but Resk had given her a Seeing Stone to anchor so she could see the famous channel and wonder. She was Luan’s bodyguard and companion on his trip.
…No, really. It wasn’t a joke. Luan had given Daly his enchanted crossbow because the United Nations company was on Paeth’s side. He’d taken Noa because she was armed well enough to make any would-be [Bandits] who caught him have a really bad time, if they could even manage it.
Did this matter? Luan’s arms ached from rowing for the last six hours, nevermind his Skills. An [Expert Rower] and [Athlete] on top of his status as one of the fastest scullers in the world meant he was sparing on stamina potions, but he knew this was no sprint or race.
This was a marathon. Paeth was going to be found, but he had days…at least a day or two. Maybe more. The city would not necessarily fall overnight.
In that time, he had to find everyone he could. He had told the others he was going to do deliveries, and they’d agreed that was his forte, but would it help?
“If I have to, I will row a hundred [Soldiers] back here myself. Ken, get in contact with other cities. Named-Adventurers if we can somehow hire them, but anyone, anyone Cotm’s [Strategists] can find in a hundred miles—I’ll row them here.”
Madness. A Courier—no, an Olympian’s boast. Noa herself had been amazed when he made it, but he really was…arrogant? Confident? Or maybe his ego just matched his accomplishments. Luan would circle Baleros, if he had to, to find one more person to fight.
However…she saw his expression of concentration as he accelerated again in a clear patch. Kissilt swore and held onto the scull, rocking it slightly with nerves. Luan was the best sculler in the world, but he looked pained.
Because that was all he could do.
They were almost at Moxy when the Courier had to slow for the first and only time in seven hours. And it wasn’t because he wanted to—it was just that the sheer congestion of ships waiting to enter the port city made it clear something was going on.
Plus—Luan slowed between two smaller vessels, took a peek out, and realized that one did not simply shoot out in front of warships.
They were exiting Moxy with the tide running from the water locks as the port city towered above them. It was actually very high up, and you’d rise through a water lock up to the city proper—to protect it from monsoons and tidal waves.
They’d stopped traffic, though, because of how many ships were coming up. It wasn’t a traffic jam, just an inconvenience, but Luan heard only grumbling—mainly because it was a fleet of ships armed for war.
Armed and armored. Luan eyed the enchanted runes on the ships. One had metal scales, like it was armored in scale-mail, each one with glowing sigils of magic. He couldn’t guess how expensive it was, but Kissilt leaned over and whistled.
“Ancestors! That thing could duel one of Zeres’ biggest warships! What’s going on here? Why’s a Drathian Border Fleet stopped at Moxy?”
Some of the captains on the ships heard him and looked down. They recognized the Drake and Luan, and after introductions, one leaned over. She was a Garuda with a huge hat—ironically, one that looked like it was accented with reptile skin, rather than with a feather.
“You bound for Moxy too? It’ll be only twenty minutes or so. They should have been gone already, but their lead ship is anchored. Some kind of problem? Bastards won’t even tell us what’s going on. No one knows. It’s a Drathian Border Fleet, alright. The Iron Vanguard was keeping pace with them all the way up the coast, but they stopped at Moxy for provision—and to hire [Mercenaries].”
“[Mercenaries]? In a Border Fleet?”
Luan looked from the [Captain] to Kissilt. He raised a hand.
“What’s a Border Fleet?”
Both Kissilt and the [Captain] had the knowing look of seafolk willing to tell the landlubbers what was what.
“It’s only one of Drath’s peacekeeping fleets. I say peacekeeping—only because they have actual armadas they’ll send out too. But this one will trade, fight—Border Fleet, get it? They’ll go from the edges of The Last Tide to Baleros or even the House of Minos, Chandrar, Terandria, and rarely, Izril.”
Drath was farthest from Izril, being closest to Rhir and Baleros. The Drathian Archipelago was one Luan had heard about—but never seen. And by the looks of it…he peered out and narrowed his eyes.
He recognized those ships. Oh, not any of the particulars. Not the magic plating, or the beautiful vessels, some hulls fashioned of dark wood with bright red railings, painted without a single sign of flaking, but he recognized the design.
Most ships like the schooner he’d passed were western designs. But the ribbed sails on these vessels? That reminded him of sailing vessels from China, or, where he’d once visited, Hong Kong. Not that these were junks—a kind of vessel—no indeed.
These were warships from a fantasy version, a powerful nation, and Luan saw a snarling—but distinctly non-Western—tiger staring at him from one of the prows.
Although…it would be wrong to say it was one country Drath was based on. Ken had thought it was Japan—especially because some Dullahans had known Japanese. However…Luan heard voices from the Border Fleet, and as they carried over the conversations around him, he realized they weren’t all Japanese.
Luan was a self-described weeaboo, a word that made Aiko wince every time he used it on himself. He was a fan of Japanese culture…specifically manga, anime, what was analogous to comics and so on for Americans, he supposed.
He knew a little bit of Japanese, often from television, so usually very stylized. However, you got an ear for it, and he knew the alphabet. So Luan knew what he was hearing was…not all Japanese. There were just some things that didn’t occur in the Japanese language. The ‘L’ and ‘V’ sounds were not in the alphabet, so native Japanese speakers sometimes had problems saying ‘V’ sounds in English.
The more you knew. Luan, as someone from South Africa, who’d traveled because of his profession, had picked up a smattering. He couldn’t see the [Sailors] well…but he definitely thought they were speaking some other language as well as what might be Japanese now and then.
Interesting? Most definitely. This encounter began to take up more significance in Luan’s head—especially because he saw this Border Fleet was enough to make even a Great Company sweat.
The Whitewash Channel was large enough to let even The Pride of the Wellfar sail down it; one of the warships was so vast Luan saw hundreds of [Soldiers] marching down the decks or standing at the railings. A woman in robes was stalking ahead with slips of paper floating in front of her. She was speaking to someone with a bushy…tail?
“Who’s that? That’s not a Gnoll. Nor a Beastkin.”
Kissilt frowned at the person Luan was pointing at.
“Must be a peculiarity of Drath. That’s…one of their biggest warships. Are they answering some kind of insult? They could sack Moxy with how many ships they sent! I’m amazed the city let them in.”
The Garuda [Captain] nodded.
“Apparently they’re heading north. But like I said—that big warship? It was heading up, no problem, and stopped dead for the last twenty minutes.”
Indeed, the rest of the Border Fleet was edging around it—or stopping to confer. There was definitely agitation on board, but the soldiers and high deck were screening what was going on from view. Perhaps that was why they were there.
Luan eyed lamellar armor and the distinctly dangerous striped bows. Drath used different fighting styles than Baleros—to judge by the odd weapons which were more common.
He spotted katanas, glaives—but most noticeably, a number of staff users and barehanded experts. What was the most notable though?
The…young men and women were sitting or standing with giant, outrageously large weapons made of what looked like crystal. Or glass.
A master smith like Pelt could have identified them as Dragonblood crystal or similar weapons. They were magical and sometimes longer than the wielder.
Luan Khumalo had mixed feelings as he stared at a distinctly…foxy leader conferring with a Drathian magic user. He didn’t want to put words on it, but the weapons of the strange fighters standing apart from the regular warriors? The amazing vessels, the magic that even Noa was slightly impressed by?
This is the most anime thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Or possibly xianxia. And I can’t even investigate.
…Or could he? The rest of the captains at sea were friendly, and some had even invited Luan to dock his scull and just socialize the rest of the way over. True, it was a Border Fleet, but Kissilt made it sound like half trading fleet, half security force. They even fished! Not all the ships were purely for war; some had clear cargo bays, and they were peaceful enough for Moxy to let them in.
And they were a big damn fleet. Luan had…about six gold coins plus whatever Kissilt was going to pay him, because they’d spent it all on Paeth’s supplies.
But he did have Noa and Fraerling magic. Even Drath might be interested? Besides—he was a Courier.
So Luan began to row forwards, and Kissilt squeaked.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to see if I can get a word. Or do you not see a giant mercenary fleet in front of us?”
The Drake opened and closed his mouth a few times.
“Yes, but—they’re Drath! Do you know how distant they are? They don’t let people visit—you think the House of Minos has closed ports? Watch it. Even if you’re a Courier and I’m a [Strategist]—hey, they’re unpredictable! Hey! Hey!”
The shouting, as well as Luan’s scull, attracted attention. Everyone behind Luan ducked as down the entire warship’s side, bows went up. Someone shouted something distinctly cautious in a foreign language, and Luan saw a slat on the side of the warship open.
He and Kissilt stared up into the glowing barrel of a very magical device. Luan almost smiled. Almost.
Yep. They definitely have different weapons.
It looked so much like something modeled after a cannon he was almost relieved to see something that fit his sense of danger. Then again—he respected pointy arrows too.
Kissilt certainly froze and raised his hands.
“I’m a representative of Manus! A [Strategist]! We’re not here to—back the boat up, Luan. Back it up now.”
Someone shouted down at Luan in clearly-accented English. Kissilt waved his claws as a sentry or someone heard a shout.
“He’s a Courier! Don’t shoot! Hey! You hear us?”
The [Captains] were calling out worriedly. Someone, a man in armor with a glaive who was commanding this side of the vessel, grimaced. He lifted a hand.
“Peaceful voyages on the Whitewash Channel! This Drathian Fleet brooks no trespass by will of the Emperor of Drath! Begone!”
He said that, and it was a pretty good warning and eloquent statement. And yet…Luan’s instincts buzzed because he was fairly certain this [Sentry Commander] or whatever his class was…
Had no idea what he was saying.
Or rather, he had a look that Kissilt and the others weren’t used to, and that was of someone who didn’t get all the words he’d been told to speak. In short…someone who spoke another language.
It was nearly impossible for Luan or any of the non-English speaking Earthers to find someone who had a different language. Frustrating—confusing—and nonsensical because Earth had such a variety. Yet Drath was the only place that actually made sense to Luan; of course it had another language and there was a language barrier.
But all the Balerosians and seafarers, including Kissilt, just kept shouting as if the Drathian man were an idiot. Because all of them spoke one language.
Luan, on the other hand? He waved at the man who was scowling down.
“Leave. Lea-ve. No trading!”
The [Soldier] was a military officer who could probably fight [Pirates] to the death, but he had the slight desperation of someone who was using all of his limited vocabulary to try and get a point across to some foreign idiots.
Luan knew how he felt. Because he’d visited Hong Kong, loved Japanese culture, and so on, he raised a hand.
“Excuse me—may we speak to a translator? Good morning to you! Ohayo gozaimasu! Ni hao? Er…annyeonghaseyo!”
He tried three kinds of greetings, each in a different language, Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean. Ironically, Luan was pretty sure he messed up the Japanese greeting the most because he just said ‘good morning’ rather than ‘hello’.
However, the reaction it provoked among the soldiers and the officer was dramatic. Almost all of them did a double-take, and a short murmur broke out.
Dead gods, this idiot isn’t so stupid! He actually knows there’s things like other languages!
That was what the officer’s face said. He hesitated—then rattled off a reply in what sounded like…Korean? It was clearly not a response in Japanese. He saw Luan’s blank look.
Then he tried again, and Luan lost him. Desperately, Luan raised his hands.
“I don’t speak…do not speak…nihongo ga chotto hanasemasu? I. Speak. Little bit—of that! Talk?”
There was a reason why Luan was a fan of Japan. Indeed—his pronunciation and fluency were on a level that would make Aiko cry. If Aiko were here…
Even so, he had willingness, and the words made enough sense to the officer. Even Luan’s reduced English and his hand-gestures helped.
Kissilt didn’t get it.
“Why are you speaking to him like an imbecile?‘
The Drake hissed. Luan rolled his eyes. He was reducing the language and hoping the officer got the words without the annoyance of complete sentences. There was a way to talk to people if you had a language barrier.
The officer’s eyes widened. But—he looked at the others.
He said something else, but Luan caught that. The other soldiers turned to each other.
“Something something nihongo? Something nihongo…”
Then they got really excited and began waving over more people. Luan’s heart sank, and he thought he was in trouble. Because he knew enough to understand one thing.
Nihongo, 日本語, was one of the most basic words you’d ever learn. It was ‘nihon’ for Japan, plus go, for language, meaning…well, Japanese, the language.
And it was very clear that the officer had gotten that Luan spoke it. But he was very interested in the word Japanese. Because that…that was not what Drathians called their own language.
Someone wearing robes strode down the deck. Luan’s skipping heart, the confused Kissilt, and Noa finally got some clarity. All at once, a…semi-translucent bubble appeared from a glowing hand and some object the woman was holding.
A stone with writing? Then—as the bubble passed over Kissilt, who nearly went off the boat trying to avoid it, and Luan, his ears popped, and the babble of words from the soldiers and officers suddenly became English.
“—saying ‘Japanese’ to us. He appears to be a Courier, and that Drake invoked the Walled City of Manus. His Excellency should not be bothered at this crucial moment, but…”
The officer broke off as the [Mage] who’d cast the [Translation Field] called down. Luan heard her actual words, in another language, before the louder English overrode them in her voice.
“You there, Human! What do you…want?”
He stood up on his scull slightly.
“I am Luan Khumalo, a Courier! I beg your forgiveness—I was trying to communicate, but I don’t know much of—Drathian!”
“Intriguing. Someone knows any?”
She flicked her gaze up and down him. Now that Luan saw her, he saw the [Mage] had pale white robes with an odd pattern of cut cloth. Red on the sleeves—and he thought this was the same person with a tail. A bushy one—only she looked almost completely Human.
Except for maybe the eyes and the way she called him Human. She moved with a strange grace, and now that Luan saw more people coming to the railings, he saw a definite change in their appearance.
They might be Humans—mostly—but some of them had flawless skin or looked too handsome or beautiful. Others didn’t sweat despite wearing heavy armor under the sun. Kissilt took one look at someone and muttered.
“Oh, right. Drathians and their tonics and pills. Damn [Cultivators].”
The woman heard that and narrowed her eyes, but spoke to Luan.
“What do you want, Courier? We respect your kind, but Drath is not expecting any deliveries, and our Border Fleet is on a mission of urgency.”
“I…was hoping to hire your vessel, if I could. Or some force? Or just speak—”
Some laughter started and went silent as the woman gave Luan a highly amused look. She turned, covered her mouth to whisper something, and called back.
“I do not believe…his Walled City could hire this vessel, Courier. Nor are our blades for sale.”
She nodded at Kissilt, and he opened his mouth, nearly falling out of the boat as Luan rocked it deliberately. However, the strange woman hesitated. She eyed Luan’s scull.
“Then again, you have very powerful artifacts, Courier. And…other surprises.”
She stared for a second, and Luan felt a chill. She was glancing straight at Noa. But she made it look like she was staring at the tattoo on Luan’s arm. Kissilt instantly went to look, and Luan gently pushed him into the water.
Amid the spluttering, Luan looked up. The amused Drathian was smiling, but there was a tenseness in her features.
“Can I hire any of you? Or can I at least ask why you’ve stopped? Is something…wrong?”
Something was clearly wrong. The woman glanced over her shoulder, and Luan saw the group of strange weapon-holders stirring.
Young men and women. Carrying giant swords, axes, and weapons larger than they were. They were apart from the soldiers and perhaps—superior?
Or just apart. They were all rising to their feet as someone staggered across the deck. The woman turned.
“You cannot come aboard. We are bound away from Baleros. Now. Something is…what is he doing? Stop him! Stop—”
She turned, and suddenly every [Soldier] was turning to something on-deck. The translation spell cut off, and Luan saw a giant, furry tail explode into view as the woman turned, suddenly—abruptly—worried.
Kissilt, swearing and climbing back on board the scull, nearly went into the water again as he saw that. However, all the soldiers were pointing now—and might have run forwards but for the discipline of their officers.
The [Mage] certainly ran, and Luan paddled back to see. What was going on?
Something was happening on the decks, and the [Captains] on the ships had a better view. One called down to Luan.
“What did you say to them? One of their crazies is…going more crazy! See?”
He was pointing to the people with giant weapons. They were all surrounding someone on deck. One of their own? The [Admiral] or whoever was in charge of the entire Border Fleet was surrounding them with an entourage the [Mage] joined—the high command of the Border Fleet.
Luan saw it all without needing explanations, which was just as well, because the babble of voices was incomprehensible even without a language barrier. They were shouting in alarm.
“Who are they?”
The Garuda [Captain] was flapping up for a view. She pointed at the Border Fleet and the strange weapon-holders, who, Luan noticed, were present on all the Drathian ships, including the main one. They were all staring. And all…known.
“Those? I’ve never seen so many. They’re the Drathian’s insane hunters. You know, like the Hunter’s Guild of Terandria? They don’t have adventurers like we do—but that lot goes with Border Fleets. Something…bad might be coming from the west. We should check in port. Though if they’re going it’s safe, eh?”
She laughed nervously, and Kissilt himself was alarmed. Luan felt the hair on his arms rising. All of the strange people wore very expensive looking armor, and they had been looking unfocused, not paying attention to Luan or the other vessels.
Now—they were alarmed.
“Exactly what are they?”
Kissilt was the one who answered. The Garuda had seen the figure everyone was surrounding, and she was circling higher for a better view. It was one of the older ones—but they didn’t tend to get that old. Mainly because of their occupation and class.
“Those, Luan, are the kind of Drathians no one stops on their business. Not even Rhir. If they’re about—something bad is coming. You know Border Fleets patrol the waters around The Last Tide? Those are the ones who kill…whatever comes back from the edge of the world.”
A chill ran all the water down Luan’s body. Kissilt eyed them.
“I’ve heard a few classes for them. [Doomkillers]. [Edgeworld Hunters]. [Abyssal Slayers]. Drathian suicide corps. See those weapons? You don’t hunt normal-sized foes with them.”
The only reason you needed a ten-foot-long blade…was if something a lot bigger needed cutting. Luan Khumalo saw the strange guard of the Drath and recognized the look.
Veterans like Gold-rank adventurers who had seen something that needed killing. Scary fighters who didn’t kill you because there was no point. Unshakable horror-killers who lurked around the edge of the world with the strangest civilization of the Drath Archipelago.
All that was a fine encounter. A memorable little stop on Luan’s journey to help Paeth on the Coast. Except for one thing.
“What’s that one doing, then? The old one? Looks like their leader?”
All the watchers had gone silent. Uncertainty filled the air—and a kind of terrible trepidation. Someone made a sound—Kissilt’s eyes went round, and Luan…Luan didn’t know what he was seeing at first.
His eyes weren’t good enough. It was the Garuda Captain who answered, her voice hoarse. She stared at the oldest [Abyssal Slayer] as the Drathian warship broke into the loudest shouting yet, and then terrible, terrible silence.
“He’s…clawing out his eyes.”
No one said a word. The entire warship was deathly still—then their [Admiral] turned. He stared across at the watchers—and gave an order.
A bloody-faced person was surrounded by his people, who hauled him below-decks. The warship began to move up the channel westwards, so fast that it surprised everyone. Luan rowed forwards and looked up at the decks.
They were shouting something, a few of the people on the railings, as the Border Fleet sped off. He kept pace with them as the [Mage] strode down the deck. There was blood on her white robes.
“Courier! We must go to investigate—cannot answer you! What did…‘Japanese’…? What do you…?”
The [Translation] spell was failing, and the wake the warship was leaving was threatening to capsize the scull. The woman gave up and just began shouting in her native tongue. Kissilt shook his head.
“I need to file a report. That’s…that’s really concerning.”
Even his bravado was gone. Luan just cupped his hands to his ears. Kissilt looked at him.
“I don’t suppose you know what she’s saying?”
Luan…did not. He wished Ken and Aiko were here, because the woman was clearly speaking in their native tongue. She—like Luan—knew how to speak to non-native speakers, so she was shouting only a few words.
He recognized one because it was so easy.
“She’s saying…abunai. Abunai.”
“What’s that mean?”
Luan looked at Kissilt, then began rowing towards Moxy without another word. They wouldn’t find aid from Drath. He answered Kissilt as he wondered what it meant. What was…coming.
“It means—‘danger’. Watch out.”
After so long of waiting, after so much—when Jungle Tails struck, they came fast. Perorn Fleethoof walked into Foliana’s quarters and found the Squirrel Woman sitting on her tree-home, nibbling on…
It was the strangest meal Perorn had ever seen Foliana eat. The Squirrel Woman was nibbling on the giant acorn, her teeth wearing down the tough, tough exterior, then she’d slap the acorn on the branch to exploit the cracks and get at the insides. She ate three nuts and then turned to Perorn.
“Mm. I feel stupid.”
“Why are you eating acorns? Didn’t you hear? Jungle Tails—”
“Is attacking. Yes. Mm. I was checking.”
“Checking what? Do some of Jungle Tails eat giant acorns as a favorite food?”
Foliana could, of course, use the favorite foods of her enemies against them, literally seeing through their eyes. However—she just shook her head.
“Nope. Just checking to see if I could live in the wild. Can’t. Acorns are stupid. I don’t see why anyone would bother with the effort.”
An army was coming down the road, and somehow…Perorn exhaled.
“I’m preparing to lead our mobile units on harassing missions. I’m afraid we might not get to Paeth or other Fraerlings—I’ve sent our forces, but we are going to be encircled. They’ll have to march through the wild to get there—but this is it. I hope you’re ready?”
Foliana hopped down and stood next to Perorn. She was shorter than the Centauress; few could ever be as tall as a Centaur, but she patted Perorn on the back as if she were a horse.
“Yes, I am. It’s time. Niers is gone, so they come for us. It’s time. Get me a scrying orb.”
“To see something?‘
Foliana looked at Perorn, and the [Rogue]’s gaze was clear as she sighed. Foliana adjusted her belt, and Perorn saw she’d put on some armor.
Three-Color Stalker’s armor. Foliana shook her head.
“Nope. So I can give…a speech. Then it’s time for war.”
Foliana’s war. Perorn wasn’t sure what proved this was a crisis more. The armor of Three-Color Stalker, a dusty, black hide of a monster that Foliana refused to name, that had lived in the Labyrinth of Souls, the last great dungeon that she and Niers had conquered with their famous team, which let her fade against the world like a shadow and protected all but her head—
Or the speech.
The sight of Three-Color Stalker on the scrying orbs was surprising to everyone. Especially her company’s commanders and officers.
She didn’t give speeches.
Foliana infamously gave one speech ever, and that was during the fundraiser. Niers Astoragon sometimes addressed the entire company or spread recordings around, but this?
This meant it was bad. Jungle Tails had reappeared, and this speech was being circulated on news channels—but it went through the Forgotten Wing Company first.
A speech. They all had their orders, but all the officers felt this might be…a bad move. Foliana was no speaker, and the average soldier, when told by the supreme leader of their company that all was well and ‘do not panic’—tended to do the opposite.
Although it was classic Foliana. The image of her reflected her giant eye, blinking at them at first, then she drew back and peered as curiously at them as her audience saw her. She blinked a few times, and someone murmured.
“Commander, you’re live.”
“Oh. I am? Do I begin now? Mm. Okay.”
A bit of whispering in the background. Foliana faced the camera, and Three-Color Stalker began to speak in a level, carrying voice. She looked past the viewers, into the middle distance, and her voice was composed and solemn.
“Mm. Two decades ago, the King of Destruction launched an invasion from Chandrar. He sent his armies sailing to each continent in the world, conquering, claiming lands and overthrowing kingdoms. He sought to conquer the world.”
Everyone heard the familiar…very familiar words. Jaws dropped. Behind the Squirrel Woman, a Centauress covered her face.
“His Seven were legendary. Each one could defeat an army, and his great [Strategist], the Gambler of Fates, Queravia, he sent to Baleros. Here. He sent his other vassals across the seas, to Izril, establishing footholds, battling his foes. But the world was turned against him, and the seas themselves sought to stop—wait a second. This is the wrong speech.”
Perorn had kicked Foliana, and the [Rogue] blinked. She tapped the side of her head as the Centauress hissed at her and then turned. She stared at her audience and muttered.
“[Memorize Speech]. I forgot to memorize the new one.”
She, Three-Color Stalker, had memorized one speech for over eight years straight? And forgotten a new one? It spoke to Foliana that people were not certain if this was her being…Foliana or a serious mistake.
The [Rogue] stared blankly at the camera and stopped someone from turning it off. She hopped forwards and stood there, staring into the camera.
“Okay. New speech. I am Foliana. Comm—Supreme Muffin Commander of the Forgotten Wing Company. The Titan’s boss. He reports to me. You don’t know me. I don’t like speeches. I don’t like having to lead.”
She looked straight into the camera, unblinking now, and her voice was conversational, placid—she seldom sounded angry or upset, and she didn’t now.
“We’re under attack. Mm. By Jungle Tails. You know it, I know it. Little rats know it. They laid a trap. Niers is on Izril. So it’s just us. And I’m not a [Strategist]. They’re coming to the capital with a big army. Really big.”
As motivational speeches went—this was shaping up to be one for the history books. However, Foliana wasn’t done. She looked ahead, up and past the camera, and then nodded a few times.
“I wanted to talk to you because you need to understand. Understand this: you have orders. Go follow them. I don’t know what they are. I don’t know who you are or where you are, but Perorn probably does. If you’re in my company, listen to me: Jungle Tails is a stupid name.”
Not one sound. She just said it, deadpan, and narrowed her eyes slightly. That brilliant, three-color gaze looked right into the camera, the only beautiful, unique thing on her plain face, grey fur, and nondescript armor.
“They have a stupid-sounding name. Yes, they played us. Yes, they have an army. But they are not a Great Company. We beat them like a cluster of bananas being kicked around by Hydras. Now they’re back, and you know what? Mm. They’re not impressive.”
She turned her head and took a sip of water from a cup someone offered her off-screen. Foliana went on conversationally.
“They hid and waited for our highest-level [Strategist] to leave. Why? Because they can’t match him. Jungle Tails hid and had to scheme because they don’t have high-level people. Not like me. Not like Niers. Right now, they’re trying to win footholds. Other Great Companies are standing by, and lesser companies like everyone else are backing away and watching what they do because they’re inferior. Mm, but you know what? Their plan only works if they get enough land.”
She shook her head slightly.
“If they prove they’re now the next Great Company, everyone believes them. But guess what? They don’t have that. They want to kill me, take Elvallian, and make everyone believe they’re back. But they won’t. And when Niers returns, when the dust settles or something—they will have nothing if we hold onto what we earned. So. That’s my order.”
She stood back and stared into the camera for a good ten seconds. Then someone prompted her, and Foliana spoke.
“Hold the line. From the largest to the smallest member of the Forgotten Wing Company—every person who’s pledged to us. Give them not one inch of my ground. Not one mine. Not one city or village or latrine. Hold the line. Follow orders, but don’t rush to Elvallian. They’re coming here, and we’ll stop them or abandon the city. It doesn’t matter. Stop them where you are. We are the Great Company of Baleros, the Forgotten Wing Company. Not Jungle Tails.”
Foliana stood there another moment, looking straight into her audience’s eyes. Then she nodded and turned.
The image winked out before she finished turning. And that…that was a fairly decent speech. Even the Titan, watching his oldest comrade from afar, could admit that.
For Foliana, at least.
The Forgotten Wing Company took up arms. It was more than one academy, obviously. More than Perorn Fleethoof or Three-Color Stalker. They were the ones in the capital, bracing for the siege.
Yet to the rest of their lands across Baleros, Perorn had sent every force that they could muster. Some met Jungle Tails in the field. Others faced the Iron Vanguard or Maelstrom’s Howling, daring the Great Companies to take advantage of the moment and make war.
“General Diomedes has abandoned the border with the Eyes of Baleros and is taking to the front! Make way!”
One of the Forgotten Wing’s most rarely-seen Generals was stationed on their border with the vast, deep heart of Baleros where the Eyes of Baleros, the Gazer-led company, existed. Thanks to his presence, the Gazers respected the border.
The Jungle Tails army had a high complement of Nagas of the Medusa and Gorgon persuasion—perhaps because they too existed near the Eyes of Baleros and picked up on the eye-based attacks.
Medusae, slithering forwards with their gazes of stone, Gorgons likewise. They could paralyze foes by themselves. With Skills and en-masse? They could almost turn entire detachments of soldiers to stone with their eyes alone, like the legends!
Well, at least lock them down and petrify the epidermis. Their confidence lasted as they marched towards the smaller garrison of the Forgotten Wing company occupying a city along the jungle, right until they saw the half-Elves with bows, sturdy walls…but mostly Diomedes himself.
Medusa and Gorgons slowly looked…up…as a figure parted the tops of the tree canopies, pushing aside branches. Birds flew screaming into the sky as a calm figure strode out of the wild heart of Baleros.
Of course—he had armor. Niers Astoragon had hired thirty-two [Smiths] to work on it. Armor for the General. He bore a single weapon; a greataxe, the edge so long it could cleave a Gorgon apart lengthwise and have room for more.
What scared the Nagas was the stare. A single eye set in a face. No—the eye was most of the face. One vast eye as the Cyclops waited. The General stopped…and leaned on his weapon. For the first times in their lives, the Gorgons and Medusae found themselves locked in a staring contest they had no confidence in.
Diomedes had outstared Gazers. One vast pupil on his face contracted to a point as the pure, sandstone iris glowed faintly. He waited.
A line in the sand.
As Luan rowed for Moxy, Kenjiro Murata sought an audience first with the Medusa Yuise, then the leader of the Sandskim Company. Daly and Paige met Quallet Marshhand.
That was the first day. The burgeoning blazes being fed by the Featherfolk Brigade suddenly came under threat as a squall blew in from the coast. Heavy rains.
In response, Fezimet hired his own [Mages] and forced his Lamias to counter the weather spells. It was difficult; the spells were practically impossible to ‘cut’, or so his [Mages] claimed. But by sheer, overwhelming magical potential they forced the rains to abate.
Luan dropped Kissilt off at Moxy. The city was buzzing with talk about the Drathian fleet, not least because they had hired [Mercenaries]—everyone they could. Drath didn’t need [Mercenaries].
There were enough, Kissilt assured Luan, good Drakes and so on to justify their visit. Luan rowed on, heading north. Noa’s lodestone bracelet reported Sentry Leader Ekrn and Guidance Heish would not be coming back to Paeth.
Every bird, creature, and possible Fraerling conveyance was being shot down by members of Jungle Tails.
The next day dawned with smoke in the air of Talenqual. The protests were getting violent. Lizardfolk almost never clashed with Nagas, their leaders, but Fezimet had begun chopping down trees—so he could pile them on the blaze.
Amidst it all, his soldiers were casually watching the United Nations company headquarters. They didn’t see much. Daly and Paige mostly met with Quallet Marshhand, who was essentially loitering outside of Talenqual by a good margin. He had accepted an offer for an as-yet unknown attack contract.
Not to participate, but to consider it. He was considering…a lot of things.
So were the other company leaders that Ken met. He was thirty-eight miles north by now, and a Centaur [Tribal Chieftain], a fan of the old ways, had a ‘Centaur city’. A flat, sprawling compound that was semi-nomadic.
She was not happy about the fires either. However…
“What exactly are you asking, ah, Diplomat Ken? For us to halt the flames with words? It seems to me—you are asking us to press this fool, Fezimet. It is my experience that words only work if something else is guaranteed when they fail. And my company is not as large as his. Nor do we wish to make an enemy of Jungle Tails, you see? Even the [Druids] are using only words.”
Kenjiro bowed again, but he kept his voice strident, chin up. Centaurs didn’t respect a lack of authority. And Ken…
“I must insist someone tries. My company refuses to let the worst happen.”
“The worst. Burning down a forest is a terrible thing. My people did it, and it changed the north forever.”
The Centauress mused. She glanced at Ken’s face.
“…Still, you’re no [Druid]. You were bold enough to come here, invoking the name of The Last Light. Yes, yes. She’s in your company. For a forest? My company will cut ties with the Featherfolk Brigade. There may be some unpleasantness afterwards or even during—but why must we act now? You’d have to be more specific than that, [Diplomat].”
Her eyes were very sharp as they focused on Ken, but his face gave nothing but polite regrets away. She let him go with sympathies, and he headed onwards. But as he wrote back to Daly—he was experiencing problems rallying support.
By the second day, the Iron Vanguard withdrew from one of their fronts with the Forgotten Wing company. The Dullahans had wanted one of the most valuable mines—which produced mithril, the very same mines that had supplied most of Tulm’s armor. Their siege only lasted one day.
Xol of Ingrilt himself walked the battlefield. The War Walker, often the champion of Tulm himself, had been sent to take this mine. The Iron Vanguard only wanted one spot—and they were hardly inclined to join Jungle Tails’ assault. However, the Seer of Steel and Tulm had decided that if any one place were worth taking…
It was a mithril mine. However, it was not to be. Perorn Fleethoof had sent someone to halt the Dullahan’s takeover—and by the looks of it, stop the Jungle Tails’ advance in the entire region.
And in doing so, she lost one of their most valuable leaders in the capital.
Risky. Xol understood exactly how dangerous it was. However—it worked.
Dullahan siege weapons were designed in two varieties: against armored and unarmored foes. They had created modified catapults that hurled what was essentially grapeshot, small rocks and even nets to fight Centaurs. Nets, incidentally, were not kinder when they hit a four-legged person and tangled them, sometimes breaking all four legs.
And they had also incorporated huge, crushing rocks to fight fellow Dullahans. Xol saw one last Wingbreaker Catapult fire. A huge sledgehammer of rock rose into the air, found its target as it slowly rotated downwards, downwards…
It looked like a piece of stone about as large as a Lizardfolk hut curving through the air via a Skill. Wall-smashing weapons. It fell, and Xol saw a strange, vermillion light filling the air.
Then the quarried stone shattered in midair. Even the pieces seemed to fly away, harmlessly leaving a small dust-cloud—and a radius of debris, broken arrows, scorched earth, and melting ice for about a hundred feet.
A single Selphid stood in the Iron Vanguard’s path. A Centaur, in fact—and it was rare a Selphid had enough control to move a larger body like that by themselves.
But this one?
“Gloriam the Invincible. Cease fire. Their aura will take anything you can loose.”
Shamefaced Dullahans in charge of their siege weapons stepped back. Xol lifted his shield as he saw the Selphid looking his way. He struck it once and raised his blade up. A salute.
Behind the Selphid, the keep’s walls stood, not a scratch on them. So long as they were there—no one was going to scratch them. Same for the army.
Gloriam the Selphid, one of the most famous Selphids in existence. Gloriam wasn’t their original name, of course. They’d changed it to sound better.
Indeed, there was a lot that even the Iron Vanguard and Tulm didn’t know about one of the Forgotten Wing’s champions. If Xol could have shrunk down to a microcosm and squeezed into the dead Centaur’s body, he might have seen and heard something shocking.
For instance…the fact that there were two Selphids in the Centaur’s body. But Gloriam could move a Centaur by themself! They were famously large for a Selphid—not that most non-Selphids had any reference or could tell.
…Or had been. The interior conversation between Gloriam and the second Selphid was private. They could communicate, of course, but they didn’t…touch. Gloriam’s ‘voice’ was a thought in your mind.
“Xol of Ingrilt will face me, if any other. Keep us standing here.”
They were reassuring the second, nervous Selphid. He was a helper. And Level 21. What was notable here—was that he was maneuvering a few things. The legs, even arms and torso of Gloriam’s ‘body’ were under his control. Even most of the nervous system in the spine, in fact.
Gloriam’s true body was only around the chest and head. Enough to qualify as them piloting the body, albeit in tandem. Gloriam’s true form kept well away from their helper.
In fact, there was even a layer of gel at certain points that blocked either Selphid from touching.
“If—if we fight, Gloriam, what do I do?”
The younger Selphid was very nervous, but Gloriam reassured him.
“Just stick to our practice routines. But don’t…you’re intruding along the shoulder. Don’t touch me.”
A tendril withdrew. Gloriam the Invincible watched Tulm, keeping the Centaur’s face bland. They did not fear Xol—not any more than any other warrior. If the Iron Vanguard attacked, it would be a battle. Otherwise? Jungle Tails.
The Selphid had no fear of a War Walker or Naga. Spells, stones, arrows, and steel held little danger for the Selphid, even if they ejected themselves from their body and just lay there. However…they were still dying.
Piece by piece. So much so they’d lost over a third of their original mass, and that included memory and thought because Selphids had no central brain.
It was the Wasting, and only the necessity of keeping up appearances had convinced Gloriam to let another Selphid pilot the body. The Minds had once requested Gloriam join them—until they learned of the Wasting. Now? Gloriam waited.
They say a cure for the Wasting is being developed. But they’ve said that for a long, long time.
Until then, the Invincible stood there, daring the Iron Vanguard to attack. Xol of Ingrilt stared at the Selphid—then received orders from Tulm.
The Iron Vanguard withdrew immediately, and Gloriam turned to pivot against Jungle Tails and push back their forces in the region. The Selphid assumed Tulm had done the math and hadn’t liked the odds of Xol being injured or just the cost of victory.
However, the same applied for Gloriam; they had no idea what Xol knew and heard. The War Walker checked Tulm’s missive himself.
Tulm to Xol. Abandon the assault immediately and report to the port city of Vaunth at all speed. You are to board and join me at once.
At sea? The War Walker was on the march as soon as he read that. Something was afoot. More than the two companies fighting? He’d heard one of the Krackenbane Destroyers had been deployed. The Iron Vanguard had two. In the old days—they had been a match for The Pride of the Wellfar and similar ships.
Low, metal fortresses that could sink beneath the waves. Nothing like a ship at all; more like a tiny, floating island that moved using currents and gravity magic. Yet, as far as Xol knew, they were terrible at catching Couriers, and Niers coming via sea was the only threat he could name—if the Iron Vanguard even wanted to do more than catch him.
Was there something else out there at the moment? The Archmage of Chandrar? He hoped not. Lightning magic scared him.
Luan Khumalo had rowed—rowed over a hundred and thirty miles in three days. Not in open sea, either. Along the coast, up rivers—and he had secured a total of eight.
Eight people. That was to say, eight people directly, physically at Talenqual. He pulled into the harbor, and someone hopped out of the scull.
“Your speed, Courier. Impressive. Please. Accept this.”
The Dullahan bowed and offered Luan a bag of coins. Luan shook his head. He saw Lizardfolk eying him and nearly growled. He’d have to drag the scull to somewhere safe; they’d steal it in a heartbeat or take it for a joyride.
“I…I appreciate all you’re doing. No need for a tip. Cameral has paid it all.”
The Dullahan hesitated and proffered the bag a second time.
“It would be discourteous not to.”
So Luan took the small pouch of silver and gold and bowed. The Dullahan inclined her head, holding it between her hands—then strode off to meet Cameral.
The Featherfolk Brigade was watching them both. However, they weren’t certain of Luan, and Cameral’s rally point was outside of the city.
Luan had to lean on his scull for a second before he got out. His arms and legs hurt so badly that even a healing potion only began to heal it.
Moreover, he didn’t think a [Battlefield Master]—[Battlefield Mistress]? He didn’t know if the classes differentiated—would care. Clarell was one member of a Dullahan company marching by land to Talenqual.
But it would take a week for them to get here if the trade roads cleared. Cameral had demanded a high-level specialist, and Luan had carried one.
Eight. Not one under Level 30, but only eight. He’d get back to rowing…but Luan carried the dripping scull out of the water as Noa anxiously kept an eye out.
He needed to rest. The Fraerling spoke into Luan’s tiny earpiece.
“There’s so much smoke. I didn’t see Paeth burning—but the fires—”
The fires had begun to advance. The burning of the forest around Paeth was no longer a hypothetical. Strong winds were fanning the blaze forwards, and while strange things kept happening—fires going out, sudden showers—it was like tossing tiny buckets of water on a house fire.
Paeth’s magic was fighting back, but it could only extinguish one section of the fires. Hindering the Tallfolk.
Even so—Luan passed by one of the Featherfolk Brigade’s barracks and saw someone had tossed yellow paint all over the walls. [Soldiers] were watching a jeering crowd of young Lizardfolk, ready to bolt at any moment. It looked like there had been more than just protests.
Someone nodded to Luan as he came up the United Nation’s street. Luan did a double-take as he saw a Lizardgirl with a peg-leg.
“Quexa? What are you doing here?”
She and a squad of Gravetender’s Fist were casually loitering around. A patrol of Talenqual’s Watch passed by, giving them vaguely uneasy looks, but Gravetender’s Fist was not an enemy. If anything—Fezimet was courting them. The Lizardgirl grinned at Luan.
“Just playing a bit of guard-duty. You looking for your company? Quallet’s been talking with them all day. Ken just got back!”
“Do you need to be on guard-duty?”
Luan felt that this was a bad sign, but Quexa just waved it off.
“Actually—Gravetender’s Fist is filling in a bit for the Featherfolk Brigade. Quallet’s mulling over this big contract, but Fezimet needs someone to fill in for all the [Soldiers] he’s pulled to burn the forest. Bad stuff. We’re here because the [Druids] attacked.”
Again, the Lizardgirl reassured Luan all was well. Much to his disappointment, actually.
“It wasn’t much. Not the Sea Shepherds—they’d have been scary. Some wild ones. A few hundred took shots at the walls and started conjuring some nasty spells. Swarms of insects. Some real ones. Yuck.”
She shuddered. The plague of attacking insects had lasted all of three hours while the [Druids] harassed the Featherfolk Brigade in short battles—then withdrew. Quallet had the unenviable task of making sure they didn’t return.
Luan wished the Sea Shepherds had sailed into port, but it seemed they were unwilling to—or the Iron Vanguard’s defensive positioning around Baleros to stymie the Titan’s return was getting in their way.
It was all connected. Luan just hated that the connections failed to help Paeth.
Quexa bid farewell to Luan and saw him drag the scull towards the United Nations’ buildings. A Lizardfolk under her command poked her head around Quexa.
“That’s Luan the Rower?”
“Yep. Told you we’d see him. I knew him when he was just some [Soldier] and we were a suppression company. Disappointed?”
The other Lizardgirl gave Quexa a big shake of the head. She and Quexa both watched Luan’s back. He was shirtless and still covered in sweat.
“Look at those back muscles! Skin is so cool. And weird. You don’t see that with scales. See how they keep moving?”
Quexa swatted at the other Lizardgirl.
“Get back on duty!”
Luan paid no notice to the conversation behind him. Luan, Luan’s back muscles, and Noa all entered the United Nations headquarters just in time to see a fight.
For once—it wasn’t who you expected.
Daly and Ken were arguing fiercely in the center of a small crowd, and it was exceptionally rare to see Ken red-faced. Daly was pale, but Ken was holding his ground.
“I am sorry if you are upset, Daly.”
“Upset? This is a disaster! You should have asked—”
“I couldn’t! Couldn’t—not—I made a choice. It had to be done or no one would help us!”
Ken was so upset he was having trouble expressing himself in English—both turned as Luan put down his scull.
“What’s going on?”
Ken and Daly looked at each other, then began to hustle Luan into the back. Right up until Dawson barred their way.
“Hold on. You lot can’t drag Luan to the back. What’s going on? Ken came back, told you we get some Dullahans to agree to oppose the Featherfolk Brigade, and you started going off on him, Daly. Are we really all joining, uh…what’s that weird organization from home?”
“Sea Shepherds? The other ones, I mean?”
Dawson snapped his fingers.
“No—PETA. What’s going on, you two? Why do we care about a forest so damn much? Why not just leave with Quallet? Geneva’s not here, and we can rebuild. It’s better than staying here while everything burns down.”
Luan, Ken, and Daly exchanged glances. Kirana looked out from tending to bug-bites, and Luan glanced at Daly.
“Time to tell them?”
Daly was still white-faced. He eyed Ken and then shrugged at Luan.
Noa murmured urgently to Luan.
“Wait! Paeth is—”
Daly glanced at Luan’s belt pouch and spoke, still eying Ken.
“It’s not like people don’t know. Guess what Ken just did? He told the other companies about Paeth.”
Dawson looked from Luan to Ken, confused, and the Courier turned to Ken. The [Diplomat] looked around levelly.
Kenjiro Murata had won an audience with the Commander of the Grasgil Blockade. Sure enough—they had metal from the far north that kept everything cold indoors and made up some of their arms and weapons.
A fairly powerful company, and another one that saw Fezimet as going too far. But since they didn’t share any actual borders with Talenqual, the burning was only bad in a broader sense for them. If anything, the Dullahans might privately think that if a Lizardfolk company wanted to ruin their future—all the better.
Then again, the Dullahans might not like watching part of their continent burn. Either way though—they had refused to see Ken.
Yellow Rivers vaccine or not, he himself was not permissible. If they sent Geneva Scala, she might get a highly unorthodox, sudden meeting with their [Frozen Commander]. However, Dullahans were highly rigid in their structures, and Ken had known his request for a meeting—even filed three days in advance—was unlikely to get him an audience.
He had still won it, relying on his own knowledge of Dullahans’ appreciation of humility, willpower, and…dedication. They had refused to let Ken into their inner keep, of course, and so he had knelt outside in front of the gates on the paving stones all night and into the day.
Nine hours, unmoving. Ken hadn’t come up with it himself, but he had thought it could work.
If…if you had the willpower to let your body slowly start to scream in the cold as he began to shiver, and then in real danger of dehydration as he refused to drink anything that Siri or the other Bushrangers escorting him offered.
If he collapsed, Ken thought the Dullahans watching him would respect it more.
It hadn’t come to that. Nine hours on the dot, he won his audience, and it was delayed another thirty minutes. Ken needed a healing and stamina potion, and was able to wash, drink, and eat a little.
After all that, even the [Frozen Commander], who actually had Everburning Candles to keep the room warm—such was the cold of his armor—gave Ken a respectful look and offered him a blanket. Ken knew he had one chance…but the [Frozen Commander], like the Medusa and Centaur, was not willing to throw down with the Featherfolk Brigade over a forest.
“It is a terrible decision. However. Fezimet has the authority as commander to do what he wishes. To side with [Druids] would be, I believe, plainly motivated by more selfish reasons.”
Commander Vitor was still very hospitable. And sympathetic to Ken’s cause. The [Diplomat] knew this because Vitor refused to call Fezimet ‘Commander Fezimet’, a clear insult. He used ‘I’, and his invitation to formality and offering Ken refreshments and the welcome blanket all said that Ken had his attention.
Yet…Ken realized the real issue.
“There is no practical reason to oppose the Featherfolk Brigade, Commander Vitor?”
“Not for a forest. If your company could offer sufficient recompense…I will not insult you. I have already received two offers from an unpleasant Drake and Strategist Cameral for sums that might be sufficient. Even the Forgotten Wing’s famous Fleethoof has made an offer. Were it Featherfolk alone, the Grasgil Blockade would take action. Not for Jungle Tails. Perhaps a coalition of companies…but we do not know why we must combat them.”
No company leader—well, okay. Most weren’t fools. They knew Fezimet was doing this for a reason. Ken looked at the Dullahan and saw Vitor’s head, resting on a pillow, watching him. So Ken slowly bowed.
“Commander Vitor. There are many things I may not speak of as a point of extreme honor and obligation, you understand?”
“You are a [Diplomat] of great integrity, I believe. This I understand—go on.”
“Thank you. Then—I may only say that Fezimet’s burning of the jungle is a terrible thing in itself. However, what if I were to say that it was not the only terrible deed being done? I cannot speak of it. Only hypo…um…hypoth…”
Ken flushed, and Vitor nodded. His body adjusted his head and sat up a bit more, with sudden, extreme interest.
“What would those be, exactly?”
Ken thought fast. Then he did what he had promised not to do, and what would lead Daly, Siri, and everyone else to explode with worry.
“Commander Vitor. Would you be willing to…sign a treaty? I regret that I do not have the wording, but perhaps it can be written here.”
“A treaty to battle? As I have said, the Grasgil Blockade is not willing to go to battle.”
“No, I would not go that far. Perhaps—a treaty that condemns and opposes the destruction—in hypothetical—of a sovereign nation? A city of people, innocent children. A species in hiding. Commander Vitor. Would the Grasgil Blockade support a Fraerling city in jeopardy from attack? Hypothetically?”
The Dullahan stirred. He actually put his head back on his shoulders and leaned forwards.
“Hypothetically…you must tell me more.”
Ken told Vitor. Then he went back and told the Centaurs. He had returned to Talenqual on the way south with four signatures from four companies, all condemning the attack on a Fraerling city. He’d even named it.
“Paeth! You sold them out!”
“I did not.”
Ken grabbed Daly, and the [Diplomat] shouted back. It was so surprising that everyone stopped. Dawson was just staring at Noa, who was staring back. Kenjiro stormed around and spoke to everyone.
“They must know! There was no reason to do anything—but a Fraerling city is different. They are not—not all without hearts. You see?”
A company would never move to save a forest—at least, most companies. However, innocent people? Children?
Fraerlings? Ken had realized it in that moment—he turned to Luan pleadingly.
“I had to tell them. And it is better to.”
Luan was shaking, but Ken just looked past him out one of the windows to the burning air.
“Because it will never be unknown again.”
It took Luan a moment to realize what Ken meant, then Paige, carrying Resk and Kessice on her shoulders, sighed.
“Oh. Of course.”
The Featherfolk Brigade knew where Paeth was. Not just Fezimet. Not just their superiors. The officers had to know what they were searching for. The soldiers would know too—or guess. A tree with little people?
Paeth wasn’t in hiding. It was already found. And Ken…Ken was using that information rather than waiting until it was well and truly useless. Even Daly calmed down as everyone realized Ken was right.
He was, in some ways, the opposite of people like the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Knowledge was a weapon that worked only when you employed it. Nothing was secret forever and so Ken had his treaty.
“Condemnation of an attack on a Fraerling city. No pledges of defense or anything.”
“They would not agree. I…I will get more and find as much support as I can.”
Ken looked at Luan, waiting for censure, but the [Rower] just clapped Ken on the shoulders.
“Do it. I need to get back to sea.”
“You barely just got here. At least sleep or take a nap!”
Daly protested, but Luan was striding back out the door.
Jungle Tails began to engage the Forgotten Wing company in earnest after three days. And their forces reached Elvallian.
The contrast was stark. Lizardfolk armies were some of the rowdiest, most chaotic in the world. They were active, jeering, hooting at their enemies…right up until they met the Marshwalkers in battle.
Marshwalkers. One of Niers’ combat groups with a name. Ironically—they were mostly Lizardfolk.
No Nagas—just Lizardfolk. The difference between the two armies was stark, though.
Jungle Tails’ forces were a riot of sound and colors as Lizardfolk opened neck frills, cheered, chanted insults…and fell into an uneasy silence.
Mainly because their counterparts marched in ranks. They were not a gaggle of formations, but aligned themselves in order with minimal talking. They stared across the battlefield, and their opponents, fellow Lizardfolk, began to get uneasy.
The Titan had given Lizardfolk formations and discipline. Dead gods. The Marshwalkers were a three hundred thousand-strong force—split up across the entire company in the armies in which they served. Lizardfolk who fought like Drakes. And these ones were famous because they were all Lizardfolk.
They were experts at killing Nagas.
Perorn Fleethoof engaged the first of Jungle Tails’ forces in a three-minute skirmish as they came down the trade roads to Elvallian. She galloped out of a forest where it had seemed no one—let alone Centaurs—could have hidden behind the thin, young trees, and Lizardfolk and Selphids riding Centaurs loosed arrows as Centaur [Lancers] charged into a brutal melee.
Three minutes. It was so fast that by the time some of the officers heard of the battle, Perorn was racing off. She was engaging Jungle Tails with a far smaller force as Elvallian garrisoned its walls. However—Perorn Fleethoof wasn’t just the one who taught [Strategists] how to conduct hit-and-run operations. She was the textbook example. In her youth, before she had taken an injury facing Tulm the Mithril, she had outrun some Couriers.
Even now, her forces were almost as quick. Hit and away. Jungle Tails’ advance slowed as they came within reach of Elvallian’s walls.
Walled City, it was not. But Niers had still paid for the best and most deadly enchantments, and they were prepared for a battle. Aside from five trade-roads, the forest dominated the space around the former half-Elven city.
Perorn’s lightning strikes would have usually forced a far slower advance—so as to minimize casualties. However, Jungle Tails still pressed on. Faster, actually.
Mainly because…the campaign across the continent wasn’t going half as well as they wanted. Foliana’s orders and their strategy of diversifying their best forces meant that Jungle Tails’ reclamation of their holdings and stealing the Forgotten Wing’s had literally ground to a stop in some areas. The capital was weak, and if they took that, the Forgotten Wing was dealt a critical blow. Maybe even collapsed if the Three-Color Stalker and Fleethoof both died.
But fail to do that and they had very little to show for it. Jungle Tails were running into the very same forces they had expected Perorn to hold onto, which would have made a siege a long affair of starving or wearing the defenders down. Instead?
They ran into Marshwalkers, Gloriam, General Diomedes, and others of the Forgotten Wing’s finest. Including the Titan’s Chesstowers.
They were short towers. Nothing like the gigantic ones that Drevish the Architect built, sometimes just to see how tall he could make them.
Short—and oddly wide. They looked like they were made of stone, but it was actually a mix of stone, wood, and lighter materials.
But enchanted. Fireproof, mostly catapult-proof, certainly arrow-proof, and there were twenty-seven currently made. Each one was extremely expensive to build, but they had all the hallmarks of good towers.
Good towers had superior crenellations and places for happy people—in this case, Lizardfolk—to shoot arrows down at really unhappy besiegers. Murder holes, a variety of liquids and solids to toss through them, and enchantments on the walls like ‘set the entire tower aflame so that anyone climbing a ladder regrets it’.
Even anti-siege engine spells that could blow apart a siege tower. Of course, the Chesstowers, as they were named, were still vulnerable to being overwhelmed, which was why Niers never left them alone.
Oh…and one more thing?
Eight towers slowly crept over the hill as Jungle Tails’ forces realized they’d reached a fortified space.
A moving fortification. The Chesstowers slowly inched forwards. And, to the horror of the disbelieving [Soldiers] who’d never seen it before—they saw the towers rise up slightly and hundreds of feet start shuffling towards them.
Niers Astoragon, a Fraerling, was familiar with how light you could make even stone with magic. Thusly, he had an idea:
Why not make a tower that you can haul around? It meant you could redeploy them, bunch them up—and push an enemy back.
It was a strange idea he’d gotten a long time ago, when he’d run into a Hollowstone Deceiver for the first time. The concept was the same; hundreds of Lizardfolk lifted the tower from below and walked it forwards.
They also laughed at you as they did, and the ones on top jeered as their foes retreated.
Naturally, the Titan’s foes called them his Chesstowers, a name Niers adopted and even began to commission some to look like rooks, bishops, and so on. Jungle Tails milled around—right until a catapult mounted on one of the towers began hurling rocks down the now-fortified hills. The cheery Lizardfolk waved at the retreating enemy.
No getting through this way. I mean…go ahead and try. We totally don’t have an army behind us or anything.
They had an army behind them.
Take Elvallian. Take the city.
With Gloriam gone and the Chesstowers on deployment elsewhere…they could take the city! They had to take the city.
If this were a classroom example of a war, it would be here that Niers would have stopped his class and asked what mistake Jungle Tails had made. He would expect any student to understand—
The mistake they’d made was needing to win in one spot. They had lost a game of wits—not with him or Perorn—but by thinking they knew who was conducting their strategy.
Smart strategy like Perorn used, would have been to give up some holdings, retreat and solidify a core of land, and let Jungle Tails take the outlying zones and push out. But as Foliana had said—she was unpredictable. A gambler.
They walked into her trap as Jungle Tails encircled Elvallian. The commanders had a problem.
They were already under attack by Fleethoof herself. She didn’t have the forces to take to a full battle—but she could still strike and away, wearing them down, sometimes taking out valuable officers and forcing the [Generals] to stay off the front. However, Perorn wasn’t only attacking with her personal vanguard. She had dozens, maybe many hundreds of [Soldiers] who were trained to make the Jungle Tails’ advance miserable. They were hidden in the forests and struck in countless spots.
Perorn’s harassing style was equally efficient. It consisted, much like the tactics her best students like Marian adopted, of lightning-fast, Centaur-based raids.
This was how it went. At night, or at random, during a distraction, a lull, a small band would attack a patrol, camp, or any other target, galloping out of cover. A handful of Centaurs and their riders would loose a guaranteed [Homing Arrow], [Pinpoint Shot], or other Skill. Once. Then they would bravely run away while daring someone to chase and be ambushed.
One arrow. One enchanted arrow did a lot of damage. More than that, it created terror in [Soldiers], and if one small group could do it, a larger force could raid enemy lines.
Hence the Jungle Tails’ problem. Sound strategy dictated they had to encircle Elvallian and set up a perimeter in the healthy forest. It wasn’t even a jungle. So they spread out and began to encircle Elvallian, creating camps, felling trees, but mainly securing the entire area around the city.
Jungle Tails couldn’t burn the forest because they wanted the capital more or less intact—and because the Forgotten Wing Company might well fan the blaze onto any army with their [Mages]. There was no time to spend really getting one moving, either. And frankly, burning everything down was a move even most [Strategists] considered extreme. Paeth, this was not.
They entered the forest and ran into traps set by Three-Color Stalker herself.
Thus began Foliana’s war.
The first traps that the [Scouts] ran into were clear signs that Three-Color Stalker had been preparing for this day. Naturally—that scared the hell out of anyone who knew her reputation.
Three-Color Stalker, one of the greatest [Rogues] living…had set a trap.
Did you want to try to defuse it? Go ahead. We’ll just stand…over here.
Thusly, some very unhappy [Trackers], [Scouts], [Rogues], and other anti-trap specialists were given the task of covering ground and removing the traps for the regular [Soldiers]. However, what these experts feared was what they didn’t exactly say.
“…We’re going to miss traps. She’s a Level—what, Level 60 [Rogue]? Higher? We can’t find these traps. This is madness.”
A Centaur [Trapfinder] was hissing at the others. A Lamia with multiple sensor stones kept flinching every time someone stepped on a branch.
“Shut up. We’ll level up! Do you know how many levels you’d get for countering a trap?”
“Sure. And how many of us will get to sleep and level up by nightfall?”
“Shutupshutupshutup—don’t jinx us!”
A group of [Soldiers] was waiting in a clearing about five hundred feet back, waiting for the scouts to find a trap—or explode. Either way, you knew where the trap was.
This slow advance was made more pants-wetting because they were still ten miles out from Elvallian. Yet traps had been discovered this far out. This particular group found one of Foliana’s first traps and realized—they were still Three-Color Stalker-style traps.
The Centaur grabbed a Lizardwoman who almost climbed a tree in terror.
“Don’t do that! I nearly—oh, Nagas. Is that the trap?”
All of the scouts stopped and stared at the…trap. They could identify it as a trap. Yep. Definitely.
Mostly because the glowing rune literally etched onto the forest floor was bright red…and had a bag of gold on top of it. Gold coins spilling from the top as it sat on the cherry red rune.
Oh—and there was something else. A wooden sign. It had big letters on it, visible from a distance. It read:
This is a trap by me. Foliana. Do not approach.
“She’s messing with us.”
The scouts realized this was a clear provocation of their abilities. It still worked.
“You defuse it.”
“No, you. You have [Perfect Attempt: Remove Trap].”
“Yes, attempt. You do it!”
“I can only remove Level 15 traps or lower for free! You have four hooves!”
“So, maybe the trap only blows off two of them. There’s more of you lengthwise—and if you die, maybe your body blocks some of the blowback.”
After some arguing, the Centaur was ordered forwards. Shaking like a leaf, he trotted closer to the rune and began countermeasures as the other [Scouts] took cover behind the trees.
Traps came in many forms: mechanical, magical, alchemical…this one looked like it was a trigger spell. So you figured out how to break or dispel the magic while not activating it. The Centaur had some powder he could apply to a weak spot in the rune.
…The problem was, he couldn’t find it. Twenty minutes later, the commander of the soldiers demanded he hurry up. The Centaur closed his eyes, prayed he’d found the right spot—and tried to neutralize the gold coins, which he thought would deactivate the rune’s magical binding without activating it.
The powder struck the coins—which vanished, since they were illusory—touched the rune, and the Centaur screamed.
Everyone dove for cover as he reared up. He realized the rune was designed to go off no matter what—if you defused it, you set it off!
However, the horrible scream or explosion never came. The Centaur, galloping away, looked back as the glowing red rune fizzled out. He stared at what was left…
A single copper coin, lying there. One of the Lamias poked her head out of cover.
“That…that damn Squirrel! Was this here just to waste our time?”
Shaky laughter broke out. Wait a second. Why would Foliana waste all her tricks on the outer layer of traps? An illusion spell had just held up an entire advancing force for twenty minutes! And the Centaur was clearly unharmed. Everyone checked for invisible gas, hexes, delayed poison, needles, and found nothing, and they could cover a wide spot.
“Well, what do you know? I guess Three-Color Stalker isn’t p—”
Everyone dove. When the Centaur finally raised his head, he heard something pattering down around him. It was…dirt. When he raised his head, he knew the trap had activated.
It had just taken a while for the signal to bounce down to the clearing and three other spots where soldiers might camp and trigger the hidden [Fireball] spells there. When the [Scouts] returned to the spot where the Jungle Tails forces had been, they found only a giant crater.
That was the kind of trap Three-Color Stalker set. The kind that terrified everyone, from the [Scouts] who realized they’d been spared because they couldn’t find her traps to the [Soldiers] who weren’t safe even with the trapfinders in front.
Some of Foliana’s traps were mundane and just—killed you. Trees that exploded with alchemical gel, pit traps that only activated when ten or more people were standing on them.
Others? Others were just—inventive.
One group of [Jungle Riders] learned that the hard way. They were returning from trying to catch Perorn’s ambushers and riding back to camp when someone began screaming.
“Enemy attack! Enemy attack! Kill them!”
Instantly, the camp came alive with panic. The Lizardfolk took one look at the riders coming their way and thought they might be fakes! They began loosing arrows and attacked their comrades in a blind frenzy.
Afterwards, they only realized their mistake when they found it was their own people they’d killed. But who…had been shouting the alarm? Someone—no, a number of people had cried out the attack!
In fact…the voices were sort of familiar. And they kept screaming as the [Soldiers] found eight speaking stones buried around their camp.
They were programmed to go off only when someone moved above a certain speed. Then—Venaz, Marian, Umina, and a number of other students’ voices would begin screaming that the enemy was attacking and they were imposters! The recordings ended with them laughing about it and greeting whomever had gotten got.
No one in Jungle Tails was laughing. Their progress, already abysmal, slowed even further as Foliana’s traps passed through hundreds of deaths in the first day into over a thousand.
Then Foliana appeared herself.
Three-Color Stalker nibbled at something before she hopped over the wall and into the forest. She was always invisible, but right now she wore the armor that had given her that name. She made no sound as she hopped over leaves, and she slid through the world towards Jungle Tails’ forces.
She faded…into…the shadows.
Foliana had known it would come to this. Even if Niers were here—it was always her role to play.
[Rogue]. He led armies—she killed people in the dark. Jungle Tails would not break because of a great battle won—they would break because they didn’t want to die.
Terror in the ranks. She nibbled as she bounded from tree to tree, eyes scanning ahead. She knew, roughly, where the enemy was. She had the ability to sense where her traps activated, so she knew their progress.
Keeping hidden was easy too—at least when it came to low-level [Soldiers]. There would be experts ready to face her. However…she outlevelled them all.
And she had tricks.
One of them, everyone knew. Everyone who knew Three-Color Stalker and would one day run up against her knew that secret about why she ate some foods like muffins or oysters to the exclusion of all. It was her calling card. She ate the food of her targets to get into their heads.
Not just psychologically. Foliana could literally see through their eyes. Naturally, everyone then tried to be clever about it. They would advertise their favorite food, which turned out to be a lie, or extremely improbable, like Salamander Peppers. Or, if they were being really ‘clever’, they’d list the favorite food of some enemy.
So smart. So clever. Everyone did that. Foliana rolled her eyes as she nibbled on her snack. They thought they knew her Skill…but the truth was, its utility was far more than finding one mark or seeing through an enemy [Spy]’s eyes.
She was eating a stick of pale, white super-sugarcane. A Nali-stick. It was sugar incarnate, and Foliana’s tongue went a bit numb from eating it.
However, she didn’t know who—but there was always someone, especially in Balerosian armies, who loved Nali-sticks. As she approached a camp, Foliana began to taste color.
Synesthesia. She found a perspective—slipped into it.
Yawning, the Lizardgirl ambled out of her tent where everyone was playing magic cards. She looked around, bladder overfull, and began trotting to the latrines. She had a terrible sore on her foot, but she was afraid to ask the Nagas about healing it. They were on-edge after all the traps, and no one wanted to be in the forest, but they had to be there. This was Jungle Tails’ time!
She was going to probably get promoted once they survived this. If…the Lizardgirl hurried to the latrine and began smelling it. She put a claw over her nose-holes. She wished she had the private quarters. Still, she found a spot, squatted down—
—And that was quite enough of that. Foliana had put herself in worse perspectives, and she would have lingered, but she didn’t need to.
She had just seen the entire interior of the enemy camp, gotten a good look at their patrols and sentries—and learned the commanding officers had a separate latrine.
So Foliana headed straight for the camp. She eyed the sentries, and her eyes of three colors…began to see.
Three-Color Stalker was not just a name. It was her class. It was…almost perfectly her class. Except for one part that she’d learned in that Named-rank dungeon, in order to fight down there.
Her eyes were a gift, three parts of magic. Foliana saw three layers of the world when she chose to.
The first of what Foliana saw was…intention. It wasn’t true mind-reading, like Selphids could do, but more like seeing what you were about to do. Like—were you about to turn your head? She saw that. Was something itching? She noticed it.
It could allow you, if you were used to it, to notice someone favoring their left side or about to pull a dagger. It also let her see who was going where—a limited foresight that could be tricked by the unexpected.
But very helpful in picking a route.
The second layer made the world simply…glow. Different shades of cold and hot. Heat-vision was not the most impressive sight, but Foliana employed it now; it was still useful, especially because Lizardfolk and Nagas had different temperatures, like Drakes and Humans and so on. She marked a few Nagas in the distance.
Finally? Her eyes saw a Level 13 [Watcher] on-guard on her left, and two [Soldiers], Level 18 and 14 respectively, on a patrol.
[Watcher] was an interesting class. That was definitely to guard against ambushes and so on, so she slipped towards the [Soldiers]. She could see levels and classes—only an artifact or Skill could guard against her.
Foliana hopped into the Jungle Tails’ camp. Twenty minutes later, she hopped out and rubbed her blades in the dirt.
Then she moved on. She was alert, wary—but their leader had been a Level 31 Naga [Commander]. Nothing special.
Level 30 was not special when she had over twice that many levels. That was the truth of it. Foliana was sure some of them were brave or smart, and everyone had a talent.
She was just Three-Color Stalker. She visited three camps before the alarms began to sound, and people found the dead Nagas and high-level [Soldiers] with their throats cut, or in one case, lying in the bottom of the officer’s latrine.
Foliana was privately a bit miffed by everyone calling her Three-Color Stalker, which was synonymous with assassins. True…it was her class. But she had started out as a [Rogue], and that was how she thought of herself.
She was a true rogue. Not a mere assassin or thief…she had variance in her abilities and filled a role between the two. Traps and tricks.
But she had to admit—she’d gotten good at assassinations.
Moreover? Her kills were meant to terrify. Again—it wasn’t a numbers game. She could literally stab an entire camp to death. But she wanted to break their morale, and which was scarier? Hearing an entire camp was wiped out or waking up to find someone sleeping next to you had been killed and you’d never noticed?
And that was basic. Foliana was even more famous than other [Assassins] of guilds and organizations around the world because she was…inventive.
For instance, one slightly drunk Gorgon slithered out of his tent the first morning of her attacks and freaked out when he realized someone had covered him with liquid in his sleep! He shot out of his tent, screaming.
“Three-Color Stalker’s poisoned me!”
In front of his entire camp, he tore at the doodled muffin on his chest-scales. What had she done? Planted speaking stones, trap spells on him? His commanders surrounded him.
“Check your bag of holding! What’s that liquid?”
It wasn’t poison? If so, the Gorgon would have died when he slept, surely. It didn’t…smell that bad, so that ruled out humiliation. The Gorgon found an unfamiliar pair of objects in the bag of holding and tore them out. He tossed them down, and everyone dove for cover, but it was not an explosive alchemical potion or hostile spell.
It was an artifact, though. A small object, wrapped around a note. One of the braver Lizardfolk picked it up as the Gorgon began to make a faint sound. The Lizardperson read the note, looked up, and then screamed in horror.
Shouldn’t have removed the Resist Acid Charm.
The Gorgon, covered in acid, began to smoke and melt even as [Mages] and those surrounding him tried to wash it off with water spells.
Desertion began to become a factor after the first day of Three-Color Stalker’s raids. She went, mostly, after high-level targets, but there was a finite number of those, and the rank-and-file, faced with raids, traps, and an unkillable specter, began to revolt.
Hunter-killer teams were dispatched to find and slay Three-Color Stalker. She began leaving their heads outside of Jungle Tails’ camps in the mornings.
Five days was all it took for the Featherfolk Brigade to find Paeth. They abandoned burning the forest and closed in on a region of trees around the infested river by the coast. Then, they began felling the trees one-by-one.
No burning—fires vanished the instant they tried to light them. And the Lizardfolk didn’t know where Paeth was.
Not exactly. Their [Mages] only knew it was nearby; the magical signature was difficult to get a hold on. It was then, and only then, that the Fraerlings began to appear in person.
Tiny Tallguard swung out of the trees, firing crossbows. Mithril wire cut anyone walking into it at head-height. The Featherfolk Brigade found themselves fighting nigh-invisible foes with advanced magic.
…But the Fraerlings died if you caught them. One blow, even stepping on them—and they died.
Daly Sullivan heard Kessice reporting the fighting and made his choice. Luan, some of the Bushrangers, and Ken were absent from the United Nations company, but he gathered everyone else into one meeting.
“Folks. You know by now what’s going on. A Fraerling city is in danger of getting wiped out. Those bastards—Fezimet, Jungle Tails, his company—are about to commit an act of genocide. Wipe out an entire city to the last. They already destroyed one city.”
Everyone looked at Daly as he gave a short speech. The Australian felt…cold. His limbs felt devoid of temperature, but his chest, his head, and heart felt overly hot.
Dawson looked at Daly, and Paige answered for him.
“Fraerling tech. They’re more advanced than any civilization in the world. And they’re not willing to surrender it.”
“What if they just gave some…?”
Someone began, and Daly snapped back.
“Not a question. Another city—Oierdressql—got razed by Tallfolk. Us. I don’t know how many died…”
“Hundreds of thousands.”
Paige murmured, and everyone fell silent. Daly nodded.
“They wouldn’t trust us and I wouldn’t either. Listen, that’s what’s happening. Luan, Ken, all of the company’s leaders decided we’d help Paeth keep hidden if we could. Since that’s out of the question—it’s time to make a choice. Ken’s trying to lean on the Featherfolk Brigade, and Quallet Marshhand is here. Maybe he’ll help end the fighting, but the Featherfolk Brigade are a huge company. And…”
And we don’t know where Quallet’ll go. He was sympathetic. When he heard the rumor about Fraerlings getting wiped out, he had what was a normal reaction.
That wasn’t right. That wasn’t good. Of course—that was wrong. A mythical Fraerling city of innocents being killed and looted? It was bad—
But were you willing to die for a people you’d never met? That was the rub. Ken had a treaty of names that was growing in length condemning what Fezimet was doing, but the only groups who were harrying the Featherfolk Brigade were the [Strategists], and they didn’t have the numbers to do more than harass.
Even the United Nations company wasn’t doing more than supplying Paeth. And yet…
Daly had had a talk with Umina. The Lizardfolk [Strategist] had claimed she had one last card to play. Paeth was still fighting to keep itself from being found. When it was?
She, Marian, Cameral, and Kissilt would attack them from the rear. Hopefully it would do something, but all told, they had mustered just over one thousand and two hundred fighters. More would arrive in a week or less, but they were outnumbered about forty-to-one.
Not all of that forty was here, though. The Featherfolk Brigade was spread out. Still—they had eighteen thousand soldiers in the forest.
Eighteen. Thousand. Quallet had half that. Fezimet had drawn from Talenqual’s garrisons to march on Paeth.
Daly had the Bushrangers, a few adventurer groups…and his fellow Earthers here. He took a breath.
“It’s not right. I know the Fraerlings aren’t our people, but they helped save Luan when he washed up on shore. They have done nothing wrong except that the Titan’s a Fraerling. So that’s why I’m saying that if Paeth comes under attack…it’s my intention to take the Bushrangers and join the [Strategists]. Get Quallet’s company and anyone who’s willing to fight—and draw a line in the sand.”
At first, they didn’t get it. After a second, Dawson coughed.
“Daly. You’re talking about challenging the Featherfolk Brigade?”
Daly saw disbelieving looks. He clarified.
“We don’t attack them. But Ken’ll have his declaration, and…it’s the line in the sand. If they attack Paeth proper—it’s a battle.”
Blake looked at Daly, and the Australian man nodded.
“Yep. Unless we figure out some kind of pivotal strategy—and I’m hoping the [Strategists] do. But—hell, maybe there’s a chance. I’m telling you all this because you’ve got a day, maybe as much as a week, but I doubt it. You have to decide whether you want to stay, fighting or not, or leave.”
Luan had given Daly the crossbow the Fraerlings had made. It was a Gold-rank—maybe a Named-Adventurer’s weapon. The Bushrangers had Resk’s enchanted gear. They could punch at a Gold-rank level, maybe, with positioning and tactics.
“You’re mad. This is crazy!”
It was Lorenzo who spoke. He’d had to have some of what was happening translated, but the Italian was clear about the numbers.
“You will die, Daly. There are too many [Soldiers]. You don’t have guns, only that.”
He pointed at the crossbows. Paige silently looked at Daly, and he folded his arms.
“A bit more than that, Lorenzo. We’ve also got bombs.”
Everyone fell silent—the Bushrangers knew, of course, then half of the company was asking how and why. However, Daly only wanted to know one thing.
Were they staying or leaving?
Most of the Earthers weren’t fighters. Ken and Luan weren’t. They were sympathetic to the Fraerlings. If it were a question of hiding them, of trying to help evacuate them, Daly thought…he hoped every single Earther would have agreed to risk it.
This? This was a war, and they had all seen enough to know what it meant.
“Geneva would never do this.”
It was Aiko who was one of the most vocally against Daly’s stand. The Bushranger’s Captain looked at Aiko, the [Nurse], and shook his head.
“I think Geneva’d be right here, Aiko. Just not in favor of us fighting.”
“You must be bloody mad. Geneva’s been against bloodshed from—”
Daly cut whomever had spoken off.
“Geneva Scala is a brave woman! She’s a pacifist. That doesn’t mean she’s a coward. I bet you that if she were here, she’d walk in front of Fezimet and his entire damn company and make them kill her before they laid a finger on Paeth. Well, she’s not here. And sometimes…”
He looked blankly past them all.
“Sometimes you have to figure out where it is. We left the fighting with the other companies because it was a pointless fucking battle. If it were just Fezimet running us off, I’d say let’s get out of here and try again, no matter how many times. It’s not worth dying for. But this is a city full of people that are in danger of being wiped out, and we can run…or stay. I’m staying. After this, I’m going to introduce you to some of them. Kessice, Noa, and Resk. And then I need you to think hard and fast. Because if you stay—the odds are you will get hurt or die. So anyone who wants to go, we’ll give you anything we can.”
Daly pointed at the ground.
“But I’m not leaving anymore.”
Then he went to introduce the Fraerlings to the Earthers and then meet with Umina, Marian, Cameral, and Kissilt. Daly began thinking of terrible ways to make his contribution to a battle…matter.
They had ideas too. By the end of the fifth day, the Tallguard were reporting casualties and combat with the Featherfolk Brigade ten miles outside of Paeth.
By the end of the sixth day, the Architects authorized the Crelerbane forces to take the field as the Featherfolk Brigade reached the five mile perimeter.
Foliana was growing tired of killing Jungle Tails’ forces. She kept doing it and heard from Perorn that they were deserting.
But there were so many. Day by day, more arrived, and they had already begun a siege of Elvallian. They were waiting for siege towers, but Perorn had been forced to withdraw into the city, and she’d tossed back their ladders twice.
When they took the walls, it would be a war in the streets. The academy would be last to fall.
Unless they broke and ran. Foliana grew more daring. She killed two [Generals].
The first in his sleep, though she had to clash with his bodyguard who noticed her—but couldn’t see her properly. Two blows on her armor—both stopped by the magical hide.
The second she just hit with a Wand of [Disintegration] and ran for it before using [Lesser Teleport]. Fraerlings had given her that wand.
The third [General] was the toughest yet. Foliana sensed a trap the instant she realized that someone had deployed a formal compound—walls, buildings, and everything—some Skill.
She pondered entering it. However, Foliana was getting desperate. She weighed that knowledge against the odds of her…
Entering and killing everything. Short of one of the Jungle Tails’ highest commanders, she had levels on them. And she had yet to activate all her capstone Skills.
Foliana entered the compound after knifing both guards. She prepared thoroughly.
The first thing she did was plant eight traps…at the entrances. To dissuade reinforcements. Then she activated an [Ivory Wall] spell—a higher-level [Bone Wall] spell—and entered the compound.
If it’s a trap, it’s for you, not me. No one was getting out via any entrance.
Foliana could get in through more ways than just a stupid vent or window or door. She stood at one wall, studying the inside. She spotted one of the interior guards rushing around as they noticed the wall spells—the alarm was already blaring behind her.
Level 32 [Stealthguard]. Huh. Niers would have headhunted this Gorgon. He hated being ambushed. There had to be at least three dozen people in this compound. Take them out and…
Foliana whispered her Skill. The same one she’d used to sneak up on the Fraerlings in Niers’ rooms.
“[I Stepped Through the Mundane World].”
Poetry. Why did the Skills want to make everything seem so beautiful? Maybe it just made sense to however Skills worked. An endless combination of meaning and abilities. Foliana felt nothing beautiful in it.
The [Stealthguard] noticed her phase through the world, despite her Skills. But she was fast—it wasn’t some slow transfer. Foliana leapt through, and the Gorgon whirled.
He had full-body armor over his huge, sinuous body, even covering all parts of his lower serpent-half. Tail armor…all to protect him from poisoned darts and dagger-thrusts.
A true [Stealthguard]. Foliana had one move, and it was to take the poisoned daggers that were enchanted with [Evercut] and [Blood Drain] and stab one at the Gorgon’s throat. He’d choke on his own blood or bleed out within less than a minute, and no potion he carried was likely to stop the bleeding or save him.
However, he had a gorget. A collar of metal to stop just such thrusts, and it was enchanted. The Gorgon was aiming to strike at her, trusting to the armor. But Foliana kept whispering.
“[My Blade Pierced All But Dragonhide].”
The knife rammed through metal and bone and flesh, and she twisted it out and leapt away. He fell, lashing, trying to remove the gorget, shout, attack her…and she ran.
That Skill didn’t work on Dragons or anything as tough as Dragonhide. And there were a number of materials that counted, much to her displeasure. But it was a Skill for Three-Color Stalker. Anyone lower-level than her could block nothing.
One more capstone Skill. Foliana knew that she was setting off sensors; the compound’s defenders reacted to her fast. Even so…she stopped and buried another spell in the ground. Then she charged ahead, rounded a corner, and began hurling poisoned needles. Dodged back—leapt over her trap—passed through a wall.
“No explosion. Damn.”
Whomever was inside had prepared—just not for her ability to maneuver inside the compound. Foliana [Shadowleapt] to another group—and ran into a trap.
“[Shadowcatcher]! She’s here! She’s—”
Foliana activated a talisman pasted to the front of her armor, and a [Directed Fireball] went off. It still kicked her like Perorn and compressed her ribs, but she used that to roll to safety.
Stalker! She saw the guards’ terror before she stabbed them. Then Foliana lay down. She used a Skill and pretended to be one of the dead Medusae as more guards passed by her. Then she got up and followed them.
Dangerous. Dangerous…Foliana was panting after that. Her ribs hurt, so she took another sip of potion. That was close. She was getting old. There was a time she could leap six stories, do a backflip, and run a thousand paces and not feel a thing.
Ah well. She got meaner the older she got. Foliana took a Fraerling-made tool from her belt and slapped it on a wall.
“[Insanity]. Have fun.”
She thought she’d gotten half of them. Half…but the rest were rallying in a larger room. Foliana squinted, but even her magical eyes weren’t seeing their exact levels. Was that damn [General] even…oh. Wait.
The last defenders of the keep were waiting for their [General] to get here now. They knew the drill. They were specialists sent to murder Three-Color Stalker. Very…special specialists that even Dragontouched had claimed would be able to do the job.
The [General] knew how dangerous Foliana was and should have run to this spot instantly. However—sometimes you were just indisposed. There was no accounting for chance, and he just had to wipe.
Foliana’s mission was done, but she was going for broke. Everyone in their trap-compound died. She wiped her blades on the Gorgon’s cape and snuck into the final room.
“I think General Korht’s dead. I just felt his Skills deactivate.”
“Damn. This is a disaster!”
Foliana was just behind one of the doors, and she saw a few folding screens in the compound. Had they bought a Drathian deployable building and brought it for her? Or was this a Skill? Or did someone just really like the decor?
All things were very valid, but it meant she had an even easier time hiding herself. Although…
Five [Stealthguard] variants? No…Foliana had to focus to [Appraise] them.
“[Assassin]. And an [Immortal Avenger]. Uh oh.”
Level 40, both. She was about to sneak off rather than risk fighting two when something caught her eye.
Two of the people in this room had classes she’d never seen before. They were a Naga—an ordinary Naga, not any other form—and a Lizardfolk respectively. They had odd weapons too. Foliana waited a second too long; the [Avenger] spoke.
“She’s here. I sense the killer. Haste potions, now!”
They reacted fast. Foliana sighed and unveiled the rest of her traps. She had three seconds before the first [Stealthguard] trio moved around the folding screen and saw her, stealth or not.
An eternity. The room exploded as someone saw her, and a billowing smokescreen swept the room. Then a summoned Griffin appeared.
What was that sound? Foliana was in the midst of fighting. She didn’t tangle with the Stealthguard, she went for the only Level 40 foes. The Stealthguard were Level 30—and the two mysterious ones were Level 24 and Level 18.
The [Assassin] and [Avenger] found her in the smokescreen. Foliana pointed the wand at the [Avenger].
The beam hit the [Immortal Avenger], and he survived it. But he screamed, and the Quexal writhed as his Skills protected him. However—[Immortal Avenger] was still hyperbole. And the [Assassin] was left alone for six seconds as the Griffin bought Foliana a moment.
The two tangled with each other in a blur of blades. They could have dodged, but Foliana would have closed to this anyways, and so they were just a flurry of stabs, point-blank dodges, and cutting Skills.
Foliana’s armor was better than her opponent’s. She took two deep cuts, but the poison didn’t work. [Greater Resistance: Poison] was a standard [Rogue] Skill, and Foliana had a few immunities.
He leapt away, the hired Garuda cursing. Bleeding out. He realized his potions didn’t work and fled with a wail.
He might survive if she didn’t track him down. The [Assassin] just bolted down the compound, frantically trying to deal with the [Evercut] spell. Sensible.
The [Avenger] was less so. He rose, screaming, empowered by his class—and Foliana [Sticky Webbed] him. The [Disintegration] spell had destroyed some of his gear, and so the webs anchored the furious Quexal to the floor.
He still was strong enough to rise, but it stopped him for what, two seconds?
No Skills. No spells. She just stabbed him as fast as she could, head, shoulders, back—she thought she stabbed him sixty times before his Skills failed him.
The [Immortal Avenger] lay in a pool of blood. Tough. Very…very tough. And he had distracted Foliana for five seconds.
Five seconds—long enough for the [Stealthguard] to kill a Griffin? Not in what was less than twenty seconds of fighting. Not for Level 30 [Stealthguard].
Yet…Foliana never had time to drink her healing potion. She looked up and the Griffin was dead, and the last two, the Naga and Lizardfolk, turned their weapons on her. She saw their classes again.
Level 24 [Hailfire Gunner]. Level 18 [Treacherous Gunslinger].
She could even see the Skills as they activated on the Naga.
[Ammunition: Doubled Velocity]. [Homing Shots]. [Automatic Aiming].
Then the Naga holding the rifle opened fire. Foliana dodged left and felt impacts on her armor. Heavy, sharp—
What was that thing? She wasn’t an idiot. She saw the barrel swiveling towards her and connected it with the sharp cracks and assumed it was deadly. But she wasn’t prepared for the speed of the rounds that hit her armor.
They didn’t penetrate the magical hide, but they hurt. Foliana’s armor wasn’t enchanted plate; it could still transmit the force of an impact like the [Fireball]—and whatever was hitting her had way too much force behind it.
Arrows didn’t hurt nearly as much as—Foliana continued rolling, and whatever it was tracked her. It had a lot of projectiles! What is that thing? What is—
She was an adventurer. When in doubt—run or kill it. But then the Lizardwoman opened fire with a smaller version of the thing.
Strange weapons. The two called out to the [Stealthguard] to reveal and stop Foliana, but the Nagas were just as afraid of the weapons’ deadly fire as Foliana. For good reason, too; neither Lizardfolk knew how to use them.
Strange gear. Foliana deployed a [Forcewall], and it ate one round—she saw the projectiles stop, and the Naga cursed.
He pulled something out of a pouch. In fact, he had an odd vest on. Foliana had never seen that kind of cloth armor…she narrowed her eyes as she threw knives at the [Stealthguard] with shields.
Huh. It was patched on the side. With distinctly different thread. This wasn’t the Naga’s. Someone else had been wearing it.
But the two still had figured out the weapons. The [Forcewall] exploded as a single round from the Lizardfolk’s pistol blew it apart.
“[Magic-Piercing Round]! Loose, loose! [Prime Gren—”
Then the Naga squeezed the trigger and screamed.
“[Splintershot Volley]! [Ricochet Shots]!”
And everyone was hit. Foliana shielded her face with her armored hands and felt a dozen, two dozen impacts. The entire burst of gunfire was bad enough, but on full-auto it sprayed the room in truly astonishing bad marksmanship.
But those Skill made each bullet splinter as it hit a target and ricochet wildly around the room. To Foliana, it was like being hit by dozens and dozens of impacts. Her armor took it all, but it bruised her where she was lucky—cracked bones where she was not.
She had put her back to a wall and shielded her vitals. The deadly spray ricocheted upwards and tore through the [Stealthguard] and the [Gunslinger]—even the Naga screamed.
That idiot had hit himself! And to judge by his desperate fumbling, he was out of ammunition.
“O-one cartridge left. Get the other things. Kill her—”
He turned to the Lizardwoman and saw her staring, glassy-eyed, up at the ceiling. Everyone was dead. Except for Foliana.
The bleeding [Rogue] lowered her arms as the Naga muttered a Skill.
He lifted the rifle. he had lost his [Splintershot Volley], but she was across the room from him. The wild-eyed Three-Color stalker had no idea what tricks he had left. So she activated her Skill.
“[I Stabbed Everything I Saw]!”
There was no poetry or fanciness in Foliana’s Skill. Nor did she need to aim. The Naga jerked as a blur of dagger-wounds raced up his body. His weapon exploded in a rain of stabs, which was too bad, but Foliana took no chances.
She’d pick up the pieces and show Perorn later. The Skill stabbed the dead [Stealthguard], the Avenger’s body, the walls, the floor, the other dead [Gunner] just in case the Lizardwoman was playing dead…
And hit something else. She had an odd set of pants on, to match the Naga’s gear. And she had been carrying a smaller version of the weapon he had. A sidearm, looted from a dead Human who had appeared on Baleros. Among the things that the Jungle Tails company had looted, figured out how to use, and gotten classes around was an object that had killed more than a few.
Foliana’s dagger hit a grenade, and the entire cluster detonated. There was a reason she hadn’t used her Skill at the start. Sometimes you hit—
When the last surviving [Assassin] led an army back through the compound designed to kill Three-Color Stalker, they found mostly destruction. The two new weapons that no [Smith] had dared try to replicate—which had been [Repaired] and had no ammunition refills aside from Skills—were in pieces.
Everyone was dead. However, the [Assassin], tracing the carnage around the room, found a lot of blood that didn’t belong to any Lizardfolk. Quickly, he collected as much as he could. He pressed his palm into the bloodstain with some vindictive relish, then snapped at the commanding officer.
“Get me every [Hexer], curse specialist, and so on that you can. This is Three-Color Stalker’s blood. Don’t let her heal. [My Quarry Bleeds Out]. Your turn, you damn monster!”
Jungle Tails quickly spread word that their [General] had heroically—at the cost of his life—slain Three-Color Stalker. A rumor which Perorn instantly denied.
However—Foliana didn’t reappear on the battlefield. Perorn herself found Foliana collapsed against a wall, unable to heal as mages hexed her, clutching a piece of jagged metal. No potions or magic—they had to put her under a [Healer]’s treatment, bereft of Skills.
Then the siege resumed, and Perorn braced herself for the final battle. Only—without Three-Color Stalker. And the Titan?
He was still missing.
Crelerbane. Fraerlings in Adamantium armor, from head-to-toe.
They took to the field, led by Crelerguard Poire. Not all hundred; forty were now pledged to guard the evacuating citizens.
After much argument, Crelerguard Poire convinced the Architects to let her forces sortie. They had to. It was that or fight under the shadows of Paeth’s branches. And the Crelerbane forces had never been designed to defend, but attack.
They were meant to march into Creler nests and slay them. A match even for Juvenile Crelers. During the Creler wars, thousands had been sent to fight even Adult Crelers.
However, their armor did not make them invincible. The Fraerlings within were sitting in nigh-indestructible armor…but they were fragile. They were not Tallguard and could not maneuver. Signim did not work with their armor.
If they went out…they’d have to fight their way back. Even so, Poire demanded to try and slow their advance. So the Tallguard of Feiland supported their advance as fifty Fraerlings took to the field.
There they made their stand. At first, the Tallfolk barely noticed someone at ankle-height walking up to them. It was comical when they did see—a Fraerling in armor? What was the point? Then they saw a Fraerling raise an enchanted axe—and de-ankle a Lizardfolk. Then the [Soldiers] attacked.
A Lizardwoman did a run-up and kicked Poire as hard as she could. The Fraerling in her suit felt the impact—but she mostly heard the Lizardwoman break every toe. She whirled her axe, and the enchanted edge slashed the foot. Crelerbane weapons were designed to maximize a Fraerling’s reach.
“Crelerbane, give them Rhir’s hell! For Paeth and Oierdressql! Charge!”
The first few minutes, the first contact, was a relief. The Tallfolk had never conceived of Adamantium-wielding Fraerlings. They couldn’t use their arrows; the tips just shattered on the armor. Hit them? The Fraerlings were so small, and they used the Tallfolk’s fallen for cover. They advanced fast, as the enchanted armor added to their strength, and hacked at the Tallfolk from below. Eventually you’d reach their heads.
Brave Fraerlings. They were fighting Giants. Poire looked up as a Naga swung a spear, trying to jab at her. She felt the impact as the Naga tried to hold Poire down. The Fraerling just severed the tip of the spear.
If only they were truly invincible. The Crelerguard kept shouting.
“Crelerbane, you will fall back if your armor is compromised! You are not allowed to die! Tallguard—Signim free! Cover our backs!”
The Featherfolk Brigade could have retreated, though they couldn’t harm the Crelerbane forces from afar. Even a [Fireball] that gouged the earth out just revealed an angry Fraerling in armor climbing out of the pit.
So the Lizardfolk came at them. And a Fraerling could die when they dashed them against the ground, rattling them around in their armor. Or tore their weapons from their hands and ripped off an arm. Literally unscrewed the helmets and bit the heads off.
Poire saw that as a Medusa, missing a hand, screaming, killed the first Crelerbane guard. Poire charged into her side and hacked her way straight through the Medusa’s tail.
She had heard they had Tallfolk friends. She didn’t see any. She…understood.
So many Tallfolk. How had Feiland and Oierdressql fought, at the end? Thousands. Thousands of them could overwhelm even Paeth’s magic.
Enchanter Ilekrome had asked Poire if the Crelerbane armor sortie was necessary. She had looked him in the eyes and told him—
Someone lifted Poire up, and she hacked into a wrist. But they were trying to wrest her axe—! She let it go rather than lose an arm in the tug-of-war with a Lizardman.
“I’ve got one! I’ve g—”
Poire aimed a gauntlet up, and the Lizardman’s head imploded. She fell, looking for her axe. She found another weapon lodged in the ground.
“Requesting teleportation of weapons to the front.”
“We hear you, Commander Poire. Status?”
“One Crelerbane unit fallen. Count of the fallen?”
“Crelerbane! Each one of you will take down at least a hundred Tallfolk before you expire! Watch out for grabs! Advance! Call in weapon replacements! Paeth—the Tallfolk have a leader. Requesting magical support!”
What had she said to Ilekrome? Poire ran with a longsword into battle. Ah, yes.
Someone had to die. It might as well be them. At some point…someone had to bleed. Maybe the Tallfolk would give up.
She didn’t really believe that. But each second she bought here—Paeth stood a little longer. Maybe help came, maybe they evacuated more people.
Crelerbane forces had signed up to kill Crelers. They didn’t fear Tallfolk.
…But there were so many.
A hundred per Crelerbane that fell. That was five thousand. Still not close to the entire Featherfolk Brigade’s numbers. But it would do. That was the number Poire demanded of her troops.
She even included the magical support they received. One of Fezimet’s Quexals, who were also his highest-command, was pushing the Lizardfolk forwards from a safe vantage point on a cleared hill of tree stumps. He blinked as she saw a strange flash from the trees. Was th—
The laser of light fired once, straight through his forehead. Poire shouted into her gauntlet.
“Nice shot, Paeth. Keep—keep taking out targets.”
“Commander, you are losing forces.”
Poire knew that. She could see it. But the Lizardfolk had to cluster up to surround the Fraerlings—targets for spells.
“Hold this ground. Casualty report. How many Tallfolk down? How—”
Someone opened a [Pitfall Trap] under her and the ground snapped closed. Poire survived by digging her way up through the earth.
They were waiting for her when she reemerged. She could have run. Or hid until they gave up. Or retreated. But—here was where she was making a difference.
The Tallguard had to abandon the field. Poire didn’t know how many hours it was. But she was proud…
It took the Tallfolk hours to kill them all. They were learning to fear Fraerlings again. [Soldiers] stumbled away, staring at severed hands, screaming as they clutched at severed feet.
Poire was…bleeding. She had internal potions built into her armor. The Alchimagi had calculated how many potions a Fraerling could ingest before it became poison, and then given her a third more.
She was out. Her insides were mush. The creators of Crelerbane Armor had designed it to soften impacts, but once the magic failed, the padding…
She had already gone blind in one eye. The Fraerling lay on her back.
“Crelerbane, retreat. Paeth? Are you there?”
She thought that her communication spells had gone offline, but someone replied.
“Commander? We cannot pull you out of your armor. The wards…”
“I have a report. I regret…I regret to inform Paeth on the Coast that the Crelerbane forces were unable to effect our kill-to-death ratio.”
Someone shut up the speaker on the other end. Poire felt someone picking her up, trying to tear off her helmet. She stared at a snarling Gorgon and grinned bloodily.
“We…have only achieved forty-six kills per unit deployed. I don’t think I’m making it back. Good luck.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Someone was choking up on the other end. The last Fraerling on the field saw daylight as the Gorgon twisted her helmet off.
“Any last words, Fraerling?”
She spat some blood out of her mouth.
“Sure, you idiotic Tallfolk. Amend it, Paeth. Forty-seven per—”
The jaws closed over her head as she triggered the spell in her gauntlet. Too late. Poire’s armor lit up—then a hole opened in the world. Everything around it vanished, including the Gorgon’s head.
The Crelerbane left the field with three survivors. The Featherfolk Brigade bled. But they found Paeth at last.
On the night of the seventh day, Luan snapped a muscle in his shoulder.
Noa heard it, sitting on the scull and watching as he crossed the safer flat waters where saltwater met fresh; a rippling lake of two currents meeting and mixing.
As flat as the coastline got. Two moons, faintly blue and green, and the myriad stars shone down. Amidst all that beauty she’d never seen before, the horrible sound of muscle tearing, his immediate swearing, and groan of pain fit perfectly.
Perfectly, to Noa. Her great adventure into the world of the tall felt like that. Wonder, amazing and kind new people—and the knowledge that her home was about to fall in the background.
Even the injury didn’t surprise her. This was not the eighteenth time she’d told Luan to take a break, or the fortieth.
Seven days of rowing, sometimes replacing sleep with stamina potions. Not all delivering people; he took two contracts just to earn gold so he could hire another [Mercenary].
She looked up and saw him grabbing one-handed for a healing potion. She saw his brown eyes glittering with pain in a face filled with sweat.
“I’m fine. I’ll…give me a moment. Just give me—”
He drank half the potion and splashed the rest on his shoulder. Noa didn’t think it would work as well as it would on some injuries. Torn muscle wasn’t something the body necessarily healed perfectly from with time. But she hoped it was one of Alchimagus Resk’s potions—they were restoratives, not accelerants.
I told you this would happen. Neither Fraerling nor [Rower] had to hear it. Besides…that implied Noa thought Luan should slow down. She couldn’t bring herself to. If she told him to take a break, it was only so he wouldn’t injure himself, so he could go even faster later on.
His callused hands had blisters despite all his practice, and they’d developed cuts from the stinging salt wind and being wet and dry. Luan stared down at his hands as they rested in his lap. Blisters fading, skin closing.
He took a sip of stamina potion next and gagged, spitting it out. Noa cautioned him.
“You’re past your limit. Don’t drink any more.”
A shaky breath. Luan reached for the oars—and hesitated. She saw him working his shoulder, stretching it out, pain almost gone. But the shadows under his eyes didn’t vanish. He looked…worn down.
Olympian. She quite liked the name. An old name from the history of Earth. A championship of the greatest athletes across a world. It spoke to a place where there weren’t enough wars, calamities, or monsters to cancel such events.
Luan was the best sculler from his nation. He had on a skintight suit against the cold and water, but the Fraerling had seen him shirtless. She didn’t admire him like some of his fans.
Rather, he had the kind of muscles that some of the Fraerlings in Paeth had been drooling over. Again—not just fans, but [Combat Trainers], [Martial Artists], and a rare class: a [Master of All]. Someone who dedicated themselves to trying to reach a level like that.
Tallguard didn’t bother with Luan’s kind of conditioning. He had developed his entire body around one motion—pulling the oars of the scull. Most Tallguard were good at running, jumping, climbing, fighting—but Luan did one thing really well.
He had rowed across Baleros’ east coast for seven days. Right now, he was just tired. He kept nearly-reaching for the oars, but then resting. Another second…his hands were shaking with fatigue.
“Noa. Any word from Paeth?”
“They’ve found us. But they’re not attacking yet. They’re out of the radius of our spells. Camped for the night. Are we going back?”
“No. I’ve got someone willing to fight—I’ll try and hire them. It’s only…twelve miles from here. Only twelve. I’ll go there. Just give me a second.”
“Okay. When the attack comes…I need to go back.”
Luan looked at Noa, and his mouth moved—then he just nodded.
“Alright. I wish I could say I’ll be helpful. But this is all I can do, Noa. I will take you back when it begins. If I can, I’ll help. But I cannot fight.”
“I know you’re not a warrior.”
The man took a shuddering breath, then another. There was a catch in his lungs. He gripped the handles of the oars again, then relaxed.
“No. I’m not. I told you, I left the fighting in the suppression company I was in?”
“Yes…but you did help after that. You tried to save people.”
The [Rower] looked past Noa, across the beautiful waters. It would be tempting to just…row off and leave bloody Baleros behind. If only they could.
“Yes, Noa. I did. But that was because I forgot something. Now? I’ll never forget. I cannot die. Not yet. Not until I go home.”
She looked, twisting sideways, and saw the golden lettering, the tattoo on his skin. Two names. Luan stared down at them.
“No one else is married. Some have sweethearts. But not one of the United Nations company has children. Geneva’s the only one who’s my age, and she’s still in university. Forgive me. Even for Paeth…when we go, I will do all I can. I don’t want to die, Noa.”
No one did. The Tallguard turned back without a word.
“You did more than I could.”
“Thank you for saying that. I’ll…”
The oars lifted and splashed into the water again. Luan exhaled. He was fighting his body, which wanted nothing more than to stop. So he turned to Noa.
“How…tell me how many children are in Paeth.”
Luan hunched over, squeezing his eyes shut.
“Motivate me. Tell me how beautiful Paeth is. Tell me you’ll take me to visit again. Shrink me down so I can fly about. Show me your beautiful buildings and things to do inside. Turn me into a giant chipmunk or something.”
Noa smiled faintly.
“I promise we’ll do that. You can play our sports. Yours are funny. I bet the Architects will make all your games. Football, basketball…we have games like that. Paeth has so many amazing things. I just got bored of all of them because it was so small.”
She gazed out across the waters.
“When this is over, Luan. Maybe you’ll drop me off near Elvallian? Or I’ll go to another city. Or…somewhere else.”
“You still love the rest of the world? After this?”
Noa just pointed across the waters where fish were jumping, catching dragonflies and other bugs that skimmed across the water, naively thinking they’d found something bright while it was just the reflection from the sky.
“I like it all. Just not the Tallfolk.”
Noa shook her head. She wiped at her eyes and got saltwater in them. She kept blinking as she went on.
“It’s like Resk said. You don’t have much. Your cities don’t have any magic. Not even clean water.”
She’d seen villages and cities like Talenqual on their long trip. Even the biggest ones weren’t Paeth. Yet that wasn’t the Tallfolk’s fault, was it?
“We have the Plans and the Architects and our Last Boxes. You don’t. I asked Ekrn once, why we never did anything, and he said…‘we don’t help the Tallfolk because they have problems too large for us.’ But we could have helped. We could have given magic.”
Luan watched the younger Fraerling turn to look up to him.
“Resk told me you did. It backfired. I don’t blame Paeth for acting like they do. Look at what’s happening.”
“Right. But sometimes…I think we’re just selfish. Selfish, afraid Fraerlings. We act as small as we look. Then—then they come and our Crelerguard fight them and…”
Noa’s shoulders shook. They’d gotten the news as dusk fell. Luan clenched his hands on his oars. Without a word, he began to row. Slowly—long sweeps carrying them forwards. Only after a few minutes, as the rhythm began, did he say anything.
“I can’t do anything but row. I have trained my entire life before coming to this world to be the best. The best. Not just good, but the best there ever was. The best living. Every hour I spent training rather than having fun—that made me different. Then I came here and you could gain a Skill that put you ahead just by going to sleep. I hate it. No, I love it. It makes life wondrous. Unexpected. But I don’t know. If I were Level 40…what could I do?”
Noa was wiping at her face.
Luan stared into the mirrors. Then up at the wake he was leaving.
“I don’t understand where my class is going. I am leveling fast as a [Rower], as an [Athlete], but what comes next? Something more than rowing? At Level 40, Noa…I will be the fastest man in the world.”
She opened her mouth to point out the obvious, but Luan shook his head.
“The fastest man, Noa. In this method, in this craft. There is no one else who has a scull like this. No one who understands rowing, who trains for it. At Level 40, with all the Skills, no one on Earth will ever catch me again. So what comes after that? Something that breaks the laws of physics? What…what’s the point of a Level 60 [Rower]? What Skills do they get?”
Noa had no clue. But Luan did. He panted as he kept going, pushing for another hour. One last day.
“It has to be something that matters. Something else. Something that allows me to use my great talent, my one talent, to make a difference. If all I can do is row…my class is meaningless on land.”
He was panting for air, as if oxygen could replace rest. Trying to draw energy from the firmament overhead. From need alone. In his world, that was an impossibility that every single athlete still reached for. Here?
“I was happy to be an athlete because that was the one thing I could do well. Back home. On Earth. Anything I could do within my powers—I would have. Given money, rowed for charity…but I’m not helpless here. I have superpowers. I have magic, and someone is rewarding my work with Skills. So why can I only row? My class must do more. When I reach Level 50, it has to do something else! I will accept nothing less. I promise you, Noa. I may not get there tonight. But some day, I will reach that level.”
The Fraerling looked up at him, and she saw the Courier’s confidence. I will get there. Noa just nodded. She turned to look behind them, which was ahead because they were on a scull.
“When you do, take me for another ride? As fast as you can, all the way to Izril? To Terandria? To the edge of the world?”
He smiled, never breaking his pace.
“It’s a promise, yeah?”
She nodded, and he blurred for a second. But Noa just wiped at her face one more time and pointed.
“Go faster, Luan.”
He rowed, trying to catch the future ahead of time. Luan couldn’t see anyone ahead of him. So he raced himself, as he always did. His shoulders quietly popped with each rotation.
One more person.
One more night.
After eight days of rowing, Luan Khumalo’s total level ups would consist of the following:
[Conditions Met: Expert Rower → Peerless Marathon Sculler Class.]
[Class Consolidation: Athlete removed.]
[Level 36 Peerless Marathon Sculler obtained!]
[Skill – Contest of Champions (Vigor) obtained!]
[Skill – Only my Challengers Shall Advance obtained!]
[Skill – Razorblade Oars obtained!]
[Skill – The Messenger’s Shortcut obtained!]
[Skill – Ship: Kayak Roll obtained!]
He hated that last one.
Eight days. Eight days, and now Fezimet of the Featherfolk Brigade probably saw perfectly how Peclir Im had tricked him.
He had lost more soldiers in the last eight days than all but the worst engagements of his life. And he suspected that if he charted how many casualties he’d inflicted…
Peclir Im didn’t care. That Human had blood colder than any Naga. Even Tasgiel, the cold serpents who slithered through the tundras of the north, weren’t as ruthless as him.
“You knew that they were a Fraerling city, Fezimet. Your losses will be counted as a contribution to the Jungle Tails forces. Remember—you are under their authority now.”
The Quexal was in no mood to think of his new status. He rested his head against the glass.
“I know those [Soldiers], Peclir Im. Those are my people dying like…like flies. Niers’ students are raiding me. And Gravetender’s Fist…”
…Had neither agreed nor disagreed, only backed the United Nations’ claim on their right to stay in Talenqual. Peclir frowned down at their headquarters from Fezimet’s tower.
“Have you not investigated them for working with the Fraerlings? If they are working with Paeth—remove them.”
The Quexal spun and roared.
“With what forces? I have delivered them all—all to the forest! We are surrounding this Paeth, and I would normally celebrate, because I could restore order—but I somehow do not think I will be able to do that. Somehow—I now think that even though we know which tree this city is in—it will not be an easy victory!”
The Human had the gall to blink at him.
“I never claimed it would be.”
The Quexal slithered over to his chair and sat down hard.
“No. No…now I realize you did not mention why that other company did not continue after this Oierdressql fell. Answer me truthfully, Peclir Im. How many soldiers died to raze Oierdressql?”
“I don’t have the exact numbers—”
That blank-faced Human just stood there, as if weighing the benefits of telling Fezimet. Perfectly unafraid.
“…I believe the Fraerlings fought amidst the ruins of their city, and their…Tallguard fought in force to cover their retreat. A fuller count of the entire campaign, including the final spells loosed that destroyed most of Oierdressql, created about seven thousand casualties.”
“Seven thousand—and they did not line up and die! What final spell?”
“It erased about a hundred feet of space. Naturally, this time precautions will be taken to prevent such spellcasting. I have secured twenty Lamia [Mages] to neutralize magic when we sense the buildup. Failing that, we will offer the Fraerlings enforced surrender. Your job is to crack the city open. Seize their libraries; even if the city is entirely destroyed, their spellbooks should do. Or capture enough survivors.”
The Quexal couldn’t believe Peclir.
“You tell me this…now. Now, you tell me that any forces surrounding this city might perish.”
“You will need to be quick. And do not inform any but your most trusted officers.”
Fezimet looked blankly at Peclir, then he rose and saluted the Human with all the irony he could muster.
“I serve Jungle Tails. I hope—from now on, you will never give me orders, Chamberlain Im. Because I believe you are no commander.”
The Human let him have that. Fezimet slithered down his tower and joined the last muster of [Soldiers].
His best officers were ready to finish the job. They were…upset was putting it mildly, but Fezimet knew his soldiers were ready to charge into the final death-zone and attack Paeth.
[Fireball] spells. Enchanted arrows—or just hitting it with rocks. Break the enchantments and then begin taking the city down with sledgehammers.
Fezimet slithered down the street to jeers and even someone nearly throwing some mud—until one of the Medusae paralyzed the fool. Talenqual was still covered in smoke. But this was it. This was it, and after this, he’d report to Jungle Tails and leave it all behind. Fezimet, the [Mercenary], still considered it worth the price he’d paid.
He stopped before he left the city. Someone had decided to bar his way.
“Move aside, Human!”
One of the Quexals with Fezimet snapped, but some of the others glanced around, suddenly…wary. Another looked ahead and gasped.
“Commander Fezimet. I see some of the enemy!”
Fezimet’s head snapped up, and he looked past the annoying yet familiar face of Daly Sullivan to someone behind him. He snarled, and his soldiers drew their blades.
Because there, standing behind Daly and one of his Bushrangers…was a Drake. A line of [Soldiers] in their stupid formations was shielding him; Kissilt stood well behind them. And there…
“Commander. Movement in the woods. I see Dullahan armor. Centaurs.”
Fezimet’s gaze shot over, and he saw more forces hiding there. But the real cincher was Quallet Marshhand.
He was just…watching. With about a thousand [Soldiers]. Fezimet slithered forwards.
“What is this? Treachery? Commander Marshhand, I hope you’re not reconsidering my offer?”
He would rather send Gravetender’s Fist or the War Walker to take out Paeth. However—Quallet didn’t immediately reply.
Not good. Gravetender’s Fist was camped farther north, and this was only a token force, but Fezimet did not want to fight them—even if it could be a victory. After all, he still had twice as many…one point five times as many soldiers in the forest.
Yet it seemed Daly Sullivan was the one in charge. Someone else stood by him. There was…a familiar young man. Drathian?
“Kenjiro Murata. The [Diplomat] who’s been going around, slandering my company’s name. Well, well, enemies all.”
“Commander Fezimet. I have a signed document I would like to offer you. It is a declaration signed by nineteen companies in this region. From Grasgil Blockade to Stormhooves.”
Some of Fezimet’s people glanced up at that. Those were…big companies. Fezimet knew what that stupid treaty was. He snatched it as Ken offered it to him.
“And why should I bother reading it? I suppose I’ll peruse it at my discretion.”
His ploy didn’t work. Ken let him have the treaty—and stepped back and bowed. Fezimet had the impression it was an extremely insulting gesture; the Dullahans present certainly seemed to think so. Was that Captain Eldima and the Rustless Guard?
Damn adventurers. Damn Humans and damn—Ken spoke.
“Unfortunately, Commander, [I Made a Copy]. Please, officers of the Featherfolk Brigade, read the declaration.”
Fezimet twisted and saw no less than eight copies of the treaty! He snarled.
“Put that down—”
Too late. His officers read the declaration, and Fezimet looked at the signed letter too. It was a simple one, really.
We, the underlined signatories, condemn the attack on a neutral Fraerling city, Paeth on the Coast, in no uncertain terms. We refute the right of the Featherfolk Brigade under any authority to commit acts of war on an innocent species that has offered no provocation. These are war crimes under Baleros’ codes, and if the Featherfolk Brigade under Commander Fezimet pursues his attempt to slaughter hundreds of thousands of innocents…
Fezimet’s blood alternately boiled and froze as he read. War crimes? This…Ken was speaking.
“I have also sent and posted it to the Mage’s Guild, and it will be spread from Runner’s Guilds as well if you launch an attack, Commander. I urge you to reconsider—there is still time to make peace.”
The Quexal was done skimming the treaty. His officers were worried, but Fezimet had noticed something. Nowhere in this magically-ratified document did any of the other companies threaten actual action. It was a war of words, and he sneered at the [Diplomat].
Daly Sullivan watched, face blank. He had a crossbow in his hands, pointed at the ground, but only one of those small, hand ones. Fezimet looked at Ken.
“You must have some idea of whom I serve, Diplomat Ken. Tell me—do you suggest I quit now? Now that I’ve made an enemy of everyone?”
He glanced towards the tower.
Kenjiro smiled at Fezimet. A [Diplomat] fighting to his end, he leaned forwards, and despite himself, Fezimet leaned over and listened. He was fairly certain Ken had a secrecy Skill. The Human whispered to him.
“It is not beyond you to turn back, Great Fezimet. It would be costly—but the Forgotten Wing will never forget this. Fraerlings will not either. Paeth is not alone.”
“Oh, so you think to threaten me?”
The Quexal bared his teeth, and Ken lifted a finger. Like Peclir, he put stick before carrot.
“Just so you know that this will not end with Paeth, Commander. But if you are willing to halt the attack—I am authorized to promise you a number of relics. Eighteen Fraerling-enchanted relics, from Potions of Polymorph fit for a Quexal to gear a Named-Adventurer might envy. All you have to do is agree to a magically binding contract. You will get nothing from ash and ruin, but if you just…leave, you can live the rest of your life with great treasures.”
It was the most tempting thing the [Diplomat] could have said, and both knew it. Fezimet wavered.
Leave? I’d never be able to keep my company. Peclir would see to that. But for eighteen relics…
Just take all the money he’d stored and run. Live, start over somewhere else? Or hold onto his company, recant Jungle Tails, and rebuild with Fraerling magic. He was sure he could get more—the Human would offer anything.
But Jungle Tails would never let me go. And…Fezimet stared at the burned forest, a huge swath of it gone, irrevocably altering Talenqual. The soldiers who had died as well—he’d be in so much trouble.
Whereas he was now a [Nagatine Scion], and one day he would lead a million Lizardfolk into battle.
It was no longer all or nothing. But now it was all or…less. Fezimet hesitated, and Ken clasped his hands behind his back.
The [Diplomat] had his one shot that Daly had given him. He watched as Fezimet slowly lifted the treaty…and shredded it. Not with his arms; he held it in one wing, then bit it, ripped it, and spat out the pieces with his teeth.
“If I refuse, [Diplomat], what then? I’ll make an enemy of a bunch of companies too afraid to take the field? I see the Titan’s little students have brought a thousand soldiers. As for Marshhand—”
He eyed the [Mercenary Commander] and gave him a smile and dip of the head Quallet didn’t return.
Bastard. But a sensible one.
“—He knows better than to take on a force four times his size. We rule this region. So the only enemies I see here are a single tree that I will chop down, a thousand mercenaries led by four unproven [Strategists], and the mighty Bushrangers and their Silver-rank friends.”
He sneered at Daly and Eldima, who shifted nervously, shield at the ready. Tofte, the lone Bushranger standing behind Daly with another loaded crossbow, didn’t flinch. He stared past Fezimet into the middle-distance.
It was Daly who spoke. Ken stepped back, head bowed, and retreated to the Drake’s lines. By now, Lizardfolk were listening. Talenqual’s people.
This was what Daly did. He pointed at Fezimet.
“Commander Fezimet, I am Daly Sullivan of the United Nations Company. You may have Talenqual, and the Jungle Tails might be backing you, but the Forgotten Wing Company has placed Paeth under its protection. That city is full of children and innocent people. This is your warning: attack that city, and we will kill you.”
The Quexal slowly reared back and opened his magnificent wings. He could rise to almost nine feet in length if he tried, and he rose up, flapping his wings and regarding Daly with incredulity.
And almost respect.
“What, you intend to fight us all? That’s…”
He trailed off. His soldiers were behind him, and more were coming, but the [Strategists] had surrounded the gates well. He could retreat, obviously, but Quallet was still undecided.
If they fought, it would be a bloodbath that Fezimet was sure he’d win. But like Paeth, if they fought, the Featherfolk Brigade might never recover.
You had to have a reason to die like that. The Human looked Fezimet in the eyes, and the Quexal refused to look away. He would not be shamed.
His tail twitched a few times, in a subtle signal. Like the Liscorian army, Lizardfolk used tail-signs, and so Fezimet sighed dramatically.
“If I don’t attack—how long do you think your forces can stand here, Commander Daly? Those Drakes look tense. An hour? A day?”
“We have discipline, you inbred Quexal. Come out and see what real strategy looks like!”
Kissilt hollered as he lifted his ring menacingly. Daly didn’t answer. He just stood there, watching Fezimet.
“Your choice. Ken means it. We can make you a rich man, Fezimet.”
“You can’t make me one of the most important people in Baleros.”
The Quexal retorted, almost sadly. Daly shook his head.
“Power only matters if you and Jungle Tails survive. Do you really want to kill a bunch of innocent Fraerlings, Fezimet? Really?”
He looked into Fezimet’s eyes, and the Quexal avoided his gaze.
“We bleed and die…Fraerlings live on Baleros, whose jungles run with blood. They surely know, more than you, that their turn would come some day.”
He glanced over his shoulder and frowned. Was that a ship entering harbor? Fezimet craned his neck, suddenly uneasy. One of his officers had seen it too. But before Fezimet could check, he decided to motivate the crowd.
“People of Talenqual! Do you see why we had to burn the forest? We have saboteurs of a Great Company fighting our Featherfolk Brigade—who are now in service of the mighty Jungle Tails! They threaten us on our own land! Foreign species working for a Great Company! Even your beloved United Nations company!”
He turned and exhorted the people around him. The Lizardfolk peeking over the walls or at the gates looked…dubious. Especially because Ken replied almost instantly.
“We are not standing here because of the Forgotten Wing Company! A Fraerling city is under attack by Commander Fezimet, who has violated the rules of war and is attempting to slaughter children and innocents!”
The truth. The [Diplomat]’s words caused shock in Talenqual’s people. A Fraerling city? and Fezimet?
That damn signed letter. It must have been spreading already. One of Fezimet’s Quexals repeated his trick, opening her wing and shouting.
“Lies! Those are lies! Who will you believe? We, the Naga, or—ulp—!”
She bit her tongue. No—she tried to speak, and not a word came out. Ken pointed at her.
“[Only Truth Between Us]. Commander Fezimet. Tell your people the truth. If you can.”
[Diplomats]! Fezimet’s clamped lips and glare were bad enough. The Quexal turned his head as he saw himself losing the last of his popular support. But he still had his army. Eighteen…fifteen thousand soldiers in the forest and more he could pull from their garrisons. Fezimet still had the last laugh.
Daly was eying his face with terrible suspicion. Yet he only got confirmation after five minutes, as Fezimet waited to find out what that ship was about. His head snapped up as someone came tearing out of the forest.
“Daly! Daly! They’re attacking!”
Marian rode out of the forest, face pale. Fezimet saw Daly’s head rise, and Ken closed his eyes.
“What do you mean? I’m right here. I haven’t crossed your precious little line, Human.”
The Centaur slowed to a canter and Fezimet looked at Marian, Niers’ student, fully for the first time. He…felt bad. He would have really liked an autograph and to impress the Centauress. Of all Niers’ students, he liked her tactics best. Daquin had been…
Fezimet stood in the burning hell of Talenqual and didn’t seem to understand how he’d gotten here. He looked so damn smug. Daly Sullivan’s chest rose and fell.
“Paeth is under attack! Your Commander has attacked a Fraerling city! He is doing it now!”
Ken was shouting at Talenqual’s citizens, who were confused, upset…but even if they believed him, Paeth was so far from here. Even if they believed him, what could they do aside from protest, throw stones, and run from [Soldiers]?
“Those are objectionable lies, [Diplomat]. Do you see me burning a city?”
The Quexal looked so smug at this basic, childish lie. If you don’t see me doing it, am I doing it? The worst part, it was a lie that worked. A good excuse if you weren’t willing to throw down.
Daly was wearing the cheap leather armor that Resk had enchanted, piece-by-piece. He had Luan’s crossbow, and behind him, he knew, Marian, Cameral, and Kissilt had their forces. Quallet stood to one side, and Umina was at the docks in disguise, waiting for her ship to come in.
The rest of the United Nations Company was gone. The Bushrangers and those willing to fight had stayed. The rest…
Kirana had volunteered to take them. She was surprised Aiko had remained, but the [Nurse] had said there would be a need for healers.
So the Indian girl led the gaggle of young men and women, some barely teens, into the safe space. It wasn’t a long journey. Just a half-day of travel.
They could have gone anywhere, really. The Featherfolk Brigade might pursue…but Kirana suspected they’d be too busy.
As for protection? The United Nations could probably afford an inn or two, but were inns safe? What next, with half their number in Talenqual, drawing that line in the sand?
The answer…was that she walked into the Mage’s Guild in the city of Looxe, and the [Scribe] called out as he saw the huge gaggle of Humans and groaned inwardly.
“Hey! Stay in the lines, please! Hey—”
Kirana walked up to the front desk. She stopped there, and the upset Lizardman looked at her.
“You have to stay in line.”
“I know. I’m not here to send a [Message]. I’d like to speak to your Guildmaster, please. They’re from Wistram, aren’t they?”
As it happened, Looxe had a proper Wistram [Mage], who came out of an office looking fairly irate. The Dullahan frowned at this terrible display of decorum. Then he hesitated, eying all the Humans.
“Can I help you, Miss…”
The [House Manager] was crying a bit. Neither [Scribe] nor [Mage] knew why. She answered simply.
“Kirana. I am from, um, America. From…Earth. Can you please help us?”
The [Guildmaster]’s eyes popped, and all of the staff looked up at the sudden, familiar keywords. He hesitated—then motioned for someone to send a [Message] to Wistram now.
“Absolutely, Miss. Do you all need food? Help?”
“We need somewhere to stay. And food…later. You can’t help us any more, thank you.”
The Dullahan hastened to assure Kirana that he could, indeed, help her. He failed to realize that it wasn’t her he needed to help.
Daly stared past Fezimet’s smug face and the little monster looking out of the Quexal’s eyes. He thought he could see Siri. Marian was tensed, her hand on her enchanted bow, but Fezimet just stood there with his forces.
Somewhere, Paeth was under attack. The first Tallfolk were trying to surround the city as magic blazed from every inch of the tree. Tallguard and Fraerlings fighting on the ground.
“Prove it. Well…I can’t transfer us all to Paeth. We’re all damn grown ups. We know you’re attacking Paeth. Now. So it’s too late to debate it. You have committed an act of war against Paeth on the Coast.”
Fezimet’s smile faded slightly as Daly’s voice rose. The young man was shaking slightly, but he still reached for his belt pouch.
“I know other people need proof. I don’t. But if you want proof…here. Here’s someone whose word you can believe.”
Slowly, Daly lifted something out of his pouch. Every eye focused on him…but the Human was so far away most people didn’t see what he was holding at first.
Then…even the Drake [Soldiers] murmured. Lizardfolk gasped, and more ran to spread the rumor. It was all true. It wasn’t rumor anymore. After all…there was a lot you could doubt, even with a [Diplomat]’s words. Even with The Last Light’s company vouching for the truth.
However, the little man with pink hair standing on Daly’s palm? Tears running into his beard, and some snot too if you were being honest?
Alchimagus Resk stood there, and his voice was loud enough to be heard by all, magnified by a spell.
“I am Alchimagus Resk of Paeth. The Featherfolk Brigade is attacking my city. Is that enough proof, you wretched salamander with wings?”
His voice trembled as Fezimet’s jaw fell open and he stared at the Fraerling. Daly said nothing more.
The Human handed Resk to Ken, who backed up. Daly turned to the spluttering Fezimet. He stood there blankly for a second.
He had drawn his line in the sand, let Ken fill the world with words and condemnation. Someday, though…there was always a bastard who stepped over every line. Drawing that line was only good if you had what came next. So he looked up, met Siri’s eyes, and nodded.
Daly Sullivan raised the Fraerling-made crossbow and shot Fezimet straight through the chest. He admired the way it automatically drew the contraption back, almost automatically reloading it—you just had to put a crossbow bolt in place.
He did so in the silence. Then he turned and shot a Medusa through the face. He almost got a third Quexal, but Fezimet began screaming.
He’d dodged at point-blank range. So the bolt hadn’t gone straight through his heart. The Quexal tried to recoil, and Daly saw Tofte raise his crossbow.
Kissilt screamed behind them, but Daly had already loosed a third bolt. Three Nagas crumpled as the world burst into screams. Fezimet was backing up, eyes wide.
“Kill them a—”
A Lamia shouted right before another crossbow bolt hit her in the back of the head. Suddenly—the Featherfolk Brigade were being attacked from all sides.
Bushrangers. Bushrangers, Earthers, and more [Soldiers] taking shots at them from buildings and even roofs.
“Fall back to the city! Fall back t—”
Fezimet leapt, and another of Daly’s bolts passed through his tail. Marian shot through two Lizardfolk.
“Charge! Kill the commander!”
The [Strategists] and their forces surged forwards as Daly reloaded again. Kissilt was shouting a hundred different commands into his speaking stone. Daly kept firing; he wasn’t going to go hand-to-hand. Not yet.
He looked around and saw the lynchpin of the plan. Quallet Marshhand was still looking at Resk. His gaze rose, and he met Daly’s eyes.
Then…the [Mercenary Commander] nodded. He did not make his choice in that moment. Daly was not that dramatic, and the [Strategists] not that stupid. But he still sighed.
“Gravetender’s Fist! To arms!”
Umina Caxical heard the fighting begin at the gates as she hopped from one foot to the other. Cotm told her to shut up and keep still, and she did.
This was incredibly dangerous. The Fraerling Tallguard’s face was blank.
He was here to protect her in case she was discovered—although the Featherfolk Brigade were busy. And the docks were understaffed. Kessice was with Siri, coordinating the people in the city.
So the United Nations were going to war against the Featherfolk Brigade. The last ploys had failed. Umina’s blood raced.
They’d all die, surely? Fezimet was so confident he could win. He was all about his forty-thousand soldiers. Such a large army. But every [Strategist] knew a victory was more than numbers.
Umina looked around the docks. So deserted. Not enough guards and security, and Talenqual burning the forests had made most [Merchants] decide this was not a place for future trading. They could smell war.
However, the Featherfolk Brigade had also taken from their garrisons too. Barracks, security detail—but mostly Talenqual where they were headquartered.
15,000 [Soldiers] besieging Paeth. Combined with Gravetender’s Fist, if Quallet were willing to take that kind of terrible battle with the inevitability of Fezimet’s reinforcements, everyone combined could barely come close to that number.
Bad fight. So, when Daly had proposed his line in the sand, it was Umina and Cameral who’d figured out the solution that the Titan would have at least passed them for. Umina turned slightly and grinned under her hood as she heard horns—a lot of horns—and drums begin to sound in the distance.
Gravetender’s Fist was on the move. They were a bit closer than Fezimet thought, and Bastiom would be coming through those gates in the vanguard.
But not to destroy them. Oh no. Quallet had ten thousand troops along with the [Strategists] and Humans. Not enough to take Fezimet’s full company in the field.
…But how many troops did he have in Talenqual right now? Umina would just bet that number was less than Quallet’s forces.
Cities were lovely places. If laid out right, and most Balerosian cities were, they were easy to defend and hard to take. But when fighting got to a city, no one liked having to fight with the enemy in your home.
I wonder how it feels, Fezimet? He could try to take Paeth, and Umina hoped the Fraerlings could hold out long enough. This plan hinged on that. Because while Paeth fought—Fezimet lost his home.
Hopefully he was dead. Umina assumed not. And her scales were tingling with nerves.
They had to win here, and it was not a sure thing. If the citizens went after them—if Fezimet countered them—
Whumph. Umina looked up sharply.
“What was that? Who’s got that kind of magic? Did Kissilt hit an alchemy shop?”
That was the only thing she could think up that would make that kind of an impact on their side. Or the Featherfolk Brigade’s [Mages], but Cotm just grunted.
“That’s our side. Don’t lose focus. Our ship’s coming in. You had better be right, [Strategist].”
Umina whirled away from the smokestack coming from one of the Featherfolk Brigade’s barracks. She turned and saw it.
A ship with armor, coming into port. Flying that famous flag of helm, armor, and gauntlet, all disembodied, of course.
The Iron Vanguard. She smiled in relief. Then…as she took in the much, much smaller ship than she wanted, Umina froze.
“That’s not Tulm’s ship. He’s not aboard. I th—wait. Wait!”
The Dullahan [Captain] was definitely no idiot. The instant he saw smoke and heard the fighting and horn calls, his entire crew was on alert. He strode down the gangplank.
“Umina Caxical, Tulm the Mithril has invited you to join him.”
“No, no, no—I told him to send a warship! And come himself! I have the answer to his question!”
Umina clutched at her neck frills. The Iron Vanguard! That was her big plan; the thing Tulm wanted so badly! Niers’ secret she’d paid for!
Yet the Dullahan [Captain] was already signaling for a [Mage] to talk to the Iron Vanguard’s command. He turned to her, grim-faced.
“We will escort you to Tulm the Mithril. Or, it seems, participate in this fighting if Strategist Tulm deems it worth the cost. He himself was unavailable.”
“To hear the Titan’s secret?”
Umina knew he was close enough to have come! What could have…what could have been more pressing than that?
There was no time to think. The Featherfolk Brigade had seen the ship and had already sent their own to investigate. Upon seeing Umina and hearing both her name and recognizing her, a Medusa snarled and pointed, and [Soldiers] streamed down the docks. Cotm swore, blew a Lizardperson’s foot off, and caused a pileup as Umina did a running leap and flipped onto the deck of the Dullahan ship with her Belt of Dexterity.
However, she refused to let the Dullahan set sail. Umina called in the news as she heard Marian, Cameral, and Kissilt shouting orders. Paeth was under siege—and the battle for Talenqual had begun. Whichever city fell first…or would both?
Time…had run out.
There were some things more important than even the Titan’s answer. Tulm the Mithril had been seeking another answer to another question.
He found it—but wished he hadn’t.
“All halt. Inform The Authority of Metal to find our position. Now.”
The Dullahan strode down the warship as the [Captain] sent word for the Krakenbane Destroyer combing the waters and all other elements of the fleet to regroup here.
They had found their quarry at last. Xol of Ingrilt watched, shield raised as they closed in. He had been nervous when they realized they had found the Border Fleet already…the closer they got?
Xol was nervous. And if a War Walker was nervous…
“Strategist. Should we hold for the Authority’s return?”
Tulm was tempted to himself. He had taken some of his finest warriors on the warship, but the Dullahan wearing his famed Mithril armor was still…he scanned the waves, but shook his head.
“We must risk it. That ship won’t last ten minutes. Prepare to board! Search for survivors! Watch for enemies!”
The Dullahan stared ahead as chills ran up and down his body. Ship?
Ship was a generous term. Tulm only recognized it as the Drathian’s lead warship because he knew what he should be seeing.
That vessel could trade blows with this ship or any warship in existence. Could…because all he saw was a sinking piece of ruined wood, painted splinters.
So few bodies.
The Iron Vanguard had been following the Drathians when the Border Fleet abruptly turned and went shooting up Whitewash Channel. That they had hired [Mercenaries], their odd actions, all alarmed the Iron Vanguard, who were friendly with the reclusive Drathians. But they had received no word, and fearing a possible move that would help the Forgotten Wing Company or…
Tulm had followed them. Then—just as fast as the Border Fleet was moving, they had vanished. For two whole days, Tulm’s armada had searched the waters.
There was nothing here. Either the Drathians had cloaked themselves, sunk like a Drowned Fleet, or simply…gone over the edge. All that remained in this area were scattered islands like the one that produced Eir Gel—a few remote landmasses, some landmarks over empty water at the edge of the world.
Well. After two days, Tulm had found the Border Fleet.
He watched as Dullahans boarded the vessel fast, spreading out, searching. They had waterproof, floating armor, but everyone was so tense their voices were the only thing on the water.
What had happened here? All the sentries and [Mages] were scanning in every direction, but they had not seen any battle. Nor foes.
That just made Tulm even more…nervous. Afraid. His mentor, the Titan, had taught him not to push fear away.
He was afraid. What had happened here?
At last, one of the Dullahans found something. The woman dove into the water as the sinking vessel kept falling lower. Instantly, the others converged and dragged a body towards the ship.
“[Healers]! Get ready for—”
The [Captain] hesitated, and Tulm cursed because the figure that the Dullahans were dragging from the water wasn’t a survivor. He stared at the upper torso of a Drathian [Mage], one of their experts who used their brand of magic.
Clearly dead. No one survived getting…Xol muttered.
“That’s not a cut wound. Something tore that [Mage] in half.”
“Find survivors! Now!”
Tulm roared in a rare display of emotion, and the Dullahans kept porting the dead body to the ship. He was about to shout at them when he realized something.
That wasn’t a Drathian Human. Nor…was she dead.
Somehow, the female fox was alive. One of the rare species from Drath—the illusion magic was completely shattered, and however many tails she had were gone. Her magic or nature must have kept her alive.
Water sloshed onto the deck, wet, mixed with blood and other dark substances that stained the wood. Tulm strode over, pushing aside [Mages] and [Healers].
“Strategist, the toxins—other elements—”
“Silence. Let her speak.”
A blank stare from the Kitsune woman. Tulm, standing over her, heard a voice, garbled with water in her lungs. Then he realized the truth.
She was dead. No one could survive her wounds. So the magic-user had enchanted her body. He was speaking to a dead woman.
“—tell his Imperial Majesty. Tell them. Hello? Hello?”
“I am Tulm the Mithril. Can you hear me, servant of Drath?”
The sightless head actually turned, and all shuddered, but the relief in the voice was evident.
“Good. I know you, Dullahan. I have—I must tell you our last report. Our fleet has been wiped out. Drath must know.”
Tulm knelt there, staring around for the other ships. The [Captain] had access to Dullahans who could dive into the water, fearless of the depths—only monsters. Yet he was whispering to Xol.
“Our [Mages] are scanning the water, but we can’t find other ships, War Walker Xol.”
“They may have fought a running battle—”
“No, War Walker. You do not understand. We cannot even find the rest of this ship. Even deep. We have searched for forty miles in every direction and are expanding. It is as if the rest of the fleet vanished.”
The dead woman was speaking. Tulm listened to her as he grew more uneasy still.
“Please carry my message as I speak it.”
“It will be done.”
He was recording, having this transcribed—the Kitsune hesitated. Even now, clinging to…something, she was still of Drath.
“To his Imperial Majesty. I am Kitsune Sharetsu. I beg leave to report the destruction of Border Fleet Haes-sal. All our [Abyssal Hunters]…slain. I am sending our report via Dullahans of the Iron Vanguard to my shame as I am unable to…”
She wasn’t speaking in Drathian, but under [Translation] spells. Tulm was watching her face. She was fading. Whatever magic was keeping her intact wouldn’t last, and he didn’t have [Necromancers].
She seemed to realize formalities wouldn’t work either. The Kitsune coughed out more dark water.
“Very well. It is my honor to report each servant of Drath fought to the end without wavering. To the last, with naught but courage. Each one I commend as heroes.”
Why was she so set on reporting it like…? Tulm’s head rose, and he looked at the ship. He saw no bodies, but if this was what happened, he could guess what the end of the battle looked like. Ah—the Dullahan had a sudden, deep respect for the woman.
“What a beautiful lie. I will carry that to Drath myself. But what destroyed your fleet?”
The dead woman relaxed, and a smile passed her lips. A terrible one.
“He will know.”
Drath’s [Emperor] might know, but Tulm bent over and actually grabbed a shoulder. He shook her.
“We must know. What is it? Seamwalkers?”
It had to be. The Kitsune just stared blankly above.
“Even in death we died. We knew when he took his own eyes. But we followed. We had to see. There was…they are trying to open a door.”
A door? Something was happening. Her eyes were already rotting, but the sightless gaze of the dead [Mage] was…moving. At first, Tulm thought she saw him, but then he saw something that made him most afraid of all.
The eyes were locked on something past Tulm. Every few seconds they would…twitch. Flick a bit, sideways. Every few seconds of his juddering heartbeat.
She was watching something. Her eyes traced a path through the sky, and Tulm turned his head. He saw nothing but darkness, but he almost…felt it. In time with her eyes. Something moving.
“How many? Where?”
The ghost whispered.
“They are eating everything. I see a great, final stand. They are trying to open a door, but they will devour this land—then yours. I see hundreds of thousands. So many. Cousins of A’ctelios Salash. Tell His Majesty of our glorious demise. He knows the rest.”
Then she looked up, and her voice was faint. Eyes wide with horror as she stared up, and one arm rose as if shielding her from something.
“My death, but not my soul! I—”
The body jerked—went lifeless. Had the ghost abandoned the magic? Or had something…
Tulm backed away. He hesitated one second—then shouted.
“Toss the body overboard and then disintegrate it! Now!”
The Dullahan audience didn’t hesitate. The sea exploded, and the body was vaporized by the spells before it had sunk a foot. Tulm pointed at the deck.
“Tear it up, burn anything that was touched by her blood. Take Seamwalker precautions. Get me the Seer of Steel. No—issue an order across the entire company. All fleet elements are to return to their ports but stay…two miles off-shore. Anchored. Sound the alarms.”
Dullahans ran as Xol lowered himself.
“Tulm. What are you thinking?”
The [Strategist] was still giving orders. He was sending the last words of the Drathian to the [Emperor] and asking for more information—the Seer of Steel wanted to know what he’d found.
“Strategist, the Lizardgirl, Umina, who claims to—”
“Don’t bother me with that! Sound a full alert! Prepare for enemies, Seamwalkers, from anywhere at any time! I will tell our officers when we know more.”
His subordinates stared at him. The most incomprehensible orders that Tulm had ever issued—the Dullahan shouted.
He stood there, looking around, gazing at the sky with Xol, searching for foes. But there was nothing there. If not for the terror in his heart, the warning of a dead woman—Tulm could believe this was just another quiet night.
That made it worse. He was forewarned, but what could be done? This…this was it.
They had weathered six thousand years since the last great calamity. Crelers. Had they spent their time well enough? Was this worse? Better? Tulm whispered.
“I’m not ready. I need more time.”
He thought he could hear Niers laughing at him. One of those sardonic, bitter laughs that included himself. Then Tulm was striding for a scrying orb to communicate. He needed to know what, exactly, was coming. He could delay up to twenty minutes if the Drathians still refused to tell all.
Then he would tell Wistram to sound the alarm and warn—
Author’s Note: It’s only a cliffhanger if you’re just reading. But would you believe me when I say…this is it?
One month. I have, now, one month to finish Volume 8. I don’t know if I’ll make it, but I got to the exact point where I wanted with this chapter. And yes…the arc is not complete.
Nor are the others I think you could name. It’s by design. After this, we’ll see how it shakes out. It may be that, in hindsight, it’s all lamentations and regret. Or—as I hope—it all went just as I planned it out.
Either way. The end of Volume 8 is upon us. But it will not be easy.
This is the longest volume of The Wandering Inn by far. As I start my week break—I’m going on a week break—it’s not just to torment you but to get all the energy I can for the ending. If I need to, I’ll take longer between pivotal chapters. If I must, I’ll rewrite.
I hope to do it in one take, but I’m committed to the best ending possible and it’s going to be…stressful. I am nervous. Almost as nervous as Tulm, and I may have nightmares about not doing the chapters justice.
However, it is upon us and it is sink or swim. My kind of writing. Don’t forget to vote in that poll—it is a pivotal one that decides what our next chapter is. I decided to leave it partly up to you. Don’t worry. I have a plan.
Let’s see if it shakes out. See you in a week,
Tyrion Veltras by Auspicious Octopi!
Rasktooth and Infinitypear by Artsynada, commissioned by Spanner!
Horns of Hammerad by VulpyDoodlesStudios, commissioned by Spanner…again?!