The Wandering Inn was full today as well. That was unusual, at least to Erin, Lyonette, and anyone who knew the inn well. Erin had developed an inn based around the idea of ‘just enough people to survive’ for quite some time. To have an inn that was actually bustling was surprising.

However, word had gotten out that Erin’s inn was a place with excellent cooking, fast service, interesting things, and most importantly, magical food. That, combined with the influx of adventurers into Liscor meant that her inn was a hotspot. Having a magical door leading to Celum helped.

Indeed, it would be more surprising if Erin’s inn hadn’t become so famous. After all, Drakes and Gnolls might not like Humans that much, but who could resist going for a five minute walk and then popping into another city to see what the smelly Humans were up to? And when you were tired of that, you could have a drink or quick bite on the way back. You didn’t have to wait—the inn had food pre-prepared that only needed warming up before it was hot and ready to eat!

Some might go as far to say that Erin’s inn was now a huge concern for the other inns in Liscor and Celum. Erin’s current set of Skills had made her inn three times as attractive as every other inn. Well, except for Peslas’ inn, the Tailless Thief. It was still a byword for Drakes in Liscor, but it was specialized. Erin’s inn accepted everyone.

Everyone. From [Farmers] who stopped by for some food and a break from the cold, to [Guardsmen] and [Guardswomen] from Celum and Liscor who had learned that Erin had a soft spot for their kind. They sat and diced and laughed at tables next to [Merchants] who might be playing games of Chess and keeping an ear open for saleable news. However, these were all minority populations. The clientele that dominated Erin’s inn at the moment were all of a different kind.

They stood out. They were the insane, the suicidal, and the reckless. Or, they could be deliberate, cautious, and mindful of the socioeconomic value of their class and be willing to take calculated risks for ample rewards. Either way, there was a broad name for them.


Right now they were filling most of Erin’s tables, staring at the Antinium Workers who were measuring the walls, shouting for drinks, and trying to eat plates full of Erin’s magical cooking. It was excellent stuff all had to admit—downing a plate could make you stronger, tougher, or immune to the biting cold winds. However, it was also regarded as a punishment game of sorts; Erin still hadn’t perfected the recipe, and more than a few weak-stomached adventurers were swallowing their snail-based Strength Soufflé hard.

Yes, a few silver coins and you could be strong enough to wrestle a Corusdeer with your hands—so long as you minded the horns. That was a great service—and a danger. Halrac lifted up a glob of the blue Scale Soup he’d been served and stared at it grimly. He opened his mouth, swallowed the spoonful, and scraped the wooden bowl without a change in his expression.

He didn’t have to. Revi, watching him, was making enough faces for the both of them.

“That is disgusting, Halrac. How can you stand eating that?”

“You’re eating it too, Revi. No objections.”

“I’d rather you poked a few needles through my head!”


Halrac pushed the second bowl over to Revi. The [Summoner] Stitch Girl picked up a spoon reluctantly. She eyed the soup and kept complaining, much to Halrac’s displeasure.

“Why can’t I eat the Strength Soufflé? That at least looks palatable.”

“It’s got snails in it.”

Ew! How does Erin serve this stuff?”

“Because it works. Eat.”

Revi did so, reluctantly. She kept making faces, although the blue stuff really wasn’t that bad tasting. Taste-wise, it was actually pleasant. It just had a terrible appearance, texture, consistency, and smell.

“Remind me why we’re eating this stuff? What about the Corusdeer Scramble? That tastes good and it would keep us warm.”

Halrac opened his mouth to snap at her, but a big head leaned over and interrupted him. Ulrien, the mild-mannered leader of Griffon Hunt, raised two fingers as he spoke.

“Two reasons, Revi. One, Erin’s enchantments only work one at a time. Second, if it’s a choice between the three she’s offering—strength, defense, or cold resistance, we’re all getting the defense.”

“Lots of these young adventurers are getting the Soufflé.”

“Yes, they are.”

Halrac glanced around. Erin’s Strength Soufflé could be seen on almost every table. Who wouldn’t like to be stronger for a few hours? It was a great feeling, and it was a fun trick to challenge a friend to an arm-wrestling competition and then give them a sore arm. Some of the adventurers wearing cheap leather armor and bearing shabby weapons were flexing their arms and grinning at each other. They’d probably never been able to afford an enchantment before and were savoring the moment.


At least Revi could understand what the rest of her group was thinking. The Stitch Girl shook her head as she spooned soup into her mouth. She grimaced, but for once it wasn’t about the food.

“I wonder how many of them will get killed because they think they’re invincible? Does Erin know how many of these idiots are going out and getting slaughtered by monsters?”

“If she doesn’t, don’t tell her.”

Halrac looked warningly at Revi. The Stitch Girl glared at him as she took a drink from her mug. It was no secret within Griffon Hunt that Halrac had a soft spot for Erin…in his own peculiar way. She opened her mouth to needle him, changed her mind when Ulrien looked at her, and gave up.

“If Bronze-rank adventurers are dying, it’s because they overestimate their abilities or underestimate their opponents. That’s how it’s always been. Smart adventurers will know that these enchantments are a useful tool, not an all-powerful spell.”

Revi and Halrac nodded silently. Ulrien glanced around and grunted. His passive face turned into a frown.

“Still, there are a lot of them.”

The three members of Griffon Hunt looked around. The inn was packed with adventurers. As they watched, a group of them tossed some coins onto the table and made for the door to Celum. They were probably going to exterminate some monsters nearby. Another group of armed warriors were eating the Corusdeer Scramble with pleasure while they tried to cram a hot Soufflé into their packs for later. That was amusing to watch.

However…there was a large group in the center of the room that looked ready for a fight now. They were checking each other’s gear, and Halrac’s keen eyes placed them squarely as a mix of Silver-rank and Bronze-rank adventurers. There were about twenty packed onto four tables, and one of them stood up with a mug in his hands.

“We will descend into the dungeon through the rift today! Today, Petra’s Bane, Twinfold Daggers, and…”

Halrac tuned the speaker out. He didn’t need to hear the rest, or listen to the adventurers cheering their leader. He turned to Revi and Ulrien.

“Another group heading into the dungeon? Are they insane?”

Revi and Ulrien just stared at Halrac. The [Scout] didn’t really need an answer either. He understood the thinking of the cheering adventurers, though he condemned it.

After the wild success of Vuliel Drae, the wild fervor surrounding Liscor’s Dungeon had reignited itself. It had gone out for a while. A new dungeon was one thing, but the first few rooms were so dangerous that it was a death sentence for anyone but an experienced Silver or Gold-rank team to attempt those first few steps.

But this new entry into the dungeon through the rift in the snow? That was something else. And Vuliel Drae had come out with a weapon worthy of a Gold-rank adventurer, or perhaps a Named Adventurer. The Mace of Howling had sold for thousands of gold coins already, and ignited the passions of every adventurer within three hundred miles. The thought was on everyone’s mind. If one group could find a weapon of that caliber from one scouting attempt, what treasures were lost below? Just one such item could set up an adventurer for life.

Halrac was familiar with that way of thinking. He’d been in the same boat over a decade ago, a poor Bronze-rank adventurer scrabbling for work. However, he and the rest of Griffon Hunt realized the danger in that line of thought. Liscor’s Dungeon was not to be underestimated.

The adventuring group was listening to another impassioned speech, from one of the other team leaders. Halrac was familiar with that as well. Adventurers were people too; they needed to psych themselves up before they risked their lives. He turned back to the rest of his group, and addressed the trio sitting at the table next to theirs.

“Alright, where did we go wrong?”

“Excuse me?”

Jelaqua Ivirith looked up from her bowl of Scale Soup. The other two members of her group, the Halfseekers, looked up as well. All three were eating from their bowls of blue sludge. They’d been laughing and trying to play chess together, but Halrac’s comment made them sit up.

The Halfseekers. Ulrien gave Halrac a reproving glance for interrupting their conversation. Halrac didn’t acknowledge it. They were supposed to be working together. The Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt had agreed to join forces to tackle this dungeon. If they were a team, they should talk like one.

“I’m asking where we went wrong. Why are all these Bronze-rank teams getting ahead of us?

Halrac growled as he reached for a bowl of walnuts. That was Erin’s newest attempt to add ‘cool stuff’ to her inn. He cracked one of the walnuts one-handed and flicked the pieces into a second bowl. Jelaqua and the Halfseekers turned obligingly to listen as the [Scout] aired his grievances.

“We have more levels in our team than that entire group does between them. How are we still struggling to get past the first set of trapped rooms?”

The other adventurers shared a look. Jelaqua edged her chair forwards and then leaned back in it until it rested on the table behind her. She looked incredibly pleased at this development; Halrac thought it was juvenile.

But that was the way the Halfseekers worked. Griffon Hunt prided itself on being a group that valued teamwork, planning, and serious commitment in the field. By contrast, the Halfseekers…not two seconds ago, Seborn and Jelaqua had had a contest seeing who could down their bowl of Scale Soup faster. They were too relaxed for Halrac’s liking. However, he had to admit that they were competent.

Both groups knew of each other’s reputation. They were sometimes competitors, sometimes adversaries in the same field. So when Moore spoke, Halrac listened.

“I feel bad for these new adventurers, Halrac. I do not feel they’re getting ahead of us. Rather, I’m worried about their inexperience. Vuliel Drae’s success was a mistake. They survived the dungeon thanks to the mysterious masked swordswoman, not through their own efforts, or so I understand.”

“Yeah. Her.”

Halrac grunted. He’d heard the stories too. There was a Named Adventurer down in the dungeon, was there? Someone who’d gotten past all the traps and entered the dungeon without anyone seeing? Hardly likely, but Vuliel Drae had sworn on truth spells it was true.

One of the Halfseekers seemed to believe in the swordswoman’s existence, at any rate. Seborn leaned forwards, and Halrac glanced at the armored half of the Drowned Man’s face, noting the way the crustacean shell blended with his skin. Seborn seemed immune to the scrutiny as he sipped from the mug of water and spoke.

It has to be true. The dungeon is too dangerous for Silver-rank adventurers to survive a trip down there without being overwhelmed. We’ve all gone head-to-head with the traps. We teamed up because they’re that bad. This dungeon’s not like the other ones. It’s nasty.

Nasty. That was one word for it. The other Gold-rank adventurers shifted in their seats. Ulrien nodded.

“I’ve been in several dungeons before. Not deep, and not when they were just discovered, but I’ve seen where the traps used to be and fought their monster populations. They’re nothing like this dungeon. This dungeon feels like it wasn’t meant just to hide treasure. It feels like…”

“Like a huge trap. Yeah. I’m calling it. This one’s a vengeance dungeon.”

Jelaqua drained her mug and slammed it down on the table. The Selphid sighed and pushed her bowl back. Halrac studied her dead features silently. He was in agreement.

“Vengeance dungeon?”

Revi was confused. Halrac glanced at her and remembered that she was new. Ulrien and Halrac had hired her and Typhenous into Griffon Hunt, and both [Mages] were competent, but Revi wasn’t nearly as old or experienced as the other three men. He let Ulrien explain.

“Dungeons come in several types, Revi. I know [Mages] study which empire built them and their composition and so on—adventurers have a simpler system. Dungeons are either for containment, future generations, or as an act of vengeance.”

“Interesting terms. What’s the difference between the three?”

Halrac pushed Revi’s bowl of unfinished soup towards her as Ulrien explained. The Stitch Girl sighed, but ate as Ulrien talked.

“Containment dungeons are meant to contain something. Simple enough; it could be a threat, a natural resource too valuable to let someone else get ahold of…I once saw a dungeon that had been built solely to combat Vampires. It was more like a fortress that made use of light-based traps and spells.”

“Okay. Then future generations…?”

Jelaqua grinned.

“Dungeons built with traps that test people entering. Say an empire’s about collapse. Well, they want to leave something behind, right? Only, the people who build the dungeons want their shiny magical artifacts to go to the deserving. So they build a dungeon which only the best can enter. That way, future generations can follow a handy map and get through the traps, or a brave adventuring group can fight their way through and retrieve past glories. Just a way for the previous generations to help us out.”

“I get it. Then a vengeance dungeon’s what happens when…what? You have angry ancestors?”

Revi frowned. Jelaqua nodded. She grimaced.

“Yep. They’re what you get when the empire or civilization doesn’t feel like being nice to future generations. So they build a dungeon with their best artifacts sealed away—I mean, where else would you put them?—but they put the nastiest traps and monster eggs down there. So when someone cracks the lid on the dungeon, a thousand ravening Crelers crawl out and eat their faces off.”

“Great. And that’s what we’re up against? Remind me why we’re not hunting Griffins? That’s what I signed up for.”

The Stitch Girl pushed her empty bowl back, looking upset. Ulrien sighed, but Halrac decided to answer this time. He saw Ulrien’s warning look, but he could be encouraging too.

“Just because the dungeon’s designed to kill, it doesn’t mean there’s no point entering it, Revi. We’re looking for treasure, and it’s down there. The mace is proof of that. The only difference is that this dungeon’s out to get us. So we need to be wary. And fast. Which is why I’m asking why these amateurs are—”

The [Scout] broke off when he realized someone was standing behind him. He turned in his seat and glared at the leader of the adventurers he’d just been insulting. The young Drake must have come over and he’d been too busy complaining to notice. Halrac scowled, more upset that he’d let his guard down than anything else.


“Uh, pardon me, but you’re Halrac the Grim, aren’t you?”

Halrac hated that name. He growled at the Drake, eying him from head to tail.


The young Drake was wearing iron armor, but he had a steel sword. He was probably Silver-rank, but Halrac would put him on the lower end of that spectrum. Still, he was bold enough to approach the Gold-rank adventurers, which most Human adventurers wouldn’t have the courage for. He smiled nervously as Halrac stared at him.

“Sorry, but you might have heard. We’re heading into the dungeon—we uh, were hoping you had some words for us? Some advice, maybe? Tips?”

The other Gold-rank adventurers shifted. Revi raised her eyebrows and shook her head, not trying to hide her incredulity. Ulrien sighed. Drakes and Gnoll adventurers clearly weren’t like Human ones. No group of adventurers up north would be this bold—they were keenly aware of the hierarchy and unwritten rules, one of which was not to bother the veterans.

Not that Griffon Hunt was into hazing adventurers. But asking for advice? Halrac just stared at the young Drake. He was ready to tell him no and turn away, but Jelaqua sat up. She smiled and gave voice to the feeling shared between all the Gold-rank adventurers.

“I’d be ready to run, kids. Maybe write a letter to your loved ones, if you have any. Best advice? Don’t go down. You’re going to die.”

She nodded at the listening adventurers, who’d gone silent. Jelaqua gave them a friendly smile, her pale, dead lips at once friendly and horrific.

“A strength enchantment’s no good down in the dungeon, not against traps or monsters ambushing you. Don’t go down. Find another quest, level up, and come back when you’re all Silver-rank, or better yet, Gold. We wouldn’t go into the dungeon through the rift, and we know what we’re about. That’s my advice. Take it or leave it.”

The inn had gone silent at Jelaqua’s words. Halrac looked around and saw a lot of the adventurers looking nervous. But one of them, drunk on bravado and alcohol, raised his voice.

“Hah! You’re just afraid we’ll get to the treasure first! What kind of an adventurer’s a Selphid, anyways? A body stealing coward doesn’t know anything about Drake bravery!”

“Or Gnoll courage!”

Another adventurer raised his paw, and the other adventurers around him cheered. Jelaqua shrugged, looking slightly hurt, but more resigned. Seborn nudged her as she sat and Moore frowned, which was as good as one of Halrac’s scowls.

Selphids got that reaction. But this was passing beyond rude. Jelaqua was a Gold-rank adventurer. The Drake leader shouted down his companions, and turned to Halrac, smiling as if they were friends.

“What about you, Mister Halrac?”

“You heard her. You’re going to die.”

The Drake’s smile vanished. He stared at Halrac, as if expecting the [Scout] to smile. But Halrac’s face didn’t change. He folded his arms.

The Drake looked around the table, hoping perhaps for a second opinion. He got none. Revi raised an eyebrow and Ulrien shook his head. Both Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers stared silently at the adventurers. They lost their bravado. In the silence, the leader turned.

“Let’s—let’s go.”

They left the inn quietly. Halrac wished they had stayed, or that they turned towards Liscor, rather than north, towards the second dungeon entrance. He had a feeling he would not see their faces again.

“Our turn.”

Halrac stood up in the silent inn. He nodded towards the door and the Gold-rank adventurers went with them. They walked west out of the inn, towards Liscor and the small, fortified tunnel leading downwards. They were going to the dungeon too. The only difference was that they were ready for it.




Typhenous caught the silent group of Gold-rank adventurers as they were halfway towards the unearthed entrance to Liscor’s dungeon. The [Mage] had been in the city finishing an errand, but they had agreed to meet at this time.

“Why the dour expressions? Has Halrac been talking to all of you too long?”

The [Mage] was in good spirits, but he sobered slightly when he heard about the adventurers trying the dungeon. Typhenous sighed and stroked at his grey beard.

“I had heard of other adventurers attempting to emulate Vuliel Drae’s success. How distressing.”

“They might make it.”

Jelaqua offered the idea up as an idle hope, but Halrac shook his head.

“Too many adventurers. A smaller group might have a chance, but a large one like that generates too much noise and attention. They’ll be attacked at once. Best case is that some of them make it back up.”

“Up a set of ropes that stretches over a hundred feet down? They’ll be lucky if they don’t lose a few just falling, with all that they were carrying. Unless one of them knows [Featherfall].”

“The issue is that their way out is too dangerous. And they’re entering into the middle of the dungeon. If they don’t secure their exit out and make sure they’re not swarmed from behind…”

Amateurs. This is why you go in from the front. Shortcuts just get you killed.

Seborn’s sigh was the last word on the matter. Griffon Hunt began to discuss their latest developments as the Halfseekers listened in silence. They trudged through the snow, grilling Typhenous about their latest contingency plan. That was the difference between experienced adventurers and the reckless dead. Gold-rank adventurers always made plans.

“I was in the city, requesting a shipment of specialized lodestones. You see, young Pisces had the notion of connecting Miss Solstice’s magical door to more than one location. However, as Moore and I discovered, such a feat is impossible, at least, without proper anchoring points.”

“Makes sense to me.”

Revi nodded while Halrac shook his head.

“Explain it simpler, Typhenous.”

He had no time for [Mage]-talk. Typhenous sighed. He liked to pontificate.

“Very well. We cannot link the door to multiple spots because it is too difficult. Thus, we need magical beacons—ways to differentiate between locations. Thus, the lodestones. Moore had the idea of devising some sort of mechanism by which the door could be attuned to each stone, creating multiple connections. We shall attempt to change the enchantment when the stones arrive.”

Ulrien nodded, as did Halrac. That they could understand, at least in part. Griffon Hunt’s leader frowned.

“So an emergency teleportation stone like Erin was talking about—”

Typhenous shook his head.

“Impossible until my delivery arrives. It should get here, or rather, to Celum, within the week. I was unwilling to pay a Courier for the stones, given their price and our needs.”

Halrac sighed. The magical artifact Erin had described—an emergency escape device—sounded incredibly useful, although he wasn’t sure if it would work in the dungeon’s magically charged atmosphere. However, it was worth looking into. Such a tool would allow both Gold-rank teams to breathe easier. There was nothing an adventurer feared more than being trapped.

“We don’t need the artifact that badly, but if it looks like we’re heading into a particularly dangerous spot, I’d rather pull back and try to get an emergency escape…lodestone…ready. We have time.”

Ulrien was talking with Typhenous and the others, advocating for caution again. Moore nodded, tapping one huge lip with his fingers.

“If it comes to that, I’m sure Miss Solstice will oblige us. But you don’t think it will be that dangerous today?”

“Not if it’s more of the same. Ah, here we are.”

They’d reached the entrance to the dungeon. The official entrance, so to speak. It was guarded by the city. A group of sixteen guardsmen, armed with bows and spears and one who looked like a [Mage] were waiting under a tent. They were watching the entrance to the dungeon from behind a small wooden rampart. It had a row of sharpened stakes thrust into the ground in front of the wall and enough space for the [Guardsmen] to loose arrows and jab spears at whatever might come out of the dungeon.

“Hello there! We’d like to enter the dungeon!”

Typhenous called up to the [Guardsmen] huddled beneath the tent. Some were sipping hot drinks and they all looked miserable in the cold. One of the Drakes twitched his tail.

“You lot again? The uh…Griffon Hunt team and Halfseekers? Alright, go on through.”

“Is there anyone else down there?”

Ulrien looked at the dungeon for tracks, but the [Guardsmen] shook his head.

“Not today. All you adventurers are too interested in the rift. Suits us. The less of you that go down, the fewer things that come back up. But if you want to go in…be our guests.”

Ulrien nodded. Jelaqua was already hopping over the edge of the ramparts—the Drakes had neglected to build a gate into the defensive fortifications—and Moore was eying the drop.

“I would like to avoid the spikes and squashing you, Jelaqua. Give me more room.”

As Halrac walked up the rampart, he watched Moore jump, and then offer a hand to Revi and Typhenous. The two other [Mages] let the half-Giant guide their descent, rather than fall. Ulrien leapt, and the Drake [Guardsmen] spoke to Halrac. He nodded to the tunnel the Antinium had dug, that lead down to the double doors that marked the start of the dungeon.

“I’ve seen adventuring groups go in and come out. More go in than come out, obviously. But your group’s Gold-rank, right? You go in and come out almost every day? What are you doing down there?”

Halrac grunted.

“Being cautious.”

He leapt, and the Drake [Guardsman] rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, I got that. Lousy Humans…”

He turned away, muttering, as Griffon Hunt and the Halfseekers descended into the dungeon.




This is what the Gold-rank teams did all day. They went into the dungeon after preparing, making plans, checking gear, and arguing. They moved slowly down the first corridor and stopped when they saw the room beyond. Halrac and Seborn, both of whom were taking point to scout for traps, held up hands and the group stopped.

Both Halrac and Seborn scouted the room, taking care not to enter it and only look into it. There didn’t seem to be much to see. The room was empty and nondescript. Halrac saw the wide, grey tiles of stone continue seamlessly into the room. The walls were some kind of faded beige, made of simple stone. Any unsuspecting individual might have taken the room as harmless, but Halrac wasn’t fooled. Beyond the first corridor was where the dungeon’s traps began. This first room was certainly trapped.

Seborn nodded to the empty room beyond. He’d found a red mark on the wall, a stripe of very bright paint.

Looks like the same room as before. We’ve cleared this one.

“You have? I’m not familiar with it.”

Halrac had seen many of the dungeon’s trapped rooms. They appeared each time you went down the corridor, and what was worse, changed each time you entered the dungeon. There were any number of rooms you could enter, and so you had to be extremely careful not to assume one room was like a previous one.

However, the Gold-rank adventurers were familiar with dungeons and knew how to take precautions. Seborn nodded to the paint, which was a horizontal slash with a vertical line to the left.

This one’s a spike trap. Simple, but deadly. I’ll trigger it. You stay back.

He walked into the center of the room and slowed. Seborn took two steps as the other adventurers watched—then threw himself to the ground.

The ceiling fell. A series of phantasmal spikes, glowing ghostly pink-white, shot down through the suddenly low ceiling, almost brushing the top of Seborn’s head. Halrac heard Revi inhale as the magical blades shimmered in the air.


Seborn spoke. Halrac moved aside as Jelaqua stepped forwards. The Selphid was holding her two-handed flail. She threw it out across the floor and Seborn turned and grasped hold of one of the chains. Jelaqua pulled and Seborn shot back across the floor while the spikes waited menacingly a few feet over his head.

Halrac helped the [Rogue] up as Seborn patted himself and rubbed the top of his head. The Drowned Man seemed barely fazed. He nodded at Halrac, one trap expert to another.

That scared the life out of me the first time it happened. I’m not too happy about it the second time.

Halrac was impressed by Seborn’s courage…and a bit disturbed that he’d chosen to throw himself into danger. He would have found a way to trigger the trap without entering the room, but the Halfseekers were more direct. Revi stared at the blades and the lowered ceiling, looking pale.

“Do the blades last forever? What about the celling? Do we have to crawl our way to the next room?”

“Nope. Wait for it—”

Jelaqua was barring anyone from going into the room, for good reason. The ceiling spikes were still lowered when Halrac felt his [Dangersense] tingle and then a second set of ghostly blades shot up from the ground. They would have impaled Seborn or anyone else who’d been lucky enough to avoid the ceiling. Typhenous and Ulrien muttered as Revi swore quietly.

The Halfseekers had already seen the trap and just shook their heads. Halrac grimaced at the trap.

“Simple, but deadly. That second layer of spikes is malicious—and probably overkill.”

“The difference between a dungeon designed for vengeance and one that’s not?”

Revi looked at the others and got a nod from Seborn and Halrac. Having seen the trap, the adventurers drew back to confer.

“The trap’s got a timer of around one hour before it resets, and the spikes are smaller…the spell probably needs more time to fully recharge. We can keep triggering it each time we go through, but if the aim of all of this is to clear all the rooms going in so we’ve got a way out, we can’t have that trap still here.”

“I agree. Can any of you dispel it?”

Jelaqua and Ulrien were both of the same opinion. Typhenous, Revi, and Moore were all inspecting the spell, but it was apparently hidden in the ceiling. Seborn and Halrac were in their own conference, inspecting the room now the spikes were gone. Both [Scout] and [Rogue] were ready to leap to safety if the trap reactivated, but their Skills were telling them they were safe for the moment.

“I’m of the opinion the trap is magical. It activates the moment I cross this threshold. See?”

Seborn was talking to Halrac. The [Scout] nodded. He could see a faint aura around the part of the room Seborn had described.

“Cross that line and step anywhere in the room and the trap activates. Want to try breaking the floor?”

“Worth a shot. Do you have a hammer?”

“Allow me.”

Ulrien stepped forwards and both Seborn and Halrac retreated. The big [Warrior] took his greatsword out and gripped the blade with both of his gauntleted hands. Using the hilt of his sword like a hammer, he cracked the stone floor with a mighty strike.

“Hm. Not spelled against strikes. Will that do it?”

Carefully, Ulrien inspected his greatsword as Halrac and Seborn knelt by the cracked stones. Ulrien’s blade was enchanted, but he obsessed over it. Halrac nodded as he saw no aura around the stones.

“That does it. Let’s tear up the room and see if that deactivates the trap.”

So they did. Moore and Jelaqua and Ulrien began hitting the ground, Moore with his staff, Jelaqua with her flail, and Ulrien with his greatsword. All three could break the stone and Halrac, Seborn, Revi, and Typhenous helped clear the rubble away.

No one used a hammer. A sledgehammer was less useful than an enchanted weapon. You could swing Ulrien’s greatsword all day and not chip the blade or hilt, whereas a sledgehammer would eventually break.

It was hard on the hands, though. Twice Ulrien had to take a break and massage his hands. Half-swording, as the technique he was using was known, was not meant for repeated strikes like a hammer.

By the time an hour had passed, half of the room was destroyed and the smooth tiled flooring had been broken away and a rougher surface had been exposed. Seborn once again entered the room and very cautiously walked from side to side, testing to see if the trigger mechanism for the spell had been successfully destroyed.

It had. However, that didn’t meant everyone crossed through the room at once. Halrac carefully entered the room and did the same test as Seborn, senses alert for anything suspicious. Only after he was done did he let both teams go through one at a time.

That was the first room. The second was a pit trap nearly thirty feet deep. Halrac showed the Halfseekers where he and the rest of his team had strung up a rope bridge to cross without having to touch the ground. The third room was filled with books on shelves—they were supposed to explode when read. The adventurers walked past them without touching any of the tomes.

The fourth room they came to was unfamiliar to both Seborn and Halrac. It was locked by a door, and after determining the door itself wasn’t trapped, Halrac and Seborn carefully opened the door and gazed into a circular room with a grating floor and very dark pit.

“I’m not going in there.”

Me neither. Think the door closes after someone goes in?

“Obviously. Let’s take it off.”

Some traps were predictable. Halrac motioned Ulrien over and explained what they wanted to do. Ulrien sighed and grabbed the door’s edge. He was incredibly strong—strong enough to swing around his greatsword like it was nothing, and Halrac had seen Ulrien beat a Minotaur in arm-wrestling once. But no matter how hard Ulrien strained, the door wouldn’t budge.

“Allow me to help.”

Moore had to duck his head as he grabbed the door with one hand. He and Ulrien pulled at the door and now Halrac heard creaking as the door and its hinges fought with the wall of the dungeon to be freed.

“Room for one more?”

Jelaqua handed her flail to Seborn and stepped up, edging between Ulrien and Moore. Between the three strongest adventurers, the door was beginning to come loose. Ulrien grunted.

“Ready? One, two, three, heave—

The three adventurers pushed, and with a crack of breaking stone, the door broke off its hinges and they let it crash to the ground. Rubbing at their arms, they let Seborn and Halrac inspect the room again.

“Enchanted doors. As if they didn’t expect us to pull each one off. Waste of time.”

Halrac grunted. Seborn nodded.

Waste of time. And I bet the door’s not got more than a protection spell on it. Still, it might be worth taking back with us.

“Why? Who needs a door with a protection spell?”

Someone might pay some gold for it. You must admit, enchanted doors aren’t cheap. If worst comes to worst, some Bronze-rank adventurer can use it as a shield.

The dry comment made Halrac grin unwillingly. He got along with Seborn, which wasn’t surprising as both occupied the same role in their party. Seborn nodded at the center of the room.

“Ah, I see. It’s a pressure mechanism.”

“You think so?”

Halrac was surprised. He hadn’t seen any magical aura that would have indicated a detection spell, but he hadn’t noticed the way the grate was wired to a spring until Seborn pointed out the tiny grooves where the grating would descend to trigger the trap. Halrac shook his head, grateful for a second pair of eyes.

“Simple trigger. Typhenous, I need a ball of webbing. Heavy. Unless Revi wants to use one of her summoned creatures as a test?”

“Spare me.”

Revi rolled her eyes as Typhenous spun out some sticky webs from his staff. The enchanted webbing would only last a few minutes, but it was a useful tool and one of the reasons why he was in Griffon Hunt.

“Mind if I add something to it? I can conjure grass, or grass clippings. If it’s weight you’re after, that might help.”

“By all means, Moore.”

The half-Giant tapped his staff and some magical grass and vines grew out of the stone. He carefully mixed that with the webbing and came up with a heavy ball of plant matter and webs. Halrac and Seborn rolled it to the door as they talked conversationally.

I haven’t had time to see Revi fight. She’s your second [Mage], right?

“[Summoner], actually. She can conjure spirits of Stitch-warriors or summon other creatures. It’s useful, but not when we’re disarming traps. Her summoned creatures can’t think for themselves.”

Ah. Here we go. Would you like to do the honors?


Halrac kicked the ball of heavy matter into the room. He saw the grating descend fractionally, and then both he and Seborn leapt backwards.

So that’s the trap.

“Yep. Acid mist.”

Halrac and Seborn backed up into the previous room as all the Gold-rank adventurers drew back. A very fine spray of colorless liquid was shooting down from above. It didn’t affect the stone or metal, but the instant it struck the plants and webbing, the ball began smoking and disintegrating with a subtle hiss.

Jelaqua shook her head as the others waited for the trap to finish its work. As a warrior, she and Ulrien were of the least use in this situation. She leaned against a wall with Ulrien, ready to help if called upon, but mostly alert for a monster sneaking up around them. Since they were fairly confident no monsters existed in the trapped rooms they’d passed through, she allowed herself a short conversation.

“How many more rooms are like this, do you think?”

Ulrien shrugged his broad shoulders as he watched the acid make the stone walls slick with moisture.

“Impossible to say. But there has to be a limited number. Once we’re through here, we can be sure our exit’s safe. Unless there’s a teleportation trap hidden on the way back?”

He looked at the other [Mages], all of whom shook their heads. Typhenous tapped the walls with his staff.

“I have been checking for that diligently, as per your orders, Ulrien.”

“As have I.”

Moore nodded. Reassured, Ulrien looked at Revi. She shrugged, looking embarrassed and annoyed.

“Not my specialty! I told you that Ulrien! But I haven’t seen anything either.”

He nodded. The adventurers sat back when it became apparent the acid wasn’t stopping anytime soon. They began to chatter idly while they waited. Other, less-experienced groups might have stayed on their feet or tried to find something to do, but the Gold-rank teams knew patience was their biggest asset.

“Acid mist. Great. Didn’t Erin say she used to sell acid?”

“Sell acid? You must have heard her wrong.”

“I’d believe anything of her. Want to try and bottle it up?”

“It’s magical acid. It’ll disappear after a few minutes.”


“I hate traps like these. What’s the point? A few seconds of acid and you’re dead. Why waste spell power keeping it going?”

“I guess in case someone casts a spell. The acid probably wears away at magical protections too. If you’ve got an enchanted cloak for instance, this is probably when the acid eats away.”

“Nasty. Hey, anyone want some food?”

“You brought a snack? What’s the point? We’re five seconds away from Liscor.”

“I get munchy when I’m bored, and this is boring. Toasted baguette anyone? I’ll share. Ham and cheese. Erin made it for me.”

I’ll have some.

“Well, if you’re offering…”

Jelaqua split her sandwich with Typhenous and Seborn. As they ate, Ulrien looked over at his counterpart. Jelaqua’s white face was pale as death, and she was unmistakably a corpse, but there was still life behind the eyes. Literally.

“You lot are very relaxed, especially in the middle of a dungeon.”

She grinned at him, chewing and swallowing her meal. Part of Halrac wondered whether Jelaqua could taste the food she ate—then he remembered her complaining about trying to keep her body’s taste buds fresh so she could enjoy food.

“Shouldn’t we be? What’s the use of tensing up?”

“We like tense. And serious. Halrac and I are both former soldiers—and we hunt Griffins. Idle chatter in the field can alert our quarry and get us all killed.”

“Right, that’s in the name of your group. I wish we were so efficient.”

“No you don’t. You’d quit if you couldn’t talk every two seconds.”

Moore nudged Jelaqua with one finger. She grinned and swatted at him.

“Okay, I wish I was that efficient.”

“Each to their own. It’s not like the Halfseekers don’t get the job done.”

“True. Hey, was that a compliment? From Halrac the Grim no less. Hah!”

Jelaqua laughed and Halrac scowled. She waved at him.

“Don’t take it so personally. I’m happy to hear that, really. And I wish I had a title. All I get called is ‘corpse snatcher’ and ‘body thief’, and all Selphids get called that.”

“I didn’t ask for my title. Ulrien doesn’t have a nickname. There’s no reason for me to have one if you don’t.”

Halrac snapped and rose. The acid had stopped, although the walls were still wet. He went to study the room with Seborn while Jelaqua turned to Ulrien. The Selphid looked concerned.

“I didn’t mean to offend him.”

Ulrien grimaced, looking at his friend’s back.

“Don’t take it personally. Halrac just doesn’t like the attention. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“Yeah, well, you know how titles go. We don’t choose them, other people do. And you have to admit, it suits him.”

Jelaqua winked slyly at Halrac, whose shoulders had tensed up. Ulrien smiled and covered it with a hand.

“He has a point, though. Halrac’s one of the best [Scouts] on the continent, and probably one of the best ones working as an adventurer, but he’s hardly as noticeable as your team is. Come to that, the Halfseekers have more of a reputation in the south than Griffon Hunt does.”

“Aw. Stop. You’re making me blush. See my orange cheeks?”

Tickled, Jelaqua laughed and pointed to her cheeks, which were indeed glowing slightly orange. Ulrien smiled and Typhenous leaned forwards, chewing aggressively while crumbs fell into his beard.

“Ulrien does have a point, though. I’m quite old, but the Halfseekers have been around for a long time, haven’t they, Miss Ivirith? I wouldn’t be surprised if you were older than I was. When I was young, I remember hearing you’d come from Baleros as a Silver-rank adventurer. I recall a time when the Halfseekers were one of the best Gold-rank teams on the continent. There were seven of you back then, weren’t there?”

Jelaqua stopped laughing. She lost her smile, and Ulrien saw Moore sit up slightly. The two Halfseekers looked at each other wordlessly. Typhenous coughed.

“Forgive me if I misspoke. I did not mean to pry.”

Adventurer deaths were common, but each party remembered their own differently. Halrac and Ulrien had buried more than a few friends, and it was courtesy not to bring up the fallen. But Jelaqua shook her head. She put her hands on her knees and sat cross-legged as Moore rested his weight on his staff, looking tired.

“Eight. There were eight of us, not too long ago. We were great, yeah. We thought we could become a Named Adventuring team. None of us were on that level of course, but together? We could have taken down a nest of adult Crelers and fought our way through a trio of Wyverns like that.”

She snapped her fingers softly. Halrac and Seborn half-turned—they were trying to saw through parts of the grate. Jelaqua waved a hand and they turned away.

The other adventurers sat a bit closer. Revi scooted over, looking concerned.

“What happened then? If you don’t mind telling. I remember hearing the Halfseekers had lost a lot of their group, but I never heard what happened.”

Typhenous cleared his throat gently.

“I ah, heard it was in relation to the Sepicus Delve, where you fought through the caverns and looted the swallowed treasures…?”

“Close, but not quite.”

Jelaqua grinned and then shook her head, closing her eyes and frowning sadly. Moore’s head was lowered.

“It was actually after that. We got chewed up down there, but we came back, all eight of us. I was wounded and needed a new body, Moore was too hurt to walk and needed the poisons leeched out of him before he could be healed and Seborn was asleep when it happened. Our other five members were checking over our loot when a fight broke out.”

“Over treasure? But that’s such a rookie…”

Revi broke off at Ulrien’s glance. Fighting over magical artifacts was a typical end to many groups, but he had a feeling that wasn’t what Jelaqua was referring to.

He was right. Jelaqua shook her head.

“If it was a quarrel over treasure…no. This was different. It was betrayal, pure and simple. One of our own turned on us. He slaughtered three of our own and fled with everything we’d found. We went after him of course, but we never found him. And we lost the fifth in another adventure soon after. Moore, Seborn and I are all that’s left.”

Silence fell after Jelaqua’s story. Ulrien stared at the Selphid.

“That is odd. Fighting over an artifact is one thing, but killing? Was what you recovered so valuable?”

“No! And that’s the damned thing!”

She struck her leg repeatedly, brushing her dead flesh until Moore grabbed her hand. He spoke while Jelaqua looked down.

“I am afraid the matter isn’t so cut and dried, Ulrien. If it were just treasure our companion wanted…we might have given him all of it. We don’t discriminate if the needs of one of our group outweighs the other. But instead, our friend—”

“That bastard.”

Jelaqua muttered. Moore nodded.

“He ran with everything and killed our companions. Not because he feared we’d make him share, but, we think, to hide what was stolen.”

“An artifact of great power?”

Typhenous sat up, eyes alert. Moore nodded quietly.

“Or a secret.”

“And he’s still at large? Your companion? Who is he?”

Ulrien looked at Jelaqua. It seemed incredible that a Gold-rank adventurer could turn traitor and he not hear of it. Normally every adventurer within a thousand miles would receive a bounty on the head of the adventurer. The Adventurer’s Guild did not tolerate traitors. But Jelaqua and Moore paused.

“He’s alive, but there’s no bounty on him and no one knows he’s out there but us. We couldn’t tell anyone else except for our closest allies, and we had few of those even in the good days.”

“You can count us among them. If not to help, at least to listen.”

Ulrien spoke for his group. Jelaqua hesitated. She looked at Moore and he nodded. She sighed.

“Okay, but you’ll understand why we kept this secret. You know the Halfseekers are all about taking races that don’t quite fit? Not just half races like half-Elves or half-Giants like Moore…people like me. Selphids. Races that don’t quite fit with other groups. Well, our last member was really different. He was a Goblin.”

Revi gasped. There was a clang, and then an oath. Halrac, working in the room next door, had dropped his metal file in surprise. Of course he’d been listening as well. Ulrien stared at Jelaqua.

“No. A Goblin? How could that be possible? They’re savages.”

She shrugged tiredly.

“Looks like they are in the end. But our companion was a Hobgoblin, not an ordinary one, you know? He was as good as any Goblin Chieftain—better, actually. We always thought he was as good as a Goblin could get without being a Goblin Lord. His name was…Garen Redfang. We know he’s still alive. Got his own tribe now too, by the sounds of it.”

“Redfang. Redfang…I’ve heard of that tribe. It’s one of the Goblin tribes around the High Passes. It’s considered a danger to Gold-rank adventurers.”

Ulrien recalled the warnings. There were only a few Goblin tribes with that kind of warning, and the Redfang tribe had earned theirs by killing several Silver and Gold-rank teams that had gone after them. Jelaqua grimaced.

“That’s not surprising. Garen was…one of our best warriors. A natural leader, too. He’s a [Rider] and a [Warrior] and he’s got magical artifacts. Like any Gold-rank adventurer.”

“So he betrayed your team. Over what?”

“We don’t know!”

The Selphid spread her arms helplessly. She looked around at the others.

“We were wary of Garen, but he was with us for two years and saved all of our lives more than once. He was one of us, but when he found the treasure…I knew there was something wrong. But I can’t remember what we pulled out. I was almost dead and one of my eyes was missing—”

“Seborn remembers a key, a magical orb of some kind, some spell scrolls, a few magical weapons…it may be the key, but what would a Goblin know of keys? Their people don’t use keys and identifying the lock would be a tremendous task for the most well-informed [Spymaster]. If the key even had a lock. As for the rest…”

Moore shook his huge head. Ulrien and the others sat in silence for a while. In the distance, they heard Halrac and Seborn finally cut through the grating and send the entire contraption clanging into the pit below.

“If your companion’s a threat, he needs to be taken care of. Justice should be done for your fallen. After this dungeon…we could discuss it.”

Ulrien offered the suggestion to Jelaqua. She nodded tiredly. A bit of a smile crept back onto her face, which Ulrien was glad to see.

“Who knew Griffon Hunt was full of such softies? Don’t let it get out or Halrac’s reputation will be ruined. And don’t worry—we won’t let the past get in the way of the dungeon. To rebuild our group we need coin and treasure, and that’s what we’re here for.”

“But you won’t forget, will you?”

Revi spoke up. Ulrien looked at her and saw the Stich Girl’s hands were clenched. The String People valued their own highly, he recalled. No wonder Revi felt passionate. Jelaqua nodded slowly and Moore sat up. The gentle half-Giant’s eyes were shadowed.

“Don’t worry, we won’t forget. Ever. Garen knows it, which is why he’s always kept his head down. He’s on our list.”

With that, the conversation ended. Seborn and Halrac came back to report the trapped room had been cleared and they were constructing a bridge across the chasm to the next room. The Gold-ranked adventurers moved onto the next trapped room, and the next.

Six hours after they’d begun, the Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt emerged blinking back into the white, snowy world. They were covered in dirt, tired, hungry despite Jelaqua’s snack, and on-edge from dealing with traps and close calls.

One of the last traps had extended back into the corridor and one of the camouflaged wall scorpions had nearly stabbed Ulrien through the face. It had got Revi in the arm, but she’d pulled her arm off and had cut the envenomed cotton away. She still needed a healing potion though, and the pain from reattaching her arm and feeling the wound in her flesh for a few moments had made her more snappish than usual.

“Hold! Who goes there?”

“Us! It’s always us!”

Jelaqua shouted as the [Guardsmen] on the barricades heard them coming up the tunnel. After a pause they were allowed to continue, and the Gold-rank adventurers found a flurry of commotion on the wall. One of the Gnolls tossed down a ladder so the adventurers could climb up. The rest were packing up their gear and heading towards the city.

“What’s going on?”

Ulrien and the other adventurers were immediately alert. The Gnoll paused long enough to growl at them.

“Trouble. Something just crawled out of the second dungeon entrance! The Captain’s locking down the gates! If you want into the city, hurry!”

He loped off towards the gates. The adventurers looked at each other. Typhenous frowned.

“Up through the chasm? But that rift stretches down hundreds of feet—”

“Not a problem for some monsters, especially if they can fly. What should we do? I can scout the trouble.”

Halrac was looking at Ulrien. The big man considered their options. As Gold-rank adventurers they were expected to help in times of crisis, but that didn’t mean taking on every threat, especially when a city like Liscor could easily defend its walls from most enemies.

Revi shook her head as the Gold-rank adventurers conferred.

“It’s not our fight. Why invite trouble?”

“Erin’s inn isn’t within city limits. That’s all the trouble you need, especially if whatever’s out there decides they want an easier snack.”

Jelaqua pointed that out and Ulrien nodded. He turned to Halrac.


“I’m gone.”

The [Scout] charged through the snow, running fast despite the deep drifts as he scouted ahead. His Skills would let him see danger and avoid it which is why Ulrien let him go alone. Jelaqua was looking at Seborn.

“I could let Seborn—”

“Not necessary. Halrac’s a [Scout]. He can retreat if anything comes at him. Unless Seborn has similar Skills?”

“Point. Let’s get to Erin’s inn, then!”

The Gold-rank adventurers began marching hard through the snow, keeping an eye out for trouble. On the walls of Liscor, they saw Drakes and Gnolls running back and forth. The gates closed as a group of people streamed through it. The Gold-rank adventurers marched on, yet the monsters weren’t visible from their position on the snowy plains.

“There’s Halrac!”

Revi shouted as she saw the [Scout] racing towards them over a hill. Halrac waved his hand and pointed north—both teams of adventurers picked up the pace and met him halfway.

“Undead! Two Flesh Worms, two Crypt Lords—a score of Ghouls and lesser undead as well.”

“From that hole in the ground? How?”

Jelaqua demanded as Halrac took a few deep breaths. The [Scout] grimaced.

“It looks like they crawled up the hole somehow. They probably used the ropes those idiots left! I think the Flesh Worms carried both Crypt Lords. And the undead—I’m fairly certain they’re the group that left.”

“Damn it.”

Ulrien wasn’t one to curse often. He frowned as he looked towards the Wandering Inn in the distance. It was near Liscor, and it wasn’t a stretch to think the undead might target it.

“Didn’t Liscor have a big problem with a Flesh Worm one time? A special one?”

“Skinner. I’ve heard the stories. It got over the wall. Want to bet these ones can do the same?”

“No bets. I’m of the mind that we take the undead out rather than risk them attacking the inn or the city. If they killed that adventuring group, we can avenge them. It’s the right thing to do. What does your group think?”

Ulrien looked at Jelaqua. She grinned.

“We’re down for a fight. You leave one of the Flesh Worms to us—we’ll hit them from one side and you squeeze them from the other. That sound good?”

“Works for us.”

There was no time to come up with a detailed plan and besides, both teams didn’t need anything elaborate. The enemy wasn’t that dangerous. Ulrien gave rapid orders to his group, going over a plan of attack while they marched through the snow towards the rift.

“I want our worm immobilized. Revi can deal with the bulk of the lesser undead, and Halrac can support from the air.”

“You want him high up?”

Typhenous looked at Ulrien. Both Halrac and Ulrien nodded.

“There’s no ranged or aerial threats, aside from the Crypt Lords spitting black blood. You and Revi keep back while I engage the Crypt Lord. Just pour on spells from the side and we’ll be fine.”

“Got it.”

Both [Mages] nodded. Ulrien grunted, drew his greatsword, and picked up the pace. Within minutes he could see shapes rushing over the snow in the distance. Two giant red worms, writhing and shooting across the landscape at unsettling speed were leading a pair of giant Crypt Lords, amalgamations of rotten flesh and bone. A horde of zombies, ghouls, and skeletons rushed behind them. It was an army of the undead, but Ulrien knew the only true threats were the Flesh Worms.

They were both twenty feet long, had thick red flesh, tiny black eyes and long antennae, and two whip-like appendages with feelers on the ends. These feelers could latch onto flesh and tear it away in an instant. Ulrien had heard stories of Flesh Worms building themselves obscene layers of armor from the skin of their victims over time. These ones didn’t have any such protections, but they were fast, strong, and capable of wiping out a party of Bronze or Silver-rank adventurers by themselves.

Not Gold-rank, though. Not Griffon Hunt. The instant the undead were spotted, Ulrien stopped and lifted his greatsword up, blade flat. Halrac ran towards him, bow at the ready and Typhenous raised his staff.

It was a maneuver they’d performed many times. Halrac leapt onto the flat of Ulrien’s huge blade and Ulrien grunted. He heaved up, and Halrac leapt from his sword into the air as Typhenous raised his staff.

“[Platform of Air].”

Halrac landed on the transparent disc ten feet above the ground and reached for the quiver at his side. He snapped down at the others as he put an arrow with a shimmering yellow-tipped head to his bowstring.

“Shocking left!”

“Immobilizing right. [Sticky Webbing].”

Typhenous lifted his staff as Halrac shot the first arrow. There was over twenty meters separating him and the Flesh Worm, but his arrow still stuck the undulating red serpent straight between the eyes. It shrieked, making Halrac clench his teeth as lightning burst from his arrow and made the Flesh Worm twist upon itself in agony.

At the same time, a stream of grey tendrils lashed out from Typhenous’s staff. The older [Mage] caught the second Flesh Worm with the mass as it tried to evade. The sticky web from his spell anchored parts of the worm to the ground, impeding its movement. The Flesh Worm tore up parts of the ground as it tried to free itself.

“Whoo! Mage support! Alright Halfseekers, let’s do this!”

Jelaqua’s team was less refined than Griffon Hunt. They charged across the snow at the first Flesh Worm, all three of them. It twisted upright, hissing, as Jelaqua whirled her flail and attacked its side.

Ulrien charged the second Flesh Worm as it struggled to free itself. The snow was making his footing unstable, so he took care to plant himself in front of the worm before slashing. The worm swung a feeler at his head and Ulrien cut. The Flesh Worm screamed as one of its ‘arms’ was severed and fell to the ground. Ulrien pressed the attack, cutting into its side with his greatsword.

“I will assist Ulrien. Revi, the Crypt Lord is advancing.”

Typhenous commented to Revi as he shot magical missiles of light at the Flesh Worm’s head, forcing it to dodge as Ulrien sliced into its side, trying to saw it in half. Revi sighed.

“I see it old man. Give me one second.”

She reached into her pouch and pulled out a huge chunk of amber. Embedded in the center was a fragment, a bit of horn. Revi held it up and shouted.

“Come forth! Rush, Corusdeer!”

As the Crypt Lord advanced, spitting black blood onto the ground, something shimmered in the air in front of Revi. A bright, antlered shape burst out of the air and the fire from its body melted the earth. Revi pointed and uttered a command.

A glowing Corusdeer formed out of red and yellow fire charged towards the first Crypt Lord. It rammed the undead and there was a wordless howl as it engulfed the Crypt Lord in flames. The Corusdeer broke off, ran a circle in the snow, and rammed the Crypt Lord from the other side. Revi was pointing, commanding its path as two spectral warriors appeared in front of her and Typhenous, waiting for the Ghouls to approach.

Halrac drew an arrow to his cheek and loosed it at a Ghoul. The arrow hit the undead in the head as it ran and the Ghoul dropped. Halrac turned, shot a Ghoul trying to sneak up at the [Mages] from behind, and looked over at the Halfseekers to see how they were doing.

Jelaqua was a whirling image of death as befit her [Iron Tempest] class. Her two-handed flail was a danger to everything around her, and the undead charging at her were torn to bits by her whirling flail’s heads. She closed on the Flesh Worm as it hissed at her. It lashed out, but one of Jelaqua’s flails smacked its tail away as it tried to hit the Selphid.

“I will take it down.”

Moore ran towards the Flesh Worm, long legs churning through the snow. The half-Giant raised his staff and balled his other hand into a fist.

“[Thorny Fist].”

Thick brambles of dark wood engulfed his right hand. Huge thorns shot out, dark and grey like iron and turned Moore’s hand into a deadly weapon. He lashed out at the Flesh Worm—

And missed. The giant red worm was incredibly agile. It leaned back and dove head-first at Moore, mouth opened wide. He blocked it with his enchanted hand, but the magical gauntlet of wood and thorns wasn’t stronger than the Flesh Worm’s flesh. It had bitten through several layers of the bark surrounding his vulnerable skin when Seborn appeared and stabbed the Flesh Worm in the side with glowing daggers.

It screamed as part of its flesh caught on fire and whirled to attack Seborn. The [Rogue] dove out of the way and seemed to vanish in the snow. Moore backed up, shaking his hand.

“Thanks, Seborn.”

Take care of the undead. Let Jelaqua and I handle the worm.


Moore took a few steps back as Jelaqua lashed the Flesh Worm’s side with her flail and Seborn stabbed its tail. He turned and saw the undead were about to fall on his party from behind.

The half-Giant calmly kicked a zombie hard enough to send it flying through the air, punched a Ghoul down as it leapt on him, and then stepped on its back. Halrac winced as he heard bones crack.

The other Crypt Lord charged Moore, but hesitantly. It was actually shorter than the half-Giant and Moore was nearly as wide as it was. Moore used the remains of his enchanted hand to hold the Crypt Lord at bay as its rows of teeth and claws scratched harmlessly at his wooden gauntlet. Then he raised his staff with his left hand.

Moore thrust the tip of his broad staff into the Crypt Lord’s side, tearing into dead flesh and pushing the undead monstrosity back. As it tried to swipe at him, Moore uttered a spell.

“[Entangling Vines.]”

Thick, green ropes of plant matter erupted from the Crypt Lord’s side. It engulfed the struggling undead as Moore let go, sealing its mouth, anchoring it to the ground and rendering it immobile. Moore nodded.

“Problem solved.”

The half-Giant turned away and began hitting the undead around him with his staff, not bothering with more spells. In the meantime, Jelaqua had brought the battle to the Flesh Worm.

Five times, ten times, twenty times she struck the Flesh Worm’s side with her flail. Its hide was incredibly thick, but the force of each of her flail strikes was able to tear into its hide slightly. And she kept hitting it. Jelaqua’s arms were a blur as she lashed the Flesh Worm’s side, tearing it apart hit by hit. She was laughing as she attacked.

Strikestrikestrikestrikestrike—whoa, that was close.”

Jelaqua ducked low as the Flesh Worm lashed out towards her with its feelers. It swung its body around and its tail came at waist height. Jelaqua cursed as she dove beneath it, and then saw the Flesh Worm poised to lunge. The worm opened its mouth and then an arrow sprouted from one eye.

It screamed. Seborn took the opportunity to sever a good section of its lower body with a decisive strike. The Flesh Worm screamed again as it bled orange-red blood and tried to retreat. Jelaqua cut it off and her flail caught it on the head this time.

“Take this!”

She lifted her flail and buried the spiked ball into the Flesh Worm’s head. The worm screamed, tried to move. Jelaqua whirled her flail, building up speed. She hit the same place again. And then again. The third blow crunched something in the Flesh Worm’s brains and it went still.

As the gigantic creatures stopped moving, Jelaqua studied the broken arrow shaft in its eye and looked around. She saw Halrac standing on his platform of air, shooting down Ghouls and Zombies. She waved a hand at him as he turned his head her way and grinned.

Halrac lifted one hand. He grinned as he shot a Ghoul through the head. Jelaqua laughed and spun. Her flail crushed a zombie’s skull and she whirled her two-handed flail, knocking another zombie off of its feet.

Ulrien finally managed to hack the second Flesh Worm in half and dashed back as it fell to the ground, screaming. It was still alive though, and Typhenous had to blast it with [Fireballs] twice before it fell. Revi’s summoned Corusdeer had incinerated her Crypt Lord, and with her summoned warriors and Halrac’s shooting, the rest of the undead on their side were cleaned up in minutes.

All the undead around Moore had been thoroughly smashed as well. The half-Giant was leaning on his staff and talking to Seborn as he regarded the bound Crypt Lord. No one was in the mood for a fair fight, so Revi let her Corusdeer charge into the Crypt Lord and burn it to pieces. The adventurers headed back towards the Wandering Inn, chatting and cleaning undead gore off of their weapons.

There was something cathartic about fighting monsters. It was simple. There was no tension, worrying that a trap might go off and endanger the group. When you killed a monster, you killed it for good, even if that meant burning the remains until there was nothing left.

“Nice moves against the Flesh Worm. Have you fought them before?”

Ulrien was chatting with Jelaqua. She shook her head, looking rueful.

“No. I didn’t expect the bugger to be so quick! Your Halrac’s a great shot, though. I’d prefer not tangling with those worms anyways, to be honest. My flail’s not a good matchup against them.”

“True. Holding them down and cutting them apart works for my group.”

“Oh? Well next time I think we’ll just let Moore entangle it and then beat it to death as well. He’s got some great vine spells, as you saw back there.”

Revi was smiling for once, and chatting with Seborn and Moore.

“Think we’ll get a bounty on the undead?”

Perhaps. Although we didn’t take any trophies.

“Trophies? You can see their bodies over there! If the city wants proof so bad, they can just come out here and count themselves. Anyways, that was refreshing. Anyone want a drink?”

Moore nodded.

“I could do with a keg of something spicy. And Lyonette promised me a lot of pasta with meatballs tonight. I prefer the Gnollish kind, having tried them.”

“Ooh, share some with me. I think I’ll have Erin make this…‘lasagna’ she keeps talking about tonight.”

I’m partial to that as well. Let’s order some for all of us.

The Gold-rank adventurers returned to the inn, chatting, smiling, and not talking about the adventurers that had died. It was part of their life. The others had taken a risk and paid for it. Mourning them was appropriate, and perhaps some words would be said. But death was too often part of their lives for it to detract from living.

“Hey! It’s you guys! How are you? Had a busy day?”

Erin Solstice looked up from her tables, beaming as the Gold-rank adventurers took a seat. In moments she had drinks coming their way courtesy of Drassi, and she was already directing Lyonette to take out the pre-cooked lasagna, much to Revi’s delight and Seborn’s dismay.

I’m not a fan of cheese. Cows are…odd creatures. We don’t have things like them in the sea. Do you have anything less cheese related?

“How about fish? Lyonette had one jump out at her and she beat it to death with a bucket. Sound good?”

That would be excellent. Can you make it spicy?

“Will do! Oh, by the way, did Lyonette tell you all about what I wanted to talk to you earlier about but never got the chance to talk about?”

Halrac blinked and Typhenous rubbed his ears as the adventurers tried to decode Erin’s convoluted statement. Moore sat up as Lyonette and Drassi lifted a huge pot of spaghetti and meatballs onto his table.

“I recall something about slimes.”

“Yeah! Slimes! Let me get your food and we’ll talk. Or actually, Lyonette and the others will get your food and I’ll talk. Isn’t having help great?”

Erin beamed as she hovered around the tables with her guests. She had hot food, cool drinks, and a warm, inviting smile. All an adventurer wanted at the end of the day. Well, Revi could have done without the smile. She just wanted the drinks.

“How was your day? Did anything interesting happen? I heard there was some kind of monster attack, but Bird says all the monsters are ‘taken care of’. Did anything crazy happen to you guys?”

Halrac glanced over at the rest of his team, and then at Jelaqua and the Halfseekers. It was the Selphid who grinned and casually took a mug from Lyonette’s tray.

“Oh, nothing special. What’s this about slimes?”




So it went. Adventurers did their jobs and got paid for it. Some were quiet heroes, others bold and unapologetic. The experienced ones took calculated risks and paved the way for others to follow. They did their job, and it was a mark of experience that they did not brag about what they did.

However, the inexperienced didn’t know that and so talked constantly. On one snowy trail recently cleared by flame magic, one such adventurer was lauding his achievements to a very patient, very blind young man on a wagon. Laken Godart sat on the wagon’s back, wishing for once that he were blind and deaf.

“—so as I said, we’re not Gold-rank adventurers, but we’re…pretty close. I mean, Silver-rank’s the best you’ll see around most parts. Not Invrisil, true, but I like to think we’re competitive with Gold-rank teams for a lot of assignments.”

One of the adventurers, a young man with a sword and an air of unwarranted confidence, was riding a horse and chattering to Laken. He was quite taken with the [Emperor], mainly because Laken was rumored to be some sort of rich [Lord] and it never hurt to impress the nobility. He was the leader of the Windfrozen Riders, one of the two Silver-rank teams Laken had hired to protect Riverfarm and escort him back to his village.

He was regretting that choice. Charitable though the Windfrozen Riders might be to the plight of simple villagers, humble they were not. Their leader had talked his ear off for three hours straight, and this was the second day of travelling with him. He only broke off when Durene walked to the head of the wagon and spoke with Laken.


“Oh, Durene. Thank you for saving my ears. Is he gone?”

“He’s talking to Gamel. Hey, Laken, can I punch him?”

“What? Durene…no. No, that wouldn’t be right.”

It was uncharacteristic of the half-Troll to be violent at all. However, she was almost as annoyed with the cocky adventurer as Laken was. He dismissed her question, trying not to imagine how satisfying the sound of her thumping the young adventurer would be.

“Patience, Durene. We need these adventurers as friends. I’ll ask him to quiet down a bit, but violence isn’t the answer. Punching him wouldn’t do him any good, would it?”

Durene made a disgruntled sound.

“No, but if I punch him, I’ll save him from being killed by the other adventurers. The [Mage] with the glasses say she’ll turn him into a toad. Can she do that?”

Laken laughed, and then frowned thoughtfully.

“She’s a [Witch]. And I think she’s not high enough level to do that. She’d probably only give him a long tongue and slimy skin. Maybe some webbed feet, but that’s all.”

He heard a shuffle, and then a note of complaint in Durene’s voice.

“Okay, but can I punch him anyways? He keeps telling me that he’s got a second sword just as long as his first sword. Which is impossible. It wouldn’t fit in his pants. And who’d want a sword that big, anyways?”

Laken made an amused face.

“You’d be surprised what some guys think they’d like, Durene.”

There was a pause. Durene trudged alongside the wagon as Laken found Frostwing’s head. The bird was getting very big, and he was starting to flap his wings as if he was trying to fly. Laken wondered what would happen when he did. Would he be able to command Frostwing? Talk to him? He was a [Beast Tamer].

After a moment, Durene edged closer and whispered in Laken’s ear.

“You know I don’t mean sword, right? He was talking about his pe—”

“I get it, Durene.”

“So can I hit him?”

Laken sighed. He could hear the adventurer coming back towards the wagon. He stared ahead, and wished he were back at Riverfarm sooner.


“I’m thinking about it.”


Previous Chapter Next Chapter


In the hour after she woke up, Erin learned much of screaming. More specifically, of being screamed at. It wasn’t a pleasant experience at the best of times, even if you liked the person who was screaming at you.

And Erin did not like Miss Agnes. Not anymore. For that matter, she didn’t much like Maran or Safry, and she deeply regretted hiring them. Unfortunately, regrets meant little at this point.

“—thieving monster! You stole my best workers, my business—I shouldn’t be surprised if I found you stole money from me as well! When I, out of the goodness of my heart, let you work in my inn, I never expected—”

“Shut up, Miss Agnes.”

How dare you!

The angry [Innkeeper] and owner of the Frenzied Hare shrieked as Erin glared at her. She was spitting as she yelled, and Erin had had enough. It had been two minutes since she had stormed into Erin’s inn and begun yelling—her and two other older Humans, one a man in his late forties, the other a woman who was as old as Miss Agnes, but had aged far better.

Erin glanced at them as Agnes drew breath for another tirade. She waved away Lyonette and Ishkr who were hovering about and walked out of spit-range as Miss Agnes began to shout.

“Don’t you dare turn away from me, you—you brazen hussy! You ingrate! I should be calling the Watch on you! I said to come back! Do you hear me!? Do you—”

She really needed better insults. Erin had heard Ryoka say a lot worse than ‘brazen hussy’ when she stubbed her toe. She walked into the kitchen as Miss Agnes shouted. The older [Innkeeper] stormed after Erin—

And backed away fast as Erin walked out of the kitchen with a knife and a frying pan. The other man and woman stood up as Erin calmly stared at Miss Agnes, who’d gone white. In the refreshing silence, someone coughed.

“Need a hand, Erin?”

“No, I’m fine, Ceria. Sorry about the noise everyone. Ishkr, Lyonette, just keep serving food. I’ll handle this.”

She waved at the Horns of Hammerad and addressed the room. The Gold-rank adventurers who’d been trying to enjoy their breakfast in peace, as well as Erin’s staff got back to work. Most of them kept staring, though. Pisces was already taking bets from Jelaqua and Typhenous on whether it would come to a fight.

“It’s never boring here. Never. I could eat and watch this all day if I wasn’t worried my body’s stomach would explode.”

Erin ignored the Selphid’s comment as she slowly pursued Miss Agnes back to the table. The man who’d come in with her, a guy with a bushy red beard and his fair share of wrinkles, coughed delicately.

“Miss Agnes, I believe you’ve upset, ah, Miss Solstice is it? Why don’t we start again. Miss Solstice, please, there’s no need for violence.”

“There’s no need for shouting, either. How about a deal? You shout and I’ll poke. Now, what’s this about?”

Erin deliberately put the knife and pan on the table as she sat back down. The other two stared at her as Agnes edged her chair back towards them. The woman’s face was dead white. All bark and no bite, Erin guessed.

It was the other woman who coughed delicately.

“Miss Solstice—”

“My first name is Erin.”

“Miss Erin, then. I fear we’ve gotten off to a bad start.”

The woman gave her a charming smile. She had a few streaks of grey running through her long brown hair, but she was still in good shape. She had a very nice smile, and a friendly air that made Erin want to relax around her. However, because that put Erin in mind of Lady Magnolia’s sweet words, the effect of the Skill was severely diluted. Erin crossed her arms.

“Who are you and what do you want?”

The smile faltered. The woman exchanged a glance with the man. He stood up and offered Erin a callused hand.

“Timbor Parithad, at your service, Miss Erin. My apologies for Agnes. I am the owner of the Drunken Swordsman, one of the finest inns in Celum.”

The Drunken Swordsman? Erin vaguely recalled hearing about the inn, but she’d never been inside. Erin shook Timbor’s hand. The woman sitting next to him smiled again, without the Skill.

“Ulia Ovena. I’m an [Innkeeper] as well. I run Blazehound, an inn just off of the main street. We cater to adventurers—we’re more like a bar than an inn, to be honest.”

“Hi. I’m Erin. What are you doing in my inn?”

The [Innkeepers] exchanged a glance. Timbor coughed, and looked at Agnes, but the woman stared at him as if, after shouting and threatening Erin, her role was at an end. He turned and smiled at Erin.

“Miss Erin, I’m afraid we’re here about the unpleasant business revolving around Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We heard that another [Innkeeper] had been helping to manage the Frenzied Hare of course, and then there was that commotion around the magic door the Horns of Hammerad brought to the city…well, we knew there was an inn here, but we hadn’t introduced ourselves properly before, well, as we understand it, there were a few disputes between Miss Agnes’ inn and yours. We’re here to discuss the matter, as it were.”


Erin raised her eyebrows. The longwinded speech had done little to make her feel happier about the other [Innkeepers] being here. She hadn’t had breakfast yet. Timbor’s smile wavered. Ulia took over without missing a beat. She had a pleasant voice, too. Charming voice, nice looks, great smile…was all that from her Skills?

“Miss Agnes has told us a few things, Miss Erin. She believes you brought some business to her inn and then took it away. These ah, [Actors] that have put on those marvelous plays in Celum—”

“Fascinating stuff. Had to see one myself. Hamlet. What a stunning performance. I had no idea that Watch Captain could perform like that.”

Timor coughed as Ulia glared at him. The female innkeeper continued.

“Yes, well, Miss Agnes seems to think that you stole her business, since the group mostly eats at your inn and they perform elsewhere now. And then of course, there’s the matter of Safry and Maran. You ah, stole them from Miss Agnes—”

“I hired them. They wanted to work in my inn.”

“Yes…but then you fired them. Not three days after they’d begun working. We’ve spoken with both young women and they’re quite upset.”

Erin shrugged. Her face was stony.

“They were terrible workers.”

“How dare you.”

Miss Agnes glared at Erin, rage overcoming fear for a moment. She pointed a trembling finger at Erin.

“They were my best workers! My only workers! And you took them and then threw them away! For a Gnoll and a Drake? How dare you? How dare—

Timor dragged Miss Agnes down into her seat as she tried to stand up. He smiled weakly at Erin.

“We’re here on their behalf, Miss Erin. We, that is to say, the innkeepers of Celum, feel there’s been a bit of a miscarriage of justice, and we’d like to sort all this out without getting the law involved.”

So that’s what it was. Erin stared from face to face.

“The innkeepers? You mean, you’re representing all the innkeepers in Celum? What, are you some sort of Guild? The Innkeeper’s Guild?”

Ulia smiled as Timor snorted.

“Not a Guild, Miss Erin. An association.”

Erin stared. She could do a blank stare incredibly well, and, what most people didn’t know, she could do it even when she knew what was going on. Sometimes she did it just to annoy Ryoka or Pisces. In this case, Erin knew what Ulia meant, but she bought time as the woman explained it to her in order to think.

An association was different from a Guild. Formal Guilds like the Runner’s Guild, Merchant’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, and so on had wide-ranging networks that spread across continents. There was an Adventurer’s Guild in most cities, and if the ones in Izril were distinct from how Terandrian Guilds did their business, they were all based around the same idea.

However, associations were just that. No one was going to join the Innkeeper’s Guild because that sounded stupid and [Innkeepers] and [Barmaids] had better things to do. A Guild was a lot of work to maintain and there was no point to having one. But in a city, all the [Innkeepers] would still know of each other and support each other if they had a good relationship. It was like how Krshia had a network of [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants] in Liscor she could direct business to and get help from.

An association could be a very powerful thing. Or a pain in the ass. The not-quite-smiling [Innkeepers] sitting in front of her were clearly hinting that they could be one or the other, and yet they still failed to intimidate Erin.

A few weeks ago, Erin had dealt with annoying Frost Faeries who could bury her inn in ice if she annoyed them. As far as she was concerned, the association of Celum’s [Innkeepers] weren’t half as annoying as a single faerie.

“So that’s where the matter rests, Miss Erin. If the [Barmaids] weren’t to your satisfaction, well, it’s still unfair to Miss Agnes to take her help, and to them. They’re jobless now, and of course they can’t go back to the Frenzied Hare. But I’ve had a chat with some of the others and Timor’s agreed to put them in his inn and trade Miss Agnes a few of his workers. So that’s settled. However, this issue of taking workers and business…”

They were threatening her. Before she’d had her poached eggs and cheese sauce on toasted bread. Erin had worked hard on that breakfast—yesterday. Lyonette had warmed it up and it was lovely and hot. It was getting cold. Erin’s eyes narrowed.

“I gave Miss Agnes that business. I helped the [Actors]. They’re not her clients. Her inn’s too small to do a proper play in, anyways. And Maran and Safry were lazy, cowardly, and huge jerks. They wanted to join my inn, and that was because I was willing to pay more than Miss Agnes.”

“You can’t just—”

Agnes shut up as Ulia gave her a warning glance. Ulia smiled apologetically at Erin and spread her hands on the table.

“Miss Erin—may I call you Erin?”


“Ah. Miss Erin, then. We’ve been [Innkeepers] for many years. As many years as you’ve been alive, I’ll wager. And while we in Celum understand competition is healthy, there’s a lot to be said for working together. If everyone was fighting over patrons and stealing each other’s best workers, well, things could get nasty. That’s why our, ah, association works together. What would you call a system where everyone was at each other’s throats, fighting for customers? Anarchy?”

“How about a free market?”

Ryoka was passing by the table. She waved at Erin and pointed to the poached egg on her plate.

“Good stuff. I’m going out with Ivolethe. You got things here? Want me to get Klbkch?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Erin’s stomach growled loudly as the [Innkeepers] stared at Ryoka. Their eyes found the floating Frost Faerie as she carried another wobbly poached egg through the air. Erin had no idea what that must have looked like. She took a breath and the three innkeepers looked back at her.

“I’m not paying Miss Agnes anything for anything. And I’m not saying sorry. And I’m not paying Maran and Safry either.”

“Miss Erin—let’s be reasonable here. A dispute with the innkeepers of Celum is not—what would happen if we started fighting? Would you like us to take your guests? What about your workers?”

Ulia was trying to negotiate. She’d hinted quite unsubtly that a few gold pieces could smooth everything over. Erin wasn’t having it. She had an upset feeling in her stomach now, and not just from the lack of food.


“Your guests—”

Erin turned in her seat. The Gold-rank adventurers were filing out of the inn, but she had a few Drakes and Gnolls who’d braved the chill to be here in the morning. Some guests from Celum, too. Erin waved at them.

“Go ahead. Steal my clientele. If you’ve all got magic doors leading to Liscor, go on and have them go through. But Drakes and Gnolls don’t like most Human places. They only go into Celum to look for better prices. I don’t think they want to stay at a Human inn. And try hiring my workers, too. Drassi and Ishkr. I’m sure they’d love walking a hundred miles to Celum every day rather than work at my inn.”

She glared at the [Innkeepers]. They glared back, all pretenses of joviality forgotten. Timor coughed deeply and growled.

“Listen here, you brat. We’re experienced innkeepers who know a lot more about this business than some upstart. I suggest you make things right now, rather than see what happens if you decide to make this a real issue. I’m a Level 24 [Innkeeper], Ulia’s a Level 27 [Innkeeper] and—”

I’m a Level 30 [Magical Innkeeper].”

Timor choked on his words. Erin stared at him, and at Ulia’s suddenly pale face. She stood up and grabbed the knife.

“You want to threaten me? In my own inn?

For a second Erin thought about using her [Inn’s Aura] skill to scare them, but then she spotted someone walking in the front door. She waved him over and then pointed to Pisces as he went back for a sixth egg.

“That’s Pisces. He’s a [Necromancer] and one of my guests. He lives in my basement. You want to cause trouble? He’ll pull all the bones out of your body through your nose. You want to hire someone to make trouble? Come meet my security. Bird?”

The Humans turned and Ulia screamed. Agnes and Timor turned pale as Bird, holding a freshly-shot bird stared down at him. The Antinium lifted a hand slowly.

“Hello. I am Bird. I shoot birds.”

Agnes, Ulia, and Timor all stared in horror at Bird, Pisces, and then at Erin. Erin folded her arms and nearly cut herself with the knife.

“Get out.”

They went. Erin sighed as the door leading to Celum slammed shut and waved at Lyonette.

“Eggs! Food! Some for Bird, too!”

Lyonette rushed over, looking apologetic.

“I’m so sorry, Erin. Pisces just took the last of them…”

She pointed to the necromancer, who took one look at Erin’s expression and decided to finish his meal outside at speed. Erin flipped over the table she was sitting at.


She spun as the door to Celum opened and threw the knife she was holding. The blade thunked into the wall as Octavia froze in the act of opening it. Erin blinked. She’d thought it was Agnes, coming for one last word. Octavia took one look at the knife lodged in the wall of Erin’s inn, and then closed the door without another word.

After a while, Erin had some cheese sauce on bread while Bird ate the bird he’d shot. Raw. That was how she started her Monday morning.

She assumed it was a Monday. It would have felt so wrong if it were a Thursday.




Some days Lyonette felt very bad for Erin. It was easier to feel bad, now. In the days since Erin had fired Safry and Maran she’d become a lot more accommodating to hearing suggestions from Lyonette, and had accordingly started treating her like a partner in running the inn, rather than, well, another Toren.

Erin’s job wasn’t easy. Lyonette knew that. Only Erin could make the wonderful meals that kept her guests coming back, and even if she did store the food for days in advance, she still had to cook for a few hours each day to keep ahead of her customer’s large appetites. Especially Moore’s.

Added to that, Erin had to deal with all the big issues, like Miss Agnes and the other [Innkeepers] coming down and trying to extort money or an apology from her. Lyonette had hovered about while the entire tense discussion had taken place, feeling guilty about the whole thing. But Erin had told her it wasn’t her fault and Lyonette had quite liked the part where she kicked them out of her inn.

“Still, it might be trouble down the road so watch yourself if you go into Celum. Uh, I don’t know if they’ll do anything. They might just spread nasty rumors, but you don’t know.”

Lyonette nodded as Erin warned her afterwards, glumly eating her cheesy toast. She left Lyonette to clean up while she tried to persuade Bird to let her cook the goshawk he’d shot—or at least pluck it first.

There weren’t many dishes left to take to the kitchen. Ishkr was extremely good at clearing tables, and he was already happily washing the prodigious stack of plates, bowls, silverware, and cups. Lyonette left him to the idle work since the Gnoll liked it so much and decided to play with Mrsha in the meantime.

Erin had decided that the task of raising Mrsha was just as, if not more important than keeping the inn running. Thus, Lyonette had free reign to do what was needed to keep the Gnoll cub occupied. Sometimes that meant running about after her, playing catch, or just finding her.

She hadn’t left the inn. Lyonette was watchful of that, but Mrsha wasn’t in the common room either. She could be upstairs or in the basement, bugging Ceria or Pisces as they studied their respective spell books.

Lyonette guessed upstairs. Mrsha had been worn out from yesterday’s trip to Garia’s home with Ryoka and she might be taking a nap now. Ryoka hadn’t said much about the experience, but for some reason Mrsha had been leaping around and trying to do handstands the entire time she’d been back.

Maybe she could ask Ryoka about it? Was that being nosy? Lyonette still didn’t know how to talk to the surly Runner girl. Ryoka wasn’t in the inn to ask, anyways. She had gone off to practice ‘jumping around like an idiot and staring at the wind’, which Lyonette took to mean…exactly that.

Now Lyonette ascended the wood staircase, calling out for Mrsha.

“Mrsha? Are you there?”

She heard a faint sound, a clacking noise, that of something connecting with a wooden surface. It was coming from her room. Frowning, Lyonette pushed the door to the room she shared with Ryoka and Mrsha and saw the Gnoll.

“What are you doing there?”

The small Gnoll cub spun guiltily as Lyonette entered the room. Lyonette saw a chessboard sitting in the center of the room, and then blinked as she saw ghostly chess pieces arranging themselves on the board. Mrsha turned as a line of pawns flew into place. She grinned happily and, to Lyonette’s horror, scattered them across the room with a swipe of the paw.

“Mrsha! Stop that!”

The white-furred Gnoll blinked innocently up at Lyonette, and then turned eagerly to the board. Lyonette saw the fallen pawns soaring back across the room and falling back into place on the board. It was an eerie sight, but she knew that across the world, somewhere, someone else had picked up the pieces. Mrsha watched a pawn settle into place and poked it.

Instantly, the pawn scooted back. The Gnoll poked it away, and grinned happily as the pawn slid back, with more force this time. She pushed at it again—this time the pawn stayed stubbornly in place. Mrsha heaved and the pawn—and board—went flying.

The Gnoll was randomly shifting pieces around the board or knocking them to the floor and watching them as they soared back up and returned to their original position. She had no idea that this was because someone else had to pick them up, and probably thought it was magic, or some amazing game designed just for her.

However, Lyonette understood the issue and rushed to stop Mrsha from upsetting the board—and the board’s mysterious owner—any further. By the force of which the pieces were being slammed back on the chessboard, Lyonette guessed the other side was getting increasingly angry.

She winced as the last chess pieces were slammed into place. Mrsha squirmed, trying to get to the board to overturn it once more. Lyonette grabbed her, put the upset Gnoll in time-out, and picked up the chess board. She rushed downstairs to tell Erin about it. On the way, Mrsha tripped her. The Gnoll thought it was incredibly amusing to watch the pieces and board right themselves.

Lyonette did not. Mrsha got a spanking, and then she took the board—carefully—down to Erin.




“Oh no. Oh my god. I—I forgot.

Erin stared in horror at the chess board that Lyonette had brought down from her room. A howling Mrsha ran about the inn as Lyonette chased after her. Erin ignored Mrsha as she tried to appeal to her for sympathy. All of her attention was on the ghostly pieces arranged on the board in front of her.

The pieces were frozen in the middle of a game. Just as they had been when she’d left them. Erin stared at a knight which was threatening her king. She…vaguely remembered that move, the last one her mysterious opponent had made. It had been on the day she’d left with Toren on the sledge. She’d been dreaming of what to do to counter it—probably move her king rather than lose her bishop—when she’d been abducted to Celum.

Now, far later, the board was rearranged exactly as Erin had left it, despite it having been messed up countless times by Mrsha. Her unknown opponent had remembered and restored it each time. They had been waiting. For her.

“How could I?”

There was no way to explain the pain in Erin’s chest. She was a chess player, a maniac who loved the game. She knew her opponent was as well. She—or he—had been waiting for Erin to make the next move. All this time.

It was like leaving someone hanging when you were playing a game of online chess, only a thousand times worse. Erin respected her opponent on the other side of the board. But she’d forgotten about them.

They hadn’t forgotten about her, though. Once Lyonette had finally caught Mrsha and made the Gnoll take a nap, she explained to Erin about finding the board and playing a few games with the mysterious owner herself.

“It was…six games, I think. I did it every now and then, when I didn’t have anything to do. I leveled up, but whoever was on the other side got bored of playing with me, I think. After the last game they reset the board to this. I tried playing—so did Olesm. But once the other player realized we weren’t you, they reset the board to this. Every time.”

“I don’t believe it. They were waiting.”

Erin’s hand trembled as she stared at a piece. She pushed it to one side and it snapped back into place. Lyonette winced, as did Erin. The feeling of the invisible opponent was made clear by the motions of the chess pieces. They were beyond irate. Incensed was probably a better word for their feelings at the moment.

“I put it in my room so no one would take the board or mess with it. I’m so sorry I forgot to tell you!”

“No, I understand. I should have remembered. It’s just—I forgot. I can’t believe I forgot. I have so much to do and I—”

Erin stared at the board. She looked at the pieces and whispered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Would you—would you like to play?”

Lyonette timidly floated the suggestion, but Erin didn’t know. She felt—guilty. As guilty as she’d ever been of anything. She wanted to apologize, to beg for forgiveness for abandoning the game she loved. But there was no way to do that.

There was only the game. Erin stared at the board. So long. She’d played Go with the others, but this was different. This was chess. The thing she lived and breathed. So what if a computer could beat the world’s best players? So what if there were video games?

This was eternal. Erin’s hand wavered as she took the king piece. She lifted the ethereal chess piece up and slowly placed it in front of the knight. And waited.

Silence. Erin knew her opponent had seen the move. It was a legal one. One of the only legal moves Erin could make, in fact. But did they think it was her?

A minute passed. Then two. Erin grabbed Mrsha as the Gnoll snuck towards the table. The Gnoll blinked up at her.

“Touch the board and you will regret it.”

Erin smiled pleasantly at the Gnoll, without a trace of the anger she’d directed towards Agnes and the others. She loved Mrsha, and Mrsha knew that. The Gnoll cub looked into Erin’s smiling face, turned, and ran yelping up into her room.

The knight on the board moved. Erin’s head snapped back around and she saw the knight slowly shift positions. It moved up, down, and stole one of her pawns.

A good, safe move. But it felt grudging. The other player didn’t think it was her. Erin half-smiled.


She pushed up a bishop and simultaneously threatened a rook and the other player’s queen. Thanks to the knight’s absence it had been possible. That was a trap that Erin had set, oh, about a month ago.

It floored the other player. They probably had seen it coming, but they’d been too upset over Mrsha. Understandably so, but there was no mercy in chess.

This time, the next move came within a minute. Erin saw the queen move to threaten one of her pieces. She still took the rook. Double attacks were there to punish. Then she hunted down the knight, stole the queen, and ended the game in six minutes.

She hadn’t forgotten. Erin cracked her fingers and winced at the pain. The other player hadn’t moved the pieces since Erin had checkmated the king. She thought they might be in shock.

So Erin reached out, turned the board around so she had the black side and reset it. She left the white side as it was. A challenge.

The board reset itself. Pieces flew into place. Then a knight leapt over the pawns heads. Erin smiled and pushed forwards a pawn.


She turned. Pawn the Antinium was staring at her. He was hovering right over her shoulder. She nearly fell out of her chair.

“Pawn? What are you doing here?”

“I have been here for the last five minutes. As have my Soldiers.”

She turned and saw a group of painted Antinium lined up patiently while Lyonette served them fried fish and honeyed milk. Erin hadn’t heard them come in. She blinked at Pawn and then saw a piece on the board move. She quickly turned back to it.

“Sorry Pawn! I’m uh, playing a game. How are you?”

“I am well. My Soldiers and I are taking a break from combat duty in the Hive. We have slain many monsters and I am showing the new ones around.”

“Really? Cool! Uh…combat duty?”

Erin was distracted. She was pondering her move. Pawn nodded.

“I see you are occupied. You are playing an interesting game already, I note. Belgrade and Anand would both love to see this. As would Olesm, I suspect.”

“Isn’t it good? This is the Tennison Gambit right here. See how they’re gambling their pawn? It comes from the Réti Opening—you know, starting with the knight. Belgrade and Olesm can’t really get their heads around hypermodern strategy yet, although Anand is good at using the wings to dominate, which is why he usually beats Belgrade. I wonder what would happen if I used a reverse Budapest Gambit here? Nah…is that stupid? Hm…”

“I believe this game may take a while. Or the subsequent games will. Lyonette, would you mind if I left my Soldiers here to visit the city?”

Pawn left. Erin was vaguely aware of that, and of a Soldier with yellow spatters of paint on his body sitting and staring at her. At some point Olesm rushed into the inn, screaming.

“I’ve got to write this down for my newsletter! Quick! Anand, let’s set up a board here! And Belgrade—oh. Sorry. Are your wounds fine?”

Erin looked over.

“Hey! You two are hurt! How did that happen?”

Anand and Belgrade paused. Both were covered in some kind of orangeish slime that was covering several cuts. Belgrade clicked his mandible together.

“We were wounded in defense of the Hive. Our worst injuries were healed, however.”

“Lyonette! Get a potion! And Anand, pull a chair up if you want to see. Look at this.”

Erin waved the chess players over and they crowded around. She kept playing as she explained her position.

She lost that game. It was a brutal match where her opponent tried to strip all her pieces away and Erin did the same. It ended fast, and when it was over, Erin slowly rearranged her board.

There was a silence in her mind. A quietus, that overwhelmed the sounds of Olesm chattering and the Soldiers covertly feeding Mrsha scraps of fish when Lyonette wasn’t looking. The last two games had been…a test, Erin felt. She’d caught the other player off-guard and won the first time, and the second they’d played aggressively, at their best. Erin had matched them, though she’d lost.

Now they knew. They knew it was Erin. And as Erin was white, she set the pace.

She picked up a pawn and stared at it. Silence. In the mind, and in her heart. Erin looked at the board. She loved the game. Whatever else changed, she still loved the game. She looked at the pawn. The room full of people, the watchers, all had disappeared. There was only silence. An empty stage. Then, for the first time in what felt like years, Erin began to play.

A simple song. A dance on a chess board only a few feet long. It started out as a quick shuffling of the feet. Pawn to D4. Clearing the throat. Pawn to D5.

Anyone could do the dance. Erin moved Knight to F3, and after a moment of hesitation in which the music skipped around aimlessly, the other side moved. Knight to F6.

Now the tune was picking up. Was there a violin in the orchestra? A cello? A piano began to play.

Bishop to F4. Now Erin could see the dance floor. She began a slow dance, tracing her steps slowly across the floor. The London System. That was the name of today’s jig. But what would her opponent do next?

Hesitation. Erin looked across an empty floor and saw someone move. The Pawn moved to E6. Now they were in unknown territory.

The game shifted. Erin pushed a Pawn forwards. The music rose. Now there was an orchestra. She began a waltz across the floor.

And then? There was music. There was a dance. Her partner came at her across the chess board, flicking pieces towards her, grasping at the center. Erin danced back, sending her knights up, fortifying her position. Across the dance floor, her opponent spun and leapt to the same tune. Both sides mimicked the other. Knights and Pawns, building, edging together for superiority.

But no blood spilled, no pieces taken, not yet. Erin and her opponent met on the grand marble floor of the hall as the flutes and bows strained the air with building crescendos of sound. Not yet. Twenty moves in, and the board was still developing.

A Bishop came out. Erin tapped her foot and sent hers up. Mimicry. Mocking. Taunting. Waiting.

Then the black Pawn advanced and took hers. The first blow was struck. Erin reached out and tapped her opponent lightly. The music enveloped them both.

It wasn’t like a dance. It was like a dance. It was just chess. What could you say about a game that was so static, so unchanging over the centuries? Nothing. Everything.

Erin walked through a different world. She played the game and lost. A second loss. She reset the board in a moment and played again. This time she won. And then won again. And again. And again and—she lost the sixth game after that.

Time lost meaning. There was just the game. Erin had lived for twenty years. Of those twenty years, she had spent a lot of time breathing, sleeping, eating…but there was only one thing she had ever practiced. She’d spent more time playing chess than she had learning how to drive, how to cook, how to sing or dance or do anything else. This is what she knew.

This is what she had lived for. And her opponent was the same.

“You were lonely, weren’t you?”

Erin whispered the words as she played. Win. Lose. Lose and then win again. She remembered. It was lonely, playing alone. It was hard to be by yourself. There was no one who could understand what you were doing when you played with other students over lunch. You had to search for people like you, but it was so hard to find someone who could see what you saw. The higher you went, the lonelier it got.

Erin had seen the clouds as a child and turned away. She’d come back as a teenager, climbed again because there was something beautiful she saw way up high. Now she touched the clouds and broke through. She danced on top of the world and showed the other player there was still sky above. Here we are. How far can we go? The game is endless. Come, dance with me.

Play with me.

She said only a few words through the games. A few words, from one lover of the game to the other. It was a simple message.

I’m sorry.

The reply was short, and simple.

I know. You are forgiven.

That was all. Erin stopped playing when her right hand began to hurt. She blinked, looked around, and realized all the lights in the room had gone out.

So, apparently, had the sun. It was close to midnight. No one was in the common room of the inn—or awake. Erin blinked around and realized she’d been playing all day.

There was a groove in her flesh from where she’d pressed against the table’s edge and her jaw hurt from resting so long on her propped up hand. Erin stretched and nearly fell over when she got up.

“That probably wasn’t a productive use of time.”

It wasn’t an [Immortal Moment] that had consumed all this time. It wasn’t a spell or anything else supernatural either. It was just obsession. Erin wandered into the kitchen, scarfed down half a pot’s worth of Gnollish tortellini, huge, meat-stuffed, and oh so juicy, and then passed out on the floor.

A good day. If you didn’t count the screaming.


[Magical Innkeeper Level 31!]




Was it because she picked a fight with the other innkeepers? Defended her home? Maybe it was because Erin had been doing good business lately. Accumulating experience points or however it went. Erin woke up blearily, wished she had a Skill that made it so she didn’t have to sleep, and got on with the day.

“Are you going to play more chess today, Erin? Because if you are, we could use some more prepared food first. Not that I want to bother you, but uh…”

“No chess. Too much chess makes brain go poof.”

Erin rested her head on the table, feeling as though someone tiny had just kicked her brain a few times. That was the thing people didn’t understand. Chess was exhausting. Not physically, but mentally. Erin was surprised she’d kept up the same level of concentration for so long.

It was probably because she hadn’t played for a while. She could put her brain into overdrive for a day, push her limits because of that. Because of the passion. However, the next day was killing her. Erin dragged herself into the kitchen and did some easy cooking to pass the time.

Then she had a feeling in her stomach. It wasn’t indigestion. Erin frowned and poked at her midriff, and then realized what the feeling was. She poked her head out into the common room.


“I am here. Do you want me to shoot something?”

Bird stood to attention. He’d been coming by every day, as per Klbkch’s orders for him. Erin asked if he knew whether the Hive could build her inn. Bird had no idea, so he wandered off to find Pawn.

He came back at midday with Pawn, a group of the painted Soldiers, and a score of Workers. Apparently the situation in the Hive was resolving itself. Erin conferred with Pawn about what she wanted and he had his Workers begin construction, warning Erin it would take several days to finish the work.

“We must remove parts of the roof and construct parts of the inn before lifting them up. We shall assemble scaffolding today and lay down a foundation. Tomorrow we shall knock that wall down and begin expansion.”

He pointed at the west wall of Erin’s inn. She frowned.

“Aw. I like that wall. Can you do the east side instead?”

Pawn stared at her. She laughed.


“Ah. I see.”

Bird stared at the Workers hauling lumber up to the hill and then approached Pawn.

“Pawn, I would like my tower to be high. So I can shoot birds.”

“Yes, Bird. I will make it high.”


Bird nodded a few times and lifted up his makeshift bow and arrows. Erin stared down at them and then glanced at Pawn.

“Do Antinium use bows, Pawn? Bird’s the first Antinium I’ve ever seen who uses one. But Ryoka says the Antinium used to use arrows in the first Antinium War.”

“Ah. Well, I do not know about the other Hives. Tersk tells me the Armored Antinium use crossbows, but our Hive does have a supply of bows and arrows. In limited quantities. There is little use for them underground, but Workers may use them in battle.”

“Oh. And they’re all like this?”

The bow Bird carried wasn’t bad per se, but it certainly was no masterwork. He’d made it from a single piece of wood, and used hemp for the string. The arrows were sharpened wood tips, without arrowheads. They were feathered, though. Some of them had incredible feathers. Bird was not a discriminating fletcher.

“This is a typical bow, yes. We are aware that it is not of high quality manufacture, but the Antinium usually only use bows against aerial foes. Hm. Perhaps I should see if Workers will work with my Soldiers. A few with bows could be…”

Pawn lapsed into thought as Bird tried to convince him to make his tower extra high. Erin had a thought from looking at Bird’s bow and found Ryoka. She was heading out to go stare at the wind with Ivolethe.

“We’re using chalk. Colored powder. The theory is that it’ll help me see the wind.”

Ryoka explained to Erin while Ivolethe quietly froze Pisces’ mug to the table. When the [Necromancer] went to pick it up, his hand stuck to the glass. Erin nodded as Pisces shouted in pain.

“Okay, but what about bows?”

“Excuse me?”

“Bird’s got a bow, but it’s a crappy one. It looks bad, anyways. Can you think of a better bow for him?”

Ryoka listened to Erin’s description of the bow and looked out the window to see Bird shooting arrows and arguing with Pawn over how high the tower needed to be given his range. She nodded.

“That’s a self bow. That means it’s one piece of wood. Easy to make, but you’re right that there are better kinds out there, and that’s not counting enchantments.”

“If you were going to recommend a bow…”

Ryoka pondered the question for a while.

“Recurves, composites, reflex…why not a recurve? It’s smaller than a longbow and it’s got a punch. I’ve seen Gnolls using them—they’re good hunters. Why not ask Krshia if she has one?”

“I think I’ll do just that.”

Erin smiled at Ryoka and went to pull some gold coins out from her savings. On the way she met Lyonette.

“Erin, look, look! It’s moving!”

She had a bowl in her hands. And in the bowl—practically hanging off the sides of the bowl was a bee. Erin knew Lyonette had the bee. She had seen many bees, most of them dead. She just wasn’t prepared for this bee in her face.

“Gah! Why is it so big?

This bee was twice the size of a regular Ashfire bee, and those were already the size of a fat hand. Lyonette beamed.

“I think it’s because I was feeding it all that jelly! Isn’t it amazing? Look, you can see it’s moving about a bit!”

The bee was indeed moving. The pupae had developed into distinct features, and now it was twitching a bit. Erin stared at the bee and edged away. Why was Lyonette not bothered by it? Oh, right. She killed bees and stole their honey every week.

“Is it—shriveling up?”

“I think so. It’s starting to grow little hairs, look!”

Mrsha was excitedly sniffing at the bee. Erin backed away towards the kitchen, hands raised. Drassi was trying to hide behind Ryoka and Ryoka was trying to prevent Ivolethe from attacking the bee.

“It looks great Lyonette, really. But why don’t you put it in your room before Ivolethe attacks? Let me know if the bee starts to move. Actually, let me know the instant it moves, okay? In fact…I’ll go down to the city right now and buy a leash.”

“A leash?”

Lyonette blinked at Erin. Erin nodded.

“Yes. A leash. Because you’re going to leash your bee, right?”

“I—don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just raising it—Apista, I mean. I don’t know if I can control her.”

Erin stared at Ryoka. The other girl shrugged. Erin turned back to Lyonette with a smile.

“Let’s find that out soon, okay? Great! Uh…keep it—her—away from the Antinium too.”

Both Pawn and Bird had noticed the bee Lyonette was holding and were staring at it. They looked innocently away as Lyonette glanced over.

That done with, Erin grabbed gold coins and silver ones and rushed into Liscor. She found Krshia selling salt by the sack in her shop. The Gnoll looked happier than she had in ages.

“Erin. It is good you are here, yes? After your last visit Brunkr seems better. Hrr. Much better, yes. Will you visit him? He has been asking about you.”

“Sure! I’ll visit him tonight. Listen, Krshia, do you have a, uh, leash? And collar? I’ve got a bee that’s about to hatch and I do not want it flying around before I know if it’s an angry bee or a nice one.”

Krshia blinked at Erin, but she nodded when she heard about Apista.

“There are dog leashes which can be adjusted. And collars. One of my cousins in the city, he breeds dogs. I think he will have some that can be used.”

“Gnolls have dogs as pets?”

Erin paused. She’d seen some dogs in Celum, but not in Liscor. Krshia shrugged.

“It is not too common. Some Gnoll tribes breed dogs to be eaten or as pets, but pets are difficult to raise in a city, yes? But some Drakes like pets. Gnolls have an easy time training dogs anyways. We are pack leaders to them.”

She grinned toothily. Erin looked at Krshia and thought that if Gnolls ever made it to earth, Cesar Millan would probably be out of a job.

“Cool. Great. Also—bows. Do you have, uh, recurving bows?”

“Recurving? You mean…recurve?”

“Yeah. All the curves. Or…composite? Reflex? I’m asking for a friend.”

The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] nodded.

“I shoot a recurve bow myself. I know a very good [Bowyer], and I will introduce him to you, yes? He is part of my tribe so he will give you a discount. What bow did you want? Enchanted ones are very expensive.”

“Uh…I want something that’s good to shoot birds with. I have money.”

Erin looked pleadingly at Krshia. The Gnoll sighed and smiled, and made time to go with Erin to the said bowyer and select a fine recurve bow made of yew. It cost a metaphorical arm and a leg, too.

“Twenty six gold coins?”

The bowyer nodded, looking proud of his work. Erin stared at the bow dubiously. Krshia coughed and motioned Erin aside so she could talk to her.

“It is worth hundreds, yes? Yew is good wood. Some say the best. And the bows are hard to make. This is a price at its base—without counting labor, only parts. A bow for this price, it would be four hundred gold coins if shipped far north, or to a place where there are no good bow makers. Enchanted bows may be worth more, but this is finest work.”

“Wait, then why am I paying—”

“A favor. For Ryoka’s friend, yes? The debt is honored. And Erin Solstice and Ryoka Griffin are both of the same tribe.”

The [Bowyer] nodded at Krshia, smiling widely. She winced as Erin stared at her.

“What did Ryoka do?”

“She did my tribe a favor. One beyond worth. Friendship was the price. And this—is an act of friendship. So we will charge you for only the cost of the wood and transportation. As friends.”

Erin thought about this. She dug in her money pouch and pulled out gold coins.

“Deal. And I’ll tell everyone that this is the best shop for bows, okay?”

Krshia and the [Bowyer] smiled as Erin put the coins on the table. Erin reached for some silver to account for the last gold coin and pulled out the odd coin she’d received. She stared at it. So did Krshia.

“What is that coin, Erin Solstice?”

“This? Oh it’s…I don’t really know. I got it from one of my customers. Do you know how much it’s worth, Krshia? Or how what it is?”

“Hmm. Hm. I have not seen a coin such as this.”

Krshia took the coin from Erin with careful paws and held it up to the light. She sniffed at it, wrinkled her nose, and sniffed again.

“It is ancient. I can tell you that. It smells of the earth, as if it were buried long. But the material…hm. Brathiak, lend me a knife, yes? Good steel, I think.”

But when Krshia went to obtain a sliver of the coin, the knife she was using failed to scratch the surface. She applied a lot of strength and nearly sliced her own paw. In the end she handed the coin back to Erin, shaking her head.

“Strong metal. I do not know what it is made of Erin. But it must come from an ancient kingdom, yes? It may be worth much to a collector, but I could not tell you the value. Perhaps a Dwarf could, if you met one.”

“Okay. I’ll hang on to it.”

Erin slipped the coin back into her pouch and paid for the bow. She carried it out of the bowyer’s shop with profuse thanks, and began walking back to her inn.

There was something odd about Gnolls. Most of them didn’t say much to Erin in passing—they just sniffed and nodded, which was their way. They could smell if Erin had had her period, if she’d had indigestion while pooping, and they could probably smell what she’d eaten for breakfast and when she’d eaten it. They were also, thankfully, unconcerned with the Human body.

Some male Drakes tended to whistle and make comments at female Drakes as they passed. Humans did the same thing, which Erin didn’t like, but Gnolls just sniffed or growled at each other so it didn’t bother her. Except for today. Today, as Gnolls saw Erin going down the street she could have been the hottest thing walking.

For both genders. Gnolls kept coming up to Erin and asking about the bow.

“Hrr. Yew, yes? Would you mind if I felt it?”

“Good construction. Do you shoot?”

“We should hunt together sometime. A bow like that deserves use.”

The lesson for the day was that Gnolls were weird about bows. Mrsha sat up and stared when she brought the bow into her inn. Bird stared when she brought it to him. She thought he would have burst into tears if he could.

“This bow is for me?”

“Yes! I got it from a friend of Krshia’s for almost nothing! I’ll uh, give it to you as advance payment for guarding my inn, okay?”

Bird was shaking his head as he felt the bow with trembling hands.

“It is too much. Too beautiful. I cannot take it.”

“Yes, you can.”

Erin made him lift the bow and try it out. The first arrow that Bird shot went halfway through the wall of her inn. Erin made him try the bow outside after that.

“Good bow.”

Halrac had come back with his group early from the dungeon. He was rubbing healing potion over a cut on his arm. He nodded at the bow and Erin saw him lift his bow up to see.

“I use a reflex bow made from spriggan wood. Highly flexible and enchanted for longer range and accuracy. It’s the best bow for close quarters and sneaking around, but you got your friend a good bow. It must have cost a small fortune.”

Bird turned to Erin, stricken. She waved her hands.

“No, no. It was a favor. That’s how I got it so cheap.”

“Some favor. Gnolls love bows.”

Halrac grunted. Erin nodded.

“Yeah…I owe Ryoka for that one. But that’s what [Innkeepers] do, right? We trade in favors and good will and stuff. Speaking of which…can you do me a favor right now?”

The [Scout] eyed Erin.


“Can you teach Bird how to shoot the bow properly? I mean, I don’t want to insult Bird, but you’re a master [Scout], right? Maybe you can show him a few tricks? Skills? How to make an arrow?”

Halrac glanced at Bird. Erin knew he didn’t like the Antinium that much, but Bird’s obsession with bows and shooting things seemed to win the grumpy man over. He nodded.

“I can do that. Come on, you. Let’s find something to shoot at.”

He strode out of the inn. Bird alternatively bowed to Erin and ran to follow. Lyonette stared at them and then looked at Erin.

“That was really nice.”

“Yeah. Well…I’m uh, going to get you something too. A sword. Or a mace. Hammer. What kind of weapon would you like if you used one? Do you use one?”

“A sword? Me?

“Didn’t you say you wanted more classes? I’ll get you a sword and you can practice fighting, okay?”

Erin poked at her upset stomach while Lyonette gaped at her.

“But I—I’ve never held a sword before! Ever! I wouldn’t know where to begin! Erin, I’d need a teacher—”

“I’ve got one in mind. Maybe. I’ll let you know. Sorry, I’ve got to talk to Octavia.”

Erin opened the door to Celum and saw Octavia selling a bunch of matches over the counter. Erin stared at the crude match boxes and saw Octavia accepting silver coins for them. She felt…that was a rip off. The [Alchemist] was grinning when she turned to Erin.

“Can you believe it, Erin? I’m getting rich! All thanks to your little Gnoll cub! I’ve been selling shipments of matches to the [Merchants]—people want what I’ve got! It’s only a matter of time before other [Alchemists] start copying my design—hah, obviously—but I’ve leveled up three times from developing the matches!”

She grinned in delight at Erin. Erin nodded, smiling, and poked at her stomach again. The feeling hadn’t gone away since this morning.

“Great. Do you want another job? Aside from perfecting the penicillin, by the way. I’ll need some of that too if you’ve got more.”

“The mold? Leveled up from that too. Sure!”

Octavia laughed as she brought out some of the mold poultice she’d mixed up for Erin a few days ago. Erin carefully took the jar of paste and passed Octavia a few coins.

“It’s not completely effective, you know.”

“I know. I’m trying to isolate the exact stuff Ryoka was mentioning. I’ll work on it. Now, what’s the other thing you wanted to talk about?”

“Healing slimes. And I want pepper potions, more healing potions, and whatever other alchemist weapons you’ve got. Or any you can get.”

“Well of course, I can get you some pepper potions—brewed up a batch just the other day. And I’ve got a tripvine bag—I could see if anyone else is selling a burn blast mixture, although that’ll cost—wait, back up. What was the first thing you said?”

Octavia frowned as her brain caught up to her mouth. Erin was busy pulling potions off the shelf. She dumped them in front of Octavia.

“Healing. Slimes. Can you make a slime? Can you make one made out of healing potions? Can you make one for me?”

Octavia stared at Erin.

“I have no idea. But a healing slime sounds…very profitable. Or it could run me out of business. Why don’t you talk to one of your [Mage] friends about that and uh, tell me if it works?”

“Will do! How’s fifteen gold coins for the lot sound?”

Fifteen—hey, wait!”

The Stitch-Girl saw all the potions and items Erin was trying to walk out with. She rushed out from behind her counter to stop Erin.

“That’s worth way more than fifteen gold coins! Even with my usual markup! You can’t just take them, Erin!”

“Well, that’s all the room I’ve got in my budget. Look, I need this stuff, Octavia.”

“Yes, I understand that by you trying to take them. But—

“Who told you how to make match sticks?”

Erin stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] opened her mouth, and then closed it.


“Just this once. One debt paid, how about that? And I’ll give you more ideas in the future.”


“I really need these, Octavia. Please?”

Octavia looked like she might have an aneurysm as she stared at the potions piled up in Erin’s arms. She looked around for inspiration, and stared at the boxes of matches on display in her shop. She gnawed at her lip and nodded.

“Just once. Then we’re square, got it?”

“Charge me as much as you want another time. Thanks!”

Erin left the shop and carefully lined up all the potions in one of her pantries in the kitchen. Lyonette stared at the bottles and bags in awe.

“How did you pay for all of that? Is there any money left over?”

She looked almost afraid to ask. Erin nodded.

“I got it for cheap. Again. I’m cashing in favors here.”


Lyonette looked curiously at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated and poked at her stomach. Same feeling.

“Call it a hunch. Look, I’ve got to go into Liscor for one more thing. Can you tell Ceria, Typhenous, Revi, Pisces, Moore…you know, all the mages that I want their help? The key word is ‘slimes’. Also, ‘healing’. Maybe ‘acid’, too.”

“Slimes? Healing? Acid? Okay, but I think they’re busy…”

“Tell them I’m calling in my favors if I have them! I also want to talk with Pisces about the undead! Tell him he’s not in trouble so he doesn’t run!”

Erin called out and left the inn at a trot. She had one more destination that day.




“Thank you for doing this, Erin.”

Brunkr sat in Krshia’s apartment as Erin applied the poultice that Octavia had given her. She spread it gently on his infected arm, trying not to make the Gnoll wince.

“How’s it feel? Better?”


Brunkr gingerly flexed his arm as he stared at the red gash in his arm. It had stopped leaking pus. The first few molds that Octavia had managed to isolate hadn’t done much for him, but this one was effective—or the honey and regular cleaning were doing their job. Erin had checked on Brunkr all week, and he was looking better each day.

Now the gash was actually healing. Brunkr was also well enough to be hungry, and he’d eaten half a cow already, or so Krshia told Erin. He seemed fit again as well.

“Have you been working out?”

“I have been running. It does not bother my arm, and I am restless, now that I feel better.”

Brunkr grinned at Erin. He let her wrap his arm carefully with the bandage she’d prepared and then offered her something to eat. Since Erin had forgotten to have lunch, she had some of the sliced raw meat the Gnolls loved so much. Someday she was going to get sick from it, but it tasted really good.

“I’m glad. If you keep healing like this, Ryoka thinks you might be able to use a healing potion soon.”

“I would not risk it after last time.”

Brunkr flexed his arm and grimaced at the memory. He nodded to the wound as he spoke to Erin, smiling at her. He had become very welcoming and hospitable as of late.

“A wound like this—if I take care with it, I may still use my other arm, yes? Why not let it heal with time and train in the meanwhile? I feel able to practice with a sword—this is my shield arm.”

“Oh, right. You’re a [Warrior], aren’t you?”

“I aspire to be a [Knight], in truth. But the class requires something I do not have. Until them, I am simply a [Warrior]. One of the best in my tribe.”

He said that without modesty, but without bragging as well. Erin remembered Brunkr fighting when he’d attacked Toren and she had to agree that he was pretty good. He’d taken a lot of her punches without falling down.

“If you want to practice, I have an offer for you. Would you be willing to uh, go by my inn and train Lyonette? I want to let her learn to be a [Warrior], if she’s willing.”

Brunkr froze. He stared at Erin.

“Me? Train Lyonette?”

“Yeah. And maybe Bird too. If he wants to learn how to fight with a sword, that is. I don’t want to learn—I use a frying pan and a knife. But some tips would be good. Maybe you can make up with Mrsha too. She feels bad about what she did.”

Brunkr stood up and paced about slowly while Erin snacked on more of the meat. What did the Gnolls call it again? Ssarish? No, that was the Drake version. She’d forgotten.

“Teach—I can teach. But why? I would not mind, but…it is an odd request coming from you. My Aunt tells me today you bought an expensive bow for your guard.”

“And I stocked up on potions. I’m going to buy a burn blast potion too, if anyone’s selling.”

The Gnoll sat, staring at Erin.

“A powerful item. Silver-rank adventurers use that, as do Gold-ranked ones. Why would you need such a thing?”

Erin hesitated. She poked at her stomach and Brunkr noticed.

“Are you feeling sick? I cut the meat for the Rashgr myself. It should not be—”

“No, I’m not feeling sick from the food. It’s something else.”

Erin shook her head. She’d been feeling the sensation all morning. She looked at Brunkr and decided to confide in him.

“Actually, Brunkr, I’ve been feeling worried all day. I felt a bit worried yesterday, actually, but then I played chess and…but I felt it today as well.”

“Felt what?”

“Uneasy. As if…something’s coming. I know Pawn has his Soldiers and there’s Gold-rank adventurers in my inn, but they’re not there all the time. And the dungeon is dangerous—Relc is always talking about it. So…I’m just taking precautions. I’m going to talk to Pisces about one more thing he can do, and try to cross-breed slimes.”

Brunkr stared at Erin. She knew she wasn’t making too much sense, but she just felt strongly that she should be doing something. Her head turned.

The Gnoll saw Erin looking around the room, and then look towards one of Krshia’s walls. There was nothing there, but Brunkr knew that Erin was pointed northeast from the position of the setting sun in the sky.

“There’s something…coming. Something bad, I think. I just feel uneasy.”

“Hrr. If you say so, I will agree. But what? Could it be the Goblin Lord? The monsters from the dungeon? Something else?”

Erin shrugged. But she looked uneasy. Brunkr had seldom seen Erin looking nervous, but now she did.

“I don’t know. But I just feel like I should be ready. Like we should all be ready.”

She reached out and pushed the half-full jar of poultice towards Brunkr.

“If you want to help, come tomorrow. Or tonight. And tell me where to buy a sword. I don’t have that much money left after the bow and potions, but Ryoka can lend me some money. I’ll talk to the Horns of Hammerad—see if they’re ready too.”

“Ready for what? A war?”

Erin hesitated. The young woman looked around, and Brunkr saw her eyes fix on that same spot to the northeast.

“Bad things, Brunkr. Just…bad things.”




“We have arrived.”

Venitra, first-born of Az’kerash’s creations and loyal servant to her master, paused as she stared at the distant walls of the city. They weren’t as tall as she had expected, but then, she had seen the Walled Cities up close and few structures could match the memory of their colossal fortifications.

In any case, the city was not important. She drew the travelling cloak tighter around her undead form. The white bone from which her entire body was made—an armored body that any Dullahan would envy, but far stronger, woven with spells crafted by her loving master himself—was concealed from any eyes at a distance. She had to stay hidden.

She was not here for war. Not yet. She had to find someone. The Runner. For that, she would traverse the world. It had been an arduous journey getting here, but at last they had arrived. Venitra, and—


Venitra turned her head to regard her companion. Ijvani usually travelled in a cloak of woven shadows, a production of magic that protected her from sight as well as attack. However, she too had exchanged her usual garb for a simple traveler’s cloak. It was just as well no one was around, however. A single look into either undead woman’s hoods would reveal a nightmare.

Two kinds of nightmares, in fact. Where Venitra’s hood would have revealed a sculpted face of bone, something similar to a Golem but far more unsettling, Ijvani’s cloak concealed a different secret. An unsettling one. A thought—inspiration from the Necromancer’s mind given form.

Two burning golden eyes stared at Venitra. They were placed in the hollow, grinning skull of a skeleton. That was what Ijvani was. A skeleton mage. No ordinary mage, though. Her magic was on par with any Gold-rank adventurer. Yet even that did not set her apart. It was her body.

Bone, yes. Reanimated, yes. But her bones were not the pristine white of Venitra’s form, or the yellow of bones left to rot. Instead, Ijvani’s bones shone. They shone black.

Black iron. Ijvani was not as heavy as Venitra, but she weighed far more than she should.  Her entire body was a kind of armor, and carved into the metal were glowing runes, symbols of destruction. She and Venitra were made for battle, made to kill, each in their own way. They would find the Courier, find the Runner, find who she had told and slay them all.

“It is time, Ijvani.”

The skeleton mage nodded. Venitra strode towards the city of Liscor, preparing herself. To find their quarry, they would have to search. Hide themselves. The Drakes and Gnolls could be tricked. This would be the first city they searched through, for any trace of the Runner’s passing. After that, would they go north? Only time would tell. Would their master grow weary of waiting and contact them? Venitra longed to hear his voice. Perhaps—

Ah, Venitra.

Ijvani’s voice stopped Venitra. The bone-white woman looked back at her companion, annoyed.

“What is it? We are wasting time.”

The black skeleton was consulting a bloody map they’d found on the corpse of someone they’d horrifically slaughtered on the road here. She was peering at the city and at the mountains. She turned and stared south.

Remember that mountain we climbed over?

“Yes. What of it?”

I think…we shouldn’t have done that. According to this map, we’re not at Liscor.

“We’re not?”

Venitra stared at Ijvani. The skeleton nodded.

This…is Esthelm. Liscor is that way.

She pointed. Venitra stared. She stared at Ijvani, the map, and then towards Liscor. She sighed. Ijvani looked at her.

You really should have brought Kerash. He knows this continent far better than I do.

“I brought you because you and Oom are our best trackers.”

Venitra’s face contorted into a scowl as she looked accusingly at Ijvani. The skeleton mage nodded.

At tracking. But I need a quarry to locate them by magic. Oom needs a scent. We have neither. I’m not good at reading maps on the other hand, or signs. You’re supposed to be our master’s most competent creation. Why can’t you ever find where we’re going?

Venitra shook her head.

“Shut up. We’re leaving.”

She started walking towards Liscor, her heavy tread cracking the earth. She’d gone ten feet when Ijvani called out after her.

I lied. Liscor is that way.

She pointed in the other direction. Venitra stopped, stared at Ijvani. Her tone was thick with malice.

“If you were not our master’s creation, I would destroy you right now.”

You can try. I am the greatest skeleton to ever walk the earth. So my master designed me.

She couldn’t argue with that. Venitra stomped towards Liscor. When she found that accursed Runner, she was going to rip her toes off one by one. To start with.


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

1.06 D

Kenjiro’s grandfather had died the year Ken went into university. He had been 88 years old at the time. Ken had fond memories and bitter memories of his grandfather, many having to do with how his father and grandfather used to bring up old arguments when they met.

They came from two different generations. Ken’s father had been born after World War II. His grandfather…had lived through it. He had been fifteen when Japan surrendered. When Ken was little, and when he was growing up, his grandfather would sometimes tell Ken stories of living through those last year of the war, when U.S. planes would drop bombs across Japan.

There was little guilt in his grandfather’s eyes for the war. Japan had fought, and it had lost. America had dropped its bomb to end all bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now there was peace. But there would always be a bit of hatred in Ken’s grandfather. Not just for the bomb, but for the nights he’d spend staring up at the sky as bombs fell.

Ken remembered how his grandfather’s hands shook, recalling the days when fire would rain down from the skies. It had seemed like all of Tokyo was aflame, at times. Now Kenjiro wondered if this is what his grandfather had seen.

Fire. Geneva’s camp was aflame. The mage, Zalthia, the Firebringer, had set it on fire. But that wasn’t all.

“Ken. Ken!

Someone was screaming at him. Ken looked around. His head felt empty. His ears were ringing from the explosions. He realized he was standing around aimlessly as Luan charged over to him. He had a mace in his hands. He was bleeding.


“Ken! We’ve got to get out of here! There are soldiers in the camp! They’re killing the wounded!”

Ken stared at Luan. He was in shock. He trotted after Luan as the South African young man cursed and shoved at Ken, getting him towards a patch of trees. Ken stared back at the tents. Everything was on fire. The [Mage] had set fire to every bit of the camp. Nothing would be left; the flames were too strong to fight. She’d hit the operating tent. Why? What harm could Geneva have done? What could Aiko—

He blinked. A part of Ken woke back up.


He looked at Luan. The older young man—no, the man’s face was gray with the horror of what he’d seen, but he was holding his mace, ready to fight. Ken looked around.

“Where’s Aiko? Luan, did you see—”

“I don’t know. She might have been in the tent—hold on, Ken!”

Ken didn’t listen. He raced towards the burning operating tent, halting only when he heard the sounds of fighting. It was coming from the camp, and Luan, running after Ken, stopped when he heard it too.

“An attack?”

Ken looked at Luan. The man hesitated.

“Maybe. The airstrike was one thing. Maybe they sent people to make sure we’re all dead? Come on, let’s see. Be ready to run or fight!”

Creeping around blazing tents, flinching from the heat, Ken and Luan finally saw what was going on. A group of warriors was struggling amid the burning wreckage. Dullahans and a lone Lizardman that Ken recognized.

Eight Dullahans were fighting a lone figure in the center of the camp. Each Dullahan was armed with a weapon, and they were fighting in unison. Their movements were precise, and Ken and Luan knew any one of them could have killed both Humans in a moment.

But the enemy they were battling didn’t fall, despite half of his body being burned black and the numerous wounds he had taken. Calectus snarled, his Lizardman’s body twisting and lashing out with his long halberd. A Dullahan with a shield blocked the blade and stumbled back; Ken saw the shield deform from the impact.


Ken whispered. Luan nodded. His face was pale.

“I—I don’t know if jumping in will help or not. They’re moving too fast for me!”

“Do not. They are all too strong.”

Ken tried to grip Luan, in case he ran in. The Dullahans were armored and Luan only had the painted leather armor and crude mace to fight with. He’d die in a second.

“Yeah, but he can’t take them on alone—”

Calectus whirled as a Dullahan launched an arrow. It buried itself in his shoulder, piercing through the chainmail he wore. The Selphid didn’t stagger or fall, though. Instead, he turned and leapt towards the Dullahan who’d loosed the arrow. He swung his halberd and the Dullahan fell as the tip of the halberd sliced through his armor.

Another Dullahan ran at Calectus from behind and two more closed in. Ken saw Luan tense, and tried to grab him. Then he saw Calectus turn and kick one of the Dullahans into the air. He landed eight feet away.

Both Humans froze when they saw that. So did the Dullahans, for a moment. The Dullahan that Calectus had kicked had been wearing iron armor, dark and sturdy. He must have weighed at least two hundred pounds with it on, and Calectus had kicked him like a ragdoll. Ken’s eyes went to the fallen Dullahan and he saw an imprint in the iron armor.

The other two Dullahans backed away. Too slowly. Calectus whirled his halberd, and Ken heard a ripping sound as it cut through air and one of the Dullahan’s heads. The other one fell back fast and Ken heard her shout.

“Selphid is rampaging! Get back!”

The Dullahans immediately spread out, suddenly acting wary of Calectus. Ken didn’t understand. Rampaging? Was Calectus doing something? Then he saw the Selphid tense and bend his knees. He leapt—and kept going higher.

Calectus jumped up as if he were no longer weighed down by his armor or gravity. He leapt six feet into the air and one of his feet crushed a Dullahan’s helmeted head as he landed. He turned—two Dullahans were rushing towards him. Calectus ran one through and grabbed the other’s head. His hand was on the other Dullahan’s face as the Dullahan stabbed him with a dagger. Calectus squeezed—Ken saw his grip close and the Dullahan sagged.

Two left. One turned to run, the other, a female Dullahan with a sword, charged at Calectus. He met her with a roar and cut through armor and flesh with a single strike. He ran after the last Dullahan.

Both were coming towards Ken and Luan. The Humans backed away and the Dullahan saw them, hesitated, and looked over his shoulder. He saw Calectus coming for him and ran at the two young men, holding two hatchets in his hands. He never got to them.

Calectus’s halberd cleaved through the Dullahan’s steel armor and cut the Dullahan in half. Both torso and lower body spun away and Ken felt a splatter of blood hit his chest. He stared down at the stain on his shirt and then at Calectus.

The Lizardman’s dead eyes turned towards Luan and Ken. He shifted the grip on his halberd and Ken backed away. Luan raised his voice, shouting.

“Calectus! It’s us!”

There was a pause in which Ken thought he could see his life reflected by the tip of the Selphid’s halberd, and then Calectus lowered it.

“You two. You’re alive.”

It was a statement, not a question. Calectus sagged and suddenly he stopped being a one-Selphid army of destruction. Ken rushed over to him and stared at Calectus’ wounds. He had arrows in his shoulder and thigh, numerous bloodless cuts all over his body, and a deformed skull. If he were a living Lizardman, he would have long been dead. As it was, Calectus just looked exhausted.

“Are you hurt, Calectus-san? Do you need—”

Ken had no idea what a Selphid would need. A healing potion? Those didn’t work on the dead. Calectus shook his head.

“I have torn this body’s muscles and taken many wounds. I must find another. But later. Where is Geneva?”

“We don’t know. We saw the mage burning the camp and then saw the Dullahans—”

“Assassins. Zalthia was sent by the Centaurs, there’s no question about it. And the Dullahans felt like experienced [Soldiers], not mercenaries for hire. Only one of them ran.”

“You mean…both sides attacked us?”

Ken stared at Calectus. The Selphid nodded shortly.

“There may be more about. Help me find Geneva.”

“And Aiko! She is—Luan, the operating tent!”

Remembering, Ken and Luan both ran for the tent, Calectus following and warily looking around. Ken shouted the moment he saw the tent wasn’t completely engulfed by the flames. He ran towards the smoke, screaming.

“Aiko! Aiko!

The tent was billowing black smoke from the inside. Ken took a breath and rushed towards the opening. He saw fire, felt the heat and saw a dim table—and a body, burning. He ran to it and tried to drag it out.


The flames burned Ken’s hand. He dragged at the body, screaming inside while he tried not to breathe. Someone grabbed him and dragged him out. Ken gasped for air as he cleared the tent. He looked down and saw…

A stranger. A dead Dullahan’s face stared up at him. She wasn’t wearing armor. She was one of the Selphids, only there was no life behind the dead face. Calectus leaned on his halberd.


He shook his head as Ken and Luan looked at him questioningly. The Selphid inside was dead. Only now did Ken feel the pain in his hands and cry out. Luan reached for him.

“We’ve got to get healing potion on your burns.”

Ken shook his head.

“First Aiko. Where is she?”


A voice from behind. Ken whirled, and then stumbled to his feet and ran. He ran around the tent and then saw Aiko. She was kneeling over another body. Another Dullahan. This one was wearing armor and had a sword.

He was dead. There was blood on Aiko’s hands. She looked at Ken, her hands shaking. She was alive. Ken sagged, and then took in the scene a second time. The Dullahan was dead, and Aiko was not. She had killed him.

The knowledge was in Aiko’s eyes, the proof of it on her crimson hands. She looked at Ken, shaking.


Ken stared at the dead Dullahan. A scalpel was in his eye and another one was sticking out of his neck. The young Japanese man was no expert, but it looked like an artery had been sliced. His armor was painted with red.


Luan ran towards her and hugged her, ignoring the blood. Aiko stared at him, and then at Ken.

I killed him, Ken. I did not mean to, but I was afraid—

You—you did the right thing. He would have killed you.

Ken replied automatically, but he was still staring at the dead Dullahan. He’d never killed anyone. He’d killed undead, as had everyone else, but Aiko had—had she taken him by surprise? Defended herself and gotten lucky?

Calectus interrupted the moment. He snapped at Aiko as he surveyed the area.

“Have you seen Geneva? Do you know where she was?”

“No, I—”

Aiko seemed paralyzed, but she snapped out of it as she focused on the question.

“I do not know. I think she was at the edge of camp. Maybe?”

“Spread out and search! If you find anyone, run and shout for me!”

The Selphid ordered the Humans. He was more concerned about Geneva than the others, even the other Selphids. Ken looked at Luan and Aiko. She was shaking and he was holding her, trying to comfort her. Luan looked at Ken.

“Go. Find Geneva. Aiko and I will search in a moment.”

Ken didn’t know what to do. He wanted to speak to Aiko too, but Luan was already urging Aiko to move. They all sensed it. Geneva’s camp was the target of the attacks. It was inconceivable that she wouldn’t have been the first one both the assassins and Zalthia went for.

It wasn’t hard to find her. Ken was the first to spot the lone body in front of the blazing inferno that was all that remained of the Dullahan escort. He ran towards the body, shouting for Luan and Aiko. They ran towards him as he skidded to a stop and stared at Geneva.

She was dead.

There was no way she could be otherwise. Her throat was sliced open, exposing red blackness. Her stomach had been pierced multiple times by a blade. Ken stared down at Geneva and felt hot tears coming to his eyes. He turned away as Luan reached her and cried out. Aiko buried her head in her hands, smearing her face with blood.


She was gone. But then, to Ken’s horror, the eyes of the corpse opened. Geneva’s still body moved, and a hand rose. It covered her throat and Ken saw her open her mouth.

“Help me.”

Ken screamed and leapt backwards. Luan stumbled back and Aiko shouted in horror. Geneva was dead. There was no way she could be alive. But the voice that rasped from her throat sounded like her. Geneva’s eyes had opened and they were staring right at Ken. How could she be conscious? How—

Had she become undead? Was this some kind of zombie? Geneva stared at Ken. He looked at her, shaking.


Her eyes flickered. The voice lowered, deepened.

“No. I am Okasha. I am a Selphid sharing Geneva’s body. Her mind is unconscious and she has been wounded badly. I am keeping her body alive. Do you have a healing potion?”


“Calectus might have one. I’ll get him.”

Luan backed away. Ken heard him running and shouting for the Selphid. Ken just kept staring at the thing possessing Geneva’s body. A Selphid? But he thought that Selphids could only inhabit dead bodies. Could they do it with living ones? And if so…

“Geneva is alive?”

Aiko knelt by Geneva—by Okasha—and stared in horror at the wounds in her stomach. She reached for them, hesitated.

“She is wounded. Badly, I think.”


Geneva’s hand stayed clamped to her throat. Her eyes moved down to look at Aiko.

“Her heart has stopped. I am manually pumping blood throughout her body. Her body and mind have gone into shock, but I am maintaining a flow of blood to all parts of her body. I have stopped her external bleeding, but I cannot continue this forever. Please. Help her.”

“I—I cannot. I do not have sutures or a needle. You need a healing potion.”

Aiko was helpless. Ken knelt by her and looked into Geneva’s eyes. He addressed Okasha.

“Can you hold on? Will Geneva-san die or—or bleed?”

He stared into her stomach, at the red wounds. There was…something there. Something vaguely orange, blocking the wounds, just inside of the body. The Selphid? Ken shuddered as it slowly undulated. Geneva’s voice replied, cold and distant.

“Geneva Scala cannot die. I will not let her.”

The wording of that made Ken’s blood freeze. Then he heard a shout. Ken turned his head and saw Calectus charging towards them, Luan following.


He tore a potion from his belt and splashed it on her wounds. The thing that called itself Okasha pointed out each of the injured sites, telling Calectus to wait while she held together parts of Geneva’s internal organs to be healed in turn. Then the stomach wounds closed and Geneva sat up, her throat mended.

She was alive. Just unconscious, as Okasha reported. But she was alive. Only…what was she?

Ken didn’t know. He realized there was a lot he didn’t know, but then Calectus was telling everyone to run into the forest. Ken did, and suddenly he was staring around, seeing the shapes fighting in the valley, hearing the horn calls. Now that the trials of now were over, he realized the entire valley had descended into hell.

The fighting had begun sometime after Zalthia’s airstrike. Only it wasn’t the controlled battle in the valley. Soldiers charged each other on the hills; mages blasted each other and tore apart the tree cover. The fighting was everywhere.





In the moments spent crouched, watching mages send arcs of magic raining down into the forests and hearing Calectus report that the Centaurs and Dullahans were fighting all over the valley now, cutting any hope of escape off, he listened to Okasha explain what she was. What Geneva had lost. Why they were…together.

“A Selphid living in a Human body.”

Calectus nodded. He’d come back with another body after going scouting. This time he was a Dullahan, head firmly locked into place. A female Dullahan, in fact. He—or was it she now?—still had her Halberd, and the deathblow Calectus had given her body was an open gash, gaping at Ken. He looked away, seeing hints of movement from within. The same thing was in Geneva.


“Her spine is broken. A bone on her neck was crushed when a soldier hit her there. Without me bridging the connection, she would have been unable to move.”

Okasha was sitting, looking at Ken and the others. Aiko and Luan were starting at her, almost unable to look away. Okasha was Geneva and wasn’t Geneva at the same time. She spoke with Geneva’s voice and shared her body, but all of her mannerisms, from the way she sat and the way she spoke, were different. It was terrifying, because it took everything Ken thought he knew about her and turned it upside-down.

The knowledge of Okasha came with the strictest of warnings which Calectus impressed on the three Humans. What Okasha had done was beyond blasphemy. Inhabiting a living body was something the ancient Selphids had done once, when they’d created a terrible empire. They had been overthrown, and ever since, any Selphid found to be inhabiting a living body was put to death.

As was its host.

“It is forbidden by every nation in the world. It would mean Geneva’s death and Okasha’s if it were found out. You will not tell anyone about this, or I will kill you. Not your friends, not your lovers—no other Selphids either. No one.”

Luan nodded as Calectus stared at him. Aiko and Ken nodded quickly as well. They were stunned by the revelation, but it wasn’t the most pressing issue right now. The battle going on between both sides was.

“Whatever the reason, the attack on Geneva’s camp seems to have been the start of all-out war. Both companies have abandoned their positions and are attacking with all their forces. It is a bloodbath.”

Calectus had scouted in either direction and found only fighting. There was no chance of running from the battle without meeting the other soldiers. Aiko’s voice was shaky as Luan hugged her with one arm.

“I do not understand. Why are they doing this now?”

“At a guess? Because one side got desperate. This is a mistake. Neither company wished to lose the majority of its forces, so they agreed to fight in the valley’s center until one side withdrew. Now? They will fight until one side is obliterated. The winner will be mostly destroyed as well, however. As will everyone in the valley.”

That included them. Calectus and Okasha were talking about what they could do when Okasha raised a hand.

“Geneva is waking up.”

Okasha got up and walked away from the others. Ken watched her back and saw Geneva jerk suddenly. She stumbled—he thought he could see Okasha stopping her from falling. Then Geneva’s mouth opened and she spoke to herself. A pause. A short sentence, and then Geneva replied to herself. It was creepy, watching her have a conversation with herself and yet not herself. Then Geneva’s head turned and she took in the smoldering remains of her camp.


She collapsed. Her hands shot out, breaking her fall, and Geneva ended up sitting. She stared at the camp in silence. After a while, Ken stood up and made his way over to her.

“Geneva-san? Okasha-san?”

“We’re both in here, Ken.”

“Oh. Geneva-san…? Geneva?”

“I’m…here, Ken.”

Geneva’s voice was hoarse from the healing. But it was her. Ken thought it was. The horror in the [Doctor]’s eyes was too real to be anyone but her. Unless it was Okasha pretending to be her sometimes? No. He had to believe it was her.

“Are you alright, Geneva?”


It was Geneva who looked at Ken, and he flinched away from her gaze. She stared at him, and then at her camp.

“They’re all gone. All the wounded, the soldiers—all of them. Just like that. The goodwill I built up, the lives I tried to save…nothing. It meant nothing.”

He looked at her. There was nothing he could say, so Ken didn’t try. He sat next to Geneva and heard her whispering. Was she talking to Okasha or him? Or neither?

“This was my fault. I thought I could stay neutral, avoid conflict. Instead I became a part of this war. I’ve—failed.”

She stared back at the camp, and then turned her head. Part of the valley had been set ablaze. Struggling soldiers were killing each other in the valley, in the forests. Neither side was falling back. It was to the death this time. The wounded would cry out, and the side that won would deal with them.

“It’s all burning.”

“We must go. It is not safe to hide here, Calectus says. Geneva, I am sorry, but we must run.”

Ken felt wretched saying it to her, but he had seen Centaurs racing through the trees not thirty feet away from where they were hiding. It was only a matter of time before they were found.

Geneva didn’t answer, but Okasha made her stand up. She spoke for Geneva, her voice lower.

“What are our options?”

“Run and fight, or hide and then fight.”

Those were the two conclusions Calectus had come up with. They could head in any direction, preferably away from the valley, but both companies were trying to flank each other and they could head right into a battle group. But if they stayed put, they’d end up meeting soldiers too. And there was no food or shelter here. Either way, it ended with a battle, and Calectus was frank about the odds she’d have against a group of Soldiers.

“I could kill the assassins—but only because I didn’t have to protect anyone. And they weren’t expecting a Selphid. They thought I was alive at first, or they would have aimed for me, not my body. If we run into anything larger than a group of ten, we all die.”

“So that’s it? We choose which way we think is less risky?”

Calectus nodded grimly. She nodded to the camp, checking to make sure her head was on right. Selphids couldn’t take their heads off like Dullahans could. At least, they couldn’t do it and not have the heads begin to rot.

“I had a group of soldiers who could have fought with us, but the airstrike and assassins killed them all. Without another force, there are not enough warriors. Okasha could fight—”


Geneva interrupted. She looked at her hand and shook her head.

“I can’t. I can’t let her, either.”

“Just me, then.”

Ken and Luan looked at each other. They wanted to say they could fight, but only Aiko had ever killed someone. But what could they do otherwise? If they had to fight—

Ken had a thought. He stood up and looked up the valley, towards a hill. He tried to squint to see if there was fighting there, but couldn’t see anything through the trees. Luan saw where he was looking and spoke up.

“That’s right! What about Gravetender’s Fist?”

Everyone looked at Luan. He pointed through the forest, up the valley towards where the neutral ground was. Or had been. Calectus frowned and shifted her grip on her halberd.

“You think you can get them to shelter us?”

Ken, Aiko, and Luan traded looks. Luan nodded to Calectus and Geneva.

“We know them. Quallet’s reasonable…I think. There are a lot of our friends in the company. It’s worth a shot, and better than trying to get out alone, don’t you think?”

Calectus considered the idea, and then nodded.

“They’re the only other side in this mess. If we find them there, we can try to work together. Otherwise…we’ll still be closer to the edges of the fighting.”

It was a tenuous plan, but having agreed to it, Calectus didn’t waste any time. He had everyone get up and creep towards the neutral zone, stopping when they heard fighting in the distance. Calectus frowned, glancing up at the tall, broad-limbed trees and around warily. There was a problem.

“I can fight small groups, but if we run into a patrol, they will call for help. We need someone to scout.”

“I can—”

Luan spoke up, but it was Okasha who volunteered herself and Geneva.

“I’m a [Rogue]. I should do it, with Geneva’s permission.”

“Absolutely not. You’re valuable.”

Calectus snapped at her, but Okasha was insistent.

“I can do it, Calectus.”

“How? If you’re spotted—”

“I have stealth Skills. And I’ll do it from above.”

Everyone looked up as Okasha pointed at the branches. She looked at Calectus, then flicked her glance towards Ken and the others. Ken thought she was worried about them hearing, but the situation must have warranted it, so Okasha spoke.

“I’ll exceed Geneva’s limits. I can leap from tree to tree. I did it with my last body. I can do it with hers. Let me do it, Calectus.”


Luan stared up incredulously at the treetops. The branches were thick and could probably hold someone’s weight, true, but jumping from one to the next would require inhuman strength! Or maybe the athleticism of a trained Olympian, neither of which Geneva had.

However, that wasn’t an issue, as Okasha explained to the Humans.

“We can exceed our limits for a brief period. It is a trick that pushes a body’s muscles and nerves past their physical threshold. Other species can do it in times of dire need, but we have no such limitations of the mind. The cost, however, is that the body we inhabit will degrade and break down far, far more quickly.”

“Yes, and doing that to a living body would be painful—”

Calectus was frowning and objecting, but Geneva interrupted. She looked from Calectus to the trees, to the other Humans.

“Let’s do it. If it means no fighting, I can bear the pain. Okasha, go ahead.”

Geneva’s head nodded and Okasha spoke.

“I will take over. Geneva, this will tear your muscles.”

Geneva’s gritted her teeth.

“I can heal them. Do it.”

Ken stepped back as Geneva’s knees bent and she lowered her posture. There was no sign she was…what had the Dullahans called it? Rampaging? But when Geneva leapt, it was straight up, nearly twice her height. She caught a branch and swung herself onto it, moving with incredible grace. Ken gaped.

“I’ll move ahead. Calectus, wait for my signal.”

She jumped from one of the branches to the next, a standing long jump that catapulted her to the next branch. Ken turned to Luan to ask the Olympian hopeful if he’d ever seen anything like it, and saw Luan’s slack-jawed expression.

“How can she do that?”

Aiko asked Calectus, who was scanning the trees from where Okasha had gone. The Selphid answered without turning her head.

“Humans, Dullahans, Lizardfolk…all of your species can do the same. Have you not ever heard of your kind performing great feats in times of need?”

Ken vaguely recalled a story about a mother who had lifted an entire tree off of her son. Or how a passerby would lift an entire car, thousands of pounds, off someone who was trapped beneath. He had no idea what the term for it was.

Was it really possible for everyone to do that? And if so, what could Selphids do with that kind of ability?

Ken looked at Calectus out of the corner of his eye. He—was now a she, and a she from a different species altogether. A Selphid could take over any dead body, and any living body. They could survive wounds that would kill a living person without injury, tap into strength they didn’t have…

They were frightening. Not only that, Ken had no idea how they thought or behaved as a species. He had only known Calectus and now, Okasha. Ken was glad they were on the same side, at least, for now.

Something flickered in the trees above him. Ken looked up and saw nothing in the shadows. But Calectus had. She pointed and snapped in a low voice.

“Go. Go!

Adrenaline and fear shot through Ken’s body. He ran, sprinting through the trees, tapping into a speed born of pure fear and proving the Selphids were right. Something moved above him and Ken flinched, but it was Geneva. She ran across a branch as thick as Ken’s waist and then leapt to a tree ahead of him.

Ken saw Geneva leaping from tree to tree like a monkey, moving with the same inhuman strength and speed that Calectus had displayed. She called down at Calectus and the others, directing them away from the fighting. Ken ran, lungs and legs burning, watching Luan run ahead of him and hearing Aiko struggling by his side. Calectus took up the rear, watchful, sometimes falling back to clash with pursuers.

When they broke out into the open and ran for the neutral ground Geneva landed and sprinted across the hundred meter gap in less than ten seconds. Ken tried to breathe and run faster as he heard shouts in the distance. However, if they had been spotted, the group of five was deemed less of a threat and no one came after them.

Geneva had paused in the first few trees of the neutral zone. She was sweating, and as Ken ran towards her and practically collapsed, he saw she was gripping her legs.


Geneva’s face was twisted with pain. Okasha spoke with her voice.

“Try not to move. I am massaging the muscles and removing the…”

“Lactic acid. I can feel everything burning.”

“Torn muscle. I warned you. I am secreting a pain relieving agent, but you must use a healing potion.”


Luan raced into the grove, half-dragging Aiko. She was panting, a ragged note of pain in her voice from the extreme sprint. Calectus was last. An arrow was sticking out of her armor’s shoulder. Ken hadn’t realized they were being shot at.

“Are you alright Geneva, Okasha?”

“Fine. We could use a bit of the healing potion.”

Calectus handed the quarter of a bottle over, cautioning Okasha to be sparing. A few drops and Geneva’s expression of pain eased. She stood up, legs fully recovered from the muscle strain. Calectus shook her head as she studied Geneva.

“The ability to stop bleeding, move a body when critically injured and heal each injury with such precision…this is why it was made forbidden. It is too powerful. Too dangerous. Two souls in one body. Two minds, each with their own set of classes and Skills. An army of such warriors would be unstoppable.”

“Not if the entire world is after you.”

Okasha shook her head and then Geneva took back over. She looked at Ken.

“Are we at the neutral zone?”

“A bit farther, I think. This way!”

Ken took over and the group moved slowly through the forest. He thought they were close to the campground, and then heard a shout. A group of armed soldiers burst out of the trees, shouting. Ken saw Calectus drag Geneva back, leaving Luan, Aiko, and Ken to defend themselves. Luan raised his mace and then Ken heard a shout.

“Hold on! Hold on, you bastards! It’s Ken and the others!”

One of the charging soldiers halted and blocked the path of the others. He was holding an axe, and as he came closer, Ken saw it was Daly.

“Bugger me, you lot are alive!”

He strode over to them as the soldiers halted, although none of them sheathed their weapons. Ken nearly wept at the sight of Daly. He was alive! And now that Ken wasn’t terrified out of his mind, he saw more Humans and familiar Lizardfolk, Dullahan, and Centaur faces amid the soldiers.

Daly strode over and gave Ken a one-armed hug that impressed Ken with sweat, blood, and other body odors. Then he clasped hands with a grinning Luan.

“What happened? All we heard this morning was that the [Doctor]’s camp was attacked, and then it was like the world was ending! Both the Centaurs and the Dullahans started fighting everywhere and we’ve been attacked six times in the last hour!”

The young man from Australia led Ken and the others into the neutral ground while the other soldiers went to hide in the trees again. Daly had certainly seen war now, as had the others. He had a huge cut running down his neck and his collarbone. It had cut his armor in half, but it must not have been that deep, since Daly was still upright.

“The Dullahans are claiming that the Centaurs used [Mages] to burn down the camp, and the Centaurs are saying the Dullahans sent soldiers in to burn the camp and blamed it on them. Which side attacked?”


Daly stared at Ken as he and Luan explained what had happened. The Australian shook his head and spat.

“Lies from both sides. Fucking brilliant, am I right? At least Aiko’s safe too. And hey, who’s this?”

Only now did Daly spot Geneva and Calectus. His eyes widened as Ken told him who they were.

“The [Doctor]? I heard about her. The Last Light. You’d better see the Captain. He’ll want to know she’s here.”

Daly took Geneva, Ken, and the others to Quallet’s tent in the middle of the camp. Only this time, Quallet wasn’t the only person inside. When Daly knocked on the flap and ushered everyone in, Ken saw Quallet was standing with the other surviving neutral parties around a map of the valley.

Quallet was there, as was the female Centaur, the leader of Rot’s Bane. Ken thought her name was Exara. What was a surprise was seeing Xalandrass, the war vendor occupying a corner of the tent while he tended to his wounds. Quallet’s eyes widened on seeing Geneva, but when he’d heard what had happened—and heard Calectus was a Level 36 [Honor Guard]—he immediately made room for them around the map.

“Right now we’re holding position and trying not to be a target. But it’s only a matter of time before they send a big force our way to secure this spot, or messengers with an offer to join either side. I’m hoping for a messenger, but I think our chances are slim either way.”

There were symbols all over the map, glowing, indicating where the fighting was. Ken looked down at a shifting landscape of yellow and blue, engulfing every section of the valley and cutting off any hope for an escape route.

Exara, the female Centaur, gave Calectus a brief appraisal of the forces they had with them.

“They killed Ulvial in the first attack. I’ve taken command of the rest of his company with Quallet…we’ve also joined forces with the war vendor’s group. Their camp was also attacked. I’ll say this for the [Merchant], though—he didn’t hide. He crushed at least six of the soldiers who attacked him with his tail. Broke all their bones just like that.”

She nodded at Xalandrass. Ken approached the Naga as the others clustered around the table and discussed options. Technically Geneva was no commander, but the other captains seemed to think she had a place with them and certainly valued Calectus’ input.

Xalandrass had a potion bottle in his hands and was pouring it slowly over the cuts on his body with eyes closed. He opened his eyes warily and then blinked as he saw Ken.

“Ah, little Ken. I did not expect to see you. Alive.”

“Honored Xalandrass.”

The Naga laughed and then grimaced. Xalandrass had a deep cut down part of his serpentine tail, but he was healing that as he spoke with a potion. He’d thrown open his stores and supplied Gravetender’s Fist and the other companies with enchanted weapons and potions. It was one of the reasons why they’d been left alone; they weren’t an easy target. But it was only a matter of time.

He explained this to Ken in a lowered voice as the captains reached the same conclusion with Calectus. Xal’s face was grim as he gave their odds of surviving a flick of the tail.

“If we side with a company, we may have a chance. But what if the company we side with dies, or we are sent into a bloodbath? Or…I suspect we might be stabbed in the back once it is over, regardless. They have violated the terms of war all companies share, by attacking forces on neutral ground. I have had to kill several soldiers myself. It is not…well, it is ironic. And you escaped your attack with her, hm? The [Doctor].”

He grinned at Ken and his tail flicked delicately at Geneva. She was speaking with the others now, grim and horrified, but still determined. She was arguing against them trying to cut their way to safety, with only her convictions and no strategy behind her statements. For her, that was enough.

“So that is what she is like. I understand. It is hard to describe her.”

Xal looked thoughtful as he gazed at Geneva. Ken stared at the Naga, and looked hesitantly at the map.


“Shush. Formalities and flattery are useful when bargaining and flirting, but not now, I think. Say what it is you need to say.”

The Naga flicked his tail up, touching it gently to Ken’s lips. He smiled at Ken. Ken nodded.

“Xalandrass, do you know who attacked Geneva’s camp? There was the Firebringer and Dullahans. Did one side do all of it, or was it both? And why? The soldiers love Geneva. So why…?”

The Naga smiled a touch sadly and shook his head at Ken’s naiveté.

“The soldiers don’t need to know a thing. A single [Strategist] could have ordered the attack, or the leader of either company. And both sides can deny attacking as well. The Centaurs can claim Zalthia was hitting targets of opportunity and failed to recognize Geneva’s camp. The Dullahans sent assassins so they could claim it was a rogue group or mercenaries sent by the other side to frame them. I do suspect it was both, but what does it matter? The deed was done and now we are stuck.”

Back at the table, the argument was getting heated between Geneva and the others. To Ken’s surprise, Luan was joining in the discussion, trying to convince Geneva they needed to fight. But she was insistent and Ken heard her adamant reply as Ken and Xal approached the table.

“There has to be another way. If we fight, we become a target for everyone. I cannot, will not end this all in senseless death.”

“There is no other option. We’ve agreed that staying here is riskier—either we die or they die. I won’t call that senseless!”

Quallet snapped at Geneva, resting his gauntleted hands on the table. She stared back and then flicked her eyes towards the tent. The roar of battle was background noise now, never ceasing.

“There’s a better way. I’ll go ahead of everyone.”


The captains stared at her. So did Ken, Luan, and Calectus. Aiko had left, to wash off the blood of the Dullahan she’d killed. Geneva looked at everyone in turn, resolute.

“The soldiers know me. They know who I am. Maybe if they see me, they’ll stop fighting long enough for us to get through.”

“That’s suicide.”

Exara looked troubled, Quallet thoughtful. Calectus was dead against it, and surprisingly, so was Xalandrass. He slithered over to Geneva, smiling at her. She looked warily at him.

“I hate to disregard such courage, my fair [Doctor], but I must tell you that if you do that, you will die. To no good purpose, either.”

“Why? I understand the risks, but if I can get enough soldiers to see me—”

“Ah, but it is not the soldiers you must worry about.”

Xalandrass cut Geneva off. He flicked his tail, indicating both sides on the map.

“This has gone beyond simple infractions of conduct. Both companies have attacked neutral parties. One company might have broken the rules at first—and I would put money on the Dullahans being the ones—but both sides are party to this now. Any witnesses would bring back terrible retribution onto them. So it is in the best interests that no one survives this battle.”

He reached out with his Human-like hands and touched Geneva lightly on the chest.

“You may stop the fighting, but only for a moment. Both sides will want you dead, and will see it happen easily. All it takes is an arrow or spell, from either side. The victor can claim whatever they want, but so long as either group can claim it was an accident, the soldiers will believe it and more importantly, you will be dead. As will we all.”

Geneva stared Xalandrass in the eye, and then nodded.

“I accept that risk. I’m willing to die if you can escape. If I go out, I can at least buy you a few minutes maybe. Enough time for you to get clear of the worst of the fighting…”


Calectus interrupted. She leaned forwards, glaring at Geneva.

“You are my ward, Geneva. I cannot allow you to throw your life away.”

“What choice do we have, Calectus?”

Quallet cleared his throat.

“If we were to put up a white flag—it wouldn’t stop them from attacking, not now, but what if we negotiated? Swore an oath not to reveal what we saw—”

“We’d never get them to go through all the trouble of finding a [Mage] to administer the spell to every one of us in the company.”

Exara argued back. Ken looked at Luan, and silently, they left the tent while the others argued. Ken didn’t know what they should do, but he had no useful insights. Neither did Luan, so they went into the camp and tried to find their friends.

Daly was resting with the others. He had a bandage on his neck wound—not from Geneva, but courtesy of Aiko. When Ken asked about who was alive, he looked away.

“Etretta’s gone, Ken. She saved my life. Cold bitch walked in front of a lightning bolt for me. I didn’t get a chance to tell her—tell her—”

He lowered his head. Luan and Ken stared at him. Daly wiped at his eyes, swore, and told Ken where to find some of the others.

Ken found Quexa among the wounded. She wasn’t wounded now of course. Xal’s potions were keeping everyone healthy. But she was too injured to continue fighting.

One of her legs had been cut off.

“Hey Ken. I thought you were dead.”

Quexa smiled at Ken when she saw him approach. He stared down at her, at a loss for words. She glanced at the healed-over stump of her leg and then away. She smiled. Tried to smile. It was fake, but she chattered away as if it were nothing.

“Oh. They cut off my leg. Well, I say they—it was a Centaur. With an axe. And my tail. I’m more upset about my leg than my tail, I mean, I could live without my tail, but my leg—”

The Lizardgirl’s eyes filled with tears. Ken bent down and hugged her. She sobbed and clung to him.

This was war. Not suppression, hauling dead bodies and fighting the undead. This was war, and they were caught in it. Ken thought they would die, and Luan thought so too. After Quexa had cried herself to sleep, Luan found Ken, looking worried.

“They’re still arguing over what to do. It looks like we’ll try to fight our way through after all, but Ken…”

He shook his head. Ken stared at him anxiously. Luan had been unwaveringly brave and responsible, but now he looked like he was at a loss for what to do.

“It’s a mess, Ken. We have too many groups here to trust one another when we try to break out. That Xal guy, the Naga—he looks like he’ll make a break for it when the fighting starts. And Calectus is only concerned about Geneva. As for Quallet and Exara, how do we know either one won’t split or try to cut a deal with either side?”

Ken didn’t know. He remembered Quallet when he’d asked if the [Captain] had given up the Americans to the Dullahans. And Exara was a Centaur. Did that mean anything?

Someone strode out of the tent, amid the arguing. Ken stood and saw Geneva headed towards them. The [Doctor]’s face was flushed, and she looked angry and helpless.

“They won’t listen. I’ve told them that if we fight, we’ll only make things worse. We’ll become part of the enemy, not neutral! And we need to be neutral. If not—”

She looked at Ken and Luan, and both saw the pain in her eyes. Luan guided Geneva over to the fire. Amazingly, there was food being eaten even with the fighting so close by and occasionally hitting their camp. But people had to keep up their strength. He offered some very dry bread to Geneva as he spoke.

“You’re talking about aid workers, right? Neutral parties?”

Geneva nodded, looking frustrated. Luan nodded too. Ken vaguely understood what they were referring to. There were groups who went into war-torn countries or places where a war was going on. They were on no side and helped victims while trying to remain neutral. It was a good cause and it saved lives. Luan understood, but he did not agree with Geneva.

Médecins Sans Frontières. I know of them too, Geneva. But what they believe in…it’s admirable, but you can’t expect it to apply to things here.”

“I have to believe it. If not, what’s the point of believing in anything? If no one will believe in the rights of victims, in honoring the attempt to aid people—what can be done? Then the only way to resolve anything will be to kill anyone who disagrees with you.”

Geneva’s hand was white on her cup. Luan opened his mouth, and fell silent. Geneva stared past him, towards the battle between the Centaurs and Dullahans.

“Témoignage. That’s a word in French. It means ‘to bear witness’. That’s what Doctors Without Borders believes in. I thought I could be like them, or at the very least, like the Red Cross. So long as I could help—but there’s no one to bear witness to, and even if all I do is help, I’m still a target.”

There was something in her eyes, in her voice. Ken thought he saw hope dying in Geneva’s eyes as she looked at him and Luan.

“What good is neutrality if there is no one to witness it? What’s the use of honor in war—of morality when one side can throw it all away when no one’s watching?”

Neither young man could reply. Geneva got up without a word and left her full cup. She marched back into the tent and Ken heard her raised voice. After she’d gone, Daly came over. He squatted down, pressing at the bandage Aiko had put on his neck and grimacing.

“I heard what she said. That [Doctor]—Geneva, right? She’s the right sort.”

Ken and Luan nodded. Daly paused.

“Trouble is, she’s wrong about this. There’s no reasoning with those bastards out there. Who cares if we bear witness? What good will it do?”

He lifted Geneva’s cup to his mouth and drank it all down. Then Daly tossed the cup aside and grimaced.

“The world is watching. Isn’t that what they say every time shit happens? Back in our world, I mean. The world is watching. Well, I guess that makes everything alright, don’t it? Sure makes me feel better, and I’m sure the poor bastards getting shot feel better too, knowing that.”

He was right and wrong at the same time. Ken felt that. He thought Geneva was right, but at the same time, he knew Xalandrass and the others were correct as well. He spoke, letting his thoughts out one bubble at a time.

“I think the soldiers do believe in Geneva, Daly-san. Daly. If they saw her, they would stop fighting. However, the leaders of both sides will kill her. And then blame the other side for doing it.”

“Yeah, that’s the issue. I’ve heard soldiers speaking of the Last Light. They think she’s as close to a goddess as anything—although they believe in gods. But what can we do? If we surround her with soldiers, she’s a target just waiting for a [Fireball] spell. How can you stop her from being a target and still tell everyone she’s here?”

Daly shook his head. Ken stared at the cooking fire, and then at the tent. A target. That was the problem. If only both sides knew what was going on, but how could you tell them? Soldiers believed what their commanders told them—who’d listen to someone from the other side, or someone they didn’t know? You had to show everyone the truth, but how could you do that in a war?

At the head of the camp, Ken saw the company banner. The flag of Gravetender’s Fist soared above Quallet’s tent, shining though there was no sun on it. Why was that?

Oh, right. It had a spell on it to shine in the darkness. So that when everyone was working, people would see the flag and know the company was neutral. That was how it worked.

That was how it was supposed to work. The suppression companies were in the middle of the battlefield, a target for all sides, yet not a target.

A target yet not a target. Ken thought he was on the verge of something. He got up and walked over to the flag, studied it.


Luan was on his feet. He approached Ken.

“What are you thinking, mate? Something on your mind?”


Ken took the flag. It glowed in the half-light of the tree’s shadows, a bright light. Something to identify the Gravetender’s Fist company. To keep them safe. They were safe because they were noticed.

He turned to Luan and Daly, the banner in his hands. Ken lifted it, and saw how both young men stared at it. There. Both of them were looking at the same thing. What if you did that for everyone? Was there a way? He remembered something Xalandrass had said he had in his inventory.

“I think I have an idea, friends. I know how Geneva can go out without being a target.”

“Really? How?”

Daly stared at Ken, and then at the flag.

“Are we going to send a message to one side then? Both?”


Ken shook his head as he handed the flag to Daly, and then strode into the tent. He turned to the two of them, smiling.

“We will tell them Geneva is here. We will tell them we are here.”


Luan stared at Ken. Ken grinned.





This was the last battle, the final engagement. The Centaurs and Dullahans were locked in combat, battalions maneuvering and charging into combat across the entire valley. A unit of Dullahans charged across the broken ground, trying to cut off a retreating group of Centaur [Mages]. Two wings of Centaur [Lancers] fell on the Dullahans, and both sides were swept up as a group of Lizardfolk rushed to the Dullahan’s aid.

There was chaos on the ground and in the skies. Arrows and spells flew through the air, making the mages capable of flight stay on the ground. Soldiers watched out for banners to identify friends from foes, but were ready for an attack even from allies. It was chaos.

In this situation, who could spend time looking for a third party? Anyone who took a step into the battle zone would be a target. But it was that very issue Kenjiro Murata thought he could solve.

He stood on the edge of the neutral ground, staring down into the valley. The shortest route away from the fighting was through an area where the fighting was thickest. The fact that the most soldiers were here didn’t bother him; on the contrary, it was better that he did this here, where there were more to listen.


Xalandrass pressed something into Ken’s hand. It was a lovely ring that might have been made of amazonite or a similar stone, inset with beads of clear glass that shimmered with magic. Ken took it and put it on. He didn’t sense a difference, but Xalandrass had assured him this ring was the most powerful one in his collection.

That meant the loudest. Ken took a breath, and looked around. Geneva stood next to Quallet, Exara, and Xalandrass. Behind them, the collective forces of Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, the remains of Untimely Demise, Xalandrass’ guards, Calectus, Luan, and Aiko, were all waiting. They were all staring at him.

Ken had taken too deep a breath. He released it, took another shaky one, and then felt a hand on his back. Geneva stared into Ken’s eyes. Without a word, she nodded.

She trusted him. Ken felt calmer. He took a third breath, and then shouted.

“Ah. Hello? Excuse me!”

The words weren’t thunder. They were more like an earthquake, an avalanche, a blasting thousand-man-band’s worth of noise that cracked over the loudest explosion and roar of the battle below.

Xalandrass’ magical rings to amplify the voice were of the highest quality. Ken’s words made every soldier look up at him as a new target. Instantly, Ken saw archers taking aim, commanders, pointing, so he spoke.

“Please! Do not attack! We are not your enemy!”

A brief hesitation. Ken could see confusion on some faces. Who would fall for a lie like that? Who would be so brazen, so stupid?

Ken would. He motioned quickly and Geneva stepped forwards. Every eye focused on her, and Ken heard some cries of recognition.

“This is Geneva Scala, the [Doctor] known as the Last Light! Her camp was attacked—”

A roar went up. Ken spoke over it.

“By both sides.

Silence. Ken looked at Quallet. The man was pale-faced, but he remembered what to do and stepped forwards with Exara and Xalandrass. Ken pointed to all of them in turn. He had the battlefield’s attention, for the simple fact that he was loud and the soldiers believed in Geneva.

“This is [Captain] Qualass of Gravetender’s Fist and [Captain] Exara of Rot’s Bane! They are both suppression companies, and this is Xalandrass, a [Merchant]! They are all neutral parties in this conflict!”

By the end of that statement, Ken’s own ears were ringing. He could see Xalandrass wincing, as were the people around him. But Ken’s words had had an effect. Soldiers were staring at the captains and Xalandrass, all groups they knew were neutral in any war. Ken’s next words were simple, direct.

“We are leaving. If you attack, we will fight back. But we will not attack you. Please, do not kill us.”

That was all. He took the ring from his finger and put it in his pocket.

Both sides were staring up at Geneva and the others. The frenzy of movement below had become an oasis of inaction. But it couldn’t last. They had to move.

Ken looked at Quallet, Exara, Xalandrass—none of them seemed able to take the first step. Then Geneva moved. She made a sound like a sigh or a prayer and slowly began to descend into the valley.

The others followed. Quallet slowly walked down, axe at his side, looking warily at the soldiers closest to him. Ken followed, unarmed, heart beating out of his chest. Slowly, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist, the other soldiers, weapons sheathed, walked with him.

A sea of bodies were between them and safety. Ken’s heart felt like it would burst as Geneva slowly walked towards a group of Lizardfolk, bloody, spears held uncertainly. She was just staring at them. They stared at her.

They recognized her. How could they not? They might not have ever seen Geneva’s face themselves, but how many soldiers had they met who could describe the woman who’d saved them? And Ken had said it.

She was the [Doctor]. Would they kill her? She was unarmed. They were all neutral parties. And the soldiers stood, knowing that every single one of them had seen this. Would anyone dare attack them? How could they?

Everyone here was a witness.

Slowly, the ranks of soldiers parted. They stood aside, some stumbling back. Others dragged the wounded away. And the wounded did cry out for Geneva. She looked at them, face pale, and slowly shook her head. There was infinite regret in her eyes, but she didn’t look away. She stared at the people she could not save.

Ken stared at the commanders. They would be the ones to order the attack. Some were shouting, their voices dim and muted in the silence. Others fought towards Geneva, but were held back. One raised a staff glowing with magic and was dragged from his saddle by his men.

They were a quarter of the way across the battlefield when it happened. Ken heard a group of Centaurs galloping, and suddenly the Dullahan’s side was ready to fight. He turned, about to put the ring on and shout, when he saw a group of Centaurs race out of the sea of bodies and slow to a stop. They flanked Geneva on her left, and Ken saw a female Centaur with a bow and a male Centaur he thought he recognized leading them. The female Centaur, a [Captain], shouted.

“Centaurs! You are to refrain from attacking at all costs. Any fool who disobeys I will personally shoot!”

Her voice rang out and the Centaurs around her put an arrow to their bows. Their tips gleamed with magic. Evercut arrows.

The words weren’t just for the people around her. The [Captain] was staring towards the skies, and Ken saw a shape that had been flying down out of a cloud fly back. Zalthia waved at Geneva from above as she reversed direction. Ken’s heart began to beat again. It stopped again when he heard the thump. He turned his head and saw a giant Dullahan, a War Walker with a huge sword advancing on Geneva.

The Centaur group backed up and looked ready to loose, but the War Walker began walking on Geneva’s right. The Dullahan head controlling the massive [Behemoth]’s body was deep and huge, as if his entire frame was a megaphone for his words.

I am Bastiom. I will cut apart anyone who attacks the [Doctor] or her company.

More Dullahans joined him. Now there was a stream of bodies, protecting Geneva as she led the small company across the battlefield. Ken stared. He recognized some of the people in the crowd. He had saved the Dullahan who walked on his right, shield raised towards his own side.

They walked on. Ken found himself walking faster, and then he was listening to Geneva. She spoke quietly with Luan, no longer at the head of the group. There was no need. The message was spreading.

“What can we do? They’ll kill each other when we’re gone.”

Luan was looking at both sides, shaking his head as he spoke to Geneva. Ken heard her low reply.

“We bear witness. That’s all we can do.”

They passed from the valley. Up ahead, the groups of soldiers were lessening. They were going to survive. Part of Ken didn’t believe it. Another part…another part wished the same could be true for the soldiers. He hoped that maybe, after they had left, the silence would continue. Perhaps the soldiers would put down their weapons, talk?

It couldn’t happen. Behind him, Ken could see some commanders moving their forces and soldiers bracing and drinking potions. The fighting would continue. This was only a brief interlude. Peace was a pipe dream.

But it was a dream Ken could believe in. And at that moment, he saw the same hope, the same faith, in Luan and Geneva’s eyes.

Luan stared at Geneva. She seemed lost, looking around, staring at her hands. She looked up at him.

“I don’t know what I’ll do after this. I can’t keep going back to the battlefield, but I don’t know…I don’t know what I should do after this.”

The tall South African man blinked at her for a moment, and then smiled. He looked thoughtfully at Geneva, and then at the sky.

“You know, I heard once that aid workers in conflict zones served for…let’s say a month. But after that, they were forced to take a vacation. In order to stay sane, yeah?”

“What’s your point?”

He put a hand on her shoulder and leaned down to speak to her. Ahead, the forest opened up and a trail appeared. Quallet ordered the company to march faster as both Centaurs and Dullahans broke away, heading back towards the battlefield.

“You’ve been through too many battles, Geneva. Rest for a while. There’s good you can do away from the fighting. And we need you.”

She paused. Geneva closed her eyes, looked at Luan, Ken, and at Aiko and the others. She looked at the Humans from her world and then at her hands. Then she nodded.


The word was all it took. Behind them, the young Japanese man known as Kenjiro Murata finally began to believe they would live. Ken stared up at the sky, filled with smoke, but incredibly blue.

Behind him, he heard a shout, and then a thump. He turned, and saw a plume of smoke rising. War. His spirits sank. Quallet had heard and ordered everyone to pick up the pace, now!

They marched on. Ken found himself trailing behind. He couldn’t help but stare up at the sky. He wondered…if there really was a safe place in the world. He couldn’t imagine it, surrounded by death and violence on all sides.


He looked down. Geneva and Luan had slowed to wait for him. Aiko, helping Quexa move, had turned. Daly was waving at him. Ken realized he was standing still, staring as the group marched ahead.

Luan and Geneva walked back. Luan held out a hand and smiled at Ken.

“Let’s go.”

Ken stared at the hand. He stared at Geneva, and saw something on her face. It was faint, awkward, and full of regrets and sadness. But if you got past that, it looked almost like a smile.

He hesitated, and then took Luan’s hand, leaving the war behind. He went marching away, looking for an answer to his question.




A week later, Ken found it. It wasn’t in words, and it didn’t come from a person. It was a slow realization that culminated in a moment where he sat on a white beach, staring out into the ocean.

In the days after they’d fled the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company, Quallet had taken charge. His only goal was to get them away from the fighting in case either company sent a force after them. They did not, whether because they were still locked in combat or thought it would be futile, Ken didn’t know.

But soon, as the danger became further and further away, the group began to splinter and think of their own needs. Exara was the first to leave with her company, and a good deal of the soldiers in Gravetender’s Fist left with their pay—doubled for combat duty—and drifted away at each passing village and town.

But some continued onwards. A good core of Gravetender’s Fist, some of Ulviel’s forces, and Xalandrass went on with the Humans from the other world. The [Merchant] was sick of combat, and he promised that if they travelled with him as protection, he’d take them to a lovely place where they could rest, safe and away from any danger.

Xalandrass was as good as his word, and the protection of a war vendor meant that the weary company could travel east, taking the main roads until they reached one of the island port-towns. This one was a small haven, not troubled by conflict.

It had a beach. And what a beach it was! Ken had never been to Hawaii, one of the Japanese tourist’s must-visit locations, but he’d heard tell of their amazingly scenic beaches. He thought, with no little amount of satisfaction, that Hawaii tourists would have given their left earlobes (and a lot of money) to visit this beach.

It was pristine, untouched by pollution, industrialization, or most other things that had ‘-tion’ in the word. The community of mainly Lizardfolk that lived by the beaches and fished for a living were only too happy to take the gold that Geneva had been bribed with and feasted the Humans and other soldiers when they arrived.

Now, Ken was on the beach, watching people play. He was not in the water. Instead, he was sipping from a very pleasant, fruit drink and watching Luan race across the water in a kayak.

The South African man was at home on the water. He’d found that the Lizardfolk used a similar device to a kayak and within the first hour had set about customizing one of their boats to his specifications. Now he was racing the Lizardfolk, most of whom were only too happy to teach an uppity Human a lesson on watercraft.

They had the shock of their lives. So did the other Humans, and Ken, honestly. He’d watched the Olympics, but he’d skipped over the rowing sections, and it was something else to see an athlete row in real life. Luan’s kayak skimmed across the water, impossibly fast, and Ken saw a group of Humans and other races on the beach, screaming at him as the Lizardfolk wallowed in the water behind him.

“Go! Go you insane bastard!

Daly was screaming and chasing after a Lizardman who’d bet gold that Luan could never out-row one of his kind. Quexa was laughing and balancing on the simple prosthetic leg that Geneva had helped design, and Aiko was watching Luan, a flower hidden behind her back.

She was going to confess to Luan today. Ken had mixed feelings about that and let his gaze wander back to Luan. He was circling a small outcropping of rocks and coming back, his paddles smoothly cutting through the water. He really was incredible.

Ken was glad he’d been allowed to see Luan row. He looked up as the race concluded, and saw Geneva approaching. The [Doctor] wasn’t smiling, but neither did she look particularly upset. She just had to work on smiling. It had to be surprised out of her, but it was happening more and more of late. She sat next to Ken, and looked at Luan rowing.

“It’s a lovely place, isn’t it? There’s a girl from Ecuador and she tells me the beaches here are better than her home. Daly and the others say Australia has nothing like it either.”

Ken nodded. He felt at the sand, looked at the water, the greenery. It was a tropical paradise in every sense of the word. It made you almost forget about the violence further inland. Almost.

“There are grander places in Baleros, you know. Xal was telling me about it. There’s so much beauty here. Beaches like this one that can stretch for a hundred miles in every direction, open fields that are filled with grass and edible plants…you can almost understand why everyone’s fighting over all of it.”

Ken nodded again. Geneva stared out across the ocean.

“I made a mistake, Ken. I shouldn’t have tried to work and stay neutral on each battlefield. I was just painting a target on my back. Okasha’s right. Things aren’t the same here.”

“I didn’t mean—”

Okasha tried to speak, but Geneva rode over her.

“There is no Geneva Convention here. There’s only me. I can’t rely on the goodwill of another company, or their morality or honor. I know that now.”

She fell silent. Ken thought to himself and spoke slowly.

“I think…it is good you know that. But Geneva, I think you were right to do what you did. I admired you. So did everyone else. If you had not done what you did, we would have died there.”


The two sat in silence for a long time. They saw Luan trudging towards them as the sun began to fall. He was covered in water, and smiling.

“Hey Ken.”


Ken stared at Luan, but Aiko wasn’t with him. He opened his mouth, closed it tactfully. Luan saw and smiled. He rubbed at his hair and sat.

“Aiko confessed to me a few minutes ago. I broke her heart. I feel bad about it, Ken, mate, I really do. But I had no choice.”


Did he not like Aiko? Luan smiled ruefully, and looked at his hands.

“Simple. I’m already married.”

Ken stared. Geneva blinked. Luan looked at them and waggled his hands at them. They were dark, but now that Ken looked closely, he could see a band of lighter skin around Luan’s ring finger.

“I don’t wear a ring when I kayak. Or travel and kayak. I might lose it or it could get stolen. I normally leave it at home, in a box on my dresser. Funny, I never thought I’d miss an object that much.”

“Do you have a child?”

Geneva looked at Luan. Ken was still grappling with him being married. Luan nodded. His smile faded.

“One year and five months old. I tried not to think about him, or her. Too busy surviving to worry and get distracted, you know? Now…I wonder if I’ll ever see them again.”

The three sat in silence for a while. Below, the people on the beach began to set up a bonfire and food was soon being devoured below. Ken wondered how much gold Geneva had left. Quallet had contributed his share of funds and Xalandrass had left them with some gold as thanks, but they couldn’t do this forever.

The others must have had the same thought. Aiko returned to the group, red-eyed. She didn’t mention what had gone on, and Luan and Ken and Geneva treated her like normal. They talked of mundane things, of hopes for the future.

“You know, Aiko’s been drawing some pictures. Geneva was working with her on it. Aiko made some manga-like drawings depicting hygiene, how to bandage a wound—you know? Practical stuff for everyone. I think we might be able to sell it as a book or something.”

Luan was telling Ken that as they sat around a fire, nibbling at roasted fish on a stick, seasoned with salt and some kind of hot pepper. Ken nodded.

“Do you know what Captain Quallet is going to do?”

The [Mercenary Captain] had had his fill of leading a suppression company. He’d been drifting around the port, looking grumpy and aimless. Luan grinned.

“I had a thought. We’re all sticking together, us Humans from another world. Why not invite him to lead us as a company?”

“A company?”

The idea surprised Geneva and Aiko, but not Ken. He’d heard Luan speaking with the others about it. Luan nodded.

“We don’t have to fight. We can earn money—but there are advantages to being in a company. It means we pool resources, we support each other. We need that. And who knows? Maybe we can find the others who drifted off on the first day. Maybe some of the Americans made it.”


Ken thought about being a company. Geneva had been speaking about teaching some people to do surgery, or at least tell people how to keep themselves clean and manage disease. People needed a [Doctor] outside of war, even with healing potions. If she could do that, what could everyone else do?

Daly leaned forwards and flicked a bit of bone into the fire. He’d joined them for dinner, although he was usually fussing about Quexa. He’d been looking out for her ever since they’d left the battlefield, and it had been he who’d carved the prosthesis she was using.

That was another thing. Geneva’s knowledge of medical prosthesis was heads and shoulders above the crude stumps and peg legs that people here used. Everything from penicillin to blood transfusions would revolutionize this world, and all she needed was time, coin, and the people with the right skills or Skills to help her. That was what she could do. Ken wasn’t sure what he could do.

He was a Level 18 [Negotiator] now. His leveling had been meteoric that first night he’d slept and it seemed like this was what he wanted to do. Luan was convinced his rowing abilities could be put to use as a [Scout], or a Runner delivering messages. And Daly?

He was a [Warrior]. Not just a [Warrior], but an [Axe Fighter]. He still believed what he’d told Ken. There were times to run and times to fight. Whatever the others did, he and some of the other Humans who’d been in Gravetender’s Fist would be there to protect them. Now he leaned back, chewing and spoke thoughtfully.

“You know, the Red Cross company isn’t a bad name. But it doesn’t have the right ring to it, especially if we’re going to be fighting. That’s why I was thinking Geneva could have her company, and we’ll make our own.”

The others looked at him. Ken’s heart sank.

“But if you are in another company Daly, won’t we separate?”

“Yeah. There’s that. But we’re not Red Cross. We might fight, or take guard jobs. I don’t think Geneva’s willing to call us Red Cross, and I wouldn’t like that either.”

Geneva nodded quietly. Besides Okasha, several other Selphids had appeared one day, and Calectus was still sticking around. They wanted something from her, and Ken sometimes worried what it was.

“But we shouldn’t form different companies. Or if we do—we should all be part of one larger company. We’re on the same side. Ken showed us that. We have to work together. All of us.”

Luan was speaking, and Daly was nodding and spreading his hands wide, not disagreeing, but not having an answer he could give. To Ken’s surprise, Geneva smiled, and because that was rare and special, everyone looked at her.

“You know, I think we have something like that. Back in our world.”

It took Luan a moment to catch on to what she was saying, Aiko five seconds, Daly six, and Ken had to have Aiko whisper the answer to him before his face lit up. The others instantly agreed that it was a good idea. They were talking about having Quallet join to help them out as a paid leader when Daly frowned, looking worried.

“What about Lizardfolk? Dullahans? Centaurs? Selphids? And other races, are we going to let them all in?”

“Why not?”

Luan laughed and nudged Daly. The Australian man looked covertly at Quexa and she waved at him and told everyone that he kept staring at her. He laughed and that was that.

Everyone was better than no one. Ken realized their new company would have all kinds of people in it. People like Aiko, who had talents that could be used outside of fighting, people like Geneva, who were useful wherever they went. There would be fighters like Daly who could do what was needed, and peerless people like Luan who had one skill they could do better than anyone else.

And then there was Ken. He’d help them all get along. That was his calling, and that was what made him happy. He liked understanding people, and he believed in people. That wasn’t always easy.

It was now. Ken found a cup and raised it. He’d explained how to toast in Japanese, and now the others raised their cups, shells, or in Daly’s case, tankard, with him. They didn’t shout ‘乾杯’, though. Instead, they looked at each other and smiled.


Luan looked at Ken. Ken grinned and looked at Aiko. She blinked, glanced at Daly, and then looked at Geneva. Two souls looked out from her eyes, and Geneva smiled again.





A little while later, an angry Fraerling paced back and forth on his desk, reading the reports that were written on pages as tall as he was. Niers Astoragon was not in a good mood, and the reason for that was the chessboard behind him.

It was ghostly, the pieces magical. They had been set up in the middle of a game and they had stayed in that same place for…what? Months? Years?

Probably just a month. But that was too much. Niers glanced at a letter with gold-rimmed edges. He studied a map of Izril. He kicked over a tiny cup of wine and grudgingly read the latest report before the wine made the ink illegible.

It was a general report of the newest companies, the recent events in one corner of Baleros. A [Strategist] had to know how the winds were blowing as well as rumor and gossip in order to do his job. Well, some strategists could just wing it and did better ignorant than they did well-informed, but Niers preferred knowledge to idiocy.

He sighed as he studied the outcome of the battle between the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company.

“Fools, all of them.”

There was no return for either company. Their reputations were ruined, and they had destroyed themselves fighting over a valley that was practically unusable now. Neither side would back down and so everyone lost. Typical of Centaurs and Dullahans, really.

Something caught his eye as Niers absently paged through the report. This was about a new company that had declared itself. That wasn’t in itself noteworthy; new companies could come and go in the drop of a hat. Three drunken idiots could call themselves a company, so his [Spies] and [Informants] had to sift carefully through all the rumors and declarations to pick out companies that might actually be noteworthy.

There was little special to recommend this one, which was why it was just a few lines in the report. It had a few sub-companies, listed with less than a hundred members in each. That was also normal, but it was the name of the entire overall company that caught Niers’ eye because it was so audacious.

What a name. Who would come up with it, in Baleros of all places? But there it sat, glaring up at Niers. A declaration to the world. A statement of intent, or what the company represented? He had no idea. Niers stared down at the name written in ink.

The United Nations.

That was it. No appellation marking them as a company. No declared ties marking them as a part of a larger company or affiliated with another group. They had a strong connection with a local Naga war vendor…and several of their members were former undead suppression company members. One of them, Quallet Marshhand, was an individual of some skill.

But nothing more.

United. It was a word Niers had dreamed of, had spoken to the other Great Companies of Baleros about. It was a hope for this continent, for a world, that Magnolia had tempted him with. But it was an empty dream.

Yet someone had the same one. Niers glanced at the name and memorized it, just in case. Then he flipped the page and kept reading. He had a job to do. Every now and then, Niers would glance at the chessboard’s pieces that had not moved and look away.

There was something curious about Niers after the report. He was still in a bad mood, but as he filed the report away he had a curious sensation. It was a subtle feeling, but he had trained himself not to ignore his instincts. Something cried out to him as he opened the report and stared down at the name in ink.

Yes, he could feel it. It wasn’t coincidence. It wasn’t chance. This was only the start. And everything he had witnessed, all the little pieces, they were falling into place. Something was happening.

The world was beginning to move again. Behind Niers, on the chessboard, a piece slowly slid forwards and stopped.


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

1.05 D

Once, Geneva had been terrified for her life. She had been a new recruit in the Raverian Fighters, a soldier; for all that she’d been a [Doctor]. She had faced her worst fears, treating her fellow soldiers and enemies alike. She had…failed…so many times. Failed to save lives.

At some point, that feeling had eclipsed her regard for her own life. She just couldn’t muster the same feeling, the same fear of dying as she used to. Everyone was dying. Everyone on the operating table was a life. What did Geneva have to fear from an arrow or a sword in the gut? She faced her worst fear every time she saw light slipping from the eyes of the people she treated.

She had lost her fear. Only, she’d found it again. Now she was afraid. Geneva had woken up after another of Okasha’s enforced naps to find three more souls in her camp. Three more bodies among many. Only, these ones were special.

Kenjiro Murata. Aiko Nonomura. Luan Khomala. Three people from her world. Now, under her care.

Geneva had no idea what to do with them. She had spotted them approaching, waving a white flag, across the edge of the valley. Twice, groups of soldiers had raced towards them and there had been a tense moment where swords had been drawn. Only, Ken had talked them down both times, pointing towards Geneva’s camp.

Now they were here, eating food, talking quietly among themselves. They had a haunted, shell-shocked look, that of people who’d seen too much, too quickly. Geneva understood the feeling.

She was talking with Calectus, who oversaw the other Selphids that had volunteered to be her assistants. Geneva had thought it was odd at the time, that so many Selphids should want to help her. But she’d had volunteers from other soldiers before and hadn’t had the time to worry about it.

Now she knew it was because the Selphids wanted her to help them. That was fine. Geneva’s purpose was to help people. She didn’t care. But she wondered if Calectus believed in what she did, or if he thought all her struggling to save lives was pointless. What did Selphids think about the living, anyways? They inhabited dead bodies. They would have wanted Geneva to fail more often.

But there was a living, mortal compassion in him. Geneva had seen him comforting the dead, and he had spoken to Ken as well. He had dead eyes, literally. But the thing that used the dead eyes was living. The Selphids understood loss just as much as anyone else. They also understood danger, more acutely than Geneva did. They were soldiers, and knew war.

“These three are deserters, Geneva. They will be killed if they leave your camp.”

Calectus gestured at Luan and the others. Geneva nodded.

“And if they stay in the camp? Can you protect them?”

The Lizardman’s face grimaced.

“As much as I can protect you. You have no company—but you are known as the Last Light.”


Geneva hated that title. The Last Light? It was too fitting, and not at the same time. She was not some kind of quasi-goddess, the guardian who stood between life and death. She was just a [Doctor], and not a fully-trained one at that. If a true heart surgeon had come from her world, or a decent anesthesiologist, or someone who knew how to make—make penicillin or any one of the things Geneva so desperately needed—how many lives could they have saved?

“My reputation is the only thing keeping us alive, is what you’re saying.”

Calectus bared his Lizardman’s teeth.

“That, and the fact that we don’t stray from our camp. I can make sure the three are safe, but that only is true if they stay within the boundaries of the camp.”

Geneva looked around. The ‘camp’ was little more than a collection of tents in a clearing. It was not a large area—a space had been cleared for the wounded to lie on pallets before going into her operating tent. There was a place for her to sleep, tents for the Selphids and the wounded who would rest, a tent filled with supplies and the healing potions she had, not to mention extra bandages, scalpels, needles…and that was it.

She sighed. It wasn’t a good place for people to be cooped up in, but it was better than nothing. She nodded at Calectus.

“Okay. Just…give them space. It’s not hard to feed them, and we have room.”

He nodded, and Geneva went over to talk with Ken and the rest. They looked up as she approached and smiled at her. Geneva tried again, but a smile wouldn’t come out. She stood awkwardly in front of them, aware of the dried blood on her clothing. She didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t really spoken to anyone for a long time. She just did her job.

“Calectus says you’ll be safe, so long as you don’t stray. I can’t offer you protection outside of the camp and maybe not in it. I’m not part of any company.”

She blurted out the details. Luan nodded.

“We understand, and we’re grateful for all of this, Geneva. You didn’t have to do this. We won’t leave the camp.”

“I—you’re welcome.”

It felt strange for him to thank her for anything. Geneva looked around, trying to say something, anything. Condolences for the friends that had been executed? She didn’t know their names.

It was Aiko, the young Japanese girl with red eyes who spoke up.

“Um, Miss Geneva-san…”


“If you are not a company, why do you have that…flag?”

She pointed and everyone turned to look at the banner over Geneva’s tent. Geneva stared up at a crude pole of wood, atop which sagged a white flag with a red cross painted in the center.

“That? It’s not a company banner. It’s a symbol. I use it to tell soldiers that I’m not a fighter.”

Ken stared at it. The banner was too limp in the lack of a breeze for the red cross to be too visible, but he figured it out after a moment.

“The symbol for hospitals. The red cross.”

“It’s also the symbol of the Red Cross organization. They’re an international organization that does…does work like this.”

Geneva had seen the parallel, although she felt like she was stealing the identity of that group with her symbol. Ken nodded excitedly.

“Oh! Yes! I have seen them on the news before. Do people in this world know the symbol?”

“Some have associated it with me. But it’s not something that will protect you.”

“Sort of hard to see.”

Luan commented neutrally. Geneva shrugged. It was a flag. She didn’t need that, but it helped sometimes. She heard a shout and her head snapped around. Someone was running, galloping towards her camp. She saw Ken and the others tense, but it wasn’t soldiers coming for battle.

Four Centaurs raced towards the camp, supporting a fifth Centaur between them. Geneva saw more soldiers rushing behind them, taking the opportunity to find a gap in the fighting and head their way. She raised her voice, turned, and found Calectus striding towards her.

“Calectus, I’m going to triage. I need you to wake up one of the others and get them ready for operating. You lot—”

She turned. Ken, Aiko, and Luan had already backed off to a respectable distance. Geneva nodded at them. The first wounded body came in, a Centaur who was missing a leg and had some kind of javelin buried in his side. It was barbed and would have to be cut out. As Geneva began to work, calling out to Calectus to bring another healing potion, she lost track of her newest guests.




Diagnosis. Incision. Cut away damaged flesh. Suture. Use healing potions. Geneva was grateful for her limited supply of potions. She didn’t have much—most of it had been donated to her by people she’d saved, or come from Calectus and the other Selphids. Geneva rationed it, using the dependable sutures where healing potions weren’t necessary. She had to stitch people up, save them. Making them well enough to walk out of her camp and keep fighting wasn’t her goal.

It was tiring, backbreaking work. Surgery could be precise as grafting onto a heart, or as crude as sawing through bones. Or sawing through a Dullahan’s armor to get to their damaged innards.

Maneuvering a Centaur around on her table was just as hard. Geneva and her helpers had to do lifting at times, and it was just as well that some of Okasha’s Skills made Geneva’s right arm far stronger than her left. Too, Geneva could concentrate solely on her left hand while Okasha operated her right, as well as her legs if necessary.

Small blessings. Geneva was busy wiping down her table, removing blood, scat, and urine that her latest patient had covered the surface with, when someone timidly entered the tent. Geneva looked up, expecting the next patient, and instead found Aiko.

“Is something wrong?”


The young Japanese girl opened her mouth, inhaled the scent of the urine and feces, and gagged. She took a moment to collect herself while Geneva swept it all off the table and washed it all away with soapy water.

“I want to help. I would like to help you. If I can.”

Geneva blinked at Aiko. She stared at the young woman’s pale face.


Aiko hesitated. She looked at Geneva, and then at the blood on the table and paled, but when she raised her head, there was determination in her eyes.

“I am not brave like Ken or Luan. I…I do not like fighting. But I have been sitting in camp, and I see so many hurt people…I want to help them. Do you think I can?”

Her question struck Geneva in her heart. It was a reflection, an echo of what Geneva had thought as a girl. She stared at Aiko, and then nodded. It wasn’t just the determination that swayed Geneva, made her take a chance on Aiko. It was the compassion.

Aiko was breathing heavily as she looked at the blood. She’d been pale-faced staring at the wounded. She looked at Geneva, wavering.

“I am sorry. I know I am a coward—I am afraid of blood and guts—”

Geneva reached out. Her hand was covered in blood and she stopped. But then she reached out and touched Aiko lightly on the shoulder. The girl’s eyes turned to the blood, but she didn’t flinch away.

“Unwilling to fight doesn’t mean ‘coward’. If you have the stomach for it, I’d welcome a second pair of hands.”

“I will try.”

Geneva nodded. Something…she felt like she had met another Okasha, perhaps. Other soldiers had come, the Selphids were able assistants when it came to holding the wounded down, but few had the temperament to be part of the operations, to see the horrific injuries and try to fix them. Perhaps Aiko had what it took, perhaps not. But she could certainly try.

“What should I do?”

What could she do? Geneva blinked, thought for half a second, and then thought of all the things a surgical assistant would do, all the things that Geneva had to do herself.

“Thread the needles, sharpen scalpels…hand me objects. Make sure the healing potion is ready for when I need it. If you can handle the first hour, I’ll teach you how to sponge blood away properly and see what else you can do.”

She was showing Aiko how to put everything close to Geneva so Okasha could grab it when the tent flap opened and a screaming man came in. He fainted as the Selphids put him on the table. Aiko was shaking, but she didn’t run or faint as Geneva inspected the gaping wound in his upper thigh. Geneva nodded to the two Selphids, one a female Dullahan, the other a male Centaur, both with pallid skin.

“They’re here in case the patient wakes up. If they do, back away. I’ve had them try to cast spells, stab me with hidden daggers…we have no anesthesia and they sometimes wake up as I’m cutting into them.”

The words should have terrified Aiko. They would have terrified Geneva had she heard them before she’d come to this world. But the girl had lived on the battlefield at night for over a week now. She’d carried corpses, stabbed undead, risked her life and gone through it all. A coward? No. Cowards ran, froze up, and didn’t act. Aiko could act. Her hand was steady as she held a suture and towel in both hands. Geneva nodded to her.

“Let’s get to work.”




Aiko was brave. Ken knew it, Luan knew it. They sat together, watching bodies enter and leave Geneva’s tent, and both of them thought the same thing. Only Luan gave voice to it.

“Ken, I feel worthless.”

“I feel the same way.”

They saw Aiko appear outside and hurl a bowl of—was it crap?—out of the tent. They’d seen her working with blood and worse on her clothes, and yet she was still in there. Helping Geneva save lives.

Ken and Luan weren’t in there. They hadn’t thought of going in and offering to help. When Aiko had said it, Ken had wanted to go in with her. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t face the horror of what he saw outside.

Just the thought of seeing Geneva operate, of watching her slice into someone and being asked to hold them down, or sew something shut filled Ken with mortal dread. He couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just about bravery; it was about being able to look at that without freezing up. Luan couldn’t do it either.

“I’m ashamed to say it Ken, but I feel like we’re useless here. I think we were right not to keep going to Gravetender’s Fist, but…”

Ken nodded. But they were doing nothing here, and that was worse. Worse, because when you stopped to stare at what Geneva did, there was no helping but feel small.

She saved lives. Soldiers came in, wounded beyond belief, carried by friends who begged her to save them. And she did. Sometimes she failed, but Ken had seen bodies go in, pale-faced Humans and Centaurs who he would have sworn were dead come out, weak, but alive.

It was humbling. And more, it made Ken question what he’d been doing. He’d put down dead bodies. Why hadn’t he spent his time saving them?

“What can we do to help?”

“I don’t know.”

Luan shook his head. He was staring at the flag over Geneva’s tent again. The red cross was barely visible behind the white folds of the flag. He muttered to himself.

“She really needs a banner. Or a sign.”

“Why? So everyone can see?”

“It’s a symbol, Ken. It means…it means do no harm. It’s one of the most powerful symbols from our world. Everyone should know what it means.”

Ken nodded slowly. The red cross. The symbol of hospitals, of an ambulance. Of…life. He understood Luan.

“But there are no more flags.”

“We have a white one.”

They’d brought the white flag from the Gravetender’s Fist company. As Luan had pointed out, they hadn’t received any pay, so this was the least of what they were owed. Ken nodded, thinking.

“But it is white. We’d need red paint.”

“Or blood…no, we’d need paint.”

Luan shook his head, and Ken shook his head as well. Blood was…wrong. And the bugs would probably be attracted to it.

“Where would we get paint?”

“I know where. But I do not know how we would buy it.”

Ken hunched his shoulders as Luan stared at him. The South African young man opened his mouth, frowned, and then felt at his pockets.

“If you need something to sell…what about this?”

He put something in Ken’s hand and warned him not to touch what was inside. Ken opened the tightly-wrapped ball of cloth and recoiled from the small, pointed orange tip of an arrow. Luan’s grin was twisted.

“That’s what Geneva pulled out of me. It’s still active. Magical. I bet you could put it on an arrow and shoot it. I hear they’re expensive. Know anyone who might buy it?”

Ken nodded slowly. He wrapped the arrowhead up and looked at Luan.

“I think I might.”




War vendors were ostensibly [Merchants], but ones who had a huge escort, many items for sale, usually had at least half a dozen bags of holding, and made a living selling to companies that were fighting. They could provide anything from magical potions to weapons to information—all at a steep price.

Ken had seen Quallet negotiating with the sole war vendor in the area to buy food for his company. The neutral zone shared by all three undead suppression companies was adjacent to the war vendor’s zone, although a set of very well-equipped guards patrolled the border.

It was to this area that Ken made his way. It was frightening, not to mention dangerous, going through the valley, even with a white flag, but he’d done it. Alone, too. He’d insisted to Luan it was the best way. In truth, Ken was worried Luan might be hurt. Only one of them needed to risk their lives.

Now Ken approached the war vendor, flanked by two very tall Lizardmen with swords. He spotted the [Merchant] in question in a moment. He was familiar to Ken, although they’d never spoken.

The Naga with golden scales and resplendent jeweled clothing was sinuously twined around what looked like a circular couch, meant for someone just like him. It was more like a spiraling staircase upwards, in truth, with a spot for his more humanoid torso to rest while his snake-like lower body twined around the bottom. He uncurled and rose up, at least nine feet tall as Ken approached.

The Naga was male, although his genitals weren’t visible—Ken had no idea where they might be, as the Naga’s lower half was like a snake’s—and he smiled down at Ken.

“Ah. I have seen your face before, young Human male. Have you come to sell or buy? Or just to look some more?”

He remembered Ken, which was a good sign. Ken gulped and bowed as the guards stepped back from the Naga. He clearly wasn’t regarded as much of a threat, because the Naga waved them further back as he eyed Ken up and down.

It wasn’t rude to stare at Lizardfolk…and the Naga was apparently what Lizardfolk could become. Quexa hadn’t given Ken all the details, but Lizardfolk could change forms like…well, like Pocket Monsters, to be honest. What did Americans call it? Oh, right. Pokémon.

Ken stared at the Naga, giving him a slow look from top to tail in return. The Naga appreciatively wiggled his tail at the scrutiny.

“Ah, you know our customs. You are an interesting Human. What are you called?”

“I am Ken. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet with you. May I ask your name?”

Ken bowed his head, and the Naga smiled wider. He spread his arms, showing off bejeweled fingers.

“I’m Xalandrass, inquisitive little Human. But you may call me ‘Xal’, as I know Humans are not as adept at speaking as other races.”

Ken nodded, and took a breath.

“Honored Xalandrass—”

The Naga laughed in delight. Ken smiled a bit.

“Honored Xalandrass, may I ask if you buy items such as this?”

He took the balled up piece of cloth and unveiled the enchanted arrowhead. Xalandrass peered at it and then smiled knowingly at Ken.

“An Evercut arrow? Where did you get this?”

“A friend had it.”

“In him? Oh, I heard about that incident. A dangerous thing, when a company attacks the very people they have hired. But then, I share some of the blame. For I sold these arrows to the Roving Arrow company to begin with.”

A part of Ken’s chest tightened at that. Xal watched Ken’s face.

“Do you hold a grudge, little Ken?”

“I do not believe I should blame you, Xalandrass.”

“Ah, but the Honored Xalandrass is gone. Oh well. But to answer your question, yes, I would buy this back from you. It can certainly be reused, so I could offer you gold…but why do I think you have risked your life to come here for more than that?”

Ken nodded. He took a breath.

“I would like to barter with you, Honored Xalandrass. For paint. Do you have anything I could use to color with?”

The Naga had begun laughing again, but he stopped. He didn’t look surprised by Ken’s request, merely thoughtful. He tapped his lips with a long finger for a second before nodding.

“Paint? Curious. A Human child comes to me with an enchanted arrowhead, where another came with a device that made light. What does it mean?”

He was watching Ken. Ken kept his face politely blank. Xal smiled knowingly.

“Hm, hmm~. I think we have a deal, little one. Paint I can easily obtain—I have some with me. Dried packets that need only water. It’s a very handy tool for marking the ground with, and for marking armor. Dullahans love the stuff, so I have every color available. Which would you like?”

“Red, white, and black colors, please.”

“Only that? Anything else? I have many magical artifacts for sale. For the right price, of course.”

Xal flicked his fingers, Ken saw one of the wagons behind him move. Objects floated upwards and around Ken as the Naga gestured to each one, speaking softly, enticingly.

“Here’s one that will shield you from arrows…for a time. Or how about a shield that creates a burst of light when struck? Everyone but you will be blinded. Or what about a charm to amplify your voice? That’s a favorite among commanders like your Quallet Marshhand. My apologies, former commander, isn’t it? I’ve heard you’re with the famous Last Light. What’s she like?”

The question came out quick and fast, but Ken was ready for it. He bowed his head politely towards Xal.

“I am sorry, but I came here only to buy and sell. I cannot give information I do not have the right to.”

The Naga smiled, this time with regret.

“Ah, too clever. You came prepared, not at all like the other one. It is enjoyable talking to you, honorable Ken. A shame there is no profit in it. Very well. I will give you paint—and coin, since the paint is not worth an Evercut arrowhead. And you shall go speaking of how fair I am. And then, perhaps when the Last Light needs healing potions or needles, she will send you again, hm?”

Ken smiled politely.

“It is my deepest hope, Honored Xalandrass.”

The Naga laughed.

“Pretty liar.”




The next day, Geneva stumbled out of her tent, a piece of dried jerky in her hands. She had woken to the sound of the wounded. She approached the line of wounded, and paused as she realized something was off.

What was it? Geneva looked around, frowning, and then saw the signs.

Huge sheaves of bark had been peeled from trees, hammered onto slats of wood, and pounded into the ground. A white background with a red cross had been painted on each one, and the signs were ringing the camp, marking it.

But what was most striking was the sign that stood tallest of all. A sign that shook Geneva to her core.

The Red Cross Company.

It was simple, direct, and it spoke to her. She stared up at the sign as it proclaimed…what? That they were a company, a fighting force? One of the many groups in Baleros?

No. That they were something else. The Red Cross. Here. Geneva looked around, and saw Ken and Luan waving at her. They had paint all over their bodies and their hands were red from work.

She looked at them, and felt the urge to smile. It didn’t come out, but Geneva inclined her head. Then she got to work.




An incident occurred as Ken and Luan were painting a final sign to put up. They heard a roar and dropped what they were doing to hurry over to a vantage spot to look at the battlefield. There they saw a group of Dullahans, carving through the Centaur’s forces.

Ken had seen the battle go back and forth day after day. There was never a clear winner; if one side started pushing too far, more reserves would come flooding onto the battlefield and force the enemy back. It was a war of attrition between both companies, or at least, it had been. Apparently, someone had decided to end things.

Six giants walked across the battlefield, each one at least twelve feet tall. They were Dullahans, only…not. To Ken, it was like seeing a miniature robot warrior, like Gundam, a giant of metal and motion. But they were Dullahans. They had all the features of a Dullahan, only their armor had been scaled up in a massive way.

But their heads were the same size. It would have been ludicrous, with the tiny helmeted heads of the Dullahan on top of the massive, armored bodies, were it not for the deadly way in which the Dullahans controlled these oversized armored titans.

They were quick. And strong. One of the Dullahans lifted a massive greatsword as tall as Ken and cut a Centaur apart in a single strike. He roared and charged into the line of Humans and Centaurs and Lizardfolk, and Ken saw blood and limbs and screaming as the five other Dullahans rampaged into the enemy lines with him.

“What is that?”

Luan was staring at the Dullahan giants, mesmerized. Ken had no answer, but Calectus came up behind the two and spoke.

“War Walkers.”

The two looked at him. Calectus nodded towards the Dullahan titans, quietly serious.

“They’re one of the most dangerous types of Dullahan warrior on the battlefield. Their class is an advancement of the [Juggernaut] class. If they’re coming out, it means the Razorshard Armor company is determined to win at any cost.”

“And that means what?”

Calectus paused.

“It means Geneva will have more work to do.”




The Dullahan [Juggernauts] inflicted terrible damage onto the Centaurs. Terrible damage…in return for their lives. Ken watched, spellbound, as each of the War Walkers fell after taking down scores of their enemy with them. It was a simple casualty of their size. For all their strength and armor, enchanted weapons could harm them, and the Centaurs galloped around the Dullahans, shooting arrows at them, charging into them with lances…

It was a bloody cost. In the end, the last [Juggernaut] fell as the Centaurs pulled back, sorely devastated. The War Walkers were down…

But not dead.

One of them lived, at least, enough for a group of smaller Dullahan to retain hope. Ken saw them lifting one of their fallen giants up and approach the tent. He shouted for Geneva, who’d finished for the day. The [Juggernauts] left little wounded as they fought.

“We come for aid. Please. Help us.”

One of the Dullahans in the group approached as Geneva ran towards them. Ken stared at the massive form of the Dullahan War Walker, supported by twenty of his lesser brethren. He was a true giant, and far too large to stuff into Geneva’s operating tent.

He was also on the verge of death. Countless arrow holes filled his body, and his left shoulder was nearly severed from his body. He had lost so much blood it was painting his blue armor. Ken thought there was no way Geneva could save him.

But she didn’t hesitate.

Aiko! Start removing armor! The rest of you—show me where he’s wounded! Get the armor off of him!”

She began ordering the Dullahans as they spread out around her. Geneva leapt onto the wounded [Juggernaut]’s shoulder and listened as one of the Dullahans explained. He’d been riddled with Evercut arrows, and they were cutting him apart from the inside. Geneva nodded. She knelt by the first wound, where armor had been hacked away, exposing only blood and guts.

“[Flash Hands]. [Flawless Cut].”

Her hands blurred. Ken saw the scalpel she was holding disappear in her left hand, and then Geneva was cutting deep, deep into the War Walker. Luan hurried over to Ken’s side and stopped as he saw Geneva working.

“My god.”

Geneva’s hands were a mirage of moving afterimages as she cut into the giant Dullahan’s flesh. Her left hand cut, her right hand moved flesh aside. She was tracing the path of the arrow, assessing the War Walker’s condition. He wasn’t going to survive long. Geneva paused, and placed a hand on his chest. She spoke.

“[Hemostatic Pause].”

The blood leaking from his wounds…stopped. Ken heard some of the Dullahans gasp, but Geneva was already speaking.

“I have six minutes and forty seconds. Aiko, I need healing potions and the dropper. The rest of you—point out to me where he was shot!”

She dove back into the Dullahan’s body. In moments, she’d pulled out the first Evercut arrowhead and flicked it onto the ground. Ken helped contain it. Geneva was working fast, faster than she had with Luan. The Dullahans were pointing out every wound, and she pulled eighteen more arrows out in minutes. Geneva paused as the last one came out and closed her eyes.

“[Detect Injury]…there’s one left. Somewhere in the upper right side of his chest.”

She found it. Then she came to the shoulder. Now the [Juggernaut] could be healed, the wounds in his chest were vanishing. But his shoulder was hanging on by a literal thread of flesh. The Dullahan who’d requested Geneva’s help looked grim, but resolute.

“His life is all that matters. If the arm must come off—”

“Not yet.”

Geneva looked towards Aiko. The Japanese girl had something in her hands that she’d been using to pour the precious liquid into the wounds. A dropper, medieval style. It didn’t have a rubber bulb, but it could be used to measure small amounts of the healing potion. Geneva beckoned for it, and then spoke out loud.

“The suturing will take time and full concentration. I need you to hold the arm—and keep it steady. I will reconnect each nerve and muscle and heal it when it is in place.”


Luan stared. Ken stared. What Geneva was saying sounded impossible—but then she began.

“Muscle. Connects to…”

Ken saw her right hand move. Geneva stared at it, as if she hadn’t expected where it was going, but then she connected the red piece to the second piece, and dropped a minute bit of healing potion on it. The link formed.

“I’ll need to graft connections. You—open up his leg armor. I’ll need to make an incision—major artery is here…connects…here.”

The work took over an hour. Ken couldn’t watch half of it. But he saw Geneva reconstruct the giant Dullahan’s arm, piece by piece. And when it was done, when the flesh had healed and sealed over entirely, he had seen every part of the arm reconnected. Ken had no doubt that when the War Walker awoke, he would be able to move the arm.

“A healing potion couldn’t have done that. No way. The arm was severed—it can’t heal when that happens. But she put him together. Just like that.”

Luan was staring at Geneva. She’d practically collapsed after it was done, as had Aiko. They were resting, but the Dullahan soldiers were still there. The one who was probably their officer was looking around for someone to talk to, so Ken walked over.

“Thank you. We will report this to our superiors.”

The Dullahan bowed at the waist deeply, like a Japanese businessman meeting his company’s CEO. Ken bowed his head as well.

“I will convey your thanks to Geneva-san.”

The other Dullahans crowded around Ken, speaking the same words.

“Thank you.”

It wasn’t right that Ken was the one they spoke to, but it was as if they were transmitting their feeling to Geneva. Some clasped Ken’s hand, a gesture he’d never seen among Dullahans. Then they were marching the massive War Walker back towards their camp.

Calectus spoke when they were gone.

“Dullahans never bow that low.”

He was staring at the direction they’d gone. Ken nodded. The Dullahans had shown more emotion, more deference in that moment then he’d ever seen Xor give Quallet.

“That was extraordinary, wasn’t it?”

Calectus hesitated.

“It was impossible. A spell might have saved that Dullahan—but no potion, aside from the ones a Named Adventurer would use. But a single person did that. Geneva did. With her Skills.”

He turned, shaking his head.

“It might not have been a good thing to save him. But I could not stop her. She will level from this, I have no doubt. And yet…”


Calectus turned to Ken.

“She saved a War Walker, someone deemed dead by his enemies. She changed the battlefield, preserved a part of the Razorshard Armor company’s strength. She is no longer a small asset, something that can be ignored. Now she is a powerful ally…or a dangerous enemy.”

He looked concerned. And he was right to be. The next day, one of the commanders of the Razorshard Armor company came in person.




The [Commander] in charge of the division of the Dullahan company the War Walker had been assigned to was named Grishka. She had brilliant yellow armor crossed with blue, and it was made of some kind of gleaming metal that looked too brilliant to be steel. Geneva insulted her in the first moment by refusing to see her until she’d finished with her patient, a wounded Lizardwoman.

When she did have time to speak to the Dullahan, at Ken’s panicked insistence, Geneva was direct.

“Commander Grishka, I apologize if my ignorance has caused offense. However, my policy as a medical practitioner is to treat all my patients equally, regardless of rank, gender, or species. I do not discriminate. That means I also do not take sides, or rewards, for the work I do.”

The Dullahan lifted her head up with her hands, tilting it from side to side as she regarded Geneva’s bloodstained clothing and hands.

“I respect your decision, Human. But your actions have saved one of my most dedicated soldiers, and for that my company owes you thanks. This gift is an expression of that. Will you not take it?”

She had brought a chest full of healing potions and several bags of gold with her. Geneva stared at the gold and looked past it in a moment. But the healing potions kept her eye. She hesitated.

Her position was to be neutral. Inoffensive to either side she tried to help. But at the same time, Geneva knew that her own supplies of potions were limited. And they were practically exhausted from treating the War Walker yesterday. She didn’t know whether refusing the gift would be better, and realized she had no choice. It was a simple binary between saving more lives, or not being able to because she had no more potions.

She inclined her head.

“Donations are acceptable. Please know this will not change how I work in any way.”

“It is acknowledged. The Razorshard Armor company thanks you for your actions. We will ask your assistance with other soldiers who are wounded.”

Commander Grishka spoke formally, and then used her hands to raise her head so she could whisper in Geneva’s ear.

“And I thank you personally as well. The War Walker you saved…is my second brother.”

She left. Geneva stared at the potions and the gold. She ignored the gold and grabbed a potion.

“Aiko, we’ll test the effects of this before using. Let’s get back to work.”




The Centaur group galloped into camp a day after the incident with Commander Grishka. Luan and Ken were busy creating bandages that could be tightened and used on the wounded who came into camp when a group of Centaurs raced towards them, weapons drawn. They nearly ran over the two and would have stormed right into Geneva’s operating tent had Calectus not stopped them with his halberd.

“Our [Captain] was wounded in battle! Help her!”

The lead Centaur, a brash, tall roan with chestnut hair and wild, long locks shouted at Geneva as she came out of her tent. He and his friends had their weapons drawn, and they were protectively encircling a Centaur whose belly had been cut open. Her entrails were being held in place by another Centaur’s hand.

“Put down your weapons! Violence is not welcome here!”

Geneva snapped up at him. The lead Centaur snarled and darted towards her, stopping only when Calectus swung his halberd in the way.

Help her!”

Geneva gestured back into her tent, where her current patient, a Dullahan, was screaming.

“I have a patient I have to attend to first—”

Now! Or I will cut your guard down and everyone else in this camp!”

The Centaur was practically mad with emotion. His friends were restraining him with difficulty. Geneva grew very still and spoke calmly.

“Threatening me or anyone in this camp will not save your [Captain].”

“She is my mother.

That stopped Geneva. She stared at the pale Centaur with long hair, and then at the Centaur who’d threatened her. Geneva stepped towards her and inspected her. She nodded slowly.

“She is savable, but there are five patients that will die immediately without my help.”

“You would put her life ahead of—”

I do not take sides.

Geneva snapped up at the Centaur, making him back down a step. She looked at the others.

“I will save your [Captain] if I can. I will do everything in my power to save her. But I can save other lives first. You will wait with her over there—my assistant will tell you how to keep her stable in the meantime. But you will wait and if you threaten or harm anyone in my camp, I will not help her.”

She met the Centaur’s eyes.

“I am a [Doctor]. I am on everyone’s side and no one’s side. Do you understand?”

He wavered. Geneva walked back into her tent. She saved the Dullahan’s life, failed to save two others who came after him. She saved the rest, and the [Captain]. When it was done, the Centaurs stood around their Captain, who had the strength to actually stand and move, however weakly. Geneva had told her to rest, but the Centaurs were adamant they had to bring her back to their camp. It would not be safe to leave her here, they told Geneva.

The son of the [Captain] cantered over to Geneva with Calectus watching warily. He stared down at her, and then awkwardly knelt in front of her. He had tears in his eyes when his mother had walked out of the operating room.

“I will remember this.”

Then he got up and raced with his companions out of the camp. Geneva watched him go. The next day, a gift came from the Roving Arrow Company. It was twice as much gold as the Dullahans had given her, and another crate of valuable potions.




“A gift? More like a bribe.”

Calectus shook his head over the gold and the potions, for all they were welcome. There was no returning them either—the Centaurs had dropped the money and potions in the camp and departed without so much as a word. Ken understood the meaning behind it, although Geneva did not.

“Why did they give me more? And why bribe me? I told them I wouldn’t take sides.”

Luan explained for her as he and Ken helped sharpen some of the tools Geneva used to cut into her patients.

“The way the Centaurs see it, if they offer the same amount as the Dullahans or more, you’ll be more inclined to stay neutral.”

Geneva shook her head, troubled by the politics of it all.

“I have to stay neutral. And they have to understand it.”

Ken was about to suggest that he go to each company and explain just that when he heard a series of rapid, urgent horn calls from the battlefield. He and the others knew that spelled trouble and all of them were on their feet at once.

Only this time, the trouble didn’t come from the ground. Calectus was the first to spot the two figures falling from the sky, because he’d been looking for them. His voice was loud in the silence as everyone looked up.

“Air strike. [Mages].”

They were flying. It caused a hush across the battlefield as soldiers looked up and saw the two figures falling out of the clouds, and then flying across the battlefield. They were both wearing robes which shimmered with magic and fluttered in the wind. Calectus could identify their company at a glance.

“That’s the Tripartite Law company. It’s a three-person company that specializes in mass area of attack spells.”

“There’s only two of them.”

Calectus’ face was dark.

“Two is more than enough. I recognize them. Up there, that’s the Firebringer, Zalthia Werskiv. And the Plague Locust, Embrim Thrus.”


Geneva started. Ken looked at her.

“Do you know her?”

Geneva’s face was pale.

“I’ve met her before. She burned half a forest down and slaughtered the Raverian Fighters. If she’s here—”

“The Roving Arrow company has her contract. They’re trying to end this now. She’s going to hit the battlefield—”

A roar engulfed Calectus’s words as Zalthia Werskiv shot a pillar of flame downwards. It was so sudden, so abrupt, that Ken only felt the impact as a rush of hot air blasted him and the others in the camp. His eyes were searing, and when he looked again—

A huge hole of scorched bodies had appeared in the center of the Dullahans formations. Around the area of death, soldiers ran screaming, bodies aflame. Still more fell, choking, as the hot air and smoke suffocated them. In one moment, the Dullahans were retreating; the few who were still upright helplessly shooting arrows at Zalthia and watching them swerve away.

But then the Plague Locust, Embrim Thrus moved. He opened his hand, and a black mist swept downwards. It covered the entire western wing of the battlefield, hitting the soldiers who hadn’t been touched by Zalthia’s fire. Ken saw people clawing at their throats, Lizardfolk trying not to breathe, Dullahans throwing their heads to try and get clear of the mist—breathing—falling.

“Gas attacks. Chemical warfare. Or this world’s equivalent.”

Luan’s face was pale. Geneva was just staring. Ken stared as the [Mages] flew higher, their work done. The battlefield had been turned over in an instant. The Centaurs were cheering, shooting at their foes, but they were retreating.


Calectus replied.

“It’s too dangerous for them. The mists still linger. When it dissipates, they’ll fight again.”

His words were prophetic. The mists lingered for over ten minutes. When they were gone, the burnt soldiers and ones who had gotten clear of the worst of the gas were still on the ground, dying. But the Dullahans had pulled up more forces and they met the Centaurs in another clash of bodies.

The fighting hadn’t slowed. In fact, it had grown fiercer as the Dullahans tried to exact vengeance on the Centaurs who were pressing their advantage. But that wasn’t what the people in Geneva’s camp saw.

“They’re dying.”

The soldiers who’d inhaled part of the mists, the gas, were choking, suffering. They weren’t dying, but they couldn’t move. Both sides ignored them, too focused on the enemy to worry about helpless victims of the attack. And the burn victims—they were screaming for aid.

“They won’t come here. Not for hours.”

Calectus predicted as Geneva strode back towards her tent. Some of the wounded were already trickling in, but only a few. The majority were stuck out there, unable to be rescued.


And that wasn’t right.

The feeling rose up in Ken, hot and fierce. He was just standing here, while Geneva and Aiko worked to save lives. But they couldn’t do anything for the people out there. No one could. They were being left to die, with both sides too occupied to go out and help them!


Luan put his hand on Ken’s shoulder. He was looking at the wounded, the same helpless fury and desperation on his face. But he’d seen what Ken was thinking and had stopped him.

“It’s suicide, mate. If we go out, we’ll get shot. We’re deserters, remember?”

“No we’re not. We have a company.”

Ken pointed to the flying red banner. It was flapping in the wind caused by Zalthia’s spell. The red cross flew high. They were the Red Cross company. It wasn’t just a name.

“But they don’t know that. In there—even if we had a flag, we look like everyone else.”

Luan was speaking sense. A soldier was a soldier, and there were Humans on both sides. Ken clenched his fists.


“The only people who are safe in this kind of thing are…are people like the Gravetender’s Fist company at night.”

Luan shook his head as he stared across the valley. Gravetender’s Fist had to worry about this issue, but they solved the problem by being a target. They carried lanterns, made noise, had a banner with an illumination spell sewn into the fabric—all so that people knew they weren’t the enemy. Even that didn’t work all the time.

“We can’t do anything, Ken. We’ll just be targets.”


Ken paused. He stared at Luan. Targets. He’d studied about World War II. It wasn’t a popular subject in Japanese curriculums, if it was taught at all, but Ken had studied it in university and read western textbooks as well as Japanese ones. He’d seen pictures of people who wore targets every day.

“Ken. What are you thinking?”

Luan stared at Ken, looking worried. Ken looked at Luan. The young man still had some of the leather armor he’d been issued. So did Ken. It was dirty, brown, closer to black, and could probably do with polishing.

“Or paint.”


He stared at Luan, and then at the cans of red and white paint that Aiko had used to decorate the camp. Then Ken looked at the flags. White and red. A target. A symbol.

“Luan, I have an idea.”

“Does it involve us risking our lives?”

Ken nodded. Luan blew out his cheeks. Then he looked at the battlefield, at the wounded.

“It is worth dying for?”

“Nothing is worth dying for. But this—this is worth living for.”

Ken grabbed Luan and dragged him towards the paint.




Daly was sitting, watching the fighting with the rest of Gravetender’s Fist while he ate in preparation of the night’s work. He was dreading it. No one could have missed the air raid by the [Mages], and the bodies were littering the valley floor. But work was work. He adjusted his belt, and looked across the ranks of his company.

Quexa, the Lizardgirl with the [Sorcerer] class was sitting next to Paige. They’d become friends ever since Ken had left. The Lizardgirl hadn’t understood why Ken, Luan, and Aiko had left. In explaining their feelings to her, she and Paige had gotten to know each other.

Now the Lizardgirl was watching the violence below, tail twitching. Daly understood the feeling. You could get used to the death, but never comfortable with it. It was always—

“What the fuck?”

Paige stood up. She’d seen something. Daly’s head snapped back to the battlefield. His mouth dropped open.

“What are those idiots doing?

Two figures had suddenly charged onto the valley floor. They stood out at once, partly because of the flag they were waving desperately and partly because of their armor.

It was white. Pure white, only there was a stripe of red crossed with another stripe on their shoulders, chest, helmet, and back. It took Daly a second to recognize it.

“A red cross? Are they…medics?”

“What are they doing?”

Quexa had spotted them. She leapt up, full of fear and Daly’s stomach twisted into a knot as he saw soldiers from both sides take notice of Ken and Luan. He saw Luan plant the flag in the ground, and then Ken raised something. A shield. It had the same cross of red on it.

And the soldiers saw it too. They hesitated. They watched as Ken and Luan sprinted away from the flag, and straight into the area that had been blasted by Zalthia. They ran towards one of the fallen soldiers, armor black with soot, and lifted him up.

“I don’t believe it.”

“What? What are they doing?”

Quexa shook Daly as he stared down at Ken and Luan. They had a stretcher of some kind, and they were easing the burnt soldier onto it. As he watched, they lifted it up and began to run back towards the camp they’d come from.

“No way!”

Paige was on her feet. Ken and Luan were carrying the wounded soldier, running for all they were worth as arrows flew around them. A group of soldiers broke off towards them, and froze as they saw what Ken and Luan were doing.

The rest of Gravetender’s Fist had noticed what was going on. Daly saw one of the Centaurs rear up in surprise, and then a girl from Bosnia shouted.

“Look! That’s Ken and Luan!”

Both armies had noticed the two insane young men by now. Daly saw a flight of arrows land behind Luan, and then saw the commander shouting at the archers. His heart was pounding. Would they stop firing? Ken and Luan had to run faster!

He leapt to his feet and cupped his hands to his mouth.

“Go! Run you bastards!

He was far too far away to be heard of course. But other people heard him and took up the call.

Run Ken! Run Luan!

Get out of there!

Run you slow sods! RUN!

Soldiers were turning. A group of Centaurs on the battlefield raced towards Ken and Luan and broke away at the last second. Now all of Gravetender’s Fist was cheering and shouting, and the noise was spreading to the other companies.

Heads turned. Ken and Luan raced towards the flag they had planted, and then Daly saw a group of soldiers running to meet them. They grabbed the stretcher and Ken and Luan reversed direction. The soldiers, Selphids, ran back with the burnt soldier towards camp and Ken and Luan ran back towards the fighting.

“Other way! Other way!

Some people were shouting that. But now Daly knew what they were doing, and he saw Ken and Luan running towards a Lizardman who’d been trampled. He was clear of the immediate fighting and the two loaded him onto another stretcher.

“Medics! They’re medics!

Daly shouted at Quexa, who looked at him, uncomprehending. No one from her world had a word for what Ken and Luan were doing. Saving soldiers was one thing, but who would run into the fighting and out each time?


Daly shouted. He waved his hands, screamed at Ken and Luan as they raced across the battlefield. The soldiers were fighting around him, but they saw the red cross and didn’t attack.

Why? Did they remember that sign as the symbol of the Last Light? Had their commanders told them to avoid fighting? Were Ken and Luan just not a threat? Or did they see what they were doing?

It was impossible to say. But Daly watched, heart pounding, as Ken and Luan made six more trips out into the chaos, finding the wounded on the edges of the fighting. They didn’t run into the heart of the battle. They stayed to the most distant peripherals, finding those who cried out for help.

And they ran with every bit of energy they could. Their lives were on the line. They raced across the broken ground as Gravetender’s Fist shouted at them from their position above. The Humans were cheering, shouting and screaming at the two figures as they sprinted towards the downed Lizardman with the stretcher.


Daly looked over and saw Etretta, one of the most senior Dullahan soldiers, staring at the battlefield. He nodded to her, and she walked over.

“What did you call them? Medics? Is that a class?”

“If it wasn’t before, it is now.”

Daly knew that in his heart. He knew the two would have the class the instant they slept. Etretta looked at him curiously.

“They are brave. Is that a thing Humans do? Save each other? Save the wounded?”

“Not all Humans. But it’s what we used to do. We still do it.”

“There is no sense to it.”

Etretta shook her head. Daly nodded. The Dullahan nodded as well.

“But there is something noble about it. Foolish, and noble.”


Daly was smiling. He stared at Luan as he and Ken collapsed by their camp. He couldn’t see too well from here, but he thought they were laughing.

“It’s crazy. But I guess they thought it was worth dying for.”




Dying. Geneva stared down at the coughing, gasping Human on her operating table. He was trying to breathe, trying to inhale past the magical mists that had scarred his throat and lungs. He looked up at her, begging to help.

And she couldn’t help him. Geneva had never been trained to handle gas attacks. She had none of the experience she needed to help him, and she had no tools.

Gas attacks. Chemical weapons, or this world’s equivalent. They had been banned since World War II. The ban hadn’t held, but it had been imposed because of just how deadly gas could be.

Deadly, and ineffectual. Geneva’s uncle was a history buff and he had lectured her about how gas attacks weren’t as useful when both sides had become aware of the dangers and issued gas masks. Allied soldiers could still gun down their opponents while gas floated around them.

Yes, ineffectual. The words were a mockery to Geneva now as she watched the soldier before her suffer. Ineffectual if you had the proper ways of preventing it. But if you had inhaled the gas—what could Geneva do?

The effects of this were similar to mustard gas, for which there was no known treatment. The best way to deal with it was to avoid exposure—or decontaminate. Geneva snapped out of her trance and looked at Aiko. The girl’s face was pale as she stared down at the young man whose skin was already blistering.

“What can we do Geneva…?”

Geneva’s hands moved. She began slicing clothes off the soldier, removing his armor. She had a rag mixed with charcoal over her face, and she was going to relocate outside to give the soldier as much clean air as possible.

“Wash their skin with soap and water. If they’ve inhaled the gas, we’ll make them gargle water. They need pure, clean air. We could bleed them to reduce their blood pressure, but I don’t have… I don’t have…”

She had nothing she could use. Nothing at all. Geneva did everything she could. She washed the soldier’s skin, tried to bleed him to lower blood pressure—but he couldn’t breathe. And she had no respirator, no way of helping. The gas had vanished far faster than mustard gas, but the effects were permanent.

The soldier died as Geneva helplessly watched. He wasn’t the only one. The next soldier who came in had the same afflictions. And the next. Geneva couldn’t take it. She left the tent after trying to open the last soldier’s airways and found Ken and Luan.

They were grinning, exhausted, covered in sweat, their freshly-painted armor running slightly in the heat. They had carried the soldiers here. Geneva stared at them. They had saved the soldiers, brought her ones she could save. She didn’t want to say what she had to.

“Geneva-san! How did we—”

“You can’t bring me any more gas attack victims. I can’t help them.”

Ken’s smile vanished. Luan sat up.

“What’s wrong?”

Geneva’s hands were shaking. She raised them, let them drop.

“There’s nothing I can do. Nothing. The gas is in their lungs. They can’t breathe and I can’t save them. If you bring them back here, all I can do is let them die. You cannot rescue them. I can’t give them treatment, and there are other soldiers I can save. Do you understand?”

They stared at her. Ken opened his mouth.


Luan grabbed him, shook his head. Geneva put her hands to her eyes. The world was swimming. She hadn’t cried about the dead before. But now—

“I can’t do anything.”

“We understand.”

Luan was the first to speak. He got Ken up, nodded to Geneva. There was an echo of the pain she felt in his eyes, but he was taking charge.

“We’ll find others. Come on, Ken.”

He took Ken away. Ken’s eyes followed Geneva. She felt like they were accusing. She watched Ken and Luan head back to the battlefield, risking their lives to save others. Geneva clenched her hands together, helpless.

She squeezed her hands tightly until Okasha made her stop. When Geneva looked down, she saw her untrimmed nails had cut into her skin. She watched the red droplets fall onto the jungle floor, and then went back into her tent and continued operating until every last one of the gas attack victims had died.




There was no glory in this. No brilliance. The elation Ken had felt at saving lives had vanished. Now he ran, heart pounding out of his lungs, desperate. Guilty.

Geneva had wept. She couldn’t save them. Ken skidded to a halt with Luan as he heard a desperate cry. He saw a soldier, a young Dullahan woman crawling towards him, pushing her head across the ground. He started towards her, and then realized she was a gas victim. Her skin was blistering, her eyes damaged.


Luan looked at Ken, and there was mortal horror in his eyes. Ken looked at the young Dullahan and turned. He heard her call out weakly.

“Wait. Please.”

“I’m sorry.”

Ken stared at her. Luan turned away, choking. Ken turned. He saw more wounded up ahead. Burn victims. Those he could save. He heard the Dullahan cry out desperately. Ken turned his head.

“I’m sorry!”

The next person they found was a Dullahan, male this time. His skin was so badly burned that they could barely touch him. They had to, and he cried out as they put him in the stretcher. But as they ran back to the camp, he was sobbing in relief. He clutched at Ken as Ken handed him off to the Selphids.

“Thank—thank you.”

The Dullahan looked Ken in the eye as Ken arranged his head next to his body. Ken looked at him, and remembered Johanas’ face as the executioner held the axe over his head. He nodded without words and stood up.

They went back in twice more, Luan and Ken. Then they collapsed, too tired to move. Ken stared at Luan, Luan stared at Ken. The laughter they’d shared after saving their first soldier was gone. But Luan sat up and held out a hand.

“Worth living for.”

Ken took it.


They saw the burned Dullahan they had saved among the living. That was enough. Ken collapsed into his bed and cried and laughed at the same time.


[Medic Class Obtained!]

[Medic Level 4!]

[Skill – Quick Sprint obtained!]

[Skill – Sympathetic Ear obtained!]




“You are rescuing far more Dullahans than Centaurs.”

That was the only thing the Centaur messenger said to Geneva three days later, after he’d galloped into the camp. She was busy working, but he had insisted upon speaking with her. Now that Luan and Ken were working with several of her Selphids to find the wounded on the edges of the battlefield, she had a steady stream of patients. They knew what to look for as well. Some soldiers could be saved.

But not all of them. And their actions had consequences, although Geneva would never have asked them to stop. She stared calmly back at the Centaur who was glaring at her and replied simply.

“We try to save everyone.”

“But you rescue more Dullahans than Centaurs.”

“Centaurs are heavier.”

It was the plain truth. For as heavy as a Dullahan could be in full plate armor, they were still far less heavy than a Centaur, which was a horse and half of a person fused together and possibly wearing armor as well. Even with a group of four, the [Medics] could barely transport a single Centaur while arrows and magic were falling around them.

Still, the truth wasn’t enough sometimes. The messenger’s eyes narrowed.

“We are watching you. Save Dullahans if you will, but your impartiality seems biased towards them.”

He whirled without giving Geneva a chance to speak and galloped away. She was troubled by that confrontation and spoke to Ken and Luan when they came back.

“Try to save whoever’s closest. That’s all we can do.”

That evening, a group of armed Centaurs rode into camp. They’d come for all of their wounded, and insisted on taking them all back to their camp. There was no stopping them, for all Geneva argued that the wounded needed to rest and would be safe here.

The Centaurs left, with their escort of warriors watching the woods warily as their wounded limped or were carried back to their camp. Geneva watched them go. She was worried.

So was Luan.

“Escorts now? What happens if the Dullahans send an escort at the same time the Centaurs do?”

“I run out and stop them from fighting.”

He laughed. Geneva did not. The next day, the Dullahans began sending escorts as well. They never clashed with the Centaurs since the Dullahans arrived in the morning and the Centaurs at night. But she felt it was only a matter of time.




Six days after Ken and Luan had begun acting as [Medics], they were interrupted on their way back from the battlefield. A group of eight Centaurs appeared and cornered them and the two Selphids that Ken and Luan had gone out with.

None of them were armed. That was for the best, because the Centaurs were armed. They surrounded Ken and Luan as the [Medics] raised their hands.

“We’re not warriors. We’re trying to save your friends—”

“Save the Dullahans, more like.”

The Centaurs closed in. Ken and Luan looked around, suddenly worried. One of the Centaurs tore the flag that the Selphids were carrying away and hurled it to the ground. Luan turned, outraged.

“Hey! What’re you—”

A club knocked him to the ground. Ken cried out and ran for Luan, but a blow caught him on the back of the head. He fell and heard the Centaur leader bark an order.

The Centaurs began trampling over the fallen. Ken felt a hoof come down on his hand and shouted in agony. Something kicked him so hard he heard a crack and the world went dark and sound and feeling became one drumming whirl of agony.

“Ken! Ken! Answer me, man!”

He was conscious of someone shaking him awake. Luan was kneeling over Ken, trying to get him to wake up. Ken opened his eyes, and Luan and the two Selphids dragged him back towards the camp.

Ken had a concussion. Luan had several bad cuts and a cracked rib. Both Selphids had broken bones—the Centaurs seemed to have focused their anger on them. Both needed new bodies, which wasn’t an issue, but the attack was.

Geneva banned Ken and Luan from going out for the rest of the day and tomorrow. Neither Ken nor Luan objected.

“I can ask to talk with their commander. But I can’t promise you’ll be safe. None of us are safe. We can only appeal to both side’s sense of morality and hope they respect what we’re trying to do.”

Appeal to their morality. Ken had to have Luan repeat the phrase several times until he understood it. When he did, it didn’t reassure him. Morality in Baleros was…unreliable. Could you really appeal to the commanders of both companies? Ken doubted it, no matter what Geneva said.

Perhaps it would work in America, or other parts of the world. It might even work for the Centaurs. They were honorable—they took pride in not committing shameful actions. An ambush to them was not shameful, nor was a surprise attack; that was simply a good way of fighting wars. But Dullahans—

They gave Ken an uneasy feeling in his stomach. They reminded him of how the soldiers of Japan were said to have fought, once. The Dullahan didn’t think of things like honor when it came to war in the same way Centaurs did. Suicide attacks, traps, killing prisoners, it was all to win. It reminded Ken of an American expression. A Japanese ideal. What was it? Oh, yes.

Victory at any cost.

And while Centaurs were committed to the idea of honor, it only lasted so long as they thought the other side was playing by the same rules. If they thought there was just a hint of underhandedness, there went the need for honor as well. The beating had been a warning. Play fair or we will kill you.

He wished he knew what he could do. But there was no good answer, and in the meantime the battle between the Centaurs and Dullahans had entered its final stages. Both sides had dealt each other terrible blows, and now the fighting was at its fiercest. It sometimes rampaged into the night, forcing the undead suppression companies to stay where they were rather than get caught up in it.

Dullahans mounted night attacks and Centaurs attacked at all hours. Gravetender’s Fist and the other companies had to stay in close proximity to one another to stay safe. It was getting worse and worse, and Ken had seen soldiers start to stab the enemy’s wounded rather than let them get to Geneva. But she refused to leave and kept working.

It was the sixteenth day since Ken had reached the battlefield when it happened.




“I won’t go Okasha. Not yet.”

Geneva was arguing with Okasha again. It had started four days ago, and the Selphid had grown more relentless day after day. She wanted Geneva to abandon the camp, to leave the battlefield where the Razorshard Armor company and Roving Arrow company seemed determined to destroy each other at last. But Geneva couldn’t do it.

“There are countless wounded coming in each day. I can’t just abandon them—”

“It is growing less safe, Geneva. We don’t have the soldiers to protect you if we’re attacked.”

“If we’re attacked, it means my status as a [Doctor] is meaningless, Okasha. I have to trust that my neutrality will be respected.”


Okasha said the word as if it was foreign. She shook Geneva’s head.

“This is not your world, Geneva. Both companies have shown that they are willing to do whatever it takes to win. And that means you and your friends from another world may be targets again. Please, leave. I can talk to my people; find you a safer place to work. They could guard you—”

“And what will happen if I take their side, Okasha? Should I enlist in their company and start healing only Selphids?”

Geneva snapped and Okasha fell silent. Geneva felt guilty, but she went on.

“I can’t take sides. Even your side. The moment I do, I lose the only thing that protects me. I need to help everyone.”

“But our world isn’t like yours. We aren’t—we don’t obey rules of war, Geneva. Magical gas attacks, attacking civilians—some [Strategists] will do anything for victory.”

Geneva knew that was true. She lowered her head.

“Something has to be the same. Something has to be. If there’s no hope for basic decency between enemies, the faintest belief in the rights of others…then what hope is there?”

Okasha had no answer. Geneva would have argued with her more, but a group of wounded soldiers came in. Dullahans, all comatose. The group of Humans who’d brought them had no idea what was wrong.

“I think—they were hit by a [Sleep] spell. Or something. But they won’t wake up. Can you—can you check on them? Make sure they’re alright?”

“I will.”

They could be tended to later. Geneva had no good way to deal with magic, but she was content to let them rest so long as they didn’t show other symptoms. Besides, she had to deal with a group of wounded Lizardfolk that were due to leave with the Dullahan escort this morning.

The escort of armed warriors that came for the Razorshard Armor company’s wounded was three times as large as last time. Geneva frowned when she saw that, but didn’t object. The Dullahan in charge nodded to her as his men began to trek back to his camp. They’d gotten fifty feet away from her camp when she heard the frantic horn calls. They were the same ones she’d heard now and again.

Air raid.

Geneva looked up at the sky, expecting to see one of the two Tripartite Law company [Mages] descending over the valley floor. Instead, she saw a woman flying down.

Straight at her.

Geneva’s heart stopped. She saw Zalthia Werskiv heading straight towards her, hands aglow with fire magic. She was coming for Geneva?

No. The [Doctor] realized what was happening too late. She ran forwards, towards the departing escort of Dullahans, shouting, waving her arms.

“No. No! Stop!

She screamed up at Zalthia, the Firebringer. The [Mage] flew down as the Dullahans cried out and loosed arrows up at her. Some were turning to flee, others blowing on their horns desperately. Geneva ran towards them, trying to get in the way, to stop Zalthia.

Too slow. A fireball fell from her hand, like a fiery meteor towards the earth. The shockwave flung Geneva back. When she got up, she saw only smoking ash. The escort had been obliterated.

She looked up. Zalthia looked down at Geneva. Was there a smile on her lips? She pointed past Geneva.

At her camp. The Firebringer flew past Geneva, conjuring fire from her hands again. She strafed Geneva’s operating tent, throwing a ball of fire that exploded and set the damp canvas ablaze. Then she shot a stream of fire from her hands, raking across the sleeping tents. And the supply tent.

Geneva saw the tent containing the healing potions, her bandages, all of it, go up in a blue and green fireball of twisting colors. Zalthia paused as she saw the magical conflagration and then decided her work was done. She flew off into the air, leaving the camp ablaze.


She couldn’t believe it. The Centaurs had paid her to attack Geneva’s camp. Geneva’s legs buckled. She sat. Her mind was whirling. Where was Aiko? She was…she’d been with the wounded. She might be safe. Ken and Luan were out looking for people. They were safe. But the camp?


A voice spoke quietly in Geneva’s ears. Okasha did not gloat. There was sadness in her voice.

“I warned you. This world is not yours, Geneva. There is no mercy here. No quarter. Your world is gentler, nobler, I think.”

Geneva stared at the burning camp. She felt something wild, hysterical, bubbling up inside her. She laughed.

“No. It’s the same. The exact same.”

The same as the worst of her world. How could she have thought it would be otherwise? They bombed a hospital. Just like her country had. They attacked the wounded. Just like they did during the war. Every war. Snipers shooting medics.

It was exactly the same.

Geneva didn’t know when she started laughing hysterically, only that she couldn’t stop. She sat in the dirt and laughed, parts of her clothing burning, her operating tent and the camp burning before her eyes as smoke drifted up through the jungle canopy. She only stopped when she heard a voice.

“There’s the [Doctor].”

She turned. A Dullahan was looking at her. One of the Dullahans that had been brought in, apparently asleep. He was holding a sword. In a moment, Geneva knew why he was here.

The blade was red. The bodies of the wounded soldiers lined up in front of her tent—Geneva stared at a motionless Centaur’s form and then the Dullahan.


He had no words to answer her, but he strode towards her. Geneva didn’t move, but Okasha did. She made Geneva leap to her feet and run. But there were more than one of the Dullahan assassins in the camp.

Another leapt out at her. Okasha, using Geneva’s body, whipped out one of Geneva’s scalpels and cut him along the face. He cried out and Okasha tried to plunge the wickedly sharp blade through his eye. Geneva’s hand shot out—

And stopped.


Geneva caught her right arm. She heard Okasha cry out, felt the Selphid try to override her. Geneva didn’t let her. She clamped down on every muscle in her body, overriding Okasha’s desperate attempts to move with sheer will.

“I swore an oath.”

The Dullahan was cursing. Geneva turned and saw the first one striding towards her. It wasn’t a he after all, but a she. The Dullahan had dark red armor and a shortsword in one hand.

“What oath?”

She looked at Geneva curiously. Geneva spread her arms wide. She felt her world melting around her. Despair was in her heart.

“I will do no harm. I will not let my patients come to harm. I will do what I can to save lives.”


The female Dullahan nodded. She looked at Geneva and shook her head.

“But flawed. This is war. And in war, we do what we must.”

She ran Geneva through, blade plunging into her stomach. Geneva gasped, stumbled back, and fell. The Dullahan stabbed her in the stomach twice more, and then bent. She cut Geneva’s throat and turned away.

“There’s one more. The helper. Find her. Kill her. The two [Medics] don’t have their Skills. Let’s go before that damn Selphid gets to us.”

The other Dullahan nodded and the two moved off. They ran as Geneva lay on the ground, blood pooling on the ground as her camp—and her cause—burned down around her.


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

1.04 D

Quallet Marshhand was shouting at a Centaur. He knew it was a stupid thing to do. Centaurs were belligerent, touchy, and the only way to get them to agree to something was to flatter them. But Quallet was fed up, and there were some times when he just needed to scream at something.

Like now.

The Centaur commander was clearly unhappy at being shouted at, and kept trying to snap at Quallet. His soldiers were also trying to be menacing, but Quallet knew he was in the right. He snapped at the ash-colored Centaur as his company worked in the darkness, putting the undead to rest and burning the rest of the corpses.

“No, you listen to me. That was my company you shot at! We announced ourselves and carried both a banner and night lanterns! How could you not see—”

“He was not standing with the lantern.”

“He was ten feet away from it! How could you not tell they were together? They were hauling a dead Dullahan. If that didn’t tip your idiotic soldiers off—”

“The Dullahans have disguised themselves so before.”

The Centaur was unmoved. He glared down at Quallet, looking uncomfortable at his patrol’s attack on Quallet’s soldiers, but equally enraged.

“The Dullahans have been attacking our camps disguised as your people. They, damn them, have done this twice now!”

“That does not justify what your men did! You attacked my soldiers—shot one with an enchanted arrow! If he dies—”

“If he dies, we will pay the blood price. But we will not change our methods. Not now.”

The officer’s face had locked up into a stubborn rictus. Quallet stared at him, shaking with fury.

“And how am I supposed to stop that from happening again?”

“Stay within our designated areas. Identify yourselves.”

“We did that—if you want our company to do our duty, keep your soldiers away from mine! Because I promise you, if this happens a second time I will cancel our contract and demand full pay for—”


The Centaur cut Quallet off and the [Mercenary Captain] nearly drew his axe right there and then.

“We must continue patrolling. I will instruct my soldiers and tomorrow negotiations will begin over reparations and perhaps change the location your company works. Until then, keep close to your lanterns.”

He whirled and trotted away, rather than continue arguing with Quallet. His soldiers left too, wincing as Quallet let loose a set of invectives that made the battle-hardened warriors flinch. Quallet would have liked to do more than curse.

But there was nothing he could do. Quallet stomped away to speak with Raeh and Xor. He immediately pulled back all of the company within range of the banner and made them move together at all times. Less corpses would be disposed of, but he wasn’t about to lose more soldiers than he had.

Luan. The enchanted arrow had gone deep into his side. Quallet had seen Raeh’s eyes, seen the fear. The only way to get it out was to cut into the flesh and bone and find the arrowhead…a tiny thing somewhere in all that blood and guts. There was no way Luan would have survived if Raeh had done it. Maybe this [Doctor] could save him. But Quallet feared the young man was already dead.




“Luan? Luan! Stay awake. Please!”

Ken knelt by his friend’s side, speaking urgently to Luan as his eyes flickered. The black-skinned South African was shaking, sweat beading on his forehead.

He was dying. Blood was seeping from his arrow wound, staining the clumsy bandage that Aiko had tied around his side. The one who’d tied it, Aiko, was holding Luan’s hand as he groaned and shivered. That was all she could do. Ken looked around frantically.

“Is the [Doctor] here? My friend needs help!”

He was speaking—shouting at—a pale warrior with a halberd. He was a Selphid. His body was that of a Lizardman, but the scales were pale, close to white. The body was dead, but something else looked down at Ken and shook his head.

“Wait. The [Doctor] is still sleeping. She has worked without rest for over a day now. When she wakes, she will see your friend.”

Ken opened his mouth, but the Selphid stared at him.

“Quiet, or I will remove you. That will not help your friend.”

Ken closed his mouth. Luan was at the head of a line of wounded soldiers. There were only a few as the fighting had barely begun. It was just past dawn. But some of the soldiers were badly wounded, bandaged, unable to be healed by potions, carried by their friends to wait for the [Doctor] like Luan.

Some were already dead. Ken’s stomach was a knot of fear, but he made himself grip Luan’s other hand and wait.

“Give him more healing potion, Aiko.”

She did. Raeh had pressed the remaining bottle into her hands as he’d sent them to look for the [Doctor]. It could not heal the wound so long as the enchanted arrow was in place, but every time she carefully poured more into the wound, Luan’s color would get better and he seemed to grow in strength. But then the arrow’s magic would open the wound again, and he would scream.

Life went in, life went out. But Ken saw that the healing potion was not putting as much in as went out of Luan over time. He was getting weaker. He needed help. And the [Doctor] was asleep.

It felt like hours before she woke. When she did, Ken knew in an instant because the Selphid who had been standing guard over the lines of the wounded turned his head. From a small tent a form emerged, blinking in the light of the day. She turned her head and Ken saw a Human face. For some reason that reassured him. He had wondered if the [Doctor] was a Dullahan, but she looked…normal.

Then she began to lurch down the hill and Ken wondered if he’d made a mistake. She couldn’t be who Luan was waiting for.

When Kenjiro first saw the woman known as the Last Light, the famed [Doctor] of the battlefield up close, he thought he was looking at another zombie. Her skin was olive in color, but pale. Her hands were covered in blood, as was her clothing. Her brown hair was covered by an odd cap—a cut-down leather helmet stained with sweat.

She looked as if she needed a [Doctor] herself. One of her arms was practically white, as if blood flow had been constricted there. Her steps were brisk, but she stumbled twice as she approached the line of wounded. There was red in her eyes. Broken blood vessels.

When she spoke, her voice was hoarse.

“What happened to him?”

Ken looked at his friends. Quexa and a Lizardman had come with them, helping carry Luan. They were sitting by Luan, and looked at Ken. So did Aiko. So Ken took a breath and tried to explain.

“He—he was shot by an arrow. A magical—he does not heal. It is here.”

He showed the woman the wound and the [Doctor] knelt. She appraised his side for a second and then stood. She nearly fell down again, and the Selphid guard caught her.

“Arrow wound. Understood. Don’t move him. Stay with your friend. If he wakes, don’t let him get up. Keep him still, got it?”

“Yes, but—”

Ken broke off. The woman was already moving past him, speaking to the soldiers second in line. She knelt by a man with a broken sword blade protruding from his stomach, nodded. Ken stared at the piece of metal—it was frosted over. Magical? The man with it in his stomach was shaking uncontrollably and moaning. But the [Doctor] did not see to him either. She moved on to the next wounded soldier, then the next.


The [Doctor] had nearly reached the end of the line when Ken ran towards her. The Selphid barred the way. Ken stopped and pointed at Luan.

“Will you help him?”

“Yes. Later. I have other patients to attend to first.”

Ken turned and saw two other Selphids with pale bodies carefully picking up the Soldier with the enchanted blade in his stomach. He gaped.

“But we are—first!”

The woman shook her head.

“Not the point. I am triaging. I must decide who needs attention first. This is not a situation where the first who arrive get treated first. I will save those who need my help most, and then move on to the less critically injured.”

She’d raised her voice so everyone waiting could hear. Ken understood her words, but couldn’t accept them.

“But my friend—”

“He has more time. I will see to him when I can.”

The [Doctor] turned away. Ken took a step, but the Selphid barred his path, his face grim. Ken stared helplessly at the Lizardman’s face and the intelligence lurking behind the dead features. He saw the [Doctor] move on, and then hesitate. She turned and spoke crisply.

“I am a [Doctor]. That means I save lives, no matter who it is I treat. I will try to save your friend—if I can. But I can’t promise anything. I will get to him as fast as I can. But you must wait.”

And that was it. Ken went back to Luan. In less than a minute, the woman had finished her surveying the patients. She marked them—Ken could see how she pointed and the Selphid guard laid colored stones by the wounded. Green for the least wounded. Yellow for moderate wounds and red for those about to die. Black meant they were dead or…or they weren’t going to be treated.

Luan was yellow. He was going to die, but not as soon as some. The [Doctor] strode up to a tent where the other Selphids had carried the first patient. Someone came out with a bowl of healing potion he dribbled on those with the red stones. It helped.

Ken applied healing potion to Luan’s wound. The skin closed. Broke open. Luan screamed. He waited, staring at the tent. It felt like hours passed before the tent flaps opened and the man with the enchanted blade in his stomach was carried out—minus the blade.

That was the first. There were five more to go. Ken watched another body go in as a group of ragged Human soldiers stared at the tent. Hours passed—Quexa told him it was minutes. The tent flaps opened, and a corpse came out.

Ken felt his stomach drop. Another body went in as the Selphid guard laid the body down and the soldiers, the friends of the female Lizardwoman who’d taken five arrows to the chest, wept and clung to each other in grief. The tent flaps were already closing around the third wounded soldier marked with a red stone.

A corpse came out. Another body came in. Another corpse. The fifth soldier lived, but his arm was gone. As the sixth came in, Luan started gasping and his eyes started rolling back into his head.


Aiko was clinging to him, whispering to him in English and Japanese. But it was no good. The wound kept bleeding and the healing potion had run out. Ken stared helplessly at the stained bandages, crimson from all the blood loss and remembered some of the medical techniques he’d seen on TV. He had never been trained, but he couldn’t just sit back any longer!

“We should—出血を止めまれ! Apply compress—”

He reached for Luan’s side, guided by only a few memories of what to do with an open wound. Apply pressure? Where? Along the edges?

Aiko was white-faced, hands hovering over the open wound. Ken heard a shout as he reached for Luan.

“Don’t touch him!”

The Selphid guard stopped Ken as Quexa and the Lizardman stood up, just as worried. The Selphid pulled Ken back, explaining as Ken protested weakly.

“It’s an Evercut Arrow. It cannot be removed without opening him up, you see? If you shake your friend about, it will cut through his insides. Do not move him any more, and do not let him move.”

“But he is dying.


The Selphid looked him in the eyes, calmly. He had seen death. He lived in a corpse. He pulled Ken back as Quexa took Aiko and hugged her.

The Selphid’s name was Calectus. He made Ken sit, drink some water from Ken’s water flask. Ken had forgotten he had it. Calectus didn’t give Ken any false assurances, or hopes. He just told Ken to leave Luan, to not make things worse.

“Hope that he lives long enough for Doctor Geneva to see him.”

So Ken did. He prayed under his breath by Luan’s side as the sixth patient left the tent a corpse. Then it was Luan’s turn.




Geneva didn’t calculate her success rate as she worked. If she did, she would have given up long ago in despair. But she couldn’t ignore the brutal arithmetic of life and death.

Some lived, some died. Sometimes Geneva would save four, twelve people in a row. Then she’d be wondering when the next patient would come in that she couldn’t save. Or sometimes she’d fail to save five people in a row, and keep praying the next patient was treatable. Because they had to be. The next one had to be. It was a game her mind played. It tried to find logic and patterns in chaos.

As the Selphid assistants took the sixth body outside, Geneva rested her hand against the table. She knew who was coming next. The black-skinned youth with the enchanted arrow in his side. She didn’t know if she could save him.

“Be ready Okasha. I need you to move fast. He will have lost a lot of blood and I need to find the arrow before I can heal him with a potion.”


Okasha moved Geneva’s right arm up, blotting at her sweaty forehead with a damp cloth. Geneva saw the flaps open, and then the young man was on the table in front of her.

“Beginning the incision.”

Geneva didn’t need to do any diagnosing. She knew what had hit the young man. The Roving Arrow company had begun using the Evercut arrows a few days ago and Geneva had seen too many cases of these wounds to count. The arrows lodged in the inside and kept moving, slowly digging through organs and preventing healing until the patient died.

Swiftly, she cut with her scalpel across the young man’s chest, cutting open cloth, and then she cut again, opening up his side. She didn’t worry about infection or disease—her leveling up had granted her the invaluable Skill of [Sterile Field], an upgrade over [Sterile Equipment]. Nothing in a radius around her would be affected by unsanitary conditions, although they would if they left her presence.

So Geneva’s scalpel was clean as it sliced into the young man’s side. He opened his mouth and cried out—he was awake. The two Selphids immediately leapt forwards and held him down as Geneva tuned out the sounds he was making. She adjusted for his struggling and cut.

“I can see the entry wound. Going deeper.”

His flesh parted under the fine blade. Geneva stared into pulsating insides and saw red. The arrow had cut into the young man’s insides. The blood was concealing everything. Geneva’s eyes darted around, looking for the telltale glint of metal. Nothing.

If she were in a hospital she’d have a suction machine to clear away the blood. Here she only had—


Okasha moved Geneva’s right hand at her command, sponging away blood. She put the towel aside, picked up another one. It was horrible, unsanitary, and Geneva’s only option.


She had some water that she used to rinse away the last of the blood. Now Geneva could see. And she saw…

Nothing. She could tell where the arrow had ripped through the young man’s side, into his liver. But it wasn’t in his liver anymore. He had stopped struggling, either passed out from the pain or…no, he was still alive. But she had to move quickly.

“Where did it go? Do you see it?”


A voice in Geneva’s ear, too quiet for anyone to hear but her. Geneva felt her hand move. She could see the passage of the arrowhead now, though. From the liver, something had cut…Geneva saw an opening in the stomach lining and went for it. And at last she saw it, a tiny piece of orange metal, glinting and—moving—among the red flesh.


They were in her hand. Geneva knew what to do now, and carefully maneuvered them towards the arrowhead as it squirmed, cutting into the stomach. She took a breath, and then gripped it tightly. Instantly, she felt tension in the forceps as she tried to lever the arrowhead out of the flesh.

“It’s fighting me. Careful—”

Geneva twisted, and then flicked the arrowhead out of the wound. It flew off of the surgical table and onto the ground, still buried in a bit of flesh. One of the Selphid aids ran over to capture the arrowhead, taking care not to let it touch his skin.

“There. Check for fragments—where’s the healing potion?”

Okasha had it ready. Geneva swept through the rest of the body, but found nothing else wrong. She was running out of time.

“Apply the potion now.”

She normally used it sparingly, but the arrowhead had cut through so many parts of the body…Geneva closed the stomach, liver, and other damaged organs and then sutured the incision she’d made before closing that too. It helped, she found, and reduced the need for as much healing potion.

And then it was done. The young man went out and Geneva heard a scream of relief and shouts. That lifted a tiny part of her spirits. But then the next body came in, this time a soldier who had some kind of spell that was eating away at his legs, both of them. She had no way to stop it. She had to amputate. And then…

And then it was evening. The bodies stopped coming in. Either the soldiers were being killed off without a chance to be rescued, or all the injuries were healable with potions. That happened. Geneva stumbled out of her tent and found herself blinking up at a sun setting in the sky.

“Miss [Doctor]?”

A voice interrupted her. She turned and saw a man in armor with a helmet tucked under his arm and an axe at his belt. Calectus, the Selphid guard and highest-level warrior who’d volunteered to protect her, was watching him warily. Geneva took a step and nearly fell. The man caught her arm.

“Thank you. Ah, can I help you?”

“You already have, Miss. My name is Quallet Marshhand. I am the commander of Gravetender’s Fist, a suppression company hired for this engagement.”

“Oh. The ones who dispose of corpses.”

Quallet nodded as he and Geneva sat on some chairs that someone had found. He studied her, and she studied him. He was much what she had expected from a company commander. She’d seen and treated many by now. She was clearly not what he’d been expecting, though.

“This morning you saved one of my soldiers. I am grateful, although I don’t know what the custom is. My company can offer you—”

Oh. That was why he was here. Geneva sighed as she felt exhaustion catching up with her. She cut Quallet off brusquely.

“I’m a [Doctor]. I don’t charge fees for my work. If you want to donate, that’s fine, but I tend to each patient that comes to me without bias. I don’t take sides in war. Saving lives is my only priority.”

He blinked and considered this, not offended by her abrupt interruption.

“I see. In that case, let me offer you some money and my thanks. The young man you saved—he’s a good soldier.”

“They all are.”

Geneva tried to smile at him, and failed. She stood and shook Quallet’s hand. He gave some coins to Calectus—she saw silver and coppers, no gold. Geneva didn’t know whether to be insulted or not. She didn’t really care. Some commanders gave her nothing if she saved hundreds of their men, others, like Quallet, felt the need to come and thank her for each one.

She wasn’t doing this to be paid. She was…she was…she just had to do it. Because she’d sworn an oath? Because it was right? No. Because it was all she could do. It was all she could rationalize herself doing in this terrible world filled with blood and death.

Troubled by that thought, she turned away and nearly fell. Her leg shot out as Geneva nearly collapsed forward. Okasha steadied Geneva and spoke.


“I’m fine. I should stay up. If there’s more—”

“You didn’t get enough sleep last night. If there are more wounded, I will wake you. But your mind is exhausted. You sleep. I will eat and rest us both.”

“I—I should—”

Geneva shook her head as she felt at her pocket. But Okasha was insistent, and Geneva knew what she was about to do.

“Sleep, Geneva. You must sleep. You have worked enough.”

Darkness engulfed Geneva’s mind in a moment. She felt oblivion come. It was welcome.




Okasha had never invaded a living person’s body up until the moment a few months ago when she had had no choice. It was anathema to her kind, and punishable by death. But a body was a body, and she had adapted quickly and learned that a living body was far different from a dead one.

For one thing, a living body reacted to secretions Okasha could produce, as well as the ones it naturally secreted. Okasha had learned that long ago and made use of that fact to get Geneva to rest when the woman needed it.

She just had to trigger Geneva’s brain to secrete a little bit of the chemicals that induced drowsiness, the thing that Geneva called ‘melatonin’.

Oh, the things Humans came up with. How could they come up with a name for something Selphids had poked and prodded at for millennia? And yet, Geneva had told Okasha things about how the Human body worked that even the Selphids hadn’t known.

“Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.”

It was Geneva’s voice, but Okasha who whispered with it. To differentiate between the two, Okasha lowered the range of Geneva’s vocal chords to make her voice deeper. She steered Geneva back towards camp, heading towards the [Doctor’s] tent.

Geneva’s mind was asleep; Okasha was in control. The Selphid only took full authority over her body when Geneva was asleep or in dire need. And she was uncomfortable with that, to be honest. What she was doing was abhorrent to Selphid culture. It had been banned by ancient treaties under threat of total extinction for their race. If Okasha was revealed to be possessing a live body, she would be destroyed, she had no doubt.

And yet, Geneva would be paralyzed without her. For all the [Doctor]’s genius, she had no knowledge of a way to cure damage to the spinal cord, and she had been struck by Thriss’ mace on the back of her neck. She would die, unable to move anything but her head without Okasha. And she couldn’t die. She was too valuable to the world.

Okasha saw that. That was why she helped Geneva, looked after her. That was also why six Selphids had joined Geneva’s camp. It was one of them who walked towards Okasha now. Calectus, most senior and highest level of the Selphids. He had come at Okasha’s behest, and he knew more than he let on.

For instance, about the fact that Okasha was in Geneva’s body. He knew Okasha had taken over Geneva as well—Selphids could see through body postures better than anyone else and so his face was disapproving as he looked at Okasha. He still had not forgiven her transgression, and spoke to her brusquely, as a senior to a junior.

After all, Okasha was only a Level 23 [Rogue] and now, a Level 15 [Medical Assistant]. Whereas Calectus was…

A Level 36 [Honor Guard]. Okasha stood in awe of him and humbly bobbed her head as Calectus motioned her to the tent where food was served to the wounded and Geneva, when she remembered to eat.

“She is asleep?”

He asked this as brusque confirmation as Okasha ate with Geneva’s body. The Selphid paused to savor the hot food—it was tastier than when she inhabited a dead person’s body. Geneva’s taste buds were all intact, and the sensation was blissful.

“Yes. She didn’t level today.”

“You can tell when it happens?”

Calectus frowned at Okasha as the Selphid nodded.

“If I listen, I think I can almost hear the announcement myself. But it’s always inaudible…I wonder if our predecessors worked with their hosts, rather than just controlled them?”

“Idle speculation. It was a mistake and it cost our kind everything.”

The older Selphid was disapproving. Okasha nodded meekly. He studied her, frowning as she finished her plate and filled it with a second helping. Geneva needed the energy.

“Do not take risks, Okasha. I do not like you forcing your host to sleep; even that is risky because we do not have the experience of interacting with a living host. Take no chances while you are working with her. Let her take no chances. The value of Geneva Scala’s life far outweighs yours or mine. So we have agreed.”

Geneva nodded. Calectus paused. She looked up at him. The Lizardman’s body he had recently inhabited was all very well, but she knew he was more at home with Dullahans. She coughed as a bit of food went down her lungs and fished it out with her Selphid body.

“How long will you stay with Geneva, Calectus?”

He shrugged.

“As long as it takes. If there is any Human, any person in this world that can save our people from the Wasting, it is her. Allow her to reach Level 30, and then, perhaps suggest to her that it is time to leave. I do not like the way this battle is going. Both sides are growing far more…savage.”

Okasha nodded. She’d felt it too. She and Calectus were soldiers, and the use of Evercut arrows spoke to a desire to hurt the enemy badly. Such arrows could only be used once and they were expensive…the Centaurs wanted to beat the Dullahans at all costs.

The two Selphids made no more conversation. Okasha finished eating and returned Geneva to her tent. There she made Geneva lie down. Time to sleep. Okasha let herself drift, relinquishing control of her body. Selphids slept like Humans.

A few hours later, Geneva awoke. She sat up slowly, and whispered.


There was no response. It was dark out, and the Selphid was asleep. Geneva was about to get up to pee—that was what had woken her up, but she felt at her pocket first.

Tucked away in her pants was a small stone. Geneva carefully pulled it out, trying to sense if Okasha was waking up. She was not.

Slowly, Geneva brought the stone up and tapped the surface. Instantly, she heard rustling sounds, and then a voice.

Or perhaps we did know, once. Before our kind was hunted for the crime of stealing bodies from the living.

It was in Geneva’s voice, but she had never said the words. Geneva shivered as she listened on. The small stone she held carefully between her fingers as it replayed the events of the last hour after she’d activated it.

It was a small voice recorder, a magically carved rune embedded in the center of an azurite stone. Geneva had bought it a while back and Okasha had forgotten she carried it. It took just a touch to activate. Geneva could do it when putting her hands in her pockets and the Selphid wouldn’t pay attention if she wasn’t in full control of Geneva’s body.


The conversation between Okasha and Calectus played as Geneva lay back in bed. She listened; closing her eyes for a moment, and then shook her head.

They should have asked her. But help was help. She stood up, and went to pee. In the morning there would be more wounded to tend to, and Geneva was still tired. This was her routine. This was how every day went.

This was her life, now.




“Luan-san, you’re awake!”

Ken and Aiko were there when Luan opened his eyes, as evening had begun. He sat up, gasped, felt at his side, and looked around.

“What happened?”

“The [Doctor] healed you. Can you tell? Do you remember?”

Aiko hugged Luan fiercely as he blinked, confused, and then put his hand to his head. He shook his head as Ken tried to give him an explanation of all that had passed.

“Shame. I thought I was a goner.”

He stood up, shakily, and then felt at his side again.

“I’m cured! I can’t believe it. What was the [Doctor] like?”

“Very strange. She was…she was very much like a doctor from our world.”

Ken told Luan about what had happened as Aiko went to get him some food and let the others know Luan was awake. Luan frowned.

“Like how?”

“She was talking about ‘triage’ and needing a ‘blood transfusion’ and many other complicated terms. I did not know there were [Doctors] in this world.”

Luan frowned.

“That is odd. How would someone know about blood transfusions here? Unless…does everyone know about that? That is a very advanced medical concept, I think.”

Ken nodded. Then he hesitated. Aiko rushed back in with some hot gruel and Luan devoured it. Ken took Aiko aside and whispered to her.

Blood transfusion. That is—what is a ‘transfusion’, Aiko?


“Oh! That is odd! Luan, do you think she might be—”

Luan stared at Ken, and both felt a sudden jolt of excitement. It couldn’t be. Could it? Ken tried to remember—it was a young woman, a Human young woman who’d talked to him. A [Doctor]. That was a word from his world. Here [Healers] were far more common. Could it be? Was there someone else?


Luan put a hand to his side again, still not quite believing he was cured. He and Ken speculated about whether a person from this world would even know what a transfusion was before Aiko told them there was trouble outside.

It was the Humans. Or rather, Ken, Aiko and Luan’s group. They were arguing around the fire. They had been arguing for hours, apparently, but Ken had been too preoccupied with Luan to notice.

Now he saw Johanas shouting at Daly, pointing back at the battlefield where the Dullahans and Centaurs were still fighting.

“Those things killed Jessica! And those fucking Centaurs nearly killed Luan! I’m not sticking around to get killed. Let’s get out of here and—”

“Fuck that!”

Daly was standing across from Johanas with a group of Australians. There was a clear divide in the group and it turned out they were arguing about leaving. Ken stared as Luan groaned and Aiko helped him into a seat. Only the groan turned out to be about the issue, which Johanas had brought up and Daly and the others didn’t want to hear.

“We’re not leaving, you bloody idiots. You heard what the Captain told us about deserters—”

“Better than dying here or hauling more fucking corpses!”

The Americans were clearly ready to split. They’d been rattled by Luan getting shot last night, and that, on top of having to deal with dead bodies every night had been the last straw. The Australians were of a different opinion, as were the other young men and women in the group.

“You wanna go? Fine. But we’re not on board with this. Just because you lot are fed up, doesn’t mean we all want to risk our necks.”

Daly was arguing with Johanas. The American young man clearly wanted everyone to go with him. He turned to the group.

“In that case, let’s vote! Democracy! Everyone who’s in, raise their hands—”

Hands shot up, but Paige shouted as she crossed her arms.

“Screw your democracy! Over a third of the group is you lot. We voted last time, and that’s how we ended up here.

There was a general agreement. Johanas flushed and opened his mouth angrily to retort. Ken turned to Luan. He caught sight of Xor and Raeh watching the disturbance at a distance, but neither officer seemed inclined to stop the fighting so long as there wasn’t violence. Quallet was ducking back into his tent—Ken spoke to Luan.

“What do you think, Luan?”

“What do I think?”

Luan’s face was still pale, but he bared his teeth.

“I think the Americans have a point.”

Ken and Aiko looked at Luan, shocked. He shook his head.

“Friends, I don’t know about you two, but I am not looking forward to going out there again. I just got shot. But—”

He frowned as the debate ended without a definitive conclusion. Daly took a swing at Johanas and both sides pulled the two apart before they could start brawling. Luan watched everyone disperse and shook his head.

“—But I don’t think abandoning the company is any better. Let’s talk to Daly and see what he thinks.”

It turned out that Daly and the other Australians were dead set against leaving and refusing to consider the matter.

“It’s not a vote, alright? We’re going to stay no matter what the others do.”

Daly spoke curtly to Luan as Aiko supported him. Ken’s attention was drawn to a short, furry creature that Daly was bending down and petting. It had green fur and a white belly and huge, round ears, a long cord-like tail and small paws. It was cute. Ken had no idea where it had come from.

“What is that, Daly?”

“Cute, ain’t it?”

The Australian young man grinned, forgetting his earlier ire as he bent to feed the thing a bit of bread. It squeaked—a surprisingly deep sound—and nibbled at it as two more hopped out of the brush.

“They just popped up while I was snacking. Friendly as you like. Go on, pet them.”

Ken did. To his delight, the rodent rubbed its head against his hand. Aiko immediately bent to pet it, while Luan took a seat on the ground.

“It’s like a quokka, I think. Doesn’t it look like that, Daly?”

Paige, another Australian girl with a scarred-over bite wound on one arm reached out and stroked the little furry creature’s head. Soon, she and every Human in the company were trying to touch the affectionate creatures. Ken felt himself smiling—until one of the Lizardfolk noticed what was going on. Ken heard a shout and saw Quexa running over excitedly.

“Ooh! Look! Beriats! Don’t let it get away!”

She ran over to the large rodent that Ken had been holding in his lap. It froze at the sight of the Lizardgirl and then leapt from Ken’s lap and tried to run into the forest. Too slow. Quexa caught up with it and lifted her foot with a triumphant yell.

She stomped on the green-furred rodent’s back, breaking its back with a sickening crack. Paige cried out in horror, but in a moment the other Lizardfolk were running over. The Beriats darted away, but the Lizardfolk grabbed them and beat them against the ground, using the Beriats’ tails as a handle.

There was a moment of shock as the Humans stopped shouting and the Lizardfolk happily lifted the corpses of the Beriats up. They blinked at the stunned Humans.


Quexa frowned.

Aiko burst into tears. Luan went to hug her as Ken edged between her and the Lizardgirl. The Lizardfolk were getting insults from all sides and were clearly not understanding the issue.

What? We’ll share. Beriats taste good when cooked. Or raw!”

It took some doing for Ken to smooth ruffled scales—and explain to Quexa why the Humans were upset that a bunch of cute animals had been butchered before their eyes. Quexa and the other Lizardfolk didn’t really understand—they were used to killing livestock themselves, and they regarded Beriats as a pest that ate grain and stole food, for all they weren’t a physical threat.

They were a pest. But they were cute. Ken felt that should have saved the Beriats as he watched the Lizardfolk happily skin them and roast them over a fire. They had brightened up everyone’s day, and now they were dead, made into hot food the Lizardfolk did indeed share around.

It was fitting of Baleros, of this place with as many horrors as marvels. Ken just wished the Beriats didn’t taste so good. He tactfully did not eat his portion anywhere around Aiko, but he was too hungry for hot meat to turn it down when Quexa offered. Not to mention that it would have offended the Lizardgirl to have refused.




That night, Quallet mustered Gravetender’s Fist and gave them a short speech before sending them out. They would no longer be working near the Centaur’s camp he promised, but they were still expected to do their jobs. He didn’t address Luan especially, but everyone knew Luan had been saved by a [Doctor]. Luan’s group was also assigned to an area close to where Quallet planted the company banner, with less corpses and danger overall.

It still didn’t make picking up bits of dead bodies easier, but at least Ken could detach his conscious mind to do it. He only paid attention to make sure Luan was fine, but the healing potion had restored the young man’s strength, and Luan was in better physical shape than Ken. He was still jumpy and kept watching the shadows, but he was alright.

However, trouble started as dawn began to break. Luan pulled Ken aside as Aiko stabbed a few bodies, looking for undead.

“Hey Ken, have you seen any of the Americans?”


Ken immediately felt worried, remembering the argument of a few moments ago. Luan hadn’t seen them either, and it turned out no one had.

“I don’t know where they are. Neither does Daly or anyone else. They’re not where they were supposed to be assigned. Xor’s kicking up a fuss looking for them. Let’s get back to camp. I’ll tell you if something happens.”

Worried, Ken finished his duties. Quallet heard about the missing Americans and would have gone looking, but it was too close to dawn. Furious, the commander ordered the company back and they reached their camp. Ken tried to stay awake as he heard Quallet interrogating Daly and the others about where Johanas and the others had gone, but he was exhausted. He hadn’t slept since Luan had been shot, so he laid his head down…

“Ken. Ken! Wake up!”

It felt like a moment had passed. Ken groaned as he felt someone shake him. He protested, but the hand came again, shaking him roughly.

“Get up!”

“Just a moment Luan…”

A hand dragged Ken out of his bedroll. Ken heard Luan’s voice as he woke up a bit more, and only now registered the tension in it.

“Ken, wake up. It’s the Americans.”

There was something in Luan’s tone that took the exhaustion right out of Ken’s mind. He got up at once, blinking around.

It was just past dawn. He hadn’t slept an hour. But the instant Ken saw Luan’s face, any thoughts of sleep fled.

“What is it?”

“Follow me.”

Luan stepped out of the tent without explaining. Ken followed. There was something hollow in his stomach, a terrible foreboding. He was not filled with dread so much as a…certainty. He didn’t want to be right.

Ken stopped when he reached the edge of the neutral zone, a place where he could look down into the valley. He expected to see the soldiers fighting, but neither side had begun. Instead, in front of the Dullahan army there were a group of eight kneeling figures. Ken’s heart stopped when he recognized them.

Johanas knelt beside five girls and two guys, all American. They were lined up in front of a Dullahan. A Dullahan with an axe.

Ken didn’t need any more context. He stared, white-faced at Luan. Aiko was there, trembling. So were the other Humans and the rest of Gravetender’s Fist.

“They got caught sneaking through the forest last night. They’re—they’re going to be executed.”

Executed. Ken stared down at the kneeling group of Humans as the Dullahan with the axe shouted something and the soldiers behind him roared. He felt a ringing in his ears.

“We have to stop them.”


Luan looked at him. Ken had no answer. The Dullahan stepped forwards and Aiko made a sound. Ken didn’t realize he was next to her until he was putting his hands over her eyes.


She didn’t protest. Ken stared down at the bodies, feeling sick, horrified. The axe came up—someone stepped in front of him. Ken saw black skin. He stared at Luan’s back.


“You don’t need to see it.”

Luan’s voice was low. He blocked Ken’s view. Ken opened his mouth, and then heard the scream. It came from Paige. She stumbled back and he heard Daly shout and turn away.

Ken heard another shout, and more screams. He saw Luan’s back trembling. There was another roar from the Dullahans, more screams, and then Luan stumbled away. Ken heard him throwing up with several other people, not all of them Human.

It was over. Ken stared down at the valley as the Dullahans raised their weapons and shouted at the Centaurs, who shook the ground with their hooves and roared back.  He saw bodies without heads, a red axe being wiped clean by one of the Dullahans and horror in the eyes of the other Humans.

The battle began minutes later. But Ken stood there, just staring at the place the bodies had been. Johanas’ corpse was soon lost among the fighting. But Ken remembered it. He wondered if he’d be assigned to dispose of it that night.

In that moment, Ken knew he could never go back. He looked at Luan. The young man was wiping his mouth. Vomit had stained part of his shirt. He looked at Ken, and Aiko grabbed the arms of both. Tears were streaming down her face.

“I can’t do it.”

That was all Luan said. Ken nodded.

“We must go.”

“We do, and we will die.”

Aiko’s face was drained of color. Luan looked at her, and then at Ken.

“The [Doctor] knew about blood transfusions. Maybe she’s from our world.”

It was a slim hope, a slim chance. But Ken grasped at it.

“We can ask her.”


Aiko stared at the fighting. If they went out without a banner, they would be a target for both sides. But they’d navigated the fighting once. If they kept clear of it, and most importantly had a banner—

“A white flag. That was what Captain Quallet told us to use.”

Ken stared around, hoping to see it. Luan paused.

“They keep the flag with the company banner. It’s in Quallet’s tent, and there’s always a guard. But you can probably talk him into giving it to us.”

“But it’s dangerous—”

Ken hesitated. Luan looked at the battlefield and came to a swift decision.

“I can’t be part of this. We can’t. Let’s go.”




“Another world?”

Geneva had been sharpening her scalpels with a whetstone when the group of two young men and a young girl had rushed into their camp, waving a white flag. She hadn’t recognized them at first, until she’d looked at the tallest young man’s side. She hadn’t paid attention to his face, but then she remembered the shorter young man who looked almost Japanese.

And then he’d spoken, and the world turned upside down.

The scalpel fell from her fingers. Instantly, Geneva bent and recovered it from the dirt. She stared at Kenjiro, Aiko, and Luan as if they were ghosts.

“You. You’re all from—”

“You know about blood transfusions. You saved my life. You operate on people, and we’ve heard that you appeared a few months ago. We appeared last week. I’m from South Africa. This is Ken and Aiko. They’re from Japan. Are you…like us?”

The black young man—Luan—looked at Geneva. She felt Okasha moving inside her, whispering.

“Another world? Geneva, what—”

“I am.”

The word passed from Geneva’s lips. She saw the Japanese girl put a hand to her mouth, and the young Japanese man sag. With relief?

“I don’t believe it.”

Luan stared at her. He walked towards her hesitantly, and reached a hand out. Geneva stared at it. And then she rose and took it.

“I’m Luan Khomala, from South Africa. I am—I used to be a kayaker. In training for the Olympics. Who are you?”

Geneva felt the grip, strong and sure. A pulse beat through Luan’s fingers, and she stared into dark brown eyes, a strong, smiling face with short hair. She hadn’t looked at his face before. Her voice was hoarse as she replied.

“I—I’m Geneva Scala. I was…a medical student. I’m from America.”

She saw Luan’s smile vanish as she said where she was from. Suddenly, Ken had lowered his head and Aiko was crying. Geneva looked at them.





“I didn’t know. I had no idea there was…anyone from my world. I never had a chance to ask around or—I didn’t know.”

Geneva sat with the others, in a rare break from the fighting. No—it wasn’t a break. It was that the fighting had been too fierce for anyone to bring the wounded to her, so Geneva actually had time to talk. The irony of that was bitter on her tongue as she sat with Aiko, Luan, and Ken.

And spoke. It was the first time Geneva had really talked with—with anyone. She heard the three out, listening mainly to Luan as he explained the incredible circumstances that had led them onto the same battlefield as her. Incredible, but not unbelievable. She had had the same experience. In Baleros, it was hard to find paying work for those who were unskilled—except in war.

It was the deaths of the other Americans, the other people from her country that shook Geneva the most. She hadn’t heard about the executions. There had been a group of people from her world, from where she lived, perhaps from the same state, and they had lived and died so close by without her ever knowing.

“I can’t stand this place. I’ve seen and heard of horrible shit in the countries where I come from—there are African warlords who’d fit right into this place. But I can’t just do my job disposing of dead bodies while it goes on.”

Luan gestured with a shaking hand at the cover of the forest, beyond which he could hear and see the fighting going on. He looked at Geneva.

“How do you stand it? You’ve been through, what, three battlefields?”

“Four. Counting this one.”

Geneva stared down at her hands. She’d seen so much blood and death over the past month—more bodies and horror than she’d seen in the worst videos of ER rooms at hospitals. Somehow she’d kept her sanity and mind through it all. She’d grown numb to it, at least in part.

“What is it you’re doing, Geneva-san? Why are you here?”

That came from Ken, the young Japanese man. He leaned over the table, looking curiously at her.

“Were you hired? Are you being paid to save people?”

“No. Not at all. I’m not here to…I do my job. I try to save people. That’s all.”

Geneva tried to explain. The others tried to understand. Geneva stood up and paced around, grateful that Okasha was just listening to all this. She didn’t know if she should tell them about her.

“I—I was trained to be a doctor, a medical practitioner. I wanted to be a surgeon. And this…I never graduated from medical school, but I still believe in the Hippocratic Oath. I see people dying. Soldiers. And I can help them. There are no medical techniques in this world. No one knows about suturing, or surgery—they don’t know about blood transfusion. Or blood types.”

Something took a hold of her tongue. Geneva found herself correcting her statement.

“Well, Selphids do. But they don’t share that knowledge.”

The others looked at her and Geneva tried to pretend nothing different had happened. She continued.

“So I do what I can. I patch people up—I can deal with injuries that healing potions can’t fix, like the arrow that hit you, Luan. But I can’t stop the fighting. I’ve just done what I can. That’s all I can do. I’d like to help you three, and the others, but…I can’t do anything.”

The three exchanged hopeless looks. Geneva stared at them. She knew what suppression companies did. She’d seen the undead rising—had one appear on the operating table before Okasha bashed its brains in. That hadn’t violated her oath, but it had disturbed her. There were magical, fantastical things like the undead and mages in this world, but people still bled and killed each other like they did in hers.

And now there were people in need, people from her world, frightened, without any way to protect themselves, stuck in a war and dying. Geneva felt the same urge as she did when she saw someone who was wounded. She had to help.

But how? She paced back and forth and came to a quick decision.

“If you can leave your company—I’ll make sure you’re fed and have a place to sleep here. I can’t, won’t leave. Not until this is over. But you’ll be safer here than you will out there.”

Luan looked at her. He was Geneva’s age, maybe older. He stood.

“It’s not just us. There are more—there were more, but there are still at least forty people. Can you feed us all?”

Geneva had food. The Selphids had food, rather. They’d brought it with them and provided a lot of the supplies she needed. She hesitated, and then nodded. She wasn’t sure, but she had only one answer in her heart.

“Only people from our world, though. I can’t ask the people with me to guard more than that. Luan, Ken, Aiko…I don’t know if you’ll be safer here than in your company, to tell you the truth. I don’t have a company, and I don’t dare leave this area.”

They nodded. Luan stood and looked towards the sky.

“We’ve got to go back.”

“Will you be safe going back? I could ask Calectus to—”

“We will be fine. I am a [Negotiator] and we have a flag. A white one.”

Ken reassured Geneva, although she wanted to be the one to do that to him. He was pale, as was Aiko and Luan. They’d just seen their friends killed and now Geneva was handing them a hard choice. They looked at her. Aiko bowed and so did Ken. Luan nodded.

Then they were gone, leaving Geneva alone. Only, she was never alone. Okasha had heard the entire thing.

At that moment, Geneva couldn’t have cared less.




“What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“I do.”

Ken looked at Luan as they found their way back to camp. Luan’s face was set. He looked at Ken and Aiko.

“I’m going to go with Geneva. I can’t do this, guys. I can’t—can’t go out there and keep wondering if I’ll die the next time a patrol thinks I’m an enemy. I nearly died once. I won’t risk my life to clean up after a war. I don’t know if you’ll come with me, but I’m sorry. I’ve made up my mind.”

The two Japanese college students blinked up at Luan. Ken and Aiko shared a look. Aiko was the first to speak.

“I…don’t want to ever stab a dead body again!”

“Me neither.”

Ken felt his entire body resonating with Luan’s statement. He took a breath.

“I will go. And I hope—I hope the others will come too.”





Daly raised his head and shook it. Ken saw the motion, recognized it, and still didn’t comprehend.

“No? Why not?”

“I’m not going, Ken. Even if this [Doctor]’s from our world—I’m going to stay in the company.”

He was sitting by the fire, somber, and he’d been alone until Ken and Luan had come to talk with him. None of the others were in the mood to speak, but Daly’s decision stunned Ken. Luan sat next to Daly, eyes on his face.

“Are you worried about being safe?”

“Not that. I just don’t think leaving the company’s a good idea.”

“Daly, what we saw this morning—”

The young man from Australia swore and turned to Luan, eyes overly bright.

“I know what we saw. But the way me and the rest of us figure it—we don’t have a choice. We signed on to be soldiers, and if we desert now, we’re stuck in the same boat.”

“Geneva says she can protect us—”

“Maybe she can, maybe she can’t. That’s not the point!”

Daly raked his fingers through his blonde hair. His hands were shaking, but his voice was more controlled when he spoke.

“We may not like what happened, but every bloody bastard out there is higher level than we are. The Captain is right. This is the safest way to level up and learn how to fight. So long as we don’t try to run.”

“So what? So you’ll all gain levels fighting. And then what? Will you join up as a soldier? Keep working here?”

Luan folded his arms. Daly shrugged.

“I haven’t thought that far ahead. No one has. But if we don’t have a way to defend ourselves, what’s to stop us from getting shot? Or getting killed like Johanas and the rest?”

He looked meaningfully at Luan as he said that. Ken didn’t know what to say, but Luan shook his head.

“Daly, after what I’ve seen, I don’t think any amount of levels or Skills or weapons is enough. Fighting in these wars, with these companies…if I can help it, I’d rather not fight at all. I have something to live for. Someone to live for.”

Someone? Ken looked at Luan, and then at Daly as the other young man shook his head.

“I guess that’s the difference in the way we see things. Some days it’s fine to run. Other days you’ve gotta buckle down and fight.”

And that was it. He refused to go, and told Ken and Luan the same went for the rest.

“We’re sticking together on this. Each one of us. We’re a team, and a lot of the others are decent sorts. The Centaurs are right bastards, the Dullahans are stuck up, and the Lizardfolk love killing cute things, but they’re all like us. We’re a company and we’re not going to abandon each other.”

There was something wonderful about what he said, and also…Ken felt drawn to what Daly was saying, but he shared Luan’s horror. And he agreed with Luan. It was one thing to risk his life, but for this? To haul dead bodies away so more people could fight? That was senseless to Ken, more than the call of staying with the company was.

Ken and Luan didn’t just ask Daly of course. Aiko was asking some of the girls she knew, but the answer was the same. The others wouldn’t join up with Geneva, who they’d never met. They were going to stick together, to keep working. They’d been shaken by the executions of that morning, and they had seen the truth in what Quallet had told them. Only one of them had died so far while clearing the undead. But those who had fled had died. True, Johanas and the others had only been a fraction of the American group, but no one, including Ken, thought the others had survived.

In a strangely perverse way, the executions had brought the rest of the Humans, the rest of Gravetender’s Fist closer together. They were a proper company now. Only Luan, Aiko, and Ken couldn’t be part of it.

“We’ll be watching for you lot. If you survive the fighting…well, we’ll see then, won’t we? Watch how you go.”

Daly shook Ken’s hand, as did the others. That left Ken, Luan, and Aiko to march up to Quallet’s tent as night began to fall. Ken wondered if they were doing the right thing. Johanas and the others had fled without a word. What would Quallet do if Ken told him to his face that he wanted to quit?

Stare. That was the answer. The [Mercenary Captain] was getting ready for the night’s work. Now he turned and stared at the three.

“If you go, you’ll be deserters. You saw what happened to deserters this morning. Why risk it? And why tell me?”

“Because we want to be honest about it.”

Luan met Quallet’s eye. The Captain eyed him back and nodded to the forest.

“So you’ll just run off and pray you don’t get spotted by a patrol? Because if you do—”

“No. we will go to the [Doctor].”

Quallet paused.

“The [Doctor]? Why—”

“We know her. She’s…from where we are.”

The Captain frowned. He looked at Ken, then at Aiko, and then Luan. But it was Ken his eyes settled on, and Quallet remembered his promise to give Ken a bonus. He shook his head.

“I won’t stop you. But if you leave my company, you’ll be on your own. That [Doctor] seems competent, but she has no company. She’s got a handful of soldiers protecting her, and she won’t have enough healing potions to do her job forever. Not at the way this war is going. What makes going with her better? She’s one person. A single [Doctor]. Alone.

“She’s not alone.”

Aiko was the one who said it. Ken and Luan closed their mouths and looked at her. She stared at Quallet, eyes still red from crying, but resolute. She spoke carefully, forming the words in English.

“She is not alone. We are like her. We are not…not soldiers. She is like us. She does not kill.”

“Neither does my company. We fight undead. We dispose of the dead. What makes her work any different from the work we do?”

“She saves lives.”

Luan spoke. Quallet opened his mouth, and then Ken interrupted him. He looked at Quallet, and a slight suspicion made him speak.

“Captain Quallet. May I ask a question?”


“You are a smart captain. You are experienced as a leader. You heard us arguing. So…”

Ken hesitated. He looked at Quallet.

“…Did you tell the Dullahans that our friends would try to run away last night?”

Aiko gasped. Luan’s eyes widened. Quallet just stared at Ken, and then he turned away. Ken stared at his back, and then he walked out of the tent.


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

1.03 D

There was a rite of passage among medical students, although it wasn’t publically talked about. And that was that in many graduate programs, regardless of whether you were studying to be a physician or just aimed to practice general medicine, it used to be mandatory to take a class in which you would dissect a human cadaver.

Geneva had known she’d have to open someone up when she’d first enrolled as a medical student. She’d dreaded the moment, feared the impartiality of it. Then had come the moment when she cut open the gray, lifeless body. It had felt solemn, and she remembered the classroom being hushed as the students around her felt themselves taking a step into a world many would never dream of entering.

They cut open a body, dissected it, identified organs, and within a few days, felt used to it. That was the point. No amount of illustrations in books or lectures could give you the hands-on experience of touching a real body, and that was what a surgeon or specialist needed most of all.


Of course, now medical programs were cutting back on using human corpses, due to lack of time and the expense of obtaining ones for medical students to practice on. And yet, therein lay the irony of surgery, of Geneva’s profession.

To become a great surgeon, one capable of taking on the hardest challenges, one had to practice. But no one trusted a new surgeon. And yet, a surgeon had to operate, and thus, make mistakes to grow experienced.

In short, it always came back to the same contradiction: a surgeon grew from the patients who died under her care.

It wasn’t always like that of course. That was a harsh generalization. In another hospital, there would be veterans, older doctors, and other surgeons on standby who could help out in an emergency. But part of Geneva had wondered, idly, while she listened to her professors lecture her whether experience was all a doctor needed.

The average surgeon took on many operations each year. Hundreds. But they also followed a strict set of rules, having to clean themselves, create sterile operating environments—all to make sure their patients had the best chance possible.

In wars, medicine was not so nice. During the Second World War, doctors had to see to patients without the luxury of a schedule, or even a full team of trained helpers. Soldiers would come in all at once, sometimes by the hundreds, and it would force the helpless doctors and medics to make the hardest choices. They’d have to balance who would live and who would die, and who would be easier to save. They could save one life while ten more passed, or save ten and let the one die.

Perhaps those doctors had been the best. They would have operated countless times each day. Did that confer some sort of instinct? Some innate sense of the body and how to save it? Geneva had idly wondered about that as a student. Now—she knew. And the answer was simple, painful.

No. After a while, all the bodies began to look the same. The living—but especially the dead.

“Beginning the incision. Make sure the patient is still asleep and let me know if they wake up!”

Geneva snapped as she raised a scalpel and sliced into the wounded Dullahan’s chest. The blade she was using delved past the shattered chest plate of the Dullahan’s armor—a small mercy or she would have had to saw through it, taking precious time. Now Geneva cut into the thick skin that was the last layer of protection between the Dullahan’s internal organs and the outside world.

The two [Soldiers] who stood in the tent nodded. They were used to the work, and both were ready to grab the Dullahan if he woke. They stared grimly at the broken and bleeding insides of the Dullahan, and then away. They’d volunteered for this, and respected Geneva for what she could do.

But few people could look at what a surgeon did to the body without flinching. Geneva’s left hand was a blur as it cut, exposing a bloodied mess of organs beneath.

“Internal bleeding. I need a healing potion!”

Her right hand shot out and grabbed a bowl of liquid. Geneva carefully administered it, watching as the organs, muscles, and tissue that had been battered and torn by the mace slowly closed.

Healing potions. Faster and better than anything in her world. Geneva eyed the rest of the wounded site, and saw nothing wrong.


Her hands moved with experienced speed. Her left shot out and grabbed a curved needle, already threaded in preparation for this event. The other found a pair of forceps.

The [Soldiers] in the tent turned back to watch as Geneva began to sew up the Dullahan’s mended chest. This they could appreciate, and there was something miraculous about how fast Geneva moved. Her left hand was a blur as it stitched up the flesh of the Dullahan’s chest, closing the long incision in moments. Her right hand moved slower by comparison, carefully grasping the flesh and bringing it together to be sewn up.

And then it was done. Geneva stepped back from the closed flesh and grabbed the bowl of healing potion. She sprinkled a few drops of it over the stitches, and watched the wound heal.

Partially. That was all she could ration. Geneva put the bowl back and found the Dullahan’s shattered chest plate. She couldn’t fix his armor, but it was important to them that it stayed together.

“Wash this. Make sure you give him the lecture about keeping the wound clean.”

She spoke to one of the [Soldiers], another Dullahan with dull grey iron armor. She nodded and after locking her head into place on her shoulders, carried the Dullahan off of Geneva’s operating table and out of the room.

Done. Geneva sagged for a second, feeling the tension of the operation fade away. She spoke, although there was no one else in the tent but her.

“That was a relief. I thought a piece of the armor might have been stuck in his chest.”

There was no one there to hear that could be seen. But a voice replied, inaudible except in Geneva’s head. Because it was speaking in her head.

“If it had been, what would you have done?”

“Removed it. Hoped the healing potion solved the worst of the issues—sutured what I could. Time was of the essence, Okasha. If I had the ability to do blood transfusions, I’d have more time. But I haven’t been able to fix up a proper needle and pump mechanism.”

“I see. Should I see if there are any ways to construct such a thing later?”

Geneva shook her head slightly, speaking to the thing listening to her. In her. The Selphid named Okasha was in her body, controlling her right arm. She could probably feel the vibrations in Geneva’s vocal chords before the words left her mouth.

“Don’t bother. The healing potions replenish lost fluids, and they’re faster. It’s better to use them rather than try and maintain a blood bank, especially in this heat.”

Okasha didn’t reply, but Geneva felt an acknowledgement, a gentle twitch that ran through her body’s nervous system. It wasn’t unpleasant; the opposite, in fact. But it would have terrified her to experience such a thing, to know someone was sharing her body a few months ago.

Now she didn’t react. Geneva had long since made her peace with what had happened. Although there were things to get used to.

Like how her body would move. Geneva found herself walking over to a bench in the corner of her impromptu operating area, sitting down. She hadn’t intended any of it, but Okasha had taken over and Geneva hadn’t tried to fight. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she did, to be honest. Okasha had never brought the subject up. She was a friend, an assistant on the operating table, and she worried about Geneva. Too much, sometimes.

“You should rest. You’ve been awake for over a day now.”

Geneva knew that. She felt the exhaustion in her body, but she shook her head anyways.

“I’m fine, Okasha. I need to stay awake.”

“But if you don’t sleep—”

“I’ll sleep after this lot. I promise. Just give me a moment.”

Okasha fell silent. Geneva sighed, and lowered her head. The Dullahan would live. He wouldn’t fight for a day at least—she’d keep him here in the field hospital she ran, until the convoy arrived at night to take him back to his army. Then, depending on whether they decided to treat him with more healing potions, he might be fighting tomorrow.

The living came to be saved, and then went back to kill or be killed the next day. Geneva had struggled with that knowledge, wondering if she was doing the right thing. She didn’t know. She only knew that she had sworn an oath. If there was a life she could save, she did.

There was no one else who could. In Baleros, a continent that bled, Geneva was the only [Doctor]. The only true one, at any rate.

She wondered, sometimes, what those brave souls laboring to save lives had felt during the war. Did they fight for every life, clinging to it, fighting to fix the horrible things bullets and humans could do to each other? Or did the feeling of despair slowly sink in? Did the endless tide of bodies crush them?

She didn’t know. She couldn’t ask. Geneva sat quietly in the tent, hearing the sounds of battle in the distance, screams of the wounded around her. In a few moments the tent flap would open, and another wounded person would come in. Another life for her to fight for. But right now she just sat. She was tired, exhausted.

Geneva Scala, a Level 26 [Doctor], sat with Okasha humming a quiet melody in her ears, transmitting the song into Geneva’s mind by projecting the sound directly into the inner ear. It was a soothing melody, and Geneva closed her eyes. If she slept for a minute, Okasha would make sure her body stayed upright.

She was so tired. She would have loved to rest, but there was always someone crying out. There was always a war. This was her third battlefield since coming to this world. Geneva had been working non-stop since then. Saving lives. Fighting.

She couldn’t remember what it was like to smile.




Kenjiro Murata knew he was no hero. He was not a warrior, although he’d been in a few fights growing up. But he wasn’t someone who liked to fight, and he preferred to defuse tense situations rather than escalate them.

That was Ken’s problem. He wasn’t many things. Some people were good at everything. Not Ken. He wasn’t a top athlete although he liked running on the track. He’d never placed that high on exams, and if he was honest, he wasn’t good-looking. Not that he had an unattractive face! But none of those attributes could define him in a meaningful way.

In truth, there was only one thing Ken was good at, and that was understanding other people. He liked meeting people. He liked talking to people he didn’t know—especially foreigners.

It wasn’t that he was that social, either. Ken would have agreed that he was no social butterfly—if he’d understood what that phrase meant in English. He just…liked other people. He liked other cultures, studying about other nations. He dreamed of travelling, which is why he had rejoiced at a chance to visit Australia as part of his university’s foreign exchange program.

Ken wasn’t that good at learning languages so he felt awkward, but he’d been excited to travel to Australia and talk with everyone he could. That was why he’d wanted to be a businessman, preferably someone who travelled abroad and negotiated business deals in foreign countries.

It was his big dream, the thing that Ken had aimed for ever since high school. He knew his grades weren’t the best, but he’d persevered. He wasn’t excellent at speaking English—he wasn’t gifted, but he kept practicing. If he had a talent, Ken would have said he was good at observing people, learning how they acted.

This is what he saw.


It came towards him, making a horrible scratchy sound through its damaged vocal chords. It was a zombie, the weakest of the undead. But it was also a Centaur, and so it was terrifying for other reasons.

“Get around it!”

Someone shouted. Luan ran past Ken and bashed the Centaur’s back left leg. It stumbled, and Ken dodged away from its swinging arms. The Centaur, tall as any horse—taller, in fact since it had the human torso on top—twisted, and the dead female’s head focused on Luan.


Ken heard the call and he ran forwards at the same time three others did. He cut at the Centaur’s side as Aiko speared it from one end and two Dullahans cut at it with swords. Luan ran forwards and delivered the final strike—a hammer blow to the Centaur’s head. He alone was tall enough to hit her there, and the Centaur, body too broken to move, finally fell.

Ken backed away, shaking, sweaty. He waited for the Centaur to move as Aiko pulled her spear back and stabbed it in the head, but it didn’t. It was finally dead. He breathed out and heard a voice.

“Everyone okay? Hey, you two good? Ken?”

Luan was walking around, checking on everyone. As leader of their small group, one patrol of the Gravetender’s Fist company, he felt the need to make sure they were well. Ken raised a shaking hand and gave him a thumbs up.

“Good work, mate.”

Luan raised his fist and Ken turned his gesture into a weak fist-bump. The tall South African man grinned at him and turned to the Dullahans.

“You two good?”

They were. Everyone was good, even Aiko. She stepped away from the corpse as Luan turned to it. Ken heard him groan.

“Now we’ve got to drag this back to the pile. Damn it. We should have lured her closer.”

He gestured, and the five gathered around the Centaur. Grimly, each one reached down and began to haul the body away. It was horrible. Ken and the other Humans had gloves and the Dullahans had gauntleted hands, part of the armor that covered their entire body, but the stench and smell was overpowering.

Not to mention the Centaur wasn’t entirely whole. A part of her fell off as she was being dragged—Ken looked away and tried not to gag.

Perhaps it would have been easier if they cut her up and carried the bits to one of the corpse piles that would be burned come dawn. But neither Ken nor the other new recruits in Gravetender’s Fist had the stomach for it. So they dragged the body, swearing as they crossed the uneven ground and mud, heading towards a place where a pair of armed soldiers with lanterns stood looking in every direction.

“Hey there!”

“Hey! It’s us!”

Luan called out as the two soldiers spotted their group. He didn’t need to say anything else. He just needed to reassure the soldiers that they were alive and not undead. The lantern that Aiko carried helped, but Ken had learned to be wary of every moving shape as they worked.

Their group deposited the corpse at the pile of bodies. It stank. Flies buzzed and Ken had to back away fast or vomit again. Not that his stomach was full—he’d been told not to eat anything before nightfall, and this was why.

“Big one.”

One of the soldiers commented and Luan grimaced.

“She got up right when we came by. Scared us all to death.”

“Be grateful she wasn’t a Ghoul. Only thing worse than a Centaur Ghoul is a Dullahan one.”

The soldiers called out as Luan and the group trudged away. Ken glanced at the two Dullahans, one male, one female, but neither reacted to the statement. Probably because it was fact. A Zombie Dullahan was a nightmare to fight, mainly because of their armor and the fact that their head might be lying on the ground, making putting them down again that much harder. You had to batter them to pieces unless you found the head.

“Let’s go back. It’s this way, I think. Right, Aiko?”


Their group trudged back the way they’d come. They had an area to cover, and the zombie Centaur was only one of the bodies they had to haul back to the pile to be burned. It was a horrible, foul job, and Ken hated it. But he had signed up and so he had to work.

This was Gravetender’s Fist. A suppression company enlisted to dispose of the undead and corpses that were the natural byproduct of a conflict involving two companies, the Razorshard Armor company, and the Roving Arrow company.

Ken’s unit, along with everyone else in the company, had a simple job. They went out, found dead bodies, collected them into a pile, and burned them so undead wouldn’t spawn from them. They killed any undead that had already risen, and then got off the battlefield before the two sides began fighting again.

This was their third night doing it. Was it better the third time?

Yes. A bit. The third night was better than the first, if only because there was no shock and horror. The fear was still there, almost overwhelming the senses in the torch-lit darkness, but Ken and the others could operate under it now.

“Body pile!”

Aiko called out to her left and Ken, Luan, and the two Dullahans stopped dead in their tracks. They moved towards Aiko and spotted a group of corpses. They approached warily, weapons at the ready. A pile of bodies could be burying a zombie or something worse. Aiko stepped forwards and stabbed the pile repeatedly, but nothing moved.

“Let’s take them back.”

Luan sighed and Ken reached down to tug at the armor of one fallen soldier. He paused as he saw a Human face in the lantern light, twisted with fear. It was staring right at him.


Aiko’s voice snapped Ken’s head up. He saw her looking at him. He shook his head.


He began to pull at one leg, as Aiko gingerly took an arm. They dragged the body away and Luan bent.

“Hold up. The sword’s here.”

He pulled it away before Ken and Aiko dragged the body any further. Luan went around collecting armor, weapons, that could be used, while the Dullahans dragged one body. Ken and Aiko resumed pulling their burden.

Back towards the pile. It was most efficient that way, apparently. Burning each body where it had fallen was too hard, and it carried a risk of spreading fire. So the Gravetender’s Fist company had designated areas where piles of corpses were collected, to be disposed of later.

The pile Ken and the others were assigned to was taller than he was, and it was one of many. It took hundreds of people hours of non-stop work to collect the bodies and burn them before the next day began. It felt meaningless because the next day the soldiers would begin slaughtering each other as soon as it was light, but the work was necessary.

Bad things appeared if the bodies weren’t laid to rest. Ken saw one of those things later that night. He heard a scream that rose above the buzzing of insects, the voices in the distance, and the pounding of his heart.


He and the others froze in place. Ghoul. One of the stronger, faster variants of undead. They were rarer, but far deadlier than a zombie. And the call had come from nearby.

“What should we do?”

One of the Dullahans looked around, her hands tight on her sword hilt. She was wide-eyed. She’d seen a Ghoul before, seen what they could do. Ken’s stomach twisted with fear. He’d seen too.

Luan’s voice was steady. He motioned them to stand in a circle, as they’d been instructed to do.

“Stay together. Watch for anything—”

“Look! The Captain!”

Aiko cried out. Ken saw their company’s captain, Quallet Marshhand, sprinting in the direction of the scream. He shouted, and Ken saw a blur of movement heading towards him. Quallet slashed out at it with his axe, incredibly fast. For a moment his form was obscured, and then Ken and the others saw him hacking at something on the ground. The chaos ended.

The Ghoul was dead.

“Back to work!”

Quallet shouted at all of the people who’d stopped, his voice reaching far across the valley. Ken felt a hand on his shoulder and Luan nodded.

“You heard him. More corpses.”

That was life. Ken slowly began to move forwards, shoulders aching, sweat and insects fighting for space on his body. He kept dragging bodies towards the pile until he heard a horn call, and hurried back towards the gleaming flag, illuminated by magic and lighting up the area around it. As the sun broke over the hills around the valley, Quallet led his weary company back towards the neutral ground where they could rest and sleep.

Another day done. Countless more to come.




When he wasn’t on duty, which lasted the whole night, Ken slept. He woke up past midday like the others, found food waiting for him, and ate the unpalatable rations in silence. Then he glanced at the sun.

It was falling fast due to the season being allegedly winter. Ken had already learned to hate that fact: it meant he had to work more and night would come sooner. But for a few precious hours, he was free to stay within the neutral zone his company had been allotted. He could chat with other members of Gravetender’s Fist or the other suppression companies, scrub himself with dirt—water being far too precious, unless it rained—gamble for food with dice, squat in a latrine if he needed to relieve himself, or go back to sleep.

Small things. But Ken would have gladly squatted over the insect-covered pits in the ground for hours rather than spend five minutes hauling corpses. Well, maybe an hour for every ten minutes.

Instead of going over to where the people from his world, the Humans of various nationalities, mostly American, Australian, and European countries, were talking and sitting amongst themselves (or having sex in one of the tents, which had bothered Ken and Aiko when they’d heard about it—and heard it happening), Ken took a chance and went over to talk with another group that sat by a fire, talking amongst themselves.

The Lizardfolk, one of the main races inhabiting Baleros, looked up as one as Ken approached. He smiled and waved at them, which was received well, because they instantly waved him over.

“Human! Do you need something? Is it orders from Captain Marshhand?”

Some called out to Ken as he hesitantly sat by the fire, trying to smile, to project sociability. To Ken’s knowledge, this was the first time anyone from his group had tried sitting with the Lizardfolk. They’d chatted of course, but never for long. It had always been—what was the word? Awkward.

And Ken had an idea why.

“No I am not here with orders. I would just like to ah, talk.”


Some of the Lizardfolk immediately laughed and crowded around Ken, in a moment he found himself sitting by lots of scaly bodies. The Lizardfolk of Baleros were thin and reptilian, with long tails and colorful neck frills of flesh. They looked like they had odd versions of a lion’s mane—each Lizardfolk had a very colorful frill, which often contrasted with the rest of their scales.

“So why do you want to talk to us, Human? What is your name?”

Ken found himself looking at a blue-scaled Lizardgirl with deep red neck frills, bordering on purple. He knew her.

“You are Quexa, yes? I am Kenjiro Murata. I am very pleased to meet you.”

“Oh! You were assigned to my pile last night! Did you hear about the Ghoul? It attacked my group—nearly got me!”

Quexa grinned at him, her red neck frills opening and closing as she gestured to some other Lizardfolk.

“I thought I was going to die—I tried to hit it with magic, but it was too fast! Then Captain Quallet came and cut its head open! Lucky! You look different from the other Humans, you and that girl. Are you two having sex?”

Ken’s eyes widened and he tried to reply to Quexa in order. Lizardfolk had an odd way of talking. They’d ask and reply to multiple questions and statements in the same sentence. To fit in, Ken tried to do the same.

“I am very glad you are okay. I ah, am from Japan. It is a different country than the other, so I look different. I and Aiko are not having sex.”

Quexa’s eyes brightened in appreciation and Ken saw other Lizardfolk nodding as they listened to his scatter-shot response. He smiled inwardly. Yes, this was how you talked to Lizardfolk! He was right! The mood around him grew more intimate and Quexa scooted closer, a sure sign he was being accepted.

“Oh, I was asking because you look the same. And a lot of you are having sex! Every day you Humans have sex! Aren’t you worried about getting pregnant? Or do you all have birth charms? Can we borrow them? They must be very effective!”

“I uh, do not now about birth charms. Many of my…my friends are very worried, so they have sex. I uh, do not know about being pregnant. I hope they do not become pregnant, because we have no charms.”


“Humans are so reckless!”

“Are you interested in trying it with us?”

The Lizardfolk practically jumped on Ken, asking questions, laughing, speaking in a jumble with no clear leader. As was their way. Ken had watched them carefully before this moment, and he thought he understood Lizardfolk. He had observed how they interacted. So they could understand him. So he could understand them. So they could be…friends?

The first thing Kenjiro had observed was that of the three non-Human species in Gravetender’s Fist, the Lizardfolk liked to talk the most. In fact, they were what he would call おしゃべり, or ‘chatterboxes’ as some of the Americans called them. Only, that applied to their entire species, not just one in particular.

It wasn’t hard to observe the other races—Ken had served with them for three days already, on top of the time he’d been marching with them. And one thing Ken had noticed was that Lizardfolk stuck together. They liked being part of a group and, this was crucial, seemed to decide things en-masse.

They were also uncomfortable being the odd ones out, which is why Ken had noticed that every time a group of people from his world came over to talk to a few, the Lizardfolk had seemed edgy. It was only when they were in greater numbers than the outsiders that they seemed happy to talk.

They didn’t like being outnumbered. But when they weren’t, they were as social as could be, which is why Ken had chosen to speak with them, rather than Dullahans or Centaurs first. He wanted to, well, he just wanted to be friendly with them.

Ken believed in being friends, in forging relationships. It was a part of his culture—making strong ties and getting to know people was how the business world in Japan worked. It was everything, and Ken was trying to apply that idea here. It was all he knew, and they were all on the same side, right? All the more reason to be friends. Especially because Ken knew nothing of this world.

And Lizardfolk liked to talk.

“You’ve never met a Lizardperson? Ever?”

Quexa had moved rapidly past the horribly awkward and intimate talk of sex and was quizzing Ken about where he had come from. He couldn’t answer concretely, but she seemed happy enough to explain her people to him.

“We’re Lizardpeople! Only, you knew that. We’re the biggest species on Baleros—there’s Dullahans and Centaurs of course, but we have more sex than they do. We’re sort of like Drakes, if you’ve met Drakes, although they hate it when we say that. We’re not related, you know, although we look sort of the same.”

“Ah, yes. I know Dullahans and Centaurs. But there are other species, yes?”


Quexa laughed at Ken and the other Lizardfolk immediately shouted out names of species.

“Ever seen a Selphid?”

“What about a Fraerling? Ever stepped on one?”

“How about a Gazer?”

“Seen a Naga? One of our people?”

Ken hadn’t. Quexa pointed a Selphid out for him, and he saw one of the pale-white soldiers standing in the Untimely Demise company, talking with a Centaur. The Selphid had a Lizardperson’s body, but the body was clearly…dead. The scales were pale, and there was a bloodless wound on the side of the Lizardperson’s body that wasn’t bleeding. Ken shivered and Quexa noticed.

“Don’t worry! Selphids don’t steal living bodies. Or they’re not supposed to. They did that in the past, you know? Only, now if they do it we kill them. So they steal corpses! They live inside them. That’s a Selphid. I’d show you a Gazer, but I don’t think you’d see many in a Centaur-led army or a Dullahan one. They keep to themselves, mainly.”

The conversation diverged into a lecture about how weird Selphids were, with other Lizardfolk adding in details and stories.

“You know they never fight? Selphids. Even if they’re hired on opposite sides, if they meet they just bow to each other and won’t do battle, no matter what! I think that’s because there are so few. Well, we killed a lot of them a long time ago.”

“Hey, are any of your people [Mages]? You have a lot of shining magical artifacts. We see them, though you keep hiding them! What do they do?”

Pressured by the Lizardfolk, Ken tried to explain about the iPhones, computers, tablets, and other electronic devices some of the Humans from his world had carried. He showed his dead iPhone to the Lizardfolk and they were all over it, poking and prodding and vocally disappointed when it didn’t work.

Quexa handed the iPhone back to Ken. It had been dead ever since he’d come to Baleros—he’d forgotten to charge it and had been looking for a charger back in the Australian airport when he’d been taken. Aiko didn’t have hers, and neither did Luan.

“You should get that fixed! I bet a [Repair] spell would do it. I’d cast it, but I don’t know the spell.”

“Ah. And you are a [Mage]?”

She shook her head.

“I’m a [Sorcerer]. It’s not the same as the [Mage] class, you know. We cast magic by thinking about it real hard. Mages learn spells, but us [Sorcerers] are too lazy. We can’t use big spells unless we’re really high-level, but we don’t have to study. Cool, right?”

“Yes, very!”

Ken tried to be as friendly as possible. After an hour of rapid-talk his head was spinning, so he got up and politely excused himself.

“I am very glad to meet you all. I hope we can talk soon, and that you are all safe this night. Thank you very much for greeting me.”

He bowed to them, making the Lizardfolk cry out farewells and warmly wave him off. Satisfied, Ken left the group and heard them continue chattering behind his back.

“See? I told you some of them were nice.”

“Did you hear his accent? I wonder where he’s from.”

“What about the shining things? You didn’t ask where they got them—”

Ken made his way back to the Humans and explained to Luan and Aiko what he’d done. The other Humans clustered around him, and soon they were going over to the Lizardfolk—in smaller groups. Chatter started up, and soon the Lizardpeople were comfortable enough to talk with Humans on their own. Ken felt accomplished, and then felt his happiness drain away as the sun set.

The valley was filled with bodies as Quallet ordered everyone to take up arms and march down into the darkness. He carried the flag of Gravetender’s Fist, a fist shooting out of soil emblazoned on cloth that shone brightly in the dark. It was one of the precautions the suppression companies took. They carried bright lights and waved shining banners so neither army would look at them as enemies.

That was the fourth night.




On the fifth day, there was beer. Ken heard about it as soon as he woke up, and found a mug filled with a frothy orange liquid shoved into his hands by one of the Americans.

His name was Johanas. He explained to Ken, face flushed, already clearly intoxicated. Ken leaned back a bit as Johanas excitedly talked.

“One of the guys traded a flashlight to him for a ton of beer! Hey, did you know that you can recharge all of our stuff with magic? It turns out if you cast [Repair] on something, the batteries get recharged too!”

He looked very happy at the news. Ken was happy too—but reservedly so. He appreciated drinking as much as anyone else, but not, it seemed, as much as the Americans. Some were under twenty one, which was apparently the drinking age in America. So many of the young men and women from America were drinking a lot—too much, in Ken’s opinion, to actually enjoy the experience.

Some were already throwing up.

“Thank you for telling me. Where did you buy the—beer—though?”

Ken stared at the orange liquid. It wasn’t like any beer he’d ever seen, but apparently it was a popular drink in Baleros. Johanas pointed north, towards another group sharing the neutral zone.

“See those guys? The [Merchants]? They’re…what, war vendors? Yeah, that’s what they’re called. They’ll sell to anyone for the right price.”

Ken did indeed know about the war vendors, opportunistic [Merchants] who travelled with heavy escorts to battlefields to supply armies in need of extra potions, arms, magical artifacts, and so on. And apparently, beer as well.

He spotted one of the [Merchants], and saw to his surprise a serpentine form, a good seven feet high, glittering gold and red scales that ran from a long and powerful tail up into a humanoid torso with two arms and a serpentine head. The Naga had long fins on the back of his head, like a Lizardperson’s frills. And that was because…

Ken stared hard at the [Merchant], enough so that both he and Johanas noticed. The Naga turned, saw Ken looking, and waved at him. Ken kept staring.

“Dude, don’t stare.”

Johanas tugged him away, but Ken shook his head. He deliberately scrutinized the Naga from shining head to toe, noting how the Naga wore clothes only on his upper half, leaving his serpentine lower body free. He was very flashy, and his scales and clothing shone. He had small jewels embedded in the fabric!

“Hey, he’s looking at us.”

The slightly drunk and sobering Johanas looked worried, but Ken was not. Another aspect of Lizardfolk culture went into his staring.

“I think they do not mind. How can I say…? They like to be acknowledged.”


The other young man gave Ken a skeptical look, but Ken’s theory was proven true in a few moments. Far from taking offense at Ken’s obvious study of his body, the Naga instead grinned. He twisted his body around, showing off his serpentine features much to the approval of the Lizardfolk watching him.

“He is one of the Lizardfolk, I think.”

“What? Him? But he looks nothing like them!”

Johanas was astonished. Ken nodded hesitantly.

“That is what they said. I think they turn into him. Into Nagas. Sometimes.”

The American young man stared at him. Ken turned his attention away from the Naga and shrugged. Johanas turned his head and then shook it, looking disoriented.

“Weird as fuck, man. I’ll, uh, I’ll see if the Lizards want to party, then. We have a lot of booze.”

So saying, he went over to the Lizardpeople. They were instantly on their feet and headed towards the place where the Americans were drinking, and Ken saw Johanas approach a group of Dullahans next.

Watch. Ken’s eyes narrowed slightly and he forgot the mug in his hands as he watched Johanas approach a group of five Dullahans. They had been talking quietly amongst themselves, but went silent as Johanas came over.

This is what Ken noticed. Of the five Dullahans, three had wooden armor, crude, seemingly hewn from trees. The other two though had metal armor. One looked like iron plate, the other, a type of scale mail. The other Dullahans seemed to defer to them.

It was about the armor. Ken was no expert, but the Dullahan with scale mail armor probably had the more expensive equipment, or body, than the one with iron armor. And that mattered. He watched as Johanas stumbled over and heard the young man’s voice.

“Hey, any of you lot want to drink? We’ve got free beer!”

He didn’t address the Dullahan in scale armor, nor the one with iron armor. And Ken knew immediately that was a mistake. The Dullahan in scale armor narrowed her eyes, and the Dullahan that Johanas had addressed, a wide-eyed, very young male in cheap wood armor, looked at her first before silently shaking his head.

“What about you then? Want to hang out?”

Ken winced as Johanas only now addressed the Dullahan in scale armor. She froze up. She looked irritated, furrowing her brows slightly. Johanas didn’t notice—Dullahan features changed only slightly and he was too drunk to see. She replied curtly and he stumbled away, shrugging.

The entire group of Dullahans had declined as one. None of them would go drink with the Americans, although a few Centaurs did drift over for the alcohol.

Ken was looking at the Lizardfolk, whom some of the Americans were unsuccessfully trying to convince to play a game of spin the bottle with, when someone spoke his name.

Ken, what are you doing?

He turned as Aiko approached him, speaking in Japanese. Ken pointed to the Lizardfolk, who were all refusing to play spin the bottle.

They move as one group, you see, Aiko? If you cannot convince them as a whole, none will agree.

Aiko eyed the group of Lizardfolk and shook her head.

So? I think you spend too much time looking at them. Especially the female ones. What about Humans? We’re normal. They’re odd.

Ken felt nettled by the comment. He turned away from Aiko, annoyed. He was trying to understand the other species. They were all in the same company—so what if Lizardpeople looked strange? So what if Dullahans could take their heads off, and Centaurs were half-horse, half-Human? He knew some of the people from his world couldn’t interact with the other species—he noted a girl refusing to go near one of the friendly Lizardfolk. But that wasn’t right.

So what if they are different? We should get to know them better.

He spoke sharply to Aiko. She stomped her foot, exasperated.

We should stick together and work with other people from our world! They are talking each day, and you do not listen!

A lot of the Americans were arguing it out with the Europeans and Australians, Ken knew. Everyone had been appalled at finding out just how horrible their duties were, and it was the Americans especially who wanted a change. But what could they do? He glared at Aiko.

Should I go back and spend more time looking at Luan-san, then?

Her face went red. Ken knew that Aiko had developed a crush on Luan. The South African man was older than everyone else, and he was always optimistic, always taking command. She punched his shoulder and Ken yelped and moved away.


She stormed off. Ken turned back, feeling guilty, and stared at the Centaurs and how they were interacting with the very drunk Americans. He had a theory about them as well, but he was interrupted by Luan.

“Hey Ken, I saw you and Aiko talking. Did you have a fight?”

Ken turned and smiled at Luan. His friend had a mug in one hand as well and was sipping gingerly at it. He made a face as he came to sit by Ken.

“You two in an argument? She looked pretty upset. What was it about?”

Of all the people to ask—no, Luan was the one who kept Aiko and Ken company, who looked out after them. Of course he’d ask. But Ken could say nothing. He bit his lip and tried to respond.

“I ah, how do I say this? I do not think I can tell you. It is not my secret to give away. I am sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Luan grinned at him, and then frowned at his mug.

“Have you tasted this? It’s awful.”


Ken sipped at his drink and recoiled at the taste. The liquid was sour in a very unpleasant way. The Americans didn’t seem to mind the taste, but as Luan observed, they were only trying to get drunk.

“Half of them aren’t allowed to drink in their country. Crazy.”

Ken nodded in agreement. The drinking age in Japan was 20 years, but it wasn’t enforced in any strict sense of the word. In South Africa, it was apparently 18. That only mattered because Ken and Luan had had the chance to drink quite a few times before now. For Americans, it was apparently a lot harder.

“They are enjoying themselves. I am told they traded a flashlight for beer.”

Luan had heard that, and he wasn’t happy about it. He frowned as he took another sip of his drink and nearly spat it back out.

“They shouldn’t have done that. It was a bad idea.”


Ken saw Luan hesitate, and then glance around. No one was nearby to listen—they were either drinking, or trying to ignore the shouting coming from the people who were drinking. Still, Luan lowered his voice.

“That flashlight is very valuable. We don’t have a way to get more, and if we can repair it with magic, it’s too valuable to waste. But those assholes didn’t listen to me, or any of the Germans. They’re playing by their own rules and no one else’s opinion matters.”

“Damn right they are. Fucking bastards.”

Both Ken and Luan jumped. Someone had snuck up behind them. Someone with a class in [Rogue], which he’d gotten from sneaking around the battlefield. A tanned young man with blonde hair and a sword. His name was Daly, and he was from Australia. He put a hand on both Ken and Luan’s shoulders and he leaned in with them.

“You lot talking about the Americans, right? Know anything?”

“Not a thing, mate.”

Luan nodded familiarly with Daly. Perhaps it was because both of them said ‘mate’ that they got along. Or that they came from hot continents. Or…they just got along. Ken gently edged away from Daly. Intimate contact wasn’t exactly something he was at home with.

“Those wankers are up to something, and they won’t tell the rest of what. You heard anything, uh…what’s your names?”

“I’m Luan, this is Ken.”

“Pleased to meet ya. Thought I’d seen you around, but couldn’t remember your names off the top of my head.”

Ken was treated to a firm handshake. Daly squatted down next to them and began to grouse about the American problem with Luan.

“We’re all on the same boat, right? Why the hell are they keeping things secret?”

Luan shook his head as Ken sipped his drink and kept tactfully silent.

“Americans. I think they want to tell us what to do.”

“Yeah, well, since none of them have a nuke shoved down their trousers, I’ll pass on that. We’re in it together and unless they tell us what they’re planning, none of our lot is budging. The work we’re doing is shite, but at least none of us are dying.”

Daly nodded at the group of Australians he was with. There was an even ratio of males and females there, and they were having a conversation with some of the Centaurs, shouting to be heard above the party which was now enveloping all three companies. Gravetender’s Fist, Rot’s Bane, and Untimely Demise. Ken wondered if one of the officers would break up the mayhem, until he saw officer Raeh drinking along with the rest of them.

“Right well, it was good to meet both of ya. I’d love to have a pint with you, but those damned idiots are hogging it all.”

The Australian young man stood up with a groan, and then went off to get something to drink as well. Ken heard him shouting as he approached the group of Americans, who were now singing their national anthem.

“Oi! Stop hogging all the alcohol! Share some, you buggers!”

Someone waved at Daly and he gave them a ‘V’ sign with his fingers that Ken was fairly sure didn’t stand for ‘victory’. Luan laughed as he watched a group of Centaurs finally come over to shout at the partying soldiers to shut up.

Ken turned back to Luan. He hesitated, not knowing where to begin.

“Good friend Luan-san…”

“Call me Luan, yeah?”

“Luan—I have been talking with the others. Lizardfolk, and I was thinking of doing so with the Dullahans and Centaurs, only Aiko does not think it is a good idea.”

He was on familiar enough terms now to call Aiko by her first name, and he was glad that Luan felt he was a friend. Ken certainly considered him one. Luan nodded.

“Talking with them? Sounds good. I can’t get them to talk to me, but you got those Lizardfolk to open up. What’s Aiko’s problem?”

“I think she feels awkward. It is…they are very different, but I think they are like us. Some of the people from our world do not think so. But I—I think they are like us. What do you think?”

Ken held his breath, but Luan just smiled. He tapped his chest as he looked Ken in the eye.

“I was born during Apartheid, good friend Ken. I know about judging people by their skin. I think I should talk with Aiko, and you—should talk with the other species. We are all soldiers, yeah?”


Relieved, Ken grinned at Luan. That was how he found himself heading towards the group of Dullahans that Johanas had failed to invite. They were watching the partying with stony faces, and all of them stared flatly at Ken as he hesitantly approached.

This was different from the Lizardpeople. Ken braced himself. Where the species of Lizardfolk as a whole were cautious but quite open to talk, Dullahans were private. Notably so. They didn’t try to start conversations with people of other species unless it was out of necessity. But Ken thought the real barrier that none of the Humans had understood was the need for formality.

Americans weren’t formal. Europeans and people from Luan’s country…well, Ken didn’t actually know enough about each culture to be sure, but he knew that Japanese culture was very formal. Using the proper honorifics was extremely important in Japan, and it was something people from other countries had little grasp of.

It was like how in English, no one called him Murata-san or Ken-san, which would be more polite. It was all first names, which Ken found awkward at first. But Dullahans…they were slightly Japanese in the way they behaved towards one another.

This is what Ken had seen, from Johanas’ interactions with the Dullahans and other times. Dullahans had a hierarchy in any group, even if it was just between two of them. It was unspoken, but it was there and it shaped every interaction they had. And it was all based on armor.

Every Dullahan had armor. But the type of armor, quality, and materials different on each Dullahan. It was like clothing, only more intimate. It was a reflection of their personality and, Ken now understood, their social standing.

In a group, the Dullahans with the most impressive armor always spoke first, and everyone else deferred to them. It wasn’t just what their armor was made of either; someone with ornate armor was more important than someone with the same material of armor, but less craftsmanship. You had to have an eye for it, but Ken was confident in this case.

He approached the group of five Dullahans as they stared at him warily. They clearly didn’t want to talk, but Ken intended to prove he could show proper respect. That was why he didn’t immediately speak to the closest Dullahan, but rather, to the one with scale armor, the one Johanas had failed to immediately address.

“Please excuse my rude interruption, but I was hoping I could speak with you all.”

The Dullahan woman wearing scale armor blinked as Ken bowed his head towards her. She had placed her head next to her body, and now she grabbed her head and aimed her face at Ken to speak. She hesitated, and then replied.

“What do you wish to say, Human?”

The others looked from her to Ken as he introduced himself.

“I am Kenjiro Murata. I would like to introduce myself to fellow soldiers. May I ask your name?”

Again, he spoke directly towards the Dullahan in scale armor. She nodded after a moment.

“I am Etretta Fulvrie. I greet you, Kenjiro.”

She spoke his name somewhat awkwardly, but Ken pretended not to notice. He nodded towards her and she nodded back. Then Ken turned to look at the Dullahan sitting across from her, the one in iron armor.

There was a flicker of surprise as the Dullahans noticed Ken’s action. The Dullahan in iron armor glanced at Etretta. There was a flicker of approval in her eyes as she nodded slightly at him.

He introduced himself in a gravelly voice. He was named Lethic, and the other three Dullahans introduced themselves, in the order of the quality of their armor, not where they were sitting or their age. Kenjiro hid a smile. He was right!

“What is it you have come to say, Kenjiro Murata?”

“I wish to apologize for my comrade. He does not understand your culture, and he may have offended you. For that I am very sorry.”

Ken spoke to Etretta, and the group at large. He bowed first to Etretta, and then to Lethic. The Dullahans stirred, murmured quietly. Etretta’s eyes were sharp on Ken. She had a very fine sword and she, unlike the others, was an experienced soldier in Gravetender’s Fist.

“Humans often make mistakes. We are used to it. But you think you understand our ways, Kenjiro?”

“I would not say I understand, but I hope to know more. Your people are a very impressive one.”

Ken met Etretta’s eyes for only a moment before looking away. He had a sense that staring at a Dullahan’s head was too intimate. By contrast, staring at their armor was a sign of respect.

Again, his intuition paid off. Etretta cradled her head, growing visibly more relaxed as she and the others rested their heads on the ground or their laps, not holding them stiffly as they did around strangers. Was it a sign that they didn’t think they were in danger?

“I accept your apology, Kenjiro. I would speak with you more if you are willing. Are there still drinks to be had?”

Kenjiro smiled. And after a second, so did Etretta. As it turned out there was still alcohol to be had, although they had to pass by several comatose bodies to get to it.

That night, Quallet swore a blue streak and threatened to thrash anyone too drunk to do their duty awake. It was up to Ken and the other Humans to get the people who’d literally passed out while drinking up and somewhat sober. More than one person was stumbling as they headed out into the night.

The work was still desperate, still dirty, and this time, Kenjiro slipped while carrying a Dullahan’s corpse and found a pile of maggots squirming down his armor. He lost what food he’d eaten, but it was a Dullahan, Lethic, who pulled him up. Quexa burned the maggots off the front of his armor as Luan and Aiko helped get the rest out from under his armor.

Small things. Kenjiro stumbled back into camp too tired to walk properly and reeking of filth. As his head hit the ground he heard a voice in his head. It had a surprise for him.


[Warrior Level 4!]


[Negotiator Class Obtained!]

[Negotiator Level 2!]

[Skill – Amateur Linguist obtained!]

[Skill – Polite Demeanor obtained!]




On the sixth day, Ken watched the fighting. He couldn’t help it. Sometimes he could ignore it, when he was talking with people, watching the different species interact, but other times it was too raw, too visible to ignore.

Each day, the Razorshard Armor company and the Roving Arrow company lined up their forces and sent them into the valley to fight. It wasn’t just like two masses of soldiers charging at each other, though. Both sides kept forces hidden in the trees, or moving around the outsides, clashing, trying to strike the enemy from behind.

Flights of arrows flew from the galloping Centaurs, and they charged into the armored Dullahans with lances and spears that pierced through the heavy armor. The Dullahans brought forth a group of [Mages] that blasted groups of warriors apart until a Centaur charge forced them to fall back as the furious Centaur warriors hacked apart a group of Lizardfolk assigned to guard the [Mages].

It was terrible to watch. Terrible, and yet some part of the fighting called to Ken. Not the blood. Not the limbs and hacked open flesh, but the moments of heroism. They still shook his heart. He saw a [Soldier] hold off three Centaurs with a Skill that made his blade dance and create a whirlwind of metal that held the warriors off until his comrades could join him. He saw a [Mage] raise an emerald shield up and calmly walk through a hail of arrows.

That was the glorious, magical part of the battle. But it was savage and merciless too.

A group of Centaurs had roped a Dullahan commander and were dragging him across the battlefield, howling war cries as the soldiers tried to free their leader. They kept dragging the Dullahan across the broken ground long after he’d stopped moving. When they cut him loose, the Dullahan’s corpse lay there. Ken saw the red streak it had left and turned away.

“Bloody horrific, ain’t it?”

Someone joined Ken as he watched the Centaurs regrouping for another charge. He saw Daly and another Australian girl standing at the edge of the neutral zone and staring down at the carnage. Daly nodded to the young woman.

“This is Paige. Paige, this here is Ken.”


Paige offered her hand and Ken shook it lightly. She stared down at the battlefield, face grim. She didn’t flinch away, though. Everyone from Aiko to Luan had gotten used to far worse, roaming the battlefield at night.

“They line up on the battlefield like gentlemen, and then start tearing each other to bits each night. What kind of place is this?”

“Better than if they fought at night, too.”

Daly shrugged, but Paige frowned.

“I heard someone got killed over by where the Untimely Demise lot were working. Not from an undead—they got shot.”

“By who?”

Both Ken and Daly looked at her in alarm. Paige didn’t know.

“I heard the Captain was asking about it. But I didn’t hear if he got an answer.”

Ken stared down at the valley, where Dullahans were marching towards the Centaurs, driving them back. It was incredible that after each day there were enough soldiers to keep fighting, but apparently both companies were sending their forces into the valley, rather than keep fighting and destroy the landscape around them. They were trying to wear each other down, rather than risk mutual destruction.

“So they’re just gonna keep tearing each other apart until one side starts winning? Sounds like the dumbest war in the world.”

“Sounds like every war.”

Daly and Paige were arguing as Ken excused himself. He’d seen enough bloodshed, and he had to think. Think about his new classes, for one thing.

[Negotiator]. Ken had told Luan and Aiko about it immediately of course, but no one else. He hadn’t known it was a class you could get, but it made sense. And the Skills he’d gotten! [Polite Demeanor] and [Amateur Linguist].

He could understand [Polite Demeanor]—apparently it made him look and smell less like someone who lifted corpses each day. According to Luan and Aiko, it made them want to talk to him more than anyone else, if only to escape the foul odor everyone else in the company had.

But [Amateur Linguist]? That was more intriguing. Ken had tried to use it, but apparently it was a passive Skill rather than one he could use. It seemed to help with his ability to speak English, and perhaps other languages, if he knew them.

The Skill didn’t make his speech that much markedly better, but suddenly Kenjiro could understand words in English without first having to translate them into Japanese. In short, he began to think in English, which made his ability to reply and comprehend what people were saying far easier. Aiko was purely jealous.

“So unfair! I want that Skill!”

Ken was very grateful for it, but he had no idea whether having the [Negotiator] class was a good thing, or whether it was useless. Luan was of the opinion any class was good news, but Kenjiro had heard a girl from the Netherlands saying that one class was best because of…something to do with maximum levels in a video game? Her opinion was being hotly debated among those who played video games.

He didn’t know what he was looking for in camp, aside from a distraction, but Ken found it in an instant when he saw Captain Quallet arguing with a group of Centaurs, one of whom was wearing important-looking armor. Well, arguing was a bit of an understatement. Quallet was bellowing at them.

“We can’t do our jobs if you lot won’t give us access! I don’t—no, I don’t care where your patrols are! The corpses are there, and if you want us to get rid of them, you’ll give us access!”

He was yelling at the Centaur officer, who was getting more offended by the minute. Ken hurried over, not knowing what he was doing, but knowing in his heart that Quallet was doing exactly the wrong thing if he wanted to convince the Centaurs of anything.

Unlike Dullahans and Lizardfolk, the third predominant species of Baleros, Centaurs, were neither taciturn nor talkative. They probably fit between both Lizardfolk and Dullahan temperaments when it came to how social they could be, but, and this was a big but, they had a temper. Collectively. As a species.

If there was a ranking for bad-tempered species, Centaurs would probably be at the top of that list, competing for first place with Drakes and Minotaurs, although Ken had never met representatives of those species.

Centaurs were touchy, prideful, and reminded Ken a bit of his grandmother. They didn’t accept bad manners at all, and the slightest offense was instantly corrected, regardless if it caused trouble for all parties involved. Right now Quallet was digging himself a hole by shouting at an officer.

The angry [Mercenary Captain] had a hand on his axe and the Centaur officer looked ready to pull out his bow and shoot him. Kenjiro heard the Centaur speaking curtly to Quallet.

“Our territory is being patrolled to keep the damned Dullahans away from our camps. Twice now they have tried to attack us with [Rogues] and [Assassins]. My [Commander] demands to know how we know your forces will be trusted.”

Quallet growled.

“I told you, you empty-headed donkey—”

Ken saw the Centaur officer’s eyes narrow and jumped into the conversation. Literally. He nearly knocked Quallet aside. The [Captain] stumbled, eyes widening with fury. He rounded on Ken, but Ken was busy speaking to the Centaur officer. He spread his arms wide, smiling as best he could.

“Honored friends, we would humbly like to request permission to cross into your territory. We intend no disrespect, but we…must painfully intrude because of our duties. We mean no offense. And we will identify ourselves as best we can.”

The officer eyed Ken as Quallet opened a furious mouth, and then closed it as he saw what Ken was doing.

“Hmf. So you say. But how will we identify your people?”

“Banners. We have one—”

Again, Ken interrupted Quallet. This time the [Captain] let him speak.

“If it is agreeable, we will raise our company banner. It is illuminated, and the rest of our company will carry lanterns to identify ourselves. We will respond to any challenges, and, we would like to cooperate more sincerely, we will stick to an agreed-upon area of your choosing.”

It was what Quallet was going to say—what the Gravetender’s Fist company did every time, but the wording of it was key. Ken deferentially let the officer think for a moment, and then the Centaur spoke grudgingly.

“That is adequate. We will specify the location before nightfall. Do not stray.”

Ken bowed his head and thanked the Centaur as he and his soldiers trotted off. Then he turned and saw Quallet staring hard at him. Part of Ken’s elated heart went up his throat. But Quallet didn’t berate him. Instead, he nodded at Ken.

“Good job. You have some kind of [Diplomat] class?”

“Um. No sir. I have just received the [Negotiator] class.”

“Same thing.”

Quallet grunted. He paused, and looked at the Centaur’s backs. Then he spat. Ken winced, but none of the Centaurs noticed.

“In that case, you’ll be dealing with both sides from now on. I hate bowing and scraping to the Centaurs, but they’re touchy. As for the Dullahans—if it comes to it, just bow to the one in the most polished armor. You know that?”

Ken nodded. Quallet eyed him and then clapped him on the shoulder. Ken staggered.

“Keep it up. If you can talk us out of more trouble, I’ll give you a bonus.”

He walked off. Ken massaged his shoulder, wishing people weren’t so intimate. But he smiled. And later that day, dozing, he leveled up again. Then he woke up. His smile faded. Ken went back to the battlefield and began hauling bodies. There was no happiness in that.




This night Gravetender’s Fist was working in a wooded area, part of the Centaur’s marked territory. They’d heard a stern injunction from Quallet and the other officers not to stray far from the banner, and each group had filled their lantern’s oil so it shone brightly in the night.

Now Ken and the others walked past trees, some marked by combat, felled by blasts of magic or powerful Skills. They had to be especially alert for zombies hidden in the shadow of trees, but they were used to the routine enough to talk in low voices.

“They are talking about leaving?”

Aiko whispered to Luan as Ken helped both of them drag a heavy Lizardman in broken armor to the pile. Luan nodded, looking angry.

“The Americans want to go. They’re saying this job is shit—which it is—and they want to abandon the company. They’re saying we can desert and head back to one of the cities, sell our swords and armor maybe.”

“That is a bad idea. Isn’t it?”

Ken stared at Luan, heart pounding at the thought. Leave the company? If they did, they’d have to leave the neutral zone. At night or by day made no difference. If they were caught—

Luan nodded, looking angry.

“I told them—the others told them—it’s a terrible idea! But the Americans are fed up with hauling these bodies. I can’t blame them for that, but a handful of maggots here is better than dying. They think we can do it though, and they’re going to bring it up tomorrow.”

“We must talk to the others.”

Aiko’s face was pale. Luan nodded, and shifted his hold on the Dullahan.

“Shit. I can’t see. Where are the others?”

“Back there.”

Today Ken, Aiko, and Luan had paired with Quexa and three other Lizardfolk. It was Quexa who had the lantern. Ken lowered the Dullahan’s body while Luan adjusted his grip. They waited for the Lizardfolk to catch up—they were struggling to carry an obese Centaur.

“Never thought I’d see a fat Centaur. He looks round. I wonder if that’s how they got him. Too big of a target? Or was he too slow to run away? If a Centaur is too fat, does it just waddle around?”

Luan commented as he watched the Lizardfolk swearing loudly, trying to move the Centaur.

“At least it was not a zombie. That would be very hard to kill.”

Ken grinned, imagining an undead Centaur waddling towards him in the darkness. Aiko giggled, putting her hand up to her mouth and then snatching it down. Her hands, like every other part of her body, were filthy.

Luan laughed. He turned towards Ken, about to say something, and then there was a whistling sound. He blinked, and Ken heard a thunk.

Something sprouted from Luan’s chest. He gasped, and then Aiko screamed. The Lizardfolk dropped the Centaur and Quexa shouted.


Shouts rang out as shadows in the forest suddenly turned into galloping shapes. Ken reached for Luan as his friend sagged to the ground.

“Luan? Luan?

There was an arrow in his side. Ken reached for it automatically, but someone caught his hand. A Lizardman shook his head as Quexa ran over, waving her lantern and shouting desperately as the Centaurs galloping around them.

“We’re not enemies! Gravetender’s Fist! We’re—”

There was chaos. Ken heard pounding feet and voices, and then officer Raeh was there.

“Back off!”

He shouted at Ken and the others and fumbled at his belt.

“Healing potion. Here! Snap the arrow off and pour it in—the arrow should come out. I’ve got to stop us from being killed!”

He stood up and waved his hands at the Centaurs, shouting. Ken bent over Luan. The man’s face was pale and beaded with sweat. Ken reached for the arrow, hesitated.

“I’ll hold him. Do it.”

Quexa and the Lizardman seized Luan. Ken looked at Aiko. She grabbed the arrow and he used his hands and tried to snap it.

It was hard. The arrow’s shaft was thick and as he moved the arrow Luan woke up and began screaming. Ken heard Quexa shout and he tried to break the shaft. He felt it splinter, and then it snapped.

“Healing potion!”

Aiko pulled the bottle out frantically and removed the stopper. She splashed the liquid into Luan’s wound and Ken watched the skin seal over. The broken wood shaft of the arrow popped out of the wound, but the arrowhead did not. Had it passed through his body? In any event, Luan stopped thrashing.


Ken held his breath. Then Luan opened his eyes. He blinked, and then spoke.

“I thought I was a goner.”

Luan grinned at them, face covered in sweat, still very pale. Ken and Aiko smiled in relief. Luan laughed shakily. He sat up to say something, and then his face went white. He cried out in agony.

“What’s wrong? Luan?”

Aiko reached for him, but Luan knocked her hand away. He pressed his hands towards his side, and to Ken’s horror, he saw the wound was opening back up. Luan fell back, screaming again as the wound tore open a second time.

Horrified, Aiko reached for the potion to use it again, but Quexa stopped her. She called out.

“It’s not working! Sergeant Raeh!”

The Centaurs were gone, at least for now. Raeh came running back over, demanding to know why they hadn’t used the potion. When he heard what had happened he swore.

“It was some kind of enchanted shaft. Damn those four-legged bastards!”

He knelt by Luan’s side as the younger man cried out in pain. Raeh didn’t touch the wound, but he looked grimly at the head of the shaft.

“Whatever’s in there is still cutting him up from the inside. You—boy. Did the entire arrow come out?”

“No—no, only the—the shaft.”

“Damn it. It was an enchanted arrow after all!”

Raeh looked grimly at the wound. He beckoned for Quexa to bring the lantern over, and peered at the oozing wound. He pulled a knife out grimly, and then hesitated.

“I can’t…tell where it is. I need to cut it out before the healing potion can work, but—”

“Cut it out?”

Aiko was horrified. Raeh helplessly looked around Luan’s side as he thrashed.

“It could be anywhere in there. The enchanted arrowheads are nasty—some of them move. If I don’t get it right off, your friend will die. We can’t use healing potions until I get it—I—”

His hands were trembling. He didn’t know where to cut, and he thought he’d miss. Raeh hesitated, and Ken saw his hand tighten on the grip of the dagger. He raised it, and Ken caught his arm.


“It has to be done! Move over boy—I’ve got only one chance to help your friend. It’s that or slit his throat, because he’ll die in agony—”

“No! There has to be a—a hospital, yes? A doctor? Someone who can perform surgery?”

There had to be. But Raeh just stared at Ken and shook his head.

“There’s no one like that.”

He raised the dagger, and Ken felt true despair in his heart as he saw Raeh’s haunted gaze. That was when Quallet found them. The [Captain] ran towards them, axe drawn, [Sergeant] Xor following.

“Raeh! What the hell’s going on here?”

Raeh explained in short sentences and both Quallet and Xor knelt by Luan. Their appraisal of the situation was the same.

“It’s got to come out, but damn me if I don’t know where. ”

“He’s losing blood. A bad cut and he’ll be dead in minutes. We can’t fish around in his guts, Captain Marshhand. It might be kinder to—”

Xor was speaking, but it all seemed far away. Ken stood in an oasis of shock and horror, watching the moment play out as if it were on a screen or far away. There was static in his ears. Aiko was gripping Luan’s hand, he was screaming—Raeh had the knife.

Then Quallet looked up. He had the same empty look in his eyes, as of someone expecting to see only death. But he saw Ken, and something flickered in his gaze.

“No. Not us. There’s another way.”


Quallet stood up. He turned to his two officers.

“I’ll handle matters here. Raeh, get these two an escort and a white flag. There’s a spot to the north where a [Doctor] works. Have them get—Luan—over there. If they’re quick and lucky, this [Doctor] might be able to save him.”

“Are you sure?”

Raeh looked skeptical, but Quallet nodded.

“It’s their best shot. If we try, he’s dead either way. You know that. There’s no way we’ll find an arrowhead, but if what I’ve heard about this ‘Last Light’ are true, the [Doctor] might be able to.”

A [Doctor]. The word dragged Ken back into reality. He looked at Aiko, and saw the same desperation in her eyes. It was something to cling to. Ken knelt by Luan as Raeh turned and started shouting.

“Hold on, Luan.”

It was a stretcher they used to carry Luan, the same kind they used to haul bodies or bits of bodies. It was filthy, and Luan screamed when they put him on it, but they had no choice.

They carried Luan on the stretcher, Ken, Aiko, and Quexa, while the Lizardman carried the white flag. They ran out of the woods, trying to run and not jostle Luan or trip all at the same time. They ran through the forest as the sun began to rise, searching desperately, praying.

That was how Ken met the [Doctor] known as the Last Light. He arrived in a small camp as the sun rose and Luan’s blood ran from his side. It dripped from the stretcher and fell onto the wet ground, among the grass and mud. Bugs landed to feed on the red liquid, and in the valley, two armies gathered to fight once more.

And the bodies came in, the wounded, the desperate. Ken and Aiko stood with Luan, one among many. Waiting for her, hoping she was real. The voices cried out, begged, pleaded. For salvation, relief—

For a [Doctor].


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