6.24 D

There she was. Like a soiled yellow bell pepper, poking up out of the ground. Or—or a lemon covered in crap. Or maybe a yellow onion that someone had dropped in a latrine, half recovered, and then sprinkled with bits of pink—

You know what? There were no proper analogies. None at all. Umina’s yellow scales with the pink patterning was distinct in itself. Add that to her head poking out of the hole in the ground incongruously, and the—not to put a fine point on it—waste that had splashed on her in the tunneling process, and you had a sight like no other.

Marian stared at her friend. Tulm the Mithril stopped in his tracks. The Iron Vanguard, the struggling students, citizens of Daquin, and oh yes, the world stared at Umina. She half-ducked, as if trying to retreat into the tiny tunnel she’d squeezed her head out of.

And Niers Astoragon snickered. All eyes turned towards him as the Fraerling chuckled. The look of surprise that had crossed his face vanished in a moment. And it was replaced by hilarity. The Fraerling bent over, putting his hands on his thighs on his wooden platform as he laughed, and then guffawed. He tried to stop it, but he had to lean against a tumbler not to fall over.

The Titan of Baleros was laughing uncontrollably. He laughed and laughed, and the world waited, uncertain, disappointed. Angry, even. And the Titan of Baleros laughed on.

After about a minute of him laughing, people started getting upset. They looked at each other. And then they caught themselves. Looked around. At the streets full of people. The Human [Knights] from Terandria, fighting with practice swords against the Iron Vanguard. Xol, looming over Venaz, frozen in place with his fist raised uncertainly.

Some of the people in the plaza began to laugh too. It didn’t take everyone; the Dullahans, especially the members of the Iron Vanguard, just looked to Tulm in silent trepidation. But Lizardfolk rolled on the ground laughing, Centaurs snorted, Humans went ha-ha to various levels of actual humor—the [Knights] were as stone-faced as the Dullahans.

Laughter. Marian didn’t laugh. She was staring at Umina. The Lizardgirl was looking around, laughing but not really laughing, and looking more nervous than she ever had before. She was also deliberately not meeting Marian’s eye. The Centauress shifted her stare to Tulm.

The mithril-clad Dullahan was staring at Umina. He was still aglow with the light of battle. The strength he’d borrowed, no copied from Xol burned in him. And his eyes flashed as he turned his gaze to his teacher. He was not amused. And, to be fair, a lot of other people weren’t either.

Teura, the half-Elf from Wistram, looked apoplectic. As if her own pride had been wounded by the sudden and anticlimactic end to the Titan’s game. Some of the other captured students looked shocked and outraged as well. And the Humans around Wil, especially his sister and Sir Kelm, looked equal parts shocked, horrified, and furious. And it was the anger that was beginning to grow as shock faded.

Before any of that could boil over, Niers Astoragon caught himself. The Titan choked, coughed, and stood upright. With a monumental effort, he stopped his raucous laughter, coughed once, and tapped a ring on his finger. His voice boomed through the plaza, making Marian rear slightly in alarm.

Enough! The game is over!

The Titan’s voice was like a wave. It cooled the air in the plaza instantly. The laughers stopped laughing. And the anger vanished from the other faces. They stared at the Titan as Marian stopped rearing. She landed and nearly screamed; suddenly, pain was blooming through her leg!

Marian looked down and saw scorched flesh. Her stomach roiled. She suddenly recalled the Dullahan [Mage] who’d hit her with the fire spell and the pain took that moment to remind her that yes, she was in a lot of pain. She staggered and Niers saw it. The Titan leapt up, like a grasshopper, onto the head of the nearest Midnight Shield. He pointed at her.

[Healer]! Healers to the front at once! Everyone else, hold your ground! Weapons down! The game is won! Anyone with a healing potion, bring it out now and treat anyone in dire need! Move back! Slowly—I want those on the outskirts to move back! Disperse! Clear the streets of bodies if you’re uninjured! Anyone who is injured, scream for help!”

His words contained the same force Tulm the Mithril had used on the students at the start of the game. But there wasn’t the same oppressive pressure; people just moved and only realized they were obeying halfway through. They broke up and Marian saw the old Lizardwoman running towards her.

“Hold still!”

“My—my leg.”

Marian gasped. She pointed at her fetlocks, where the pain was radiating from the worst. But her entire leg was black. She could smell her cooked flesh.

“I see it. Don’t move. Raise that hoof off the ground!”

Marian obeyed, wincing. The [Healer] bent over her, her tail twitching angrily.

“Magic burn. What spell was it? [Firebolt]? Something along that line. Tier 2, but potent. Don’t worry. I can fix this. I need a second to make sure the healing potion works the right way, though—what idiot cast this? If it had hit your chest—”

She rummaged around in her satchel by her side, ripping out a jar and tearing off the lid. There was a thick cream inside. The [Healer] grabbed the good part of Marian’s leg and began applying it. Swiftly, and probably as gently as it could, but Marian still suppressed a cry as she held still, quivering.

“Hold still. Good, girl. You’ll be fine. I just need to apply this or the potion won’t get to your skin. Burns don’t heal right—this is going to hurt.”

Aah! Aaaah!

Marian had assumed the cream was some kind of painkiller, or a concentrated healing poultice. It was not. It was in fact closer to acid—she could feel it eating into her skin! She tried to move her leg, but the old [Healer] had a grip like steel.

“Hold. Still. The potion can’t work on burnt skin. It’s cauterized. Give this ten more seconds—”

Healer to the eastern plaza. I see five Dullahans downed and a [Knight] in need of aid. Don’t touch that man! Lay him flat and don’t remove the armor; the [Healer] will do that!

Niers’ voice boomed past Marian. The [Healer] winced. Marian, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes with the pain, saw a shape charging towards her out of the crowd. The Dullahans around her moved back. Tulm the Mithril was still staring at Umina, but now he glanced up and walked left.

“Marian!”

Perorn ran through the crowded plaza, around bodies, through gaps as if she were unimpeded. And she was; Marian saw her moving through the crowd as if they weren’t there. A Skill worthy of Fleethoof. The older Centauress stopped in front of Marian. The [Healer] snapped up at her.

“Her leg’s burned. I’m healing it. Stand back!”

“I have a potion. Higher quality. If she needs it—”

“She’ll be fine. Stand back, I said! This isn’t serious and I got to it in the first minute. The wound looks clean; I can see blood now. Marian, you will feel—”

The [Healer]’s voice drowned out as the pain shooting through Marian’s leg was suddenly, instantly, relieved. The Centauress put down her leg instinctively and looked—the flesh was regrowing before her eyes.

“Raise that leg! Keep it up until the potion’s done!”

Marian did as the [Healer] snapped at her. Perorn looked down, and the old [Strategist]’s face was filled with relief. She glanced up at Marian and for a second the younger Centauress saw a hint of pain in Perorn’s eyes. Unconsciously, Marian glanced at Perorn’s back right leg. The damaged one. Perorn limped back a step as the [Healer] straightened, and glanced backwards.

Her eyes met Tulm’s. The Dullahan looked at her. Perorn stared back.

“Fire spells? Are you mad? They could have killed Marian or crippled her for life. That one seared her to the bone.”

“It was an error on the part of my [Mage]. He panicked and reacted instinctively.”

Tulm replied coldly. He glanced past Perorn at Umina. She was shifting in place and calling out to someone below her. The Dullahan glanced over his shoulder.

“Tunneling?”

“Mithril, I barely picked it up. I was concentrating on defensive spells and there was no sign until a minute in. The tunneling began so close to this location. I have no excuse.”

The pale [Mage] saluted. Tulm stared at him. Niers Astoragon, from his perch, surveyed the plaza, then looked down. Everyone was moving back, but several people were pushing towards him. Teura and the Wistram [Mages] were among them.

“Lord Astoragon, what—”

Teura stared at Umina. The Lizardgirl stank. She was wiggling, trying to get free of the very narrow opening in the ground. Niers ignored the Wistram [Mage]. He was looking at Tulm.

“Any objections?”

Tulm the Mithril glanced up at him. He paused for a long moment, and then shook his head.

“I concede.”

“Very well. Will you take your forces back now or stay the night? Your wounded should stay here; I will arrange transport back.”

The Dullahan removed his head and shook it.

“No need. We will send a ship the next day. Until then, I take my leave.”

“What? But—”

Teura backed up as Tulm walked past her. She was struggling to keep up, as was Marian. Niers just nodded. Tulm paused and turned his head back, although his body kept facing the other way. His head stared at Umina.

“A final question. What is the name of this student?”

“Umina Caxical. One of my advanced students.”

“I see.”

Tulm stared at Umina. She quailed. Then the Dullahan placed his head on his shoulders. He walked forwards. And his voice rolled through the plaza.

Iron Vanguard. Return to your assigned warship. Leave the injured.

The Dullahans and other [Soldiers] in the square belonging to the Iron Vanguard stiffened. They turned and began marching as the Midnight Shields broke formation around Niers to surround Tulm. There was no precise march or accompanying drumbeat this time; the Iron Vanguard left in disarray, slowly forming up into units as they marched back.

It was so quick! Marian stared. She still hadn’t gotten past the fact that Umina had won. Umina. By tunneling through the privy! She looked back at Umina, who was struggling, one arm free.

“Steady—steady! I’m going up, not down. Just don’t drop m—”

“Lord Astoragon, is this really the end of the game?”

Teura demanded, as if she couldn’t see Tulm and the Iron Vanguard marching away. Niers turned to her, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course. Or do you not see one of my students trying to extricate herself from the ground? I do. And if this is an illusion, it’s a fantastic one. Your audience might not be able to smell Umina, but I can. Wonderful work, by the way, Umina. If you’d been a moment slower you might have lost. And if you’d been too early, Tulm would have detected you, I have no doubt.”

“Thank you, sir. Uh—could someone help pull me out?”

Umina waved an arm. She seemed to be sinking down despite her best efforts to get up. Marian could hear muffled shouts from beneath the earth. Something below seemed to be caving in. She made no effort to help Umina.

Neither did Wistram’s finest. They kept staring at Tulm. Marian could hear someone shouting from the scrying orb. It sounded like one of the Drake [Commentators] having a heart attack. Niers ignored them all. He clapped his hands together and beamed around.

“A fine game. Unexpected endings, always lovely. Don’t be alarmed by Tulm’s sudden departure. I imagine he has a schedule to keep, and he probably doesn’t wish to be interviewed, especially by a bunch of inbred leeches—I mean, the wonderful [Mages] of Wistram. Let’s clear up the plaza, get the wounded sorted out, and then we can move onto the conclusion. Perorn? Lend me your shoulder, will you? My Dullahan needs to go.”

He hopped off the Midnight Shield’s head and the black-armored Dullahan marched away at speed. Perorn caught Niers, placed him on her shoulder, and turned. The [Strategist] was already shouting more orders at the crowd. Marian looked at the [Healer]. The Lizardwoman slapped her leg. Marian yelped.

“That hurts!”

“Tender flesh. Lots of nerves. Good. You’re healed! Just don’t go galloping for a day.”

The [Healer] stood up briskly, already looking for another victim to heal. Marian stared at her. She looked at Niers.

“This is so sudden! Shouldn’t there be an announcement? Or something? Or—”

“Plenty of time for that later. He said the game was over, didn’t he? Good thing too. I was getting tired of fixing people up. Anyways, what do you want? You lost. That Lizardgirl won, and good thing too. I won money. She won; game’s over. Wasn’t the worst game I ever saw, wasn’t the weirdest either.”

Marian stared at the [Healer] as she put the lid on her jar and tucked it into her satchel.

“What, really?”

“Absolutely. This was tame compared to last time. Alright! If anyone’s hurt, scream! If not, you can fix yourselves—

 

—-

 

The game was over. But it didn’t feel over. It had gone down so quick, and the announcement had been so sudden—not to mention the Iron Vanguard leaving so abruptly—that no one felt like the game was actually done.

Which was intentional, Perorn could tell. Niers Astoragon had issued the abrupt statement on purpose. He was taking advantage of the confusion. People expected something to happen, and in that gap while they waited for the ‘correct’ thing to occur, he could fit in any number of his personal agendas. Some of them were important. Critical, even.

[Healer] down that street! Move; there’s someone with a head injury on the left side of the street!

The Titan ordered a group of [Healers] as Perorn trotted forwards. The Fraerling was surveying the city as a whole, using a scrying orb for its actual intended purpose for once. And the [Healer] corps he’d dispersed rushed en-masse about the city, tending to the most in need of aid first. And there were a number of people who needed it. [Knights] unhorsed with head injuries, horses hurt in the battle, members of the Iron Vanguard who’d been trampled—

“Tulm the Mithril pulled out in a second. Was that prearranged?”

Healing potion! I didn’t actually arrange that, Perorn. That’s just Tulm. He’s smart enough not to want to stick around and have me rub defeat in his face. And he lost, so he’s not getting what he wanted. Believe me; if he’d have won, he’d be sticking to me like glue this instant.”

Perorn grunted. That did sound like Tulm. He hadn’t even claimed his injured soldiers. He was just off, giving no one time to see his defeated expression. Not that he’d show weakness that obviously.

“Bastard.”

“Careful. There are [Mages] still listening to us. Which brings me to my second point. I’m going to make a little show of awards in a second. Would you help me with…?”

Niers leaned over and whispered into Perorn’s ear. The Centauress nodded, turning her head to survey the plaza.

“Fine. I’ll find the other teachers. You can show off as much as you like. Where do you want me to put you?”

“One circuit of the plaza. I want our [Healers] to get to everyone they need to first. Then the pedestal. That would do.”

Dutifully, Perorn circled the plaza as Niers ordered his [Soldiers] to help disperse the bewildered crowd. Half of Daquin’s citizens were still clutching their weapons uncertainly. Perorn eyed them.

“Feshi actually managed to rally the city into fighting!”

“Wasn’t it brilliant?”

Niers smiled. Perorn eyed the torn up street, the injured people being tended to, many of which were Iron Vanguard members, and didn’t know if she agreed. She walked back towards the pedestal and Niers leapt onto it.

Citizens of Daquin! Thank you for your patience!

The plaza jumped as one. Niers’ eyes twinkled as the Fraerling took the spotlight once again. He spoke, casually letting his amplified voice ring out across the plaza.

“And to my students and the audience, thank you as well. Let me repeat myself. The game is over. And we have a winner. One of my students has infiltrated the winner’s circle. From the ground! You may not have seen her, but I present to you—Umina Caxical!”

He gestured. Every eye fell on Umina, who was tugging a foot out of the ground. She froze and then waved a claw, looking terrified. She was still covered in dirt and stuff that resembled dirt. Niers smiled.

“A rather unorthodox win this time. It appears Umina tunneled under the ground through what I can only term a sewage depot. It appears the [Mages] in the plaza did not notice her. Nor did Tulm the Mithril himself. He has conceded defeat, so once again, congratulations to Umina on a victory well-deserved!”

There was a moment of silence at that. Some laughter even sprang back up. It was so—ridiculous. But the Titan forged ahead as if it was perfectly natural, and his audience was caught.

“Very well, very well. I think a bath is called for, or a bucket of water at least. But let us not waste time. Tulm certainly hasn’t. The Iron Vanguard is returning to their ships and my [Healers] are tending to the wounded. But the game is not quite concluded! As with every battle, I think the dissection afterwards is just as critical as the experience itself. So, then. Students! Class is in session! Gather around, all of you!

His sudden bellow made the students in the plaza jump. Venaz, Wil, and Feshi all appeared, at once, but Niers was beckoning to another group. A mass of students, seated or standing, some nursing bruises, others unharmed. They stood up slowly and approached. Everyone but the Wistram [Mages] gave way to them. And they surrounded their teacher, the Professor, as if they were in class. Niers looked down at them and smiled.

“Well now. Thoughts on today’s lesson? Questions? We will be studying this in class when we return to the academy, you know.”

They stared at him. Then one of the students in the crowd—Yerranola—laughed. Niers smiled along with her.

“I’m serious, Yerranola.”

The Selphid stopped laughing. Niers walked up and down the platform, looking across the students. And suddenly, he wasn’t speaking to the plaza or Wistram’s [Mages], or to the audience across the world, but to them.

“Well. It was a fine game. Unexpected, yes. Unfair? Probably! But that is the nature of all games. And whether you were caught, or you survived to the end—”

He nodded to Venaz, Wil, Marian, and Feshi, who were standing together. Wil looked tired, almost too tired to be upset. Feshi propped him up with a sympathetic paw on his shoulders. She didn’t look that put out. Venaz was still disbelieving, almost shell-shocked. Marian…she looked around for Umina. The Lizardgirl was hiding. The Centauress glanced back up and found Niers staring at her. His voice was soft.

“Whether you won or lost. Whether your plans went awry or failed in just one part to come to fruition. I saw it all. Your struggles, your defeats. I saw it. And you did me proud. Each and every one of you. I called for you to challenge Tulm the Mithril, and you did. For that, I thank you.”

His students looked up at him. The Titan, their Professor, smiled, and it was a fond smile meant only for them.

“I hope, no, I trust most of you will level up after today. Perhaps even more than once. But what sort of teacher would I be if I didn’t reward what I saw? So I have a few announcements to make. We have a winner of this game. Umina. Step forwards.”

And she appeared, from behind Perorn. Cleaner, but smelly. The students stared at her. The world stared, but this was a class. And Umina, flushing, afraid to meet anyone’s eyes, stood in front of Niers. He smiled gently.

“Congratulations, Umina. A prize from my vaults and the question of your choice is mine. When we return to Elvallian, I will set aside an appropriate date. Have your question ready then. Until that moment—well done. Your trick with the [Nightmen] was…inspired, to say the least. I didn’t expect it. Nor did Tulm. It was not a victory created solely by you, but you seized an opportunity. And that is the key to winning any battle.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Umina mumbled softly. Marian stared at her friend. And then Niers looked up. His gaze swept the students.

“But Umina isn’t the only student I have to reward. [General] Felk?”

A Drake walked forwards. He was one of the teachers. He stood next to Rustarmor and three other teachers from the academy. Felk looked around calmly and called out in a parade-grounds voice.

“Sillk. Venaz. Marian. Jekilt. Kaelma.”

The students walked forwards slowly, through the crowd. Marian saw the other students turning to look at her. She was suddenly nervous. She fell into place with the other students, glancing from side to side. Felk eyed them and nodded.

“Lord Astoragon?”

“Thank you, General.”

The Fraerling looked down from his seat at the students. He met each’s eyes in turn. Sillk’s abashed look, Venaz’s downcast expression, Marian’s stare, Jekilt’s level gaze, and Kaelma’s questioning glance. The Professor smiled.

“Don’t be disappointed. Or rather, only be disappointed in appropriate measure. This game was not easy to win. Chance played as much part as strategy. Nevertheless, I see fit to award you five for excellence during the game.”

The students looked up, confused. That wasn’t part of the game! Niers cut off Teura, who was trying to point that out. He shooed her back with one impatient hand.

“My game. My rules. Don’t interrupt, please. Now, where was I? Ah yes, Sillk. You first.”

The Lizardman walked forwards, hunched, checking his dark clothing. The [Rogue], who Marian had never seen once the game started, looked up at Niers. The Professor studied him kindly.

“I almost expected you to team up with Merrik. I’m pleased you two did not; you were most effective fighting in your strengths. I’m pleased to see you didn’t hold each other back with friendship.”

Sillk jumped. He blinked up at Niers, and then opened his mouth reflexively.

“Er, thank you, Professor.”

The response was so automatic, that some of the students laughed unconsciously. And Marian felt something ease in her stomach. For a second it felt like class and a student giving a particularly bad response. Niers laughed along with the other students and Sillk turned red. Merrik growled from the crowd.

“What do you mean, ‘thank you’? You’re getting it when this is over, Sillk!”

Niers waved a hand for silence. He went on, as, behind him, the scrying orb on his pedestal began flashing moments from the battle where Sillk had taken part.

“Very well done taking out the enemy officers. You got captured the instant the [Mages] tagged you with a locator spell, though. Any thoughts?”

“Uh—no sir. I mean, yes, sir.”

Sillk turned bright red again and went on.

“I should have gone to ground sooner than I did. I regret not doing that. I opened myself up for being tracked; I should have been just as aggressive, or even more so, but then hidden. Instead I got myself caught when I could have survived for much longer.”

Niers nodded appreciatively.

“Good answer. Well done indeed. I saw less leadership than I would have liked, but you coordinated well with Jekilt and your fellow students on the field. I’m afraid there’s not much of a reward for you, though. You’ll be eating tea leaves for the next three days.”

“Sir?”

Sillk looked blank. Niers smiled.

“I think Foliana has an opening for you in her schedule. She doesn’t have a set curriculum, but three days of shadowing her will prove instructional. Learn from her how she disappears.”

The students, who had been full of levity a moment ago, went silent. Behind Niers, Teura and the other Wistram [Mages] looked stunned. Marian felt the same way. She stared at Sillk. He was going to be taught? By Three-Color Stalker herself? She was notorious for not taking apprentices—as far as anyone knew. But this was a reward. And…

Did Niers have special training courses for [Assassins]? And if so…Sillk gulped, but he bowed.

“It would be an honor, Professor.”

Niers smiled drily.

“Say that after three days with Foliana. I have no idea what she’ll do, so I apologize in advance. Venaz.”

The Minotaur stepped forwards. Niers studied him.

“Interesting ploy with the City Runner. It would have worked if I had decided to take action against the students, but it handicapped you earlier on. I’m afraid you trusted to your battle prowess instead of considering a larger offensive.”

The Minotaur bowed his head, uncharacteristically quiet. Niers went on.

“You did well fighting through the patrols, though. And your leadership at the end took the fight to Tulm himself. I’m afraid you underestimated him, but the experience should be instructive. Venaz. Any thoughts?”

The Minotaur shook his head briefly.

“I have nothing to say, sir. I’ve embarrassed myself in front of my people.”

Nonsense.

The snap in Niers’ voice made Venaz look up. He met the Professor’s gaze. Niers glanced irritably at Venaz, and then the scrying orb.

“If you’re referring to hiding and being outclassed, that was a mistake every student here made save one. The point is how you reacted to adversity, not your preparations. With that said, you demonstrated considerable skill in making it to the end of the game unscathed. That alone merits a reward. And I’m sure the House of Minos agrees. If not, that is my sole opinion.”

Venaz stood a bit straighter. He glanced up at Niers, and then bowed his head quickly.

“Thank you, Professor. I…I was unprepared, but I found the value in teaming up with other students. No—more than that, listening to sound advice no matter where it came from. From the City Runner I hired, no less.”

The Titan smiled, and there was approval in his tone.

“That is a lesson worth learning. If you took away only that, I’d say you gained something from today.”

The Minotaur nodded and then hesitated.

“Yes, Professor. I have to ask—is Armor Captain Shailt recovering?”

“You may check on her later. I understand she was left in our [Healer]’s care rather than brought with the Iron Vanguard. Now, as for you, Venaz, I think some instruction into evasive maneuvers in an urban environment would be helpful. General Felk is an expert at urban warfare and you’ll be accompanying him as he returns to his duties in a month’s time.”

“Yes sir. Thank you, Professor.”

Venaz stepped back, blinking a few times. Marian was next. She smiled as Niers asked how her leg was and complimented her maneuvers in the plaza.

“Thank you, Professor. But I really didn’t do much.”

Niers nodded calmly.

“True. Other students made more heroic efforts. But you made it to the end, and if you’d had a second or a few feet, you might have won. What have you learned?”

“How poorly I do in close-quarters combat, sir? I was nearly taken out by a [Captain]; my bow wasn’t nearly as useful as I would have liked.”

“The flaw of every [Strategist] is weakness in combat, at least compared to [Warriors]. I’m glad you recognize that. But since it is important, you’ll get to receive personal instruction from our weapons masters until you can use a bow to fend off even a Level 30 [Warrior].”

“T-thank you, sir?”

The Titan grinned as Marian stepped back. Some of the students winced and one of them patted Marian on the shoulder. Kaelma received a similar gift; the [Fencer] had done well, but Niers pointed out her dueling Skills had been on display without any actual leadership. So she would lead [Scouts] on patrol for two weeks.

Now that it came to it, the Titan’s rewards didn’t sound like rewards so much as personalized training. Which was a reward, but it wasn’t always fun. Shadowing a [General], receiving one-on-one lessons from [Weapon Masters]…Marian groaned, imagining the bruises. Niers called over another group of students who’d also done well, but then someone else took his place.

Fleethoof. And when Perorn stepped forwards, the students looked up and went quiet. And the watching [Mages] leaned in. The Centauress’ voice was crisp.

“Peki. Merrik. Feshi. All three of you did exceptionally well.”

“Indeed. I particularly liked—”

Perorn walked in front of Niers. She stared down at the three students, the [Martial Artist] Garuda, the Dwarf, Merrik, and the Gnoll who’d rallied Daquin, Feshi. Her gaze was severe, but Marian thought she looked pleased.

“Peki, outstanding fighting Skills. Subpar choice of opponents. You lack experience against fighting opponents with high-level Skills or artifacts. You will report to my company and engage in duels against my officers.”

Marian winced. Peki only smiled.

“Yay.”

The Centauress gave her an icy smile. She turned her attention to the next student.

“Merrik.”

“Fighting maniac from Pomle—er, hi, Professor!”

The Dwarf straightened to a laugh from his fellow classmates. Perorn raised an eyebrow.

“Excellent leadership. You led your classmates and auxiliary fighters splendidly. Right up until the moment you wasted your best Skill in an early engagement.”

“Well, you see, Professor Perorn, I planned on—”

“You need experience. You’ll get that accompanying me. I plan on doing a patrol across our territories, battling monsters and [Bandits]. I expect you to learn something from the ordeal.”

“Oh, grandfathers. Not field training—”

Merrik shut up as the Centauress gave him a quelling glance. She looked at the third student.

“Feshi.”

The Gnoll smiled, baring her teeth. Perorn nodded.

“As far as ideas went, your ability to rally Daquin was exceptional. The rest of your performance was not.”

The Gnoll looked abashed.

“Hrr. Yes, Professor. I failed to use my best Skill at the end as well. I thought about it, but it would be little use with so many bodies in the way. How should I improve?”

“By learning to employ your existing Skills more effectively. To that end, you’ll be shadowing me on campaign. You’ll serve as my second. I expect you to fill that role to the best of your abilities.”

There was a gasp from the students. Feshi looked delighted and alarmed. She bowed.

“I will do my best, Professor!”

“Very good.”

The Centauress stepped back. Aggrieved, Niers cleared his throat once or twice. He looked at his students, then past them. Wistram’s [Mages], Daquin’s people, and his soldiers looked on. They were entertained, if puzzled by this moment. Now the Titan smiled and they stood straighter, expectantly.

“And so we have rewards. Or punishment. But exemplary though some performances were, and many were truly impressive, I have one student yet to call upon. Wil Kallinad. Walk forwards, lad.”

Every eye swung towards Wil. He was standing silently to the side. With some of the Humans from Terandria. Now he did walk forwards, and Marian saw his face was pale. He was…well, if Venaz was downcast, Wil looked smashed into the ground. He managed a stiff bow before Niers.

“Professor.”

“Wil.”

There was kindness in Niers’ eyes as he looked at Wil. He paused for a moment.

“You brought four warships from Kallinad’s harbors. Across the sea. And of all my students, you were the one to predict the Iron Vanguard’s arrival. You foresaw Tulm the Mithril and you challenged him.”

“Yes sir. And I failed.”

Wil looked up steadily. Niers shook his head.

“I could argue that without you, none of the students would have had a chance at victory, much less succeeded. But you are correct. You were outplayed in the end. By guile.”

He gestured at Umina, who went even paler than Wil for a moment. Niers paused.

“If you could have done something differently, what would you have done, Wil?”

Everyone waited for his response. Wil opened his mouth, gulped a few times, and then looked up. At last, he croaked hoarsely.

“I would have won, sir.”

Silence. Niers nodded.

“Fair enough. I suppose you feel disappointed. I suppose the cost of four warships—and crew, and [Soldiers], not to mention the [Knight] order accompanying you—weighs on you. And it should. [Strategists] may answer to [Kings], or [Generals], or any number of employers. But when we give our orders, our analysis, lives hang on the balance. On our decisions a nation’s hopes and lives may rest. Never forget that.”

Marian held still. Wil looked up, shaking with each sentence, but nodded.

“Yes, Professor.”

Niers waited. The world waited. The Titan walked back and forth, studying Wil.

“You lost. But you took on Tulm the Mithril. Don’t forget that either, Wil. You surprised him. I know Level 40 [Strategists] that can’t claim the same.”

Wil looked up. Niers went on. His voice rose slightly as he gestured in the direction of the harbor.

“It was a masterful move, Wil. I saw the ships coming because I looked. I lost them after they left the harbor, but I knew they were coming. Next time, everyone will be looking so learn to prepare decoys and cover your tracks. You’ll never be able to pull the trick you pulled today as easily. And that is because the world knows your name. The world saw you outmaneuver a Great Company. Come this close to victory. And for that display, I have only one thing to say. Umina.

He turned. The Lizardgirl jumped and stuttered.

“Y-yes Professor?”

Niers looked at her. She looked at Niers. The students, Daquin, and the world as always, held their breaths. Niers glanced around, then he smiled.

“I’ll see both of you later. Umina, I’ll have your gift ready. Wil, no gift. You did lose. But have a question ready. Both of you.”

Marian felt her heart catch in her chest. Wil’s eyes widened. Marian heard a wild cry and saw Wil’s sister raise a hand in the air. And then Wil opened his mouth to say something—to protest—but it was drowned out by the roar of sound behind him.

Humans, and not just Humans! Daquin’s citizens screamed and clapped and shouted in delight with the others. The students around Wil swarmed him, clapping his shoulder, shouting in excitement. The Titan stood on his pedestal and laughed as Teura tried to shout at him. He had to wave his hands for nearly a minute to be heard.

“Enough! Enough! No questions. The reward matches the deed. Enough said. So let’s continue. To my students, officers, strategists. To my soldiers of the Forgotten Wing Company, and those of the Iron Vanguard who have yet to depart. To Daquin and its citizens, who won a victory over a Great Company this day. I congratulate you all. And as the Titan of Baleros and member of the Forgotten Wing company, I offer you my hospitality this night.”

And at his words, Marian heard a roll of sound. Not the slow thunder of the Iron Vanguard’s drums, but a far more welcome sound and sight. Wagons rolled forwards, and [Servants] leapt down. From bags of holding, and the stores in the wagons, they began setting up tables. Chairs. Rolling out barrels; kegs were far too small. The students and Daquin’s people stared. Then someone shouted.

“A feast!”

“A feast indeed! My people are setting up across the city, so don’t swarm them here! I’m renting every inn, pub, and miserable dive in the city! Open your doors! And if one of my students leaves Daquin sober, I’m expelling that student on the spot!”

Niers roared and his students cheered wilder than anyone else. They swarmed the tables and the [Servants] who had to beat them back with ladles as they tried to serve food. The excitement, expectation, and surprise of the last hour, all faded as Marian looked around and realized how hungry she was, how tired.

So she pushed towards a table, grabbed the nearest edible-looking thing, ate, drank, and felt better. And she forgot about the heartache, defeat, and all the other emotions whirling inside of her. The game was over.

And that was a relief.

 

—-

 

The Titan of Baleros had a flair for drama. But saying that was an understatement of understatements. It was like saying that Crelers had a bit of an eating problem. It completely missed how aggravating, how annoying Niers Astoragon could be. And while Perorn had worked with him for decades, he still managed to catch her by surprise.

Like now, for instance. She had coordinated the rest of the student’s ‘rewards’, which were rewards, but really just rare training opportunities with the Fraerling. But the announcement about Wil winning the right to a question had caught her off-guard as much as anyone else.

She pushed through the crowd surrounding Niers, Wistram [Mages] demanding an interview, Councilmembers asking if he was really going to pay for everything, only to find he’d disappeared. He was good at that, too, which meant Perorn had to answer all the questions.

She found Niers after the mob had dispersed to go look for him. Or rather, he found her; the Fraerling had hidden in a little alcove underneath the pedestal. Like a spider. It was an uncharitable comparison, but Perorn wasn’t happy to be left facing a sea of aggressive questioners.

She glared at the Titan as he pulled himself back up the platform. No one noticed, not even the Wistram [Mages]. As Niers had once remarked, the fact that they trusted to spells to notice invisibility enchantments and so on and so forth meant that they were terrible at noticing the mundane. And Fraerling were masters of hiding in plain sight.

“Quick, put me on your shoulder. Before they notice me.”

Briefly, Perorn debated ratting Niers out, or abandoning him. But knowing him he’d just wriggle out of it and cause her more trouble. So she held out a hand and he raced up her arm as if he were running up a slope. He perched on Perorn’s shoulder and she trotted off. The celebration was in full swing, and more than a few [Mages] and Councilmembers were distracted by the barrels already being emptied of expensive alcohol.

“How much did you spend on the celebrations?”

“Do you want to know that? Or do you want to kill me about Wil? You can take your pick, but I’d rather not add to how snappish you’re going to be.”

Niers dangled his legs over Perorn’s shoulder, looking more cheerful than he had any right to be. The Centauress glared at him, limping slightly as she walked across the city.

“What was that stunt at the end? You just ruined the purpose of the entire game!”

The Fraerling stroked his beard, looking unconcerned at her reaction.

“As a matter of fact, I did not. Umina still won. And she gets a larger prize than Wil, but he still earns the right to the question. It’s not as if this is the first time. I did it two games ago. Or would you have let Wil toss himself into the ocean after losing to Umina?”

“I’d have rather you gave him a suitable reward. Or are you sympathetic to him because of how much money he spent?”

The Fraerling raised his eyebrows.

“The reward matches the deed, Perorn. Or do you disagree?”

The Centauress hesitated. The Titan looked seriously at her.

“I overplayed his bravery and the challenging Tulm bit, but he outmaneuvered the Iron Vanguard. They didn’t see him coming. I lost track of those damn ships.”

“You did? Really? I thought you made that up.”

“Well, I was hardly able to send scouting ships, was I? He kept them out of sight of regular vessels the entire way across the ocean. Tell me you could do better. Name me one of our best [Strategists] that could pull of a trick like that without sweating. And then tell me the reward is undeserved.”

Niers stared at Perorn. She hesitated.

“I suppose not. Even so—you know what the Kallinads will want to know, don’t you?”

“Mmf. Something political. I have something in mind. It will cause a fuss, but it shouldn’t get back to us.”

Perorn eyed Niers. His idea of a fuss was largely different from hers.

“And Umina? The gold you spent on this party? Healing potions? Was it all worth it? Not to mention—how many died?”

Niers paused. His expression grew somber.

“Seventeen deaths. Eight of ours, two civilians, six from the Iron Vanguard. One [Knight].”

“Low on the Terandrian’s side.”

“I didn’t count the horses. Twenty four of them.”

Perorn felt a twinge of pain. Horses weren’t Centaurs, but as distant kin, even if Centaurs were vastly more intelligent than horses, she felt the pain.

“What will you do about that?”

The Titan swung his legs in silence for a moment.

“Award the families double the standard pension. This wasn’t a battle. They weren’t meant to die. I’ll reach out to the Seer of Steel for his people. And I’ll have someone speak to Sir Kelm of the Order of Seasons about his [Knight].”

The two moved in silence for a minute after that. Well, Perorn walked and Niers sat. She could already see people eating, talking animatedly, clustering around a [Mage] in hopes of appearing in the scrying orb, and pairing up. The relief, the adrenaline and rush of triumph—it was almost as if this was the end of a battle. She spoke quietly to Niers.

“People always die. [Soldiers] die in camp when they quarrel with each other. Or after visiting a brothel and having their groins slowly rot off them. They die tripping while marching.”

“I know. It doesn’t change that this was my game.”

“Even so. You don’t have to—”

“We’ll pay them, Perorn.”

The Centauress dropped it. She looked at Niers. And thought. She knew her boss well. And she knew that nothing with Niers Astoragon was straightforward as it seemed, even when he looked like he was on a razor’s edge.

“You didn’t answer my question.”

He stood up and stretched. Niers absently raised a tiny whistle around his neck and blew it. The shrill sound was quite inaudible to Perorn, but she knew what was coming. She glared and reached out to grab him. He sidled down her shoulder.

“No. I didn’t. I’m going back first to Elvallian. You’ll be back at the academy tomorrow? The students will head with the convoy, but you can run back if you want to meet me there. We should plan out the student’s curriculums after this.”

The Centauress known as Fleethoof glared. She knew Niers wasn’t trying to hurt her—at least, she thought he wasn’t—but sometimes it felt like he forgot on purpose.

“I’m in no condition to run.”

Her right hind leg hurt. Now that Tulm was gone, Perorn felt her tendons protesting her every movement. Healing potions hadn’t saved her leg after it had been hamstrung; she had saved some mobility, but the pain and her own aging body made her old feats of speed a distant memory. She scowled and Niers looked up at her.

“It will feel better by the time you return.”

“Oh, really? And do you have a poultice for me? I don’t want one. I told you, [Healers] with painkillers don’t change the fact that my leg can’t move the same way it used to. And I won’t damage it just so you—”

“Perorn.”

The Titan stopped her with a word. He could do that. But Perorn swore that if the next words that came out of his mouth didn’t placate her, she would knock him off her shoulder and stomp on him. She waited as the Titan met her gaze. A tiny man on her shoulder. Perorn heard beating wings. Niers looked up, and then smiled crookedly.

“I told you you’d have a good day. Do you think seeing Tulm humiliated slightly was all of what I meant?”

Perorn blinked.

“I—yes. Of course. If it wasn’t just to see this, then what did you bring me for?”

Suddenly paranoid, she stared hard at Niers. But he only gave her his most enigmatic smile. He leaned forwards. And suddenly Perorn felt a hum as her rings warned her that he’d just employed an artifact. His anti-listening spells. He whispered in her ear.

“Venaz. Search for Armor Captain Shailt. Try to be discreet. Let him take the lead.”

What—

Niers stepped back. Perorn grabbed for him, but it was too late. He tipped his hat to her and leapt up. Perorn stepped back as a claw descended and snatched the Fraerling up like a bug. The owl flapped its wings once and took off. The Fraerling sped into the night, as the trained bird flew back towards the academy, as fast as a swallow.

Perorn watched him go. She cursed once. But she knew the owl would be flying too high for her, even if she decided to race after him. Damn animals. The Titan employed [Beast Masters] among his other tricks.

And then Perorn thought about what Niers had said. And her instincts, the little animal sense at the back of her brain, tingled. She looked around, murmuring.

“As bad as Foliana in his own way.”

He loved secrets. But he seldom lied outright. And so Perorn went searching for Venaz. She found the Minotaur a few minutes after a certain City Runner did. Perorn had to stop and speak to Daquin’s Councilmembers, as well as Wistram’s [Mages] and everyone else vying for her and Niers’ attention. Again.

Luan had to check on his boat.

 

—-

 

The game was over. She’d won. Umina walked around the streets of Daquin, feeling drunk on exhilaration, confused, and almost, a tiny bit, disappointed. Because no one was trying to kill her. No one was screaming that she was a cheat and should be punished. People seemed…happy.

But she wasn’t. Umina felt as guilty as she ever had, worse than when she’d pushed her neighbor’s son down the stairs because he’d shoved her the day before that. She’d seen Wil’s face after the game ended, and the disappointment on Venaz’s. But the worst had been Marian.

She’d been so close. Umina’s heart had stopped when she’d poked her head out of the ground and seen Marian leaping at her, and Tulm, Tulm the Mithril blocking her way. And he’d looked at her. And asked her name.

Umina’s heart pounded wildly at the memory. But if she dwelled on that, she’d start shaking, so she kept walking. Daquin’s citizens were in the streets, making merry with Wistram’s [Mages], the Forgotten Wing soldiers, and the students. They were the noisiest, and the center of attention, demanding to see themselves in the scrying orbs, which were on replay as Noass and Sir Relz gave their commentary on the game, drinking, being toasted and toasting each other—

And crying. Yes. There were tears amid the laughter and congratulations. Frustration, jealousy, disappointment—the other students had done their best after all. Some had spent money, or time, or any number of things on victory. And Umina had won. She tried to slink past the first few groups, head on a swivel for Marian. But the third wave of students clustered around a food table spotted her.

“It’s Umina! Get over here!”

A Dwarf’s bass voice roared over the crowd and everyone turned. Umina froze, but Merrik appeared and tugged her over to his table. He and some of the officer students were drinking, and they greeted Umina with shouts of delight. And surprisingly, none of them seemed angry. They sounded angry, but only for a second. Kelsa merrily cursed at Umina as she and Kaelma practiced quaffing. Jekilt shook his head as he drank more sedately from a mug.

“You bastard of a Lizardgirl, you did it! Right under our noses! Hah!”

Merrik slapped Umina on the back and then wrinkled his nose.

Phaw! You still stink! Here, take a drink and pour it over your head!”

He grabbed a mug and filled it with one hand. Umina took the mug, trying to speak, and saw a huge feathery shape appear next to her. Peki tilted her head and nodded a few times.

“Good trick. Dirty trick. I didn’t see it coming. Good job, and I hate you.”

She nodded at Umina as she dipped her beak into her drink. Umina ducked her head.

“I’m sorry—”

“Sorry? What’s there to be sorry about?”

Merrik was instantly outraged, as were several other students. Jekilt shook his head as he trotted over. He was eating some sticky balls of rice sweetened with a lovely sauce Umina knew from back home. Her stomach rumbled and Jekilt passed her a few. Umina scarfed them down. The [Captain] shook his head.

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You won, Umina. A win’s a win. It makes all of our effort look pointless, though. Which is the lesson the Professor probably wants us to learn.”

He looked at the others. Kaelma nodded as she adjusted her head and poured the drink down for maximum, Dullahan-style quaffing effect. Umina blushed.

“I still feel bad. You were all fighting so hard, and I used you as a distraction. Especially Wil. I couldn’t have done it without him occupying the Iron Vanguard.”

Merrik grinned.

“Hear that? She couldn’t have done it without us occupying all of the Iron Vanguard’s [Mages]! Which means—eh—wait—so no one would have won if we didn’t do our best. But since we did, Umina won. But if we’d all acted like she did—so how would we have won?”

He broke off, muttering to himself. One of the others, the Oldblood Drake with the folded wings, shrugged. She spat a small wisp of darkness out; it dissipated quick in the blood-red, evening sky.

“Probably by having a better endgame plan. Facing Tulm the Mithril in a scrum was suicide. You saw how he flattened your Minotaur with a single punch, right?”

Jekilt nodded.

“Venaz? I’ve never seen anyone do that. What was the Skill he used?”

“[The Twice-Born Warlord]. Now there’s a Skill worthy of a legend.”

Merrik sighed longingly. The others nodded. Peki frowned.

“You think he has the Skills too? Is he exactly as strong as Xol? These are the questions. I would have liked to fight him.”

“Fat chance of that now. You saw how he swanned off at once. Can’t take a defeat, that one.”

“It’s not like he’s going to stay and drink with you, Merrik. Or that he’d be that fun to hang around. I am disappointed that Xol left, though. I wanted to ask him to sign my armor!”

“Me too! And I owe him a punch for smashing me into the ground! My head’s still ringing! Hey, did you see how he took out Tefret? Poor bastard didn’t even stand a chance. And I thought he’d be the one to make it to the endgame! Let’s see if we can get it on replay. Oi! You, the [Mage] with the hat!”

Umina edged back from the group as they turned on a [Mage] trying to pour an entire keg’s worth of alcohol into a bag of holding. She was glad, really, but she had a job to do, so after raiding the food table for a very tasty rodent of some kind on a skewer, she headed out in search of the person she really needed to talk to.

It wasn’t hard to find her. Marian hadn’t gone far, and she stood out from the crowd because she was, well, a Centaur. Even in packed spaces, Centaurs got space. After a horse steps on your foot once, even by accident, you don’t let it happen twice. She was eating from a plate heaped with oats and covered in a spicy salsa that the Centauress liked. Even though it gave her indigestion.

She was talking with another Centaur, a student from another class. Umina edged over. She knew Marian saw her, but the Centaur [Strategist] didn’t acknowledge her. Umina coughed.

“Uh, Marian. Can I have a word?”

The other Centaur glanced over and saw Umina. Marian turned her head and something about her posture might have given away her feelings; the other Centaur made himself scarce in a moment. Marian and Umina stared at each other. The Centauress chewed her food, and swallowed. She spoke shortly.

“Hi, Umina. Congratulations on winning.”

“Thank you? I mean—I wanted to say sorry.”

“What for? It was a game. You won. Congratulations.

Marian furiously shoveled another mouthful of oats and nearly choked. She glared at Umina.

“Everyone knows all we had to do was win. You did that. Good job.”

“Marian. I really am sorry. I just—”

“Just what, Umina? Just stabbed me in the flank?”

The Lizardgirl was silent. Marian took a deep breath. She stared at Umina, and a note of hurt entered her voice.

“I thought we were a team. Wasn’t that what we said? Why did you run off?”

Umina traced the ground with one foot.

“I—I just had an idea. You know, with the [Nightwoman] we met? I wanted to see if she’d help me. I didn’t know if it would work. It was just an idea. I thought it wouldn’t work, so…”

“If you thought it wouldn’t work, why didn’t you tell me? No, don’t answer. You thought it would work, and you wanted to win.”

Marian abandoned her food entirely. She tossed her plate on a table to fold her arms. Umina protested weakly.

“I really didn’t know. And—look, I knew you and Venaz wanted to try Luan’s idea. You might have succeeded! You nearly did.”

“Except that you won.”

The two stared at each other. Marian tossed her head angrily. Umina spoke in a small voice.

“I really am sorry. I didn’t know you were that close. If I’d known…Marian, look. I have a question, alright? And I get an item from the Professor’s vaults. What if—if I gave you the question? I can ask it and tell you—”

Marian jerked as if Umina had slapped her. Her cheeks grew red.

“Don’t patronize me! If you’re going to stab me in the back, don’t give away your victory. You won. You ask the Professor a question. Don’t be like—”

She waved an arm, frustrated. Umina nodded. She looked down at her claws.

“I really am sorry, Marian.”

“Yeah, well. Sorry doesn’t change anything, does it? We were supposed to win together.”

That was true. Umina rubbed at one eye. Marian glanced at her. Looked away. Then she looked back.

“I suppose at least one of us won.”

“Marian. I’m so—

“Don’t say it. Just—fine. Fine, okay?”

Marian reached out and grabbed her friend. She hugged Umina so tightly the Lizardgirl squeaked.

“I’m not forgiving you just yet. I’m out a lot of money thanks to you, and I have to duel a [Weapon Master] every morning now! You owe me big. So you’d better tell me a bit about what the Professor’s room is like and what he says to you. Got it?”

The Centauress let go. Umina nodded rapidly. She opened her mouth, caught herself, and decided to stop talking for a while. And that helped. So did the alcohol Marian filled up in a huge tankard. The Centauress drank down one mug, then another. In quick succession. So went the legendary Centaur tolerance for alcohol. After that, Marian looked more cheerful.

“And at least I didn’t have to wade through that sewage again. That almost makes it worth it. Was it nasty?”

“You have no idea. The last place we were in was clean compared to the one I had to have the [Nightpeople] excavate.”

Umina shuddered. Marian paused as she grabbed her plate of oats.

“It wasn’t that bad.”

“Oh yeah? How’d I get poo on my head?

Marian thought about that. She put her plate back, no longer hungry. Umina wasn’t much either. She looked around, struck by a thought now she’d talked to Marian.

“Where’s Luan? I didn’t see him. Did he get captured?”

“Him? No. I lost track of him in the final push. He helped us out, though. And he stopped Xol! With children, no less! He’s one interesting City Runner. Want to see if we can find him?”

“He stopped Xol with—yes, let’s find him!”

Marian nodded. She led Umina through the crowd, catching her up while Umina described in brief her adventure in the septic tanks, locating the right one and waiting for her moment. In truth, Marian’s story was far more engaging; Umina’s had mostly been one of patience and trying not to throw up.

“Oh, look! There he is!”

Umina spotted Luan in the crowd. It wasn’t hard to find him either after a bit of searching; he was Human, but his skin tone made him look Chandrarian, and the Terandrians were also a bit shorter than he was. Umina waved excitedly.

“Luan!”

“It’s you two. I saw you won. Good job!”

Luan smiled as he walked over. He’d been looking around the party. Now he grinned at Umina in a satisfied way that told both [Strategists] that he had no idea how momentous Umina’s victory had been. Umina glanced at Marian.

“Thanks. I uh, well, I owe you for encouraging me. And giving me the idea, really. Where were you? Did you get captured in the end?”

“Me? No. Once everyone poured out of the apartments I decided to stay back. I’ve been looking for my boat at the harbor.”

Luan made a sour face. Umina frowned.

“Your boat? I didn’t see it.”

“Exactly. My scull’s wrecked and sunk. It wasn’t that strong to begin with, but the collision—I’ll have to take a Centaur cart all the way back to Talenqual, or rent a canoe here. I’d rather take the cart.”

Luan scowled. Marian raised one brow, slightly offended by the comparison.

“Since you’re still here, can I ask whether or not you’ve been paid?”

“I have your gold. But I haven’t seen that damn Minotaur yet. Do you know where he is?”

The [Rower] scowled. Umina looked around.

“Not me. But that’s a good point? Where is Venaz? I’d expect him to be arguing with everyone and challenging all the officer classes to a fight.”

Marian craned her neck. She shaded her eyes against the sunset’s glow.

“He looked down after the battle. Was losing really that hard on him?”

“Let’s find him. I want to apologize to him as well.”

“Don’t bother. I’m the one you owed the apology too.”

“Marian…”

The two were joking as Luan looked around with a frown. He took in the tables and Umina distinctly heard a gurgle from his stomach. He pointed hesitantly to a table laden with food.

“This food’s free, right? Can I get some even if I’m not a citizen of Daquin?”

“Of course!”

Luan smiled.

“In that case—hold on. I’ll be back in a second.”

He hurried over to a table and grabbed a plate. Umina laughed. And then she saw something peculiar. Luan reached into a pocket and, after a glance around, pulled something out. Umina saw a bright glow, almost like a spell coming from a little device in his hands. The City Runner held it up and did a slow circle, before going over the buffet with it in hand.

Almost as if he was…she frowned and nudged Marian. The Centauress spotted Luan’s motions and nodded. The two trotted over as Luan filled a plate. And he put the little rectangle back in his pocket. Marian casually glanced at his laden plate and cup.

“Nice selection. What was that flash of light?”

Luan froze for a second. Then he gave her a disarming smile.

“Uh—artifact. I uh, just wanted to get a better look. So my friends back at the company could see everything. Where do you think Venaz is?”

Neither the smile nor quick topic change fooled Marian or Umina. They exchanged a look. Interesting. It could have just been any number of minor magical artifacts. But given that it was Luan…Umina’s instincts tingled.

Something to discuss. Or look into. But neither [Strategist] brought it up. Instead, Umina looked around with a frown.

“He mentioned that Armor Captain. Shailt? What was that about?”

“Oh! You missed it, Umina. We ran into an entire company right outside the apartment and Venaz was challenged by their leader. She was a Minotaur and he actually took her down!”

“An Iron Vanguard’s Armor Captain?

“That’s what I said! He was worried about her. Something about her jaw? I don’t remember. Let’s find a [Healer]. He might be with them.”

Ironically, the [Healers] were hardest to find. Not because they didn’t have an aid station set up where those too badly hurt to be cured immediately were being treated, but because it was so hard moving from street to street.

Daquin was packed, and people who recognized Marian and Umina just had to come up and congratulate her, or tell Marian how close she’d gotten. Luan had finished one plate and was halfway through another by the time they spotted a familiar horned head talking to a [Healer].

“Venaz! There you are. Why aren’t you having fun?”

The Minotaur turned around. He still wore the uncharacteristically depressed expression he’d had earlier on. He nodded to the Lizardgirl.

“Umina. Congratulations on your victory. It was well-deserved. I need to remember that underhandedness in the future.”

They were the right words, but without any of the arrogance that normally came with it. Umina blinked up at Venaz. He noticed Luan and grimaced.

“Luan. I haven’t found my money pouch. I’d get the Merchant’s Guild to withdraw me some coin, but—”

He gestured around the chaotic streets. No Merchant’s Guild was going to be open; Umina saw a [Merchant] dancing in the street with a [Barman]. Luan folded his arms.

“Can you borrow some?”

“From another student? I suppose so. I’ll do it in a few minutes.”

The Minotaur sighed. This melancholy was so unnatural that all three, Luan, Marian, and Umina, stared at him with worry. Even Luan, who’d known Venaz all of a few hours.

“Venaz, what’s wrong?”

He shook his head slowly and glanced towards the aid station. It was a commandeered inn and the patients were resting upstairs. Although given the raucous streets, the rest component was debatable.

“I’ve disgraced myself in front of my people. No matter what the Professor says.”

“What? You hardly did worse than anyone else. You even got a reward! I know it wasn’t as good as Wil, but—”

“Not that. I know my performance wasn’t stellar, but I demonstrated my abilities and faced off against Tulm himself. I don’t regret that. It’s Armor Captain Shailt.”

Venaz pointed towards the door. Umina glanced in, but the other Minotaur must have been upstairs already. She glanced up at Venaz.

“Is she badly hurt?”

“It was a weaponless match. If she’d kept her weapon, I have no doubt I would have lost, even if I’d used one of mine. But the duel was fair. I pride myself on my victory! She’s at least a Level 30 [Warrior]—the fact that I bested her is a mark of pride. Or it would be. But her jaw—”

He broke off and stared at one of his clenched fists.

“I misjudged my strength. I was wearing gauntlets. I hit her too hard and my punch shattered her bones. I know it did. I felt it.”

“But that wasn’t all your fault. She challenged you.”

Marian shifted her hooves uncertainly. Venaz shook his head stubbornly.

“To injure another Minotaur is normal. If this were a battle, even a death could be understood. But in a sparring match? A game? A permanent injury is far different than a wound that could be healed by potion. If I force Armor Captain Shailt to retire because of my careless blow, I could never forgive myself.”

He paced back and forth in front of the inn. And he looked so guilty that Umina couldn’t help but feel bad for him. She’d never seen Venaz beat himself nearly this much up over anything, even losing to Marian. And in a way, she could respect his guilt. She put a hand on his arm, standing up on tiptoe to do so.

“Hey. It’ll be fine. The Professor runs a Great Company, Venaz. You think he doesn’t have the best [Bone Healers] around? If Shailt doesn’t get better with the [Healers] here, I’ll bet he calls in an expert, no matter the cost. The Iron Vanguard will for one of their Armor Captains.”

Marian nodded encouragingly.

“They have experience with all kinds of injuries, Venaz. There’s no way you did enough damage with a single punch to be beyond fixing.”

Venaz perked up a bit, but grew despondent just as fast.

“True, true. But even then, shattered bone is different from a break. All the pieces—you can’t even heal them with a potion. And if the wound begins to heal before it can be seen to—”

Umina wondered if they could find the Professor, or another [Healer] to reassure Venaz. She was about to suggest it when Luan, who had been listening intently, stepped in. The [Rower] tapped Venaz on a shoulder and spoke seriously.

“If your Armor Captain doesn’t have the right [Healer] see to her here, Venaz, my company can help out. Either bring her to Talenqual, or I can bring my friend to her. There’s a [Doctor] in my company who can mend almost any wound. She might be able to restore even shattered jaws.”

“Your company?”

Umina blinked at Luan. Venaz did too.

“Your stupid company?”

Luan sighed.

“My company has an expert with us. She’s a [Doctor], not a [Healer].”

The man said it as if this was a good thing. All three [Strategists] blinked at him. Umina swished her tail uneasily.

“What, one of those weirdoes who hacks off limbs with saws and stuff? They’re…okay, I guess, but most of them aren’t better than a [Healer] with decent potions.”

Luan looked offended.

“She’s far better than that. My friend—Geneva—she’s saved hundreds of lives on the battlefield. [Soldiers] had a name for her because she was so good at saving lives, they call her the Last Light of Baleros. I saw her save a War Walker shot full of Evercut Arrows once. His arm was nearly gone and she reattached it by herself.”

Marian whistled slowly. Umina’s jaw opened. She had never heard of the Last Light of Baleros. But a [Doctor] who could reattach an arm? Short of serious magic or a healing potion like no other, that was incredible. And Evercut Arrows? Venaz stared at Luan and spoke slowly.

“A [Doctor] who can perform that level of healing? On a battlefield? That’s…incredible. If I had a [Doctor] like that in an army, I could reduce casualties by…you could create a vastly more efficient army that way!”

He was blinking fast. Umina waved an urgent claw.

“But she could also help Shailt, if need be, right?”

“I don’t see why not. I can at least ask her. She’s mended broken ribs, and all kinds of other breaks before.”

Luan nodded. Venaz looked up. He frowned, then nodded decisively.

“If Shailt does not recover. No, even if she does. Luan. If your [Doctor] friend is willing, would she consider journeying to Elvallian? I’d like to introduce her to the Professor. That is—the Titan of Baleros.”

The [Rower]’s eyes widened. Umina and Marian glanced at Venaz in surprise, but not for the same reason. Marian snapped her fingers.

“That might actually impress the Professor. If he hasn’t seen something like this already. Damn. Can I take partial credit, Venaz?”

“No.”

“You want Geneva to come to your—city? To meet the Titan?”

Luan spoke slowly. Venaz nodded.

“Why not? He’s always interested in new ideas. And even if he doesn’t allocate class time, I could get his interest by running an experiment. Hire someone to be cut open and test her versus a healing potion. Or break a leg. Yes. What’s her rate?”

“Rate? I uh—”

“Venaz. There you are.”

A voice interrupted Luan as he blinked and tried to respond. The students and City Runner turned to see an older Centaur trotting towards them. Marian bowed slightly.

“Professor Perorn!”

Luan looked up at the Centauress as both Venaz and Umina bowed slightly as well. He stared at her and the Centauress stared back. Her eyes shifted to Venaz.

“I was told you were asking about Captain Shailt. Her injuries don’t seem to be outside of healing. Lord Astoragon has sent for a healer specializing in this kind of injury. You needn’t worry. Who is this?”

Venaz let out a relieved sigh. He gestured to Luan.

“This is Luan, Professor Perorn. Luan, this is one of our teachers. Perorn Sadiluc.”

Luan bowed slightly, copying the students. And again, Umina saw he had no idea of who Perorn was.

“Pleased to meet you, Professor. City Runner by water. I’m a [Rower]. I was hired for this game by uh, Venaz.”

The [Galewinds Strategist] nodded politely as well. She looked Luan up and down searchingly, and Umina wondered if she was unhappy about the City Runner’s participation. No. That made no sense. But she definitely looked interested. Then again, Professor Perorn was the sort of person who would sweep a dirty corridor in the academy if she spotted it.

“Did I hear you saying you intended to bring someone to the academy, Venaz? After the last incident with the fire spitters, I’d hope you’d run any ideas by a teacher first.”

The Minotaur hesitated as Marian snorted.

“This is hardly on the same level, Professor. I’m considering inviting a [Doctor] with exceptional skill. She’s apparently renowned as the Last Light or something. You see, it would fit nicely with my proposals about a casualty-intensive battlefront that I intend to submit to Professor Astoragon…”

Marian and Umina both rolled their eyes, but Perorn’s eyebrows shot up. She glanced sharply at Luan and shifted her hooves slightly.

“The Last Light of Baleros? I heard a rumor about her. Tell me, how good is she?”

Luan frowned. He hesitated, and then nodded decisively.

“The best in the world. I think I can say that definitively.”

This time all three students made sounds of disbelief. But Perorn didn’t. She looked at Luan, and then glanced at the other students.

“One second, please.”

Umina backed up as Perorn drew Luan aside. They spoke for a moment and she saw Luan glancing at Perorn’s hindquarters. No, at her leg. Umina’s jaw dropped. Marian blinked rapidly.

“Does Professor Perorn think—”

“No way. The best healing potions didn’t save her leg.”

“But a [Doctor]—don’t they just cut off arms?”

“Sew them back on too is what I heard. Mad. I heard they were close to [Necromancers]. But the Last Light of Baleros?”

“Hmf. Luan didn’t lie. Not according to my amulet. I’d better do more research. If he’s telling the truth—”

All three broke off as Perorn exclaimed.

Really? You’re sure about that?”

The students tried to covertly shuffle forwards. They caught the tail-end of Luan’s reply.

“I don’t know. But she could reattach a hand that’s just been severed. And I know of operations that can splice tendons together. Maybe Geneva could…”

Both Centaur and Human looked up. Venaz looked up and pretended to stare at the sky. Umina tried to whistle. Marian turned around. Perorn glared.

“I believe I was clear on the meaning of privacy. Or do I need to prepare a lesson on civility as well?”

“No Professor.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s an open street.”

Marian kicked Venaz. Perorn looked at Luan. She nodded curtly.

“Bring her here to the academy. I’ll authorize it. I’m sure Lord Astoragon will if need be as well. We’ll send a formal invitation along with the cost of travel expenses. Does this [Doctor] need any tools?”

Luan smiled. He looked excited, as well as nervous.

“She has her own set. And she has a number of tools that can help with everything from sickness to delivering babies.”

“Delivering babies? Alright, now I’ve heard it all.”

Marian was derisive. Luan protested.

“She can do it! Geneva’s capable of delivering children when there are difficulties in childbirth as well.”

Umina was skeptical.

“You say that. But childbirth, fixing bones, reattaching arms…this isn’t some fake cure-all, is it?”

She expected Luan to grow defensive. But to her surprise, the man’s expression calmed. He smiled.

“No. It’s medicine. You see, what Geneva performs is known as a Caesarian Section. Anyone can do it, but she is one of a few experts—perhaps the only one who can do it reliably. The way it works is—”

It was just as well Umina hadn’t eaten much. She listened to Luan’s description with mounting horror. A way of cutting open stomachs to remove babies inside the mother? It sounded barbaric. And yet, Luan described it with such confidence and detail that Umina was impressed, despite herself. Venaz was shaking his head after Luan was done.

“Babies, limbs, I have to see this. So does the Professor. If you’re not lying, bring her over by all means.”

“I’ll arrange it. And yes, Venaz, you’ll get credit.”

Perorn stomped her hooves briskly. She looked around.

“You all enjoy the night’s party. I have to return to Elvallian.”

“Oh! Professor, aren’t you going back with the caravan—?”

“Too slow. I’minthemoodtorun.”

Perorn’s hooves shot forwards. She zipped forwards, surprising Umina. The revelers turned and stared as Fleethoof galloped past them, from standing to faster than a Human could sprint in a moment. Luan stared.

“Who was that?

“That was Fleethoof. One of our Professors. Almost as famous as Tulm the Mithril.”

Marian informed him archly. Luan stared at her. He blinked a few times.

“I’ve got to ask more questions.”

“And you have to meet our class! They’ll want to hear all about your [Doctor]. And I want to know more about your [Rowing]! And how you beat the Iron Vanguard into the harbor!”

Umina pointed back towards the plaza. Luan nodded amiably. He grinned.

“I could use some drinks. And more food. But just one more thing before that. Venaz.”

He turned to the Minotaur. Venaz blinked at him.

“Yes?”

“Give me my money.”

 

—-

 

Out of Daquin. Like lightning. The owl that had carried Niers back towards his home had nothing on the blur that raced down the streets, around people, jumping over wagons, as fast as any Courier. Students, civilians, and [Mages] looked up and stared. Some cried out her name in surprise. But by the time their words were echoing, she was gone.

Fleethoof. She raced down the trade road, weaving around other travellers on the road. Her four legs galloped, and the ground melted away in front of her. Perorn ran with the humid wind on her face as the sun set. And she felt alive.

She was indeed running back. Her leg hurt, but something, perhaps, a meeting beforehand, had caused Perorn to forget all about her pain. It blossomed fiercely in her chest, beating right next to her heart.

Hope.

And on a warship heading north across the coastline of Baleros, a silent crew attended to their duties with the exact opposite feeling in their guts. They were the Iron Vanguard. The might of a Great Company. More powerful than any one nation. And yet, they moved in almost complete silence. Nursing bruises, minor cuts, and worst of all, injured egos.

They had lost. But far more egregious, far more terrifying was the fact that he had lost. Their leader. You couldn’t have gotten a laugh out of the crew with a Level 40 [Jester]. And as they sailed through the beginning night, a Dullahan bearing a precious cargo headed above decks from the ship’s hold.

He was carrying a head. And it wasn’t his own. This head was far larger, and it still wore the helmet, the armor identical to his body. Xol, the War Walker, patiently waited as the Dullahan porting him carried him up the steps and onto the deck. The crew of Dullahans all paused to bow to him, those that weren’t immediately busy. He acknowledged them briefly as he passed, but the dour mood had infected him as well. His bearer took him towards the ship’s cabin, normally reserved for the [Captain], but now occupied by a much more prestigious guest.

The Dullahan stopped at the door to the cabin. A pair of silent Midnight Shields were standing guard at the door and their attitude was intense. They were taking the defeat worst of all. The Dullahan gulped, but the Midnight Shield let him knock anyways.

“Strategist. Xol to see you.”

“Enter.”

A crisp voice instantly replied. One of the Dullahans on guard swung the door open and the Dullahan porter entered. And there he had a surprise.

Because inside the cabin wasn’t doom, gloom, or even sulkiness. In fact, the person standing inside the cabin, his armor gleaming, was quite calmly feeding himself dinner while his head rested on the table. The Dullahan porter paused, surprised.

He didn’t look upset. And, strangest of all, he wasn’t. As the Dullahan carried Xol’s head into the cabin on a pillow, Tulm the Mithril glanced to his right at an orb he was speaking into.

“Xol has arrived, Seer. Your pardons, Xol, I was finishing my meal as I spoke. May I offer you refreshment?”

“It would be welcomed.”

Xol replied politely. As was customary among the Dullahans, the status of the two had already been decided the moment Xol entered the room. And despite the War Walker’s age and status as a titan among Dullahans, Tulm was still the superior. Now the two heads rested together on little cushions, talking together as Dullahans did in a little circle of heads, leaving their bodies free to act autonomously.

In this case, Tulm’s body was feeding himself and very quickly a Dullahan [Server] entered the room and began to serve Xol food. Headless, of course; it wouldn’t do for someone to join the conversation. Especially because the attitude was very informal, as befitted old friends. If someone else joined the conversation, everything would have to be very formal. Especially given who was listening from the scrying orb.

“A light wine, then. And to eat?”

“Mm. I will have the catch of the day, whatever that may be, with a pasta sprinkled with the oregano sauce. Hold the addition of salt and provide me with a lemon for the fish.”

“Noted.”

Tulm delicately wrote the requested dish down and handed it to the headless [Server], who took it and came back with a plate of food and drink during the conversation. The duality of heads and headless would have bothered another species, but Tulm and Xol barely broke stride. Tulm instantly turned back to the scrying orb.

“As I was saying. The defeat was close, and avoidable. If I had prepared more fully, it might have been reversed despite the intrusion of House Kallinad’s reinforcement. As it is, I can only offer my regrets, Seer.”

Xol held his breath. Tulm was apologetic, but there was little actual regret in his tone. Certainly not the humiliation or pain the rest of the crew was feeling, Xol included. There was a rumble from the orb.

“DO NOT REGRET IT, TULM. I QUITE ENJOYED IT.”

The voice rumbled throughout the cabin, a low, bass roar that reminded those listening of the thunder of rocks falling down a mountain. It was—well, to call it a shout was wrong because a shout was a certain way of speaking that involved force, effort, the maximal volume lungs could produce. This voice was as loud as any shout, but it was spoken in a conversational, even casual tone.

It was loud. Tulm’s own plate vibrated slightly and he winced as the liquid in his cup danced and a bit splattered on the tablecloth. Xol wished he could massage his ears; he’d felt his earwax vibrate.

“Seer, may I regretfully request that you lower your tone? Our confine is enclosed.”

“APOLOGIES. HOW’S THIS?”

The operatic, booming tone lowered slightly in intensity. But not by much. Tulm sighed. Volume control was among the Seer of Steel’s few weaknesses. He tried to adjust the scrying orb’s volume instead, and the volume did indeed reduce. But the size of the voice couldn’t be changed so easily.

“I have a few small victories to share. Among them was my ability to use my appraisal Skill on all of the students and a number of the Forgotten Wing officers during the game. I have had a [Scribe] write down their rough levels and Skills. The information will help us if we come across them in the field or in hiring. A small compensation.”

He indicated a sheaf of papers. The voice in the orb rumbled.

“USEFUL. BUT A LOSS IS A LOSS. I SHARE YOUR DISAPPOINTMENT, TULM. HOWEVER, IT WAS A GAMBLE.”

“Yes.”

Tulm calmly fed himself more of his dish, a lasagna-type meal neatly arranged and cut into pieces. Xol stared from Tulm to the orb.

“Pardon me, Mithril. Seer. But the crew and I were under the impression this was our battle to lose. Morale is low.”

Tulm glanced up and nodded.

“As it should be. However, Xol, I regard this loss as partially inevitable. The Titan invited me to this game. I came with every advantage I could reasonably take, including yourself.”

“And I was unable to grant you victory. It was my weakness, Mithril.”

“WAS IT? I THINK OTHERWISE. AS DOES TULM.”

Tulm nodded.

“To play the Titan’s game is to invite defeat. The only question was whether he intended us to play or not. I decided to take the risk. And I lost. I am ashamed. But not surprised. My teacher is insurmountable in his ability to play mind games. If I dragged him onto the battlefield, I would be more sure of victory. But this game?”

He shrugged. Xol stared at Tulm.

“Then, Mithril, if I may ask. Why take the risk? Why invite humiliation to the Iron Vanguard, however great or small it may be?”

“BECAUSE OF WHAT WAS OFFERED.”

The Seer’s voice made the cutlery rattle. Tulm nodded briefly. He looked up at Xol.

“A question.”

Xol’s brow wrinkled.

“I thought it was the prize from his armory. A gift worthy of the Seer of Steel. What question could the Titan answer that the Seer of Steel could not?”

He looked respectfully at the orb. There was a rumble, not so much words, but noise. Tulm put down his fork.

“Only one that matters. It is not your concern, Xol. Yet.”

That was a polite way of saying that Xol wasn’t important enough to know. Which told the War Walker exactly how important the question must be. He looked at Tulm’s head and the Dullahan closed his eyes. When he opened them, his silver gaze met Xol’s steadily.

“If I had won, I would have considered it worth the cost even if we had left four out of the six warships and their crew at the bottom of the harbor. And as much as it pains me, even you, Xol.”

Xol inhaled sharply. He hadn’t taken offense; why would he? But it was the magnitude of what Tulm suggested that gripped his heart below decks.

“Then why did we not deploy a dozen warships? Bring in as much of an army as possible?”

The Mithril smiled ruefully.

“I’m sure the Titan would have countered that. He already broadcast his game to the world. I brought what I could, Xol. I employed any number of tactics. And still I failed. His student, Wil Kallinad, was impressive. As were some of the others. I regret my defeat. But it was worth the risk.”

The three fell silent. And after a moment, the Seer of Steel spoke.

“INDEED. BUT WHAT WOULD MOTIVATE THE TITAN TO PLAY A GAME OF SUCH RISK WITH LITTLE REWARD?”

Tulm frowned. Now that was the question, wasn’t it? He stared at his empty plate. And then, to Xol’s surprise, he chuckled. And then laughed. It was a short laugh, but it was a laugh. Only in this unguarded room did it come out. Xol stared at Tulm. The younger Dullahan looked up. And then he addressed the orb, as was proper.

“My apologies, Seer. Xol. But I recalled something the Professor once said to me. He told me once that he’d burn down a forest to win a card game, if the stakes were high enough.”

“Ah.”

Xol exhaled softly. It was a phrase he’d expect from the Titan of Baleros.

“Then the only question is, was what the Titan sought worth the risk?”

The War Walker glanced at Tulm, looking for answers. But the Dullahan just frowned, pondering. No one spoke for a while. At last, the Seer of Steel’s voice vibrated through the room.

“TULM. UNCOVER THAT ANSWER IF YOU WILL. I WILL AWAIT YOU IN PERSON. IF THE TITAN WILL NOT ANSWER BY GAMES, THE ANSWER MUST BE FOUND ANOTHER WAY. IF THE QUESTION IS NOT FRUITLESS IN ITSELF.”

Tulm raised his head and nodded. Slowly, he fastened the head onto his shoulders and looked at the scrying orb.

“And if it is a question worth answering?”

“THEN IT IS WORTH ALMOST ANY COST. PAY IT.”

Tulm the Mithril nodded, and Xol did likewise. That was all that needed to be said. The figure in the scrying orb turned.

“XOL.”

“Seer.”

The image winked out. Tulm sat back and rubbed at one ear. Xol envied him.

“So this is a defeat for the Iron Vanguard.”

“A setback. A defeat would see far more ships burned and our officers downed, if the Professor had willed it. Xol, I thank you for your efforts. You have leave to rest. Unless you have anything else to bring before me?”

“I do, Mithril.”

Tulm glanced at Xol’s head, surprised. It was rare for the War Walker to request anything.

“Speak.”

“I request to allocate forty, no, sixty gold coins from my funds. And to request connection with the central Adventuring Guild in any major city.”

“Easy enough. I will conduct both affairs now.”

Tulm reached for the scrying orb. He spoke into it, and after a few instructions to the [Mage] controlling it, and a slight pause, an image appeared in the orb. A very nervous, very widely-smiling Lizardman appeared.

“My—my goodness! Tulm the Mithril and Xol of Ingrilt? How can Zevai’s Adventuring Guild assist my honored guests today?”

“The smallest of things.”

Xol spoke politely and carefully, aware of Tulm’s curious eyes on him. He was embarrassed to even bring it up in front of his commanding officer, but there was no time like now, in case he forgot.

“I would like to put a bounty up. On one Luan the City Runner.”

Tulm glanced at Xol. The Lizardman blinked only once, and then nodded rapidly.

“Of course, of course! Anything for the Iron Vanguard—”

“No. This is a personal bounty. Please register it as such.”

The Lizardfolk instantly scribbled a note. He was sweating; he didn’t want to make a mistake.

“Naturally. I have made the note. Um, Sir Xol, may I ask a few questions about the nature of the bounty?”

“Yes.”

“Ah. Well then. For helpfulness’ sake, may I ask if this is a lethal or nonlethal bounty?”

“Nonlethal.”

“Oh! Nonlethal, excellent, excellent. We have a wide selection of options if you have any preferences. We offer maiming, permanent disfigurement, loss of an eye, branding—that’s extra—minor humiliation, property damage, superficial beatings—”

“No permanent damage. Superficial beatings. And did you say property damage?”

“Yes, of course! We can put in a request for burned houses, financial damage, theft—I know this isn’t how other continent’s guilds do their jobs, but we aim to please, and if you have any specific items in mind…”

“He has a boat. Destroy the boat. But don’t harm him. That’s all.”

“I have made a note. And I will place the bounty up at once! Ah—”

“The Iron Vanguard will send the payment directly.”

Tulm spoke up for the first time. The Lizardman jumped.

“Of course! And if you have any more needs, please don’t hesitate to—”

The connection faded. Tulm sat back and regarded Xol. The Mithril looked amused.

“A small thing, Xol? Did the City Runner cause you some form of insult?”

The War Walker frowned mildly.

“Some things should be dealt with. There is fairness and there is justice. I did not appreciate the risk to the children.”

“I see. It is your decision.”

“Yes.”

The two sat in silence for another minute. Xol sighed. His pride still hurt, even hearing Tulm’s reasoning. The Mithril glanced at him, and then out the porthole at the sea. The ship’s lights illuminated the dark waters, but the horizon was vast and the sea endless. The Iron Vanguard’s navy, first and foremost among the Four Great Companies—no, the only naval power of the four, was a small thing compared to the vastness of the ocean.

“It was just a game, Xol.”

“Yes. And I wonder who really won?”

Tulm the Mithril looked up. His eyes flashed. He wondered the same question. For after all, as sanguine as he appeared, he had lost. He sat with Xol, thinking about the Titan, wondering what game his former mentor was playing.

They called him the second-greatest [Strategist] of Baleros. The second of the Iron Vanguard. Second in many things. And they told stories about him. Many of the stories were fake. The rest were exaggerated. But there was one thing no one knew. Tulm’s class. A class only he, the Seer of Steel, and Niers Astoragon knew he possessed. Perhaps Foliana too, but you could never tell what she knew. Or if she cared. But it was his class, and it was a class to shake the world.

[Dragonslayer Strategist].

Sometimes the legends were true.

 

—-

 

So Fleethoof ran, Tulm the Mithril sailed away, and his students laughed and partied. Victors, each in their own way. And Daquin became a name on every lip until it was not. And for a day, the world revolved around him.

The Titan of Baleros flew through the night, back towards the academy. The owl holding him was swift, and he was nearly back home. Still, he resented the trip; he realized that Perorn would only have arrived a little bit behind him if she was going all-out. Speed was a relative thing, sometimes.

Even so, the Titan was in a good mood. He hummed to himself as Elvallian’s spires came into view and the welcoming lights of his academy appeared before him.

They were coming to see him. All thanks to Venaz, a few lucky moments, and of course, a game that had pulled in every eye across the world. And they all wondered and speculated what his purpose was.

And they were right to wonder. And right to suspect. But the truth was that it was all a feint. The game. Tulm. Even Niers’ question and his gift to Umina, which he’d have to come up with. Oh, he always had his game. And he always liked it to be fun. But this time, it had all been to arrange one meeting. Such a casual one that while everyone stared at Niers’ grand plots and designs, they missed the little trick, the moment hiding amid the grandeur.

Niers laughed to himself. He’d nearly started a war to arrange a meeting. Good thing Tulm hadn’t won. Anyways.

That was what you called a proper distraction.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.23 D

“You lost your money pouch.”

“No. Maybe. Perhaps. It might be down here.”

“Are you really searching—”

“Oh gods, Venaz!

“Shut up, Marian. Move those hooves. I have to find my money pouch. I had a lot of gold in there.”

“It’s not worth looking through—watch those hands!”

“I am going to murder you.”

“Venaz, where were you? We saw you jump into the harbor.”

“Hmf. Hiding in an attic. I could ask you the same question, Umina. That is you, there, isn’t it?”

“Of course. We were in a ship—”

“Don’t tell him that! We’re competitors!”

“Oh? So you want to fight now, is it? I’m willing to settle the score, Marian.”

“Big talk from a Minotaur crouched next to my right hoof. Forget about the money, Venaz. It’s gone. You probably lost it in the harbor.”

“I’m going to kill you, Venaz. Do you hear me?”

“Then I’ll go back and find it there. I have to have my bag of holding.”

“Whoops! Hey! Watch the hands!”

“Sorry. I’m trying to kill the Minotaur.”

“We all want to kill the Minotaur. But—wait. Hold on. You said you’re a Runner? What’s one of your lot doing here?”

“I had a delivery for that Minotaur. Venaz. He dragged me into this. I’m going to kill him. Where is he?”

“Hm. Not here—”

“Hey!”

“Gah!”

“Sorry. Don’t get near me. This is a very small space. And it stinks! My hooves are twitchy.”

“Umina, you can cast magic. Light up this cesspit again.”

“Hold on, Venaz. That patrol was hot on our heels. We have to keep hidden!”

“Gah! Who’s near my tail.”

“Sorry. Where’s Venaz?”

“Over there.”

“No, that’s me.

“Oh. Sorry, Umina.”

“I’ll have your gold. I swear to you, Luan the Runner. Just give me a second—”

“Alright, everyone shut up!”

“I’m going to—urk.

“Gah!”

“Don’t kick me, Marian!”

“Okay. Okay. Everyone calm? Or do I need to kick you both again?

“No.”

“No.”

“Very well. Let’s start from the beginning. Voices quiet. I think they’re searching the apartments.”

“…Quiet.”

“…”

“…No one here! Damn those students. What do you think—invisibility potion? Or…?”

“…Screamer dust is off that group. Let’s follow the sounds instead. Besides, did you see that Minotaur. Huge, ugly bastard. Venaz, I think. One of the Titan’s top pet students. Not worth fighting that.

Steady, Venaz.

Get off me. I’m going up there.

Over your dead body!

I’ll help with that.

Shh!

“…Nah. Let’s go. Sorry for the bother, Miss. Alright patrol! Let’s—holy Nagas, what the hell is—run! Get out of—

“…”

“I think they’re gone.”

“No kidding? Wonder what scared them off?”

“Maybe some students? Those clouds that Tulm the Mithril conjured?”

“Could be.”

“Hmf. You should have let me go up there.”

“And blow our cover? This is our hiding spot, Venaz.”

“You’re welcome to it. I just followed you because I had no other choice. I want my bag of holding. I just need that money. Move over. I’m still searching.”

“Aw, Venaz—

“I promised. I won’t forswear myself. This is—gah. I’ve waded through monster stomachs cleaner than this!”

“Venaz, stop. I’m serious. You’ll catch something and you’re about to throw up.”

“Shut up—Umina. I promised. I need—”

“Will someone explain what’s happening?”

“Oh! Sorry. I forgot you were here. Your name’s…Luan?”

“Yes. What’s going on? What were those clouds? Why is the harbor filled with warships?

“The Professor’s playing a game. Haven’t you heard?”

“Professor? What? No. You’re making no sense.”

“Sorry, I meant the Titan of Baleros.”

“What about him?”

“Uh—this could be tricky. Well, let me put it this way. Do you know about the Forgotten Wing company?”

“A little.”

“Raise that hoof, Marian. I feel—no. That’s not gold.”

“Venaz, stop. Look, Mister Human. This is all a game.”

“With magic fog, warships, and people trying to bash my skull in?”

“Yes?”

“Explain. Please.”

“Well, let’s start from the beginning. My name is Umina. I’m a student of Niers Astoragon. The Titan. That’s Marian, the Centauress who kicked you. And Venaz is the one on his hands and hooves.”

“I’ll find that gold. You have my bag of holding?”

“Yes. Okay, now what’s this about a game…?”

“Well—”

 

—-

 

It was just a game. You could say that. Just a game. Why did it matter when there were people dying across the world? When monsters threatened lives, when war pressed down? There were some who would rail at the injustice. Why did a game matter? Why didn’t the world care about what was truly important, what mattered?

And they were right. And wrong. Because it was a game, yes, one where no one was supposed to die. On the other hand, it was a game set up by the Titan of Baleros. On one side you had Tulm the Mithril, the Iron Vanguard, and against him you had a class of students, all trying to reach their Professor in a plaza. Trying to make it to a small circle ten feet by ten feet across, to win a prize like no other.

The truth. And a gift from the Titan’s treasures. That alone made it a great game, one where the prize meant something. But the rest of it? The reason why the world watched?

Because it was real. It was true. The powers of the world, adults, rulers and leaders and monsters alike, watched children putting everything they had on the line for victory. Striving, as hard as they could. And so was it a game or reality? A mix of both, perhaps.

It mattered. It mattered so much the losers wept. It mattered enough for an army to sail from Terandria. And now they clashed on the street, with [Soldiers] from the Forgotten Wing and Iron Vanguard. And those soldiers gritted their teeth and held their ground, fighting with blunted weapons, breaking bones, drawing blood. Because although it was a game, they had pride. They wanted to win.

They all did. You could see it in the student’s eyes, hear it in their voices. The tremble, the longing.

Victory.

And that was why Luan could rationalize it all. He was standing up to his calves in…muck. Excrement. He was, in fact, standing in a septic tank, a collective latrine used by the citizens of Daquin. He had seen the very same thing in Talenqual; the pits were filled, as it were, by a block or a few houses, and periodically emptied by [Nightmen], by [Scourers]—those employed to take the collected matter. It was, after all, valuable in its way. You could use it as fertilizer.

But why anyone would stand here stretched the City Runner’s belief. The South African man might well have believed this was all some prank, or that Venaz, the Minotaur breathing shallowly next to him was entirely insane. Until he heard the Minotaur’s voice. The Centauress, Marian, and the Lizardgirl, Umina, explain. Then he understood.

Not everything. The feud between the Titan and his student, the politics of the Iron Vanguard, the fact that these three [Strategists] were students at some kind of academy and so on was a lot to digest. But Luan already believed. And part of him already understood the important part. Because of who Luan was.

An athlete. An aspiring champion. Someone who competed in the truest sense of the world. He, Luan, had made his life’s dream about victory. He had a window; his body would grow old and he would lose his edge all too quickly. He could lose his chance thanks to injury, bad luck, any number of factors. But if he succeeded? If he trained until his sweat was blood? If he had the drive and will and courage?

He could have been the best in the world. Unmatched. Luan would have competed against the world’s finest, in front of millions. And win or lose, he would still have numbered among the greatest in his sport, in what he did.

So yes, Luan understood what drove the students. Better than Ken could have. He listened as they told him why they were here. And he understood.

It still didn’t make standing in sewage any more fun. But it stopped Luan from trying to kill Venaz. The Minotaur was doing the exact opposite of hyperventilating as he tried to search the waste he was standing in. Luan heard swearing, sounds of disgust, gagging—until the [Rower] could bear it no more.

“Enough. Stop looking around. You’re not going to find it.”

“I have to have my bag of holding.”

The Minotaur’s voice was steady as he straightened. He was barely visible with the tiny crack of light that came from the privy above. Luan reached for the Minotaur’s possession, the bag of holding.

“To win, yeah? Take it.”

He offered it. Venaz hesitated.

“But my gold—”

“I’ll track you down after this. And if you don’t pay me, I’ll…”

Luan hesitated. Threatening to break Venaz’s legs or offer the Minotaur any kind of physical harm was ludicrous.

“…I’ll make sure the Runner’s Guild hears all about this. But you want to win.”

“I must.”

“Then—here.”

Luan held the bag of holding out. And the Minotaur hesitated.

“I should pay you first. This lacks credibility. You were right to demand your payment. It’s dishonorable.”

There was a plaintive note in his voice. Luan hesitated. He wondered what Ken would have said if he were here. If he had told Luan about Minotaurs—but it was the competitor who spoke back to Venaz.

“Do you want to win, or not? I don’t know about your Professor or this grand secret. But do you want victory?”

Yes.

“Then take it.”

Luan thrust the bag of holding out. It wasn’t exactly light—it felt like it was ten pounds of weight, despite being very small. It also felt full. But Luan hadn’t undone the drawstring. He waited for a moment. Then there was a splash—he felt a huge presence, and then a hand close over his wrist. Venaz spoke softly.

“Thank you.”

Luan didn’t know what to say to that. Frankly, he was still angry. His boat was damaged, possibly sunk. He was covered in—and he’d been chased and nearly beaten black and blue by the soldiers on the street. But after his anger had faded and he’d heard what was going on, the student’s situation had impressed itself on him. He looked around.

“So you’re all in the same class? The Titan’s class?”

The three shapes nodded. Luan tried to be suitably impressed. But even though he knew of the Titan of Baleros, he didn’t know the legends well enough to be in awe. And the three had done little to impress him. Now the Centaur shifted her hooves. She—Marian—spoke.

“If you’re worried about Venaz paying you, don’t be. He’d rather drink this entire midden’s contents than renege on his word. He’ll pay you after this is over, Luan, is it?”

“That’s right.”

Venaz made a snorting noise to Luan’s right as he opened the bag of holding.

“You’re exaggerating, Marian. If I had to choose between breaking my word over fifty gold pieces or drinking this filth, I’d rather give up fifty gold. Kraken’s tooth, but this is disgusting! Umina, what possessed you to hide here? I can’t see anything either.”

The Lizardgirl spoke up nervously. She had a higher-pitched voice, and from the way she shifted, was clearly more hesitant than her two companions. She sounded younger, too.

“Well…it’s a perfect hiding spot, isn’t it? Short of magic, no one will even think to look here. Dogs won’t sniff us out—we could hide for a long time here.”

“I’d rather be caught.”

Marian groaned. She sounded faintly sick. Luan was trying not to breathe. The smell did not get better over time. He looked around.

“Well, I did my job. Can I leave now?”

No.

All three students said it at once. Luan scowled.

“Why?”

“You’ll give us away. We need to win this thing.”

“You mean, get to the center of the city and reach your Professor? Like a game of capture the flag?”

“Hm? Well, I suppose so. It’s a lot more involved than that. Did you notice the soldiers?”

“I was nearly beaten by the soldiers. What kind of game has people attacking City Runners and civilians?”

Venaz grunted.

“What kind of proper game wouldn’t have that? Damn. I can’t find…Umina, can I get some light?”

“Sure. Just for a second. [Light].”

The Lizardgirl cast a spell. A hovering orb of light illuminated their surroundings. Luan saw moldy, slimy wooden walls, the Lizardgirl, a Centauress standing next to her, Venaz, one filthy hand holding the bag of holding—and then the [Rower] realized that Umina had illuminated what he was standing in.

He wished she hadn’t. Luan looked down and retched. It was semi-liquid, that was true. But there were…crusts. Venaz made the same mistake and uttered an oath. Marian began dry-heaving.

“Sorry!”

The light disappeared, but Luan had enough. He raised a hand, realized what was on it, and let it fall.

“I wish to leave now.”

“You can’t. I’m sorry, but we need a plan. Those mists rolled in moments after the Screamer Dust. Tulm the Mithril must have used one of his Skills, or his [Mages] conjured something incredible!”

“That was a Skill. [Cold Iron Mists] or something like it. A [Mage]-killer technique. Lesser artifacts and spells will fail inside of the fog. And we’ll be weighed down. Not that it matters. I intend to move shortly. What of you two? We are competitors, but given what we’re up against, I wouldn’t mind teaming up.”

Venaz was pulling something out of his bag of holding. Luan heard a clank, and then saw the Minotaur shifting. Venaz’ was lifting something up.

“Watch out or I’ll hit you.”

Luan shifted back a few steps. Marian lifted a foot with a wet, sucking sound.

“Umina, both your ideas are good hiding places. And I think we could hide here for a good time. But we need to win, not just hide. That’s the point of the game. We haven’t figured out how to defeat the Iron Vanguard, but we won’t manage it here. And frankly, if I have to stay here another minute longer than I have to, I will kill you and everyone down here ending with myself.”

She sounded serious. Luan shifted back from her. Umina sighed.

“I suppose you’re right. But we are at such a…I don’t know how to take on those Dullahans. You’d need an army! This isn’t just hide-and-seek. They can seal off the plaza with how many bodies they have. But you’re right. Venaz, a team up? What did you bring in that bag of holding?”

Marian shifted again.

“And why did you have a City Runner deliver it? You could have just…brought one. I did.”

Venaz’s voice was muffled for a second. Luan heard another metallic rasp.

“I thought our possessions might be confiscated, or the Professor would have interfered with our equipment somehow. I expected a trick. Just not the Iron Vanguard. Historically, he’s pulled tricks like this before—confiscating all the student’s equipment and clothing and making them hide naked in the jungles. Casting an anti-magic spell that wiped out their equipment. Unleashing [Thieves] on us before the games started—”

“Dead gods. He did all that?”

The Minotaur’s voice was reproving.

“You should have studied. The Professor’s created countless undesirable scenarios. I thought a City Runner would ensure I got my possessions and maintained a huge advantage. Now, I wish I’d hired a mercenary company instead. Still, I feel better prepared now. Ready to leave?”

Yes.

The others chorused as one. Umina waded past Luan and shouted up at the door.

“Excuse me! We need out!”

“Already?”

There were hurrying footsteps. A flash of light. Luan looked up at a [Nightwoman], a Lizardwoman whose job it was to wade in what he was standing in every day. He had never had more appreciation for her class than now. Umina looked apologetic.

“Sorry, we can’t handle the smell. Mind if you get us a ladder? Er—stairs, for Marian? I’m really sorry.”

The Lizardwoman smiled.

“Aw, for you, anything. And we can get the Centauress up—we’ve got a platform for emergencies. You wouldn’t believe how many Centaurs fall in the toilet each year!”

“That happens? And thank you!”

The Lizardwoman disappeared. That left Luan and the other students standing in the now-illuminated tank. Luan shifted, saw something float past one foot—he closed his eyes.

The wail of the Screamer Dust had subsided, but he could still hear lots of shouting at a distance. More so than before, in fact. A game that engulfed an entire city? He shook his head. Well, it was the Titan of Baleros…he wanted to dunk himself in the harbor right after that.

“Nearly there! Hold on! It’s a bit heavy, but we’ve got a few hands! Don’t drop it on Umina, you guys! I’m rooting for her! Stand back!”

“We?”

Venaz looked alarmed as everyone moved to the side. Umina waved a claw at him.

“This apartment belongs to uh, the night soil collectors around here. I think they like to stick together.”

“Or no one else tolerates their company.”

Venaz! They’re really nice. And that’s true. Okay, let’s get up there, ask what’s happened, and—”

A flash of light. Marian, who had been silent and trying not to throw up, suddenly spoke urgently.

“Umina, we need to leave, now.”

“Why? Wh—”

Umina, Luan, and Venaz saw the hatch opening. Behind them. The stairwell the [Nightpeople] lowered and the open privy was one spot of light, but on the far side of the wide tank a hatch had opened, to expose light into the darkness. And someone was preparing to—Luan climbed up the steps so fast he nearly knocked over Umina ahead of him. Venaz was right behind Luan, and Marian moaned as she got up the stairs.

“Oh, dead gods, dead gods, dead gods.

“Sorry about that. Here. Let’s get you some water and uh, more water.”

The [Nightwoman] looked apologetically at her guests. There was a small crowd of her co-workers around her, mostly Lizardfolk and three Dullahans. They insisted on shaking hands—after a few buckets of water had been splashed on all four. It didn’t get rid of the smell, but it helped. Luan breathed freely as Umina spoke to the [Nightwoman] again.

“We’re really sorry. I could handle it, but my friends…we also have to get moving, I guess. Still, you saved us from that patrol.”

The [Scourers] beamed as one, treating Umina like she was a minor celebrity. Which she…was? Luan eyed Umina as he sluiced himself off with more water. Venaz was demanding soap.

“No problem! Pleasure to be of assistance! This game is so exciting! And we want you to win, of course! When I think that you were using this pit—whenever I clean it, I’ll think of you! And uh—”

She peered at Luan with a frown.

“Is he a student too? Not one of the Titan’s personal class, is he? I know all the names. Unless he’s a new addition?”

“No, no. I’m a City Runner. And I really should be going—”

Luan raised his hands hurriedly. He looked towards the doors.

“I’ll find you later, Venaz, yeah?”

“Yes. Wait in the city. I’ll be sure to get you your money.”

The Minotaur breathed in and out. Only now did Luan realize something had changed about him.

He was wearing armor. The metal gleamed as water ran down it. Umina turned and stared along with Marian and the other [Nightpeople]. Venaz gritted his teeth.

“What? I told you I came prepared for a fight. This is only part of my gear. I’m not hiding any longer. Ready to go?”

“Nearly. Just one question. You said you were a City Runner, Mister Luan?”

Marian dumped a bucket of water over her tail. Luan nodded.

“I go by water, though. I’m a [Rower].”

The Centauress frowned.

“Odd. How’d you get through the harbor, then? The Iron Vanguard had at least six warships sealing it off.”

Luan smiled faintly.

“Well, they didn’t manage to seal it off fast enough. I slipped through.”

Everyone looked at him. Marian blinked.

“You got past six warships? In…what? A dingy?”

“A scull.”

“A what?

Venaz snorted, then turned his head and spat back into the privy. The [Nightpeople] looked disapproving at that.

“He’s the fastest City Runner on the water short of a Courier now. Why else do you think I hired him?”

“Huh. Then are you any good in a fight?”

Marian eyed Luan. The City Runner hesitated.

“Not much good. But I served in a suppression company once. Saw some fighting, but I’m mainly good at rowing. Very good, actually. Why?”

Umina was looking at her friend. Marian was thinking hard. At last she came to a decision and reached for a bag at her waist.

“Mind staying with us? I’ll pay you twenty gold coins and Venaz’ fee right now if you help us win this game.”

“Marian!”

Umina exclaimed as Luan’s eyes went wide. Venaz blinked at the gold Marian held out to the City Runner.

“You want to hire my Runner? Why?”

“An edge. Luan’s a City Runner and he’s free to hire, right? Why can’t we hire help? The other students have done it.”

“Still, twenty gold pieces? Is he worth—”

Luan glared at the Minotaur. He hesitated over the gold coins.

“I’m afraid that arrogant cow’s right, Miss…Marian. I’m not good off the water.”

Venaz choked and turned red. Marian smiled.

“Just for calling Venaz a cow, I’d hire you. You made it this far. One person could make all the difference. What about it? You won’t break more than bones and if you do, there’s healing potions at the ready. And I want to win. Umina?”

The Lizardgirl started.

“You sure, Marian? The gold—”

“—is mine to use. If we win, it’s worth it. What about it, Luan the City Runner? My [Headhunter] Skill says you’re more valuable than I think.”

The Centauress stared at Luan. He blinked at her. And then he looked at Venaz.

Victory. The man smiled wearily.

“Well, why not? I’m in it this far. I could use some money and a diversion.”

He took the coins from Marian. She offered him the twenty gold pieces; he declined the rest. He’d get it from Venaz. The Minotaur snorted as Luan stepped up behind him. Umina was thanking their hosts.

“If there’s anything we can do—we can’t fight, but we can make sure those Iron Vanguards have clogged privies if they stick around long enough!”

The [Nightwoman] chortled. Umina laughed.

“We’ll let you know. Alright. Ready?”

Venaz nodded. He thrust open the door to the apartment and stepped out, fists clenched. His armor shone as he strode out, ready for war. Marian followed. She’d drawn a bow from her bag of holding. Umina and Luan had only their fists and a few items at their belt, but they followed. Ready for anything. Ready to take on the Iron Vanguard. Ready for—

Forwards! Take the street!

A rank of men and women in armor galloped down the street. Venaz lurched backwards, fists raised. But the Humans in armor weren’t aimed at him. They were pursuing a group of Dullahans, and Lizardfolk! Banners streamed behind them as they rode forwards in a wedge. And behind them came thunder.

Marching boots. Shouts. Luan saw dozens of Humans racing past him, armed with shields, clubs, some holding bows. Another rider was leading them, bellowing orders.

“[Knights] move up in spear formation! Archers, divide with foot soldiers and take those two rooftops. The rest of you, shield formation and move up—”

He thundered past the group of four. Luan heard the soldiers streaming down the street shouting as well.

“For Kallinad and the Order of Seasons!”

“Push the Iron Vanguard back!”

Wil Kallinad! Victory for Terandria!”

And then they were gone. The sound of battle broke ahead of them. Venaz stared down the street. He walked out a few paces and stared at the backs of the running Humans. Marian trotted out behind him. Umina and Luan stared after them.

“Did they just say ‘Kallinad’? Was that a mercenary company or something?”

“Uh, maybe? Maybe—”

All four looked back. They flattened themselves back into the apartment as a second wave charged down the street, and then a third. Then they heard the horn blasts. Then, as the four climbed to the rooftop and the rooftop audience pointed them towards the harbor, they saw the four warships at the docks. Luan’s jaw dropped.

Those weren’t there when I left!

Venaz, Marian, and Umina were all staring. The streets were filled with Humans, fighting the Iron Vanguard! Pushing them back! Venaz stared at a rank of [Knights] as they harried a group of Dullahans.

“Ah. I…might have underestimated Wil.”

“No kidding? Hey, Venaz? Exactly what did you bring in your bag of holding?”

Marian and Umina turned to the Minotaur. He coughed, and looked into his bag of holding. The Minotaur rummaged around inside, pulled out a mace, a few pieces of paper with glowing lettering, a picture of a colorful dog…he put them back in the bag and looked around.

“Damn. Well, now I feel really foolish.”

 

—-

 

An army in the streets! Warships in the harbor! Chaos reigned in the plaza where Niers Astoragon stood. Not just among the Iron Vanguard; they were scrambling to react. Somewhere in the streets filled with grey fog, Tulm the Mithril had halted his advance to deal with the unexpected attack. But the arrival of the army Wil Kallinad was leading had thrown everyone into confusion.

The Wistram [Mages] were scrambling to get a new vantage point on the battle. Teura was ordering more [Mages] to watch Wil. And members of Niers’ own company like Perorn were visibly ecstatic. The Centauress was practically prancing in place with delight.

“Dignity, Perorn.”

Niers murmured out of the side of his mouth. But he couldn’t hold back his smile either. He watched as Wil sent the soldiers still disembarking from the warships charging up the streets, gaining as much ground as possible before the Iron Vanguard could regain their footing. Niers would have been happy to watch in silence, with only the audio from the scene.

But, sadly, there were always those whose first reaction to an unfolding drama was to give their opinion about it. The sort of people who would be standing in the crowd as someone drowned and offering their commentary on the other people diving in. Those sorts. And unfortunately, there were two who were debating the latest turn of events even as the images of Wil, his sister, and the army she was leading appeared on the scrying orb.

“Four warships filled with [Soldiers] and even a [Knight] order! Unbelievable, and the crews themselves are taking part! Amazing! Incredible! An inspiring turn of events! Sir Relz, can you credit this?”

The two Drakes were leaning over their upholstered arm chairs, staring at their own scrying orb and loudly speaking to their captive audience. The one with the monocle was nodding rapidly, but with a huge frown on his face in contrast to Noass’ look of amazement.

“I can, Noass, I can—I have eyes! But I don’t know that inspiring is the word I would use. Think on it, Noass. Yes, this a game-changer. But is it fair?

He gestured to the image in the scrying orb as Noass sat back, looking confused.

“Anyone with the might of a Terandrian house could have pulled off this tactic. That the other students in the Titan’s classes haven’t isn’t due to a lack of skill. Consider this, Noass. If Wil Kallinad can pull an army out of his pocket, how can anyone else hope to compete?”

Niers saw Noass sit up a bit. He wondered if the Drake’s guild of assassins was still extant. Did they do contracts on public figures? He saw Noass cup his chin in his hand as he pointed at the orb, looking mildly outraged.

“Hold on, Sir Relz. I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. Even if you knew Tulm the Mithril were going to appear in this game, Sir Relz, could you convince your family to send over a thousand soldiers to another continent? Let alone call on half a dozen other noble houses?”

He waved a claw at Wil, who had appeared in the scrying orb again in between his comments.

“And let me remind our audience that no one saw these warships coming! Not even the Iron Vanguard, which boasts the most powerful navy of all the Great Companies in Baleros bar none! Sir Relz, how can you dismiss that as simply the product of wealth?”

The other Drake adjusted his monocle haughtily as he frowned at his friend.

“I just have a hard time giving this as much credit as you, Noass. To me, this stinks of an advantage born of station, not achievement. I realize that my own position as a noble contradicts my statements, but I am a son of Pallass, not some arrogant Lord of the Wall, like Salazsar’s jumped up tyrants.”

“Oh, come now, Sir Relz. You can’t make this entirely referential to Drake politics. Even if you’re going to bring in someone like—like Wall Lord Ilvriss as a point of comparison—”

Mercifully, whomever was controlling the broadcast decided the two Drakes were getting off-topic. Their voices cut off and Niers could focus on Wil. The Titan watched with a [Strategist]’s eye as he saw Wil’s forces moving and Tulm’s preparing to intercept from a bird’s eye view. Not bad. Then again, he’d see how well Wil was doing and how shaken Tulm was in a few minutes. He murmured to himself as he reached for his lime juice.

“I saw it coming. But I knew where to look.”

The Drake [Commentator] duo was half-right this time. It wasn’t just that Wil had the resources to call on; it was that he’d figured out Tulm the mithril was coming. He had plotted a sea route that took the warships to Daquin’s harbor without alerting a Great Company or the other ships at sea. Yes, they hadn’t been looking, but still. If you understood anything of logistics, of the effort it took to move that many warriors, you would look at Wil and want him to manage your armies.

It was proof of his ability. But there was another reason why countless eyes were glued to the scrying orb, to the drama unfolding in Daquin. It was sheer, simple amazement. Admiration.

The daring. The audacity. Noass was right. If you had the chance, even if you were nearly completely certain, would you risk it? Could you?  Niers looked up. Teura was watching him again. He cheerfully smiled at her.

Yes, they were all watching. Everyone from the [Kings] of Terandria to the Wall Lords in Izril. Watching, and seeing Niers’ student. Evaluating him as a [Strategist], to be hired or fought against.

Wil Kallinad. A name known around the world in a moment. He was challenging Tulm the Mithril to a battle in the streets. Putting himself against the greatest [Strategist] of the Iron Vanguard on purpose. This was his moment. Niers only hoped he made the best of it.

 

—-

 

He stood in the street, with a map of Daquin unrolled on the back of his sister’s warhorse. His ears were ringing. The ground felt like it was shaking.

Dark clouds rolling down the street. Flashes of armor. Ringing hooves, [Knights] riding past him, armor ablaze with the light of magic.

“Wil! I brought half of the reinforcements you asked straight from our garrisons! The other half came from the families you contacted! We got them on ships and the [Captains] are letting their sailors take part! They were really impressed with your sea route, and they’d just love a chance to stick it to the Iron Vanguard—”

His hands were sweaty. Shaking. Heart beating out of his chest. [Mages] made the air shake as they held the cold iron fog off. Flashes of magefire from the rooftops. Skirmishes already.

“Lord Kallinad, my name is Sir Kelm. I am a Knight of Autumn and the Order of Season’s representative. I and a hundred and twenty six of my peers have joined Lady Knight Talia by her request. We understand this is a non-lethal confrontation and have equipped ourselves accordingly—”

Glancing up. Seeing a Drowned Man with a tentacle for an arm, holding a club with his good hand, grinning at him with a face half-fish.

“I didn’t bring any [Strategists], but we’ve got an army here, Wil! And with the crews of the ship—you know, I got three propositions from the sailors on the way here?”

The horse snorting, shaking, restless. Glancing up. Checking the slowly setting sun, seeing Feshi’s wide eyes and shocked expression. A ring of steel. [Knights], [Field Commanders], [Captains], surrounding him. Waiting. Doubtful, impatient, excited.

“Sir Kallinad! I am Lance-Commander Wylint, serving House Teoring and commanding two hundred of my men! We are disembarking and looking for orders—”

Glance up. See Talia’s face. Excitement, passion. Her horse shifting. Not her favorite war-griffin, Amberwing. Too dangerous. And conspicuous. Wouldn’t like a sea voyage. Waiting faces.

Fear. Terror. Uncertainty. Elation. A thousand and one emotions and more, running hot in his veins. And just when he thought he’d break under it, a realization. The Professor’s words, beating in his chest.

“You only get once chance, lad.”

“What’s that? Wil?”

Concerned faces. Wil Kallinad glanced up, taking in the ring of Humans around him. One Drowned Man, a [Captain]. And Feshi. The Gnoll stared at Wil. And he breathed in and out slowly.

For a moment, Wil looked around and memorized the moment. And he knew that as long as he lived, he would never forget this day. Never lose this moment. Whether it was in shame or glory. And he stood a bit straighter. The fear and panic in his breast didn’t disappear. It never did. But he mastered it.

Thank you, Professor. You gave me a chance.

“Wil? Are you—”

The [Strategist] turned. He cut his sister off. He checked the sun, and began snapping orders.

“Lance-Commander Wylint, you are now acting-[General] on the field. Unload those ships! I want the soldiers moving up the streets as fast as they unload! Don’t worry about formations! We’re taking the first six streets from the harbor and holding there. Keep a [Mage] on standby and I’ll have orders for you in minutes!”

“Sir!”

Will turned and surveyed the people around him. His mind was snapping to ideas and conclusions like lightning, too fast to fully process into words. The [Captain]? No. The [Knight] in brown and red, stained armor. Autumn Knight.

“The Iron Vanguard is using [Message] spells, but they have horns and drums as well. We’ll relay using messengers on horseback to avoid mixing signals. Sir Kelm, take your men down the main street. Engage the enemy at your discretion, but fall back in the face of superior numbers or if Xol is spotted. I will send you reinforcements as needed; the other [Rider] and [Knight] patrols I will split up across side streets. We will be preparing to flank and ambush the enemy; all mounted forces are to prioritize withdrawing.”

“Hit and run tactics? But we brought—”

His sister was confused. Wil held up a hand, not looking at her as he checked the map.

“The Iron Vanguard has the numbers and superior soldiers. They’ve also fielded Xol, one of their War Walkers. We cannot take him.”

“If we used lances—”

He glanced up. Talia was taking a breath, ready to argue. Sir Kelm was watching, the [Captain] grinning. Wil glanced at the waiting officers. Some were watching him. He nodded shortly.

“If this were a situation where the both sides used lethal weapons, I wouldn’t have brought half as many [Knights]. Especially against the Iron Vanguard. They can’t kill our horses or unseat our cavalry as easily; but this is still the Professor’s game. We’re pushing in fast; the goal is still to reach the central plaza. Commander Wylint! These streets I want fortified! Here, here, and here!

He stabbed chokepoints. It was easy. He’d memorized the map a week ago and he knew where the Iron Vanguard’s force roughly was. If you calculated how fast a Dullahan could run—they could dig in. After that…Talia was glaring at him.

“Wil! We can win this! I didn’t talk father into coming all this way just to run from a fight. Trust me, we can—”

“Knight Talia, the [Strategist] on the field is speaking.”

“I—”

His sister fell silent. Wil nodded to Sir Kelm. The [Knight] saluted.

“By your order, Sir [Strategist]. What’s the signal for retreat in case of emergency?”

Of course. Wil hesitated.

“Three horn calls, Sir Kelm. My apologies.”

He nodded and Wil remembered. Don’t flush with embarrassment. Don’t panic. He switched to the Drowned Man.

“[Captain].”

“Captain Squallcut, at your service.”

The Drowned Man gave Wil a grin. One of his eyes was part fish and it winked with a pale, yellow light. The Terandrian officers shuddered. Wil glanced around.

“To your stations! Move those men up with Commander Wylint! Are you waiting for the Iron Vanguard to set a picnic!

They jumped and ran. Squallcut laughed and gave Wil a bow that looked halfway sincere.

“So you’re not just able to plot a course through the ocean currents, then? A master on the deck.”

Wil felt a grin take over his face, unfamiliar. Wild. His heart was beating. He could feel it, louder than war drums.

“This is my ship, Captain Squallcut. Can I trust your men to take orders, or won’t they obey?”

The Drowned Man looked amused. He waved an arm and two more [Captains] followed him. One was a Gnoll with a peg leg, a bandana tied over her head. The second, a Garuda whose feathers on his legs had turned to scales.

“They came for a fight, not a Terandrian dancing lesson. If the orders are good, we’ll think of obeying.”

Feshi turned and bowed to the Gnoll [Captain]. The Gnoll grinned.

“So this is the Human who sailed us through the Kraken’s Gulch? He barks fire! Little land-cousin, does he have the courage to lead a [Storm Sailor] crew? And take the consequences of failure?”

The Gnoll [Strategist] hesitated. Wil answered for her. He didn’t know Gnolls, but he knew [Pirates].

“What’s your name, [Captain]?”

The Gnoll with the peg leg gave Wil a long look. She wore a cutlass at her side.

“They call me Saltears, boy. On the sea, that is. If you want my real name, ask me when I’m in irons.”

“Then stow your sword, Saltears. No one draws blood.”

“Says who?”

“The Titan himself. And he’ll drown Storm Sailors in the waves if his orders aren’t obeyed.”

The Gnoll paused. She looked at Wil. The young man met her eyes and then the Garuda’s and Squallcut’s. They were watching him closely.

“I don’t need your men, [Captains]. But if you and your ship’s crews will fight, on land or sea, I’ll pad whatever my sister’s paying you myself. The Iron Vanguard will be attacking us from the rear. And we have to sally forth and reach the plaza. But mark me—if your crew won’t take my orders, you can wait on the sides. I mean to dance with Tulm the Mithril himself, and I’ll drag him over the world’s edge if I need to. There’s no room for mutiny in this battle. Understand?”

They waited. And then the same grin spread across three faces. Saltears removed her cutlass and tossed it backwards towards a [Storm Sailor].

“Boy, we’ll hold your harbor against six warships or twenty! The rest of my lads will move with your land slugs. Where do you want me?

Wil bared his teeth.

“Can you punch through a street full of Dullahans? I want you to bring a message to a bunch of students fighting. There’s several hundred of them—some are officers, others are [Strategists]. Tell them I’m overseeing the command of Kallinad’s army. If they want to fight, they can flank the enemy soldiers. We’re all going towards the same spot. You need to cut through the Iron Vanguard to get there—and those clouds. [Mages] choked in them.”

The [Captains] looked up. Saltears perked up one of her ears.

“Good thing we’re not [Mages]. Say I do that. What then?”

“How’s thirty gold pieces for every officer you knock out sound?”

The Gnoll [Captain] grinned as a reply. Wil straightened. Negotiations were done. The [Captains] strolled past the soldiers forming up. Wil pointed.

“[Mages]! Hold those mists back. Sir Kelm, advance!

The [Knight] raised a padded spear.

Knights of the Autumn, with me!

And then moved. Wil snatched his map and strode back. A group of [Mages] and officers approached him. The first thing he demanded was a table. He heard Talia mounting up behind him.

“Wil? Where do we go?”

Her voice was tentative. But it was a fair question. A group of knights in bright, burnished armor of gold, brass—the colors of summer—were lined up behind her. Wil raised his head.

Fighting. He pointed at the map.

“Move forwards. Gather at the second command spot. [Mages], you have your orders. Horse! Feshi—”

The Gnoll grinned at him. Her eyes flicked to Wil as he mounted up.

“You planned this. Am I part of the plans?”

“Only if you want to be. Can you ride?”

The Gnoll hesitated. Then she held up a hand. Wil pulled her onto the saddle. He felt her grab him as he turned to his sister.

“Talia! We’re supporting Sir Kelm! Take us down that street!”

His sister whooped as she lowered the visor on her helmet.

“Forward, Knights of Summer! Take the streets!”

She began riding forwards. Wil kicked the horse into motion. He saw Talia’s head twisting towards him and she raised her visor in alarm.

“Wil! Stay back! You’re trying to win, remember?”

“We need to push in. We’ll reform later. You need me.

There was no time to argue. The [Knights] rode forwards, a solid body. Wil eyed the numbers. Disperse them later. For now, they were a fist. And he intended to gain as much ground as he could.

“Infantry ahead! They’re filling a street!”

A [Scout] raced back. Wil saw Humans already skirmishing with a group of Dullahans who’d blocked off a street exit ahead of him. It hadn’t even been ten minutes! The Iron Vanguard had lightning reflexes. He pointed at the group as the Knights of Summer slowed.

“Pull the soldiers back. We’re breaking through. Advance at a trot!”

Thunder. The Human [Soldiers] fell back. The Dullahans did not follow. They looked up and saw the riders coming at them. To their credit, the line only wavered. Then it formed into a solid formation. Braced. Wil kicked his horse.

“Canter!”

Faster now. He could see the Dullahan [Sergeant] shouting orders as the [Knights] lowered the thin lances as spears. Wil shouted.

“Stow lances! Swords!”

Hesitation. He saw the [Knights] switching weapons. Spears might kill at this charge. The Dullahans were also pikeless. But they were still braced. They thought the [Knights] wouldn’t charge for fear of their horses injuring themselves. That was their only mistake.

Gallop!

On they came. Feshi was howling something behind Wil. He roared as the first rank of [Knights] closed on the ranks of Dullahans.

[Ram’s Charge]!

The Dullahans [Sergeant] raised his hand too late, eyes widening.

“[Shieldwall—]”

The impact sent Dullahans flying. Wil saw the formation scatter like pebbles before a wave. He shouted as he saw [Knights] lashing out with swords.

Ride on! Keep moving! Avoid trampling!

The Humans caught their horses just in time. The wounded Dullahans pulled back as the Knights of the Summer raced past them. Wil looked around. He bellowed one word.

[Healers]!

They were already converging on the fight. Wil pointed, and his [Knights] rode onwards. Faster. He bared his teeth. Take as much ground as he could in the first few minutes. And then push! Push!

He could feel the Iron Vanguard reacting. Moving to slow his army’s advance, hold them back before they could consolidate their position. And soon he’d be sending the full weight of his army against Wil. Tulm the Mithril. Wil pointed ahead.

Charge!

The clouds of grey iron waited. His [Knights] cut a path of silver as they rode into darkness. And then there was only thunder. And, waiting in the darkness, that magical shine. That flash of armor.

Mithril.

 

—-

 

An army of silver raced across the streets below them. Venaz stared. Marian paced back and forth, counting. Umina rubbed at her eyes.

“Whoa. Is that the same Wil we know?”

He was racing at the head of a small vanguard of [Knights], some kind of elite Terandrian order. Umina looked at her classmates. They were almost petrified for a moment. Strangely, it was the City Runner they’d just met, Luan, who looked calmer. He looked up and met her eyes.

“Some game. Was this part of the plan as well?”

She grinned weakly.

“No.”

“Dead gods. Wil called in his family’s army. If this were any other situation, this would be an act of war.

Marian spoke slowly. She followed the Humans as hundred raced down the street. There were [Sailors] mixed in among them; Umina thought she saw a Gnoll with a peg leg. But her mind had to be playing tricks on her. Venaz nodded.

“Incredible.”

Both the Lizardgirl and Centaur looked at Venaz. Coming from him, that word said it all. The Minotaur glanced up. He gestured to the streets below.

“He’s turned this into a proper battle. This isn’t a game of seeking anymore. The Mithril has to engage the Humans or they’ll punch through and get him to the plaza. Look; the Iron Vanguard’s already pulling back.”

He pointed ahead. Only a few of Daquin’s streets were visible from their rooftop ahead of them, but Umina saw Dullahans in full retreat. She nodded slowly, watching the Humans capturing street after street. But what looked like a complete victory was just an illusion. Umina had already done a headcount and come to a few conclusions.

“They’re still outnumbered. The Iron Vanguard plus the Professor’s [Soldiers] still have at least a two-to-one advantage over Wil’s force. Plus, their main punching class is [Knight]. They’ve got horses, but not enough and they’re up against Dullahans. And the Iron Vanguard at that. Heavy-infantry specialists.”

“Mobility versus armor.”

Marian nodded. She was frowning. The Centauress glanced up at Venaz.

“It’s like the battles we’d play out, Venaz. Only, in these streets, Tulm has it.”

“Only if you discount the other students.”

The Minotaur snorted. He was eying a plume of smoke in the distance, arms folded.

“I see what Wil’s going for. He’s trying to link up with the other students who bought adventurer groups or mercenaries. There are at least a hundred students still in the game. If you put that many up against the Iron Vanguard—no matter how many officers they have, they’ll run out of Skills first. So with Tulm the Mithril. He can only use his active Skills so many times per battle. Like that terrain-changing Skill he used; he won’t be able to use it twice.”

He gestured at the roiling clouds, still engulfing a good portion of the city. They were growing thinner; [Mages] were actively fighting the clouds. But it was slowing the Human’s advance. Marian nodded.

“So, Wil’s trying to break the Iron Vanguard’s formation and mount a charge that gets him to the plaza. Failing that, he’ll trying to out-Skill Tulm with the students. It could work. The issue is whether or not he’s got an answer to all of Tulm’s high-level officers in his party.”

“If he has [Knights], the quality of his [Mages] are presumably—”

Luan glanced from [Strategist] to [Strategist]. Their shock of a minute ago had faded. Now they were casually discussing the unfolding scene as if they were at ease. He raised a hand.

This is still part of the game?”

All three glanced at him. Umina blushed and Marian blinked.

“It’s a surprise.”

Luan stared at her. The Centauress didn’t look that surprised. His heart was still racing out of his chest. But they’d already begun talking tactics! Still, his comment reminded them why they were here. Venaz pounded a fist into a palm.

“Damn. I’ve been completely outmatched. Very well. Come on. Let’s go.”

He strode towards the stairs. Marian stared at him.

“What?”

The Minotaur looked up as he checked his armor.

“I’m moving forwards. I came here to participate, not hide! Are you with me, or not?”

The Centauress hesitated. She looked at Umina.

“We’re outmatched.”

“Yes. But the point isn’t to beat the Iron Vanguard. It’s to get to the plaza. Like it or not, Wil is going to open up a path for everyone if he starts taking ground. Better yet—I think we can use his army to our advantage. Venaz! Head left!”

Umina shot to her feet. Venaz was already clattering down the stairs. Luan followed them as he and Marian ran down the wide steps. He still had no idea what was going on, but they did. The Minotaur snorted.

“You want to take us away from the fighting?”

“You want to fight both Humans and Dullahans? Both sides will take us for foes!”

“Hm. Point. Which way, then?”

“Left! We’ll circle around the main advance. We just need to get behind the Iron Vanguard’s lines!”

The Minotaur nodded. He began jogging down the street. Umina waved at Marian. The Centauress held out a hand.

“Need a ride?”

“I’m fine! Let’s go! Follow Venaz! You too, Luan!”

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Luan muttered as he ran after the three. A formation of Humans was marching up towards them. Luan heard a shout.

“Uh oh. They’ve spotted us! Go, Venaz!”

“This way.”

The Minotaur turned and pounded down an alleyway, Luan ran after him. Marian galloped past him with ease; Umina panted as she ran just behind Luan. Venaz turned up a street, cursed, and pointed.

“Next alley! There’s fighting all over!”

Luan entered the second street, saw two [Mages] throwing spells at each other, and ran as a splash of some kind of yellow liquid hit the buildings across from him and steamed. He ran down the next alleyway, hearing shouts from behind. And above.

Look! More students!

Which ones are they? Oh! I recognize that Minotaur! And the Lizardgirl! That’s Umina!

“Hells, they know us. They’re giving us away!”

Marian growled. Venaz reached a second street and pointed up it.

“Not for long. Brace yourself. That fog—”

His voice was muffled. Luan entered the third street, saw the dark grey fog, and hesitated. Umina ran past him.

Hurry up!

Cursing, Luan followed her. The street didn’t exactly vanish, but the instant Luan hit the outer edge of the dark, iron-tinted mists, the shouts and sounds around him grew dimmer. The air felt…heavy. His pace slowed. His breathing came a touch heavier.

“Jungle rot. This is a Skill. It’s hard to breathe! Everyone here?”

Marian slowed. Ahead of her, Venaz was looking around slowly. The fog had reduced visibility. Sound. Everything was halved for Luan. He could still see the three [Strategists] in front of him, but their voices were quieter. Umina frowned.

“This…is Tulm the Mithril’s terrain Skill. [Cold Iron Mists]. Dead gods. This is the Skill he used when he beat Professor Fleethoof in battle.”

“Selphid’s tits. And he’s using it on us?

Marian’s face was pale. Venaz shook his head. He took a breath, frowning.

“Damn air. But this works against him as well. Even if his troops are immune to the effects, visibility is still low on both sides. We can sneak through. Come on.”

He led the way down the street at a slower pace. Luan followed, hair standing up on his neck. A Skill had done this? Suddenly his [Lesser Strength] Skill and his other abilities he’d thought were too powerful seemed paltry by comparison. The three [Strategists] moved slowly, heads spinning left and right. Umina breathed in and out, taking huge gulps of air.

“We don’t want to go too far. The Iron Vanguard’s holding the center of the city. We just want to get closer and find another hiding spot. An apartment—”

“Hold up.”

Venaz held a hand. All four suddenly paused. Venaz frowned. Marian cupped a hand to an ear.

“I thought I heard—”

Now.

The shout came from all around them. Suddenly, the mists exploded as a group of Dullahans and three Centaurs raced out of the street. They’d been hugging the walls! Luan spun as nearly twenty rushed the four of them. Marian reared.

“Umina! Get behind me!”

“Oh, Nagas—”

The Lizardgirl grabbed at her belt. Luan hesitated. The [Soldiers] were armed! And he’d forgotten to grab anything like a weapon. But they wouldn’t kill him—

Just break every bone in his body! He dodged back as a Dullahan swung a cudgel at him. Marian grabbed an arrow. It was thick, with a heavy pouch of sand for a tip. She drew and loosed and the Dullahan charging her cursed as her arrow struck him across the cheek. A heavy blow. But he still came onwards. Marian swung her bow. Luan dodged backwards again, collided with Umina as she ducked a Centaur racing at her. Luan stumbled, and then felt the club strike his arm. He shouted in pain, raised a hand—

And Venaz grabbed the Dullahan, tore the club from the armored [Soldier]’s grip, and then hurled the Dullahan through the air, armor and all. The Dullahan crashed into three of his friends and they all went down. The Minotaur turned, punched the Centaur targeting Umina in the chest, and hit another Dullahan with a thwack that Luan almost felt. The Centaur stumbled and knelt; the Dullahan just fell backwards without a sound.

“You idiots! Grab a weapon and fight!”

Venaz roared at the others. He tossed the club at Luan and whirled. He didn’t bother with a weapon; the Dullahan charging him struck with a wooden sword at Venaz’s stomach. But he hadn’t noticed the Minotaur’s armor. The wooden sword bounced off the metal. The Dullahan swore. Then Venaz grabbed him. The Minotaur head-butted the struggling Dullahan, tossed him to the ground and kicked.

A female Dullahan with armor flew back six paces, her armor bent around the hoof print in the steel. The Dullahan patrol halted for a second and stared. Eight of the twenty down in seconds! Venaz turned. The Minotaur roared across the street, his voice cutting even through the heavy fog.

I am Venaz! Foremost student of the Titan himself! Come at me, you pathetic cowards!

They hesitated. Then they did just that. Luan gripped the club with two hands and swung desperately. He nailed a Dullahan across the shoulder as he appeared out of the mists, and tripped up another with a foot. He kicked as the Dullahan stumbled and swore; the Dullahan’s armor was hard! But he knocked the Dullahan down. Before the [Soldier] could get up, Luan hit him across the back of the head. Not as hard as he could have; with his [Lesser Strength] Skill, the Dullahan’s eyes still rolled up and her head popped out of her armor.

“Umina!”

Marian drew an arrow and loosed it. The blunted sand-filled pouch struck a Dullahan straight between the eyes. He stumbled and fell forwards. Umina was ducking, dodging as Venaz took on half the patrol by himself. She reached into a pouch and hurled something into the eyes of a Dullahan. He shouted and reached a hand up as he swung blindly. Umina dodged back and Marian knocked him out with an arrow as well. She whirled—Luan raised his club.

“It’s me!”

“Help Venaz! Go left! I’ll use a Skill! Umina, get behind—”

The two stopped shouting and turned around. They looked around. And then they realized that the fighting had stopped. Venaz straightened as he dropped a pair of [Soldiers] he’d bashed together. The Minotaur grunted, wiped at his armor, and looked around.

“You got yours, then? Good. Grab a weapon if you don’t have one and keep moving! We’re sure to have attracted attention.”

He began trotting down the street. After a second he noticed he wasn’t being followed and came back with a huge scowl.

What?

“You just took out fourteen [Soldiers] by yourself!”

Marian pointed accusingly at Venaz. He looked around, and a mildly smug expression crossed his face.

“Well, they were clearly low-level. I didn’t see the [Sergeant] or [Lieutenant] leading this group. Maybe he was the one I dropped at the start? It would explain why they fell apart so quickly. It just goes to show that you can find trash in any army. Raw recruits; the Mithril should have brought veterans. But he underestimated me.

He looked around. Marian was still staring. Umina rubbed her head.

“Even so. Are you a [Warrior], Venaz? I’d expect that from Jekilt, but Minotaur or not—!”

She gestured at the bodies. Venaz snorted impatiently.

“Do I look like I wasted levels on a fighting class? No! I have a few levels, but I’m a [Strategist] to the core. Come on. Stop wasting time!”

He set off. Luan staggered after him and after a beat, the Centaur and Lizardgirl followed. The Minotaur led them through the fogs, grunting and following the buildings on the left side of the street. After a moment, Marian spoke up again.

“Okay, so how did you do that? And don’t tell me it was your armor; you didn’t use a single artifact. Unless you have some kind of potion?”

“What, you mean like a battle pill? Do I look that weak?”

Venaz gave her a scornful glance. Marian opened her mouth and Umina slid between them.

“Venaz, you know what Marian means. You’re clearly good at fighting. Are all Minotaurs as good as you or did you learn that somewhere?”

The Minotaur slowed. He looked back with a smile.

“I learned it, of course. And Minotaurs are good. But no one is as good as me. Why do you think I’m here?”

He stomped on. After a second, Marian frowned.

“Here as in on Baleros? In the Titan’s class?”

“Obviously. Keep up, Marian. You’re normally quicker than that.”

“You—”

“You’re the best among your kind?”

Venaz turned to look at Luan. The [Rower] was rubbing one arm; he’d used a tiny bit of healing potion, but he wasn’t looking forwards to getting hit again! Still, it beat walking around with a huge bruise for a week.

“That’s right. I won the competition for the honor of learning from the Titan himself. Everyone in the House of Minos under thirty years of age participated. And I was the best, the sharpest, bar none. Or did you think my people would have funded me to learn here if I wasn’t the best at what I did?”

Umina whistled softly.

‘Wow. So you beating those [Soldiers]—”

Venaz waved a gauntleted hand.

“Skill at arms isn’t difficult to come by. Other species mistake Skills and levels for combat prowess. Minotaurs do not. I’ve pitted myself against seasoned warriors many times before. Against a Level 20 foe I’d have to get serious. Level 30 and it’s difficult, but doable. Even higher-level foes can be taken down in the right circumstances. And to learn from the Professor, I beat a Level 28 [Armored Veteran] in a duel with bared swords. There were hundreds of competitors; everyone wanted to win. I even beat our [Prince] for the honor.”

“Seriously?”

“You have a royalty?”

“You still owe me money.”

Everyone paused. Luan shrugged.

“Just adding that. So you’re one of the best, Venaz, friend?”

The Minotaur grinned at the Human man.

“Let’s just say that with this armor on and my bag of holding, I won’t be an easy target, even against the Iron Vanguard. They probably have no idea how strong I am. Marian doesn’t.”

He glanced back at the Centauress, who’d bitten her lip. Umina nodded.

“No wonder you keep arguing with the professor over your ‘lead from the front’ philosophy. You can’t fight in training matches.”

“He forbids it. Well, I’m perfectly content to crush my opponents with my mind. I’ll save my talents for actual combat for when I take to the field. And for this game. Now. Enough gossip. Let’s move out. These mists are hard enough to fight in without walking into another ambush.”

The others fell silent. And now they did follow Venaz with a will, because the Minotaur clearly knew what he was doing. He made less sound with his armor on than Umina and Luan did—let alone Marian with her hooves clopping on the street. The Minotaur was listening as he slid down the street—thanks to that, the students heard the second patrol well before they spotted them.

Damn fog. I’m blind as a Dropbat out here. That Tulm the Mithril must want to win this all on his own because we’re not going to spot a thing until his Skill ends! How long do you think it’ll take?

A voice floated up the street, a loudly grousing [Soldier]. It was clearly not one of the Iron Vanguard; as a few shadows appeared, the students and Luan crouched by a stairwell. The patrol walked past them, still talking.

“Forgotten Wing soldiers. Our lot. They’re not keeping to noise discipline!”

Umina hissed at the others. Marian made a face as she drew an arrow.

“Should they? This is probably just as bad for them as us! It sounds like they’re not included as being on Tulm’s side! Makes sense; they’re not his people.”

“This is your Professor’s men, yeah?”

Luan looked at the passing shapes as he whispered at Marian and Umina. They nodded. Venaz growled.

“They’re not on our side. But they don’t enjoy working with the Iron Vanguard. We can use that. Follow me. We’ll sneak around.”

He rose to his feet and stealthily moved up. Luan followed him, then Umina. The aggrieved patrol walked onwards, still talking.

“An hour? Yeah. Sounds about right. So that means an hour of walking around in this crap.”

“At least we’re not fighting the Iron Vanguard. I served with Fleethoof. You know. In the battle.

“No kidding, [Captain]?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just say that the sooner this game’s over and I see the back of that damned Dullahan, the better. He can bite my equine ass if he thinks we’ll help him win. With that said, ten gold pieces is still ten gold pieces. And if we do run across a bunch of arrogant little snots thinking they can sneak past us—”

“Oh shit.”

The soldiers turned. Luan whirled around as he heard galloping hooves. Marian, drawing an arrow, yelped as a Centaur [Captain] charged out of the mists and rammed into her. He had a staff in one hand and whirled it. Marian took a hit across the head and torso as the Centaur whirled.

“There’s four! Surround them and—”

He dodged backwards as Venaz lashed out with a kick. The Centaur blocked with his staff; the wood bowed inwards and splintered with the impact, but the staff held. He swore and backed up.

“They’ve got a good fighter! Get over here!

Running footsteps. Umina reached for her belt as Luan held his club up. Marian scrambled backwards as Venaz advanced with his arms raised, grinning. The Centauress shouted at Luan and Umina.

“I’ll back that idiot up. You two, run. We’re bait—secure our next spot!”

So saying, she charged a [Soldier] coming out of the mist. Luan looked at Umina. She pointed down the street.

“Follow me!”

The patrol raced after them, but Luan and Umina were already moving and the fog obscured vision, and the pounding footsteps were hard to place. They settled for Marian and Venaz. The two whirled, keeping the group back. The [Captain] faced off against Venaz. He whirled his staff; the Minotaur grunted as he blocked a strike aimed at his chest, and then his chin in quick succession.

“I’ve got him, Captain!”

Someone shouted from behind Venaz. A Lizardman lunged forwards, swinging a cudgel. He connected solidly with Venaz’ back and heard an unpleasant clang.

“Uh—”

A seven-foot tall Minotaur wearing full plate armor raised his fist as he turned around. The five foot six Lizardman [Soldier] looked at his cudgel. He backed up too slow. The thump of the Lizardman hitting the ground made the other Forgotten Wing soldiers wince. They backed up as the [Captain] came at Venaz again. The Minotaur was laughing and shouting.

 

—-

 

Forwards! For glory and the House of Minos!

The sound came from behind them as Luan and Umina staggered out of a cloud. The Lizardgirl hissed.

“The mist’s lifted here! That means we either went the wrong way—or someone lifted the fog around here!”

Luan looked around wildly.

“Why would they do that? And where do we go?”

“Anywhere. We just need to secure a route away from that patrol. Hurry! Let’s make sure the street is clear. I have some wards—anyways, the only reason someone would do that is if it was someone against the Iron Vanguard. Or if they needed to cast magic—”

She stopped. Both she and Luan looked around. They saw an empty street. Empty windows, too. And in one apartment, dripping water. Almost as if—

A shape floated out over a balcony. Umina flattened herself in a shadow and Luan crouched at once. A Dullahan with shining crystal built into his armor was floating through the air at street level, her head floating next to her body, swiveling back and forth. The Lizardgirl hissed at Luan.

“Oh hell, [Mage]! She must have heard the fighting. Hold on—distract her!”

Me? How?”

The Lizardgirl didn’t answer. She was creeping sideways, risking being spotted to get behind the Dullahan. Luan cursed.

“Just a game. Just a game—twenty gold pieces. Hey you! Down here!

He jumped out and waved his hands. Instantly the Dullahan looked down. Before Luan could blink, she dropped out of the sky. Her head was on her shoulders in a moment. She pointed a finger at him. Luan swore and raised the club. She was fast!

“[Water W—]”

The Dullahan ducked as the club spun over her head. She pointed at Luan’s chest.

“[Water Wall].”

Water shot upwards from the ground, engulfing Luan in a second. The [Rower] struggled, arms flailing. He didn’t panic; he’d been in situations like this before. He just had to swim free—Luan’s eyes widened as he realized the water was thick. And it was keeping him in the center! Air was only a foot away, but he couldn’t make his body move as he tried to swim towards it. He saw the Dullahan smile slightly. Then her eyes narrowed. She spun as Umina burst out, shouting.

Choking, submerged in water, he saw the Lizardgirl hurl something at the [Mage]’s face. The Dullahan raised a hand and a shimmering barrier appeared, but it couldn’t block the cloud of dust. The particles swirled around the shield and the [Mage] doubled over. Luan flailed desperately, saw Umina run forwards as the [Mage] tried to point at her—

The water surrounding Luan collapsed. He hit the ground as it splashed around him, coughing and gasping for air. He crawled up and saw Umina racing towards him.

“Are you hurt? Sorry, I had to get into place!”

“I’m—”

Luan coughed up some water. He felt her slap him on the back and got up.

“I’m fine. What did you do? How’d you get—”

He looked at the Dullahan. Her head had rolled off her shoulders and she was unconscious. Umina grinned weakly.

“Just some flour and grit. It gets in the lungs and you hack a lot, but that’s all. [Mages] hate stuff like that, though. They can’t concentrate. Good thing her barrier spell was so poor. Low-level [Mages] usually use shield spells, not full-body protection spells. That’s a mistake, especially against clouds and other tricks like that.”

“How’d you get her to stop the spell?”

“I kicked her in the head. That works too.”

“Oh.”

Luan stared at Umina. Somehow he’d expected something more impressive. The Lizardgirl shrugged.

“Anti-mage tactics on a budget. I learned that getting into fights back at home. There’s always someone who’s got a [Sorcerer] spell and they can scorch your tail right off if you let them. Don’t worry, she’s just unconscious. Now, help me set up!”

So saying, Umina grabbed what looked like strips of paper and handed a stack to Luan. He stared blankly at them.

“What’s this for?”

“They’re ward talismans. They’ll keep anyone from reaching us if we stick them on the alley entrances. Confusion ward, I think. They’re not mine. Venaz gave them to me.”

Umina held up a piece of paper about as wide as Luan’s hand and a bit longer. He blinked, and then grinned in sudden delight as he recognized them.

“Are those talismans? Ofuda?

They looked exactly like the Japanese warding charms he’d seen from their culture. The symbology didn’t look exactly like Kanji, but the concept was the same. Umina looked blank.

“What? Maybe. These are pretty strong! They should work on that patrol and these are…anti-scrying wards! Venaz really did come prepared! These are Drathian—here, put these up on the alleyway. I need to figure out where we are. Excuse me, this map…”

She indicated the ones Luan should put up. Gingerly, almost reverentially, he stuck the warding papers on the alley they’d come through, four of them. Two made him vaguely nauseous as he stared at the glowing ink, and the other two had some kind of closed eye inscribed amid the magical writing. They weren’t sticky, but somehow, when he placed them, they instantly gripped the stone brickwork as if they’d been glued in place.

“So sugoi.

For a second Luan let his inner fan of Japanese culture escape. He wished Ken were here to see this! Then he turned to Umina.

“All done. What next?”

“Call them! Venaz! Marian!”

Umina shouted down into the alleyway, into the mists. Luan took a breath as well and bellowed as loudly as he could.

“This way! Street’s clear!”

For a moment he only heard distant sound of fighting and shouts. Then pounding footsteps, growing louder rapidly. Luan stood back just in time; Venaz hurtled through the alleyway, half-carrying Marian. She had a black eye and several discolored bruises on her arms already.

Marian!

“She just took a few hits. Move aside.”

Venaz grunted and grabbed a potion from his bag of holding. Unceremoniously, he uncorked it and splashed Marian in the face with it. The Centaur gasped and came back to life. She staggered to her hooves, looking around wildly.

“The patrol—”

“We won free. And you used the talismans. Good work.”

Venaz trotted over to the alleyway. He frowned at the four glowing ward papers and then at Umina and Luan.

“You didn’t need to use four. Two is enough. One for the patrol, one to blank scrying.”

Umina looked embarrassed.

“Sorry. I didn’t know how strong they were. Can you remove them?”

“Too late. They’re activated. These are high-quality. Even a Level 40 [Warrior] would get turned around. Unless that [Captain] has a [Scout]’s Skills or an artifact, we’re safe. It doesn’t matter. I have more.”

Venaz flicked his fingers. Absently, he rubbed at one horn and cursed.

“He wasn’t bad. Those [Soldiers] nearly got us. Why is there no mist here? Have we gone the wrong way?”

Umina pointed silently. Venaz noticed the unconscious Dullahan [Mage] at last.

“Ah. Good work, you two. It seems this Skill affects even the Mithril’s own [Mages]. Good to know…where are we?”

Marian sat down for a second to catch her breath. Umina shook her head as she investigated her map.

“We’ve gone down several streets. I don’t know where we are exactly until we get onto a roof.”

“Better not. They’re watching the roofs.”

“Right. Well, I think we’re a lot closer to the plaza now. We’ll know once we run into the fighting.”

Venaz frowned.

“Yes. I’d like to know how far Wil’s forces have pushed in. We’re moving blind. But we are getting closer. I can feel it.”

“Oh, you can feel it? I can feel a knot on the back of my head.”

Marian scowled at Venaz. He ignored her as he glanced up and down the street. He grabbed another bottle from his bag of holding and tossed it at Marian.

“Enough rest. Stamina potion. Drink a mouthful if you’re tired; its top-tier so don’t waste it. Let’s keep moving; those charms only ward the alley behind us, not in front.”

He began striding forwards. Marian got to her feet with a grimace. Luan declined the potion although Umina took a swig.

“Whoa. It even tastes good. Venaz, exactly what else do you have in that bag of holding besides those charms? They’re from the Drath Archipelago, aren’t they?”

“Of course. The House of Minos trades with the Drathians. They have useful tools. And most other species have a lot fewer counters to them. I have a few other…surprises. But nothing I’d care to use just yet. We are still competitors, Umina. Marian.”

The Minotaur shook his head. Luan eyed his back.

“So let me get this straight. One of your classmates brought in an army. And you brought a bag of holding, some artifacts and some armor, and you two have some potions, alchemist weapons, and flour.

He looked at Umina. She blushed.

“Well, if it works…”

Luan groaned.

“I chose the wrong team, didn’t I?”

Venaz turned his head to glare at Luan.

“In the first place, if this were a survival game, or one of the Professor’s games where he demanded we hunt down monsters—I brought weaponry.”

“For a game of hide-and-seek in a city, Venaz? Really?

The Minotaur snorted.

“It’s not always simply hiding or seeking. Sometimes the Professor changes the rules. If he unleashed Wyverns like he did in the last competition—”

Luan stared at Venaz as the [Strategist] broke off and grumbled under his breath. He looked at Umina.

“What kind of person is your teacher?”

The Lizardgirl smiled.

“He’s great.”

It was such a genuine remark Luan had no reply to that. He looked around. Umina cleared her throat.

“Anyways, it’s not as if the Professor’s the one targeting us. He set this up, but Tulm the Mithril’s our opponent. And he—”

More soldiers!

Venaz snapped. Luan, Umina, and Marian looked up. They tensed, ready for another skirmish. But this time the fight had come and gone before them.

A group of Dullahan [Soldiers], Humans, and even a pair of horses were all lying on the ground, being tended to by a small band of Lizardfolk wearing robes. They looked up as the students halted. Instantly, one of their number strode forwards. It was an old Lizardwoman. She raised her hand as Venaz made a fist and lowered his head to charge.

“[Healers]! Back off, or we’ll have you expelled from the game!”

The students and Luan hesitated. Now they saw the [Healers] were bending over the injured, tending to bleeding wounds with healing potion or poultices. They were even treating internal bleeding and broken bones, setting the wounds before applying healing potion or magical salves. The [Healer] who’d stopped the students raised an eyebrow.

“Oh. You’re the poor fools who still haven’t been caught. Do you have any damage we need to clean up?”

“We ran into two patrols a few streets back.”

Venaz jerked a thumb over his shoulder, still looking wary. The [Healer] sighed exasperatedly.

“How bad? And if you’ve hurt them badly—”

“Just bruises. Maybe a concussion or two. Broken ribs at worst. Don’t worry. I held back.”

The Minotaur smirked. The Lizardwoman gave him a look which removed the smirk. She sighed and gestured.

“Roleis, Armiga, you two see what’s wrong over there.”

Two of the [Healers] got up. Marian opened her mouth, hesitating. The old Lizardwoman noticed and smiled.

“Don’t worry; these [Soldiers] aren’t continuing. Titan’s orders. No one gets hurt. Still, if there aren’t a dozen deaths by the end of the day, I’ll be surprised. Horses, people—accidents happen when you have idiots charging each other with sticks, even if they are padded! Some game.”

She scowled angrily. Venaz looked at his companions.

“Who did the fighting here? Kallinad’s forces? From the docks? It looks like they took this street. Why didn’t they hold it?”

The [Healer] sighed.

“It’s all hit and away. It keeps us running, but those Humans aren’t getting any closer, even with their [Knights]. The Iron Vanguard has stalled them and both groups are clashing in the streets without getting into a big confrontation. That will change soon; I know your lot. Hotheaded, the lot. But why am I telling you?”

She eyed Venaz severely. The Minotaur ignored her; his eyes were narrowed on the street ahead.

“We can use this. So long as we don’t run into too many patrols, we still have a chance.”

“Fat chance of them going after you. Hey, does anyone have a scrying orb? Maybe they’ll show you bashing heads so we know where to find your victims.”

The Lizardwoman [Healer] glared. Luan looked from her to Marian and Umina, who were arguing over the map and their location.

“So there are two companies fighting? Or is it three? I’m not clear on that.”

The [Healer] raised her brows as she turned to Luan. She seemed to figure out he wasn’t a student at once, because she gave Luan a more measured—and polite—reply.

“There are two companies doing the seeking. The [Soldiers] of the Forgotten Wing company, and the Iron Vanguard. We belong to the Forgotten Wing company, and so do these three nominally, at least.”

She gestured at Marian, Umina, and Venaz.

“It makes sense our soldiers aren’t seeking your friends as hard as the Iron Vanguard; they don’t want to get that badly hurt, no matter the prize. Ten gold isn’t worth fighting him.

She pointed to Venaz, who looked pleased at the compliment. Luan focused on the second part of her statement. He’d heard that before.

“Ten gold pieces per student? That’s what the soldiers get for capturing someone?”

He glanced sideways at Marian. The Centauress looked up and tossed her head.

“Don’t get any funny ideas. You’re being paid more to help us, remember? And this is guaranteed money.”

Umina nodded absently. She sidled up to the old [Healer] who seemed content to talk while her coworkers actually did the healing.

“Excuse me, Miss Healer? Could I ask you to show us where we are?”

“What, and help you cheat?”

The old woman exploded. Umina winced. The Lizardwoman hesitated and eyed Umina.

“Well, it couldn’t hurt. What with those Terandrians bringing an army in. You’re Umina, aren’t you? My granddaughter’s your age. Alright, show me. Yes, yes…you’re right about here. And before you ask, no, I don’t know where the fighting is. But if you listen, they’re probably…”

She bent over the map. Venaz edged over to see with Marian. Luan looked at the injured soldiers. All this fighting. It made more sense now. You had to reward everyone taking part, or give them a chance. He frowned to himself.

“A game. If that’s the case, why not…”

An idea nagged at his head. Then he heard a curse. Venaz was looking up and down the street and Umina was folding her map. Marian galloped down the street and came back instantly.

“You were right! There are at least a hundred coming down the street!”

“[Soldiers]? Which side?”

“Does it matter? We’re going to be pounded flat either way! We have to outrun them!”

“But that’s the way we have to go to the plaza! Maybe we can break through. I have—”

Venaz was rummaging in his bag of holding. The [Healer] snapped at once.

“No more fighting! The wounded need to be cleared out! I forbid you to use an artifact!”

“We need to go forwards. We’re running out of time!”

The Minotaur pointed at the sun, which was nearly on its way to becoming evening. The Lizardwoman drew in a breath, and Luan grabbed her arm gently. He looked up the street where the unmistakable sound of marching boots was coming from.

“Excuse me.”

She yanked her arm free of Luan’s grip and glared at him.

“Threaten me, and the Titan will feed you to the worms, no matter who you are. This isn’t up for debate. That goes for you. Prized students or not—”

She rounded on Venaz. Luan raised his voice urgently.

“No. I was just wondering—you’re prohibited from fighting, but would you be willing to earn some gold?”

The [Healer] paused. And the other [Healers] who’d been tending to their tasks looked up. Marian, Venaz, and Umina looked at Luan sharply. The Lizardwoman glanced over her shoulder and then around, as if looking for watchers. Then she eyed Luan.

“I’m listening.”

 

—-

 

Half a minute later, a huge patrol of the Iron Vanguard came down the street. They were ready for a fight; [Soldiers] armed with shields and heavy clubs were at the front, with archers and padded arrows and [Mages] following behind. They even had two of the Midnight Shields leading their group. They stopped when they saw the wounded on the street. The Lizardwoman strode up to them at once, scowling.

“We’re [Healers]! This lot just got taken out! Keep clear of the injured or I’ll have your head!”

She pointed. The [Commander] leading the battalion hesitated. He eyed the injured Humans, Dullahans, and others alike. It was impossible to tell who had belonged to which side as the wounded groaned or tried to sit up.

You could guess in broad terms, but there had been some Dullahans even among the [Storm Sailors] and Humans were employed in the Iron Vanguard, however infrequently. He frowned at a Minotaur lying still on the ground in full plate armor. He looked unharmed—until you saw the red blood smeared across his neck. He also stank. A Centaur was lying next to him, nursing both arms in a sling while a Lizardgirl moaned as a healing potion was being poured over her. A dark-skinned man was sitting against a wall as a [Healer] held up some fingers.

“We need to get through.”

“Take a side street, then. We can’t move the injured.”

The [Healer] snapped at the Dullahan. He hesitated, then nodded.

“Acceptable. But let us cast one spell. [Geomancer], forward! Seal the street.”

“Hold on. You can’t—”

The [Healer] jumped as, behind her, a wall of stone rose, neatly blocking off the street behind the wounded. The Dullahan [Commander] winced at the ferocity of the old Drake’s stare. He removed is head and bowed it slightly.

“Our apologies for the disturbance, Miss Healer. We have our orders.”

The Lizardwoman folded her arms, unimpressed.

“Get to it, then. And don’t interfere with our jobs any more, or you won’t see us when someone splits your head open.”

The Dullahan [Commander] nodded and after checking his helmet to make sure it was secured tightly, ordered his men down a side street. The [Healer] watched him go, and then waited for a minute. After that, she looked at the Minotaur, Lizardgirl, Centauress, and Human, who were all sitting up.

“Well, well, well. It looks like one of you has a brain after all.”

“More than just a brain. Brilliant idea, Luan. I knew hiring you was worth it.”

Marian got to her hooves, looking delighted. Umina was smiling fit to burst and even Venaz looked pleased. The [Healer] who’d been pretending to tend to her cleared his throat meaningfully.

“Speaking of which…”

“Of course. Here.”

Marian counted out some coins. The gold and silver vanished into the [Healer]’s palms and the Lizardman gave her a delighted bow.

“Much obliged, Miss [Strategist].”

The others crowded around for their share. One of them however looked troubled.

“Is this cheating? Our orders were—”

The Lizardwoman shoved past him, with a claw outstretched.

“I don’t see a problem with it. If the Titan had a problem with us, he would have added it to the rules. Do you see a problem?”

She tossed several gold coins at the other [Healer]. He perked up.

“You know, I’m feeling a lot better about it. Gold is a very therapeutic metal.”

“You said it.”

Marian sighed as she handed out the rest of the money. She scowled into her own bag of holding and glanced up.

“I’m spending a fortune today. Venaz, you’re paying me at least half back.”

“You’ll get it. Stop nagging me. If I had my money pouch…”

Venaz stomped past them. He glanced at the Lizardwoman and his gaze became calculating.

“How much would it cost to escort us towards the plaza? We’ll triple Marian’s payment.”

The Centauress choked, but Umina nodded.

“Not a bad idea. Let’s get as far as we can with this.”

The [Healer] hesitated, but then she shook her head, reluctantly.

“Ah! We can’t leave our area. We do have a job and lives are on the line. You’re on your own after this. Good luck; hope you win. I’d love to see the Iron Vanguard get their tails tweaked.”

She folded her arms. Venaz sighed and cursed, but he didn’t try to argue. The four set off again. Luan hurried after them and Umina turned to him. She smiled.

“Really good idea, Luan. I wish I’d thought of it.”

“Worth twenty gold coins?”

“At least!”

Marian nodded.

“I’m glad I hired you. I knew my Skill was steering me the right way. If you have any other ideas, we’d love to hear them.”

The two [Strategists] gave Luan approving looks. Venaz grunted.

“Yes, well, recall that I was the first one to hire him.”

“Yes, yes. Now, let’s keep moving. We’re closing in. There’re only few dozen streets between us and the plaza at most. We can take a circuitous route here to avoid more patrols until we get to the Iron Vanguard’s really fortified streets—”

“Hey!”

All four ducked. Luan grabbed for the club and realized he’d dropped it while pretending to be wounded. He dodged behind Venaz as he looked around for the sound and then up—

Umina, Marian, Venaz, and Luan stared up at an open window. The apartments were filled with faces. And more people were standing on the rooftops! The cold iron mists had begun to dissipate, and the people of Daquin were watching the students with avid expressions. Someone shouted.

“That’s Venaz! And Umina! And uh—”

“Miss Marian! Who’s the Human?”

Excited voices called from above. Luan saw a Lizardboy waving excitedly at Venaz. Shouts filled the street at once.

“Good luck!”

“We saw you trash that patrol! Excellent punch!”

“Umina! Umina, will you marry m—”

Bemused, the students waved up at the windows. Venaz snorted, looking pleased and annoyed.

“Idiots. They’ll blow our cover.”

“Too late to change it.”

Marian smiled and waved, causing a male Centaur half her age to swoon. Umina looked up and frowned. Then she raised her arms and waved back.

“Then let’s use this. Hey yourselves! Anyone have a scrying orb? What’s the situation look like? Is Wil—I mean, are the Humans winning?”

 

—-

 

Umina, Marian, Venaz, and the unfortunate City Runner they’d hired. To some, their tale was all-encompassing, the most important story unfolding in Daquin. It certainly was to the individuals in question. But the truth was that their struggle was just one of hundreds unfolding in the city.

Students running for their lives. Turning, fighting. Outwitting foes left and right. Triumphing, failing—the image of their battle against the Iron Vanguard was a never-ending shift of perspectives. Not one tale was told, or even fifty. It was all of the most significant dramas, with commentary, replays, twists and turns—

Some might have called it too many perspectives to keep track of. And it was true that some students were captured without much agonizing on parts of the audience. But others were names.

Wil Kallinad. Merrik, the Dwarf. Peki of Pomle. The [Rogue], Silk. Jekilt and his band of [Soldiers]. And yes, even Venaz. The Minotaur was certainly popular with his people if no one else. But to the disappointment of many, he had only appeared once in the scrying orb as the main focus in a satisfying, if short dustup. Umina’s defeat of the [Hydromancer] had also been caught, incidentally, as had their trick with the [Healers].

In truth, their perspective was, as of this moment, rather inconsequential compared to the other students who’d been making waves. Niers had watched as, with audible groans, the people in the plaza witnessed Jekilt finally subdued by a vanguard led by Tulm himself. The Mithril cornered the Centaur [Captain] with calm detachments of soldiers, slowly boxing the Centaur in until Jekilt was taken out from afar with a spell. But if Jekilt’s defeat was the talk of the hour, Wil’s dramatic battle with the Iron Vanguard was the hottest thing this century.

And it was only getting hotter. Niers watched as the company that had missed Venaz and the others walked straight into an ambush by nearly two hundred [Soldiers]. The Dullahans put their backs up as well as their shields as enchanted arrows rained from the rooftops and [Foot Soldiers] rushed in from all sides. But the ambush was a feint; the Dullahans in fact outnumbered their attackers, and they were meant to be held in place as Wil’s forces tried to seize a choke point five streets over.

They succeeded, but not before Xol had waded into the ambush and taken out two dozen [Soldiers] himself. Both sides drew back as Wil’s Human army advanced and the Iron Vanguard regrouped for another push outwards. Across the city, the students still fighting towards the plaza clashed with the Iron Vanguard and Forgotten Wing [Soldiers]. This was the stalemate that had occupied the city for the last two hours.

Bloody melees, feints, ambushes—the Iron Vanguard were giving ground as the students and the Kallinad forces advanced. But both sides were being ground down and the numbers lay with Tulm. And the students had yet to penetrate the inner third of the city around the plaza. So were they really winning?

No. They were not. To the excitable Noass and Sir Relz, each gained street was a cause for triumph and damn impartiality. But to Niers, it looked like Tulm had held his ground splendidly against Wil’s advance. He had given ground, yes, but he was whittling down the Humans. And he had the numbers to win a purely defensive battle around the plaza, even fighting from all sides.

“Still. They have a chance. If they manage to link up with Merrik’s group. Or if they can just take out Xol, or Tulm himself—”

Perorn clenched a fist as she watched through the scrying orb. Two seconds later her face appeared in the orb, repeating herself word for word. The Centaur turned and scowled at Teura in real time. She trotted back from the half-Elf [Mage] and towards Niers, who was watching from his pedestal in the center of his circle. He was still surrounded by the Midnight Shields. The Dullahans didn’t budge, even for Perorn.

“Move. Please.”

They stared at the Centaur. Niers sighed.

“Perorn, if you want to discuss with me, I’m afraid I’ll have to come to you. One moment.”

He got up from his pedestal, touched a ring, and leapt twelve feet through the air and onto the head of a Dullahan in black armor. The Dullahan twitched as Niers strode up his helmet to talk down to Perorn.

“Yes?”

“What do you think?”

The [Galewinds Strategist] folded her arms. Niers raised an eyebrow.

“I think you’re biased.”

“Of course I am. Or are you telling me you’d prefer that b—prefer Tulm to win?”

Niers shrugged. He was aware of Teura edging closer for a better view, probably amplifying his words at a distance.

“I’ve merely set the stage. The winner is the most deserving. Of course, I’m watching my student’s contributions. All of them.”

He looked pointedly past Perorn. She turned and Teura’s head snapped around. There came Tulm. He was escorting Jekilt into the plaza. The defeated Centaur looked visibly upset; he still had scorch marks from the flame walls that had boxed him in. Tulm strode over to his war table, ignoring the [Mages] clustered around him, asking for a comment. Niers rolled his eyes.

“Look at this. Will we have Wistram’s [Mages] on every battlefield after this, I wonder?”

“Only the important ones. And once we put an arrow or two through them ‘accidentally’, I think they’ll stop hanging around.”

Perorn pawed the ground restlessly. Niers shook his head.

“But they might well be everywhere. If—ah. Hold on.”

He broke off and leapt back to his pedestal. Something was happening. Tulm’s head snapped up as a shout went up.

The streets were mostly clear of individual students at this point. A few groups, like Venaz’s, had managed to get by with few or no helpers like Luan. But by and large, any student who hadn’t had the foresight to team up or hire help was now caught. And the streets were so inundated with soldiers that hiding near the plaza was all but impossible.

Ironically, if you were hiding at a distance, you were probably safe. No one cared about the students who’d decided to wait it out. But around the plaza, the Iron Vanguard was patrolling in so many numbers and in such force that anyone would be caught in moments.

Indeed, a score of students using [Invisibility], illusion, and even [Polymorph] spells and items had been caught by the [Mages] watching for any kinds of magical movement. Over the roofs or on the ground; their nets were stretched so finely that even a Fraerling would probably be caught in seconds if they got too close.

Which was why the group that appeared with a covered wagon down the main street leading straight into the plaza was all the more notable. They rolled the wagon forwards, pulled by four horses. Lizardfolk with swords ushered the wagon forwards, fending off the Dullahans that poured towards them. The horses raced ahead, urged onwards by the driver at the front. Faster and faster—and then the horses ran to either side, reins cut!

“What?”

An exclamation came from the watchers in the plaza. Niers just adjusted his wooden pedestal until he could see over the heads of the Midnight Shields. He stared down into the scrying orb as Tulm raised his voice.

“Report.”

“Sir, intruders on the eastern main road. All have been apprehended, but the vehicle is still moving. The horses are gone, but it’s been driven. It’s a…wagon?”

It was indeed a wagon. Just a wagon. Hurtling down the slight incline of the eastern road, picking up momentum. A wagon. And, clambering up over the driver’s seat, throwing her hood back to expose her face, was Yerranola, the Selphid.

The plaza was guarded of course. Over a thousand feet away, a rank of Dullahans three rows deep was waiting and braced. Wil’s soldiers hadn’t even gotten near them yet. And if they had, the elites of the Iron Vanguard would stop even their Knights of the Autumn cold. Definitely. What would a wagon do?

Then again…the Dullahans standing in formation stared. It was a wagon. Just a wagon. But it was…

A wagon.

The wagon was loaded to build momentum, and somehow, Yerranola had managed to convince a [Carpenter] to reinforce the front with wood, turning it into a mobile battering ram. Without horses, it was now speeding towards the plaza’s eastern entrance.

“Out of the way if you don’t want to get hurt!”

The Selphid was crouched on top of the wagon, laughing maniacally as it hurtled towards the ranks of Dullahans. A few [Mages] hurled spells at her, but without using a [Fireball] or a wall spell, they couldn’t stop her. And that might well kill the Selphid, dead body or not. Should they use a spell? Could they remove her somehow?

The [Mages] hesitated, and by that point it was too late. The wagon was going faster and faster. How fast was it going now? Forty miles per hour? Fifty? Sixty? And in that moment all the Dullahans guarding the plaza did a quick mathematical equation. If you understood force is mass multiplied by acceleration…even if you didn’t know the exact math, even if the basic concept was something every sentient being understood…

How much did wagons weigh again?

Over two thousand pounds of wood hurtled across the ground at the Dullahans. They hesitated; they were braced in a shield wall, but they could figure out what would happen if that hit them. The front of the wagon had been shaped into a ram. And painted red. The [Captain] took one look and issued a desperate order.

Dodge! Everyone out of the way, now!

The wagon hurtled forwards. The Dullahans were moving, running, diving out of the way. In the plaza, Tulm looked up. He stared at the wagon coming in from his right.

“Oh dear. And just what will Tulm the Mithril do about th—”

Noass’ voice cut off as Tulm straightened. Yerranola screamed a war cry as she aimed straight for the center of the plaza. For Niers.

Professor!

Niers smiled and waved. He jumped down from his pedestal as Wistram’s [Mages] crowded around him and the Midnight Shield for a better look, shouting questions. Perorn was nowhere to be seen.

“Lord Astoragon! Are you worried about this?”

Niers was counting. Twenty seconds? Twenty five? He looked over casually as the wagon grew larger and larger in front of him.

“Me? Why should I be?”

“It’s a wagon, Lord Astoragon. Surely even the Titan—”

The Centaur [Mage] hesitated. Niers was standing on the ground. The Fraerling looked up at the Centaur cheerfully.

“Unless Yerranola has truly atrocious aim, I think I’ll be quite fine, don’t you? The wagon should pass comfortably overhead. Even if I stretch. You all may wish to move.”

The Wistram [Mages] looked up. They stared at the wagon, which was hurtling at them. It would pass far, far above Niers. But they would be paste.

“Barrier spell.”

Teura murmured somewhat urgently. Niers raised a hand.

“No barrier spells! If you interfere, I’ll have all of you tied to rocks and hurled into the harbor!”

He glared at the [Mages]. They hesitated. Then they stared at the Midnight Shields. They hadn’t moved. The group from Wistram looked at Tulm. He was watching the wagon as well. He wouldn’t let it hit them.

They stared at the wagon, which had somehow endeavored to pick up more speed. And at Niers. At Tulm. They were pretty sure. Pretty sure but then again, he didn’t have anything to lose. The wagon was ten seconds away. The [Mages] ran for it.

“[Lesser Teleport].”

“[Flash Ste—]”

The sight of the robed [Mages] diving for their lives was ironically captured by a watcher from above. And the wagon was still coming on. Niers stood still, staring through a gap in the Dullahans. Yerranola was laughing, pointing at him. He sighed.

“Ah, I think I see. Well—”

There was only one barrier left between the Selphid and her destination. The Midnight Shields. And at last they did move. The black-armored Dullahans marched forwards, forming a line of steel.

“Strategist?”

One of them spoke beneath her black helm. Tulm raised a calm hand.

“I leave it to you.”

“Yes, sir! [Lineholder Formation].

The Dullahans braced. They didn’t draw their weapons. They didn’t raise their shields. They just stood their ground. And suddenly, they were a wall of black metal. Yerranola’s eyes widened. The Selphid took one look at the stationary Dullahans as her wagon screamed towards them. The circle.

Uh oh—

The crash was one of the most epic collisions captured on scrying orb. It was the kind of thing you watched once, twice, and then a third time just to remember. The reinforced wagon splintered. The contents of the wagon, weights, nails, all of it, exploded like, like…like a [Fireball] made of wood against the Dullahans. They were the immovable force, though. And the wagon smashed itself to bits against them.

Naturally, the Selphid went flying. She hit the ground and three Dullahans were on her in a second. Everyone else in the plaza, [Mages] to captured students to other Dullahans and teachers alike ducked as a hail of wood landed around them. Perorn, who’d wisely taken cover, watched as the wood fell down, temporarily a weather phenomenon.

Niers watched as the wooden splinters rained around him, blocks of wood twice as large as he was landing next to the Fraerling. He raised his eyebrows as a dagger of wood spun towards his face. At the last second it bounced off something. The Fraerling glanced down. A ring flashed on his finger. He sighed as he kicked the bit of wood out of the way.

“I’ll grant you it got you into the plaza, but against the Midnight Guard? Not exactly a smart move, Yerranola.”

He looked around for the Selphid. She was squirming as the Dullahans held her. Yerranola’s back was broken, and she was peppered with pieces of wood; one stood out from her chest where it was embedded three inches deep. Still, the Selphid grinned with her classic, irrepressible good nature.

“Whoop! Looks like that failed! See you, Professor! I—oh, hells!”

She gasped as one of the Midnight Shields slammed her onto the ground. The Selphid blinked up at them.

“Ow. I felt that.”

“Student apprehended. Strategist, your orders?”

“With the others.”

Tulm waved a hand. He’d barely glanced up from his map where he was plotting Wil’s forces. Yerranola groaned. Niers sighed. Then everyone turned as one of the spectators, one of Daquin’s Councilmen, raised his voice.

“Reckless! Absolutely—someone get a healing potion! This [Soldier]’s injured badly!”

The Lizardman was pointing and shouting. And little wonder. A Dullahan was lying on the ground. His armor was steel, but that hadn’t saved him; wooden pieces had perforated the metal like it was parchment. And blood was already spreading from his wounds as he tried to pull himself up.

Healer!

The cry came from a dozen throats as [Soldiers] from the Iron Vanguard rushed to tend to their fallen comrade. The moment was a tableau, captured once again by Wistram. A healing potion was produced and used at once. The Dullahan got to his feet, cradling his visored helmet as his body was helped upright. For a second, everyone was focused on the injured Dullahan.

“Heal the wounded. Reform the guard on the eastern entrance at once. As for the Selphid—place her with the other students. Now.”

Tulm was glancing towards Yerranola, his expression irritated. He spoke curtly. Yerranola’s face was a mask of horror.

“I’m really sorry, Professor. I didn’t think—is he alright?”

She strained to see as the Midnight Shields led her towards the other captured students. She called out again towards Niers. The Fraerling didn’t answer. He was staring at the scrying orb and the wounded Dullahan as the [Healer] rushed over to him. The [Soldier] was trying to get to his feet.

“I can walk. I can…I’ll go.”

He stumbled forwards, shrugging off help. The other Iron Vanguard Dullahans hovered around him, then composed themselves. True to Dullahans, they let the [Soldier] slowly proceed towards a [Healer] rushing towards him, passing slowly by the center circle.

It was a moment where no one was holding their breath. No one except Niers. And perhaps Tulm sensed it with a Skill. Or maybe it was intuition. But as the [Soldier] stumbled again, the Dullahan [Strategist] glanced up. His expression was absent for a second, puzzled. And then, suddenly intent. He pointed at the injured Dullahan and shouted in a field roar.

“Hold! That Dullahan’s armor isn’t bearing the Iron Vanguard’s insignia! Soldiers—”

Too late. Cameral began sprinting for Niers’ circle. The Iron Vanguard jerked as one. The Midnight Guard whirled. They charged Cameral. And they were quick! The Dullahan tried to swerve, but he was too slow. He knocked a hand free, charging at the circle with Niers in it. But he’d never make it. So—

He threw his head.

It was an easy toss. A lazy arc, belayed by the suddenness which with his body came to a halt as six Dullahans tackled Cameral at once. But they’d missed the head. And it flew.

Up, up! The Midnight Shields not tackling Cameral looked up. Several tried to change course, but their heavy armor weighed them down. It was too late. The world watched, open-mouthed as Cameral’s head fell down to earth, towards Niers, who’d stepped aside to give him room. He was going to make it! He was going to—

Tulm the Mithril leapt forwards. His jump carried him eight feet into the air, impossibly high. His mithril armor shone as his outstretched arm shot for Cameral’s head. Niers, staring upwards, saw the moment unfold.

Tulm, his eyes wide, hand outstretched. Cameral, shouting, his head slowly rotating as it dropped towards Niers. The Midnight Guard, lunging. Tulm’s hand, covered in the bright, magical metal, reaching, grabbing—

He caught Cameral and twisted out of the way, landing with a crash as the Midnight Guard leapt too. The Mithril rolled, grasping Cameral’s head by the hair. The Dullahan student was grimacing as his body lay, pinned by four of the Midnight Guard. Tulm held Cameral’s head upright as he scrambled to his feet. He paused, wavering.

The Midnight Guard froze. The audience in the square froze. And every eye turned towards Niers Astoragon. They all stared, students, teachers, spectators.

Had Cameral done it? Had his head passed into the circle, or had Tulm caught him in time? The world waited. And Niers studied the circle marked by ropes. He checked the air where Cameral’s head had been, glanced at the two Dullahans, Tulm and Cameral’s head.

The Fraerling raised his arms. He waited for one eternal heartbeat, for the effect, for the drama, and then swung them down.

Out!

And the audience went wild.

 

—-

 

Minutes later, a lifetime of excitement later, Yerranola and Cameral were being spoken to by Wistram [Mages] as they sat with the other former contestants. The [Mages] were of course, lenses for the world to witness all that was unfolding and they did more than just watch the action in the streets.

They were interviewing the losers for their thoughts, opinions, and of course, reactions to what was happening. And now the latest two students were the subject of all the attention, despite the battle still raging in the streets.

“Of course it was planned. You think we stuck a bunch of wooden bits in Cameral’s armor and drew some blood to fake his accidents for fun? Come to think of it…”

Yerranola was chatting happily to the [Mage] asking her questions. She looked relaxed, for all her body was in tatters. Cameral was uninjured. His faked injuries had already been healed, for they had been quite real. But he had never been in any danger not planned. He was more subdued, but he did manage a quiet nod and a reply.

“Neither Yerra nor I had made enough preparations for this event. After we saw the Mithril and the Iron Vanguard arriving—we might have continued, but Wil’s strategy showed us just how unlikely we were to succeed. So we teamed up.”

“And this was your plan?”

The scrying orb the [Mage] was holding up switched to Sir Relz. The Drake was leaning forwards, interviewing the two [Strategists]. Yerra nodded casually.

“It was worth a shot. I was the bait and Cameral was just going to run for it. I know it’s not that impressive, but we decided to be bold since we had no other good hands to play. I hope the Professor won’t scold us for it.”

She glanced at Niers. After a moment, the sighing Fraerling appeared in the orb.

“Boldness is a virtue. I won’t say either Yerranola or Cameral exceeded my expectations, but they certainly came closer than any other student. Yerra was the first to break the plaza’s encirclement, unorthodox and risky through her plan was. How close it was depends. A head isn’t exactly a body; I would have had to think if Cameral had landed on whether that counted. But perhaps Tulm has an opinion on how good the gambit was?”

He winked at the audience. The screen switched to Tulm. The Dullahan, who had returned to his war table, glanced up briefly.

“Remove the [Mages]—”

The image went dark for a second. Niers, relaxing in his seat, saw Tulm walk away from the protesting Wistram [Mages]. Niers whistled, and Tulm stopped as he passed by the circle, guarded by a double ring of somewhat abashed Midnight Shields this time. Niers hopped onto another helmet and spoke quietly to Tulm.

“He nearly got you. Cameral. If you’d been a hair slower, he might have won. You didn’t think they’d be this aggressive, did you? You’re still underestimating them.”

He grinned as he perched on the very uncomfortable Dullahan’s head. Tulm glance at the Midnight Shield, and then up at Niers. He adjusted his head. His voice was impassive as ever.

“Tell me something. Was that Human boy—Wil Kallinad—really the surprise you mentioned? He will never make it in the plaza. You know he has no chance.”

Niers smiled. The two locked gazes. At last, the Titan shrugged.

“Alone, you’d be right. But teamwork nearly won once already. I wonder what happens if the other students work together?”

He turned back to his pedestal. Tulm stared at Niers’ back as the Titan helped himself to another lime drink and a candied nut. Then he looked around. His soldiers stared back. Slowly, Tulm glanced at his [Mage] responsible for sending [Message] spells.

“Command Xol to advance. Have the first to sixth Armor Captains begin sortieing with their units. It’s time to end this.”

 

—-

 

“The plaza is in sight! Just six more streets away!”

Merrik roared as his group advanced. The Iron Vanguard was pouring out to meet them. But an equally large force was marching with Merrik and his group.

Wil’s forces were advancing down the street. It had not been an easy battle. The [Knights] were tired. More than a few had been unhorsed. More than a few had been carried off the streets. And yet, still they came.

Humans. Terandria’s champions. And behind them was Wil, still moving forwards, still clashing with Tulm the Mithril himself. It was enough to make Merrik proud of his homeland. Even so, he was going to win this. The Dwarf hefted his greatclub as he walked forwards. Some of his friends walked with him.

Not all.

Kelsa was out. She’d been taken by nets. Romin was limping bad; a bone had been broken. Maybe even shattered. But he was still with them. He could heal later.

Cemiza was out. The Oldblood Drake had been caught by a [Mage]. But her friend, Kaelma, the [Fencer] with the silver bell, was still with them. Unharmed. So was Peki, the Garuda [Martial Artist].

And Merrik too. Oh, he’d taken bad hits, but nothing a healing potion couldn’t sort out. Now the Dwarf raised his club and roared and the soldiers around him cheered. He was out of Skills. But he was so close!

“Hold on, Professor. We’re nearly there!”

Merrik charged forwards. The Dullahans charged right back. There were a lot of them. But they could take them! They could—the Dwarf knocked three Dullahans down, aiming at their knees, then heard a voice that made his heart sink.

“Second Armor Company! Advance!”

A titanic roar worthy of the Professor himself. But this voice was properly huge, booming. It came from a giant.

“Aw, Dragon’s nuts! Here comes Xol! Peki!”

The Garuda flew up. Xol was impossible to miss. He was leading the Second Armor Company straight into the fray. [Knights] charged at him, using their spears like lances; the War Walker flicked them off their horses. He wasn’t holding a weapon. But he did have a massive tower shield. Peki dove at him.

“Rematch. Flutter kick. Swallow punch. Dodge—”

She flitted through the air, striking. Another Garuda went down, knocked clean out of the skies. Merrik grinned.

Go Peki!

Xol had halted as the Garuda advanced on him. He raised his shield as the Garuda spun left, daring him to strike and be countered. Xol’s voice was huge. Yet, almost conversational.

“You were right. Without my weapons, it is hard to beat one of Pomle’s warriors. I would that we had chance for a rematch.”

“Punch, punch, kick—”

“[Attraction Shield].”

Merrik felt a tug at his side. He stumbled. Then he saw Peki fall out of the air like a stone. Xol held his massive shield up. And the Garuda slammed into it and stuck there. Pinned. She wriggled, struggling against the shield, but it held her as if the Garuda’s body were suddenly magnetized. Peki looked up as Xol raised his shield.

“This is bad.”

Xol brought the shield down. Merrik charged forwards, but it was much too late. The people below Xol scattered as the shield came down, Peki-first.

Whumph.

When the [Juggernaut] raised his shield Peki remained, lying on the broken street, her wings spread. Unconscious.

Peki!

Her friends raced forwards, outraged. Heedless, they charged at Xol. Romin, Kaelma, Merrik—but a group of Dullahans brought down Romin, trapping him with catchpoles. And someone shot out from the side—Kaelma stumbled backwards, her cheek suddenly bleeding! The Gnoll turned, growling, raising her wooden rapier.

A Dullahan stepped out of the line of soldiers. He was unique, because his armor was made not of metal, or even wood or stone. But of cloth. It looked like padded armor as he gestured to Kaelma. His voice was soft, even amid the fighting.

“Second Armor Captain. Heldam. I challenge you, [Fencer].”

He had a wooden rapier like hers. And on his wrist—a silver bell. Kaelma hesitated. Then the Gnoll slowly walked towards Heldam, as graceful as a cat. He slid forwards to meet her. The silver bells chimed as they advanced.

Merrik looked around. Suddenly, he was alone. And the soldiers with him were struggling, suddenly bereft of leadership. He raised his voice.

“Pull back! Pull—”

A hand grabbed him. Merrik felt himself being raised into the air. He swore and struggled, but Xol’s grip was immense. The [Juggernaut] raised Merrik up and regarded him. Merrik stared at Xol and bared his teeth desperately.

“Ever hear about the Dwarf who felled a Giant?”

He wrenched an arm free. His club was still there. He swung desperately, and his greatclub bounced off Xol’s hand. The [Juggernaut] smiled faintly.

“Yes. I heard he cheated.”

Then he lowered his hand and Merrik found out what it was like to be Peki.

 

—-

 

“Ah, no! He got the Dwarf!”

Umina groaned as she stared into the scrying orb. She, Venaz, Marian, and Luan were all hiding. For a second time. The Minotaur’s protective talismans were affixed to every window and door in the apartment they were hiding in. The Lizardfolk couple who’d let them in didn’t mind; they were as excited as could be as they clustered around the scrying orb.

“Dead gods, look! The entire team’s wiped out! Wil’s forces are on the run!”

Dismayed, Marian pointed. Umina saw it was true. The Iron Vanguard had finally come out swinging with all they had. And they’d taken the students and Humans completely off-guard. Umina groaned as Xol casually unhorsed a Knight of the Autumn with a single blow.

“It’s really unfair using that [Juggernaut]! Short of lethal weapons, how are you supposed to take him out?”

“Immobilize him? Magical spells?”

“None of that works with his reinforcements.”

Venaz snorted.

“That’s the point. If he were easy to deal with, he wouldn’t be the Mithril’s best warrior on the field. Even so, look how far Wil’s company has come.”

He pointed to the map he was studying. Umina checked it too. Wil was in as many as five streets away from the plaza in certain sections. And Umina’s group? Eight streets. Venaz clenched a fist.

“We have a chance. We just need a way to get past the majority of the Iron Vanguard and the Professor’s soldiers. If we had a clear shot at the Professor, there’s just the Midnight Shields in the way.”

“Elite soldiers. But they can’t do more than break our bones. It’s definitely possible to get into that circle. I have some items.”

Marian checked her bag of holding. Venaz nodded.

“But we have to get through all of the Iron Vanguard’s main army. And Wil hasn’t the strength to push in. Not anymore! He needs help. By my count he’s used up all his Skills. And something must be done about Xol. None of us can take him out.”

“You surprise me, Venaz. I thought you’d be raring to challenge him yourself.”

Venaz shot Marian a slow look.

“I’m not an idiot. Xol of Ingrilt is more than a match for all of us.”

Luan shifted. He’d been quiet since he’d helped them use the [Healers]. Umina thought the City Runner had still been processing the game, having not quite ever gotten the full story. Now he glanced at Xol, who was front and center in the scrying orb as he waded through the Humans.

“Xol, huh? He’s the largest [Juggernaut] I’ve seen so far. Is he special or something?”

The other students glanced at him. Umina raised her brows as her tail swished back and forth. More and more surprises! Marian’s instincts had been spot on. She nodded carefully.

“You’ve seen [Juggernauts] before? Sorry, I mean, War Walkers? They’re really rare.”

“It was the only battle I’ve ever taken part in. I saw them fight. I won’t forget that. This Xol is a gentle soul by comparison. Hey, is this scrying orb’s image something I can watch later? If my company could see this—”

Luan replied absently. He was holding something in one pocket. But he hadn’t taken it out. Marian nodded.

“War Walkers are notoriously good at…killing. They’re big targets too, though. As bad as using Giants in battle. Still, in a situation like this, they shine. And Xol is bigger because he’s one of the oldest and strongest War Walkers alive. He could beat any [Knight] that Wil brought with him. Probably.”

“Without their enchanted weaponry? Definitely. We have to evade him. Strike while he’s distracted. It might be time for a gamble. Force our way in. I can hold off…some of the enemy.”

Venaz checked his talismans again. Umina was still focused on Luan.

“You have a company? That’s unusual for a City Runner.”

Luan glanced up.

“Yeah. I’m part of a company. The United Nations company. We’re based in Talenqual.”

Umina looked excited.

“Talenqual? That’s my—”

Venaz snorted as he reached into his bag of holding.

“How many nations are part of your company? Don’t answer; it’s a terrible name for a company. You should change it.”

Luan glared at Venaz.

“Venaz is a terrible name for a Minotaur. You should change it.”

Venaz’s brows snapped together. Marian looked delighted, but then she intervened, for once the peace mediator.

“Argue over names later. It’s time to make a decision. Wil’s forming up. He’s going for the decisive blow as well.”

It was true. Across the city, Wil’s force was drawing in, abandoning their fortified streets. Umina whistled.

“He’s even abandoning his rear. He’s going all in.”

“Smart. It’s the only way he wins. One push takes all. But Xol and Tulm—he won’t make it alone.”

Venaz stared at the image in the scrying orb. Then he looked up.

“I’m going. This is our chance. Umina. Marian. Do you concur?”

The two looked at each other.

“We concur. Let’s do it. I still don’t have a plan, though.”

Luan hesitated. Umina noticed that. She turned to him.

“Do you, Luan?”

“Something like that. You’ve all said this is a game, yeah?”

“Of course. Have you ever seen a battle this bloodless?”

Venaz lifted an eyebrow. Luan ignored him. He glanced down at the map, then at his coin purse.

“Well then. You bought me. And you bought out the [Healers].”

He nodded at Marian. She nodded slowly. Umina felt her brain fizzling. She raced ahead of Luan’s words. He didn’t mean—

“Ten gold’s what’s motivating the soldiers of your company to fight, right? So why not—”

“Why not bribe them to help us!”

Umina sat bolt upright. Luan nodded. Marian started.

“Bribe them? It’d never work. [Soldiers] are loyal, especially to a Great Company. The idea of bribing any of them to follow us—”

“In a battle. Obviously not. That would be suicide for them and us. But this isn’t a battle, is it, Marian?”

Venaz looked up quietly. Marian hesitated. Then she grabbed her coin pouch.

“Luan, can I borrow—one, two, damn, I brought a lot, but—”

“If I had my coin pouch—”

“Shut it, Venaz.”

Umina glanced up as the Minotaur and Centauress began counting and calculating. She met Luan’s eyes. The Human man had a slight smile on his face. A pleased expression. Umina felt a flash of admiration. And then curiosity.

“You have a unique way of thinking. That’s twice now you surprised us.”

“I’m sure you’d have come up with something. You’re all taking this more seriously than I am, besides.”

That was true. Umina was sweating with nerves. She needed to use the toilet before she went. She hopped from one foot to another.

“Still, have you ever been a [Strategist]? Or thought of being one? Do you play chess?”

An odd expression crossed Luan’s face.

“Me? No. Never. But I do know chess. Do you think this will help you win?”

Umina hesitated. She looked at Venaz and Marian, alight with the idea. Then she shook her head.

“…No. Assuming Marian has five hundred gold pieces, which she doesn’t, how many could we hire? Two hundred? One hundred? No. This will help, but it’ll be luck and something else if we beat Tulm. And that’s not how a battle should go. The Professor doesn’t believe in luck.”

Luan nodded. His eyes flicked to Umina.

“In that case, maybe you should change plans.”

“No. I mean, no, your idea’s great. It’s just…there’s something more to it.”

Umina spoke slowly. Luan’s plan was making her own brain buzz. She had a thought, nibbling at the corner of her mind. She pursued it as she thought.

“A truly great plan is something no one expects. Something original. But a great idea is only the first step. A [Strategist] builds on that idea. They take the unexpected and turn it into something no one is prepared for. Like…hold on. I need to go to the bathroom.”

The Lizardgirl hurried out of the room. She couldn’t hold it anymore. And as she was sitting on the toilet, she had it. She raced back into the room. She didn’t even wash her claws.

“Luan. I have an idea. Will you listen?”

She told him the idea, whispering to him in a corner. The City Runner’s face lit up and he grinned.

“That is smart. But would your Tulm the Mithril expect it?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But if it works, it’s sure to work. And this might be something even his [Mages] miss. It’s so…basic. And it would be quick. So quick—but—”

Umina hesitated. She looked at Marian. Could she do that to her friend? Tell her to risk it all on this? No. Marian would hate gambling it all on this. But Umina had nothing to lose. She looked at Luan.

“I’m going to try it. Can I…can I ask you to let them know?”

“Of course.”

Luan stared at the Lizardgirl. Umina hesitated.

“Maybe I should tell Marian…”

Her conscience gnawed at her. Gnawed and pricked. If she was wrong—but if she was right—Luan stared at her. Slowly, the [Rower] bent. He spoke quietly.

“Do you want to win?”

Umina paused. She looked up at him.

“Yes.”

With all her heart. The Human studied her eyes. Then he nodded.

“Then win. There’s honor in sports. But this sport is all about cheating. Or so it seems. So win. And have all your regrets afterwards. But win.

And in his eyes flashed the same thirst for victory that boiled in Umina’s gut. The Lizardgirl took a step back. Then she nodded and fled. Back the way she’d come.

“Umina?”

Marian looked around as she finished counting her coin. The Centauress trotted around the apartment, looking for her friend. She turned to Luan.

“Where did Umina go? Did you see?”

The City Runner nodded.

“She has an idea and went to try it. She’s trying to win. In her way.”

He met Marian’s gaze. The Centauress was hurt. Then angry. She pawed the ground.

“Aren’t we all? Why can’t she—never mind. Come with us.”

She gestured to Venaz. The Minotaur was straightening, checking his armor. He turned.

“Forget Umina. Victory belongs with us. We’re going. And you’re coming with us.”

He nodded at Luan. The Human smiled.

“Of course.”

 

—-

 

They came out of the apartment. Three of them, and at least two ready for a fight. Marian’s bow was drawn. Venaz strode forth wearing his armor. Luan had a table leg.

Why was he there? Moral support. To make up for Umina’s absence. A good luck charm.

“An extra body to take a block for my back.”

“You’re all heart.”

“You’re being paid. And soon, so will the other soldiers. Let’s find a patrol.”

“Can’t we just head straight towards the plaza?”

Marian looked at Venaz. The Minotaur shook his head.

“Too many of the Iron Vanguard. And what if we run into a larger group of the Forgotten Wing company?”

“Oh. Right. We can’t bribe them all.”

“Exactly. We should—”

Venaz broke off. He turned his head, held up a hand. Wil and Marian froze. The Minotaur paused.

“There’s a large force coming up the north. Riders.”

“Wil’s group?”

“They might take us out. The other way, then. Towards the plaza—”

The three began hurrying down the street. They hadn’t gone more than twenty paces when Venaz halted again. He hesitated. This time Luan and Marian had heard it too.

“That’s a lot of footsteps.”

“Back to the apartment!”

They raced backwards. Too slow. Too late. The first [Mage] appeared on the rooftops. Five more appeared and began throwing spells. The first raised her hands and shouted.

“Wistram, Wistram!

The other five stopped. On the far end of the street, a group of Dullahans floated over the rooftops. They saw the three Human [Mages] and two half-Elves and began throwing spells at once. The Wistram [Mage] fled, shouting. Venaz groaned.

“They’ve spotted us. The apartment’s no good! Form up!”

He put his back to the wall. Marian did likewise. And there they came.

An entire army of Humans. A regiment plus of Dullahans. And Luan, Marian, and Venaz were caught right between them. Both sides spotted the students and Luan; the Dullahans pointed.

“Take them!”

“Venaz—”

Marian’s head swung left to right. The Minotaur was rummaging in his bag of holding.

“One second. It’s time to pull out my last resort. I can’t use this. No, not this one either. No. No. Damn. Why did I have to have such impeccable selection?”

Venaz! Hurry up!

Marian loosed an arrow at the Dullahans. The Humans ignored the students; they were charging the Dullahans. Only a few [Knights] remained and mostly on foot. The Minotaur grabbed something. He straightened, and turned towards the Dullahans. Ignoring the arrows bouncing off his armor and the spell that crackled harmlessly over the metal, the Minotaur raised a fist.

“These are weapons from my homeland. The House of Minos and the Drath Archipelago fight with more than just spells. Behold! Art is a weapon.”

He raised a fluttering piece of paper and cast it into the wind. Pages flew upwards. Luan caught a glimpse of one. A painted dog, drawn in vibrant colors, fluttered through the sky as the Dullahans charged. Then, the dog moved. It stretched, and then ran, and raced forwards. Off the page. Into reality.

A dog as large as a horse leapt onto the ground. Its fur was brilliant white; it was outlined with black and it had large, yellow eyes with intelligent pupils. It was a dog. But not a dog. It was…a drawing. A caricature of life.

And yet it moved. It was art, and yet it bounded forwards. And it was paint, ink, but it bit. The Dullahans shouted as the summoned dog leapt on them. The painting grabbed two Dullahans and worried them, shaking its head left to right.

“Don’t kill them!”

The Minotaur bellowed. The dog paused. The Minotaur pointed.

“Knock them down.”

The dog raced forwards. The Dullahans froze. They struck at the dog, but their clubs were ineffectual against the painted creature. And more of Venaz’s images were coming to life. First another dog, to match the first. Then a galloping horse, a unicorn but with two horns and a flaming mane. A screeching wyvern, claws extended.

Summoned creatures! Fall back!

The Dullahans shouted as they began fighting the monsters. The Humans raced forwards, attacking with the summoned creatures behind them. Venaz bellowed instructions at his creatures as he strode forwards. Luan took cover behind Marian, guarding her back as she loosed more and more arrows. The Dullahans were in disarray. Then a giant strode forwards, wearing a huge, horned helmet. The [Captain]’s voice was a bellow.

Hold, you cowards. Those aren’t summoned beasts! They’re talismans. Painted Beasts. They’re as dangerous as Silver-ranked monsters. Hold your ground. Form a shield wall and fight them off. [Mages]—take the creatures apart. Don’t hold back.”

The [Mages] dueling on the roofs took aim at the summoned creatures below. Venaz growled as fire blasted one dog apart. He glanced up at the [Captain]. The huge figure strode towards him, larger than any Dullahan. Then the [Captain] removed his helmet.

A Minotaur tossed his helm aside. The Dullahans in his company advanced, shouting as they pushed the Humans back. The Minotaur swung a huge staff around, knocking a [Knight] senseless. He advanced, pointing at Venaz, who was shouting at his summoned animals to pull back out of the [Mage]’s range.

Venaz of Hammerad! Turn and face me, coward!

The Minotaur [Strategist] whirled. The Dullahan’s [Captain] threw aside his staff. He spread his arms. He was as large as Venaz. No, maybe larger.

“I am Shailt of Tergim. I challenge you to a duel. Fists. Run and forfeit your honor.”

Never.

Venaz bared his teeth. The Dullahans and Humans looked up and cleared the way as the two Minotaurs charged. The two roared as they came at each other. And when they met in a clash of steel, Luan could have sworn the earth shook.

Reeling. Regaining their posture. Trading furious blows, punches, kicks. Throwing each other. Locking horns and hands, struggling for a second’s advantage. Luan lost track of Venaz as the two threw each other across the street. He was in the thick of it now. Marian circled as Luan clubbed Dullahans trying to swarm the two. He was so lost in the fighting that when the first Human appeared he nearly hit her. The [Knight] jerked back. Then she lanced out.

“One side, [Soldier]!”

Luan saw her shoot past him. The [Knight] swept a Dullahan off his feet with a single slash from the wooden greatsword. Then she barreled into another group. She heaved and they went flying. She was fast! And the Dullahans went down like pins in front of her.

“[Knight]! Call in the [Mages]!”

“[Sergeant]—”

“He’s down!”

“Sixth Armor Captain! Captain Shailt! We need—”

The Dullahans were in disarray. Caught between Venaz’s perishing summoned creatures and the Humans led by the [Knight], they were losing. The Dullahan [Mages] fled backward as the Humans and half-Elves rained down spells from above. And their [Captain], the Minotaur, collapsed as Venaz landed a punch to her jaw and shattered it.

Healer!

Venaz bellowed as he stood over the fallen Minotaur [Captain]. The Dullahans surrounded their leader, but Venaz forced them back. He cleared a path himself, bellowing for a [Healer]. The Minotaur was carried away. The Dullahans, seeing their company leader gone, retreated. The Humans let them go. The [Knight] planted her sword in the ground as Venaz, panting, bleeding from both nostrils and stumbling, walked back towards Luan and Marian. The Centaur had only a few injuries; Luan was nursing a gash on his arm.

“Potion.”

The Minotaur tossed one at Luan and drank one himself. He stared at the Armor Captain being taken off the field.

“Damn. The jaw bone shattered. I—didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“You took that guy out. That was an Armor Captain. One of the Iron Vanguard’s company leaders!”

Marian stared at Venaz. He hesitated.

“She was strong. But she threw her weapon aside to fight me. It was a favor to me.”

She?

The Minotaur didn’t reply. He watched the [Healer] tending to the Minotaur. Then he turned. The potion bottle crunched in his grip and the [Knight] stopped a few paces away. She planted her sword in the ground.

“You two are students, aren’t you? Venaz and Marian?”

“Who are you?”

The Minotaur clenched a fist. Luan looked around. There were over a hundred Human [Soldiers] around him. He didn’t like the odds. Marian shifted.

“Venaz—”

“Relax. If we wanted to attack you, we would have done it. We’re on the same side. This is the first engagement we’ve won this close to the city’s center. I know the two of you; my brother speaks highly of both of you.”

The [Knight] removed her helmet. Luan saw a shock of sweaty, auburn hair. Pale skin, a battle-maniac’s smile. Venaz snorted.

“Your brother? You wouldn’t be—”

“Talia Kallinad. Come with me. I think Wil will want to see you.”

Venaz hesitated. He glanced at Marian and Luan. Then he nodded.

“Lead the way.”

 

—-

 

“All four [Captains] have withdrawn. Some of their [Storm Sailors] are fighting on, but the [Captains] are done. They’ve had their fun.”

“Xol took out three of my Autumn Knights. We can’t stop him.”

“Merrik’s down, Wil. Peki, everyone else in his group but Kaelma. And she barely got away. We’ve lost our hammer, no?”

Wil leaned over the war table. He checked the map once and then twice. It added up to the same tally.

Outmatched. Outmaneuvered. Part of him wasn’t surprised. What had he expected? Fighting Tulm was like fighting the Professor. Even with his surprise attack. Even with the other students—

This was it. Jekilt, Merrik, even Yerra and Cameral were down. The adventuring teams had retreated and now the sailors were pulling out. They were tired of being beaten down. Wil glanced up.

“How many [Knights] can do battle still, Sir Kelm?”

The man hesitated.

“Sixty four. Half unmounted.”

Wil nodded.

“In that case, have them prepare. We have one last assault left. Commander Wylint, I will leave you in charge of the rear. Keep us from being encircled long enough for us to settle things.”

“Lord Kallinad! I can keep going—”

The [Commander] was barely on his feet. Wil shook his head. His stomach was twisting. Was this it? He looked around. The faces around him were grim. As if they were really losing a battle. But they were. And it might not be life or death, but it felt like it. Wil closed his eyes.

“One last push. We take the plaza’s south entrance. Form up—”

Wil!

He turned.

He spun. The [Knights] standing around him turned, hands on their wooden swords. But the voice wasn’t another call to arms. It was Talia. His sister walked with a slight limp. On foot; her warhorse had taken a fall and was being healed. And following her—Wil’s eyes widened.

“Marian? Venaz? Where have you two been?”

The two walked forwards, followed by a dark-skinned Human man that Wil had never seen before. Wil stared at Marian and Venaz. He’d wondered if Marian was still around with Umina—he hadn’t seen them captured. But he could scarcely believe Venaz had made it this far without being surrounded. The Minotaur glanced around as the Humans blinked at the two visitors.

“Wil, I met them when we engaged that Dullahan company. We sent them packing, in no small part thanks to these two.”

The Humans brightened at Talia’s news. Wil nodded. A small victory, but every bit helped. He looked at Venaz.

“Are you two trying to reach the plaza?”

“Trying. Is this your gambit to take out the best competitors now, Wil? I warn you; it won’t be easy.”

Venaz flexed an arm and stared around. The Humans stared at him. Wil nearly laughed.

“If I had time to deal with competitors—I wish our entire class was here. Or haven’t you seen the Iron Vanguard forcing us back? They’ve taken out all but a dozen students and I think the rest are hiding. Where’s Umina, Marian? Did she get captured?”

“No. I think not, at any rate. We got separated recently.”

The Centauress frowned. She looked at Wil’s map. And then at the ongoing tally of numbers on both sides he’d written up in shorthand. She winced.

“This is it, then?”

“One last push. You care to join in?”

“We were thinking of trying our own hand. But if you offer us no choice…”

Venaz eyed the map. He snorted dismissively.

“A simple assault? That’s my inclination too, looking at your numbers. This is the moment. If you allow the Iron Vanguard to regroup, they’ll surround you. You press on, or you allow victory to slip through your fingers.”

The others at the table blinked at Venaz. But Wil nodded.

“He’s right. This is it. We can’t do anything else.”

“But assaulting the plaza directly? We can’t break through their ranks, let alone those Midnight Shields.”

Sir Kelm frowned. Wil nodded heavily. He saw Venaz hesitating. The Human man was elbowing him and whispering to Marian as well.

“What? And who is this?”

Marian chewed her lip, and then nodded. Venaz looked ready to protest; she kicked him with a hoof and he growled, but let her go on.

“This is Luan. A City Runner. He’s helped us get this far. He had an idea. We were going to try it out before we ran into your soldiers, Wil. How much money do you have on you?”

Wil glanced at his sister. She raised her brows.

“Enough to pay for all of this. Why?”

“Have you thought about bribing the Forgotten Wing’s [Soldiers] to join your side?”

Wil’s eyes widened. He saw the officers around him glance up hopefully. But just as fast as Wil felt the surge of elation, he drooped.

“No. I hadn’t considered it, but it won’t work, Marian.”

“Oh come on. They’re not friends of the Iron Vanguard. And if we paid them, even something like five gold coins per head—”

“Even then. If we try, Tulm will outbid us. That strategy won’t work. Maybe it would if you found a patrol, but the Forgotten Wing and the Iron Vanguard have closed in around the plaza. You’d have to bribe them all together. And how could you even arrange that in the middle of a melee?”

Wil shook his head. Marian stomped a hoof.

“Damn! If only we’d had this idea sooner—”

Venaz pounded a hand on the table.

“Enough. It won’t work. In that case, I’ll lead the assault myself. Marian, you join us. Between us three, we might be able to force through the plaza. We’ll combine our charge Skills. I haven’t used any of mine. I’ll lead the charge on Tulm myself if he comes out. I can take that Dullahan, mithril armor or not. If he sends his Midnight Shields, put your [Knights] against them.”

He pointed at Talia and Sir Kelm. Wil was nodding, even as he weighed the odds of Venaz getting past Xol. But what other choice was there? Marian was shifting uncertainly, but nodding. And then Feshi spoke.

“You forgot to count me, as usual, Venaz.”

The Minotaur blinked. He looked past Wil and saw Feshi standing among the officers. She had been with Wil since the harbor. Now, the Gnoll bared her teeth in an unfriendly smile at Venaz.

“Fine. You’ll be part of our final assault, Feshi. Four of the Professor’s students stand a better chance than three. If you have any Skills—”

Our assault? I didn’t see you fighting all this time.”

The Gnoll snapped back. Venaz ground his teeth.

“I found my own way here. And I will be the one to end it.”

“How? By beating Tulm with your fists? Not so, I think. But I have an idea. It’s my turn to shine. Wil. Will you lend me your ear?”

Feshi looked at Wil. He glanced at her. He thought Feshi had been sticking with him all this while out of desperation, perhaps hoping to claim victory if he won. Now the Gnoll was grinning.

“Do you have a plan, Feshi? One that can even the odds?”

The Gnoll nodded. She rolled her eyes upwards. Wil glanced up at the windows. Daquin’s citizens were watching, as were a pair of Wistram [Mages]. He wished he could appear confident.

“I can do a bit. I have yet to use my best Skill. But I have had a better idea after hearing Venaz and Marian’s trick, yes? I can even the odds. Even put them in your favor. If my plan works, I will pull away most of the Mithril’s reinforcements. But if I do it, I think, I will lose my chance to win.”

“How? I mean—will you do it?”

Wil stared at Feshi. He wanted to believe she was lying, but unlike Venaz, Feshi was never full of hot air. The Gnoll smiled lazily at him.

“I can. If I fail, I fail. But if I succeed? I will hand a chance at victory to you, I think. Even to Venaz and Marian. But I will need to lead. So I ask for a deal, Wil Kallinad.”

Time was running out. Wil knew that. But he was grasping at straws. He met Feshi’s eyes.

“What sort of deal?”

“Hm. I want something to give to my tribe. I had hoped to bring a secret from the Titan of Baleros himself. But anything of worth will do. I require a present to give to the Meeting of Tribes. Can you offer me something like that?”

Wil’s mind spun. A present? Now? He opened his mouth to tell Feshi he hadn’t a clue. Talia leaned over.

“Two trading caravans from the Kallinad harbors straight through the Gnoll Plains over six years. Will that do?”

Feshi and the others glanced at Talia. Wil’s older sister winked at him.

“It’s not a bad deal for us. And it’s worth a good deal to Gnoll tribes. What of it, Miss Feshi?”

The Gnoll hesitated. Her eyes flickered.

“Four trading caravans. Each one led by at least a Level 40 [Merchant].”

“Deal.”

Talia reached out. Feshi gripped her hand tightly. Then she looked around. Sir Kelm, the other Humans, Wil, Venaz, Marian, and the City Runner named Luan all stared at her. The Gnoll smiled. Or was it a smirk.

“So close, yet so far, Venaz. Your idea was good. Excellent, even, yes? But you can take it another step. Using the Mithril’s own troops against him is one idea. But flawed.”

Venaz glared at her.

“It wasn’t actually my idea. But what do you have planned?”

“An army. One without fear. Numberless. To drown the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing alike. Your idea gave mine wings. So I give you credit. But this? This is my moment.”

The Gnoll’s eyes flashed. She walked past the war table. And she raised her paws. The Wistram [Mages] stirred, tracking Feshi with her eyes. But it was not to them the Gnoll looked at.

It was the people in the windows. The ones on the rooftops. Feshi shouted, her voice a growling roar.

“Citizens of Daquin! This is the final hour, yes? Tulm the Mithril waits! And our army, small as it may be, will challenge him a second time!”

There was a stir. The people watching from above looked down at Feshi. Some called out her name. Others just shouted encouragement. Feshi spoke above it all.

“We will try. But I think that we cannot win. Not against Tulm the Mithril. Not against the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing company. How could that be a fair battle?”

Silence. It was true. And yet—Feshi’s eyes burned.

“If only we had an army. Reinforcements. Wil Kallinad, he called an army from Terandria itself! If I could, I would call the Gnolls of Izril. But why wait for them when an army just as grand waits here?”

The citizens of Daquin stared down at Feshi. But some of them caught on. Feshi grinned up. She pointed with one paw.

“This is desperation. This is madness! Still, Tulm the Mithril awaits! The Iron Vanguard challenges the Titan’s students! And we are few. But if I called on you, would you come?”

Us? The shock rippled across the people standing on the roofs. Children, adults, laborers and shopkeepers looked at each other. And then down at Feshi in doubt. She wanted them to fight [Soldiers]? But the Gnoll was continuing.

“No one says that you cannot participate! So, come! We are only students! And you may not be [Soldiers]. But these [Soldiers], they have no swords. They cannot kill. And they are mighty. But with your help, we can win! Will Daquin help defeat the Iron Vanguard? Defeat Tulm the Mithril? You have that chance! Who will join us?”

She spread her arms out, raised them, beseechingly. Then she looked up. Pointed. Every head turned towards a [Mage] of Wistram. He froze as every eye fixed on him.

“Will you? Wistram’s [Mages]? Do you have the courage to take up arms? This is a game. But it is your chance. The Professor challenged us to defeat a legend. Will you be part of that legend? Or will you live knowing, always knowing that you could have made history and you did not?

They stared down at her. And the Gnoll raised her paws.

“I call upon heroes. I call upon champions! I call upon you. Daquin! What say you? Have you any lions that prowl through Baleros’ jungles? Would you be Nagas? Or would you be Drakes, hiding behind your walls?”

She grinned. And then the silence broke. There was laughter. The Lizardfolk sitting above laughed. Drakes? They laughed and the first Lizardfolk swung himself down, dropping two stories.

“I’m no Drake!”

A door opened. A serpentine figure slithered down the steps.

“And I am Naga.”

She slithered forwards. And at that, a score of Lizardpeople rushed out the doors. And then Dullahans. They marched out their doors. Dullahans, Centaurs. Humans.

“For history?”

A Dullahan [Baker] adjusted his head on his shoulders and grabbed a rolling pin. He looked around. Feshi grinned.

“For Daquin.”

And they came. In tens. Then hundreds. Then thousands. Children had to be restrained by parents. But the rest came, shouting. Laughing. Cheering the bold Gnoll who dared them. Because they were Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, and yes, more species still. And some had cheered for the Iron Vanguard. Others had no strong interest in the students winning. But they were citizens of Daquin first. And she had offered them a chance for history, a chance to be part of history.

It was just a game, after all. Wasn’t it? Wil stared up. The Humans looked around, counting. One street. Then two. Feshi turned back towards him.

“We can hold them for half an hour. The rest is up to you. Be the lance and break them.”

Then she turned and bounded forwards. And the city erupted around her. Wil watched her go. Then he turned. Venaz was blinking. Marian shuffled her hooves.

“Wow. I didn’t know Feshi was that good.”

An arm squeezed Wil tight. Talia was flushed with excitement as she pointed to the map.

“This is it, Wil! We can do it! The Iron Vanguard will be stuck in the streets! If they beat down Daquin’s citizens, they’ll be called monsters!”

“Even if they try, there are ten of Daquin’s own for every one of them.”

Sir Kelm observed quietly. He was frowning, eying the soldiers around him. Wil nodded. Then he frowned.

“We have one problem, though.”

“Which is? You’ve just been given an army of tens of thousands! What could be wrong now?

Venaz snorted. Wil glance up at him and shook his head.

“No one can stop Xol. Without lances, the [Knights] have as much chance of slowing him down as—we tried ropes and he pulled a dozen horses off their hooves. Could Centaurs do better, Marian?”

“Uh—”

Marian paled, which was as much an answer as any. Wil shook his head. He looked at his sister and Sir Kelm. If it came to that—

“Let me try.”

Someone spoke behind Wil. He turned. The City Runner was looking with interest at the map. He glanced up and around. The table stared at him blankly. The Minotaur and Centaur sharply. Luan smiled. His arm flashed gold as he held up a hand.

“I think I have an idea. I can stop Xol for a while. A few minutes, at least. Pay me and I’ll do it.”

Wil blinked at him. Talia sucked in her breath. It was a ludicrous notion. But in this moment, all things seemed possible. And—Wil glanced at Talia. She nodded.

“How much?”

Luan thought for a second.

“Ten gold pieces. And eighty silver pieces to pull it off. I work cheap.”

Wil opened his mouth. Talia grabbed gold from a pouch and tossed it at Luan.

“Done. Are you sure it’ll work?”

“Give me a few minutes. Where is he?”

“This street, as far as we can tell.”

Wil pointed. Luan nodded. The [Strategist] stared at him, searching.

Do you have a plan?”

Luan grinned.

“I think so. I know a fact about War Walkers. My best friend knows a lot about Dullahans, you see. And I don’t fancy fighting in this final battle. Venaz, Marian, I’m coming back for my fee after this.”

“Stop Xol and I’ll double it.”

The Minotaur folded his arms. Luan shrugged. He jogged off. Wil turned back to the others. It was just a flicker of hope. But it was there. He took a deep breath.

“Here we go. Sir Kelm, ready your men.  Commander Wylint?”

“Sir?”

“No rearguard. We trust the streets to Daquin. We’re going in. Form up. Marian, Venaz, and I will all take to the front.”

He looked at the other two. Marian reared, making the Humans step back. Venaz flexed his arms and grinned fiercely.

“To victory. We’ll go in together. Three of the Professor’s finest. You two had better move fast. Or you’ll lose to me. Come! Form the ranks! Prepare the charge!”

He turned, roaring orders as if he were in command. Wil watched him go. Marian rolled her eyes. But there was a spring in her step as she followed him.

Talia turned to Wil. His sister glanced back at Venaz, and then leaned forwards. She indicated Venaz’s back.

“I like him. But he smells terrible.

Wil laughed. And in the street, Feshi turned. Wil nodded.

“Go for it, Feshi.”

She couldn’t hear him. But she led the street forwards anyways. Wil mounted up. He knew word was spreading like wildfire. From scrying orbs. From word of mouth. And even the Wistram [Mages] were hesitating. You could feel it in the air. Didn’t you want to be part of it?

You could hear it. A roar that filled a city. A burning force as bright as the feeling in Wil’s chest when he’d seen the ships approaching from the harbor. Only, now it burned in everyone. If you had to call it something, you could call it hope, or courage, or just inspiration.

Victory. Something everyone wanted to taste once. And it came from a thousand lips, in a thousand voices in a thousand words. But they were all saying the same things. And if you listened above the roar of people filling Daquin’s streets, you could hear the Titan laughing and Tulm the Mithril finally losing his temper.

 

—-

 

A small thing, in between Wil, Venaz, and Marian leading the Terandrians in a last-ditch charge. In between the Iron Vanguard coming out in force, leaving only their last line of defense around the plaza. Struggling to cross streets filled with Daquin’s citizens, who gave the [Soldiers] the fight of a lifetime. In between that moment, there was just him.

Xol of Ingrilt. He strode forwards. He had heard the call to rally. He knew what was happening. But he was too slow. And there were too many people in the way.

The streets were filled with civilians! Xol cursed as he strode forwards, shouting to clear the way. People ran out of his path, but the War Walker had to be careful. Xol tried to move as fast despite the danger to Daquin’s citizens. He was no fool. He knew this was the endgame.

They’d rallied Daquin, somehow. It was a masterful trick. Worthy of the Titan himself. Was this his plan all along? Had Tulm foreseen it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. If the Mithril had one fault, it was that his strategy was pure, like his armor. It could deal with any eventuality. But only if Tulm himself was allowed to be free. When he was unfettered by rules, he would destroy. And it was a terrible thing. But here—

Time was running out. Xol swept aside a group of Centaurs trying to block his path, stepped over a Lizardman kicking at his foot.

He had to hurry. Victory or defeat would be the difference in how long it took the scattered Armor Captains to regroup with the main force, to encircle Wil and the remaining students as they pushed forwards. A minute could be all it took for the students to reach the plaza—or for Tulm to capture enough and cement his victory. Just a few seconds of time—

The War Walker was nearly there. He turned down a side street, saw the trap too late and halted. He was already caught. He shifted. Just an inch. But any further and he would—Xol slowly raised one wrist. He spoke into the gem embedded into his gauntlet.

“Xol. I request immediate support. I am trapped and unable to move. Request immediate support.”

He heard the distant reply. But it was too late. Xol was caught. And the battle began even as he stood in place. Helpless against the most insidious of traps. What could stop a War Walker, a [Juggernaut]? One of the Iron Vanguard’s strongest?

A little Lizardfolk girl. She was happily standing on one of the War Walker’s feet. And Xol would have shifted, would have lifted her off and placed her to one side with the utmost of care. But for the other children clinging to his leg. The Centaur running around his other foot. The children, Lizardfolk, Dullahan, Centaur, who ran around him, laughing in delight.

“Move, children. Please. I am needed.”

They shrieked in terror and delight. Xol stared down at them as they refused to go. They were holding something. A glint of silver. Coins.

Slowly, the Dullahan looked up. He cast around for the creator of the trap. And found him. A man, a Human man stood a few feet ahead of Xol. He met the [Juggernaut]’s eyes and nodded.

“I’m told War Walkers can’t have children, so they prize babies and children above all else. And Dullahans themselves are very careful around the young.”

“Who told you that?”

“A friend. He’s met War Walkers before. And he knows a lot about Dullahans.”

“I see. And you are?”

The man walked forwards. The children waved at him and he waved back with a slight smile. He offered another coin to more children who ran up. They ran towards Xol excitedly. Free money to get to run around a War Walker? Xol turned his head and saw a few parents, looking alternatively terrified and amused. But he wouldn’t move. The Human was right. Xol looked back at him.

“Luan. I’m a City Runner hired to help an annoying Minotaur out.”

“I see. That explains things. A [Strategist] would not have done this. Using children, even to win a game, even if you are assured of their safety, is wrong.”

Xol stared at Luan. The City Runner shrugged a bit.

“Good thing I’m not a [Strategist]. Besides, they seem happy enough.”

He indicated the children happily trying to climb up Xol’s legs. Xol was afraid, more afraid than he had been all day, that one of them would fall off. He held very still and looked at Luan. The Human was smiling a bit. Xol spoke carefully. Levelly.

“Once a patrol reaches me, I will help end this game. I would advise you to be out of my way when that moment comes. I cannot waste any more time, but if you are still here, I will hit you.”

Luan lost his smile. He hesitated, eyed Xol, and then decided it was time to go. Dullahans were already fighting their way through the crowd.

Luan hurried off. Xol watched him go, and then noticed a Lizardboy about to fall off his shoulder. He reached out and caught the child as the Lizardboy fell with a sharp cry. The child laughed with giddy relief as he scrambled up Xol’s arm. The War Walker’s head turned to watch more children swarming up his body. He stared up and saw a Wistram [Mage] watching him with a smile on her face from a rooftop.

Xol sighed.

 

—-

 

And on they came. Tulm the Mithril stood by the entrance to the plaza, his gaze burning like cold embers. Watching. On they came. An army of Humans. [Knights], riding in their armor, like Dullahans. [Soldiers] on foot. [Mages], flying or moving across the rooftops with [Archers].

And citizens. Civilians. They joined the final push, fighting against the Iron Vanguard and the Forgotten Wing companies, secure in the knowledge that this was a game. That they could fight without fear for their lives.

It would be so easy to drop a [Fireball] among them. It would be so easy to cheat. Because this was cheating. Wasn’t it? Daquin was rioting. The civilians were fighting—even in the plaza! The Councilmember had to be carried out on stretchers with bruises. They’d even gone after Wistram’s [Mages], who’d elected to impartiality after all.

“We have immunity! We’re with Wistram!”

A [Mage] shouted as he tried to levitate out of a crowd of citizens all too ready to knock him over the head. But those were just words. And in this moment, words were useless. She had already used them.

The Gnoll, leading the city. Madness. Tulm memorized her face. And then he looked forwards. The Gnoll was too far back. She’d never make it. But here they came.

Three of them. A Minotaur. A Centaur. And a Human. The [Knights] charged into the Iron Vanguard’s formation with a roar that staggered even the Midnight Shields. Which was one was using a Skill? One? Two? All three?

It didn’t matter. Tulm signaled. Every soldier not holding the crowd back pressed forwards. Every [Mage] was casting spells, battling the Humans and Daquin’s citizenry, forming walls of earth.

And yet, they came on. Over walls of earth, shattering barriers of magic. Overrunning formations of steel and flesh. It was almost inevitable. As his teacher would say, they had the momentum. And something else.

“Youth.”

Tulm the Mithril sighed. He walked forwards. And for the first time he donned his helmet. His armor shone. And as the sunset marked the end of Daquin’s long day, he strode into battle.

 

—-

 

The world watched. Marian lead her charge, shooting arrows as [Knight]’s spears splintered on wooden shields. She shouted, fighting forwards with Sir Kelm. The Midnight Shields formed a line in the sand. And they held. But with each step, they were forced back.

Forwards! [Unit: Freedom’s Gallop]! On me!”

Marian turned and wove back through the press of bodies. Somehow, despite the melee, her hooves landed in open space each time. The [Knights] and Sir Kelm followed her, charging out of the ground and straight back in. The bodies seemed to move magically out of the way.

The second charge hit the Midnight Shields as they fought in the melee—Marian saw one Dullahan in black armor go down to a strike from Sir Kelm’s spear. She kicked at another and saw the Dullahan raise his shield. Marian reeled; she felt like she’d cracked a hoof!

But they were faltering. Just another push! Just another—Marian looked around and saw Wil striking from horseback. His sister was with him, on the ground, dueling an Armor Captain. There were even some students in the press. They were all fighting forwards. Nearly. Nearly—

And then she saw him. He strode forwards, followed by a dozen Knights of the Summer. Venaz. And his voice picked up above the rest.

“[Unit: Enhanced Strength]. [Unit: Unstoppable Advance].”

Marian’s blood chilled. Here he came. And Venaz had used both of his Skills. The [Knights] following him swung their weapons and the Midnight Shields faltered. The armored Humans didn’t break stride as weapons struck their armor. They could not stop. They could not be stopped.

The lines broke around Venaz. He cleared the area around him, punching, knocking Dullahans flying. For one minute he was unstoppable. After that it would be over.

But a minute was all he needed. The Minotaur rampaged forwards, bellowing. And he was headed straight for the plaza.

No! Marian fought to get to him, but her Skills were too deadly. And he was the best for this moment. Wil was shouting and his soldiers were fighting. But Venaz was entering the plaza.

And only one person stood in his way. The Dullahan’s armor shone as the Midnight Shields backed up around him. He waited, his armor glowing with light. Venaz bared his teeth in a savage grin as he came face-to-face with him.

Tulm the Mithril.

The fighting slowed. Both sides, Humans, and Dullahans turned to look. You couldn’t help it. They watched, waiting. Would the Dullahan retreat? Could he stop Venaz? The [Knights] locked blades with the Midnight Shields. Venaz charged. He had thirty seconds. Less. But all he needed was to take out Tulm. If he fell—

The Dullahan stared down at Venaz. He looked past the Minotaur, at the distant shape of Xol. Charging through the crowds, but too slow. Too far. The Dullahan looked up. Teura hovered overhead. He stared up, and the Titan of Baleros waited. They both smiled. Ruefully. And Tulm spoke.

“[The Twice-Born Warlord].”

Venaz raised a fist. Tulm looked down. He raised a hand. Caught the Minotaur’s fist. And—

Marian looked up. She ducked. The Minotaur landed behind her, with a thump that shook the ground. He blinked down at his torn armor. Then he looked up at Marian.

“I might have underestimated him.”

Marian looked up. Tulm raised a fist. A Knight of the Summer raised his shield and spoke a Skill. The Dullahan hit him. The [Knight] went flying.

“How?”

The Centauress stared. Then she looked back. Xol approached. Calmly, the War Walker bent. He knocked Sir Kelm off his horse. Marian ducked as a finger flicked at her chest. She felt the crushing strength. The casual, incredible—and then she had it. She looked up and saw Tulm turning. He hurled another [Knight] back. And he looked up at Xol and nodded.

One and the same. One as strong as the other. A monster of strategy and one of might made into one body. [The Twice-Born Warlord].

“I can—I can do it. Give me a second.”

Venaz was getting up. He clutched at his chest, spat out some blood. Marian turned. Tulm was striding towards them, ignoring the blows against his mithril armor as if they weren’t there. The Centauress raised her bow.

Tulm.

The Dullahan’s head turned. Wil rode towards him. His sister called out, but she was locked in combat. Wil raised his sword in a salute. Tulm nodded.

They walked towards each other. Venaz heaved himself up. He charged Tulm from the left, Wil from the right. And Marian? She leapt.

The Dullahan blocked Venaz. He knocked Wil from his saddle. He looked up and reached—too late. Marian leapt over his head. She collided with a Midnight Shield. Hit the ground. Ran forwards.

Stop her!

Go, Marian!

Voices behind her. Marian raced across the plaza. An open shot. A last line of Dullahans was between her and the Professor. She could see him, sitting on his platform, grinning. Waiting. The Centauress ran. She fired twice as she ran. Her hands had never moved so fast.

[Hurricane Arrows]. The air blasted around her arrows, twisting. The Dullahans held. They were turning, encircling her. But she could make it. Marian turned, dodged a net. She felt something strike her back left leg.

“No—!”

She went down. A [Mage]’s spell seared across her leg and Marian screamed in agony. She heard a roar from the crowd. Protest. Tulm’s cold voice.

“Enough. Non-damaging spells.”

“Strategist. I—I have no excuse. But! I sense—”

“Enough. Take her. Xol, the Minotaur.”

“Face me, you—”

Marian struggled to three hooves. Healing potion. She was reaching for it. Tulm was striding towards her. A [Mage] behind him whirled, desperately casting spells as a volley came from half of the Wistram [Mages] present. They were all distracted! Marian got to her feet. So close. If she could just leap—

And there he was. Standing up. Watching her. Niers Astoragon waited. Venaz charged forwards, ducking Xol. Wil ran. Tulm whirled, uttering another Skill and a curse. Marian leapt—

And the stone ground went pop. Marian saw the head poke up, like a cabbage. Niers Astoragon leapt up with an oath. Tulm whirled. Marian landed and crashed as her bad leg gave way. Venaz ran into Xol’s fist. Wil stopped in his steps, panting.

The Midnight Shield whirled. They stopped. Tulm the Mithril stared. He looked down.

A little head was poking out of the ground. Off-center. Just inside the circle of rope. A little head, covered in what looked like and smelled like…crap. It was unmistakably a Lizardgirl’s head. Her neck-frills were dirty, covered in filth, but she was blinking. Staring around. She gaped up at Niers. And then then she looked delighted. She saw Marian and looked guilty.

Then Umina stared around. And everyone stared back. She wavered. For a second Umina hesitated. And then she put on her best smile. She looked up at the Fraerling staring at her.

“Uh. Hi, Professor. Did you know that [Nightmen] make excellent sappers? And that there’s an outhouse—excuse me, communal waste pit twelve feet from this spot? Well…underneath, now. And that if everyone’s busy, you can sneak into a pit and wait till all the [Mages] are occupied and uh—”

She broke off. Umina stared about. Then she retreated into her hole. Marian stared. She looked at the Titan of Baleros, who was blinking at the hole. At Tulm, who had gone white with fury. At Venaz, Wil, and the thousands of others.

And Marian tried. She really did. But she couldn’t find it in her to be glad for Umina.

No one else looked happy either.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.22 D

The city of Daquin was one of Baleros’ many port cities. It wasn’t quite a metropolis, but it was large. Its harbor could hold as many as eight warships at the same time without being overcrowded; the buildings were by and large stone, a product of a nearby quarry and the city’s rich history.

It was also over a hundred and fourteen miles away from Elvallian, the capital of the Forgotten Wing company and the training school Niers Astoragon and his company of students had departed from. And that was as the sparrow flew, if it could even get that far without being eaten.

Two days after they’d departed from the school, Niers Astoragon, and a company of nearly four hundred staff, teachers, guards, and students reached the city. Over a hundred miles in two days.

It was a trivial journey. Not worth even mentioning. The students rode while talking to each other merrily, thinking up last-minute plans, forging desperate alliances and fomenting betrayal all while enduring lectures from some of the teachers riding with them. The [Soldiers] watched the roads. The staff ensured there was hot food and that each of the stops was as comfortable as possible.

Nothing stopped the small procession. And it was small. And the distance was still negligible. Yes, for another rider it might be a heroic distance to travel in such a short amount of time, especially by foot. But for a Great Company of Baleros?

If you wanted to, you could talk about enchanted wheels, horses raised by Beastmasters, the Skills employed by the [Strategists] that made the road disappear, and the prudence of travellers who decided not to block the Titan’s personal mobile home and travelling vehicle when not on the campaign.

It looked like a doll’s house mounted on a pushcart and it was pulled by a donkey. To a Fraerling, it was the height of luxury and Niers could relax on the porch while talking with people riding across from him and do paperwork at the same time.

The only vexation for Niers Astoragon were the bugs, and his mansion-on-the-go had enough warding spells and enchantments to fight off three Trolls. But it was entertaining watching him shoot down horseflies with a bow and arrow from the roof. Yes, you could talk about all of that. But that wasn’t the point.

Two days later, they were here. Umina, Venaz, Wil, Cameral, and the others who hadn’t elected to travel via horseback piled out of the comfortable open-roofed coach they’d been chatting in. Somewhat tensely. Because they were here.

Daquin. It wasn’t that impressive. Elvallian was three times larger. If anything, Daquin was a letdown to anyone expecting to find something better after wandering through the Titan’s city of cities. But Daquin was special. Here the Titan’s game would begin.

The [Strategists] and other students took in the city for a moment. And instantly, some of the perceptive students realized why Niers had chosen this city for his game of hide-and-seek.

“Narrow alleyways. An unfortunate lack of an [Architect]’s oversight when constructing the thoroughfares. You could hold an army in some of the streets. Others are too wide to easily block. The buildings are stone and wood; many with multiple stories. Some have doors that connect between buildings; Lizardfolk design. No sewers, though. But there are a thousand hiding spots. Only a few vantage points either. See?”

Marian pointed out a tower to Umina as she trotted into the city. The Lizardgirl, stretching her legs, hopped after her friend nervously. She looked around, trying not to hyperventilate.

“Right. Right! It’s great for hiding. There’re a few high spots. That large tower, there—”

She pointed to an extraordinarily high tower nearly half again the size of the building below it. Marian nodded.

“Looks like an archer’s tower. Or a watch tower. Either way, you could put someone up there to watch for [Pirate] raids or armies. Set up a high-level [Sniper] or [Mage] with long-distance spells…nice defensive spot.”

Yerranola laughed as she strode into the city. She elbowed the Minotaur walking beside her.

“Too bad we’re not staging a war game, huh, Venaz?”

The Minotaur snorted softly.

“This is enough of a battle for my liking.”

He folded his arms as he surveyed the city. His eyes lingered on the open harbor; it had a bowl-shaped opening with external watch towers and a sea gate that could be closed. It was open, but Umina spotted several ships lingering in the harbor. They bore the Forgotten Wing company colors; it looked like Niers had even taken over the harbor for his games. Umina gulped as she passed down the street, following the Titan and some of the teachers. They were walking casually while the Titan borrowed a shoulder for a ride.

“Hey. Look at all the [Soldiers].

She pointed. The other students looked. Yerranola gulped.

The streets were full of Lizardfolk, Dullahans, and Centaurs. Some were Daquin’s citizenry, but Umina saw an entire platoon of Forgotten Wing company soldiers marching out to greet the Titan himself. Yerranola muttered an oath as she counted.

“I can’t tell, but if every street is like this—how many did the Professor put in Daquin? A thousand?”

“Two thousand. It’s not enough to cover the city by far, but it’s a lot.”

Wil appeared behind the others. His face was so pale it was nearly white, but some color actually went back into his face as he stared across the street. Marian tossed her head uneasily.

“All this for a game. The Professor really doesn’t do things by halves, does he?”

“Would you expect anything else? Where are we gathering? Or are we just waiting for the others to gather?”

Venaz looked back irritably. Umina’s heart skipped a beat as she looked back and saw nearly two hundred of the oldest students following them. Older students in the [Strategist] classes, those training to be officers—she saw dozens of eyes staring at her and turned forwards hurriedly. Yerra gulped, for a second losing her semi-permanent smile.

“Ooh. I got a lot of evil looks just now. Was there a Gazer in the crowd?”

“Rabble.”

“Some of those students have been studying as long as you, Venaz.”

“We’re part of the Professor’s personal class. Don’t let them shake you. The victor of this competition will come from our class; of that I have no doubt.”

The Minotaur raised his voice as a pair of Centaurs trotted by. They turned and stared at Venaz. He stared back, unruffled. Umina gulped.

“Yeah, but Venaz—look ahead. Those aren’t students. See that group? I think those are graduates.

The Minotaur turned with the others. They saw a group of fifty or so, waiting ahead of them. The Minotaur hesitated.

“Ah. Alumni. Seekers?”

“No. Didn’t the Professor say they’d be competing against us? They’re competition.”

“They…could be trouble.”

Umina nodded in agreement. She recognized some of them. The group was mostly in their late twenties, having graduated only recently. But some had already begun to make waves. She squeaked as she pointed at a half-Elf bearing a curved sword at his waist and wearing some kind of bright, white-steel armor covered by an armored cloak.

“Isn’t that Tefret, the [Mage Captain]? I heard he graduated two years back! He’s supposed to be employed in Terandria!”

“We’re supposed to beat him?

“Of—of course. Don’t raise your voice, Marian. He’s barely higher-level than we are—”

“He killed a half-Giant in his first campaign after graduating. You ever beat a half-Giant, Venaz? Venaz?

The urgent voices of the students in Umina’s class were only a backdrop to the larger conversation from the rest of the Titan’s students. The Lizardgirl grabbed Marian’s arm as they walked forwards. She spotted a Dwarf and Lizardman walking past her, both looking nervous as well. The Dwarf was panicking much in the way Umina was.

“Grandfather’s beards! I thought we wouldn’t have to complete against graduates, Sillk! It was bad enough having to deal with the Professor’s special class—that lot have seen actual combat!”

The Lizardman was nodding. He was maybe three years older than Umina and quite handsome. She stared at him as he placed a clawed hand on the Dwarf’s shoulder, but his tail gave away his nerves as well.

“Calm down, Merrik. We have a shot. We just need to win. The game’s not just about hiding. We have to be the first to win—or the last ones standing. And between my class and your uh…beard, we’ll make it. We’ll—”

He caught sight of Umina staring at him. She smiled and waved weakly. The Lizardman, Sillk, paled, and dragged Merrik forwards. She clearly heard the Dwarf’s voice.

“What? What? Oh—isn’t that Umina? Blast it. Is she marking you?”

“Me? No way. Steady. Let’s just calm down…”

The two hurried forwards after the Professor. Umina swished her tail. Somehow, their panic had reassured her. They weren’t alone. She looked around and remembered the Professor’s lessons.

Calm down. Look around. See the other expressions? They’re all nervous. From Venaz to the other students in other classes. Even those graduates—we’re all competing, but no one’s that confident. See the way Tefret is standing? Hand next to his sword. Even a [Mage Captain]’s probably intimidated. Even though this is a game. He wants to win. So you have a chance. Remember that.

And she was calm. Umina felt her mind, the cold part that came out in the middle of battles, take over. She breathed evenly; she wasn’t just a student. She had seen battle. The Lizardgirl looked around and saw a few students meet her eyes. Some other students were doing what she was doing.

But the ones to watch were calm. A Garuda with red feathers gave Umina a nod. A Dullahan woman with a quarterstaff in one hand looked back fearlessly. And then to her left, Feshi. And Wil. The same eyes. They’d calmed down too. That was the first step in winning a battle. The Gnoll grinned at Umina and the Lizardgirl grinned back. Then someone grabbed her arm hard.

Umina.

And here was someone who hadn’t calmed down. The whites of Marian’s eyes were showing. Despite her experience, the atmosphere or perhaps the numbers of competing students had gotten to her. Umina winced as she saw the Centaur’s hooves; Marian was giving herself away as she practically pranced in place. Then again, the Lizardgirl was sure she’d been just as bad a minute ago.

“I’m getting nervous! I know we prepared, but do you really think—”

Before she could glance towards the harbor, Umina grabbed Marian’s arm and gave it a squeeze with her claws. The Centaur yelped and tried to pull back. Umina didn’t let go.

“Marian! Calm down! This is just like a war game with the Professor. A skirmish. Imagine you’re against Venaz. Don’t give in to the pressure; that’s how you’ll lose!”

It worked. It might not have on someone else, but like Umina, Marian had lived through her introduction to battle. Being attacked by Selphids in training wasn’t the last ordeal the Professor had put them through. And he’d taught them how to resist even [Fear] spells in combat. The Centaur stared at Umina, then the Lizardgirl saw her breathing shift. She inhaled slowly, and her eyes flickered. The pulse Umina felt through the Centaur’s arm slowed. After a second, Marian patted Umina’s arm.

“You can let go.”

The Lizardgirl did. Then she saw the blood on the tips of her claws.

“Oh. I’m—”

“It’s fine. It shook me out of it. You ready?”

Marian ignored the small punctures on her arms. She gestured around and Umina saw her classmates had almost all gotten control of themselves. Feshi was smiling and sniffing the air, Jekilt’s arms were folded, but the [Captain] was icy calm. He probably hadn’t panicked. Venaz was growling and making a fist. Yerra was grinning and slapping Cameral’s shoulder. Wil was checking the sky, the position of the sun—only Cameral seemed to be panicking, and even then, not as bad as some of the other students.

“Look. The Professor’s stopped. Looks like he’s greeting the [Mayor] of the city.”

“Can’t be the [Mayor]. Daquin has a sitting council.”

“Fine, their council, then. Is this important?”

“No, not really.”

The students had entered a large plaza. Marian pointed out the Titan. He and the teachers had stopped to talk with a group of dignitaries, four Lizardfolk, and two Dullahans, who were presumably the leaders of the city. There was some smiling and bowing going on—all very relaxed. Some of the [Soldiers] accompanying the group were offering the council a gift. Daquin’s citizens, the soldiers, and students waited.

Umina kept glancing about. There were so many! True, a lot would just be part of the audience. But Umina hadn’t considered how many eyes might rat out the hiders to whomever was seeking. Marian looked around, using her height to eye the [Soldiers].

“Looks like this isn’t a group of elite soldiers. The Professor might have just called in one of the reserve units. He’s got a good mix; no one specific species.”

Some of the [Soldiers] were yawning, while the others were talking to each other. They were clearly part of the game; they eyed the students with amusement and Umina saw they were equipped with clubs, truncheons, nets—the equipment to take down the hiders. She gulped.

“Those are going to hurt.”

“We can fight back.”

“You mean, you can. I get hit by a club; I’m lying down. I—”

“Miss Umina! [Strategist] Umina! Over here!”

Someone shouted her name. Umina’s head turned around. It wasn’t one of the students in her class, or even a student at all. Out of the waiting citizens of Daquin, she saw a Lizardgirl waving excitedly. Umina blinked. Then she raised a hand. The Lizardgirl shouted back as some of the students turned to look.

“Miss Umina! I’m a big fan! You have to win the Titan’s game, alright? I’m going to be a [Strategist] when I grow up, like you!”

Umina turned bright red. The other students were looking at her! Some were glaring, but Umina saw a flurry of hands from the crowd. The Lizardgirl’s mother waved excitedly as well.

“Miss Umina! Win for the Lizardfolk!”

“I want [Strategist] Xelic to win!”

A Lizardman next to the mother pointed at Xelic, one of the other students in the special class. Xelic turned bright red and raised a claw, clearly not sure whether to wave or not. There was a laugh from the crowd, then a cheer.

Umina! Xelic!

The Lizardgirl looked around. Daquin was a Lizardfolk city, so at least a fourth of the crowd was Lizardfolk. And they all began taking up the chant, shouting the names of one or the other Lizardfolk in Niers’ class. Marian turned to look at Umina with the students. Yerra grinned.

“Umina! I didn’t know you were famous in Daquin!”

Umina wanted to curl up under a rock. She muttered loud enough for the others to hear as she tried to duck her head.

“They know me.”

Venaz harrumphed, but to Umina’s surprise, he looked vaguely approving.

“Of course they do. You and Xelic are in the Titan’s personal class. It’s a mark of honor.”

“But we’re attracting attention!”

It was true. The other students—and there were around two hundred—could scarcely have failed to notice the growing cheering from the crowd. They turned to look and Umina felt more than one very annoyed gaze on her back. A few of the Lizardfolk not in her class looked rueful; a few even clapped along with the others, laughing. And from the gathering with Daquin’s leaders, Niers Astoragon and the teachers were turning—Umina went scarlet as her fans laughed and cheered louder.

“Marian, hide me. Or trample me.”

Before the Centaur could oblige Umina’s death wish, another voice rang out. A young Centaur in a [Laborer]’s outfit reared in the crowd and shouted loud enough to be heard.

Marian Felthof! Win for the Centaurs!”

He bellowed and some of the other Centaurs called out. Another called out Jekilt’s name. Then the air split as both Centaurs and Lizardfolk began cheering for the students they recognized. Marian raised a hand as it was her turn to blush; Jekilt raised one fist as the Centaurs stampeded in place. And the Dullahans in the crowd—

Didn’t cheer. But to Cameral and the two other Dullahans students, they were nodding, raising their heads over the crowd to see. Cameral bowed slightly, his face pale. The crowd cheered and roared, filling the air. They’d decided the games had begun and were cheering—even over the Titan’s greeting with the council. Umina blushed, waved, and looked at the other students. They stared back. Yerra waved at a Selphid wearing a child’s body in the crowd and muttered to her friends.

“We are so dead. They’re going to go right for us the instant the games start.”

Umina nodded with the others. Venaz was cracking his knuckles. He didn’t appear bothered by the lack of a Minotaur crowd cheering for him.

“I see Daquin’s citizenry is here. But where are the seekers? And the guests? My sources told me that in previous years, there could be a huge guest presence. At least a few [Emissaries]—even royalty from overseas at times!”

He looked around, dismayed. Umina scanned the crowd and realized Venaz was right. Despite the people in the square, they all looked like Daquin’s native inhabitants. No one stood out, and if there were another company here, she would expect to see them with a sizable escort. But all she saw were Forgotten Wing company soldiers.

“I guess no one’s coming? Maybe this is normal for them. Oh—wait, there are a few robes by the Professor.”

Feshi growled.

“Wistram [Mages].”

“You sure?”

The Gnoll glowered at the [Mages], a group of sixteen or so, waiting to one side and looking around. They were clearly [Mages]; if their colorful robes and staffs didn’t identify them, the aloof looks they were giving to the crowd would have tipped Umina off. Feshi’s glare was another hint.

“I am sure. I can smell them.”

“Looks like the Professor is greeting them. Dead gods, I hope he tells us the rules soon. Or—wait, if the seekers aren’t here, is he going to be leading the hunt?”

“Don’t jinx us, Yerra! Maybe it’s just the soldiers who have to find us and some kind of riddle.”

“Or—”

Umina saw a Centaur turning in the crowd, holding what had to be Niers Astoragon at head height. The Lizardgirl felt herself go pale. The Centauress looked back across the audience at the cheering crowd. And she stared right at Umina.

 

—-

 

Perorn Sadiluc, known as Fleethoof, looked back at the source of the sudden cheering. The plaza was filled with bodies; most of the city had gathered to see the Titan in person, which was quite difficult even for those at the front. But they knew the game was taking place, and so they actually outnumbered the two hundred students and fifty or so alumni who had come to play in the Titan’s game. Now Perorn picked out a student from the crowd who she knew by name.

Umina, one of Niers’ prized students. A sharp mind and flexible one too, able to answer quickly and adapt to new situations with ease. She was standing next to Marian, a Centauress. Another bright candidate, but Perorn distinctly recalled Marian going red and stammering both times the [Galewinds Strategist] had called on her. It was a flaw in her Centaur students that Perorn had no time for. But perhaps it was unavoidable.

“Lady Fleethoof?”

The Centauress turned her head back. She realized the council member, a Dullahan woman in her late sixties, had addressed her. Instantly, Perorn ducked her head, embarrassed, although it didn’t show on her face.

“My apologies, Councilmember Felit. I missed what you were saying.”

The Dullahan looked horrified. She adjusted her head on her shoulders, bowing deeper than Perorn hurriedly.

“No, no. Our apologies for keeping you waiting. And for our citizen’s indiscretion.”

She turned a scandalized eye towards the cheering crowd. All four of the Lizardfolk members of the council looked appalled and delighted.

“So sorry! And it’s a pleasure to meet you. And honor, truly! You and Lord Astoragon!”

One of the Lizardmen bowed to Perorn and the small Fraerling perched on Perorn’s shoulder. Niers Astoragon bowed back, and his voice was a mix of politeness and cheerful informality.

“No offense taken, Councilman Ulli. We are grateful for Daquin’s hospitality today. Please do warn the citizens that they may be included in the games if they stay outdoors. The participants have been warned that dangerous weaponry and spells are off-limits and we have [Healers] standing by, but accidents happen.”

“We will inform them again, and call upon the [Guards] to clear the streets. And we will not keep you any further, will we, Councilmembers?”

The Dullahan woman, Felit, bowed to Niers. She looked pointedly at the Lizardfolk and the Dullahan man. He nodded instantly; the Lizardfolk looked disappointed.

“But I wanted to ask—”

Ulli yelped as Felit stomped on his tail. He withdrew, looking unhappy, and all of the Council had to shake Perorn’s hand and bow to Niers before they withdrew. It was a ceremony Perorn was used to and she smiled briefly and repeated each name once. Then they were gone. She turned her head to speak to the tiny Fraerling on her shoulder.

“Now the [Mages]?”

She saw Niers, a tiny man dressed all in blue and gold, grimace. He tugged the rakish hat he’d chosen lower on his head and grumbled, before nodding.

“Ah, Wistram’s delegation. We might as well or they’ll kick up a fuss. Before that, who was cheering? I couldn’t see; your hair’s in the way.”

He kicked at Perorn’s long hair, auburn mixed with strands of grey. Perorn sighed, but she turned to let him see. Niers grinned as he saw the crowd cheering his students.

“Ah. My advanced class has gotten the attention of the crowd. That might make them targets.”

“If you wanted them to be inconspicuous…”

The Titan shook his head.

“No, it’s fine this way. Let’s just hurry the ceremony up; we can bring in our guest soon. I imagine they’re getting impatient.”

Perorn sighed, but she trotted over to the waiting group of [Mages]. She saw them stand up and adjust their robes hurriedly as they saw her coming over. She spoke to Niers with a slight frown.

“And who is this mystery guest? You didn’t tell me.”

“If you had an ear to the winds, Perorn, you would have seen it. It’s obvious to anyone who knows what to look for. Sadly, I think only a handful of students know. Even in my class, I think only Wil figured it out. Did I make it too hard? But this is fine. He’ll be entertaining enough.”

Niers sighed. He looked at the [Mages] and shook his head. Hopefully, he glanced up at Perorn.

“What if I let you do the introductions, Perorn?”

“No.”

“They wouldn’t mind.”

She paused and glared at him.

“You’re the Titan of Baleros. You organized this game; Wistram’s here at your request.”

I didn’t invite them. I would have used our [Mages]. Very well. But I’m hardly impressive to most of them. You’re the one the Council was making duck eyes at.”

Niers looked huffy as he checked his clothing and hat. Perorn debated flicking him off her shoulder for a second. But it was true. Like Daquin’s ruling Council, the [Mages] stared first at her. Their leader, a half-Elf woman in sweeping, emerald silk robes emblazoned with purple blooms, bowed deeply.

“Lady Perorn Sadiluc. I am First-Mage Teura of Wistram, assistant to Archmage Feor and the leader of my small gathering. I thank you and the Forgotten Wing company for the invitation to—”

Perorn held out a hand and felt Niers nimbly leap onto her palm. Teura, froze in the middle of her half-prepared speech as she spotted Niers.

“—And my deepest thanks to you as well, Lord Astoragon.”

The [Mages] jumped. They stared down at the Fraerling and half of them blinked. You could tell which of them hadn’t ever met Niers before, but they all hurriedly bowed as the Fraerling strutted forwards and nodded to Teura.

“A pleasure, Mage Teura. I’m surprised you’ve left the academy.”

The half-Elf calmly addressed Niers as if nothing was amiss. Some of the [Mages] were openly staring, but the rest had composed themselves. Their eyes flicked to Niers. This was the Titan of Baleros. Perorn held still, seeing their eyes go to her next.

“It was at Archmage Feor’s request, Lord Astoragon. We could hardly ignore such an event, could we? Especially given our function.”

“Ah, yes. Well, I’m delighted to have you watch.”

Niers sighed, his tone and face suggestion he was anything but. Teura didn’t react; she merely bowed again.

“We will observe from the side and several points around the city without interfering of course. But if I may request that some of our members accompany you? For the best position.”

“As you will.”

The Titan waved a hand. Teura nodded and gestured; a Centaur came forwards along with another half-Elf. Perorn nodded to the Centaur, a younger male. He might have been in his early forties or late thirties, but he looked like an excited colt as he bowed to her.

“It’s an honor to meet you, Lady Fleethoof—and uh, you as well, Lord Astoragon!”

He hurriedly bowed to Niers as Teura shot him a glare. Niers only chuckled, and Perorn, lifting him back to her shoulder, politely greeted the [Mage].

It couldn’t be helped. No, it was to be expected, really. They stared at her, the [Mages]. At Niers too, but in surprise. Because, after all, he was the Titan of Baleros. But when he didn’t try, when he just hid on Perorn’s shoulder, Niers was…a Fraerling. Small. Whereas Perorn was hardly equal to him in terms of fame, but her name was widely known as well.

Perorn. Fleethoof. And she looked the part. The Centauress walked back, conscious of the eyes on her. The crowd was still cheering for the students. They were watching her and Niers of course, but they hadn’t done anything but a few greetings.

In many ways, Perorn knew, they were letting down those who had gathered to see them. Unless Perorn was racing across the city, sword in hand, leading a charge, or Niers was…being Niers, they were disappointments. Almost as bad as Foliana, although you could argue she was everything you expected in another sense.

But Perorn wasn’t in the mood to race; she wasn’t a young mare anymore, her back leg hurt as if a storm was coming despite the clear skies for some reason, despite the ointment she’d used, and this wasn’t her game. She had been invited to come to Daquin; Niers had insisted on it for some reason. But she wasn’t taking part.

“I’m not taking part, am I, Niers? You promised me that. If you intend to trick me into performing, I will step on you.”

The Centaur [Strategist] turned her head to glare at Niers. The Titan of Baleros smiled, sitting on Perorn’s bare shoulder. He stroked his beard, smiling lightly.

“I did promise you. And you were never a student of mine, so I suppose I can’t cheat and add you.”

“It would be unfair. If I went against your students, I’d have half within the hour.”

Perorn felt the need to justify herself, to Niers’ smug expression as much as anything else. He grinned at her.

“Oh, really?”

She raised a finger warningly, ready to flick. She wouldn’t ever have done it of course; Niers’ magical equipment would probably break her finger if she flicked too hard. The Titan sighed.

“I don’t need you, Perorn. As a seeker, I mean. My guest is already here.”

“Where?”

She glanced around, frowning. Niers smiled.

“If you had a spyglass and you were on that watch tower, you’d see him. He’ll be inbound as soon as I give the signal. No—I think he’ll chose his moment. You are listening, aren’t you? Give me a chance to mention Wistram first, and then you can come in.”

Niers raised his voice and looked around. Perorn felt her skin crawl. A listening spell? Or maybe Niers just meant there was a spy in the audience. She trotted towards the waiting students.

“Where would you like to speak? And you’ll do it yourself; I’m not holding you up while you speak.”

“There will be a dais. Ah. Here!”

Niers was pointing. On cue, a pair of [Soldiers] were dragging forwards the little wooden dais Niers liked to use to speak to people on a level. Perorn trotted forwards and Niers hopped onto it. The crowd, murmuring, went still, and the students looked up.

And Perorn saw the moment of disappointment. The Titan was a speck from afar. And he landed on the dais lightly. His teachers spread out behind him, some notable [Strategists]. Perorn felt most of the eyes go to her, and the murmur spread again.

“Fleethoof.”

And where was the Titan? Invisible. Barely noticeable. Perorn knew Niers hated that. But as the Titan walked forwards onto the wooden platform, six feet up in the air, he cleared his throat. And then his voice was louder. And then the Titan of Baleros really appeared. Niers spread his arms and roared.

Citizens of Daquin! Thank you for your patience!

His voice boomed down the plaza. The sudden sound made his audience jump. Perorn winced and wished she could plug her ears. Niers stood on his platform and looked at his students. They stared up at him.

“And my students, thank you for your patience. I realize many of you know why you’re here. It’s my custom to play a little game between my former students and current ones. Hide and seek. A children’s game, a Fraerling’s life.”

He chuckled as the audience shifted, not sure if they should laugh.

“This game is meant to teach you what it is like to be alone. Cut off from your forces. Isolated. But more than that; it’s a test of wits. Are you better than my former students? Can you seize victory from them and claim the prize? And yes, the prize is real. To anyone who wins, I’ll answer any question of your choice. There’s also wine; I enjoy a drink, so the lucky student who fulfills the game’s requirements first will share a few cups with me in my quarters at their leisure.”

The students stood straighter hearing that. Perorn saw many eyes light up. So it was true! There were rumors, but they hadn’t known. She looked at Niers.

Any question in the world. Any question at all, the Titan of Baleros will answer. Truthfully. She saw Teura and the other two [Mages] from Wistram shifting behind her, watching. Perorn knew how Wistram operated—she imagined that any of the [Mages] would have given a finger to be in the student’s place. Come to that, Perorn might have competed herself if given the chance.

Any question…the students fell silent as Niers raised a hand. He was tiny, but now you could see him clearly, even three hundred paces away. It was like he was larger, or perhaps distance stopped mattering. There he stood. A little man dressed in tiny clothes. With a hat. But you couldn’t look away. And he occupied your view. He stole the attention of a city. The Titan of Baleros. He should have been born a giant.

“This is the game. I’ve played it for decades now. With my first students. And though you’re hardly the last, I’m no less excited to see how you fare than I was the first time. More so today, in fact. Because you know what’s coming. Many of you have made preparations. Some of you may have laid traps, or forged alliances, or prepared artifacts, spells—some might call that cheating. I would not. You know what I would say: you’re preparing properly given the situation!”

There was a chuckle from his students. One of them, Yerranola, whooped.

“There’s no such thing as cheating, Professor!”

The Fraerling laughed along with the others.

“Only in chess, Yerra. But you’re right. In this game, as you know, I’ve set only one rule: no one gets hurt. And by hurt, I mean, no one dies or suffers permanent injury. You can knock someone out, put them under a [Sleep] spell, use confusion magic, illusions—I draw the line at shooting someone in the legs with arrows because accidents happen, and blood’s so damned hard to wash away—but everything short of that is fine. So cheat away. You’ll need to.”

He looked around. Now the air was vibrating. Perorn felt it and she had to stop herself from shifting on the spot. There was excitement in the air. She looked at the students, many of whom she’d taught herself. They were all nearing the end of their time here. Some would become [Strategists], others officers like [Captains]. Many had the classes; they were ready to lead armies. To fight. And yes, to die. But they wouldn’t die easily. Some would become legends in their own right. And none of them would have made it here if they didn’t have the will to win. They stared up at the Titan, waiting impatiently. But Niers wasn’t done. He glanced up at the sky for a second. Waiting for something?

“As is customary, I have my seeker prepared. And it is a former student of mine. They’ll be taking command of my soldiers in the city. The Forgotten Wing company has about a thousand soldiers here, very happily being paid to take part in the game. Or paid, at least.”

He gestured to some of the soldiers standing in the square. There was a cheer from a few of them until a [Captain] shouted at them. Niers waved the [Captain] back with a relaxed hand. The soldiers had cheered for him, not the students, Perorn knew. They were, in fact, giving the students very expectant looks.

“My soldiers deserve their fun. They like money, but being paid to catch a bunch of students who might fight back and draw them into traps is not what I would call a fun vacation, even if they’re not fighting. So aside from the luxury of being able to crack a few of my best student’s heads—”

Another chuckle from the soldiers.

“—I’m offering them an incentive. For each student they personally catch and subdue, and they do have to subdue you, the soldier or group earns ten gold pieces. Per student, if that wasn’t clear.”

That provoked a moment of silence from the students, and a huge cheer from the soldiers. Neither group had been expecting that. The citizens of Daquin, caught between the conflicting emotions of worry and elation, decided to cheer as well. The Titan winked; you could hear it in his voice even if you couldn’t see it. From behind him, Perorn imagined his delighted expression.

“Just something to incentivize both sides. But I have two more surprises—”

His students groaned. But they had expected that. Niers scowled at them.

“Don’t be so upset just yet. Before my seeker arrives, let me first clear up a misapprehension you might have all had. There are, I note, very few guests outside of Daquin’s illustrious citizenry. Splendid as they might be, this is somewhat of a mediocre turnout given the past visitors who normally sit in on these games, isn’t it?”

There were nods from the crowd as the illustrious citizenry tried to figure out if they’d been insulted. Niers pointed around and Perorn saw he was right.

Normally there were a lot of people who’d gather for something like this. [Diplomats], visiting dignitaries, [Commanders] of companies, and their entourages…but this time the gathered audience was incredibly small. Just a few [Mages] and some small-time mercenary leaders. Perorn wasn’t sure if the students were relieved or disappointed. Venaz was clearly heartbroken. Niers waited until the murmurs had died down, and then went on.

“Fear not. Especially you, Venaz. You have your audience. And they’re watching already. Or haven’t you noticed our guests from Wistram? They are here—”

He pointed back towards Teura and the other two.

“—And around the city. They will be stationed on rooftops, in the streets, to follow you no doubt and watch the games. And if you hadn’t forgotten, that means something else. Or has Liscor taught you nothing? The King of Destruction? Ah, I see you’ve already figured it out, Wil. Umina, good, Merrik…try not to throw up, lad.”

As if he were in class, Niers began pointing out students in the crowd. The rest struggled for a beat to catch up to what the Professor meant. Then Perorn heard a gasp. She shifted and looked back at Teura. The half-Elf met her gaze, and Perorn knew that for a second, her face had appeared on a scrying orb. Not just one. Or even ten. And not just in Wistram. But in every building with a [Mage] to catch the signal, in every mansion with a scrying orb willing to catch the spell that was sent out—

 

—-

 

“Hold the spell.”

Archmage Feor spoke dreamily as he stared into Perorn’s face. Fleethoof herself. The aged half-Elf stroked his beard. She was older than when he’d met her last. It felt like a moment ago. And for the half-Elf, not much had changed. He was old. Far older than Perorn.

But she was a Centaur. And he was part immortal. Feor closed his eyes. He remembered a fiery mane of hair, a Centaur with no limp who had fought with him on Rhir. It had been two decades since then. Perorn was in her fifties and he—

“Archmage, we have over four hundred contacts. And more requests are coming in. Should we—”

A [Mage]’s voice spoke behind Feor, strained. He looked back and saw nearly fifty [Mages] of Wistram, linked in the magical circles they’d drawn. They needed no tactile connection; they sat or stood as they pleased, and there was food and drink enough to keep them linked and more [Mages] on standby. Once the connection had been fully established, they could move about, even perform mundane tasks. It was only at this moment as the image of the Titan spread across the world that all those present struggled with the enormity of the spell.

“Broadcast the image to anyone who requests it. Add connections slowly. This isn’t a race.”

Feor spoke sharply, annoyed by the intrusion into his memories. He saw the [Mage] nod and turned back to the image in the scrying orb. Niers Astoragon had replaced it. A tiny man, but Teura must have amplified her vision. He appeared in the orb, and Feor saw a flash of darkness as Teura blinked.

“There must be a better way to record the images. Perhaps with an artifact, as young Aaron suggested.”

Feor mused to himself. He listened as Niers spoke, as crisply as if he were in front of Feor. After all, the concept of recording an image and sound wasn’t anything new. [Mages] had known how to do that for years. But sending the same signal across the world? Creating a…network? Even that wasn’t an entirely unheard of idea. But for entertainment? That was new.

The Titan looked around. He turned his head, and Feor’s heart jumped as Niers Astoragon met his eyes for a second. The Fraerling spoke, in a whisper magnified to a shout.

The world is watching.

 

—-

 

From Wistram to Terandria to Izril. From the King of Destruction staring into his marble-sized scrying orb to Lady Magnolia Reinhart, drumming her fingers and having Ressa note some of the students to Wall Lord Ilvriss, sipping wine in his home and watching with a critical eye.

[King] Raelt stared into the scrying orb his servant, Geril, had fetched for him out of their armory. It was slightly dusty and his daughter was getting in the way.

“Jecaina, please move back. I can’t see.”

The nobles of Terandria sipped wine and scarfed foods in the courts. Monarchs of lands not embroiled in war watched, some enviously, others with idle interest, others picking out faces out of the crowd. The Quarass of Germina watched, drumming her fingers on her throne, a child witnessing something she had seen in the past, but in a new way.

The Emperor of Sands waited, reclining on silk cushions. The Blighted King stood in his war room, glancing at the orb only now and then, impatient, speaking with his [Generals]. The leaders of Baleros watched, the Seer of Steel with patience, the Bannermare with jealousy and her mother with disdain. A thousand pairs of eyes. Then two thousand. Ten thousand—[Merchants] in their shops. Adventurers in their camps. Students in Wistram’s lower levels crowded into rooms. Cognita. Az’kerash. Greydath.

A Dragon slept through it all.

 

—-

 

Daquin shook. The city trembled, and Umina’s knees went weak. She stared up at her teacher as he stood on the dais. Her eyes travelled to the [Mages] behind her. And through their eyes, she imagined a hundred thousand, no a million souls were staring back. At her. At the city. At him.

The entire world was watching the Titan’s game. Umina began to hyperventilate.

The students shook. Some cried out. Others gasped. A few, were just silent. Someone fainted. Umina looked to her right. Marian had gone still, her mouth half-open. Yerra’s grin had frozen on her place. Cameral was muttering.

“Of course we knew it was a possibility. But we didn’t think—for a game? But if it is the Professor’s game—”

Umina looked up. Venaz had turned into a statue. The Minotaur gulped twice; she saw his throat move. Then he coughed.

“Hmf. W-well, it’s only fitting. Appropriate, even. No, the more who witness my triumph, the better!”

But even he couldn’t hide the tremor in his voice. Wil was muttering on Umina’s left.

“I’m going to do my best. I can’t be caught. I can’t fail. I can’t…”

Feshi breathed in and out, looking calmer than Jekilt. He was lying on the ground, passed out.

“I wonder if my tribe can see me?”

She waved a paw experimentally. Umina opened her mouth and felt her stomach roiling. Forget calm! This was—

Attention.

The word was like a bucket of water. Jekilt jerked and his hooves moved randomly for a moment. Marian started breathing again; Umina felt her terror subside. Everyone looked back at Niers, students, soldiers, and citizens alike.

“Don’t be nervous. It’s just the world.”

The Titan laughed. No one laughed with him. They stared at him, a tiny Fraerling perfectly at ease. Then everyone remembered. He was the Titan of Baleros. And suddenly, the stage seemed fitting for him, if no one else. Niers Astoragon walked forwards. And his eyes found his students. Not just Umina and his private class. All of them.

“If this is enough to scare you, how can you call yourselves my students? Look at you. This is the world. This is everyone. Your enemies. Your employers. Your allies. [Kings] and [Queens]. Monarchs. They are watching. And look at you. Why are you shaking? It should be with excitement. You may never have a chance like this again. This is your chance to show what you can do in the eyes of the world. This is my gift to you. A stage to create your legend.”

His words swept across his audience. They stopped shaking. And they looked up and realized he was right. You might never get a chance like this again. Umina’s claws clenched. She heard Venaz growl.

“My people are watching me. I will not let them down!”

A rumble went through the crowd. Niers raised a hand.

“Yes. A stage fitting for legends to be made. But that only applies if the challenge is appropriate. So. Students. Audience—across the world. I know my trivial game of hide-and-seek might not interest you. But a game is only as good as the players. On one side you have my students. But for a game worthy of this moment, for legends to be made, I call upon a living legend.”

He raised a hand. And Umina heard a drumbeat. It rolled through the air. The people looked up. Another beat echoed. Niers spoke over it.

“For this year, I have but one seeker. Although I understand he has brought some of his company. To find my students as they try to hide, I give you one of my oldest students. He has come from the north.”

Thump.

A drumbeat echoed through the air. Umina felt it roll off the buildings. Where had it come from? Behind? Ahead? She looked around wildly.

“He won this game, in years past. And though his company has many demands of him, he agreed to seek. You may know of him as the second-in-command to the Iron Vanguard. Equal in rank to the Titan of Baleros.”

Umina’s neck snapped around. No. She heard a laugh. Cameral was laughing. The Dullahan stared up the Professor. But Niers wasn’t laughing.

Thump.

It was coming from the harbor. Umina looked towards the sea. There were buildings in the way of course. She wouldn’t—

Thump.

Her heart skipped another beat. There, above the two-story buildings was something. A…piece of wood. And below it, canvas. No, cloth, dark grey. A sail.

But from so far away? And the buildings—the harbor! There was only one kind of ship large enough to be seen from this distance. A warship. And then Umina saw it wasn’t just one. She counted.

Six.

“One of my oldest students. Some may call him my finest.”

The Titan’s voice was faint, for once. The drumbeats kept echoing. Growing louder. A rolling beat. Like thunder. And now Umina heard something else.

Footsteps. Marching, the sound of hundreds, thousands of feet striking the ground in rhythm. No—not just heard. Felt. Was the ground shaking?

“Move back, soldiers.”

Niers pointed. Umina saw the Forgotten Wing soldiers near one entrance of the square reacting. Grabbing at their weapons; they looked up at the Titan’s voice and backed up. Fast.

Here they came. A wailing horn blew. The drums began to beat faster and faster. And the first rank of Dullahans marched into the square.

Dullahans wearing steel. Marching five abreast, moving in perfect formations, in two columns. They spread out, moving into two wings at either end of the other side of the plaza, across from Niers. They moved in step, their armor gleaming.

Thump. Thump.

Like the beating of her heart, now. The drums pounded, drowning out all sound except for the marching Dullahans.

Then Umina saw a column of riders pass between the infantry. Their spears were raised. They rode forwards and the students backed up. The Dullahans marching on the ground suddenly stopped for a moment.

Then Umina saw some huge Dullahans stride forwards. Male and female, their armor as black as night, their heads secured to their bodies and covered by dark helmets. The Midnight Shield. Invisible in the darkness. Unstoppable in battle.

Elites of the Iron Vanguard.

And they flanked a figure who walked among them, at first invisible. But as he moved forwards, they spread apart and his armor shone. Silver and brilliant. A color beyond chromatic. He carried his head under one arm and Umina felt her heart skip a beat as she saw him.

And like that, the drumbeats stopped. The Dullahans came to a halt. The two columns flanked him as the riders formed an interior wall, holding up their spears. The Midnight Shields passed underneath, and he walked through ranks of his soldiers. The students parted; they couldn’t help it. Umina saw him pass by as the Dullahans in black armor passed bare inches from her. She saw dark skin, hair as pale as ash. Eyes as silver as his magical armor.

Niers’ voice was quiet as he spoke.

“My students, please welcome your opponent for these games. I see he has brought his company.”

More and more Dullahans fell in behind him, filling the plaza. Not all Dullahans; here came a platoon of Lizardfolk. [Mages]. Adventurers, moving out of synch with the rest. Niers looked down at the Dullahan in shining armor as he strode towards him. The [Strategist] came to a halt as his soldiers parted. He walked forwards and raised his head.

The Titan bowed slightly. Then he looked around. His eyes found the [Mages] of Wistram, pale and silent. The petrified citizens of Daquin. The waiting Dullahans. Perorn’s burning gaze as she stared at the Dullahan, Niers’ former student. And then Niers looked at his students. He smiled slightly.

“The second-in-command to the Iron Vanguard. My former student. A victor of this humble game in years past. You may know him as Tulm the Mithril.”

 

—-

 

She knew he was coming. The instant Niers had said the Iron Vanguard, Perorn had known who it had to be. Their second-in-command. The [Strategist] who commanded the entire Great Company. The one answerable only to the Seer of Steel. The most legendary [Strategist] on the continent short of the Titan.

He marched with his army as they filled the plaza. Unlike Niers’ soldiers, who had stood to attention, the Dullahans marched in perfect formation. Their armor gleamed. But it was him that Perorn was looking for. She only realized he was there when she saw the Dullahans moving.

The [Soldiers], the citizens of Daquin, even the students like Cameral bent as he appeared. They knelt, removing their heads like helmets, turning them up while their bodies bent down. To look. To stare. It was unconscious. And even among Niers’ soldiers, the Dullahans bent.

They couldn’t help it. Unlike Niers, he didn’t hold back his presence. He didn’t hide it. Tulm didn’t hide who he was.

There. A flash of metal. A color brighter and somehow deeper than silver, a radiance you couldn’t find in common metal. Magic, wrought into armor. His entire body was made of it. Worth more than any [King]’s ransom.

Mithril.

Tulm the Mithril. Perorn felt a shudder run through her body. Her back right leg screamed. She reached for her sword and then caught herself. Then she felt the crushing presence.

It wasn’t just the Dullahans. Behind the Titan, the ranks of teachers and Perorn felt it. Like a weight on their shoulders, a pressure. Compelling them to kneel.

There were [Kings] without this kind of force. Perorn looked to her side. A Lizardwoman gritted her teeth. She was a [Brigadier General] over Level 30, but she was still sweating. By her side, a Gnoll’s knees were buckling. Perorn growled at him.

“Steady.”

The others looked at her. They locked their legs. But as he drew nearer, the pressure grew stronger.

“It’s—like the last time I saw him—”

A Drake gasped. His scales were pale. Perorn stared at the approaching Dullahan. Exactly like the last time they’d met. She had to fight not to grab her sword, to charge him. She raised her voice, ignoring the drumbeats.

“Hold your ground. If one of you bends a knee, I’ll run you through myself!”

The others tried. But they were slipping. Out of the corner of her eye, Perorn saw one of the Wistram [Mages], the Centaur, kneel. None of the students were doing it; he was only directing his aura at them! Perorn bit her lip.

“Niers.”

The Titan turned. He’d been staring at his old student. He saw his teachers, his people struggling. He stared at Perorn and then looked forwards. His gaze locked with the approaching Dullahan.

“Kneel? You are my [Strategists]. Don’t you dare.”

That was all he said. But at once, the pressure on the group behind him lifted. Perorn saw the Lizardman stumble and felt the weight lift off her shoulders. She stared at Tulm the Mithril, then at Niers. He still had a ways to go. Would it be appropriate to…?

No. But he didn’t deserve it from her. Perorn broke ranks. She trotted forwards to Niers and bent.

“You called him. Are you mad?”

The Titan looked up at her. He spoke quietly; amid the beating drums, Perorn would be surprised if anyone else could hear, listening spells or not. The Wistram [Mages] were still pinned by his aura, anyways.

“Not yet. But you can see why I didn’t tell you who was joining the game. You would have refused. Foliana certainly did.”

Perorn’s hands clenched. She pawed the ground, staring at the Dullahan. He was looking at her. Her and Niers, his former teacher.

“If I had any notion—what are you thinking? That Dullahan? He’s—”

She bit her lip. He was Niers. If the Titan was the most famous Fraerling in existence, Tulm the Mithril was an equivalent existence. Niers raised an eyebrow.

“The Centaurs have you, don’t they?”

Horseshit. He’s the second most important figure in the world to Dullahans outside of the Seer of Steel. If he’s to Dullahans—you might as well bring Archmage Nailihuaile here from Wistram, and the Bannermare over here as well!”

“I did ask. They both declined. Which surprised me in both cases. You know how they like to cause a scene.”

Perorn glared down at Niers. He hadn’t turned to look at her. He and his student were engaged in a staring match and neither one was blinking as the Dullahans marched towards him. The students were parting in front of the Dullahans like sheep in front of wolves.

“You did ask, didn’t you? I shouldn’t have expected anything less. This is cruel. Even for you.”

“Why? This is just a game. A game of hide and seek. I just chose a good opponent.”

The Titan spoke dreamily. Perorn stomped a hoof and he looked up. Fleethoof stared at the Titan. And Tulm the Mithril closed on them.

“He was the one who took away my leg. Why did you bring me here, Niers?”

Niers Astoragon looked up. A tiny man. Then he looked at Tulm the Mithril, leading an army into the city. And Perorn saw him smile bitterly. And she remembered how he felt about his student.

She thought nothing he could say would stop her from leaving. From attacking or—but she was wrong. The Titan of Baleros looked up and gave Perorn a slight smile.

“To have a good day.”

 

—-

 

They met in silence. The Midnight Shield slowed, and the armored Dullahans paused about twenty feet in front of the Titan. To get any closer might as well be an act of war. Trust only ran so far.

Then again, he was as dangerous as his escort. More so. Tulm the Mithril walked forwards. Niers waited for him. He could hardly leave his wooden pedestal. By his side, Perorn tensed. Her eyes locked on Tulm and her arm strained as it didn’t quite reach for her sword hilt.

Tulm paid no attention to her. He was staring at Niers. He halted a few feet before his old teacher. And Niers Astoragon gave him a bow. First. And it was a proper bow, not a simple nod of acknowledgement. It might have meant nothing to non-Dullahans. But Perorn and the Iron Vanguard watched. And there was an imperceptible shift in the ranks of the Dullahans behind Tulm.

Satisfaction. Perorn followed Niers’ example, gritting her teeth. Tulm waited a beat and then bowed back. It was a copy of the Titan’s bow to the last centimeter. Then he straightened and spoke softly.

“Are we equals, then, teacher?”

Perorn tensed. It was the same voice! The same tone, even. But Niers held up a hand and the [Galewinds Strategist] held herself in check. He answered casually, in a tone that was almost playful.

“I don’t see how I can look down on you anymore. You’ve grown up, Tulm. Your armor’s quite nice.”

The Dullahan had put his head on to bow. Now he took it off and held it under one arm. His head spoke back, eyes looking Niers up and down calmly.

“So you’ve said before.”

“Did I? Time plays tricks on me. The last time we met was across a battlefield, wasn’t it? I didn’t congratulate you on your victory, then.”

“No. You did not.”

The two stared at each other. Niers bared his teeth. You could charitably call it a smile. He held out a hand, politely indicating the furious Centauress next to him.

“May I introduce Perorn? You recall her.”

Tulm’s silver gaze flicked to Perorn. She spoke one word, infused with over a decade of…everything. Her back right leg had stopped hurting. It felt as good as the moment it had before he’d hamstrung her.

“Mithril.”

“Fleethoof.”

They met gazes once. And then both looked away. Any longer and one would have gone for their weapon. Perorn had a curved shamshir. Tulm wore a mace made of mithril, enchanted to hit like a sledgehammer. But his true weapon was a halberd. Niers clapped his hands together as if neither Centaur nor Dullahan were imagining gutting the other.

“I see the hosts of the city are getting nervous. Tulm, as the reigning champion of hide and seek, I hope you can win without turning half the city to ash this time. Hopefully your advanced experience and levels means you can seek without destroying.”

He looked sardonically at Tulm and the Dullahan turned his head back to Niers. He smiled coldly.

“It is not my intention. But tell me. Why am I truly here, then, teacher?”

The Fraerling gave Tulm a blank look.

“You didn’t read my message.”

“I read your message.”

“It specifically stated that this was my competition—”

Tulm leaned forwards. He raised his head to meet Niers and spoke flatly.

“You called me here. Over two thousand miles, with a letter sent into the heart of the Iron Vanguard’s mightiest stronghold with highest priority, by one of the best Couriers in the world. As if it were a declaration of war.”

Niers smiled.

“I hope it didn’t bother the Seer of Steel unduly.”

Tulm didn’t blink. He stared at Niers, as if his old teacher were a puzzle to be unraveled. With an axe.

“You had to know it would throw all of Baleros into chaos. The other Great Companies and half the continent waited to see what your letter meant. All this, for a child’s competition.”

The Fraerling [Strategist] shrugged.

“What can I say? I like my games. And you must agree, this time is different.”

He gestured to Teura and the other [Mages], who were trying to eavesdrop and finding their spells were unraveling around the trio of [Strategists]. All they could do was stare and let their viewers try to read lips. Incidentally, the price of those with lip-reading Skills or the talent had gone up exponentially in the last few minutes. Tulm shook his head with his hands.

“The world now looks through a hundred thousand eyes. Do you fear it? I thought you would rejoice, teacher. But you look disturbed.”

“I enjoy Wistram’s company, Tulm.”

“Ah. I see. So is it just for this that you called me? More sport, my greatest of teachers?”

Niers paused. He stepped forwards, to the edge of his little platform and Tulm bent forwards. Niers smiled with his teeth until the two were very close, and then both turned their heads away from the three Wistram [Mages] slightly. The Titan whispered up at Tulm the Mithril while still smiling as the silent crowd watched.

“Tulm, are you trying to annoy me by calling me teacher every two seconds?”

“Are you going to continue avoiding my question? Teacher?”

The two stared at each other. Tulm spoke softly.

“If you want me to crush your new students in front of tens of thousands, I will. And I will show them exactly what the difference is between me and them. A harsh lesson, even for children. You could have sent Fleethoof against them if you wanted to test their mettle. I will not be so kind. You tempted me here, but I do not intend to play your g—”

He paused. The Dullahan stared down at Niers Astoragon. The Fraerling’s face was too tiny for anyone but Tulm and possibly some of the Midnight Shield to see clearly. And he was grinning. He was giving Tulm a grin from ear-to-ear, his eyes as wide as they could go, his teeth bared. Unblinking.

The Dullahan and Fraerling stared at each other for one long minute. Then Niers spoke, his eyes still opened wide as could be.

“Go ahead and crush them. I want you to try.”

Tulm hesitated. He looked down at his former teacher. Niers stared up at him. And the expression on his face.

You could call it a smile. He spoke very slowly.

Try.

 

—-

 

Umina had thought the Professor couldn’t surprise her any further. After the Wistram [Mages], she thought his reveal might not surprise her. But he had. He always did.

Here he was. Out of the blue, as if Niers had summoned him. A Dullahan wearing armor made from a metal rarer than gold. A magical substance. Mithril. The kind of gear a Gold-rank adventurer would jump for joy to obtain. And his armor was made all out of it. It wasn’t an alloy. It shone with an inner light. But it was the Dullahan’s face Umina couldn’t take her eyes off. As he walked towards the Titan, putting his head on his shoulders, she stared at his back.

The second-in-command of The Iron Vanguard. The greatest [Strategist] of the Dullahans.

Tulm the Mithril.

Umina’s head was ringing. In a trance, she saw Tulm bow slightly to Niers. She saw him look up at Perorn, and saw her reply. He was speaking—she didn’t hear any of it—it wasn’t meant for the audience to hear. Like everyone else in the plaza, Umina was transfixed. Then Tulm the Mithril turned and he squashed her.

Just like that. Like a bug. The Dullahan ran his gaze across the students and smashed them flat. With just a look. Umina knew there was an incredible gap between her and the Professor. But Niers Astoragon was the kind Titan of Baleros, her teacher. Tulm the Mithril was—

Terrifying. It felt like he was reaching into Umina’s chest. She couldn’t breathe. She was supposed to fight that?

Marian was shivering as she held Umina’s arm. Venaz had frozen in place, his arms still folded. Umina looked around, for anyone who could—she couldn’t meet the Dullahan’s eyes! Cameral was still kneeling. Feshi was growling, biting her lip, looking down. Yerranola was making retching sounds in the back of her throat.

And Wil? He looked sick, but he met Umina’s eyes as she glanced at him. He nodded slightly. He’d known! How? There must have been clues. The Professor had probably left hints, but only Wil had picked up on it. No wonder he’d looked sick. How was he going to—how was she going to—

Oh, Nagas save me. I’m going to embarrass myself in front of the entire world. I wasn’t prepared for this!

Forget hide-and-seek. Forget that it was a game. No matter what they played, it was unfair. There he was, standing at the head of an army of Dullahans! There had to be at least another thousand in the square! And him! Umina took another glance and shuddered.

Tulm the Mithril. One of the greatest pupils of the Titan to have ever left his school. He’d beaten his teacher on the battlefield. He’d crippled Fleethoof’s leg. He’d killed Goblin Lords, brought armies to ruin and leveled one of the oldest Lizardfolk cities in the world in a week-long siege. They said he could destroy a Walled City if his company were to ever come to Izril.

They said he’d killed a Dragon. But Dragons were just a myth, a distant rumor. But they said he’d killed one. And a myth stood in front of them now. The students in the plaza looked down. They shook. If Niers had shouted ‘begin!’ half of them wouldn’t have even known what he meant. All thoughts of the game were gone from their heads. Before the game had begun, they’d lost.

“Ahem. Thank you, Tulm. You know how to make an entrance as always. My students, citizens of Daquin, and…everyone else, I introduce your seeker. Tulm the Mithril. I won’t forestall the game any longer. Without further ado, let me tell you the conditions of the game.”

Umina looked up dully at Niers as his voice echoed through the square. He wanted to talk about the game? His voice was just a distraction from Tulm as the Dullahan stood on the Titan’s left, Perorn on his right; Umina couldn’t meet his gaze, but she couldn’t look away from his armor. It was hypnotic. Painful. Traumatizing.

“The rules are simple. You know them well. You hide. Those who are caught and subdued—firmly subdued—have lost. They may not rejoin the game even should they break free. To ‘win’ this game, one need only refrain from being caught. But that isn’t true victory, is it?”

Niers chuckled. There was no response. Without missing a beat, the Titan went on.

“To be the first to win this game and claim the prize, the rule is simple. You will all leave and have half an hour to hide within the city. My soldiers and the Iron Vanguard will lock down the gates and harbor. And indeed, they will continue guarding the gates and harbor thereafter, but the rest may be deployed by Tulm as he wishes to find you all.”

Stop talking. It doesn’t matter. Umina focused on Niers. She couldn’t get his voice out of her head. It was writing itself into her memory, despite the oppressive feeling of Tulm’s presence. Part of her whispered—was Niers using a Skill, too? If so, Tulm had the stronger presence.

“Pay attention, please. I will not repeat myself. And you will all be running anyways. Because to be the first to win, you must simply return here. To this area of ten feet by ten feet around me.”

The Fraerling waved a hand.

“I’ll outline the area with chalk or rope. It needn’t be precise. But simply return here, by magic, or air, force or treachery and you win. Naturally, Tulm will attempt to keep you at bay as best he can. But the one who reaches me first wins. Simple as that. If no one arrives by sundown, well, there is no victor. Those who escaped till the end will have won a small victory, but not the full prize. Is that clear?”

It was. And Umina would have rejoiced before, because she could have won. But not against him. Silence fell as Niers waited for a response. And one came, from Tulm himself. The Dullahan spoke softly, and like Niers, his voice was amplified.

“Teacher. Do your students have the heart for your game? It seems my presence has dismayed them.”

Tulm’s voice was dry, deeper than Niers’. And commanding. Oh, yes. Calm and cold precision filled every word and it made the raucous sound die away at once. Tulm the Mithril looked at his old teacher. Umina shuddered. He was right. But Niers Astoragon just looked up at his former student and shook his head.

“What, are you suggesting I cancel my game, Tulm? I quite enjoy it. And my students wouldn’t have come all this way to forfeit out of hand, surely.”

He looked around. And his students tried to answer him. But Umina’s jaw was locked. She saw Venaz clenching and unclenching his hands, sweating. Tulm looked around. Umina looked down as the eyes swung towards her.

“It would be embarrassing, certainly. But I look around and think you overestimate this generation, teacher. Can they answer me? Even one? Without you to bolster their courage with a Skill, that is.”

He swept his gaze over the crowd again, at the paralyzed students, at the kneeling Dullahans. And Umina saw the flash of challenge in his eyes before she looked at her feet. So that was it. He wanted to embarrass Niers. If the Titan didn’t use a Skill to fight back, they’d be crushed. And his game would end. So he’d be humiliated in front of a watching world.

And it would be their fault. Hers. Umina strained, but she couldn’t force her head up to meet Tulm’s gaze. She tried. She saw blood running down Venaz’ leg as his fingernails dug into his flesh. But he didn’t say a word either. And what could Niers do? All he had were words.

“They cannot answer me, Teacher.”

They can.

The Titan’s voice snapped in Umina’s ears. But it was fainter now. He’d stopped using a Skill. She saw him, tiny, in her peripherals. Tulm was looking at him. But Niers wasn’t looking at his student. He spoke loudly, without a Skill. With just words.

“Your trouble has always been that you rely on Skills and levels, Tulm. And yes, you have as many levels as any two of my students combined, most likely. So what? My students will answer me. Not for my sake. But because I’ve set the stage.”

Look up. Look up! He’s waiting for you! Umina fought. She heard a groan from Marian. But her neck didn’t move. Niers went on. And suddenly, his voice was burning. The lighthearted, conversational tone he’d used all this time was gone. He spoke louder, even angrily, like he would when he was shouting from his lectern, at Venaz, at her.

“A watching world. A secret answered. Victory over their peers. And you, Tulm. Who some call my greatest student. Tulm the Mithril. The most famous [Strategist] on the continent besides myself. Perhaps you don’t know why I called for you. It’s because I can’t attack my students without mercy. But you can. Is it unfair, to put untried children up against you? Of course. But if life were fair, what would be the point of striving? So I’ve given them this. My gift. A challenge for them to rise to. If they cannot, they aren’t the brave young people I see every day. If they can’t, I should retire here and now. Because they can.

She still couldn’t do it. Umina was biting down so hard she felt her lip bleeding. And Niers’ voice sang in her ears as Tulm pressed down.

“My students exist to surpass me. One of them will, someday. They surprise me every day. I refuse to believe levels would hold them back. I refuse to believe a simple Skill could keep them silent. When my students graduate, they will take their place on the battlefield. And when they fight, they will take their opponents to the depths of hell, be it an Archmage, a Lord of the Wall, the King of Destruction, or Tulm the Mithril himself.”

Umina looked up. Shakily, past Tulm. Her ears were ringing, but she heard Niers above it. She would have heard him if she were deaf. He was looking around, at his students. From face to face. He was looking straight at Umina.

“You are afraid. I would expect nothing less. You’re not fools. But don’t let history stop you. Don’t let names or fame hold you back. You may be students, but you’re my students. Someday you’ll clash with legends. Someday, perhaps, you’ll be my opponent. And that moment will be the same as this. When that day comes, there’s no excuse I can give you, or you to me. There’s no saying that you weren’t ready. So. Here is your opponent. Do you have the courage to face him?”

Click. Umina felt her teeth meet. She spat blood. Then she stood straighter. She drew in a breath of air. But he shouted before her.

“I do, Professor!”

Wil raised his hand. And he bellowed the words at the Dullahan soldiers, at the others, and at Tulm the Mithril. That bright gaze fixed him, but Wil didn’t step back. He was only looking at Niers.

“I can. Give me the chance and I’ll win.”

“Me too!”

Umina shouted. She saw the silver eyes staring at her, but she stared at the mithril armor defiantly.

“In a game of hide in seek. In a war game. Across a chess board. I’ll take on any opponent. I’ve played the Titan himself and won.

A murmur ran through the crowd. Then a roar. Umina jumped as Venaz raised both arms.

“I am Venaz, from the House of Minos! I challenge you, Tulm the Mithril! I’ll take the Titan’s prize, my oath on it! Bring forth the entire Iron Vanguard and I swear our class will still claim victory.”

He pointed towards the Dullahan. Tulm blinked. And like that, the spell broke. Marian reared up, and uttered a war cry that came from both lines of her heritage. Feshi howled. And the students stood up and screamed their answer from a thousand throats.

Umina was already yelling. Venaz bellowed louder than the others, but Marian was shouting next to him. The people of Daquin watching from their windows and roofs shouted as well. Centaurs stomped their hooves and Lizardfolk shrieked. Dullahans pounded their armored hands together. And they were shouting down at the students. At her. Umina realized she was raising a hand. And the Titan was looking at her.

Wil. Umina. Venaz. Marian. Feshi. Jekilt. Yerranola. Cameral. Xelic. Merrik. Tefret. Over two hundred and fifty students shouted and cheered. And Tulm the Mithril watched. At last, he turned to Niers.

“So it seems we have a game. But tell me, teacher. You told me I had a reason to participate. And I see no opponent worthy of my striving.”

His gaze passed contemptuously over Venaz. The Minotaur roared and slapped his chest. The Dullahan was speaking loudly, but even his voice was nearly drowned out by the cheers. They were endless. And despite Tulm’s presence, he had no sway over the crowd.

His armor shone. And he’d brought an army to hunt for him. But the Titan of Baleros had called them his students. He had dared them. And for him, they could at least hide from an army.

In this moment, if he shouted ‘charge’, they would have fought the Iron Vanguard there and then. But the Titan wasn’t so bloodthirsty. This was just a game.

But the stakes had never been higher. They were for pride. Pride in their teacher, and truth. And then the Titan added to them. He spoke, his voice echoing down the winding streets and across the port waters.

“That is quite true, Tulm. And I suspect there are few things you could ask that the Seer of Steel wouldn’t be able to answer. Or you yourself. So this year, and in honor of our audience…”

He shot a sardonic glance at the [Mages] from Wistram.

“…and yourself of course, I’ve decided to add another incentive. To the student who reaches me first, in addition to the usual reward, I will give them a suitable gift from my vaults. A prize unlike any other, from the Titan of Baleros. My oath on that. And if you’re not satisfied, you may take any sword, and piece of armor, any artifact you wish short of—”

His words cut off at the second roar of sound. Umina gaped. Any weapon? Short of one of the best artifacts. But the Forgotten Wing company had an armory any Gold-ranked team, no, any Named Adventurer might drool over! And a personal gift?

Tulm’s arms were folded.

“And if I catch them all? Before sunset?”

He glanced pointedly up at the sun, still rising in the sky. Niers smiled.

“If no student reaches me, then I suppose I’ll owe you a gift.”

He met Tulm’s eyes again. The Dullahan stared at his teacher. Then he turned his back.

“And that justifies my journey? The presence of my company?”

He gestured at the waiting soldiers. Niers spoke with a silkily smooth voice at the back of Tulm’s head.

“Of course. It will be suitable. Even for Tulm the Mithril. A gift even the Seer of Steel would envy. You have my word on that. If you wish, I’ll give it to you publicly. With a bow wrapped around it.”

Tulm turned his head on his shoulders. And this time the silence was profound. Everyone’s mind was racing.

What kind of gift would impress Tulm the Mithril? And then a thought hot on the heels of that—what will I get if I win?

Niers shattered the silence with a clap of his hands. Which, magnified by his spell, was like the sound of rocks shattering. The crowd jumped as the Titan faced forwards.

“Well then. Enough wasting time. Dead gods, we’ve spent far too long on this. Everyone knows the rules. Students! You have half an hour to hide. No one else is allowed to move from this plaza. This game ends at sunset. Or when someone reaches me. Begin.

This time Niers didn’t bother clapping his hands. He just stood in place. The students stared at him. The Titan’s eyes twinkled.

“That’s seven seconds already elapsed. My, you’re all confident.”

And then they realized the game had begun. Umina whirled. She saw Venaz glance at the sky.

“Nearly…nearly…damn!”

The students nearest the edge of the plaza were already turning and running. Umina saw a Centaur leap over the heads of the crowd nearest him; a Garuda took wing. The Lizardman she’d spotted earlier slipped past a line of Dullahans; his Dwarf friend didn’t bother and charged through, knocking several to the ground.

“Run for it!”

Yerranola was the first to run in her class. She leapt up, bounding up over the heads of the other students and then sprinting faster than Umina had ever seen her go in her life! The Selphid had to be Rampaging! Already?

“Watch for the Dullahan [Mages] everyone! I think—haekcho!

Feshi bounded after Yerranola. She was sneezing hard and Umina saw one of the Dullahans was pointing at their group. The others looked like they were waving their hands. A spell?

No spells during the hide-and-seek phase!

Niers bellowed and the Dullahans stopped at once. His words provoked the rest of the students to take off. And desperate alliances were forming even in the chaos.

“Cameral, team up!”

A Dullahan girl snapped at Cameral. He fastened his head to his shoulders as he ran, thudding past Umina. She looked around desperately; now everyone was shoving to get free. Venaz hurled a Drake aside as he ran for the nearest alley. Umina’s head searched left and right. Where was—

Marian!

She shouted desperately. Someone seized her from behind. Umina shouted, but Marian flipped the Lizardgirl onto her back.

“Hold on!”

The Centauress had done a quick circle to gain momentum. Now she galloped ahead at full speed. The students ahead of her could get out of the way or be trampled. The Centaur shouted as Umina clung to her midriff.

“[Rapid Retreat]!”

She accelerated. Umina felt wind blast her in the face and saw the Centaur shooting towards a group of Dullahans from the Iron Vanguard. They took one look at her and scattered, abandoning their formations. Marian raced down a side street, a three hundred foot dash in three and a half seconds. She slowed as her Skill ended—but the ground still flashed past Umina. She screamed at Marian.

“Go straight! We’re going to the harbor!”

The Centaur raced ahead. A few students made it into their street as Marian raced down it; some stopped where they were, looking for nearby places to hide. Others took off, going as fast as Marian and Umina. But not too far. Because victory lay behind them. It waited with the Titan as he laughed, waiting for his students to best the Dullahan standing to his left. His students ran with his words echoing in their ears.

They would be back. And they were going to win.

 

—-

 

“It seems I’ve fallen into your trap once again, Professor. This feels…nostalgic.”

Tulm the Mithril stared at the flurry in the courtyard. He spoke absently, bitterly. Almost…fondly. The Fraerling was sitting on his wooden dais now that attention was off of him. The Titan paused in waving at some of his staff to look back at Tulm. But the gaze the two shared was anything but nostalgic. Niers reached into his bag of holding and pulled out a tiny folding chair. He sat down on it.

“You don’t say.”

The Dullahan slowly turned his head on his neck to stare at his former teacher. He stared at the chair. Niers pulled a stool out of his bag of holding and put his feet up. Behind him, the [Mages] of Wistram stared, capturing the scene for the world to see. The Titan, the running students. It wasn’t a war. It wasn’t important, but at the same time, it was.

The world watched. Perorn was glad none of the [Mages] were looking at her, though. The huge smile on her face was uncharacteristic as it was smug. Tulm glanced at the Centauress, then slowly put his head on his shoulders.

“My own fault. But this game is still mine. If you want a winner—I will win. I have three thousand soldiers if you permit me to command your forces.”

“I do. And pull the crew off those six warships while you’re at it. Fill the streets if you want to. Use [Mages]—I’m sure you can get some to teleport in to help you out. Excuse me, I asked for a lime drink. Something properly sour. No sugar, thank you.”

The Fraerling frowned at Councilman Ulli, who’d hurried over with the drink in one claw. The Fraerling frowned at the drink, which was in a thimble still essentially the size of a bucket for him.

“Terribly sorry, Lord Titan! I’ll get you uh—a fresh lime right away!”

The Lizardman turned red. Niers waved at him genteelly.

“It’s not a race, Councilman. Oh, and while you’re at it—a Centaur’s seat for Perorn unless she wants to watch somewhere else. And a drink? Tulm, will you have anything?”

“No.”

“And I’ll watch somewhere else. Best of luck, Mithril.”

Perorn stared at Tulm’s back. He ignored her and the Centauress stormed off. Niers waited for his lime, reclining and watching the Dullahan. Tulm spoke absently at last.

“If Fleethoof cheats—”

He turned and raised a hand. The thimble bounced off Tulm’s palm and the sweet limeade trickled down the mithril. Tulm shook his hand. Niers sat back down. Tulm waited a beat.

“If Perorn or any of your people cheat, the world will see. But you brought those [Mages] here for that reason, didn’t you? I think I’ll decline your offer. My ships stay where they are and my crews likewise. None of your students will leave the harbor or the gates. I intend to catch them all and the water won’t hide them. First Armor Captain.”

“Sir.”

A Dullahan, one of the Midnight Shields, stepped forwards and pounded on their breastplate. It was impossible to tell whether they were male or female with their helmets on. Tulm nodded towards the ranks of Dullahans.

“Send word to the fleet. Every [Soldier] aside from the ship crews is to disembark once the thirty minutes window has passed. Each warship will hold the harbor entrance and allow no one through; I want spotter watching the waters. The [Mages] will begin setting up wards—”

He hesitated and then glanced at the Wistram [Mages] before eying Niers briefly. The Titan looked up from accepting a second drink.

“Thimble? I have no idea, Ullim. You know where they get to. Maybe it fell down? Thank you. Nice and sour.”

The mithril-clad Dullahan frowned at the Wistram [Mages]. They were edging closer, and a few more were hovering on the outsides of the plaza.

“Focus on anti-teleportation spells at once. I want each entrance sealed to the plaza and watchers on the rooftops. [Mages] with net spells. No one will reach the Titan by air, ground—have a [Mage] begin sending signals through the earth to check for tunnels. And each squad is to activate anti-invisibility and anti-illusion countermeasures…”

He stared as Niers sat back. There was a bowl of candied nuts on his left, enough to feed the Titan for about a week, and some sliced fruits on his right. Niers leaned further back in his chair and sighed. Then his head came up and he blinked at Tulm.

“What? I’m waiting for the game to start. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know when you can leave the plaza. Want some snacks? I could play a game of chess to pass the time.”

He grinned. Tulm stared at him expressionlessly, then turned. The Dullahan [Captain] followed him, already giving out orders. Niers drew his sword, sliced off some banana on his right, and took a huge bite. He sipped at his drink, sighed, and looked around.

The Iron Vanguard was spreading out in formation and his soldiers were hopping to Tulm’s orders, reluctant though they might be. The citizens of Daquin were being moved out of the way by the seekers, and some had gone to their houses. Others were staying out for a better look, even if it meant being clubbed by accident. He raised his voice and shouted as he spotted some of Wistram’s [Mages] casting spells he recognized.

“No [Mage] leaves the plaza until the time’s up! You with the wand over there! Try to leave with that [Invisibility] spell on and I will have you tarred and feathered as a sideshow!

The [Mage] jumped and the citizens of Daquin cheered. Niers sat back as the [Mage] hurried out of the crowd. He looked around and caught Tulm staring at him again. Niers waved. The Dullahan’s expression never changed, but he turned around. And what was Perorn doing? Talking with what looked like a [Merchant]. Why?

Ah. Bookkeeping. The Titan waved a hand and made a signal; one of his Selphid [Spymasters] approached, with a sugar cube.

“Get me our [Diviner]. We did bring one, didn’t we? I want to know the odds as they come in, and any conversations we can intercept. Oh, and get me the good wine. My stock, and don’t let anyone stop you. Perorn can have it over my dead body.”

“Any bets, sir?”

“I’m afraid Wistram would notice. No. Just interception.”

The [Spymaster] nodded and vanished. Niers laughed. He sat back, had a drink, and gestured for Teura to approach. No chair for her though; she could bloody well stand. The Titan smiled as he watched the world focus in on Daquin and his students. It was going to be a very fun day.

For him, at least.

 

—-

 

Luan stared at the city in the distance. He checked his map again, but Venaz had told him the name enough times. The City Runner, or rather City [Rower] stretched in his small single scull. He was already limbered up to be honest; he’d gotten up early, had a stamina potion, and rowed out here from the neighboring port city hours ago. He’d been waiting all this time to go in.

Now Luan almost wished he’d ignored Venaz and gone in sooner. Because the sleepy harbor of Daquin had exploded with activity. First a few galleys had appeared, and one larger ship and sailed into the harbor. Not too bad; it could have been a [Merchant] group, but Luan had spotted armor on too many of the crew. But he would have still bet he could escape all of them if need be. And he was going in, so what was the worry?

The worry was the six gigantic warships that had appeared out of the blue and charged into the harbor. Each one was massive and their crews were all Dullahan. Luan had been prepared to row for the horizon, but there hadn’t been any sounds of fighting. Just a few horns, those damned loud drums and now…silence.

But something was going on in the city, Luan was certain. The South African man checked his heartbeat. Too fast, but he was nervous. Again he debated cancelling, but his reputation was on the line. So were fifty gold coins. So he just held his breath and checked the sun.

“Almost time. Almost time…”

The little bag of holding was clasped firmly between his knees. Luan eyed the warships. They’d set up a perimeter around the harbor. That was clear enough. And Venaz had warned him something like this might happen. Well, Luan had a few options…the City Runner held his breath. Then he checked the sun, swore, and began to paddle forwards. Slowly at first.

“Well, here goes. Venaz, friend, if I die today…”

He looked down at the bright golden names on his arm.

“You’d better have that gold ready.”

Then he began rowing for Daquin. Just in time to see the Centaur and Lizardgirl racing across the docks.

 

—-

 

Umina and Marian raced down the street. They’d taken a circuitous route, having gone the wrong way out the plaza first. But they were still galloping along, or the Centauress was. Umina clung to Marian’s torso as the Centaur slowed from their sprint, but she was still moving fast.

Ahead of them were only a few students; most weren’t heading their way, down a slope towards the harbor. Obviously the Iron Vanguard would be coming from that direction, but a few had taken the risk. Intelligently or not. Umina saw a Drake and Gnoll [Tactician] duo she recognized running down the street. The Drake was screaming at her friend.

“There should be a cover to the sewers somewhere on the street! Or a drain at least! Where is it? Is it covered beneath the dirt, maybe? Help me find it!”

The Gnoll shouted at her partner’s back.

“There aren’t any sewers, you idiot! That was your big plan!? I thought you had a brilliant idea!”

The Drake was horrified.

“No sewers? What kind of a primitive city is—”

Marian galloped past them. Umina peered over her shoulder.

“Don’t go too fast! There’s an incline! And take a left down this street! To the port!”

Marian turned her head, breathless, as she galloped.

“We’re sticking to the plan? But the Iron Vanguard’s ships—”

“So what? There are still others in port! Left!”

The Centaur swerved. The two broke out of the street and into the wooden pier. Umina swore as she saw the Iron Vanguard’s black vessels and grey sails. There were distant figures milling about on the decks.

“Oh, hells, Umina! They can see us from the harbor!”

“Back into the buildings, then! Use the smaller ships at the docks as cover! Pretend we’re going back!”

Umina dropped from Marian’s back. The two raced back behind a building and then came out, low to the ground, blocking their view of the Iron Vanguard’s warships with one of the smaller trading vessels anchored at the docks.

Marian panted; her withers were streaked with sweat. On a Centaur that meant the part of her body where her humanoid torso met the horse part of her body. Centaurs had weird anatomy. But Marian had raced across the city faster than almost anyone else, proving why her species was unmatched on the plains. [Knights] on warhorses were dust compared to a Centaurs on the charge.

“This had better work, Umina. We’ve got—”

“Twenty minutes left. We’re fine, Marian. We can do our fallbacks! Just hold on—hey! Hey up there!”

The Lizardgirl had led them to the side of a ship. Now she called up cautiously. There was a second, then a scuffle and a [Sailor] poked his head over the side. His eyes widened as he saw her.

“What’re you doing? And what in the name of krakens is going on in the city!”

“Haven’t you heard? The Titan’s game of hide-and-seek is going on!”

Umina hissed up at him as Marian gulped for air. She felt silly putting it that way, but the [Sailor]’s eyes widened.

“Of course we heard about that, but—Captain! Vexula! Ronny! Get over here!”

More [Sailors] appeared on the edge of the ship. Umina wished they wouldn’t be so obvious about it. They blinked down at the two [Strategists] huddled up against the side of their ship. One of them narrowed her eyes.

“Hang on. Don’t I know you…? What’s this about the city? We know the Titan’s having some kind of game, but where did those warships come from? That’s the Iron Vanguard! Is the city under siege or something?”

“No. Tulm the Mithril is taking part.”

What?

Umina shot a glance over their shoulder. Every second they spent…she waved at the [Sailors], one of whom looked like a [Captain].

“Hey. We’ve got a favor to ask. My friend and I are trying to win this thing, but the Iron Vanguard’s going to be unloading soldiers in moments and searching the city! Mind if we hide in your ship? Please?”

Marian stared at Umina. She mouthed silently, something along the lines of ‘that’s your plan?’ But the [Sailors] just blinked at each other. Then one nodded.

“Of course! Let us get a rope! We’ll haul both of you up on the sly. Hey! Get those crates in the way! We’ll smuggle you two below decks and if any landlubber asks—well, no one’s getting on our ship, Great Company or not!”

The crew instantly went running. Marian blinked at Umina.

“How did you do that?”

The Lizardgirl just grinned.

“Know your audience. Remember the crowd? Look.”

She pointed. The first [Sailor] was already back. And as the others tossed down a harness used for horses for Marian, the Centaur noticed what had made Umina pick this ship. The crew, with the exception of Ronny, were all Lizardfolk.

“Umina, right? You’re doing us proud! The Titan’s personal class! You’d better win this one for us!”

The [Sailors] congregated around the two as they helped lift Marian, hiding them as the two disappeared below decks. Marian was following Umina shaking hands and touching tails as she smiled. The Centaur stumbled as she went down the cramped and to her, very narrow stairs; she was breathing harder even though the below decks were quite spacious.

“We need a hiding place. Can we move your stuff?”

“Sure, sure. Need a hand?”

“Just tell us when the Iron Vanguard moves in! And in the name of Nagas, don’t act suspicious!”

“Uh—”

“Just don’t act unnatural! Get drunk or something!”

The [Sailor] brightened up and headed upstairs. Marian looked at Umina as the Lizardgirl checked the hold.

“We don’t have nearly enough to take on Tulm the Mithril’s soldiers. Your tripvine bag won’t work on the elites, Marian. We need a better plan and fast.

“I’ve got gold. And some stuff in my bag of holding. Is the world…rocking to you?”

The Centaur replied faintly. Umina glanced up.

“We’re on a ship, Marian.”

“Oh. Centaurs don’t like being at sea. Or boats. Or small spaces, Umina.”

“Bear with it until we can go, Marian.”

“We could go now. There are better hiding spots.”

Marian danced in place nervously, then felt ill. Umina sighed.

“No. We hide here, at least for the first hour.”

“But if someone gets to the Professor before us—don’t you want to win?

The Lizardgirl paused. She met Marian’s eyes and there was a fire there that made the Centaur forget her sea—her harborsickness for a moment.

“I do. And we’re going to win, Marian. But we need intelligence on how Tulm is moving. How many soldiers are on each street, whether he’s concentrating his forces or spreading them out—anyone who rushes the plaza right off will get caught. We need to wait for an opening.”

“But if we’re trapped in this wooden box—”

Marian gulped. Another Lizardwoman had come down. She eyed Marian and silently handed the most important object in the pair’s plan so far. A bucket. Marian immediately clutched it to her chest.

“Damned Centaurs. Get seasick on a rowboat in the middle of a pond. What can we do for you, Umina?”

The Lizardgirl smiled at the older [Captain].

“We could use eyes and ears, [Captain]. No one said we couldn’t ask for help. Can you put some of your crew out to let us know what’s happening?”

“Can do! Don’t worry, my crew’ll love to help out. No one’s getting on our decks. And—”

Both Lizardfolk winced as the boat rocked in a gentle swell and Marian promptly threw up.

“—don’t worry about your friend here. Or my decks. This is the most fun we’ve had in ages! Tulm the Mithril! And the Titan himself! You think we can win?”

“We can.”

Umina met the [Captain]’s eyes and got a grin. She reached out and patted Marian on the back.

“But first we hide. And wait. And we see what happens next. The Professor always says that information wins wars. That, and armies. We’re working on the second part.”

 

—-

 

Halt! The harbor is sealed by the Iron Vanguard company!

The order came when Luan was a few hundred feet from the warships. He cursed, but he slowed and half-rose to shout back with hands cupped over his mouth.

“I’m a City Runner! I have a priority delivery! I can’t stop!”

There was hesitation aboard the warship. Except for war—no, even in war, City Runners were usually accorded immunity. The Dullahan aboard the ship called back.

“No entry! You will have to wait! If the request is urgent, the package can be relayed!”

“I don’t think that’ll happen.”

Luan muttered to himself. He stood up.

“I can’t deliver to anyone but the recipient! You know the Runner’s Guild rules! I can prove I’m a City Runner! I have my seal here!”

So saying, he paddled forwards. The Dullahan on board turned and paced up to what looked like the [Captain] or another officer. He came back and shouted after a second and Luan had closed maybe fifty feet.

“No entry! By order of Tulm the Mithril, no one is allowed into the harbor! Turn back at once!

Tulm the Mithril? Luan had no idea who that was, but he sounded like someone important. Still, the City Runner had no choice. He pretended to go forwards at a decent rowing pace, as if he were putting his back into it.

“I have to make my delivery! Sorry, friends!”

“No—”

The voice cut off and Luan saw the Dullahan gesture exasperatedly towards him. Some Dullahans approached with nets and began slinging them from the first warship to the one at anchor across from them. They were going to form an artificial wall! Luan grinned.

“Too slow! Here we go!”

He swung around the boat, then put his back to the warship. In the mirror, he saw the Dullahans pause, hoping perhaps that he’d given up. Not so; Luan had just gotten in the proper sculling position. He bent forwards, dipped his oars in the water and pulled. And he took off.

“[Power Strokes]!”

Luan saw the water heave as his agile craft shot left—not towards the gap between the first warship, but between another pair. The Dullahans blinked and stared for a moment—Luan was shooting across the water faster than they could run! He heard a cry from the Dullahans on watch.

“Dead gods! Put the nets down now! [Mages], stop that boat—”

Pull. Swing. Dip. Pull. Swing—Luan heaved and the force shot his scull out of the water. He felt the boat land and grinned. A net landed in front of him, which was really behind his scull—the Dullahans had misjudged how fast he was going.

“Is that a damned Courier?

[Mages]! Get over here now! I said—

Pull! The oars didn’t send a huge splash of water flying; that was poor form. All of Luan’s strength went into the water and sent his boat flying. He saw someone pelting up the decks. But before the [Mage] could even get to the aft of the warship he was through the gap. He shot through the harbor as the [Mages] raced to the starboard of their ships. More nets, but he was out of range. But spells?

“No, no, no—”

Luan turned right. Something—it looked like a huge net made of spider webs—struck the water with a large splash next to him. The second spell was a ball of purple which imploded in the water, creating a whirlpool and trying to drag Luan in. He rowed furiously, dodged a third spell that looked like some kind of magical anchor, and saw the docks coming up fast. No time to slow—

Gah!

The impact splintered the front of Luan’s boat and capsized him. Luan frantically grabbed at the pier’s docks as he surfaced and with bag of holding in hand, clambered over the side. He saw a ship full of Lizardpeople watching him with interest from their ship.

“Look at that Human go!”

“Is he a student? Good luck, Human!”

Luan heaved himself onto the docks, swearing and dripping with water. He stared at his broken scull, but it was too late for regrets. He saw the Dullahans on the warships pointing, but for some reason they weren’t chasing him! He decided not to chance it. If worst came to worse, he’d buy a ride back to Talenqual. Fifty gold pieces could buy him the scull of his dreams—or at least, a much better one.

“The Starlight Requiem. The Starlight Requiem—”

The [Rower] panted as he ran up an inclining street. The inn was close to the docks! He just had to go up two streets. He was prepared for anything or to fight through a crowd, but the streets were eerily empty. All he saw was a running Lizardperson—no, wait! Was that a Drake?— disappearing down one street. And then another empty street. And…windows with people staring down…

Luan slowed. He looked around. Every window in the upper floors was full of staring faces. Lizardfolk, Dullahans…they stared down at him. Someone shouted from above.

“Hurry up! Time’s nearly up!”

“Time? What time?”

The face looked confused. Luan looked around and his stomach was in knots. What had Venaz gotten himself into? He spotted a sign and raced towards it.

“The inn! Hello? Is anyone—”

The Runner pushed open the doors and staggered in. He took one look around. The [Innkeeper] looked up. He was a Dullahan and his body lumbered towards Luan like something out of a horror film while his head shouted from the counter.

“Oh no! You can’t hide in here! I can’t have my inn destroyed!”

“Wait! I’m looking for a Minotaur—”

“I sent him out too! No one’s hiding here! I get enough things broken with the [Sailors] brawling! Out! Out!”

“But where did he—”

The Dullahan chased Luan out; the man backed up fast and the doors slammed in his face. He looked around and grabbed at his hair.

“That goddamn—where is he?”

Venaz was nowhere in sight. And judging by the commotion, something was going on. Something bad? Luan stared up at the people in the windows.

“Did a Minotaur come this way? I have a delivery for him! I’m a City Runner!”

There was an ooh from above. Some of the watching citizens turned to each other.

“Should we tell him?”

“What if he’s on the Mithril’s side?”

“But a City Runner—anyone remember where he went?”

“…No.”

Damn.

Luan ran down the street, looking around frantically. But no one was on the ground! It was as if—then he saw a group of [Soldiers] marching towards him. There were eighteen Lizardfolk and three Centaurs. They stopped as they spotted Luan. One of the Lizardfolk frowned.

“Wow. They suck at hiding. Is this really who’ll be commanding us? Hope this one’s a washout.”

The Centaur leading the group frowned. He was armed with what looked like a catch pole. Another Centaur had a long, curved stick much like a hockey stick, ideal for tripping people up. The Lizardfolk had nets, staves. And clubs. Luan gulped.

“I’m a City Runner. On a delivery.”

He held up the bag of holding and fumbled for his seal. The [Soldiers] stared at it. They looked at each other. The Lizardman scratched at his frills.

“Okay, that’s sort of smart. Do you think he’s telling the truth, though? Anyone can get a seal if you paid enough. Is it a student?”

The Centaur looked vexed. He stomped a hoof.

“Take anyone on the street! That’s what the Mithril said and we’re part of this game. You want to turn down ten gold coins?”

“When you put it like that—get him!”

“Wait! Shit—”

Luan turned to run. The Lizardfolk and Centaurs raced after him. He heard galloping hooves and knew there wasn’t much point in running—Luan stopped with his hands up in front of a closed stables. He turned and Centaur bearing down on him reigned up.

“Sensible, Human. Look, if you are a City Runner, you’re in bad luck. If you don’t run, we won’t beat on you. How’d you get into the city, anyways? The gates are locked tighter than an Ogre’s ass.”

“How tight is that anyw—”

“I got in through the harbor. Past the warships.”

The Centaur looked surprised, then delighted.

“You got past the Iron Vanguard? Hah! So much for sea superiority. Alright, turn around and we’ll put some ties on you. You can sit in the plaza with the other captives; you might be the first one. The game’s just started. Shame you aren’t a student, though.”

“Game? What game?”

“You didn’t hear? Well—damn, we’ll let them explain. It’s just begun though, so you’re lucky you’re off the streets. It could get chaotic. Especially with Tulm the Mithril seeking. I heard that when he played against the Titan, he burned half a city down—”

Luan stared at the Centaur as the [Soldier] fumbled with some rope. The other [Soldiers] looked disappointed they couldn’t beat Luan up. They were chatting to Luan as a patrol of Dullahans came around the street. They were marching fast and armed like this group, but the way the Lizardfolk and Centaurs stiffened told Luan they were at odds, for all they were on the same side.

“Halt!”

“We’re on your side, idiots!”

The Lizardfolk shouted back. The Dullahans marched over to them and the leader pointed at Luan.

“Is this a student? We’ll take him.”

“And steal the gold reward? We have him, thank you, [Captain]. Your [Strategist] may be in charge, but we can do our job.”

“I’m not a student—”

“Did you say the game’s started? I thought it was in two more minutes!”

The Centaur snorted as he pawed the ground, his group facing off with the Dullahans.

“Your time’s off. Lord Astoragon just called a start to the game! Think we’d cheat and—”

He broke off and turned. So did the Dullahans. And Luan. They stared at the stable doors. The muffled voice had come from there. Someone from inside spoke.

“Hah. Told you that timekeeping artifact’s utter trash, Tompha. Alright. I guess we’d better start this off.”

Luan threw up his hands and shouted.

“Start what off—

The game of hide-and-seek, the Titan’s challenge, the competition in Daquin, started in earnest next to Luan. It started with a whumph of sound as the doors of the stable blew outwards. A group of eighteen students burst out of the stables, riding full-tilt on stolen horses straight for the plaza. The [Soldiers] turned to run after them and one threw a bottle. Luan turned and dove as he saw the glass break; he felt something strike across his back and try to unravel, but the tripvine missed.

As Luan rolled to his feet, he saw the [Soldiers] groaning and swearing in the middle of a tangle of vines. Another bottle broke and a pair of Dullahans dropped like stones; the soporifics vapors knocked out the audience in the apartment above. The students rode past them, shouting as a wall of Dullahans raced towards them. Towards Luan too. The [Rower] took one look at the students, the [Mage] hurling arrows made of light, the Dullahans with nets, and he ran for it. He was going to kill that Minotaur.

If he ever found him.

 

—-

 

The explosion from the stables was audible even in the plaza. No one had been making a lot of noise before that. From his seat, Niers looked up and smiled.

“And so it begins. High Mage Teura, move that scrying orb closer, will you? And everyone else, stay out of the winner’s circle. I won’t have you interfering with the game.”

He waved at the group of teachers, onlookers, Wistram [Mages], and others clustered around the circle. They shuffled obligingly out of the way as the half-Elf [Mage] floated the scrying orb closer to Niers’ seat. She and Niers were the only two in the winner’s circle. Outside of it was a ring of Dullahans in black armor.

The Midnight Shield. They didn’t so much as budge at Niers’ order. And they would have really ruined his view of the game, but happily Niers had the scrying orb. And Wistram’s [Mages] had spread to every corner of the city to watch. That meant Niers could watch the game through the scrying orb with everyone else and see the action already in progress.

A group of eighteen students were racing down a street, barely two blocks away from the plaza. The view was from a rooftop, and Niers could actually see the [Mage] with this vantage point slowly tracking the action from above. He enjoyed this perspective immensely, although it did mean he sometimes saw himself in the scrying orb as the viewpoint shifted to Teura’s vision.

“Lord Astoragon, do you have any comments? It’s surprising to see your students moving so quickly, isn’t it?”

Teura spoke on Niers’ right hand. He shrugged and reached for a bit of candied nuts, then eyed himself in the scrying orb. He sighed, sat up, and spoke with a smile on his face.

“Not at all. They’re probably hoping to catch Tulm off guard. Boldness is a strategy in itself. And they’re on horseback. We should be seeing them—”

A clatter of hooves. The viewpoint switched back to the students. They were racing up a street. Niers watched them throwing alchemist weapons with abandon; one of them was casting spells. He chortled with delight.

“And here’s Tefret himself! A [Mage Captain], one of our graduates in fact. He’s pushing in hard. And I think the Iron Vanguard—excuse me, Tulm’s force—has underestimated my students. Money can bowl over even a regiment of battle-hardened Dullahans!”

It was true. The Dullahans had come armed to catch, not to block a dozen exploding flasks which showered them with oily slicks, sleeping gas, vines, and in one case, some kind of liquid that was apparently very painful to get into the eyes. The Dullahans backed up, calling for shields—which of course they hadn’t brought. Niers glanced up with a smile and saw the viewpoint flick to Tulm the Mithril, standing calmly next to a map of the city. The Dullahan glanced up and Niers saw his eyes in the scrying orb for a second. He spoke a single order.

“Southern entrance. Have the unit hold ground; the riders won’t reach them. Xol. Cut them off.”

In the scrying orb, the [Strategists] were racing towards a row of Dullahans. They’d outpaced everyone else and had blasted their way clear. The half-Elf, Tefret, was throwing [Light Arrow] spells from the tip of his wand, a veritable storm of magical bullets. But they weren’t deadly; they had the force of a hammer to the jaw at worst and the Dullahans guarding the plaza did have shields. They held their ground, holding behind the shields, refusing to buckle in front of the impact. The [Riders] refused to slow as well. They were aiming for the Dullahan wall, and Niers looked up and saw them at the entrance to the plaza.

“Confusing. Reality meets scrying orb.”

He shook his head and jumped up. Teura yelped as the Fraerling climbed up her arm and onto her head. Niers saw his students riding at him behind the wall of Dullahans just in time. They passed by a building and the wall exploded outwards. A fist grabbed a student off his horse and slammed him gently into the ground. Gently by comparison; the Human girl might have broken a few ribs. But the Dullahan [Juggernaut] who charged out of the side of the building could have squashed her and her horse like a bug.

Dead gods! [Juggernaut]!

The students screamed. Three horses reared—the gigantic Dullahan swept and hand and knocked all three students off with blows that were almost too fast to see. He was quick! And strong—he grabbed another horse as it ran past him and plucked the student off.

“Back, back!”

“We’re nearly there!”

The remaining students panicked. One threw a tripvine bag at the colossus wearing crimson armor with silver inlays. The [Juggernaut] caught the bag; it exploded in one hand. He lashed out and the student went flying. The Dullahan rose, high, higher, until he loomed above the horses below. Fourteen feet high; he had to have been crouching to have hidden. He charged forwards and the students scattered.

Niers heard a gulp from below. He looked down and saw the scrying orb had changed. A Drake sat in place, face pale.

“T-that would be—Xol of Ingrilt. Wouldn’t you say, uh, Sir Relz?”

A second Drake appeared in the picture. He was wearing a monocle and tapping his claws together rapidly.

“Indeed, Noass. Xol of Ingrilt, one of the largest and most famous War Walkers in the Iron Vanguard company. Often seen in the company of Tulm the Mithril’s personal vanguard, so it’s not surprising to see him here in one sense. In the other—deploying a War Walker in an urban environment is…and against students who might not even be Level 20? Some of them—I wonder if the Titan of Baleros would care to comment. We er, understand he is watching no doubt, and perhaps this development had caused him to reconsider his claim to ah—”

The image broke off. Niers saw another [Mage], the Centaur, edging around to stare at Niers standing on Teura’s head. He looked over and saw Tulm staring at him. Niers smiled and adjusted his voice so it boomed across the plaza to Tulm.

“Ah, Tulm. You only brought one?”

He was rewarded by just the slightest of changes in expression. Then Niers turned and watched the rest. He completely ignored the two Drakes trying to get his attention as the scrying orb flicked back to the action.

 

—-

 

“Move! Scatter!”

Tefret bellowed at the other students. Eleven raced away; Xol and the pursuing Dullahans had already knocked out seven. The Dullahans on the southern entrance to the plaza had formed a triple line; there was no chance of getting past them. And Xol was pursuing the others. The giant was outrunning horses, at least in the narrow streets. Xol whirled as Tefret charged him on horseback.

Xol!

The [Mage Captain] leapt from his horse and slapped it to make it race away. He aimed his wand and pointed.

“[Storm Arrows of Light]!”

A hundred missiles shot from the tip of his wand, blasting outwards in a spiral. They hammered Xol as the Dullahan turned towards him. The [Juggernaut] didn’t bother to shield his face. He just charged, into the hail of magical arrows.

“Trees rot it all—[Aerial Burst]!”

The half-Elf pointed at the ground and leapt. The shockwave blasted him off his feet and into the air. He landed on a rooftop, sprinted across the top, and pointed down.

“[Sticky Webs]! [Water Geyser]!”

The webs shot down, hitting the giant Dullahan. A huge column of water blasted out after the webs, enough to knock several Dullahans down. Tefret leapt.

“[Featherfall]! [Hammer Kick]!”

He hit the ground lightly from the two story drop and kicked a charging Dullahan. The metal armor bent around midsection as the Dullahan dropped. Tefret whirled. He had to run! Time for another plan. Without using deadly spells, there was no chance of felling Xol. On the plus side, the [Juggernaut] couldn’t pursue him hard. If he ran—

The half-Elf sprinted for an alley. He stopped as his [Dangersense] screamed at him and halted. The wall exploded outwards and Xol appeared. His armor was wet and a few strands of webbing clung to the enchanted metal. Tefret looked up at him with a weak smile.

“Then again, I didn’t have a chance anyways, did I?”

Xol bent. The giant Dullahan tensed. Tefret raised his wand.

“[Valmira’s—]”

A hand grabbed him. The [Mage Captain] fired the spell into the palm for all the good it did. He went up and then slammed into the ground. His body didn’t break. The paved stone did. Tefret grinned up dizzily at Xol as the Dullahan stared down at him. The half-Elf croaked.

“I am a huge admirer of yours. May I buy you a drink?”

Xol smiled.

“Later.”

 

—-

 

“Dead gods. Dead gods.

The first encounter with the Iron Vanguard spread like wildfire across the city. Half the students creeping out of their hiding spots immediately retreated. The fire that Niers had lit under their bellies vanished.

“A [Juggernaut]? How are we supposed to beat that?”

A Drake grabbed her Gnoll friend and whisper-screamed in the apartment they’d hidden themselves in. The Dullahan watching out the window gave them a sympathetic look. The Gnoll [Tactician] was breathing heavily.

“I—I do not know. Dullahans should be slow, no? Maybe—”

“Slow? You saw that thing! It caught a horse! And it got Tefret like that!

The Drake snapped her claws. The Gnoll nodded a few times. She licked her lips.

“Piccy, we may be outmatched. We are only in our second years. Maybe we should give up. The other students may be able to take on the Iron Vanguard. But we—”

“Give up? But we won’t get another shot for years! I knew we should have prepared more. I knew it. Oh, Ancestors, why didn’t we think? We can’t go outside. We go and we’ll get caught like that—”

Piccy snapped her fingers. She clutched at her neck spines and glanced at the window. Then she heard a pop.

A Dullahan [Mage] appeared in their room. He wore no robes; his armor shone like glass, a brilliant yellow stone mixed with dark black metal. He pointed at the Drake and Gnoll.

“Located.”

“Jump for it!”

The Gnoll went for the window. The Dullahan pointed as the apartment’s room owner fled.

“[Water Wall].”

A torrent of water shot upwards, engulfing both [Tacticians] in a moment. The Drake and Gnoll floated helplessly, choking for a few seconds before the Dullahan [Mage] levitated them out and into the air. The [Mage] paused to turn back to the other Dullahan who was staring in horror at the captured students.

“My apologies for the disruption, Miss. Please submit any water damages to the Iron Vanguard pending the conclusion of this exercise.”

Then he leapt and floated down the street. And the Wistram [Mage] had seen it all.

How did they find them?

Noass pounded the seat of his armrest, staring at the replay of the two [Tacticians] being caught. He turned to Sir Relz. The Drake was thinking.

“No doubt the two were giving off some kind of signal. But what? I have to think it was a [Scrying] spell employed by the Iron Vanguard’s mages. They must be looking for magical hotspots.”

“Can you explain, Sir Relz?”

“Naturally. Any artifacts that give off magic, any powerful spellcaster would show up under certain scrying spells. Those would obviously locate some of Daquin’s citizens, but more than a few students would easily be caught this way unless they have counter spells! This is—well, it’s effective, but is it sporting?

“It certainly wasn’t for those two poor girls. Two of Izril’s own, gone like that! This really is a one-sided match so far. And what’s this?”

The image blurred. Daquin’s watch tower, at least eighty feet in the air, had a guest. That would be a Wistram [Mage], who backed up as she saw someone else climbing up. A furry, somewhat shaggy—the two Drakes stared.

“That’s no Gnoll. I know Gnolls and that is not a Gnoll. Sir Relz?”

“No…that has to be—”

The Fox Beastkin growled up at the [Mage] staring down at him.

Move.

She leapt sideways into the air, making an affronted sound as he shoved her aside. The leather-clad adventurer took no notice. He strung a longbow as he stood on the small tower, staring around. Then he took aim.

“Got one.”

He pulled an arrow out with a shaped head, aimed it, and loosed in less than a second. The arow flew down, emitting a shrieking sound as the carved head caught the air. And when it landed, it detonated with a cloud of smoke. The running Centaur yelped as Dullahans converged on her location. The [Sniper] looked around and twisted.

“Got two. Twenty gold pieces.”

He loosed again, shooting an arrow through a window and pegging a Dullahan peeking out in the chest. She felt back as smoke billowed from the window. Noass and Sir Relz stared. The Drake with the spectacle spoke slowly.

“That would be a Gold-rank adventurer. Samile the Watcher, part of the Whisperstep band. It appears Tulm the Mithril is expanding his vision with him on the tower. Noass, would you have a chance of hiding against a Gold-ranked [Sniper]?”

“Not a chance, Sir Relz. And I would dare any Silver-ranked team to do better than these poor students.”

Both Drakes were nodding. Sir Relz looked back in the scrying orb, and fixed it with a stern gaze.

“Lord Astoragon, I’ll ask again since you appear not to be hearing me. Is this unfair?

 

—-

 

“Oh, shut up.”

Feshi growled at the image in the scrying orb. She was crammed into a root cellar. A very small, unfinished root cellar. But it was practically invisible even up close, the smell of the cellar would foil any nose, and the dirt provided some protection from scrying spells. As did the talisman tied to Feshi’s necklace of fangs. It was a gift from her tribe’s [Shaman] and she defied the Iron Vanguard to find her with their spells. She could even watch the scrying orb.

All in all, it was a wonderful hiding spot. The Gnoll had located it in a preparatory visit to Daquin. Feshi’s only complaint was that she hadn’t been the only one to find it. She shifted, and nearly collided with the person sitting next to her. Wil stared into his scrying orb and winced; another student was caught.

A Dullahan [Strategist] both he and Feshi knew had been beating a group of Dullahans back with a quarterstaff. He’d fought quite well—right up until Xol had charged into the alley and rammed him into a wall. The Gnoll sucked in her breath.

“This is not good, no? I expected a formidable opponent. Perhaps even Fleethoof herself as Umina predicted. But this is ruthless. As befits Tulm. Is there no hope?”

She looked unhappily at the Human crammed in next to her. She rather liked Wil, for all he was vaguely depressed most of the time and unconfident. Better that than arrogant like Venaz, though. But Feshi didn’t see a happy ending for either of them. She had a few tricks, but nothing that would work if everything was one-sided as this.

To her surprise, Wil glanced up at Feshi. And his eyes were alight with…emotion. It burned so bright that the Gnoll wondered if she’d gotten into the root cellar with the same Human. Wil even smelled different. The [Lord] and [Strategist] shook his head.

“We’re not done yet, Feshi. I’m not done. None of our class has been caught.”

The Gnoll met his eyes.

“No. This is true. Forgive my panic. But you have a plan. Or is courage enough?”

Wil was about to respond, but Feshi perked up one ear. She held up a paw and he went silent. The two [Strategists] held their breaths. They heard a muffled bark.

“Hunting dogs. We should be safe here. They can’t smell us. These roots stink.

Wil whispered.

“How many tricks does this Mithril one have?

Feshi growled. She smeared more half-rotten produce on her and Wil for good measure and heard him gag. The Gnoll shook her head.

“I can handle them even if they get near. But this is serious. This Tulm, he wants to beat the Professor rather badly, no?”

“He does. And he’s pulling out everything he has. Wouldn’t you?”

The Gnoll grinned.

“Only if it didn’t get me insulted. These two Drakes, I know them. They commented on Liscor’s siege and those moth attacks. One wonders if Wistram approached them to speak about this. It seems like an interesting job, yes? If only—”

“—they weren’t so stupid?”

Feshi blinked. Wil was staring down at the scrying orb. He glanced up.

“Sorry. They are playing the uh, fools. You know, the oblivious bit? I saw a comedy routine by [Jesters] back home like this.”

“You think they’re foolish?”

The Gnoll squatted to peer into the scrying orb. In the lull between more students being caught the two Gnolls were using a map of Daquin and talking about the various sweeps going through the city. There were at least three thousand soldiers on the ground, but the city was home to tens of thousands. Without magic or other devices, Tulm’s forces would be searching for weeks to find all of the students.

Then again, he didn’t need to find them all. There was only one way to win. And while Feshi supposed the Dullahan [Strategist] might be humiliated a bit by a less-than-complete victory, it was hollow for the hiders. Wil grimaced at the orb. He looked up apologetically.

“I thought that was what you were going to say. Don’t you agree?”

“Hrr. I don’t believe they’re underrepresenting our competition.”

“But we haven’t begun to fight yet.”

The Human looked up. And Feshi caught the same look in his eyes that had driven her people from northern Izril. That burning, indefatigable emotion.

Determination.

And as he spoke, the viewpoint shifted. Wil and Feshi watched as a group of Dullahans swept down a street, moving into houses—after knocking first of course—checking each floor, keeping alert for [Mages] or the screaming arrows from the watchtower. They looked up and down the street. And then they saw them.

A group walking towards them down the street. The Dullahans relaxed. Another soldier group. Until they saw the Dwarf walking among them. That gave them pause. Then they saw the lack of uniforms and grabbed their blunt weapons.

“Surrendering?”

The Dullahan [Sergeant] called out, smiling. Some of her [Soldiers] laughed. The group of students looked puzzled. There were six of them. A Gnoll, the Dwarf, Merrik, a pair of Centaurs, a Garuda, and Drake. Feshi didn’t recognize any of them outside of this morning. She stared.

“Surrender?”

Merrik, the Dwarf spoke. He had a greatclub over one shoulder. He looked at the others and they grinned. He shrugged at the Dullahan squad.

“If you like. Put your weapons down. Tie yourselves up while you’re at it.”

The Dullahans lost their relaxed postures. They formed up, coming down the street while the Dullahan relayed a [Message]. There were twenty four of the Dullahans. Six students. The Dwarf counted.

“That’s…hold on. One and a one fifth for you lot, eighteen for me. Got it?”

“Your math is terrible.”

“Bite me, Kelsa.”

The Dullahans looked at their [Sergeant]. He gave a curt order.

“Take them!”

They charged across the ground. The Dwarf roared. He jumped forwards. The students charged. The Dullahans weren’t expecting that. Merrik brought his club up. The [Sergeant] had a shield in hand and a truncheon in the other. The Dullahan roared.

“[Ram’s Charge]! [Power Strike]!

He shot past his men. Merrik slowed and brought up his club.

[Hammer Blow].

The two met with an impact that shook the street. Dullahans stopped and took cover as shrapnel from the paving stones flew in every direction. They looked up and saw a shape in the dust. Merrik stood over the Dullahan. The [Sergeant]’s armor was bowed in. The Dwarf bent and felt at his head anxiously. He looked up and nodded.

“Phew. Didn’t kill her. Didn’t know it was her, either.”

The Dullahans stared. They looked at Merrik as he sauntered forwards. One croaked.

“How—”

“Oh. That. [Body of Stone], lad. And it’s [Giant’s Hammer], not [Hammer Blow]. I just like shouting fake Skills for fun.”

Merrik brushed at his tunic. The fabric flapped away, revealing something underneath. Steel. The Dwarf winked.

“You’re not the only ones with armor. Ready?”

And then he charged. The Dullahans braced. A pair of Centaurs leapt over Merrik and the [Sergeant]. Kelsa had a staff in one hands. She whirled it, struck a Dullahan over the top of his helmet and then under the chin. She danced sideways, kicked—a Dullahan caught the hoof and spun.

The second Centaur caught a catchpole on one leg and then a net across the chest. He kept running. The Dullahans shouted as the catchpole was torn loose from a hand. The three Dullahans holding the net skidded across the ground as the Centaur ran on. Then he circled and trampled the fallen [Soldiers]. Carefully.

Forwards! For Oteslia and the skies!

The Drake shouted. She flew forwards, and the wooden club carried snapped twice, striking hard enough to dent metal. Dullahans surged forwards. More were coming down the street! The Drake spun, hacking at those surrounding her. Then she opened her mouth.

Oldbl—

The warning came too late. The Dullahans surrounding her shouted as a jet black fog burst from the Drake’s mouth. They stumbled out of the cloud, choking, and a few seconds later, the Drake strode forwards. She dispersed the fog herself, dragging out the Dullahans who’d inhaled the black smog and fainted. She whirled as a Dullahan clubbed her across the back of the head. He drew back his mace and a blunt wooden tip of a sword struck him between the eyes.

The head of the Dullahan bounced to the ground. The Gnoll tsked as she walked past the Dullahan [Soldier] as his body crumpled, unconscious. Dozens of Dullahans were swarming towards her. She left the rest of her group to fight the patrol.

The second group of Dullahans slowed slightly as she walked towards them. The Gnoll carried a rapier, or rather, a wooden imitation. Sturdy at the tip but still flexible, a bludgeoning weapon in the shape of the dueling sword. But however incongruous it was, it fit. The Gnoll’s hand glinted as she lifted the rapier. Her paws glided across the street, her stance never wavering.

A silver bell chimed on her paw. The Dullahans set themselves. Their [Lieutenant] drew a wooden sword. He charged the Gnoll, shouting for his men to surround her. The [Fencer] stepped in, her eyes gleaming.

“Fight’s going one way! Keep it up! And leave some for me!”

Merrik huffed as he ran to catch up after the scattering Dullahans. They were falling back, regrouping. He ran after one, raising his club over his head and shouting a war cry. A fist punched through the wall just over his head.

The Dwarf froze. He looked up as Xol tore a hole in the side of the wall. The [Juggernaut] looked down. He raised a fist and Merrik brought up his club, swearing. Xol swung, then leaned back mid-strike. He dodged the kick at his head. Xol lashed out again, with a jab that cut the air. He still missed her.

The Garuda back flipped through the air. She caught herself in the air and dove.

“Axe kick. Palm strike. Punch. Punch. Cross kick.”

She calmly pounded Xol across the chest, transitioning from the kick to punches and another kick. The [Juggernaut] struck again, but she missed. His armor rang with a second punch and the Garuda flew back. She landed and flipped sideways—a fist struck the stone.

“Punch.”

She punched the arm before it withdrew. Merrik roared.

“Grandfathers damn it, Peki! Stop shouting your moves!”

“Move back. I can’t hold him long.”

The Garuda balanced on one leg, holding up the other claw-foot, her wings poised to take off, dodge or strike. A [Martial Artist]’s stance. One who fought on both air and ground. Xol stared at her. Then he charged.

Punch, left, right, up—the Dullahan slammed with his shoulder, hoping to hit her. But he missed. The Garuda spun past him and kicked the side of his head. Then she flew up and dove.

“[Aerial Dance: Waterfall Strikes].”

The Garuda vanished. A blur replaced her, striking its way down Xol’s armor. He raised his arms, guarding, staggering as the blows took him off-balance. Peki reappeared on the ground, panting. Her friends were retreating, fighting off the other Dullahans.

“You’re not very good without your weapons. You should have brought your shield at least.”

Xol righted himself slowly. He adjusted his head on his shoulders.

“I’ll reclaim it. Tell me. Who taught you how to fight like this?”

The Garuda smiled.

Pomle’s Strongest.

She flew at him. The Garuda struck Xol three more times on the chest and disengaged. Xol retreated, and Peki flew back towards her friends, who were calling for her. The Dullahans stared at their retreating leader. The Dullahan [Commander] looked up.

“Call in reinforcements.”

She slowly drew a potion and drank it. Her form blurred. The Dullahans next to her stared at their commander. A [Mage] uttered a spell and a Dullahan in front of him raised a glowing weapon. A Centaur from the Iron Vanguard company trotted forwards and drank a potion. Her skin and fur turned dark, glossy, like metal.

“Ah, hell. They’re buffing themselves. Time for a tactical retreat?”

Merrik eyed the advancing Dullahans, who were approaching in formation. He looked over his shoulder then ducked.

Bastard!

An arrow hit the ground where the Dwarf’s head had been. It burst and the students leapt back. There was a flash—Merrik emerged looking dizzy.

“Light spell. Faugh! Someone do something about that idiot! I can’t see! Cover me!”

His friends dragged him back. The Dullahans charged, sensing the weakness. Kelsa raised a hand.

“Alright. Now.

The doors of the apartments opened up and down the street. And people poured out. Dullahans dressed in nondescript armor, holding polished clubs. They laid into the Iron Vanguard with considerably more expertise with the weapons. From an alley behind the Dullahans, a group emerged. Adventurers. The [Mage] in front pointed.

“Floor is hot! [Salamander’s Embers]!”

Fragments of a flaming, magical substance coated the ground in front of her. The other adventures set up. [Archers] and [Mages] began to fire arrows which exploded into sticky substances or hit with a nonlethal punch as the [Mages] cast similar spells. The [Warriors] strode forwards, wearing magical footgear and armor. They began beating down the Dullahans in the back row.

Merrik roared. More Dullahans were emerging from every side now; Tulm the Mithril had seen what was going on and was sending more reinforcements. But more students were arriving by the second, some leading groups.

[Thugs]. Adventurers. [Mercenaries]. Fighters for hire. Merrik pointed a club at the struggling Dullahans ahead of him.

“We need to clear this lot up and retreat! Everyone on me! I’m using my big one! [Battalion of Glory]! Charge!

His club began to shine. The Dwarf charged, and his friends and the fighters on the street began to glow with that same light. They rushed the Iron Vanguard, and their roar seemed amplified by a hundred voices. They crashed into the Dullahans as the [Soldiers] fought to get back.

“Commander charge! Retreat!”

Too late. The adventurers and students took down the Dullahans from both sides. By the time Xol was marching back at the head of a massive force, the forty or so Dullahans on the street were unconscious, stripped of their weapons and items. And the students had retreated. They were instantly pursued, but the [Mages] found the adventurers were able to push them back. Three Dullahans went down, immobilized in short magical duels.

And the Gold-rank adventurer on the watch tower found a Garuda shooting up at him. He shot arrow after arrow at her and his aim knocked the [Martial Artist] out of the sky. A better matchup. Until Samile the Watcher saw the arrow flying up. He dodged sideways; the arrow exploded and the burst of air blew him screaming off the watch tower and towards the ground.

 

—-

 

“The officer classes.”

Feshi and Wil stared at the other students in the orb. The Gnoll breathed the words out slowly. She looked at Wil.

“No wonder we did not recognize them. They aren’t new students. They’re the Professor’s officers, yes? Some of them are aspiring [Generals].

Wil smiled. He stared at the retreating group, who had fled after Merrik’s Skill ran out.

“They’re all officers. They could have used [Strategist] support; that Dwarf used up his Skill in a battle they’d already won. Some of the others may join them.”

“Wait—look. Jekilt’s already doing that.”

The Gnoll pointed. In the rapidly changing orb, the two saw their classmate. Jekilt was leading a band of nearly fifty fighters through the city, fighting to link up with the others. Wil nodded.

“He must have called on a part of a company. Maybe his friends he keeps talking about.”

The Centaur was fighting with the Iron Vanguard, but like the others, he was moving fast. There were more students popping up around the city, but even combined, they had only a fraction of the Iron Vanguard’s force plus the Forgotten Wing [Soldiers]. But by the same token, the Iron Vanguard couldn’t use all of their soldiers without leaving the plaza exposed. Wil and Feshi looked at each other. The Gnoll bared her teeth.

“So you were right. What now. Do we go above?”

“Not yet.”

Wil’s eyes were fixed on the scrying orb. He glanced up through the slits in the root cellar’s trapdoor. And then he looked at Feshi.

“Listen to those Drakes. They’re fools twice now. They’re acting as if this changes anything.”

Feshi smiled crookedly.

“I agree. This is our teeth we’ve bared. But that Tulm, he has not used a single Skill. And I think—we had better keep hidden until we see what he can do.”

Wil nodded. Then his eyes flicked to the scrying orb.

“It looks like the Professor will give us a chance to see just what we’re up against.”

 

—-

 

Foul!

Niers shouted cheerfully. Samile the Watcher stopped shrieking as half a dozen [Mages] caught him mid-fall and gently lowered him to the ground. He sat there, breathing hard, looking quite flushed. The Titan stood on his dais and shouted into the scrying orb.

“That was fairly lethal! But in fairness’ sake, I’ll say that there were few ways to take that adventurer out that weren’t lethal! Either give him a Ring of Featherfalling or no one goes up there!”

He pointed at Samile. The adventurer nodded vigorously. Then the Titan sat back down and continued watching. From atop Teura’s head. The half-Elf coughed pointedly but politely.

“Lord Astoragon. Do you have any comments? I understand our [Commentators] and our audience would like you to speak some words. We have four hundred and twelve [Message] spells directed at you—”

She winced as Niers jumped off her head with a sigh. The Titan adjusted his hat, kicked over his folding chair and footrest, and the bowl of nuts. The audience watched as he cleared his dais.

“Very well. If Wistram insists, I suppose you could twist my arm into it. Now, as for that last encounter. I’m pleased to see my officer classes are paying off. The Dwarf is Merrick, a fine [War Leader] rather than a formal military class. I understand he fought several brisk battles in the mountains against Trolls before coming here. Rather hasty with his Skill, but as you can see he is indomitable against a lower-level class of officer.”

Niers gestured towards the scrying orb as he paced back and forth. The [Mages] desperately tried to recall the image of Merrik. The scrying orb flicked to Sir Relz and Noass. The Drake cleared his throat.

“Ah, so would you say this Dwarf is a contender for—”

The Titan spoke right over the Drake, loudly drowning him out. He gestured towards himself and the feed was replaced by him once again.

“A fine stalwart lineholder capable of reversing the odds in any army. As for Kelsa and Romin, they’re clearly adept at taking the fight to the enemy in that quintessential Centaur charge, although I’ll note that both were handicapped without their weapons. Romin uses a lance you see—quite impossible to use nonlethally when he charges.”

He chuckled. Teura opened her mouth, but Niers pointed and it snapped shut. The [Mage] glared, affronted, as he went on.

“And Kelsa usually had blades on her staff. Both ends; quite deadly too. I forget what she called it. As for Peki, her style speaks for itself. As far as aerial commanders go, I consider her my best. It reminds me of the time she executed a rather splendid raid by air during a training exercise. With twenty Garuda she managed to defeat a force of nearly a hundred, ironically by using nets—”

Perorn watched Niers strut about, recounting his story as both the Drakes and Teura tried to cut him off. But it was too late. And now the Titan was calling out his students by name as they appeared on the scrying orb.

Wonderful deflection by Jekilt there. But he is a [Captain] and he can easily divert a charge. You see, it’s impossible to take him with a similar number of unled soldiers. Hah, well, even a [Captain] of the same level might struggle to do it. See how he’s leading his troop down that alley? He hasn’t spotted the Dullahans, but his [Dangersense] plus his intuition skill, [Battlefield Awareness] is letting him outmaneuver the enemy. He may have other Skills, but I’m afraid that’s his business. Nevertheless…”

He knew each student. Their quirks, their abilities, and their strengths. And the Fraerling was cheerfully shouting into the scrying orb, broadcasting his praise across the world. You couldn’t pay for a better endorsement.

“Pay for publicity. There’s a new thought. I had to kill enemy [Generals] and monsters to get my name out there.”

The Centauress murmured ruefully. She watched Niers, her earlier vexation at him completely forgotten. Because he was playing another game, below his cheerful support of his students. What was it he always said?

“Tell a story, Perorn. History is a story. And stories win hearts, more than any speech.”

It was all about stories. And here was one now. The world had seen him appear and nearly crush Niers’ students. Tulm the Mithril, one of the most powerful Dullahans in the world. You would bet he would win if you just looked at the odds. But would you? If you weren’t part of the Iron Vanguard, if you weren’t a Dullahan—no, even if you were, who wanted to root for him?

Look at Cameral, his hiding place discovered, throwing Flashfire Dust into the eyes of a [Mage]. Look at a Dullahan girl, wrestling with a [Soldier] twice her size, throwing him, getting away. Children vs adults. A new generation vs an old one.

Tulm the Mithril. Call him Tulm the Villain. Because he wasn’t the one who should win. Every species was represented here, or nearly. Dwarves, half-Elves, Humans, Drakes, Gnolls, Garuda—so many species. No matter who you were, you had someone to cheer for. And across the world, Perorn thought they were.

“Show us victory. Show us you can beat the Mithril.”

She looked at the scrying orb. Then Perorn’s head turned. She saw Tulm standing at his impromptu war room, snapping orders. He appeared unruffled. But that was only a façade. He was irritated. The Wistram [Mages] crowding around him, asking questions didn’t help. He was not used to this. And worse, someone was making comments every few seconds.

“Agh! And that group of Dullahans going down the alley is jumped by Xelic and Sillk. Ah, Sillk, one of our [Rogues]. A splendid takedown of the Dullahan leader. Foliana would have been proud. Are you watching, Foliana? Ah—I would like to mention that Sillk is one of our officers in training. We do not and have never operated an [Assassin] training school, contrary to popular opinion.”

“Would you swear that on a truth spell, Lord Astoragon?”

The Fraerling paused.

“I hardly see the need to. Anyways, as I was saying, wonderful ambush. A shame Tulm, my prized student missed it. Really a pity, but no one’s perfect. And he’s not serious yet. Ah, and there goes another patrol. Tragic, tragic…he might consider bringing them in now that my students are going on the offensive, but I trust his strategy.

He turned and gave the watching audience an unconvincing smile. Perorn laughed. It was the twinkle in his eyes. She saw Tulm stiffen at his table; he had a scrying orb to listen to as well. Or rather, a scrying mirror. Orbs were tricky and broke and rolled about. Perorn didn’t know why people loved the damn things.

Still, the Titan’s voice was just that. A voice. Niers Astoragon had given his word not to interfere, let alone use a Skill. You could tune him out. It was just psychological warfare. If you ignored it, it didn’t have an effect on you.

And if you believed that, you didn’t know anything about the Titan. Perorn watched. And she waited. And if she could have heard Wil in his root cellar hiding spot, she would have agreed. Anyone who thought Tulm was rattled, that he was losing or unprepared was a fool. The Dullahan looked up as Perorn stared at him. And the audience around Niers, laughing at a joke the Fraerling had told at one of Tulm’s past mistakes as a student went quiet.

A cold wind blew. No—it was a wind that had no basis in air. It blew only through flesh. It touched only bone. Freezing. And he stood straighter.

Like a statue that consumed light and gave only a silver glow. With eyes that shone in the day. And the sea of calm that had drowned even the Titan of Baleros. The ice that had crippled Fleethoof.

Tulm the Mithril turned. He bowed towards Niers once and placed his head on his shoulders.

“You were right, Professor. I suppose I must do my best.”

That was all he said. He turned.

“Call them back. Xol takes the north, I will lead the south.”

The Dullahan standing next to him blew a horn. The Midnight Shields stood taller as Tulm walked past him. He looked around and the Dullahans standing in the plaza looked at him.

“The Midnight Shields will hold this ground. Four hundred of the Iron Vanguard holds these streets. The Forgotten Wing’s [Soldiers] form hunter packs of fifty. Form up in companies of two hundred and disperse the rest as independent patrols. Wait for my mark for targets.”

Horns blew. The [Mages] raised their hands to their temples. Dullahans fell into ranks, their painted armor gleaming in the light. Tulm walked down their ranks. He stopped in front of his chief [Mage].

“Activate the Screamer Dust.”

“The—”

Perorn inhaled. And then she saw the [Mage] move his fingers. He whispered a word. A single incantation. An activation phrase.

And the world began to shriek.

 

—-

 

What’s happening!?

Umina and Marian heard the air began to vibrate. And then the vibrations turned into a hum. A shriek of noise that split the air, louder and higher-pitched than any cry. In their root cellar, Wil and Feshi were deafened by the noise. The Gnoll’s ears were bleeding as she tore herself out of the cellar.

Hiding in the water by the harbor docks and the remains of his boat, Luan saw the Centaur and Lizardgirl staggering out of their hold. The [Sailors] backed up, shouting over the noise. But it was intense! The two [Strategists] shouted at each other, and then the Lizardgirl pointed to the water. She dove and the sound faded. Marian did the same and Luan saw the two treading water. The ringing in his ears faded and he heard the Centauress, still shouting, paddle towards the water.

“What in the name of horse shoes was that?

“Screamer dust! We must have gotten hit by it! But I have no idea when—

The Lizardgirl was shouting too, rubbing at hear earholes. Then her eyes widened.

“The plaza! Remember those [Mages] throwing something? Feshi was sneezing—oh, Nagas! We all got hit! Listen!”

She grabbed her friend. Luan could hear it too. The dust or whatever had been causing that noise had washed off the two in the ship, but across the city the sound was echoing. Hundreds of students were flushed out of hiding. And the waiting soldiers pounced on them before they could wash their dust off.

“That dirty, cheating—

The Centauress swore with words Luan had never heard before. They sounded like horse expressions. ‘Salt licking coward?’ He almost laughed, but the look on her face was bleak. The Lizardgirl nodded. Then her eyes widened.

“Hold on. One’s getting nearer! It’s—”

Luan saw a huge, bellowing figure sprinting down the street. Right at him. The [Rower] dove just in time. Venaz plunged into the water, flailed about, and then swam to the docks. He heaved himself out of the water, cursing.

“Underhanded. When I get my hands on that spineless—”

He broke off as he saw the two looking at him.

“Marian! Umina! So that’s where you two have been. I should have known. You got doused as well?”

“We were hiding here! Where have you been?”

The Minotaur shook his head. He wiped water out of his eyes, casting a glance up the street.

“Never mind that. We need to move. Now. More students will be trying to get here. And the damned [Soldiers] are sure to have heard us. I passed a patrol of Forgotten Wing soldiers on the way here.”

“You idiot, Venaz—”

“If I had my plan in place—”

You!

All three turned as Luan heaved himself out of the water. The [Rower] glared at Venaz. He stomped towards him. The Minotaur brightened.

“Ah! Perfect!”

“Where were you? And what is going on? I did not get paid for—”

The Minotaur was holding his hands out, completely unapologetic and reaching for his bag of holding. Marian was staring at Luan. Umina was looking at neither. She glanced up the street.

“Oh no. Here they come!”

She pointed. Luan saw a patrol of Dullahans, Centaurs, Lizardfolk, and Selphids charging down the street. Three Humans too. Venaz swore. Marian pointed.

“This way! Plan B, Umina! Follow me!”

She grabbed the Lizardfolk girl and tossed her onto her back. The Centaur galloped down the docks as the [Soldiers] pointed and gave chase. Venaz turned to Luan.

“My bag!”

“My money!”

“No time.”

The Minotaur glanced around. Luan backed up, but Venaz didn’t bother with the bag. He grabbed Luan and like Marian, tossed all six feet plus of the [Rower] over his shoulder and took off. Luan swore and tried to break free, but Venaz was thundering along. He followed Marian as the Centaur wove and changed streets. The howling was still in the air. And then the Centaur halted.

“What is that?

A wall of dark grey fog was coming towards them. Venaz stared as Marian backed up. Umina pointed.

“That way!”

“Put me—”

Luan bounced about and nearly bit his tongue. Then he heard a door slam. A flurry of voices, Venaz’ outraged tone and then a horrible smell. Luan twisted as he saw a huge opening into darkness. He realized what it was as Marian half slid down and shouted.

“Whoa, whoa, wait—”

Too late. He was tossed down the outhouse’s receptacle into the communal septic tank. Luan wished he could have landed on his feet. He did not. Worse, the ‘floor’ was liquid and it went up to one ear. The [Rower] got up immediately then something splashed his face. Venaz had landed. The Minotaur uttered a bellowing oath as the privy closed and the Lizardwoman shut the toilet lid. Only a sliver of light entered the communal tank. Luan sensed something with a very big body and four legs getting up next to him, making incoherent whinnying noises. Then there was a flicker of light.

“[Light].”

A very small orb appeared in Umina’s claws. She held it up and looked around. She was standing knee deep in—and Marian, Venaz, and Luan were covered in—

The [Light] spell went out. It was better that way. Luan tried not to breathe. Venaz spoke in a controlled voice.

“Where are we?”

Umina’s voice quavered. She spoke brightly, opting for cheerfulness.

“Uh…a communal waste pit? You see, Lizardfolk cities don’t have sewers. Too many things grow there. But we need to get rid of waste. So we dig these spots and empty them with uh, [Nightmen]. Or [Nightwomen]. Although that’s an antiquated term that comes from Terandria with Humans, you know? The class is usually [Scourer], which sounds so much nicer. Or [Hauler] is a good generic one, because, you see, these have to be emptied. Or [Digger]. In fact, people in this line of work have to be good at digging, like the woman who runs this pit. We should be grateful she let us—”

“Umina. I’m going to murder you if you don’t shut up.”

Silence. After a second, Venaz spoke.

“I wish to leave. Now. Where’s my bag of holding?”

“…Are you talking to us?”

“No. The Human. Luan the Runner.”

“I am going to murder you, you damn Minotaur.”

“Oh. Uh, hello.”

“My bag of holding. Then we can be gone.”

“Where’s my money?”

“Hold on. I have it here. Hmph. I suppose this calls for a tip. Hold on. Let me just—”

“…Well?”

“Hah. Life is full of surprises. Would you believe I dropped my money pouch? Hold on, it might be in here.”

 

—-

 

The mists rose. Thick and dark, like iron dust. The air grew heavy. Perorn felt it dragging at her legs. Her body.

You couldn’t run in it. It sapped energy. Sight became difficult. And these mists were worse. Magic began to fail in them. Lesser spells ceased.

An army could die in the mists. An army had died in the mists. Perorn remembered the darkness, fighting alone as her army lost maneuverability. Was cut to shreds. Because the mists only affect his enemies. The Iron Vanguard strode through the mists as the shining figure walked at their heads. She heard him as he passed her by. Tulm’s voice echoed in the dark plaza.

“[Battlefield – The Cold Iron Mists]. [Legions of Steel].”

The Wistram [Mages] choked. Perorn saw a desperate flare of magical light; a clear space opened around Teura. The [Mage] desperately held the mists back, but only in a radius around herself. She was sweating. And the screaming filled the air.

“Screamer Dust. He must have—earlier—is—fair—?

The voice from the scrying orb was distorted. But Perorn had no eyes for the orb. She stared at Tulm. His Dullahans marched past her. And their bodies were—steel. Not just their armor, which looked thicker, but their skin. As if Tulm had given each one of his [Soldiers] an Ironskin Potion.

“Bastard.”

She croaked as he passed by, coughing in the mists. She knew the students had to be affected too; the mists were rolling through Daquin. Tulm could fill a battlefield with them.

The glowing figure stopped. A head turned and silver eyes pierced through the mist.

“As I recall, the Professor used to say there was no such thing as cheating. Only intelligent preparation. Or does that only apply to his current students?”

Perorn had no answer to that. She just coughed. Tulm walked past her.

“Xol. Take your company north. I will catch the students from the south. From there, we hunt down those caught by the Screamer Dust that the patrols do not capture. The remainder will be found or the time shall elapse.”

“By your order, Mithril.”

A giant walked through the mists. Perorn staggered blindly towards the shapes. Unfair. That was what she wanted to say. You couldn’t let someone like this fight against the students. It wasn’t fair. This was a Skill she had lost to. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t—

“Perorn.”

A voice stopped the Centauress. Niers stood on his dais, in his circle, lost in the darkness. The Titan looked so small as she bent to speak with him.

“This is insane, Niers. How can anyone fight this?”

The tiny man looked up at Perorn. He reached up and grabbed her finger.

“Believe in them, Perorn. My Fleethoof.”

“I do. But—”

Perorn coughed. The mists were lightening. Teura was standing taller, gritting her teeth, banishing the fog around her. The air in the plaza lightened. Perorn stared at the half-Elf as she bent, panting. Niers raised his eyebrows.

“…I somewhat regret standing on her head now. That was impressive.”

“Thank you.”

The half-Elf wiped sweat from her eyes. She looked up at Perorn and gasped. The scrying orb had gone dark. Now it flickered to life, showing the Titan and Perorn. Teura’s voice rasped from it, a double of her voice as she spoke.

“What now, Titan of Baleros? Can your students handle this?”

Everyone was silent. Looking at him. Niers Astoragon stood small in the scrying orb, as the mists covered the city. The world waited with bated breath. The Midnight Shield turned their heads, waiting. And the Mithril strode through the city, leading thousands to crush hundreds. Students coughed and fought to breathe and see.

And the Titan of Baleros looked up at the sky as the mists threatened to engulf the sky. And he sighed. And smiled.

“Yes. How many times do I have to say it? Yes.

He pointed up.

“Your [Mage] on the watch tower. Have him take control of the spell. And look around. Probably towards the harbor. I think one of my [Strategists] is cornered there.”

Teura looked up. A Garuda [Mage] levitating in the sky next to Samile raised her wing. The scrying orb flickered. And Perorn saw a city engulfed in dark, roiling iron. As if Tulm had torn down a cloudy sky and filled the city with it. She heard a gasp from the people around her. But she saw the mists had not fully engulfed the city yet.

They were slowly rolling down towards the harbor, the most distant point in Daquin. And sure enough, there was a young man standing at the docks. Wil. The young man was dripping as the [Mage] enhanced her vision. And standing in next to him, aiming a wand which blew apart a group of [Soldiers] slowly advancing down the docks, was a Gnoll.

“Feshi too. And a wand with a wind spell. Good lad. He’s generous and thinks of contingency plans.”

Niers smiled down at the image as Wil turned and hurled an orb that exploded and covered the area with fast-hardening mud that became as strong as stone in a second. The [Soldiers] still came on. Perorn stared down, willing them to run. They could at least dive! Or break through! But the Gnoll and the Human held their ground.

“Lord Astoragon, what—”

Niers held up a hand. He closed his eyes. And Perorn saw a flicker of moisture as the Titan rubbed a finger across his eye.

“You see, he doubts himself. And he’s always questioning his place, I think. A good attitude to have, but he underestimates his strengths. Except when he’s on the field. Then he shows me that steel. That spine that the Kallinad family possess. Unwavering. Unyielding. And brilliant. And he’s my best student in logistics, bar none. He can plot a company’s course across a continent by the differences in their supplies, if you can believe that.”

“Lord As—”

“Shut up. He’s early. And so are they. But they can’t have missed it. And Wil was always willing to improvise. So here they come. Look. In this moment, Wil Kallinad is my best student.”

He pointed. And Perorn saw it. At first, it was only a flicker in the waters. The confused [Mage]’s gaze was fixed on the wrong place, on the dark harbor. But then she noticed it. And looked up. And Perorn saw the view shift up, going to clear skies.

The sun still shone. Beyond the dark city filled with clouds, the sky was clear. And the sun, slowly beginning to set in the east, illuminated the shapes on the water.

Ships. They sailed towards the port, white sails billowing, running with a wind that blew against the darkness. The black vessels of the Iron Vanguard held their ground and the Dullahans on the docks called out, firing warning spells over the port. But the warships never slowed.

Four of them. Four, to match the Iron Vanguard’s six. Smaller, perhaps, but not by much. And they sailed ahead, crewed by [Captains] without fear. Drowned Men. [Storm Sailors]. The wind blew on their backs as they shot towards the gaps in the blockade, filled by nets to capture smaller vessels.

The Iron Vanguard’s navy tried to turn. Tried to cast spells. But too slow. Too late. The first warship crashed into the prow of one of the warships and the stern of another and sailed through, cracking through the thick wood. The other three ships sailed through the gaps, sending Dullahans [Sailors] tumbling into the water.

The boats surged towards the port. Towards the dock with Wil and Feshi. The [Soldiers] trying to apprehend the two had stopped to stare. A fist of fifty Iron Vanguard [Dullahan] led by a squad of [Riders] had joined the Forgotten Wing soldiers. They halted in place, watching the ships surging towards them. And they didn’t slow. The Dullahans backed up. The Forgotten Wing [Soldiers] fled.

The first warship crashed into the docks, sending wood splintering. It ran aground, the hull missing Feshi and Wil by less than a dozen feet. The Gnoll stared up at the ship. Then the side of the ship fell outwards. A ramp opened, exposing the ship’s belly.

“A transport ship?”

Perorn whispered. The gangways fell down, wide enough to drag a wagon down. And out they came. Rank after rank of gleaming [Knights] already mounted on warhorses. Their armor shone. They carried padded spears and practice swords. Weapons meant for tourneys. Jousts.

A game. The second warship hit the docks, slower, but ran aground and began unloading [Knights] as well. [Archers] on the decks shot blunt arrows at the Iron Vanguard unit, forcing them back.

“There are a thousand members of the Iron Vanguard here. Tulm could bring his ships to the harbor, perhaps, but it’s now occupied. Two thousand of the Forgotten Wing are also under his command. In case you ask, I gave Wil no instructions. No hints. I certainly didn’t tell him how many soldiers to bring. I will swear that on any truth spell in the world.”

The Titan’s voice was the only sound in the world. Perorn just stared down at the harbor. Hundreds of [Knights] were riding forwards. And behind them [Squires], simple [Cavalrymen] and [Cavalrywomen], [Footsoldiers], [Archers], and even [Storm Sailors].

The crew of the ships leapt off the decks, whooping and fighting the [Soldiers] with fists and improvised clubs. [Mages] teleported off the ships or walked onto the water, already throwing magic at the iron mists.

But that was the backdrop. The tableau, the moment of forever was the first [Knight] who’d charged off the ship, leaping her horse off the deck rather than wait for the gangplanks to go down. Perorn saw a flash of brown hair, a helmet falling. And an arm, reaching down to Wil as the [Strategist] reached up with a smile on his face.

“Who is that?”

“That would be his sister. Lady Talia Kallinad. [Summer Knight] of the Order of Seasons. And that is her order. And the Kallinad’s personal army. And the banners of a dozen other noble families too.”

The Titan wiped at his eyes. He looked old as he stood there. Old and as happy as Perorn had ever seen him. He sat down, watching as Wil pointed ahead and his sister broke away from their embrace.

“Full marks, Wil.”

The army of Humans formed up. And as Tulm the Mithril turned his head and listened to the report shouted at him and slowly raised a hand to cup it to his ear, the darkness hanging over Daquin lifted. The sun shone through for a second. And Wil, standing next to a wide-eyed Feshi, looked at his sister. She bowed.

“Your command, Sir [Strategist]?”

He took a deep breath. And he pointed as the [Knights] raised their padded spears.

Charge.”

 

6.21 D

“Hey. Did you do your homework today?”

“Of course. And it was a pain. What about you?”

“As if I’d turn up today without having done it. Look. See here?”

It was a curious phenomenon. An odd system. As immortal in its own way as mountains or geography. Somehow, despite magic and monsters and the passage of time, society still conspired to bring it about. And that strange thing was called school.

Worlds over, it was the same. As people progressed, as ideas became facts and theories and methods codified, institutions of learning would appear. Erin and Ryoka and those from her world knew of school as a part of life, but in other places, school wasn’t such a basic pillar of existence.

In Baleros, no, in the world, there were fewer places to learn. Oh, you could learn to swing a sword or hammer, or even pick up one of the more mentally challenging trades wherever you went. Apprenticeships were common as dirt. But places where people sat in classrooms and learned from people whose sole job it was to teach? That was rare.

The Academy of Wistram. Belchan’s [Mage] Schools. The Draconae Scholarium of Fissival. To name but a few places. [Mages] had more colleges than any other class, perhaps owing to the complexity of magic. But there were other institutions that had been created that were just as notable.

For instance, the Walled City of Manus trained officers, leaders in the field. Terandrian kingdoms had training programs where [Squires] trained from a young age to become fully-accredited [Knights]. Similarly, if you wanted to learn [Fencing], there were training schools there too. And if the life of an [Assassin] called to you, well, there were darker, private schools too. Places where children were trained in poison or forced to learn to become killers—or die in the training.

But all these places of learning, cruel or voluntary, prestigious or infamous, shared a commonality. They were schools, and there existed a relationship between teacher and student, class and pupils that seldom existed anywhere else in the world. Where else could you wake up and know what your day was, if only in general? Where else was life systemized, learning turned into a process experienced en masse? Nowhere.

And still, some things were the same no matter where you went. Regardless of how hard it was to get into some schools, the great honor or privilege it was to have the money or talent to reach Wistram Academy or the libraries of Fissival, you’d meet students who showed up every day with their homework done, and those who clearly resented the effort. It was still a pain to be taught for some, and they took little away despite the time spent.

Unless you liked what was being taught. Unless what was being taught mattered and your teacher was…a genius. One of the greatest authorities in the world. Then you showed up early, and you obviously did your homework. Because you had fought tooth and claw and nail to get here.

“Look. Here’s my homework.”

Marian yawned as she sleepily trotted towards the citadel from the city streets. She was holding a large fang. It was huge, yellowed, jagged at the end; as large as the Centauress’ arm. And around the base, despite the tooth having been cleaned, Umina could still see a bit of flesh. In short, it was a freshly acquired tooth, and the Lizardgirl hoped that whatever had owned the tooth was very dead. Or it would be quite, quite upset.

“Ooh. That’s nasty. What’s it from?”

“Guess.”

Marian smiled down at her companion. Umina was a Lizardgirl with pink-and-yellow scales, a pattern running from the violet frills around her neck to her long tail. Unlike Drakes, the Lizardfolk of Baleros were smaller, thinner, and possessed more vibrant patterns than Drakes, who were usually monochrome.

They had frills of skin around their necks which could raise in moments of excitement, but were usually kept folded, a sign of their connection to their primitive relatives. And Lizardfolk were certainly unlike Drakes in that they were, by and large, much more friendly. They were laid back, cheerful, and enduringly social.

It was wrong to generalize, but Drakes were known to have inherited their ancestor’s greed, tempers, and snappishness as a whole. Whereas Lizardfolk like Umina were curious. The smaller Lizardgirl peered closely at the tooth as Marian held it lower.

The Centaur had to trot slowly and Umina had to hurry her steps for them to keep the same pace as they walked towards the citadel. The sun was still rising and Umina yawned as she studied the ivory.

“It looks like…an Armorgator’s tooth? One of the giant alligators that lives in the water?”

“That’s right. I thought it was a crocodile, though. Aren’t they the same family?”

Umina shook her head. She blinked at the weight of the tooth as Marian handed it to her. The Lizardgirl whistled as she imagined the mouth that must have given up this tooth. If the tooth was the size of her elbow up to her claws…she imagined a twenty foot-long beast lurking in one of the huge rivers of Baleros and shuddered.

“This is a boat killer alright. And it’s definitely an alligator, Marian. Crocodiles live in salt water.”

“Oh. I had no idea.”

“That’s because your people live on the plains. Far away from water. Trust me; it’s an important distinction. Alligators and their kin aren’t nearly as aggressive as crocodiles. Although both are quite vicious and if one got to be this big…I hope it’s dead.”

The Centaur smiled.

“It’s dead alright. I wouldn’t have dared bring this in unless it was. What, do you think I’d cheat?

She tossed her head a bit and her long hair flicked in the morning’s breeze. Much like a horse would toss their head. And the look Marian gave was slightly offended, even though she and Umina were fast friends. A Centaur’s pride, that. Umina shook her head instantly.

“Not at all. And I have my homework right here. Want to see?”

“Sure. What did you get?”

“This.”

The Lizardgirl fished in her belt pouch and offered up a handful of quills. Sharp, thin, and long. Umina could handle them with a bit of care due to the scales on her hands, but she cautioned Marian.

“Careful. They’re sharp.”

The Centaur took one look at them and snorted softly.

“Sorry, Umina. But are you serious? Those come from Scattershot Porcupines. Honestly…porcupines?

“They’re a threat. And you know what the homework was.”

“I suppose. But…”

“Let’s just see what the Professor says.”

Umina refused to let Marian’s skepticism sway her. She put the quills back in her pouch as Marian took the tooth again. It was indeed an impressive trophy, but Umina wondered if the Centauress had understood the point of the Titan’s homework. What he wanted from you often differed from what he told you to do.

The Lizardgirl and Centaur trotted up the hill towards the palace. They were walking along the streets of the city that had been built beneath it. But the citadel was the thing. It was worthy of any [King], but it didn’t house royalty. Rather, it was the seat of power of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros—the Forgotten Wing company. And it was also a school.

Soldiers were on duty at the open gates. But it was students, hundreds, who made up the foot traffic at this early hour. Some citizens too, but aside from the staff—and for a citadel of this size, there were a lot of employees—the streets mostly belonged to those who had come here to learn strategy from the world’s greatest expert on the subject.

Some of the city folk waved at Umina, especially the Lizardpeople; they were used to the sight of the student’s daily commute. And indeed, a lot of the business of the city was designed to cater to the students, from lodgings to inns to a very profitable business selling ink and paper. Umina and Marian waved back as they trotted into the academy.

Some of the other students noticed them, but aside from a few nods of acknowledgement, the pair was left alone. They were…different. And they headed to a different place than the other students. While a majority flowed towards some classrooms, or outside to the large training grounds reserved for students, Umina and Marian went up.

“I wonder how the others have done?”

Umina reached the third floor with Marian and headed straight for the end of the hall. The citadel was indeed a school, but it had reserved the lower floors for education. The higher floors were reserved for housing its inhabitants, war rooms, armories…and it was naturally off-limits to regular inhabitants. Go any higher and one of the guards would stop you. And the third floor was fairly empty too; only the advanced students ventured this high up. And a room at the far end of the hall was Umina and Marian’s destination.

A small classroom with a lectern opened up for the Lizardgirl as she walked in, holding the door open for Marian. It was more of a lecture hall than a classroom to be honest; a semi-circular set of raised seats, like slowly rising balconies, let the students look down on whomever was standing at the podium. The podium was absent of a teacher at the moment, and the students were clustered on the ground in front of the seats.

The best part of the Titan’s school for [Strategists] was that it was exactly not like school in all the right ways. Or at least, this class was. Umina looked around at the students gathered in the small classroom. There were just under fourteen of them. And like her and Marian, they had all shown up early. And they had all done their homework, or tried, at least. Some had clearly failed, but they had made their best effort.

That was because this school, the Titan’s school, wasn’t like other academies. It wasn’t Wistram, where the [Mage]-students were known to have outrageous parties, or other institutions like some of the Terandrian [Knight]-schools that sometimes cropped up in the news with stories of disgraceful conduct by the would-be [Knights] as they turned from children into adults. No, this was a school that expected adults. You came here to learn, not to grow up. And if you didn’t apply yourself as hard as you could, you had better just leave.

That went double for this class. This group was infamous because it was the Titan’s private class. The one that followed him on campaign, that took daily lessons from him. Everyone who was here had either paid an outrageous sum or had won entry by being gifted beyond all the other students. Sometimes both. In the citadel with its population of eight hundred or so would-be [Strategists] at the moment, everyone in this class was recognizable on sight. Especially the ones who stood in the center of the room, talking quietly.

Venaz the Minotaur. Cameral, a Dullahan. Yerranola, the class’ only Selphid. And the Human from Terandria, Wil. Umina and Marian joined their group, along with Jekilt, a short Centaur with darker skin.

He was a [Commander] who’d enrolled in the school and was older than the other students by a decade. Even so, while he was with them, he was a [Strategist]. And he didn’t talk down to the six standing with him; they were equals, if not in age, then experience. Because this class was a competition, and all of the students, not just the seven, were competing to stand out.

“Morning, everyone. How was your homework?”

Marian yawned as she trotted over to the others. It wasn’t a casual question either; it had been a week since she and Umina had seen the others. They had all been on the road for the last week. And their homework had been a rather impressive assignment. The others were bearing trophies like Marian’s horn and Umina’s quills. Well, most of them.

“Naturally, I succeeded in my task.”

Venaz, the Minotaur, turned and snorted. He was holding a rather impressive pelt in his arms; it was huge and as he unfurled it, Umina saw it was a huge bear’s hide. The Minotaur smiled smugly.

“Mossbear. My team eliminated it and two others. What of you, Marian?”

“Oh, I don’t know. All I have is this tooth.

The Centauress smirked as she showed the giant Armorgator’s tooth. Umina smiled as Venaz’s triumphant look instantly turned crestfallen. That was Venaz. She looked around.

“Hi Cameral. Yerranola.”

“Hello, Umina.”

The Dullahan nodded politely. He was holding a rather large mana core in his hands. Yerranola smiled. She was wearing a dead Lizardman’s body, but Umina thought of her as female. She waved a huge scale at Umina.

“What’s that you’ve got? Quills? My team managed to bag a giant carp or something. Not my best showing, but the Professor might not yank my head off for it. At least I have something. Better than poor Wil and Jekilt.”

She indicated the other two. Umina turned. Jekilt was pawing the ground restlessly. He flushed.

“You needn’t have spoken, Yerranola.”

“Don’t be mad. Jekilt.”

The Selphid teasingly smiled. She looked at Wil and her smile wavered. The Human was looking at his crisply-cut leather boots.

“Aw, don’t feel too bad, Wil.”

“I’m ashamed.”

He spoke quietly. Umina looked around. The other students had proof of their homework too, with one other exception. She looked at Wil and Jekilt.

“What’s wrong? Did your teams not finish their mission?”

“Mine quit. It was a sensible choice, but…a failure’s a failure. I regret choosing them now.”

Jekilt pawed the ground, looking annoyed. He glanced sympathetically at Wil.

“As for Wil…better he explains.”

“Wil?”

The young man shook his head. He was a [Lord], and as such, and because he was Human, he was more fully-dressed and better dressed than anyone else in the room. Umina had noticed Humans liked to cover a lot of their bodies; compared to her light clothing or Cameral, who just wore his steel armor, Will was fully dressed in a dark blue tunic and leggings that wouldn’t have been amiss at court. Whereas Marian and Jekilt only wore clothing on their upper bodies. And Venaz…well, he was dressed, but somehow, the bare-chested Minotaur seemed as fitting as clothing for him. He was glaring at Marian as she needled him.

“Three Mossbears, Venaz? You could have done better, I’m sure. My Armorgator was over twenty feet long. More than enough to swallow a Mossbear whole, I bet.”

He snorted angrily. Yerranola rolled her eyes.

“They’re already getting into it before class.”

She looked at Umina. The Lizardgirl shrugged helplessly. Marian was her best friend in class, but the Centauress and Venaz got along like fire and oil. In that when you put them together, they tended to combust. Venaz snorted as he clenched one fist.

“If I’d been allowed to take part myself or lead the team—it’s quality that counts, Marian. Quality. You and I were both assigned Silver-rank teams.”

“And I did better. Come on, admit it.”

“The Professor will judge us. Where is he, anyways?”

“I saw him outside. We’re going to meet with him soon, I think. We just…”

Cameral cut off. The other students looked around as the door opened. A Centauress trotted into the room. But she wasn’t one of the students. She was in her mid-forties, had a pair of spectacles, a slight limp on her back right leg, and a scar on her right flank that reached down to said leg. But she moved swiftly and the students immediately stopped talking and looked at her.

“Miss Perorn, good morning.”

Cameral and two of the Dullahans present immediately took off their heads and inclined their head with their hands, a Dullahans’ bow. Marian and Jekilt inclined their torsos as well. Umina didn’t, but that was because there really was no need. It was just that the Dullahans felt the need to show the courtesy and the Centaurs respected the teacher who’d just come in. Perorn, the Centauress, walked past the podium and turned.

“Good morning. I won’t keep you long. This morning’s class is cancelled as Lord Astoragon has another class to teach. A new group of potential students has arrived, and he intends to lead this morning’s class. Thus, you will leave your…homework…here and head straight down to the training grounds. I will inspect your results first, however. Please present your results if you have them, or give me a short verbal report in front of the class.”

She gestured at Venaz. The Minotaur immediately stepped forwards and showed her the Mossbear pelt.

“A trio of Mossbears. I contracted the Silver-rank team, Thunri Dwarves, to deal with them.”

Perorn had a clipboard. She noted down Venaz’ details swiftly.

“I see. Any casualties?”

“None.”

“Thank you. Please place the pelts…here. I suppose Niers—Lord Astoragon—will want to inspect them later.”

Perorn sighed and indicated a space behind the lectern with one hoof. Venaz placed his pelt down carefully and Marian stepped up. Umina and the others got into line. She was near the end and noted Wil was right behind her. He looked downcast.

“It’ll be okay.”

“You haven’t heard what happened.”

“Next?”

The line moved fast; Perorn asked only for basic details. Umina showed her the quills.

“Scattershot Porcupines. I had the Bronze-rank team assignment.”

Venaz looked disbelievingly at the quills. Marian sighed and Yerranola raised her brows. Umina knew how it looked. Scattershot Porcupines were not a threat. Oh, they could fire their quills, which turned the already dicey business of getting near a porcupine into a positive threat, but they were hardly able to kill in most cases. But Perorn only noted down the detail. She glanced up.

“I see. The name?”

“Uh…they didn’t have one.”

The Centauress paused. Her eyes flicked up to Umina. And a small smile crossed her stern face. She also had a scar running down one cheek, but it was nearly invisible except if you were up close. Healing potions usually covered most injuries anyways.

“Ah. I’ll note that. Next?”

Umina laid down her burden on top of Venaz’ Mossbear pelt, which was being used to hold most of the trophies. She felt encouraged by Perorn’s smile; she might be right after all! Then she turned to watch Wil step up. He was, of course, empty-handed. Perorn gave him a severe look.

“Lord Kallinad, do you have anything to present?”

The young man flushed and Umina winced as Wil Kallinad, one of the two Humans in this class, shook his head. He looked miserable, even more so than Jekilt and Yerranola had been.

“I do not, Strategist Perorn. The adventuring team I contacted failed during their mission.”

Perorn adjusted her spectacles as she stared down at Wil.

“To what extent?”

He hesitated.

“Six out of the nine adventurers perished, Miss Perorn.”

Ooh.

Umina’s gasp was part of the class’ groan out loud. Marian leaned over.

“Wil was told to hire a Gold-rank team, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah. I guess they got beaten. The Professor’s going to chew him out about that!”

The Lizardgirl shuddered. Perorn stared at Wil, then made a short note on her paper.

“I see. Thank you. Well, that’s all for me. I’ll leave this here—”

She flicked the clipboard onto the lectern and turned.

“Follow me. I’ll take you down to Lord Astoragon. My class is on the way.”

She trotted out the door. The others followed her, abandoning the paper and quills they normally brought along. If they were going outside, notes would just get dirty. Umina walked after Marian. The Centauress and the other students formed a group that followed Perorn at a respectful distance. Marian looked slightly aghast.

“Miss Perorn came here just to take notes and lead us? Surely someone else could have done that. A [Servant] could have done the job!”

“She likes making sure things are done. Remember when we saw her taking over for one of the [Tacticians] one day?”

Umina shrugged. Marian grumbled as she trotted a hair faster.

“But still. It’s her. I know we have the Professor around all the time, but…her?”

The Lizardgirl nodded. She understood the feeling. She watched as Perorn trotted down the Centaur ramps as opposed to the narrower stairwell. Perorn was a teacher, but she didn’t have the [Teacher] class. Rather, she was one of the instructors that the Titan employed out of his own company; Perorn was a [Strategist] in the Forgotten Wing company, a figure of renown in her own right.

Umina had studied three of her campaigns in class—the Centauress was fifty one, had slain over sixty enemy [Generals] and leaders in combat, fought for three years in Rhir against the Demons, and even taken down a small army of Trolls and other giant humanoids during the Mountainkin Incursions eight years back! If you knew [Strategists], you would know her name. Perorn Sadiluc, or, if you wanted her nickname, ‘Fleethoof’.

And here she was, teaching a class! But that was just how this school operated. It brought in famous [Strategists] to teach classes, rotating them in as these famous officers in the Forgotten Wing company returned from their duties for well-earned vacations. Sometimes one would stay to give a talk, or lead some students on a practical lesson for a day or two.

Other times they might be here for a month, or an entire season. And they were always battle-hardened veterans. And why not? The Forgotten Wing Company was filled with the best [Strategists] and warriors in all of Baleros. And the greatest [Strategist] of them all, Niers Astoragon, was the student’s main teacher! You sometimes forgot that.

On the way down, the small group of students passed by a few classrooms. These were far larger than the ones on the third floor and held many students, sometimes as many as a hundred. And the teachers weren’t as illustrious as Perorn, but they were good at their jobs. Umina heard a shout as she passed by a room on the second floor; she stared inside and saw a Dullahan roaring at a room full of students.

“Today you’ll be learning how to direct specific units in the field in the midst of a battle. There are a number of ways to do it, but regardless if you’re using flags, horns, magic, drums, or any other signal, you must be able to signal everything from a squad to an entire battalion to maneuver, brace, engage the enemy, set up pikes, retreat—don’t bother writing this down! You need to have this memorized; no one’s letting you read your notes when a bunch of [Riders] are charging your left flank! There will be a test in three days, and if one of you missed a single basic order—”

She winced as she saw the students fumbling with their quills and rolls of parchment. Marian tsked softly as she stared into the lecture hall.

“They must be pretty new if they’re learning basic commands.”

“Maybe it’s an officer training course. Three days. Yikes. I remember having to learn horn calls and getting them confused with drums. Old Rustarmor there will chew them to bits and spit them out.”

Umina shook her head. She peered at the grizzled Dullahan, who had earned the semi-affectionate name Rustarmor by his students. Despite his armor being free of rust; it was the dark red coloration he’d chosen to paint his armor that gave him the nickname, much to his displeasure.

Venaz snorted as he took one look into the room and tromped on by. The Minotaur was the tallest member of his class, bar none, and only Marian came close to his height.

“Idiots. If they can’t memorize the instructions in a day, why bother becoming [Strategists]? They’ll only be third-rate if they can’t even train their minds to memorize basic horn commands.”

His voice was deep and booming and Umina winced as the Dullahan inside paused to glare at the passing students. Venaz didn’t lower his voice for anything. Marian slapped Venaz on the back as some of the students in the class rustled like offended ducks.

“Don’t be rude, Venaz. Some of the students are quite young. They can hear you when you insult them in public, you know.”

“Good. Next time I’ll raise my voice so all of them get the message. They came here to learn. This isn’t Wistram or some place to be coddled. I’m glad I’m taking part in the Professor’s instructional lesson with the new students. I enjoy this every time it happens.”

Venaz rubbed his hands together, grinning unpleasantly. Marian sighed, but turned and deliberately walked in front of Venaz, showing him her behind. He stepped out of her way, grunting irritably; the sound of both his and Marian’s hooves clicking on the floor was the only sound for a moment.

“So, anyone here read the latest installation of that [Strategist] from Liscor? You know, Olesm whatshisface?”

Umina spoke up brightly. Yerranola chuckled and Cameral nodded.

“I paid for an early edition. Why? You read it too?”

“I got ahold of one. Just the [Message] spell; I hear there were maps, but I didn’t get sent one. Mind if I borrow it?”

“Oh, sure, sure. But I bet the Professor will have something to say when he reads it. Have you read it, you lot?”

The Selphid looked around. Venaz shook his head.

“I didn’t think it was worth paying for. Why? Has he included more chess strategies? The Professor’s only interested in that new game, Go, anyways.”

“He’s got chess and Go and something else. Actual strategy! He wrote his analysis of the Siege of Liscor.”

Really?

The other students looked around. They were, after all, [Strategists] as well. Yerranola grinned widely.

“Yep. But his analysis…I’m not going to say he’s wrong, but you have to read it. I’ve got a copy ready to show the Professor if he hasn’t read one yet.”

“I bet he has a copy himself. There’s no way he wouldn’t.”

“Yes, but he might not have read it yet. And let me tell you, when he does—”

“Just spit it out, Yerranola! Cameral, what does it say?”

The Dullahan was frowning.

“It was about Goblins. You see, this Olesm Swifttail seems to think that Goblins saved Liscor. He even went to go as far as to say they might actually be potential allies, not monsters. He cited several Hobgoblins and a tribe that—”

“He said what?

Venaz’s voice made Perorn turned around. The [Strategist] glared at the Minotaur.

“Quiet. My class is up ahead. You all proceed down to meet Lord Astoragon. In silence.”

Her look made the Minotaur flush. Perorn stepped into one of the advanced classes and the rest of the students followed her, keeping silent until they reached the first floor. The Venaz whirled on Cameral, Yerranola, and Umina.

“Someone wrote that? Show me the article. This is outrageous. If that idiot thinks—Goblins? I’ll write in myself to tell him how idiotic that notion is.”

Umina raised a placating claw.

“Don’t worry, Venaz. You’re not alone. I think half the [Strategists] on Izril will be kicking down his door, never mind the ones overseas. I don’t know what possessed this Drake to write it, though.”

“I just want to see what the Professor says.”

Yerranola chuckled. Venaz calmed down a bit, but he stomped ahead, angrily muttering about idiots. Marian looked at Umina.

“You’re still keeping tabs on Liscor? Or just that chess magazine thing?”

The Lizardgirl swished her tail idly. She noticed some of the others looking at her sidelong.

“Just a bit about Liscor. The Professor did have his big lecture on the siege, remember? And there’s that dungeon…mind you, I’m more interested in Chandrar at the moment. Remember the King of Destruction’s announcement a few days back? Now that’s going to be huge news. I bet the Professor brings it up first.”

The others nodded and Umina sighed internally as they began to discuss the dramatic events from a moment back. War in Chandrar. But that was normal. Liscor on the other hand…she noticed Marian smiling at her and pretended nonchalance.

That was the thing. Marian was her best friend, but they were still students competing to be…well, the best. Umina would graduate from Niers’ school sometime, and hopefully it would never happen, but maybe she’d one day face Yerranola across the battlefield. Or Marian. Or…anyone.

Even Niers Astoragon himself. This was school, but it didn’t mean life stopped. Umina was already trying to get any advantage she could for when she graduated, and a hint about the Titan’s interest in Liscor—or an inn—was an advantage Umina wanted to keep to herself.

She didn’t want to ever face Marian in a situation that meant life or death. But some secrets were secret.

“And here we are. Looks like Miss Perorn was right. It’s a new class of students.”

The group of students reached the outside at last. The first thing Umina saw was a large collection of people, lined up in the morning sun and the slightly muddy cleared area that was used for practice skirmishes and other activities.

They were Lizardfolk, Dullahans, Centaurs, but also species from across the world. Humans of course, but Drakes, Gnolls, even a Garuda! Half-Elves, no Dwarves, but that was hardly surprising…Umina didn’t see any Gazers either, but the assembled students accounted for most of the world’s species.

“New students. I forgot this was the time the Professor accepted new students in. Damn. I hope they don’t take up too much time.”

Jekilt looked annoyed by the group. Umina got why; they were new applicants to the Titans’ school. They’d paid to come here and receive lessons, but most probably had only a few levels in the [Strategist] class. They might aspire to be [Lieutenants], [Generals], [Strategists], or what have you, but they’d come here green as grass and that meant they’d be wandering around, asking stupid questions, and most importantly, getting in the way. But Umina was sympathetic.

“We’ve all been there, Jekilt. Except you, I guess; you were a [Captain] when you got here. But they’ll learn soon enough.”

The Centaur snorted.

“That’s not what bothers me. It’s the arrogance. Especially from the young stallions, Humans, and those Drakes.”

“Hey.”

Kissilt, one of the Drakes in the class, protested mildly. Jekilt looked at him.

“You disagree? Your lot strides in and thinks that you know everything. I’m not saying Drakes are the worst; Centaurs are just as bad. But those Humans…”

“True.”

The Drake looked mollified. Wil, one of two Humans in the group, blushed a bit as the others looked at him.

“I can’t defend that. But it’s not fair to say all Humans, Jekilt. It’s Terandrian nobility I’m afraid you’re thinking of. That includes me.”

“But we like you.”

Yerranola threw an arm around Wil’s shoulders. He shuddered because the Selphid’s hug was literally like being hugged by a corpse.

“Thanks, Yerra. But I’ll admit a lot of the Terandrian aristocracy doesn’t handle Baleros well. Especially uh, dealing with non-Humans.”

“You Humans.”

Jekilt snorted again and pawed the ground, but Marian cut in.

“How many are from Terandria, Wil? I can’t tell.”

She cast an eye at the Humans waiting about in the sun. There were a lot of young people, some as young as…sixteen? The bulk were younger than thirty, and there were only a few as old as Jekilt, career soldiers perhaps who had the money to pay for lessons. Most of the Humans were young, in their early twenties or late teens.

Umina tried to guess how many were Terandrian as well, but aside from the quality of clothes, it was an enigma to her too. Wil was more experience and ran a quick eye across the group before shrugging.

“Looks like your usual lot. I see at least a dozen applicants from Terandria. There might even be a member of the royal family.”

“Really? Where?”

The students stared at the young man Wil pointed out. Umina caught a sharp nose, a quickly turning head…the Human in question was shorter and slimmer of stature, more like a Lizardfolk. Wil grimaced.

“That might be the son of Taligrit’s royal family. Third [Prince]. I don’t know.”

“Your people pop out so many heirs…”

“Well, it’s an advantage, isn’t it?”

“Only if they level. How much better is a [Prince] than a [Lord]?”

“Why are we waiting about? Where’s the Professor?”

“Bet he’s going for a showy entrance. And why did he want us to come down here?”

“It’s the usual, the usual, remember?”

Oh.

Umina’s eyes widened with some of the others. So that was—then she heard a blare of trumpets. Her head turned with all of her class and the new students. And that was when she saw him.

Or rather, she saw the [Servant] carrying him. It was a Selphid who bore a large platform, really an elevated table with a small top nearly six feet high. And Umina was too far away to see, but standing on top of that table was a figure. The new students stared at the table, and then as it grew closer, they blinked as they saw it had an occupant.

Yes, here he was. The Titan of Baleros. At first the students stared. Then, some of them, especially the ones not native to Baleros, began to snigger. The older new students, especially those who looked like actual soldiers, didn’t laugh. The others clearly thought this was a joke.

The Titan of Baleros! That was who they had come to see. It was for him they’d sailed, sometimes across the world to learn from! And what was this? A Fraerling? One of the tiny folk? But he was called the Titan of Baleros. And it was him standing on that platform.

What all the stories usually forgot to mention was that the Titan of Baleros was a Fraerling. The smallest people in the world; only a foot tall. He looked like a Human, except shrunk down; standing and addressing this new class, he was barely visible from a distance. Niers Astoragon even had to use a voice-amplifying artifact for his words to be heard by those in the back.

“Good morning!”

The students stopped laughing. Some looked up. Niers Astoragon, second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing company, the Titan of Baleros and the Professor as he was known by his students, waved a hand.

“Silence, please. Yes, I apologize for the delay. However, we’re ready to begin. If you’ve just arrived, let me introduce myself. I am Niers Astoragon. The Titan of Baleros as some know me. You will know me as your teacher for however long you’re enrolled in my school.”

There were some chuckles from the audience. But the rest had caught on and some were staring. They were realizing that no, this wasn’t a joke. This little fellow…was the Titan? Really? Umina watched their expressions. Niers went on.

“I realize some of you are tired from your travel. We have students from other continents. However, as is customary, you will all receive your first lesson here. You have all come to learn from my school. To become [Strategists], or simply achieve an officer’s class. I intend to start you on that process now. With a brief combat exercise. You’ve been issued helmets and weapons, haven’t you?”

Umina saw the students had a yellow helmet; some had placed it on the muddy ground, which was a mistake. And they were wearing armor and holding weapons…some raised them now. The Fraerling might have nodded, but few people saw.

“Excellent! In that case, we’ll begin. You may know that my school has a reputation for mock combat exercises. You will all take part in them as you study here and even experience this fake combat yourselves. I intend to provide you with a little sample of said combat, although I myself will not participate directly. As you can see, helmets do little for me.”

There was a laugh from some of his audience. The Titan didn’t seem to mind. He cheerfully stood on his platform and Umina felt a prickle on her scales. He was being too nice—when he’d done this to her group, two years ago—

“Some of you are soldiers, and some have even experienced battle a number of times. The rest of you come from places that might not have ever seen war. That changes today. You have all come here, some at great expense, I know. But if you cannot handle today’s first lesson, you will be sent back!

The students stiffened. That was a departure from what they’d expected. But Niers’ voice cheerfully shouted on.

“I have only a few demands of you. But this lesson is one of them. You’ve heard it said that I can take anyone, anyone, and turn them into a [Strategist]? I can. But only if they have the will and drive to do it. If you lack that basis—there’s nothing I can do. If you can, my promise stands.”

He paused there, and all the eyes fixed on him. Niers Astoragon spoke slowly.

“Five levels. If you are under Level 30, by the end of your training here, you will gain five levels. In a single year. That’s for the basic course where we hammer you into functional officers. If you stay for two years, four, or even six, you will emerge even better. That’s my promise. And I stand by it.”

The restless students standing in the muggy heat and sun went still. Five levels. In a year? Maybe if it was from Level 1 to Level 6, that would be a safe bet. But Level 20 to Level 25? But it was a common claim. And it was one of the reasons why Niers’ school was so popular. The Titan’s voice floated through the air, calm and serious.

“I have raised [Strategists] out of [Farmhands]. I have made [Generals] out of people without even a level in [Soldier]. If you have the will, I will teach you. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy. But you can achieve any class you wish if you strive for it. Take a look to your left. You see that group there? That is my most senior class.”

The group of a hundred or so new students looked over at Wil, Umina, Marian, and the others who were waiting in the shade. Umina waved as did Yerranola and some of the others; the rest just waited patiently. They’d heard this speech before. They’d stood through it. Niers pointed at them, a tiny shape standing on his dais.

“Regardless of how they entered, no one in my advanced class will exit below Level 30. If you have the aptitude, the talent, or just the drive, you may be inducted into their ranks, regardless of tuition. The coming months will determine if there are any of you who make that cut. But today we find out if any of you are going to stay. Venaz!

He roared and the new students jumped. The Fraerling turned towards Venaz. The Minotaur hadn’t moved.

“Professor?”

Niers pointed at him.

“Today’s lesson is one for the new students to see what battle is like. They should understand what the [Soldiers] experience when they are led into combat. Thus, I am giving you command of an army. The students will be part of your infantry; my soldiers will not be allowed to harm them! You will also receive training troops in excess of mine. Try to keep your side alive and defeat my army, will you?”

“As you wish, Professor!”

The Minotaur grinned hugely and strode forwards. Marian groaned and Umina felt a prickle of disappointment. She wished she had been chosen. The new students stared as Venaz strode forwards. Then they looked around. They were going to be part of an army? And take part themselves? Umina saw the worry on the would-be [Prince]’s face until a young man next to him nudged him and said something reassuring. She saw the [Prince] nod, looking relieved. She could imagine what was being said.

The Titan—if he was the Titan—had said that they’d be fighting? But they weren’t allowed to be hurt. So what was the risk? They’d see combat, alright. Maybe show off some of their sword Skills! Most of the students looked excited by the idea, as if they’d forgotten they were here to be [Strategists], not [Warriors]. Umina shook her head.

“Oh, you sweet, poor, hatchlings.”

Yerranola nodded cheerfully.

“They’re dead. Let’s find somewhere to sit and watch. Anyone have something to drink? Oh, look! Here come the training soldiers! Wow, the Professor’s called out a lot of them!”

She pointed. Figures were marching onto the training grounds, holding weapons and wearing no armor save for a metal breastplate that covered only their chests. Umina recognized them at once.

Selphids. Umina watched with interest as some of the Terandrian and a few of the Izril and Chandrarian students recoiled from them. The pale-skinned warriors moved with as much grace as their living counterparts, but their bodies were dead. Some bore the fatal wounds they’d taken; the others were unmarked. But this was the army that formed up on either side of the field. Venaz eyed his command and shouted; he was far away from the watching students and Niers, but he had a field roar that made the students in front of him wince.

“Aren’t you underestimating me, Professor?”

“Not at all! Do your best, Venaz!”

Niers’ voice cheerfully came back. Umina saw a group of Selphids surround him, carrying halberds and spears. It was a familiar situation. Like Niers had said, they were engaging in a war game. With live soldiers.

Well, sort of.

The thing about [Strategists] was that you couldn’t teach experience. And playing games with boards and figures was fun and you could level, but Niers Astoragon promised to train experienced [Strategists] who actually knew how to lead. Which meant that he made his students command actual armies in battle. But what if there was no handy war to be had? Well, then he had his training squads.

Over a thousand [Soldiers], [Mercenaries], and even Bronze-rank adventurers found employment at the Titan’s school. It was cheap pay and you might get bruised, but you could level up. Because you’d be issued with blunted weapons and you’d fight in formation, obeying a [Strategist] or officer’s commands, but actually fighting your opponents. Bones would be broken as two sides fought in various terrain, flanking each other, demonstrating different tactics—people got hurt.

And if one side lost badly, there could be serious injuries. Usually it wasn’t bad thanks to the practice weapons, but the Titan had let it be known that anyone who was hurt by accident would be healed with a healing potion or compensated for an unhealable injury. And despite the risk, there were no shortage of volunteers for his war games. It was better than getting hurt in actual combat.

Still, there were those more suited for fights than others. And Selphids were the perfect species for mock battles. After all, their bodies were dead. They lined up, cheerfully shouting greetings at the Professor or Venaz; taking their ease as they formed into distinct units to be commanded. Umina saw Niers directing his army as Venaz surveyed the units he’d been given.

The advanced students retreated to some stands that had been built to let people view the battlefield from a height. There were some regular citizens in the crowd; to the city folk, watching the Titan’s war-games was excellent, free entertainment. Niers’ students settled into a spot high up by themselves as they talked. Yerranola shaded her eyes as she stared down at the battlefield.

“I see what you mean, Jekilt. Those Humans and Drakes are giving my people a lot of dirty looks. Looks like none of them have ever seen a Selphid before.”

“To be fair, there are more Selphids on the field than I’ve seen in my entire life before now.”

Cameral commented placidly. Wil nodded. He was peering at the battlefield with a pair of enchanted spectacles. Umina nudged him and he offered her it to look.

“Aside from the Eyes of Baleros, the Forgotten Wing company employs way more Selphids than any other major company. Especially because they’re so useful in training exercises.”

Marian snorted softly.

“Well, they’re going to be more use than those new students. They can take orders. Look at Venaz. See how angry he’s already getting trying to make them form up?”

She pointed. The Minotaur was indeed bellowing orders and the Selphids were smoothly moving into place, but the students were a disorganized rabble. Jekilt shook his head.

“They might be a disadvantage unless Venaz gives them a simple order. At least they’ll slow the Professor’s troops down.”

“Hah. Do you think Venaz would give any other order?”

The others chuckled. Jekilt grinned.

“True. Umina, what’s the numbers on each side?”

The Lizardgirl called out as she surveyed Niers’ side and Venaz’s, watching the formations charge as both [Strategists] sized each other up.

“Forty [Crossbowmen], twenty [Riders], sixty [Soldiers], and a small command of about ten fighters including the Professor himself. Against that, we have…the students, which are about a hundred being protected by eighty [Soldiers]. Venaz also gets sixty riders and a personal command of about thirty plus himself.”

“Huh. So Venaz has a lot more numbers, and more [Riders], but no ranged. Sounds like your kind of matchup, Marian.”

“Probably why I’m not taking part. Unless the Professor’s going to use his Skills, he’ll be hard-pressed to keep those horses off his archers. Think Venaz will win?”

Marian frowned at the battlefield as she held out a hand for the spectacles. Wil shook his head steadily.

“He’s going to lose. It doesn’t matter that he has double the Professor’s numbers. The students he has are worthless and the Professor’s got range on him.”

Umina frowned.

“You don’t know that, Wil. The Professor never sets up a battle against us he can’t lose. He says it’s no fun. If Venaz charges him with the [Riders] just right…”

“We’ll see. Oh, look. They’re starting!”

Yerranola pointed excitedly. One of the [Trumpeters] had blown a blaring call to arms. The audience in the bleachers sat forwards as both armies jumped into motion. The instant the horn blared, Venaz roared an order and his [Riders] shot forwards. The infantry advanced, closing the few hundred feet at a walk at first, which would soon accelerate into a run. Marian made a disgusted sound.

“He’s just going for a charge. Look, he’s aiming straight at the Professor’s archers!”

“Hey, let me see! You’re right…but I mean, what else does he need to do? Hold on—look!”

The Selphid pointed excitedly. The crossbows in Niers’ army had instantly opened up, firing at the [Riders]. Umina saw the unit swerve to dodge as Venaz shouted; she wondered if he’d used a Skill or if their leader had just anticipated the bolts. The training soldiers were allowed some autonomy even with orders; they wouldn’t charge blindly into fake-death.

“Here they come! The Professor’s dropping a few, but…what’s he going to do? Is he pulling his infantry back, Yerra?”

“No. I don’t think—they’re advancing. And the riders are heading straight for—no, look! He’s sent his own riders in!”

The twenty mounted Selphids were charging straight at the sixty or so coming at them. Umina inhaled sharply. They were going to collide! Selphids or no, that many horses dying would be tragic! She saw Venaz pointing and shouting; he was giving the order to charge! Jekilt growled in disgust.

“Typical idiot—he’s going to lose half his riders and maim all those horses!”

“But he’ll get to the crossb—no! Look!”

Another volley of crossbow bolts flew up. Venaz’ riders stumbled; Umina saw several stop in place. The riders didn’t tumble from their saddles as the bolts struck them; they weren’t tipped with metal. Neither did the horses get hurt, despite the volley of projectiles.

The horses wore protective headgear, as did the riders. When the painted crossbow bolts struck them, the [Riders] would dismount if the horse died, or give up completely if the horse and rider were struck. And more were downed, but the rest were coming on; Niers’ crossbows were clearly being operated by people without [Archer] classes. Then Umina saw the horses swerve right, and then into Venaz’ riders.

“Look at that! Here they go!”

Horses reared and swords began flashing. The Selphids on horseback fought carefully, but Umina heard more than one animal cry out in pain. She felt for the horses, but the Selphids on horseback were taking each other to pieces. And Venaz’ charge was fumbling. Half the riders had to turn to fight the ones attacking them. And the crossbows were reloading…the rest were coming on…

“They’re going to hit his archers! They’re—oh, look!”

Yerranola shot up in her seat. Wil plaintively called for the spectacles, but she was pointing and everyone saw the sudden change in the crossbows as the forty Selphids tossed their weapons down, bent into the mud and picked up something.

Spears! It was a feint! They’re his infantry!”

Yerranola laughed as suddenly, the cavalry found themselves heading right for a wall of pikes and spears. It was too late to turn back; riders were committed. Rather than actually hit the horses with the very real spears and pikes, though, the leader of Venaz’ [Riders] slowed the charge. Umina heard a cry.

“Horses meet pikes! Casualties: total! Twelve of pikes for Lord Astoragon fall!”

The riders guided their mounts off the field. Meanwhile, Venaz’ remaining riders had cleaned up Niers’ riders but found a group of pikes charging straight at them. They tried to disengage, but although they outran the pikes, they found the true archery unit had reclaimed their weapons. A volley picked off all but the stragglers and they too exited the field.

Umina grinned with delight as she watched Venaz practically hopping with rage from his side of the battlefield. All throughout the stands, the audience was laughing and some were heckling Venaz. Cameral was shaking his head with his hands.

“That fool. He should have noticed those were fake [Crossbowmen] the instant that first volley landed. He was gambling on the fact that the Professor wouldn’t expect a full-charge, but of course he did.”

“To be fair, if he hadn’t done that, Venaz would have forced the Professor to ward his archers and expose his command while his infantry got into range.”

Umina pointed out Niers’ command where the Fraerling was presumably issuing orders from. Venaz’ larger command was advancing now, with the rest of his infantry. Marian winced; the crossbows were reloading and Niers’ infantry, just under fifty, were moving forwards in a line.

“Yikes. The Professor took out all of Venaz’s horse, but he’s still outnumbered two to one. Think those crossbows will even the odds?”

“He can get off at least three volleys…and he’s aiming for the regular soldiers. What do you think, Umina?”

The Lizardgirl watched as the crossbows volleyed the first rain of bolts at the students.

“I think Venaz is in trouble, numbers or not. His Selphids are falling like flies. And as for the students…remember what it’s like?”

Her classmates nodded. They watched as the infantry streamed across the field. They were a ragged formation, actually slowing down the Selphid [Soldiers] as the bolts rained down around them.

The new students raised their shields as the [Selphid] soldiers around them screamed and shouted, advancing under the hail of crossbow bolts. They had helmets on, but—Umina remembered her first lesson vividly. You were advancing through the mud, with Selphids screaming in your ear as crossbow bolts fell around you. And they hurt! They were wooden bolts with powdered paint tied to cloth balls for the tips, but that was still a painful strike if it got you between the armor.

But that wasn’t the scary part, oh no; she didn’t see any of the students running despite the intensity of their advance. The really horrific moment came next.

Charge!

Both Niers’ and Venaz’ forces had finally closed the gap. Venaz had left a lot of his Selphids behind, but the students were on their feet. They hadn’t been told to lie down even after being struck by bolts. And they clearly wanted a fight after being pelted with the painted crossbow bolts.

And both sides had real weapons. Steel glinted. The students charged with a ragged yell. The Selphids on both sides shouted. But Niers had the advantage in numbers now, students notwithstanding. The first rank of his Selphids charged into Venaz’ soldiers.

And they began to hack them to pieces.

Umina winced. The first two to meet were a Selphid wearing a Gnoll’s body and a Selphid Lizardman holding a glaive. The glaive-wielding Selphid swung as the Selphid with the Gnoll’s body charged with a sword. The glaive cut through the Gnoll’s arm and he screamed as blood spurted from the wound. He dropped and the Selphid with the glaive hacked at his legs, drawing blood, chopping through flesh, bone—

The students wearing yellow helmets paused in horror. A Selphid charged forwards and another ran him through the belly. He fell down, screaming and writhing and another soldier hacked at his head. It took six strikes, and the soldier finally yanked the head up by the roots and screamed. He hurled it at the students.

“Oh dead gods. They’re using that fake blood.”

Umina saw blood spurting from wounds as Selphids on both sides began to hack at each other. Both groups of soldiers clashed in earnest, trading actual blows; Umina saw metal hacking into flesh, exposing bone. The blows were deadly! The Selphids took aim at each other, screaming as if they were actually fighting.

Not the students; anyone with a yellow helmet the Selphids on both sides avoided. And indeed, some let themselves be run through with the weapons as they fought with students. Their chest plates protected the centers of each dead body where the Selphid inside would be resting, ensuring that a fatal blow to the Selphid was never struck. But that meant limbs, heads, and other parts of the body were free game. And both sides let each other have it.

The shrieking Selphid with an axe chopped another Selphid’s head off and the defeated Selphid’s body collapsed, spurting some painted red water as the Selphid with the axe screamed happily. He whirled and Umina saw a terrified new student from Terandria screaming and raising his shield as the Selphid hacked at it. One blow, two, three…the Selphid let the student run and chased him, screaming—

And laughing. It was a game for the Selphids. They weren’t being hurt. This was just their host body. But the students had forgotten that. And faced with actual gore—Umina could remember what she’d felt. She’d been in their shoes.

Look. There, a Selphid was dragging out the guts of another [Soldier], and another was hacking at a dead body as a group of students fled, screaming in terror…the students around Umina were laughing, but it was tinged with a bit of memory. Umina pointed at a student who’d just frozen in place as Selphids from Niers’ army butchered Venaz’ force around him.

“I think I peed myself when that happened to me. I had one Selphid on my side holding onto me, screaming in pain and waving a bloody stump of an arm around…”

Hold your ground! Hold!

One of the Selphids under Venaz’ command was shouting desperately, trying to rally the students. And some were fighting; the ones with actual combat experience were dueling Selphids, who were taking care not to hurt their opponents. But the majority of the hundred were running for the hills. The city folk in the stands were in stitches, enjoying the spectacle. Mindful of what Niers had said, Umina looked around.

“It doesn’t actually matter if they hold their ground, right?”

Wil shook his head. Embarrassed, he rubbed at his neck.

I ran when it happened. All of us did; we got routed when the Professor sent some of his [Riders] to hack up our group. I think it’s only if you ask to go home. But I imagine a lot will after this.”

Umina stared at a student hiding behind a dead body as the [Soldiers] from Niers’ side pursued the rest, still screaming their lungs out. She wanted to imagine all the brown on the new students was mud.

“I don’t doubt that. Dead gods, I forgot how much the Selphids screamed.”

Yerranola sighed as she watched her kin pursuing the routing students and Selphids from Venaz’ force.

“It’s to make it as real as possible. Besides, they’re having so much fun. It must be great, working this kind of job. I’m so jealous.”

“Really, Yerranola?”

The others looked at her. The Selphid [Strategist] nodded wistfully.

“Free bodies if you get yours destroyed, you can Rampage when you’re doing a training exercise and not worry about busting up all the muscles in your host, and you get respect, pay, and the chance to beat spoiled students over the head? It’s any Selphid’s dream come true.”

“Well, they’re all due for a new body thanks to Venaz’ tactics. The Professor really must have shook him; he got his infantry butchered without so much as using a Skill.”

Marian nodded. She snatched the spectacles and peered around.

“Where’s that idiot got to? He’s oh, hold on! Look at that!”

She pointed. Suddenly, Umina saw a group moving forwards, despite the routing infantry. It was Venaz and his command unit of thirty. He’d advanced around the main body of his infantry, using them as a shield! Now his remaining [Riders] streamed towards Niers’ infantry, cutting them off as they tried to turn and block them. But Venaz and his thirty-some soldiers were charging. Straight at Niers’ command unit!

“It was all a decoy? Look, he’s going for the Professor! Will the crossbows get him?”

They hadn’t noticed Venaz’ group in the chaos of the students fleeing. Umina saw a command go out and the archers turn. But it was too late.

“Look, they’re firing—but now it’s too close!”

Venaz was leading his command straight at Niers as the crossbow bolts fell around him. Eight or so of his thirty soldiers went down from the sudden volley, but the rest made it. And now it was a melee between both sides and if the crossbows shot, they’d risk hitting their own side!

“Dead gods! It’s ten vs thirty! And the Professor can’t fight!”

Alarmed, Marian stared through the spectacles. The laughter in the stands had ceased. Umina got to her feet.

“Wait, what if he falls. If they trample him—”

“He’s got magical artifacts, right?”

The others clustered around Marian, trying to squint and see the distant commotion that was the last fight on the battlefield. Marian shook her head urgently.

“He does, I’m sure. But does this mean…Venaz won?

The others stared at each other. Niers had lost training exercises before, but it was rarer than a blue moon when it actually happened. Had Venaz’ last-ditch gamble worked? Umina couldn’t believe it. This was such a simple exercise! Both sides hadn’t employed any Skills or real tactics; it was just to teach the new students a lesson. But had Venaz really…?

Then she heard a voice, roaring across the battlefield. Amplified, loud as anything—

Volley!

The crossbows rose. Umina’s eyes widened. They took aim.

“They’re shooting at the Professor’s command?”

In disbelief, Marian exclaimed. The bolts flew and cut down the Selphids fighting between Venaz and Niers’ command units. Selphids on both sides lay down, shouting as they pretended to be writhing in agony. Umina saw Venaz turning his head in disbelief. And he was staring at the wooden dais, knocking it over, snarling—

“He’s not there!”

Umina watched as the second volley cut down Niers’ troops and Venaz’s. The ranged unit reloaded and fired again, and the Selphids obligingly lay down. A third volley took out the rest, until only a single Minotaur was left standing, furious, painted with the colors of a dozen crossbow bolts.

Hold! Battle’s over! Hold!”

The shout went up across the battlefield. The remaining warriors put down their arms. Umina laughed in delight as she suddenly got it. Cameral, Wil, more than half the group was smiling. Marian’s eyes widened as she stared at the unit of archers with the enchanted spectacles. She chortled as well.

“Excellent! Venaz is never going to live this down.”

She pointed. And as Umina and the others leapt down the stands, they saw him. The Titan. He was standing on the helmet of one of his Selphids. The Titan bellowed cheerfully, waving his arms.

“The battle’s over! Training soldiers, stop harassing my new students, please!”

The female [Arbalest] whose helmet he was using waved at her fellow Selphids in the distance as the students ceased their panicked flight. Across the battlefield, the ‘dead’ Selphids were getting up. Those without legs or with bodies too damaged to stand were helped up by their comrades as they laughingly slapped backs or squirted out the rest of the colored ‘blood’ their bodies were carrying.

It was over. And just like that, the students realized the blood-covered [Soldiers] chasing them with actual weapons were just acting. The Selphids stopped running and laughed, pointing at the new students. Shamefaced, they turned back. Niers’ voice reached them across the field.

“I see you’ve mastered the first lesson any [Soldier] learns: when to run away! Come on back now, and we’ll have another talk. Anyone with injuries, raise your hands and our [Healers] will be with you in a moment! As for my colorful Minotaur—”

There was a laugh from the stands. Niers turned to face Venaz. The Minotaur was stomping towards him, ignoring the cheerful Selphids around him.

“Venaz, wash yourself off! The rest of you, gather in our classroom for a debriefing. I’ll be with you in thirty minutes! Come on, you new students, pick up the pace! Enjoyed your taste of war? If you’re upset, remember that this is the least you’ll see on a battlefield. So rethink your decisions. And come forwards! Move those legs! Now, if you’re going to stay here…”

Umina walked off the field, smiling and shaking her head. She waved at Venaz, but the Minotaur stomped right past her, shouting for a bucket of water. The Lizardgirl looked back at the new students, who were looking up at the Titan as he addressed them.

Some of them were shaking. Others had actually thrown up during the fighting. Umina watched with a bit of sympathy as they gathered, shaking after that ordeal. They’d certainly seen fighting. Watching anyone, even a Selphid acting being cut to pieces by a sword had to be jarring. She turned as the others in her class began to walk back inside, talking cheerfully. They hadn’t been forced to take part.

“I expect we’ll lose at least twenty. None of the actual soldiers, obviously. Some will probably get to an advanced class fast. Did you see that Gnoll with the spear? He actually got two of the Selphids!”

“Clearly a [Warrior] of some kind. I wonder if he served in one of the Drake armies or he’s a tribal Gnoll?”

“Tribal. Definitely from a Plains Gnoll, not city.”

One of the other students waved a paw. Cameral turned to the one Gnoll in their group.

“What makes you so sure, Feshi?”

She bared her teeth.

“Aside from the smell I got from him? You can tell by his war markings. On his fur? No one from the cities would dare wear that.”

She pointed at one of the Gnolls among the new students who hadn’t run away screaming when the Selphids had been routed. He did indeed have some bright paint on his dark run. Umina squinted at Feshi; the Gnoll was one of the newer students to their class and she had white stripes and a curious pattern on her arms.

“You’ve got some yourself, Feshi. Is it a mark of status?”

The Gnoll [Tactician] grinned at Umina.

“Yes. Sometime I will explain it. But it will take too long now, I think. And here is Venaz!”

She pointed. The Minotaur was already back, his fur wet and dripping. It looked like he’d dunked a few buckets of water over his head. The others waved at him, and Marian trotted forwards, smiling archly.

“Venaz! Did you enjoy painting with the Professor? That was some beating you received!”

He growled at her.

“If it hadn’t been that damn mud—that’s twice now the Professor’s used hidden weapons on me! His Selphids came onto the field having already swapped their gear! If I’d have seen them do it—”

“—Then it wouldn’t be a surprise, Venaz. Honestly, you should have expected it.”

The Minotaur sneered at Marian, in too poor a mood for even an attempt at civility.

“What would you have done, tried to hit-and-run his forces? He would have chopped your riders up like the last four times he did it.”

Marian colored. She opened her mouth and Umina jumped in.

“I’m sure the Professor was expecting you to try for a charge, Venaz. This was a battle he was supposed to win, to give those students a taste of war. And you got his command. Let’s wait to see what he says, alright?”

The Minotaur growled, but he subsided and Marian didn’t poke him further as they went back to their classroom. There they milled about, chuckling over the battle and speculating over some of the new students’ aptitude. They didn’t have to wait long. Soon enough, a door set into the ceiling opened and someone walked out.

There were small doors set high up in each room of the Titan’s citadel. The Fraerling’s tiny walkways. And there were little ramps that let them walk down. The Fraerling marched out of the door and leapt—from his walkway to the lectern. It was a six foot drop, but none of his students so much as batted an eye; they’d seen him do it many times before.

“Good morning, class! And what have we learned today?”

The Titan of Baleros was in good spirits. He beamed at his class and especially at Venaz. They laughed as they took their seats. The Minotaur folded his arms and growled.

“To not trust the Titan of Baleros to fight fair?”

Niers Astoragon raised an eyebrow.

“I thought that was obvious, Venaz. But come, aside from my little trick, does anyone else have any observations?”

Marian snorted. The Centauress raised one hand as she took a seat, folding her hindquarters into the padded cushions designed for her people.

“I do. Venaz, this ‘lead from the front’ strategy you’re always preaching got your entire force wiped out. Again. Haven’t you learned your lesson by now?”

The Minotaur colored again. He swiveled in his seat and looked up at Marian with a scowl.

“Better aggression than cowardice. Or how would you have taken out a superior, ranged force? Danced about while they shot you to pieces? I knew the Professor had pikes. So I risked a frontal charge—”

“And then you got cut to pieces. You even missed the Professor when you attacked his command force.”

Marian taunted Venaz from her higher seat. The Minotaur opened his mouth furiously, but Niers forestalled another huge argument between the two.

“Marian. Thank you, you’ve made your points.”

The Centaur ducked her head at his reproving tone. Niers looked at Venaz.

“Do you have anything to say yourself, Venaz?”

Almost sulkily, the Minotaur folded his arms and looked down at the desk in front of him.

“If it were anyone but you, sir, my strategy would have been sound! Once I took out the enemy command, their army would be left without a leader. I could then rally my forces and retreat or retrench and win the battle.”

“But the crossbows—”

Venaz glared at Wil.

“I could block one volley with my [Arrowguard Formation] Skill! I didn’t use any because the Professor didn’t. And with his demise, we could have used the fallen bodies as shields.”

“But wouldn’t the crossbows still have—”

“Not if he was there!”

Venaz snapped. Niers looked at him and the Minotaur subsided. Niers walked up to the edge of his lectern and sat there, feet dangling over the side. He nodded thoughtfully.

“Venaz is correct that he would have taken out my command. And if this were a larger battle, all of my [Strategists] would have been killed, it’s true. If I were a [General], that would be a crippling blow, regardless of whether or not I personally escaped.”

He forestalled the Minotaur’s response with a tiny palm. Umina leaned forwards, listening as Niers looked around the room. His eyes met hers for a second and she caught his smile.

“However, knowing your opponent matters. And aside from the trick with the riders at the start…if it were me, Venaz, I would have sent my command forwards without going myself. And if I were you, I’d have taken those remaining [Riders] and charged the crossbow line instead of stalling my foot soldiers. You could have done a lot of damage if you’d gotten close enough. And you would have split their attention away from the fight at the command nicely.”

Umina saw Venaz blink.

“You mean, split my forces further?”

“Why not? You don’t need thirty troops to take on ten. Send fifteen to take out my command, stall with five, and send the remaining ten, your riders, and yourself to hit my crossbows. The horses can probably dodge in and stop them from picking you off…it’s a desperate gamble, but I think it would be a more efficient use of your soldiers. Either you win and decimate a large number of my crossbows, or I force you back. Regardless, I never get to shoot up your soldiers at my leisure.”

The other students digested that. Marian raised a hand.

“So you’re saying Venaz wasn’t aggressive enough, Professor?”

“Possibly. I hope Venaz can take my words to heart. I know he prefers a cautious strategy most of the time…”

Niers laughed, and after a second Venaz had to chuckle himself. The Titan relaxed, as did his students. And the classroom took on a different air from the lectures, or the shouted introduction Niers had given to the new students. In this room the tone was conversational, friendly. Intimate. Niers reached for a tiny wand and flicked it; he began drawing in the air, illustrating the battle with bright lines of color.

“I understand Venaz’ line of thinking, Marian. If he wasn’t going to retreat, he might as well gamble on doing enough damage. And Venaz would have been one of the highest-level fighters on the field. Lead from the front. There is a good deal of practicality behind the concept; a [Strategist] rallies the soldiers around him and if you’re confident in your abilities, why not regard yourself as a valuable piece on the battlefield?”

Venaz was nodding with a broad smile on his face. Niers raised a tiny finger.

“However, let’s not confuse practicality with culture. And there’s a lot of that in your strategy too, Venaz. I understand Minotaurs promote bravery on the battlefield. But it’s making your tactics predictable. And you know what I think about predictability.”

“It gets you killed.”

Umina chorused with some of the other students. Venaz drummed his fingers on the desk. He was searching for a response, Umina knew. The Minotaur was incredibly stubborn and refused to be easily swayed by anyone, even Niers himself.

“I understand that, sir. But there’s nothing wrong with having a style. Didn’t you say that high-level Skills develop as a result of your style? If I were to gain a powerful attacking Skill, like your [Charge of the Strategist]—wouldn’t I be remiss if I didn’t use it in battle?”

The tiny Fraerling smiled. He tossed the wand back on his desk as he spread his hands.

“I did indeed. And never let it be said that I underestimate Skills—if you’d used yours during the battle and I had not, you might have won, Venaz. But there’s knowing your opponent as well. Even the King of Destruction doesn’t use his best Skills in every battle; he adapts. And an unused Skill is one the opponent watches for the entire time. And again, if I know you’ll commit to every massive attack yourself, why shouldn’t I always keep an archer in reserve to aim for you?”

Venaz chewed that over for a second.

“I suppose so, sir. But consider my perspective as well. My people don’t respect a [Strategist] who won’t fight on the frontlines.”

“Then don’t fight every battle on the front, Venaz.”

“But what would be the point if I didn’t consider myself an asset, as you said, Professor? What if I just fought elsewhere, in say, smaller skirmishes as a feint—”

“Dead gods, Venaz! Stop arguing!”

From her seat, Yerranola hurled some fruit peels at him. The Minotaur growled, and the Titan waved a hand.

“I think your obsession with having to fight is the real issue, Venaz. But Yerranola’s correct. We can’t stick onto this debate; I’m tired of having it with you and I intend to discuss actually relevant work today. Which brings me back to my assignment. You’re all back I note, and it’s been a week. How have you done? I see Perorn’s left her notes. Kind of her. Hm. Interesting. And, oh dear. Let’s not beat about the bushes. Wil?”

The young man stood up. He was pale.

“Yes, Professor?”

Niers waved impatiently at him. He peered down at the large clipboard.

“Sit, sit. And calm down, Wil. You’re not in trouble. Although I fear your Gold-rank team might be very unhappy with you. But they knew the risks. What do you think was the problem? I see they were hunting a Cyclops. Nasty. And rare. Still, they should have been able to handle it; it seems they were a well-respected team.”

“Yes sir. They—I thought they could handle it with some degree of risk. I didn’t expect them to be completely wiped out. It was—I’m sorry to have wasted—”

Wil was red-faced despite the Professor’s words and stumbling over himself. Umina looked away guiltily. Niers glanced up. The other students were shifting, as one does in a situation like this. Cameral was pointing his head the other way, pretending Wil’s embarrassment was not happening, Marian was looking at her notes, Yerranola was trying to pat Wil’s leg covertly—

And Venaz, true to form, was staring at Wil with arms folded, clearly willing the young man to hurry up and finish. Niers lifted a hand.

Calm down, Wil.

For a second Umina felt the voice grow…firmer if that was possible. So firm it was an inescapable order. Wil stopped stuttering. His face grew less red. Niers looked up at him with a friendly smile, like a grandfather. He shook his head.

“You’ve been with this class for, what, a year now?”

“Yes sir.”

The Titan nodded.

“Then you know it’s not about money. I gave you your funds to hire the adventuring teams as part of the exercise, Wil. And these are all monsters in my company’s territory; it’s not about that. Nor is your failure solely your fault; each team evaluates the danger of the request and takes it. Calm down and tell me what you think happened as impartially as you can. In the meantime, Marian. I see you had your team hunt an Armorgator. That’s a sizable task for a Silver-rank team.”

Wil sat back in his seat, breathing slowly. Yerranola offered him a drink. Umina glanced up at him; he was relaxing. The young man from Terandria was often high-strung and nervous when it came to classwork; he was steadier on the battlefield, ironically. But embarrassed though he might be if the flushed cheeks were any indication, the Titan was giving him time to recover. And Wil was taking it.

That was what the Titan’s personal class was like. Some of it was lectures, but by this stage, all of his students were expected to know a myriad of strategies and formations. Any one of them could take to the field at a moment’s notice and command an army—some of them had, in actual battles!

No, what they gained from these lessons was practical experience in the field and discussion, conversation, even arguments with Niers Astoragon himself in the class. It wasn’t a situation where you were ever totally wrong; and there was no penalty for being incorrect. You were meant to learn, and the Titan strived to make sure you did.

“…And so, I was sure that the team I hired could take on the Armorgators with zero risk, sir. If they stayed at a distance and bombarded the monster with spells the creature would never be able to snap them up. The worst that could happen was that it could retreat.”

“And so they killed the monster after a day of work. Nicely done. And it does rid the area of a large threat. Hm. I see.”

Niers nodded. He glanced around the room and raised his voice.

“As you all recall, my homework was to find a team and have them take on the most pressing threat to the area possible. Whether you were assigned Bronze, Silver, or Gold-ranks, I asked you to form a request that would see a specific team used to their best effect. Marian’s clearly done well, but I think…Umina? Would you explain these quills?”

He pointed down at the pile of quills on the Mossbear pelt. There were several chuckles from the students. Umina got up.

“Yes, sir. I believe the Scattershot Porcupines were the best threat for my team to deal with.”

Niers tapped a foot as he stood on his lectern.

“I understand Scattershot Porcupines are not exactly a dangerous threat. Except to my people. It would seem that your team could have taken on a more powerful enemy. After all, the local [Guardsmen] and even a [Mercenary] could probably handle a few errant porcupines, couldn’t they?”

He looked at Umina, with perhaps a stern look in the eye. But the Lizardgirl saw the twinkle. She smiled.

“That’s true, sir. But may I present my argument?”

“By all means.”

“Then, firstly, I’ll say that my Bronze-rank team had no name listed. And they didn’t when I hired them.”

“I did see that. Was there some reason for this? An unregistered team, perhaps?”

Umina shook her head.

“No, sir. The reason was that they were still arguing about what the name should be. The team I hired was the greenest, newest team I could find that I thought had potential.”

There was a shift in the classroom. Marian blinked as she looked sidelong at Umina. Niers smiled.

“I see. You wouldn’t task a team like that with a big threat, would you?”

“No sir. And Scattershot Porcupines are dangerous. One can put out an eye; they can also run away fast. A team has to learn to flank them, keep them from running, even track them down. Especially if their [Mages] have poor aim. It took my team five days to eliminate all of them. And I put a bounty on each head they brought me, and gave them an exclusive contract.”

The Titan smiled.

“I see. So you were training them?”

“Their [Mage]’s aim, and their [Hunter]. Yes, sir. As for why I thought this was the most pressing threat—this particular group of porcupines had been straying near villages and more than one child had been hit by quills from them. They might not have killed anyone, but they were encroaching into Lizardfolk territory. And that might be more of a threat than a known Armorgator or Mossbears who stay in their homes. No offense, Marian, Venaz.”

Umina looked at her classmates. Marian blinked at her. Niers was grinning. He applauded softly.

“Well done. That’s excellent reasoning.”

“Oh, but there’s one more thing, Professor.”

The Lizardgirl looked at the Fraerling. He raised one eyebrow.

“Oh? Enlighten me.”

“The Scattershot Porcupines were encroaching into Lizardfolk territory, but they were also migrating into the forest. Near a Fraerling village, sir.”

The room went silent. Niers looked up sharply. He stared at Umina, then he nodded.

“Ah. In that case, you have my thanks twice over. The smallest of creatures can destroy a Fraerling village if things go wrong. And if the Tallguard had to fight a pack…a quill can go straight through a Fraerling. Well done, then. Well done indeed.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

Umina sat, and felt that triumphant bubbling in her chest. Marian leaned over and whispered to her.

“You didn’t tell me that!

“It was part of the exercise. Not everything’s about size, Marian.”

“Exactly.”

Niers had overhead the two. Umina blushed and Marian sat up. The Fraerling looked up at them with a faint smile.

“This lesson was to help you deal with adventuring teams, which I’m sure you will all have to do. Monsters are tricky and adventurers, for all their quirks, are better than [Soldiers] at dealing with them. You were also tasked with identifying which threats would be too much for your teams and which were the most pressing. Umina clearly focused on the societal impact, while Venaz and Marian weight in on threat-analysis. Neither approach was wrong. With that said, Wil. Do you have an answer?”

The Lizardgirl sat in her seat, a bit red with the gentle rebuke. Wil got to his feet, then remembered he didn’t have to stand and sat back down, flushing. Then he stood back up anyways.

“I do, sir. And I think it was just…bad luck.”

“Bad luck?”

Venaz looked incredulous. Wil halted and Niers gave Venaz a reproving look.

“Bad luck is a legitimate answer, Venaz. Go on, Wil.”

“It was…the Cyclops had a den set up and I informed the team of where it was. However, I didn’t know another team had been pursuing the monster. A different contract on the same Cyclops. Both teams ran into each other by accident as the first tried to smoke the Cyclops out. And the other team hunting it was Silver-rank. Unprepared. They hadn’t told anyone in their guild they were going after the Cyclops; there was no way of knowing.”

Niers grimaced.

“Unprepared adventurers going after a bigger score in desperation. I’m familiar with that all too well. Go on.”

“Well, as I heard it from the survivors, they found the first team right as the Cyclops emerged from the den. It went after the [Mages] first—by luck, perhaps—and from then on…”

Umina listened to Wil’s account of his team’s demise, wincing along with the rest. It had indeed been a very poor encounter thanks to the first Silver-rank team’s bungling, and both teams had lost nearly all their members. Niers shook his head when the story was over.

“Ill luck indeed. And it would have been hard to predict. I agree with your assessment, Wil. Don’t take your team’s failure too hard to heart—as for the survivors of that Silver-rank team, I’d be concerned for their lives. Vengeance from other adventuring teams is not a pleasant discussion. I’ll look into it perhaps. Alright. Who else has a story to tell?”

He glanced around at the show of hands.

“Venaz? If your team just went head-to-head with the bears, I’m not impressed. Dwarves are stout fighters. How would that push them? Mossbears aren’t exactly dangerous anyways and I asked for threats, not trophies. Yerranola? Not too impressive, unless you have something to add? Jekilt? Your team failed their mission. How did that happen?”

Five other students spoke, and Niers commented briefly on each story or result. It wasn’t just commentary; he shared his own thoughts and experiences from being an adventurer, as well as how to employ the other teams to best effect, or how to give them a bit of help with or without their knowledge. But that was just the homework. And while it had taken the students a week, Niers didn’t dwell overly long on it.

“Alright. Enough about adventuring. I trust you’ve all been keeping up on recent events. What do you think about the latest developments in Chandrar? The war against Tiqr and the King of Destruction’s proclamation?”

Umina raised her hand with half the class. This was another moment she looked forwards to because Niers gave his frank opinion on the situation. And hearing the Titan’s thoughts was worth gold. She wondered if the rulers of each nation would take his advice if they were in her seat. Then she had another thought: was one of the students relaying the Titan’s words to other nations? It wasn’t out of the question. Umina wasn’t doing it; the risk wasn’t worth the reward.

But this was another aspect of the class that students in the other classes missed. They studied tactics; Niers’ best class studied politics. Politics were as much a [Strategist]’s lot as tactical engagements. And grand strategy, the movements of armies and kingdoms, was just as important.

Niers had explained it to Umina and the others like this: a regular [Strategist] could just think of his army and the conditions affecting it. But a true [Strategist], the ones he was trying to train would think about the nation, country, or cause they fought for as a whole and how their army would affect that. They were fighting on multiple levels and as such, their actions mattered.

“To be frank, I have to admire the Empress of Beasts and what she tried to do at Pomle. If you look at the situation objectively, the King of Destruction is in a bind. If he goes to war, the other nations will turn on him. But they’re being played.”

Niers had ordered Venaz to help Marian put up a map so he could use his wand to illustrate the political situation. He pointed at Tiqr, now at war with all of its neighbors.

“You see, Tiqr is in trouble, but these other nations have now incurred the King of Destruction’s wrath. A risky position to be in. They’ve shown their hand—too early, I feel. I have no doubt the Emperor of Sands orchestrated this. If I were in, say, an advisory capacity to the Queen of Nerrhavia’s Fall, I would have told her to take the position Tiqr did at the summit. Which would have backfired splendidly had my nation been the only one present. Two on the other hand…”

“Why would you have stayed out of war with the King of Destruction, sir? Isn’t it wise to attack him straight off? I almost feel like the other nations are making a mistake not going after him, rather than focusing on Tiqr.”

Umina raised her claw to ask the obvious. Niers smiled at her and Umina’s heart skipped a beat.

“The King of Destruction is frightening, that’s why, Umina. Yes, it’s sensible to attack him in concert. But the first coalition army he smashed to pieces. True, it wasn’t nearly what could have been fielded against him, but imagine you’re the [Strategist] that has to commit to an offensive against the King of Destruction. Knowing what you know of his past?”

He looked around the room. Umina gulped. She wouldn’t take that job, not for love or money. Niers went on.

“I imagine all the [Generals] of each nation are shaking in their boots thinking of how to go up against Flos, let alone Orthenon. Remember, the King of Destruction can turn the tides even in the face of impossible odds. If Nerrhavia’s Fall committed a hundred thousand soldiers to a battle against Reim in its current state, Flos would win. The first battle, at least. And if you’re the nation bearing the brunt of the conflict, you’re wide open to an attack after Reim is defeated. Either way, you lose. With that said—it would be smart to oppose him, as you said, Umina. But tiring yourself out fighting Tiqr and making him your enemy straight off is a poor choice.”

“So you would do…what, Professor?”

The Fraerling smiled.

“Take a middling stance. Which was what Tiqr’s [Empress] tried to do. She was certainly not Flos’ worst enemy at that summit by all reports. But neither did she declare for him—she still hasn’t. Normally that would give her an advantage in negotiations; I’d push for concessions to join a coalition against Reim. But as I said, it backfired. It seems the rulers of each nation were coerced or too hotheaded to take a measured approach. Now, if I were in another nation, say, Belchan or Jecrass, I would be complying with the King of Destruction and playing both sides.”

“But if the King of Destruction attacks…”

“If he attacks, he’s broken his vow. In which case, all bets are off the table. But Flos was never one to forswear himself. If he breaks his oath, Cameral, I can’t predict what he’ll do. But if I were Jecrass’ [King]? And if it were me? I would consider what benefitted my country. And frankly, if the Forgotten Wing company were based on Chandrar, I would, at this moment, be approaching the King of Destruction for an alliance.”

A gasp filled the room. Niers rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be dramatic. I realize my past with the King of Destruction is public knowledge, but he’s no fool. Nor am I; betting against the King of Destruction is a fool’s game. It always was. And if I had a navy with faster ships, and I was sure the other Great Companies wouldn’t stab me in the back, I’d be taking all of you to Chandrar to earn as much gold and prestige as possible. Chandrar is rife with opportunity. Especially if you have the stomach to trade in slaves.”

He grimaced and took a small sip from a cup.

“Well, it’s not as if Baleros doesn’t have enough gold. And the jungles may run red with blood, but Baleros doesn’t live on tears. The Slavers of Roshal will benefit from this conflict more than anyone else. Gah. Enough. Let’s focus on armies. Tiqr’s definitely in trouble. Aside from the fact that their [Beast Tamers] aren’t exactly good at large-scale battles, they’re up against Nerrhavia and Illivere. Savere isn’t a threat so long as the fighting stays away from the coasts, but it means they’ll be raiding constantly…

Only the Titan would force his best students to command a full-scale defense of a nation from eight different hostile armies and expect them to win a scenario like that. Umina scored points, as did Feshi, both of whose species had historical precedents for that kind of fighting. Marian got berated for trying to apply her usual strategy to Tiqr’s forces, and Venaz earned a grudging point from Niers for his suggestion.

“Hire Minotaurs. My people have already been contracted to fight the King of Destruction.”

“Which they haven’t done.”

Venaz shrugged stoically at Marian.

“I haven’t been home in three years. But if they gave their word, they gave their word. They probably can’t land yet.”

Niers smiled crookedly.

“I’m not surprised. The odds of any coastal nation allowing a fleet from the House of Minos to land is remote, no matter what they say. But the King of Destruction had better watch his coastal expansions twice over. But if they’re against Reim, why hire them, Venaz?”

“Because that’s the King of Destruction. This is a separate matter. If Tiqr can pay, have them contract four warships. They won’t hit Savere, but Nerrhavia has a large coast. Minotaur [Mercenaries] could pull most of their forces away with ease.”

“Trust a Minotaur to vouch for his own people. You might as well hire a Great Company from Baleros.”

Yerranola muttered. Niers smiled.

“Good point, Yerranola. And I said no. Tiqr can’t afford my services, and as I said, our navy’s not at that point yet. I can’t imagine the Iron Vanguard would say yes either, and they’re the only Great Company with a navy large enough to join the fray.”

The Selphid inhaled her snack. Literally. She didn’t choke as oxygen wasn’t exactly a problem, but Umina had to sit through a few nasty minutes of squelching as the Selphid cleared the blockage in her throat. Niers chuckled.

“I keep telling you, don’t underestimate rulers. They can be cunning, desperate…but I wanted to bring something else up. Yerranola, I think you had something to say?”

“I did, sir. Sorry about the sounds. Uh, have you read the latest chess newsletter from Liscor, by any chance?”

Yerranola looked innocently at the Titan. Niers’ eyebrows shot up.

“I didn’t. Has it arrived? Peclir must have notified me and I forgot. I’ll have it sent here. Unless you have a copy?”

The Selphid waved a stack of papers over her head. Niers smiled.

“Of course. Cameral too? And Umina, I see. Well, give me one—spread it out on the ground so I can read from here. The rest of you can share it around.”

“Here, Marian.”

As Yerranola trotted down, Umina shared her version with Wil and Marian. She knew what it said, and Marian had gotten the basic outline. But the Centauress still exclaimed over what was written.

“Employing Goblins as…an irregular adventuring force? Cancelling the bounty on Goblin ears? Is this Drake an idiot?

“I can’t believe this. Either he’s mad, or Liscor gone completely off the rails. I knew it was insane already with that Hive below it, but this? The Walled Cities must be in uproar.”

Kissilt frowned over Cameral’s shoulder. The Drake’s tail was lashing with agitation. Venaz was just as incensed.

“This Olesm Swifttail would let Goblin Lords pop up left and right. I don’t know what’s possessed him, but this is far outside of his regular chess commentary. It’s a disgrace, isn’t it, Professor? Professor?”

The Fraerling was reading. He looking up calmly.

“Shut up, Venaz. You’re speaking like every Minotaur student I ever had.”

“But sir—”

“Do you recall that just a decade ago, my company had a pact with the only Goblin-led company in Baleros? Or have you forgotten the name of the Goblin’s Lament company already?”

The students fell silent. Niers looked around.

“It was a strong company. And until he became a Goblin King, Velan the Kind was considered the equal of any company leader. A Goblin Lord you could reason with. He didn’t earn that reputation by being untrustworthy. He kept to his promises more than any company I can name. Including my own.”

“And then he slaughtered entire cities and declared war on the world.”

Venaz’ eyes burned crimson for a second. Niers looked at him and the Minotaur glared back. The air went icy around Niers and Venaz’ eyes and fury dissipated. Umina sat back in her seat. The Titan glared at Venaz until the Minotaur looked away.

“Yes. He did. But that is the nature of Goblin Kings. And until that day, I trusted Velan the Kind. I spoke to him. And he was sane, Venaz. I don’t know what the House of Minos endures. But if this Olesm Swifttail claims to have met Hobs that defended Liscor—I believe him. Or did you not see Goblin fighting Goblin during the siege?”

The Minotaur didn’t respond. He was struck dumb, at least for the moment. Feshi looked uncomfortable. She raised a paw.

“Hrr. But there is precedent for wariness, yes? Professor, are you suggesting now that this idea should be put into place?”

The Gnoll held still as the Titan shifted his glance to her. Then, abruptly, Niers sighed. He stroked his beard, looking older and more tired.

“I suppose not, Feshi. In light of what I now know? No. But again, I think we are making a mistake in how we view this young [Strategist]’s claims. Olesm Swifttail is not saying we must make peace with Goblins, or hire them. These are suggestions. His observations. Since when has having an opinion been so wrong?”

He glanced up.

“Kissilt, I see you opening your mouth. Before you speak, consider that this [Strategist] is floating an idea. The reaction of the Walled Cities and his fellow [Strategists] are predictable. But you know what I think about that. All of you, I want you to engage with this idea in a way that doesn’t make me think you’re giving me a gut reaction. Especially you, Venaz. I’m sure this Olesm Swifttail is already getting a very vocal response. But point out the good in his suggestions. He’s also done some commentary on the Siege of Liscor. Thoughts? These Painted Soldiers he references…”

“We saw them during the battle, sir. Those Antinium with colors?”

“Yes. And they concern me more than any suggestion about Goblins. If the Antinium have come up with a new breed of Soldier—what was their kill to death ratio before the Goblin Lord took their formation to pieces? Someone go and tell a servant to fetch a recording of the battle. I think we’ve got one of Wistram’s new movie crystals…”

Umina had more than one reason to admire Niers during the rest of their lesson. Not only did he have his students do a calculation of the Painted Soldier’s kill-to-death ratio and compare it to other Antinium groups—a very disturbing result, even if you accounted for the fact that their opponents were Goblins—he gave them a short story about employing Goblin adventurers, something so rare it had only occurred once in Baleros.

“And only when Velan was alive. The only other instance of a Goblin adventurer I have ever heard of is in Izril. Garen Redfang of the Halfseekers. And as I understand it, he died at Liscor.”

“Slain by the Gecko of Liscor himself.”

Kissilt murmured. Niers looked up.

“One of Liscor’s champions, Kissilt? Can you elaborate on him? I do recall him, but I don’t know all the particulars of famous Drake soldiers, I’m afraid.”

“No, sir. I mean, I know a little, sir, but he’s no longer considered part of the standing army. He’s a former [Sergeant] in Liscor’s army. I grew up hearing about him. Pallass is close to Liscor and I suppose he’s just one of the names I heard growing up. I thought he was retired. But he would be good enough to take down even a Gold-rank adventurer.”

“Hm. Interesting. Never underestimate retired warriors, even old ones. Especially old ones, I should mention. More than one [General] has died when entering a supposedly conquered city. A seventy year-old Dullahan [Sniper] can still fire a crossbow. And they really don’t like armies burning down their homes.”

Stories, reminiscence, his take on what he personally would do, and debate. It was the kind of class Umina enjoyed most. Even more than a mock battle where she could choose her army and face off against one of her fellow students, using all her Skills on the training field. This was what she enjoyed. It was fun being in the Titan’s class, arguing with Venaz, trying to impress him with an observation.

And it couldn’t last. It never did last long enough. After four, all-too-short hours, the Titan had to go. His students might take other lessons, but Niers Astoragon had to manage his company, or do a thousand other things. That they got this much time with him was important. But today, the Titan didn’t send them off with one of his assignments, or simply his blessing and an injunction not to get too drunk before tomorrow’s class. Today, the Fraerling clapped for everyone’s attention as he stood on his podium.

“That’s enough for today. And I hesitate to bring this up, but if you’ve forgotten, our little game begins shortly. Has anyone forgotten? Because now might be a good time to panic.”

The class chuckled and shook their heads. Niers smiled affectionately, but there was that twinkle in his eyes his students had learned to pick up on.

“Excellent. We’re gathering in Daquin in two days. If you’re not joining me on the trip, be there by midmorning or you’ll be unable to compete in the exercise. And remember the rules of the game. No deaths. No blades or dangerous magic. Aside from that, do your best and try to distinguish yourselves. I think this year’s audience will be very interested to see how you do. As will I.”

Umina’s stomach twisted with apprehension. She looked around the class; most of her fellow students looked excited. Wil looked somewhat sick, but he always did before a test. And this was a test, even if it was a game.

“Sir, any word on who will be uh, finding us this year?”

Marian spoke up casually. The Titan laughed.

“I’m sure you’d like to know, Marian. But if you haven’t found out, I won’t be telling you. Isn’t knowing you’re going to Daquin enough?”

“Come on, Professor. A hint would help—we are going up against our seniors, aren’t we?”

Niers waggled a finger at Kissilt.

“That’s what they said when they were in your shoes, Kissilt. Just relax. Lay a few traps. Make plans; I’m sure they’re thinking of how best to box you in.”

The Drake grumbled, but good-naturedly. He was excited for the competition, Umina could tell. The Drake looked up at her and grinned. He wasn’t nearly as hostile as most Drakes who met Lizardfolk, but the ember of competition was still burning hotter in his eyes.

“Think you can survive until the end, Umina?”

“That depends on what the Professor’s done to mess with us.”

Umina peeked at Niers. He grinned, but didn’t take the bait. Marian shook her head.

“Professor, when did this game start? And why is one of the biggest tests of our entire academic lives a game of hide-and-seek?

Niers sighed.

“Marian, when you get to my age…”

His students laughed or groaned; it was the answer the Fraerling liked to give when he was avoiding the question. But there was that twinkle in his eyes. Umina looked down at the Titan and wondered.

It was said that the Titan of Baleros lived on excitement. If he were to go a week without some kind of chaos or excitement occurring, he would die of boredom, or so the myth went. Which was patently untrue. Niers Astoragon was perfectly capable of living without some kind of interesting event occurring in his life every few days. It was just that if you offered him the choice between a peaceful life and offing himself, he might just choose the latter.

This event was one of the things the Titan used to entertain himself when he wasn’t on campaign. It was also considered one of his penultimate tests of his students. And it was a simple concept, really.

Once every few years, sometimes once a decade, and at one point, he’d done it every year for eight years straight, the Titan of Baleros would announce a game with his students. It usually happened in times of enduring peace; it never happened when there was war or unrest. It was a game that involved his students, past and prior. He would take his students to a location, be it a city, or patch of jungle, or even an artificial maze and give them a day to hide while an entire army searched for them.

It wouldn’t just be Umina’s special class there. Over a hundred of Niers’ students nearing graduation and even some recent graduates would be invited to intend. His current students and recent graduates would be hiding. And the seekers would be his guests of honor—the older [Strategists], his first students, veterans of dozens of wars.

It was a game of hide and seek. But what a game! What competition! The former students of the Titan would relentlessly hunt down the new students while the hiders tried to fulfill some kind of criteria that changed every year. And it sometimes got intense.

Because the game wasn’t ‘find someone and they’re out’, or even ‘tag you’re out’. It was ‘capture the hiders by whatever means necessary’. Which meant the students could and did fight back. And the seekers could subdue them by whatever means necessary short of permanent bodily harm. And they had some of Niers’ soldiers armed with clubs, nets, and other helpful tools to facilitate that process. And the new students often laid traps, made alliances—they’d fight back with every trick they knew to stay free and clear of their pursuers.

Ostensibly, it was a game designed to teach Niers’ students what it was like to be cut off from their forces, to prepare them for situations where they might be hunted by [Assassins] or an enemy army in a city, jungle, or what have you. In practice, Umina suspected it was the Titan’s way of having fun.

“Call it a hobby of mine. And it certainly provides entertainment. At least for me. I understand it’s an opportunity for all of you.”

His students nodded to varying degrees of excitement. That was certainly true. In the past, this might have been just a game Niers played for his own enjoyment and his student’s benefit in outwitting each other. But as was the nature of all kinds of spectacle, word had spread and now his semi-regular competition had an audience that would come from all over Baleros to watch.

And it mattered. It always did. Umina saw several students including Venaz look around warily at the Titan’s words. Because of course, they were all already being watched.

It was a fact. Umina, Marian, Venaz…they were all the Titan’s best students. When they graduated, they would be the best crop of [Strategists] of their age in the entire continent. Perhaps one of them might be as brilliant as Perorn Fleethoof, or perhaps even as gifted as the Titan of Baleros himself.

Other nations and companies kept an eye on Niers’ class; some had even approached Umina, covertly or publicly to test her out, see if she might make a good hire. And if there were eyes on Umina already, well, during the games there would be even more. Umina had seen visitors watching her as she conducted those war games against her fellow students, evaluating her.

This would be another chance to stand out. If she somehow performed really splendidly, she might even get an offer to serve as a [Strategist] in another company, or for a nation after she graduated. Some students had even quit the academy during school because they’d impressed a visiting [King] or ruler so much!

“A chance to win prestige in the eyes of the world. A rousing competition for me to enjoy. Sea and surf at Daquin; they do some very fine prawns too. What’s not to like?”

The Titan looked around at his students. They smiled back, but with an edge. It was all fun for him, but they were [Strategists]. They wanted to win. And there was a reason, even more than the thrill of beating older [Strategists] and their classmates. There was a rumor about winning this particular game. Umina had heard some of the older students whispering about it in the past.

There was always a way to beat your pursuers outside of outwaiting the seekers. Sometimes it was to solve a puzzle, or travel a certain distance. One time it had been to subdue a Wyvern the Titan had let loose, and hadn’t that been a bloody year? But the risk was always worth the reward, and it was always the same.

The reward was that you got to go to the Professor’s private rooms, you entered, and apparently, you could ask him anything you wanted. Any question in the world and the Fraerling would answer it if he could, be it personal or huge, earth-shattering.

Any question. The students looked at each other, wondering if it was true. And because they wondered and because Venaz was…Venaz, he raised his hand.

“Professor, sir! I have a question.”

“Go on.”

The Titan looked at the Minotaur with a sparkle in his eye. Venaz got to his hooves, and hesitated, which was uncharacteristic even of him.

“Professor, I’ve heard that this…contest of yours has a reward. I’d like to know if that’s true or not. Otherwise, what’s the purpose of victory?”

The Minotaur met the Fraerling’s eyes. Umina held her breath along with the other students. Niers looked up at the ceiling.

“Hm. A reward? I wonder. I do know there are rumors—I wonder how they started? Which prize would you be referring to, exactly, Venaz?”

“Professor…”

The Titan’s eyes twinkled as the Minotaur growled at him. He stood upon his lectern for a moment and Umina wondered if he’d refuse to answer. Then he smiled.

“The answer, Venaz, is yes. Any question in the world. If I know it, I’ll answer it. So choose your question wisely. If you win—you only get one.

The silence in the room was complete. Umina felt her heart skip a beat. So it was true. Then she saw the Titan grinning with delight. His students exhaled slowly. Venaz looked around.

“Any question? But what if—”

“Ah.”

Niers raised a finger. The Minotaur shut up. Niers Astoragon looked stern.

“Venaz, obviously there are some questions that are tantamount to giving away the secrets of my company. Obviously some questions are dangerous.”

His student nodded, a tad disappointed. Niers smiled.

“I’ll answer them. Any question in the world. As dangerous as it may be to know. I’ve done it before. And some of my students have died because they asked a question and got my answer. Not from me, personally. But I know a lot. Any question. Any question. My level, the location of buried treasure. The name of your greatest enemy. Their weakness. What Foliana had for breakfast. Anything.”

His students stared. And then they whispered. Marian looked at Umina, vibrating with anticipation.

“What could you ask…?”

She cut herself off. Niers raised a hand.

“If you win. If you’re the one who finishes first. Don’t get excited; there’s only one winner. And you’re hardly the only competition. Two years running, the victor hasn’t come from my advanced class. Remember that.”

His students calmed down. And then they appraised each other again. There could only be one. Niers Astoragon smiled.

“Well, as I said, we’re leaving tomorrow. Pack your things. Make your plans if you haven’t already. Remember the rules. Try to win. Class dismissed!”

He leapt from his podium and strode up the platforms leading towards the Fraerling ways. Before anyone could stop him—and a few of his students shouted questions—the Titan was gone. And that left Umina excited, nervous, and very scared. She glanced at her fellow students, then hurried out of the room, grabbing her notes and things.

Let the games begin.

—-

“I’m going to lose.”

Twenty minutes later, Umina sat in her small room in the apartment she’d rented only five minutes’ walk from the citadel. She buried her head in her claws. She’d known it already. And she’d tried not to get excited by the game because of it, but now she wanted to win. And she knew she was going to lose.

It wasn’t that Umina didn’t have the drive. Or the levels. She was a Level 27 [Strategist], a genius for her age. At nineteen years old, Umina was one of the youngest students in Niers’ advanced class, a prodigy among her species. She had a dozen Skills she could call on, and she placed with the best when it came to his field exercises or debates in class. She could and had beaten every one of her classmates in the practice war games; she was especially good at taking down Venaz, who, despite his brash attitude and nature, was still one of the best students when commanding the training soldiers in practice.

However…Umina’s face fell as she checked her purse of coins. She had all her worldly wealth sitting on the table in front of her, illuminated by a [Light] spell she’d cast. The Lizardgirl counted unhappily.

“One, two, three…”

The coins came out of her purse, as if by counting them Umina could double or triple their number. But no matter how many times she counted them, she barely had more than twenty coins.

Silver. Not gold. And she had two gold coins, but that was rent and food for this month. If Umina spent them, she’d be destitute until her family sent her more money. And while she could probably survive by borrowing from her friends, at least Marian…what was three gold coins’ worth of money going to buy her?

“Maybe some rope. A few blankets? I could get…a potion or two…nothing! Not even enough to avoid a [Scrying] spell!”

The Lizardgirl hunched over her desk, scattering the coins miserably. Then she hurried to pick them up in case one rolled between the cracks in her floorboards. She sat at her table, her tail curling and uncurling.

“I want to win. I want to win. But unless there’s a puzzle, I won’t have half of what the others do! If it’s Wil—even his clothes are enchanted! And Marian has her bow. Even if she can’t shoot arrows at people, she can still pay for…everything! Venaz probably made plans. I know Yerra’s been plotting how to win. And I can’t do anything.”

She was poor. That was just how it was. Umina wanted to cry, but she knew that would be stupid. The fact that she had gold to spend and she was Niers’ student was amazing. And she wasn’t poor. Not really. It was just that compared to the others in her class, she was. Most of them could drop ten gold coins on something without blinking twice. Umina couldn’t drop ten silver coins without doing a double-take.

“Umina? Hey, Umina!”

Someone was calling from outside. Umina looked up. Her room was very small, even by Lizardfolk standards. She hesitated.

“Marian? I’m busy—”

She tried to put away her coins. But her Centaur friend was insistent.

“Umina, I’m coming in!”

“Hold on—”

Umina swiped her coins into her pouch and hid it at her belt. Marian trotted into the room.

“There you are. Come on. We’re going to have a drink together. The Professor’s setting off tomorrow and you’re going with him, right? Let’s talk with the others before that. They’re at the Stalker’s Pub.”

“I’m not that thirsty.”

Umina mumbled. She knew her tail and frills were drooping. Marian eyed her.

“Well, come anyways.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I think you should.”

“Marian, I really—hey!”

The Centauress trotted forwards and picked Umina up. Before the small Lizardgirl could protest, the Centaur had tossed her on her back.

“Come on! Where’s your key?”

She trotted out of Umina’s apartment, pausing to let the Lizardgirl lock the door and then trotted down the ramp that led to Umina’s apartment on the second floor.

The presence of Centaurs meant that many buildings in Baleros were designed to accommodate them, which meant the stairs were often ramps and buildings tended to be wider and shorter, the rooms very spacious to avoid claustrophobia. Umina knew Marian hated her small room and so she didn’t protest. Especially because she was on Marian’s back.

Centaurs were like horses. Half their body was humanoid, but their lower half was horse. Except that they hated being ridden by people they didn’t implicitly trust. Anyone who tried it on a dare might get their head kicked off their necks. The fact that Marian let Umina ride was a sign of true friendship. The Centauress trotted down the ramp and into the street.

“What’s gotten you so upset, Umina? You were buzzing in class when the Professor complimented you on your strategy. And he chewed me out for my strategy.”

She tossed her head. Umina ducked to avoid being slapped by Marian’s hair. She hesitated, and then muttered.

“I don’t think I’m going to do well, Marian.”

“What makes you say that?”

The Centauress looked over her shoulder as she walked down the street. A few Lizardpeople waved at Umina and she waved back, trying to smile. She knew that they could tell it was fake, but at least they were out of range before they could come over and ask what was wrong. She had Marian for that.

“It’s just…I know you made preparations for the games.”

Marian nearly missed a step. Her hooves clicked on the smooth paving stones.

“I have. Not as much as the others, maybe. Why?”

“I haven’t done a thing?”

“What? Really?”

The Centauress looked astonished. Umina shook her head miserably.

“I can’t afford to.”

“But you did so well at his other assignments. Like the adventurers—”

“You know the Professor normally gives us a budget. I use his budget. I can’t pay for anything else. Especially not traps or potions or…anything.”

“But if it’s just a few potions or a little ring, surely—”

Marian. You know I—you know what? Look.”

Umina grabbed her coin pouch. She’d never shown Marian it explicitly. Why would she? The Centauress had never needed to ask. Now Umina shoved the pouch in front of Marian and opened it.

“Well, that’s not so bad if you—”

“That’s all I have. If I use that, I don’t eat, Marian.”

“Oh.”

For a while, Marian’s hooves were the only sound the two made. The Centauress blinked at Umina, looking ahead now and then to make sure she didn’t run into anyone.

“That explains why you don’t always drink with us. Or buy much. Cameral thought you were just bad at handling alcohol. I thought that too.”

“You weigh three times what I do.”

“Only three?”

That made Umina smile a bit. Marian picked up her pace.

“I didn’t know you were that tight on coin, Umina. But you don’t fall behind all of us. If anything, everyone else thinks you’re serious competition.”

“No they don’t.”

A hand ungently flicked Umina across her forehead. The Lizardgirl recoiled. Marian frowned at her.

“Yes they do. You got into our class based on pure talent. That’s more than anyone else can say. Everyone else paid more to get into this class, including me. You were in the one year program and the Professor let you join our class!”

“I guess I did. But you’re all still as good as me. You beat me last time we faced each other.”

“Because you fell off your horse. That doesn’t count. You trounced Venaz three times so far; no one else has done that. My best is two wins in a row.”

“Well, I’m glad you think I’ll do so well. But it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t pay for any preparations. Or artifacts. Someone casts a [Scrying] spell and they’ll find me in a moment.”

Umina flopped over Marian’s back. The Centauress hesitated.

“It’s not all about—”

“Say it’s not all about money and I’ll pull your tail, Marian. I know how much you have.”

“…Sorry.”

The two trotted along. Umina could tell they were entering the entertainment district of the city, which was wide and prosperous; Niers’ students liked to use their free time and they often had coin to spend. Most of them, at any rate. Marian frowned at a few students as they passed by.

“Wil’s rich. Or rather, his family is. So is Venaz, that bastard. I mean, they’re both really rich. Wil’s a [Lord]’s son, and I don’t know what Venaz is, but he can toss around gold like water. I guess I always thought I was poor compared to them, but—I suppose not. My family’s not that wealthy, Umina.”

Umina resisted the urge to tweak Marian’s tail. Friends or not, she’d probably get bucked off for that.

“How do you have so much gold, then?”

The Centaur’s gait faltered.

“I…got a lot of support from my clan. Everyone I knew contributed money to fund me. I need to repay them.”

Oh. Centaur pride. Umina could just imagine how that went. Marian would be the pride of her clan. They’d probably all pitched in. Her tail wagged unhappily.

“Makes sense. Yerra’s got a lot of money from her family too. Selphids supporting Selphids. I wish I had that.”

“That didn’t happen for you?”

Marian was surprised. But she needn’t have been. Umina sighed.

“You know what it’s like in Lizardfolk cities. We like each other, but we’re not organized like Centaurs. Some of my family’s friends helped pay for me to get here and sometimes I get donations, but it’s random. My people mean well and they’re really proud of me being the only Lizardfolk in the Professor’s current class, but I’m just one of many, you know? How many Lizardfolk [Strategists] do you think the Titan’s taught?”

“You’re special. And if you don’t have a lot of money…what if we teamed up?”

Umina perked up, then felt a prickle of conscience.

“So we can fight at the end, Marian? You know how it works.”

“Well…maybe no one’s ever won as a pair before. But I’ll tell you; I’m not certain I did all I could to prepare. I have a few tricks, but if we worked together, my money and your brain—”

“You think I’ve got any fancy ideas? I only got to ‘buy an invisibility potion and hide in a corner’. Only, I can’t afford that. I don’t know what this year’s criteria for winning is, Marian.”

“Well, don’t give up just yet. Come on. There’s a reason why I wanted you to drink with the others. I’m paying, so try not to look so down.”

They’d come to an inn. The Stalker’s Pub, named after Three-Color Stalker, the rarely-spotted leader of the Forgotten Wing company. It was a regular haunt of Marian, Umina, and the other students, and the Lizardgirl saw there was already a crowd at their usual table in the corner. She slipped off of Marian’s back as she saw Yerranola, Venaz, Cameral, and Wil already sitting down. They were drinking and trying to console Wil, who looked about as miserable as Umina.

“Marian.”

“Venaz.”

The Centaur and Minotaur greeted each other shortly. Venaz looked at Umina and waved her forwards as he dragged a seat from an adjacent table with one hand.

“Come on and sit down. One of you help console Wil. I’m sick of hearing him moan already.”

“You’re heartless, Venaz. Wil, what’s wrong? Still upset about the adventurer teams? The Professor said it wasn’t your fault. Excuse me! One ale and some mulled wine!”

Marian looked over at Wil. The young Terandrian noble was hunched over his drink. He did look morose. Umina accepted a tankard of ale as Marian sipped her wine. Wil shook his head.

“It’s not about today’s lesson. Well, partly. I wish that Gold-rank team hadn’t gotten killed. But it’s more to do with the Professor’s game. I want to win.”

“You and me both, pal.”

Yerra slapped Wil on the shoulder as she drained her mug. If Umina and Marian were a pair, Yerranola and Wil often sat together, although Umina wasn’t sure if the Selphid was just forcing her company on Wil. He didn’t seem to mind, and Cameral was often a seatmate of the two. The Dullahan had removed his head and was offering his head a finger-sized bowl to sip from. His head spoke as his body got up and left the table, possibly to pee.

“Everyone wants to win. But what’s troubling you, Wil? Umina, you look similarly dispirited. Unless I’m prying?”

His eyes shifted towards the Lizardgirl and then away, wary of intruding. Umina smiled.

“No, not much, Cameral. I’m just down about the competition too. I don’t see myself winning.”

“I do.”

“Shut up, Venaz.”

Marian glared at him. Wil shook his head, still looking troubled.

“I’m trying to win, Cameral. I realize that’s a bold claim especially with—”

He indicated his peers, who were some of the best in the Titan’s class.

“—as well as the other students competing. But I think I have a chance. And I’ve made…extensive preparations. It’s just—have any of you actually had a command, before? Outside of the Professor’s lessons? I know you have, Yerra.”

The Selphid nodded.

“Definitely. The Professor made me lead one of his wings on campaign one time. That was terrifying, right, Marian?”

“Yup. We did it, but we had a bunch of officers standing by. So it’s not the same.”

The Centaur sipped from her glass. Wil nodded.

“I’ve done that too. Only, the Professor’s always there so I know that if I really make a mistake, he might catch me. I mean, no one’s there to stop you and if you make a mistake, people die. Or you create a huge incident. Have you ever been in that position?”

All of the others, excepting Venaz, shook their heads. The Minotaur grunted.

“Of course.”

He looked around as his friends gave him skeptical looks. Venaz glared.

“Do you think my people would have sent me here without practical experience. I’ve led more than one mission where people could have died or did die. It’s not fun.”

“Did you ever make a bad mistake?”

Wil looked at Venaz. The Minotaur hesitated.

“Once. I haven’t forgotten it.”

“How do you know if you’re right?”

Umina watched as the powerful drink Venaz was imbibing noticeable lowered in his tankard. Venaz wiped his mouth.

“I thought I was right. Why? Are you hesitating over some decision?”

The young man from Terandria nodded quietly. He traced on the well-worn table.

“I’ve made the calculations. And I’m sure my reasoning is right. But if I’m wrong? It’s such a big leap. And if it pays off? I could be set up. But if I’m wrong…I’ll embarrass myself and cause—”

He grimaced and took a long drink. No one pressed him for details. Venaz sat back in his chair, eying Wil. Yerra sipped from her mug.

“It’s not the end of the world if we screw up, Wil. Granted, I don’t know what your plan is, but the worst we can do is look like idiots. I’m fine with that.”

She glanced around with a quick smile. Wil drained his mug and waved for another.

“If only it were me, Yerra. Then I’d be fine. But this involves my family. You know I’m from the high nobility in Terandria?”

The others nodded. Marian shot Umina a quick glance; the Lizardgirl just kept drinking, listening. Wil sounded awful, which somehow made her feel better. He went on as he received and drank his new round.

“I’m a second son. Not as important as my older brother, but a lot of hopes are on me. My family paid a fortune for me to be here. I realize I’m not as gifted as…”

He looked sideways at Umina and the Lizardgirl blushed. She opened her mouth, but Wil shook his head.

“I know I earned my place in the Professor’s class. But I still had to pay part of my way in. I worked hard to stay, but my family’s invested a lot in me. I can’t let them down. And if I embarrass them with everyone watching? What then?”

The others nodded. Marian patted Wil on the back.

“I know what you mean. My clan’s going to be watching the games too.”

“And my family. You are not alone, Wil. The thought of embarrassing myself—I’d rather strip off my armor and walk around naked for a day.”

Cameral gravely announced to the table as his body came back, wiping its hands with a handkerchief. Everyone looked at him. Coming from Cameral, that meant a lot. Yerra grinned uncertainly.

“I don’t know about all that. But we all want to win. No hard feelings if we lose, right?”

She nudged Wil. The young man stared into his mug. He had three sitting next to him. And it hadn’t been long since they’d started drinking! He shook his head again. Umina felt it was her chance to chime in.

“Wil.”

He looked at her. Umina hesitated, then tossed him her coin pouch.

“That’s what I’ve got.”

He blinked into the pouch. Venaz leaned over.

“Hmf. Well, that’s a relief for me.”

“You jerk.”

“Ooh, that’s tough. You mean that’s all you have to spend?”

“She means that’s all she has, period, Yerra.”

The others fell silent. Wil looked at Umina. She cut him off before he could grow embarrassed.

“It’s not your fault. I’m just not rich. So if I go into this competition or spend my money, I’m taking a huge risk. I might not be able to eat, or pay rent—I might have to borrow from Marian or someone else. That’s my problem. If you’re afraid of embarrassing your family…you had a chance. Whether you use it is up to you. That’s what the Professor would say, I think.”

The others fell silent. Wil silently handed Umina her pouch back. Yerra smiled.

“Spoken like the Titan himself, Umina.”

Wil nodded. He got up. The [Lord] straightened his clothes, then looked at the others, a touch unsteadily, but with a hint of steel in his gaze. The same steel he’d shown when he beat Umina or the others on the training fields.

“I’m sorry for complaining. You’re right, Umina. I’m going to do it. There’s no turning back. I wish you all the best of luck. But I intend to win.”

He walked away from the table, then came back to put a few coins down. The others watched him go in silence. Umina wondered what Wil had planned; whatever it was, she was sure it was big. Venaz broke the silence by snorting and finishing his drink.

“Insecure. One wonders how he manages to pick his clothes in the morning.”

The others let out a huge sigh. Umina wondered if that was Venaz’ way of being encouraging. Regardless, Marian still slapped his shoulder hard. He didn’t even budge.

“Didn’t he outmaneuver you in our sea training exercise, Venaz? And he’s brilliant, and I meant brilliant at logistics. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Plus, you’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re an ass. Do you know how hard it is to have you in class? You don’t respect anyone but the Professor.”

The Minotaur laughed softly into his mug. He raised two fingers and a Dullahan trotted over with two more drinks. The Minotaur drained half of one in a breath, a feat that made Cameral blink, and then looked up. He surveyed his fellow students with the lofty, arrogant gaze, and then nodded slowly.

“I respect most of you. It’s just that I have to be better than all of you. That’s why I came here. To prove that. If I’m inferior—well, it won’t happen. Which is why I must win the Professor’s game of hide-and-seek tomorrow. I’d rather it were a combat exercise. Either way, I have a question I want to ask him. And so I’ll win. Simple as that. I’m not underestimating Wil; it’s just that I’ll overcome him.”

“And you pull that confidence out of…?”

Yerra raised both brows. Venaz replied steadily.

“My very soul. If I could not, I would not be here.”

He finished his mug and reached for the second. The others stared at him. Umina sipped her drink. She wished she had Venaz’ fire. Or his coin; he was drinking Firebreath Whiskey, a Drake favorite. That was expensive and he was downing it in mugs. Yerra eventually stood up.

“I’m taking the Professor’s games seriously. And after this, I think I need to make a few more plans. You all should too. I knew this would be a big event, but after hearing Wil, I think it might be a lot more important than we thought.”

She got up. The Selphid tossed a few coins on the table and walked out the door. Venaz looked over at Marian and Umina.

“What about you two? Are your preparations in place? I don’t feel the need to change mine.”

Cameral sighed as he fed his head some nuts with a spoon.

“Money is a factor. I can’t afford to spend too much on this game, even if it’s important. I have spent some money, but I’m not confident I can win like Wil or you, Venaz. Thus, I am hedging my bets.”

“You too?”

All four remaining students turned. A Gnoll was standing next to them, mug in hand. Feshi gestured at the table and Umina edged her seat back to let her slide in.

“Feshi? How long have you been listening?”

The Gnoll grinned.

“Not long. But I saw you sitting here and wanted to join in. Are you talking about the competition in Daquin?”

Marian let the Gnoll sit next to her in Yerranola’s seat.

“What else would we be talking about? How committed are you, Feshi?”

Feshi shrugged, her ears flicking cautiously.

“I wouldn’t waste my tribe’s coin overly much either, yes? But I have made some preparations. But are we sharing plans? Because I think that would be unwise. We are competing against each other, of course.”

Venaz harrumphed. He was displeased at Feshi’s entrance; the Minotaur didn’t get along with Feshi. He didn’t get along with Marina of course, but theirs was a rivalry, whereas Feshi and Venaz clearly just didn’t like each other. He eyed the Gnoll over his drink.

“I’ll win, of course. I’ve been making plans. I’m warning you, if you get in my way, I’ll have to deal with you. I intend to ask the Professor a question after the games. As well as prove my abilities to the world.”

The Gnoll bared her teeth in reply.

“Minotaur might? One bag of Tripvines and you’ll be caught. This is a game about intelligence, Venaz. Cunning. Or did you forget this morning already?”

Venaz scowled. His brow darkened, but before he could answer, someone else called out. A group of students at another table, most older than Umina, turned around. There were two Humans, a pair of female Dullahans, and a male half-Elf sitting at their table. They were from one of the senior classes, but not part of Niers’ special group. The half-Elf looked at Umina’s table.

“So you’re all planning to win the competition at Daquin too. Tell us, does the Titan’s special class get a heads up about what the game’s going to entail this time?”

“All we know is what you know. The Professor doesn’t give us any favors. He wants a fair game.”

Marian calmly shot back. The half-Elf glared.

“Well, I’m glad about that. We’re intending to take first place too, you know. Don’t forget about us while you snipe at each other.”

He and his table turned their backs. Umina stared at the half-Elf. Venaz looked amused.

“Was that a challenge?”

Feshi grinned. She eyed the other students and spoke loudly and casually.

“They’re going to try and foul us up. Not that subtle, yes? I suppose the other classes are working in concert against ours.”

The backs of the other students stiffened slightly. Feshi grinned. Venaz just waved a hand.

“Rabble multiplied is still rabble.”

For a second Umina thought the Dullahans would turn around and throw their drinks at him. But then just got up and left. Marian exhaled slowly.

“Venaz, you have a talent for picking fights.”

He shrugged, unmoved.

“They clearly wanted to provoke us. I simply baited their trap. Knocking a few candidates out of the race wouldn’t bother me unduly.”

“Should I check my bedding for poison, then?”

Umina joked lamely. Venaz glanced down at her.

“Not from me. But this is a competition. And I regard the stakes as significant. Don’t you?”

The others fell silent. After a moment, Feshi cleared her throat.

“Alright. To my purpose in coming here. I’m not saying we have to team up. But…there’s no rule against it. I have been speaking with the others. And the Professor’s only rule is literally ‘don’t kill anyone’. So our class has decided on a truce.”

Venaz snorted softly. The Gnoll frowned irritably at him and then went on.

“Truce. Everyone here doesn’t attack each other unless our plans get in each other’s way. We’ll have enough trouble getting past our pursuers and the other students. I noticed in the supply reports the Professor had us doing that there’s a big increase in the provisions in Daquin. At least enough for a thousand soldiers. Maybe two thousand.”

Marian sucked her breath in sharply.

“That’s going to be a nightmare to evade. Forget running about.”

Cameral shrugged. He’d put his head on his shoulders, perhaps wary of a brawl.

“It’s still possible. Daquin is a big city. But if you add that to whatever hunters the Professor brings in…sometimes the graduates bring in their own hunting groups. Especially if they’re big names.”

“What I’m worried about is who the Professor brings in to hunt us. He could call on any of his graduates. And he’s trained…how many [Strategists] over the years?”

Marian frowned. She scratched at the table. Umina sat upright. She’d had a terrible thought.

“Oh dead gods. What if it’s Miss Perorn?”

The others looked at her. Cameral shook his head. It wobbled on his shoulders.

“No. That would be…unfair.”

Umina looked at him. The Dullahan hesitated.

“Even for the Professor. Surely?”

“Think about it. She’s been teaching us this last month. If the Fleethoof herself leads the hunt, how fast do you think she’ll catch us? She could run half of us down herself!”

The others sucked in their breaths. Venaz bit his lip. His crossed legs began to jiggle and the table shook.

“I would…I relish the competition.”

“You would! I’d be scared hoofless if I had to run from Lady Perorn!”

Marian looked pale at the thought. Umina was muttering to herself, getting more and more nervous.

“If we see her in the group going to Daquin…aw, no. I’m getting chilled just thinking about it. And remember what the Professor said? There might be a huge audience this time. This could be my chance to land a really big job after I graduate. Especially with Chandrar and the King of Destruction…”

“Are you thinking of working in Chandrar?”

Feshi looked surprised. Umina hesitated. She hadn’t talked about this with anyone. She noticed the others, Marian, Cameral, Venaz, looking at her.

“If I get a really good offer…I’d be scared tailless of going up against Flos, but I mean, if I got paid enough, Feshi…”

Soon she’d be working and fighting actual battles. She’d seen blood and commanded a force before, but the real thing was coming closer with each passing week. Soon she’d graduate. That was terrifying. Niers’ game was terrifying for different reasons. Umina was breathing hard. Then she felt a hand grip her arm. She looked up and saw Marian. The Centaur smiled down at Umina.

“It’ll be alright, Umina. You’re not a full [Strategist] yet. And this game’s a game. Come what may, if we win or lose, we won’t die.”

“Not if we play by the rules.”

Cameral remarked calmly. Venaz nodded. He drained his last mug, then stood up. He looked reluctantly at Feshi.

“Very well. A truce?”

“If everyone agrees…”

The Gnoll glanced about. Umina nodded. Marian pointed at the door.

“What if Wil or Yerra says no?”

“Where’s the benefit in that? We’ll all be travelling together. There’s no alliance, but I say we’d all agree to a truce. Within the class. We’ll have enough competition and whoever’s chasing us to worry about fighting each other. Truce unless we foul each other.”

The others at the table nodded. They stood up, fumbling for coins, Marian tossed money down for her drinks and Umina’s. She looked at Venaz, then at Cameral and Feshi.

“We’re part of the truce, but Umina and I are working together. We’re going to win as a team. Umina, we’re going to make some plans tonight.”

“Marian, are you sure?”

The Lizardgirl held her breath. The Centauress gave her a wide smile.

“Two tails are better than one, even if mine doesn’t flex. I want to win this thing and ask the Professor…”

She broke off. The others looked at each other. Venaz, Cameral, Feshi…and there was Wil, Yerra, and all the others. Umina’s heart beat faster. Only one person could win. Unless she and Marian really did win as a pair. And if they won, they could ask…

Anything. Was it the Titan’s arrogance? Or did he really think this was a prize worthy of winning the competition? Any question in the world. Umina thought of all the things she could ask him. There were so many mysteries the Titan surely knew. Stories about him, about Baleros.

Like whether he knew what lay in the upper floors of Wistram. What the great treasure that the Forgotten Wing company had been founded on. Whether the rumors of him being cursed by Queravia during their battle was true or not. What level Niers Astoragon was, really. What his greatest and most powerful Skill was and what it did. The names of the most powerful people in the world. Their secrets.

Umina could ask about anything. Everything. But one question came to mind. Perhaps, if it were her, she’d ask a simple question. The question everyone wanted to know.

Who was his mysterious opponent he played chess with? Did he know who they were? Or perhaps she’d ask him if he knew, truly, how to become a Naga. Or a Lamia. Or if the Foliana really did have a map to the world’s greatest treasure. Or what he had really thought of Velan the Kind, if he had really been friends with the Goblin King before Velan had gone to war. Or if he knew where there was any buried treasure. Or…

A thousand and one questions. And Umina couldn’t pick just one. If she won, would she ask about Dragons? Or something else. Would she even win? That was the question. Umina felt her heart beat faster as she walked out of the pub with Marian, and for the first time she put her mind to winning. Truly and seriously. But she feared her fellow students had already laid deep plans. Still, there was always a chance. Umina set off with her Centaur friend in tow, making plans.

She still had no idea just how exciting the game of hide and seek was going to be.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.20 D

Talenqual. It wasn’t cool enough for a proper name, like the City of Serpents, the Ironforged Hearth of the North, the Titan’s School, and so on. It was just Talenqual.

That was fine. Unless you had an ego issue about something like that. This may have been true for the company which controlled the city as its prized headquarters, a hard-won seat of power for them. But it was just peachy for everyone else who lived there. Talenqual was a good city. It just wasn’t famous.

It was, in fact, a lot nicer to live in than other cities. Like, say, Liscor, the Drake city that had been popping up in the news lately. Talenqual was much nicer than Liscor vis-à-vis their location, natural resources, and most importantly, discretionary budget. As a port city, Talenqual could trade on its nali-stick fields, abundant orchards, pastoral land, as well as pull in trade and sustain itself with fishing. By contrast, Liscor survived solely based on its limited holdings and its army, which was never around to actually defend the city.

True, the company controlling Talenqual, the Featherfolk Brigade, had only a fraction of its forces near the city. But the company acted as a support to the local law enforcement, and it never left Talenqual unguarded. Additionally and more importantly, the Featherfolk Brigade was willing to pay to eliminate threats it couldn’t be pressed to deal with itself.

So, snakes. About two and a half weeks ago, a group of Silver-rank teams had gotten wind of a possible dungeon near Talenqual. They had dug into it and, as was the way of many dungeon raids, uncovered death and monsters instead of treasure. They had unwittingly unleashed a pack of massive snakes capable of swallowing regular warriors whole.

It might have meant the end of the Silver-rank teams, but an unusually rapid and effective response from the city’s highest-level inhabitants had destroyed almost all of the giant snakes in a short, one-sided battle. It was a triumph that had saved lives and come at no real cost. A wonderful achievement.

However, it didn’t mean all the snakes were dead. A lot had been killed, skinned, and harvested for meat and other parts (giant snake eyes were a delicacy), but the city was well aware of the dangers if the giant snakes were left to reproduce or if more were left unchecked. So they’d put a hefty bounty on snakes. And as the torrential spring rains let up one midmorning, one group of adventurers was there to collect.

A trio of giant serpents slithered out of their lair, angry and looking for blood. A Human fled ahead of them, arms pumping wildly as she ran for her life. The snakes followed her, fast as horses. The young woman had a head start, but they were closing fast. And they were angry; the smoke and controlled fire the adventurer had set outside of their subterranean home probably played a part.

They were going to catch her. Siri looked over her shoulder as she dashed out of the clearing around the snake’s lair and towards the edge of the forest ahead. The snakes were hot on her heels. But if she could just make it to the trees—!

One of the serpents coiled and sprang. Siri saw it coming as she glanced back and swerved. She heard a huge impact to her right and decided that was too close. The watchers in the trees agreed.

Now!

A hail of crossbow bolts struck the serpent that had leapt at Siri, going for the eyes. The snake recoiled as the steel-tipped bolts clattered off its scales; two landed but barely went through the thick scales of the snake. Too far away. Siri swore and doubled her sprint. The snakes’ attention split between her and the forest. They had sensed the heat coming off the group in the forest. Two split off while one kept chasing Siri.

“Hit the eyes! Hit the bloody eyes!

A male voice shouted as a second volley flew from the trees. This time his order had an effect; one of the snakes reared back, making a pained hissing sound like steam escaping a twelve-foot kettle as it reared back. The other bolts snapped or bounced off. And the two snakes were heading into the forest—Siri dodged into the trees as the one following her lunged again and hit a tree.

Now the snakes were close to the attackers. They slithered around the trees, looking for their prey. They’d sensed the heat of their would-be victims. And they were…

Up?

One of the giant snakes, patterned purple and green across its massive head, looked up. It opened its mouth, exposing a set of small, fanged teeth. Daly, sitting in the treetop, realized that meant it wasn’t actually venomous. It was a relative of the boa constrictor, which squeezed its prey to death before consuming it whole.

This breed of giant serpent had clearly taken a similar, but different approach; with its humongous body it could literally smash a bear or deer to death without worrying about horns or claws damaging its armored body. It was clearly an apex predator in many regards. For a moment the Australian adventurer marveled at the magical biodiversity of nature. Then he pulled the trigger and shot a crossbow bolt straight through its eye.

“Got it! Two have only one eye; take the others out!”

Around him, the Bushrangers shouted as they poured more crossbow bolts down. The snakes, writhing in agony, struck the trees with their heads, shaking the branches, but failing to dislodge the adventurers. The Bushrangers had chosen their positions well. Daly loaded his crossbow as he looked around.

“Where’s the third serpent!?”

He saw movement in the trees. Daly heard a shout and swore as he stood up on his branch. He was very high up and felt a jolt in his stomach. But he had to see. Where was she—there!

Siri was running towards them, dodging through the trees as her enraged snake tried to follow her. It was quick, but the trees were slowing it down, giving it no opportunity to spring again. It was still too fast, though. Daly looked down. Siri was passing a very tense set of trees. Almost, almost…he waited until the serpent was passing by the stand of thick-trunked trees and then shouted.

Edima, now!

A group of Dullahans exploded from their cover. The Rustless Guard, a group of Dullahans wearing armor led by Captain Edima, leapt forwards and hauled on the ropes they’d set between the trees. The thick coils of ropes came up and suddenly, the giant snake found itself snared. By a net! It turned, but the Dullahans were braced and heaving hard; six of them drew up the net and secured it to the pre-cut anchors in the trees.

They’d formed an enclosure around the snake! It immediately tried to break free, but the ropes were as thick around as Daly’s arm and secured hard; the giant monster also had no room to move as the ropes forced its body into the enclosure. It heaved and Daly saw the ropes strain, but it was trapped.

For now. It could break free, but this bought them time. Daly whistled as he saw Siri come to a halt. Edima turned and he pointed.

“Snakes inbound! Get ready!”

The two serpents had noticed the Dullahans on the ground and decided to give up trying to knock the crossbow-wielding adventurers off their trees. They slithered forwards and Edima shouted.

“Rustless Guard, forward!”

Her Dullahans moved forwards, shouting as they brought up their heavy weapons. Warhammers, axes, shields—they were a heavily-armed and armored team. By contrast, the Bushrangers were light on gear. Daly turned to his team.

“We’re going down! Move it!”

His team scrambled down from the trees. They’d all taken positions at least fifteen feet in the air, well above the serpents, but that meant they’d normally have a terrible time getting down without risking broken bones. Normally, except for what they were all wearing.

Harnesses. And as Daly grabbed a rope and checked his figure-eight knot, he grasped the rope tied to his harness and jumped. He immediately went down, but slowly; he used one hand to lower himself at a controlled drop to the ground. The rope was running through a device attached to his harness; as Daly jumped down his tree trunk, he watched it taking the rope, letting him stop himself from falling too fast.

The other Bushrangers were doing the same. Six adventurers plunged out of the trees with Daly to varying degrees of expertise. It was a textbook maneuver, one they’d practiced. But it went wrong. Halfway down, Daly heard a ping from his left. He looked over just in time to see one of the metal devices snap. The man holding onto his rope dropped with a scream.

Dawson!

The Australian hit the ground with a thump. Daly shouted. He leapt downwards and tore himself loose from his ropes. Cursing, he ran over to his friend in the harness. Dawson was sitting up, but his face was white.

“My—my shoulder—”

Daly saw a horrible protrusion poking out of Dawson’s shoulder blade, moving the leather armor he was wearing. He swore. Then he noticed Dawson’s right leg was also sitting at a bad angle.

“Hold on! Don’t move! Tofte! Cover Dawson! Drag him away! The rest of you, harnesses off! Follow me!”

He couldn’t focus on Dawson. The Rustless Guard had engaged the serpents in the trees and all Daly could see were the backs of the serpents. He yanked off the restrictive harness, swearing as he tried to pull it off one leg. Then he charged forwards. Four of the Bushrangers went with him as Tofte ran over to Dawson.

The fight with the giant serpents was one that had happened before. And Captain Edima’s team had been part of it. They’d lost horribly; the serpents had sent the Silver-rank adventurers fleeing, helpless in front of their superior size and strength and armor. But that was because they’d been surprised. And that was the thing about adventurers; if they survived, they learned from their mistakes. And they didn’t lose twice.

This time, there were only three serpents. And they were fighting in a bad environment. The trees prevented the giant constrictors from moving as freely. And the Rustless Guard was fighting in the gaps, refusing to be encircled or let the snakes bite them. And as the Bushrangers charged in, they developed another advantage.

Nets!

Daly shouted as his team grabbed the nets they’d tossed to the ground and rushed to help bind the serpents. It was quick, desperate work; the snakes did not want to be bound, but their heads were busy biting and striking at the Dullahans. And that gave the Bushrangers time to sling ropes and nets underneath the huge serpents and pull, anchoring the ropes to trees, and limiting the serpent’s mobility.

It wasn’t clean. Daly swore as the serpent he was trying to force a rope under twisted and nearly crushed his entire arm. He wrenched his limb free, feeling a moment of horrible pain, but getting clear before it took his arm. And when he got a rope under it and began to ensnare it, anchoring the other end to a tree while Siri wrapped up the snake and anchored her section, he saw two other members of his team struggling.

Tie the knot!

Kami, an Australian girl, was shouting at Aldenon. He was struggling with his end of rope and the serpent whose tail they’d grabbed wasn’t having it. Daly turned.

“Kami! Don’t try and hold it yourself! Don’t—”

Too late. As Kami began to let go, the snake twisted and tore itself free of the ropes. Aldenon fell backwards as the rope came loose in a tangle that snapped himself across the face. Kami screamed; Daly saw that she’d been pulled right off her feet. She fell down and he realized the force of the snake had nearly wrenched her arms out of their sockets.

Damn, damn—

Daly sprinted over towards Kami and dragged her back. He grabbed the rope as Aldenon retied the knot and got the snake’s midsection this time. It strained at the rope and the entire rope nearly snapped, but suddenly it was anchored. And the Rustless Guard descended on the snakes as the remaining Bushrangers continued to ensnare the snakes. But that was only the distraction.

The nets held the snakes; the Dullahans finished the job. Edima and three Dullahans waded into the snake that had knocked Kami off her feet; they’d brought warhammers and began hacking at the snake’s head as it found itself more and more restricted. Unable to dodge or move away, the snake bit and head-butted furiously. But it was trapped. And for all its scales were tough, with a good swing and the right weapon, the scales opened up.

The first snake collapsed after five minutes of fighting, the remains of its head a mess of gouged flesh and deformed impact from the warhammers. The Dullahans turned to the second, which was still fighting the nets. It tore itself free of one anchor as a rope snapped, but the Dullahans kept the head at bay as Edima and another Dullahan attacked the midsection. It was firmly held in place so the Dullahans didn’t risk fighting the head; they just hacked the snake in two.

“[Razor Slash]!”

Edima’s axe sliced through the first layer of scales and flesh like it were paper. Her battleaxe dug into the snake as it screamed; the other Dullahan helped her keep chopping through the snake. It survived the bisection, but it died shortly thereafter. That just left the third snake, still enmeshed in the trap.

“What do we reckon?”

Daly panted as he watched the second snake’s mouth fall open and the weakly writhing body stop at last. Edima wiped blood out of her eyes; the arms and front of her armor were soaked red. She looked grimly at the snake.

“Same as the other two. We’ll cut through its body; we can save the head.”

“Got it. Bushrangers—”

“Or we could try wrapping it up.”

Daly paused. He looked at the Dullahan [Captain]; she had dark skin but blonde hair, a combination not seen often on Earth. She paused to look at him as her team formed up.

“We could capture it. If you have more ropes and you think we could, Sir Daly—we could drag it back to Talenqual. It would be an effort, but I think many [Beast Masters] would pay a lot of gold for a snake like this.”

“Seriously?”

The Dullahan nodded seriously. She kept her eyes on the serpent all the while; it was fighting the ropes and Daly could see some of the fibers snapping; the nets wouldn’t hold forever.

“Snakes can be trained. Or kept as a pet, even. And if you breed them for food or eggs…”

“Daly.”

Siri came up, panting. The other Bushrangers were on their feet, even Kami, and they looked tired, but mostly unhurt. Daly hesitated. All eyes were on him, both his team’s and the Rustless Guard. He thought for a second then shook his head.

“No. Too risky. We can’t haul it all the way, and I don’t trust our ropes. Take it out, Captain Edima.”

“Yes, sir. You, you, and—”

Edima turned instantly and selected three of her people. Daly didn’t watch them take out the final snake. He looked at Siri.

“Help them out. I’m checking on Dawson.”

She nodded. She had a coil of rope slung over her shoulder and her crossbow in her other hand, loaded and aimed at the ground.

“Got it. You want me to shoot the eyes out?”

“Apparently we can get as much as a gold coin for each eye. So no, not unless they’re struggling.”

Siri nodded. Daly jogged back through the trees. He found Dawson sitting with his back to the tree. Tofte was covering him with a crossbow and shortsword. The young man from Norway looked up sharply.

“How’s it?”

“All sorted. Dawson, mate. How’re you doing?”

The Australian grinned palely at Daly.

“Fuck me, Daly. I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder. And my leg’s twisted or—my damn gri-gri broke!”

Daly nodded. He’d seen the metal piece snap off during the descent. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though. Sorry it happened? Too bad?

“Glad you didn’t fall further. Too bad you didn’t fall on your head though; you’d be fine, then.”

Dawson laughed, swore, and cursed Daly at the same time. The Australian breathed a sigh of relief. He straightened and looked at Tofte.

“We’re going to need a stretcher.”

“I can walk. Just give me a shoulder—”

“Forget it. We’ll get Edima’s squad to help us out. For now—let’s get one worked out. Tofte, break out those blankets from the packs…”

And then it was over. Edima’s squad finished off their serpent without more than a bite on one of the Dullahan’s arms, and healing potions sorted out the rest. They came over, panting, drinking water, stamina potions or healing potions, and gathered around Dawson. Daly started giving orders after a short break.

“Alright, we’ve nearly got a stretcher worked out. Tofte’s got crafting Skills. Edima, anyone in your team have any classes in crafting?”

The Dullahan shook her head. She was washing her iron armor off; bugs were already landing and circling.

“I’m afraid I don’t. How is your man? Is he injured beyond a healing potion?”

“Shoulder’s dislocated. According to Geneva, we don’t want to use a healing potion. She needs to set it right. And his leg…I’m not sure how bad it is.”

“Doctor G will put me right. Don’t you dare pour a healing potion on me.”

Dawson groaned. He was fading. Daly looked around quickly.

“Siri.”

“Right here.”

The Swedish girl was cutting some rope up to help make the stretcher. Daly nodded in the direction of the main road, some three miles south of here.

“See if you can get to the road with…Kami. Your arms alright, Kami? Good. Then go over there and find a Runner or someone willing to give us a lift for Dawson. I want him back in Talenqual fast. Make sure it’s a smooth ride—and then call for our friends from the Runner’s Guild. Uh…”

“Pihava and Bault?”

“Exactly. I want them and…make it two other pairs with big wagons. We’ll get Dawson to the road.”

“Got it, boss.”

Siri and Kami turned and grabbed their packs before heading out at a jog. Daly looked around.

“Edima?”

“Sir?”

The Dullahan straightened. Daly saw her team glance up and caught himself. They weren’t in a combat situation so he took a breath.

“Sorry. Captain Edima, I would be very grateful if your team would assist us with butchering the serpents. The critters are already gnawing at them and I want to save the meat.”

The Dullahan smiled at Daly.

“Of course. My team is free for whatever you need.”

The Australian nodded.

“Excellent. Then—can you begin cutting the snakes up? Hack them into pieces we can actually carry to the wagons? Try and get them in pieces so we can harvest big chunks of their skin.”

“Of course.”

Dally nodded. He looked at the rest of his Bushrangers.

“As for our team…I’ll help Dawson with that stretcher. Aldenon, Tobi, you’re both on lookout for anything smelling blood. The rest of you, let’s make up something to help drag the snakes towards the road…”

And so they did. It wasn’t as easy as Daly made it out to be; without her [Razor Cut] Skill, Edima and her team had a hard time making precise cuts and the bloody snake parts were being covered in bugs. The Dullahans swore and their armor got bloody and dirty, as did the precious snake parts. And dragging them through the jungle was a hellish ordeal; Daly had to come back and help once he had helped lift Dawson up with two Dullahans and bring him towards the road. Three miles of walking through forest, and then flatter ground was no fun for Dawson. He fainted when they dropped him, but he said little. He just gave Daly a thumbs-up when he got to the wagon.

“Sorry for falling back there, Daly.”

“You did nothing wrong. Your device broke, Dawson. You just rest up. Geneva’ll see to you as soon as you get back. You’ll be on your feet by the end of the day.”

There was hope in Dawson’s eyes as he leaned back in the small rickshaw Pihava had galloped over with.

“That’s be nice. Hell of a thing, healing potions. Back home, this would have…”

He trailed off. Daly checked him anxiously, but Dawson was just unconscious. Daly looked at Kami.

“You go with him. Tell Geneva to check out your arms. And put in a message at the Adventurer’s Guild that we have oversized snakes ready for dissection. They’ll probably direct you to a [Butcher]’s—have them meet us at the gates.”

“You got it.”

Kami swung herself up into the rickshaw. Pihava pawed the ground anxiously.

“Your friend’s okay?”

“Right as rain, Pihava. He’s not badly hurt. Thanks for getting here.”

The Centauress smiled.

“No problem. And your other wagons are on the way!”

Daly waved her off, then went to help pull the snakes out of the jungle. Three miles of carrying bloody, buggy, smelling snake parts, sometimes as a group of eight, balancing the bloody harvest on their shoulders. That wasn’t the part of adventuring you ever thought about, but the snakes were money. As much money as his team would get for killing the damn things. Daly sent off one wagon full of the bloody cargo for immediate butchering in Talenqual; he warned the drivers they’d have to wash off the meat first. The Centaur, Bealt, just laughed.

“Don’t worry. Our [Butchers] will get good cuts. And they’ll make sure nothing lays eggs in the meat. Good thing you went to the Adventurer’s Guild; they’ll hire quality butchers.”

The other three Centaurs shuddered as they turned and began lugging the laden wagons back with them. Daly grimaced as well; he knew the bugs of Baleros were nasty and imagining one of the horde of bugs swarming the snake meat laying eggs he might eat…well, his stomach was already turning and he was covered in guts and blood. Best not to think about it.

“Is your team coming with us, then?”

The final wagon pulled by two Centaurs eyed Daly’s team apprehensively. It was a crowd. Daly shook his head.

“Not us. We’ll call for another pair of wagons, I think. Can you pull your wagon a bit off road? Sorry, but we have one last stop to make.”

The Centaur shrugged.

“You’re paying us. You’ve got more stuff for us to carry?”

“Yeah. Little snakes and eggs.”

The Bushrangers hadn’t forgotten the would-be dungeon and snake’s lair. A final return trip took nearly an hour, which made Daly regret hiring the third wagon; they got paid for waiting about. But it was fruitful. Cleared of their adults, the Bushrangers and Rustless guard found two baby snakes the size of doors and a heap of eggs.

“Oh my god! I’m gonna throw up.”

One of the Bushrangers looked green at the sight of the pile of giant eggs. Daly almost laughed.

This bothers you?”

“It does when they’re so big! And they almost look like chicken eggs!”

Aldenon shook his head. He eyed the eggs mistrustfully, as did Edima’s group.

“Are we smashing them, Daly? Burning?”

“Neither. We’re taking Edima’s suggestion. We take the snakes and eggs. Alive and intact. Come on, we’ll take the eggs in pairs. Wrap those snake babies up.”

More work. By this point, both teams groaned, even the stalwart Dullahans, but Daly and Edima egged their teams on, partly with bad puns, partly with the thought of how much live snake eggs were worth. Daly shouted as his team lifted the eggs, groaning at the weight.

“You want to earn some spending money? Think of how much a [Beast Tamer] pays for a serpent egg! Or how much it’s worth to someone who likes eating the stuff! I’m sure some Lizardfolk [Chef] will pay gold for these. Drop it and you drop our income, got it?”

That did the trick. In the end, Daly bullied, coerced, and flattered the teams into filling the Centaur’s wagon. By that point two more wagons had returned with Pihava and Bealt leading one, and three wagons returned to Talenqual. The bloody, dirty, sweaty adventurers sat in the back, washing themselves off with the last of their water. They were tired and exhausted. But the instant they saw the city, their spirits rose.

“Drive us straight to the harbor, Pihava, Bealt! I’m jumping in the water!”

One of the Bushrangers called out to their Centaur Runners. The two chuckled. Daly would have loved to join them, but he regretfully called the wagons to halt.

“I’m going with the eggs and little snake babies. Adventurer’s guild, please.”

“I will go with you.”

Edima looked like she could have used a dip in the ocean too, but she offered and Daly accepted. Their wagon went to the Adventurer’s Guild. Happily, a Centauress [Receptionist] was already waiting for them with Siri.

“We thought you’d be back earlier. What’s this? Eggs? And…”

The [Receptionist]’s eyes widened as she saw the snake babies. Siri blinked at the large serpents, still very young but still as big as any snake Daly had ever seen in Australia.

“They’re adorable!”

“They weigh a ton. Miss, can we sell these? And these eggs are all fertilized so they contain live snakes. No telling on when they’re hatching. Can we sell them to the Guild?”

The Centauress blinked hard, but selling giant snake eggs was, in fact, a situation she’d been trained for.

“Of course. We’ll need to find buyers quick. But I can quote you a price now. Or we can negotiate on what the Guild gets…”

“We’ll let the Guild do the sale and take our cut, thanks.”

“Of course. As for the little snakes, let me contact a [Beast Master] right now.”

The Centauress trotted off quickly. Siri peered at one of the snakes that Daly had roped up to prevent it from moving.

“It’s cute. Could we keep one, maybe?”

Keep—you want one of those? As a pet?”

“We could try. Imagine having a fully-grown snake if one of our team became a [Beast Master]? I could try.”

Siri gently stroked the little snake’s head. It was quivering a bit; Daly stared at it. It was cute. But…he sighed.

“We can’t feed one of those yet. Sorry, Siri. But imagine how much meat it’ll eat? And finding a place for it? No.”

She looked so crestfallen, Daly had to throw her a bone.

“Tell you what. If we find a cuter, smaller animal on another hunt, we can talk about keeping the babies. If we find them. Deal?”

“Deal.”

She smiled. Now Daly would have to worry about Siri suggesting monster hunting contracts from now on. Then again…he did feel a pang of regret as he imagined a giant, fully-grown snake for a war pet. But the sight of a [Beast Master] Lizardman hurrying back and the gold he gave Daly for the snakes and three of the eggs was very soothing in itself.

Daly waited for the Centauress to give him a receipt for the remaining eggs, the money from the [Butchers] who’d dissected the snake parts, and then he claimed the bounty for the destruction of three giant snakes and their nest.

Money, money, money. Daly counted it all, put it in a bulging coin pouch, and then he had to go to the harbor and wash the blood and filth off him. Siri and Edima joined them. The Dullahan sighed as she splashed the salty water on her armor.

“At last! I was about to become sick.”

“Bloody oath! That’s a good feeling!”

Daly dunked himself twice, sighing as he felt so much cleaner. A fish swam up and nibbled at a bit of snake; he watched it flit away through the water, then turned.

“So. How was that for our first big team-up? Captain Edima, mind joining us for a drink? Because I think we deserve some congratulations…and we should talk about how it went.”

The Dullahan paused in the act of scrubbing at her hair. She’d taken off her head to more easily tend to it, and Daly was curious to see how the water interacted with the vacant gap between her shoulders, from which light red mist was drifting. To his surprise, the water just flowed over the opening, and the mist disappeared, but a red light shone from inside the Dullahan’s body when she dunked herself. The head glared and Siri poked Daly.

“Don’t be lewd.”

“Lewd? I ah—come on! Sorry, Captain Edima.”

The Dullahan blushed a bit.

“Edima is fine, Sir Daly.”

“Then Daly’s fine, at least when we’re not uh, working. A drink?”

She nodded as she fastened her head to her shoulders. Daly chose the nearest pub and wasted no time; the Bushrangers and Rustless Guard were waiting, so he handed Edima a stack of coins.

“This is your team’s share. We’ll get more later, and sort out the exact numbers, but pass this out, please, Edima. And as for you Bushrangers…”

He passed out a gold coin apiece. Edima looked shocked; her team had taken the smaller cut and each member was still getting a good bit more than that. Siri smiled as she explained.

“It’s company money. This is their bonus.”

“Ah. I see.”

The Dullahan nodded a few times. Daly nodded as well and waved a hand. He raised his voice.

“We’ll see about the rest, and I’ll get this to Paige. But for tonight, your first three drinks are on me, both teams!”

They cheered loudly at that. Daly smiled as the Humans began shouting orders at the Lizardgirl server who came by, and the Dullahans raised their hands, letting their team go in order of importance. He excused himself and took another table with Edima and Siri. They settled down and Edima looked at Daly. He lifted a hand as a second [Server], a Centaur, delicately navigated around the tables.

“Excuse me. I’d like a mug of whatever beer you have.”

“We’ve got several. Have a preference?”

“Uh—your best bitter.”

“That will be a Calian lager. And who’s next?”

The Centaur looked at Daly. Both he and the Human were keenly aware that rank mattered, so Daly instantly turned to Edima.

“Edima’s next.”

She nodded appreciatively.

“I will have some dry Seamaster’s Gin.”

“And for you?”

Siri paused.

“I’ll try the gin as well.”

“I’ll have your drinks in a moment. Are you paying for that table?”

“That’s right. Send the bill over here, thanks.”

The Centaur blinked a few times. Daly clarified.

“We’ll pay.”

He nodded and trotted off. Daly sighed as he leaned back. It was amazing how many linguistic similarities this world had with his. But the concept of a ‘bill’ was still foreign to most places, especially since that was a waste of paper, parchment, and ink. He waited until everyone had a drink and downed half of his mug. Then he decided to order an appetizer.

“Got any snacks?”

The Centaur raised his eyebrow.

“How do you feel about shrimp? Sautéed?”

“Beautiful. Give us a plate and some for that lot.”

“Four plates, then?”

“Sure.”

Daly smiled as the Centaur left and came back minutes later with some hot, spiced shrimps that earned him another cheer. He leaned back.

“Captain Edima, help yourself. My team’s eating at headquarters, but a snack’s welcome.”

The Dullahan nodded appreciatively, but she still waited for Daly to snag one of the shrimps first before taking one for herself.

“Indeed it is. You’re quite generous with your team, Daly.”

“Ah, well…”

Daly grimaced. He was a bit embarrassed, actually. Drinks weren’t expensive, and neither were a few plates of shrimp. Compared to the amount of gold still resting in his belt pouch, he was stealing from his team. But it was gold that the entire company would use, so he tried not to feel too bad. He’d definitely ask the [Bartender] to buy a bottle or two for tonight, thought.

“I’m not sure about generous, but after a day of hard work, we’ve all earned a break, Edima. How’re you feeling? Your team?”

The Dullahan stopped chewing and swallowed. She answered slowly, glancing from Daly to Siri. She’d put her head on the table and was feeding it to eat. Daly knew he shouldn’t stare, but Dullahans were still fascinating to him. Half of Edima’s team was doing the same thing, placing their heads on the table rather than keeping them on their shoulders.

“I would say my team is in very good spirits, Captain. As am I. This was one of the smoothest hunts we’ve had. And the least bloody. Not one member of my team was badly hurt, and against those giant snakes? It was refreshing to get back at them.”

She grinned toothily and Daly and Siri nodded. Edima paused.

“I hope your subordinate is well, though. What happened? I didn’t see one of the snakes attacking him.”

“Ah, that? He fell when he was rappelling down.”

“Rappelling?”

“Using ropes to descend the trees. I didn’t see what happened either, Daly. What was it? Did Dawson let go?”

Siri glanced at Daly. The Australian grimaced and took a longer drink before waving for a refill.

“Nope. His, uh, gri-gri broke midway down. Damn thing just fell to pieces.”

Edima looked confused. Siri drew in her breath sharply.

“I thought they were in good condition!”

Daly grimaced.

“So did I. But I guess the [Blacksmith] who worked them up didn’t forge them quite right. Paige is going to be pissed.”

She was the one who’d come up with the idea for the Bushrangers, after all. Although it had been Paige, Dawson, and a few others in their company who’d had the experience with climbing to redevelop the tools from home. Still, just knowing how to tie a figure-eight knot, how to belay, and use a gri-gri had provided a huge advantage. Edima looked very impressed.

“Perhaps the [Blacksmith] is not entirely at fault, although I do not know the mechanism he made. I’ve never heard of a team with the type of gear your team used, Daly, Miss Siri. I know some that can fight in heights, but the way your team went down the trees so quickly…it is profoundly different from how my team operates. No—most Dullahans would not ever dream of climbing trees. Perhaps throwing an arm up for an ambush, but sitting in the trees? The limbs would break under my weight.”

She gestured to her armor. Daly nodded.

“It’s a new tactic on us, too. But I like it. Assuming we can make sure there are no more accidents, we’re going to use this a lot. Sitting in a tree and shooting a Stelbore would be a lot safer than the ground.”

Edima nodded cautiously.

“The Bushranger’s ability to ambush and lay traps is quite amazing. Those ropes simplified a difficult fight, as did smoking the snakes out of their lair. But I hope our teams can continue working together?”

She looked hopeful. And no wonder; over the last two weeks, both her team and the Bushrangers had participated in a number of jobs together without so much as a hitch. This latest one had put more gold into Daly’s pockets and Edima’s than any job he’d done prior to this. He smiled reassuringly.

“No doubt about that. Your Rustless Guard has exactly what my team lacks, Edima. Armor and heavy weaponry. If you’re willing, we’ll definitely work on other jobs. Say in two or three days? Unless a really good job pops up.”

The Dullahan nodded rapidly.

“Of course. This will be a welcome break, and we have money to spend. I will contact you if I see anything. Otherwise, I thank you again for a job well done.”

A smile played over her lips. Daly smiled and lifted his mug as his refill came just in time.

“Cheers!”

 

—-

 

It was only an hour later when Daly left the tavern. The rest of his team he left to their drinks, having covered his promised amount. He might have stayed longer, but he did want a proper meal at the headquarters. And he wanted to check on Dawson.

Siri came with him. Daly had told her she could stay, but like Edima, who’d taken off at the same time, Siri didn’t quite ‘fit’ with the rest of her team. She looked at him as he stuffed the bottle of wine under one arm. She was carrying some of the Seamaster’s Gin, which she’d taken a liking to.

“I’m not quite one of the team, Daly. You and I are team leaders. I can’t always hang out with them.”

“True enough.”

There was a disconnect, sometimes. Daly liked his team and they worked hard, but if it came to something hard to do—like breaking up a fight, assigning punishment, or telling someone off, he had to do it. So did Siri, and that meant friendships and relationships were different. Also, they were the ones who made some of the big decisions for their team.

They were the only ones who knew about Okasha, for one. For another, they were the two who Paige called upon when she talked over problems in their group. Ken, Aiko, Geneva…they made up an inner circle. It was a known fact, and no one had accused them of being dictators. But still.

“Where’s Dawson? Geneva’s clinic?”

“Probably headquarters. She wouldn’t need to treat him that long. She told me she can fix a shoulder or even broken bones quick.”

“If she can cut people open and get to the issue, she can pour healing potion on the bone, yeah. I just wish she had anesthesia.”

Daly shuddered. Siri nodded. Both of them had been patched up by Geneva and the process was more effective than any healing potions thanks to her many Skills. But it hurt. Geneva spot-treated injuries with healing potions, and to do that for, say, internal bleeding, she had to slice your stomach open. While you were looking up at her from the operating table.

“Headquarters it is. Hope Dawson likes this.”

The two headed off one of the main streets and down a fairly well-paved road. Normally they would have had to do a few more turns and twists to get to a poorer street where their cramped headquarters was. But not this time. They reached the United Nations company headquarters ahead of time. And it was a proper headquarters now. A pair of double-story buildings were theirs, and two streets over was Geneva’s clinic, a small place, but very clean and with thick doors. To muffle screams and crying.

“Hoi, Kirana! Is Dawson here?”

Daly opened the door and shouted into the apartment. He heard a voice, then someone pushed out of the kitchen. Priya, one of the Indian girls, pointed shyly next door.

“Kirana’s in the other apartment. Dawson is there too.”

“Got it. Thanks, Priya. Where’s Paige?”

“Same place. Dinner’s here. In twenty minutes.”

Priya pointed to a sand hourglass placed outside of the kitchen. Both Daly and Siri perked up.

“Awesome. In that case, we’ll be right back. And can you send someone here to get the Bushrangers? They’re at…uh, the Lizardgirl’s Frill.”

“Yes.”

That was that. Daly waved as he closed the door. They didn’t have a convenient door linking apartments yet, but Paige was talking Miss Hastel into letting them make one, and Daly had assured the Centauress [Landlady] that he could do it himself if need be. And both buildings were a lot bigger than their previous setup.

Nevertheless, a third building would be nice to avoid people sleeping so close together. And maybe with this…Daly pushed open the door.

“Hey Dawson, you bastard! You’d better not be hurt! We’ve got a job tomorrow!”

“Fuck off!”

A loud, cheerful voice came from a couch. Daly saw Dawson lying on his back, eating some snacks as Kirana and Paige sat in chairs around him. He glared at Daly came into the building.

“I thought you’d be checking on me right out of the clinic! You had a drink, didn’t you? Don’t lie!”

“Everyone had a drink, Dawson. But don’t be too upset or I won’t share this bottle with you. Fancy wine or gin?”

Wine! Who bought the stinking gin?”

Siri went over and handed the bottle to Kirana as the young woman stood up.

“Me. How’re you doing, Dawson?”

The burlier fellow sat up and grimaced.

“I’m good. Doctor Geneva set my arm, which hurt like—but she fixed my foot too. Says I need two days of rest, but if we really have a job…”

“Would I do that to you?”

“Yes.”

Daly grinned as he offered Dawson the bottle. Dawson grunted appreciatively; he liked wine better than beer or spirits, especially the sweeter varieties you could buy. Kirana tutted.

“No drinking from the bottle, please! Here.”

She went into the kitchen and got a cup for Dawson. He poured himself a big drink as some more people came down the stairs.

“Hey Lorenzo, Nicola.”

Daly greeted the two Italians who were walking downstairs. Lorenzo waved and spoke in somewhat mangled English.

“Hello, Daly. You came back?”

Daly paused and enunciated clearly for their benefit.

“From adventuring? Yeah. We got back. We have wine. Want some?”

He pointed. Lorenzo and Nicola brightened considerably. But Kirana fended them off, much to their dismay.

“At dinner! Dinner! We can have some.”

He has some.”

“He fell out of a tree!”

“Out of a…?”

“Tree. Yeah. It’s…Nicola?”

Albero. È caduto da un albero.

“Oh! How?”

Daly laughed. He tried to explain while Paige helped herself to some of Siri’s gin. Kirana took the two bottles away before more could be shared as the others came back. And soon it was time for dinner.

“Oh boy. What’re we eating today?”

Dum aloo—potatoes and a curry sauce with rice. Also, we have some salads, some sweet muffins for desert that Priya has baked. But our main dish is steak.

Daly’s mouth began to water at once. Dawson heaved himself up at once.

“Steak? I love the sound of that!”

“Sit back down. We’ll bring it over.”

Paige pointed at the couch. Dawson lay back, grinning happily. Then he frowned.

“Wait. I thought Indian people can’t eat cows or something.”

“Beef. And that’s not an issue.”

The two Australians frowned.

“Why wouldn’t that be—”

And then Daly realized. He roared in outrage.

“Wait a second, we’re eating snake?

 

—-

 

“To be fair, it was really good snake.”

Daly burped. He had to hand it to Kirana; she’d turned the snake meat from the giant snakes into something that wasn’t only palatable, but tasty. Everyone had stuffed themselves on meat, while the vegetarians that were left had eaten the dum aloo, which really was delicious.

Daly had to admit, ever since Kirana had begun managing the kitchen, the food had turned from passable to downright delicious. If you added that to their new living environs, their teamwork with the Rustless Guard and all the little updates since Geneva had made her big breakthrough…he actually felt good. Strange as that was, Daly felt good about life here. And how crazy was that?

It wasn’t perfect of course. It was just better. Paige had taken one look at the Bushranger’s gold and told Daly a third building wasn’t an option.

“We can’t afford the rent yet. I want to have gold in case of emergencies and even with our jobs, three buildings is pushing it with the other projects we’re committing to. Miss Hastel is charging us as little rent as possible, but we still need to pay her.”

“Hey, I get it. No worries, Paige. We’ve got a lot more room than we did in the old place even with this. Where’s Geneva?”

Daly hadn’t seen her at dinner. Paige sighed.

“At her clinic. She’s working on a new procedure or her antibiotics or something. If she’s not back in an hour I’ll get someone to fetch her.”

“Gotcha. Ken and Aiko, how’s your side of things? Anything happen while we were on our trip?”

Ken relaxed next to the others at their small table. They were in an upstairs room next to Paige’s private workshop. Downstairs they could hear voices, laughter, someone shushing loudly—the others were watching a movie on a laptop with the last of the wine and gin. The mood was good. Ken smiled.

“I did well. My job is mainly listening and talking, so I ended a few fights.”

“What about?”

Paige sighed.

“God. Remember Michael? Well, some of the others have joined him. They’re not getting along with people praying. Especially since some of them want to pray to Mecca. And guess where that is?”

She waved a hand. Daly grimaced.

“So they’re mocking them?”

“Yes. And worse, there’s fighting about which direction they should be praying towards and if there is a god. And let me tell you, that’s not a fun argument to have. Ken sorted it, and I don’t know how.

The young man nodded modestly.

“It is my job. After that I went around the city.”

That meant he was doing the rounds, as some of the others put it. Ken had no set job; the United Nations company didn’t have far-off contacts as of yet. But they did have allies, and Ken made a point of visiting everyone from Miss Hastel to the Silver-rank teams that Daly knew, to [Shopkeepers], [Captains], and so on at least once a week.

He’d go out and buy small gifts, or treat them to a meal, or buy a drink. Small things that he was budgeted for that made everyone favorably inclined towards him. It was an excellent use of a little bit of coin. Ken pretended it wasn’t nearly as important as Daly’s job, or Geneva or Paige’s, but he had been the one who’d been able to call an army to save Eldima and the others back then. But Ken just turned to the young woman sitting next to him.

“Aiko was working at Geneva’s, so I do not know how she is.”

“Good! We saw two patients, both of whom had Yellow River.”

Aiko shuddered. She shook her head.

“But they wanted fast cures, not what Geneva told them to do. Even though her patients in Quallet’s camp got better! I think they will be back, hopefully before it gets worse…but there are a lot of mothers asking about Geneva’s C-section! She doesn’t want to give many, though.”

“Principles.”

Daly sighed. Paige looked annoyed.

“She’s right that not everyone needs them. But we’re getting a steady income from her now. Add it into the jobs people are working and the Bushranger’s money, and we will be able to afford a third building soon. Unless we have anything else we should be spending money on? My workshop and Geneva’s experiments eat up some of our coin, but what should we save up for now?”

The Japanese [Diplomat] twiddled his thumbs absently. He looked up and nodded a few times.

“I think it is time to invest in what Daly called the ‘big things’ now. After the third building, perhaps?”

The others looked at each other. Paige sat up a bit and Siri stopped sipping the last of her cup.

“You think so, Ken?”

He nodded carefully.

“Perhaps not all of our money should go there. Paige’s emergency fund is very wise, I think. So how about this? We save up enough money for her fund. Then we put the rest towards the apartment and rent for a month or two. And then after that? We allocate…twenty percent to paying for things everyone has been asking for. More regular [Repair] spells. Books. Proper beds. Um…”

“Toys?”

Paige suggested a tad bit sarcastically. The [Diplomat] hesitated and gave a [Diplomat]’s response.

“Not toys, but fun tools for everyone to use. A chess set, perhaps. Things like that. But that is twenty percent. The rest should go to buying Daly’s team magical equipment, or Paige some magical wood. Spellbooks. And the boat Luan mentioned last time he was here.”

All eyes turned towards Daly. He felt a skip of excitement in his chest.

“That would be the turning point, sure enough. We’ve been keeping our heads above water. But if we can spring for some actual magical gear, like proper armor or get Paige the materials she needs to make a magical crossbow…”

So far the Bushranger’s income had gone solely towards the company and putting a roof over everyone’s head and feeding them. Daly hadn’t begrudged that, although it had been hard. But now, if all the money everyone made was going towards equipping them…he held his breath. He wasn’t going to push for it. Ken looked around.

“Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“I’m sold. Especially since I’ll get more things to work with. And I want to try and learn magic. I think we all do.”

Paige leaned forwards, nodding. Siri did to, as did Aiko. That meant all of the current leaders were in agreement, and Daly didn’t think Geneva would object that hard either. He smiled.

“Then it’s settled. We’ll all draw up a wish list and take turns getting what we need. I’d be happy to make that a first priority after a third building and a spellbook. The Bushrangers have added a few of our own, but if I could get two or three [Mages] working with us, we’d be able to do a lot more.”

“Count me in. I want to learn magic.”

Siri nodded. Aiko was sighing. Everyone was, actually. Magic. Now that would be something worth all the struggles. Ken clapped his lands lightly, looking pleased.

“In that case, I think we have done well. Daly, thank you and your team for working so hard.”

The others murmured their agreement. Daly grinned at Siri.

“Ah, it’s nothing. We’re going to be loafing around for a day or two anyways. But I’ll light a fire under the asses of the Bushrangers and they’ll work twice as hard once they hear they’re going to get some gear. That’s all I’ve got. Anyone else have something to bring up?”

They didn’t. So that night’s meeting of the United Nations leadership adjourned. Daly stretched as he got up.

“I need a bath.”

“Me first.”

Siri pushed past him. Daly sighed, but let her go ahead. Baths were a luxury, given that you had to get the water yourself. He glanced around as he filed out of the room. Paige was still seated, and she was giving him…he paused and let Ken and Aiko pass by.

“We should call this the security council meeting or something. Of the United Nations? Only, we actually like each other and get things done.”

Aiko laughed a bit. Ken looked blank.

“Is that a joke? I’m sorry, I don’t understand it.”

“You know, the security council from…never mind.”

Daly put his head against the doorframe. Ken smiled again and Daly heard him ask Aiko something in Japanese—probably for an explanation. They left and Daly waited a beat before looking back.

“Something up?”

Paige slowly got up from her chair. She nodded at the door and Daly tilted his head. Everyone else was out of earshot. She walked past.

“Let me get some things. We’re going for a walk.”

“Why?”

She didn’t reply. Curious, Daly went downstairs and found that Geneva had finally returned. She was eating in the kitchen as the others watched Les Misérables on a laptop. Daly waved at her as Geneva munched on cold snake steak.

“Hey Geneva, how’s it going?”

“Good.”

He waited. Geneva chewed her bite and looked up. She paused.

“I didn’t have anything extraordinary happen to me. I saw Dawson; he wasn’t too badly hurt but the fall could have been worse. Be careful with that climbing.”

Daly nodded.

“It was the uh, gri-gri that snapped. We’ll check our gear carefully, maybe get more made and test them out.”

“Got it. I heard you killed some snakes.”

“That’s right. I think you’re eating some of them.”

The [Doctor] paused in her next bite. She hesitated, then took a bite. She chewed, and Okasha’s voice, higher-pitched and decidedly more cheerful, came out of Geneva’s mouth.

“Not bad!”

“Hey, Okasha. Take care of Geneva for us, will you?”

“Will do. Don’t get upset, Geneva. It’s just snake…”

“I hate snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

Daly snorted and left before Okasha could ask what was so funny. Geneva had a sense of humor? He was about to tell Paige about that as she came down the stairs. Then he noticed the look on her face. The hint of tension, hidden, and the very large, and very bulky object she had wrapped up in a sack that she was carrying oh, so carefully. Daly hesitated. Could she have…?

“Where to?”

“Outside.”

Paige stepped behind the glowing laptop’s screen and Daly followed. No one else commented; they were too busy watching the movie. The two Australians walked out of the building, down the steps, and then down the street. Daly eyed Paige and the thing she was holding. It was round, and she had a smaller burden clutched in one hand.

“Can I take…?”

“No. Take the smaller one and for the love of god, don’t drop it. And don’t let anyone see until we’re out of the city.”

“How far out?”

“To a place no one can see. It’ll take twenty minutes. Come on. This is heavy.”

Paige picked up the pace. Daly glanced down at the small object she’d handed him. It too was concealed in a sack, but as he looked at it, something on the back of his neck began to prickle. Daly didn’t have [Dangersense], but if he had he thought it would be going off right now.

And his intuition was good, so he followed Paige swiftly, bearing his small burden carefully as could be. As they walked through the dark streets of Talenqual, both he and Paige stayed well away from anyone carrying a torch, a lantern, or any kind of fire.

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes of power walking later, Paige and Daly were well outside of Talenqual and in a private area of trees, off the main road. It wasn’t so deep that they couldn’t run for Talenqual; you could even see the city if you walked back a bit. But it was private—they’d passed by the outer farms and orchards to the left and gone off the main trade road.

It wasn’t exactly quiet about; the local wildlife had a cacophony of their own. But Daly sincerely doubted they had an audience.

“Alright. What’ve you got to show me you didn’t want to tell the others about?”

Daly turned to Paige. She bit her lip as she slowly and gingerly lowered her burden down.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell them. I just don’t know whether I should. Especially Geneva. Siri will need to know, but you asked for this and I…wanted to get your opinion first. Remember what you asked me for? It’s done.”

She reached out and took Daly’s much more lightweight burden from him. She opened it up and gingerly pulled something out. Daly’s pulse skyrocketed at once.

They came in many shapes. And they didn’t look like the ones you saw on TV, most of the time. Except that at some point, they probably had. And the little, papier-mâché sphere the size of Daly’s hand looked exactly like one of those cartoons. Except that the orb was a whitish-grey color, not black. And the fuse was a lot, lot longer than normal and it wasn’t lit. Otherwise? It was a bomb.

“Fuck me sideways. Is that a grenade?”

“You asked me to make one. So I did.”

Paige hunched her shoulders. She stared down at the bomb—no, the grenade-sized bomb in her hand. Daly’s skin crawled. I was just holding that! He looked at the little sphere.

“Is it safe?”

The [Engineer] looked up irritably.

“I wouldn’t have given it to you if it wasn’t safe! Don’t worry. I’ve thrown these things, knocked them about—at a distance—even put an arrow through one. They don’t explode unless there’s fire and the sphere is sealed tight. But yes, this is a grenade. Packed with gunpowder. You want to see what it does?”

Daly nodded. He stared at the little orb. Paige had actually made…? His skin was crawling with unease. He’d never seen a real weapon like this up close. She took a few breaths.

“Okay. I’m going to light it, toss it, and it’ll go off. I didn’t fill it with anything but gunpowder, so it’ll explode, but we’ll be safe. I’ll throw it there. See? I have a clear shot. ”

She walked a good bit away from the bag she’d put down and reached for her belt. She cursed.

“Damn it. I forgot to bring a lantern or something. I need to make some fire. Give me a second?”

“Sure.”

“Hold this.”

Daly froze as Paige tossed the bomb at him. He swore as he caught it.

“Don’t do that!”

“It won’t go off. Stop being a baby. You said you wanted this and I made it.”

“Yeah, but I don’t juggle explosives. Isn’t there a chance it could ignite?”

“Probably? But it’s humid. Here. Hand it back.”

Paige had a small burning candle in one hand. Daly gingerly handed it back and the girl took a breath.

“Okay. Here goes.”

She swiftly lit the fuse with one end. Daly saw the flame slowly burning down the waxy rope and Paige turned. She threw the orb far and fast between a group of trees; it hit the ground and rolled for a moment. Daly watched the fuse burning. The fire didn’t exactly race down it. Still, he held his breath. Until he realized it was going to take a bit.

“Sort of slow.”

“I haven’t figured out how the fuse works best yet. And I’ve made them long for a reason.”

“Still, if we’re using this in a combat situation—”

“Just watch this one, okay?”

Daly shut up and did just that. He shifted from foot to foot as the fuse slowly burnt away. It really was too long, but Paige’ eyes were locked on the little orb. Daly wondered how much of a bang it would make. Surely not much? Grenades were small, but weren’t they filled with…higher-grade gunpowder or something? Paige had just gotten the ingredients for the stuff a little while ago. So surely—

Bang.

That was the sound the orb made. But it wasn’t a ‘bang’, or a mere pop of sound. It was a full explosion that made Daly half-duck and shot his heart up into his mouth. The sounds of the jungle instantly stopped. And the explosion was a lot larger than he’d thought. He felt the wind change from where he was standing and when he stared at the spot where the orb had been…

“Damn.”

Daly had to force himself to inspect the blast spot. It took a moment to find the actual impact spot; some of the forest floor had been blown away, but the actual zone of impact was very small. He looked at Paige.

“That was a lot bigger than I thought it would be! But the impact…”

She shook her head.

“If you’d have been standing next to it, that wouldn’t have been fun, believe me. But grenades don’t do damage because of the explosion. It’s the shrapnel that does it. And I used paper and nothing else. That was a demo. What do you think?”

“What do I think? I think you just made a grenade, Paige! In what, two weeks? Who’s a rocket scientist, then?”

Daly grinned shakily at her. But Paige didn’t look pleased. She pointed at the bit of overturned earth.

“If I gave you some of those, Daly, shortened the fuses, and packed them with some rocks or metal, they’d be like grenades. What do you think? Would they help out your Bushrangers against those snakes you fought this morning?”

The adventurer hesitated. He looked back at the blast zone and forced himself to think. If they were filled with shrapnel and he threw, say, four of them…if you tossed one in a snake’s mouth, that might be different, but if it hit their armor? Reluctantly, he shook his head.

“I don’t think so, Paige. Grenades were anti-people weapons, right? You could shred some people if they were bunched up with one of these, but not a monster. Ironic, huh?”

He glanced up. Paige shook her head slowly. Slowly, she bent and reached for the second sack, the much larger one.

“I was afraid you’d say that. Okay. In that case, I’ve made this.”

This time she pulled out a bomb. Daly recoiled; this wasn’t a grenade. It was a bit smaller than a basketball, with an iron outer shell and a wick. It looked like a bomb from a cartoon. But the way Paige held it, and the look on her face…

“You carried that around?”

“What am I supposed to do, cart it? And if you use this—if anyone does, they have to stand some bouncing. I’m going to light this, so you and I need to run at least a hundred feet out of the trees. See this fuse?”

She indicated the very long piece of string. Daly stared at it.

“A hundred feet? We won’t even see—”

“You don’t want to see it any closer. Believe me. You get back. I’m lighting this thing. I’ve filled this with shrapnel. A hundred feet out of the trees at least. I’m running for two hundred and you and I are staying close to the ground. There’s an incline over there; we take cover behind it.”

Paige set the bomb down. Daly hesitated. Then he turned and ran. He found the incline and, panting, crouched down behind it. He glanced up and saw Paige running after him. She tumbled over the rise of dirt and panted.

‘Get down!

She lay flat. Daly hesitated.

“Hold on, we’re far enough, aren’t—”

“Get down, you idiot! Or do you want to be hit! Cover your face and stay down! Shrapnel could still hit—”

Maybe this fuse was faster, or the run had taken longer than Daly thought. Either way, this time the explosion made his heart stop. It was so loud, he heard his ears ringing.

They had to have heard that in Talenqual! What if someone investigates?

Daly nearly got up but Paige held him down. She waited for ten seconds. Only then did she get up.

“Let’s see.”

This time the blast wasn’t hard to miss. Nor was the destruction. Daly stared at the shredded tree trunks, and then at a tree. It had fallen down, and he could see a few bits of metal embedded in the trunk. Shakily, he looked over at Paige.

“You could blow up a house with that! And you had that in your workshop?”

“I kept it locked away. But yes, I did. And you asked me to make this thing.”

That was true. But Daly still couldn’t believe it. He looked at Paige, shaking his head.

“You made a bomb? Just like that?”

She nodded. Paige looked around, but there weren’t any pieces of the bomb’s casing left to find on the ground. She slowly shook her head and bit her lip.

“I’m not happy about this, Daly. I know I said I could do it. But it was too easy to make. Once I had the ingredients, it took me three days of careful experimentation to figure out the right ratio of sulfur, saltpeter, and charcoal to make the gunpowder. I did some tests with containers. After that, I had a [Blacksmith] make a shell like this and bought some metal scrap. Daly, it took me less than a week to make this. Imagine what happens if Quallet got ahold of this? Or a larger company?”

“I had—I didn’t ask you to make one of these to sell, Paige. Geneva would kill me first. But we can use them.”

“You’re sure? After that, you’re sure you want one of these?”

Paige looked up questioningly. She stared hard at Daly. And for a second he hesitated. He understood what she was asking, why she’d shown him this in private. You want to me to make more of these? And for a second, the decent part of him agreed with Paige. But…he looked around at the jungle and clenched a fist. Then he slowly replied to Paige.

“When we take on monster contracts, we have to weigh how dangerous our target is against the reward. We took a risk on the snakes and we spent two days preparing and another scoping out the nest. We needed ropes, we had to team up with the Rustless Guard…and it was still closer than I’d like. Those snakes are the baddest thing we can take on. Give us some of these and we can take on almost anything.”

He kicked at the blown up earth. Paige just stared at him.

“You want to bomb monsters?”

“You want me to fight them with crossbows and swords? Paige, maybe the Bushrangers shouldn’t earn money like we do. But aside from Luan and Geneva, we’re the only source of income the company has. And after seeing some of the monsters we fight, I think adventurers are needed. I don’t think this world needs bombs. Especially not Baleros. But give me one of these and no one can copy it, right?”

“Not unless you don’t use it.”

Paige folded her arms, looking deeply troubled. She stared again at Daly.

“You really want more?”

He closed his eyes and nodded.

“I asked. And I think…yeah, I think we do need them, Paige. You saw the snakes we brought in, didn’t you?”

“I saw parts of them.”

“Well, they were a lot bigger in person. Say we go up against them again. I’d like to use these. Just our team. Just when we have to. We don’t show them around, we only bring them when we know there’s a fight that involves them. Deal?”

He saw the [Engineer] nod.

“Agreed. No one gets these, no matter what.”

“And with that said…I want three of them. Make sure they’re sealed perfectly. I don’t want a chance of them going off.”

“Three. You want three? I can do that. I can do it. But I need more ingredients.”

Paige scrubbed at her hair distractedly. She looked at Daly. Then she shook her head.

“I suppose you still want the ballistae, too. Or those oversized crossbows you were thinking off?”

“The big ones? Yeah. If we can mount it, or use a stand, we could pierce even the serpent’s hide. What, can you make them?”

For a second Daly wondered if that was an out. But Paige shook her head.

“I was talking with Blake. Apparently ballistae were made with something called torsional force. As opposed to draw force, like what we have with bows and the crossbows I’ve made.”

Daly raised his eyebrows.

“Okay? What does that mean?”

“It means they did something else. Blake said that he thought it involved skeins of rope or something, but he wasn’t sure.”

“How does he know all this stuff, anyways?”

“Video games. Apparently the models in some games are quite close to real life.”

“Huh. So he doesn’t know how this torsional thing works, though, right?”

“Nope. And I bet if I had a YouTube video I could build one from that. But no one’s downloaded a video on their phones and the internet’s not exactly around. So until I can figure out how the Romans did it, I can’t build anything stronger.”

“Oh. Then I guess…”

Daly indicate the bombs. Paige nodded. She stared around the forest, unnaturally quiet, and then gestured back at Talenqual.

“We should probably head back. They might try and see what that sound was.”

“Of course.”

But neither Human moved right away. Paige kept staring at Daly. At last, she spoke.

“You know, I was really hoping you’d see what the bombs did and say ‘No, don’t make any more, Paige. Absolutely not.’”

Daly’s heart twisted in his chest. He held out his hands, helplessly.

“Paige. We need those.”

She rounded on him.

“Do we? Do we really need those?”

Her finger shook as she pointed back at the blast zone.

“Daly. I feel like I’m a terrorist. Look at that. You want me to make more of those?

Daly nodded. Paige halted and stared at him, but he pointed back at the explosion. And this time he wasn’t as scared of the weapon as before. He was remembering something else.

“Ever seen a [Fireball] explode? It’s just as nasty. Worse. Remember the battle between those companies? They were throwing around spells like that. And some monsters can take a [Fireball] to the face and keep on coming. Those serpents could. If we want to hit Gold-rank, or go any further, we’ll need those, Paige. We’ll use gunpowder on monsters.”

“So long as it’s just monsters.”

She stared at him. Then she turned her back and began walking away. Daly followed her.

“Paige, I swear, if I thought—”

“Don’t. You convinced me, Daly. Don’t justify it.”

He fell silent. The two walked on, pausing to hide as a group of [Guardsmen] did indeed pass them by, looking for the sound. After that, Paige and Daly went back to the main road and pretended to be coming back to Talenqual. They walked together in silence, and the triumph of this morning felt like a long way away to Daly.

Good news and bad. Daly walked back to his bed and Paige said nothing else. He was troubled, like her. But they needed an edge. And if that meant making bombs…he fell asleep, wondering if he’d said the right thing.

 

—-

 

The next day, Daly woke up, ate food, lounged about, and did things he forgot about five minutes later. Around midmorning he found the Bushrangers relaxing after their big job and ordered them into the living room. It was time for a lesson. Siri was in change with Tofte helping her. They got ten minutes in when Dawson looked up and complained loudly.

“Daly. I have to ask. Why do we have to study another language in a world that speaks only fucking English?”

He glared at the alphabet Siri had written down for them in her native language. Daly sighed, but he explained as patiently as possible.

“We have two Swedish speakers, Dawson. If we need to talk when the enemy might be around, or warn each other, another language is perfect. It could be a huge advantage. That’s also why we have hand signals and need to be able to write in Swedish too. We can leave each other messages.”

“And why’s it got to be Swedish? Can’t it be pig latin? Or something easier? No offense, Siri.”

“Offense taken.”

Daly waved a hand for silence. He frowned as he replied.

“I thought about Japanese, or one of the languages Kirana and the other girls speak, but apparently there is a nation of islanders about that speak some kind of weird language. Drathians. They sound Japanese, so that’s out. And Siri and Tofte already know the lingo; this makes the most sense. Plus, it’ll help because Sweden isn’t that big a country so the odds of running into another Swede are a lot lower than someone from India.”

“What does that—”

Dawson was frowning, but Siri looked sharply at Daly. She replied for him.

“He means if we have to go up against people from Earth.”

The Bushrangers fell silent. Daly saw some of them look at each other uncomfortably. Dawson swore.

“Fucking hell, mate. What are you planning?”

Daly’s voice was cold in his own ears.

“Nothing. But I’m preparing us for everything. You heard Blake and his lot’s story about the [Bandits], right? We need to be careful. From now on, any hint of survivors from earth we investigate cautiously. We watch them before we take them in, and we put people on them for the first month.”

“Jeeze, Daly.”

“It’s what we have to do. It’s not a question of ‘if’ we’re going to run up against some nasty people from home, it’s ‘when’. Or do you want to be the idiots who get stabbed in the back? Don’t worry though; we’re already looking into buying amulets enchanted with [Detect Lies] along with getting a [Repair] spell.”

That didn’t cheer up the group much. But they did sit still as Siri went over the alphabet and a few basic words. Daly didn’t have the heart to push them to learn more than a few words despite his speech; but he did warn them they’d need to remember.

“Siri’s going to ask you and so will I. Just remember the words for now. Got it?”

The others nodded. Dawson looked very uncomfortable. So did everyone else. Siri was frowning at Daly. She’d been the one to suggest using Swedish, but she looked curious. She drew Daly aside as the others began to get back to lazing about. But she never got a chance to ask her question because the door blew open and Michael burst into the room, shouting.

“Luan’s back!”

Daly whirled about, his spirits suddenly rising. He heard an oath from upstairs and Paige appeared in the stairwell. Kirana rushed out of the kitchen and more members of the United Nations company rushed down the stairs.

“You serious, Michael?”

“I just saw him! He’s coming into the docks! Come on, let’s go greet him!”

“Alright!”

Dawson was on his feet. He charged out the door with some of the others. The Bushrangers all got up, but Siri and Tofte, both of whom didn’t really know Luan, weren’t as excited as the others. She looked at Daly with a big frown.

“Why are we running to meet him like children?”

Daly paused, about to go out after the others. He beckoned at Siri and she and the rest of the team followed him. The [Axe Warrior] spoke as he led them in a brisk walk.

“Look, we’ve got three big leaders. Geneva, Ken, and Luan.”

“And you and Paige.”

Aldenon interjected. Daly hesitated.

“Well, yeah, but they were the original three, you know? The ones who started it all. And they’re all…well, look at it this way.”

He tried to explain to Siri, who was raising both eyebrows skeptically.

“Ken’s a nice guy. Everyone likes Ken, but that’s his thing. He’s not scarily good at what he does like Geneva or Luan. And Geneva’s amazing, no question; no one can do what she can in this world. But she’s…”

Daly hesitated and looked at the Australian members of his team for help. They pitched in cheerfully.

“Depressing?”

“Too serious all the time?”

“Got a medically implanted stick up her butt?”

“Distractingly hot?”

Daly rolled his eyes as the others laughed.

“Thanks, Kami. What I mean is, Siri, Tofte, is that Geneva’s good, but she’s doing something she’s learned. She’s smarter than any [Doctor] in this world. But Luan? He’s genuinely just…better. At rowing. You know? He can do what Centaurs, Dullahans, Lizardfolk, all of them can do, but he’s the best, never mind if they have magic or special abilities. You remember Humans can do things better than the other species when you’re around him. And he always comes back with a lot of gold.”

They thought about that. Siri shrugged.

“Gold’s a good enough reason for me. Let’s go.”

And so they did. Daly reached the harbor docks just in time to see Luan finishing paying the [Harbormaster]—it wasn’t hard to spot where he was; a good number of Humans were standing around him and the tall [Rower] was laughing and trying to answer a dozen questions at once. He looked good. Tired, but good. And then Daly saw just how tired and pushed his way through. His was the voice of authority.

“Alright, give Luan some space!”

The others drew back reluctantly. Luan turned. He grabbed Daly’s arm and the two hugged briefly. Daly was grinning and Luan had a weary smile on his face. Genuine, but very tired.

“Luan, mate, I missed you two weeks back when you dropped off a ton of gold. You didn’t even stay a full day! You’re pushing yourself too hard!”

“Hah. Well, I’m back now, aren’t I? Sorry I didn’t send a [Message]—I just finished a three-day trip. Hello everyone! Paige, Kirana, and…are there new faces around here? Have we new people?”

Luan had spotted Nicola in the crowd along with Blake. He began to walk forwards as Daly started to explain, but then he stumbled. He caught himself, and shook his head as Daly reached out to steady him.

“Sorry. I don’t have my ground legs yet.”

He smiled, but Daly was instantly concerned. He gestured at Luan’s face.

“You’ve got bags under your eyes, mate. And you’re swaying where you stand.”

Luan stopped.

“No I’m not.”

He yawned hugely. Daly looked at him and Paige folded his arms. The South African man hesitated, then gave them a sheepish grin.

“Okay, I know. But offers are coming in faster than ever. People are hearing about ‘Luan the Rower’ and I can make enough to keep us afloat. I’m faster than anyone but a Courier on the water, and I can take the riskier deliveries because it’s so hard to catch me…”

He yawned again, hugely. Paige shook her head as she looked Luan up and down.

“No more deliveries right now, Luan. You’re staying put and getting some rest. No rowing for at least four days. The Doc’ll back me up on this one.”

He hesitated and then nodded slowly.

“I could do with some sleep. I’ve been—”

He yawned a third time and brought his right arm up. Daly saw a flash of bright color and stared. There was something on the inside of Luan’s arm. No…not something.

Gold, tattooed into dark skin. It shone as Daly stared at it. Two names.

Nandi. Lubanzi.

Luan lowered his arm and saw Daly’s stare. He didn’t hide the tattoos; rather, he held out his arm so Daly could get a better look. His smile was bitter, sad, but mainly just tired.

“I’ve been pushing myself harder. It helps me stop thinking. But I don’t forget anymore.”

Daly hesitated. Paige stepped in for him, grabbing Luan’s arm and placing it around her shoulder. She was shorter than he was, so there wasn’t really much for Luan to lean on, but it made him smile.

“Come on. Aiko’s worried sick about you.”

Daly nodded. He turned and waved a hand. “We all are. Hey, you lot. Grab that boat-kayak and bring it with us. We can fit it somewhere in headquarters; better than paying rent on it.”

Several of the Bushrangers grabbed the boat and lifted it out of the water. Luan looked surprised.

“You sure there’s room? Also, it’s called a scull. It’s a single scull…I need to upgrade it. If we can afford a bag of holding, I can get a new one—it’s not a kayak, Daly. I’ll have to hurt you if you say that again.”

“Yeah, yeah. We can talk about that. We’ve got tons of money so I guess you can use some of what you’ve earned…this way. Hey Siri, nali-stick? Or just a stamina potion.”

Siri disappeared and came back with one of the sweet sticks and offered it to Luan. He thanked her and bit into it. The sweet rush of sugar perked Luan up enough that he was walking steadily by the time they reached the United Nations company headquarters.

“What is this?”

He blinked up at the building, realizing for the first time that they weren’t at the old headquarters. Daly grinned hugely.

“You didn’t know? We’ve upgraded, Luan! Miss Hastel gave these two buildings to us for a song, and we’re looking into a third next door! Come on inside; it’s a lot nicer! And we’ve got proper couches!”

“If I sit down in one, I’ll fall asleep.”

Luan joked as he came inside. But he didn’t fall asleep; the crowd gathered around him was probably part of that, as was the reheated snake meat. He ate it ravenously as he tried to speak about where he’d been and gone.

“I’ve been to several big cities—this is good, what is it?—and seen a lot of wonderful things. Some danger. There was this group of [Sea Raiders]—but I’ll tell you later.”

“What cities did you see, Luan? Come on, tell us!”

One of the younger members of the company, barely fifteen, was practically hopping with excitement. Luan smiled.

“Tell you? I borrowed a smartphone. I can show you.”

He pulled out a phone out of his pocket. The others immediately fought for it until Paige ordered them to stop fighting before they broke it. There was only a small charge left, but it was enough for a few minutes of browsing. Daly craned his neck to see as the others exclaimed over it.

“Whoa! What a city!”

“Is that a dancing Lizardwoman?”

“And a dancing Centaur? I didn’t know they danced!”

Luan nodded.

“They were having some kind of festival. I have a few videos too. And a few pictures of some shops, potions…I tried sneaking a picture of a spellbook when I was browsing, but, well…look.”

He showed the others a picture of a book. But the page was…white. Not blank; it was pure, eye-searingly white as Daly stared at the photo. Only after he’d looked away did he see a faint coloration to the painfully white photo. Luan gestured to it and shook his head.

“It’s like this with videos too. You can sort of see some colors, but the pages just turn white. Some spells look different on screen, too. Some are invisible, or different colors than what I see.”

“Maybe the pixels can’t represent the full color scale. Damn. It was worth a shot.”

Paige looked disappointed. A few seconds later the phone died, so she went and had someone get it charged with a [Repair] spell. She also chased off some of the crowd, telling them Luan would relate more stories over dinner. Daly was all set to bring Luan up to a room for some needed rest, but the athlete asked for some strong tea instead.

“I should stay up. I do have something I need to tell you, as well as stories. And you have something to tell me, it seems!”

He gave Daly and Paige a short and meaningful look both understood. Then he listened attentively as the others told him about the battle with the giant snakes, Geneva’s delivery of Miss Hastel’s baby, and their new home. He’d heard some of it the first time, but he hadn’t stayed long. And by the time the story was done, even Geneva had come back to greet Luan.

“You did all that by yourself? I have nothing but respect.”

Luan looked at Geneva. She smiled faintly at him.

“It’s just my job. Good to see you, Luan. You need sleep.”

He sighed, but gently.

“In a bit. I want to know more about your new clinic. You say you’ve been getting patients? That’s exactly what we wanted, isn’t it? And what about delivering babies? Is it profitable? Do you have many clients?”

Aiko nodded excitedly.

“She’s done eight Caesareans so far. A lot of mothers are worried about giving birth, or they have complications…one even came from fifty miles away when she heard there was a [Doctor] here. Word is spreading like lightning!”

She gestured at Geneva proudly as the [Doctor] coughed, looking embarrassed.

“Funny. A [Doctor]’s only popular on the battlefield. But [Midwives] and mothers gossip a lot faster and wider.”

Paige looked amused. Aiko smiled.

“And I helped! I know how to do a lot for mothers. But it is new! And scary! It is hard to deliver babies well across other species; their bodies are all different. And the last delivery was frightening! Geneva delivered the baby and then…the head fell off! Geneva was so shocked and everyone panicked but the mother! Because it was a Dullahan baby, you see?”

“That wasn’t funny.”

Geneva shuddered as she remembered that moment. Everyone else was laughing. Luan closed his eyes, a broad smile on his face.

“That’s wonderful. It really is.”

Daly thought he might not open his eyes and fall asleep just like that. He coughed, trying to think of something else to say. His eyes went back to the gold writing on Luan’s arm.

“So, Luan. About your tattoo. Aiko told us about what you two had figured out and we’ve confirmed it. No one remembers home unless we really try. Our family, our friends…it’s like a blank spot in our heads. We remember tech and politics and everything else. But we don’t feel nostalgic unless we try to remember.”

The room went silent. Daly looked around and realized everyone had gone silent. For a moment they remembered home, and the smiles went ever from everyone’s face. Paige elbowed Daly hard in the stomach.

“Nice going, Daly.”

Luan opened his eyes. He nodded heavily.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one. I thought…well, we can talk about it later. But I think I’m actually falling asleep right here. I take it back. Can I get a few hours’ sleep before dinner?”

“Of course.”

Instantly, everyone was solicitous. Luan went upstairs and fell asleep immediately after putting his head down. Daly walked outside with Geneva as the others talked, the phone having come back so they could look at more pictures again. He stood outside was the [Doctor] stood with him. Both were uncomfortable together. Geneva broke the silence with all the grace of a beached whale.

“It’s surprising you brought up the tattoos. I thought it was my job to depress everyone.”

He glanced sideways at her.

“That’s two jokes in two days. Careful, or we might think you’re Human after all, doc.”

She smiled at that.

“I do have a sense of humor. It’s just buried by experience. I’m working on it. Okasha’s not helping; her jokes are worse than mine are, if you can believe that.”

“Hey!”

Daly laughed. He stood outside with Geneva and glanced north. Last night flashed into his mind. He casually glanced to the side.

“Hey Geneva. Paige was talking to me last night, and uh…”

“Mister Daly? Miss Geneva?”

Someone interrupted them. Daly bit his tongue and looked around, annoyed. He stopped glaring as he saw a Naga approaching them. Like Xalandrass, the Naga was tall, sinuous, and stood out even in Talenqual’s busy and diverse streets. The Lizardfolk stood back respectfully as she stopped, her tail coiling around itself as she stood straighter. She smiled down at Daly and Geneva, both of whom looked up at her with surprise. Daly hesitated.

“How can we help you, Miss Naga?”

She smiled at him.

“I’m glad you asked! You can follow me. I was told to get two of your company, and you two are the leaders, aren’t you? Our boss especially wants to see you, Miss [Doctor].”

“Boss?”

The Naga nodded. She gestured down the street, pointing to the center of the city and the tallest, grandest buildings.

“That’s right. I’m part of the Featherfolk Brigade. And our leader wants to speak with the United Nation’s company leadership right now. Will you follow me?”

 

—-

 

The Featherfolk Brigade. On the walk to the building that housed the company’s leadership, Daly tried to remember everything he could about them. He knew they were a company, mainly Lizardfolk, that had claimed Talenqual.

According to Ken, they weren’t the biggest players around, but they certainly weren’t small-timers either. They had the numbers and firepower to defend a large city—Ken had called them upper-middle tier, which meant they were way above a tiny company like the United Nations company, or even Quallet’s Gravetender’s Fist.

Normally the two groups would never interact; if the Featherfolk Brigade took part in a conflict, one of their subdivisions would account for all of the United Nation’s personnel in a fight. But their leader had asked specifically to meet them. To meet Geneva.

Daly wished Ken were with them. But the Naga hadn’t let them get reinforcements. She’d asked, politely, that they come at once. But Daly had sensed it wasn’t really a request.

“What does your boss want with us, uh, Miss?”

The Naga turned her torso while she slithered forwards and gave Daly a smile. She had brilliant pink and red scales on her upper body, and she was practically naked except for a breast band.

“He wants to see you, of course. You’re a new company in our city. Why wouldn’t he be interested? And she’s the Last Light of Baleros. Don’t worry. He’s not angry at you. I think.”

Hardly encouraging. The Naga brought them to a huge, almost castle-like building with six floors that dominated the center of the city. It was a literal hub of activity and Daly saw that it was both home for many of the company’s soldiers, administrative building, and more.

Lizardfolk dominated the halls, but Daly saw a number of Nagas and even some other Lizardfolk evolutionary variants he couldn’t place. They stared at him as he passed and he sensed very little hostility, only the Lizardfolk’s ever-present curiosity. But he couldn’t help but grow tenser; some of the warriors looked incredibly strong and he was quite aware of how vulnerable he and Geneva were. He glanced over at the [Doctor], but saw she was walking as steadily as ever. He had to admire her cool. Or was it just indifference?

The Naga stopped at a pair of impressive wooden double doors. She gestured towards them.

“Right inside. He’s waiting for you.”

There was no use waiting. Daly looked at Geneva and opened the doors for the both of them. The doors opened and revealed a room rather like an executive’s office. Only, this room was a wide enough to make any CEO jealous, and there was in fact no glass front.

The office was open to the outside and the city lay beneath! There were a pair of curtains that could be swept forwards, but walk too far and you would fall six stories down. Despite that, sitting on, or rather, around a comfortable cloth chair, was a Lizardfolk. Only, he wasn’t a Lizardman. And neither was he a Naga. He was…something else. Daly stared.

Where his arms should have been were two massive, beautiful plumed wings, the feathers changing from gold to green at the tips. The strange Lizardfolk’s body was a brilliant light green as well, with a softer beige underbelly. His scales looked like plates as he slowly slithered upright and Daly realized the reason for the huge building; the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade was over seven feet tall as he drew himself upright, and that wasn’t even counting the rest of his tail wrapped around his desk and chair!

The stranger drew himself up as they entered and his wings spread. When he spoke, his voice was lighter than Daly had expected, but still powerful and melodious at the same time.

“Good morning to you, Humans. You must be Daly of the United Nations company, and Geneva, the Last Light of Baleros. My name is Fezimet. I am the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. And before you ask I’m a Quexal. You’ve probably never seen anyone like me, am I right? Tell me I’m right.”

He smiled widely, and Daly blinked as Fezimet wangled his resplendent wings. Daly immediately placed the Quexal as one of the vainer subtypes of Lizardfolk like Nagas and reacted accordingly.

“I haven’t! And it’s an honor to meet—did you say a Quexal? I’ve never even heard of your kind before. Incredible, isn’t it?”

He covertly nudged Geneva. She, like him, stared at Fezimet’s scales as the Quexal drew himself up, basking in their attention.

“Yes. Impressive.”

He laughed delightedly.

“You know something about Lizardfolk! That’s rare to see among Humans not from Baleros! Come closer. Sit, sit. Do you want something to eat? Drink? I have all of Talenqual’s finest delicacies to call on.”

“I’m fin—”

“We’ll have some uh, Seamaster’s Gin and some shrimps if you’ll indulge us, Fezimet.”

“Of course! One moment.”

The Quexal reached for something on his desk. He didn’t have hands. His wing-arms seemed quite flexible, but his only true appendages for grasping were lower down, and they were a pair of long, bird-like legs. But they were incredibly dexterous; Fezimet delicately grasped a bell with the tips of his claws. He rang it gently and he was clearly adept at using his appendages for humanoid tasks. Even so, it was disturbing on another level as well.

The door instantly opened and Fezimet addressed the Lizardgirl and repeated Daly’s request. The Lizardgirl nodded and dashed off.

“Now, come, sit, sit. My desk has chairs for folk with feet and those without. Tell me, how have you enjoyed Talenqual this far? Are you well? Tell me everything.”

Daly and Geneva warily sat down. The Australian cleared his throat, but it was Geneva who spoke up.

“What do you want to know, glorious Fezimet?”

Both Daly and Fezimet started. But Geneva was smiling politely, friendly even. And her tone and the way she spoke—it was Okasha, Daly was certain. Fezimet hesitated, clearly thrown off-guard for a second.

“Well, I suppose I’d want to know if the legends are true. You are the famous Last Light of Baleros, aren’t you?”

Geneva-Okasha shrugged lightly.

“Some call me that. But I only participated in a few battles.”

Fezimet nodded knowingly.

“That’s all it takes. One or two to make a legend. Especially one so…unique. Would you mind telling me how you started? A [Doctor] is surely a rare class. What drew you to the battlefield?”

The [Doctor] raised an eyebrow.

“What else? Money?”

“Ah…”

“But I wanted to save lives as well. I did that. But I grew tired. If you’re asking how I came to join the United Nations company and form it, it was when I met some kinsmen from Terandria by chance. To begin with, I had joined with the Raverian Fighters…”

Not for the first time, Daly caught himself wondering at Okasha. And he was especially relieved that she was with Geneva in this situation; the Selphid spoke on Geneva’s behalf, acting enough like the [Doctor] to almost fool Daly, but smoothly giving Geneva a more sociable personality, and incorporating some lies with her story. Fezimet listened, asking a few questions, and the food Daly had requested seemed to appear in no time at all. The young man sipped from his drink and shrimp as Fezimet ate what might have been roasted rat, listening to Geneva’s story.

“And you decided to form a company. Well, I understand the reasoning; after two betrayals, why not stick with kin? Reasonable, reasonable. But after your company formed, why did you decide to come to my city?”

He stressed the ‘my’ a bit. Geneva paused. She glanced sideways at Daly and he jumped in.

“Well, we’d heard Talenqual was a very safe place. Very safe and prosperous, with everything you could want. Harbor, strong economy…why not work from here?”

The Quexal looked pleased at the answer.

“Hm! True, very true! But did you choose it because of my company?”

The Australian hesitated.

“No. Should we? We uh, didn’t think to ask which company ran the city. We probably should have; I knew the Featherfolk Brigade was a mi—was an upper-tier company, but I’ve never heard of a Quexal before. What makes you…you, if you don’t mind me asking?”

The question received an arch smile in return.

“Ah, I see what you did there. But I’ll entertain it because you should know. You ask what a Quexal is? Feathers and scales. Wings, too.”

Fezimet spread his wings again. He seemed not to tire keeping them open. He chuckled as he saw Geneva and Daly’s eyes go to his bright colors.

“Like all Lizardfolk, I was once one of my smaller kin. But I achieved this rare radiance for my unmatched abilities. Quexal are rare. Rarer than Lamias or Gorgons. There are few of us on Baleros, but those of us who remain are powerful. We do give up a lot. Hands, for one thing. But I don’t miss them. And yes, we can’t use swords that well, or other weapons, but most of us know some magic. I think it’s a requirement; I can blast my enemies from afar. Or crush them with my tail. Or bite them. It’s not hard.”

He smiled, and his serpentine face revealed a row of teeth that would probably take off Daly’s head in a single bite. The adventurer eyed the fangs; venomous, he had no doubt.

“Quexal are the fastest of the Lizardfolk evolutions, bar none. We can jump and even glide depending on the circumstances. We are mighty, and a Quexal has always led the Featherfolk Brigade. Hence the name. That answers your question. Now I have mine. What do you want to do in my city?”

This time Daly didn’t know what to say. He glanced at Geneva, but she was frowning, and Okasha must not have known how to respond. So Daly went for it.

“Honestly? We just want to find more of our friends from home, ah, glorious Fezimet. And we’d like to earn money ourselves. More than just enough to survive on.”

“Ah. So you aren’t planning on joining with Gravetender’s Fist? Are you intending to go to war? I hear the Bushrangers are quite capable. Will you expand your ranks? You’ve already made one alliance with the Rustless Guard.”

He knew a lot! Daly gulped.

“Not at all. We’re a part of the company, but most of us aren’t fighters. We got enough of a taste of action with Gravetender’s Fist.”

He thought he saw Fezimet relax a bit after hearing that. Did the Quexal have a [Detect Lies] spell or something?

“I see. And so your company wishes to make ends meet. To partake of the riches of my company’s city. Well, well. I suppose that’s acceptable. And you two don’t seem to be lying about that. But this [Doctor]’s business…”

He pondered for a moment before glancing at Geneva.

“I’m told you can deliver a baby free of complication by cutting a mother open, is that right?”

Geneva nodded slowly.

“I can do that. It’s not risk-free, but it’s less risky than a childbirth if there are complications.”

“Of course. But you know Lizardfolk don’t need to give birth? We lay eggs.”

Geneva shrugged slightly.

“Eggs can fail to hatch. Or something can go wrong inside. Nothing is perfect. My job is to try and save lives.”

She met Fezimet’s eyes calmly. The Quexal looked from her to Daly.

“I see. As noble as they claim. Well, I’m content with what I’ve heard. Your company has permission to remain in my city. You don’t seem like troublemakers or a threat, and you’ve saved at least one of my [Landladies]. As for your new…practice, I’ll send one of my Nagas over to watch sometime. Just to make sure it’s alright. Then we can talk about compensation.”

“Compensation?”

Daly hesitated. Fezimet smiled.

“For working in Talenqual, of course. After all, you knew it was such a glorious city when you came here, didn’t you? But let’s not talk about that. Eat more of those shrimps. I’ll have one myself. Now, tell me, Captain Daly, about your team. I hear they’re practically invisible in forests…”

 

—-

 

Two hours later, Daly wished he hadn’t eaten so many shrimp. It wasn’t that they were undercooked; it was just that there was a limit to how many crustaceans he could eat. And he’d had too much gin. He should have asked for water and crackers.

“Steady.”

Geneva murmured as she helped guide Daly back down the street towards their headquarters. He erped and tried not to throw up.

“That damned feathery snake can drink like no one’s business. Think…we’ll be okay?”

“I think so. Hold on, Geneva. I’m helping your liver filter all this. You’re going to need to pee bad…let’s get Daly inside.”

She opened the door. Instantly there was a voice.

“They’re back! Get Paige!”

Daly found a few hands steadying him as he lurched inside. He went straight for the kitchen—not to throw up, but to drink some tea to settle his stomach. Then he drank more water, and looked at Paige.

“What happened? All the others said was that a Naga came and took both of you.”

She looked worried. Daly shook his head.

“It’s sorted. I think. Nothing big. Tell you later. We’re having a meeting tonight. Is Luan awake?”

“Not yet. We’re going to have lunch. Uh…”

“Pass.”

Daly spent the rest of the day slowly sobering up and trying to digest too many shrimps. He had an appetite by the time dinner rolled about and Luan was up. They ate and Daly listened to Luan’s stories without bringing up their encounter with Fezimet. Only after the dinner had ended did Paige stand up.

“Alright. The company leaders are meeting. Everyone else, you can talk to Luan later.”

“Aw!”

“Come one, what’s this about? Is it the Naga…?”

“We should be allowed to listen!”

Paige scowled at the protesters, who were all mostly older people around her age.

“No, and no. Some of what we have to talk about is potentially dangerous or…”

She glanced at Daly.

“…Or would be bad if it’s gossiped about. We’ll tell you everything we can. But later.”

“Who elected you?”

Someone grumbled that. Michael, probably. Paige opened her mouth and Ken smiled.

“Should we have elections? I think it would be dangerous to make this a vote. After all, the responsibilities of our job are sometimes…a lot. And we cannot share everything, so if you wanted to vote for someone to listen with us…”

He trailed off. The murmurs fragmented and most of the group shook his head. That was Ken, framing the idea as not much of a solution at all. Daly lurched upstairs. The others found him with his head in his hands in their meeting room. Paige closed the door last. Luan yawned.

“You look worse than I do, Daly. What happened while I was out?”

“Too much to drink. We had to go met the leader of the Featherfolk Brigade. Fezimet the fucking glorious or something.”

The other’s gazes sharpened at once. Ken sat up, looking mildly worried. Paige sat down across from Daly.

“What did he want?”

Geneva frowned and Okasha answered.

“I think he was scoping out our company. Trying to figure out if we’re a threat.”

“How?”

“Oh, you know. Taking control of parts of his city, sowing dissent, just whether or not we’re easy to work with…”

“Did you reassure him we’re no threat?”

Daly grimaced and shrugged.

“I tried. I think he bought the line that we’re only here to make money. But he hinted—strongly—that his company wants a cut of what Geneva’s doing.”

“Shit.”

“It’s just a tax. I think he was really curious about Geneva. But he’s…something. His company’s also massive. There were tons of Nagas and Gorgons—I wish Ken had been there. He might have figured out more of what Fezimet wanted. Okasha’s right. I think he was just trying to scope us. And he got me pretty good and drunk.”

“If he calls for us again, I will try and speak to him.”

Ken nodded. Aiko sighed, looking relieved.

“But it means it isn’t a problem, yes?”

“For now. But we’re getting heat from a big company. I guess that means we should keep an eye out to avoid pissing anyone off. Good work, Daly.”

Paige drummed her fingers on the table. Daly gave her a weak grin. He wasn’t drinking gin again for at least a month. Siri, who would have done well in his place, looked around with a frown.

“In that case, maybe we should listen to Luan. You said he had something to say?”

Luan nodded. He looked at Siri for a moment and then reached over.

“I think we’ve met. Paige told me you’re working with Daly? I’m Luan.”

“Siri. We met once. Briefly.”

He shook her hand.

“I’m a [Rower]. I’m aiming to be a Courier, but I’ll settle for a good position as City Runner. And I’ve been working hard, perhaps too hard of late, but the money’s been coming in and I’m glad it helped with…”

He gestured to the room around them. Paige nodded.

“We can start putting the money towards a better boat and gear for Daly’s team, Luan. We’re finally making more money than we need for the essentials. Which means you shouldn’t take so many risks. You brought in more gold than anyone by yourself at the start. You deserve at least a week’s rest.”

Everyone nodded at that. Luan smiled, but traced the gold ink on his arm.

“That’s good of you to say, Paige. But I have a job in three days I can’t get out of. Remember all that gold I dropped off two weeks back? Well, some of that was an advance payment. Listen, while I was getting my tattoo done in one of the cities, I met this Minotaur…”

Luan relayed the short meeting with Venaz to the others. Daly sat up, frowning and trying to think about why a [Strategist] would want to hire Luan for a delivery in three weeks.

“And he said it was all above-board?”

“He did. But I don’t know if I trust that. I did some digging and I found out he is who he says he is. He’s a student in the school run by the Titan of Baleros himself.”

Several of the people sitting around the table drew in sharp breaths. The Titan of Baleros. One of the heads of the Four Great companies. And one of his students was hiring Luan? The [Rower] looked around the table.

“I’m committed. And I may not have had a [Detect Truth] stone, but I think this Venaz was telling me the truth. I could ruin his reputation, and what’s the point of me taking a really dangerous job without knowing?”

“Still, it’s suspicious. It sounds like you’re getting involved with something political, Luan. I don’t want you making enemies.”

He nodded.

“But I am committed, Paige. And I’m a City Runner; this is what we do. If anyone takes offense…well, I’ll be careful. I need to row out to my destination in two days. But I had a thought.”

He paused and drummed a hand on the table.

“…We’ve been looking for allies. Quallet’s company is one, and it sounds like Daly’s allied with a Dullahan team. But a Great Company has the resources to protect anyone they want. If this Venaz is a student of the Titan, perhaps he had connections. Perhaps I could meet with someone high up in that company. Talk to them about Geneva’s abilities. We were saying that a [Doctor] with her talents would be useful even to—no, especially to a big company who doesn’t want to lose valuable leaders, right?”

He looked around the table. Daly did too; Paige and Siri were frowning, Aiko looked troubled, Geneva was pensive, and Ken was staring down at the table. Paige slowly replied.

“It’s true we were trying to get Geneva’s name out there, Luan. But that was before we discovered she could deliver babies. This way is safer. It doesn’t pull her into politics and…”

She looked around. Aiko and Ken nodded, but Daly wasn’t so certain.

“Hold on, Paige. That’s true, but didn’t we just get warned by the Featherfolk Brigade? And our position isn’t that stable here. One bad war comes our way and we need to run. It might be risky getting involved with a Great Company, but if the Forgotten Wing company’s decent—”

“Ken, what’s the Titan’s reputation?”

“Some are terrified of him, some respect him. Most agree he is honorable, but he is known for winning, sometimes in underhanded or sneaky ways. He is a formidable opponent. But it is said that he is generous and his company is very good to the areas it controls.”

Ken looked around the table. Daly nodded a few times.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Either we don’t use this and Luan does his job, or we take a risk. So here’s what I think.”

He took a deep breath and looked at Luan.

“If this Venaz guy really has a connection to one of the Great Companies of Baleros, try and exploit it, Luan. Try and mention Geneva. Who knows? Maybe this Titan guy will see the merit in a [Doctor]. I don’t know about C-sections. But it can’t hurt to try. And I hear he likes chess and Go, right? Aiko learned Go in Japan.”

“And we know Shogi. Perhaps we could interest him?”

Ken looked intrigued at the prospect. Paige was hesitant.

“Maybe. It could work. But I’m against it. Let’s put it to a vote.”

“I thought Ken just said—”

“I mean, among us.

“Oh. Alright then, I’m for it. What do you think?”

The table slowly went around. Daly was for. Paige against. Ken put his vote in and after a moment of hesitation, Aiko disagreed. Siri hesitated, and in the space where she did, Luan nodded.

“I can take the blame if things go wrong. But I think—what’s the harm in trying? I will be very circumspect and get a feel for what it’s like. I may only meet this Venaz. And he’s hard to work with. I’d rather meet someone else, so we’ll see.”

That made up Siri’s mind. She nodded.

“I vote for too, then.”

“Me too. If nothing else, I can spread the word about diseases like this Yellow River.”

Geneva quietly spoke up. One of her hands waved excitedly and Geneva glared at it.

“Okasha says yes too, apparently.”

“That’s it, then. Three days from now, Luan does his delivery and tries to get our name out.”

Paige didn’t look exactly upset, but she did look a bit worried. She glanced over at Luan.

“What’s happening in three days, then? Did this Minotaur say?”

“He hinted it had to do with something his teacher, the Titan was putting on. But apparently it’s not dangerous…not really. I don’t know that that means, but the worst that will happen is that I’ll be caught, beaten ‘lightly’ and held for a day.”

Luan grimaced. Daly didn’t like the sound of that. Still, he had to admit it still sounded worth the risk. Fifty gold coins was a lot of money for a delivery.

“Well, that’s that. I think we can discuss the rest later. Luan, you clearly need more sleep. Let’s get some. Unless anyone else has something to add?”

Geneva took charge for once as she nodded at Luan, who was beginning to doze. He jerked upright and looked around. The others looked around and shook their heads. Only Daly and Paige hesitated. They locked eyes for a second and Daly felt the unspoken question coming from Paige.

Should they tell the others about the bombs now? Daly wasn’t sure and Paige was hesitating. They both knew what the reaction would probably be, at least from Geneva. And yet, this was the leadership. The others deserved to know, but right now?

She looked at him apprehensively. Daly hesitated. But if they could keep it quiet—or if they could prevent anyone from learning how they did it…

Gold-rank. Money to buy Siri spellbooks, or fund a giant snake. A third building. Gold-rank, where Daly could actually buy artifacts for himself and magical wood to make crossbows that didn’t break. Gold-rank, where they could defend themselves from Quexals who thought they could lean on their company.

A way to fight anything and everything. Daly closed his eyes. And yet. ‘I feel like a terrorist.’ That was what Paige had said. And what would Geneva do? She would flip out.

He could still say it. It was only three easy words.

“We’re making bombs.”

They might even agree. They might not. But this was the moment at which he could reveal the truth and they could put a stop to it. She could put a stop to it. He looked up at Geneva and felt the words dancing on his tongue.

We’re making bombs. Is this right or wrong? We’re bringing weapons from our world to Baleros. Will it change anything? We’re making bombs. Should we stop?

We’re making bombs. Geneva, how do you feel about that?

It would be so easy. Daly looked up, across the table at his friends. At the [Doctor]. At Paige.

He didn’t say it. And neither did she.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.19 H

People liked to insult the local City Watch, especially in Human cities. Ask any local and you’d get some commentary about how their local law enforcement was about as effective as a hamster with a toothpick, and as corrupt as a bag of [Lords] with their britches stuffed full of gold coins.

The comparison was even worse because Drake cities were known for their effective system of policing themselves. But to be fair, that was because most Drake cities conflated ‘City Watch’ with ‘standing army’ and thus they allocated huge discretionary budgets. Indeed, Drake culture was largely based around supporting their military, which meant the somewhat laissez faire north fell behind.

It honestly wasn’t that bad. Ceria knew City Watches got a bad rap, but what were they supposed to be? Perfect? Take a small city with a limited budget—especially if it wasn’t located on a major trade route or exporting some valuable resource—and think about how much you could pay your average [Guardsman].

Most likely even the [Watch Captain] wouldn’t be high-level and the [Guards] might see some action, but they wouldn’t be equipped or ready to take on dangerous monsters or individuals. They weren’t being paid to be heroes. So usually they did the best job they could, and yes, some cities did have a corruption problem, but others were fine. Not great, not excellent—just fine. If a disaster happened, it happened not because of the local law enforcement, but because it was a disaster.

With that said, Ceria had known bad [Guards] and good ones and they shared a common feature, which was their disdain for adventurers. They hated high-level adventurers who were paid better, had expensive gear, and usually flouted the law and took any opportunity to get back at them.

Which meant that the unlucky adventurer who was arrested would get their gear stripped off them, earn kicks and bruises if they resisted, and if they were in one of the aforementioned corrupt cities, might even see some of their gear disappear along with their gold if the [Guards] thought they could get away with it.

Ceria wasn’t as worried about that in this case; they were Silver-rank and could get their gear back, even if some gold ‘vanished’ by accident. Thank goodness their share of the loot was with the Halfseekers pending their visit to Invrisil. No, what she was worried about was Ksmvr.

“I have done nothing wrong. Yet.”

The Antinium stood in front of what had to be at least forty of Celum’s City Watch. There might be more outside; Ceria seriously doubted half the Watch had shown up, but it was a small army capable of putting down any amount of brawling adventurers at least. And she was terrified for Ksmvr. Because his threat had made the [Guards] back up for a second, but soon they would realize he was alone and his team were in cuffs.

Ceria had her arms twisted up by a female [Guardswoman] and she knew that any spell would result in her being knocked out or shot. And that was the thing about the City Watches in any city. They could be efficient, corrupt, or ineffectual, but even so, they were still good at killing things. And they would do it, too.

“Ksmvr—”

The half-Elf yelped as the [Guardswoman] twisted her arm up another foot. She swore, but forced the words out.

“Don’t be an idiot, Ksmvr!”

“I will do my best, Captain Ceria. I was explaining to this Watch Captain that I have done nothing wrong. After all, I did not partake in the brawl.”

The Antinium politely nodded to the destroyed room. The [Captain], a burly man who Ceria vaguely recognized as having taken part in one of Erin’s plays, looked around.

“That true?”

Some of the adventurers nodded; the rest just stared at Ksmvr with obvious distaste. The [Captain] hesitated; then he looked around and realized he was in front of his men. And that Ksmvr was alone. He caught himself and scowled.

“Doesn’t matter. This thing’s part of your team, right half-Elf? It’s under arrest. Antinium, if you attack, we’ll—”

Ksmvr moved. Forty [Guards] instantly leveled their weapons at him, but the Antinium had simply raised one of his hands.

“Excuse me, [Captain]. But I repeat I have not taken part in this altercation. I am innocent. Therefore I cannot be arrested. I have done nothing wrong.”

That was true. But—Ceria was swearing as she stood on her tiptoes to avoid her arms being wrenched out of their sockets—she could have told Ksmvr the facts didn’t matter. Not with a peeved Watch Captain. He snapped impatiently at Ksmvr as he waved six of his [Guards] forwards. They moved slowly; like him, they’d probably only seen the Antinium in Erin’s inn. And you heard stories…

I decide what’s right or wrong here. And you’re under arrest. Because I said so, got it?”

The Antinium stared at the [Captain] slowly. One of the [Guards] held up a pair of manacles.

“Don’t move—”

He jumped back as Ksmvr spread all three arms. There was another moment of tension, but less pronounced. Ceria could see one [Guard] cracking his knuckles as he snuck up behind Ksmvr with three of his mates. As soon as they got Ksmvr in cuffs, it would be a few kicks at least. If they hurt him, Ceria was going to—she saw Yvlon tensing as two [Guards] held her. Another fight would not be a good idea. The [Ice Mage] braced—

“Ah. It appears we have reached an impasse, then. I claim that under the law, I have committed no crimes save for association with my team. You claim that I have broken a law you refuse to name. So tell me, Watch Captain. Is it war?”

At first Ceria was focusing on Yvlon. The [Guards] were sneaking up on Ksmvr and the [Captain] was looking around as the adventurers patched themselves up with cheap potions, assessing the damage. Then every head swung back towards Ksmvr as if he were a lightning rod in a storm.

“What?”

The Antinium [Warrior] looked innocently around the room.

“I repeat. Is it war? I am asking for confirmation, Watch Captain. Because if it is, I would like to notify my Hive so they may send a declaration formally. However, if you are declaring war by surprise, I quite understand. No doubt the official commencement will begin after—”

“Wait. Wait—what do you mean, war? War with who?”

The Watch Captain was staring at Ksmvr. So was Ceria. Ksmvr looked puzzled; his antennae waved about uncertainly.

“Why, with the Antinium of course. If you arrest me, it will be war. With the Free Antinium and all five Hives of the Antinium. If you place me in cuffs or kill me as I resist arrest, the Antinium go to war with the Humans of Izril.”

He turned to look at the [Guards] behind him as he said it. They sprang away from Ksmvr as if he was suddenly covered in spikes. The Watch Captain licked his suddenly very dry lips.

“Now, see here. You’re just an Antinium. Aren’t there…I mean, one Antinium isn’t…”

His voice trailed off. Ksmvr was just staring at him. But it was such a contemptuous, Pisces-like stare that the meaning was plain across species. He spoke very slowly and clearly as the room focused on him.

“I am Ksmvr. A Prognugator of the Free Antinium and individual of my Hive. I am unique. There are many Antinium, but the death of a Prognugator means war. Or do you not know of Klbkch the Slayer? The Small Queen, Xrn? We are second only to our Queens. If I am arrested without cause, this will count as a military action against my Hive. There is only one response to that. I have done nothing wrong. So, tell me, Captain. Is it war?

He raised his voice and stepped forwards. The entire room shuddered and moved back in response. And every eye went towards the Watch Captain, who’d lost all color in his face. Ceria was just staring at Ksmvr.

It wasn’t every day you saw someone actually come close to evacuating their bowels in public. But the [Captain]’s expression suggested that if Ksmvr shouted, he’d be waddling as he ran away. And they would run. War with the Antinium? Ceria saw the face of the [Guardswoman] who’d relaxed her grip. The woman looked horrified, as did everyone else. Who would want that? But Ceria was amazed for a different reason.

Ksmvr was lying! The Antinium looked around the room, calm as could be. But Ceria knew that Ksmvr was lying through his teeth. His mandibles, whatever. He was outcast from his Hive! Klbkch had cast him out and taken his spot as Prognugator.

But no one else knew that. The [Captain] began to back up.

“War? No. No, absolutely…no. We would never arrest—you’re an adventurer, right? Your team…”

He looked at the Horns, suddenly instantly conflicted. Ceria looked up sharply, but Ksmvr just tilted his head.

“I believe they are under arrest. They did start the brawl.”

“Damn it, Ksmvr.”

Ceria audibly heard Pisces curse behind her. The Antinium glanced at Pisces and tilted his head the other way.

“My team has committed a crime. Thus, we must be punished. But I have not, so I will remain here while they serve their sentence. If they are due to be executed, I will of course petition—”

“No, no. They’re just going in jail. We’ll—uh, it’s just an overnight sentence. Right, lads?”

The [Captain] turned. His Watch instantly nodded. They would have agreed to anything at that moment. Ksmvr nodded happily as well.

“I see. That is good. Then I am not under arrest? There is no war?”

“No. No. In fact, you are completely free to go. Now, if you want.”

Ksmvr ignored the note of hope in the [Captain]’s voice. He Shook his head.

“I must see my companions are properly arrested first. It would not due for them to be mistreated.”

And rather to Ceria’s chagrin, Ksmvr did just that. The City Watch escorted her, Pisces, and Yvlon out of the guild as the [Captain] remained to get a full account of what had gone on. And the Horns were hauled to Celum’s jail and put in a cell together.

Ceria had to admit it was the politest and somehow the tensest walk to her cell she’d ever had. Ksmvr walked right behind the [Guards] as they hurried the Horns into a cell. They were so flustered they forgot to grab the adventurer’s gear and had to come back for their weapons.

“Dead gods damn it. Hey, don’t you dare mess with that wand. I want it back, not snapped by accident!”

The half-Elf swore as one of the [Mages] in the City Watch took her wand, eying it avariciously. The [Mage] glanced at Ksmvr, who was loitering in front of their cell and hurried off. Yvlon had given up her sword and Pisces was surrendering his rapier with a very sour expression.

“This everything?”

The [Guardswoman] in charge, a [Sergeant], glanced nervously at Ksmvr as she grabbed Yvlon’s Sword of Weight, eying it appreciatively. Yvlon nodded and Ceria glanced sideways at Pisces. He sneered.

“Of course. Would we lie?”

Normally that tone and sentence would have earned him a boot in the ribs. But the [Sergeant] held back on snapping as she glanced at Ksmvr.

“Uh. Fine. We’ll be back. You lot—cast any magic and it’ll be worse for you. We’ll get your side of things in a moment, once the [Captain] comes back. If there are fines…”

“The other adventurers joined the fight. We took on one team. They piled on.”

Ceria had thought of the least expensive excuse and the one that would survive a [Detect Lies] spell. The [Sergeant] looked at her and shook her head.

“We’ll see about the damages. At least the damn Guild wasn’t buried in snow. Anyways—”

She shifted with the sword and rapier in hand and looked at Ksmvr again. He waved at her politely.

“Hello. I am not under arrest?”

She jumped.

“No! I mean, no. I’m going to put these away. You…don’t linger. There’s a waiting time on visitors, you know.”

“I shall leave soon thereafter, then. I would not like to break the law.”

Ksmvr nodded politely at the Human woman. She looked surprised.

“Er…thanks. Well…”

She backed away. Ceria looked around her cell. It was one of the shared ones used for common, low-risk prisoners. Metal bars, stone floor and a hole in the floor that probably led into Celum’s sewers. It stank.

But at least they had the cell to themselves; across the way was another general holding area with two drunks, a petty [Thief], and some a woman who’d murdered her husband with her bare hands after she’d found him cheating on her. The [Thief] and drunks were staying well away from her.

“Silver rot. I’ll bet that [Sergeant]’s going to swing my sword around the moment she’s out of sight. And that [Mage] is going to use your wand, Ceria. I hope she doesn’t hurt anything with it; the sword can kill someone if they spar.”

Yvlon sat down on the floor, groaning. She still had a few light cuts around her face; she hadn’t taken enough healing potion to cure all of the damage from her fight. But she mainly looked tired and upset. Pisces grumbled; he was feeling at his bag of holding.

“Fools deserve their fates. Onto more pressing matters. Ksmvr, would you please tell the Watch to release us?”

Ksmvr looked confused.

“But Comrade Pisces, that would be illegal.”

All three Horns looked up. Yvlon bit her lip, but Ceria and Pisces just looked at each other.

“Yes…but it would be convenient, Ksmvr. Nice lie, by the way.”

“Thank you, Captain Ceria. I am ashamed of the ruse. But I thought it was the only way to prevent a death sentence or Comrade Pisces being horribly maimed.”

“Wait, what? What for?”

Yvlon and Ceria looked at Pisces. He looked embarrassed.

“Ah. You uh, remembered our discussion, Ksmvr. That explains it.”

The Antinium nodded happily.

“I did. I was concerned for your safety as you told me how common execution sentences are for menial crimes. As well as the fact that [Necromancers] are unduly hated. Thus, I lied, despite the extreme risk it entailed. I am glad you will not be killed.”

Ceria smacked her head gently against the bars. Pisces coughed rapidly, turning even redder. Yvlon looked disgusted.

“That explains it. Pisces—”

She wavered as she stared at the young man. Then Yvlon turned to Ksmvr and to Ceria’s surprise, she only sighed.

“He’s told you a half truth, Ksmvr. Pisces probably did get in a lot of trouble for being a [Necromancer], but his ‘menial crimes’ probably were a bit worse than that. And yes, he might get roughed up pretty bad if people found out what he is, so it’s a legitimate concern. But the only time it would be a death sentence is in a Drake city. And even then, not for a brawl.”

She looked meaningfully at Pisces. The tips of his ears were red as he nodded.

“A slight exaggeration, Ksmvr. I…apologize. In my defense, I was recounting stories to him.”

He glanced at Ceria. The half-Elf bit her lip. She wasn’t sure whether she should laugh or not. She instead looked at Ksmvr.

“What did you mean, ‘extreme risk’, Ksmvr? It’s just a lie. And a darn good one. You can spring us out of jail with it, right?”

Ksmvr nodded.

“No doubt, Captain Ceria. However, if the issue is not a life-or-death matter, I would hesitate to do so and in fact urge that I do not. Because it may turn the issue into a deadly matter. For us. You see, if my former Hive finds out I have claimed Prognugator status, they may attempt to seize and execute me as well as my team. Revalantor Klbkch would not hesitate to do so, I think.”

Ceria’s mouth fell open in horror. Her eyes slid sideways to Yvlon and Pisces.

“He—he wouldn’t do that, right?”

The Antinium shook his head seriously.

“I am not a Prognugator. To claim otherwise is one of the most serious affronts I could make to the Hive. I have no doubt I would be executed if he had overheard what I claimed. Recall that I threatened war with all of the Antinium.”

When he put it like that…Ceria gulped.

“Okay, scratch getting us out. It would look bad after you agreed to arrest us. And that might make Celum issue a complaint. And if they do…”

She looked at her teammates. Yvlon and Pisces nodded rapidly.

“One night’s fine. A fee’s welcome.”

“I relish squatting in this squalid, stinking hole of a cell.”

“What they said. You did good, Ksmvr. At least we didn’t earn a beating. Which we would have done with Pisces’ tongue. And at least we won that fight. Although…”

The half-Elf sighed. She looked at Yvlon. The woman was sitting down, rubbing at her arms and not meeting her eye or anyone else’s. Ceria hesitated.

“…We’ll have to talk out why it started.”

“I see. Should I be arrested to partake in this conversation?”

Ksmvr looked from Yvlon to the cell. Ceria shook her head.

“No, no, the last thing we need is more trouble. You just…stay out of trouble. Okay, Ksmvr? Maybe go back to Erin’s inn, alright? Let her know what—no, you know what? Don’t tell Erin what happened unless something worse occurs. Just go back, have a drink…we’ll be out in the morning.”

Ksmvr nodded obediently.

“Yes, Captain Ceria. But what about our request?”

Ceria’s mind went blank as she tried to recall.

“Our what? Oh. The [Bandits]. They’ll keep a day. Don’t worry. We’ll jump on it when we’re out.”

Pisces sniffed.

“A menial task. But one that is worth twenty gold pieces plus loot…hardly worth the cost of sitting a night in jail. But as that is a separate matter…Ksmvr, here. Take this.”

He had been busy fiddling with his hands and his belt. Now, to Ceria’s surprise, she saw him pluck a ring off his finger and hand it to Ksmvr along with his personal bag of holding. She eyed him with great surprise.

“What’s that for?”

“My ring enchanted with the [Shatterbolt] spell, as well as the bag of holding containing all my bones. Be very careful with it, Ksmvr. I can sense where the bones are of course, but while the bear bones are still present, what remains of them, there is another skeleton that must not be lost.”

The [Necromancer] met Ksmvr’s eyes. The Antinium nodded seriously.

“I will be very careful, Pisces.”

“And you’re giving that to Ksmvr because…?”

Pisces rolled his eyes as he turned to Ceria.

“Because I would rather not have my ring confiscated. If I had time, I would have sequestered your wand and Yvlon’s sword for the bag of holding along with my rapier. Or do you think the [Guards] will be so polite after Ksmvr is gone? They’ll come back to do some very invasive searches, I have no doubt.”

Ceria grimaced as she realized Pisces was right. Then she felt a moment of grudging admiration.

“Smart to hide your bones. They’d probably burn all of them.”

“Exactly. If you have anything else you’d like to ensure isn’t looted, now would be the time.”

Pisces looked around. Yvlon shook her head.

“All I’ve got is my armor and they won’t take that. Keep Pisces’ stuff safe, Ksmvr. I’m…sorry about the fuss.”

She looked miserable. Ksmvr stared down at her as he attached the bag of holding to his belt.

“I do not mind, Yvlon. I do not fully understand. But I wish to. And I will stay out of trouble, Captain Ceria. Do you have any other instructions for me?”

“Uh…no. No. Thanks, Ksmvr. You were a help. You’d better get out of here before the [Guards] come back.”

Ceria smiled wearily at Ksmvr. The Antinium nodded.

“I will wait for your release tomorrow morning, then.”

“Thanks! And Ksmvr, it’s not at dawn! You can go to sleep!”

Ceria called out as he turned and walked down the jail. He turned and waved his acknowledgement. Ceria saw him pause to speak with the [Sergeant] at the far end of the jail; she was indeed practicing cuts with Yvlon’s sword. Then she opened the door, let him out, and he was gone.

A silence fell over the cell after Ksmvr had gone. Ceria looked around. The other inmates had been an audience to the adventurer’s discussion. Now they stared at their cell mates.

“That thing’s an Antinium, ain’t it? Weird devils.”

One of the [Drunks] leaned against the bars, looking miserable and hung over. The [Thief] nodded.

“Dangerous. No wonder the Drakes fucking hate them. Hey, how much to stay silent about him not being a Prognuga-whatsit?”

Ceria swore and sat up. Before she could formulate a threat, Pisces stepped in.

“If you were wise, friend, you’d keep your mouth shut. Ksmvr may not be a Prognugator, but I am a [Necromancer]. And imprisoned or not, I do not take kindly to threats.

The [Necromancer] cast a minor illusion spell as he did, so his voice sounded deeper and far more sibilant. The shadows around him seemed to creep towards the other cell. The [Thief] scrambled back with a shout as the two drunks fled.

“Keep back! You so much as cast a spell and I’ll shout, and the Watch will be all over—”

A hand descended on his shoulder. The man spun and stared into a woman’s face. Her eyes were bloodshot with tears, but the husband-killing wife’s voice was steady.

“Shut up. You tell anyone and I’ll kill you. I did it once. I’ll do it again. Be quiet.

The [Thief] froze. The self-bereaved wife let him go and he backed up into a corner and tried to squeeze into the stone. The wife looked around with a very lost expression. She was a young woman. Barely eighteen. She must have just been married, or else married young. She was attractive, but she was a mess; she’d been crying when the Horns were brought in. Ceria caught her eye.

“Thank you.”

The murderess looked back at the half-Elf, looking lost.

“He looked nice.”

“He is.”

“Good. Good. I’m…I mean it. I’ll kill him if he so much as squeaks.”

She pointed back at the [Thief]. The man’s face was white as he shook his head frantically. Ceria’s skin crawled; that was another thing about prisons. Sometimes the [Guards] separated by cells, but sometimes they didn’t think someone was a threat and you spent a night sleeplessly watching the other people in the cell. They’d underestimated this girl.

“That’s…quite alright. Thank you, though. But he can stay alive unless he speaks.”

The young woman nodded.

“Okay. I’ll remember that. And him. But I don’t mind it. I don’t have any other reason. I killed him, you know. Myself. I leveled up from it. I’m all red now. It’s so red up here…”

She tapped her skull. Her eyes dripped tears. Ceria found herself backing up unconsciously. She licked her lips.

“I’m sorry to hear it.”

“I did level up.”

Pisces moved forwards. He gave the woman a charming smile and a slight bow.

“And we are grateful. Truly. You look quite tired, Miss. We’ll leave you to your rest. I’m sure it’s been a long day.”

“It has. Thank you.”

The woman retreated. So did Pisces and Ceria. They backed up until the woman was somewhat out of view. Ceria breathed out. Then she turned to Pisces and Yvlon. She wanted to say something, but aware the others might still be listening with Skills, she just looked at Yvlon.

“Alright. Want to talk about it?”

The woman had watched the exchange silently. Yvlon looked up. Her face was shadowed in the dark prison with only a few lanterns providing light.

“No. But we should. I know I shouldn’t have taken the bait. But—”

“I was angry too. But you’re just feeding into what they think, Yvlon. You know what it’s like. Tomorrow we’ll grab Stan and Alais. Kick some sense into them if we have to. If we can find Olesm, the Halfseekers even, get someone to vouch for us…”

Yvlon was nodding. She looked up.

“Thanks. I’m sorry.”

Pisces sniffed and then clearly regretted it.

“This isn’t the first night I’ve spent in a cell. Although perhaps one of the only full nights I will spend in one. We could slip out, but alas, I’m an adventurer now. I suppose I can tolerate this.”

Yvlon’s lips quirked the slightest bit.

“Thanks, Pisces. I didn’t mean it. I’ll control myself. It’s just—”

Her voice broke. Ceria saw her shoulder shake. In the darkness, she finally made out Yvlon’s face. It was running with tears.

The half-Elf looked at Pisces. He’d frozen. So she knelt and grabbed Yvlon.

“Hey now. It’s not true.”

“But I did lose my team. I did. We lost them. Sometimes I forget their names. Their faces. I don’t dream about them anymore, Ceria. I ran, just like—”

Ceria sat on the ground and grabbed her friend. She rocked back and forth with Yvlon as tears and memory both filled her again. Her eyes stung. She whispered.

“It wasn’t like that. We did all we could. It wasn’t like that. We tried…”

Silently, the [Necromancer] turned his back and began investigating the hole into the sewers. Ceria thought she saw him drop something into the sewers. But she was focused on Yvlon. She wiped at her own eyes as she rocked back and forth. It was very quiet. That was all. And soon, the tears stopped. After all, their friends had died a long time ago, or so it felt now. It just hurt sometimes.

That was all.

 

—-

 

And then Ksmvr was alone. He checked out of the jail and the [Sergeant] walked him to the door. No one stopped him. No one tried. After all, he was innocent. Although Ksmvr was quite aware that he could be guilty by association.

That was a common crime he had studied up on while he was learning how Drake and Human society worked. Loitering, resisting arrest, and ‘suspicious behavior’ were all valid tactics used by both Drake and Human [Guards] to opportunistically arrest undesirable elements or pursue personal agendas. It was a very convenient loophole in a system designed for equality.

Ksmvr had quite approved when he’d first studied it in his Hive in his formative two years. If you were going to have a flawed society based on individual freedoms, they might as well be curtailed by those with the true power.

It was lucky the ruse worked. Or I might have been arrested. Which would not have resulted in the death of Comrade Pisces. Hm. So is it good that I successfully lied and endangered my team to no gain? I will not be able to hear the discussion Captain Ceria has with Yvlon.

Ksmvr frowned as he walked away from the jail. To an Antinium, the equivalent of frowning was holding his mandibles close together but not touching, while his antennae drooped slightly. Perhaps, he had been rash. But he had acted on the best information available.

“Now I am a free citizen. Bereft of my team until tomorrow. What should I do?”

The former Prognugator stopped in the street and looked around. He realized everyone was staring at him. Over a hundred pedestrians, from children to people conducting their business, to [Guards] peeking out the windows of their barracks were all staring at him.

Ksmvr the Antinium. He had on his magic cloak, and Ksmvr had his enchanted short sword on his left, with his one good arm. On his right was the little Flamespread Dagger, and his shortbow was positioned to be drawn over his right shoulder as well. He had on four magical rings counting the one Pisces had just given him, and Ksmvr had a necklace on, the one that prevented food poisoning.

There was a little quiver of arrows on his left side, behind the shortsword, and Pisces’ bag of holding was located on the right side of his belt behind the dagger. A row of two potions filled the rest of the belt, as well as a small money pouch containing seven gold coins, fourteen silver, and three copper coins as well as a copper penny, a denomination not always used or accepted, but informally treated as a de facto currency.

In short, Ksmvr was armed and prepared for anything. But since there was nothing to do, the Antinium was lost. He looked around and noticed a good deal of flinching.

“I am clearly unwelcome.”

Those were the facts. They didn’t bother Ksmvr in the slightest. He stared around Celum, wondering what he should do with his time. Captain Ceria had told him not to cause trouble, to not tell Erin about what had occurred unless necessary, and to go to sleep at some point. Beyond that, Ksmvr was free to act autonomously. Which he would.

He wasn’t a slave, after all. And neither was he a mindless drone, like many of the Soldiers and Workers of the Hive were. Ksmvr was aware that his team worried over his behavior sometimes, and regarded it as obsessive. But that was a misconception he had yet to clear up. As he’d told Comrade Pisces time and time again…

“I am not without free will. I have simply chosen to devote my entire life to my team. Because there is nothing else in life that gives me purpose or value. Without it and my teammates, I am nothing.”

What was so hard to understand about that? But Comrade Pisces had gotten such a funny look on his face and awkwardly patted Ksmvr on the shoulder multiple times while clearing his throat. Ksmvr shook his head as he marched down the street.

“Silly Comrade Pisces. He exaggerates, as Yvlon says. But we are all with our quirks. Comrade Pisces is a [Necromancer] and duplicitous. Yvlon has a temper but she is very kind and caring. Captain Ceria eats bugs, which is a trait reviled for some reason and she likes sugary foods. I am a failure and weak link in my team.”

This was the way the world was. Ksmvr walked down the street and headed left. He knew the route, although he’d only been to Celum a few times before and rarely outside of Octavia’s shop. But he had memorized the route the [Guards] had taken to get here from the Adventure’s Guild.

And Ksmvr could trace his route from the guild back to Octavia’s shop if he so chose. He had an excellent spatial memory. And it never occurred to Ksmvr he could take another route. Why bother? He had time and this way was certain.

“What should I do next? Hm. I could drink, but that is a social activity and I do not need further energy reserves. Moreover, tipsiness is difficult for Antinium to acquire without Rxlvn. I could practice? Or acquire valuable information by listening to Captain Bevussa and the other adventures in Liscor’s guild. Perhaps Miss Selys has—”

Ksmvr was pondering his options as the Adventurer’s Guild appeared before him. He walked up to the front door, turned around, and then began walking in the direction of Octavia’s shop. But it was then that he paused. Something was happening. Ksmvr looked down.

His rings were…vibrating on his fingers. Ksmvr hadn’t noticed it at first, but they were definitely shaking. And the vibration was getting stronger; it had grown to the point where he could feel it, even with his limited nervous system. He stopped at once and investigated the phenomenon.

“My rings are vibrating. Why? A spell? Perhaps. A function I was not aware of? Comrade Pisces’ ring? But he has never mentioned it. And…all four rings are vibrating. And my sword. And necklace. And bow and dagger and…”

Ksmvr suddenly realized that all the magical items were shaking. From the cloak, to the bow, to the sword…and they the effect was increasing in magnitude exponentially. He looked at his gear, alarmed.

“What is this? What will happen if it grows worse?”

He hesitated. This was something he would ask Captain Ceria or Comrade Pisces about. But what should he do? He was about to check for someone casting a spell on him from afar when his predicament attracted the attention of one of the adventurers exiting the guild.

Crossbow Stan. The man was talking to Alais, the [Aeromancer] and Silver-rank Captain Ksmvr had been introduced to. He paused as he saw Ksmvr and his expression was guarded. Then his eyes widened in horror as he saw what was happening to Ksmvr’s gear.

“Troll balls! It’s dissonance! Pull those rings off!”

He bellowed at Ksmvr. The Antinium looked up.

“What is?”

Stan waved his arms frantically. Alais looked up, alarmed. Her eyes widened as well, signifying great alarm to the Antinium. Genuine alarm. She shouted.

“Your gear! There’re too many enchantments! Take it off! Now! Or it’ll explode!

Explode? Ksmvr’s arms moved in a blur. The adventurers blinked as the weapons, rings, and necklace all fell to the ground in a blur. Ksmvr was yanking at his cloak as Stan called out.

“It’s fine! It’s fine…Ksmvr? Look, the shaking’s stopped, see?”

Ksmvr paused. It was true. The shaking had stopped, and the rings and his weapons had ceased vibrating, even though they were all piled on top of each other on the ground. He bent to investigate.

“Curious. But they are in closer proximity. Why has the effect ceased?”

“Because they’re enchantments. You can’t have too many on your person at once. All of ‘em in the same place isn’t so bad; they’re not active. You could toss twice as many artifacts in a bag of holding without a worry. But on you? They’ll explode, or the enchantments will combine or break or do something nasty.”

Stan and Alais came over with a few of their teammates. The old man was wiping at his balding head as he stared at Ksmvr.

“I’m surprised you had that many on you before without the dissonance kicking in. Most adventurers have a limit of four items, max, including a bag of holding. Did Ceria or Yvlon not teach you the basics?”

The tone in his voice was accusatory. Ksmvr instantly took offense. He straightened and spoke slowly.

“I was made aware of the issue. But it has never come up until now. I am given to understand these artifacts are high-quality. It seems Comrade Pisces’ ring and bag of holding exceeded my threshold.”

“Must be. Damned thing. Glad nothing happened. I’ve only seen the dissonance get that bad once; and then the fellow’s gear all imploded. Took parts of him with it.”

Crossbow Stan shuddered and some of the adventurers blanched. Ksmvr bent.

“I see. Then may I assume I can reequip my gear and stow the rest?”

“That’s right. Just put what you don’t need in that bag of holding and put the rest on one by one until you feel a quiver. Slowly…”

Ksmvr obeyed. He put on his gear, piece by piece, until he saw the telltale vibration start. Then he immediately pulled off the offending item and rearranged his equipment. It seemed that he had indeed reached the limit of items he could equip. But—it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. Ksmvr ended up only putting two items in the bag of holding.

“I suppose the necklace is least useful. Followed by…the Ring of Waterbreathing. However, it may be very important. I will reequip it at the slightest sign of rain. Happily, it appears I can wear my rings, cloak, sword, bow, dagger…and bag of holding together without issue.”

The adventurers watched as Ksmvr reequipped himself. Alais was blinking hard and one of her teammates was staring.

“That’s a lot of magical equipment!”

“Is it?”

Ksmvr looked up. He noted that the other Silver-rank adventurers all possessed one or two magical items each. A wand and some enchanted robes, or an amulet or a mildly enchanted sword. You could tell, sometimes, by the way the light shone on the metal. Or sometimes [Enchanters] added superfluous effects like a sparkling blade. Usually that meant they were low-grade. Crossbow Stan stared at Klbkch as he put the ring away.

“A Ring of Waterbreathing? Well, ain’t that a useful little tool? Not that I’d take a contract fighting monsters in the water. Still—how many items does your team have, er, Ksmvr, isn’t it?”

“I’m afraid that information is classified, Captain Crossbow Stan. I would not like to reveal my team’s secrets without Captain Ceria’s permission. If you were her friend, I think that information would not be so confidential.”

“Captain Crossbow Stan?”

One of the adventurers laughed and Stan flushed a bit, but he did smile, which indicated to Ksmvr his words were humorous or at least, well-received. The adventurers stopped in the street and Ksmvr noted they were giving him a moderately friendly look. Cautious, but not nearly as hostile as the looks they had directed at the rest of his team. Perhaps Antinium were more welcome than [Necromancers] and perceived team-killers? Interesting.

“We’re—sort of friends. Your Captain, and I. Ceria and Yvlon—I did know them back in the day. So you can tell me what you’ve got, surely?”

Captain Stan’s tone was what Ceria would have described as ‘wheedling’. And his smile was too fake, much like the ones Comrade Pisces sometimes wore. Ksmvr instantly reevaluated his assessment of the adventurers; they were probing for information. So the Antinium reacted appropriately.

“Your fight in the guild would indicate you are not friends with my teammates, Captain Crossbow. You attempted to shoot my teammate in the stomach.”

“Hah. Well, that was—had to stop him animating undead, right? I didn’t know it wasn’t going to savage the others.”

“And the lightning?”

Ksmvr looked at Alais. The [Aeromancer] looked uncomfortable.

“It was a fight. Besides, Yvlon had that enchanted armor on.”

“Damn. She didn’t use to have that. And her levels! She put down at least a dozen people by herself. Caddin’s going to need healing for at least a few days. Too soon for the job.”

One of Alais’ teammates complained sourly. He didn’t quite glare at Ksmvr. Alais glared and one of the other teammates nudged the complainer. Stan gave them a meaningful look and a nod of the head. Another unspoken message. We need to talk to the Antinium and acquire information due to its naiveté, so cease making inappropriate comments! That was Ksmvr’s read of the body language. He continued playing the part.

“I do not understand. If you are their friends, why the reason for the hostility and the fight? Your accusations are without merit, as far as I understand them. If you had confirmed this, you would understand the truth.”

He looked pointedly at Stan. The man rubbed at his head as the other adventurers muttered invectives and curses on Ksmvr’s teammates. Crossbow Stan sighed tiredly.

“Look, Ksmvr. I’m sure you’re a fine…fellow. But those two are—you heard what Caddin said. Well, even if Ceria told us all the truth, it’s hard. Seeing them get out of Liscor like that? And then getting rich in Albez? No one’s pulled out a haul out of there, like we said, for years. It’s just suspicious. And even if it’s not…look, we made our mistakes.”

He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the guild.

“Why don’t we bury the hatchet? You can at least tell us about Albez, tell us the story. Over a few drinks? And maybe tell us what you got? Those rings and that gear, right?”

As if she’d been waiting, Alais broke in with a smile that Ksmvr read as fake.

“Actually, the guild’s a mess. Why don’t we get a drink? I know a good inn. It’s on us as an apology.”

They glanced at Ksmvr, but they were unable to read the Antinium’s mandibles. And that uncertainty—and the disdain in some of their eyes—was an open book to Ksmvr. He thought quickly.

This scenario will either lead to me revealing some information as a tactical exchange of intelligence, or a situation where I am killed and my equipment looted. It is a fitting use of time in the former case and the latter’s possibility is remote. However—

Ksmvr looked at the adventurer standing behind Alais who’d been complaining, a man with freckles and dusty hair.

“I would like to partake in this conversation. But did I not hear correctly? You have a request, do you not?”

The adventurers blinked. Alais half-turned and then nodded, off-guard. She was already behaving in a friendly manner to Ksmvr. His polite tone and demeanor were no doubt helping this effect, and her own natural desire for his goodwill aided the effect.

“What? Oh, yeah. But it’s a job for tomorrow. We need to get some other teams, but we can spare some time tonight…we’re just going to send a [Message] spell to some teams we know about that bandit job—”

“Alais—”

Stan broke in, but it was too late. Ksmvr’s antennae waved quickly.

‘The request involving the bandits? But my team has taken that job.”

Wasn’t it a courtesy between adventurers? Then again…Alais winced.

“Yeah, well, things have changed. The [Receptionist] just got an update on the bounty. Look, you know Adventurer’s Guild share bounties, right? Big ones, at least. They communicate, and with the Merchant and Runner’s Guilds, passing on valuable intelligence. The [Bandits] are one of the things they notified the local cities about.”

Ksmvr nodded.

“Of course.”

“Yeah, well, this [Bandit] group isn’t famous, but they’re still a threat. Enough to wipe out a caravan, even a well-protected one. Sure, they might lose half their number, but the other half will come away rich. And that’s what they wanted. They’ve cut off the trade going through the pass towards Esthelm and Liscor; a few [Merchants] heard about it and upped the bounty by eighty gold coins.”

She paused for what Ksmvr assumed was dramatic effect. He said nothing; reactions were superfluous effort. After a moment Alais awkwardly went on.

“So it’s a hundred gold bounty on that group of [Bandits]. Poor bastards don’t stand a chance with that kind of reward on them. And we’re going to be the group that takes them out.”

Stan was nodding. He looked apologetic as he glanced at Ksmvr.

“You can tell Ceria and Yvlon it’s our contract, now. We’re getting some teams together and we’ll take it. They can do another request when they get out of jail.”

The group of adventurers held their breath as they waited for Ksmvr’s reaction. The Antinium didn’t need to think. He nodded and opened his mandibles happily, raising them.

“Of course. I will relay the message. Good luck with your hunting. And if I do not take up your time, I would join you for a night of drinking and optional debauchery. Perhaps at The Wandering Inn? I will be staying there tonight.”

Both teams looked relieved. Alais smiled.

“Sure. We could meet at sundown? I’ve been meaning to visit that famous inn.”

“So have I. It’s free to use that door, right?”

Ksmvr nodded.

“It is in Stitchworks, a shop run by an [Alchemist]. The door is not always active, but if you leave it open, it is checked at a regular interval. If I am not there at that time, I may be in my room. Miss Erin will know where to find me. Oh, and do not be alarmed by the Hobgoblin or white Gnoll, both of whom I understand to be objectionable socially in some way.”

Hobgoblin?

Captain Crossbow Stan nodded, covering Alais’ startled reaction.

“I heard about that. We’ll see you then, then.”

“Excellent. I will bring my artifacts for further recommendation. I would not like to have more adverse effects regarding this magical dissonance.”

The adventurers brightened at that. Alais smiled. Ksmvr was turning to go, when he had a thought. He turned back and politely raised a hand.

“Excuse me.”

Stan and Alais turned back as some of their team went into the Guild, perhaps to talk to their other teammates.

“Yes, uh, Ksmvr? Anything else you need?”

“Regarding the [Bandit] group you are pursuing. May I ask where they are based, exactly? I would like to inform my team so we do not accidentally cross paths tomorrow if we take another assignment.”

Both captains hesitated, but Crossbow Stan smiled after only a moment.

“Fair request. And cautious. From where we ran into them and what we know, they’re in the Humpbacker Hills. You know, that really tall section of hills that starts appearing before the actual mountains if you head southwest? Just short of the High Passes—a good ride from Celum by horse, but not too bad. There’s a little valley there. Just stay out of the region; we’re clearing them out tomorrow and we don’t want anyone spooking them beforehand.”

“I understand. I will inform my team. Thank you.”

“See you tonight.”

“Yes.”

Ksmvr waved; the other teams left. He saw Alais putting her head together with Stan as they went in the direction of the Mage’s Guild, which was located not far from the Adventurer’s Guild for convenience. Ksmvr wondered how many teams they considered appropriate for this job. He also wondered if the two laughing adventurers in Alais’ team were laughing at him. At the silly Antinium without a clue.

There was something people always misunderstood about Ksmvr. His team as well, but people who didn’t know Ksmvr especially. The Antinium stared at the backs of the adventurers and shook his head slowly.

“I am not stupid. You idiots.”

He turned and hurried down the street. Away from the Adventurer’s guild. Suddenly, Ksmvr had a lot to do. And it was all thanks to his new skills.

Not his Skills. Ksmvr was a Level 18 [Warrior]; an embarrassingly low level. But he had not fought in many engagements. He had shot up in levels from his initial Level 12 status when he’d first joined the Horns of Hammerad, but Ksmvr hadn’t fought much outside a few encounters with the Raskghar. And even then, he’d only leveled once from that.

No matter. Ksmvr had not spent all that time uselessly. He had developed skills along with his Skills, and he had gained them from his companions. From observation. Questions. They were more valuable than any number of levels.

Comrade Pisces’ ability to lie. Comrade Yvlon’s skill at arms and integrity, although the integrity was hard to use properly. Comrade Ceria’s leadership. And more. Ksmvr had observed Erin and Mrsha’s manipulation of innocence and duplicity. These were valuable skills. Ksmvr had put several of them to use for the first time and it had paid off. Now he practically ran back towards Stitchworks. He got there just in time to see the attack.

A group of men wearing cloths over their faces and hoods were standing outside of the [Alchemist]’s shop, shouting. Ksmvr slowed as he noticed they had weapons. Not swords, but rocks, bricks, an empty bottle, and a maul. Their leader had that and he seemed to be issuing a threat. Ksmvr watched with interest was the man with the maul smashed open the boarded up front of Octavia’s shop. The other men threw their stones, bottle, and bricks through the opening. There was a crash of glass.

Help! Someone get the Watch!

“You started this, [Alchemist]! Don’t make Mister Quelm finish it! You know what you have to do!”

The [Thug] with the maul bellowed into the shop. Ksmvr could still hear Octavia’s voice from inside. At last, someone else took up the call. Only then did the men turn and scatter.

The Antinium knew from the [Thug]’s speedy retreat that the City Watch was incredibly unlikely to arrest them, even if a [Guard] were in the area to give chase. Not that it mattered; he opened the door to the shop, hoping the stones hadn’t broken everything.

“Excuse me—”

Stay back! I’m warning you! I—

Octavia stopped as she held up two bottles filled with her Pepperspray potion. She stared.

“Ksmvr? Oh, thank goodness! Help me out! Those [Thugs] just smashed a hole in my shop! Run them down! Cut off their heads or something!”

She pointed with a shaking finger at the front of her boarded up shop. It was well and truly smashed in, and Ksmvr noted the projectiles had broken a few potions on Octavia’s shelves. Nothing too important; her alchemical wares were intact. He stepped around a puddle.

“Well? What are you waiting for? They’re getting away! Or, no, I know where they’re going. It’s this ass—”

Octavia rushed past Ksmvr, trying to hurry him out of the shop. Ksmvr held up a hand.

“I am not here to assist in that regard, Miss Octavia. This appears to be matter for the City Watch.”

“They won’t help! They think this is a fight between [Alchemists]! Which it is, I’ll grant you, but I didn’t think it would come to this! That damn Quelm bought out the muscle I approached. And he wants—look, do you want money? I’ll pay you! You’re an adventurer, right?”

The [Alchemist] was very insistent. Ksmvr stepped around her and investigated her wares. He addressed Octavia absently.

“I was instructed by Captain Ceria not to cause trouble. I feel that involving myself in this issue would be a mistake, as it is not strictly adventurer’s work. So I will not help you. I do have an order, however. Three healing potions and one stamina potion, please. Also, one smoke cloud bag.”

He had some potions, but more was always welcome. Octavia stared at him.

“But—”

“Three healing potions please. One stamina. I do not need the smoke cloud bag on second thought. I will not need it.”

“Uh, that’ll be—”

The [Alchemist] numbly accepted the coins Ksmvr handed her. Then she stared at Ksmvr. Her expression was pleading.

“I know I’m not your favorite [Alchemist]. People are making that clear today. But, look, I could really use some help right now. Ksmvr, buddy? Come on, just let me talk to Ceria. I just need some help. I just—”

She reached for Ksmvr’s arm. The Antinium walked back towards the door. One objective down. He turned perfunctorily at the opening in Octavia’s shop front.

“Captain Ceria is currently under arrest. You may talk to her tomorrow. Goodbye.”

Then he left. Octavia ran out after him.

“Wait! Ksmvr. Please?”

But he paid no attention to her. Octavia wasn’t important on Ksmvr’s internal list of affiliates, friends, and teammates. She was useful to his team, but there were many [Alchemists]. Perhaps if he had not been busy, he would have taken up her problems. But he had something to do. Something that mattered.

So Ksmvr hurried down the street, glancing up at the sun. Not even midday, which was good. He needed all the time he could. He wasn’t sure how long he had based on vague directions.

The Antinium made one last stop in the city. He found a local stable. The [Horse Handler] took one look at Ksmvr and went for his belt dagger. The Antinium had to reassure him he wasn’t a monster first, which was an amusing and unnecessary question to ask. When the man was calm, Ksmvr tried again.

“Hello. I would like to rent a horse.”

“What? Naw, naw…you’re pulling my leg. Aren’t ya?”

The man had a thick accent. He stared at Ksmvr as if the Antinium were joking. Ksmvr was not. He pointed at the sign behind the man.

“This is a stable, is it not? It rents horses? I believe the concept is simple. And you are employed here?”

It was indeed a simple concept. Ksmvr gave the man money, a full deposit on a horse, which was quite a lot, and he could ride the horse out right now. If the horse were injured, stolen, or died, Ksmvr would get less or none of his deposit back. Otherwise, he was simply renting the horse for a fee.

He could buy one if he had the funds, but that wasn’t what the Antinium was after. He didn’t have enough for one thing; he was lucky the deposits weren’t the full price of the horse. But that was because the stables operated on trust; the handlers had perfect memories and if you mistreated or stole one of their horses, not only were you banned for life, but the men and women managing the stables across the continent would rat you out to local law enforcement wherever you went. You didn’t cross horse people.

The man running this stable blinked at Ksmvr. For some reason this simple concept seemed to be failing him, the horse handler.

“You’re one of them bug people. Why do you need a horse?”

“Why does anyone need a horse? That is a rhetorical question, by the way.”

“What?”

The two stared at each other. Ksmvr shifted impatiently. He tried again.

“I am a Silver-rank adventurer. My qualifications are impeccable. I am fully capable of riding a horse. I need one.”

“Naw, naw…I’m not selling to a bug person. Might not get ‘em back. And it’ll break my heart if one of my lads or lasses got hurt. Can’t trust adventurers anyways. Go on. Shoo.”

He waved vaguely at Ksmvr, looking mildly afraid. The Antinium gave up. He strode past the man into the stables.

“Hey!”

“Hmm. This horse looks reasonably able. I will pay for this one. Here is the fee.”

Ksmvr dug gold coins out of his pouch, relieved he had enough to pay for the horse’s rental fee. He resolved not to get it killed; it would be far too expensive.

“You can’t just take one! Mister Fairday doesn’t like you anyways. See?”

The horse was indeed frisky. It pranced in its stall, showing Ksmvr the whites of its eyes. It couldn’t decide if it was hostile or afraid. Ksmvr spoke in a soothing voice as he held a hand out.

“Shh. Or I will have to discipline you by riding you firmly while offering you encouragement in the form of food.”

It took him a few seconds, but a calm approach and even calmer voice worked on the horse. It stopped threatening to rear. Ksmvr turned back to the [Horse Handler]. The man looked impressed despite himself, but he refused the coins when Ksmvr tried to pay.

“Look, no offense, but you’re still one of them bug folk. Can’t trust one of you lot on a horse. Who’s to know you don’t eat horses?”

Ksmvr stared at the man as the hostler folded his arms defiantly. The Antinium sighed. Then he spread his arms wide.

“I see. Is it war, then?”

“…What?”

 

—-

 

Fifteen minutes later, Ksmvr rode out of Celum’s gates. He knew his presence was noted by the [Guards] on the gate, but he hadn’t spotted any of the adventurers on the short ride out the gates. His horse trotted a hair too quickly, and it snorted a few times. Its ears kept trying to lay flat and it was snorting. But Ksmvr rode patiently and quickly guided the horse down the road.

Heading south. More than one traveller on the road did a double-take at the sight of Ksmvr on the horse’s back. He heard exclamations, oaths, screams, and more on the road. His horse nervously whinnied—Ksmvr made it pick up the pace. Only when he was moving faster and heading off the road, towards a certain landmark did the horse calm and the exclamations cease.

It was better that way; the horse moved slower on the uneven terrain, but Ksmvr vigilantly watched the ground and got off to let the horse rest. Well, rest just meant Ksmvr ran alongside the horse. He was still in a hurry.

He patted the horse now and then soothingly; it wasn’t happy about him being on it, despite the [Horse Handler] doing his best to convince the animal to let the Antinium get on. But Ksmvr was a capable rider and the horse gradually adjusted to his presence. True to his word, Ksmvr did indeed bribe the animal with food, which no doubt helped.

Was it really that much of a surprise to see Ksmvr on horseback? The Antinium wondered to himself as he rode.

“Yes, perhaps. My team might well be surprised. But they would not be if they considered my origin. Riding is among one of my abilities.”

It was true. Ksmvr could ride, shoot, fight with almost any weapon commonly used across all five continents, lead an army with any number of strategies, perform rapid calculations, hide, assassinate, identify poisons, fight barehanded, construct fortifications, identify a wide variety of spells, read and more. He had been created and trained to be superior to his common counterparts in every way. And even if he was a failure, he had been made in the image of one of the greatest Antinium to have ever lived.

Klbkch the Slayer. Only, Ksmvr was an inferior copy. A defect. As the Antinium rode towards his destination, he thought to himself and out loud. That was what Ksmvr the Antinium did when he was alone. He thought about the future, the present, and the past. Especially the past.

“I was created in secret. To be a Prognugator of the Free Antinium should Klbkch ever fall. I was not meant to exist; my very existence was illegal.”

He knew that. The Free Queen had told him herself. To create him, she had experimented, replicated the methods of making Prognugators of old. It had been costly, and done without the Grand Queen’s authority; she had not desired unique Antinium to come from the Free Antinium’s Hive.

But the Free Queen was gifted. And she remembered how it was done. There had been countless failures. But Ksmvr had been created out of the phenomenal cost to the Hive. Only, he’d been wrong.

Just how wrong? Ksmvr had narrowed his failure down. He spoke out loud as his horse bore him on.

“My faults were twofold. Firstly, in my body. In my origin.”

His body was that of a Worker’s. The Free Queen had only had two forms to choose between; she had spent time on his creation, not towards developing a new form of Antinium. Ksmvr did not understand the formulation process, but he understood it was beyond difficult; even changing a few details about the Worker and Soldier’s forms could throw off body chemistry, balance, muscle formation, and a thousand variables that would create useless rejects.

And because Ksmvr needed the use of his hands, he had become a Worker. Klbkch had been given the same form. But it was a mistake.

“The Worker form is weak. Too weak for a Prognugator. Both Revalantor Klbkch and I suffered from its ungainliness. Four arms are useful, but the agility of Klbkch’s current form with two arms far befits his style.”

Ksmvr had dueled Klbkch after the Revelator’s rebirth. That had hammered home just how ill-at-ease Klbkch must have been in a Worker’s body. Of course, Ksmvr had known his Worker’s body all his life, but only after seeing Klbkch had he understood how fluid and beautiful the Slayer’s fighting style really was. The style Ksmvr had learned from imitating Klbkch had been developed out of necessity. It was weak. However—

“That was a minor fault. Levels and experience may still compensate for biological disadvantage. It speaks to my inferiority. Revalantor Klbkch’s current form is far more agile and adept. As are the other Prognugator’s bodies. I observed Pivr and Tersk’s forms to both be superior in construction to my own. But body only limits my capabilities. My second fault was far worse. It lay in…me.”

Ksmvr touched his chest. He thought about his first assignment. His first responsibility in the days after Klbkch had been brought to the Hive. Slain by Goblins of all things, protecting a young girl with his body when he could have easily finished off the Goblins if he’d let her die. Ksmvr remembered and it hurt.

“At that time I truly thought I was equal to him. I thought I could replace him just like that. That was what my Queen said. Did she lie? Or did she mistake me. Surely…she knew. She knew. Only I did not know.”

The Antinium paused. He reined in the horse and let it rest. He fed it water. Then he leaned against it. He wished he could close his eyes to the truth. But the Antinium’s eyes never closed.

“No, I knew. I just pretended I did not.”

Walking, now. Ksmvr led the horse. His destination was closer than he thought. He didn’t need to hurry; he needed to arrive at a specific time in the evening anyways. It gave him time to think. To remember.

“The days after Klbkch fell were exciting. I felt happy to be in charge. But when the undead attacked. I was—”

Trying to figure out how to protect the Hive when Liscor fell. Ordering the Soldiers to hold their ground around the Hive’s entrance, ignoring the desperate pleas from Watch Captain Zevara. Trying to ignore what he was truly feeling.

Fear. Wondering if he’d made the right choice not sending aid to Liscor, to the inn with Erin Solstice. Hiding behind the simplicity of logic. Waiting for orders. For relief. And when it had come, it had come in the simplest of forms: a fist to the face.

“I should have fought. I should have understood. But I didn’t. It was so easy when I was learning how to fulfill my job. My Queen, why did you not tell me how hard it was to make choices? To be alive?

Ksmvr looked further south, towards a split in the towering mountains. There lay his Hive. His home. But they did not need him. They had cast him out. A reject. Ksmvr tasted as he stopped for lunch; the beautiful lunch he’d bought from a stall vendor was dust. He offered the rest to the horse after eating a satisfactory amount of nutrition.

“Failure. And again. Failure.”

First the Hive. Then he had been offered redemption at Albez. But he had failed there too. He had contributed so little. And Yvlon. Her arms were damaged, perhaps permanently as a result of her doing what Ksmvr had failed to do; destroy the fire elemental.

What was worse, what truly hurt, was that she hadn’t blamed him for it. She’d told Ksmvr eighty four times it wasn’t his fault. That he’d done all he could. That he was a valuable part of the team. She said such…wonderful lies like that. They all did.

Resting was done. Ksmvr got up and began to walk. His horse excreted as it followed him. Ksmvr stared ahead.

“And then? Cowardice. Fear of the water. With a Ring of Water Breathing. I lost my Captain. I could not stop the Raskghar from taking her.”

Mistake and mistake again. Captain Ceria had been kidnapped and Ksmvr could have stopped the Raskghar. But he’d been swatted away. And he had been afraid of going in the water. Afraid. If they had been faster, if he hadn’t delayed…

If, if, if. It boiled down to the same thing. What he had talked with his team about. Ksmvr was the weakest. He knew it. In level, in experience. In diversity of talents. He was a burden on his team.

But he could not be forever. Or else they would make the rational decision at last and get rid of him. Replace him with someone more capable. Like Olesm, who was far higher-level. Or Numbtongue, who had multiple powerful Skills and a superior body. Or Mrsha. She could cast magic.

Ksmvr drooped as he walked. It was true. He knew it. The only reason his team had not cast him away was because they were not rational. They were kind. How weak. How…wonderful. He could not let them down again.

“Never again. I would rather die.”

That was all Ksmvr said. He walked forwards, towards a cluster of hills. The sun set overhead, slowly falling out of the sky. And at last, as evening fell, as the sun was lowering beyond the ridge of mountains half blocking it to the west, did Ksmvr stop. He spotted smoke, so two miles away he tethered his horse to a tree. It whickered and lipped at his palm as he offered it some oats.

It had grown to like him, somehow. Ksmvr gently tied it, so that if a predator attacked it, the horse might yank free in desperation. He stared at the horse as it tried to bite at a leaf on the tree he’d tied it to.

“You are a simple creature. I envy you your guiltless life. Until you break a bone or grow too old and are no doubt slaughtered for food or parts. But then, so are the Antinium. We are much alike, you and I.”

He reached out.

“Pat. Pat. If I do not come back, try to stay alive for a day. The other teams may find you.”

The horse made a horse sound. Ksmvr stared at it. Then he checked his equipment. Shortsword. Dagger. Three rings. Potions. Cloak. Shortbow. Arrows. He turned and began walking towards the distant smoke trail.

Ksmvr hesitated. Then he came back and stroked the animal for a few minutes longer.

“Good horse.”

And then he left. The horse watched Ksmvr go until he was a blob in the distance. Then it resumed trying to eat leaves off the tree.

 

—-

 

The [Bandits] haunting the road south to Liscor and Esthelm had no name. They weren’t nearly big enough to earn a title of notoriety. They hadn’t even existed as a group for more than two weeks, really. Of course, they had all kinds of names they called themselves. The Devils of Humpbacker Hill, the Scourge of Celum, Remendia’s Nightmares…it had to be said their names weren’t that original or impressive.

They were just [Bandits] of the ordinary kind. They’d come out of some [Thugs] from the city, a local gang of [Raiders], [Poachers], and [Thieves] mixing with some honest, simple [Bandits] who’d survived long enough to have a few tricks. The reason they’d migrated to robbing [Merchants] was because they had a [Bandit Leader] and more than a few decently-leveled members.

They were becoming more dangerous, but they’d lost as many of their group as had joined. Healing potions were scarce, people on the road often had guards, and they’d had a run in with some adventurers. They’d killed one group; the other had gotten away. But the bandit group was still relatively confident. Some were even talking about moving after a few scores around here. Hence the fancy names.

But it was notable that the [Bandits] didn’t call themselves the Bloodfeast Raiders or pretend to be the other notorious [Bandit] groups like the famous Gnoll group, the Tailscutters. You didn’t cross the really bad groups. Because they were real. And they were oh so nasty if they thought someone was imitating them. Worse than any stinking group of Silver-rank adventurers…

And the [Bandits] were ready for an attack. They knew they would be attacked, so they invited it. Why not? Adventurers meant their gear was loot, and they had magic and you could ransom some of them. The [Bandits] would level from them, so they’d planted their bait. A careless bit of smoke and they’d camped in the same spot for days now.

They’d even propped up some corpses to look like they were in the camp. Only, if anyone got close, the real sentries would alert the hidden camp and they’d emerge from a hidden cave and cut the attackers to bits.

It would work, too. There were two good [Mages] in the group and a heavy-hitter who’d been a former Silver-rank adventurer herself. And their [Bandit Leader] was a devil of a fellow, fast with his enchanted longsword and merciless. They could wipe out the local Silver-rank teams. All they had to do was wait and feast on their spoils in the meantime. And if a passerby strayed too close? All the more fun.

The strange figure approaching the [Bandit]’s fake smoke signal mystified the [Sentries] at first. The appointed watchers stared first in confusion and then mild alarm at the approaching creature. They scrambled to alert their group. The thing was approaching the camp on purpose. And it looked like a traveller, or maybe an adventurer. But none of them had ever seen something like this.

When the [Bandit Leader] finally roused himself to look, he shouted a curse and ordered the entire group of bandits out of the cave. He ignored the questions of the others as he grabbed his weapon.

“Come on, you flesh bag bastards! Get moving! Surround it, but no one attack! I didn’t think they left their damn Hives. We’re going to have some fun.”

He swished his tail with excitement as he raced out of the cave. Nearly thirty [Bandits] followed him. They were smaller in number than Alais and Stan had estimated, but no less deadly. The group emerged from their cover and surrounded the traveller on the road. He looked around as they formed a circle, whooping and shouting. Some of the [Bandits] recoiled at the sight of Ksmvr, but he waved happily.

“Hello! I have a question! Excuse me…”

He caught sight of their leader. The [Bandit Leader] was striding towards him, a huge grin on his face. To Ksmvr’s surprise, the person was a Drake. The Antinium stopped as the Drake halted in front of him.

“Well, well. An Antinium? What can I do for you, friend?

He gave Ksmvr a huge, toothy smile as his tail moved slowly back and forth behind him. Ksmvr spoke brightly as he looked around at the [Bandit] group.

“One, two, three, four…hello. My name is Ksmvr. I am a friendly traveller and adventurer looking for the location of some [Bandits] camped around this location. Would you happen to know where they are?”

The Drake blinked at Ksmvr. Then he threw back his head and guffawed. The other [Bandits] laughed as well. Ksmvr looked around. He took a few steps forwards towards the [Bandit Leader].

“Excuse me. I am not sure what is funny. I asked—”

He stopped as the Drake lazily extended one hand. His enchanted sword’s tip poked into the front of Ksmvr’s chest. The Antinium stared down at it.

“That answer your question, Ant?

The [Bandits] went silent with expectation. Ksmvr tilted his head from side to side as he eyed the blade.

“I am uncertain. Is this an indication of direction? Or intent? If you are said [Bandits], I would prefer verbal confirmation.”

The Drake chuckled.

“Of course we’re the [Bandits]. Typical Antinium.”

His head half turned and he addressed the watching [Bandits].

“Stupid as they come. I don’t know why the city put up with—”

Ksmvr swept up the blade with one arm and lunged. The Drake reflexively tried to jump back, but the Antinium barreled into him. Ksmvr’s hands were bare as they came up. The longsword tried to cut into his side. Two of Ksmvr’s arms caught the Drake’s. The third dragged at the [Bandit Leader]’s neck spines. The Drake cursed as he tried to throw Ksmvr.

“Ancestors damn it! Get him—”

He screamed and then the noise became a terrible gurgling rasp. The Drake stumbled back, hands clutched to this throat. A stream of red gushed between his claws. The [Bandits] stared. Slowly, the [Bandit Leader] let go. His throat was gone. He fell, making a bubbling sound. And Ksmvr straightened.

The Antinium spat something on to the ground. The [Bandits] around him recoiled. They were paralyzed; they stared at the Antinium for one gut-wrenching second. Ksmvr closed his bloody mandibles and the incisors in his true mouth closed. He looked around.

“Thank you. I was certain, but confirmation is helpful. Let’s see.”

Ksmvr spun. His shortsword appeared in his left hand. His dagger in his right. He reached into his bag of holding; the Forceshield flickered into life. The [Bandits] backed up. Too slow. Ksmvr charged right. A young woman with a sword tried to bring it up. Ksmvr lunged. His enchanted shortsword went through her worn leather armor. The thrust carried her into the ground. Ksmvr planted one foot on her chest and yanked his blade free. He looked left and slashed.

“Two.”

A [Bandit] jumped clear of the shortsword. Ksmvr raised his Forceshield. The man on his right swung with a wild scream; his club bounced off the shimmering, translucent field generated by the magical buckler. Ksmvr’s arm didn’t so much as waver. His dagger shot out and the man ducked back.

Too late, he realized Ksmvr was aiming for that. The Antinium whirled right. His left arm came up. The [Thug] tried to block. The club intercepted the blade, but Ksmvr’s momentum carried through. The shortsword stopped, cutting into the club and the man’s head, across his eyes. Ksmvr pulled his blade back.

“Three.”

He turned. The [Bandits] stared at him, but the shock had run its course. One of them shouted.

Get that thing! Kill it!

The rest finally moved. Those with ranged weapons or magic ran back as the others advanced shoulder-to-shoulder. The air was filled with panicked shouts.

“He killed the boss!”

“Don’t let it get close! That shield’s magic!”

Out of the way!

The [Bandit] with the largest voice was a woman in full plate armor. The former Silver-rank adventurer. She had a huge spiked mace in hand and a shield in the other. She rushed past the slower [Bandits], aiming at Ksmvr with a roar. The Antinium turned. He raised his hand. Three rings shone on his fingers.

He flicked his wrist at the woman in armor.

“[Shatterbolt].”

The ring Pisces had given Ksmvr flashed. A flicker of silver, a translucent bolt as thin as a needle shot out. The woman couldn’t dodge. The bolt struck her plate armor, and the armor and the [Bandit]’s body cracked. Ksmvr saw the armor break where the bolt had passed through, then blood begin to drip from the opening. The woman was already dropping. Already dead.

The [Bandits] charging Ksmvr slowed, tripping over themselves. Someone shouted in horror. The others tripped over themselves to get back. Some couldn’t believe it. The woman in armor was dead. Just like that. Her armor, her levels, that little spell had gone through it all like it was nothing. It wasn’t fair.

“Twenty six. Heavy armor down. Three high-level opponents remaining. One [Swordsman], two [Mages].”

Ksmvr looked around. The [Bandits] were milling, afraid to approach now. But they were mobilizing. Some were racing towards their cave. Others taking their ground. Ksmvr advanced on the melee fighters who’d closed. They swung at him, swearing. He lifted his Forceshield.

“Get clear! I can’t get a good—”

One of the [Mages] was shouting, gesturing for his comrades to fall back. They tried, but Ksmvr kept advancing. He jabbed with his shortsword, but they kept back. He slashed at a [Warrior] wearing chainmail and holding a shield and sword.

This time Ksmvr’s blade deflected off the hide shield. The man jabbed back, shouting as his buddies to get around. Ksmvr saw the [Bandits] moving and struck a blow before retreating with his third arm. He lanced out with the dagger as his left arm pretended to thrust low at the man’s shins.

The man saw the feint with the sword and shifted his shield. With a snarl of triumph, he blocked the dagger. The curved metal tip stuck into the hide shield. Ksmvr nodded.

Terith.

The metal of the enchanted Flamespread Dagger turned red. Then it ignited. The flames raced across the hide shield in the blink of an eye. It covered the shield, the arm holding it, and then the man in a moment. He was engulfed by flames. For a second he didn’t know what had happened. His laughter turned to confusion. And then pain.

The burning [Bandit] screamed and dropped his weapons. He stumbled towards his companions, hands outstretched, and then dropped to the ground and began to writhe. The other [Bandits] looked horrified. They ducked back as Ksmvr slashed at them with dagger and shortsword.

Teri—

Ksmvr began to utter the command again, but a blow struck him from behind. A woman hammered the back of his head with a mallet. Ksmvr stumbled, turned. He swung his dagger and shortsword, but she jumped back. This time someone struck him from the side; a spear jabbing towards his side. Ksmvr deflected the blade.

Surrounded. He looked around. The [Warriors] had all closed with him. They were lashing out, attacking together. Ksmvr blocked with his Forceshield, parrying with his shortsword at the same time. He effortlessly blocked the mallet again with the shield, but someone hit him in the back. He stumbled.

Not good. Ksmvr bent his knees and took a blow to the face. He sat down. He had to get up. He had to—a [Bandit] was snarling at him, mallet raised. And the burnt [Bandit] was on his feet. Somehow he had survived. He got up and lunged, biting. He tackled the woman with a mallet. And began clawing at her. Biting at her…face…?

She was screaming. The [Bandits] surrounding Ksmvr turned their heads. They saw their friend, biting, trying to eat his friend. They couldn’t understand. The burnt [Bandit] tore a chunk of flesh off the mallet-wielding woman and she howled. She bashed at him, pushing him off her and another [Bandit] ran through his companion with a spear. But that didn’t end the nightmare. The corpse stumbled forwards, arms grasping, mouth open impossibly wide.

A zombie. Ksmvr pushed himself up. He swung his sword, forcing a [Bandit] back. Another swung a greatsword at his stomach. He blocked with the Forceshield effortlessly. His dagger darted down, touched the greatsword as the [Raider] tried to pull it back.

Terith.

Flame. The man screamed and burned and fell down. Ksmvr turned. The zombie was flailing at the others, ignoring the spear in its stomach. And someone else was on his feet.

The Drake. He lurched forwards, ignoring the hole in this throat. He took another [Bandit] by surprise. As she whirled, he buried his teeth on the place where neck met collarbone and began to chew. Her screaming drowned out the other sounds for a few seconds, even when her friends tore the undead Drake off her.

Ksmvr slashed at another [Bandit], forcing them to split their attention between him and the two zombies. They stared at him. Someone shouted.

“Oh hells, it’s an Antinium [Necromancer]! Run for your lives!”

It was a young man. He turned to run. An [Ice Spike] flashed past his face. It buried itself in the head of the burnt zombie. The undead staggered and fell down, but it was rising. A [Mage] roared; his hands shimmered with ice magic.

“It’s just a zombie! Kill that Antinium!

The two zombies clawed upwards. But the [Bandits] were faster and more agile. They hammered at the corpses. Ksmvr looked for an opening, but the [Mage] was targeting him. He saw a [Bandit] charge him with another shortsword. Something flew between them as Ksmvr braced. The [Bandit] halted, swiped at his face. Something landed on it, dodging around his hand.

A Face-Eater Moth. It was pale, wings tattered. And it was dead. But it still flew. The [Bandit] recoiled in horror, swiping at it, but it had latched onto his skin. He screamed as the undead Face-Eater Moth’s razor-sharp maw opened and tried to take off his nose. Ksmvr jumped forwards and stabbed the man through the stomach. He stared as the little Face-Eater Moth fluttered past him and the man’s corpse jerked.

“Thank you, Comrade Pisces. Don’t tax yourself unduly, please. Long-range undead summoning must be difficult.”

In fact, only three zombies rose from the fallen [Bandits]. But it was enough of a distraction. Ksmvr ran free, pausing to set fire to two more [Bandits].

Terith. Terith. Terith.

The third time he thrust with the Flamespread Dagger and spoke the word, the bandit blocking did not ignite. He stumbled back, flailing in horror anyways, so Ksmvr cut him across the arm, but the man’s scale mail blocked a fatal blow. Ksmvr ran past him, winning clear of the [Warriors]. He raised his shield and an [Ice Spike] blasted past his head. Ksmvr ran towards the steep incline of a hill ahead of him; a rocky face littered with soil and grass provided him with a wall to put his back behind. He spun.

“[Ice Spike]!”

The shard of ice splintered off Ksmvr’s Forceshield. The [Mage] snarled in disbelief. Ksmvr lowered the shield. The warriors had fallen back to let the two [Mages] and archers work. They began lobbing spells at Ksmvr. One was shooting [Ice Spikes], an inferior version of Ceria’s spell but no less deadly, the other threw orbs of acid. Ksmvr ran with his back to the hill, holding his Forceshield up as he did, he sheathed the Flamespread Dagger.

“Four applications in combat. Uncertain recharge time. Another deficiency I should have investigated beforehand.”

A blob of acid splashed at Ksmvr’s feet. He recoiled as the stinging liquid nearly struck his legs. Then he turned. A blur—a [Bandit] on horseback! There were eight of them, riding at him from their cave, screaming. The first had a spear.

Get him!

The [Bandits] were screaming. Ksmvr held up his shield as more spells and arrows struck the hill behind him. He crouched to shield himself, but that meant he couldn’t run. And the [Bandits] on horseback were aiming right at him. The lead rider couched the spear like a lance. He aimed down at Ksmvr’s heart.

“[Lancing Thrust]!”

His spear shot out. Ksmvr looked up. And he jumped. The [Bandit] spear tracked up, aiming at him. At his head, at his belly, his feet—

The men and women looked up. Ksmvr flew ten feet up into the air. He turned as he flew.

Imposs—

The [Bandit] riding down on him looked up. He tried to dodge in the saddle. Ksmvr’s shortsword sheared through part of his head. The horse reared and fled as its rider dropped from the saddle. The Antinium landed. He spun, leapt again.

A horse reared. The woman with a sword in hand tried to hold on. Ksmvr leapt over the horse and struck her on the way down. She fell out of the saddle and the horse, overbalanced, fell on her. Ksmvr rolled. He raised his Forceshield, blocked a swinging long-handled club as a [Bandit] rode past him and leapt.

“He can fly?

The Antinium sprang up the side of the hill. Each jump took him higher and higher. Ksmvr couldn’t fly. But he could jump impossibly high. The [Bandits] on horseback circled the hill, staring up at him. Ksmvr stopped. Then he leapt down and landed on a passing rider.

The impact broke the horse’s legs. It killed the [Bandit]. Ksmvr tumbled down but he was on his feet in an instant. The Ring of Jumping had negated the impact. For him. He looked down at the broken man’s spine and the dying horse.

“Sorry.”

Magic. Ksmvr was too slow this time. The [Ice Spike] shattered on the rim of his Forceshield, spraying him with fragments of ice. But the Antinium had an exoskeleton, not skin. He leapt back and the [Bandits] charging him cursed.

It’s too fast!

“Pull back! Surround it when it jumps down! Don’t get too close!”

The [Mage] with the ice spell pointed. There were at least ten [Archers] behind him. They had poor aim, most of them. But their arrows still tracked Ksmvr as he leapt back up the steep incline. The Antinium landed on a rock and perched there, nearly twenty feet up. He sheathed his shortsword.

“Now what?”

One of the men on the ground swung his sword as he stared up at the distant Antinium. He turned to a man who’d retrieved the magical longsword wielded by their former [Bandit Leader]. The [Swordsman] grunted.

“Let the [Mages] and [Archers] pick that thing off. If it comes down—charge it!”

“But what if it runs aw—”

The man stumbled. He blinked down at the arrow in his chest and fell forwards. The [Swordsman] recoiled. Then ducked. A second arrow missed him.

“Drat.”

Ksmvr took aim again. The [Mage] with the ice spells shot an [Ice Spike] at him; Ksmvr’s third arm delicately maneuvered the Forceshield into place. The spell shattered on his magical buckler. Ksmvr lowered the shield, raised his bow with his other two arms and shot the arrow he’d drawn.

A scream. The [Ice Mage] dropped, clawing at the arrow in his thigh. Ksmvr drew another arrow. Loosed it as he calmly shielded his face with his Forceshield.

“A handy way of fighting. Three arms is beneficial.”

The [Mage] trying to yank the arrow out sprouted an arrow from his collar. This time he stopped moving. The [Bandits] milled about. The remaining [Mage] and [Swordsman] pointed.

Get him!

The ones on the ground hesitated. They had the numbers, still. They outnumbered Ksmvr by a lot. But the incline was steep. As a group advanced on Ksmvr, more arrows frantically shot at the Antinium. A few were on target but none hit Ksmvr. Because of his Forceshield.

The magical buckler was only a bit bigger than Ksmvr’s hand. But the field it projected created a huge shield. And unless it overloaded, Ksmvr had an unbreakable shield. One that had no weight and transmitted no force from the impact. The [Bandits] couldn’t overload the shield. And Ksmvr had three arms. He drew an arrow and loaded his bow as he held his shield up, covering his vitals. Then, swiftly, he aimed and fired. A [Bandit] fell, rolling down the hill and screaming. And before anyone could blink, Ksmvr’s shield was back up.

There he stood. Shortbow in one hand, Forceshield in the other. The magical shield was raised as Ksmvr nocked another arrow and aimed. A flurry of arrows shot towards him, a coordinated volley, too many to block. Ksmvr turned around, showing the [Bandits] his magical cloak. The arrows glancing off the rock face around him could have been rain; they struck his cloak and failed to penetrate the magical cloth.

“Ah. That explains why I survived blows from behind. A cloak is useful.”

Ksmvr turned back around. His third arm moved his shield and blocked a ball of green acid; he calmly flicked the magical substance backwards and watched it splash down on the [Bandits] climbing up towards him. He deflected an arrow. Then with his other two hands he aimed and loosed his.

Fall back! Get back to the cave!

The [Swordsman] on the ground shouted at his companions. He could see what Ksmvr already knew; the [Bandits] would never pry him from his ledge. And Ksmvr could advance and retreat as much as he wanted. The Humans streamed backwards. Ksmvr loosed more arrows, but they had their shields up. He took this moment to drink a healing potion, then a stamina potion. He counted.

“Hm. That [Mage].”

Ksmvr focused on the [Mage] who had been throwing acid. She was retreating quickly. But she wasn’t as fast as the others. And they thought Ksmvr was going to stay on the hill. So he leapt.

Down from the hillside, falling. Leap; the ground blurred and Ksmvr soared up. He fell as the [Bandits] turned. But he leapt again, covering the ground as his Ring of Jumping carried him up. Leaping forwards like a frog. Landing—

“No—”

The [Mage] tried to duck. Ksmvr lashed out with the shortsword and dagger he’d drawn. The sword glanced off her arm. The dagger buried itself in her stomach.

Terith.

No fire. Ksmvr twisted the dagger and the woman screamed. He pulled the weapon free.

“Now—”

“[Flash Cut]!”

The side! Ksmvr twisted. This time he was too slow. The [Swordsman] darted forwards, magic longsword in hand. He sliced at Ksmvr’s side and his sword blurred under Ksmvr’s guard. The Antinium staggered.

“I’ve got him! I’ve g—”

The [Swordsman] stopped. He stared. Ksmvr looked down at his side.

“Huh.”

The magical blade was lodged in Ksmvr’s side. It had cut into his carapace. But not deep. The magic blade was—stuck. The [Swordsman] tried to slice through Ksmvr. But he couldn’t. And when he tried to pull the blade out he failed.

Ksmvr lashed out with his shortsword and dagger. The [Swordsman] made the mistake of trying to hold onto his weapon; the shortsword flashed down and he stumbled back, screaming as his stump of a hand squirted blood. He ran as Ksmvr swung at him. Ksmvr dropped the Flamespread dagger and felt urgently at his side. The blood—there wasn’t much blood. How? That sword was magical. How…?

Ksmvr stared at his hand. Three rings flashed at him. Ring of Jumping. Ring of Shatterbolt. And…

“Ah. My Ring of [Barkskin]. I’d nearly forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding me.”

He straightened. An arrow struck him in the shoulder. The tip buried itself in his shoulder. But it only lodged in the outer layer of his carapace. Ksmvr looked around.

There were still nearly twenty of them. The [Swordsman] was drinking down a healing potion, clutching at his hand. They retreated towards the cave.

“Hold it back. It’s got some kind of protective enchantment. We need to bash it’s brains in. Just hold the cave. It can’t jump in there…”

The [Swordsman] was sobbing. The [Bandits] retreated, watching the Antinium walk slowly towards them. It was blocking the arrows with its shield. But it hadn’t pulled out its shortbow.

“We can kill it. There’s just one. There’s just one. Get the warhammers. Get ropes! We’ll surround it.”

The [Swordsman] ordered desperately as he clutched a plain shortsword with his offhand. The others hesitated. The [Swordsman]’s face was pale and he’d lost his good hand. He wouldn’t lead after this. But he would help them kill the Antinium who’d stolen his hand. They dropped their blades, grabbed mallets and hammers and ropes, set themselves at the entrance to the cave. It was a good strategy. It would work. It would have worked. But as they waited, tense, silent, they realized something.

The Antinium had vanished. He’d slipped out of sight while they retreated. And something else had happened. Something terrible.

It was simple. The sun had set.

And suddenly—it was dark. The [Bandits] stood together in the cave as blood dried and sweat turned to ice. They looked at each other.

Suddenly, it was very dark. The sun had disappeared behind the High Passes. And in its absence, they were suddenly blind. The [Swordsman] looked around.

“S-someone get a torch. Or a [Light] spell—”

“Yimmie’s dead. So is Freezy.”

One of the others muttered in the darkness. Someone else fumbled for a torch, cursing.

“Anyone got a fire spell? I’ve got a flint.”

There was a spark of light. A torch flared up. At the same time, a blur of motion shot towards the entrance. Someone shouted.

Watch out!

Something leapt over the heads of the people in the front of the cave. The [Bandits] recoiled, striking at each other, at shadows. There was a scream. The blossom of light jerked and fell. The men and women shouted in horror and someone snatched at the torch. More light bloomed. A [Light] spell. There was a silhouette. The [Bandit] shrieked as Ksmvr dashed at her.

Help me! Hel—

An impact. A gurgling sound; the [Bandits] around her slashed wildly, but Ksmvr was gone. They backed up, holding their torches, shouting at the others.

It’s in the cave! It’s in the cave—

Get out! Run!

No, stick together—we can box it in! Don’t run, don’t—

But it was too late. The [Bandits] streamed out, some fleeing in a blind panic. The rest stayed together, holding up torches and balls of light. They heard shouts in the night. Screams…the fleeing shapes fell one by one. A dark blur leapt around them, jumping, rather than walking. The remaining [Archers] tried to hit it, but their arrows bounced off the magical cloak or missed.

And then there were no more sounds. Just darkness. The [Bandits] looked around. There were eleven left. The [Swordsman] was pale as he looked back and forth.

“Show yourself!”

There was no sound. No movement. The hills towered around the bandits. The grass waved in the night’s breeze. The sky was cloudy. Shadows flickered. The [Bandits] jumped, clustering together.

“We surrender!”

A young man shouted, his face pale. He held up his arms, raising his hammer and letting it drop as his torch burned over his head. An arrow shot out of the darkness. He screamed.

Coward!

The [Swordsman] bellowed. But the rest were silent. They drew together. Ten. They would have prayed, but the gods were dead. So they just held together, fearing, waiting. Ready to fight and die rather than run and die alone.

A minute passed. Then two. Three more arrows flew out of the darkness, but the [Bandits] had shields up. One yanked out an arrow, sobbing, as another poured healing potion on her wound. And then he appeared.

A shadow, walking under the moonlight as the clouds parted. A dark brown and black figure holding a shortsword and dagger. His buckler flared to life as he activated it again. The dagger burned red.

His segmented eyes reflected the lights from the [Bandit]’s torches. His carapace was cut. Pierced by arrows. But he had taken no great wounds. He walked forwards without words. Straight at the [Bandits].

A monster out of Rhir. A nightmare worthy of the legend.

Antinium.

The Humans shuddered. They backed up. But then they held. It was hold or run. If they ran, they died in the night. The [Swordsman] held up his blade. He stared at Ksmvr. His voice was hoarse.

“What are you? What are…

Ksmvr twitched one antenna. His mandibles opened and rose.

“Me? Substandard.”

And then he leapt up. And he fell, shrieking like a thing out of hell. For psychological effect.

 

—-

 

The Adventurer’s Guild in Celum was quiet in the very early morning. Some adventurers were early risers by nature, and others had come in after an overnight job to collect their pay. But it wasn’t bustling just past dawn. The only sounds that were present in the guild mainly came from the bleary-eyed [Receptionist] doing her job, and from Stan. The old man was sitting at a table, grousing loudly.

“Damned Antinium bastard. We waited all night and did it show? No! And that young [Innkeeper] said she hadn’t seen him! When I get my hands on that—that bug thing—”

“Maybe it realized we were trying to bargain for those artifacts.”

Alais looked bleary and slightly hung over. She’d enjoyed herself at The Wandering Inn, despite Ksmvr’s no-show. Stan folded his arms.

“If it—he—did, he could at least have let us know! It’s damned rude.”

“We put his team in prison. Still, you’re right, Stan. Maybe Ksmvr got into trouble? I checked Celum’s jail, but perhaps he fell afoul of Liscor?”

Stan calmed down a bit.

“Or maybe he got hurt. Or lost. I heard someone say they saw him riding out of Celum. On a horse. I thought they were twisting my leg, but—”

“Stan?”

Alais had jerked up in her seat. Stan turned his head. He swore.

You!

Ksmvr looked up as he trudged into the guild. His body was covered with mud and dust. And blood. Dried green blood spattered his armor. He had a few cuts, but the rest were healed. He swayed and stood straighter.

“Me.”

Crossbow Stan got up and strode towards him. His fists were clenched.

“You’ve got some nerve coming here after—”

He stared at Ksmvr.

“What in the hells happened to you?”

“I completed the request. I killed the [Bandits].”

Ksmvr walked past Crossbow Stan. The man stared at him in shock, then outrage.

“You? You’re kidding. You couldn’t have killed—there are at least thirty—hey! Where were you last night? We told you—”

He grabbed Ksmvr’s shoulder. The Antinium stopped.

“Let go of me please.”

“Not until you—”

Ksmvr drew his shortsword. The other adventurers looked up. Stan stepped back. The Antinium turned his head. Alais was on her feet.

“Thank you. Now, excuse me.”

He walked up to the [Receptionist]’s desk. The woman eyed him with apprehension and ill-concealed distaste.

“I can’t just give a bounty out for someone who claims to have killed [Bandits]. You need proof. And I’ll have to test you with a [Detect Lies] spell. Besides, like Mister Stan said, the [Bandits] are at least—”

Ksmvr reached for his bag of holding. He placed it on the counter, then looked around. He eyed the counter and shook his head. The Antinium trudged over to a table and dragged it over. The adventurers winced at the screech of wood on wood. Ksmvr stopped the desk in front of the counter.

“This is enough surface area. Here is my proof.”

He reached into the bag of holding and pulled out a severed head. The [Receptionist] recoiled and then screamed. The Drake’s vacant, lolling head stared at her. The head was bloodless. Ksmvr placed it neatly on the table.

“You—that—”

“What did you do?

Alais grabbed her wand and pointed it at Ksmvr. He turned.

“The request. Wait until I’ve finished, please.”

He reached into the bag of holding. Another head appeared. The room recoiled. A Human woman stared blankly at Ksmvr. And then a man. A young man, a girl…

“Dead gods.”

Crossbow Stan backed up. Ksmvr kept pulling heads out of the bag. One, two, three, four…ten…twenty…twenty nine. He piled them up. And then he turned.

“There.”

The adventurers stared. Stan stared at the Drake’s head. The [Receptionist] had backed away as far as possible, shaking and trying to climb over her desk and away.

“That—that Drake. I recognize that one. And—and that one. That’s the [Bandit Leader]. And that one—that’s their [Mage]. Freezer.”

He pointed at one of the heads on top of the pile. Ksmvr nodded. His voice was loud as he turned back to the [Receptionist].

“Thank you for the confirmation, Captain Stan. However, I will readily submit to a truth detection spell to prove all of these individuals were [Bandits]. I hope this is sufficient proof, though.”

He looked at the woman. She was shaking so hard she couldn’t formulate a reply. She made a shaky animal noise. Ksmvr stared at her.

“Is this sufficient?”

“I—you—y—th—”

The Antinium looked at her. Then he leaned over the table.

“Thirteen hours.”

The [Receptionist] froze. Ksmvr spoke slowly.

“Thirteen hours after defeating the [Bandits]. That is how long it took to collect the bodies, create a pyre for disposal, remove the heads, burn them, collect their gear, reclaim my horse which had wandered off, set the others free, and ride back here. Thirteen hours. I have imbibed two stamina potions. My wounds have yet to fully heal. I have had inadequate sustenance. I am hungry. I am tired. I am in a bad mood. Is this sufficient?”

“Yes!”

The woman cowered. Ksmvr nodded.

“Then please give my team the reward. I believe it is a hundred gold coins.”

“I—I have to get a signature!”

The [Receptionist]’s eyes darted around for help. There was none. Ksmvr looked around and the adventurers flinched. They saw the blood on his carapace. Green, Antinium blood. Which meant the streaks of red weren’t his. They stared at the heads. At him. Ksmvr turned back to the [Receptionist].

“Paperwork. Quill and ink, please.”

Her hands shook as she fumbled for the right form. Ksmvr studied it. He dipped a quill in the inkpot as the woman fled towards the back. The [Guildmaster] wasn’t in today. She had to open the Guild’s vaults herself.

She returned, still shaking, and stared at the heads as if they were a dream. The pile stared back at her. The woman realized this wasn’t a dream. The slowly decomposing heads were—she looked at Ksmvr. He looked up and she shrieked.

“I’ve finished my details. Where do I sign?”

“H—h—he—he—”

Ksmvr stared down at the general spot the finger was shaking in.

“Here? I see.”

He began scribbling on the form. After a moment he looked up.

“Pardon me. Do I list my team as ‘The Horns of Hammerad’ or do I omit the prefix?”

“H—h—”

“Horns of Hammerad. Thank you.”

He finished writing. Ksmvr held up the piece of paper. He looked at the [Receptionist]. She was frozen. He waved the paper at her and she backed up.

“Naturally I’d like to turn in the heads as monster parts for processing. My bag of holding couldn’t fit the other body parts, but I will accept any fee the guild posts on Human heads, brains, flesh or skeletal matter. Assuming they aren’t collected as part of the bounty?”

Stan saw the woman had frozen. She looked like she was going to have a heart attack. One of the other adventurers was being sick; a few others were gagging or throwing up as well. He stared at the heads. It was just a dream. That Antinium couldn’t have—

“We don’t—we don’t—use heads. Not Human ones. Or Drakes.”

“Really? Odd. Then I will collect my payment.”

Here!

The [Receptionist] dropped the bag of gold on the counter. A head rolled off the pile and onto the floor. The sound it made, the fleshy thump, was the realest thing Crossbow Stan had ever heard. The [Receptionist] stared at the head. She turned and ran out of the building, screaming. Three adventurers followed her.

“Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead gods. Dead…”

Alais was swallowing hard. Stan couldn’t take his eyes off Ksmvr. The Antinium was counting the gold coins one by one as he put them in his bag of holding. When he was done, he straightened and looked around.

“Is my team not released yet?”

“No.”

“I see. Thank you.”

Ksmvr nodded at Stan. Then, ignoring the heads he walked over to an empty table and chair. The adventurers left in the guild scattered in front of him. Ksmvr pulled the chair back. He sat down in the chair and opened his mandibles slightly. The upright, rigid posture the Antinium had kept up all the while turned into a sag. Ksmvr leaned forwards; nearly fell out of the chair. He tried placing his arms on the table. No good. He kept falling sideways. So he stood up, walked over to the wall, just underneath the job board.

Ksmvr sat with his back to the wall and curled up like a pill bug. He was sitting like Workers and Soldiers did, trying to stay awake but fading, fading…

The Antinium passed out as the morning light filled the Adventurer’s Guild and a rookie team of Bronze-rank adventurers entered the building and saw the pile of severed heads. He didn’t hear the screaming. He was already asleep. That was how his team found him, three hours later.

 

—-

 

“Dead gods.”

“Tree rot.”

“I wish he’d saved the bodies.”

Three voices woke Ksmvr up. He jerked upright amid a babble of voices. Waking up took Ksmvr a few moments. He heard the three familiar people. An argument. Shouting.

What’s to be done? If it went out and butchered—

An arguing voice raised in reply, exasperated, worried, shocked.

“Hey, Stan recognized two of them! If you want to test him, be my guest! But I’ll bet those are exactly the same [Bandits] you wanted dead—”

“All by himself?

A sneering tone.

“Of course. Or did you think the Antinium bred pacifistic, ineffectual warriors? I hardly see what all the fuss is about—”

An authoritative tone.

“Try and arrest him without proof and I will drop you. Alais, drop the wand. If you point it at him again—”

Ksmvr woke up. His vision returned. He looked around. There were people gathered around the table. Lots of them. Celum’s City Watch, adventurers, people staring at the table with the heads on them…but the three people Ksmvr wanted most were right there, protectively standing around him. He sleepily opened and closed his mandibles.

“I slept as ordered, Captain Ceria. Was your incarceration pleasant?”

The voices stopped. Every eye fixed on Ksmvr. He saw a half-Elf jump, then turn. Ceria Springwalker looked down at Ksmvr.

“Hey…Ksmvr.”

“Hello Captain. I have completed our request.”

Ksmvr sat up, watching Ceria’s expression closely. He tried to see if she was angry, or disappointed. Or sad or…but her face was hard to read. A strange expression was written across it, once Ksmvr had no name for.

“I see that, Ksmvr. Why did you go alone?”

The Antinium felt a pang of fear in his chest. He clasped two of his hands together as he spoke.

“Because…I heard other teams were going to take our request. And I thought our team should not forfeit our request. You were gone. I stayed out of trouble. I did not tell Miss Erin where you were. And I slept.”

“You didn’t think taking out a [Bandit] gang was too much?”

The Antinium shook his head.

“I calculated the risks. I estimated that since you or Comrade Pisces or Yvlon could handle the group yourselves, I should be able to. I had help. Comrade Pisces helped. And I borrowed his ring.”

“He told us about that in the jail. He didn’t know what happened after that. Someone squashed his moth.”

“Yes.”

Her face was still unreadable. Ksmvr wanted to look at Pisces or Yvlon, but he was afraid of what he might see. He clutched his hands tightly together.

“I hope I did not act out of place. I only wanted to be a helpful member of the group…”

His voice trailed off, becoming small. Ksmvr looked down. He heard nothing for a second, and then Ceria reached out.

“Hey. Ksmvr.”

He looked up. The half-Elf smiled at him. She looked around, at the heads, at her teammates, and then at Ksmvr. She patted him on the shoulder gently, looking at his unhealed wounds.

“Good job. But next time don’t be so reckless.”

Ksmvr opened his mandibles in a smile. That was all he wanted to hear.

Good job.

 

—-

 

There was more after that of course. More shouting, explanations—Ksmvr was only too happy to explain, and to apologize for his brusque behavior after his sleep.

“It was most unprofessional. I can normally go for a day without sleep without undue mental effects. I am most sincerely regretful.”

For some reason, that didn’t really help matters. But Captain Ceria had taken over the conversation and aided by a [Detect Lies] spell and the expedient of pointing at the heads and saying ‘are those the [Bandits] or not? Okay, what’s the problem?’, somehow much of the issue seemed to resolve itself. The Horns were only stopped by a hysterical [Receptionist] who demanded what should be done with the severed heads.

“I could take—”

Pisces yelped as Yvlon turned and delicately punched him in the stomach. He rubbed at his gut as the [Wounded Warrior] turned back to the shrieking [Receptionist]. Yvlon waited until the woman was done screaming before she replied.

“I saw [Receptionists] in Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild finishing off Face-Eater Moths after the monsters attacked the city. You can grab a shovel.”

“Yeah. We did our job. Come on, Ksmvr. You need a proper bed.”

“I do not use beds. But the consideration is welcome.”

Ksmvr followed Ceria as she pushed past the adventurers and City Watch. They didn’t look happy, but they stood well clear of Ksmvr. They were still staring. The Antinium was nearly at the door when a thought hit him. He held up a hand.

“Captain Ceria. Pause a moment, please. I would like to address the room.”

“Oh? Go ahead.”

Warily, Ceria turned. Ksmvr looked about. A sea of Humanity and a few non-Humans stared at him. The Antinium bowed politely.

“Good morning. I apologize for any unorthodox behavior. However, I would simply like to say that my team has done nothing wrong. You were wrong for falsely accusing Captain Ceria and Yvlon. If you do it again, I will take umbrage.”

They just stared at him. Ksmvr studied the glares, the looks of fear, and nodded.

“I would also like to note that with the Horns of Hammerad’s successful completion of this assignment with a solo member of our group, when no team was capable of doing so by themselves, we have established our superiority over other teams in this guild. I understand that equates to dominance in Human culture.”

At last there was a shift in the crowd. Ksmvr saw an adventurer open his mouth furiously.

“What the hel—”

Ksmvr turned, quick as a whip to face the adventurer. The man froze for a second. He stared at the Antinium and his tongue failed him.  Ksmvr nodded.

“Dominance.”

Then he turned and walked out the door. Ceria followed him, shaking her head. Yvlon was smiling. Pisces stopped to laugh for ten seconds before the other two pulled him after him.

 

—-

 

The Horns of Hammerad walked down the street. A [Necromancer] in pristine white robes, a yawning half-Elf, a [Wounded Warrior] wearing bright armor and lending her shoulder to an Antinium covered in mud and blood of two colors. People stared as they passed, but the four didn’t care. They spoke to each other and only to each other.

“Well, we’ve officially burned our bridges in Celum. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re banned from the city.”

“For something I did?”

“…Nah. I think it was a bad scene. And Celum’s clearly too small for us, right Yvlon?”

“After this? I think so. Time to go north. Or south?”

“True. I wonder if there’s work around Pallass? You know, in Drake lands?”

“I should imagine so. And I believe even the tiresome Drake governance would be a welcome improvement over Celum’s benign incompetence.”

“I’m going to assume that meant what I think it did. Ksmvr, how are you? Need another potion?”

“I am quite well, Yvlon. I am only…tired.”

“Don’t scare me like that again.”

“I did not wish to. I only wanted to be helpful.”

“You were. Really. But Ceria’s right. We do things as a team. If you wanted to prove you can hold your own…you definitely did that.”

“Thank you. Thank…you for saying that.”

“Indeed. You must discuss your tactics. I observed some of it. Fine work using all of your magical artifacts. Ceria, Yvlon, I will readily admit that Ksmvr’s strategy outstripped our own. And his Ring of Jumping—we have severely underestimated the mobility it affords.”

“Really? Ksmvr can tell us over drinks, then. Oh, damn. We stood Garia up!”

“We can invite her as an apology.”

“Indeed. I must also confess I tricked both Captain Stan and Captain Alais yesterday.”

“Seriously? Ksmvr, I could kiss you.”

“…Okay? But I have an announcement to make.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“Indeed.”

“I have obtained the [Skirmisher] class as a result of my reaching Level 20.”

“Ksmvr!”

“Well done!”

“Indeed. Quite appropriate…don’t poke me! I’m being genuine.”

“Sorry. Couldn’t tell.”

“Ahem. May I finish? I have also received the [Quick Movement] Skill along with an evasion Skill. I believe this, combined with my Ring of Jumping, will expedite new tactics that…Yvlon, you are hugging me tightly. Yvlon? I am having trouble breathing. Oh, Captain Ceria?”

That was all. There was more, but that was enough. The Horns walked back together, talking, laughing, smiling. A team, however fragile.

And in the Adventurer’s Guild, as a [Laborer] earned one of the most unpleasant hauling jobs in his lifetime, a [Receptionist] hurried out of the guild. She made a beeline for the Mage’s Guild and sent a [Message]. It was one of eight, all with the same content. All with the same intended recipient. The [Messages] read something like this:

 

The [Necromancer] known as Pisces and [Ice Mage] Ceria Springwalker are both present in Celum, travelling in the Silver-rank team, Horns of Hammerad. Please send to current location of Wistram group led by Mage Montressa du Valeross to claim five gold coin reward.

 

Naturally, only the first sender got the reward. It was cruel, but that was how it worked. Anyways, Ksmvr didn’t care. He was eating a celebratory cake. It was a very good day for him.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter