6.07 D

Aiko Nonomura sat at a table and felt a bug run up her leg. She brushed it off absentmindedly, not even bothering to check what it was. A few months ago, Aiko would have screamed, cried, and washed her leg—especially since Baleros’ bugs were the kind of things that lodged in the mind. Literally, if they crawled up your nose.

Today though, was different. Aiko could have stomped a dozen bugs and not blinked twice. There were more important things to worry about. Geneva had taught her that.

Yesterday, Aiko had helped deliver a Centaur baby—colt. A baby. And she hadn’t panicked or fainted. She couldn’t. She’d been Geneva’s assistant. Wiping sweat, holding clamps—Aiko had seen worse than a childbirth. And in surgery, the stakes were never higher.

There was no surgery today. Everyone was hung over, or tired from last night’s party. But the present leaders of the United Nations company were here. Geneva had woken up and they were talking.

Just—talking about the future. But Aiko could sense a shift in the mood from last time they’d talked, two days ago. There was more optimism. Not just from Ken—he was always trying to be cheerful and bring everyone’s spirits up, even if Aiko could tell he wasn’t happy. But the reason the group felt better was because of her.

Geneva. She sat in her chair, not tense, worried or guilty for once. The intensity of her eyes, that glare that could go through you, was subdued. She had done her job. She had saved Miss Hastel and delivered the baby. She felt…confident. Calmer. And Aiko was reassured for it.

They all were. Around the table, Daly, Paige, Siri, Ken, and Aiko sat, listening to Geneva outline her proposal.

“So, a clinic?”

Daly sat up. He looked good too. He’d come in late last night, and no one asked why. Come to that—some of the United Nations members hadn’t come back until the morning. Aiko wasn’t sure what to make of that; it wasn’t the fact that they might have found love outside the Human genome that bothered her. Dullahans, Lizardfolk—even Centaurs you could love, she was sure.

Because they were like people. You didn’t think they would be. You thought they’d be like aliens, but all too soon it felt like you were just talking to someone with a different face. And when you closed your eyes…

“A clinic. It doesn’t have to be large, but I need at least one room to perform surgeries in.”

Geneva nodded. Siri frowned a touch anxiously.

“That means another house at the least. Can we afford it?”

Paige snorted, but gently.

“We can afford it and maybe get two apartments on this street. Miss Hastel’s gratitude knows no bounds.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say no bounds—”

“Okay, she’s still going to charge us rent. But her gratitude goes a long way. We can definitely get a good deal on it. And from what you’re saying, Geneva, money might not be a problem anymore. Is that right?”

Paige looked at Geneva hopefully. The [Doctor] smiled slightly. She actually smiled!

“No. I think I’ve found a permanent source of income outside of treating amputated limbs and so on.”

“C-sections. Who would’ve thought?”

Daly leaned back. Ken looked from Geneva to Aiko.

“You think it will earn money, Geneva? And that you will have business?”

“I think so. Miss Caleffe told me Centaurs have the most complicated childbirths out of all the species, but there are always problems a [Midwife] has to learn to anticipate. And Caesarian Sections are a way to avoid those complications. It’s not an easy way out—”

“Even if healing potions don’t leave a scar and it’s less strenuous on the body than pregnancy.”

Paige muttered under her breath. Geneva gave her a reproving look.

“I don’t want to make it seem like this is the better option. And I am concerned about complications during the operation. I had no experience prior to this, and Miss Hastel was the first surgery I ever performed. There are four main species on Baleros, each with different anatomies…”

The others let Geneva go on. But despite the good [Doctor]’s reservations, her conclusion was the same.

“I can be on call for childbirths. And if a [Midwife] detects a problem, or if a mother comes to me…I can perform the operation. It might be a case where those who are affluent come to me to have the operation done to preserve their figures or lessen the pain.”

Geneva grimaced. Aiko nodded. She’d heard of that happening. Too many operations as opposed to natural births. But that was a moral quandary for later. Right now, the point was that Geneva had something that everyone needed.

After all, wars came and went. Healing potions could heal most mundane injuries. And severed limbs were rare, if distressing anomalies. But childbirth was forever.

“We might get more patients coming in just by word of mouth alone. Saving Miss Hastel’s baby put your name out there again.”

Paige was trying to figure out how much they could spend to get Geneva’s clinic up and running. There were things to be considered, like how to charge people. Geneva was firm in that she’d give anyone who needed medical attention aid, especially pregnant mothers. Ken proposed a fine alternative—charge them by what they could pay. A [Merchant]’s wife could make up for a half dozen poorer patients.

But there was something else Geneva had to talk about. And it came up the instant she turned to Daly.

“I hear a group of Dullahans may be joining your team.”

“Ah. The Rustless Guard? Yeah. I spoke to Eldima last night. She was really impressed by our group. And I think we can hit it off. Uh—working together that is.”

Daly grinned sheepishly. A hint of a blush crossed his features. The others around the table reacted according to their personalities. Siri sighed. Paige rolled her eyes. Ken looked away politely. Aiko covered her mouth as she smiled. Geneva just stared.

“Did you two have sex?”

Aw, come on Geneva—

“Answer the question.”

Daly hesitated.

“It was more like…uh, well, we didn’t get to sex, but—”

“Kissing? Penetration of any kind?”

Fuck me. Why’s it so important?”

Daly stood up, flushing red with a bit of anger. Geneva sighed.

“Because—the next time you’re in that situation, you need to ask Eldima, or Quexa, or anyone you meet if they have any symptoms of infection around their genitals. And to be safe, you need to use this.”

She pulled something out of her pocket. Aiko recognized it at once. Paige had been helping Geneva make them based on the blueprints the [Doctor] had worked up last night. She must have been fast, because the completed product was already in Geneva’s hands. The first prototype of many.

The group of Earthworlders stared at the object curiously. Geneva shook it out and Daly’s eyes widened. He took only a second to identify the crude linen condom and groaned.

“Oh come on. STD’s? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Siri blinked down at the object Geneva placed on the table. Ken eyed it, looking very surprised. He stared at Geneva.

“Condoms. And you want us to…”

“Wear them. Use them. And ask your partners if they show signs of infectious diseases. I’ll be giving the company a full lecture on what to ask for and symptoms later today. I should have done it last night before we had a party. If I hadn’t fallen asleep—I’m giving everyone a second checkup. This time pants and underwear off. No objections.”

Geneva grimaced. The others looked at each other. Siri frowned.

“Is this serious, Geneva? Pregnancy isn’t a problem in this world. There’s a potion for that, you know. As for diseases—I haven’t heard of any. You said so yourself that plagues were rare.”

“That’s what I thought. Until I saw two of Quallet’s patients who had just contracted something called Yellow Rivers in a brothel. They were seriously ill. They’d used healing potions and the infection had rapidly progressed. I have pictures. Do you want to see?”

The table blanched. Aiko felt her breakfast try to come up. Ken took one look at her face and hastily replied.

“No, we believe you. So there are infectious diseases, Geneva?”

“Yes. And if there’s one, there are more.”

Geneva tapped the condom grimly.

“I know there are potions to prevent pregnancy. And it’s not enough. A potion might prevent pregnancy, but only a condom will prevent STD’s—even then, it’s risky. So use one. Especially if you’re having sex with someone from another species. Don’t have sex unless you’re sure they’re fine, understand?”

Daly grumbled as he sat back down and leaned back in his chair, covering his eyes.

“You know, there was one good thing about coming to this world—”

“Magic?”

Siri smiled as Daly glanced up at her in ire. Then the Swedish girl looked at Geneva.

“I mean, could the infections also be magical?”

Geneva paused.

“It’s a distinct possibility. My two patients I’m treating by cleaning out their infections, bandaging them, and giving them an antiviral and antibiotic treatment based on the [Healer]’s recipes. It will take me some time to see how effective the treatments I gave them are. But if it’s partially magical…I can’t stop a magical disease. I don’t know how. If there’s a magical antibiotic or…neutralizing agent, I need to use it.”

“There are dispelling charms and magics. I suppose an [Alchemist] might be able to find you an herb or mixture you could use.”

Geneva nodded.

“More research to do. But these condoms should work. They’re waterproof and I’ve soaked them in a mild mixture I think should kill off bacteria. It works on the cultures I’ve been growing. Still, there’s only one way to be sure, so everyone needs to know the risks.”

Daly put his face in his hands.

“How’re we supposed to explain this to Quallet and the others?”

“I’ll do it.”

Ken looked miserable as he volunteered, but Geneva held up a hand.

“He’s in the city, isn’t he? Or rather, camped outside it? I’ll go with you.”

“We all will.”

Paige sighed. Aiko stood up and followed the group into the apartments. She looked at the other Earthworlders. Daly’s reaction was probably indicative of how the others would react. Sexually transmitted diseases felt like an Earth problem. But they were even worse here. She thought of the infected soldiers in Quallet’s company and had to excuse herself to sit down for a minute.

 

—-

 

Aiko found the others talking to Quallet in the inn he’d rented. The [Mercenary Captain] was nodding as Geneva told him about STD’s in general terms.

“It’s a serious problem, Quallet. Your soldiers need to be briefed on the risks, especially of visiting brothels. Ken or I can give them the lecture themselves, but I have to insist they hear it.”

Quallet was nodding, before Geneva finished her sentence.

“You’re damned right it’s a problem. Anyone who comes down with that kind of sickness can’t use healing potions. It just makes the…rash worse. Very quickly. By all means tell them. And I’ll make sure Quexa and my other officers knock it into their heads. But what’s this thing?”

He waved a hand at the condom Geneva was holding. Daly covered his face as Geneva explained what it was.

Credit to Quallet. His face barely twitched as she described—and showed him with a handy banana, the ubiquitous tool across all worlds—how it should work. But then he looked at the condom a second time and nodded.

“How many can you give me?”

“Excuse me?”

“For my company. It would ease my mind—and others, of course to have them. Even if they’re not perfect. I’ll buy…damn. At least four hundred? They’re cheap, right? Or can we…reuse them?”

Geneva looked at the others. She had to excuse herself to go into a huddle with the others.

“We could import that materials and make up a few thousand. It’s not hard. It’s just—well, you know how they work, right?”

“Who’ll make them?”

“We could get some of the people without jobs to do the work. It’s really not that bad. The pricey bit’s getting the materials and doing the condom properly. Linen, you see? But get a few [Stitchers]…”

“We could outsource. Hire some Lizardfolk in the city to do the job. So long as there’s quality control.”

“Are we really getting into the condom business?”

Paige looked mildly upset as she protested. Daly, who’d finally gotten over his reservations, slapped her on the back. She punched him in the gut in return.

“Ow! Come on, Paige! We’re miles ahead of Baleros in terms of uh, STD-prevention! Who’s got the best sex diseases? We do! Go Earth!”

Ken just sighed. Geneva was working out a plan to manufacture condoms with Paige and Quallet. Aiko leaned back as Ken and Daly began talking seriously about…boy things. She looked out the window of Quallet’s inn, towards a glittering, shining body of water. It shone green in the morning’s light, and she could see people on the docks, ships in the harbor.

The ocean. For all that Baleros was jungles and forest around the city of Talenqual, it was a port city. And the sea was vast. Aiko looked out across it and thought of the one member of the company who hadn’t returned. She looked back.

“I’m spreading the word right now. No one’s visiting a brothel until we have more of these things. Geneva, I’d be grateful if you came with me.”

Quallet hurried down the steps. Geneva followed him. In the silence, the others looked at each other.

“Hell, if it earns us money…”

Daly shrugged, sighing. Paige nodded.

“It’s important. I’ll work with Geneva on this. But while she’s gone—Aiko, close that door for a second.”

Aiko did. Quallet’s room was quiet for a second as everyone glanced at Paige. The [Engineer] lowered her voice.

“Ken, you brought back what I needed on your trip. Alchemist’s materials. I haven’t been able to get ahold of the right stuff until now, but you found exactly what I needed.”

The young man from Japan smiled.

“It was the right ingredient? The [Alchemist] had a difficult time telling which substance you wanted, Paige. I am glad it was correct.”

She nodded.

“I can get more now that I know what to ask for. And it’s more plentiful than I thought. Charcoal, saltpeter…there are volcanos too. So…I can make gunpowder now, guys.”

She looked around. The room went silent. Daly’s head rose and Siri’s eyes flashed as she looked at Paige. The two adventurers looked at each other.

“Guns?”

“Geneva won’t like it at all. And she had a point about spreading the tech, Paige.”

Daly frowned, worried. Paige nodded.

“Guns would be hard to make. And I’d have to have a [Blacksmith] help me, so it’s risky. They’d be able to see what I’m doing even if all I need are the metal parts. And…someone sees you using the guns, or just hears a rumor and you’ll have people trying to steal it. Take it.”

“So what’s your idea? You have one, right?”

Siri met Paige’s eyes. The Australian girl nodded.

“I do. I’m skipping guns. I’ll…work on something. An emergency weapon like Daly’s poisoned miniature crossbow. But my real focus will be grenades.”

The others paused. Daly exhaled.

“Grenades? You mean…bombs.”

“It doesn’t need a metal shell. I could make a pot and fill it with shrapnel. It’s not even that far from an [Alchemist]’s creations. They have exploding flasks filled with oil, and so on. But these will be non-magical.”

“You’ll need a separate space. And be careful. If you set stuff off—”

“I’ll be careful. But I want your approval before I argue it out with Geneva.”

Aiko bit her lip. Geneva wouldn’t like this at all. But Paige was looking at her, so Aiko nodded hesitantly. She’d seen monsters. If the Bushrangers were fighting them…oh, would they sell this to Quallet?

“We’ll take on the arguments. It’ll be a company secret. And no one lets the grenades be touched by anyone else. We use them, and that’s it.”

Daly’s eyes were lit up. He was already thinking how to use them. Ken nodded slowly. Aiko felt her stomach twist again. So that was today. Condoms and babies. Grenades and gunpowder.

The room fell silent after that. Aiko looked again out the window. Softly, wishing he were here to say something—no, only that he were here, she spoke.

“I wonder where Luan is?”

The others looked at her. Aiko, staring out the window, saw Daly give Ken a look and then lean over to whisper. Ken made a very unhappy face, but he nodded. It was Paige who finally spoke up.

“Say, Aiko…while we’re on important topics, about you and Luan.”

“What about Luan?”

Aiko turned, confused. Paige hesitated. Ken took over for her.

“It is not that we do not understand, Aiko. But even if we are in another world, Luan was married. So it is not good to—I know that you liked him, but even so, this is—”

He was glancing at the others. Daly sucked in his breath and Paige was wincing. It took Aiko a moment to realize what Ken was suggesting. When she did understand, she was furious. She stomped over and punched Ken in the arm.

“It is not that. Never that.”

“Really? Aiko, stop, stop! But you’re always asking about Luan, so we thought—”

“No! It is—it’s about—”

It had been a secret between Aiko and Luan. A hypothesis, as Luan had put it. But he’d confirmed it, so she was sure he would take care of the matter before he came back. She might do the same. But she didn’t want a tattoo. Nevertheless, Aiko told them, furiously. Ken’s mouth opened. Siri’s eyes went wide. Daly and Paige looked at each other.

“Oh. I had no idea.”

“Is Luan sure?”

“He is married. He has a wife and baby.”

Aiko punched Ken in the shoulder again, hard. He stepped back and made a silent gesture of apology. She glared at him—they’d have words later. But Daly was turning pale.

“I think he’s right. I noticed it too.”

“When was the last time you thought of them?”

Paige looked at Siri. The Swedish girl shook her head.

“Not even once. Not even—”

Suddenly, there was a look of anguish in her eyes. Daly bit his lip. Ken, Aiko, Paige, they all paused as familiar faces came back. Aiko closed her eyes.

“You see? We do not remember.”

“So what’s Luan going to do about it?”

Aiko turned to Daly. The Australian was shaking his head. She pointed at her arm.

“Make sure he doesn’t ever forget.

 

—-

 

And miles to the north, and east, far from Talenqual, at least for him, a South African man paused and took a sip of water. From a canteen at his side. The slightly warm water was very sweet to him. Refreshing. And also, his last drink.

That wasn’t too bad, but Luan Khumalo had underestimated the length of his journey by a few hours. He still wasn’t too concerned because he’d been regularly hydrating so he wasn’t in desperate need of water, but he made a note to store more water and rations. Just in case.

Then again, there was a lot of water around him. But as the saying went, water was all around, but not a drop of it would Luan drink. The ocean’s saltwater lapped at the side of his boat. And though Luan had reached the ocean from a river outlet, he hadn’t refilled his canteen in that water either.

It wasn’t a good idea. Even if Baleros’ waters looked fresh, leeches and other water-born creatures could easily be drank if Luan had tried the water. If he was desperate he could boil some water, but Geneva had still warned him to buy his supplies at the Runner’s Guild instead.

“So I’ll get some water before I head back. It’s not a problem. Yeah.”

Luan tossed the empty water flask into the bottom of his small boat with a sigh. Then he picked up the two mounted oars attached to his boat and dipped them into the water. He pulled back, a single, fluid stroke. His boat shot across the water.

Boat. Actually, it was more like a canoe, but thinner. Built for Lizardfolk—it was as close as Luan could come to a proper single scull. Nevertheless, it was far bigger than anything he’d use in a race. Nor was it designed in the same way a modern shell would be.

And yet, Luan’s oars dipped into the water. He pulled, his legs straining against the wooden brace he’d installed. The water resisted, and in accordance with physics, the boat moved. The shell broke out of the surf and Luan felt gravity fighting him. He pulled the oars back, dipped them into the water, pulled again.

Long, power strokes. A steady, unfaltering pace. Luan breathed evenly, his body performing the action he’d practiced a hundred thousand times with ease. And his boat moved across the water.

Sculling. That was what you called it if you understood what Luan was doing. Rowing was another acceptable word. Paddling or kayaking would probably tempt Luan to smack the asker with an oar. But he accepted that not many people understood the very real difference between rowing and paddling. After all, some people would never so much as enter a boat in their lives. They’d live landlocked and that was fine, if a bit sad. But Luan had made sculling his life’s work.

On Earth, he had been an Olympic hopeful. The person who would have represented his nation of South Africa in the single sculling event. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that Luan was one of the best in the world at what he did.

And that thing was getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. Two kilometers, to be exact. Not that anyone in this world used kilometers as measurements.

“How many miles can you go in a day, Luan? Twenty? Fifty? Stupid…American…system!”

Luan growled to himself between oar strokes. Yes, two kilometers was what the single scull event he’d trained for was measured in. Two kilometers. The fastest team of rowers in the world could go two kilometers in under six minutes. That was blazing quick. As for a single sculler, well, you’d be slower, but only by a minute. Yes, you could go faster than some people could run. But the difficulty was completely different. On land, any decent athlete could run that fast, if only for a while. But in the water?

Luan’s oars dipped into the water. He drew in, knees pressing inwards, and his arms stretched out. The paddles of the oars, which had been flat and drawing back, turned, twisting, and dipped into the water. Luan felt a moment where his weight pressed against the oar handles, and then he pulled.

Or rather, he pushed the boat through the water. It was a smooth movement that made the water ripple with the force as all the energy in his legs and arms and the weight of his body went into the motion. Accordingly, the boat moved faster, and Luan felt the power of the thrust carry him across the ocean. He bent forwards for another drive. Which was what you called that motion. Aiko had described it as ‘pulling the oars’. Luan had given up trying to correct her.

The shell was moving fast. And it would go faster if Luan could stop tearing at the water with each drive. It was throwing off his smooth rhythm and wasting the energy he was putting into the oars.

It made him feel like a beginner, actually. But Luan had grown…stronger over the last few weeks. So markedly so that he was struggling to find a new style that would keep up with his more powerful movements. He kept lapsing into his old patterns and having to correct himself.

Because that was the thing. Luan was flying across the ocean. This close to the shore, the waves weren’t that large, but Luan ignored them regardless. His single scull broke through the crest of a wave, soaking Luan from behind. He swore, but kept going, knowing he had more or less flat water to go through. And that his destination wasn’t far away.

He’d been rowing for a long time. For hours, in fact. And when he’d started, it had been from a town up the river he’d come down, twenty eight miles away. And he had at least fifteen more to go.

“How many is that in kilometers? Seventy?”

Something like that. A long ways to go even on land. But Luan wasn’t that tired. And he was sure he’d get to his destination—a port city named Cinfal—soon enough. And that was because Luan could see how fast he was moving by the passing shoreline.

Here was the thing. His boat wasn’t nearly as streamlined as a modern craft. Luan hated it. It was made of wood, and far, far wider than any boat designed for speed would be. And the riggers for his oars were a clumsy construction; he’d had to get them specialty-fitted and made by a [Blacksmith]. Even his oars were heavier. They’d given Luan blisters until he’d made the handles easier to hold. He’d also lost some of his calluses, but even so, they weren’t as nice on the palms.

All of these things made him slower. Especially the design of his shell and the weight. And yet, still, Luan Khumalo knew he could enter any Olympic race and win it with this boat and oars.

“Because I am a [Rower]. Not just a rower, but a [Rower]. Isn’t there a class for [Sculler] instead?”

Even the leveling system didn’t use proper terminology. Luan grunted. The sun shone down on his bare back. He swung the oars, feeling the smooth motion. Dipped them into the water. As Aiko put it, pulled.

And the boat nearly left the water this time. The force was like nothing Luan had ever felt, even when rowing in a coxless pair with his best friend. For a second he stared at his arms. He had muscle of course, and he was an athlete. Even so, he shook his head.

“Bloody unfair.”

Yes, that was it. The more time Luan spent in this world, the more he was convinced that was what was happening. To him and the other people from Earth. They were part of a system that was just…

Unfair. Frankly, ludicrously unfair. Perhaps others would have called it magical, wonderful, but Luan was an athlete. He took no drugs. He practiced and exercised to achieve a mastery over the one thing he was truly good at. He’d devoted his life to becoming a master at rowing. But someone could paddle about for a few weeks and gain a Skill that made them so much faster in the water than they had any right to be.

Skills. Levels. They allowed someone to reach past their limits. To do what was impossible. Luan had known it. Hell, he’d reveled in the fact, at watching Daly use [Power Strike] or marveling at the way Geneva could make a bleeding patient just stop with a touch. That was one thing. But this?

Pull. The next drive made the wind rush past Luan’s back. He gritted his teeth. His shell was shooting through the water, much, much faster than anyone from his world could ever hope to be, he was sure. He couldn’t tell, but he thought he was going faster than most people could hope to run. Without Skills, that was.

[Boat: Spray Cutter]. [Power Strokes]. [Greater Endurance]. [Lesser Strength]. [Enhanced Durability – Oars]. [Boat: Lightweight Craft]. [Wave Sense].

Those were his Skills. Those, and a few more. Each one had made Luan’s already high-speed that much more ludicrous. One Skill. One Skill could turn you into the best athlete in the world if you were close.

[Lesser Strength]. Oh, it sounded weak, but it had made Luan so much stronger it was insane. As if he could lift and extra…what was it from pounds to kilograms, again? Ah yes, an extra 20 kilograms with each arm. Ridiculous. If you had that Skill on top of a body? The weight limits at the Olympics would have absolutely no meaning. As for [Greater Endurance]—

Luan had healing potions and stamina potions on his belt. It was a thing Runners used. Magic to make them fresh and rested, able to run all day at their peak performance. He hadn’t used a potion and he’d been going at a fast pace this entire time. He could do three races back to back and win each one. His boat was barely affected by the waves. He could, and had blocked an axe with his oars and not even chipped it. As for the rest?

Ludicrous. Unfair. And…so much fun. Luan wanted to laugh and marvel at the speed at which he was going. Laugh and weep because he hadn’t earned it. Not really. He’d just leveled up. The system had given him levels and a class. He was an [Expert Rower]. Level 27 in only two months.

“Perhaps I earned it. I don’t feel like it, though. Not at all. This is too easy. What if I were a [Warrior]? Level 27? What must they feel like if they’re Level 30? 40? 50? Like gods. And that’s too much power for any one man, woman…Dullahan…”

Dark thoughts for such a beautiful day. Baleros slowly passed by Luan on his right. Forests and jungles devolving to brilliant white sand or cliffs. And the ocean was another marvel. Untouched by trash, even a hint of it. Pure and brilliant, green fading to blue in the distance. A world without pollution. Luan wanted to turn and admire it. But he did have a job. So he kept rowing.

With his back turned, mind you. The biggest danger Luan’s technique held was that he was rowing with his back to the front of the boat. In other words, he couldn’t see what he was rowing towards. Not a problem if you were on a lake, competing in a race. But on the ocean, or going up a winding river?

If he had to go slow, Luan would scull with one of the smaller oars. But when travelling from port to port along the continent’s shoreline, he used a different technique. Luan glanced at something propped in front of him as he drew forwards for another drive. A flash of light—he avoided staring at the reflected sun. But the image in the angled glass showed him a shape pulling out in front of him to the right. Luan cursed and pulled, using more force on his right. His shell turned.

“Thank you, mirrors. Thank you Paige.”

He’d spotted the second canoe coming off a beach just in time. Luan’s course took him right, and the figures on the canoe turned to follow. He heard a shout.

“Hey! You there! The Human on the boat! Hold on, we want to talk!”

Lizardfolk. Luan chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw them. They were turning, trying to catch him. Luan could change the course of his shell—right now he was headed around them, but that meant they had time to catch up. He could do that and make it a race, but instead—

“[Second Wind].”

Luan spoke the Skill and felt his body grow even fresher. Now he felt like he was on a day’s full rest. He swung forwards and drove his oars into the water. The South African man heard an exclamation from the boat and then a shout.

“One, two, stroke, stroke! Come on, catch him! There are eight of us—”

The eight Lizardfolk on the canoe turned. They were all using single oars, rowing towards Luan, trying to intercept him. But it was a futile effort. They had coordination, and maybe some Skills of their own, but their canoe was too heavy, their technique imperfect. Compared to Luan they could have been sitting still in the water. He raced past them and heard a shout.

Aw, damn it you guys—

Luan turned his head, wary of arrows. But the Lizardfolk had just given up. Some were laughing at their leader who was exasperatedly berating them. Another waved and Luan grinned.

Good-natured Lizardfolk. Still, if they were [Pirates] or [Brigands] they’d force Luan to hand over his cargo and all the money he had on him. The [Rower] wasn’t about to take that chance. He kept going and spotted the canoe heading back down to the beach where it had been hidden.

“Most definitely bandits of some kind. But at least they didn’t shoot arrows at me.”

After all, it was dangerous doing his job. Luan’s boat was marked along the side with a bright white splotch of paint, upon which was drawn a letter. Not alphabetical letter, but an actual letter, envelope and all. It was a crude but effective way of letting people know he was a Runner—or rather, water-based Runner—delivering messages for the Runner’s Guild. It usually worked, but sometimes it made him a target.

Still, Luan hadn’t ever run into anything he couldn’t outscull yet. And he’d been working for two months. In fact, he was so good at his job making deliveries from port to port that people were already remembering his name. Calling him the ‘Human who actually knows how to row’. Not the flashiest of titles, but it was getting there.

A [Rower] from Earth. An athlete good at one thing, and one thing only, really. Luan’s smile faded. This was all he could do. He was no warrior, he didn’t like fighting, and he had no head for magic. He couldn’t help Paige build a steam engine or figure out how batteries were made—how were they made? Acid? He could only row. And so he did. Straight into Cinfal’s harbor and towards the docks. But Luan had to pause to let the navy pass him by.

Whoa.

Sixteen ships had been crowding Cinfal’s harbor. It was a large city, but the armada of vessels were huge. The largest warship was so big that it hadn’t even been able to get near the docks. It was a massive vessel, with four masts that took an age to pass Luan by. No paddles for this great beast of a ship; it had opened all its sails and wind was blowing hard into them, despite there being only a slight breeze to the day.

“Magic. I suppose that’s how you do it.”

Luan shaded his eyes as the lead warship passed him by. The hull wasn’t just plain wood; it had been painted yellow and black, giving it an eerie look, that of strikes of lightning against a black background. And on deck? Hundreds of [Sailors] and [Soldiers] moved about, armed with cutlasses, swords, some even wearing armor despite being at sea. A few waved to Luan as he passed. The others eyed him like an insect in his tiny craft.

And the warship even made waves. Luan cursed and swung his oars, dodging the first swells the ship left. The other fifteen ships followed it out of the harbor, all propelled unnaturally swiftly by the wind. Luan was sure he could take them any day in a race, even with a huge head start. But to see such massive vessels moving like that was still eerie.

When they were gone, Luan rowed into the harbor. He looked up, shouting, and switched to single-oar sculling to navigate past the smaller fishing ships and vessels still present. He waved and a Dullahan directing traffic in point and shouted in a voice even Luan could hear.

Right-most dock, Human! Watch out! Trading cog’s inbound!”

Luan glanced up, saw the cog moving slowly towards him, and picked up his oars. The Dullahan blinked and a few Lizardfolk unloading ships laughed and clapped their hands in delight as Luan zoomed past the cog to his place. By the time he’d tied his boat up, the Dullahan was striding towards him.

Part of Luan, a small part, wanted to act like a certain pirate captain as he stepped onto the dock. But since he didn’t want to sink his precious shell, he clambered out and waited for the Dullahan politely.

“Runner, are you?”

The female Dullahan propped her hand on her hips. Her head was being carried in a sling around her neck, much like a baby would be. Luan looked at that as he nodded.

“On a delivery.”

“Priority?”

“No. I can pay now.”

“Ah, well then, how long will you be here?”

“Let’s call it a day. I can actually drag this thing onto the docks if you’ve got a place to put it…”

It was far heavier than a modern boat, so Luan didn’t really want to do that if necessary. The Dullahan [Harbormistress] shook her head.

“No need. You saw that fleet heading out? They were our big customers. We’ll have open docks for at least a day or so. The fee will be four silver for the night.”

Luan grimaced. Four silver? That was a lot—but he was renting a space. And…he mentally tried to gauge how much it would be to pay for only a small time and hire people to haul the boat and rent more space.

“Four silver it is. Here you are.”

He carefully placed the silver coins into the Dullahan’s waiting palm. She couldn’t nod, but her body performed a kind of half-bow.

“It is accepted. Your name, Human?”

“Luan. Luan Khumalo.”

“You will be recognized by anyone managing the docks if I am not there. Need you further proof, or will name and sight alone suffice?”

“It will suffice. Thank you.”

The Dullahan nodded and then she was gone. Luan checked the knot securing his shell, and then bent to grab his things. He could leave most of it in the vessel; a good harbor left no fear of [Thieves] stealing. But just to be safe, Luan took his most precious gear and his delivery, leaving only the empty water flask and some travel rations in the boat. And then he entered Cinfal.

“Excuse me. Coming through. Runner on a delivery.”

Luan’s first few steps out of the wet harbor and port area was into a market where fresh fish and, predictably, hawkers were waiting. They were hoping to prey on any fresh arrivals with shiny goods or the latest gossip. Directions to a brothel? Sharpen your sword? Like the seasoned [Sailors] and [Travellers], Luan pushed through them with an eye on his belt for stray hands. His cry also abetted the press of bodies somewhat—a Runner had no time to buy knickknacks.

“Which way to the Runner’s Guild? Anyone?”

A dozen hands pointed. Luan hurried down the street, a touch unsteadily since his legs had grown used to the rowing. He made it to the Runner’s Guild quickly though; like any good guild in a port city, it was located near enough to the docks. There was a Lizardgirl receptionist at the desk. She looked up and grinned toothily as Luan came in.

“Hey! You’re that Human I heard so much about! Skin as dark as night and fast as a bird on the water? Luan?”

“That’s me.”

Luan dumped his package on the table. It was mail—and four individual deliveries, all held together in a thick bag. And heavy. The town he’d come from had paid him on top of the four individual deliveries to get to Cinfal fast—the City Runners who went on foot didn’t want to make the difficult journey all the way here, as the foot-route was twice as difficult and long as if you went by ocean.

“Wow! I got a message from Paxil that you were coming with a bunch of mail. Let’s see…four individual deliveries?”

“Right here.”

“Thank you! We’ll get Street Runners on it right away. May I see your runner’s seal? Just a formality. Thank you again! And did you encounter anything of note on your way here?”

“I saw eight Lizardfolk on a canoe. They pushed off a beach and tried to catch me. I wasn’t sure if they were [Bandits], but I didn’t stick around to find out.”

“Ooh. Got it.”

The Lizardgirl noted the information down for any Runners in the area, or law enforcement. Then she smiled at Luan.

“Alright! We’re all set! Your payment for the packages as well as your current unclaimed coin comes to…”

She rummaged for Luan’s file, which was meticulously updated by [Message] spell between the Runner’s Guilds, especially if Luan was in the area. The Lizardgirl blinked and Luan saw her neck frills open for a second in shock.

“A lot, I know.”

He smiled wearily at her. Luan hadn’t been back to Talenqual in a while. He’d gone from city to town to village, doing deliveries nonstop. As such, he had a fairly good idea of what had made her eyes pop.

The Lizardgirl stared at the number again and then coughed. She lowered her volume a tiny bit.

“Fifty four gold coins from all your deliveries. You want it all now? Because I’ll have to open the strongbox to get it all if you do.”

Fifty four coins. Luan’s smile sprang to his lips unbidden. Now that was the fruit of hard work. And from the look a Centaur [Runner] standing at a counter next to him was giving him, it was good even by City Runner standards.

“No. Just…four gold coin’s worth. I’ll pull the rest out when I get home.”

“You got it! Wow. That’s a lot of money. You sure you’re just a City Runner? I heard you can make it from Talenqual to Ravelm in less than two days!”

“I’m hoping to make it to Courier eventually. But a City Runner I am. Thank you.”

Luan accepted the four gold coins from the Lizardgirl and signed the receipt she handed him. She sighed.

“Wow. And you use that tiny boat! Who taught you how to row that well? Lizardfolk? It wasn’t Centaurs, that’s for sure. Right, Minta?”

She laughed and indicated the Centaur. Minta the Centaur didn’t laugh back with her.

“Let’s just say I was pretty good at it back home. One of the best, in fact.”

Luan smiled. The Lizardgirl nodded and didn’t ask for more details. She waved the next Runner in line forwards as Luan strode towards the door.

There went Luan Khumalo. A few of the Runners in the guild knew him, and he thought he recognized a few faces, but it was them knowing him, not the other way around. Because, and Luan was proud of this, Skills or no, he was developing a reputation as an excellent City Runner. Only two months and he’d already made a name for himself.

Luan specialized in lightning-quick deliveries from spot to spot. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d trained to do long-distance rowing. Even with [Greater Endurance] and all his Skills boosting his speed, there was a very hard limit on how far Luan could go. But fast? He could do fast.

“And it’ll be faster still if I can hold onto some of that gold I’ve earned.”

Luan muttered to himself as he pushed out the Runner’s Guild door. Now that he was on land and not in an athlete’s mindless trance, he could think about his future. He’d been mulling over the idea in his head. He was faster than the world record holders in his world already. But he could be even quicker in the water if he had the money to spend.

“Get a boat made of the lightest-weight wood. Sliding seat—and make it actually aerodynamic.”

That meant a proper single scull, long and narrow, not wide, like the one Luan was using. But to have that, he’d need a bag of holding, a good one, to hold his deliveries and other gear.

“And paddles. Lightweight. Made of that good wood the Lizardfolk use. Expensive. And enchanted.”

Yes, enchanted. Paddles enchanted with the [Weight] spell were what he wanted, according to an [Oarsman] he’d spoken with in a tavern. They’d add as much as fifty pounds to each stroke. And a spell could make the boats and oars practically featherweight. Add that to something to put the wind on his side—

Luan wondered if he could actually achieve liftoff with that kind of setup. He sighed happily, and then frowned.

“But that’s hundreds, thousands of gold coins. And from what Paige said, this might be going towards a new apartment for the kids to live in.”

His good spirits sank a bit. But Luan refused to let them sink further. He shook his head.

“Children. They come first.”

Perhaps that was a harsh generalization. But Luan did truly feel like one of a few adults sometimes. Some of the Earthworlders brought over to this one were only fourteen or fifteen. Luan and Geneva were older than they were by a decade. They had to take care of them. And the fifty four gold coins Luan had labored for was a big step in that direction.

“Time to head back to Talenqual. After a good night’s rest. Big dinner. Yeah.”

Luan licked his lips. He was exhausted from nearly a week of non-stop work. Part of him thought it would be best to get back to Talenqual tonight, but he was too tired to contemplate rowing for that long. If he could, he’d have arranged it so Paige could withdraw his earnings at the Runner’s Guild. But they were very careful to make sure a Runner’s hard-earned money wasn’t extorted or stolen from them.

Luan was about to head to the nearest inn and ask about a lovely bed and some food when a thought sprang out to him. Something in the back of his mind.

Children. No, child. Remember.

And then Luan did. The spring in his step faded. His smile vanished.

A sour-faced Dullahan passing by the Human on the street saw Luan’s smile turn into a dour look to rival his own. He stared as Luan’s pace slowed.

Child. His child. Remember it. Aiko’s words bounced around in Luan’s head, along with his inescapable conclusion.

He’d forgot again. Forgot…that he had a child. That he was married.

That they were left behind.

In the bustling streets of Cinfal, right outside the Runner’s Guild, Luan stopped and stared at the sky. Remember them. Remember their faces. Worst yet, you must remember to remember. Because if you don’t—

You’ll forget. Forget as easily as a lost pair of keys, or a missing sock. As if they didn’t matter. As if they never existed. It was the same for Aiko. For everyone, Luan suspected. But he hadn’t brought his conclusion to the attention of the others yet. It was too strange an anomaly to fully understand.

And yet—he was certain it was true. Because Luan kept forgetting his baby’s face. And that—

“No.”

Luan’s fingers dug into his palm. He had to remember. A wild craze swept through him. For a second he wanted to hurl the gold coins in his palm into the face of the Dullahan staring at him. Grab his oars, grab the knife Daly had given him and stab and cut everything around him. Gone. Gone from home and his family!

But that was not the way. Luan relaxed slightly. It was no one’s fault here. No one around him at least. Possibly no one at all was responsible for this. It might just be an accident. If it was the doing of someone, Luan would have vengeance. But if not?

Remember.

Luan walked slowly down the street. He thought of Aiko and what she’d suggested to him.

Yes. No time to go back and tell the others. Luan had to do it today. How long had it been since he’d forgotten this time? Six days? And he’d talked with Aiko, tried to force himself to remember. But the instant he’d stopped repeating the names in his head, capturing the face—it was gone. So, Luan decided to do what he should have done from the start. He turned to the nearest Lizardperson on the street and began to ask directions.

 

—-

 

“Hello?”

The Lizardwoman in the small tattoo parlor looked up. She was a Lizardperson. She had scales. Admittedly, there were colorful designs painted on top of the scales, but as [Tattooists] went, Luan was fairly certain that this didn’t recommend her.

He stopped uncertainly in the entrance to the shop. The Lizardwoman’s eyes brightened as she saw what might be her first client in a while wavering. She scrambled out from behind her desk.

“Come in! Welcome, welcome! This is the Inked Scale, the best—and only—tattoo place in Cinfal! You want a tattoo? Have a seat! I’ll get some designs.”

“Ah, no thanks. I just came by to…I’ve got a design.”

“Ooh, really?”

The Lizardwoman stopped fumbling for some sketches. She walked back over to Luan as he walked over to a chair. The shop was very small and quite empty. He saw vials on racks, needles—and brushes.

“You do tattoos here?”

“Oh, sure! Tattoos for the fleshy folk, scale art for anyone who sheds. We even have stuff that keeps away fur if you’ve got body hair. Anything you need I can do! Don’t worry, I get [Sailors] from all over the world in here! Drowned People are the worst, between you and me.”

She winked at Luan. Reassured, the man smiled at her.

“I’m looking for something simple. Ink tattoo. Two words on my right hand. Right here.”

He placed his fingers on his arm, just below the wrist. The Lizardwoman nodded energetically. She already had a very long, very sharp stick of—Luan gave it a second look.

“What is that?

“What, this? Never seen a tattooing needle before? Don’t worry, I only use the tip.”

The Lizardwoman smiled at Luan. She showed him a long, bamboo stick that had been carved with some extremely sharp points dark with ink. Half of it was lacquered, but the tips—Luan blanched a bit.

He’d seen tattoos being done before, but now that he recalled it, it was always with a tattooing machine. An electronic, handheld, mechanical device. He hadn’t made the obvious connection that no person in this world would have that kind of technology. The Lizardwoman saw he was having second thoughts and tried to reassure him.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry! The ink goes here, see, and the little needles go into your skin and let the ink stain it. It doesn’t hurt—er, much. Not unless the needles are really sharp, and believe me, they’re wicked sharp! Wait, this isn’t reassuring, is it?”

“I’ll…you can give me a tattoo, right? No blood or open wounds?”

“None at all. I’m Level 21. That’s good by our standards. And I’ve got healing potions in case you start bleeding, tons of experience—”

The Lizardwoman reassured Luan. He bit his lip, but he’d come this far.

“Okay. Can you put the names in black ink here? I’ll write them out so you can see the right spelling.”

He wrote carefully on a piece of parchment the Lizardwoman handed to him. She looked at it once, nodded, and then eyed Luan.

“That’s easy. I can have you done quick. But…ink, you said?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

Luan grimaced at his arms. He’d barely see the tattoo. But what other choice was there? Aiko had suggested them as a permanent reminder. The Lizardwoman clearly saw his problem and swished her tail back and forth, but not for the reason Luan was expecting.

“It’s just—I don’t think black ink’s gonna show up well on your skin. You sure you don’t want other colors? Cause we’ve got lots.”

“Other colors?”

Luan looked up with a frown. Wouldn’t they be just as hard to see? But the Lizardwoman was nodding energetically.

“Yeah! What, you thought I’d use natural inks on that skin? No thanks, pal! We’ll use a magical dye—it’s cooler anyways. I can make it glow in the dark, too. What color do you want? White? Red? Pink? Ooh, and look at this. This ink changes color depending on how warm it is. And this ink—”

She showed Luan a rapidly changing ink that flashed from color to color. He blinked at it.

“Uh, no. I’ll take—gold? Do you have—”

The Lizardwoman was already pulling out a golden vial. Literally golden in color. Luan stared at it as the liquid ink rolled back and forth. She eyed him, smiling.

“Glow in the dark? Other effects?”

“No thank you.”

They’d make him too visible at night. Luan nodded as she offered him two more variants on the idea of gold and yellow. Then he frowned.

“How expensive is this?”

“For you and that tattoo? A gold coin. Yeah, I know it’s a bit pricey, but this ink isn’t cheap! Still, you don’t want much—[Sailors] now, they pay for the big stuff. You sure you don’t want your ink to do anything cool? I can make your tattoo change shapes too!”

“No. Just the names.”

“You’re the customer! You have half an hour to do this?”

“Yep. Here’s your payment.”

Luan handed the Lizardwoman a gold coin. She smiled and tucked it into her purse. Then she grabbed the vial and her bamboo needle.

“Here’s the rules: you sit there, I do my work. Don’t move your arm or I’ll have to put it in a clamp. Tell me if it hurts real bad and we can stop. But if you do, I get to tease you, got it? If you start bleeding I’ll use a potion, but I don’t like to do that while tattooing. They mess up the ink sometimes.”

“Got it.”

Luan laid back and put his arm out as the Lizardwoman instructed him. He’d never wanted a tattoo and was afraid of that stick. But the first time she jabbed it into his skin he only flinched a bit. And then the poking pain was a constant, so he quickly relaxed.

To his surprise, the Lizardwoman wasn’t at all chatty while doing her work. She was intent, her eyes focused on the delicate lettering she was writing onto Luan’s skin. And there was also a second reason.

Not five minutes into the tattooing, someone else entered the parlor. The [Tattooist] glanced up, but said not a word. Luan, whose eyes were closed, didn’t look up until he heard some heavy clicks on the floor. Then he looked up and saw a Minotaur standing over him.

“You’re the City Runner who goes by the name of Luan?”

The Minotaur stared down at Luan. The South African man tensed for a second. He couldn’t help it. The Minotaur was something right out of legends. Bull’s head, complete with horns. A humanoid body, heavily muscled but concealed by light Balerosian clothing. And like Centaurs, hooves instead of feet.

Minotaur. But Luan’s paralysis only lasted as long as it took him to realize the Minotaur was speaking English and behaving…like a normal person. Luan realized. Here was another species of this world. The Lizardwoman didn’t even seem bothered by his presence.

And then Luan realized he’d been addressed by name. He frowned up at the Minotaur.

“That’s me. Do I know you?”

He was sure the answer was no. For a reply, the Minotaur pulled up another chair and sat down on Luan’s other side, quite unbidden.

“My name is Venaz. I have an offer to make you, Luan the Runner.”

Luan glanced at the Minotaur, and then at the [Tattooist] who was ignoring both of them. He frowned.

“I’m a bit busy, friend.”

“Which is why I came here. You can’t run away. Hear me out first. I’ve noted your career. You’re Luan. Human affiliated with a new company. United Nations or something. Served in Gravetender’s Fist, a suppression company as a mercenary before becoming a Runner. You’ve served for two months, but you have a number of notable deliveries.”

“Excuse me, I’m busy. If you want to talk, you can find me at the Runner’s Guild—”

Luan spoke up angrily, but Venaz only raised his voice, talking over Luan. He had an imperious nature and Luan gave up trying to interrupt him after five tries.

“—not only considered near Courier-level on that boat in the water, but you’ve done what Runners consider dangerous deliveries. Noticeably, a mission to escort a young Dullahan being pursued by a suitor to her home city, delivering through crocodile-infested waters…does that count? Stupid report. But you did a trip to pick up a Dullahan in the starving city of Phelt before it was wiped clean…”

Luan stared at the Minotaur. Unbidden, the memory surged around him. Dragged him in.

Lizardfolk were friendly, cooperative, and social. They were the most pleasant of folk to be around—until you saw them at their most desperate. Then they were animals, like anyone else.

The desperate Dullahan [Merchant] at the docks. Yanking him on board and then seeing hundreds of slim bodies pouring into the harbor, leaping off the docks as Luan swung the oars and pulled through the water desperately. The Lizardfolk were screaming. They clawed at the boat as the Dullahan kicked their claws off the boat. Luan was struggling, forcing the boat further from the harbor. Only as he fought his craft clear of them did he hear the starving Lizardfolk’s voices.

Take me with you.

Help.

Save my child.

Bring us.

Let us…

Luan jerked. The [Tattooist] must have sensed it, because she stopped just in time. She stared at Luan as Venaz paused. The Human caught his breath. The Lizardwoman grabbed his arm firmly.

“Hold still, please.”

After a second, Luan did. The pain returned. Venaz kept reading as if nothing had happened. But Luan was still remembering Phelt.

Starving people. The town had been raided of food and coin and they had nothing to pay with. So rather than request food, the [Merchant] had bought his own life. Luan hadn’t known. The town was a blip on the map. Luan still remembered them trying to swim after him.

He should have stopped. But they’d eaten all the other non-Lizardfolk in the town already. The Dullahan had survived with an invisibility potion. Luan could remember the Dullahan shaking, talking about it.

Still, he should have slowed. Should have reached for one of the children being held out to him. Should have…

The next day Luan had gone back with as much food as his little vessel could carry. But by that point, cannibalism had turned the townspeople against each other, not just outsiders. Luan had seen the nightmare, dropped the food on what remained of the docks, and fled.

Memory. Luan blinked, and Venaz was still talking. Listing off more of Luan’s accomplishments. How did he know so much? Luan shook his head, which earned him a tut of disapproval from the Lizardwoman.

He needed to go back to the two apartments. Hopefully Geneva would be back. Or Paige. Luan could use time on the impromptu ‘therapy couch’ with one of them listening. The [Rower] glared at Venaz.

“Do you have a point here?”

The Minotaur harrumphed and stopped talking for a moment, which was a relief. The problem was when he started again.

“My point is that I know your capabilities. You’re fast on the water, nearly as fast as a Courier. But you’re not, which suits my needs. I have a job for you. It’s in three weeks. Interested?”

Luan stared at him. He looked around the parlor and then glowered at Venaz.

“You could have put in a request! Asked for me by name. I’d be happy to meet you whenever. This is rude. You are aware?”

His words and look bounced off Venaz’ face. The Minotaur sat back.

“I’m aware of Runner’s Guild protocol, thank you. But I wanted to meet you privately. Putting out a request is blatant. No one’s to know of this conversation taking place.”

“Oh. Really?”

Luan rolled his eyes at the Lizardwoman sitting right next to them. Venaz smirked.

“No one I’ve not accounted for. Why else do you think this place is empty?”

His words made Luan pause and look around the parlor. He’d assumed the Inky Scale was just unfrequented, but then, he’d seen the tattoos the [Sailors] sported on the docks. Venaz nodded to the door.

“The sign says closed now. And until this moment I was using an artifact. No one noticed me coming in. The [Tattooist] will give me something that fades in a few days—I am no [Warrior], but a [Strategist]. As for you, you’ll go out the back after we’re done here. Our meeting was chance, and so this incident will not be reported by those watching me—if I haven’t given them the slip already. I’ll be doing enough suspicious things later that anyone will write this moment off. Well, the Professor might not, but he’s not the one I need to fool, is he?”

He smiled smugly, proud of himself. Luan digested this little monologue. Professor? Spies? This Venaz thought highly of himself. Then again, if he had a magical artifact he had money to wave about.

“Why me?”

“As I said, Couriers attract too much attention. So I scouted you out. You’re the City Runner who most easily fits my qualifications. Waiting for you was a simple task.”

“You knew I’d be here?”

That threw Luan. But Venaz’s smug smile said it all.

“You inquired about tattoos in the last two Runner’s Guilds you visited, which indicated it was on your mind. This was the first city where you claimed any of your earnings, which gave me the clue. If you hadn’t stopped here, I would have found you in the inn this night.”

For some reason, Venaz felt like he was Luan’s age. Maybe even younger. Despite being taller than Luan and a lot bigger. Or maybe Luan just felt old these days. He frowned, deeply unhappy.

“People told you everything I was doing?”

Venaz shrugged.

“Everyone sells everything. For a price. This is Baleros. What did you expect? Now, about my offer—”

“Done!”

Both Venaz and Luan blinked and looked at the Lizardwoman. She blew on Luan’s skin and then tapped the slightly sore flesh.

“Look at that! Good, clean work! Not even a bit of blood! Like it?”

Luan stared down at his arm. There, written in gold, entirely without him knowing, were two names. Gold ink glittered at him, spelling out two words he would never, could never forget again.

His eyes stung. Luan looked down and thought of the two faces. His family. Smiling. Holding his son. Now the image was clearer in his head. And now, he was certain, he wouldn’t forget. All he had to do was look down.

“Thank you, Aiko.”

Luan felt the beginnings of tears. But then Venaz’s voice sounded right next to his ears, ruining the moment.

“You told me you could stretch out the tattoo for as long as I needed.”

He was scowling at the Lizardwoman. The [Tattooist] spread her claws innocently.

“It wasn’t a big job! And I’m an artist! What, you want me to poke him for another ten minutes? Because that’s rude and it hurts! You can do your tattoo now if you want.”

“No.”

Luan stood up suddenly. He glared at Venaz.

“I’m going back to find an inn. I paid you—”

He looked at the Lizardwoman who looked mildly embarrassed and nodded. Luan turned to Venaz.

“—so you can find me or put in a formal request.”

He spun to go, but Venaz caught him. Luan went two steps, but the Minotaur didn’t budge. Luan spun back to him, angry now. Venaz’s face was impassive.

“And as I said, that’s not an option. Hear me out. It benefits you and I.”

He paused for a second and eyed the tattoo shining on Luan’s wrist.

“Hm. I didn’t ask. What’s the tattoo about? Odd writing, that.”

Luan wanted to cover the tattoo. He glared up at Venaz.

“The names of my son and my wife. So I don’t forget.”

“Did you think you would? Shameful.”

The casual comment made something snap in Luan. He raised a fist and punched Venaz in the solar plexus as hard as he could.

Nothing happened. Except to Luan’s fist, that was. Luan felt like he’d punched a mildly rubbery rock. More rock than rubber, really. He stepped back, suddenly wary. Venaz had let him go, but he hadn’t so much as budged. He eyed Luan, and then the Minotaur grinned.

“My name is Venaz, City Runner Luan Khumalo. I’ve told you it twice now. Remember it, for it will one day be famous. So, do we have a deal?”

Luan stared at Venaz, rubbing his knuckles. Then he had to laugh. The Lizardwoman stepped back, sweeping her fragile vials of ink out of the way as he and Venaz sized each other up a second time.

“Okay, what’s the mission? How dangerous is it?”

“Not at all. But I require your word before I tell you more than the rough details.”

“Tell me the basics, then. I won’t commit to anything too dangerous. Or illegal.”

Venaz nodded. He spoke briskly now, eyeing the designs the [Tattooist] hopefully shoved in front of his face and waving them away.

“Twenty gold pieces to deliver a small object to my person alone in a port city north of here. The danger to you will be minimal, although you will have to be swift and precise. There may be pursuers, but if you are caught—which you will not be because you are a significant portion of my plan—you will likely only be held for a few hours. At most, roughed up.”

Luan didn’t know if he liked that. But—twenty gold pieces? He heard the Lizardwoman gulp and agreed. That was a good job. Especially if the danger wasn’t that great. Still—Luan eyed Venaz and folded his arms.

“No. Forty.”

“Forty? For a small delivery? You overestimate your worth.”

Venaz’s eyebrows shot up. Luan shook his head.

“Forty gold pieces. You researched me, and you admitted that I am an important part of your plans. You need a fast City Runner on the water who is not a Courier. I’m your best option and you know it.”

The Minotaur glowered. He muttered to himself. Luan thought he caught ‘must be what the Professor’s always telling me about’ before he looked up abruptly and nodded.

“Fine. Forty.”

Luan thought for a second and then shook his head.

“It’s sixty gold pieces now.”

What?

“The price went up.”

“In two seconds?”

“I just remembered that you insulted me and bothered me when I asked to be left alone. So, sixty gold pieces, friend. Can you pay that much?”

“Yes. Sixty, damn it, but not a copper piece higher.”

Venaz growled in disgust and gave Luan something almost approaching a look of admiration. He sighed.

“I’ll pay you ten pieces up front, fifty on delivery. Do we have a deal?”

He held out a hand. Luan hesitated.

“One last thing. Promise me no one will be hurt by what you’re doing? No one dies? I’m not bringing something illegal or that harms someone else?”

If the Minotaur couldn’t make that promise, Luan would do it anyways. But Venaz just grinned.

“No one dies. As for harm—they’ll be bruised, maybe a few broken bones at most. But this is no war. Runners have their codes about interfering in battle, after all.”

That was enough. More than enough for sixty gold pieces. Luan had risked his neck for less. He held out his hand gingerly. Venaz gave Luan a crushing handshake and then nodded to the side. The [Tattooist] stretched her arms, sitting by the closed door as Venaz and Luan spoke in low voices. Luan listened, no longer annoyed, but a Runner listening to a well-paying client.

Outside, the city of Cinfal hustled and bustled and presumably got on with their lives. Inside the parlor though, the Lizardwoman [Tattooist] debated over what inking she’d give the Minotaur, trying not to listen as he spoke to Luan. Venaz’ voice was quiet, his eyes alight as he showed Luan a map, and then another map, and then explained why three weeks was so important and where Luan fit in.

“That you don’t know my name means you don’t get what’s happening. Well, in three weeks, an annual event occurs. Wait—no, biennial. No—hold on, the Professor sometimes doesn’t hold it at all. But it is a significant event, and I will be participating in it, as will my class. And the former classes, which is why I intend to win. You see, once every…few years, the Professor, whom you know as the Titan of Baleros has a little game…”

Luan jerked at the name. Venaz grinned, his eyes alight. And Luan realized he’d quite forgotten to why Venaz needed someone with the skills of a Courier. Or exactly who would be chasing him. But it was too late to back out now. And on Luan’s wrist were etched the two names. And so long as he had that, he could do anything.

 

—-

 

So it was that in Cinfal, the best laid plans of men and Minotaurs were begun. But in a city much further inland, a creature far smaller than a man or Minotaur was hard at work. He was, in fact, about the same size as a mouse. But Niers Astoragon was considerably more dangerous than a mouse, and after a certain encounter with some rats, he’d begun hunting the damn things at night. After all, the greatest [Strategist] in all of Baleros had to find enjoyment somewhere, didn’t he?

He wasn’t quite enjoying himself now. Not that he was miserable, but Niers was more in a state of mind that could be describe as busy concentration rather than actual fun. Luan would have understood; there was a joy to doing something you could do, but other times it was just the work of it that kept you going. Work, and pride in your work.

Not that Niers was rowing a boat. Rather, he was poring over a piece of paper, walking down and reading the neatly-written words row by row. It was slightly tedious, and Niers debated hopping back onto his reading seat so he could read them from above. But he liked to move, and sitting meant he’d have to ask someone else to bring the next paper over, which was a waste of time.

“Hah!”

That was all the Fraerling said as he reached the end of the report. He stamped on the carefully written signature and the wax seal below it and then kicked the piece of paper off the desk. A hand caught it as the paper dropped to the ground. Peclir Im, the [Chamberlain] of the Forgotten Wing company and the man responsible for keeping a good portion of the citadel that was Niers’ academy and home running, picked up the paper and put it in another pile as Niers strode past him for another report.

“That idiot Balegilt wants two more [Mages]? Write a reply and tell him he can have his [Mages] when he learns not to let [Snipers] pick them off! He’ll go without and he can take his entire company to hell if he objects!”

Peclir Im nodded.

“You wish me to write that verbatim, sir? Or in spirit?”

Niers paused.

“In spirit, I suppose. Balegilt’s Marsh Troll company is useful. But damn them if they’re not careless. Give him a warning, Peclir. If he keeps losing our people, we will sever our ties with him.”

“I shall make a proper note.”

Peclir did just that, jotting Niers’ reply down on a piece of parchment he held. The Titan scowled.

“Where’s the next report?”

“Here, sir. And I repeat, if you wish, we could hire a Fraerling to copy all this down. It would save you the necessity of calling on myself—”

“I don’t need a [Scribe] reading all this confidential information, Peclir. Regular reports are fine by me.”

“As you wish. This is a detail by our 14th Division.”

“Where did we put—ah, right. Holding action. And they’re facing…”

Niers read the brief and much less eloquent message by one of his field commanders. He grimaced.

“Skirmishes with Centaurs. Oh, how wonderful. It must be a local clan. Not a company; they’re too scattered. We must have angered the entire area somehow. Send in our [Diplomats]. And make sure they’re Centaurs too. The nuance will be lost on someone not of that species. In the meantime, the 14th is to avoid killing—if possible. Next?”

Peclir checked his notes.

“There are two battles taking place at…Selx’s Ravine and the Olkem Grasslands. I have the coordinates.”

“Show me. Nothing too large, I hope?”

“You would have been notified, sir. These are allied companies—”

“We still want to win, though. Let’s see what their odds are. Ah. This would be over that damned mine we’ve been fighting over. If we take it, I’m sending some high-level [Miners] to get what we can and then abandon the place. And the other…? Oh.”

Niers Astoragon looked down at the magical map as Peclir indicated the two battlegrounds. He grimaced, told Peclir to message one of the two commanders embroiled in the battles to retreat if things went south, and got back to work. Peclir hurried over to the door to issue a few instructions to a waiting attendant helper, who in turn hurried off to make the necessary [Message] spells. By the time he got back, Niers was kicking his way across the desk.

“Casualty reports. Income reports. Where are my level reports?”

“Here, sir.”

Peclir handed Niers a list of every person of note who’d leveled in Niers’ company this week. That included class changes and gained Skills. The [Strategist] ran his eye down the list, grunting as he saw nothing too extraordinary.

“Alright. We’re moving past supply counts for now, Peclir. We’ve figured out what was draining our ration of mana potions and no one’s complained. And I’m sick of doing numbers. I’ll make the new students do it as an exercise in logistics. Onto incomes. Another wonder. Where’s the abacus? Not yours. I meant, mine.

The Fraerling was managing his company. Or rather, to put it another way, overseeing the affairs of the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros and arguably one of the powers of the world. And he was doing it while kicking over empty ink pots, kicking over full ink pots and swearing, hunting for a cheese crumb as a snack, and generally mucking about.

In ink.

It wasn’t that Niers wasn’t taking this seriously. But the reports and questions on Niers’ desk were things he didn’t strictly need to take care of himself. He had a system in place and if he’d let it work, nothing would have reached his attention. That was the point of a good chain of command. Niers had trained his subordinates to take care of all the things he was pouring over.

But someone had to be at the top, and since Foliana was there, it fell to Niers. He didn’t obsess over every detail all the time, but he made it a point to do a deep inspection of all his company’s affairs at least once a week. And that was on top of giving orders to the officers, various company commanders and so on for large-scale movements, vacations, and so on.

“Enough, Peclir. We’re good on income reports.”

At last, Niers sighed and sat back. The various holdings of the Forgotten Wing company, from direct control to payments from protected cities, to their income in trade and goods bought and sold and any number of sources were finally looked over. Peclir knuckled his back and straightened.

“Anything else, sir?”

“Give me…five minutes. Or I’ll drown myself in that ink pot.”

“I’ll procure a fresh one in that eventuality.”

Peclir gave Niers a moment. The Fraerling grinned, and then sighed. A thousand things his company was doing, and a thousand little mistakes that could lead to big ones if no one was watching.

Accumulating too many gemstones and selling them in bulk would crash a market. Bunching up too many sheep in one place meant they could all catch a disease. Taking away a city’s main source of income meant it grew poorer and unrest started. Not to mention directing forces, conducting diplomacy with the thousands of companies in Baleros, fighting monsters, worrying about that damned Yellow Rivers disease in the brothels…

There was always something to do if you looked for it. That was the curse of command. The more you could do, the less time you had to do it. How could you ever quit? The answer was that you couldn’t. Not if you yourself were irreplaceable.

“This is the problem with becoming one of the Four Great companies in one lifetime. Not enough experience and not enough high-level subordinates to fall back on. Right, Foliana? Foliana?”

Niers looked up. No one replied, so the Squirrel Beastkin wasn’t in the room. He shrugged and went on talking.

“If one of us dies, it falls apart. Which would please the others no end. But if we keep doing well, we die anyways of old age. Or we slow down and die. The point is, we need fresh blood. Our next generation has to be as good as we are, or better, or we should scrap the company now rather than watch it fall apart and come back to bite us. And we’ve got a few good candidates, but not enough. So what do we do? Find loyal personnel abroad or hope we gain more good recruits? Because if we need it—”

“I thought the company was doing quite well as it was, sir.”

Peclir appeared in the doorway, fresh inkpot in hand. Niers sat up. Peclir set the pot down next to him. The tiny [Strategist] grinned up at the Human.

“You’d think so, Peclir. But that only accounts for when I am here. When I’m here, the company functions well. But if I go for a while…”

“Ah. You require a fallback for your vacation.”

Peclir raised an eyebrow. He had to be aware of Niers’ plans. You couldn’t hide much from a [Chamberlain]. You had to trust them. Even so, Niers hesitated.

“Yes. I’m hoping to get some system in place. More so than we already have in case of emergencies, that is. But I won’t leave until I’m sure I can trust this company to more than that tree rat.”

“Our glorious leader?”

“Who? Foliana, yes. She needs subordinates she can order about in my absence besides you. Where is she, by the way?”

Normally Foliana would be here, listening to Niers. Although she was as helpful as a wet sponge. The head of the Forgotten Wing company was, in fact, not good at any facet of managing it. But she did stick about, if only to needle Niers. The Fraerling looked inquiringly at Peclir. The man pointed above.

“I believe she’s currently eating oysters in her room, sir.”

“And throwing up, no doubt. She hates oysters.”

Niers groaned. He was going to have to endure Foliana eating every variety of oyster under the sun for the next few days or even weeks.

“Who’s the target this time?”

“She did not say, sir. And I did not ask.”

“Fair enough.”

Not even Peclir would be that keen to ask Foliana who she was targeting. But he had to be guessing. The oysters were a big clue. As was Foliana’s diet in general, that was.

Muffins, spaghetti. Oysters today. As soon as Foliana completed her job, it would be something else. Fruits, maybe. Dates. Or some other dish, foul or fair.

It wasn’t a secret. When Three-Color Stalker ate your food of choice, she was aiming for you. Some said it was a way to get inside your head. Freak you out that she was coming. Others claimed it was so that the target would be lulled by a familiar smell. A few idiot [Mages] in Wistram thought it was so Foliana could study her victims, through some kind of food-psychology.

“Why does Lady Foliana eat the food of her victims, Lord Astoragon?”

Today was the day Peclir finally asked the question. Niers sat up and grinned. It had to have eaten away at the man, but he’d been working here for years without so much as asking it. Now that was self-control. And he was only too happy to answer. Again, it wasn’t a secret if you were in the know.

“Not to camouflage herself or anything stupid like that, Peclir. The reason is simple: she’s showing off. Warning her target.”

“Ah. To disturb them?”

“Hardly.”

Peclir’s eyebrows shot up. Niers chuckled to himself. That was what people didn’t get.

“It’s just to warn them. Nothing else. No advantage in it—and a lot of disadvantage if it’s something Foliana hates. But she does it because it’s her thing. Everyone needs a calling card. What’s the point of doing something if it isn’t with style?”

“That’s the entire reason?”

“Yup.”

The [Chamberlain] closed his eyes for a moment.

“Another grand mystery, solved. Well, thank you, sir. I believe I’ll lie down and weep for the grandiose mysteries and designs of the powerful after we’re done here.”

“You do that.”

Niers laughed. Peclir didn’t get it. But when you were that high-level, your reputation meant as much as actual efficiency. When Foliana ate oysters, anyone within a thousand miles who loved the dish started watching the shadows. It meant that someone who loved oysters was her next target. How much better was that reaction than being the silent, unpredictable killer?

“I’m feeling better now, Peclir.”

“I am pleased my disappointment fuels you, Lord Astoragon.”

Niers threw a tiny bit of chalk at Peclir. It bounced off a button on his lapel and was promptly lost forever. The [Strategist] looked at his papers and sighed.

“Enough reports. Let’s do the daily tasks. Meetings, I think. Have I got any?”

He usually did. Niers’ day was filled from start to finish with things he could be doing, but didn’t. For whatever reason he’d put them off, delay, forget entirely—and spring on things that really mattered. He liked unpredictability, at least from his side. After all, the Titan of Baleros had enemies and he didn’t like being caught out.

But today at least, this year, had been peaceful. Only a few battles, all low-scale. Not every year in Baleros was huge bloody wars, at least for a Great Company. In fact, the Four Great Companies had found that peace was more profitable for them, at least in the long run. They could earn money off of their holdings and trade, and as a result, it was their allied companies, smaller divisions and so on that usually saw fighting.

Baleros was bloody, but if two or more Great Companies fought, the jungles would turn red with blood. And that wasn’t what anyone wanted. For the moment, at least.

So Niers’ day-to-day life looked like this: check the health of his company. Make big decisions like rising to provocation, seizing resources, etc. Meet with those too important to ignore. Annoy Foliana. Eat. Sleep. Be annoyed by Foliana.

Teach his students. If every Great Company had their specialty, from the Iron Vanguard’s emphasis on outfitting their soldiers and constructing military bastions, the Forgotten Wing company’s trait was its base of officers. It trained students from around the world into military geniuses.

Not just [Strategists], but [Lieutenants] who got hands-on experience, [Commanders] who would see action in the jungles, even [Generals]. But it was known for [Strategists]. And those who were able to join Niers’ coveted classes, much less the rare group of elite students, were sure to become forces that would influence the world in the decades to come.

That was what Niers spent most of his time on in days of peace. In war too; there was nothing more instructive than letting a [Strategist] command a battalion of [Soldiers] if they were ready for the job. And if they weren’t? Well, that was why the Titan’s nickname was also the Professor among his students. He liked to think he could bring out their best quality, and his lessons were often…inventive as a result.

“How are the students doing, by the way, Peclir?”

The [Chamberlain] sighed at the innocent tone in Niers’ voice.

“Your core students?”

“Those? No, I gave them the weekend off. They’re preparing, no doubt. Getting up to no good. Give me a report on all their movements later. I want to see how they’re planning for this—if they even know what’s coming at all. Wil has some idea, but I think the others haven’t read the signs. I know Venaz hasn’t. He thinks this will be a little event.”

“I shall light a candle for his survival later. And the report. But your new students are currently in their beds. Most of them. The children of nobility sent from Terandria were particularly distressed. After being made to survive for three nights in the jungle with no supplies. I believe their parents have sent several angry [Messages], sir.”

“I’ll read them in my bath with a glass of wine.”

Niers chuckled to himself, in a good mood. He glanced at Peclir.

“Anything else? Wait, I asked about meetings.”

“Ah. Right. I was waiting upon a list…here we are.”

A door above Peclir’s head opened. A little Fraerling popped out using the Fraerling walkways built into the citadel.

“Sorry, Master Im! Apologies, Lord Astoragon. There was a rat in the tunnels.”

“Another one? I thought I got rid of all the nests!”

Niers sat up, alarmed. Rats were a danger to Fraerlings. But the [Messenger] only grimaced.

“You did, sir. This one was quite dead. It wasn’t cleared, though. I had a [Servant] remove it.”

“Ah. Oops.”

Niers sat back and shrugged as Peclir gave him a long stare. The [Chamberlain] accepted the small bit of paper the Fraerling carried and adjusted his spectacles to read the tiny handwriting.

“Hm. Ah, yes, there are a number of people wishing to see you, Lord Astoragon. As always.”

“What’s new? Anyone of note?”

Niers sighed. People always wanted something of you if you had something to give. And the Titan of Baleros? He had money to spend, which meant there were [Merchants] offering artifacts, [Mages] trying to get him to fund their research, adventuring teams hoping for some fame or a tipoff from him, [Cooks] trying to get him to eat their cooking—one time a [Chef] had even baked a life-size replica of Niers. Now hadn’t that been fun to use as a prank on his students?

But generally all they wanted didn’t really help Niers, so he’d made it known that you could come and petition the Titan for an audience—but you weren’t likely to get it. And still, they came. There was actually a quite profitable business in the city for people waiting to see him for months or even years. Mostly in vain.

“Hm. Well, here is the list, sir. I don’t see anyone too notable, but then again, I would underscore the Naga near the bottom.”

Peclir handed the sheet to Niers. The Titan grunted and ran his eye down the list. The same old suspects. But he paused at the Naga.

“Xalandrass. War merchant. I don’t know the name. Small fry?”

“Fairly. His fortunes turned south when he was caught up in that incident by the ah…Razorshard Armor company?”

“Ah, I remember. Those two idiots broke the rules of engagement. Well, it seems Xalandrass survived. Why’s he here and why do I care?”

“I couldn’t answer the first part, but I understand that he tried to bribe his way to the front of the queue.”

“How much?”

“Two hundred gold pieces. As much as he could afford, sir.”

Niers’ eyebrows rose. Bribes weren’t uncommon, and they were wasted effort since Niers just gave it back to the briber, but two hundred gold pieces wasn’t small. And if Xalandrass was in trouble, it made it more interesting still.

“So he thinks he has something I want, does he? Very well. Send him in. I’ll meet him in the sitting room with the velvet curtains. You know.”

“I will send him there at once, sir. Refreshments?”

“He may have whatever he wishes.”

Niers hopped off the desk and strode onto Peclir’s waiting hand. The man spared Niers the effort of climbing all the way to the Fraerling walkways and departed via the door. Niers took the considerably quicker tunnels running through the citadel. Along the way he spotted where the dead rat had been.

“Ah. Oops. I remember that one. Caught it running away. Must’ve slipped my mind. Oh well.”

Niers strode up the sloping walkway, navigating by memory to the waiting room. Along the way he met a few other Fraerlings. They were employed by his company—a rare thing. Even in Niers’ company were Fraerling a rare sight. They wanted to stand aside, but the Titan waved them onwards.

“Keep moving, for dead god’s sake! It’s not as if this tunnel isn’t big enough for all of us. Let the tall folk bump into each other.”

That made them laugh. Niers saw a new hire, the [Messenger] who’d done the delivery, point at his back. They did that, the first few months they were here. After all, there were legends of Drakes, kings and heroes of Lizardfolk, giants among the Dullahans and so forth. Even the Goblins had kings, wretched though they were. But the Fraerlings only had one hero.

Sometimes it weighed on Niers. Sometimes he wanted to go away. To Liscor, in this case. But he couldn’t. Not just yet. So Niers sighed, kept his back straight, and prepared his entrance.

 

—-

 

Xalandrass the Naga had seen better days. Worse days too, like fearing for his life while two companies battled feet from his wagon’s door. But better days, still. He’d spent a lot of his coin, or rather, lost it escaping from the battlefield. And the days since then hadn’t exactly refilled his coffers.

Still, the Naga was if nothing else, vain. He’d brought out his best silk vest, and his hair was combed. He wore jewelry on his arms, decorative bangles, but nothing too ostentatious. His serpentine head was gently powdered, and he had oiled his scales. His long, serpentine lower half shone as he slowly entered the waiting room the [Servant] had pointed him towards.

He was afraid. Despite being a Naga, one of the forms a Lizardfolk could turn into if they were truly exceptional, Xalandrass was acutely aware of whom he was meeting. He had treated with company commanders with a mixture of arrogance and deference, but this was someone else.

“Ah. Hello?”

Xalandrass looked around as he entered. He slithered into the room slowly, watching the ground. A Naga was a humanoid upper half and a serpentine lower body. Their tails were powerful and they were similar to Centaurs in that they resembled a cross of species. Xalandrass paused, afraid of running over something.

He knew the Titan’s true stature. In that he wasn’t a fool. He was, slightly, in assuming that Niers would be anywhere near the ground. Xalandrass glanced over his shoulder at Peclir Im, whom he was taller than by quite a bit.

“Lord Astoragon…”

“He may be along shortly. I cannot say when he will arrive. Your patience, please. If you have any wishes for refreshment, simply ring the bell..”

“Oh, no. I am quite fine. Quite—quite fine.”

Xalandrass coughed and reassured the [Chamberlain]. Of course the Titan wasn’t here yet. He was incredibly busy. Xalandrass was just lucky to have gotten a meeting this soon. He settled back on the open carpet, breathing a sigh of relief as Peclir Im clapped his hands and a gentle [Light] spell filled the room.

Xalandrass looked around, noting that this was a room built to accommodate Naga or Centaurs. Open, without more than a single table. And on it…was a little armchair? Oh! Just the size for a Fraerling. And a fat candle, in case the [Light] spell ran out. Of course.

Xalandrass chuckled. And in that moment, as he relaxed, preparing to wait as long as it took, he was at his most unguarded. So that was obviously the exact time when Niers made his entrance. He stepped from behind the fat candle he’d specifically had placed in every room for such moments and turned.

“You—wished to see me?”

The Naga’s eyes locked on Niers. He recoiled with a shout of horror that filled the room. Niers smiled as Xalandrass reared back instinctively, and then fell over himself with apologies. He flourished, giving the Naga a small bow.

“Niers Astoragon, at your service. I am pleased to meet you, Xalandrass the Naga. Peclir, thank you for bringing him here. I will see him now.”

Peclir rolled his eyes as he shut the door. Niers winked at him and then turned his attention to Xalandrass. The Naga was trying to collect himself—and failing.

“My apologies for the little surprise. How may I help you? I was told you had a matter of importance, and of course I’m eager to hear any information…of merit.”

Niers stepped around the candle in front of his armchair. This too was a tactic. Xalandrass was trying to calm down and now Niers had cut to the heart of a subject. The Fraerling watched him carefully.

A smart negotiator might calm down and take a few breaths. Someone with ice for blood might even address Niers’ rude introduction. But Xalandrass, [Merchant] though he may be, wasn’t that good. He rushed over himself, tripping over his words in his haste to address Niers. As if he was afraid he’d be tossed out for not instantly answering the question. Well, in another company. But not here.

“Lord Astoragon. I’m so delighted—forgive me, I hardly noticed—er, I did come here with vital information! To the best of my ability. I was…you are no doubt aware I was involved in that unpleasantness between the Roving Arrow company and the Razorshard Armor company? Well, aside from the tragedy that unfolded, I made a number of significant encounters at that time.”

“Indeed?”

Niers put a lot of emotion into that one word. Impatience, a hint of intrigue…Xalandrass nodded as fast as he could.

“Indeed—yes! A number of personages took to the field. I don’t refer to the companies. But rather—that was the battlefield on which a unique individual appeared. I don’t know that you’ve heard, but the Last Light of Baleros—a [Doctor] who cures the wounded—took part in that battlefield. And I observed her work. Truly splendid. And I came here to…to tell you…”

He was mopping at his brow with a handkerchief. Niers stared at him. Suddenly disappointed, he sat down in his tiny armchair. If all Xalandrass wanted to tell him were more rumors about this Last Light, then Niers would pass. Baleros was full of legends, heroes who rose and fell in the course of a moon’s cycle.

“I’ve heard of this Last Light. But an individual, even a [Doctor] isn’t a unique occurrence on the battlefield, Merchant Xalandrass. I trust she isn’t the topic of your visit?”

The Naga gulped.

“Not entirely, Lord Astoragon. But she is related! I did, in fact meet her. And several others whom I can only describe as—they were all part of—but perhaps I should show you this. It speaks far better than I can.”

He was fumbling at something at his side. A bag of holding. Niers eyed the odd object that Xalandrass pulled out. The Naga tried to flourish it, and then panicked as he realized the only place to set it was on the table where Niers was sitting. He offered it up with two hands, slithering closer to let Niers see.

“What is that?”

Niers frowned. Of all the things he’d expected Xalandrass to pull out, this wasn’t it. He stared down at some kind of…it was a compact tube, that was for certain. And there was…glass on one end? Glass and something inside of it. But the rest was made of a colorful steel—no, it wasn’t a steel. But it wasn’t a wood either. Or any other substance Niers could name.

“This, Lord Astoragon, is a device I obtained on that battlefield. Not from the companies, but from some strange individuals. Humans. I believe it is known as a…flashlight. If you will allow me to activate it?”

The name was instantly familiar to Niers. You didn’t need to be a genius to know what it did. But he was intrigued. So he clapped his hands and the lights in the room went out. In the darkness, lit only by a pair of windows covered by velvet drapes, he saw Xalandrass fumble with the device.

Belatedly, Niers wondered if this was an assassination attempt. Well, he had on his gear and Xalandrass would have been screened. So if it was, it was original. But Niers didn’t sense a spell come at him. Instead, he heard a click

And a beam of light shot from the end of the flashlight. It was bright. Almost painfully so. And as Xalandrass swept it up and down the room, Niers saw the glow came from the thing inside the flashlight. It was being magnified outwards. Strange. Xalandrass swept it across the room, flashing it at Niers once and then apologizing hurriedly. Then the Fraerling clapped his hands and the lights returned.

The Naga swept backwards. He gestured to the flashlight proudly.

“You see?”

“I saw a light. A cute artifact, but hardly better than a mage’s lantern. And too bright to do more than give away your position. Unless you can control the spell?”

Niers replied drily. Xalandrass wavered, and then he slapped his forehead.

“Oh! Of course! I neglected to mention—Lord Astoragon! This isn’t a mage’s artifact. This device isn’t magical. Not at all!”

He raised the flashlight. And now Niers’ eyes locked on it. He frowned.

“Explain. And bring it closer. You may place it here, please.”

He gestured to the table. Xalandrass did so, talking hurriedly.

“No magic at all. Feel free to examine it, Lord Astoragon. It’s got components inside—you can see the metal and glass past the…”

“Odd surface. Too smooth, but it’s definitely not metal. What’s it made of?”

Niers interrupted Xalandrass, running a hand along the strange body of the flashlight. He glanced up sharply and saw the Naga hesitate.

“I’m told it’s called ‘plastic’, Lord Astoragon.”

“But you don’t know. And it’s completely non-magical. Not even a rune or mana stone inside?”

“I had a [Mage] friend of mine test it. She swears there’s no magic at all.”

Now that was strange. Niers studied the device. There was no fire to it, even when he pressed the button and it lit up. Something was glowing, but—Niers went blind for a second as he stared at the glowing filament of…whatever that was inside it. That wasn’t magic. No, that was some kind of metal. Wasn’t it?

He glanced up and saw Xalandrass was watching him hopefully. Niers stepped back, hit the button on the flashlight, and decided to sit. He blinked spots out of his eyes.

“Well, Xalandrass, congratulations are in order. You’ve got my full attention.”

The Naga puffed up a little. Niers held up a hand.

“Don’t waste it. Without exaggeration, tell me. What is this device? How did you get it?”

“Ah, well, I would love to embellish the tale, but the answer is simple. I acquired it in the line of my business. A few mercenaries from a suppression company hired for the battlefield came over and tried to barter for some alcohol. They offered this in trade and I took it.”

“For alcohol?”

Niers’ eyebrows shot way up. Even a weak artifact was worth far more than that. Xalandrass smiled.

“They were desperate. And I offered them quite a bit to drink for these trinkets. And others.”

I’ll bet you did. Niers had a low opinion of war merchants, who sold to companies when they were at their most desperate. They preyed on the short-of-luck. But he didn’t say any of that out loud.

“So, you made a good business deal from some soldiers desperate for fun. Who didn’t realize what they were carrying?”

Xalandrass pondered that.

“Let’s say that their good sense was in shorter supply, Lord Astoragon. There were others whom I made better offers to who did not relinquish their…objects. All part of the same company I might add. All Human. All new to warfare.”

“Ah.”

Niers was getting an image. A group of desperate travellers, who’d bartered this away. Poor enough to work in a suppression company. But rich enough for…? And they didn’t know the worth of this.

“Tell me more. Or rather, show me.”

“The flashlight is a good start. But I obtained a handful of these during the battle. Taken from the…deceased. I traded for it with some Dullahan soldiers. To them it was only a flash of light and sounds, but I discovered they could be [Repaired]. Sir, please look.”

If the flashlight had been calculated to grab Niers’ attention, the second thing that Xalandrass showed Niers was intended to seal the deal. Because Niers had no idea what it was. It was a rectangle. Some object made of the same foreign substance as the flashlight, but the front as was smooth as glass. And it had a…button on it. And when Xalandrass pressed it hard and it came to life…

“What is that symbol? An apple?”

“Keep watching, Lord Astoragon. But—steel your eyes. There are a number of bright shapes.”

“Sound?”

“And look. If I touch this…”

The screen came to life. Xalandrass’ fingers delicately tapped one of the square beacons of light and it expanded. Niers stared as something appeared. He saw words. Nonsensical. Xalandrass tapped one of the words and it lit up. Everything on the thing in front of him changed. And then a face appeared. Niers jerked back, but the face was still, like a [Mage]’s illustration. And then there was music.

At least, Niers thought it was music. It sounded nothing like anything he’d heard. He stared at the screen, at the moving thing at the top, at Xalandrass’ face, and then held up a hand. The Naga instantly hit a strange pair of vertical bars near the bottom and the music stopped.

“Take it back, please.”

Niers settled back in his chair as Xalandrass retreated, looking pleased. The Titan realized he was showing his curiosity and bewilderment and cursed internally. He looked at Xalandrass and decided to play the Naga’s game.

“Alright. I am mystified. Xalandrass, tell me what it is.”

“They called it an ‘iPhone’, Lord Astoragon.”

The Naga pronounced the word clumsily. Niers stared at the device. And then at the flashlight. His mind offered him several explanations. But he went with his gut.

“No magic.”

“None whatsoever.”

“And you got that off of the dead, did you?”

“They would not part with it until…several of their members were caught trying to desert.”

“Ah. By which company?”

“Dullahans.”

That meant beheading. Niers winced.

“And those soldiers gave these things to you for a song and a dance? One would assume they’d have realized the importance, given them to their commanders.”

“As I said, these devices were damaged when I obtained them. One made light, the other…nothing. But I had my [Mage] friend [Repair] them and…”

Xalandrass gestured. Niers thought for a second. The Naga was clearly excited. He knew something of the worth of what he held. The problem was, Niers wasn’t sure he did.

“You see, Lord Astoragon, this iPhone has many functions. One of them was playing that music. But the others—”

“Stop.”

Niers cut him off. The Naga paused, and Niers looked at him. He wanted to talk about the device, but Niers had only one question for him.

“The Humans you bought this from. The ones new to war. Where were they from? What continent?”

“Ah, well, they said—”

“Again. Stop. Don’t tell me what they said. You’ve reached a conclusion, Xalandrass. Tell me it. And then tell me why. I’m not here for a story. Where are they from? Answer me. Now.”

Niers didn’t sit up in his chair. He didn’t raise his voice. But he concentrated and some of Xalandrass’ confidence faded.

“Tell me everything you saw, Xalandrass. Tell me in order, in a way that exaggerates nothing. You came here because you saw an opportunity. This is your chance. Use it wisely.”

The Naga wavered. He looked at Niers, and then hit a button. The iPhone went dark. The Naga drew himself up, and then relaxed, his tail coiled inwards upon itself. Perhaps there was some wisdom in him, because when he spoke it was as Niers had asked.

“I met them in one company. Gravetender’s Fist. The Last Light had been on the battlefield, tending to the wounded. She was an anomaly, but as you say, there are those who are strange. But the children in the company—they were odd. They wore unique clothing, and spoke with accents not familiar to me. They knew each other—or rather, they all came from the same place. But I heard numerous names from their lips. All foreign. This is what I saw. This is what they did.”

Niers listened as the Naga told his story of meeting the Gravetender’s Fist company. Of witnessing their arguments, splintering, overhearing odd snippets of conversation. And then—of seeing Ken and Daly rescuing a wounded soldier. Of Geneva, the Last Light, reattaching a Dullahan [Juggernaut]’s arm. Of a flag. Of all that had passed before and after and most importantly, the conversations Xalandrass had had with the children on the road as they fled that battlefield.

He never said outright what he thought. But he didn’t have to. The strange names. Earth. Americans. Australia. And the things their devices could do, their references to Geneva’s skill as something natural. And what Xalandrass had overheard the children saying to each other.

How did we get here? Magic exists? Really? You hear about Nagas in stories. Want to go home. What about the others?

A thousand clues that pointed one way. It was such an obvious conclusion that Niers would normally suspect a trick. But the device Xalandrass held said otherwise. He showed Niers more of what it could do. Niers stared at a screen full of characters even smaller than he was move about before vanishing and wondered if an [Illusionist] could do that well.

No magic. A [Doctor] with skills beyond any other [Doctor]. Names and places never heard, never spoken aloud before. And Xalandrass saved the best for last.

“They formed a company after that. The United Nations. A symbol of their home, Lord Astoragon. Something they hoped would draw others to them. Unite them. Something only they would know.”

And Niers remembered the report he’d read. His mind turned to fire. It raced from conclusion to conclusion, igniting. Not just with what Xalandrass was hinting. At last, part of a bigger picture unraveled in his head. He had a moment he’d felt a thousand times as a [Strategist], that of seeing the big picture. Of knowing.

Flashlight. Chess. The game of Go. A new game coming from an established Drake city. A girl waving a white flag. Wistram’s new concept of scrying orbs and viewer mages.

One conclusion. One that made sense. Niers found his breath coming quickly in his chest. The world turned itself upside down. Only, it wasn’t one world was it?

It was two.

At least two. At least two worlds. How else did you explain the flashlight? The iPhone? No other way. Maybe if Niers weren’t in his position—but he had all the resources and experience of a head of the Great Companies and he had never heard of a material like the one the two devices were made of. Xalandrass was a war merchant. He had seen any number of artifacts. But what was most telling was the way it fit with the other things he’d picked up on. Mysteries unsolved. It could solve everything. Chess, the dungeon Niers still thought about—

Her.

And Niers felt his heart racing. He felt his mind bursting with thoughts, and he was filled with too much energy to contain. But he didn’t move. He sat in his chair as Xalandrass finished and held still. He didn’t tap his leg, he didn’t raise his hand. He didn’t give any signs as to the turmoil in his soul. He just tapped the armrest of his chair.

Xalandrass watched the Titan greedily, expectantly. He was prepared for Niers to shout after a moment, or swear, or do anything in line with his colorful personality. But nothing happened. Not a twitch. Not so much as a smile or a movement of the eye. Niers’ finger kept tapping the cloth. The Naga watched, confidence wavering. He had to know the value of his information. But when he saw Niers’ face, his certainty fled.

“Er. Lord Astoragon. This is all happenstance. But the coincidences. I have a supposition—and I am sure one as intelligent as you has come to the same conclusion. If what I believe is correct, then—”

Niers slowly looked up. Xalandrass’ tongue tied itself in knots in his mouth.

“It is interesting, isn’t it? I’m not sure what to make of it. But I think you have something. What, I’m not sure about. But something.”

The Naga’s hearts beat hopefully. He waited as Niers pondered. Then, the Titan stood up.  He walked once around the table, lost in thought. Then he stared at the Naga.

“I don’t know how adept a [Merchant] you are, Naga Xalandrass. So I will be blunt and spare us both embarrassment. Not a word of this to anyone else in passing. Not this, not the company, and not your good fortune either. I’m buying silence and all these trinkets—even the ones you’ve ferreted away and didn’t intend to sell me at any cost.”

A huge breath of air left Xalandrass’ lungs. He opened his mouth and Niers cut him off again.  Brusquely. Calmly. Was he thinking the same thing Xalandrass was? That the children were from somewhere else? Did he not fully believe? He was so…calm. Unnervingly so.

“Twelve thousand gold coins for your information. Let’s call it two thousand per…flashlight? Ten thousand for these other things. Per item. You won’t walk away with more than…six thousand gold coins right now. But the rest will come in business deals. Stay at your inn for two nights, and then head north. You may run across some lucrative opportunities there.”

That was a lot of coin. Enough to make Xalandrass rich and prosperous again and then some. Rich, generous…but hardly worth the information if the Naga was right. True, it was objects and unverifiable claims—at least for now, but the Naga couldn’t conceal his disappointment. Then he had a thought.

“Ah, but what about the price of silence, Lord Astoragon?”

The Fraerling gave him a ghost of a smile. It was the right question. He looked at the Naga speculatively, then raised his voice.

“Peclir!”

The door opened. Xalandrass spun, but it was just a Dullahan [Servant]. Niers pointed.

“Find Peclir. Tell him to bring me the purple cloth covered item.”

“At once.”

The door closed. Xalandrass waited, his scales sweaty, until the door opened. Niers was content to wait. When Peclir returned with an object in his hands on a small pillow, Niers nodded to it.

“Show Xalandrass. You want to know what I buy for your silence? This.”

Peclir looked at Xalandrass. He approached slowly and twitched the cloth back. Both of the Naga’s hearts stopped beating at once. He stared at the object, reached out a hand, and snatched it. Back. Wordlessly he looked at Niers. The Fraerling nodded.

“For yours and your [Mage] friend. It will make its way to you in time. In a bundle of wool, I think. Check each shipment that crosses your path. You have no objections?”

“None I—so generous! Of course I will keep the utmost silence and never, ever—”

Xalandrass tripped over his tongue. Then he had a horrible thought.

“Er, Lord Astoragon. It crosses my mind that perhaps, it could be that my information, my guesswork, might be in error. The possibility is small, but if that should be the case…”

He looked at Niers nervously. The Fraerling smiled again.

“If you’re wrong, we’ll renegotiate. But you’ve told me everything and you’re sure you’re correct, aren’t you?”

The Naga placed his hand over his secondary heart in his chest.

“I would swear on any truth spells you know. If—”

If he wasn’t using them already. Niers had a truth detection spell, but he rarely bothered to use it. Watching people was more important. Besides, you could fool [Detect Lie] spells. Not many people knew that. The Titan shook his head.

“Oh, I trust you Xalandrass.”

The Naga sighed with relief. Peclir took the cloth-covered object out of the room and Niers watched the Naga’s eyes follow it. A fortune indeed. But Niers had many fortunes, and [King]’s ransoms, and so on. And buying this secret was worth the price. There was a reason why people still came to him. Because if they had something he truly wanted, Niers would make them rich. He had let that be known too.

And this information. Oh! If it were true…Niers was still thinking. It was beyond just one company now. Xalandrass only saw the United Nations company. But Niers was looking at the world. What if this weren’t one incident? Surely not.

If this is so, then the world changes. If this is so—the flashlight. No magic? What’s inside? I need a [Blacksmith], a [Mage]—you can [Repair] it?

The King of Destruction’s reawakening. The death of Zel Shivertail? Tyrion Veltras’ actions—no, the [Emperor]? Trebuchets? Of course.

But deal with the Naga first. Niers cleared his throat to get Xalandrass’ attention.

“All your artifacts will go with Peclir. And your silence means another Great Company hears nothing of this. If you are aware of any rumors like this—”

“—Not spread by me! Of course not!”

“Oh, no. Not you. If you hear of any rumors, you will bring them to me. And remember, Xalandrass?”

Niers raised his voice. The Naga was over the moon with his success and the reward. He glanced back at Niers. The Titan smiled. And it was a grandfatherly smile.

“The reward matches the information given. Of the service rendered. As do the consequences of betraying that trust.”

That was all he said. That was all you needed to say. But for a second Xalandrass looked at Niers and remembered who he was talking to. A foot-high Fraerling. A tiny person. Someone Xalandrass could squash with a single palm.

And the Titan of Baleros. And Xalandrass remembered all the legends and wondered if they were true.

That was enough. Niers left him with a mixture of jubilation and fear. The right mix, or so you hoped. It was a balance. But he gave instructions to Peclir Im about Xalandrass, very precise instructions, and then went to his study. Niers walked over to an inkwell, made sure the door was closed, and went crazy for half an hour.

Peclir Im entered the room after the shouting had died down. Or rather, when Niers had begun shouting for him and ringing the bell. Niers was standing in a mess of torn up paper and ink and other possessions. Peclir blinked; he had no idea what Xalandrass had said, but he’d rarely seen Niers this upset. Or was it jubilant? The Titan was something, and he was pacing back and forth, reading from a document and muttering under his breath.

“Oh, Venaz. You clever, stubborn idiot. This is just what I need. This, and nothing else. You’ll play your role. And I’ll be sure you do. Thank you for Minotaurs. Thank you for—Peclir?”

His head snapped towards the [Chamberlain]. Peclir hesitated. There was a wild look in Niers’ eyes. The same kind of look Peclir had seen a few times before. If the Titan of Baleros was a giant, it was a sleeping giant. A friendly, sleeping one most of the time. But someone had just woken him up.

“May I help you, Lord Astoragon? I have a message for you. An important one from the Iron Vanguard company. I thought that even under the circumstances—”

“Give it here.”

Niers snatched the paper from Peclir. It was written small, for a Fraerling. Even in his madness, he was still able to note small details. Peclir had already read the note.

“The Seer of Steel accedes to the Titan’s request. Tulm the Mithril will be present in three weeks’ time. Well, that makes it perfect.”

The [Strategist] had a crazy grin on his face. His mind raced. Yes, Venaz would probably do what Niers was thinking. Which gave him the perfect opening. Manipulate the minotaur. He could see Peclir watching him for some clue. But he couldn’t know. Hell, Foliana would have to be told in their secret room, spelled against every single eavesdropping measure in the world. If he was right—

Where was that damn Magnolia Reinhart’s letter? And—damn, he’d need to check every report on suspicious activities. He’d written it all down somewhere. But first—

Niers looked around. His desk—or rather, the table where he slept and worked was just a normal table. Cluttered—less so after his rampage. But there was something by his tent.

A picture. A [Mage]’s illustration, copied in perfect detail. It had been taken from a battlefield. From another person’s eyes, at range. Still, Niers had requested his [Diviner] to enhance the image. It was still faint. Blurry.

But on that hill, a girl stood. In the mud, her clothes plain. She held a flag of white. And her back was turned. Niers stared at it. He spoke softly. Start with her. At last…

He had to know.

“I need to hire someone. Peclir?”

“Yes, Lord Astoragon? You wish me to make a call?”

“Not to anyone in Baleros. Send a [Message] spell. Encrypted. Look up the cipher. But I need to make a call. To…the best.”

Peclir waited. Then he coughed.

“The best whom, sir?”

“I worked with some experts in First Landing before. The best of the best.”

The [Chamberlain] waited. Niers stared at the picture. Then he looked up. The die was cast.

“First Landing. Tell the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings that I have a proposition for them. And send them some of our finest wine via our contact there. I’ll be awaiting their communication with greatest pleasure. Or something like that. And Peclir? They have access to my personal [Diviner]. Day or night. I want to speak with them immediately.”

“I shall send the [Message] spell at once.”

Peclir bowed and left the room. Niers stood alone, staring at the picture. Then he took a deep breath. He looked around, at the destroyed desk, at the papers, at the report of Venaz’ not-so-covert actions…if you knew what to look for, and then at another report.

“The United Nations.”

Niers stared at the name. And then at the flashlight Peclir had left on his desk. He walked over to it. Touched the material that did not come from this world. And then he smiled.

“After years of searching, of wondering. At last. The world changes. Let there be light.

He hit the button. And there was.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.06 D

They called her the Last Light. The Last Light of Baleros. To most, she was a [Soldier]’s story. And not even a grand one at that. Her legend was small. But somehow, it spread.

She was no warrior. She hadn’t built up decades of triumphs like the larger-than-life figures who dominated Baleros. The Titan. The Seer of Steel. Or even the younger heroes, like Aria Fellstrider, “Battle Hymnist” of Maelstrom’s Howling.

And yet, the Last Light’s tale lived on. It spread from word of mouth, from soldier to soldier, until you could hear a story about her a hundred miles from where she had ever walked. And that was because there was something in the Last Light that called to the [Mercenaries], to [Soldiers].

To anyone who fought on the battlefield, really. The Last Light was someone who would mend you. Save you when no potion could. Her true name, her identity was actually unimportant. She just symbolized a dying soldier’s hope. So they knew her. The Last Light. The [Doctor] of Baleros. And when they lay dying in the mud and gore, impaled by spears, bleeding, mage-burnt or torn from a monster’s claws, they called for her. The wounded, the despairing. Reaching out for a glimmer of hope.

But she was not there. And they died or lived by miracles she had nothing to do with. The Last Light was a legend. The real thing was only Human. And so powerless.

So frail.

And she was coming home.

 

—-

 

Geneva Scala rode down a trade road of Baleros. The pony she rode wasn’t too happy about carrying her. And she wasn’t too happy with it, really. But since both were well-disciplined, they plodded down the stone road in disagreeable silence. Geneva occasionally swatted at a fly that landed on her. Her right hand gripped the reins while her left flicked the flies off before they could bite and lay eggs. It was spring, and the air was humid. The pony flicked its tail constantly as its shod hoofs gently struck the stone.

A trade road. Unlike the muddy, sometimes flooded or overrun dirt trails, the trade roads were almost always clear. They connected the major cities of Baleros. They had been painstakingly laid over hundreds of years and were maintained—for it was from them that the lifeblood of Baleros, trade and war, flowed.

The pony Geneva was riding decided to relieve itself as it walked. She felt the gurgling and smelled and heard the distinct plops on the road behind her. She half-twisted, wrinkled her nose, but didn’t bother chastising the pony. There was really no point. Besides, the trade road had all kinds of detritus left on it. It would be clean once one of Baleros’ many storms or showers passed by.

The person riding behind Geneva minded a bit, though. She heard an exclamation, a female voice.

“Oh! きもい! Don’t walk in—ew, ew!

Geneva sighed. The voice belonged to a Japanese girl, who was horrified as her pony trod right through the smelly leavings. She heard Aiko crying out in disgust in English and Japanese, and then laughter. It came from ahead of Geneva and behind. After all, she wasn’t alone.

The trade road had tons of travellers on it. Caravans bearing goods to and from the ports, adventurers, and of course, companies marching to battle. The party that followed the traffic on the right side of the road was small. Six people, all riding ponies.

Ken! Miss Essil! My pony—”

“Aiko, it’s fine. Ponies walk through all kinds of bad things. Don’t worry. 大丈夫.”

“But Ken—

Geneva heard Aiko break off and speak rapidly in Japanese. She heard another voice reply. She looked to her side. Ken was arguing with Aiko, probably about the hygiene of pony hooves. Like Aiko, he was Japanese. A young man with a wide-brimmed farmer’s hat, to protect him from the sun. He was dressed in light Balerosian clothing. Aiko, who had elected to wear one of her hats from Earth, had on a bright travel dress. Both wore longer clothing, to protect their fairer skin from the sun.

However, the extremely pale-skinned duo of riders riding behind them wore no protection from the sun at all. The two Selphid [Guards] riding behind their group laughed.

“Ponies don’t mind what they step on, Miss Aiko. It’s snakes that bother them. Snakes, flies—if you want to help, keep waving the pests away and your pony will thank you.”

Aiko did. She had a long fly whisk in her hand and was diligently keeping the stinging flies from her pony, whom she’d even named. Geneva stared down at her pony. It rolled its eye back as if to dare her to try and play nice. She kept riding, her body automatically balancing to prevent her from being jolted. Well, not exactly automatically.

Geneva was a poor rider. She didn’t ‘do’ horses. Or other four-legged animals bigger than she was, really. She liked dogs. Cats. Fish. Horses were a bit too…Centaurs were fine. But she didn’t feel that riding animals was for her or them. And they agreed.

Normally she’d be saddle-sore from poor posture, but as luck would have it, she was riding like a professional. And it wasn’t really something she was doing. Or rather, she was doing it, but…

“Miss Essil! Miss Essil, my pony doesn’t want an apple! Is that bad?”

The sixth member of their group looked over her shoulder somewhat reluctantly at Aiko. Essil, a Lizardwoman who was more at home in the saddle than on the ground, was a rare breed of her species. In that she didn’t actually enjoy talking all the time. Aiko, by comparison, would have fit in well with the Lizardfolk. The Japanese girl smiled as the two Selphid [Guards] hired to protect Aiko, Geneva, Ken, and to some extent, Essil herself, laughed again. Essil eyed Aiko’s pony and shook her head curtly.

“It’s not hungry because you fed it two apples already. You’re spoiling it. Don’t give it any more or it’ll overeat when feeding. I’ll have to lower how much I give that one—”

She grumbled and turned forwards. Essil scowled at the road ahead, her tail waving in time with her pony, who was calmly plodding ahead of the small group.

“Just—stop fussing over it! We’re nearly at Talenqual—once we’re there I’ll take my ponies and you lot can leave me alone.”

“We love you too, Essie.”

A Selphid wearing a Dullahan’s body called out cheerfully. His name was Maquit, at least when he wore a male body. When she was in a female body, she preferred to be called Maqua. Geneva turned sideways to eye the Selphid as Essie glared back at him.

Selphids. The body snatchers of Baleros. A pejorative nickname, really, since Selphids neither stole the bodies of the living and only rarely stole dead bodies outright. They paid to use the bodies of the deceased, hopping from body to body as they eventually decayed, much like hermit crabs and shells. Not that Okasha had liked the comparison when Geneva had made it.

Nevertheless, Selphids were fascinating. To Geneva, they reminded her of a fictional book she’d read when she was a kid. Animorphs. To her, Selphids were a bit like Yeerks, only they infested an entire body via the nervous system, rather than through the brain.

Strange. Yeerks had terrified Geneva as a child. The thought of aliens living among normal people, of being able to control someone against their will, leaving them helpless in their own body had been horrifying. But Selphids didn’t bother Geneva at all.

They were…people. They had unique personalities, morality, and like people, few were disposed towards mindless cruelty. Selphids were in fact very careful about the rules that defined their culture—they never inhabited living creatures. Doing so was punishable by death by every species in the world—especially their own. And they were also courteous of the dead. They paid the families of the deceased for the bodies they inhabited, and were in fact more careful of their vessels than the owners had been in life.

Which of course made Geneva’s own situation that much more ironic. Geneva saw a fly buzz at her face—no, a mosquito. A big one, with a proboscis that would hurt if it stuck it in her. Mosquitos had evolved to take on the bigger monsters of Baleros, and some had decided that being unobtrusive wasn’t as important as being tough. This one had a much, much bigger body, covered in a thicker carapace.

And it wanted Geneva. It landed on her cheek. She jerked—but her left hand had already snatched the mosquito before her right hand could. It quickly and ruthlessly smashed the bug between its fingers. Geneva felt the horribly unpleasant crunching and squish between her fingers before her left hand tossed the mosquito away. It rubbed its fingers on the pony’s side—the animal snorted unhappily.

The death of the mosquito didn’t bother Geneva. She was a pacifist. She had sworn an oath not to harm. But that didn’t apply to animals—she could eat meat—and it certainly didn’t apply to Baleros’ stinging insects. Nevertheless, she shuddered a bit at the sensation. She heard a whisper.

Sorry. I’ll deaden the nerves next time.

The voice hadn’t come from anyone around Geneva. Rather, it was a silent whisper in her eardrums. In her eardrums. Only the [Doctor] had heard it. She whispered back, her lips barely moving. She knew she didn’t have to be loud, only make the barest vocalizations.

“Don’t. It’s fine. Thank you.”

The conversation went unnoticed by Essil and everyone else on the road. They were in good spirits; after all, their journey was nearly at an end. Geneva wasn’t in such a good mood; she felt tired, weary of ponies, and honestly? A bit depressed. A bit useless.

One person did pick up on that. Ken, the young man riding next to Geneva, looked over and his smile grew into a thoughtful look. He stopped teasing Aiko, and nudged his pony a bit closer to Geneva’s. The mare obeyed happily. She seemed to enjoy carrying Ken, who had given her a treat and kept her free of the biting flies. But that wasn’t unusual. People liked Ken. It was his thing.

Ken, the [Negotiator]. Ken, who had managed to get even Essil to guide them at a cheap rate. And book them in good inns. And done most of the talking. And who was a Level 25 [Negotiator]. His latest Skill, [Moodreader], allowed him to see what people’s general states of mind were. Geneva hated that Skill.

She also hated that Ken didn’t outright ask what was wrong. True to form, he waited for a second, assessing her, looking around, and then carefully asked a question. It was how he did so well with the touchy Dullahans and Centaurs—he was polite, deferential—he’d taken the etiquette of his culture and applied to Baleros with splendid results.

“Geneva, are you excited to be back in Talenqual? I think we have achieved some good results that the others will be very happy with, don’t you?”

Geneva scowled, and then tried to smile. Her lips twitched—then turned into a natural smile. Not her own. She turned it back into a scowl. She hated how naturally Okasha could do that.

“It will be good to be back. I can work on isolating a proper antibiotic. As for achievements—we haven’t brought back more money than we left with.”

In fact, they had a lot less. Their journey had set them back, and while they still had a surplus of funds, they’d used up far too many gold coins for Geneva to be happy. Ken nodded, looking slightly puzzled.

“But we’ve made good progress. That’s worth the effort, is it not? And we have done quite a lot.”

You have. Not me. Bleakly, Geneva thought of all the people Ken had introduced himself to, and the talking he’d done while she’d stood around awkwardly as people stared at her. She shook her head.

“It was a good use of time. But I’m just worried about our finances. We didn’t get a [Message] from Paige, so all’s probably well, but without a proper source of income—”

She broke off sharply as she saw Ken’s polite smile grow ever-so-slightly strained. Somewhat guiltily, Geneva realized this was the umpteenth time she’d brought up the issue on their journey. Even he had to be tired of hearing it. She cleared her throat.

“I’ll be glad to be back.”

“So will I. I want to see Kirana and Paige! They say they’ve made new dishes from home. Very tasty ones, I hope!”

Aiko rode forwards, smiling brightly. She was a [Nurse], a [Sketcher]—she was hoping to become an [Artist] with more practice—and Geneva’s assistant in most things. She was a breath of sunshine while Geneva—was not.

“We will discuss it at the headquarters. And maybe talk about renting another space from Miss Hastel. That would be very important. Paige told me the apartments was—excuse me, were—very full already. ”

Ken nodded to himself. Geneva nodded, keeping her mouth shut. She glanced behind her. Maquit and Ilmt, the two Selphids, were caught up in a quiet dialogue of their own. They were fairly relaxed, this being a busy trade road, but they wore the shortswords and bucklers on them at all times.

“Thanks for escorting us to Talenqual despite the detours, Maquit. We appreciate it.”

The Selphid [Guard] glanced up. He grinned, a younger intelligence smiling out past the old Human man’s face. He had a bald head with whips of grey hair and his body was portly. But Maquit was barely out of his teens. And he spoke like it, despite the older voice. An odd dissonance, but you grew used to it with Selphids.

“Our pleasure, Miss Geneva. And if you want to travel again, remember to ask for us! We’ll be in Talenqual as long as it takes to find more work, probably a day or so at the latest. But should you need work, just mention Calectus’ name and you’ll get one of us. If there are any in the city, that is.”

Geneva nodded. Maquit and Ilmt had given her group an excellent deal on their rates and accompanied them wherever they wanted, despite the detours Geneva had asked for. That was because Calectus, the Selphid [Honor Guard] who’d protected Geneva throughout the jungle had spread the word. Geneva was a person of interest to Selphids and so they went out of their way to give her aid. Because they thought she could help them.

Oh, how Geneva wished she shared that optimism. She shook her head, feeling herself grow gloomier again. She turned ahead, and then noticed her left hand doing something. She watched as, unbidden by Geneva’s mind, her left hand uncorked her water flask, raised it to her lips. Her mouth opened and Geneva drank. All of this occurred without Geneva ordering her body to do any of it.

She must have been dehydrated. Geneva hadn’t felt it, but the humidity and heat of Baleros was a constant thing and she was mildly sweaty even in the early morning. But her other body’s passenger, her truest protector and one of the reasons why she could command Selphid aid, would have noticed at once. Not that anyone else would know just by looking. Except perhaps…another Selphid.

And perhaps Maquit and Ilmt had noticed, because their gazes fixed on Geneva for a second longer than normal. But they only smiled when she looked back at them and made a joke about Humans being easier to guard than Dullahans—at least Humans don’t forget their heads! She knew they wanted to talk to her other body’s other occupant, but they’d been very careful and the right moment had never sprung up.

“We’re nearly there.”

Essil interrupted the group’s chatter. The Lizardwoman looked back over her shoulder and pointed as, ahead of them, Talenqual appeared out of the jungle. Geneva looked up and sighed.

Home. Or at least, a place where she lived. She rode towards the city, hunched over her pony. It had been two weeks of travelling. And they’d accomplished…something. They really had. She just wished she could smile. Because after all this time, she still felt so useless that it hurt.

 

—-

 

“They’re back!

Daly was lounging in one of the two sofas the apartment held when Andel burst through the door excitedly. The young Australian man was on his day off from fishing, and he’d seen Ken, Geneva, and Aiko coming through the gates. His words provoked an uproar among the Earthworlders.

“At last! Let’s go meet them!”

Excitedly, Mary jumped to her feet. Dawson waved a lazy hand. He was playing on the one gaming smartphone the company shared.

“Bah, they’ll be here any minute. They know the way.”

“Aiko’s back?”

Kirana poked her head out of the kitchen, looking excited. Daly nodded and she ran upstairs to find Priya, both of whom were good friends with Aiko. Daly looked around. He saw Blake, who was sitting and talking with a few of the other recent newcomers, look up from his briefing about Baleros and the world. So did Nicola and the Italian kids.

“The others?”

Nicola looked confused. Daly nodded. He stood up.

“That’ll be Ken, Geneva, and Aiko. Ken and Geneva are two of our company’s leaders. Along with Luan.”

“They’re very good. The highest-level our group has. You’ll like Ken. He is a [Negotiator]. And Geneva is famous. The Last Light of Baleros is what people call her.”

Nicola frowned, still struggling a tiny bit with Tofte’s Norwegian accent. She hesitated.

“The…Last Light?”

Tofte nodded. He tried to explain how Geneva had gotten the name—which was a trick in itself because the story was complicated. Daly, who had been there, only half-listened. He glanced around and saw Siri coming down the stairs.

“I heard Ken’s coming back? And Aiko and Geneva?”

“That’s right. Our [Doctor]’s returned.”

Daly felt a bit of relief in saying it. Ken and Geneva being here would make him relax a lot. He hoped they’d come with good news, or better yet, a lot of money. But them just being here and not necessarily on the road would be good. Siri frowned.

“I met Geneva only once, when I first came here. Then she left on her trip.”

“Oh, right. I forgot you only got here for a bit.”

It felt like Siri had been part of the company, and the Bushrangers, for ages. But she was new. Daly saw Siri was frowning slightly.

“What’s up?”

“Hm. What’s she like in person? Geneva? She was very—”

Siri broke off. Out of politeness, perhaps. Daly wondered what her experience had been. He hesitated, and then shrugged nonchalantly.

“You’ll see her in a few seconds.”

The Swedish girl eyed him, but didn’t push it. And indeed, she settled back down in the chair she’d been using. Meanwhile, more of the company not working flooded back into the apartments. They wanted to greet Ken and Aiko and Geneva.

Many of the most eager ones were the newest members, the ones who had barely had a chance to get to know Ken and the others before they’d gone on their trips. They hadn’t spoken to Luan, who was always working, or gotten more than their first encounter with Geneva. Ken they knew; he’d helped find a lot of them. But the others were more mysterious. And Geneva?

Sometimes Daly still heard stories about her. From adventurers, no less. And every time Quallet came back with his growing company, newer members of Gravetender’s Fist would be with him, just to see if the myth had any feet. Daly couldn’t tell what they thought after meeting Geneva. But it was the question everyone asked at first.

What was the Last Light of Baleros like, really? What was Geneva, the [Doctor] like as a person? Daly had seen her on the battlefield. But he had known Geneva afterwards. And what she was like was—

The door opened. Ken heard an exclamation from the stairs, and then a shout.

Ken! Aiko! Geneva!

Everyone turned. Half the room shot to their feet and crowded the door. Ken heard a familiar voice, exclamations, and then Paige shouting.

“Alright, everyone, back up! Back up and let them through!

Hers was not the voice of a [Negotiator], but sometimes you just needed to be loud. The Earthworlders moved back and Daly saw a familiar face. Ken was wearing the conical hat, but it was pushed back, and he was smiling, shaking hands. His face lit up as he saw Daly and the Australian felt a jolt of relief in his stomach.

“Ken!”

He pushed his way forwards. Ken approached slowly through the crowd.

“Daly! It’s good to see you!”

“We’ve missed you. Could have used you yesterday—and Aiko too! Hello there!”

“Hello, Daly! Hello Paige! And Kirana, Priya—”

Aiko lit up as she hugged her friends from India. Daly looked around. People were crowded about, Blake, Nicola, Lorenzo, and Diana were craning to see—

And then there was a moment of calm. Heads turned. Some of the laughter died out, and people turned to see the third member of the company who’d come back.

No one leapt forwards to hug her. She did not tower over the others; she was a bit short of six feet, tall for a young woman, and dressed in travelling clothes. But that wasn’t what marked her. Geneva Scala could have been any young woman with Italian heritage. But her eyes. They were…

Intense.

Yes. Intense was the word. Look at Geneva from the side and you might not sense it at first. But take one look at her gaze, or notice how she moved, how she walked or even stood. It wasn’t posture, so much as readiness. She felt intense, and if Ken made you relaxed, Geneva made you check the skies for a storm, or listen to the wind. She had the same pressure in her gaze that Daly sometimes saw in Siri’s eyes when they were about to enter combat, or in Dawson’s. Or his own, in the mirror on dark nights.

You wanted to know what Geneva was like? A look said it all. She looked around the room, clearly conscious of the effect her entrance had had. She nodded.

“Hello.”

Ken could have said that and turned it into an opening for conversation. Geneva’s statement somehow shut it down. That was Geneva, even when she wasn’t acting as a [Doctor]. She was just driven, when there was nothing to drive.

And she didn’t smile often. Sometimes, Daly thought she’d forgotten how. Then she’d give him a natural smile and he’d know it wasn’t Geneva who was doing the smiling. Daly looked around. People were hesitating, silent, unsure of how to greet her. He wondered if Geneva had the same effect on Lizardfolk. Probably not. Even her personality had limits.

Still, it was awkward, so Daly did his best. He put a smile on his face, reached out, and slapped Geneva on the shoulder. She blinked at him.

“Good to see you, Geneva! Our [Doctor]’s back, everyone!”

There was a pause. Geneva stared up at Daly and she saw her lips twitch. Then a natural, welcoming smile came over her face. It looked completely normal. But Daly still felt a shiver run down his spine. A natural smile, but she hadn’t given it.

“Good to be back! Thanks, Daly.”

And that wasn’t her way of saying it either. But the effect was welcome. Everyone not in the know immediately relaxed, and the babble of voices broke out again. They crowded around Daly and Geneva and the others, asking questions. Ken had to hold up his hands and raise his voice.

“Please! Everyone! We just arrived. Let us give Paige some things—we have souvenirs as well! And then we will have time to answer questions! Paige, I have a pack—”

“Put it in my work room. Kirana, do we have food?”

“We have wonderful snacks!”

The Indian girl beamed. There was a cheer—and like that, the twin apartments were filled with people eating the snacks Kirana and the others were bringing out, sitting on the couches and floor and table listening to Ken relate the stories of where they’d been and what they’d seen, or Aiko doing the same, but from a different perspective.

And somehow, Daly found himself standing next to Geneva. That was the second thing you’d notice, if you looked. Geneva Scala, the Last Light of Baleros, didn’t command the room. After you got over the intensity of who she is, after you looked past the legend, you realized Geneva was just…ordinary. Or rather, she didn’t do extraordinary things. In fact, she was fairly quiet. Until something demanded her attention.

“Had a good trip?”

“Uneventful. But yes, perhaps. There’s good and bad—Ken’s planning on filling you and Paige in tonight. We got some of the things she wanted.”

Geneva sighed. She looked tired, and Daly imagined she’d been travelling from dawn to arrive by midmorning. He coughed.

“How was the road? Did you take a Centaur carriage?”

“No. Too expensive. We rode. Ken’s guide had ponies, so we made most of the journey on horseback. Not my idea of fun.”

“Aw, you don’t like horses? I’m partial to them myself. Although they are temperamental buggers.”

Geneva looked up. She hesitated.

“Next time I’ll give you my seat.”

It sounded like a joke, even if her delivery was terrible, so Daly laughed. Geneva didn’t smile, but the corners of her mouth moved. The two looked over at Ken.

“Is Luan…?”

“Nope. He came in once. Dumped a bunch of gold coins on us, slept for almost two days straight, and then went back out. Said he had a big contract. He’s really gunning to get a Courier rating.”

Geneva looked concerned.

“He should take it easy.”

“That’s what I said. But did he listen? He’s flying up in levels, Geneva. He did ask about Aiko, but that was it.”

“Oh. Aiko asked about how Luan was doing too. She had something she wanted to talk to him about. I don’t know what.”

“Ah.”

Both Daly and Geneva’s eyes slid towards Aiko, who was happily chatting away. Geneva shuffled her feet. Daly bit his lip. As far as they knew, it was just friendship. But you had to wonder. Luan was married, but Aiko had admired him until she’d learned about that pressing fact. It was probably nothing. And if it was?

“So—did you encounter any trouble on the road worth mentioning? How were your guards? Did you need an escort? The Bushrangers are doing better. We’ve taken a good number of contracts since you left—all hunting or recon ones. We could spare some of our own if you need it next time.”

The [Doctor] looked up, and then shook her head slightly.

“No, our Selphid [Guards] worked very well. Not that there was any need for violence. They did stop a [Thief] from targeting Aiko one time, but the trade roads are very safe. Honestly, we probably didn’t need them. But they’ve said we can hire them again and Calectus’ name is still good.”

“Well, we’ll definitely have you going with someone. Alone’s too risky for my tastes.”

Daly frowned. Geneva nodded. The two stood together another moment, as something Ken said elicited a laugh. Then Daly had to ask.

“So…how’d it go? The cities, I mean? Did you get the company’s name out? Obviously you didn’t find anyone from home—but how many people did you see?”

He had to know. Daly had been hoping—dreaming, really, of Ken’s small expedition to the nearby cities coming back with a bucket load of gold coins. Enough to put the company in the black for months and give Daly time to think about outfitting his Bushrangers, and Paige the money to really get to work on translating things from their world over here.

They hadn’t gotten any [Messages] that indicated wild success, but that wasn’t the sort of thing you advertised, was it? Especially since rumor had it that some [Mages] were on the take and would sell you out to [Bandits] or other lowlifes. Or just sell your information to anyone who wanted to be in the know.

Daly was hopeful. Right up until he saw Geneva look down. She clenched her hands, and then looked him dead in the eye. There was that intensity. But that was just Geneva on the surface. Behind that, what she’d been through, there was a normal person there. And the guilt in her eyes told him everything before she opened her mouth.

“Nothing.”

“What? Nothing?”

Geneva nodded. Daly saw her close her eyes, and then she spoke slowly. Quietly, above the chatter in the room.

“Nothing. I performed two surgeries—removing an old arrowhead, and pulling three rotten teeth. That’s it.”

Daly felt his stomach drop as if Geneva had slugged him.

“But—”

But you’re the [Doctor]. They’d sent her with Ken to learn what she could, so Ken could make introductions, get their company known. And Geneva was their ace. The miracle worker. The Last Light who’d rake in the coin performing surgeries. That was the plan. But Geneva just shook her head.

“They had [Healers] who could do a lot with potions, poultices, and so on. And there are [Doctors] in this world—or at least, people who can perform the most basic of surgeries. With healing potions though, that’s all they need.”

Of course. Daly imagined it. Cut yourself? Healing potion. Break a bone? Set it and use a healing potion. Lay your leg wide open so you could see the bone? More expensive healing potion, or a [Healer]. And he saw it in Geneva’s eyes. Frustration. She looked away.

“No one needed me.”

 

—-

 

It would have been easy if Daly got angry. But he didn’t. Geneva saw him take the bad news like a physical blow. She knew it would hit the others hard, once news got around. Ken was only telling stories of what they’d seen—huge, sprawling Lizardfolk cities, magical artifacts, towers built out of magicked stone that were tall—although not on the level of skyscrapers. Interesting people, fascinating experiences. But nothing about the money.

“So how much did it cost?”

The young man from Australia looked ready for the worst. Geneva paused.

“We’ve got sixteen gold coins. So a little over two thirds of what we left with.”

A huge sigh left Daly’s mouth. That was a lot of money spent. But if they’d used the full amount, it would have been a lot of money—probably a month of the Bushranger’s working their best—lost.

“Not bad. How’d you manage it?”

“Like I said, I did two surgeries. And Aiko earned some money doing her manga sketches of people.”

“Caricatures?”

Daly smiled for a moment. Geneva nodded.

“Close. Lizardfolk loved them. And Ken saved us money by being Ken. He talked us into better rates for practically every inn we stopped at. Same for the [Healers] I visited.”

“So you did get what you needed? There’s something, at least.”

Daly was trying to put a good spin on it. Geneva frowned.

“Yes. And there’s a bit of progress there. But again…”

She couldn’t lie to him. Even if she wanted to. Daly hesitated. It would have been easier if he said how disappointed he clearly was. But he didn’t. Instead, he did the best thing possible. He put his hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile.

“Hey, I’m glad you’re back. We need you here.”

It was the perfect thing to say to make Geneva feel worse. She just nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

“Hey, what’s to be sorry about? If they don’t need surgeries—we should have thought of that. And frankly, it was bum luck. There could have been work for you. Someone slips, cuts off a hand—or has an accident that a potion can’t handle?”

Geneva nodded. That was true. There could have been a dire situation that only she could have solved. But it hadn’t come up, though they’d visited a few sprawling large cities with people living together in the tens or hundreds of thousands. No one had needed her, even when Ken was selling Geneva’s talents as loudly as possible. Because there wasn’t a war going on. And that meant Geneva couldn’t do much.

What she could do, in the end, was teach what she knew. She could make a field surgeon out of Aiko, and anyone else who wanted to learn. She could teach them how to operate, remove shrapnel, staunch bleeding—but what use was that to someone when a healing potion could do the same?

“If someone lost a limb…”

“It has to be fresh. And ice isn’t that common around here. No one thinks to ice a limb, Daly. If word got out what I could do, I imagine they might. But…”

That was something Geneva had on healing potions and [Healers]. She could cut away organs or limbs affected by poison, magical rot, and so on, and use spot-applied healing potion to regenerate the area. She could also reconnect an arm or leg if she was very, very quick and the limb hadn’t begun to rot. In those two areas she was useful. But the rest? Not at all.

“So I didn’t do much. I wish I could say I did, but I was useless on the trip. I would have told you by [Message], but Ken said it was better to break the news in person.”

Or rather, what he’d predicted was that anyone who was at the Mage’s Guild would spread the word about rather than just relay it to Paige or Daly. The Australian nodded. He frowned at Geneva, clearly trying to think of something to say. And then he had it.

“I think the Centaur boy—colt, sorry, please excuse my mistake—you saved would disagree. And the [Wood Cutter]. And Quallet.”

“That’s true, I suppose.”

But those were all people she’d helped earlier. She could have stayed in Talenqual and both of them knew it. Daly coughed, looked around, and then waved.

“Hey Kirana! Can we get one of those? Kirana, you know Geneva, right?”

“Yes! I know Geneva. Hello. Would you like one? This is a dahi kebab. Vegetarian.”

“Hm.”

Geneva recognized the deep-fried vegetable dough ball that was offered. She took one, and bit into the bread-crumb exterior. It was still warm and delicious. Daly snagged two and Kirana scolded him.

“Hey! I’ll share with Geneva.”

“Are you doing well?”

“Yes, thank you!”

Kirana smiled at Geneva. The two paused, because Geneva had nothing else in her arsenal to say. Then Kirana turned as someone shouted her name from the kitchen.

“You’re terrible at talking to people. Were you always like this? Eat the kebab. It’s really good.”

“Shut up.”

Daly glanced at Geneva, then realized who she was talking to. He bit into his kebab and his eyes opened wide.

“Bloody hell, that’s good! No wonder we’re spending so much on our food budget each week!”

Geneva savored the rest of the dahi kebab. It was very good, and she suspected it had been chosen to appeal to the widest variety of people—there were some vegetarians mixed in the Earthworlders, although some had been forced to compromise their values to survive.

“First time having them?”

“Kirana and her lot are always coming up with new stuff. They practically run the kitchens now. Indian cooking works really well with Baleros’ markets, apparently. Lots of spices, similar foods—”

“That’s lucky. Perhaps we could sell some of the foods they make?”

“Paige was talking about that. Kirana wants to hit at least Level 15 before we try that, but she’s open to the idea. Really, the issue would be getting a market stall or somewhere to sell from. And the ingredients. It’s not too bad, but we might need someone to stand watch. And…”

They needed money, but they were waiting for us to come back. Geneva’s last bite soured in her mouth. She nodded.

“We’ll work something out.”

What else could she say? She turned as she saw Ken had gotten up. He waved at the people who were protesting, and trotted over to her and Daly. He gave the Australian a smile.

“Daly, I wanted to talk to you.”

“If it’s about the money, Geneva just filled me in. No worries, mate.”

Ken’s eyes flicked to Geneva for a second.

“She did? Well, I think it is disappointing, but it is not all bad.”

“That’s what I was saying. You guys did accomplish the rest, right? Paige’s disappeared upstairs.”

Ken nodded.

“We did do good work. I introduced our company to many others, and Geneva did meet with every high-level [Healer] in the cities we visited. I think it was productive—I also have many things to share with everyone. A map of the world, and I’ve learned of other continents. And I’ve learned about the Four Great Companies.”

Daly exhaled. Geneva could see him taking that on, bolstering his mood. Now why couldn’t she have said it like that? Probably because she hadn’t done any of that. Except for spending money bribing [Healers].

“Making connections, huh? Good lad! Don’t suppose you’ve got anything that would help us out? The Bushrangers, I mean?”

“Actually, I did. I met a few groups who were interested in yours. I know their names and I wanted to share them with you—later. There were a few intriguing job offers that I saw in other cities.”

“We should take our group on the road, then?”

“Maybe. But I will share more tonight.”

People were already calling for Ken to come back. He waved at them again. Daly smiled.

“Well, I can wait. But oh! Before you go—we had a little adventure of our own. We just finished a contract hunting these armored pigs—Stelbore they’re called, when guess what? We got word of some ‘strange Humans’ hanging out in an abandoned village. So we checked it out and—”

Ken’s eyes widened.

“You found more people from Earth?”

Geneva’s head snapped up. Daly nodded.

“Just yesterday they came in. They’re still hungry, but we rescued four. A kiwi—uh, a guy from New Zealand named Blake, and three Italians. The Italians barely speak English, but I thought you should meet them. And Geneva—”

“Have you given them a checkup?”

The Italian-American was looking around. Daly shook his head.

“Only a once-over. They looked pretty fine—but one of them has diabetes. We gave them your emergency treatment!”

That only worried Geneva more. She looked at Daly.

“Can I see them now? Are they here?”

“Oh yeah. They’re still bulking up. Uh—hold on. Let me get them. Hey! Blake, Nicola! Geneva wants to see you! She’ll do a medical examination!”

Daly raised his voice. The four newest Earthworlders looked up, startled. With Daly’s help Geneva moved them upstairs to a room. Ken stayed below to keep chatting, but Geneva had something to do and she intended to do it now. Better yet, she knew Italian.

Oh, thank God! No one here speaks Italian! Are you really a doctor?

Nicola was incredibly relieved to speak in Italian rather than her faltering English. Geneva, whose Italian was rusty, faltered for a few sentences before speaking quickly with the other two. Lorenzo and Diana clustered around her, asking all the questions they couldn’t due to the language barrier.

, sì, I am a [Doctor]. I was training in medical school before I came here. I want to give you a checkup to make sure all is well. Are you hurt? Diana, I hear you have diabetes.

Not very bad. But it was terrible. I was very sick—until they gave me a—a potion?

Diana explained. Geneva breathed a sigh of relief.

It is a stamina potion. It helps, although we do not have insulin to properly take care of you. But I promise, I will do my best. Please let me check you just in case first as I answer questions. There are many small ticks and insects in Baleros, as well as diseases. You are probably fine. But could you help me put up a curtain? Then I will check you one by one.

Quickly, she rigged up one of the privacy curtains that the company used to separate the genders when sleeping in a large room at night. Geneva got out a few tools from the pack she’d carried on her journey and saw the three Italians and Blake, the girls first. They were less embarrassed to get a checkup from Geneva, especially because, and this was the tricky part—Geneva had to see them in their underwear.

In fact, she’d have liked to see them naked, but she settled for verbal descriptions and having them check themselves. That also meant Blake and Lorenzo had to check each other’s rears, an intimate experience neither enjoyed. But necessary.

No spots? No injuries or other pain? Swelling?

None. Thank you, Doctor Geneva.

Lorenzo replied, blushing a bit. Geneva didn’t blush—she moved her stethoscope and bent her ear to listen to him breathing. She didn’t know what she’d do if she heard something terrible, but knowledge was the first step.

Breathe in. Hold your breath. Breathe out…thank you. You’re quite healthy.

In the time since she’d operated on the battlefield, Geneva had made a few more tools with the company’s resources. She now carried a few items out of a general practitioner’s kit. Among them were a primitive wooden stethoscope—really just some paper and a tube to magnify the sounds—a measuring tape, wooden tongue depressors, clean gauze, alcohol for disinfectant, and so on. But her real kit, which was useless now, was far more advanced.

Metal retractors, scalpels, scissors and hooks. Different sized needles with thread specialized for one kind of stitching or another. Clips, clamps, forceps, and tools to cut or snip bone. Sutures.

To most people, a surgeon’s gear might look like some kind of serial killer’s torture devices. And there were commonalities. Surgery wasn’t pretty or pleasant. And unfortunately, Geneva had learned, it wasn’t that useful either.

Back on Earth, Geneva had been studying as a general surgeon. She’d cut corpses open, and been a good student, but her actual experience had been almost all theoretical when she’d been taken. She’d learned to be a surgeon the hard way—by killing her patients before she’d improved.

And a surgeon wasn’t the same as someone practicing general medicine, no matter what people thought. But since Geneva was the only person who’d taken classes and read up on medicine, she had to fill that role too. She summarized her report to Daly and Paige as the four headed back downstairs, relieved and chattering to themselves.

“They’re fine. Completely. Diana’s one to watch, but they’re all fairly healthy for people who survived the jungle. Their only complaint is just malnourishment, I think. The bug bites aren’t infected, they show no signs of fever—and the scars show no sign of inflammation. Keep feeding them simple foods in smaller meals.”

“We’re doing that. Anything we should do for Diana? I have her carrying the stamina potion like Filip and I’ve told Nicola what to do, but is there anything else?”

Geneva shook her head.

“All we can do is stabilize her with the potion if her hyperglycemia begins acting up. Frankly, I’d rather have low blood sugar than high—as far as I can tell, stamina potions generate some kind of insulin that will regulate the high blood sugar, but it requires a high-grade potion. Low blood sugar is simple. We can give her calculated amounts of food. But she and Filip need to keep regulating their intake. It’s guesswork, but I’ll monitor them…”

She saw Paige and Daly nodding, and felt like a fraud. They listened so attentively to her words. As if Paige and Daly hadn’t done everything needed already. Daly had gone out there and rescued the four. What had Geneva done? Come back, proclaimed all was well and they were doing a good job. But somehow the two Australians still looked relieved to hear Geneva say it.

“It’s a relief to have you back, Geneva. We’ll talk more when Ken’s free of everyone—we’ll have to pry him away, but I’m gonna grab us all after dinner for a chat. In the meantime, I’m sure you could use some rest. Do you need to take a nap? Kirana could make you a lunch—”

“I had something to eat, and her snacks. Thank you. I might walk about for a bit. But I’ll be back for dinner. Ah—Aiko’s pack is full of—”

“I put it in my workroom. We filled your space with bodies—the apartments are full to bursting at night. But you can take over my spot anytime. Just let me know.”

Paige reassured Geneva. The [Doctor] nodded. What else was there to say? Nothing.

“Then I’ll…head out for a bit. Exercise my legs.”

“Sure. Good to have you back!”

Paige smiled. Geneva tried, but the courtesy was something she couldn’t return. So her invisible friend did it for her. Which was worse, because both Paige and Daly knew Geneva’s secret.

“Geneva! Will you come and talk with us?”

Nicola called out as Geneva came back down the stairs. The young woman hesitated. The Italians were clearly dying to speak to someone, but Geneva was saved by Paige.

“I think Geneva needs to walk about. Why don’t we work on some English? You’ll need to learn, sadly. But we’ve got some useful stuff. One of us has a smartphone with a huge dictionary loaded onto it, and we might be able to transfer the files, or just switch phones. Do any of you know how to jailbreak phones? Because working with the software is tricky. We should also check your stuff for anything useful…”

Geneva exhaled as Paige took over talking to the four newcomers. Blake looked puzzled as he fished out his smartphone.

“I’d like to help, really, but my phone’s been dead for ages. Unless you’ve got a charger—and a solar panel?”

Daly grinned.

“Oh, mate. You’re going to love this. Guess what? A magic spell charges up your phone.”

No way!

The exclamation elicited laughter as the new Earthworlders flipped out. They fished out their electronics—they only had phones, having been teleported while being on a bus—but each one was a treasure trove of data. As were they. As Paige explained as Geneva slowly edged over to the door, anything they knew from earth was invaluable.

“Anything. Chemistry—we have a periodic table up but no one can remember the bottom parts—math, like the Pythagorean Theorem, knowledge of how to replicate different things from earth—”

“Like cake! I remembered how to make that stuff. Beautiful!”

Dawson blew a kiss. Daly laughed.

“But your first cake was utter shit, mate! Leave the cooking to Kirana!”

“What, you’re saying I can’t cook? Shove off! I’ll show you. Hey Kirana! Let me help with tonight’s dinner—”

“We don’t need more poison, Dawson! We’ve got enough to kill the monsters with already!”

One of the other Bushrangers hollered. Everyone laughed. Blake looked at Daly.

“I suppose making weapons would be one of those important things, yeah?”

Geneva froze. She looked at Daly and Paige. The [Engineer] girl hesitated and glanced at her.

“We don’t want it to spread. But yes. Anything you can tell me is useful. However, remember what I said about bringing up anything from home around others. I know how to make gunpowder…I think.”

“And a lot of our tech’s not useful or too hard to build, frankly. Light bulbs, batteries—not that great when you can just cast [Light]. I’ll kiss you myself if one of you knows how to put together a steam engine, though.”

Daly grinned. He felt at his back and then looked around.

“Oh, right. You saw that we used crossbows, right mates? They’re our bread and butter. Paige is trying to improve them, but it’s tough. Guns are out of our reach for the moment. Plus, half of us think a good crossbow is better than one of the old firearms.”

And I told them under no circumstances could firearms be imported to Baleros’ mercenary companies. Geneva felt a pang. She knew what Daly did was important. And she’d seen monsters. Even so. Blake was conferring with Lorenzo, who was interested. The young Italian was making a cranking motion with one hand. Blake was nodding.

“Yeah, yeah. I saw your crossbows, Daly. They look good. Ever think of making a ballista?”

“Sure. We’ll mount it on our elephant. Too hard to carry, mate. But Paige is working on a monster one. We’ll put it on Dawson’s back.”

“Oi, Daly! What’ve I done to deserve all this?”

Recently?

Another laugh. Blake nodded, but now he looked excited.

“Yeah, but have you thought about—do you know about repeating crossbows? Lorenzo was saying that there’s one that shoots like that. Chinese or something—”

He got no further because Paige reached out.

Tell me more! No wait, sketch it!”

There was an uproar. Geneva hesitated. Repeating crossbows? That sounded…terrible. She imagined the damage one crossbow could inflict. And if you chained it up like a machine gun…

Sounds useful.

Geneva ignored the voice. She walked outside. Somehow, it was cooler outside than it was inside. All the body heat of so many people crammed together. But not less humid. Geneva looked around the bustling street, took a few breaths, and then began to walk. She needed to walk.

So. She was back. Daly had taken the news well. So had Paige. Neither one would say they were let down. But Geneva felt bad enough anyways. She’d earned no money. She hadn’t had any patients. And she’d wanted to, as horrible as that was.

She was part of the United Nations company. Named after an ideal of Earth. A company that was the only thing protecting the scattered people from her planet. They were poor, but everyone was pitching in. And Geneva was trying. But she felt useless today, and most days after leaving the war between the Roving Arrow Company and the Razorshard Armor company.

And what was worse, in a sick way, she missed the battlefield. She missed being needed all the time. Here she was dead weight unless someone was hurt, and healing potions trivialized how much she could add. What good was a [Doctor] without patients?

“You’re being mopey again.”

Someone spoke in her head. Geneva sighed. It was her invisible guest. The reason Geneva was never alone. Okasha the Selphid voiced her opinion, speaking in a very quiet voice in Geneva’s head. No one else heard. No one else could hear. Because Okasha lived in Geneva’s body. She was a Selphid possessing a living being, the most heinous of crimes a Selphid could commit. If anyone found out, Okasha would die. But she had done it to save Geneva’s life.

A long time ago. No, mere months ago, Geneva had been working as a [Doctor]. An enraged [Sergeant], Thriss, had struck a blow along her spine, paralyzing her. Geneva would have died from blood loss or at Thirss’ hands, if it weren’t for Okasha. The Selphid [Rogue] turned into [Nurse] had killed the sergeant, and then offered Geneva a choice.

She’d gone into Geneva’s body, bridged the gap and the destroyed nerves, and now helped Geneva move. Without her Geneva would be helpless. And she could do more than just that. She was Geneva’s protector, her friend, and the literal voice in her head.

Sometimes she was a quiet passenger that only did a few things, usually with Geneva’s left hand like swat at flies. Other times she was active. She could possess Geneva at will. Not that she usually did that, but a smile, a twist to avoid stubbing her toe, waking Geneva up in the morning at the right time.

Geneva had grown used to Okasha’s presence over the months, but it was still strange. She shared her body now. And unfortunately, that meant sometimes the person she was sharing it with had a difference of opinion.

“I’m fine. I deserve to be depressed. We didn’t bring anything back.”

“You got information. And the [Healers] did give you what you wanted.”

“Daly was expecting us to come back with coin. Instead, we just wasted what he worked so hard to get.”

Geneva heard a sigh in her head. The Doctor spoke, her lips barely moving. Okasha didn’t need to hear the words out loud; she was in Geneva and could read her vocal chords and muscles. Her voice was distinct from Geneva’s own as well, at least when she wasn’t using Geneva’s vocal chords, and she could change Geneva’s voice in astonishing ways if she chose to as well.

“Okay, but what does being sad help with any of this? It’s pointless and it just makes your mood worse. Cheer up.”

“I don’t want to. Okasha, don’t—”

Too late. As she was walking, Geneva suddenly felt a jolt of emotions—a compounded mix of excitement, energy, and what she could only describe as happiness—shoot through her. She stumbled, and Okasha steadied her. Geneva felt the Selphid doing…something in her. It wasn’t a horrible feeling—not like the Selphid writhing about.

Okasha’s biology allowed her to spread out incredibly finely, and her control was impeccable, at least with practice. Geneva was the first living being she’d ever been in, so occasionally there were accidents. But not now.

Whatever was running through Geneva pepped her up in a moment. Instantly, she felt better. The funk clouding her mind vanished. Geneva felt her spirits rise. And then she grew angry.

“Stop that!”

A passing Dullahan looked around and saw Geneva scowling at the air in front of her. He opened his mouth and then Geneva snapped again, apparently to no one.

“I didn’t ask you to do that. I hate it when you do that! Don’t do it again, understand?”

The Dullahan decided to walk faster. Okasha was unmoved.

“I just tweaked a few things. It was just a little adjustment, nothing big. Don’t worry.”

Geneva scowled.

“I know exactly what you did. Those were hormones. Dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. You released them into my brain, my system to make me feel better.”

It was incredible and scary to think Okasha could do that at will. But Geneva knew what she’d felt, even if she couldn’t control the effect it had on her body. She sensed Okasha hesitate.

“…Hormones? No, it wasn’t that. It’s uh, completely different. Look, it’s just this little—”

“Don’t play games. I’m a [Doctor]. I know everything about my body.”

That was a lie. But Okasha fell for it. She was surprisingly gullible, or she overrated Geneva’s knowledge.

“Damn it. Okay, I’m sorry. I was just trying to be—how did Humans ever learn so much about their own bodies?”

“We had to. We didn’t have healing potions or magic. We fought plagues and disease, advanced on the backs of a few people who found a cure, a new way of doing things.”

They had no magic on Earth. No Selphids either. If they did, most of the mysteries that had taken scholars and doctors centuries to uncover would have been solved instantly. Selphids knew almost everything there was to know about the body—even if they didn’t have the medical lexicon that Geneva did.

“I’m sorry, Geneva. I’m just trying to be helpful.”

“By smiling at people? That’s not me, Okasha.”

“Would it kill you to be friendly? Oh wait, you can’t smile.”

“And you smile and then they think I’m crazy because I don’t act like you.”

“Well, excuse me for caring!”

Geneva heard something like a gurgling sob in Okasha’ voice. The Selphid went quiet and Geneva felt her left side begin to drag a bit. Okasha had stopped assisting Geneva’s movements and was just passively feeding Geneva’s instructions to her body. When that happened her left side was slower to react. Geneva’s stride became a limp, but the [Doctor] took a vicious pleasure in knowing her body was under her imperfect control. Then she felt a bit guilty. But she did hate thinking Okasha was influencing her. It was just—

The streets of Talenqual were filled with people. Hawkers selling goods, people going about their business. And children. A Dullahan ran past Geneva, then tripped. She was a little girl, with her head attached to her shoulders and covered by a ratty scarf. Her armor was very poor—plant matter and bark as opposed to anything else. Partially a beggar. She bumped into Geneva and caught herself.

“Whoops! Sorry, Miss Human—”

She gave Geneva a gap-toothed smile, quite unusual for a Dullahan. But children took after every culture, didn’t they? Geneva stopped.

“I’m fine. Are you—”

Her right hand, which had been reaching for the Dullahan child as she backed away, suddenly shot forwards and grabbed the Dullahan’s wrist. The child yelped in alarm. Geneva heard a growl. Her voice. And her face was suddenly scowling.

“Drop it.”

Okasha glared with Geneva’s body. The [Doctor] froze in alarm, but the Selphid had control of her body. The Dullahan tried to get away—her arm began to detach from her body, but Okasha just tightened her grip.

“Leave your arm and I’ll bring it to the Watch. Want to live as a one-armed Dullahan wanted by the City Guard all your life?”

“Fine!”

The Dullahan withdrew a pouch and tossed it on the ground. Geneva’s coin pouch. The [Doctor] gaped mentally—she hadn’t even realized it was gone! Okasha was unimpressed, though. She snagged the pouch, checked it, and put it back on her belt. Only then did she let go and glare at the [Pickpocket].

“Get lost. A poor thief picks on [Healers] and [Doctors], kid. Next time at least go for a [Merchant].”

The Dullahan girl fled. Okasha walked Geneva forwards as the crowd, who had noticed the incident, resolved itself back to normality. A few people shot Geneva admiring glances; Okasha kept Geneva moving until Geneva’s heart rate had slowed. Then they had another conversation.

“Thank you.”

“No problem. You want to walk?”

“Yes.”

“Alright then. Your turn.”

Geneva’s pace faltered, and then returned to normal. Geneva looked around, but the Dullahan child was long gone.

“You scared her.”

Okasha was unmoved.

“So? I don’t feel bad. I would have kicked her if you’d let me.”

“Kicked her?”

Geneva was appalled. Okasha punched Geneva’s right shoulder with her left hand, lightly. A Lizardgirl on the road eyed Geneva with interest.

“It’s for her own good. She has to learn not to be caught. Or the next time someone gets her, she’ll lose her arm, her hand—or just her life.”

The thought was incredibly depressing to Geneva. She looked around again, as if she could draw the girl out of the crowd.

“Then we should have helped her.”

“How? By giving her your coin purse? Someone will just rob her. Or she’ll spend it and steal again and again. That’s how I grew up.”

“No. She needs someone to take care of her. If her family isn’t there, or if they’re not responsible, she needs a home. Guidance.”

“Planning on saddling the United Nations company with a mouth that’ll steal from them and bring trouble down on them?”

“No.”

But that was the option, wasn’t it? Geneva bit her lip.

“On Earth, there are institutions that help people in need like her. Orphanages. Soup kitchens. Homeless shelters.”

“And do they save everyone?”

The cynicism in Okasha’s voice made Geneva acutely aware of what a lie it would be to say yes. She shook her head.

“No. But it’s something. The system is there, even if it is flawed. It’s…”

A helpless rush ran through her. This time Okasha did nothing to stop it. Geneva walked on, looking around. Yes, Baleros had richness, and beauty. But it was a world. This was a city. There was just as much darkness to it. And in Geneva.

That was the problem. Okasha’s hormonal treatment could only do so much. Geneva spoke out loud as she walked down the street.

“It’s—not just me being disappointed in myself, Okasha. I told you. I’ve diagnosed myself. I’ve had a traumatic event. I’m not sure of all of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’s symptoms, but I’ll bet I have it. Me and Daly and at least half of the United Nations company. The four newcomers certainly did.”

“You told me about that. I still don’t quite get it. I mean, I do. You’re shaken up from battle. But you’ll get over it. Everyone does.”

“Will we? People from Earth aren’t used to war, Okasha. At least, the ones from countries like Nicola’s aren’t. There’re cultural differences, a difference in expectations. Most Humans don’t even see butchered animals. Many will go most of their lives without seeing a dead body more than once or twice—and usually in nonviolent situations.”

And even if they do see them, it’s on the news or at a remove. It’s not war.

Okasha’s voice was wondering in Geneva’s head.

“I can’t imagine a world like that. But if that’s so, perhaps I do understand a bit. You’re all like the children of nobility. Sheltered. So you have this PTSD thing, which makes you sad and depressed all the time, is that right?”

“It’s…the barest of summaries, but I suppose so. There are a lot more complications to it, let alone treating the problem. Mental illness is not my field of study.”

Geneva grimaced.

“But I suppose it is, now. I’m not qualified to be more than an assistant in the operating room back home. Here? I’m the font of medical knowledge.”

Oh no. Here we go again…you know what you need, Geneva?

“What?”

Sex.

Geneva tripped. Okasha caught her effortlessly and kept her walking, turning her head back and forth as pedestrians walked past her.

I’m just saying, that’s what we did back in the companies. A new soldier gets the shakes after a battle? Get them drunk, get them laid, and get them a break. Three, four battles after that, if they’re alive, and they’re fine.

“Having sex is not a solution, Okasha. It’s escapism—”

It feels good and you should do it. What’s wrong with that?

“For one thing, I have you in here with me!”

Is that why you don’t masturbate? Look, I’m totally fine with it. I’ll help, actually. Heck, I’ll do it for you.”

Geneva closed her eyes. One shot back open.

Watch your step! And don’t get judgmental! I have needs too! Look, if you’d just consider—what about him?

“What about him?”

“Well?”

“No.”

“But come on! I’m sure he’d be interested. Let me do the talking, though. Unless he likes stone-faced [Doctors] with no sense of humor.”

“Daly laughed at my jokes.”

“He was humoring you. Although he’s a good option—uh, unless he’s still moping about Quexa. I should have told him Lizardfolk don’t do long-term relationships when they’re younger. Hey, you think he and Paige are—”

“No.”

“Okay, what about him? Come on, I know you like him.”

No.

“Geneva, that’s an objectively sexy body. Look at it!”

“I’m not dating a Centaur, Okasha.”

“Who said anything about dating?

Geneva shut up. The problem with arguing with a Selphid in your body was that they could tell when you were lying, and what you were feeling. The heart palpitations, sweat…Okasha admitted it was new to her to have a living body doing these things, but she was good at monitoring a body and she gloated now.

“You and I have the same taste, which is good taste. Admit it! Come on, Geneva. Just one night? Or we can take it slow. I bet you we can get an empty room for a moment in the apartments. Or, hell, I’ll settle for a tree in the jungle, although if there are bugs—”

“Will you be quiet!?”

“But I’m restless. Geneva! Do you know how quickly nerve endings wear out in a dead body? There’s a reason we call it ‘fresh body fun’, you know.”

“Not in my body. Not now, thank you.”

“Wait, does that mean later—”

Geneva groaned. This was going to be a problem. But Okasha was living with her. It was like having a roommate you couldn’t get rid of. Not without suffering full-body paralysis and your roommate being incredibly vulnerable to harm or diseases. That kind of relationship everyone had. She changed the subject abruptly.

“I’m going to talk with Daly and Paige tonight. See if I can do something…anything to help. At least I can tell them about the diseases and my progress there.”

She heard Okasha shudder.

“Horrible stuff. Okay, at least you’re perking up! See? Even talking about sex—”

“But until then, I want you to help me exercise, Okasha.”

Geneva heard Okasha whine.

“Again? But I did that yesterday!”

“And two days ago. It needs to happen at least three times a week, Okasha. Preferably more. You know it’ll be beneficial.”

“Yeah, but you’re not the one doing it. And it’s really tiring! Why do I have to do it?”

Geneva hesitated. This called for some delicate negotiations and Ken was nowhere in sight. She thought for a second, and then spoke quietly.

“If you do it, I’ll eat that awful stuff you like so much.”

She sensed Okasha growing excited.

Xelca meat? You promise?

Geneva grimaced. She hated xelca meat. But Okasha loved the stuff. Especially if it was fried up in lots of grease. Geneva liked pasta, but Okasha hated the stuff. To Geneva, it was home cooking and delicious if done right. But the Selphid didn’t like grainy foods. It was a sore point that often resulted in them eating pasta with xelca meat, which both could agree on.

“I promise. I’ll even ask Kirana to make some.”

And buy it fresh!

The young, Italian woman sighed, but with resignation.

“Deal.”

“Alright then! Here I go! You don’t mind if I do it now, do you? Keep walking—I’ll try not to make it affect your legs. Okay, how long per muscle? I know, I know—full body workout. And that core thing you keep talking about.”

“Thank you.”

Geneva felt Okasha moving slightly through her body, and then she felt her leg muscles suddenly contract. Her stride didn’t change, but suddenly her muscles were working in her leg. Geneva didn’t feel much more beyond the movement though. She heard Okasha’s voice in her ears.

Exercise, exercise, move that muscle, suppress that lactic acid. Boring. Move again, move again…

The Selphid was singing a childlike nonsense song as Geneva felt her moving the muscles in her body. Tensing them, pulling and stressing and really just damaging them to induce the same effects as if Geneva was giving her arms, legs, and core a vigorous workout. But the Selphid was far more advanced than any workout regime; she could even play with the hormones and induce the growth needed for Geneva to gain muscle in the right places.

And that place was everywhere. From the legs, Okasha moved up to Geneva’s thighs and stomach, working out her abdomen which had been mostly fat until recently, her upper arms, and even her neck. Not too vigorously; Geneva had no desire to be some kind of inhuman body builder, no matter if Okasha thought she could do it. But she did think being in prime physical shape would be very handy, and a Selphid was the easiest way to that goal.

In fact, Geneva felt a bit guilty sometimes. She was gaining abdominal muscles at an extraordinary rate. Any beach-going narcissist back at her world would kill for a Selphid to manage their bodies like Okasha did hers. But it wasn’t just vanity—okay, it was a bit of vanity—but as Okasha concentrated on Geneva’s arms she did the truly important work. Geneva wanted her arms to be stronger.

Her hands especially. Geneva was aware that a surgeon’s hands and techniques could change the outcome of a surgery, so she’d asked Okasha to figure out a way to give her more muscular strength, more fine control. And the Selphid had managed just that. Not only could she improve things like Geneva’s grip strength, she could tell exactly what parts of Geneva’s body were sore and redirect her body’s resources to deal with the problems.

“In some ways, Selphids are the answer to every biological issue we’ve been seeking. Pacemaker, nanobots—a Selphid surpasses modern technology in countless ways.”

Geneva muttered to herself. She sensed Okasha pushed her hands open and give her a thumbs up.

“We are useful, aren’t we? But this is dangerous, Geneva. Not for your body—but if other Selphids started doing it. Not everyone’s like me.”

“Not as ethical?”

The Selphid’s voice grew serious as she worked Geneva’s hands, making them twitch as Geneva shoved them in her pockets.

No. Not by far. If I wanted to control you, I could. And with a living body, I could do a lot more than what other Selphids can. I could Rampage without issue since I can heal your body. And if you had a [Warrior]’s body, it would be even stronger. I’ve been thinking about that.

Geneva shivered. Okasha felt it and hurried to reassure her.

I wouldn’t! Ever! I meant that in the sense that I can see why a living body is so dangerous. It makes Selphids more powerful than other species. It’s too tempting. If we started doing it again, it would lead to the Selphid Empire, I’m sure.

The Selphid Empire. A time when Selphids had ruled over other races. Yes, Okasha was right. That was a problem. Still, Geneva spoke mildly.

“But I trust you. You could have taken my body if you wished to. Instead you share it. You let me have control. Why? Why be so…kind?”

For a second the Selphid paused. Then she spoke, simply.

“You swore an oath not to kill. I have my own.”

Geneva’s heart jumped. Okasha squeezed her hand gently, a gentle pressure on her nerves, as if Okasha was holding her hand. The two walked on.

This was why it worked. Because they could get along. Two chance roommates in a single body turned out to be friends. It was luck. Geneva said nothing more. But her spirits rose, and Okasha knew. The Selphid kept working her body and as promised, Geneva stopped by a meat vendor on the way back.

Xelca meat! Good when it’s hot, edible when it’s not! Get a stick, three coppers! Five coppers for two sticks!”

That was a new slogan. And catchy. All the meat vendors were yelling it. Geneva had to smile as she paid for some xelca meat. That was Lizardfolk for you. Give them an idea and they’d run away with it.

“Hey Geneva! You’re back! What’s that you’ve got?”

Xelca meat. Kirana, can you make a little dish with it? Please—ah—please fry it up.”

Geneva sighed. Unbidden, her mouth opened again.

“And can you make it extra greasy?”

“With vegetables, naturally.”

“Not that you need too many.”

“I prefer yellats.”

“But you really don’t need to add them. Just meat is fine. Actually, deep-fried meat would be—”

“Horrendous. So we—I’ll just have some fried meat to go along with whatever you’re making—”

“A lot of fried meat.”

“But not too much, because I’m sure you already have a meal in mind and I’d be delighted to have that.”

“Oh. Right. Of course.”

The look on Kirana’s face as Geneva delivered that monologue was priceless. Daly nearly laughed himself sick as he covered for Geneva—only he and a few others knew her secret. Even the regular Earthworlders had no idea—it was just too risky for anyone to find out about Okasha. The Indian girl took the xelca meat anyways and promised to turn it into something special. Daly grinned at her, but didn’t mention Okasha out loud.

“I’ll say this, it’s nice having Kirana cooking. She knows enough vegetarian dishes to keep our picky eaters happy—and they’re tasty for us meat eaters too! Dinner should be ready in a few. You want to sit? Ken’s still talking. Lips of gold, that one.”

“Of course.”

Guiltily, Geneva realized she’d been moping rather than acting like a responsible leader. She followed Daly back into the apartment and tried to actually contribute rather than drag everyone down. That meant, sadly, that she had to rely on Okasha to do some of the talking.

 

—-

 

That night the United Nations ate like champions. In that they ate a lot, talked noisily, and were about as raucous and noisy as any group of young adults. It wasn’t for everyone; Geneva knew that some people ate leftovers in smaller groups, but the act of socialization was important. Everyone she looked at had a job. Even if some had vacation days like Andel, or were off-duty like the Bushrangers, they worked for a living. It changed them.

Gone, gone were the young men and women who had wandered into Baleros. The ones before her were still growing, and still immature at times—like Dawson, who was one of the older ones—but they also had a level of emotional awareness that others their age might lack.

There were no adults to run to, no one to solve their problems but themselves. Paige and Daly broke up fights, but the Earthworlders had to resolve problems themselves. Some didn’t, but most rose to the challenge. As such, Geneva felt oddly at home, as if the young man of sixteen years old was a friend in his last year of medical college talking with her over his xelca meat mixed with curry.

“Hey, anyone want a drink? I’ve got some cheap er—I think it’s a rum? Came off one of the boats! Not that crap they sell at the markets that’ll kick you off your ass and then on your back, but it’s still strong stuff! Watch yourselves mind. If you’ve got work—”

Daly’s warning went unheeded as a shout went up and most of the table raised their glasses. He went around dishing out the alcoholic drink. Geneva had a glass herself—she watched as a girl of fifteen had a small shot mixed with a fruit juice.

No one raised an eyebrow. Alcohol was necessary. It helped take the edge off, and aside from Americans, most of the Earthworlders had tried alcohol. And it had the other effect of taking off the most tired to their beds after dinner. Full stomachs, excitement, and a bit of drink—people dropped off left and right.

There were some who stayed up, like the Bushrangers who weren’t working, but they’d had their fill of Ken’s stories enough not to groan too hard when Daly looked around and announced that the kitchen in the west apartment was now off-limits.

He’d chosen it because it had a door. Daly stood up as Geneva got to her feet. He approached her, smiling, but with a hint of reserve.

“Time for our chat. But uh, Geneva, I know this is an important meeting, but Michael—you know, from Spain?—he’s worked up some cards. Wood, but we wanted to play some games. If you wanted to talk, we could do that before—”

Geneva was determined not to bring the group down. And in fact, this suggestion appealed to her. So she cut Daly off with a nod.

“Fine by me. But bring the alcohol. We might as well make a proper game of it.”

Daly’s surprised smile was enough of a reward. That was how Geneva found herself sitting at a table, playing on wooden, painted cards with Siri, Daly, Paige, Ken and Aiko. They represented the United Nation’s leadership—although Luan was as yet missing. Siri was a new addition, but Daly explained her presence simply.

“She’s the best of us Bushrangers and a solid head. If I’m ever unable to take over, I’d trust Siri to make the right calls. Anyone object?”

No one did. Ken did look around, though, with a small frown.

“If Siri is Daly’s um, backup, then Paige should be allowed to nominate someone. Is there anyone you would recommend we listen to, Paige?”

Daly hesitated as he shuffled the thin, wood cards that Michael had made. They were simple, but even the act of shuffling them made some at the table perk up.

“Dunno about the other guys. Dawson’s a fighter, but he’s a bit iffy sometimes. Paige?”

She shrugged.

“There’s no one I’d call a leader. I handle the home front. Kirana’s good, but she bosses around the girls from her country mainly. I think she has something on them, or there’s a reason why they’re listening to her she’s not saying.”

“Caste system? Doesn’t India have that?”

“Mm. Might be? But I think it’s something else. Maybe her parents were someone famous. Or maybe she’s just better at leading them. She had to get them out of the jungle after the guys got executed.”

“True. Ah, well. We’ll hold off on Kirana. Too many girls as it is. Yow!”

Daly yelped. Ken smiled, and the Australian checked the deck.

“Got fifty four cards—no jokers. But instead—hah! Good on Michael. Look.”

He raised a card. Instead of the joker card, Michael had painted a [Doctor] wildcard, complete with a red cross. Geneva blinked at it as the others chuckled. Daly placed the two aside as he shuffled the deck.

“Alright, before we get to chatting—what’s our game? Swedish Rummy? Oh Hell? Donkey?”

“Aiko and Ken probably don’t know those games. Don’t make it complex, Daly. Let’s just start with poker. We can go from there.”

Daly shrugged. He began dealing out the cards. Siri looked at her hand as Aiko quietly asked Paige to refresh her on how to play.

“What shall we play for?”

“How about…coins?”

“Oh come on—”

“Not for real. It’s all company money anyways. But we do have a bit of spending money. Say, we use that and pool it? But the winner takes like…a few silver coins more than the others?”

Geneva nodded and the others agreed. Soon, they were playing cards while talking, pausing only to bid and reveal who had the winning hand. Daly chuckled as he took the first bid with three two’s.

“So? I think we’ve all heard the bad news. No big haul from the expedition.”

Siri looked up. Geneva had only met her once, doing her examination before she’d left. The [Doctor] stared down at her garbage hand and shook her head.

“That’s right. I’m sorry—”

“It wasn’t Geneva’s fault! Healing potions are too useful!”

Aiko protested. She was a poor player of poker, as was Ken. It wasn’t a natural game to them—they probably would have swept the competition playing another game, though. Mahjong, maybe. Ken knew how to play that. Aiko was bleeding silver while Ken won a hand by luck.

“It’s fine Aiko. Thank you, but I can’t say anything other than that I should have seen it coming. There’s no need for [Doctors] outside of a battlefield. Not as much need for them there either, frankly. That’s all.”

Geneva sighed. That was the truth of it. If a company had healing potions in supply, even on the battlefield they could heal most injuries right off. Her business came from poor companies—or situations where healing potions were in short supply. Things like Evercut Arrows gave her work, but they were in short supply in taverns. Usually.

“It can’t be helped. But you did get me some of the ingredients I wanted. And you got our name out. That’s a plus. But Aiko did say you got some work done with the [Healers], Geneva.”

The [Doctor] nodded as she placed her cards on the table.

“Fold. That’s right. I went around to [Healers] and paid them to show me their poultices and secret recipes. Mainly in hopes of discovering something useful. I also investigated past diseases, plagues, and other ailments that occur on Baleros. To familiarize myself with them before I have to treat them.”

She looked as Siri as she said this. The Swedish girl nodded seriously, placing two cards down and gesturing at Daly to give her two in return. She had an excellent poker face.

“What did you find?”

“Honestly? A mixed bag. As I said, injuries aren’t nearly as bad here as they are in our world. True, amputations occur more frequently since healing potions have limits and surgery is primitive, but people survive amputations and there are magical prostheses.”

“Pro-what? Ken?”

“Prosthetics. They’re…”

Ken lapsed into Japanese. Aiko nodded.

“Oh! Like Quexa’s leg!”

“Except some are magic. Which means you can have an arm made out of fire or some shite like that. What else, Geneva?”

Daly frowned at his hand. Geneva shrugged.

“Illnesses aren’t as prevalent either. At least, plagues and other major outbreaks don’t occur that often, despite the lower level of hygiene.”

“Oh come on. Why not?”

“Two reasons. Actually, three. First, a disease like a plague tends to move from city to city much slower, and the population density is lower here. Second, we haven’t as much international traffic. Less chance of diseases spreading to vulnerable populations without airplanes. Third—”

“Healing potions?”

The table groaned. Paige scooped up her winnings. Geneva frowned at her hand. She was getting trash.

“But not in the way you think. Potions don’t cure diseases, remember? They accelerate a body’s natural functions.”

“They make it worse.”

Siri looked up. Geneva nodded.

“Either a [Healer] figures out some kind of cure, or the potions make the disease worse and it kills off everyone it infects. Plagues are far more deadly in this world because of potions. And when a truly virulent one appears…”

The others fell silent. Paige grimaced.

“Please tell me you can cure that. Or do something?”

Geneva glared at her cards and slapped them down on the table, one by one.

“I. Need. Antibiotics. But without them, there are some remedies that seem to work. There’s some antiviral and antibiotic components in each of the recipes I learned. Not strong ones, though. But it’ll do until we can find something like penicillin. I’ve been using red wine or spirits as antiseptic…and there’s honey, ginger—and garlic.”

“How effective is it?”

Geneva sighed.

“Honestly? Don’t get sick. I can do something for you, but I’ll be relying on the body’s immune system as much as what I can do externally. But I am working on medicines. Poultices based off the [Healer]’s personal remedies that combines the best. So I’ll be able to do some work…but I’m not about to try and cure diseases.”

“Unless we can get an [Alchemist] to figure out how to find the penicillin mold.”

“If it exists. And won’t that be expensive?”

Daly muttered sourly. The table fell silent. Geneva felt a pang in her stomach. Ken, who’d lost every hand since his lucky one, looked up.

“It is not hopeless, though. We are improving. A few months ago we were afraid of paying rent and eating rice. This is better. The Bushrangers are gaining fame. We are saving money. This is working.”

The others looked up. Ken smiled around the table. Then his eyes slid to the cards.

“Five copper coins.”

He had a good poker face too. Geneva calmly slid her coins over.

“Raise.”

“Call.”

“I Fold.”

“Fold.”

Ken met Geneva’s eyes, a polite smile on his face.

“I raise.”

“I fold—no, I don’t—shut up, Okasha!”

Two voices burst from Geneva’s mouth. She scowled and put down her cards as Siri blinked and Daly sat back. Paige and Ken showed their cards along with everyone else. Daly laughed as it was revealed that Geneva had pure trash and Ken had a straight. The [Negotiator] took the round, and the others tossed in their cards.

“You had nothing!”

Okasha protested with Geneva’s voice. The [Doctor] closed her eyes.

“That’s why I was bluffing. Ken and Paige probably would have folded if we went another round. Okasha, you’re terrible at gambling.”

“You have nerves of steel.”

The Selphid grumbled. Ken smiled.

“Hello Okasha. I probably would have folded. Geneva is very hard to read.”

“Hello, Ken. Hi everyone! Nice to meet you, Siri.”

Okasha smiled with Geneva’s face and introduced herself. The Swedish girl had heard about Geneva’s secret, but she had to do a double-take and ask the usual questions of Geneva. Did it hurt? What was it like? Geneva answered as best she could as Daly narrowed his eyes at Ken.

“Wait a second…are you reading our moods with your Skill?”

“I would not do that!”

Ken protested innocently. And his meager coin pile attested to that fact. Geneva grumbled as the table got back to the game.

“Let me do the gambling.”

“Fine. I’ll drink. Pass me the bottle, Paige? Thank you!”

The conversation passed back to the expedition’s results. Ken had a lot to say. He’d been more than just a mouthpiece to talk up the United Nations company. He’d observed, listened, and gossiped with as many people as possible. And his conclusions were frank.

“Baleros is…dangerous. Of the other continents, it is one of the most dangerous. Chandrar and Baleros are considered to be roughly equal—although Chandrar is more dangerous because of the climate than war. But Chandrar has slaves and the King of Destruction that we heard about.”

“Oh yeah. I heard people muttering about him.”

“Yes, he is concerning. But Baleros is just as dangerous. We were unlucky to come here, but luckier in some respects. There is a continent—Rhir. It is very dangerous.”

“I heard there are Demons there.”

“Demons? As in actual…?”

“I think they are a type of monster, Daly. Not Demons like…yokai, Aiko, or anything else. But it is very deadly. On the other hand, Terandria and Izril are safer. There are Drakes, who are apparently very angry who fight with Humans and Gnolls on Izril. They hate Lizardfolk, but Humans live on the northern half of Izril.”

“And Terandria? I’ve heard it’s mostly Human.”

“Yes, it is safe…but it is farthest of the continents away from Baleros. All the continents are. Ship voyages are also dangerous and take a long time. We could hire a good ship and [Captain], but…”

“…Paying for all of us would be tough and we’d be starting from scratch, huh?”

“Exactly.”

“On the other hand, it’s something to consider. Okay, how about where we are?”

“Well, I think we chose a good city. You see, we are here—”

Ken paused the game to pull out a map of Baleros. They were on the lower southeastern coast, and Talenqual was connected via the trade roads to most of the other major cities in the area. He outlined a few zones north and to the west.

“There is fighting over there, but I think it is unlikely to come here. Talenqual is safe. And—this may be good or bad—but it is not controlled by a Great Company.”

Daly nodded. He frowned down at the map. They were just a dot. Baleros was massive, and to Geneva, it vaguely resembled the Americas, albeit with a few noticeable differences. There was no Panama Canal—the continent was a fairly solid chunk that had a large southern jungle and vaguely hammer-esque north half. She watched as Daly traced their route—barely more than an inch on the map.

“Hell, this place is big. Tell us about the Great Companies, Ken. They’re the big players around here, right?”

Ken nodded. He sat back as the card came took a nap and the others leaned in.

“Okay. There are Four Great Companies. You know of them right?”

Everyone sitting at the table nodded. How could you not? The Four Great Companies were the most powerful forces on the continent. More than nations, more than cities. Their reach was vast, and hundreds, possibly thousands of smaller companies had links to them.

“Well, I asked and each one is different in…temperament? Reputation, leadership—they are all distinct. As you know, the Iron Vanguard is up north. They are mostly Dullahans.”

“A species company.”

Paige put in. That meant a company that represented a species’ interests as much as their own advancement. Ken nodded.

“But not all Dullahans. The Iron Vanguard is old and established in the north. The north is ah, cold. One of the only cold places in the world.”

“Pause. What do you mean ‘only’ cold places, Ken?”

The Australian girl frowned as she held out a hand. Ken pondered how to reply. Geneva stepped in for him.

“Only two continents have snowy regions. Except for Chandrar—the desert might qualify as a tundra. But besides mountains, only two areas have semi-permanent snow. The north most parts of Baleros and Terandria.”

Paige frowned.

“Nothing on the south side?”

“Not a thing. Chandra’s farther south, and it’s a desert. But not snow. And there isn’t an Antarctic region that I can tell.”

“Odd. Where is the equatorial line, then?”

Siri traced a finger across the map, perplexed. Daly hesitated.

“There might not be one. I was chatting with a bloke in the bar, and he claimed the earth was flat. Think that’s right? Or is it just a round planet and no one’s made the connection yet?”

Ken shook his head gravely.

“No, I think the earth may be flat, Daly. You see—I asked and there is an end of the world. Ships sail off it. It is a known fact.”

“Ah.”

The table went silent. Everyone tried to digest that information. Paige sat back, shaking her head.

“Two moons, a weird equator, the end of the world…I wish we had a telescope. Or a satellite.”

“You can build one later. Go on, Ken. The Iron Vanguard’s northern Dullahans. And?”

“Ah. You see, the Iron Vanguard has many…fortifications. The north is poorer, but it has some good metals to mine. So the Dullahans fortify it—and the Iron Vanguard controls much of the region. They are…an aggressive company. But they prize heavy armor.”

“Bunch of [Knights] tromping around tanking fireballs. I get it. And knowing Dullahans, they’re a right laugh.”

Aiko giggled. Ken nodded. That was fairly spot on.

“Their leader is the Seer of Steel. A [Juggernaut] with a body made of the most expensive armor money can buy.”

Siri raised an eyebrow.

“Why do they call him the Seer of Steel?”

Geneva muttered into her drink. Okasha poured her another refill. Both of them liked alcohol.

“Because he doesn’t go into battle with his head. He leaves that far, far away in his fortress. He controls the body with a scrying orb in place of his head. That way you can only hit his body. He’s practically impossible to kill, or so it’s said.”

“That’s properly intimidating. But I suppose a big shot would be like that.”

Daly slid his eyes sideways to Siri. Geneva wondered if they were trying to figure out how they’d kill something like that. Aiko looked around and spoke brightly.

“Very scary. But the Male—male—Ken, how do you say it?”

“Maelstrom’s Howling.”

“Thank you. Yes, they are not so bad. They are Centaurs! And Lizardfolk. They have a younger leader and her mother, and they control the—middle?”

She pointed to the map of Baleros.

“Very open plains. They have the most space, but since it is so wide, they cannot control—”

She mimed to say ‘all of it’. Ken nodded.

“And there is another company which emerged recently. The Forgotten Wing Company. They seized a lot of land from the other companies. They are the closest to us. Based in the south.”

“Yes! They are led by the Titan!”

Daly’s brows show up.

“I heard of that guy. The best [Strategist] in the world, right? What do you know about him?”

Ken shrugged.

“Much of is it gossip. So I did not trust it. But he was very intelligent. He teaches other [Strategists], and he is famous. Apparently he loves playing games of strategy? Anyways, his company is considered very powerful, but—

He raised a finger.

“—It is considered fragile.”

“Fragile? How? It’s a fucking massive company, isn’t it?”

Daly frowned. Ken nodded.

“It is. But it is new. And people think that since the Titan and the leader—it has another leader called Three-Color Stalker whom no one knows except that she is a powerful [Assassin]—they think that if those two die, the company will fall apart.”

“Ah. So a few high-level blokes are the only things holding it together.”

“Yes. Pretty much. But while they live, it is very dangerous.”

“And the last company? The Eyes of Baleros?”

Siri was done drinking. She pushed her glass back and got some water instead. Ken frowned.

“I know little other than they are based deep in the jungle. Very secretive. They have the smallest land, but no one fights them. They are a species company. Of Gazers.”

The others at the table frowned. None of them had met a Gazer. From what they understood, they were a secretive people with huge eyes that had powerful magical properties. Ken hadn’t been able to get much solid information about them, but what he had heard had disinclined him to meet them in person.

“I have heard of Gazers and I…do not think they would be a good company to anger. From what I understand, the Eyes of Baleros is a very difficult company to work with.”

“Huh. So. We have a mixed company? The Forgotten Wing? A Centaur and Lizardfolk company, a Dullahan company, and a company made of…Gazers.”

“Actually, it is Centaurs, Dullahans, Gazers, and the Forgotten Wing Company.”

Aiko corrected Daly. Ken nodded.

“There was a Lizardfolk company who was the fourth Great Company, but the Forgotten Wing company replaced them.”

“So they’re really dangerous. Fine. That’s valuable information, Ken. But from where I sit, we’re not in a position to tangle with them anyways. I’m more focused on getting a solid base of support around here. Maybe work out a deal with Quallet—fuck, I don’t know. We need land or some big revenue source.”

Daly sighed. Paige nodded as she knocked back another shot of rum.

“I agree with Daly. I’m not suggesting we attract attention to ourselves, but having some backup would be nice. We’ve got allies, but they’re small players compared to a Great Company. And if war threatens, the company protecting this place, the Featherfolk Brigade, isn’t going to necessarily cut it. They don’t owe us anything, more to the point. And if they don’t like another company basing themselves here…”

“You want an army.”

Geneva spoke quietly. Daly looked up. He hesitated.

“Not one to fight with. But—there are big [Bandit Lords] and other companies out there, Geneva. I’d be reassured if we could scare them off rather than chance it if battle came calling.”

There was nothing she could argue with about that statement. Geneva was well aware of how Baleros worked. The strong survived. Daly sighed longer, louder.

“Honestly? A Gold-rank adventuring team would make any company hesitate. If we could get the Bushrangers to that level—”

“Impossible.”

Siri said it flatly. The Australian glared at her, but she was unmoved as she sipped her glass of water.

“We don’t have the levels, Daly. And though we do level, it’s too slowly. To level faster, to gain more money, we need artifacts to take on more monsters. Crossbows are too weak.”

“I know, but we’re paying the United Nation’s bills here, Siri.”

She nodded, but the frown didn’t go away. Paige looked between the two.

“I’m working on this new invention that might help—but we could use money back at home too. The apartment’s so full that we’ll start having fights.”

“And my tools and experiments take money. Rather than earn it.”

Geneva looked into her glass. How many times had Okasha filled it? She slumped over at the table. Daly winced.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just running my mouth. Look, Geneva. If you need money, we’ll earn it. You just keep figuring out stuff like antibiotics, syringes, and so on. We can pay the bills with the Bushrangers.”

“But Daly, you just said it. You need better weapons. Armor. Artifacts.”

Aiko looked worried. Daly grinned.

“Don’t worry. That’s if we want to take on bigger threats. We can earn a living just taking on lower-level monsters, right Siri?”

The Swedish girl nodded reluctantly. Geneva tried to remember the Bushrangers telling stories of hiding in the forest while bugs ate them alive. But Daly acted like it was nothing.

“Daly, you work very hard. If we can support you and your team—”

Ken began, but the young man from Australia waved a hand.

“Don’t worry about it. We can keep going on as we’re doing. It’s not the most profitable, but hey, even if Dawson bitches about it, a few days of rest make up for some hard hunts. Besides—”

He smiled tiredly.

“It’s not like I do much around here.”

Everyone looked at Daly. Paige shook her head and rolled her eyes. Ken frowned and slowly stood up.

“I do not think that is true. You hold together the company when we are gone. We rely on you.”

“Naw, that’s you and Luan and—”

Daly looked at Geneva. But Aiko was protesting.

“I think you are excellent, Daly! We need you, so do not be—Ken’s what’s the word?”

“Modest.”

“Modest, yes!”

Daly flushed a bit.

“Well, okay. But look, I just meant the Bushrangers can keep funding us. And Luan’s pulling in coin—”

“Like I said, give me a few days, no one day—there’s a lot Blake was talking about I want to try and I have this idea—”

Paige spoke up. Siri leaned forwards.

“We can take on other assignments. If we get other weapons. They don’t have to be magical. But I was thinking. What if we carried warhammers—”

“For armor? That’s heavy—”

“Well, only some of us. But with traps…”

“I am going to talk to Kirana about opening up a stall outside! We can sell some of her cooking.”

“—And if I can get the formula right, we don’t even need to use metal. Ken told me about a Japanese version that—”

The conversation was growing confused. Lots of voices melded together. Geneva slumped at the table, pouring herself another drink. She whispered the word in between the voices.

“Sorry.”

So many people trying so hard. And here she was. She vaguely realized that Okasha was trying to get her to stand up.

Your liver isn’t happy. And I’m…drunk? We should lie down.

That was a good point. Geneva got up. She didn’t remember excusing herself, only that the others were smiling and positive and she—felt useless. She trundled up the stairs. Paige had told her to go to her workshop to sleep. After two tries, Geneva found it.

She lay on the ground, world spinning around and round. Trying to think. Okasha was singing in her head, babbling. The silly Selphid was drunk. Couldn’t hold her liquor. Not like…Geneva.

Whee. Hey, I’ve never been in a living body, so I had no idea it does this when you get drunk. Did you know you have this weird thing that—

“Go to sleep Okasha.”

At some point the Selphid did. Geneva felt it tugging at her mind too. She couldn’t move anymore, even when Paige and Aiko stumbled into the room and went to sleep. Geneva just lay there, feeling the floorboards pressing against her cheek. Her thoughts were muddled. But she knew one thing.

She was useless here. Useless, for all her knowledge. Sometimes she wanted to go back to the wars. Where she had some use. But she couldn’t. She knew that. She couldn’t be a [Doctor] on the battlefield.

Because in war, it seemed that all a [Doctor] could do was make things worse.

 

—-

 

The next day Geneva woke up without a hangover. In fact, she felt fresh, good—and had a bladder that seemed to encompass her entire body. She got up, peed, and heard Okasha whispering in her head.

Everything hurts…

She’d taken care of the alcohol in Geneva’s system but couldn’t do the same for herself. Geneva let Okasha rest and ate for both of them. Then she went upstairs and began to do the only work she could. And even that was deferred work.

“How do the petri dishes look, Aiko?”

The girl peered into the glass dishes that Geneva had bought. The cultures of primitive gelatin were growing molds. The [Nurse] had a mask on her face. Geneva stood back, watching.

“Careful with the petri dish. Remember, my sterile field is down. The masks—”

“Yes, Geneva. I know. The bacteria is growing well. But the antibiotics…see?”

Aiko handled the dishes carefully, taking care not to bring them too close to her face. The masks were Geneva’s design, but she couldn’t be sure how well they protected Aiko. Geneva peered at them, taking care not to touch the petri dishes.

Her hands were sterile, thanks to her Skill. And while Geneva had learned she could temporarily disable the field that cleansed the area around her, her hands would kill the bacteria in a moment. She frowned at the samples she’d made up.

She had mixed several of the [Healer]’s poultices into new batches, trying to find a mix of antibiotic agents to replace penicillin. So far the results were promising…but hardly as good as penicillin itself.

“Not bad. But not good either. Look at how the bacteria’s resisting the samples. We have two strains—#4 and #6 that look like they’re the best. We’ll try them against other cultures. Let’s get a mouth swab. From someone else. Daly, maybe.”

“Yes, Geneva.”

Coming up with an antibiotic was one of the achievements Geneva was determined to hand the United Nations company. It was essential. Preventing diseases might not earn much money for the company—healing potions really did kill off a lot of people with bad illnesses if used carelessly on them—but it was vital nonetheless. She’d trade her left leg for penicillin. Hell, both legs. This world needed it. She needed it. Without that, Geneva’s skills outside of a battlefield were practically zero. Infections were the one thing she could cure, but this—

Geneva was laboring over another antibiotic test case with Aiko when someone pounded on the door. Daly thrust open the door, stopped as Geneva shouted at him, and backed up.

“Sorry! But I thought you should know—we just got word that the Gravetender’s Fist company is marching towards us!”

Both Aiko and Geneva looked up. Geneva’s heard skipped a beat.

“Did they say if they had injured?”

“No word on that. But they were doing a patrol along contested territory. I’m going to say hi to them! Meet me there!”

Daly raced out of the room. Aiko looked at Geneva. She nodded.

“Pack up. Seal all the containers. Carefully. Then we’ll head out.”

She straightened. A company had injured usually, even if they were on peaceful duties. Accidents happened. Not that she wanted it. And healing potions—but there was a chance. She should hurry. Geneva looked around for her medical kit. Okasha, who was still recovering from her hangover, whispered in her ears.

The company’s back? Oh good. Maybe someone will be hurt so you’ll stop complaining.

Geneva ignored that. But a part of her, a cynical, dark part, hoped Okasha was right.

 

—-

 

The Gravetender’s Fist company was camped outside of Talenqual. Naturally a mercenary company couldn’t all enter a city. That was practically an invasion. And in fact, it was only because Gravetender’s Fist had a reputation for honesty that they were allowed near the city at all. That, and the fact that the reigning company who controlled the city, the Featherfolk Brigade, outnumbered them substantially.

Gravetender’s Fist was still a small company. But they were gaining respect. Not only did they have an experienced leader, Quallet Marshand, but every soldier was armed with a crossbow, which they usually fired before switching to other weapons. It was an interesting tactic, and refilling quarrels and selling crossbows had earned the United Nations company a tidy profit.

And Quallet’s company had strong ties to the United Nations company. Even if one wasn’t under control of the other and neither company owed the other anything, they had an agreement to support each other where possible. But none of that was really why Daly hurried towards the camp. He only stopped when he saw a distinctive Lizardgirl walking towards Talenqual with a slight catch to her stride.

Quexa looked a bit older than Daly remembered from his first encounter with her. But she was no less cheerful, and by now her peg leg barely slowed her.

“Daly! I knew we’d see you! I told Quallet we had to stop here, and he agreed! How are you? You look good! Are the Bushrangers doing well?”

“Quexa. It’s good to see you.”

The two stopped as they met just outside of Talenqual. Daly looked at Quexa, and then noticed she had company. Quallet, a Lizardman, and two officers that Daly vaguely recognized were accompanying the [Mercenary Captain] along with Quexa. She was his second-in-command. Quallet nodded at Daly as the Australian turned to greet him.

“Quallet. How’s business?”

“Good. We’re off-duty. We finished a patrolling job. Decided to stop by here.”

“I heard. Did you see any fighting?”

Quallet shook his head.

“Mostly quiet guard duty. But we did run into a [Necromancer]-led company on our route back this way. Brief battle—we both agreed to a ceasefire after we shot two volleys at him. Nearly broke his magic barrier.”

Daly smiled.

“Good to hear. Hey, I know Paige and Geneva are headed this way. I just—came along first.”

Quallet nodded. He glanced at Quexa then cleared this throat.

“We’ll head into the city. We’ve got business there. Quexa, find me later. I need to talk to Geneva.”

That got Daly’s attention.

“Anyone killed?”

“No. I’ve got two bad infections among my troops for Miss Geneva to look at. Human.”

He walked past Daly. Quexa fidgeted. The other officers followed Quallet, but the Lizardman stopped. He held out a claw.

“Hey, you’re the Human that Quexa had sex with! Hi! I’m Zalel!”

Daly choked. He hesitated, looked at Quexa who was blushing with embarrassment, and held out a hand and the Lizardman shook it energetically after a moment.

“Uh, nice to meet you.”

“Great to meet you too! I’d love to chat, but old Quallet’ll get mad. Quexa, I’ll catch you later! Hey, wait up!”

Zalel followed the others. Quexa stared daggers at his back until he was gone and then turned hurriedly to Daly.

“I didn’t have sex with him. He’s just an old friend. Just so you know.”

“I didn’t ask.”

Daly instinctively replied. Part of him wanted to say it was fine whatever Quexa did, but that would be a lie. He hesitated.

“So, how’re you doing?”

“Good! I’ve been practicing new spells. Marching with the company—it was pretty dull, but hey, the job’s a job, right? And the company’s growing. It’s good to see you.”

Quexa blurted that last bit out. Daly smiled.

“Look at us, standing around. Say, want to go for a walk in the city? We can talk on the way.”

“Sure! I’m just dying for a nali-stick by the way.”

“It’ll be our first stop. My treat.”

“Oh, really? You’re so nice.”

“Well, maybe you can do me a favor in return.”

Quexa gave Daly a sharp look and he elaborated.

“We’re looking for someone who can teach us [Repair]. Know any [Mages] who might be willing to do it for cheap?”

“Oh. Sure! I know a few names. What, are the ones in this city giving you a hard time with your flashy-things? Leave it to me! But tell me—how’ve you been? What have the Bushrangers been doing? Let’s find a cool place to sit and you can tell me about it. Over a few nali-sticks. And some juice?”

“I’d love that. You’ve got the time, right?”

The Lizardgirl smiled.

“Quallet won’t mind. Come on!”

She pulled Daly forwards. He followed her, and saw Quexa turn her head back and paused for a second.

“I’m not having sex with you afterwards, though. Just throwing that out there. Well, not just for a nali-stick…”

For the second time in as many minutes, Daly nearly inhaled his tongue. He stopped, sighed. And then he laughed.

 

—-

 

“I didn’t want to interrupt you. But both of them have it bad and they were whining to me the entire way here. They insisted I get you right away.”

Quallet looked as if he were always in a bad mood. But Geneva knew him well enough to know he was genuinely concerned for the two Human men he wanted her to see. For her part, she was fully equipped. Not that her patients needed surgery—they had infections. Bad ones, but Quallet had spared her the details.

Aiko was following Geneva, carrying some of their gear. Geneva paused in front of the tent where her first patient was waiting.

“Where’d they get the infections? Battle?”

“I wish. They got it at the last town we stopped at.”

Geneva frowned, perplexed.

“From what? Cuts? Something they ate? A bug?”

The [Mercenary] looked embarrassed. He shifted from foot to foot, a rare sign of discomfort.

“No. Ah, from a brothel.”

Oh. So the infection’s…”

“I can tell them you don’t need to see them if—”

“No, it’s fine. I just need to be sure. It is on their genitals?”

Quallet nodded. He flushed a bit. Geneva was calm. She looked at Aiko. The [Nurse] looked distinctly embarrassed. Geneva was a [Doctor] and to her, private parts were all the same when someone was on the table. But Aiko was hesitant.

“You can let me do the diagnosis. I’ll only call you in if I need help.”

The Japanese young woman shook her head vigorously.

“No! I’m your assistant. So I will go with you! It’s just…”

She flushed again. Quallet looked at the both of them.

“I don’t think embarrassment’s going to be the worst of it. I took a look and—”

He shook his head.

“—it’s bad. The worst case of it I’ve seen.”

“Does it have a name?”

Geneva frowned. Quallet shrugged.

“It’s one of the new ones. I think they call it Yellow Rivers. But I didn’t ask too many questions. I’ve kept them isolated like you said I should do, but I wasn’t about to leave them.”

“No. You did the right thing. I’ll handle it from here. If there’s anything I can do—they know I can’t work miracles, right?”

Quallet nodded. But the look he gave her told Geneva that the story of the Last Light was still widely told in his company. She shook her head and took a breath. Not a surgery. But she was still a [Doctor].

“Alright, Aiko. Excuse me—”

She pushed open the tent flap. The man sitting on a cot and clutching at his groin looked up. His eyes widened as she saw Geneva and Aiko with a mask on. His eyes went to Quallet, filling with hope.

“Is she—?”

The man nodded. The mercenary practically scrambled to his feet. Geneva held up a hand, wishing her reputation didn’t precede her. Now the fear was in her. What if she couldn’t help him? No, she had to see first. She was ready.

“Please. I’m just a [Doctor]. I can’t work miracles. I’m told you have an…infection. May I see it?”

“Uh—show you? Here?”

It was funny. For all she was a [Doctor], and he had clearly been hoping to see her, the man was obviously unprepared to drop his pants in front of two young women. But Geneva was used to reticent patients. She had the man lie back, and pull his trousers down slowly. Aiko hid behind Geneva, peeking from behind her.

She needn’t have worried. The instant the man’s trousers and then underwear were off, embarrassment was the last thing that was in the mind of the two girls. Geneva saw the yellow-stained, wet underwear peel away. She saw a flash of paler skin. And then red and yellow and—

“Ah.”

Aiko’s eyes went wide. She covered her eyes—then her nose—and then dry heaved. Geneva mastered the impulse as the smell hit her—and then her nose went dead.

Thank you Okasha.

But there was no way to turn off her eyes. Geneva stared down at the man’s groin, which was saturated with the worst case of…Yellow Rivers was a good name for it. The Human man looked up at Geneva, eyes pleading, full of pain. He was a man. Male, and proportioned as any man from Earth would be. But the rash and…it was hard to tell at first.

Geneva had seen a lot of horrific sights in medical school. But, she had to admit, even her stomach wanted to eject itself. Aiko was still gagging. Not just because of the sight. Because of the smell and the way the infection dripped.

But Geneva was a [Doctor]. And after a moment she took to assess the situation and control herself, she got to work.

“This is clearly a problem. You used a healing potion on it, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I thought it was a sore, but after I used it—it hurt so much. Please, can you fix it? I’d lose it. If it meant all this went away, even cutting it right off would be—”

The man whimpered. He was in a world of suffering. And that, more than anything, gave Geneva the ability to touch the inflicted areas, clearing pus away, getting a good look at the problem and telling Aiko to hand her the antibiotic treatments she’d worked up. That, and a strong pair of gloves.

 

—-

 

The first patient took thirty minutes to tend to, and Geneva gave him a list of instructions and promised to be back the next day. His infection wouldn’t resolve itself overnight, no matter what he might have hoped, but she could see that her visit had given him some hope of surviving. The second patient Geneva saw was a little better—but only just.

“The same symptoms, the same illness and vector. It definitely came from your brothel.”

“And will it spread?”

Quallet was waiting for Geneva and Aiko after they finished the second patient. Geneva scrubbed her hands in two buckets of soapy water, never mind the fact that her hands were sterile and she’d worn gloves. There were some things you just needed to wash up for.

“Not if they keep out of contact of the others. And obviously I should say this: no sexual intercourse.”

“Won’t be a problem. You couldn’t pay anyone in the company to touch those two. Man, woman, Lizardfolk, Dullahan, Centaur—I don’t even think the Selphids would want a body like that.”

“Definitely not.”

Quallet nodded back towards the tent.

“Will they survive?”

“It’s down to how well my treatment works. And how clean they can keep the injury. They won’t be marching with you any time soon. They need rest, and the infections can’t be contained and agitated by their clothing.”

The [Captain] grimaced.

“So, what? They’ll be lying buck-naked with that out for—”

“Not in the open. There are bugs. I’ve bandaged the infections and they’re not to agitate them. But yes. We’ll need two medical tents. And I’ll be back.”

Quallet gnawed on his lip, but he acceded without much fight.

“As you wish. But the cost—”

“It won’t be much for the treatments. Don’t worry about it.”

“Nonsense. I’ll cover it. And I’ll take it out of their hides once they’re better.”

Quallet shook his head and growled. Geneva looked at him. He was a good man, for all he acted aloof sometimes. She sighed, wiped her hands on a towel, and stood up.

“I hope I can make a difference. But seeing that—there’s something I need to do. Aiko, we’re headed back for the headquarters.”

“I’ll go with you. I need to talk to Paige about more crossbows anyways.”

Geneva nodded. She, Quallet, and Aiko who wasn’t feeling hungry or eating ever again, walked slowly back to the city. They didn’t make much conversation. Quallet and Geneva lived in different worlds. But somehow, they understood each other. They each had their way of living.

“Geneva? How are the patients? I heard there were some people with bad infections.”

“Oh yes. Quallet can fill you in. But I’ve just had a thought. Actually, I could use your help. I need to make something.”

“Really?”

Paige perked up. Geneva nodded. She led them upstairs and borrowed some parchment. She began sketching her design. It was simple, really. It took Aiko a few seconds to figure out what it was. Paige got it in a moment.

“Oh come on. Really?”

“You think it’s not necessary? Because believe me, after what I just saw? We need them.”

“Oh, the infections were down there? Oh, gross…”

Geneva ignored the comment. She kept sketching, noting different materials down. Okasha raised Geneva’s hand and pointed at the image.

“What’s that?”

“A tool that will stop more infections. But we don’t have the right materials. Paige, there’s obviously no rubber available to us, but I think linen might work. Can you get me some?”

The Australian girl hesitated.

“I can get you linen—but really? Sorry, I know it’s silly, but this? There’s potions—”

Geneva interrupted her brusquely.

“And this is a different issue. Get me the linen. I need it to be waterproof, and come up with a treatment for it. Something that won’t harm internal organs, but which might neutralize anything. Aiko? Where’s the medicine kit?”

The two girls went to get what Geneva wanted. Meanwhile, the [Doctor] tried to wrap her mind around the problem. They’d need it to be protective, but not cumbersome. It could not come loose. How would you hold it on? And obviously it would have to be tailored. Dullahans were like Humans, but there were different sizes. And Centaurs and Lizardfolk…

Geneva stared down at what she had designed. The simplest of tools from her world. Something so basic she hadn’t thought of it. Well, she had when she’d heard of some of the Earthworlders having sex, but when she heard about morning-after potions, she hadn’t looked into it. But after seeing that viral infection, Geneva was sure it was necessary.

I don’t get it. But then again, this really isn’t a Selphid problem, is it?

Okasha stared down at the blueprints. Geneva ignored that. The Selphid might understand bodies, but she didn’t understand germ theory.

“This will save lives, Okasha.”

I guess? But will it save Selphids from our problem?

Geneva looked up.

“Not in this way. But the problems are related. I’ve thought a lot about the symptoms you’ve described to me. Obviously I need to see the patients first, but if I’m right, isolating an antibiotic or even taking measures like this might—”

The door crashed open. For the second time this day Geneva spun. She thought it was Paige, or Aiko being loud. But it wasn’t. It was Daly. He was panting.

“Geneva! Get your surgical kit!”

Geneva’s pulse spiked. The tone of Daly’s voice, his posture, it all told her one thing. And then she felt a jolt of fear.

“Is it Quexa?”

He’d been on a date with her. But Daly was shaking his head. He pointed to the hallway where Siri was shouting at the other Bushrangers.

“I just got a [Message]. At the Adventurer’s Guild! It’s the groups of adventures who went to the dungeon!”

Geneva just stared at him blankly. She had no idea about the dungeon that had just been found. Daly tried to explain, tripping over his words as he beckoned at her.

“The Rustless Guard, Salamander Swimmers, the Fivefold Verminslayers—all the adventurer teams who got to the dungeon are retreating. They broke through into an old tomb and unleashed a bunch of monsters!”

Monsters. Geneva whirled and looked for her surgical tools. She rushed out the door after Daly, shouting for Aiko and then giving up and running after him. He was shouting at the Bushrangers to assemble. But they were far from the dungeon! Still, Geneva ran after him.

“What kind of monsters? Spear Spiders? Face-Eater Moths?”

She’d treated both injuries. They were horrific to deal with, potions or not. But Daly just looked back, his face grim.

“Worse. Snakes.

 

—-

 

Captain Eldima looked up and saw death. It flowed from the dungeon, dozens of sinuous bodies. She turned and shouted.

Retreat!

Around her adventurers were running. The Dullahan turned and ran, trying to carry both her tower shield and mace. But she was so slow. Her new iron armor dragged at her. And she knew the enemy was closing on her. So she turned. It wasn’t heroism that prompted her, just the knowledge that she couldn’t escape. She looked back and saw them.

Snakes. Or rather, serpents. Not pythons or the other snakes of the jungle. As dangerous as they were, these snakes were far, far worse. They were huge.

Giant snakes. That was all. But even the smallest was as wide as Eldima. And the largest? It rose and struck like lightning. An adventurer screamed—the fangs sank into the Lizardgirl’s back and she jerked twice before the jaws crunched down. And then the snake swallowed her whole.

Effortlessly.

That was what the dungeon had held. No treasure. Even after all the excavation of the tunnels, all the adventurers had found was already-looted rooms. And then the snakes. They’d been resting in the dungeon, fat, gorged on the prey that wandered by the entrance. Now they had a meal.

“Rustless Guard, stand and fight!”

Eldima cried out. Her Dullahans turned and formed a wall of shields. The first snake slithered towards them. It regarded the metal-clad Dullahans and hesitated. But it could smell their heartbeats. So it wavered, and then struck.

The impact threw Eldima and three of the Dullahans back a step. But they’d blocked the snake. It recoiled, hissing, and one of Eldima’s [Warriors] charged, swinging an axe.

“No! Kiltem! Get—”

Too late. The snake lunged. But not with its mouth. Kiltem’s charge was stopped as the serpent rammed him with its body, sending him to the ground. Quick as a flash, it was on him. He screamed as it bit at his body, rending the iron and his flesh beneath.

“Off him!”

Eldima charged forwards and bashed the snake with her mace. It recoiled, but its scales were thick! It butted Eldima, knocking her back. She stumbled—and another snake swung towards them.

“Keep running!”

“No! Kiltem’s down!”

Eldima shouted at the others. But they were wavering. The snakes had already taken out two adventuring groups in the dungeon. Eldima and the others had been battling them for an hour and a quarter, frantically trying to collapse tunnels in the dungeon, setting traps, anything to slow the serpents. But the hungry monsters had kept coming regardless.

And now? It was over. Eldima raised her shield, hoping to strike a blow at the serpent still trying to eat Kiltem. She had [Power Strike]. But it might not even damage the serpent. She swung desperately. She saw the snake coil and tried to bring up her shield—

The impact knocked Eldima’s head loose from her body. She hadn’t secured it properly, and her head went flying. Eldima felt the air rushing past her head, and then screamed in pain as her head struck the ground. Desperately she rolled her eyes, but she was on her side. She could see her body, and tried to control it. The snake was puzzled by the missing head, but it wrapped itself around Eldima anyways and squeezed.

Pain. On the ground, Eldima’s head screamed. Her body fought, but it was constricted, helpless. Her team tried to save her, but the second serpent was fighting them. And all Eldima could do was watch and feel her body dying.

It was every Dullahans’ worst nightmare. This was like how they executed their criminals. Eldima’s eyes filled with tears. She struggled, cried out—

Please!

And she saw a flash out of the corner of her eye. Movement. But not the fleeing adventurers. Movement in the other direction. A figure advancing, rather than fleeing from the dungeon. Eldima saw the figure raise something in its hand. A crossbow. And as she watched, he fired once.

The bolt shot from the wooden bow. It sped across the ground and hit the serpent crushing Eldima in the eye. The shot was perfect—the serpent recoiled, screaming, and let Eldima go. She saw her body fall to the ground. Sobbing, Eldima ordered her body to run towards her and snatch up her head. She placed her head on her body and turned, feeling her bent armor, her fractured bones. And then she saw him. She’d thought it was her imagination. But there he was.

Daly, the Captain of the Bushrangers, raised his crossbow. He pulled the drawstring back, loaded another quarrel, aimed, and fired. The second bolt struck the serpent menacing Eldima’s team in the side of the head. It turned. The bolt had broken on its scales. But it was distracted. The Dullahans backed away, carrying their fallen comrade. And Daly pointed.

Bushrangers, advance!

Five figures strode past them. Each held a crossbow. Each raised it and fired. Five more bolts flew. One struck the serpent in its open mouth and it recoiled. But only for a second. Then it came on.

The other serpents had noticed the strange anomaly in their fleeing prey. They turned, locking onto the Bushrangers. The five reloaded, and then broke up as the snakes advanced, shifting their aim to individual snakes. They fired—the bolts struck scales. The snakes flinched, but then realized they weren’t hurt. So did the adventurers. One cried out.

“It’s not going through the scales, Daly!”

Then aim for the eyes! Just keep them busy! Siri! Hit the lure!”

“On it!”

One of the Humans had something in her hands. She hit something. A light blossomed on the device she held. Eldima, staggering towards the group, trying to shout at them to run, heard a loud sound. And then a deafening sound that went straight through her body and armor.

The thundering dubstep was cranked up past what the speakers should have allowed. It was so loud that Eldima’s ears rang. She clamped her hands to her ears. But the effect on the sensitive snakes was even worse. They had no ears and they writhed in agony and retreated as the sound thundered. One of them lunged—Dawson raised his shield and went flying.

Fuck!

The Bushrangers had attracted all the attention of the snakes. They abandoned the fleeing adventurers and focused on the team. Anything to get the music to stop. But Siri used the speaker like a weapon, aiming it at the nearest serpents.

“Pull back!”

Eldima staggered towards Daly. He was shouting, waving his team back. But too slowly. They were going to be surrounded! And whenever this strange artifact ran out, they’d be dead.

“No! A few more moments! Get in position! Stay with us!”

Daly roared at his team and Eldima. She thought that’s what he said—she couldn’t hear anything. The serpents were getting over their fear of the blasting music, though. Rage was propelling them forwards. Daly was pointing back. The Bushrangers ran backwards. The snakes followed.

They were going to die. They’d responded to the [Message] spell in time, but the Bushrangers were an ambush group. They weren’t equipped to go up against giant serpents! Eldima despaired. And then she looked behind her and saw them.

A row of bodies. It stretched across the muddy ground. Hundreds of bodies. Centaurs pulling wagons. Lizardmen and Lizardwomen holding crossbows. Dullahans armed with pikes. Eldima froze. There was an entire company here! A huge one! What company had appeared? She knew that the Gravetender’s Fist company was in the area. But this was too large to be just theirs.

Then she saw a Lizardgirl at the front of the ranks point at the serpents. The agitated monsters hadn’t realized the danger they were in. But they got a clue as an orb of fire blasted from her claw and struck one in the face. It writhed in agony. And the army in front of them raised their crossbows.

Move!

Daly grabbed Eldima. His team was racing to the side. Out of the way. And before they were even in the clear, the first volley of crossbows fired.

Hundreds of bolts flew through the air. Behind them, Centaurs with longbows aimed and fired. More [Mages] threw fire and lightning and acid. The serpents weathered the bolts, took the spells. They charged forwards, armored, huge. But the assembled force didn’t waver. The first rank of pikes swung up as more spells and arrows targeted the snake’s eyes. And then one of the [Mages] threw a bolt of lightning that left only a crater where the largest serpent’s head should have been.

Dead gods.

Eldima whispered. She heard laughter above the ringing in her ears. She looked up and saw Daly, still grabbed hold of her, whooping and laughing as the serpents fell. Only one even reached the lines of warriors. The Dullahan looked up, at Daly, and her thoughts were wonder.

 

—-

 

“How did he do it?”

That was all Eldima could ask. All the other adventurers could ask. Bewildered, they watched as the company of warriors and irregulars calmly butchered what remained of the serpents, hauling the valuable meat and scaly hides away towards the city. Eldima looked around.

“How?”

Her gaze was on Daly. He had led a group back into the dungeon, to look to survivors. Now he was tending to what wounded there were, with a small team. Eldima’s ears were still ringing, but she saw Dullahans who’d been fighting pass her by and managed to ask the question everyone wanted to know.

“Who? The Human? He didn’t call us here. And we aren’t one company. The two on the field are from Gravetender’s Fist and the Featherfolk Brigade. You should recognize us.”

The Dullahan looked affronted. Eldima instinctively bowed her head; she was wearing mangled iron armor and he wore steel.

“I am terribly sorry. But if he did not call you all—how?”

Why would so many respond to an adventurer’s [Message]? Normally they’d just lock down the city and leave the adventures to their fate. The Dullahan wearing steel frowned severely, but responded grudgingly at last.

“It was the Captain of the Bushrangers who made the plea, but our company commander acceded to the request thanks to another member of his company. A…[Negotiator] convinced us to engage in this fight, as it was clearly one we could win.”

“You?”

“And the others. He pulled every one he could grab out of the city. Adventurers, Runners. Sailors.”

For a second the Dullahan looked almost admiring. He pointed at a figure who hadn’t been part of the fighting.

Ken. He and Daly had organized the operation. And it was true. They hadn’t bothered to invite just one company. They’d gathered everyone they could find.

Giant serpents could kill one Silver-rank team. Or even a group. But a Gold-rank [Mage] who headed the Mage’s Guild in Talenqual? The Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild? A [Captain] and his crew? Child’s play. And they had come. For sport. For the nobility of the cause. For an easy battle and a share of the profits. Anyone could make the argument. But only Ken had done it.

Eldima stared. But then she noticed another figure passing by all of the wounded, rapidly going from figure to figure, and then the silent shapes. Checking them. And Eldima’s eyes widened as someone whispered her name. She recalled a rumor and saw a legend in the flesh. And she looked at Daly and wondered what company he belonged to.

 

—-

 

Wonder. Relief. Such were the emotions of the survivors. But Geneva was just…frustrated. She roamed the battlefield, ignoring the dead serpents who were being butchered. The smell, the sounds—all of it was reminiscent of a warzone between companies. But in this case—

“Any wounded? Any injured?”

Geneva called out for the eighth time. But she heard no one. No cries of pain. No shouts for a [Healer] or a potion. What adventurers had died were dead. And the others?

“I’m fine. A healing potion took care of my wounds. And you splinted my bones. I will be fine. I am in your debt, [Doctor].”

The Dullahan named Kiltem reassured Geneva when she went to check on him. He was one of the few people she’d treated and even then, the adventurers had known what to do. He would need to be carried and heal for at least a week, but with potions his broken bones and body would mend quickly.

There was nothing for her to do. Again. Geneva looked around the battlefield, at Daly who was congratulating and thanking some of the people they’d called upon with Ken, at the Bushrangers testing their crossbows on a serpent and shaking their heads—at the departing adventurers, [Warriors], and [Mages].

Useless. She’d come out here, rushed out here thinking to help evacuate the wounded. To save lives. But this hadn’t been her battle. It had been a triumph for the United Nations company—thanks to Ken and Daly. Thanks to diplomacy, words. Goodwill.

Geneva loved it. Hated it. She turned and walked over to Daly.

“Geneva? Everyone well?”

“They’re all fine. The dead—I can’t do much for them.”

Daly was high on relief and victory. But he paused as he saw Geneva’s face. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder gently.

“It’s good they didn’t need help, eh?”

She looked up and met his eyes. Guiltily, Geneva realized he was right.

“That’s true. I’m sorry.”

“Hey. Everyone knows you want to help. And you do.”

“How?”

He shrugged.

“Just by being here. Look.”

He pointed. And Geneva turned. She felt the eyes on her at last. Soldiers from Quallet’s company. The Featherfolk Brigade’s warriors. Even adventurers and sailors. Looking at her.

“They know you’ll be there when they need it. That’s enough.”

Daly’s voice was quiet. Geneva looked back at him. He smiled at her.

“Sometimes a [Doctor]’s work is just in the head. Just making people feel safe. Right?”

Geneva hesitated. And then her lips quirked. It wasn’t quite a smile. But it was close enough.

“No wonder Quexa likes him.”

Okasha remarked softly. For once, Geneva couldn’t disagree. She looked at Daly.

“You did a good job.”

He grinned, a look of delight for the compliment. Then he gave her a slight bow.

“Wish it were always that easy. But then, how’d we split the coin? Lousy job, this. Didn’t earn a copper penny, what with that lot hogging everything.”

Geneva chuckled. Daly nodded towards the Centaurs who’d raced a lot of the people on foot here.

“That lot’ll be heading back soon. Want to hitch a ride?”

“I think so. Let me at least fuss over the Dullahans with broken bones.”

After Geneva had loaded the Dullahans onto the smoothest wagon and ensured they were moving comfortably at a slow pace, she and Daly took another ride home. The two Centaurs were chatting the entire way back.

“Fantastic! I don’t know how you got those grouches from the Mage’s Guild to do it, but that was incredible! And we saved those adventurers.”

“And we get paid, right?”

“We’ll guarantee it ourselves, even if others claim all the serpent hides and meat.”

Ken reassured the Centaurs. Pihava tossed her head like a horse, her long hair doing the same work as a mane.

“That’s quite generous! Your company pulled out all the stops. Why? Do you know the teams that were in the dungeon?”

Ken and Daly exchanged a glance. They were riding in the front. Daly answered for them.

“Nah, just the one. It’s not that. It’s just—they needed help, right? And you don’t abandon your mates when they’re in trouble.”

“But they’re hardly your mates.

“Not yet. But I think we could become friends. And hey, that’s what our company does best. Right Ken?”

He nudged the Japanese [Negotiator]. They laughed. Geneva listened to the laughter. And she felt…better. Peaceful. Daly was right. It was a blessing not to be needed.

The Centaur’s wagon pulled into Talenqual with the others, pausing as the sudden influx of traffic caused a small jam. But they were content to wait, and Ken and Daly called out towards the others getting back to their jobs and lives, shouting congratulations, thanks. And Geneva was sure their company would be a name on every lip tonight.

“Alright! Back to the headquarters! I don’t care what anyone says—I’m buying some alcohol and we’re partying it up!”

Daly exclaimed to the cheers of his team. He was leading the way, talking about the battle—mainly about the high-level spells and Skills they’d seen. Geneva was following them, listening calmly, not feeling the painful lurching of impatience in her stomach. It was so pleasant, she didn’t notice the Bushrangers stop until she nearly ran into Ken’s back.

“What’s the matter?”

Someone was standing in front of the twin apartments. Not one of the United Nations company. A stranger. Geneva didn’t recognize him. Nor did she know what she was looking at for a second. A cat…man? No. A Beastkin, from the Cat Tribe.

His fur was silky. His body sinuous. He entranced the eye, as if he’d stepped out of an Egyptian hieroglyph. But then Geneva saw his lowered ears. The look on his all-too understandable face.

“Rital?”

Daly paused uncertainly as he spotted the Cat-man. Rital turned. He had been standing in front of the United Nations headquarters, as if lost. He focused on Daly.

“Daly.”

There was something wrong. The elation of the Bushrangers faded. Daly looked at Ken.

“Hey, mate. What’s the matter?”

Because something was clearly wrong. Rital’s mouth opened and closed. The impish, fun-loving look on his face was gone. A look of desperation was there. He stared at Daly.

“It’s Hasty. Hastel.”

“Your wife?”

Daly didn’t know if they were married. Rital shook his head, but then he went on.

“She’s giving birth.”

“That’s…that’s great. Right?”

Rital didn’t respond. His eyes were wide, unblinking. He half-turned his head, staring down the street.

“She’s—it’s not—she’s not doing—the [Midwife] is with her. A lot of them, actually. But they say it’s—they’ve been going for two hours and it’s—it’s bad. It’s very bad.”

The obvious question was, ‘how bad?’ But somehow Daly couldn’t ask. He saw it on Rital’s face. The Cat-man looked back at him.

“I heard—there’s nothing I can do. No potions or magic. But I heard—your company has a [Doctor], right? That’s like a [Healer]? They can’t do anything. So I thought—”

Daly was frozen. He didn’t know what to do. What to say. He knew little about childbirth. And the other members of the Bushrangers were frozen too. There was nothing they could do.

But behind them, a young woman moved. She moved when no one else could. That was the function of a [Doctor]. Geneva pushed past Daly.

“Where is she?”

Rital stared blankly at Geneva, and then his eyes focused on her. With desperate hope. Fear and panic and a host of other terrible emotions ran through him. He reached out as if to touch Geneva, as if to see if she was real.

“It’s bad. Really bad. Are you the one they call the Last Light? Can you save her? Please?”

Geneva looked into Rital’s eyes. Daly saw her hesitate. A childbirth. It wasn’t the kind of surgery she was trained for, he knew. And she didn’t lie. Geneva didn’t, to her patients or her friends. But she reached out, and grabbed Rital’s hand. And her grip was fierce enough to wake him up a bit. Geneva looked in his eyes.

“Take me to her. And I’ll do my best.”

He stared at her. And then he turned and ran. Geneva whirled. She shouted a name. For Aiko. And then she was running. And even Daly couldn’t keep up.

 

—-

 

Miss Hastel was in her apartments. Lying on her side. A rug had been placed beneath her—not an expensive one, but a comfortable, well-used one. For the birth. And she was surrounded.

Two Centaurs, both female, a female Lizardfolk, and a female Dullahan were crowded around Hastel. All of them were [Midwives], a specialist type of [Healer]. The best in the city. But for all the expertise in the room, it was deathly quiet.

Miss Hastel’s face was pale. She was making a faint, animal’s noise. Her breathing was heavy. Sweat was drenching her body and the carpet. And protruding from her lower half, hanging from her abdomen were two legs.

Geneva took in the scene in a moment as she burst into the apartment. She saw the [Midwives] turn in shock and anger. Their faces were pale. Hands bloody. Miss Hastel was bleeding too. But it wasn’t serious.

By her side, Rital was babbling. Trying to explain and plead at the same time. Geneva looked at him and made a call.

“Leave. There’s nothing you can do. I’ll save her if I can. Guard the door. Let Aiko and whoever I need through.”

Give him a task. One that he could do and feel like he was helping. Rital jerked. But Geneva wasn’t focusing on him. Next. The [Midwife] in charge was a Centaur. Geneva strode up to her.

“What’s going on?”

“Who are you? This is a very dangerous—”

“I’m a [Doctor]. I was told there was a problem. What is it?”

The Centaur met her eyes. She was older than the others, in her sixties or so Geneva would have said. She wavered, and then spoke quickly. Geneva listened, hearing Miss Hastel making incoherent sounds. One of the [Midwives] trying to comfort her. The room was tense, like a wake. If any of the Balerosians could have prayed, they would have.

And the sound beneath it all, beneath the pounding of Geneva’s heart, was the sound of her fear. The sheer terror only her will kept at bay.

She’d asked for this. She’d wanted the call. Begged for it in her mind. But that was the thing. When the call came, when the emergency happened, you were never quite ready for it.

Childbirth. Ken had once observed that Centaurs treated females differently than men. They didn’t execute female prisoners. And pregnant mothers were treated carefully regardless of the cause.

There was culture behind that reason. Culture and biology. Because Centaurs had tricky births.

Horses could have complicated births. So could Humans. But whatever their problems, Centaurs were worse because they combined both horse legs and Human head and hands together. Still, a body’s natural functions usually made the process of birth go correctly.

But not always. And it was in those complications where every expecting mother’s nightmares lurked. And a nightmare had occurred. The foal, the baby Centaur that Miss Hastel was delivering had come out the wrong direction. The [Midwives] hadn’t known until they’d seen the angle of the legs, but they’d guessed. A sinking feeling not yet given voice. That quiet terror, building each second with certainty.

“The legs are tangled up with the birthing cord. It can’t come out.”

“It must.”

“If it does—”

That was all. The cord was tangled. The legs at the wrong angle. There was no way to correct it. The [Midwives] could have reversed the foal if it was in another position, but the foal was coming out as a dog sat. Part of it would come out, but the rest would be unable to be born. And the umbilical cord was tangled.

It was the death sentence for Centaurs. The [Midwives] had tried their best to remedy the situation, but there was only so much they could do. Walking, getting up and moving—they’d made Hastel do all of that, and the [Midwife] the Centaur landlady had hired was good. She’d helped with the pain, tried to correct the birth when she’d sensed it going wrong—but there was a limit to her Skills. To her experience, even.

Right now she was stopping the birth with a Skill. But Miss Hastel was groaning and her strength—and the foal’s—was fading fast. Both might die. The foal certainly would.

And here was Geneva. She understood nothing of foaling. She had not been raised on a farm. But the situation reminded her of a situation she’d studied in medical school.

Breech birth. The baby was at risk if a vaginal birth occurred. In this case, the birth would be fatal. So there was only one option Geneva could think of. But the knowledge terrified her.

How long had it taken to hear the [Midwife]’s hushed explanation, put together the obvious on her head? Geneva spun. She rushed to the door. Rital was there. He turned, hair on end, claws out. Daly was panting outside. He looked up. Geneva snapped at him.

“Get me Aiko. Now. And I need more hands. Steady ones. Paige. Siri.”

At the very least. She needed steady hands. And she needed potions. Geneva snapped and Daly ran. She walked back inside, head light.

A surgeon knew how to do a Caesarian Section. But Geneva would have gotten practice. She would have observed—and this was a Centaur. The biology could be—no, it was completely different. And Miss Hastel was already at the limits of her strength. Geneva would be fighting the contractions, racing against time.

If she cut the baby—

A thousand thoughts. Okasha was panicking in Geneva’s head. But the [Doctor] had an icy well in her. Something cold reached up and took control of her hands. Because if they shook, her patient died.

The [Midwife] was blocking Geneva’s way as she got ready. She’d seen the scalpel and feared the worst. The other [Midwives] were staring in horror at Geneva as she checked the sharpness of her blades. The Centaur blocked her, ready to do violence to prevent what might be a horror far worse. Geneva looked up at her.

“I can save her.”

She met the older Centaur’s eyes. And she saw the hopelessness, the fear and pain. And Geneva showed the [Midwife] what was in her eyes. In her very soul. The Centauress hesitated. And then she stood aside.

And Geneva prayed. And then she began her work, and she prayed no longer. Because the child, Miss Hastel, were in no god’s hands, dead or alive.

They were in hers.

 

—-

 

Cut. Slowly. So gingerly that Geneva could see the layers of cells peeling back. But oh, even more carefully. Look. Wait. Measure and cut again.

But too slow and it was too late. The [Midwife] was holding each contraction back with all her might. They all were. And hands were holding Hastel. Female hands. She had passed beyond the point of conscious thought. She was more animal than person, lying on the carpet. But she was awake. She couldn’t be put to sleep. There was no way. No time.

Skin was one thing. It could be stitched once more. Healed. But blood was another. A healing potion might do terrible, terrible things if it acted on the contracting birth canal. And it would close the damage Geneva needed to do. So Geneva had made up a transfusion. She had thanked every star in the sky that the compatibility test had revealed Miss Hastel could accept blood from most of the Centaurs outside.

They had given blood. The tube was crude. The blood poured into Miss Hastel’s veins. A horror show that Paige had to keep steady, keep feeding blood as Geneva measured Hastel’s blood loss and intake. And all the while, she cut. Tried to stem the bleeding. But inside—

The baby was there. Tangled up, half-borne. Blood soaked the carpet. One of the [Midwives] began to panic and was ejected. Another fainted. Geneva paid no attention so long as they were out of the room.

A tangled umbilical cord. A knot, like a shoe lace. But oh, be careful. Be so careful. She untangled the foal. Hands wet with blood. If her hands weren’t sterile, this too would have been wrong. But she had Skills. And skill.

Swifter. Too much blood. More blood from outside. The bucket—clean. Gods, if there were rust—

Focusing. The Centaur made a sound, tried to move. The Human girls had to hold her down with all their might. And the [Midwives] were doing the same. Geneva extracted the foal. It was limp. It was not breathing. But the umbilical cord was cut. The Centauress said to wait. Geneva couldn’t.

The foal in a safe place prepared for it. The Centauress—blood. See past the blood. Get rid of it. Aiko’s steady hands. Okasha made each movement of Geneva’s as precise as a laser.

See the damage. Begin to repair it. So many places—a dropper. Drops of healing potion as she stitched. Healing the wound, but not wholesale. More blood. Stitch. Quick, even, quick, even—

Something like an actual body reappearing. More healing potion. Watching bloody tears turn to scar, and then heal. Together. Together. Check—remove the thread. Pulse? Breathing? A staring eye. The shock of a lifetime. But no words. Just waiting. She knows you’re helping.

Stitch. Pray. Stitch. And then—a cry. Baby horses—foals—didn’t breathe for a few seconds. But it took a Centaur child until they could raise their heads, a few minutes—before they would cry.

The sound made Geneva’s hands tremble for a moment. But she stilled herself. She sealed the rest of Miss Hastel. Healed her. And then she sat back.

Then she could shake. Then she could hear. Breathe, inhale the iron scent in the room. Hear the voices outside, see the relief in the others.

Siri, who had faced down a serpent with a crossbow and a dagger, sat on the ground, white-faced, unable to move for a second. Kirana, who’d held the Centauress down as she thrashed, was pale as ice. But then someone breathed. A girl from Earth whispered a prayer. And then the others realized it was done.

Geneva moved backwards. Her tools were bloody. They didn’t belong near the healed Miss Hastel any longer. The Centauress was covering her face with one arm. Tears in her eyes. She was alive. And then the foal cried again, a true wail. And the people outside went silent.

Listening.

Geneva leaned against a wall in Miss Hastel’s lovely home, her hands dripping blood onto the wallpaper. She didn’t even notice. The sweat Aiko had wiped away time and time again dripped down her face. She only raised her head when she heard and saw a Centaur approaching.

The old [Midwife] had regained some of the color in her face. More than the others in the room. She was tough. And she knelt to speak with Geneva. And the look in her eyes was an echo of the look Geneva had seen.

“My name is Caleffe Umbalt. I am honored, Miss Scala. Truly.”

“I—”

Geneva coughed. Her throat was dry. Someone handed her a water flask. She drank, coughed, nearly choked. Caleffe waited for her to speak.

“I—was just doing my job.”

“Then it is a job no one else could do. You saved her when I thought no one else could. I have heard of the Last Light. But I did not give the stories credence. Until now.”

“I’m not her. I’m just a person. I can’t work miracles.”

“So you say.”

That was all Caleffe said. She looked over her shoulder.

“What was that? I have heard of…cuttings been done. I thought you were going to kill the child. Remove it—that was how a Centauress was saved once. But never have I heard of someone cutting into her belly and removing…I would trust no one with that task. Not even the highest-level [Butcher] or [Blademaster].”

“Never them. I’m a [Doctor]. That was Caesarian Section. The first I’ve ever done. It’s something used if a birth can’t be done traditionally. Only a [Doctor] can do it.”

“I see. Then fate truly was kind.”

“My child?”

Geneva’s head turned. Miss Hastel’s head was raised. She was looking around. And Geneva saw a limp, wet shape. Clearly unhappy with being alive, struggling to get up. The [Midwives] rushed over. Caleffe stayed put.

“I can only thank you. From the bottom of my heart. Geneva Scala, you have saved their lives.”

She looked at Miss Hastel and the child. Geneva shook her head.

“It was an emergency. I did what I could. But I don’t want to ever do that again.”

A blind Caesarian section on another species without anesthesia or assistants or…Geneva wondered if something this nightmarish had ever happened. No, surely there had been worse cases. She heard a strangled laugh to her left.

Paige was sitting on the floor. Her legs had given way after she’d put the blood transfusion equipment down. She looked at Geneva, face pale, but laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

The Australian girl shook her head.

“Did you hear what you said, Geneva? Only a [Doctor] can do it.

Geneva’s slow mind took a moment to react. She could hear Okasha whispering in her head.

“Thank goodness, thank goodness. A child!”

And then Geneva’s brain processed what Paige was saying.

“Oh. Oh.

Caleffe nodded. She looked again at Miss Hastel.

“I know of many women who would prefer to know there was another way, a backup. Especially for Centaurs. The fear of it—”

“No scarring or stretching, right?”

Paige giggled, a touch hysterically with relief. Caleffe looked at her with great interest.

“Really?”

“Caesarian sections should only be performed if necessary. There is still a risk, and the operation is traumatizing.”

Geneva said that automatically. But her mind was racing. A potion could heal the trauma in moments. Miss Hastel was even able to stand, though the [Midwives] were urging her to rest, and Rital was trying to support her—a somewhat futile endeavor. But she was standing, and she looked—

Another cry made Geneva’s head turn. She nearly dropped her scalpel. The foal was standing. He—it was a he, Geneva had barely noticed—was a tiny thing. A baby and a horse, mixed into one. But there was something entirely Human about the way he struggled to his feet, instinctively going towards his mother, who couldn’t be stopped from going to him.

Geneva stared. And in her head, the fear, concentration, intensity of her work, willpower, determination, all of it coalesced into a single moment. A kind of realization. A thought.

She’d saved dying men and women of all species, dragged them back to life and heard them thanking her. She’d saved lives on a bloody battlefield only to watch them die minutes later. Afterwards she’d been as numb as relieved. The victory bittersweet. But this?

She looked down at the colt, already trying to stand. This was pure.

“I guess I should have trained to be an obstetrician.”

Geneva numbly spoke. It was the kind of stupid thing you said after an event like this. Caleffe looked confused. Paige grinned. And somehow, Geneva found herself sitting. Watching as a baby Centaur suckled for the first time. And then the door was opening, and she heard a cheer that made the baby start wailing, and people were staring at her—and she’d forgotten to wash her hands—

At some point, Geneva slept. And it was a fine, good, deep sleep. The call had come. And she’d been up to the task. That was all she’d wanted.

 

—-

 

That night, Talenqual celebrated. For what, you couldn’t say. Not because no one knew—but because there were too many reasons. Because of the victory against the giant snakes? Because of Miss Hastel’s amazing birth that had defied all odds? Because of the Last Light? Because the legends were true?

You couldn’t say. But the streets were abuzz and the United Nations apartments were filled with motion and life. Daly felt like he was caught up in a whirlpool. Every time he turned around there was something to drag his attention. Kirana showcasing her foods to a hungry street. Rital, coming to shake his hand and thank him again and again because Geneva was asleep. An adventurer doing the same for different reasons—

“Mister Daly?”

Daly turned. A Dullahan with somewhat battered armor was standing in the street, head in her hands. She was chewing on a dahi kebab. She looked embarrassed and relieved and straight at Daly.

“Eldima? I mean, Captain Eldima, right?”

The leader of the Rustless Guard shook her head.

“Eldima is suitable. After all, your company saved mine.”

“Ah, well, it wasn’t just us. It was everyone—”

“Only one company organized it. It was yours.”

Daly didn’t fight Eldima on the issue. He turned and looked down the street. The Dullahan joined him. People were partying with the Earthworlders, and someone—Dawson probably—had just begun playing some music, almost as loud as when they’d fought the serpents. The bastard had even started with Down Under.

“You spent money for us. Hiring the Centaur Runners. Convincing the other companies and adventurers to help us. And it seems your company is giving out free food.”

Daly winced. That perception was probably one reason why this street was getting flooded. But he could only shrug.

“That’s the United Nations company for you, I guess. We’re poor, but rich in friends. Which is, I dunno, better? Something like that.”

He glanced sideways and saw Eldima smile slightly. Rare on a Dullahan.

“It is a strange philosophy for a mercenary company to have.”

“Ah, well, we’re more than just mercs. We form alliances. Friends. We don’t have enemies, really. This company wasn’t meant to seize power. But to protect. Gather folks like us.”

“I see. It is strange. I would have laughed to hear that a while ago.”

“Why?”

“Because that is how all of the Great Companies first formed.”

The Dullahan looked back at Daly. He hesitated. Eldima tilted her head, and then put it on her shoulders and fastened it. She took a deep breath, then looked at Daly.

“I would like to join your company.”

What?

Daly was caught off-guard. Eldima hesitated.

“We owe you a debt. Besides which, my team is—not doing so well. We are slightly in debt for our armor and it is hard to find work that pays enough. Reaching bounties on time, the cost of healing potions…”

“We’re not so hot ourselves. The Bushrangers aren’t famous, Eldima. We barely get by. And our headquarters—”

Daly gestured. Eldima nodded.

“I understand. But we would be willing to collaborate. Work together. But I feel—your company is one that I can trust. One that it would be good to be…friends with.”

She looked at Daly, almost pleadingly. He hesitated. But then the music swelled, and all he could do was smile. He held out a hand.

“Well then. I can’t say for sure what’ll happen next. But we can always use more friends.”

And he saw a smile. And that was all you needed on a night like this. Daly laughed. And he looked up for a second, grinned at the sky, and then taught a Dullahan how to dance.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.05 D

Back home, Daly would have been enjoying his summer break. He’d be flying back, looking forwards to being home. Of course, he’d be looking for a job, but he’d be glad to be home. He’d even like to see his sister. Addy’d been fighting with his parents often, and she was a pain to be around when she was in a mood. But he would have liked to see her.

Funny. It had been months since Daly had thought of Addy. Or his family. It was as if he’d forgotten—

Daly opened his eyes as someone dropped something hard on the ground that clattered. He jerked, sprang to his feet, and whirled.

Oh my god!

Lights. Motion. In Daly’s blurred vision, they resolved themselves into a girl, barely fifteen. She was staring at him, holding her hands up. Crouching. Her brown skin was dead white, her mouth was open. He stared at her.

And then he realized he was holding his axe. He’d ripped it from the sheathe, and it was drawn back, ready to strike. Daly lowered it. The Indian girl backed away.

“Sorry. I heard—”

Sorry! I’m so sorry!

She backed away. And then fled. Daly hesitated. Then he saw the other figures around him. The other Bushrangers were frozen as well. Like Daly, they’d all woken at the sudden sound.

Half were holding weapons. Siri had a long dagger out; Dawson had snagged the mace. They looked at each other and slowly relaxed.

“Fuck me.”

Dawson lowered his mace. Embarrassed, Daly returned the axe to his side. He heard a laugh from one of the others.

“Not a fun way to wake up. Who was that? We scared her.”

Siri carefully inserted her daggers into its leather sheathe. Daly shook his head. He’d recognized the face, but the name escaped him.

“One of the Indian girls. Don’t know who. Hold on. I’ll make sure she’s okay.”

Carefully he stepped out of the room and looked down the wood hallway. The floorboards were well-worn and creaked as he headed down the stairs. There was a commotion downstairs, and Daly could hear other people moving about.

The two apartments that the United Nations company was renting was home to at least thirty souls at all times. When the Bushrangers, Luan, and Ken and Geneva’s team were back, it was over forty. Not much space for so many people in truth. People had to sleep together in the rooms, and personal space was limited.

However, given that a lot of people worked during the day, it was less cramped in the mornings. Everyone with a day job was already at work—as [Laborers], [Scribes], [Builders], and so on. Someone, Andel, had even found his way onto the fishing ships that operated out of the harbor.

The city of Talenqual was large enough to employ all of the Humans looking for a job. If it wasn’t a capital city, it was at least big enough to have a spot on any continental map. It was a port city, a necessity given Luan’s line of work, and it was relatively peaceful, as the company which claimed the city—the Featherfolk Brigade—wasn’t engaged in any major conflicts. Neither did Talenqual have any vastly rich resources which might tempt other people into fighting for them. It was just a decent place to live in.

Quiet. Except for right now. Guiltily, Daly descended the stairs. He heard a female voice and a few others, reassuring her.

“Excuse me. Morning everyone.”

Daly poked his head into the living room that was the United Nations company headquarters. It was in fact, two living rooms as the apartments had a connecting door which was permanently open. The young man saw the girl he’d scared, along with Kirana and Paige. All three looked up and Daly stopped.

“Hey there. Uh—sorry about that. We heard a noise. She must have dropped something and—”

“We know. It’s fine.”

Paige looked up. She was patting the younger girl, who was wiping her eyes. Daly’s heart sank, but Kirana said something to the girl. Sharply, in another language. Hindi? One of the languages of her nation. The girl gulped and looked at Daly.

“She dropped pieces of wood. She did not mean to wake you.”

“I’m sorry.”

The younger girl gulped. Daly gave her a reassuring smile.

“We should be apologizing. We just heard something and—you know, we’re adventurers. Really sorry, uh—”

“Priya.”

“Priya. Of course. I’m very sorry.”

Daly nodded at her. Priya sniffed. She looked at Kirana, and the older girl nodded.

“It’s fine.”

And that apparently ended that. Kirana got up, Priya hesitated, and then went past Daly. He coughed as she headed back upstairs, and looked at Paige.

“It was just—”

“I get it. It’s not the first time. Andel nearly stabbed Dion by accident the other day. I’ve banned weapons in the house, but you lot are a special case.”

“Right.”

The Bushrangers were the only active fighters among the group. Six of them, all adventurers. Of course the other Earthworlders owned weapons—especially those that had survived their stint as mercenaries—but Daly could see how dangerous that was. He scratched his head, feeling the adrenaline leaving him. He blinked and looked around.

“It’s late out. What time is it?”

“Late morning. We were going to let you sleep.”

Daly rubbed at his face.

“Kind of you. We needed it. We—aw, fuck. The computer—”

He’d forgotten to turn it off! It must have burned through all the battery. Paige looked up and shook her head.

“Don’t worry about it. Kirana saw you were all asleep and turned off the laptop.”

“That’s a relief.”

Daly sighed.

“We’ve got to get ahold of a spellbook or find someone who can teach us [Repair]. Paying for it’s not worth the expense each week.”

“It’s what keeps half of us sane. So I’m including it as a reasonable price. But I am searching for someone who can teach us—none of the [Mages] want to give up our daily contribution. And we don’t have anyone who’s high enough level yet, besides.”

Paige scowled as she sat down at the table. She was working on something. Another design, from the looks of it. She had a piece of charcoal and parchment she was sketching on. She glared at the document, probably thinking of the amount of money they paid to get [Mages] to recharge their electronics each week, and then looked up.

“You didn’t brush your teeth last night, did you?”

“We did not.”

Guiltily, Daly realized they hadn’t done anything like that for the last two days. He felt at his teeth. Furry. He winced. Paige just shook her head.

“Head upstairs. Kirana made some new toothpaste.”

“Really? Alright then. Be down in half a sec.”

He headed upstairs. True enough, Kirana was waiting for him. Priya was nowhere in sight. Kirana offered Daly something. He blinked down at a minty-smelling wooden tub.

“Here. We made toothpaste. Better than last time.”

She smiled as Daly accepted the thick, whitish-yellow paste and sniffed at it. The unmistakable mint smell intensified.

“This smells a lot better than the salt stuff we were using before. What’s in this, mint?”

“Mint. Oil. Salt—it’s better. You have toothbrushes?”

“Yep, I think we’re set. Thanks a lot, Kirana.”

She nodded. Daly made his way into the room and looked about.

“Hey you lot—”

“We’re changing.”

He saw a curtain drawn across half the room. The two other guys were on the other side, not bothering to change clothes from last night. Daly shrugged. He pointed at the tub.

“We’ve got some toothpaste.”

The others looked up. Dawson slapped his forehead in disgust.

Fuck. I knew I forgot something! It’s been days since I brushed my teeth. Give it here!”

He fished for his belt pouch as Daly set the toothpaste tub on a table instead. He had a toothbrush in his pack as opposed to his belt pouch, and he had to wait for the girls to dress before he could retrieve it. Then he and the others gathered around the toothpaste, filled their brushes—half modern plastic, the other half wood, made of some stubbly brush—and began to brush their teeth.

It was odd. But there was something so satisfying about an activity as mundane as brushing their teeth. Especially because this toothpaste tasted halfway like something you could buy at home. Nothing Daly would have bought if he had an option—the bits of mint that had been crushed and mixed in with the gel did little to counteract the salty, astringent flavor—but it felt like proper toothpaste. Daly fished out a canteen, gargled, and then realized he had to spit.

So did the other Bushrangers. They fought silently to be the first to the loo—in this case, a smelly pair of toilets located at the back of the apartment. There they spat into it, holding their breath and washing their mouths out.

“That’s good toothpaste! My mouth actually feels fresh.

Siri exclaimed after they’d returned to the room. Daly nodded, running his tongue over his gums. He hoped they wouldn’t start bleeding. The last thing he needed was to lose a tooth or get a cavity in this world.

“And that toilet’s disgusting. Did you smell that? I’d almost rather go in the bush.”

Another girl complained. Daly grimaced. It was true. The toilet wasn’t one of the fancy, flushing toilets he’d taken for granted back at home. It was an outhouse design—that meant wood panel with a hole you could do your business through. And what was uh, excreted didn’t go anywhere. It sat at the bottom of a combined container for both apartments.

“It needs emptying.”

“Not it.”

Half of the Bushrangers instantly touched their noses. Daly didn’t.

“It’s not our job. We pay someone to take it out. [Nightman], the class is called. They take the stuff, use it in the fields.”

“Not [Nightwoman]?”

“You want the job, Siri? Because I hear it pays well. It’s a shite job, though.”

“Hah.”

Siri punched Dawson. The others groaned, imagining that line of work. They’d all had to work hard—well, Siri and Tofte had joined them after the Bushrangers had been formed—but there were some lines they weren’t willing to cross. Daly grimaced.

“It’s what people did for ages in the past. I guess no one’s invented sewers?”

“Oh, they have mate. I was talking with a Lizardguy the other day. He says there are sewers in some cities. Lots of ‘em in other continents like Izril and Terandria, apparently. But they don’t bother with them here.

“Probably because something’d breed in them if they did. Imagine taking a job there?”

Daly could, all too well. He shook his head.

“You’re putting me off my food, you lot are. Let’s have brekky and then get to work.”

“Another job?”

His team looked at him, not so much with resistance as a kind of weariness. Daly felt it himself. They’d just been on the job. But if there was more money to be made—they could always use it.

“If we see a good contract. I’ll head down to the guild myself. You lot take the day off until then.”

“Right.”

With that, they headed downstairs. They found another surprise waiting for them. Food, again courtesy of Kirana and two of the other girls who stayed about the house. Daly smiled, as Siri and the others found Priya and apologized again.

“Rica and lentils and—what’s the bread stuff? That’s new?”

“It’s called poori. It’s a popular breakfast at home.”

Kirana explained as she filled bowls with rice and poured lentils over the top. She also had several sticks of corn, which had been baked until the sides were turning a bit black. Those were good, so Daly snagged one and tore into it at the table with the others. He was ravenous and the food really was good.

“This is so good. I miss this every time we’re out. And you made these poori really well, Kirana.”

The young woman smiled. She was the [Cook] in charge of feeding everyone, and the second manager of the home front besides Paige. In truth, she’d pretty much taken over the household affairs to let the Australian girl work on more designs, and she and several of the girls from India—another addition to the company about two months back—had really improved the living situation. Especially because it turned out that Baleros’ markets sold a lot of ingredients that they were quite familiar with from their country.

The foods of Baleros were plentiful and a mix of exotic and familiar. Daly had been surprised to see staple foods like corn and rice being served alongside plants he’d never seen before. Blue tubers, spicy red things called Yellats, and so on. But Baleros was known for growing a lot of produce, and there was meat to be had as well. Obviously that was more expensive, so the breakfast was all-vegetarian. But spicy, filling, and just the thing for hungry adventurers.

Paige kept working at another table as the Bushrangers ate their fill. She had some of the money out, in neat rows and was doing calculations. She looked up as Daly was going back for his last helping.

“Kirana, here’s the money for this week’s budget. Try not to buy too many spices. I know it’s important, but that and oil take up a lot of our budget.”

She handed Kirana four gold coins and three silver ones. The girl nodded. Daly’s insides twisted a bit—feeding the company for one week cost two thirds of what they’d been paid to take out those damn Stelbore. True, it was a lot of mouths, but Paige was already separating more gold coins out from their limited stash.

“And here’s the month’s rent. Daly, can you take this over to Miss Hastel on the way out?”

“Definitely. I’ll pop by the Adventurer’s Guild as well.”

Paige paused.

“Already? You just got back from your last job. You could take a break.”

Daly shrugged uncomfortably.

“We’re not that tired.”

He looked around for confirmation. The other Bushrangers nodded, or murmured agreement. But their postures told Daly they could use a break. He felt it too.

It was hard being an adventurer. Not as hard as being a soldier in a company and fighting huge battles, but in other ways just as bad. They’d spent a day and a half scoping out their target and barely speaking, in the jungle with things biting them, alert for every second. One time they’d spent nearly a week tracking monsters down, sleeping in primitive mosquito nets while it poured rain and mud down on them.

But what else could they do? It was all about money. Paige hesitated.

“Maybe you should take a day off. We’re set with coin, especially if Luan comes back. Or Ken and Geneva. They’re set to come back today or tomorrow, you know. They sent a [Message].”

That relaxed Daly a bit. He hesitated.

“If there’s nothing really good…”

Paige nodded. Siri looked up.

“Anything you need us to do if while we’re here?”

She looked at Kirana and the others. Kirana shook her head.

“It’s your day off. Enjoy yourselves.”

That just made it harder for Daly to commit to taking a request. He sighed. But they had a point and the idea was tempting. If he saw something really good at the Adventurer’s Guild…

“Right. I’ll nip down there, but you all take a break. Which reminds me—here.”

He fished at his belt pouch and handed around some of the money he’d kept. Two silver coins to each. The Bushrangers brightened.

“Spending money? We must be doing well.”

“Don’t spread it. But you’ve earned a break.”

Daly met Paige’s eyes questioningly, and she nodded. Some of the other Indian girls looked jealous. Money had been the subject of a lot of arguments in the company, until it was decided that everyone could take a few coins from their job—the rest would go to Paige so she could spent it on necessities and what the company deemed vital. Again though, the Bushrangers were an exception to that rule in some regards.

“I’m off, then. Paige about the crossbows—”

“I’ll get the steel I ordered in a few days. But it won’t be ready for trials for a week.”

Daly grimaced.

“Alright, then. We’ve got poison, still. And it’s damn effective. Killed the Stelbore right off. I’ll see you in a bit.”

“I’ll join you in visiting Miss Hastel.”

Siri offered. Daly nodded. The two of them strode out of the apartments as the other four Bushrangers broke up.

“What’ll Dawson and the others do for the day, do you think?”

Daly looked at Siri as he opened the door and the humidity and sun swept over him. He blinked as he saw several Lizardfolk walking down the street, a Dullahan, and then a Centaur trotting by, pulling a cart. This was home, alright. Siri shrugged. Walking down the long steps, designed to let a Centaur climb them, she looked around the city.

“Probably use the computers, if Paige lets them. Otherwise? Books. Maybe go out and buy something, get a few drinks. Check the markets. We could really use some magical artifacts, you know.”

“I know. But affording even potions is all we can do.”

Daly sighed. He walked into Talenqual, and looked around. The buildings stretched out ahead of them. Few were more than three stories tall, if that. Most were made of either wood or the mud brick the Lizardfolk loved to use. For all that, the city felt vibrant. Alive. A few larger structures near the center of the city stood out, having been made of quarried stone or even reinforced with magic. Beyond the city lay the sea, a glittering sight, filled with boats from the harbor. And in Talenqual walked the citizens of Baleros.

Dullahans in armor. Wood or metal, often decorated or inlaid with fancy decorations if they were rich civilians, or functional iron or steel if they were warriors. Poor Dullahans wore crude, painted wood, but all of them were unmistakably Dullahan—some carried their heads in baskets or slings, allowing them to rotate them in every direction while their bodies walked. Colorful mist, or fog ran from the place where their heads should have been.

Centaurs trotted past them, tall half-equine, half-human people. They were far larger than any other species, and moved briskly. Many of the workers pulled carts or other vehicles behind them, and Daly and Siri kept out of their way. The flow of traffic in Talenqual was such that the Centaurs tended to move in the center lanes, which allowed the slower foot traffic to move on either side of the street—unless you wanted to cross the road. Daly saw a scaly body dart across the road and a Centaur slow and stamp impatiently to let the pedestrian cross.

A Lizardgirl. She ran across the street, laughing and waving at the Centaur. More than Centaurs or Dullahans, it was Lizardfolk who dominated the streets in numbers. Talenqual was a Lizardfolk city after all, and the scaly, friendly people of Baleros moved about in groups, chattering, talking, always on the hunt for something interesting. They had neck frills and colorful, patterned scales that made them stand out. It was rare to see a Lizardfolk not smiling or chatting. Rarer still was seeing one of the evolved forms a Lizardfolk could eventually turn into, a Naga, or Lamia, or other rare serpentine variant.

“Hey! It’s you! Buddy!”

Not fifteen steps out their door, Daly and Siri were accosted by a smiling Lizardman, or perhaps a Lizardyoungman. He was carrying a glittering bottle filled with what looked like a powerful potion in one claw—it shone with four different colors, black, blue, yellow, and flashes of orange as it sloshed about in the jar. He came up to Daly, grinning widely.

“I got that potion you wanted. Really top-grade stuff, right? It was hard getting my claws on it, but for you—”

He got no further as he tried to slide closer. Daly held up a hand.

“Piss off, mate. We’re not tourists. We’ve been here before. United Nations company. We don’t want colored water.”

“Aw.”

The Lizardman deflated at once. He tucked the bottle away and scowled for a second. A few Lizardfolk who’d heard Daly laughed at him.

“You Humans are hard to tell apart! You’re all one color.”

He turned away. Daly called out after him.

“Who actually buys that stuff?”

“Idiots! Wish me luck!”

The Lizardman turned and waved. Siri shook her head.

“There’s hawkers in every world. Has anyone in our group ever fallen for that?”

“Dawson.”

A delighted look crossed Siri’s face.

“He did? He never said!”

Daly nodded, although it was harder to smile at the memory.

“First day we came to a big city. Paid eight silver coins for some alchemy-colored water.”

“Oh.”

“Yep. Luan and Paige nearly throttled him. I’ve never got bit, but you should be careful. The bad scammers are like that, but the good ones have Skills. I nearly found myself buying an amulet from a bloke I could have sworn I was best friends with.”

“Scary. And there’s [Thieves] with Skills too. [Merchants]…it’s a wonder we’re not robbed blind every time we go out.”

“That’s why Paige controls our money. You can’t overspend on what you don’t have. Speaking of which—you really want to say hi to Miss Hastel?”

Siri fidgeted.

“I…I’d like to see her.”

Or her husband. But Daly made no comment. The address of Miss Hastel, their [Landlady], was only a block away. She owned several properties on the street, and she’d naturally chosen the loveliest home for herself. The front of her neat apartment wasn’t mud brick but stone—far more impervious to bugs or rot in Baleros’ heat. Daly knocked once, and after a minute, heard faint noises.

Hoofbeats. Four of them. And then the door opened and Daly felt a gust of cool air. Miss Hastel, a Centaur with tan fur and dark black spots around on her flanks, looked down. Her upper half was dark-skinned, a contrast to her lighter pattern. And she had blonde hair. Dyed, apparently.

She was also heavily, noticeably pregnant. A large bulge in the center of her lower half weighed her down, but it had been covered by a quilt-like covering over her lower torso. Clothing for the lower half was optional for Centaurs, but this was clearly a decorative, expensive dress, bright blue and white. Miss Hastel blinked at the two Humans for a second, and then she focused on Daly’s face.

“Oh, it’s you. Mister Daly and…a friend? Come in.”

She smiled, lifting a hand and gesturing them inside. Daly and Siri obeyed with alacrity, because the inside of Miss Hastel’s house was pleasantly cool. Magically so, in fact. Daly only paused to scrape his boots of the dirt and whatever muck was on them on the rug. Siri did likewise, and they walked into Miss Hastel’s apartment.

“Please, have a seat. Anywhere you’d like.”

Miss Hastel waved her hand around the spacious, and quite tall apartment that was her home. A Centaur’s house was noticeably different from the Lizardfolk dwellings. For instance, while the United Nations company had rented an apartment for Lizardfolk, or perhaps Dullahans, and gotten a building with two floors, with multiple smaller rooms for a number of people, Miss Hastel’s building was one floor, and spacious.

Centaurs did not like cramped spaces. Nor did they enjoy climbing stairs. So Miss Hastel had an open kitchen, a very spacious living room, and even a door less bedroom only partially concealed by a wall. Daly looked around, thinking that the room looked like something he might see back home—with a few differences.

The first, obviously, was the lack of large windows. Even Miss Hastel couldn’t afford more than two small glass ones. The second was that her couches and chairs were quite limited in number. Centaurs couldn’t sit on most chairs, so she had rugs and pillows instead.

“Would you like anything to eat?”

“We’re fine, thank you. We won’t take up too much of your time.”

Out of deference to her, Daly and Siri sat on the ground and Miss Hastel sat on a large pillow, cushioning her belly, with her hooves facing the Humans, though Daly suspected she’d be more comfortable lying flat out. But Miss Hastel was a Centaur and thus she was infallibly courteous to her hosts. And that also dictated how Daly and Siri behaved.

“A lovely home, Miss Hastel. Thank you for inviting us in.”

Daly nodded to the apartment. The Centauress smiled.

“Thank you. And thank you for coming. I’d be out and about, but as you can see I am indisposed.”

She indicated her stomach. Daly nodded politely.

Ken’s Centaur Rule #12, or something. Centaurs value tradition, ceremony. You have to make small talk. It’s one of the reasons why they hate Dullahans being blunt and to-the-point and Lizardfolk indiscretion. Exceptions exist, but err on the side of caution.

“I assume you’ve come about the monthly rent? Or is there another issue with the walls?”

Miss Hastel broached the subject at last. Daly smiled.

“No problem with the walls. Paige is grateful for how fast you got the [Alchemist] to whip up that pesticide. We’ve come about the rent. This is next month’s payment, if you’ll accept it?”

“Of course.”

Different though they might be, the allure of gold was a fairly universal attraction. Miss Hastel’s eyes lit up at the sight of the gold and silver. She let Daly place it on a small foot table in front of them.

“A proper payment. And ahead of time too. Your company are excellent tenants, Mister Dally, Miss Siri.”

“We try to be.”

Siri smiled. She looked at Miss Hastel’s stomach. Daly saw her open her mouth, and then he heard a slam. Someone had thrown open the door, and a loud, exuberant voice bellowed into the room.

Hello! I’m back!

Daly jerked. His hand went to his side, but this time another hand caught it. Siri stopped Daly from reaching for his axe. He relaxed at once and she let go. Miss Hastel hadn’t noticed. She’d jumped and was glaring towards the door. Daly turned and saw Miss Hastel’s husband…or partner, or…

Cat?

He was certainly a cat. If you took a look at the ancient Egyptian drawings of cat-gods and compared it to the Beastkin that strode into the apartment, you’d find a lot of differences. This was a proper cat-man, not just a cat’s head on a Human body. He was shorter than Daly, but slimmer, and he had Humanoid fingers. Beyond that though? All cat. His tail wagged as he grinned at Miss Hastel, did a double-take, and spotted the Humans.

“Oh! It’s the Humans! I didn’t know you had guests.”

Rital!

The Centaur woman looked completely embarrassed at his entry. Rital, looked completely unabashed. He spotted the gold coins and grinned.

“Ooh! Paying rent? You Humans are so prompt! And easy to deal with! Not like Lizardfolk or Dullahans. Or Centaurs. They’re all awful. Actually, what am I saying? Humans can get pretty bad too.”

Daly grinned. Rital was energetic as Miss Hastel was stately, for all that both of them were probably a decade older than he and Siri. The Centauress cleared her throat meaningfully.

“I think you mean to say that Mister Daly and Miss Siri are excellent residents.”

The Cat-tribe Beastkin nodded cheerfully.

“So long as they keep paying. Otherwise we’ve got a problem. Hey, pal. If you don’t keep paying her on time, I’ll get upset, you get me?”

He glared at Daly, narrowing his eyes. He pounded one furry fist into his palm. Daly tried not to laugh. And the sparkle in Rital’s eyes told Daly that he was having fun too.

“Perfectly clear, mate. Message received.”

“Aw, don’t worry! I’m just kidding. Or am I?

Rital’s antics brought a laugh out of Daly. Miss Hastel on the other hand looked like she wanted to kick Rital. She stood up slowly and glared at her partner.

“I think Mister Daly and Miss Siri have more important business to attend to. Thank you for coming, you two.”

“Yep! Keep bringing us money! Hasty’s not able to get around that far. What with the kitt—er, foal on the way…”

The Cat-man bounded over lightly and put an arm around Hastel. His long, feline tail curled up around her. Siri sighed quietly so that only Daly noticed.

Miss Hastel went crimson. She looked mortified as she ushered the Humans to the door.

“Please excuse Rital. He’s always so…”

“We’re not bothered. He’s a breath of fresh air, that one.”

Daly reassured the female Centaur. She caught her breath, and then smiled at last.

“To you, maybe. But to other Centaurs…”

She held open the door. Daly walked out regretfully—Miss Hastel’s apartment was cool and lacking humidity, probably thanks to magic. What he wouldn’t have paid for air conditioning at home. Siri paused by the door.

“Miss Hastel, when are you expecting your child?”

The Centauress’ eyes lit up. She paused by the door and Daly stood back and watched as Rital made faces, trying to get him and Siri to laugh. That was, until a hoof shot backwards and nearly hit him in the groin.

“Any day now. I have the best [Midwife] on call.”

“It’s your first birth?”

“My very first. But I’m not worried. Rital will be there—outside, naturally, where he can’t cause trouble. And my [Midwife] is the best in the city. A Centaur, of course. After the birth, I’d welcome visitors.”

“We’ll be sure to be there. I’m sure everyone from the company will want to come over—”

Daly cleared his throat.

“Some of us will certainly stop by. Good day, Miss Hastel.”

He dragged Siri backwards. The Centauress bade them farewell and Rital waved at them before the door closed. The two Humans stood on the doorstep. They very clearly heard Miss Hastel’s voice for a second.

“What have I told you about being rude to—”

“Aw, come on. They liked it. Humans love—”

The Humans in question backed away. They walked a bit away from the apartment, then Daly looked at Siri, a bit vexed. He crossed his arms.

“You know we’ll have to give gifts to the baby.”

Siri was unabashed.

“We’d have to do that anyways. Ken would insist on it. I didn’t know [Midwife] was a class.”

Daly grunted, imaging the cost of a present for Miss Hastel’s baby.

“It’s a variant of [Healer]. Anyways, you got your fill?”

“I did.”

Siri smiled, a bit wistfully. She glanced back towards the door. Paying Miss Hastel hadn’t been what she’d come here to do. She’d only come to see Rital.

It wasn’t that she was interested in Rital in any kind of romantic way. If she was, Daly would have stopped Siri from jeopardizing their relationship with their landlady at all costs. No, it was just that Siri loved seeing a full-sized Cat from the Cat-tribe of the Beastkin. Rital was the only Cat Beastkin in the city. Beastkin were rare, even on their home continent of Baleros. And Siri loved cats. And Rital was more cat than even regular cats. Then Siri frowned.

“I don’t know how Hastel gets along with Rital. He’s the exact opposite of what most Centaurs are like. I’d expect him to be a Lizardfolk’s partner, but not her.”

Daly shrugged. He led the way down the street.

“All sorts of weird couples find love. You know that.”

“But how did he get her—

“He didn’t. She was in a relationship and the stallion—male Centaur—ran off.”

“Oh. And Rital stuck with her?”

“Apparently they were already close friends. I guess they got closer. Some cats are loyal like that.”

“They are.”

Siri glanced wistfully back at the house. Daly sighed.

“Please don’t try and scratch his ears or something. Because I think Miss Hastel’d kick us all out if you did.”

“I would never. But that doesn’t mean I can’t look.”

Siri glared at Daly. Then she signed.

“I’m going back to the apartments. You’re going to the Adventurer’s Guild?”

“I’ll only take a request if it pays really well.”

“I’ll hold you to it. Later.”

Siri trotted back down the street. Daly watched her go. Then he looked around. Lizardfolk, Centaurs, a scowling Dullahan—he was alone. And for some reason, that felt fitting.

Daly walked forwards and melded with the crowd. He stood out. He was an oddity, a Human, one of the rarer species on Baleros. But he wasn’t a foreigner, or a tourist. In some ways, after several months here, he’d gotten to know Baleros.

Daly watched his belt pouch as he walked, careful of [Pickpockets]. He effortlessly fended off [Hawkers] and other street vendors, and ambled towards the port. The city of Talenqual had grown up around the docks, so most of the more established structures and richer districts were located closer to the spot. Not too close though; the smell of fish and the commerce of the docks wasn’t appealing to most.

Nali-stick! Want a nali-stick?

“Xelca meat, fresh!”

“Looking for someone willing to haul cargo off the ships! Fifteen pairs of hands wanted! No Centaurs!

“Hey, has anyone seen the shop where they sell that new board game? Not the chess one—”

Daly heard competing voices shouting for attention as he walked. He paused and glanced at one of the shouters. A little Lizardgirl, her scales a dusky pink and yellow, was waving a basket of white, fibrous sticks. He paused in front of her and fished for a copper coin.

“Give me a stick.”

He offered her the coin. The Lizardgirl inspected it, fished in her basket, and held one up.

Nali-stick! Here you go, Mister Daly!”

She knew him! The adventurer grinned.

“Have we met?”

The nali-stick seller looked scornful. She shook her head, the red frills around her neck opening slightly.

“Everyone knows the Human team that came here! You’re the Captain, right? Want more sticks for your team? I’ll give you one for free if you buy five!”

“No thanks. I’m good with one.”

Daly stuck the end of the white stick in his mouth and tore a piece off. It came away—the nali-stick was made up of many fibers—and chewed hard. For a second he only tasted the tough fiber, and then a wave of sweetness flooded his mouth. Daly grinned, and the Lizardgirl laughed as she saw his eyes light up.

Of the exports Baleros was known for, sugar was one of its chief moneymakers. It came from sugarcane, which grew on the continent above all else. The famed plant yielded sugar that the world so badly craved. However, Nali-sticks were concentrated versions of the tall-growing plant. Unlike sugarcane, they were much thinner, but held just as much sweet in their thin stalks.  As such they were highly prized as snacks, and it was a cheap buy in markets where the stuff grew plentifully.

“Want another stick, Mister? Or you want to buy information? Looking to raid a dungeon?”

Daly glanced back down at the little Lizardgirl.

“I could be. Why, you know about some super-secret dungeon full of treasure? Because I’ll treat you to a nali-stick if you do.”

Indignant, the little Lizardgirl pushed her basket up one arm and glared at Daly

“For information about a dungeon? You should pay me silver!”

The Australian adventurer grinned.

“I would. If I thought the information you were selling was good.”

“I’ll swear on a [Detect Lies] spell that—”

“—I’m sure you would. But that’s not the point, is it? If you’re selling information, how do I know you didn’t get it from someone else?”

Daly cut the little Lizardgirl off. She hesitated. He went on.

“And if you know about a special lair that’s popped up, I’ll bet everyone in the city knows about it. Especially at the Adventurer’s Guild, hmm? A new dungeon’s popped up and it’s all the rage? Is that the information you were going to sell me?”

She squirmed, a child caught out in a lie. Daly grinned.

“Well, now I have two reasons to go to the Guild.”

“Aw. But I still told you! Don’t I get anything?

“Tell you what. I’ll buy you another nali-stick.”

“Five silver!”

He handed her a copper coin. The Lizardgirl eyed it, then shrugged and handed him another stick. Daly laughed and they parted ways.

Two sticks worth of sugar put the pep in Daly’s step. He double-timed it to the Guild and found it was abuzz with activity. Adventurers were pouring out the doors and half of them were armed. It looked like the Lizardgirl was telling the truth. One of the teams fighting to be out first was arguing with another group.

“We have first rights! If the coach comes, we requested it. Stand down!”

A Dullahan in iron armor swung a fist and an angry Lizardman backed up. Daly recognized her as she whirled. Her small team was keeping everyone else back. She eyed him and then blinked.

“Ah. Captain Daly. Are you going after this new dungeon?”

Daly looked at the Dullahans. They were the ones from last night. He paused.

“The Rustless Guard, right? Captain Eldima?”

She nodded.

“Our team just heard about it. I don’t know if you’ve heard the news?”

“New dungeon? Popped outta nowhere?”

He didn’t even have to know the details to guess. Baleros, like all the continents in this world was ancient. Dungeons long buried often appeared as geography changed naturally or artificially. Edima nodded.

“The rainfall cleared an entrance. It’s three miles south of here. Very close. We intend to inspect it first. And your team?”

Daly eyed the Dullahan, thought about the odds of taking on an unknown lair faster than the other teams—if they could even get there before the others, that was—and shook his head.

“My team deserves a rest. It’s all yours, and the best of luck to you if you can get there first.”

The Dullahans relaxed. Eldima offered Daly a rare smile.

“We will take that luck. We are ready to go and only await—here it is.”

Daly heard clattering hooves. Shod. A pair of Centaurs raced down the street, and then another pair. Both were pulling carriages. They stopped and the Rustless Guard poured into the carriages. The other adventuring teams roared and some raced down the street, looking for another carriage. Daly waved up to Edima as she scrambled into the coach last of all.

“Fame and fortune to you.”

Eldima turned her head and nodded down to him.

“It surely awaits.”

And then they were gone.

“Huh. I wonder if they’ll find anything.”

It was a tossup, really. A new dungeon could hold nothing, having already been plundered in ages past, a massive fortune, or have simply become the lair of some monster. But it was exciting. On another day Daly would have cursed not having heard about the dungeon ahead of time. Today? He was relieved for the excuse not to visit it.

The Adventurer’s Guild was practically empty as Daly strode in. All the teams were converging on the dungeon, and wouldn’t it be a right mess when they got there? The desk was staffed by a Dullahan, or rather, her head. Her body was hard at work mopping the floor.

“Any contracts worth looking at?”

Daly addressed the head. The [Receptionist] paused.

“Nothing I can think of. The dungeon’s the rage, but every Silver-rank team and Gold-rank team’s headed for it. You can check the board, if you’d like.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

Daly checked the board. He spotted a few contracts—taking out some large rodents annoying one of the [Farmers], hunting down some birds for a [Fletcher], a lucrative job escorting a trading ship—nothing that the Bushrangers were interested in.

“A day off it is.”

Daly found there was a smile on his face. He walked back out of the Adventurer’s Guild. He could tell the others. Take a longer nap, maybe consult with Paige. But—that was work, wasn’t it? What if he just played a game on one of the laptops—assuming they had juice—or went and grabbed a quick drink? He could do that. Or he could head into the main city and—

“Mister Daly! Mister Daly!”

The adventurer’s head turned. He saw a little Lizardgirl race up to him. The same girl he’d spoken to not half a minute ago. She even had the basket of nali-sticks on her arm. Some bounced out and fell to the ground and other children pounced on the snacks. The Lizardgirl didn’t notice. She waved at Daly and stopped in front of him, panting.

“Mister Daly! I have something else to tell you! You’re giving a bounty on information, right? I remember you said!”

She looked up at him, her eyes imploring this to be so. Daly hesitated.

“A bounty?”

“Yeah! On news about strange Humans! Well, I forgot, but I heard there were some Humans who were spotted in an abandoned village! They were really weird! They have weird clothing, and they were in trouble because they weren’t supposed to be there!”

Daly froze. Strange Humans? Weird clothing? His contented mood vanished.

“Strange clothing? Did they have anything else off about them?”

The Lizardgirl thought, panting.

“They—they had strange lights. Not magical ones, but bright. One of the [Builders] sent to check out the village said they scared him and the others off! With these bright artifacts! But no magic. I can show you the person who saw them, if you want. They’re going to chase the Humans off soon!”

Squatters with bright, non-magical lights. Daly could only imagine one scenario that fit that. He looked at the Lizardgirl, heart racing, then fumbled at his belt pouch.

“Tell me more, kid. And bring me to the person who said they met the Humans. If you do—”

He flashed the Lizardgirl a silver coin. Her jaw opened with delight. She dragged at his hand and Daly looked about. More Lizardchildren were about. He pointed at one.

“You, run to find Siri, Paige, or someone from my company at their apartments. You know the ones? Miss Hastel’s buildings, down on Texal Street. Tell them to ready up the Bushrangers. We might have a mission.”

 

—-

 

It was only three of them who took the Centaur-driven transport out of the city. It wasn’t so much a carriage as a wagon, designed to carry more bodies. Daly had no idea how many Humans there were, so he hoped the wagon was enough. And the information seemed good. Daly had met the Lizardman [Builder] who’d been sent to begin reclaiming a village that had been abandoned due to a Spear Spider infestation.

The worry Daly had was whether this was just a waste of time and money. But he’d paid for the Centaur-wagon and Paige had agreed it was important. So Daly took Dawson and Siri with him to the village.

“You’re sure we’re not going to run into monsters on the way? Because we’re not being paid to outrun monsters.”

One of the Centaurs pulling the wagon looked at Daly as he climbed on board. He was one of a pair—the other Centauress was chewing on a nali-stick. She glanced back at him as well. Daly shook his head.

“No fighting or monsters, mates. The village is supposed to be abandoned. We’re only going to check on the Humans living there. Swear it on the adventurer’s code of honor.”

“You don’t have one.”

“Well then, I swear by my good looks.”

Daly grinned. The Centaurs exchanged a glance. The Centauress snorted.

“Let’s just go. The Spear Spiders hit that place last month. If we’re just going there, it’s fine.”

The wagon jolted into motion as the Centaurs grunted and began to pull it forwards. Daly, sitting in the back next to Siri across from Dawson, felt a bit of air begin to blow past his face. He stared ahead as the wagon drove through the city.

It was only midday. But they’d be travelling for a good hour. Siri and Dawson sat in the back, staring at the city as the Centaurs slowly navigated towards the gates. When they left the city, they were still initially slow until they won clear of the foot traffic flowing in and out. Then they picked up speed.

In Baleros, transportation from city-to-city and within the cities had another facet in the form of Centaur-pulled carriages, rickshaws, and so on. They provided a cheap, easy means of transport and had literally outrun the competition in the Runner’s Guilds. The only exceptions were those who could navigate the unpaved areas or waters, like Luan.

The sight of the two Centaurs trotting ahead while their upper bodies remained still was interesting. To pass the time, the Centaurs were chatting quietly. The female Centaur was even cutting some nali, extracting the sweet core for her friend. In the back, the adventurers sat together, talking over the rush of the wind and the sound of the Centaur’s hooves.

“Shit. I didn’t bring my poison with me, Daly. It’s in my pack. I grabbed my crossbow, but…”

Dawson groused. Siri shot him a reproving glance. She had her gear, pack included.

“Do you have enough quarrels?”

“Yeah! But the poison—no.”

“We’re not here for a fight. If it comes to that, we’ll lend you our share.”

Daly reassured his friend. Nevertheless, he checked that he had his sealed jar of poison on him as well. He had brought his crossbow, as had the other two. They were armed for a fight. Just in case.

“Think they’re really from Earth?”

“It sounded like they had a flashlight or some kind of electronics. And who else would hide in an abandoned village? Bandits would have attacked.”

“Guess we’ll see.”

Dawson settled back in the wagon. Daly nodded. He stared over the side of the wagon. Baleros wasn’t all jungle and forest. Like the Americas that Baleros vaguely resembled on the maps, parts were extraordinarily clear and flat. The Centaurs made their homes there. Lizardfolk loved the marshes and swamps. They had settled the port cities while Dullahans claimed the cold north by and large. Other species like Selphids and Gazers inhabited the deeper jungles.

Right now, the wagon was driving through rice fields. The Lizardfolk had created vast paddy fields which, filled from Baleros’ spring rains, were busy growing large quantities of crops. It also had the byproduct of attracting bugs and insects. And frogs and other amphibians too, all of which Lizardfolk loved to eat.

“I hope it won’t rain. I’ve had enough of sitting in the jungle with rain drowning us. And I don’t know how they’ll do in the rain.”

Dawson remarked, nodding to the Centaurs. The male Centaur snorted.

“We have Skills, idiot.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Apparently, the Centaurs could still hear the Humans in the back. Daly scooted forwards. The female Centaur half-turned to look at him.

“Mind me asking how bad the rain gets? This is our first time to Baleros. We had a few nasty close calls with the rain flooding streams on the job.”

“When you were adventuring?”

Daly nodded.

“How bad’s it get? We’ve seen some of the big storms. Does it get worse?”

The Centaurs looked at each other. They spoke at the same time.

“You’ve barely seen the rainy season. You want monsoons? We’ve got monsoons this far south.”

“Miserable weather. Hate it. I can barely walk and there’s mud everywhere. Worst time to work. You might break a foreleg.”

“The only species who love this weather are Lizardfolk. The freaks love dancing about in the rain.”

They groused happily to Daly and the others about the weather. The male Centaur, whose name was Bault, pointed at the sky.

“Don’t worry about rain today. You think we don’t check the weather on long runs? Our climate mages aren’t perfect, but they usually know what’s happening. Unless a company decides to mess with the weather or start burning something.”

“That happen often?”

“The smoke interferes with the clouds. Sometimes it can change what’s predicted. Otherwise—well, there’s no perfect spell for detecting the weather. Some Skills can tell when it’s about to change, but not predict, right? I suppose a [Diviner] could do better, but we don’t have one.”

“Gotcha.”

The female Centaur, Pihava, glanced at Daly.

“So you’re the Bushrangers. I heard you were all [Rogues]. Practically invisible on the job.”

Daly smiled. They were well-known! Maybe it wasn’t just them being Humans.

“I wish. We’re just good at hiding. The idiot in the back’s Dawson, and that’s Siri.”

“Charmed.”

“Our idiot leader’s Daly. Hey, that village we’re headed to was attacked by Spear Spiders, right? What the hell’s a Spear Spider?”

Pihava shrugged. It was quite convenient for her to be able to run and turn sideways to talk. Although she kept looking forward to check the road.

“They’re one breed of Baleros’ resident spiders. There are all types. You’ve heard of Shield Spiders? No? Well, I’d prefer those, honestly. Spearwalker Spiders are tall. Some can grow up to twelve feet high—”

“Siri?”

“Three and a half meters.”

Fuck. You serious?”

“All legs. They’re tall ones. You know those spiders that have small bodies but really tall legs? That’s a Spear Spider. Only, their legs can impale people. And they have this trick they use to modulate how long their legs are. They’re fast, dangerous—”

“But fragile. I hear adventurers just blast them in the bodies with magic or swing a warhammer and take them apart.”

Bault looked back at Daly. The young man looked at his crossbow.

“Think they’re immune to poison? Because we don’t go for heavy armored foes. We’re skirmishers.”

“Tell you what. If we run into them—and they should be gone, or I’m kicking every head in at the Runner’s Guild—I’ll let you shoot as many crossbow bolts to find out as you want.”

Daly grinned.

“Fair. Say, how many close calls have you had on the road?”

“Well, Pihava’s new, so personally—”

The conversation went on for about twenty minutes, and then lapsed into silence. Daly sat in the back of the wagon and closed his eyes. He could still use a rest. Or rather, his mind told his body to grab the break while it could. It was comfortable in the back of the wagon, and the air cooled him down as it blew past his head. Daly closed his eyes.

Were they really from Earth? If they were…

He drifted off like that. It felt like only a minute before Siri was shaking him. Daly jerked, but remembered enough not to grab at his axe. He sat up and saw they’d arrived.

The village that had been abandoned still bore marks of battle. Brick houses partially caved in, roofs with holes in them—possibly from the Spear Spider legs. Some had been torched, perhaps to ward the monsters off, or maybe by accidental fire. But the rest were intact.

The village was actually on top of a hill. A nice, defensible spot with even a low mud brick wall, crumbling in places. But it hadn’t saved the place. Now, the Centaurs paused below the hill. Bault gestured up at it, sweating.

“We can pull you up the hill. But between you and me, that’ll cost you.”

“No need. We’ll make the trek. You guys wait here and rest a spell.”

Daly hopped out of the wagon. Pihava nodded.

“If you hear us shouting, get down here quick. If we see anything, we’re taking off.”

There were no signs of monsters, but Daly nodded.

“That’s fair. We won’t be long. Siri—”

He looked around. She was already taking point. As the [Scout] of the group, she was quietest, thanks for her Skills. Not that the road up to the village was covered by forest. Still, Daly and Dawson gave her a lead and then followed. Their crossbows were on their back in case they were being watched, but they were drawn, ready to be loaded and fired.

Daly’s skin crawled as he walked up towards the village. He could see several quite intact buildings. And he had a definite sense he was being watched. He looked at Dawson.

“How should we handle it? Call out first?”

He saw Dawson roll his shoulders.

“Up to you. I wish Ken was back here.”

“You think we’d send him up first? What if they were [Bandits]?”

“He’d probably charm them into giving us a hot meal. Why don’t we just march up, shout ‘anyone from Earth? If not, fuck off!’ And then—”

There was a shout from above. Daly and Dawson looked up. Siri had frozen. Someone had shouted and thrown something down at them. A heavy stone. It crashed and rolled down the slope. Instantly, Daly reached for the crossbow and hesitated. He looked for cover—there wasn’t any but the sides of the hill.

Stay back! This is our place!

Someone shouted from above. Daly couldn’t see who it was—but the gates of the village had been barricaded with boards of wood. It looked like someone had tried to repair parts of the wall. He saw a flicker of movement, and then another stone flew over the wall. Siri jumped back, but it landed well clear of her and rolled down the hill.

Daly glanced over his shoulder. Their Centaur guides were staring up at them. He waved at them and then looked at Dawson.

“That sounds like a Human.”

“Yeah, not friendly. Hey! We’re Humans! We want to talk! Are you from Earth?

Dawson bellowed up at the walls. Daly heard a sound, muffled, and then cut off. There was a pause. And then—

Go away! We have weapons!

Daly exchanged a glance. The voice was loud, female, and panicked. The first voice had been male. He called up towards the village.

“We’re from Earth! Are you? Do you know—”

He got no further. Someone threw a rock.

Leave! We won’t be tricked again! If you come any closer, we’ll kill you!

More stones flew. These ones landed uncomfortably close, so the adventurers backed up. Shielding his face and watching for missiles, Daly hurried down the hill. There he looked at Siri and Dawson.

“They’re from Earth. I’ll bet anything.”

“But they’re fucking agro. Why the hell’s that?”

Dawson grimaced. Siri frowned.

“Did you hear what they said? ‘We won’t be tricked again’. Again. You think they ran into other people from our world?”

“If they did, it didn’t go well for them.”

Daly grunted. He eyed the village. Stones and shouting. He’d bet there were only a handful in the village. It would be easy enough to circle the hill and sneak up it, maybe with a distraction. Siri caught Daly’s eye.

“They’re terrified. You can hear it in their voices. We should do this peacefully.”

“How? If they’re pelting us with stones—”

“No, Siri’s right. We scare them and they’ll run. Someone’s already made them afraid—even of folks from home. We need to coax them to come out. We’ve gotta do this Ken-style. Hold on. Give me a moment to think.”

The other two waited as Daly paced back and forth, looking up at the village. Dawson groaned.

“Ken-style? First you said earth-style, now this. You’re a good leader, but you’re shit with words, Daly.”

“Shut up. Let me try again.”

Daly climbed up the hill. He was greeted by a flurry of stones.

Go away!

“We just want to talk! Can I talk to one of you? I said we’re from Earth! We’re like you lot! We want to help!”

Get lost! We see your crossbow!

Fuck. It had been a bad idea to take it after all. Daly paused.

“I’ll leave my weapons behind! Look, just say if you’re from Earth or not! Are you Americans? Can you tell me what a iPhone is?”

Hesitation. And then dead silence. The stones stopped flying, but Daly wasn’t about to get anywhere closer and risk them panicking. He walked down the hill, back to the others.

“Why won’t they say if they’re from Earth?”

“Afraid. Fucking hell. What did the other group do to them?”

“Maybe they were attacked.”

There was a dark look in Siri’s eye. Daly and Dawson looked at her. She and Tofte had shown up on their doorstep a while back, and never told the whole story of how they’d survived until now. But they’d arrived with combat classes and experience in fighting. Geneva had diagnosed Siri and Tofte with a traumatic event in the recent past. But since they could still fight and function, Daly had recruited them into the Bushrangers.

Daly paced back and forth for a while, trying to figure out what to do next. What would Ken do? It was a serious question. Without Ken’s primer into how to interact with Baleros’ races, Daly often would have been lost. And it was his philosophy, as well as Geneva’s that had shaped how the United Nations company worked. Daly frowned, bit his lip, and then he had it.

“Well—what if we lure them out?”

“With what, nali-sticks?”

“No. Hey Dawson, did you at least bring your iPhone and the speaker?”

Dawson patted his belt. He was wearing the iconic adventurer’s belt, complete with pouches stuffed full of an adventurer’s gear.

“Never leave without it. Why?”

“I want you to set it up. Turn those speakers up to max blast. It’d better be charged.”

“It is! I haven’t wasted the battery. Not since last time.”

Dawson grimaced. He fished out a tangled mess of cord, and then a portable speaker. And then his iPhone. Daly had lost his. Or it had been stolen, back when he’d been in Gravetender’s Fist. Dawson frowned at Daly.

“You want to scare them with the distraction audio?”

Three of the Bushrangers were armed with smart phones as part of their gear. They had a recording to go with the portable speakers they carried. Using it would set off a timed cacophony to distract a monster or person. Daly shook his head.

“No way. Just play them a song.”

“A song?”

Confusion flashed across Dawson’s face for just a second. Siri blinked, and then smiled. She nodded. Dawson’s eyes lit up as well after a second. He lifted the speaker, turned it on, and then aimed it at the village. He thumbed through the music, and Daly waited impatiently.

“Come on. It just has to be something they recognize.”

“Don’t rush me. There’s a right song for every moment, Daly. I just have to—here it is!”

Triumphantly, Dawson pressed the button. Instantly, a song blared from the speakers. Quietly at first and then with increasing volume as Dawson adjusted the speaker’s volume to max. The song was iconic—at least, to Daly. Siri frowned for a moment before recognizing it.

The two Centaurs looked up in surprise as the first drums, and then a flute began playing. The background buzz of the insects in the jungle grew silent for a moment as a bass began to echo up the hill.

Daly groaned. He shot Dawson a look. The Australian patriot grinned. Daly didn’t even need to hear the lyrics. He knew them practically by heart.

Down Under, by Men at Work. There was some logic to it—if there was one song a foreigner might associate with Australia, it was probably that one. And it was unmistakably from Earth. Still, Dawson had such a big shit-eating grin on his face that Daly wanted to smack the smartphone out of his hands.

But it worked. No sooner had the song ended than Daly saw movement at the top of the hill. Someone peeked over the walls. Daly waited, holding his breath. Then he saw a figure descend the hill.

“Crossbows down.”

The three Bushrangers dropped their weapons and slowly walked up the hill. Dawson began playing Great Southern Land until Daly smacked him on the shoulder.

The person descending the slope was a young man, dressed in a tight-fitting sports shirt with a logo on the breast. The shirt was dirty, as were the sports pants he wore. He looked thin. Worn at. But his eyes were fixed on Dawson’s iPhone. He opened his mouth, hesitated, and then raised a hand.

“You’re really from Earth?”

Daly halted a few feet away. The young man’s accent was familiar. He couldn’t be…? The Australian gave him a smile.

“That’s right. We’re from Australia. We heard there were people here that might be from Earth. We came to check it out. We want to help.”

“Help? How?”

Siri jumped in.

“We’ve got an apartment in a city near here. We’ve got food, money—we’re a company.”

“Food and money? You mean, you live here? You can live here?”

The other Earthworlder looked stunned, confused. Daly’s heart skipped a beat.

“That’s right. We’ve got jobs. We’ve banded together, all of us from Earth that we could find. Are you—how’ve you survived?”

“We—we’ve been scavenging. Eating what we could forage. Hiding from—everything. We thought you were bandits like the last—”

The stranger shuddered. He looked at Daly. And then part of him seemed to unwind.

“Can we go with you?”

Daly smiled.

“We wouldn’t be here otherwise, mate. Come on. Tell your friends to come out. We’ll get you back to civilization.”

“Oh my god. Oh my god.

The young man fell to his knees. At first Daly thought it was an overreaction. Until he saw the tears. The young man shuddered, and he looked up at them like—like—

Dawson turned away. Daly knelt at the same time as Siri. They helped the stranger up.

“Easy. What’s your name?”

“Blake. I’m Blake. We’ve been starving up there. And when the lizard-things appeared last night, we thought—this isn’t a dream, right?”

A grimy hand clutched at Daly’s arm. He nodded.

“It’s not.”

That was enough. Blake took a shuddering breath. He slowly rose. Daly held him until he was sure he was steady. He was thin. The sports shirt didn’t fit him that well.

“Where’re you from, Blake?”

Blake started. He looked up. Then he suddenly grinned. Daly thought he knew why. Blake wiped at his eyes, and then grimaced. Or tried to. He looked at Daly and Dawson. And then he coughed.

“Well, goddamnit, it had to be a bunch of aussies, didn’t it? Of course you lot’d survive over here”

Dawson looked over, and his face lit up with delight.

“You’re a kiwi?”

“New Zealand. Yeah.”

“Ayyy! How’d you lot survive out here? I don’t see a herd of sheep—”

Siri punched Dawson gently in the shoulder. But Blake was laughing. He turned and looked back up towards the village walls. Daly could sense they were still being watched.

“Those your friends watching us? You mind waving to tell them we’re friendly? The last thing we want is an arrow through the throat.”

“They don’t have weapons. We were going to run if you got closer. Hey! It’s fine!”

Blake turned and waved his hands. He began walked back up the hill and then turned.

“You’ll stay here?”

“Right here. Go on.”

The Bushrangers settled back, as Dawson complained to Siri.

“Aw, come on. It’s great! We just take the piss—”

“Maybe don’t make that the first thing you do?”

The two began arguing over the right timing to tell jokes and be serious while Daly tried to relax. They had time—it took nearly ten minutes for Blake to come back. When he did it was by himself. The others came over the walls very gingerly, and gave Daly the impression they were ready to bolt. Like Blake, they wore colorful clothing that no [Tailor] of this world could have come up with. Even the dyes of Baleros couldn’t quite match the artificial colors of Earth.

“It’s safe! See? They’re Australian. Australian.

“I’m Swedish.”

Siri raised a hand. The words seemed to reassure the others. They gingerly followed Blake down the hill, staring at the Centaurs with clear fear. There was one more guy, and two girls, all of them younger than Blake. They stared at the Bushrangers, reluctant to go further, but Blake waved them on, shouting a word that Daly didn’t know.

“Is that Italian?”

Siri looked up curiously. Blake turned and nodded. He walked back and ushered the three forwards once more. He turned and spoke to the Australians and Swedish girl.

“They’re Italian. They were on a tour or something—only one of them can speak English well—and they just appeared here. This is Lorenzo, Diana, and Nicoletta—”

“Nicola.”

The last girl introduced herself. She was around Blake’s age, possibly not even twenty yet. No—definitely around nineteen, the both of them. Daly hesitated. Now what was the best move?

Siri made it for him. She reached out and offered a hand.

Salve. My name is Nicola. I’m from Italy. You’re—from Earth?”

She spoke in halting English, partially fragmented. Lorenzo and Diana watched her, and Daly saw their eyes flickering from him to Dawson.

They didn’t understand English. Well, no wonder they’d had a terrible time of it. Daly hesitated, then he offered his hand. Lorenzo was the first to shake it. The Italians shook hands and repeated the same question, even if it was condensed to one word.

“Earth? Earth?”

And Daly nodded. He repeated himself.

“Earth. Australians. Friends.”

The relief in their eyes was palpable. Daly looked at Blake. The New Zealander was eying him, and then the Centaurs.

“Are those—”

“Centaurs. Yeah. They’re pulling our wagon. We should pile in—this place isn’t entirely safe.”

“It’s not. There were these little spiders in one of the houses—wait, you said go with them? In the wagon?”

Blake looked uncertain. Nicola, who was whispering to the others, translated, and they drew back. Daly hesitated.

“They’re friendly. They’re Centaurs. You know—”

He had no idea how common Centaurs were in Italian folklore, but popular culture was popular culture. That didn’t seem to be the problem though. Nicola shuddered and backed up. Blake hesitated.

“We met Centaurs that—is that why you’re armed?”

“No. To fight monsters. We’re adventurers.”

Adventurers?

Every second seemed to be confusing the Earthworlders more and more. Daly hesitated. They had a lot to explain, but here wasn’t the time. Pihava was pawing the ground with one hoof, clearly impatient. Nicola turned to Daly as he was trying to figure out how to reassure them.

“You’re—from Earth? You know how to get back?”

He met her eyes. They were desperate. Afraid. She looked at him with wild hope. As one lost, frightened person did to another. But—Daly wondered if that was how he’d looked at first. Afraid. Terrified, in fact. But with a core of something in her eyes. Determination. The will to survive. Slowly, he shook his head.

“No. We don’t. We’re lost. Like you. But now—”

He reached out. Nicola took his hand. Daly spoke quietly.

“We’ve got you. We’ll protect you. We’re not alone. We are part of the United Nations company.”

Nicola jumped when she heard the words. Blake opened his mouth, his eyes wide. Daly looked at them. He pointed down the hill.

“Come with us. You’re safe now.”

And he knew that was the right thing to say.

 

—-

 

“Another world.”

That was all Blake said when they were loaded on the wagon and driving away from the village. It had taken time, twenty minutes in fact, to get the others to approach the Centaurs and into the wagon. But now they were driving back down the way they’d come. Pihava and Bault were pulling the wagon quickly despite the new passengers. Once in a while they’d glance backwards to stare at the Humans. When they did, the Italians and Blake would flinch.

They’d had a nightmarish time of it. Blake explained in a shuddering voice as they drove. He couldn’t take his eyes off the Centaur, until Siri fished out some travel rations and handed them around. The hard, dry meat was salty, a miserable meal. But the other Earthworlders tore into it ravenously. Daly brought out his water and found they were dehydrated as well.

“We didn’t know where to get safe water. There was a stream—but we’ve barely been able to start a fire. We couldn’t find firewood, and none of us had anything useful on us—and there are things out there. In the jungle.”

Blake shuddered as he wiped his mouth. His hand was shaking as he reached for more travel jerky and crammed it into his mouth. Daly squatted next to him, too restless to sit properly on the moving wagon.

“Tell me about it.”

He saw the Earthworlders look around at each other. Daly understood the feeling. How could you explain the shock of it? The sense of being in another world, the confirmation of that reality? But they weren’t describing anything unknown to the others. Blake spoke, coughing on another mouthful of water.

“The first day—I thought I was losing my mind. I was playing rugby with some friends. I went to grab the ball and I landed…”

In another world. In the water, in fact. Blake was so shocked that he just stood there in the waist-deep pool. That was, until something started biting him. He looked down, felt a searing pain, and then ran for the shore. In that time, he picked up three leeches and the fish took two more bites out of his legs. He still had scars. And when he ran into the group of Italians, they nearly attacked him, bleeding and terrified as he was.

Nicola, Lorenzo, and Diana had all been riding a crowded bus when they’d passed through a tunnel and found themselves standing in the middle of a forest. It hadn’t just been three of them. There had been eight. Plus a pair of two confused people. From…

“We think they were from Venezuela. I think that’s what they were saying. But they were speaking Spanish and none of us…”

The initial confusion of what had happened led to an immediate need to get their bearing. To survive. And at first, they’d managed it. A pocket lighter, meant for cigarettes, some branches—they’d even gone back to the pool and collected some water to boil. They’d gotten that far. But after that—

“The first night they got us.”

That was all Blake said. He turned dead white and couldn’t go on. Neither could Nicola. Daly didn’t press them.

Something had happened. After that, the four survivors had fled. They’d hidden from civilization, foraged, kept away from the roads and all species they’d encountered, and eventually ended up at the village. That’s where they’d stayed until Daly and the others had found them.

“How long was it?”

“Three weeks?”

Daly exchanged a glance with Dawson and Siri. Three weeks? Blake wasn’t sure, but even if he was off by a few days, the timing didn’t match up with anyone else. Were people still coming over from Earth? It was a question for later, though. Because Blake and the others had thousands of their own.

“This is another world, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“And those are—”

“Centaurs, mate. Centaurs. They live on this continent. We’re on Baleros. It’s inhabited by Centaurs, Lizardfolk, Dullahans…”

Blake stared at Daly as if the Australian were mad. Daly had to admit it was a far-fetched tale. But the only way he could put it was like that.

“This is a fantasy world, Blake. Right out of a story. There’s magic and shit and monsters too.”

Magic? Now you’re kidding me—”

Siri had to cast a [Light] spell to show them. When she did that. Lorenzo nearly scrambled out of the wagon. Daly gave them the quick rundown, pausing to let Nicola translate—or try.

“Everyone here speaks English. Just English. I don’t know why, but it’s universal.”

“That’s not right.”

Blake frowned. Daly shrugged. It was convenient—until you remembered that Ken, and Kirana and everyone else who came from a country that didn’t have English as a native language was screwed. It was probably why they’d found so few people who didn’t speak English alive.

“We’ll give you the full story later. The important thing to remember is that you’re safe. We call ourselves the United Nations company. To let everyone know we’re from Earth. And there are more of us. You’ll get food and we’ll give you a checkup back at base.”

“Safety.”

Blake breathed the words. Dawson grinned.

“What, you think we’d abandon someone from Earth? We’ve got you. Aussies and kiwis got to stick together, right?”

“Your countries are right next to each other, right?”

Siri looked at Daly for confirmation. He nodded.

“We’re close by. But totally different. You know, Australia and New Zealand have different cultures so we make fun of each other. We have different words, different accents—”

“Ours are better.”

Blake grinned faintly as the two gently ribbed him. Siri looked between the three.

“You both sound pretty much the same to me.”

Daly, Dawson, and Blake all glared at Siri. She shrugged completely unapologetically. She looked over at Nicola.

“More food?”

The girl nodded. Siri fished out a nali-stick and showed them how to eat it. Blake sat back as she offered him a piece. He chewed and his eyes opened wide.

Sweet!

“It’s sugarcane. Or something like it.”

“God, I’m so hungry. And this is so—”

Blake started choking up. Dawson looked the other way, but Daly grabbed Blake’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry. Just relax.”

The younger man nodded. It was at this point that Bault looked backwards. He cleared his throat and Daly looked up.

“Sorry, we can’t help but overhear some of that. Are these Humans—friends?”

Daly looked up. He cursed as he realized the Centaurs had probably heard the stuff about this being another world. Or not—they’d been talking quietly up till now. Either way, he could only roll with it.

“That’s right. They’re from the same place. Civilians. Not warriors. They landed in the jungle. Blake here landed knee-deep in a pool with a piranha and leeches or something.”

“That’s awful.

Pihava looked over her shoulder and gave Blake a sympathetic glance. He tensed up and then slowly waved a hand. The Centauress looked at Daly.

“Is that why your company put out a bounty for any strange Humans?”

Daly nodded.

“We don’t know what hit us. Teleportation spell, maybe. We’re looking for anyone else who’s out of place.”

The two Centaurs exchanged a long glance. Bault coughed.

“I didn’t know that. I just heard there was a bounty. Tell you what, if we hear of anything, we’ll bring news of it your way, okay? Free of charge.”

“And you can hire us. Ask by name. We know all the roads around here.”

Pihava tossed her head and gave them a nod. Daly smiled.

“That’s very kind of you. But if you could keep what you heard a secret, that’d do us even more of a favor.”

“Of course. But we will tell everyone at the Guild you’re looking. Dead gods, a teleportation spell? You should get the Adventurer’s Guild to put out an all-alert.”

Daly blinked.

“You think they would?”

“Of course! If there are Humans wandering around with no idea of the dangers—these ones are lucky to have survived this long! We’ll get you back to the city. Come on, Bault.”

The wagon noticeably picked up in speed. The Earthworlders stared at the Centaur’s backs. Lorenzo whispered something to Nicola. She spoke up.

“They’re nice? Not…monsters?”

Both Centaurs stiffened. Daly bit his tongue. Pihava looked back with a glare that made Nicola flinch.

“We’re not monsters.”

Daly held up a hand and waved it.

“They’ve never seen Centaurs before, mates. Not Lizardfolk or Dullahans either. Just Humans. They’re far from home.”

“Terandrians.”

Bault snorted. But the Centaurs relaxed ever-so-slightly. And they kept moving, fast enough to be back in Talenqual much faster than they’d spent going. They made their way through the gates as the Bushrangers did their best to keep the other Earthworlders from freaking out at the sight of all the Lizardfolk, Dullahans, and Centaurs. It seemed the Centaurs bothered them the most—the Dullahans made them nervous, but not in the same way. The Lizardfolk were just…strange.

“Here’s our stop. It’s not much, but it’s filled with people from Earth. Go on, Siri will lead you inside. Dawson? Do a runner and tell everyone what’s up.”

“You got it.”

Dawson and Siri hopped out. Daly jogged around the wagon as they helped Blake and the others to the ground. He looked up at the Centaurs, who were panting.

“You two did a fantastic job. I’ll say as much next time I’m in the Runner’s Guild. Here.”

He reached into his belt pouch and offered both Centaurs a gold coin. They eyed it appreciatively. It was a generous tip, but they’d run fast and far and Daly was paying for the insult and goodwill.

“It was nothing. Like we said, we’ll spread the word. Call on us.”

“Absolutely.”

Daly promised and meant it. The Centaurs took off, dragging the wagon back towards the Runner’s Guild, done for the day. It was early evening now, and Daly headed straight into the apartments. He heard a commotion, and then opened the door and saw Kirana hugging Nicola, and more of the Earthworlders in the United Nations company surrounded the overwhelmed group.

“Hey! Come on! Clear a space! Let me introduce them!”

Daly raised his voice. He gestured to the group, and spoke to Blake.

“This here’s the headquarters of our group of refugees from Earth. Let me introduce you. Take a seat here—hey, they’re thirsty and hungry. Do we have food…?”

One of the Indian girls, Priya, rushed into the kitchen and came out with food. The still-hungry Italians and Blake set to as Daly pointed around the room.

“Let’s see. This is Kirana, Priya, um—”

“Amoli.”

Daly turned red as it transpired that he didn’t know all the names. They introduced themselves, talking in slow English while the others volunteered their names. Daly heard a clatter down the stairs, and looked up. Paige stopped on the stairs, staring.

“Hey Paige! You’ll never guess who dropped in! Someone from fucking New Zealand of all the luck!”

The Australian girl stared at Blake, and then descended slowly. The first thing she did was give him a hug, which made Daly embarrassed for the ribbing. He coughed.

“Paige is the one who holds down the fort while we’re all away. You could say she’s the boss around here.”

Paige gave Daly a look, and he went on.

“But our real leaders are all out. There’s about forty of us—but we have two guys and a girl who are pretty much running the show. Ken, Luan, and Geneva. And Aiko?”

“Are they adventurers? Like you?”

Blake pointed at Daly’s axe. Daly shook his head, grinning ruefully.

“Better. Ken’s a [Negotiator]. You got classes, so you know what I mean. He and Aiko—she’s Japanese too—they’re always with Geneva. He talks to people, gets them to let her work in peace. Aiko’s Geneva’s number one assistant.”

Besides Okasha. And no one was allowed to know about her. Then Daly realized he hadn’t said what Geneva did.

“Geneva’s a [Doctor].

The word made all of the new Earthworlders look up. Diana urgently tugged on Nicola’s arm. She’d been swaying in the wagon, and Lorenzo had been helping her move about. Nicola looked up.

“Is she here? Diana is sick.”

Half of the people at the table drew back. Nicola waved a hand.

“No, no. It’s—”

She looked at Blake. He looked grave.

“Diabetes. She’s out of insulin and we—”

Kirana! Grab us that kit!”

He jumped as both Paige and Daly turned and shouted. Kirana was already grabbing for a bottle. She pressed it on Diana and they rushed to explain what it was. The girl took a sip of the stamina potion after staring at it for a second. Then she gasped, and color flooded into her face. Daly took off and left the apartment to run and find the other person with diabetes—Filip, of Poland. He was working as a [Scribe], but he repeated Geneva’s instructions and Daly came back, huffing and puffing, to find that Paige had already found the hand-written instructions.

They were explaining more about Baleros and this world to the Italians, filling in the gaps that they’d guessed at. It turned out that the announcements in their head were a universal language, so the [Scavenger], [Survivalist], and [Skulker] classes they’d received were all familiar to them.

“We’re all working to survive here. The other species are different—but they are people. You can work and earn money, like everywhere. That’s why so many are out right now. Working. Ken and Geneva and Aiko will be back tomorrow morning.”

“And she is a [Doctor]?”

“That’s right. She doesn’t have her tools, but she studied medicine and she’s the best we’ve got. Her and Luan are the oldest. He’s a Runner.”

Then they had to explain what Runners were. And adventurers again. Daly corrected himself as he sat at the table, drinking some of the sugar water that came from boiling water with nali­-sticks.

“City Runner. Well, I say ‘Runner’, but he only operates on the water. He’s a kayak—sorry, a rower. Nothing to do with kayaks. And he’s an Olympian, a professional athlete.”

“He never actually competed.”

Paige demurred. Daly snorted.

“But he’s on the South African team.”

“An athlete? He must be insane on the water.”

Blake looked up. Daly grinned.

“Fast as fuck. When he gets back, you’ve got to watch him zip around. He can move faster in that canoe than I can run. Way faster with Skills.”

It was scary, really. But hearing about Luan was reassuring, as if someone who would have gone to the summer Olympics conveyed more safety. The Italians were relaxing by the time Nicola asked about the name.

“Why United Nations company?”

They’d understood that, but not the reason the Earthworlders had rallied around the name. Daly gave them a wry smile.

“It’s a symbol of home. Yeah, it’s a bit stupid, but a lot of people know the name, right? And it wasn’t us that picked it. Ken came up with it. He’s an idealist. And between you and me, I don’t think he knows quite what the UN did back at home.”

“It’s a good name, though. Really. It stands for something.”

Blake hurried to reassure the others. He looked up and groaned.

“I feel full. Excuse me, do you have a bathroom? And—a bath?”

“We’re hauling water for you right now. This way.”

Daly led Blake upstairs. Paige caught him on the way down.

“Good work.”

He nodded at her, smiling. Then he felt at his belt pouch and frowned.

“Paige, we’re down two gold, nine silver, and two coppers. I’m nearly out of money.”

“Got it. But we brought back four of our own.”

“True.”

Paige glanced over her shoulders. Daly heard an exclamation at the door. More of the company was returning from work.

“Damn, there’s going to be a crowd. I should get them upstairs and find them a room—and a bath—before everyone pours in. They need sleep, not more introductions.”

“I’ll head them off.”

“While you’re at it, can you get some xelca meat? Kirana forgot to buy some.”

“Aw—fine.”

Daly went downstairs. There were more Earthworlders outside. Anders, wet from his work in the harbor, Filip, young men and women from a number of countries. Most were Australian, though. Daly raised his voice.

“Hey, listen up you lot! We just got four more friends from home!”

There was a cheer. Daly shouted over it.

“Right, but before you come crowding inside, wait! They’re tired, exhausted—half starved—and they’ve had enough excitement. Paige is getting them upstairs, so don’t crowd them. Kirana’s got food going, so we’ll cycle you in and out—half of you’ll have to eat on the steps. And would someone buy some xelca meat? I’ve got money—”

“Did someone say xelca meat? My cousin sells it!”

A Lizardman poked his head out of the house across the street. Daly wavered. That was Talenqual, for you. No privacy.

“Uh, yeah. Can we get—fuck. I don’t know, six pounds?”

“Sure!”

“Hey, what’s xelca meat anyways? No one’ll give me a straight answer when I ask.”

One of the Australians called out suspiciously. Daly heard a laugh from the Lizardman, who grinned and crawled out the shutter without answering. They also liked playing pranks. Daly shook his head.

“Thing to remember with Lizardfolk and their food? You don’t ask. It’s probably a toad or fish. Probably. And it’s good when it’s hot, edible when it’s not.”

The Lizardman turned as he walked down the street.

“Ooh. That’s catchy! I’m going to use that. Good when it’s hot, edible when it’s…”

He disappeared. The other Earthworlders looked at each other in amusement. Then they began to ask questions, giving time for Paige to do her job. By the time the Lizardman came back with a wrapped package of xelca meat in the long strips they were sold in, Kirana was ready to cook it. The Earthworlders went into the apartments, eating buffet-style, grabbing bowls and filling them before eating outside or shoulder-to-shoulder in the living room.

Halfway through the meal, Paige came down to announce everyone was asleep. Like Daly, she was immediately barraged by questions. A girl from Poland stood up.

“Are they okay?”

“Fine. Geneva can check, but they’re just hungry. Nothing else. No one crowd them now. We’re putting them up in a room by themselves. So it’ll be a bit cramped.

“What’s new?”

Someone groaned. Paige folded her arms.

“We’re working on leasing another house. Our neighbors are open to the idea—especially with all us noisy Humans tramping about. We just need Luan to get back with a hefty coin purse. Or someone to lose a limb and call in our [Doctor].”

“Here’s hoping!”

There was a quiet laugh. Paige fielded a few more questions, and then headed back to her work room. And the others ate, talked or complained about their day, but all too soon went to sleep.

They’d worked full jobs. And so they filled the upper floors of the apartment, sleeping in the crammed rooms as Daly and the Bushrangers stayed awake. They hadn’t had that active a day. So they sat together in the dining room of the second apartment with the door closed and talked quietly.

“Looks like we’ve got four new mouths to feed.”

“We’ll manage. We just need to take another big contract. And they’ll work as soon as they’ve got their legs under them.”

“What if they don’t? Like the group we had to kick out?”

“We deal with it then.”

Daly sighed. He leaned back in his chair. Then he looked at the kitchen. Kirana was still hard at work, preparing breakfast this time. He could smell it, and his full stomach decided to rumble anyways.

“You know, half of the newcomers think we’re prepared for this.”

“What?”

The other Bushrangers looked up as Dawson relaxed. He waved his hand.

This. I was talking to Jeraldo? Think his name was Jeraldo. He and some of the others—you know, the ones who came after us—they think we’re used to this because we come from the great Down Under. Like we’re used to punching kangaroos and fighting off rattlesnakes.”

“Fuck off with that.”

One of the other Bushrangers exclaimed, kneading her fingers together angrily. Daly kept his mouth shut.

“Why, because Australia’s got bugs and spiders? Doesn’t mean we’re all experts. Let’s see. Fuck that, and that, and that. What the hell is that thing?”

She pointed to a few bugs crawling across the floor. They looked like ants—but not ants from Earth. One was blue. Glowing. Daly grimaced. They must have been attracted to the food. Kirana kept a clean place, but Miss Hastel’s apartments weren’t exactly airtight, and bugs were a given in Baleros. No one worried unless it was an infestation.

“It’s a vote of confidence. Who else is going out and actually taking on monsters? Us. And the Swedes.”

He nodded at Siri and Tofte. The Norwegian man looked up.

“Some want to. But not when they know what it’s like.”

The others nodded. Once you’d actually come face-to-face with a monster—even a zombie, you learned how real it was. Hell, even a zombie…Daly remembered having to slowly hack at the zombie’s head, just to bring it down. And the smell, the feel of metal hitting bone…

In the silence, Daly looked around.

“We’re not all experts who live out in the bush. That’s true enough. But someone’s got to do this job. Push comes to shove, we’re our company’s first response.”

“And we volunteered. We didn’t have to.”

Daly nodded he glanced at Dawson.

“Anyone tells you how we should wander off and kill a Spear Spider with a boomerang, you just tell them we’re not used to this. If they want to join up, they can. But it’s not a fun job. I’m proud of you all for stepping up.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Dawson offered a tired smile.

“Love you too, Daly. No homo.”

“Aw, you idiot…”

The group broke up. Daly sighed as they trooped up the stairs—to share a room this time. He stayed up, wondering if he could nap in the living room or if the ants would start crawling in his ears.

Eventually Kirana finished her work and turned out the light in the kitchen. She headed upstairs, missing Daly. He was sitting so still he was invisible. And he had a Skill.

[Faint Presence]. An [Axe Warrior], a [Carpenter], and a [Rogue]. Apparently he might become a [Ranger] if he kept at it. Daly sighed. And then he heard a faint sound.

Someone was coming down the stairs. Daly looked up, about to call out. And then he saw Blake. Daly froze. His hand reached for his side. And then he reconsidered. He reached for something else instead. Blake walked down the stairs, barely making a sound. Quiet, slowly. He looked around the room, and then crept for the door.

“Going somewhere?”

Blake spun. He saw Daly, sitting in the shadows, one hand resting on the table. The other was on his lap. Daly pointed.

“I’m not the suspicious sort. But we had one incident where a bloke tried to rob us and then do a runner.”

“I wasn’t. I was just—I needed to step outside. Be alone.”

Blake gulped. Daly eyed him, then shook his head.

“Outside? You’ll just run into Lizardfolk. And there’s no alone when you’re with even one of them. Have a seat. Here’s the best you’ll get, probably.”

He pulled up a chair. Blake hesitated, and then sat across from him. He stared at Daly.

“I wasn’t going to take anything.”

“I believe you. What’s wrong. Can’t sleep?”

“No. It’s—I did sleep, but then I woke up. I couldn’t get back. All of this—it’s too much to believe.”

The New Zealander uttered a short laugh. It was more like a bark of sound. Daly nodded.

“It’s tough. But believe me, it’s real. If pinching could wake me up—it’s all real.”

“I know. There’s no way I’m dreaming. But I want to be. You know?”

Blake ran a hand through his hair. He felt silent. Daly waited.

“About when we came here. What I said—we got jumped on the first day, you know? Not by bandits or—[Bandits]. By other people. From home.”

“Really?”

Daly didn’t move. Blake looked up.

“Yeah. I don’t know who they were. They just came out of nowhere. This guy ran up—they’d smelled us cooking that fish. They told us to hand it over. One of the Italians said no. They started shoving each other and then—they just attacked us.”

“What nationality were they?”

The other young man looked up. Daly elaborated.

“If you meet them, or if we run across them, it’d be good to know. We can’t take people like that into the company—”

Blake uttered a strangled laugh.

“No fear of that. Like I said, after that day—there were four of us. We ran. I don’t know what the hell those others were—they were like monsters. They didn’t look as if they’d been here for just a day. Completely psycho. And they had Centaurs with them. They were [Bandits], I guess.”

“How many Centaurs?”

“Just two. They were really young.”

“Outcasts. Centaurs expel troublemakers. Most die, or form into groups like that.”

“I guess they do. But they didn’t follow us. So we ran. Eventually we got to this—this village. Headed straight down a road, and found them. They were—Dullahans.”

“Really?”

Daly frowned. Then why were they alone? His hand twitched. Blake nodded. He was caught up in his story.

“They scared us so bad. We were running, and then this head hidden in a tree trunk spoke to us and the bodies appeared out of nowhere. We thought we were dead. But they saw the blood and cleaned us up and even healed us. And when we told them what had happened.”

His voice broke. Daly waited, hearing Blake gulp.

“They were appalled. You know? Just horrified. They patched us up and their head person—their [Village Leader]—told me that justice would be served. The next day a group of them in armor set out. They came back four days later with the heads of everyone in the bandit group.”

“That’s how Dullahans do it. They take heads. On Dullahans it works. They take the heads and the bodies try to get to them. Or die.”

Blake uttered what sounded like a prayer in the darkness.

“Yeah, well, these were Humans. And the Centaurs. The Dullahans told us justice was done. Two days after that they kicked us out when they realized we couldn’t do anything. Herded us out and told us they’d cut off our heads if we came back without money to pay for lodging.”

He looked up. Daly paused. Then he nodded.

“That’s Dullahans for you. I don’t want to say it, but you got lucky. Not that lucky—Lizardfolk would have been nicer. But you could have run into Centaurs. They might’ve killed you then and there if they thought you were lying, or just left you to die.”

“Really?”

The tone in Blake’s voice was flat. Daly nodded. He pointed up.

“You know Kirana? Priya? The Indian girls who help keep the place running? They were the last group we found. Just girls. I think they were this group we met the first night we were here. But—the rest of them were dead. They took to stealing. Got caught in a Centaur town. Guess what they did?”

Blake didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. Daly nodded.

“You know why Kirana and the other girls survived? Centaurs don’t kill women unless it’s in a battle. Even bandits.”

“Does that make them better than Dullahans?”

“I think they can be right bastards. Some of them. But that’s their way. They think females shouldn’t be treated like men. Or they respect the only gender that can give birth. They revere mothers and are really protective of children. Especially because childbirth’s trickier for them. That’s how Ken sees it.”

“Ken. You speak about him like he’s your leader. Him and—Geneva?”

“And Luan. They pulled us out of the fire. We were in a company. Mercenaries. We would have all been slaughtered in this war—but Ken helped stop the fighting. So yeah, I look up to him. All of us do. Him and Geneva and Luan—they keep us together. Because they’ve got actual talent. Ken’s a diplomat. Luan’s an actual athlete. And Geneva…”

The two sat in silence for a while. Blake looked up at last.

“Thanks for getting us. We would have stayed there until someone ran us off.”

“It’s what we do. We have to stick together.”

Daly nodded. He looked at Blake.

“Get some sleep if you can. You’ll have a full day of it tomorrow.”

“I will. Thank you. Again. Thank you.”

Blake stood up. He headed up the stairs, looking calmer. Or so Daly thought.

But was it just an act? Did someone wake up and just happen to go to the door?

People from Earth. Just because they’re all from our home, doesn’t mean they’re all trustworthy. Some nights Daly still wondered what had happened to Caroline. Was it just an accident? What if Pihava or Bault talked?

Stupid. Wasn’t their knowledge from Earth useful? And there were other things to consider. Not everyone could work together. There’d been one fight about one of the boys wanting to set up a place to pray, and squabbles over sleeping arrangements. Friction.

Together but not together. It might get better when Ken and Geneva returned. It usually did. But in his heart, Daly struggled.

He had to believe Blake was on the up and up. He had to believe things would work out. He’d watch Blake. He had to. He had to be the one who made the hard decisions. But he couldn’t turn into the monster. His finger twitched and twitched. Daly tried to make it stop.

Baleros was war. It wasn’t hell, although it felt like it sometimes. There was so much beauty here you could forget the blood and death. And then a day would come along and rip the illusion wide open. But it wasn’t an evil place.

Daly had fought. He still fought, every day in fact. And he’d learned something on nights like this. It wasn’t monsters or even other people you were fighting. What you were really fighting, was yourself. And whether you turned into a monster or didn’t was the real battle.

Slowly, Daly reached into his belt pouch and pulled something out. A compact device, made of wood. He fumbled with it, and then removed the little toothpick-sized quarrel. He stowed the miniature crossbow and carefully uncocked it before packing it into the case Paige had made for him.

Some nights it felt like all he’d done since coming here was learn how to kill things in different ways. With that thought in his head, Daly just pushed back the table and lay down on the floor. He fell asleep slowly, as an ant crawled across his arm.

And the next day, Geneva came back.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.04 D

Night was falling on Baleros. The jungles, always filled with life and motion, died down somewhat as a calmer, cooler atmosphere swept through the continent. Baleros, the continent of war and riches, grew quieter.

But no less alive. And in the break in the jungles, in an open haven of space where the green gave way to white beaches, a Lizardgirl bathed alone in the fading sunlight. Water dripped from her scales as she washed herself in a jungle stream meeting the ocean. Her neck-frills shone with moisture as she turned, her nude body catching the last rays of the sun.

It was there he found her. A proud Centaur, his top half bare, his sweaty skin bared to the cool air. He paused for a second as the Lizardgirl realized he was standing there.

“Oh. Pardon me, Miss. I didn’t know the stream was…occupied.”

“And I didn’t realize I’d have a guest.”

The Lizardgirl tilted her head. She propped her hands on her hips. The Centaur looked down and scuffed at the grass with one hoof.

“I should go.”

“Oh, but must you? There’s enough stream for both of us. And I’m not intending to stop bathing for a while.”

The Centaur looked back. His white teeth flashed in the gloom, and his flank rippled as he trotted forwards. With one bare arm he bent and held out a hand. The Lizardgirl smiled, her multicolored scales gleamed and the frills around her neck opened slightly. She pressed her warm body to his, feeling his short fur ripple in the moonlight. She ran a hand down his tail.

“You’re quite bold, sir.”

“I’m sorry. I thought this was enough stream for both of us. Unless I should bathe downstream?”

She smiled.

“Oh, no. I think we can fit ourselves in together. But ah—why don’t I help you?”

She ran one claw down his flank. The stallion shivered as the Lizardgirl bent lower. And as she reached for his—

“Hey, Daly. What are you reading?”

The young Australian man looked up. He broke off from the steamy scene of Centaur-Lizardgirl sex. The faded parchment in his hands began to roll up. Daly straightened.

A part of the jungle seemed to be speaking to him. That was, until the girl crouching across from Daly moved. Then you could see where her body started and the forest began. But for that, she was quite, quite hard to spot; she stayed still, whispering. And her body was layered in a composite of mud and lichen, so that if she was lying down she might pass for an odd splotch in the earth.

A mosquito whined past Daly’s ear. He didn’t swat at it, even when it landed on his arm. It probably wouldn’t bite him through the similar mud camouflage on his body. And if it did? Daly had too many bites to worry about one more. Instead, he carefully handed the parchment to the girl without a word. His hands had left some mud on the parchment, so she took it by the corner and squinted.

Just like in the piece of erotica, night was falling over Baleros. Only, unlike the idyllic scene with the nude Lizardgirl, Baleros didn’t get quieter with the fading light. If anything, it got louder.

Or maybe that was just how it felt to be in the jungle. Baleros wasn’t all plant and dense tropical forest. Like any continent it differed in geography. But it was best known for the choking, nearly impenetrable green that marked the continent. For, while each continent had uninhabited places, patches of land unclaimed or at least, unsettled by sheer virtue of the size of the world, only Baleros could lay claim to true wilderness.

Between the jungle-cities of the Lizardfolk, or the ordered settlements of the Dullahans, the sprawling Centaurian camps, and the other settlements by the races of Baleros, there was jungle. And you could lose an army in the densest places, where even sunlight never saw the forest floor.

This place wasn’t nearly so deep. But it was deep. No trails existed; Daly and his group had gone off the road and all traces of civilization had vanished. The greenery around them buzzed with insects mating, preying on each other, the croaking of frogs, and…other things.

And here they were, in that chaos. Daly, the girl squatting across from him, frowning at the parchment, and six other Humans. Four were Australian. The other two, the girl included, were from Sweden. Yes, Sweden of all places. Was it that surprising? Perhaps not, but Daly wouldn’t have usually bet on meeting a Swede crouching in the jungle, covered in camouflage, reading in complete silence.

Her name was Siri, no relation to the iPhone voice. It took her a minute to realize what she was reading. When she did, she looked up and raised one mud-covered eyebrow.

“Erotica? I didn’t know you read it.”

“I don’t. Give it here.”

Daly carefully took the loose pages of parchment and wiped at a bit of mud stuck to them. The pages were worn, and some of the ink smudged. It was no book; the parchment was loose and unbound, and the inky handwriting slanted as the writer struggled to keep to nonexistent page lines. But Daly handled it carefully as he edged closer to Siri.

“It was written by a friend. I sometimes read it to have a laugh.”

“Really? One of us? Who?”

Daly paused.

“You wouldn’t know her. Her name was Caroline.”

“Oh.”

Siri understood what Daly meant from the expression on his face and didn’t ask further questions. She looked down at the parchment as they squatted together, shoulders touching. Neither noticed. Or cared.

The jungle buzzed. But the two kept their voices so low that it was barely audible to each other over the background noise. And as the light vanished, the writing faded from sight completely. Neither Siri nor Daly suggested lighting anything, though. And Daly spoke into her ear.

“It’s funny. I’ll lend it to you if you want. And it’s uh, not bad.”

“Hot Centaur sex?”

“And the Lizardgirl. And a Dullahan appears later in. It’s unrealistic, though.”

“Yeah. Anyone with a bare chest would have a bunch of mosquitoes eating them.”

Daly grinned.

“No, I meant the other parts. Lizardpeople have cool bodies, not warm ones. And Centaurs hate anyone touching their tails.”

“Hah. That is funny. Lend it to me, please.”

“After we’re done.”

Daly carefully rolled up the parchment and inserted it into his belt pouch. He half-rose, and looked around. The small camp he and Siri inhabited was quiet. Dead quiet. The few insects who were attracted to the living bodies went about their business, but the Humans barely moved. Even when something bit Daly on the leg, he just stomped it quickly and only checked for blood. He and Siri were quiet. They didn’t ask when the others were coming. They didn’t make conversation. They sat, listening, alert for any larger sounds coming their way.

It wasn’t safe in the jungle at night. It wasn’t insanely dangerous either of course; it wasn’t as if monsters lurked around every tree, or dangerous plants and animals were always underfoot, but it wasn’t as if such threats didn’t exist either. If you had to spend the night in the jungle, you were best served by not attracting attention to yourself.

“What happened to her?”

Siri’s whisper was so faint Daly thought it was just a thought. For a moment. He looked up. She was invisible in the darkness. The moon and starlight were mostly blocked by the canopy. He hesitated.

“She disappeared one day.”

“Oh.”

Daly’s throat constricted. But what else could you say? This was Baleros. A continent defined by conflict. By war. And it was his…home. The place where he lived, at any rate. If you could call it that. Sometimes…Daly closed his eyes. Things were different than they had been when he’d first appeared here, bewildered, confused, surrounded by young men and women from Melbourne’s airport. Back then Baleros had been hell. But they had survived it. And time had passed since then. Two months and a half to be exact.

When had Caroline written this? Right after the battle, that was it. Right after they’d survived the bloody battle between the Razorshard Armor Company and the Roving Arrow Company in the forests. When they’d first formed the United Nations company. Daly felt the parchment in his belt pouch shift a bit as he drew his knees closer to his chest. Back then, they’d been so optimistic. Hadn’t they? It had all seemed like everything was going to be alright. And it had been. For a while. It had been grand…

 

—-

 

“She ran one claw down his flank. The stallion shivered as the Lizardgirl bent lower. She reached for his huge, throbbing—”

Kenjiro Murata broke off reading the piece of parchment and stared at what came next. He blinked, not trusting to the translation his brain provided, and then read on. He turned crimson and hastily lowered the parchment.

“Well?”

A girl stared at him. She was blushing too. That was somehow even more uncomfortable, so Ken jerked his eyes back down to the parchment and kept reading. He got four more sentences in and felt the tips of his ears burning. He looked up again and hesitated.

He was a [Negotiator]. A diplomat, but low-level. And Ken was from Earth. He was Japanese, a student from another world who had been accidentally (or perhaps intentionally?) teleported to this one. To Baleros, a continent defined by mercenary companies and war. He had successfully negotiated a ceasefire between two companies, survived a bloody battlefield, and even formed a company of people from his world and this one.

None of it helped in this case. Kenjiro looked at the page of what was in essence…smut. Yes, that was the English word for it. Or…porn. Erotica?

The different words and definitions popped into Ken’s mind. He had never heard the word ‘smut’ before, or ‘erotica’, but he somehow knew the definition of the word in Japanese when he thought of it. It was most likely due to his Skill, [Amateur Linguist]. Thanks to it, Ken had understood exactly what had been written.

“Ah, Caroline-san. This is…”

“It’s a work in progress. I’m not done with it.”

The young woman broke in hastily. She was Australian, about nineteen years old and currently the color of an apple. A red one, that was. She indicated the page and Ken realized she’d only gotten one page in. And amazingly, it looked like there was quite a lot of potential for more pages.

Carefully, Ken put the parchment down and looked at Caroline. He had a number of things he wanted to say, but his desire to be polite, and his class took over. Always be polite. Be accommodating. You could go far with words. Ken had no intention of going half as far as anything Caroline had just described, but he had to know.

“I understand what is written, Caroline. But um, what is the purpose of it?”

If she wanted his input on what the Centaur should do next, he would run away. But that didn’t seem to be why Caroline had pulled Ken aside. She knew he was very busy trying to organize the budding group, the United Nations company, and all the disparate factions that made it up. People from Earth, Quallet and the former mercenaries, all of whom hailed from different cultures, backgrounds, and species. But Ken felt positive about the challenge.

They could make this world. They could form a company that would not only look for people from their world, but would support and protect each other. They had a number of brilliant people among them. Luan, who was an Olympic rower from their world, or at least, an Olympic hopeful. Quallet, a [Mercenary Captain] who’d decided to stick with them even after the disastrous battle he’d narrowly survived, Centaurs and Dullahans and Lizardfolk, including the [Sorcerer], Quexa, and last but not least, Geneva.

The Last Light of Baleros. The [Doctor]. Possibly the most medically knowledgeable person in the world. Ken had watched her work on the battlefield and if there was anyone whose abilities were invaluable and irreplaceable, it was hers. As a [Negotiator], Ken hoped to bring all these people together and create something special. But this?

“It’s what I can do.”

Caroline took a deep breath. She indicated the work of fiction. Ken blinked.

“This?”

“Yeah. I…well, I wanted to be a writer. Um, you know, write novels. Romance novels. I practiced! I had a bunch of fan fiction online about—uh, it doesn’t matter. Some of it was about Japanese manga. Have you heard of…?”

Ken’s polite stare somehow managed to convey his desire not to reminisce about popular manga. Caroline coughed.

“Well, I thought I could write something. There’s parchment in this world. And paper too, but it’s expensive. But I got some ink and parchment from Xalandrass before he left—I didn’t spend much! And I wrote this. So? What do you think?”

“It’s very…creative. But Caroline, what is this for?”

Ken waved the parchment at her. Caroline looked surprised.

“To sell, of course.”

“Sell?”

Ken looked blank. Caroline nodded.

“Yeah. There’s no, uh, romance literature in this world. Not many books at all, really. And none of it is recreational, really. So I thought why not write something like this? I mean, Twilight sold a huge amount! If you think it’ll sell, I could write more, maybe do a short story—or a novel! And copy it…we could sell it, right?”

She looked hopeful. Ken sat back. Now he understood. She wanted to do—she wanted to be an author. And sell this. He had to admit, it was a novel idea.

“I know you’re trying to find ways to make money. Luan’s trying to be a Runner, and Daly’s talking about going back to work in a suppression company. But if that Quallet guy asks—I’m not doing it. Not ever again.”

The Australian girl’s lips compressed into a tight line. Ken nodded. He didn’t blame her. No one would want to walk back into the battlefield, not after what they’d seen.

He had been part of Quallet’s company, Gravetender’s Fist. They’d been a suppression company, hired to clean a battlefield of corpses after each day of combat to prevent the undead from spawning. It had been dirty, dangerous work. But even worse had been getting caught up in the crossfire as both companies who’d been fighting—the Razorshard Armor company, comprised mainly of Dullahans, and the Roving Arrow company, a Centaur group, had begun to ignore the rules of war and target third parties as well as each other.

“We will try not to force anyone to fight, Caroline. And yes, every talent is needed. But are you sure this would…sell?”

He had his doubts. But then Ken remembered that there was a big market for this in Japan. It was just…would it apply to Baleros, where other species were as common, if not more common than Humans? Caroline shrugged.

“It can’t hurt to ask, right? So…will you ask?”

Me?

Ken looked horrified. Caroline blushed.

I can’t!”

“But you wrote it!”

“I just can’t! Ken, you have to! You’re the [Negotiator]. You can ask if the others think it’ll sell. Please?”

“I—”

Ken spluttered. This was not something he’d ever envisioned having to do. But Caroline was insistent.

“It’s for the good of the company! And it might sell a lot! You know about Twilight, right? And Fifty Shades of Grey? They sold millions of books, Ken! Just imagine it! Please ask! I just need feedback from a few Dullahans, Centaurs, and Lizardfolk.”

Only them? Ken bit his tongue. Caroline had named the three most common species inhabiting Baleros besides Humans. The stony-faced, hierarchical Dullahans encased in their armor, who could detach heads and body parts as easily as blinking. Centaurs, haughty, arrogant, and yet also intensely honorable in their own way. And Lizardfolk, who were in a word, social. Extremely adaptive, almost never found alone, and chatty. And Ken had to show this to them? He opened his mouth to protest again, and found Caroline ushering him towards the door.

Remember to get their feedback! Ask them if they liked the pairings! And the—the descriptions!”

Ken stared at the door as Caroline shut it behind him. The little hut that had been his work area was one of several on the beach. In fact, the small fishing village inhabited by Lizardfolk was entirely on the beach. The slim, scaly Lizardpeople walked to and fro, chatting, casting nets together, and stopping to stare at their guests.

The United Nations company, or rather, the group of people who’d decided to rally under that banner were still in holiday mode. Groups of Humans dressed in bright clothing mixed with a few Dullahans, a pacing Centaur or two, and a gaggle of Lizardfolk. They were mainly Humans from Earth, and they boasted a mix of technology from their world—iPhones, modern clothing, and jewelry the Lizardfolk clearly coveted—some also still carried weapons from their time as mercenaries. Among them was Quallet Marshhand himself, a man with several scars who was clearly out of place in this peaceful setting.

The beach was wonderfully white and beautiful. Ken had never seen somewhere this lovely in person. The waves lapped at the sand, and the food was excellent, the Lizardfolk hospitable. They’d given up their house—for coin of course—and had fed their guests well. Being here had almost made Ken forget the blood and death of only a week earlier.

Almost. But Ken would never forget, least of all in his dreams. What was a bit of embarrassment compared to that? He took a deep breath and marched across the sands. As he walked, some of the people looked up. One of them called his name. Ken turned and waved at Daly, an Australian young man who still bore the axe he’d fought with.

He was relaxing next to Quexa, a Lizardgirl. She had only one foot. The other one had been cut off in battle, but Geneva had helped create a simple peg-leg for her. And the [Doctor] was hoping to improve on that, and bring more modern technologies from her world. She just needed time and resources. And if erotica would fund the [Doctor]’s needs…Ken took a deep breath.

“Excuse me! Mister Revuc, yes? May I ask your opinion of something if you have the spare time?”

 

—-

 

“Fucking hell. I think he’s actually doing it. You owe me…two silver coins, Paige.”

Daly watched as Ken approached a Dullahan wearing stiff wood armor. The Dullahan had his head tucked under one arm, but he fastened it to his head and locked it into place as Ken showed him the piece of parchment. Two Lizardboys crowded around and Ken hurriedly shooed them away. They were too young, but the Centaur and five other Lizardfolk he called over all looked interested. Daly watched and then turned to his side.

“Hey Paige, I said—”

“I hear you. Go to hell.”

A young woman lying in the sand half-raised her head. Her ears were filled with two blue ear buds. She was letting the sun bathe her. Reluctantly, she looked up and saw Ken gesticulating quickly to the Dullahan, who was looking quite affronted.

“That’s disgusting.”

“I don’t know. I quite liked it—”

Without looking over, Paige tossed some sand at Daly. He spluttered and Quexa laughed.

“Not the story. The fact that Caroline made Ken ask about it. Let her do it if she’s so invested.”

Some of the other Earthworlders in earshot nodded. Daly shrugged. He brushed sand off his back, and then felt something sweep across him. He looked over. Quexa winked at him as she slapped his shoulder, dislodging the dry sand.

“I don’t know. I think it’s smart, myself. True, Caroline should probably grow a pair and get out there, but if they do go sour, Ken’s probably the only one who could stop a fight. He’s our [Negotiator], after all.”

“Hm.”

Paige just grunted. They kept watching. Daly didn’t know what was being said, but the affront on Revuc’s face changed to something like amusement after Ken kept talking. The Centaur laughed, and the Dullahan cracked a smile.

“See? Look at that. He made them laugh, instead of knocking his teeth out. Caroline’d probably get in trouble. Well, maybe. I couldn’t do that. Not to one of the Dullahan fellows right now. It takes guts to smile at anyone after you see something like that.”

The others grew silent. Something like that. Daly meant the battlefield they’d walked out of. Watching other people from Earth being executed. By Dullahans. Fair, it wasn’t as if Revuc stood for all of them, but the memory was burned into Daly’s mind. Paige looked over and plucked one ear bud out.

“Any news from there?”

“Yes.”

Quexa spoke up. The Lizardgirl sat up.

“The Razorshard Armor company won. They drove the Roving Arrow forces away. It was a slaughter after we left. Both companies were reduced to a fraction of their original force. But the Razorshard Armor company secured the area—for four days. Then another company, Steliers’s Ring, came in and forced them to retreat.”

“Fucking hell. You mean all that fighting was for nothing? They won but then had to give up?”

Across from them, one of the Australians that Daly had come here with, Dawson, muttered. The others just looked up bleakly. Quexa smiled and her tail curled up a bit. Daly saw that, but no one else could. The Lizardgirl spoke cheerfully.

“That’s Baleros for you! Fortunes change in an instant. Even the strongest get eaten. And it’s not like it was for nothing. The survivors leveled. The Razorshard Armor company probably secured a lot of spoils from the dead. Armor, weapons—it wasn’t a complete loss.”

“Still. This place is just like a warzone. If it’s like this, then…”

Someone else muttered. Daly looked up. Baleros was completely different from home. War and battles were commonplace. No one batted an eyelash about hearing about two companies fighting. And this was where he and the others were. Stuck.

After a while, Daly spoke up. He looked back to Ken thoughtfully.

“I don’t know about you lot, but I’m glad Ken’s here. Because if he hadn’t been—if we hadn’t run into Geneva, we’d be dead. Or living like maniacs.”

He saw nods from all around. Paige just closed her eyes and lay back. Daly didn’t doubt he was right, either. He remembered what it had been like, living in Gravetender’s Fist those last few days. He had felt…alive.

Frighteningly so. The fear and adrenaline in the air, the feeling of being on the razor’s edge—it had colored every waking moment. Daly could remember eating feverishly, sleeping, only to wake up in an instant. That had been the mood among him and the other people from Earth. A burning desperation, the realization that they were in another world and how hopeless their situation was.

There had been something liberating in it. Wild, that called them to do whatever they wanted. Eat, drink, and relish every second you’re alive. Because soon you’ll be dead. There had been real despair among them—in everyone from their world as the realization had sunk in. But some of them hadn’t given in. They’d refused to fight, found another way out.

“I killed eight guys before Ken showed up. Eight. It wasn’t even that hard. You just swing the axe, use a Skill—it was easy after fighting zombies every night. Zombies you have to cut off their heads. Centaurs, Dullahans—they bleed and die. If he hadn’t stopped the fighting and helped us get away…”

Paige looked up. Daly stared across the blue ocean. He was still wearing the axe, despite sunbathing. His hand twitched. Quexa looked up. But she said nothing. She looked at the other Earthworlders, but no one else wanted to speak. Paige nodded.

“I saw Anders get run down by a Centaur. Right in front of me. Makes you wonder how Humans survived at all. In this place.”

No one spoke. Desperately, still smiling, Quexa looked around. Her tail curled further, and she pitched her voice up cheerfully.

“Oh, I know the answer to that! It’s because there are too many Humans to get rid of. You’re on every continent—lots of you. Mainly because you reproduce so fast. I mean, Lizardfolk do too, but Humans are really good at it. We’re both good at having sex. Our species, I mean. We might be good ourselves, but I haven’t had enough practice to tell.”

A few of the Earthworlders laughed. Daly chuckled and Quexa brightened.

“Speaking of which, I was going to ask. About sex. Is it normal for Humans to have—”

Hey.

Daly raised his voice. The others began laughing. That was how Ken found them. The young man walked over, holding the parchment. Daly broke off from explaining to Quexa, red-faced, why talking about intimate moments wasn’t customary among Humans—at least not in this public a setting—and looked at him.

“Ken! What’s the verdict? Are we all going to start writing Baleros fan fiction, or what?”

Ken only blushed a bit. He glanced over his shoulder and hesitated. He coughed twice.

“There is…potential. If Caroline-san keeps writing, we can try selling her finished story. But it will take time for her to write.”

“No kidding?”

“No. I think it might sell. Um. Among at least two of the species. Lizardfolk are very—how can I say it?—interested. They are open and liked the story. I do not think the Centaurs would, though. Their culture doesn’t enjoy it the same way, as they do not like reading of intimate scenes.”

“And the Dullahans?”

“Um. Revuc was very upset. But after I explained it to him, I think he might have been interested. If it wasn’t so public when he was reading it. Please do not talk to him about it. But Dullahans might enjoy it, if it was not so public.”

One of the others whistled.

“Closet perverts. Really? Are all Dullahans like that?”

“They are not all like that. But culturally, Dullahans do not express things like that. So I am saying maybe they might be interested…so long as no one knows what they’re reading.”

The others laughed. Daly was joking that Caroline should just copy Twilight and trying to explain that to Quexa when he saw some other people approaching. One of the Humans who had been rowing about the waters had finally come ashore. Luan, sweating but visibly delighted, approached.

“Ken! What’s happening over here?”

The others looked up and waved. Daly saw Luan had his own group of followers trailing behind him. He’d been rowing with Aiko in his canoe, teaching her how to row. And he was followed by a host of Lizardfolk, all of whom had been taken in an instant by Luan’s skill. He was faster than any of them on the water, despite the fishing canoes being their crafts. And that was because Luan was truly extraordinary when it came to rowing.

He was an Olympic athlete, or more correctly, the Olympic hopeful of his nation. Luan had trained all his life to excel at one sport. Daly had watched him shoot across the waters. It was strange. Luan had just been one of the others when he was trapped in the jungle. But on the water, he was different.

“Luan. Caroline-san has given me this. She thinks we should sell it. What do you think?”

Ken turned, smiling at his friend. He, Luan, and Aiko had been a close group in Baleros. The Japanese girl waved at Daly and the others. She stuck to Luan—Daly wondered if they were together. The rumor was that Luan was actually a married man, but it hadn’t been hard to tell that Aiko was deeply in to him.

No one would ask. This was a different world. For his part, Luan took the parchment from Ken and began reading. He started laughing almost at once.

“What? She wants to sell this? Are you serious? It’s a brilliant idea! Twisted! It’s like doujinshi, you know, Ken? Aiko could do illustrations!”

“What? No, Luan! No way!”

The young Japanese woman protested vigorously. He laughed, trying to show her what was written. She covered her face and turned away. The others laughed and Daly saw Quexa looking interested. She was going to want to read it next.

Luan returned the page to Ken, who in turn handed it to Quexa when she requested it. The South African man grew serious as he took a seat in the sand with the others.

“I’m not saying it would sell lots, yeah? But if we could sell some copies, that’d be great. And Caroline could be a—a [Writer]. That’s a class, isn’t it?”

“Um. [Scribe] is more common to start with. Ooh. Hey, wait a second! We don’t have warm bodies! Not unless we’re really sick. Is she sick?”

Quexa pointed indignantly at the manuscript, and Daly looked over. He grinned. Luan kept smiling, but there was reserve in his tone.

“I’m sure Caroline could fix it. She’ll gain a class tonight, right?”

“If she doesn’t have it already. I’m surprised. You all don’t have levels. Even you, Luan. Even though you’re fast on the water.”

The Lizardgirl looked at Luan. He shrugged, glancing at the others.

“It’s complicated. But I’ll want to level. Especially if it makes me faster. We should all be trying to level up, I think.”

“We’ve all got [Warrior] classes, mate. Should we keep leveling those classes?”

Daly felt at the axe at his side. Luan hesitated.

“That’s up to each of us, Daly my friend. But we need to earn money somehow. We’re the United Nations company, and we need to feed everyone somehow. I’m going to make money by running messages in my canoe. That’s a good job.”

Quexa nodded absently. Luan looked at Ken.

“And Quallet wants us to be a company. Escorting Geneva around. And fighting. Not sure that’s the right thing to do. But we need jobs and that’s a fact, friends.”

The others grew silent. They sat up a bit. It had been a wonderful few days here. But Luan had reminded them of the facts. They weren’t on vacation. And their surviving the fighting in the jungles hadn’t left them rich. They’d been paid for the fighting, but it wasn’t as if Quallet and the other suppression companies had come out with money from the broken contracts.

“Well, we’ll have another meeting tonight. Caroline can be our [Writer], and the rest of us can look for proper jobs once we head to another town.”

“Yeah. Definitely. We’ll make it.”

Paige smiled. But there was a bit of uncertainty in the smile. Daly could hear her turn up the music in her headphones. Luan looked around. And then he started.

“Oh. Look who’s coming.”

Every head turned. And the Humans grew still. Some sat up a bit. Walking across the beach came another figure that everyone recognized. Her steps were quick, her gait only a slight bit uneven, favoring her left side. But for all that, Geneva Scala was distinguished. Not just her bearing either. No one who saw her could forget. There walked Geneva, the [Doctor]. The Last Light of Baleros.

She had saved hundreds of lives on the battlefield before Ken and the others had found her. Alone, working in the jungle with nothing but scalpel, needles, and healing potions. To the people of this world, her skills were unique. She could do what no potion or spell could. She had brought people from the edge of death without rest.

And it showed. Of the people on the beach, Geneva was the only one who was clearly not smiling. She looked—restless.

“Ken. Luan. Aiko. Hello. What’s happening?”

Geneva paused before the others. Luan turned to her, smiling a bit.

“Geneva, come and look at this.”

He handed her the parchment before anyone could object. Geneva read quickly, and then visibly paused. She frowned.

“This is…”

“It’s erotica. Caroline’s thinking of marketing it. You know, like a cheap romance novel?”

Geneva looked up. She didn’t smile. Her expression seemed to be a perpetual frown. No—more like a concentrated stare. And she was restless, as if she expected to be called upon at any moment. She considered the writing and then handed it back to Luan.

“That’s not the correct anatomy. But if it sells, why not? We need money. We need to leave this place soon.”

The smile faded from Luan’s face.

“Not just yet. We could stay a few more days, right?”

Geneva shook her head.

“We’re running out of money. Do you know how much we have left?”

Luan shifted uncomfortably.

“I do. But some of us are worn out, Geneva. We all need more of a break. You included.”

“I’ll be fine. But we can’t keep putting this off, Luan.”

Daly looked from Geneva to Luan and sat up a bit. The dark-skinned man hesitated. He looked at Ken and no one else spoke. Of the Earthworlders, he and Geneva were the oldest, which wasn’t saying much. At last, he nodded.

“We can leave soon. We’ll talk it over tonight.”

“Are we going to be working as a suppression company again, Luan?”

Paige called out. Luan looked at them. His eyes flickered. Everyone grew quiet.

“If we have to. But Quallet’s on our side, and a lot of Gravetender’s Fist stuck with us. We don’t have to go from battlefield to battlefield. He was saying he wanted to form a proper company, instead of a temporary suppression company. We could do stuff like…guarding places, right? Or we could get other jobs. We’ve got money. All we have to do is stick together.”

“Right. And we’ve got the Last Light of Baleros on our sight and Luan the almighty [Rower]. We’ll be fine, right?”

Daly joked. He heard a few sparse laughs. Luan smiled, but it only revealed a bit of strain. Geneva turned.

“We’re having another meeting tonight? Okay. I’ll be there. We can’t stay here forever.”

She walked off. Quickly, not even glancing at the ocean. As if she was being pursued. The others were quiet as reality came back. Slowly, Daly shifted.

“Guess we’ve got to get back to work.”

He stood up, brushing sand from his legs—

 

—-

 

Daly’s hand snatched a large bug crawling up his arm and hurled it off him. The biting thing flew off into the jungle. Daly rubbed at the bite. He made no sound. He heard Siri shift once, changing her stance. But neither she nor Daly sat down, despite their sore legs.

Sitting was a bad idea. Lots of things would crawl over them. And if they were unlucky enough to lie down on a nest of some kind—well, Daly had watched enough nature channels to know about army ants in the Amazon rainforests of his home. They were just a taste of the nasty things you could run into here. No. No sitting or sleeping. They didn’t intend on spending the entire night here, anyways.

“She was right. It really doesn’t look like that.”

Daly whispered to himself. He felt Siri shift, but he didn’t elaborate. He felt at his belt pouch again. The manuscript was longer. But it had never been finished to the author’s satisfaction. And it never would.

Caroline. Listening to her trying to come up with the right words and responding to their teasing each night had been so much fun. He’d really thought it would sell, too. Earn the money they needed. Until…

Daly felt his stomach gurgle. Not exactly in hunger. But it did remind him. He looked up.

“Siri. You eat anything?”

“Not hungry.”

Daly nodded. He wasn’t either. He’d eaten some dried jerky earlier, but he was too alert to settle for a real meal. Absently, he felt at his side. Let’s see. By his count it had been an hour and a half. If they were any longer, he’d have to—

Rustling. The crunch of footsteps in the soil. Daly froze, then turned. He felt Siri jerk to attention. Neither Human moved. Slowly, Daly rose into a low crouch. He reached for his side. The worn handle of an axe fit into his hand as he drew it. Siri, invisible, readied herself. The two were tense. And then—

Crikey, what was that?

Someone muttered ahead of them. Daly relaxed. He lowered his axe and grinned.

“Think it was a croc, mate. How’d you lot do?”

The figures ahead of him relaxed. Daly heard shuffling, then the outlines of four people—two male and two female—appeared. Like Siri and Daly, they were covered in mud and bits of nature. And like them, they barely spoke. In fact, they’d navigated their way here in almost complete darkness.

Almost. As they scooted into the camp, Daly could see one of them held what looked like an oversized firefly in their hand. A [Light] spell, but so faint that it barely provided any illumination. Which was the point.

“Sorry we’re late, boss.”

One of the latecomers murmured. He and the others trooped into the small camp space they’d set up. There was rustling—Daly moved aside as someone passed him. He saw the light pass him, and then a face came into view.

Dawson was a friend from home. But covered in mud, only his eyes were visible. He looked horrific in his jungle makeup. Daly nodded.

“Did you run into anything?”

“No. We had a clear go of it. But the damn buggers moved two hundred paces west. We had to follow them.”

“Can you find them again?”

“Definitely. They’re already asleep. So we can go as soon as we’re ready.”

That was good. Daly breathed out slowly in relief. At the same time though, he felt the tension racket up another notch.

“Give it twenty minutes. Anyone needs to eat? Get a mouthful in you. The rest of you—ready up.”

The others nodded. They shuffled around the camp, grabbing what supplies they’d left here. All in silence. Daly stretched. His legs were sore. Not only had he and the others set up camp here this morning, they’d spent all day tracking their quarry. They’d expected them to sleep later, but apparently it was lights out as soon as night fell. Well, it would speed up their job considerably. Daly didn’t want to wait another few hours like this.

“I’m gonna take a piss. I need a light.”

Someone muttered. The [Light] spell travelled to Daly’s left. He saw someone shuffle over. Male or female it didn’t matter. They didn’t get far enough away for anyone to not hear the quiet pattering sound. No one commented. Better embarrassment here than wandering too far out. And light was essential. You never knew what was around you.

That done, the others went back to getting ready. Daly already had his rucksack dropped, and he checked his weapons. He couldn’t afford something breaking. They’d only get one shot at this. The six of them had spent too much time to waste it here. And failing would have more repercussions than just wasted time and effort. It was their reputations on the line here. After all, they were adventurers.

Adventurers. Daly breathed in and out, slowly. His right index finger itched. It was an odd distinction. But adventurers were different from mercenaries in Baleros’ companies. They often fulfilled the same duties, but adventurers operated in smaller groups. They were hired for things like monster extermination over fighting other people. Usually. It didn’t mean the job was all that safer. Monsters were quite deadly.

But it beat killing people. There was that. Daly breathed in and out. String? Good. He loaded and unloaded the bulky weapon. He’d apply the poison at their destination. The [Alchemist] had told him it needed to be a fresh coat. He could hear the others doing the exact same check.

Silence. The minutes ticked by very, very slowly.

Aldenon, or Ald as he preferred to be called, sought Daly out as the others took a brief rest around the camp.

“Daly, I’ve got a bite. Something jumped up and got me on the way back.”

“Venomous?”

Daly was immediately alarmed. He looked down at his friend’s leg, but Ald shook his head.

“I don’t think so. It didn’t do much more than hurt. But it did bleed a bit. I didn’t want to use a healing potion until we could check it out. You know what Geneva said about venoms and potions.”

“Damn right. Let me see. Get that [Light] spell over here, Dawson.”

The light appeared again. Daly looked down and saw dried blood on a leg. He bent, squinted. Ald held still. Daly inspected the wound for eggs, discoloration, but saw nothing as he brushed at the mud and blood.

“Looks fine to me. Just a bit of blood. Not even deep.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Ald relaxed a bit. Daly nodded.

“It’s not gonna slow you down, although it might attract bugs. Already got one bugger in there. Let’s put a bandage over it. If it’s bad, Geneva’ll take care of it when she gets back.”

“I’ve got a roll right here. Let’s wrap him up and reapply the mud.”

Siri rummaged in her belt pouch. Daly nodded.

“Clean it first. Where’s the med kit Geneva worked up?”

“Here.”

One of the others tossed Daly a little rucksack. He opened it and fished out a canteen. The instant he uncorked it, a pungent smell rose from the bottle.

“It’s gonna sting, Ald.”

“Hah. I got bit by a Ghoul. Don’t worry about—fuck!

Ald bit his tongue as Daly poured the alcohol over the wound and then rubbed the blood and dirt away with a clean bit of cloth. He bit his tongue and kept silent as the bandage was swiftly applied and wrapped up. Daly slapped his knee gently.

“Good as new. Let us know if it starts feeling worse, got it?”

“Thanks, Daly.”

The operation had been very quiet, despite the swearing. Daly corked the canteen and stowed it again, resisting the urge to take a sip. The liquid within wasn’t for drinking, tempting as it might have been.

Medical kits didn’t exist for most companies. They had healing potions and little else. But the thing about having a [Doctor] in your company was that she insisted you be prepared. After all, healing potions couldn’t cover everything. Hence the bandages and other kit they’d brought with them. Antiseptic was especially important. Geneva had been tearing her hair out over the problem. She had a Skill, but she couldn’t be everywhere.

In lieu of rubbing alcohol or a proper antiseptic, Geneva had ordered them to bring whiskey, or a hard grain liquor as a substitute. That was what Daly had poured on Ald’s leg. And the smell was distinct. Some of the bugs flew away at the odor. Some came closer to investigate. Daly heard a grunt.

“Pshaw. What’s that stuff you poured on Ald? That Firebreath Whiskey we bought? It stinks!”

“Yeah. We want to get rid of the smell before we’re on the move.”

Daly scowled. He shouldn’t have applied the stuff here. Sloppy. They had to be more careful. If this was a riskier mission or something had been nearby—

One of the others spoke up thoughtfully.

“You know, we might be able to make a Molotov out of that stuff. Good old-fashioned firebombs? Worth a shot?”

“Maybe…don’t think it’d do much damage against our targets this time. But it’d probably scare them. I don’t think it could start a fire in this wet. What do you think, Daly?”

Siri spoke up quietly. Daly gave it a moment’s thought.

“No. Not this time. We start throwing alcohol around and we’ll be in the red for this job. We’ve got poison. We’ll try that first, pull back and rethink if it doesn’t. Remember, aim for the eyes or the side. No one speaks until we get there. Ready?”

The others gave a quiet affirmative. Daly nodded.

“Move out.”

They stood up. In silence, the six left their camp. Dawson took point, leading the way through the tropical rainforest he’d memorized. Daly walked in the middle, Siri keeping up the rear. The light spell was barely visible. The footsteps were loud in Daly’s ears, despite everyone keeping quiet as possible. They were all listening for sounds that might indicate something lying in wait. They lugged their weapons with them, drawn, but not loaded. Not yet.

Bugs. Mud. Aching legs. There was only one reason for Daly to be out here, being eaten alive. And that was what motivated all adventurers.

Money. It always came back to money. Everything would be fine if they had enough coin. But they didn’t. And soon they’d realized what that meant. Daly’s teeth ground together for a moment before he stopped it.

If they’d only realized how much it cost to run a company, they wouldn’t have pushed so far…

 

—-

 

“We’re not going to make it.”

Daly looked up. Paige was counting their coins. Silver, coppers, gold—all of it was in Quallet’s personal bag of holding. And there wasn’t enough. He could see that. Even so, he asked, in case asking would change reality.

“Are you sure? How much do we have?”

“A hundred and eighteen gold coins.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?”

Paige shot him a glance. Daly winced. He scooted over and checked, but Paige had counted the coins into even piles of five. He held his breath. Luan and Geneva were not going to like this.

“We’re never going to get to Talenqual at this rate. We have to stop and earn money. Somehow.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know. Here. Another town? But we’ll starve long before we get there. And we’ll lose half our company before that. They’re already talking about needing to be paid. I’m surprised they haven’t brought it up until now.”

The others. Daly felt a lurch in his chest. It had been a week and a half of marching. They’d left the idyllic Lizardfolk village on the beach to march back through the jungle. North, towards one of the cities nearby. Quexa and the others had said it was a good place—peaceful, with opportunity to work. But the journey had taken longer than they’d thought.

No—they’d delayed too long. Too many days of stretching out on the beach, wasting money. And then they’d stopped at nice inns, not marched nearly as hard as they could. They were paying for it now. Quallet had insisted the Earthworlders and soldiers still with them pick up the pace, but the Humans from Earth hadn’t been able to muster the discipline, and none of the appointed leaders—Luan, Ken, or Geneva—had had the stomach to force the issue. Daly wished they had. Desperately, he counted the coins and tried to estimate how far they had to go.

“Look, if we all just eat rice—with some of that cheap meat the Lizardfolk sell, er, xelca, and we drink water, how much does it cost us each day?”

“Too much. I’ve done the math, Daly.”

Paige snapped at him. He knew she was just stressed. As the appointed treasurer of the United Nations company, she was already under pressure to save as many coins as they could. And that was before the issue in front of them—the Earthworlders were reluctant to give up the pay they’d earned and pool their funds, no matter how necessary it was, and the others weren’t about to do that at all.

The remnants of Gravetender’s Fist might have agreed to join the company, but they were still separate. Even Quexa and Quallet. And if there was no money to be had, they might up and vanish. And then how would the Earthworlders defend themselves?

“It’s too expensive. We’ve got too many mouths. Even rice and meat add up, Daly. We can’t always cook it ourselves, and it’s way more expensive if we’re paying for meals. That’s on top of paying for rooms, Geneva’s supplies, materials for the Dullahan’s armor, bug repellant, not to mention ink, parchment, [Repair] spells for the electronics…”

“Damn it. What do we do, then?”

Daly scrubbed at his hair. Paige shrugged.

“I’ve done all I can. I can only relay the bad news.”

Which she did. Every night, the leaders of the United Nations company gathered. In Quallet’s tent if they were camping, in a room in the inn if they were paying for lodging—six of them.

Paige, Daly, Ken, Luan, Geneva, and Quallet. The six of them were, each in their own way, leaders. Daly and Paige represented the Australians, who were the largest group of otherworlders who’d survived to join the company. Paige kept the money, Daly had found himself keeping people in line. Stopping them from fighting on the road, wasting money, and so on. Ken was their diplomat, responsible for negotiating prices and more of the peacemaking. Luan was Luan. Geneva likewise. And Quallet was their link to the outside world and common sense.

It was that the [Mercenary Captain] threw at them now. They didn’t want to hear it, but he was insistent. He paced back and forth, looking angry and irritated.

“Companies always bleed coin. The way we earn it is constantly being on contract. Or by controlling and selling a resource of some kind. If we were responsible for guarding a town, for instance…but we’re not. We need to find work.”

“You mean, by taking a fight. Going out there and killing some other poor buggers.”

“Not necessarily. Companies get paid to menace an area, or just patrol. We could take a job clearing pest monsters. Or even undead. Anything to get by. I thought that was why you formed this company.”

The man glared at Geneva and Luan. The two looked at each other. Luan spoke quietly.

“We don’t want to fight, Quallet. It’s too risky. People will die.”

“That’s what happens in a company.”

“It’s not what we want. This company is supposed to protect its members.”

“By letting them starve?”

“By protecting. Finding another way to earn gold. We’re not in this to start fights!”

Luan snapped at Quallet. The man ground his teeth together. Geneva looked up.

“I can do it. I’ll offer my services at a battlefield. If Quallet can get together some people to guard me, I’ll see if Calectus is willing to stay with us and guard me.”

“For free?”

Quallet was skeptical. He had every right to be. The Selphid, Calectus, was already thinking of leaving. He’d done his job guarding Geneva from everything without so much as asking for a copper coin—now he was hinting at leaving more and more with each passing day. He wanted to find some of his Selphid friends and bring them back to meet Geneva. He wouldn’t be happy to learn she was planning on going back to the battlefield.

Neither was anyone else. Ken protested immediately.

“Geneva, please reconsider. Doing something like working on the battlefield—it’s too dangerous, surely!”

The [Doctor] shook her head. Her hands moved restlessly on the table. Daly saw her left hand’s fingers moving, as if they had a mind of their own compared to the right. He shivered but kept silent.

“I’m no use here. I can at least earn money by saving lives on the battlefield.”

“That might be true. But we can’t protect you. When I said we should work as a company, I didn’t mean head to a battlefield as a third party. We should take small contracts. We don’t have the numbers or the punch to defend a target like you.”

Quallet looked at Geneva. She shrugged.

“Then I’ll go by myself.”

“This time they’ll kill you straight off. They won’t risk what happened last time. Word got around. You destabilize a battlefield. No [Strategist] will let you interrupt their plans.”

The Italian woman’s eyes blazed.

“What’s the other solution? Let everyone else fight?”

“It’s not necessarily going to come to battle! I told you, companies aren’t always at war.”

“And it if does?”

“You were [Soldiers]. Mercenaries. You survived one battle, and did it well. Why can’t you do it again—”

“Enough!”

Ken interrupted the two as they argued. He forced himself between Geneva and Quallet, speaking desperately.

“Please! Friends, calm down. No one is going back to the battlefield. We could not convince our friends, I think. We must find another way.”

Quallet subsided. Geneva stepped back unwillingly. The [Mercenary] looked at Ken and modulated his tone, but barely.

“That doesn’t change the fact that the rest of us came with your group because we thought it would be an opportunity. The Last Light, your strange lot—we’re with you. We are. But we have to earn a living and none of us have seen any coin.”

That was true. Quallet had funded them with his funds as well as their own. Daly looked down and gritted his teeth.

“We could fight. At least, do some patrolling. I’m sure at least half of us would sign up for it.”

He meant the Earthworlders. The Balerosian lot, Quexa included, were only too happy to act as a company. Quallet relaxed, but Geneva shook her head.

“I can’t let you do that, Daly. Not you or anyone else. At least two thirds of the Earthworlders are suffering from symptoms of PTSD. I’m not a psychologist, but that’s my diagnosis. And it’s an easy one to make.”

She looked from face to face. Quallet looked blank. Luan shifted.

“A lot of us have nightmares. Flashbacks. They’re unstable.”

“They’re green. This was their first battle. They’ll toughen up. I’ll keep discipline.”

Quallet growled. Geneva sighed loudly. He didn’t understand what they were talking about.

Paige spoke up.

“They’re afraid. They don’t want to fight. We’re not warriors, Quallet. We don’t come from a place where people fight. At all.”

“Well then, you’d better learn. Because a company that doesn’t fight dies.”

That was the last the man said. The others looked at each other. Luan sighed.

If we stop here and let some of us take jobs while the rest work as a company, can you earn money from tending to people, Geneva? Enough to put us on the road?”

Geneva’s nostrils went white as she inhaled painfully.

“From what patients? Who needs a [Doctor] when you have healing potions? Besides, there aren’t enough injuries. Unless I’m on a battlefield—”

The door burst open. Quallet turned and Daly drew his axe in an instant. Dawson froze as he saw Daly turning towards him. Quallet seized Daly’s arm and brought the axe down.

“What the hell is it?”

He snapped at Dawson. Some of the color flooded back into Dawson’s face. The young man looked around the room.

“Caroline’s gone. Has anyone seen her?”

“No. Did she go outside?”

The others looked at each other. Dawson shook his head.

“We thought she was just somewhere else, but no one’s seen her all night. She was going out.”

“For a walk? I told you not to go out alone! Especially this late at night!”

“I don’t know if she did! But she’s missing.”

“Damn it. Let’s spread out and search. Daly, Paige, you follow me. The rest of you, stay here!”

Quallet cursed. He led the way out the door and Daly followed, heart pounding. They searched for Caroline, asking about the inn, checking the forest. Shouting her name.

They never found her.

 

—-

 

“It’s not going to work. We have to split up the company.”

Ken announced that fact to the group the next morning. Daly looked up. He was sleep-deprived, exhausted from a night of searching. Quallet jerked. He’d been half-asleep.

“What do you mean? It’s over?”

Luan and the others looked at Ken as well, in alarm. The young Japanese man hesitated.

“No. The company is not over. But—we cannot be together. Work under the same flag.”

He turned and bowed to Quallet.

“Captain Marshhand, it is clear to me that you wish to have a company that fights and operates as one. You have mercenaries, and I think, the will to earn a living that way, is that correct?”

Quallet nodded slowly.

“That’s right. I’m done with the suppression company work. I want a real company at my back, not new soldiers. And I’m willing to make your company into one.”

Ken nodded a few times.

“I understand that. But I think we have had a miscommunication. A terrible one. You see, Miss Geneva, Luan, and I—we are not trying to form a company that is for hire. We are forming a—a group that protects others like us. That finds other people from our home.”

“Earth. Your strange homeland. I understand that. What’s the problem? Larger companies control land, territory, and so on.”

Again Ken nodded.

“That is true. But this company is small. And those of us from Earth—we are not willing to fight. Some of us might to defend ourselves, but we do not wish to. And Geneva especially.”

Every eye turned to her. Geneva nodded.

“I can’t be part of fighting. Even if it’s just me tending to the wounded on one side—if anyone’s hurt, I have a duty to help them.”

“Well that’s just great. A [Doctor] on our side is our one big asset. You’re telling me you want me to fight—without including Geneva or most of you lot?”

It looked as if Quallet would burst a vein. Ken shook his head.

“No, I think that would be unfair. And I think you and the others would be unwilling. So I am saying…we should split up. Captain Quallet, you should form your company and split with ours. We will earn money ourselves. Your company will be independent.”

The others gathered around the table froze. Daly looked up.

“Hold on, Ken! If we’re alone, what will we do to defend ourselves?”

The young man looked at him. His eyes were serious.

“I do not know, Daly. We must defend ourselves. But I think it is better to do this than have the others leave at once.”

“So we’re going to abandon each other? Just like that? We just made this company!”

“We did not think it through properly. And in truth, I think this is for the best. We can remain allies. But we are not working towards the same goals.”

Ken looked sideways at Quallet. The man rubbed at his face.

“That’s…true. I felt like that from the start. Damn it. I think you’re right. We’re not working towards the same goals, are we? I’m all for fighting, but you lot—aren’t.”

“So that’s it? We split up?”

Ken nodded.

“Anyone who wants to go with Quallet can. His company will earn money—work independently. I hope, I feel that we can keep strong ties. But he will not owe us anything. If he needs help, we can exchange help. Geneva can tend to the injured. I can negotiate on behalf of the company—but we must earn a living by ourselves. Without fighting.”

“Find jobs. Settle down somewhere. I’ll earn money as a Runner, if I can do it rowing. Geneva can work as a [Doctor]. Maybe in a bigger city?”

Luan folded his arms and looked at Geneva. The Italian woman scrubbed at her hair with her right hand and nodded shortly. Ken turned and gave an apologetic bow to Quallet.

“Captain Quallet, I am very sorry about this. But I hope your company will keep good relations with ours.”

The man looked embarrassed.

“It’s…the best way. I won’t say this isn’t disappointing, but it’s for the best. We’ll split. My company will keep ties with yours, of course. But you’re right. We’ll split. I’ll tell the others. I think they’ll all come with me. And we’ll be searching for work today.”

Daly watched as he sat down with Ken to work out how much each group would keep of the remaining funds. Quallet was generous. More than he had to be, really. But it didn’t change the fact that when he left, the room was a lot emptier than it had been. Paige looked around.

“So we’re alone. No more mercenaries, no more Quallet to help us.”

Luan looked troubled.

“They have to earn a living. So do we. And we’re not fighting.”

“So? Baleros isn’t safe.

Paige shot back. She was still upset. They all were. Caroline had vanished. No one knew if she’d walked into the forest and gotten lost, or if something had gotten her. Or if someone had. They couldn’t stay in the town.

It was hard breaking the news to the others. But in the end, the results were predictable. None of the Earthworlders wanted to go with Quallet. Not even Daly and the others who’d gained levels in the fighting. It was too much to face. His company prepared to part ways with theirs that evening. It was then that Quexa sought Daly out.

“Quexa?”

The Australian looked up. He saw the Lizardgirl fidgeting. She limped over on her peg-leg prosthetic. Geneva hadn’t been able to get anyone to carve or make a better fit.

“Quexa, are you going?”

The Lizardgirl nodded. She took a breath and then spoke in a rush.

“I am. It’s not that I don’t like you all—I do! But I wanted to be a mercenary and I guess you guys don’t. So I’m going. And we’re um, not going to talk. I mean, we can talk if we see each other again! It’s just that I think you and me are—are—”

A hole opened up in Daly’s stomach. He looked at her. Quexa went on, talking even faster.

“I like you! But I was also really upset after I lost my foot, I mean, who wouldn’t be? And I’m not sure it’s a good idea to be together. Right now. Because we’re going our separate ways and I really thought you’d come with us, but you didn’t. But if you did­—but you won’t. Will you?”

She looked at Daly pleadingly. He hesitated and put his hand on the handle of his axe. Daly shuddered. He stood with Quexa for a while, head bowed.

Paige found him later. Daly was sitting, staring at the axe that Quallet had shown him how to use. He stood up as Paige came over.

“Daly? Are you alright? Quallet’s left. With the others.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”

Daly looked up. He didn’t look at Paige. She hesitated.

“You’re sure?”

There was no need for him to answer that. He just looked at her as he buckled the axe to his belt. Daly shook his head.

“Let’s just keep moving. It’s not safe here.”

 

—-

 

“Keep moving.”

The present. Daly realized he was murmuring the words. He stopped. The others were glancing at him. Silently, Dawson changed their course, skirting a thick tree in the forest. Daly felt the weight of the axe at his side. And the heavy weapon in his hands.

It was weighty. Wooden, smoothed by sanding, but not varnished or polished. A hunk of wood, really. But strong for all that. And there had been skill in making it. Hard effort. The result might have been crude, but the tool was deadly nonetheless. Daly ran his hands over it carefully, checking the string, making sure the trigger was ready for a quarrel to be loaded into it.

He was holding a crossbow. A big one, far bigger than the small hand crossbows or even the regular-sized ones you saw most people carrying. This was a beast, made almost entirely of wood, save for a few small parts like the screws, sliding mechanism, and part of the trigger. But the rest was wood.

The other five adventurers carried the same. They moved through the underbrush, careful not to get the crossbows tangled on anything. It was twenty more minutes of walking before they reached their destination. When Dawson stopped, Daly knew they’d reached their target. He peered ahead as his friend beckoned him forwards. That’s when he saw them.

Boars. Or rather, something that looked like boars, lying about in the forest. Huge, lumbering things, as big as pigs bred for slaughter in his world. And covered in armor. Their fronts were covered in a dull, matted metal, smeared with dirt and plants and so on, but still noticeably metallic. It was steel, which gave the boars an impression of wearing jagged masks. Their tusks, their faces, were all covered by the heavy metal.

It made them deadly when they charged and they were incredibly aggressive. Hence their name. Stelbore. And they had a high bounty on their heads not just for the steel armor, but because of how aggressive they could be. Stelbore would kill travellers on the road. They ate almost anything. Like pigs.

They were all asleep. Lying on their sides. Nine of them. Two were very big, three more adults but Daly thought only one was male. The other four were smaller. Piglets. Boarlets. Whatever. Daly held up a hand and circled with his fist.

Spread out. The others did at once. They didn’t go far—but they moved from tree to tree, hiding themselves. Peeking out. Their crossbows were prepared, strings pulled back and waiting for ammunition. Now they pulled bolts from their quivers and dipped the heads into a little bottle each of them carried. Poison, bought from an [Alchemist]. It should work on Stelbore. It had worked on other animals, but these things were big. So Daly pointed at the boar and raised three fingers. Then he pointed at the—oh, the sow. That was it. The female Stelbore. He raised two fingers.

No one responded. But they’d gotten his message. Three of the team aimed their crossbows at the boar, the other two at the sow. Daly sighted on the boar as well. He waited, aiming slightly up from behind his tree, bracing the butt of the crossbow’s stock on his shoulder. In his head he spoke.

Aim.

The Stelbore’s underbelly was vulnerable. Exposed. Daly sighted. He felt the crossbow’s trigger pressing against his finger. Waiting for him to pull hard. The stock of the crossbow was smooth. Not entirely so; it wasn’t a professional piece, but it was sturdy. Daly knew that.

He’d carved it himself.

 

—-

 

“Hey Paige. Money.”

The young woman looked up. She blinked as Daly set down seven silver coins and two copper ones. A day’s work. He smiled wearily at her. She looked at the coins and up at him.

“How’d work go?”

He shrugged and sat down in the chair next to her. It was hard, wicker, but to him it was a heavenly thing. The little cottage they were renting was cramped, and air conditioning wasn’t a thing. The shutters were open to let a breeze in, but that just meant the hot, humid air was filling the room. Daly could feel sweat dripping down his body. Paige was perspiring a bit, even though she hadn’t been out in the sun.

“Not bad. I got worked hard. But it’s good work. My boss says I pick up stuff well—you know, for someone without the class. She’s looking forwards to seeing what Skill I get tonight.”

“So being a [Carpenter] suits you?”

Daly grinned wearily.

“Suits me and then some. I’m grateful. Didn’t think I’d ever land a job, but my boss is a Naga. You know? Has a big shop and decided to take a risk. It helped that I told her I admired her scales.”

“Ken’s trick?”

The young man nodded and leaned back, trying to find a comfortable spot in his chair. Ken had taught him and the others how to interact with some of Baleros’ races. They all had their peculiarities. For instance, you didn’t get handsy with Dullahans unless you were best friends. And even then it was rude. On the other hand, Lizardfolk loved contact and chatter. And one of their evolutionary forms, the Naga, was incredibly vain. They loved being complimented, hence Daly getting lucky.

“She gave me a trial run. I think she was impressed that I knew how to do some of the stuff she wanted already. You know, planing wood and so on? Apparently she has to explain it all to most of her apprentices.”

“That’s great news.”

Paige smiled. She added Daly’s coins to the little belt pouch she carried at all times quickly. Then she reached for her side. Daly saw her pull out her smart phone and work on it. The screen flashed—but dimly. It was at the lowest brightness setting to conserve power. Paige entered a few numbers and sighed.

“We’re in the black at last. Geneva’s gotten some more customers, and Ken thinks he can talk the Dullahan into leasing us the apartments until we can find something more permanent.”

“Really? I put us over the edge?”

That brought a smile to Daly’s face. Paige nodded.

“You did. Between Luan’s income as a City Runner, Dawson and the others finding work as [Laborers], and so on—we’re good. We’ve bought Luan a boat and paddles, we’ve got some healing potions stored away, Geneva’s set for materials—we don’t have to worry about coins this week.”

“What about [Repair] spells?”

“Accounted for. So long as no one drops their damn tablet or laptop, we can afford to recharge our devices this week. Once. Anyone who runs out of power before then can go without.”

Paige scowled for a second. She brushed at her hair and sighed. Daly noticed she was hunched over. He sat up a bit.

“Anything wrong? How’d it go holding down the fort?”

Paige shrugged. She hadn’t worked all day like he had, but she still looked tired.

“I was managing people, you know. Getting the others to get jobs. I had to kick Sofie into getting out there. And Ben was holding back some of the money he made. Or rather, he spent it.”

“That fucker. Want me to talk to him.”

Daly sat up with a scowl. Paige looked at him.

“I already handled it.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

He sat back. She shrugged.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m just tired. Plus, I had to explain to him why I wasn’t working myself.”

“Because you have to keep the rest of us from goofing off?”

“Exactly.”

Another smile. Paige sat up a bit.

“Anyways. I’ll deal with it, so you just get some rest. We’ll have dinner soon—I’ve bought more fruits.”

“Is it too expensive?”

She waved the phone at him as she turned the screen off.

“We’re in the black, remember? And Geneva insisted. We need a healthy diet. So no more rice and meat for us each night.”

“Aw, but I like eating rice and meat. It goes well with Ken and Aiko complaining about there not being any soy sauce.”

The two Australians laughed together for a second. And then Paige grew serious.

“About what we were talking about last night, Daly. I’ve been doing some sketches. Just—figuring things out, really.”

“And?”

Daly sat up, suddenly alert. Paige sighed. She opened her smartphone, this time to a drawing app and showed him a few sketches. They were rough—they’d been done with a finger, but it beat paying for parchment and ink. Besides how annoying it was to write on parchment, saving coins had been a vital necessity these last two weeks. As Paige had said, until now they’d been bleeding money and barely scraping by. Daly didn’t want to spend a copper coin more than necessary until they had money saved up, and he hoped his new apprenticeship as a [Carpenter] would help bring in that much needed silver.

Luan was already rowing from town to town with his canoe, learning the routes and earning money delivering for the Runner’s Guild. At the same time, Geneva was trying to earn money as a [Healer] would, and not finding much luck. The rest of the Earthworlders were doing what they could, even if that meant hauling goods from the docks all day. And Paige? She was working on doing more.

“I’m not an expert. I told you, I wanted to go into engineering, but in a completely different field.”

“Spaceships. Yeah. So do you have to be a rocket scientist to figure this out?”

She laughed tiredly.

“Better an engineer with actual experience in the workshop. Or someone who actually completed their degree. I’ve never built anything like this. I studied aerodynamics, not…look. I thought it over, and there’s no way I can make most of what we came up with.”

Daly’s smile faded.

“Damn. You sure?”

She nodded.

“I can’t make anything like a gun, Daly. Let alone something more complex. I mean, a gun’s doable, but gunpowder…I need sulfur, which is expensive. And I’d be making a matchlock. A gun you have to load by hand. You think that’d be useful?”

Daly thought about the Redcoats and how slow that was. He grimaced.

“Yeah. Not exactly great compared to a spell or a bow. What about an engine?”

She shrugged.

“Doable, I think, but a different problem. I know how some things work—like a steam engine, and I could experiment with making one. I’m sure I could make it in time, but I’d need specialized metalwork and lots of help. I’d need to hire a [Blacksmith], get high-quality steel, do experiments—none of which we can afford.

“Right. Of course you do.”

It always came back to money. Daly sagged. Everything they needed, all the ideas the group had come up with to make something from their world that would earn them money—a steam engine to automate travel, or a forge to produce high-quality steel or just a gun—all of it required funds. Which they didn’t have yet.

“Hey. I’m not done yet. I did have one idea of something we could make. Or rather, I could make while you’re working.”

“Really? What?”

Daly opened his eyes. Paige swiped across the phone and showed him a picture. He took a second to realize what he was looking at.

“Is that a crossbow?”

“That’s right. They sell them in the markets. I visited an weapons supplier while I was buying dinner and checked one out. Apparently not just anyone can make them. Normal [Blacksmiths] can’t. They can forge the parts, but a specialist [Carpenter] usually has to put it together at least. Usually a [Bowyer] who knows how crossbows work.”

“But you can figure it out?”

Paige shot Daly a smile.

“I got everything just from looking. And I took a picture when he wasn’t looking. See?”

She showed Daly an image of the crossbow. He swore.

“Don’t go showing your phone about in public! Remember what happened with Dawson?”

“I was careful. But I had to have an image. And all the parts make sense to me. If I can get a [Blacksmith] to sell me a few parts, the rest we can make with wood. I mean, if a certain someone can get ahold of wood.”

She waggled her eyebrows at him. Daly grinned.

“Wouldn’t know where to begin, but I’ll ask around. I’m sure my boss’ll let me have some if I ask her nicely. Or offer her some silver. It’s not like wood’s hard to get around here.”

“True. But I need it cut to very specific sizes so it’ll fit together. I’ll have the measurements for you tomorrow. Can you—figure out how to get the best cut of wood? The strongest variety?”

There was so much they didn’t know. Daly made a note to ask his Naga boss. That was easy—she liked chatting as she worked.

“No problem. Hell, she’s probably helped make crossbows herself. Won’t be a thing.”

“Thanks, Daly. And I think I can improve the design. Or at least, make it bigger. I’m going to try and make an almost all-wood crossbow to begin with. Something cheap we can manufacture quickly.”

“Think it’ll sell?”

Paige smirked.

“If it’s good, it will. This is Baleros. But I was thinking. Maybe I can make one of those advanced versions. You know, a compound bow?”

“Oh?”

Daly only vaguely recalled hearing about them. Paige showed him another blueprint that looked a lot less like a proper crossbow to Daly.

“I don’t know how they work, but the idea makes sense. Some of the Americans were telling me about them.”

The young [Axe Warrior] and soon-to-be [Carpenter] nodded slowly.

“Oh yeah. I remember them talking about that. Wishing they’d brought their pistols. Or a fucking rifle. As if they’d be walking around the airport with one of those.”

“Frankly, I wish they had carried one.”

Paige’s face was bleak. Daly couldn’t argue with that. He looked out the window at Baleros thoughtfully. A bug flew in through the window. Both Paige and Daly eyed it, but it didn’t look menacing. Just big. Daly took off his shoe and smashed it.

“If one of the security agents appeared here—”

“They’d be dead.”

“They’d have a gun. A bastard appears here with a submachine gun? Or even a pistol?”

“Still dead. How many rounds do you think they’re carrying? Enough to fight off a company? And frankly, a [Juggernaut] would tear them apart. Let alone a bunch of Centaurs with bows.”

Daly shook his head. That was true. For a second he remembered and his hand twitched towards his axe. But he was a [Carpenter] now, a carpenter. He shook off the memory and looked at Paige’s phone.

“So try and make a compound crossbow if you can. Looks fucked to me. But I’ll settle for a crossbow. It’s not like this town’s that safe. They got hit by raiders two months back. Ken’s saying he doesn’t want to stay long, and I agree. But we have to earn enough coin and this is the best spot.”

“Agreed. I’ll make one as fast as I can. Compound crossbows are probably impossible until I’ve gotten a good bit of practice. But I can make you a good one. Even if it’s only made of wood…”

 

—-

 

“Wood? Crossbow. Wood? Wow, I’ve never seen one made out of wood before. I’ve seen metal ones made by Dwarves. But this is new. Weird.”

A week later, Quexa bent over the first crossbow. Her tail waved to and fro and her neck fills opened a bit as she inspected the crossbow that Daly and Paige had labored over in their spare time. Paige held her breath as Daly just watched Quexa.

She looked…good. Good, for someone with one foot. She could move fairly fast on her peg leg. Fast enough to keep up with Quallet’s company, at least. The revitalized Gravetender’s Fist company had been working in the area. They were still burgeoning, but they’d earned enough to justify a vacation in the town where Daly and the others were staying. Quexa had been the first person they’d shown the crossbow to—they were hoping to impress Quallet with it.

But the Lizardgirl didn’t immediately jump for joy, despite Daly’s hopes. The rampant enthusiasm that most Lizardfolk exuded upon seeing a new thing was tempered by Quexa’s critical eye. She’d seen more fighting. Even though she was a [Sorcerer], it was still dangerous work. But she’d made her choice. Daly ignored his stomach twisting as he watched her.

“Well? How’s it look?”

Quexa looked up speculatively. She hesitated, bit at her lip with sharp teeth. And then she shrugged.

“Mm. I’d give you…two gold coins for it? Maybe two gold coins and eight silver?”

“Two gold?”

Dismayed, Daly and Paige looked at each other. That hardly seemed like enough to justify all the effort and time—not to mention resources they’d burned on it. Paige protested.

“At least make it four gold coins. Why the low price?”

A decent, used steel sword could cost eight gold coins. At least! But Quexa could only shake her head.

“It just doesn’t look that good. I mean, compared to a metal crossbow, right? And if you made it cheap, it’s not that great, isn’t it? And crossbows aren’t that useful. I mean, they have to be strong or what’s the point? Your quarrels will just bounce off armor or a monster’s hide. So it’s not that great. Sorry, is this rude? I’m not trying to be rude.”

She glanced at the two, giving Daly a quick look before looking away. Daly sagged. That was true. This was made of wood. And it wasn’t—polished. Even with all the sanding he’d done and the varnish he’d applied, it was still rough around the edges.

“But it is powerful. Maybe not as powerful as a regular crossbow, but it’ll do the job. Surely that’s worth something. Even if it’s not worth a full crossbow’s price.”

That was Paige’s argument. She repeated it when she and Daly and Quexa showed the weapon to Quallet. He grunted.

“Give to me. Do you have any bolts?”

Daly did. They were wood-tipped and the fletching was wood too. Quallet eyed them, but he took five and tried the crossbow out. He grunted, pleasantly surprised by the strength it took to cock the bow. He fired five shots, landing most of the bolts close to the target Paige and Daly had set up. Daly whistled—Quallet had a far better aim than he did.

“Not bad. It’s strong. Heavy, though. I’d pay you three gold coins flat out for one of these. But Quexa’s right. It’s not worth paying nearly as much as I would for a regular crossbow. Sorry.”

“Would it be worth more if I used metal?”

Paige was visibly upset. Quallet hesitated, then nodded.

“At least sixteen gold coins, then. It’s not just the power of the crossbow, you see. Metal implies it’s a lot sturdier. It can fire harder.”

“But I’m sure this can compare to a smaller one.”

“Maybe. But it’s wood. Most companies will rate wooden weapons very poorly. Even crossbows. Sorry, but that’s just how it is.”

Quallet handed the weapon back to Daly. He stared down at it.

“Well, fuck. Guess we’re not getting rich this way.”

He looked at Paige. Then back at Quallet.

“Okay. It’s not worth much on the market. But you said you’d pay gold for these. Can we sell them to you?”

“Us?”

Quallet and Quexa blinked. The Lizardgirl frowned.

“We don’t need that many bows, Daly. And we’ve got [Archers] who have their own weapons.”

“Yeah, but everyone could use one of these. Paige is going to make one for everyone in our group. You’re not thinking of it like we are.”

Daly hefted the crossbow. He pulled the string back, made sure the trigger was holding the rope, and then grabbed a quarrel. He looked at the others.

“I’m armed now. I get one shot—more if I have a quiver of say, twenty bolts. And that’s just me. I don’t need practice to use one of these. I don’t need a class or Skills. One of these hits you in the face? You’re dead. Give one to each person in the company, and we’ve got dozens of crossbows. With wood quarrels, and practice, how many can we shoot a minute? Six? That’s a lot of shots.”

Quallet frowned.

“I’ve heard of all-ranged companies, but I never thought I’d build one. You’re saying to lug these things around? That’s a lot of weight.”

“For a free shot at the beginning of the battle? Why not? Bring ‘em, fire them, and grab your other weapons. And if you teach your lot to fire them fast—”

Daly was staring down at the crossbow. He turned to Paige.

“We might not make a fortune with this, but we can defend ourselves. And fight. Earth-style.”

She nodded. Paige looked more hopeful. Defense. They’d been worrying about that issue. A lot of the Earthworlders could fight, but it didn’t come to them naturally. But this? This was almost like a gun. Quallet and Quexa didn’t see the danger, but Daly had come from a time where guns could fire faster than you could see. He looked down at the crossbow and wondered if this was a good idea. Then he reconsidered.

It was better than being defenseless.

“All we need now’s a boomerang. Think you can make one of them, Paige?”

She almost smiled. Daly handed the crossbow to her and then took a deep breath.

“Paige, figure out a way to make these things even stronger. I’m going to talk to Ken. Once you and I make more—a dozen or so, I’m going to quit my carpentry job.”

“What? Why? I thought you liked it.”

Daly did like it. But he was doing the math in his head.

“We’re not earning enough money like this. Someone needs to pull in lots of coin and Luan’s already doing deliveries day and night. Geneva’s not getting much business aside from the occasional person with a chopped-off limb. So. I’m going to apply to be an adventurer.”

 

—-

 

And so here they were. Adventuring paid more than carpentry. A lot more. At least, if you took contracts that had risk in them. The bounty on a herd of Stelbore, even a small one, was gold, not silver. The only risk was dying.

The Stelbore would gut Daly and the others if they charged. That meant they couldn’t. Daly waited, aiming at the boar’s flank. He didn’t hesitate. You couldn’t. He spoke softly.

Now.

He pulled on the metal trigger and felt the crossbow kick. The string snapped through the air and the quarrel launched through the air. For less than a second it flew, and then it buried itself in the Stelbore’s unguarded belly. Five other crossbows snapped at the same time.

The sound was loud. Not nearly as loud as a gunshot, but still loud. The crossbows were powerful. And the impact pressed the wood stock into Daly’s flesh. The bolts were just as deadly.

The Stelbore woke up instantly as four bolts slammed into it. It squealed a piercing sound in the night, and the other Stelbore woke up. The sow who’d been hit shrieked. But Daly was already reloading, silently. He lowered the crossbow to the ground, put his foot in the wooden stirrup Paige had added and pulled on the string. It was heavy, but adrenaline gave Daly strength. He lifted the crossbow and grabbed a bolt.

[Reinforced Frame]. [Quick Assembly]. [Advanced Crafting]. Paige had leveled up quickly. Each Skill had made the wooden crossbows stronger. Daly aimed. He heard Siri fire before him. He pulled the trigger again as the Stelbore writhed, this time Daly aimed for one of the smaller Stelbore.

Snap.

The sound of the string snapping by his ear made Daly’s ear ring this time. But the sight of one of the boars floundering was worth it. The other crossbows snapped as Daly bent, reloading his bow again.

This was his team’s weapon. His company’s weapon, in truth. Paige had learned to make crossbows, so they all had one. It was a simple weapon to learn to use. True, each one was large and bulky, cumbersome to haul about. But Daly’s team had gotten far enough practice by now to make lugging the crossbows around manageable. As for their aim—

The Stelbore were racing about, questing for their enemies. But they were blinded in the night, confused and panicking, still half-asleep. And Daly and his team were covered in mud, hiding behind trees, wearing the scent of the forest. They loaded and fired at their helpless targets. Was it fighting fair? No. But they’d die if even one or two of the Stelbore charged them. This was how you fought.

Click. Crack. Pull. Click. Crack. It was a rhythm. Daly didn’t think. He just bent, reloaded, straightened, and fired. He barely paused to aim at the unshielded parts of his targets. He had practiced too many times to hesitate. Hesitation meant death. Again. The crossbow kicked in his hands. Again.

Pull.

Crack.

Pull.

Crack.

Crack.

Cr—

 

—-

 

The sound was a roar. One of the [Bandits], their leader, had just exploded a tree on the outside of the town as a demonstration. A warning. The townspeople raised their heads as the [Fireball]’s detonation rained flaming branches down on the area. The rest of the bandits pawed the ground and shouted.

They were Centaurs. And they had come to loot the town. Or be paid a ransom. Either one worked, and they were quite willing to spill blood. But the leader of the group, a [Mage] with a staff, paused as someone came towards them, holding a white flag.

Geneva Scala walked forwards, ignoring the [Bandit]’s jeers. She spoke loudly, holding her hands up as the Centaur leveled his staff at her.

“I am a [Doctor]. The people in this town are armed. Please, don’t do this.”

You’re the Last Light of Baleros?”

One of the Centaurs gave a braying laugh. The leader of the bandits grinned down at Geneva. She looked up at him.

“Some people call me that. I’ve taken an oath not to harm people. Please go back and leave this place alone.”

He spat on the ground in front of her.

“Humans and oaths? Well, you can stand there in that case. We’ll see what the Last Light’s worth to a Chandrar [Slaver]. As for the town—if I don’t see gold in five minutes, we burn the place down? You hear that?

He roared at the town and the bandits cheered. They were ready to charge. Some of them had lances—Centaurs were born to charge, even more than a [Knight] on horseback. Others had bows. They’d strafe the town, burn it to the ground.

“Don’t do this.”

Geneva looked up at the bandit leader. He snorted at her. He raised his staff and aimed at the town—

Click.

The impact of the crossbow rammed into Daly’s shoulder. The sound of the string snapping was the only thing he heard. He saw the quarrel leave his bow from his hiding place on one of the rooftops. He didn’t see the bolt. But he saw the Centaur stagger, drop the staff.

“Company—fire!

Below him, Quallet roared. Across the town, more of Gravetender’s Fist and the United Nations company rose to their feet. Others standing on the rooftops or hidden behind cover poked out and loosed a first barrage. The Centaurs jolted as the bolts struck them, some splintering on armor, but most finding flesh. They screamed and charged.

“Reload! Spears forward! Hold back—hold!”

Daly pulled at the crossbow with shaking hands. But he was watching too. He saw the first Centaur charged down the main street—

And collapse. He went crashing to the ground as the first of the ropes intercepted him. Daly aimed down at him as the other Centaurs tried to slow and another struck the rope, ripping it from the moorings. Quallet’s soldiers rushed forwards. Daly shot another Centaur in the chest. And then another.

“Stop! Stop!”

At some point someone shouted the words. But Daly kept firing. He only stopped when someone grabbed him. Daly’s hand grabbed the axe—he saw Quallet raise a hand. The [Mercenary Captain] looked at him. There was blood on his armor, none of it his. He pointed.

Stop. They’re running away.”

The bandits were fleeing. The survivors were just that—survivors. They’d been cut down by Gravetender’s Fist as well as the townsfolk and the Earthworlders armed with crossbows. They hadn’t expected to run into reinforcements, let alone that many bolts flying every second. Daly descended to the street and heard cheering.

Not from the Earthworlders. They stood, staring at the Centaurs. The half-horse, half-Human folk lay in the street, dead or dying. Daly stared down at them. Then he looked up at Quallet.

“This is how we do it. We take them to pieces. Ambush them. Rope traps for the Centaurs and anyone who charges us.”

“You mean, as adventurers?”

The mercenary looked grave. Daly nodded.

“Crossbows and traps. Paige can make more.”

“We’ll buy them. Wood or not. After seeing that—”

Quallet indicated the dead bandits. He looked at Daly.

“You can make those quick. With less resources than most [Blacksmiths] or [Carpenters] would charge for. Are you thinking of creating a market?”

Daly looked across the battlefield that had been the town only minutes before. He saw someone running this way. Geneva. She was shouting for Aiko, looking for survivors. Among the bandits. He shook his head, a cold pit in his stomach.

“Not to everyone.”

This was how they fought. It was close to home. But different. Daly knelt in the dust and looked at a fallen Centaur. He felt his hands itch. But he made himself look. Then he checked if the Centaur was carrying any money…

 

—-

 

The battle ended before Daly knew it. One second he was loading his crossbow, the next, he couldn’t find anything to shoot at. The Stelbore were lying on the ground. A few had fled, but they’d died quickly. Still, Daly emerged from cover first. He only signaled the others forwards when he was sure it was clear.

“Poison worked. Or it just bled out.”

Siri checked the boar they’d hit first. It was lying on its side, a huge tusk facing the sky. Daly nodded. He took a shuddering breath. They’d won. The jungle was filled with noise, awoken by the blood and violence. He took another breath.

“Right, let’s strip these bastards and get out of here. Half butcher, two on watch. Siri, Dawson?”

They got to work. Daly knelt and began the gruesome task of cutting the Stelbore’s distinctive armor off. He ignored the rest of their bodies—they were far too big to carry and besides, the poison bolts made that an obsolete option anyways. It was very hard to separate the steel armor from the boars’ heads, but they had time.

Bugs began descending on the corpses before Daly was done. He had to trade off with Siri and Dawson; his hands were numb. But they did it. After about an hour, the Stelbore were stripped of metal and Daly was working up a sled to carry the stuff.

“We’ll be a target. So we want two people in front until we get to the road. Then we’re straight back to Talenqual. Got it?”

They nodded. The team trooped back through the rainforest, three hauling the sled, one on point, the other two moving ahead in case something heard them. Still in silence. Daly had tried to recall all the knowledge he could about operating in hostile environments. All the stupid things you saw on TV, all the little facts—all of it became life-or-death stuff here. The team didn’t smile. They just put their backs into it until they got to the road. Then, muddy, tired, but alive, they headed back towards Talenqual, the city that had eventually become the home of the United Nations company.

Adventurers.

 

—-

 

“Bushrangers reporting in. We’ve killed nine Stelbore on the contract and we have their remains. I’m ready to claim our bounty, turn in the materials, and take a bath.”

The [Receptionist] at the Adventurer’s Guild was a young male Centaur. He stared at Daly and then at the bloody pile of Stelbore steel. He opened his mouth and blinked again. He must be new.

Daly knew he was a sight. Though he’d scraped off a lot of the mud and camouflage on the way back, he still had grime all over him. And bites. And he stank, to put it lightly. Still, that was true of most adventurers coming back from a job. Well, some didn’t look like they’d rolled in the mud.

“Wow.”

That was all the Centaur managed after a while. He gulped, looked down at the Stelbore armor, and then fiddled with the papers in front of him.

“You’re uh, the Bushrangers? I’ve heard of you! It’s a pleasure to meet you. Did you say you killed nine Stelbore? By yourselves?”

“Only five adults. The rest were piglets. I assume we get paid the same either way?”

“Of course, of course. Stelbore are counted by the numbers—assuming the little ones had armor? They don’t count if they’re fresh. Litters and all that. Right, right. Let me just calculate—um, we’ll need to weigh the Stelbore armor. But you can leave it here and we’ll do the job! I just need you to sign—hold on…”

Flustered, the Centaur fumbled with his papers. Daly gave him a weary smile. The rest of his team was relaxing in the plain wooden chairs, practically dead on their feet.

“Don’t worry mate, another minute won’t bother us.”

The smile did as much as the words. The Centaur relaxed.

“Thank you. You know, I really am glad to meet you. I heard about the all-Human team that popped up. You’re practically invisible on the job, or so I hear. Even some of the [Ranger] and [Rogue] teams are talking about it.”

“Hey, we’ve had some practice.”

Daly shrugged. He could sense eyes on his back, and not just because of the haul they’d brought in. It was true. His team was a rising name, and in a city like Talenqual, which had a fair number of adventuring teams, that was a pretty good feat. He glanced down as the Centaur presented him a form to sign.

“Right here, please. Name and team.”

Captain Daly, Bushrangers.

Daly had to smile a bit as he signed it. Bushrangers. Now there was a name that would call anyone from home who heard it. Anyone who knew basic history, that was. He’d chosen it for that reason, and also because it fit how his team operated.

The Bushrangers were a Silver-rank team, by virtue of hard work more than impressive gear or high levels. They all carried crossbows, and did mostly hunting jobs. They worked in stealth, and didn’t get into melees unless they could help it. They played it safe and didn’t punch above their weight.

Even so, the work was hard. Daly was proud of his team and so he didn’t spend time talking with the Centaur. He just collected their bounty, agreed to come back the next day for their payment for the Stelbore steel—or claim it after paying the guild’s tax on monster parts—and headed over to their team. Dawson was complaining as Daly came over.

“Fuck me, but did we have to wear all that mud? I get that it’s great camo—I can barely see myself sometimes. But did we need it against boars?”

Daly tilted his head and wondered if he should respond. But Siri, the Swedish girl they’d picked up three weeks back, responded. It had been her idea to use camouflage—that was how she and Tofte had survived after being transported to Baleros.

“It’s necessary, Dawson. It’s our edge. The one thing we’ve got over the other teams—over other companies and mercenaries—are our tactics and tools. They’ve got higher levels. They’re Dullahans in armor and Centaurs and so on. We can’t afford mistakes. If we have to wait for half a day for our targets, we do.”

“In silence.”

“It’s part of the job. Believe me, I’d outtalk you, Dawson. But if it means surviving another day, I’ll go without flapping my mouth. If it’s too much, we can rotate you onto a break.”

Daly interrupted the conversation, surprising Dawson. The burly Australian looked up and grimaced.

“Aw, I’m just talking shit, Daly. Don’t mind me. It’s better than killing zombies with a hammer, or watching a fucking [Mage] vaporize half the forest.”

“Too right. So what say you we get out of here and get back to a real bath? Dawson can use the ocean.”

“Fuck off.”

That cheered up the others. They stood up, ready to get some well-deserved rest. Daly was leading them to the door when someone walked in front of him and barred his way. Several someones.

A group of Dullahans in metal armor—iron, not steel, but good iron—walked forwards. They were all carrying shields and maces or axes. They looked like a Silver-rank team that Daly had sometimes seen going in or out. He’d never exchanged words with them before. But it looked like today was the day. Daly stopped as their leader, a female Dullahan with blonde hair, darker skin, and a rather Grecian nose looked down at him.

“So this is the Bushrangers. Mud covered, filthy as well as arrogant. Which is to be expect of Humans, it appears. Thieves as well as vagabonds.”

The Bushrangers stopped. Some of the other adventurers who’d been gossiping looked around and fell silent. Daly saw the Centaur at the desk gulp and back up. He paused, forcing his hand not to move to his side. His team was tired, their crossbows were unstrung, and the Dullahans looked like they were spoiling for a fight. Why?

“I’m sorry, have we met?”

The Dullahan glared at him.

“I do not believe so. But one does not have to meet an enemy to know them? Or a thief, who steals a rightful assignment. Is that not so?”

“No.”

The other Dullahans chorused together. Daly felt a rising urgency in his stomach. But he forced it down, forced himself to think.

“I’m sorry, but I still don’t know what you’re talking about. Thief? I don’t believe we’ve stolen anything. Those Stelbore were our kill.”

“They may have been killed by your team, but it was our team, the Rustless Guard that deserved to hunt them down. We requested the assignment before you. And you took our quarry.”

The Dullahan adventurer snapped at Daly. He sucked in his breath. Uh oh. He hadn’t heard about another team taking on the Stelbore assignment. Requests to hunt down monsters were first-come-first serve. But there was such a thing as politeness among adventurers. How much politeness depended on which team it was. But these were Dullahans and it looked like they’d taken offense.

What should he do? Starting a fight wasn’t it. Daly’s mind raced. He fell back on a certainty. What were Ken’s rules for Dullahans?

Meet their eyes. Don’t give way, but be respectful. Talk to the Dullahan in the shiniest armor—the one who’s speaking. Make it clear what your rank is. Give and take in equal measure.

Daly looked the female Dullahan in the eyes. He bowed slightly, which surprised her and the others.

“First, pardon me. I’m Daly Sullivan, Captain of the Bushrangers. May I ask who I’m speaking to?”

The Dullahan hesitated. Then she slowly unfastened her head from her shoulders and held it up with one hand, the Dullahan version of a bow.

“You speak to Captain Eldima of the Rustless Guard.”

Daly gave her his best smile.

“Honored to meet you. Captain Eldima, let me be honest. If we stepped on your toes, it was unintentional. We had no idea someone else had the contract. We only saw the Stelbore contract yesterday and went out to collect it at once. Just like us hasty Humans, huh?”

His words provoked a chuckle from around the guild. As Humans, Daly and his team were in the minority. But being called ‘hasty’ was an insult Dullahans applied to Lizardfolk and Centaurs. A bit of humor went a long way. And one of the Dullahans behind Eldima cracked a smile before hiding it. Her lips twitched—a very good sign.

“You didn’t stop to inquire about the beast? My team had been preparing. We were in the guild, making our intentions clear.”

Daly spread his hands out.

“Again, we set off right away. We had poison pre-bought so we didn’t linger. My sincere apologies. If we’d known, we would have let your team handle them.”

He saw two of the Dullahans shift. Eldima’s eyes flickered. Daly was giving them a good excuse, but there was something else Ken had said about Dullahans. They don’t like to be seen to have made a mistake. Always offer them an honorable out. As opposed to Centaurs, who need to always ‘win’ an encounter regardless of whether or not they actually do.

Daly thought quickly, and then gestured towards the door.

“Tell you what, why don’t we buy you a round at the very least? Then we can tell you how miserable it was tracking down those damn Stelbore, and you can tell us how you would’ve hunted them. Because, frankly, next time I think I’ll let someone in armor take those freaky pigs down.”

His words provoked another laugh. And this time Eldima actually joined in. She hesitated, put her head back on her shoulders, and then held out a gauntleted hand.

“I accept. There is a bar we frequent. Allow us to buy the second round.”

“I’d be honored.”

Gingerly, Daly shook Eldima’s hand so as not to dirty her spotless armor. He followed the Rustless Guard out, and nudged Dawson on the way. On cue, the others in his team began striking up the Dullahans in conversation, and such was the change in mood that they even dragged a few other teams out for an impromptu drinking session.

 

—-

 

An hour later, Daly and his team exited the bar a bit lower on coin, but higher on friends. They walked down the street, a tad unsteady for sleep and alcohol, as Dawson burped. The cheap alcohol they’d bought was going through Daly as well and he felt the increasing need to relieve himself—and take that bath.

“Captain, you’ve done it again. I thought for sure those Dullahans would try and mix it up.”

“That was impressive.”

Siri agreed. She looked at Daly, eyebrows raised. He only smiled.

“Wasn’t a thing, boys and girls. Just a bit of the Down Under charm. Learned it from the master himself. Ken would’ve had those guys buying us the next round if he were here. Speaking of which—let’s get back to base before we have to spend more money on angry adventurers.”

“I’ve only met Ken once. Do you think he’s back? With the [Doctor]?”

Tofte looked at Daly. The Australian frowned.

“Maybe. They were going from city to city, trying to find work for Geneva and some of the stuff she needs. All down the main roads—but they didn’t know when they’d be back. I hope they return soon. Them or Luan.”

He hadn’t seen the rower in a while. But Luan kept bringing gold back every time he returned. Daly only hoped all that money was going to good use. They were in the black and they had been for a while, but their company could use a lot more coin. For Luan as a Runner, for his team, for Paige…

And for their home. Daly slowed as he came to a large building. It was, in fact, two apartments, but they’d been bought, converted into one place, and now housed more bodies than it strictly should. The house was on the outer edges of the city, closer to the rice fields in fact. Not far past it you’d get to the roads. But it had a nice wooden frontage, and Daly knew they’d been spotted because the doors opened and someone waved at him.

“Daly!”

He grinned up at a girl who smiled at him.

“Hey, Kirana. We’re back. Is Ken back? Geneva? Luan?”

“None of them. But Paige is here and she told us to make you baths!”

That cheered up the Bushrangers considerably. They stormed up the stairs, fighting to be the first ones up. They pushed into the door, greeting Kirana, a girl from India, and some of the other Earthworlders who came to greet them. Daly let them precede him, and then greeted the girl who came to the door.

“Paige. We did it.”

“Never doubted it. How’d the bows work? Any problems?”

Paige looked different. Two months and a half ago, she’d still had something of a shell shocked look. She’d been dressed in her Earth clothing, and wouldn’t let her smartphone out of her sight. Now she had on the loose, light Balerosian dress. Her Earth clothes were safely stored away, as were Daly’s, for the most special of occasions only. And while she had her smartphone, it was as a tool now. Paige’s hands were callused from working with designs and models and she had a different aura about her.

“Crossbows worked fine. So long as we hit the bellies. It wouldn’t have done a thing if they were charging us, though. We needed that poison.”

Paige nodded, but she still demanded Daly’s crossbow and gave it a quick inspection.

“No signs of fraying or cracks in the bow. Good.”

“I wasn’t worried.”

“You would be if you’ve ever seen one of the bows snap. But it looks good. I’m working on getting steel bows made. And a mechanism for pulling the drawstring back. That way I can make the strings a lot heavier.”

“Sounds good to me.”

Daly signed as he sat down in a chair. Kirana eyed the mud he was tracking in, but she didn’t say anything. She knew where he’d been, and the gold he placed on the table caught the light in a very pleasant way.

“Our pay. We had to use a bit of it to soothe some ruffled Dullahan nerves. But the rest’s here.”

Paige eyed the gold coins and silver. She took half and handed the rest back to Daly.

“You can keep it. Get some more gear for your team. I’ve got enough to keep us afloat.”

“You sure?”

Daly stowed the coins away in his belt pouch. It was something, that every coin wasn’t going to just paying for food and board. He still felt like they needed a lot more. Magical bolts, gear to fight monsters that actually got the drop on him—

But that was an issue for later. Right now, Daly just wanted a bath.

“We have enough tubs for all of us?”

“You’ll have to wait. Getting something like plumbing’s on my list of things to do. But for now—bathtubs. Don’t worry about water. Kirana and the girls hauled enough for all of you.”

“You’re the best.”

Daly smiled in relief. He stood up as Dawson tramped down the stairs, half-naked, shouting about leeches in his unmentionables. Some of the Earthworlders who’d come to greet them shouted obscenities—others just looked away. Daly laughed, found a tub, washed himself, and felt more alive.

There was no dinner with the others—they’d arrived back far too late. But there was hot food, courtesy again of Kirana who’d taken over those duties from Paige. The Bushrangers ate like starving animals, and then they sat about for a while.

Daly’s finger was twitching. He covered it with one hand and looked at the others.

“I think we’ve earned some quality time with the computer. Anyone up for it?”

They looked up. Half of them were asleep on their feet, but they all nodded. Daly led them up the stairs.

“Hey, who’s got the movie laptop? We’ve got dibs! Give it here and I swear, if anyone’s been draining the battery playing video games…”

His threat went unanswered. The laptop lay in one of the big sleeping rooms set up for multiple people. The Bushrangers found blankets, pillows, and sat together as Daly fussed with the laptop. He looked over his shoulder as Siri sank onto the ground, looking completely different from the mud-covered adventurer with the crossbow. She looked like a girl he’d ask out if he saw her at the bar or in class now. An ordinary, young woman from Earth. He remembered her shooting a Stelbore from the cover of a tree. His finger twitched.

“Ah—what’re we watching this time? The Hobbit?

“Only if you want me to fall asleep right now.”

Dawson groaned. Siri, who liked all things Lord of the Rings, elbowed him hard. He grunted. Another young woman looked up looked up.

“Can we watch The Martian again?”

“Again?”

One of the other Bushranger groused, but without any real rancor. Kami, their best shot, stared at the glowing screen in the dark room.

“I just want to imagine somewhere cold. And see spaceships and computers and—”

And home. She broke off. No one said anything. Daly cleared his throat.

The Martian it is. Subtitles?”

“Go to hell.”

Dawson threw a pillow at him. The others laughed. Daly left them on anyways.

A lot of the people who’d been transported from Earth had brought their electronics. But not all of them had survived the initial chaos. Even fewer had survived the fighting. And of what remained, the devices and gadgets were prized. Someone had kept a USB cable, and so every laptop had been given the same software. Much swearing had taken place when it became obvious that the Macs would not accept any kind of data transfer. So the laptops that ran Windows, and in one case, Linux, were prized and fought over.

Not just for the movies. For the music, video games—pictures of home. Daly started the movie and sat back as the movie’s grand sound was redirected through the poor speaker system. At least the quality was good—every time the laptop was [Repaired], it went back to perfect quality. Better, in fact, than it had been when Paige had first bought it.

The plot of The Martian was one Daly could recite by heart. Only a few movies had been kept across all the devices. The Bushrangers had all watched this particular movie at least sixteen times, even the newcomers like Siri and Tofte.

Daly had seen it twenty three. Practically every night someone would be using the laptop, never mind that they’d have to get it charged up using a [Repair] spell. Even on lowest brightness, even sitting together, necks craned to see the small screen—it was worth it. It was one of the few things that kept them sane.

The others began falling asleep sometime around the point where Matt Damon began excavating crap out of the compost. Daly kept watching. His eyes began to blur. But then something exploded on screen and he leapt to his feet, reaching for his axe. He only realized it was a movie after a second.

Heart pounding, Daly sank back down again. He tried to sleep. And it closed back on him, but with dark edges. No matter how much Daly tried, he couldn’t stop his trigger finger from twitching. And when Daly closed his eyes, he could still hear Centaurs and Dullahans killing each other, and he raised his crossbow and fired. And pulled. And fired. And pulled. And—

And he dreamed of being home. It was the most fleeting, most wonderful of dreams. Daly slept. And his people, his family who had lost their homes, his company slept around him. The United Nations. The lost nations.

Dreaming of Earth.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.03

The inn was too small. That was all Erin could think. She felt—tired. Not necessarily calm. Not that much better either, really. She was just out of tears. Too drained to keep crying.

But maybe a bit better. Seeing Numbtongue in Liscor had hurt with a sharp pain that had been worse than all the days of being alone with her thoughts and guilt. Worse, and still better. He had reminded her of what was important. Not what others thought, but of her friends.

Pawn. The Soldiers had stood aside to let Erin pass. They knew her. And they knew Pawn. She was glad of that. Part of Erin had been guilty, for leaving him and wallowing in her own grief. But he had not been alone.

Hundreds of Workers and Soldiers, sitting around him. A quiet room with colorful symbols speaking from every wall. There was something eternal there, even more than Erin’s [Immortal Moment]. Religion—no. A sense of weight, of peace. Regret and sadness too, but there had been relief as well. From Pawn and the others.

They would not be forgotten when they were gone. And that simple fact had been enough to drive Erin to tears. But they had not been the same kind.

Now she sat in the little room that was hers but really Lyonette and Mrsha’s old room, staring up at the ceiling. It felt closer. The inn felt smaller, and not just because the third floor was missing. It was too cramped or she was too large, as if she’d tasted the faerie flowers again. Her inn, the place where she’d been so happy to live for months, was far too small.

She couldn’t stay here. Not when every memory she had was of the Goblins eating in her inn for that one night, of Headscratcher sitting at her table, Shorthilt polishing his sword. And of Rags, of all the Goblins who’d passed through her doors.

No killing Goblins. Just thinking that hurt. Erin hated herself. She was disgusted, guilty and heartbroken. But those were just words. Erin had none to describe how she truly felt.

Too small. She had to do something. Erin lay on her back as below her, people walked in and out of her inn. She didn’t need to hear them. She didn’t need to even close her eyes. She could feel them. And she knew Numbtongue was out there, on the little hill with the graves, digging another one. That wasn’t something she just knew; Ceria stopped by to tell her that.

“Uh—we’ve got to keep fighting. But we’ll make sure Numbtongue’s alright. We’ve already told the other adventurers—they knew already, but we made sure—there’s this giant we have to take care of tonight. So…”

Erin didn’t look at her. After a while Ceria left. Erin wished, vaguely, that she’d said something. She wasn’t being a good friend. But she couldn’t be.

Ceria hadn’t been there. She hadn’t fought. Halrac had shot arrows from the walls, or so Erin had heard. Typhenous threw a few spells. Falene had apparently broadcast everything.

So what? They hadn’t been there. They hadn’t laid down their lives for a city they didn’t even live in. Part of Erin hated everyone and everything. But that wasn’t really it either.

She was so young. Even though she was twenty, and she’d be twenty one soon. She was so young. Erin had asked the Goblins to fight for her. Die for her. And they had. She hadn’t thought of the costs. She hadn’t had any other idea than to wave a stupid flag.

She was young. And stupid. And she couldn’t do anything now. Be anything. If she were older, more mature—

“Ryoka’s mature.”

Erin whispered to herself, feeling her sore eyes wanting to close. But she kept them open, staring at the ceiling. Ryoka felt mature to her. She was always thinking of consequences. She’d warned Erin about Toren, about what would happen if people brought technology from her world. But even Ryoka was only a year older.

How did adults, real adults handle things like this? How did they live with the pain tearing them up? Erin still remembered the first Goblin she’d killed. She still remembered when Klbkch had died. And she had lived through the death of the Horns of Hammerad, Ulrien, Brunkr, the Goblins…it was so much. So many names and faces. How did people live like this?

She was so young. And weak. And she couldn’t be. Not anymore. Erin slowly sat up and buried her face in her lap. She had to be…not stronger, but older. She could never, ever let this happen again.

Slowly, Erin thought about her inn. How small it felt. How fragile. Her walls could cave in, despite her Skills. Her inn wasn’t large enough to contain even one tribe of Goblins. And it was so poor. So defenseless. It couldn’t even save Noears on the roof.

“Never again. Ever.”

And when Erin said that, she thought of her inn. Not just as a building, but those in it. And she thought of two faces. Lyonette and Mrsha. They were part of the inn. If there were anyone Erin would trust more than anything, it would be them.

Ceria and the Horns? …No. Not them, or the Halfseekers or Griffon Hunt either. Definitely not the Silver Swords or any of the other teams. It wasn’t that Erin thought she couldn’t trust Ceria, or Halrac with her life. But this was more than that.

In Erin’s head she narrowed her focus down, separating friends from that thing that made them something more in her mind. Drassi? Ishkr? No. Olesm, no. And perhaps never again. Relc—no. Klbkch? He had died for her. But no.

Who else? Only a few more names sprung to mind. No, three. Numbtongue. He was the last one. Yes, a thousand times over. But who else? Krshia? No. Selys?

Erin paused.

“No.”

Ryoka, maybe. But she wasn’t here. And—no, not her either. That left only two.

Of the Antinium, it was Pawn and Bird whom Erin thought of. Pawn? She wanted to say yes. But she remembered him, surrounded by his people. And she thought the answer was no. He had made his own place. So…Bird?

He was a child. And before she had met him, he had nowhere else to go. Bird had always been different. He had fought for her inn, tried to rescue Mrsha. More than that, around her, he was silly and absentminded and—

Yes. Him. That made four. Four in the entire world. Even Erin’s closest friends didn’t qualify, but those four—

Erin looked up. She wiped her eyes and checked her arm. Her skin was dry. She’d stopped crying. She would again, Erin had no doubt. There was an ocean of tears in her that would never run dry. But there was something she had to do. What she should have done ages ago. A week and a day ago. Erin stood up and went to find them.

 

—-

 

Lyonette stared at her hands in the kitchen. She was making dinner. Or rather, she was going to cook up some supplementary dishes to go with the pantry’s supplies. Erin’s prefabricated meals had nearly run out, but Lyonette had learned to mix Erin’s cooking and hers. So she’d take a dish of meatloaf, boil some fresh pasta and sauce with it, and thus create an acceptable dinner.

The quality wasn’t really that important. Her guests cared about quantity over quality now. The two adventuring teams would come back late in the night, starving and smelling of sweat and corpses and eat whatever she put in front of them while washing it all down with alcohol. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem—if it really was a problem—was Lyonette’s hands. They’d been hurting, and she’d only now stopped to look at them.

They were cracked. That was all. Red and cracked, the skin open, exposing painful red flesh that hurt every time Lyonette touched something with them. A healing potion would sort it out. But Lyonette had stopped in cleaning the kitchen to stare at them.

No one had told her that too much soapy water led to the skin drying out, especially in the winter. It wasn’t something she’d ever had to worry about at home. Back home, she’d had hand creams and ointments from the kingdom’s [Court Alchemist], and her family had imported other luxuries for her and the other members of her family to use. Perfumes, oils, tonics, and so on for the ladies. And while the men didn’t use such frivolities, they had the best healing potions, experts to take care of their horses and gear and wait on them hand and foot.

Now, Lyonette was cleaning the underside of the stone oven, her hands bleeding a bit. A bit dirty, certainly sweaty. And she’d caught herself doing it, so she’d stopped and sat on the floor.

She looked down at her chapped hands, at the red skin. It hurt. Lyonette touched one of the cracks to make sure and winced a tiny bit. It was nothing to what she’d been through. Starvation, Toren, Raskghar—all the fear and pain was nothing to this. But this hurt in a different way.

Look. Look at yourself. Lyonette found a clean plate and tried to find her reflection in it. She only saw a distorted image. What did her hair look like? She wore it high up, in a bun so it wouldn’t get in the way. Was her face dirty? How did it look?

“It doesn’t matter.”

Lyonette told herself that. But it did. Pawn had reminded her she was a [Princess]. She had clung to the class, for all she’d denied it. She was a [Princess]. Of course it mattered.

She had loved having servants. She enjoyed hand creams and not having to clean outhouses or be on her feet all the time. Who wouldn’t? She missed those things, only, she’d not thought of them for a while. She’d had to survive. And then—she’d had Mrsha to take care of. It was easy to live for someone else. But she still missed it.

The girl’s hands tightened together painfully. She was a [Princess]. What was she doing here? For a moment, Lyonette blinked back tears. She wanted to go home. But there was Mrsha, and Erin and—

She looked down at her hands. She had run away to be important. To level up and feel like she had a purpose. Well, she’d found it. All the adventure she ever wanted, and a purpose greater than herself. In fact, Lyonette had thrown away part of herself, the spoiled part, trod it into the mud and snow to become the Lyonette who could help the people she cared about. But that part of her was still there. And she felt it.

She wanted to be a [Princess] again. She was no [Barmaid]. Lyonette bowed her head. And then she heard Erin calling her name. She looked up and remembered her vow. Slowly, Lyonette stood. She had been a poor [Princess]. And now she was a [Princess] without a castle, living in poverty with cracked hands. But despite her failings, even when she was still in Terandria, spoiled, with barely any levels, Lyonette had still had one thing that made her royalty.

Pride. And she would not forsake her oaths. So Lyonette stood and walked out to speak with the only girl in the world she would work for.

 

—-

 

Mrsha was sad.

That was all.

She was sad for Goblins. Not the same Goblins who killed her tribe, but Goblins. They had been kind. They had saved her and the others. And they had died for her. For Erin and Liscor. She didn’t have to understand more than that.

So the Gnoll cub curled up. She was sad, but she couldn’t keep crying. She was just sad. And she wished she were bigger. She wished she were as big as Brunkr, as wise as Krshia. As smart as Selys. As kind as Erin. As…just like Lyonette.

But she was small. And she couldn’t make Erin feel better. She couldn’t help Lyonette that much. So Mrsha curled up and felt terribly, terribly sad. Erin was sad. Lyonette was tired. She was sad. Numbtongue was the last one.

Mrsha wanted them to smile again. She dreamed there was a spell in Krshia’s book that could do that. So Mrsha had read it and read it until her nose started to bleed and Krshia slammed the book. She wanted to help. But Krshia had said it was too much for a child.

So she was sad. Until she saw Erin come down the stairs and call her name. Then Mrsha looked up. And hoped, with all the hope in her heart that something good would happen.

That was all.

 

—-

 

And Numbtongue stopped crying after a few minutes. It was, after all, a waste of water. He looked back at the thing he was resting against. Headscratcher’s grave. Guiltily, Numbtongue sat up. But if anyone would have lent him a shoulder—or a gravestone, it would have been Headscratcher.

What would he have said if he could see Numbtongue? Laugh and make a joke? Tease him?

No—Headscratcher would not. Neither would Shorthilt. Numbtongue looked at the second grave, marked by stone. Someone had laid a broken sword across the top. They should have buried him with the sword. Numbtongue scooped up some of the packed earth with the blade and corrected the mistake.

Much better. He lay there, wondering what came next. All he wanted to do was lie down and close his eyes forever.

They were dead. Rabbiteater and Badarrow were gone. Numbtongue hadn’t seen them with the others in his dream. That meant they were alive. Maybe even Rags was. Maybe there were other Goblins still alive.

But the rest were gone. And he was alone. What did that make him? What could he do? Go after them? Try and find them? They were long gone, and Numbtongue had no idea where to start.

Would he stay here? Live in Erin’s inn after all that had passed? That felt just as hopeless to Numbtongue. He didn’t belong here, did he? Liscor had shown him that. Drakes and Gnolls who hated him. Adventurers with sacks of Goblin ears. Humans had killed Goblins. Liscor had stopped them from entering. They were still monsters.

And if he stayed he’d bring more trouble to Erin. That was another fact that inserted itself in Numbtongue’s mind, a neat and tidy shiv to the heart. He could not stay. He did not belong. The Redfangs had always been guests at her inn. She had treated them well. But their time had come. What could one Hobgoblin [Bard] offer Erin? Almost nothing.

He had to go. Numbtongue felt it, and felt the claws digging into his heart drag him down further. He didn’t want to. He loved the inn. But there just wasn’t enough reason to stay. Not enough to make him think he was worth anything to Erin, to justify all she’d done for him and the others.

It never occurred to Numbtongue to count the battle. He just lay on the grass and soil of the graves, listening to the adventurers fighting the undead in the distance. They were going after Eater of Spears—pulling back when they found his body was like iron and they were attracting every zombie in the area. They weren’t using big spells or fighting hard. Even they were tired of killing.

What could he do? He was a [Bard], a class that no Goblin had ever had. A…useless class in some ways. Numbtongue could call down lightning, but his Skills, his class was designed to make music. To tell stories. To perform. What good was that to a tribe of Goblins? Very little. It wasn’t as if they were Humans.

He was useless. If he’d been stronger, the Humans would have made sure he was dead. Numbtongue thought that, determined to feel as worthless as possible. Then he remembered the class he’d gained.

[Miner]. And in his head, a door opened. And he had a thought which was not his own.

Magic gemstones give magical abilities. Could a warrior use that in combat to gain an edge? Is there an easier way to use them than eat them? Could you be a [Mage] without spells?

Numbtongue felt at the broken teeth in his mouth. He remembered the gemstones, and felt the rough sack at his side. And then he remembered killing the Ghoul with the sword. He had done all that. But it had not been Numbtongue who had provided the ability to do either. They had been memories, from a dead Goblin.

Pyrite. And at that thought, Numbtongue had another memory, that of holding a flaming battleaxe and staring up at the sky while Humans died around him.

Smiling and walking with Eater of Spears, eying his belt and thinking of Reiss, calculating a throw.

Digging up grubs in the dirt, grunting with satisfaction at the wriggling things and sharing them out to the Goblin children who came begging, more pleased to share than to eat his snack.

Mining in the mountain, in the depths of silence, hunting for gemstones for his tribe, seeing a glitter—and then a hiss—

Screams in Tremborag’s mountain. A little Goblin peeking around a corner and seeing—

Numbtongue sat up. He clutched at his head. But the images didn’t stop. Memories hit him again and again, little electric shocks running through his head, making everything flash white.

It didn’t hurt. Not like physical pain. But each memory took Numbtongue out of his head, made him think and feel exactly like Pyrite had. It wasn’t his entire life. It was—snippets. Fragments, really. Accidental more than anything. The core of what Pyrite had given him were two things.

Knowledge of the gemstones, the class he had obtained a day before his death, and over a decade of mining techniques and insight. And—

Sword techniques. How to swing with the weight of the axe perfectly balanced. Reading an opponent’s body. Lessons from Greydath. Fist fighting against other Hobs. Taking down adventurers with ambushes and traps. Battling Crelers in the heart of the mountains, blood running down his thigh. Breaking a [Mage]’s neck as she screamed at him, a wand raised to burn—

“Stop!”

Numbtongue cried out. There was so much of Pyrite’s thoughts and emotions in him. Too much. How had Pyrite done it?

Numbtongue knew that too. They had both been dying. Both clinging to life and sharing that dream, that moment as the other Goblins had passed on. After all, Goblins could remember other Goblin’s lives. Where was the line at which the living became memory, trapped in the consciousness of all Goblins?

They had been at that threshold. And Pyrite had known he would die. So he had given Numbtongue the only gift he could.

Memory.

It was something Pyrite had guessed could happen. After all, if you could remember a scene from the past, why not a sword technique? Why not a spell? That was the kind of thing the Goldstone Chieftain had thought on during dark nights, or while mining for gems and minerals. Why not? And a counterpoint—if you could, why hadn’t other Goblins done it? Maybe they had. Maybe it was something they’d forgotten, or that no one had ever tried.

He’d never gotten a chance to test that theory until his last moments. As Pyrite would have said—‘not dead, so couldn’t try’. And given that only Chieftains were able to access far-back memories, it hadn’t been exactly easy to hang around one willing to bite the dust for an experiment. So Pyrite had done it to Numbtongue without knowing if it would work.

And it had. He’d sent more than just Skills. Knowledge he deemed important. Secrets, like the two keys, one of which Garen had. Memory of Tremborag’s form. Conversations with Greydath. Names and places. Important events.

A place where Pyrite had buried some adventurer’s gear he thought was cursed.

Two caves, both of which had been collapsed to contain the Crelers from getting out.

An untapped vein in a hill on top of a surprisingly deep rocky cave network, possibly the remnant of a mountain.

A terrible suspicion of Greydath’s past.

The secret location of a dungeon, lost to all but Goblins, remembered by Pyrite, too dangerous to enter.

Thoughts. Ideas. Plans. Suppositions. Pyrite had thought deeply. And now some of those thoughts, some of his conclusions, some of what was Pyrite was in Numbtongue. And it was terrifying.

A gift.

Here, he had said. Take it with you. Because Pyrite had known one thing. Numbtongue froze as he felt Pyrite’s last thoughts, still neat and orderly, fall into his head. A Goblin should know how to fight. But there was another thing Humans valued. It was of no use to Pyrite—it had been a skill, a talent honed to make the Goblin children in his tribe laugh at shiny baubles. But Humans loved gems.

Numbtongue opened the sack. He saw gold, and gems. Only a few, since Pyrite had given them away to whomever he pleased. But he knew where to get more. More, if it mattered.

Maybe it would. Numbtongue had already given away the Raskghar’s fortune to the adventurers. He didn’t need the money. How would he ever spend it? But maybe Erin did.

Numbtongue got up slowly. The Hobgoblin looked at the graves, and then at the inn. He hefted the little bag. He would give Erin the last gift he could. Pyrite’s will. And then he would leave. And find a place to go. And he would never, ever bring trouble to her doorstep again.

It was the only thing he could do.

 

—-

 

The four of them gathered in Erin’s common room. Two had been called. Lyonette and Mrsha were helping Erin set up for the adventurer’s dinner later tonight. Numbtongue had come back of his own volition, and Erin had been waiting for him.

“Numbtongue.”

She went over to him and hugged him. The Hobgoblin let it happen unlike before where he had frozen and even tried to pull away. He looked so tired. He raised something—a dingy looking bag made of hemp to offer Erin, but she didn’t let him offer it.

“Wait. Just take a seat. Do you want anything to drink? To eat?”

He hesitated and shook his head. Erin got him something anyways. Numbtongue stared down at the meatloaf and pasta. He didn’t feel hungry, but his stomach grumbled. So he began eating a bit.

“Mrsha? Lyonette? Don’t worry about setting up. Take a seat here. You want anything?”

“We already ate.”

Lyonette sat at the same table as Numbtongue. Mrsha crawled up into a seat between her and Numbtongue and looked up at the Hobgoblin. He looked down at her. The two were quiet as Erin took a chair. They sat, looking at each other. Mrsha and Erin, Lyonette and Numbtongue. Then all towards Erin.

“I…I wanted to say thank you. First off. Thank you, Numbtongue. For—and to you, Lyonette. And Mrsha. You kept the inn running while I was…”

Erin began haltingly, uncertainly. She didn’t know how to begin. Lyonette just nodded. Mrsha put her chin on the table as Apista flew over, drowsy, and landed on her head. Erin almost thought of smiling at that. Then she looked at Numbtongue.

“I—don’t know what you’re planning, Numbtongue. And I’d understand if you never wanted to see me or anyone from Liscor again. But please, listen.”

The Hobgoblin raised his head, a strange look in his eyes. Erin went on, looking from face to face. Big brown eyes from Mrsha, Lyonette’s bright blue ones, the crimson eyes of Numbtongue’s people.

“There’s…something I haven’t told you. Told anyone, really. Aside from Krshia, and Ryoka. But Ryoka doesn’t count because it’s a secret we share. It’s how I came here, really. To this inn. To Liscor. It’s—how can I say this?”

“Should you say it?”

Lyonette broke in. She glanced sideways at Numbtongue and Mrsha. Her eyes were serious as she looked at Erin. Surprised, but only just, Erin blinked at her.

“What do you mean, Lyonette?”

“Erin, if you have a secret, it’s best never said. Not out loud, ever. Someone might be listening. And even if they aren’t, minds can be read. Tongues can be loosened. If you have a secret—it might be best not to say.”

The [Barmaid] looked grave. Erin hesitated. Lyonette knew. That much was clear. Numbtongue looked confused, and concerned. He opened his mouth and spoke, to her surprise.

“If it is a bad secret—don’t tell me. Don’t tell us. We—I do not need to know. I will not put you or here in danger anymore.”

He stood up. Lyonette looked at him and then pushed her chair back, startling Mrsha. Erin blinked at them.

“No. Sit down. Please.”

The two paused. Erin looked at them and then at Lyonette.

“You need to hear this. I’m tired of keeping it a secret. And even if it is a big secret, even if it’s the biggest secret in the world, you three need to hear it. And only you three.”

Numbtongue blinked. He hesitated, and sat. Lyonette looked at Erin.

“Just us? What about Pawn? Or Selys?”

“Not Pawn or Selys. Maybe I’ll tell them, maybe not. But you three—and Bird when he’s better—have to know right away.”

“Why us?”

Lyonette looked confused. Erin took a deep breath. Couldn’t they see it? No, she barely had.

“Because—you’re part of this inn. You three. And Bird. More than the adventurers, more than Selys or Krshia—you three belong here. Mrsha, Lyonette, Numbtongue—you’ve all lived here. All three of you. I couldn’t imagine the inn without you.”

Slowly, Erin stood up. She looked at them. A furry white child, balancing an Ashfire Bee on her head. A girl far from home, her hands cracked, her bright red hair tied back. A Goblin, bearing faded war paint on his body and a hundred scars seen and unseen.

“We’ve been through so much. You’ve all lost so much. But you were here. You were here and this inn is as much mine as yours.”

Face to face. Erin felt her eyes welling up. But she didn’t hold the tears back. Her voice rose, filling the inn from corner to corner.

“You’re more than guests. More than friends. You’re family.”

Family. The word echoed through the inn. And the world echoed with it. The [Princess] sat, stunned in her chair. The Goblin’s eyes went wide. And the little Gnoll looked up and closed her eyes, suddenly at peace.

“Us?”

Lyonette didn’t know if she whispered it, or Numbtongue. Erin looked at them.

“To me, yes. There’s nothing else you could be. You belong here. Maybe you have homes—”

She looked at Lyonette, then to Numbtongue.

“—or people waiting for you. Maybe you’ll go away someday.”

Mrsha looked up at her. Apista fanned her wings, oblivious. Erin looked at them.

“But you’ll always be welcome here. Forever. No matter what happens. Wherever I go, whomever I become—I’ll always welcome you. That’s what family means. More than friends. This is your home. If you want it to be.”

Erin looked from face to face. She was afraid. And the fear made her shake. She saw Lyonette sit back, face pale. Numbtongue hadn’t moved. And Mrsha? She looked up at Erin. And then she reached up and opened her arms. Erin bent down and felt two arms hug her with all the strength in that little body. She looked up, and felt Lyonette reach out and embrace the two.

Numbtongue was the last to stand. He looked at Erin, and he was shaking a bit.

“But I—”

He broke off. She could hear what came next. I’m a Goblin. I’m a monster. I don’t belong. I’ll—

She reached out and pulled him into the embrace. Numbtongue felt her arm on his, her soft skin, warm. And he reached out, shaking, and wished. And as his arm gently encircled her and Lyonette and Mrsha, his wish came true.

It was forever and a bit that they stood there together. Four souls, in an empty room. But they filled it. And though the night was dark, the past dark. And the pain and grief still caught at them, they stood. Holding each other up, perhaps.

Family. It was a strange word. Some might have said it couldn’t ever apply to them. That they were too different. Too alien, too strange. That there were too many secrets and differences to ever bring them together. But that wasn’t what made a family. It was just being willing to try.

And when they let go, the four saw something different. They looked at each other, and there was nothing magic in what they saw. They were still strangers, still apart. But something else connected them nonetheless, as fragile as a dream, and as strong as a wish.

They tried.

Erin slowly sat, and the others did likewise. Mrsha in Lyonette’s lap, Numbtongue looking around and gently pinching himself. And she smiled.

“I’m Erin Solstice. I come from another world. We call it Earth. I have a home there. Parents. I had another life there until I came here. By accident. Maybe by a spell. My world is nothing like this one. It’s beautiful and stupid and different. It’s home. And I want to go back one day.”

The others looked at her. Numbtongue’s eyes widened. He struggled to comprehend what Erin said. Mrsha looked up, blinking in confusion. And Lyonette sighed. She squeezed Mrsha gently.

“There’s something I haven’t told you either. I’m a [Princess].”

She looked at Erin and Numbtongue. Erin just nodded, though her heart jumped. Mrsha froze up and stared up at Lyonette. The girl looked down at her and smiled. Numbtongue’s face didn’t change much. Slowly, he reached for his side and put something on the table. The little sack.

“I…had a dream. A Goblin gave me his memories. I know things from his life. How to fight. And how to mine. These.”

He opened the sack and spilled the gemstones and small nuggets of gold onto the table. Erin’s breath caught. Lyonette stared at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin looked at them.

“His name was Pyrite. And I miss my brothers.”

His eyes filled up. That was all he said. Mrsha looked up at Lyonette like a stranger. But only for a second. Then she squirmed and reached with a paw for something hidden in her fur. Lyonette blinked as Mrsha pulled out the concealed wand.

“Mrsha? What are—”

The Gnoll waved the wand over the table. Apista, who’d been napping, took wing in alarm as grass suddenly bloomed under her. She buzzed up into the air in alarm as Mrsha conjured magic grass from the wooden tabletop. Erin and Lyonette stared at the sudden bloom. Mrsha waved her wand at them.

“Oh.”

That was all Lyonette said. Then she looked down at Mrsha. The Gnoll stared anxiously up at her. Lyonette bent down and nuzzled Mrsha.

“You beautiful little [Mage].”

And that was close enough. Erin laughed. Mrsha smiled. And Numbtongue sat back. He closed his eyes and his lips twitched. Then he cracked one eye open.

“What’s a [Princess]?”

 

—-

 

A [Bard] was more than just a [Singer]. They were different than a [Troubadour], who sang of entertainments and ballads of love. Bards fought if they needed to, but they weren’t [Soldiers] like [Drummers] were, or [Horncallers]. A Goblin who took up an instrument was unlikely to be a [Bard]. Because in the end, a [Bard] told stories as they sang. They told stories, and legends. Of heroes.

Numbtongue knew of no Goblin heroes of old. Goblins didn’t believe in heroes the same way as other races did. But he believed each of his companions had died a legend. And he had lived a tale no Goblin could ever dream of. A myth of an [Innkeeper] who would shelter a group of Hobgoblins. A tale of a monster girl worth dying for.

And now he heard another story just as strange. Just as great and terrible and fantastic, a tale of heroes and another world. Only, this one was real. And he would never tell it.

Erin Solstice sat at the table and talked. Her audience of three listened, sometimes asking questions or telling their own stories. But if theirs were mortal tales—a girl who ran away from home, even if that home was a castle, a Goblin who was given a gift, a Gnoll who had lost her tribe—hers was a tale magical even by the standard of this world.

“It’s so different. Some days I can’t even count how many things are just—different. There are no monsters. No other races but Humans. The ground’s paved. Not with cobblestones. There’s…our cities are huge, but we don’t have many walls. Our buildings are taller than castles. Hundreds of feet high. Skyscrapers.”

Things like that. Erin even had words that Numbtongue didn’t know. But words that spoke for themselves. Skyscraper. Airplanes. Cars. Motorbike. Internet. Computer. That, more than anything convinced him she was telling the truth. After all, you could make up a world easily enough. But the language? Erin spoke it as naturally as she talked. She had been there. All these things had been common to her.

But to Numbtongue? He tried to imagine an internet, a magical web through the world—only, it wasn’t magical. Someone had built it out of electricity and software and…steel? Magic was a dream in Erin’s world.

“We have gas. Which is really bad and smells! Plus it explodes. But it powers things. You have it in this world. It’s uh, a type of oil. We burn it and make things move. With motors. Like this. See? Vroom.

Erin was also bad at describing things. She tried to show them what a car was, sketching it on paper. But the thing made no sense. It had wheels and a body, but Numbtongue and Lyonette saw nothing that would make it move besides magic. And Erin couldn’t tell them what an engine was, only that it was a thing that ate gasoline and moved.

So a magic that wasn’t magic. The magic of…electricity. Of steel and invention. That called to Numbtongue. With it, the Humans of Earth, of Erin’s world had done wondrous things.

“We can fly through the air without magic. In planes—big metal uh, ships made of steel. We’ve gone to the moon. I mean, not me—but we’ve gone around our world. It’s smaller than this one. And it’s just us on it. There aren’t Gnolls. No Drakes or monsters. No half-Elves, or Dwarves…they’re just stories.”

“Goblins?”

“No.”

Erin shook her head. She grew silent for a second as Numbtongue wondered if Goblins had once existed and been killed. Then she told him where they existed. In people’s heads. In stories.

“We have books filled with Goblins and other creatures. Movies—they’re like plays, but—um…books, movies, songs, all with different species and places. But we call that fantasy. They never existed in our world. We made them up.”

And even in books, Goblins were terrible, evil things. Numbtongue accepted that as soon as he heard it. After all, Humans had written the books. But there had never been Dragons in Erin’s world. Never even monsters to begin with. Just nightmares and dreams of humanity, turned into legends.

“It sounds so lonely.”

Lyonette whispered as she held Mrsha. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] smiled, a touch sadly.

“How can it be lonely if you never know what you missed? We’re just Humans, and we’re different enough to bother each other. We have wars. Terrible ones.”

“Worse than here?”

Numbtongue couldn’t believe that. But he did when Erin looked up and nodded. Because she had fought with him.

“Worse. I’m sorry, but worse. If a hundred thousand—no. We made weapons that could kill a million people in a moment. And when I hear the news every morning—there are more of us. So we got better at killing each other.”

That was when she told them about firearms. Of tanks and machine guns and rockets. Lyonette wanted Mrsha not to hear, then. But the Gnoll refused to go. She listened, her mind imagining the terrible devices spitting fire and metal more easily than Numbtongue or Lyonette. But they all understood it.

“A weapon that can kill from a thousand paces away. Without magic. That goes through armor, that doesn’t miss.”

“And fires a hundred rounds a minute.”

That kind of devastation was nearly impossible for anyone to imagine. Numbtongue grew still trying to picture it on the battlefield. How would you fight an army of Humans armed with that? Magic armor from head to toe? [Mages] would die before they could cast a spell. With it you could rule the world. And Humans ruled Erin’s world.

But if that was darkness, there was hope. Lyonette sat up when she heard Erin talking about the differences in her world. Lights that required no fuel! That ran on electricity rather than magic. Cooling boxes—refrigerators, and ovens that needed no spark. Even mundane things for Erin were otherworldly here.

“How does it work again, Erin?”

“It’s a faucet. I just turn the handle and…water comes out.”

“From where? The ground?”

“No, you see, there are pipes in my house. And the water’s always there. It’s being pumped—”

“By hand?”

“No, it connects to this big…water plant? And it’s not just my house. Every house in a…city is connected. There’s pipes in each house that run into the street, underground. Together.”

“Every house? Filled with pipes?”

Connecting to a plant that could produce and pump that much water? Lyonette couldn’t imagine it. The amount of steel you’d need! The craft! What [Blacksmith] could manage it?

None at all. Erin had to explain the factories of steel next. And the idea made the [Princess] of Terandria sit up. She envisioned the lines where things were assembled and compared it to her world. And she believed because her world was suddenly lacking.

Erin had come from a time where technology had surpassed Lyonette’s home by far. Where Humans had no classes or Skills—another impossible idea—and been forced to rely on technique and device to bridge the gap. And thanks to that, they had surpassed even the [Archmages] of old. Surpassed, and yet healing potions didn’t exist. They couldn’t call down lightning. But they could reattach an arm. Cure plagues. Fly around the world in a day. Walk on the moon.

Backwards and forwards. That was Erin’s world. Mrsha listened, and she imagined riding in a car, going faster than a horse and feeling the wind on her fur. She imagined the food Erin talked about—and then realized that was what Erin had made. Pizza, popcorn, but more—dishes from her world, brûlées, quiches, tacos and casseroles. And she believed because she had tasted something new and delightful each time.

There was more to say. And Erin had not even touched the beginning when the adventurers came through the door, tired and then guilty when they saw Numbtongue. But the Goblin barely looked at them. They went upstairs to Erin’s room and kept talking after the adventurers had been pacified with drinks and food.

“I wish I could show you. There’s so much. In fact, the only way I survived was to take the things I remember about home. Like the plays. Hamburgers. It’s all from there. I took it. Stole it, really.”

“Can you make any of the things you talked about? Engines? Cars? Computers? …Guns?”

“No. And I wouldn’t make some of them if I could.”

Erin shook her head, troubled. She looked at her lap, where Mrsha was sitting, nodding off a bit and looked up.

“But I’m not the only one. Ryoka is from Earth, too.”

That surprised neither Lyonette, who had spoken with Ryoka and seen her iPhone, nor Numbtongue, who didn’t know Ryoka to begin with. He was beyond surprising, anyways. But he understood what Erin was saying.

“You don’t know how you came here?”

“No. I was going to the bathroom. Then I turned the corner and—bam. Dragon! He breathed fire at me!”

Erin waved her hands indignantly. Numbtongue and Lyonette looked at each other. Erin knew Ryoka was from her world. And there were others. She had heard about Ryoka’s phone call, and there were the ones Magnolia had found. They were in danger if people knew who they were. In danger for the secrets they carried.

“I don’t know what the right thing to do is. Ryoka thinks we should hide who we are. This BlackMage guy wants us to gather in Wistram. And someone’s hunting us.”

“What do you want to do?”

Erin gave them a tired smile.

“Me? I hardly think of it most days. Weird, huh? I barely remember home unless I see something. Or I try and think about it. Really, I just want to go home. My parents are…I’m sure they’re worried.”

Her eyes filled with tears and she hugged Mrsha. The Gnoll hugged her back.

“I wish I could make something from home, though. A car. Or—or something. Something that would help. I don’t know if I agree with Ryoka anymore. It might change the world, but this world needs to be changed. So does mine. But I can’t remember anything. I was—just a chess player. I played chess. That’s all.”

Helplessly, Erin looked at them. She was just an ordinary girl. And they looked at her and saw the lie in every interaction they had ever had with her.

“What does all this mean?”

Lyonette wondered as she took Mrsha from Erin. The Gnoll was flopping over, trying to stay awake, but fighting the helpless battle. Jerking, waking up, and then fading off every few minutes. Erin smiled.

“Nothing? It doesn’t change what happened. It doesn’t change anything I can do. If I could have, I would. But you know. And if there’s something I can give you—or if Ryoka can—we will.”

She looked at Numbtongue, and then at Mrsha.

“I want to teach you some of the things I know. It’s not much. But maybe it can help you. Even our math is ahead of yours. Things like—oh, the stars.”

Numbtongue looked out a window. The stars? They were just stars. But Erin pointed at them and gave them meaning. She told him what they were. And how they functioned. She pointed at the earth and told him why gravity was, why rain fell. And Numbtongue listened. It was a tale of everything.

“Stay here. You can stay here forever. You and Mrsha. And Lyonette—”

Erin looked at the young woman. The [Princess] dressed as a [Barmaid]. Lyonette looked up. Mrsha had fallen asleep. She cradled Mrsha and spoke softly.

“I am Lyonette du Marquin, a [Princess]. Sixth in line to the Eternal Throne of Calanfer, which isn’t actually eternal. We date about six thousand years back.”

“That’s a long time. Longer than uh…Christianity.”

Lyonette just shrugged.

“It’s my home. But I left it because I didn’t matter there. I did nothing. I came here and found a purpose.”

She looked down at Mrsha. Then she sighed.

“I’m royalty. That’s all.”

The two girls looked at Numbtongue. He shrugged. He had a dead Goblin’s memories in his head. Next.

“Well, you’re family.”

The word made a shock race up Numbtongue’s back. In her sleep, Mrsha smiled. Erin looked at Lyonette. Then she started to giggle.

“Sorry. It’s cheesy, I know. I feel like a mobster. You’re family. Capeesh? Wait, do they say that? Am I being racist?”

“It’s not…bad.”

Lyonette smiled. Erin looked from her to Numbtongue.

“I mean it. Don’t go. We need you. I need you.”

No one had ever said that to him. Numbtongue wiped his eyes and wished they could have all heard that. He looked at Erin, and what could he say? She scooted over and hugged him. And he hugged her back.

“What happens next?”

Lyonette looked at Erin, thinking of all the things Erin had said and yet to say. Numbtongue held still, wondering what he could do for his home. And Erin looked at them and was still sad. Her inn was still small. But it was filled, and that stemmed the bleeding in her heart.

“What you always do after stuff like this, I guess. Everything.”

 

—-

 

Everything. The next day, Erin woke up early. She went downstairs, made breakfast, and greeted Lyonette and Mrsha as they came down the stairs. She didn’t bother trying to smile. But she did smile a bit when she saw Mrsha scarfing down her eggs and Lyonette teasing her that she never ate Lyonette’s cooking as greedily.

“So, about my bedroom.”

Lyonette looked up sharply. She pointed towards the kitchen with a spoon and Apista landed on it.

“You’re not sleeping in there anymore, Erin. I was sick of tripping over your bed every time I walked in there. You can have our old room. Mrsha and I moved in across from you, anyways.”

“No, that’s fine. Numbtongue can have the room next to mine as well. I just thought I’d make it official.”

“How?”

With a piece of wood, some paint and a brush, and nails. Also a hammer, although Yvlon caught them doing it and offered to use the pommel of her sword. Erin declined. She found a hammer and tapped the sign into place over her door first.

Erin Solstice.

The little plaque hung over her door. Erin went to Mrsha and Lyonette’s room next. Mrsha insisted her name be above Lyonette’s, and the [Princess] tickled her until Mrsha agreed to have it on the same level.

Numbtongue emerged to the sound of his nameplate being put on his door. He stared at it for a long time and touched it until he got paint on his fingers. Then he insisted on retouching the paint himself.

Pisces came out of his room to howl about the hammering. Jelaqua stomped on the floorboards from the second floor and screamed at him for screaming. Erin offered them both eggs and they got up.

“We’re going to leave soon. Halrac’s team is going as well.”

Jelaqua spoke conversationally over breakfast. She elbowed Pisces and the [Mage] swallowed his mouthful of eggs hard. He glared at the Selphid but didn’t try elbowing back. Erin looked at them.

“You’re going north?”

“You know how it is. Another adventure. All our treasure to spend. We have to get it changed into gold first, and get those damned cursed necklaces offloaded—but yeah. I think we’re bound for Invrisil.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll miss you.”

The Selphid shot Erin an awkward, pleased grin.

“Well, don’t go saying goodbye just yet. We thought we’d do it the Erin way.”

Erin looked blank. Then her eyes widened.

“You mean…”

“We’ll take a door, head north, pop back for lunch, our beds, and maybe some work in the area. It’ll be slow, but we’re guaranteed a nice place, right? And if we had a door in Invrisil, well, we could use it now and then to pop back and say hi to our third favorite [Innkeeper], right?”

“Peslas will like that, I’m sure.”

Jelaqua laughed. Erin smiled wanly. But it was a smile. The Selphid quieted down as Moore and Seborn came down the stairs.

“We’ll go further north still. But we’ll be closer by if there’s that door. And…you’d have a way to the City of Adventurers. True, it wouldn’t work that often, but there’s so much in the north. I’d love to show you around.”

Erin tried to imagine it. She couldn’t, but that just made the thought more enticing.

“I’d like that.”

Pisces cleared his throat.

“We may be doing the same thing.”

Ceria and Jelaqua looked at him. The half-Elf swallowed.

“I never said anything about it.”

Pisces sniffed.

“No, but I would imagine the conversation need not actually occur in order for rational minds to come to the same conclusion. There is a finite amount of work to be had around Liscor. Thus—”

Erin jabbed him in the side. Pisces yelped. He glared at Erin and sighed.

“My point is that we will eventually need more work. So a door to Invrisil would benefit us as well.”

Ceria played with her napkin, which she’d yet to use in lieu of her arm.

“I—yes, you’re right, Pisces.”

“As always.”

“Kick him for me, Jelaqua? Thanks. We should keep going. We have to. But—maybe not yet? I want to stay around Liscor. We can probably earn enough putting down the undead, or go through to Celum for some jobs. But I want to stay.”

“Until the trial? With your friend?”

Jelaqua fixed a sympathetic eye on Ceria. The half-Elf nodded.

“That’s fair. We’ll be taking the door north for weeks to get to Invrisil, so there’s no rush. You can come out along the way. Hell, we’ll make it a party on the road. And Erin can come with us! It beats staring at Moore’s back all day and losing a fortune in dice to Seborn.”

Erin smiled. The idea was tempting. But north? She thought of the Human army and her enthusiasm faded a tiny bit. Still, she nodded.

“My door’s open to you all. Both doors.”

“Now, if only there was a way to make that damn thing change from spot to spot without having to fumble with mana stones.”

Jelaqua grumbled into her plate. Ceria sighed and Pisces began explaining for the umpteenth time why that was impossible. Lyonette, who’d heard the conversation, paused and went over to the door after serving Moore a heaping platter. She checked the bowl.

There were three mana stones in it. A green one, a blue one, for Liscor and Celum respectively, and a red stone. The yellow stone for Pallass was gone.

“What’s the red one?”

“Oh. That was the Goblin’s cave. I—the door doesn’t work anymore for some reason. It might have fallen over or been broken.”

Erin looked up. Lyonette studied the mana stone, but she didn’t get rid of it. Instead, she narrowed her eyes and looked at the door.

“What if…?”

She got out some spare wood, the nails and hammer that Erin had yet to put away, and opened the door to Celum to get some quick-drying glue from Octavia. She began working with Mrsha watching her as Erin greeted the others.

“Think the Silver Swords will go north too?”

“To another adventure, definitely. My brother’s done what he came here to do. Which was protect me.”

Yvlon nodded, in better spirits than before. She looked…calmer as she rubbed at one of her arms.

Talk about overprotective.

Seborn muttered. Yvlon nodded.

“A bit. But he did do all of this for us. And he didn’t even get any treasure.”

“Which he won’t. Unless you want to give up your share?”

Pisces looked at Yvlon. She eyed him. Ksmvr happily kicked Pisces under the table without being asked.

“He’s rich enough. But I think I will stop by my home if we ever go north. Of course, you’ll all have to come with me. We’ve got decent vineyards. But that’s the only thing I want.”

“And I would like to be an asset to the team.”

Ksmvr chimed in. Pisces rubbed at his leg.

“Commendable. I suppose I’m with you all, as painful as the experience may be.”

“Well, for as long as I have you, I’ll enjoy it. You can all stay here. So long as you keep paying me.”

Erin looked at Moore, and the half-Giant smiled. He tipped a mug up and drank from it.

“You’re too kind, Miss Solstice. But we had one more thing to say, didn’t we, Jelaqua?”

He reached out and nudged Jelaqua with a finger, despite sitting at a different table. The Selphid grimaced. She hesitated, and looked at Seborn.

You do it.

“Aw, damn it, Seborn…okay.”

Jelaqua signed and looked at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was eating at a table by himself, but not too far away from the others. He kept staring through the window at the sun and mouthing silently to himself, lost in thought.

“Numbtongue.”

He looked up. Jelaqua smiled at him, awkwardly. At some point, Erin realized she’d swapped her Raskghar body for a Human one, one of the casualties of Liscor’s battle. Probably so Mrsha would stop being scared.

“I don’t know how to say this. So I guess this is how. Uh—if you’re not planning on doing anything, we’d like to invite you to our team.”

Ceria slipped with her fork and stabbed the table. Pisces and Yvlon looked up. Ksmvr kept eating because he could listen and eat at the same time. Erin turned her head sharply.

“Me?”

Seborn and Moore were quiet. They sat behind Jelaqua. She nodded.

“We’re down—well, we used to have a lot more in our group. One of our members was Garen. You know why he left. But we talked—for a long time, really. And you Redfangs were adventurers. You just didn’t get paid or recognized. I’m not saying it would be easier with us. In fact, we tend to attract trouble. But if you wanted to continue being an adventurer…we have a spot open for a [Bard].”

Ceria held her breath. A Gold-rank team was asking a Goblin to join them? But Numbtongue had been part of Garen’s tribe. And she had seen him fight. The Hobgoblin looked at Jelaqua. He hesitated.

And then he shook his head.

“No.”

Moore let out a soft sigh. Jelaqua nodded hurriedly.

“No problem. I just thought I’d offer. It’s totally fine if—”

“I am an adventurer.”

“Right, right. That’s what I said. I just—damn it, I wasn’t implying—”

Jelaqua flushed orange. Numbtongue shook his head again.

“I wasn’t mad. You’re right. Your offer is generous. I would have said yes. But I belong here.”

He looked at Erin. And the [Innkeeper] smiled. Every head turned to her. And Ceria was relieved to see both her and Numbtongue smile. Jelaqua grinned as well, in relief.

“That’s good. Whew, I thought I’d stepped in it this time. Shame, though. We could use a proper [Mage].”

Moore flicked her on the back of the head as she went to take a drink. Pisces gave the half-Giant an appreciative nod. Everyone laughed. Jelaqua accepted a cloth napkin from Mrsha. And Lyonette looked up.

“I’m done! I knew it was possible.”

Erin turned. The [Princess] straightened and showed everyone something. It was a crude wheel, just a thin circle of wood, really, able to rotate on a central axis. Half of it rose above the doorframe. The part touching the door had something embedded in it.

The mana stone. Lyonette carefully turned the wheel so the glowing blue stone was touching the magic door. She opened the door, and Octavia’s shop appeared. The [Alchemist] looked up.

“Hey! If it isn’t my favorite—”

Lyonette closed the door. She turned the wheel so the green stone appeared, and the streets of Liscor appeared. A passing Drake looked up. Lyonette shut the door, turned the wheel until no mana stone was connected with the door, and opened it. A solid wooden wall lay beyond. She turned and gave Pisces a long look. The [Necromancer]’s mouth was open.

“You did it!”

Jelaqua exclaimed. She stood up to take a look. So did Erin.

“I was tired of messing with that bowl. It keeps getting knocked over and I have to fumble with the mana stones—this is simpler. If you spin the wheel, you can open the door. Once Jelaqua’s team has their mana stone, I can add it. We might need multiple wheels or something, but I can work out a better system.”

“It’s still not automatic, but it’s a lot more convenient. Now all I need is to put this thing on legs.”

Erin smiled as she inspected the crude wheel. Jelaqua chortled.

“And Typhenous, Falene, and Pisces said it couldn’t be done! What do you think of this, smart guy?”

She laughed at Pisces. The [Necromancer] sniffed.

“It appears to be a non-magical solution to a highly magical equation. Which doesn’t fix the issue of automatically switching connections or the door’s mana constraints. Am I supposed to be impressed by a bit of wood?”

Moore reached over and prodded Pisces.

“Be polite. It’s quite ingenious.”

“I’ll tell Drassi and Ishkr to check both connections while they’re working. They’ve been complaining about the hassle, but if they do it once every thirty minutes…”

Lyonette was talking to Erin. She glanced at the door.

“I’ll go and tell them to come in tonight. Unless the inn’s still closed?”

She looked at Erin. So did everyone else. They held their breaths. Erin looked around. She paused, then nodded slowly.

“No, I think that’s a good idea. Tell them. The Wandering Inn is open again.”

A low sigh ran around the room. Lyonette smiled, set the door for Liscor, and opened it. Erin saw daylight flood into the inn. She heard Ceria laugh at Pisces and his loud sniff. Jelaqua began talking with Seborn about how to transport the door north, by wagon or on foot, and Moore argued for getting another team to do it so he wouldn’t have to walk.

The day was bright and sunny. And Erin stared into it and knew that she couldn’t do it. Her inn was just too small.

 

—-

 

“Leave?”

Krshia looked up, surprised. Erin nodded. She leaned on Krshia’s stall. Her smile of the morning was gone, but she wasn’t crying. That didn’t stop the Drakes around her from giving her the fish-eye and a wide berth. There was still some damage on Market Street. Apparently the city had been in turmoil for hours after they’d gone. Erin wasn’t sorry.

“I can’t stay in the inn. Not now. I just can’t. I don’t know what I’ll do, Krshia.”

“Hrm. Why worry?”

The [Shopkeeper]’s prosaic remark made Erin look up at her. Krshia smiled and pushed Erin with one paw.

“Off. I need my display to go here. How much is a good price for Miss Octavia’s potions?”

“Fourteen silver for a healing potion?”

“Hah!”

Krshia laughed. Then she realized Erin was serious. She shook her head and wrote on the chalk board. Erin studied it. Eleven silver and four copper for a healing potion, one of Octavia’s cheapest.

“I was close.”

The Gnoll just snorted.

“Healing potions are expensive. Even these. You think anyone can afford them? A family buys one for a year. And I intend to have their business. Adventurers, now…ah, Miss Tassai. I have that custom-ordered ointment from the [Alchemist]. As you requested.”

She shooed Erin out of the way. The young woman came back after the Drake had done her shopping.

“Why wouldn’t I worry? I have to run my inn.”

“Mm. Why?”

Erin paused.

“Because it’s my inn?”

“Is that not what you pay Drassi and Ishkr for? And Lyonette? Do you think Peslas spends his time working all day? Do you think you need to, especially with your ability to preserve food.”

“Uh—”

Erin opened and closed her mouth. Krshia looked at her.

“Do not stay if it hurts. Go. Run about in the fields. Play baseball—and invite me when you do! Go, drink. Find an attractive young person to have sex with. Or old person. Or buy one of my—”

No.

A flash of teeth.

“Very well. But do not stay if it taxes, Erin. Go. Leave the inn to one you trust. Lyonette managed in your absence. Go, and return when you are able. But do not force yourself, yes?”

It was simple wisdom. But it had Erin blinking nonetheless. Go?

“Where? North?”

She didn’t want to go north. She didn’t want to talk to other humans. Not right now. Erin thought of Ryoka—Krshia was shaking her head.

“North. I understand the adventurers would want to go north, but it is hardly the only direction, yes? Why not go south? I will be heading that way in time. It would be a boon to have your magic door take me closer to my destination. There will be a connection to Pallass soon, yes?”

“Uh—I guess?”

“Better to know than to guess. I would like to know. Because the grand meeting of tribes is soon upon us, Erin Solstice. And I must be there. And when I go…I may ask Mrsha to come with me.”

Erin looked up sharply.

“Mrsha?”

“Mm. She may be important. And the fate of the Stone Spears tribe must be discussed, if nothing else.”

Krshia deftly organized her rack of magical potions, looking as calm as could be. Erin suspected she was avoiding explaining herself. Because she knew Mrsha had magic powers? She narrowed her eyes, but said nothing.

“Lyonette would never let Mrsha out of her sight. I wouldn’t want that either.”

“Then do not. Come south. Run across the Gnoll plains. I would be happy to be your guide.”

Krshia looked up. Erin blinked.

“Me?”

“It is not as if Humans are barred from Gnoll lands, yes? Your kind seldom makes the trip. As for the grand meeting—you could be on the outside. So yes, I say come. Come, Erin Solstice. Explore my home.”

Krshia swept an arm out. She pointed south. Erin turned her head. And she had a thought.

 

—-

 

“Excuse me, Wall Lord.”

“Let her in.”

Ilvriss didn’t look up. He’d heard Erin arguing with his door guards. He sighed, closed the reports, and looked up as Erin walked into his office. She was holding a guitar. He eyed it.

“Your new help is a jerk.”

Erin announced to him. She wasn’t smiling. But she had that look in her eye that Ilvriss was almost relieved to see. A challenging look. One he was sure would mean a headache for him.

“Captain—er, Major Scaleshield is diligent in guarding me. As she should be. What do you want, Miss Solstice?”

“Are you going to send someone to Pallass? Because I want to reopen my door there.”

Surprising. Ilvriss coughed and made a little note to schedule Hawk’s services today.

“I had every intention. However, your inn was closed until today.”

“Yes. It was.”

The two stared at each other. Ilvriss tapped his claws on the table.

“I will pay for the delivery of course. And I intend to use your door as soon as I can get those egg-brained idiots in Pallass to let me through. Was there something else you wanted, Miss Solstice?”

“Yes. I want a favor.”

The Wall Lord concealed a moment of surprise. His mind raced ahead of the conversation and found…nothing. He had no way of predicting what she was going to ask for.

“A favor? And I assume you intend to pay back said favor? How would you recompense a Lord of the Wall?”

“I’d say it’s a favor I’m already owed. Or rather, the Goblins are. You owe them. Liscor does too.”

Erin stared hard at Ilvriss. He shifted in his seat.

“I…will acknowledge there is some debt. But if you wish to force the Hobgoblin’s entry into the city, that is a matter for Watch Captain Zevara. Even I cannot force her—”

“I’m going to her after you. But you owe the Goblins. And this is part of what you owe. Here. Sign this.”

Erin unfurled a piece of parchment. She slapped it onto the desk in front of Ilvriss. He blinked at it and read the scrawled handwriting quickly. He looked up after a minute.

“You’ve misspelled ‘therefore’.”

“What? No I didn’t.”

Erin scowled down at the scroll. She jabbed a finger.

“It’s spelled right!”

“Then your handwriting is extraordinarily messy. And this parchment is disgusting. I’d rather write on a living goat. Excuse me.”

Ilvriss brushed the scroll off his table. Erin grabbed for it and glared. But Ilvriss had already selected a piece of extraordinarily white paper. He eyed it, and then sighed.

“There’s no helping it. If one is to do this properly…”

He put the blank paper back and opened a drawer at his desk. This time he pulled out a different piece of paper, embossed with Salazsar’s personal watermark. Erin blinked at the delicate border on the paper.

“Spelled to avoid tearing or stains. Don’t try and rip it, however. The enchantment isn’t that strong.”

Ilvriss admonished Erin as he wrote on the paper with a steady hand. She blinked as she saw what he was writing. Ilvriss scrawled his name at the bottom of the parchment.

“Hey! I signed that first.”

“And I am a Lord of the Wall. My signature takes priority. Here. I assume Watch Captain Zevara will be forced to sign this next?”

He handed the paper to Erin. She blinked at it.

“You signed it.”

“A debt is a debt. And a true Drake pays their debts.”

Ilvriss wondered how much chaos that little piece of paper would bring. He looked at Erin as she blinked at the paper and then, without asking, borrowed his quill to sign it.

“You intend to bring him with you?”

“To Pallass? Yeah. And—and maybe elsewhere. Why? Is it a problem? I’ll have this.”

“That’s hardly enough. But there are ways. To tweak Pallass’ tail, I will intercede myself.”

Ilvriss gave Erin a ghost of a smile. He looked at her.

“But you intend to travel.”

“Yes. I can’t stay at my inn. I’m gonna leave. For a little bit. Go north or south. I haven’t…haven’t decided yet.”

She looked haunted for a moment. Ilvriss understood that feeling entirely. He cleared his throat.

“In that case, let me make you a proposal, Erin Solstice. I understand your magic door has limited reach. It could transport you to Pallass, but no further.”

“Yes.”

“But it is hardly as if other means of transport don’t exist. The roads of our continent are well-patrolled. The main ones, at least. So if you leave Liscor, don’t stop at Pallass.”

She blinked at him.

“You mean…?”

Ilvriss nodded.

“Come to Salazsar. Come to the Walled Cities. Go to Pallass first so your expectations are suitably low, but visit them all. The north will wait. Visit my home, Miss Solstice. You will be welcome to visit my estates. That is an invitation I offer to very few.”

She looked at him. Blinking a few times in surprise. It was a refreshing change. Ilvriss nodded to her. Now, while she was off-balance. He handed her the signed bit of paper.

“Here.”

She looked at it. Then she took it. For a moment her hands touched his claws. She inspected Ilvriss, with a curious look. Then she smiled. Just for a moment.

“Thanks, Ilvriss.”

She turned and walked out of his temporary office. The Drake watched her go, arguing with Osthia on the way out. He tapped a claw and muttered.

“That’s Wall Lord to you, you impudent [Innkeeper].”

Then he sat back and smiled.

 

—-

 

“This is…”

Lyonette held the piece of paper in front of her. She stared at it for a long time. It was a simple message. But it was written on costly paper that bore Salazsar’s seal. The writing was, in fact, written as precisely as any [Scribe] could do it. But a Wall Lord had done the writing.

And yet, the message was nonsensical. Insane. But—Lyonette read it again. Erin wiped sweat from her forehead. She glanced across the inn, at a Goblin sitting on the stage, tuning a guitar. Lyonette looked up at Numbtongue. She looked around at the busy inn, full of familiar faces. Waiting to talk to Erin. Perhaps to apologize. Or just to be here again. And then she looked down at the piece of paper.

 

The bearer of this document is a Goblin by the name of Numbtongue. He is a recognized adventurer and is therefore entitled to all the rights of a person regardless of where he goes. And if you have a problem, the following list of people vouch for him and will collectively kick your butt.

 

Signed,

Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazar

Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper]

Watch Captain Zevara of Liscor

[Strategist] Olesm Swifttail of Liscor

Guildmistress Tekshia Shivertail of Liscor

Bevussa Slenderscale, Captain of the Wings of Pallass.

Halrac Everam, Captain of Griffon Hunt

Jelaqua Ivirith, Captain of the Halfseekers

Ceria Springwalker, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad

Krshia Silverfang of Tribe Silverfang

Pisces

 

The actual message was short. But the list of signatures was long. And there was plenty of space to add to it. Erin looked at Lyonette.

“Well?”

“No city would accept this, Erin.”

“Well, they’ll accept it when they hear about a Goblin in Pallass. And I’ll send [Messages] ahead. He doesn’t have to come. But if an adventurer meets him, if he wants to go to Liscor—he’ll have this.”

A document proving Numbtongue wasn’t a monster. Part of Lyonette objected to it. So had Erin, but she’d still made it.

“He needs it. It’s not right, but he should have it. And he deserves it.”

“You got them all to sign like that?”

“Yes.”

Somehow, Lyonette even imagined it hadn’t been that hard for Erin. The [Innkeeper] had an intensity about her at times that would cow even her father. At times. Other times she was silly and relaxed. Was everyone from her world like that?

No, just her. Lyonette looked up.

“So you’re going to leave the inn? Go travelling?”

“Yeah. I mean, not all the time. But sometimes. I’ll…go to Pallass first. Get Numbtongue through. See what it’s like. But I can’t stay here. I’m sorry.”

“Good.”

Erin blinked. Lyonette looked up.

“It’s a good idea. Leave the inn to me. I’ll manage it while you’re gone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Lyonette sat up. She looked Erin in the eye.

“Give me the authority to use the money in the inn and make decisions. I’ll rebuild it. Change some things. If you’re okay with that. All you have to do is cook while you’re here. I’ll run the inn. And earn you money. You go travelling—bring a magic door with you or something. And I’ll take over the inn.”

“But…”

All of Erin’s objections faded away as she looked at Lyonette. And she remembered Lyonette had run Erin’s inn before. She’d enjoyed it, in fact. She was a [Princess] when all was said and done.

“I suppose you need a promotion.”

“I’ll give myself a raise.”

The two grinned at each other. Lyonette looked around.

“Mrsha can go with you. If it’s safe. And this inn will be here. You’ll come back to it. And—”

And she’d make it bigger. Better. This inn had so much potential. Erin had been content to leave it as it had been, to expand when only necessary. But Lyonette envisioned a different place. A third floor and Bird’s tower was only the start. All she needed was coin, and a chance to try something new. The things from Erin’s world…

For the first time in a while, Lyonette was excited about her job. And she saw that Erin looked happier. As if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

“It’s not yet. So don’t start knocking down walls right away! But as soon as Hawk gets to Pallass—there’s all kinds of places I want to go. And I’m going to send the Horns to look for Ryoka.”

“You think they’ll find her.”

“Them. Or Griffon Hunt. Or the Halfseekers. I want to go north, too. North and south and—”

Erin was speaking when a sound came from the stage. Heads turned. Numbtongue’s quiet tuning of the guitar had turned into faint strumming. The Hobgoblin looked up and stared across his audience. He found Erin and Lyonette in the crowd. They turned to face him as Numbtongue played on his new guitar.

Sparks crackled from the strings. For a moment. But only that. Numbtongue had already used his guitar once.

Lightning from the skies, striking a tall Hobgoblin, a mountain lurching across the ground. For a second Eater of Spears was a ball of light. And then he fell, and Numbtongue played his dirge, played and played and heard the music again.

It was back in him. The Hobgoblin played a riff, and the crowd looked up. Then he began to strum a slower beat.

It was no song that Erin had taught him that came from the guitar. It had no notes. It was spontaneous. Meant to go with words. A quiet melody. Numbtongue played it for a minute. Then he looked up and sang. His voice was quiet at first, but it grew louder, echoing.

Adventurers looked up. [Guards] and [Mages]. Drakes and Humans, Gnolls, Garuda and Selphid, half-Giant and Drowned man. A pair of half-Elves glanced up as Numbtongue’s voice rolled through the inn.

 

This is a Goblin song,

You don’t know it, so don’t bother singing along

From Baleros to Chandrar to Izril, north and south

You’d never believe it if it didn’t come from Goblin mouth.

But it’s true; we sing and laugh and smile and weep

And we’re proud and wise and foolish and meek

So if it’s a Goblin’s ears you seek—

Remember, you call us monsters, but we sing and speak.

We broke the moths of Liscor’s dungeon and held the breach

And we fought the Raskghar in the deeps

We took arms against brother against the Goblin Lord

For an [Innkeeper]’s tears and no reward

And died to Drake spear and Human sword.

We fought for you, we monsters green

We can rhyme (we’re more than we seem!),

So if you seek us in our hidden homes and quiet dens

Come as people, come as friends

Or come as you always have to be our end.

But remember this day; you’ll never forget

You heard a Goblin song

We’re not all dead yet.

 

That was all. It wasn’t a good song. Or even a great one. Numbtongue had come up with it over a day, mainly by rhyming. But it was his song. His first song. And while it was poor compared to the lyrics that burned in his heart from Erin’s world, it was enough. It brought tears to eyes, it made people doubt reality.

It was enough. Numbtongue rested his claws over the guitar strings, ready to play another song. And sing it too. He didn’t expect the applause.

Erin Solstice clapped her hands, standing up. She wasn’t the only one. Numbtongue looked up. He heard foot stomps, someone banging a mug—and applause. He saw faces looking up at him. And they weren’t angry. Some had tears. Others looked ashamed. And some just looked at him, a Goblin on the stage, without hatred.

He hadn’t expected that. Goblins never did. But Numbtongue accepted it. He enjoyed it. For a second or two, the applause fell like warm rain. Then it was over. But Numbtongue chased it. He began to play. And the music was there. Changed. Forever changed, but it was there. It echoed through the inn. And this time a Goblin’s voice came with it.

A Goblin’s song. As the people listened, it made them sit up. It brought strength to weary limbs. Hope for the future. And the Goblin sang and sang. He was crying, laughing, smiling. For he was experiencing something few Goblins had ever felt. A wish he didn’t even know fulfilled. A sense of peace. Hope.

At long last, he was home.

 

[Bard Level 27!]

[Skill – Song of Rejuvenation obtained!]

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

6.02

It was a cold evening when Octavia Cotton carefully lit a match. It was spring, but sometimes the cold days still remained. This was one of them.

The match sparked and the head flared into life. For most people in Celum, the city that Octavia had made her home for four years, the fire would have been a welcome sight, the heat comforting. But part of Octavia couldn’t help but flinch at the sight of the dancing flame. Even though the match was her creation.

She couldn’t help it. She was a Stitch Person after all. And fire was one of the ways her kind died. It was a horrible death, and Octavia was cautious to the extreme when handling fire. She’d rather juggle acids in bottles than risk a flame igniting with an explosive reagent. The match scared her, but she knew her cotton body wasn’t that flammable. Even so, the spark of fear in her heart was primal. Instinctive.

Still, there were some situations in which fire was quite useful. Like now. Octavia held the burning match up to a rag. Soaked in cheap alcohol. The rag ignited, and Octavia, swearing and moving quickly, grabbed it and whirled it around with the heavy weight it was attached to.

Molotov cocktails had not yet been invented in this world—at least not in the sense of using alcohol containers as makeshift incendiary devices. And Octavia didn’t buy alcohol nearly expensive enough to qualify in any case. The burning rag was tied to a brick. And as Octavia let go, it soared through the dim evening light and straight through the window of an [Alchemist]’s shop.

Not hers, obviously. Octavia heard the shattering of glass, an exclamation, and then a roar of outrage. She raised her head and shouted.

Eat moths and die, Quelm!

Octavia! You half-wit [Boiler]! I’ll cut your stitches off and use you as coat!”

“You stole my matches!”

Octavia shouted as she backed up from the shop. She sensed movement from inside. Then a man, scrawny, but brandishing a club, raced outside. His fingers were stained and he wore an apron. She’d caught him in the middle of mixing something.

“Hah! I perfected your inferior design! I knew it wasn’t that complex! And I’ll be taking all your business thanks to my spark-dust igniter!”

The Stitch Girl hopped from foot to foot in rage. She shook a fist, wishing she’d brought two stones.

“You won’t get away with this! If it’s a trade war you want—it’s on!”

“I’ll bury you in sales! You’d better guard that shop! I’ve got a box of matches with your name on it!”

“Hah! I’ll have a dozen Drakes from Liscor stabbing you in moments if you do that! And unlike me, you won’t be walking away!”

Quelm the [Alchemist] roared and charged. Octavia turned and ran. She sensed a few shutters above her fly open as Quelm’s neighbors caught on to what was happening at last. They shouted insults at Octavia as she fled. But no one called for the Watch. Undoubtedly someone would, but they knew this was an [Alchemist]’s fight. Not worth sticking their noses into, in short.

It was two blocks before Quelm finally gave up chasing Octavia. She slowed, panting, and wiped sweat from her brow. Well, she’d delivered her message. Unfortunately, she doubted it would do anything. And now she…probably…had to pay for a broken window.

Still, it had to be done. Standards were standards. And Octavia, as one of four [Alchemists] in Celum, had to guard her territory. Not just in the physical sense; it was also about what each [Alchemist] sold. And in this case, one of her competitors, Quelm, had just figured out her match formula. And worse—he’d made it better.

“Damn it Quelm. Why couldn’t you have blown up your shop making those matches?”

Octavia kicked at a pebble as she walked down the street. She was already imagining how much business she’d lose. Not just because Quelm’s new ‘sparking matches’ ignited more reliably, but because he was charging less than she had. Before, Octavia had cornered the market and she’d inflated prices as much as she dared. That was coming to bite her now. But she’d really thought they’d have a harder time figuring the matches out!

The Stitch Girl got back to her shop and checked the boarded front. She still hadn’t replaced her glass window, and her shop looked rather run-down. But she liked to think it was a well-known spot, even if that knowing was mostly infamy rather than fame. Come to that, the boards might help if Quelm retaliated. She wished she actually employed guards—this could get nasty if the trade war escalated.

“If Quelm spreads his designs—no, if he partners with that bitch Mabel the Magnificent, or Jeffil—he won’t partner with Jeffil. But if they start learning their own designs—I’ve barely gotten orders from [Merchants] from the larger cities yet! I’ll lose access to the market, and that’s before they figure out a way to copy my designs in the larger cities!”

Octavia clutched at her braided hair, wondering if it was worth selling the recipe to her matches to an [Alchemist] in Invrisil—if she could even make the deal at anything approaching a profit. And then she wondered if it would come to violence. Quelm wasn’t as thuggish as Jeffil, or Mabel—but he did hold a grudge. And he was an [Alchemist]. Could she afford hired help? Maybe a few Bronze-rank adventurers?

Alchemy was a cutthroat business. In some cities, [Alchemists] worked together in harmony and got along fine, creating wonderful potions and other items for the good of everyone. Octavia had yet to find a city where this was the case, but she assumed there was at least one. But in most cities where there was more than one [Alchemist], they got along as well as a bag full of cats. On fire. Filled with bull feces.

It was mainly due to personality. It was a very odd type of person who became an [Alchemist]. Not only did you have to be keen on mixing various poisons and ingredients that might explode, melt, or create something entirely unexpected, you had to be part [Merchant] as well to obtain your ingredients and sell your products.

Most [Alchemists] were odd in some way. You could roughly divide them into two camps: the insane geniuses who just wanted to create and weren’t much good at interpersonal communication, and the ones who were business-savvy, and could sell as well and create. Octavia fell into the latter camp. She liked to think she’d made her store, Stitch Works, quite profitable. She liked to think that.

But if she was honest…Octavia sighed as she looked around her shop. She had potions on the shelves, goods on display, with her boxes of matches prominently featured right next to the counter. She had money in the little safe hidden in her bathroom—a good amount and almost all gold. All in all, she was running a good shop. An average shop.

Not a famous shop. Her potions were mid-tier at best. Octavia was a Level 21 [Alchemist]—she’d just reached the point at which she could consider taking on an apprentice, if one even wanted to work for someone of her level yet. Her store might be something in ten years if she reached Level 30—then she could move to a bigger city up north, or go south into Drake lands. Or she could stay here and be the top [Alchemist] in Celum.

If she was Level 30. If she had real potions to sell. But right now she earned her living selling cheap healing potions to [Guards], [Mercenaries], adventures, and mana potions to the low-level [Mages] who came by. Her profits came in silver, not gold. And while it was steady, it wasn’t much. Octavia had been a middling [Alchemist]. Until she’d met Erin Solstice. And Ryoka Griffin. And had made matches.

“Five levels in two months. Sales through the roof! And the pepper potion, the smoke bag, the er—exploding flour—all of it at competitive, but not too steep prices!

Octavia puffed out her chest as she remembered the days when her shop had been filled with customers. Then she recalled each of her competitors stealing her designs, producing the same potions and finding ways to improve her formulas, taking her business. That was what [Alchemists] did. It was hard, very hard to come up with something that wouldn’t be stolen at once.

“But I do have something. A Haste Potion. Or—or a lead to go on. And the uh, peni-whatever.”

Octavia muttered to herself. She walked behind her counter and checked on her projects. Mold, growing on pieces of bread—and cheese, she’d expanded the set—in little jars. In all colors too. Octavia had been looking for the blue-green consistency Ryoka had told her was the right mold, but none of the molds she’d found had worked like Ryoka had said. She shook her head, and then looked at her most precious project, sitting in a little bottle in a hidden drawer right under her desk.

A tiny bit of potion. Glowing yellow, streaked with bright pink. It glowed, even the little bit of it as Octavia carefully held it up and regarded the liquid. Even after months of being in the sealed container, the potion looked as bright as it had on the day Ryoka had shown it to her. The colors were vivid, the liquid practically raced by itself. Octavia’s heart beat quicker as she imagined the [Alchemist] who’d made it.

“A high-grade potion of haste. Gold-rank adventurers would sell their hair for a potion like this.”

If she could replicate it—or the penicillin that Ryoka had talked about—Octavia would be rich. And famous. Healing potions were notorious for not working on serious diseases. In fact, they made them worse. An infection would spread even faster with a healing potion accelerating it. Healing potions couldn’t handle sickness; it was one reason why [Healers] were still needed. But if Octavia could distill the anti-disease agent Ryoka had wanted so badly…

Or make a potion of this caliber. The Stitch-Girl shivered and replaced the sample of the potion in her compartment. If she could do either, she’d finally make it. All her hard work, the years she’d spent apprenticing, moving from Chandrar to Izril, fighting for every corroded copper coin—it would all be worth it.

But she couldn’t do either. It was impossible. Octavia hadn’t been able to analyze the precious sample of potion or find which damn mold cured infection. And now she was fighting with the other [Alchemists] over matches.

“I could really use some new products. Or hired help. A few [Thugs] with bats, maybe? But I need coin. I’ve already spent too much on new equipment.”

Octavia cast a glance at the shiny new sets of alchemy gear—magical burners which could more effectively regulate temperature or even produce different flames for special ingredients, enchanted glassware to contain even the most dangerous reactions,  retorts made by master [Glass Blowers] from Terandria, and so on. Octavia was willing to admit she’d splurged too much recently. But if she could get a new product on her shelves, something truly uncopyable—

Her eyes slid sideways as her fingers drummed restlessly on the counter. Octavia’s leg shook, tapping the floor. She looked down and frowned.

“Restless leg. I should check that.”

Absently, she sat on her stool and took off her leg. It was fairly simple; Octavia’s legs were secured to her body with black string. The [Alchemist] had to take off her pants to undo the leg, but as soon as she removed the stitching she felt her limb disappear. And a cloth leg, very detailed but cloth nonetheless, appeared in her hands.

It was a peculiarity of the String People. They had been made, and they made themselves. Their bodies were cloth; they could reattach limbs, or even redesign themselves at will if they had the right materials. In Octavia’s case, she was a String-Girl of the Cotton folk; hence her name.

Octavia Cotton. Not poor, but not rich by any means. Her body was functional, but it developed flaws over time. Like wadded up stuffing, or in this case, misaligned nerves. Octavia checked her leg thoroughly before sewing it back into her body. She felt her leg reattach; the restless shaking stopped.

A good enough body. The kind you wanted as an [Alchemist] anyways; cheap to replace. But what Octavia would have given for a body make of silk! Even really cheap silk! Or another precious material, like satin, or Griffinfeather cloth, or….

Again, Octavia’s eyes slid left. Towards something set into the left wall of her shop. A door.

It was a curious thing. Just a wooden door. It clearly, clearly did not lead anywhere since if you went through the wall you’d be exiting right into the alley and there was no door on the other side. And yet, the door did lead somewhere. It was magical, or the glowing gem set into the doorframe was. It was bright green and it connected the door, in theory, to a magical door a hundred miles south of here. To an inn located just outside the Drake city of Liscor.

Magic. And Octavia’s shop was the place this humble door was connected to. How incredible was that? How potentially lucrative? Some night Octavia lay awake in bed, practically salivating over the possibilities. She’d already secured a deal to sell her potions in Liscor’s market with a  hard-bargaining Gnoll [Shopkeeper].

And she had a…friend? A person who lived in said inn who could give her everything Octavia needed. New ideas, an edge on the competition—maybe even a way to guard her now-perilous shop at night.

But—Octavia hesitated. Her fingers drummed faster on the counter. It wasn’t the time to go. She knew that. Not for business. Even Octavia had a heart. And yet, she wanted to go nonetheless. For reasons other than making a profit. Because—

She was at the door before she knew it. Octavia told herself she was just going to peek. Besides, if the door wasn’t set to Celum, it wouldn’t matter. It probably wasn’t anyways. Probably—

She opened the door a crack and her breath caught. Instead of stone wall behind the door, there was a dark wooden floor. A larger room than Octavia’s shop. The scent of cooked food, wood, and just the faintest whiff of something putrid. The Stitch-Girl hesitated.

She shouldn’t. She knew she probably wasn’t wanted. But she still pushed the door open wider a bit. She’d poke her head in, scope out the scene—

Octavia looked around The Wandering Inn. Her first glimpse of things was of a dark, dark room. Practically pitch-black, in fact. A tall ceiling looked down at her, and the room stretched ahead of Octavia. Impossibly far, like some kind of huge mess hall. Or a theater.

At the far end of the room was a stage. It was empty. And the chairs and tables leading up to it were deserted. It was dark. Octavia could barely make out the far end of the room. The only light came from a pair of big candles burning low on the tables closer to the front door and kitchen. There was no light from outside; not even moonlight. The shutters were closed so tightly nothing could get in. And the inn looked deserted.

Was everyone gone? Surely not. Octavia cracked open the door a bit wider. She stepped into the inn, half-closing the door to her shop behind her. She looked around, heart beating a bit fast. Where was everyone? Normally the inn would be full of life. True, given what had happened, Octavia didn’t expect that, but she’d assumed someone would be—

Click.

Octavia heard the gentle sounds of nails clicking on the hardwood floor. She spun. A small, white shape had crept up on her from behind. Two bright eyes stared up at Octavia. The [Alchemist] nearly jumped out of her stitches. Then she recognized the creature who’d appeared. Not an animal, but a person. A child.

“Mrsha?”

The white Gnoll looked up at Octavia. She sat cross-legged on the ground, staring up at the Stitch-Girl. Octavia passed a hand over her forehead.

“You scared the—hello! How’s my favorite match-seller doing? Ah, is anyone around? Are you alone?”

Mrsha didn’t respond. She just gazed up silently at Octavia. That wasn’t unusual in itself; Mrsha couldn’t speak. But Octavia noted the stillness of Mrsha’s form. Normally she’d be full of energy. Her tail, usually wagging, was still. She just sat and looked up at Octavia, a world of unspoken words waiting behind her eyes.

“Um—”

A creak. Octavia turned again, and saw someone walk out of the kitchen. Lyonette, a girl with red hair, paused as she walked out of the kitchen holding a saucer and smaller candle. She reached for something at her side the instant she saw Octavia—then relaxed. But her voice wasn’t too friendly as she walked over.

“Octavia? What are you doing here? The inn’s closed. IF you’re here to sell something—”

“What, me? No! Never! I mean, not right now!”

Octavia raised her hands and protested. She looked from Lyonette to Mrsha. Neither one was smiling. Both looked…quiet was the only word for it. Not just in words, but in action. They stood together, in the dark common room, staring at Octavia. She already felt like an intruder.

“I uh, was just coming over to say hi. And to check on how things were—were doing.”

“There’s nothing for you here. And don’t bother trying to get to Liscor; we’re not changing the magical door, and I’ve barred the front door.”

Lyonette put her candle on the table and crossed her arms. Octavia winced. Why did everyone think she only thought about money? Oh, right. Well, she wasn’t thinking of it in this case!

“I don’t want to sell anything. Honest. I’m just here to see—is Erin here?”

The word made Lyonette’s expression flicker. Mrsha looked from her to Octavia.

“Erin’s upstairs. She’s alive.”

Not the most reassuring of words. Octavia looked around and saw the staircase.

“I—I mean, I won’t if it’s not a good time, but I could say hi. Is she—how’s she doing?”

Lyonette hesitated. She looked at Octavia suspiciously, as if still suspecting that Octavia was here to make a deal or bargain for something. Then she shook her head.

“She’s not doing good.”

“Still?”

The two young women looked at each other. Lyonette nodded. Then she sat down. Mrsha crawled onto a chair next to her and leaned on her. Quiet. Octavia shifted from foot to foot, but she didn’t sit down. It felt empty in here. Empty and silent, like a graveyard.

Or a wake.

“She’s upstairs. Crying. I check on her a few times every day. She’s…it’s been six days and she hasn’t done anything.”

“I…I know that. I checked in the second day. When uh—six days? It feels shorter than that. I mean, I just heard about all of it. The door only came back when it was over. Obviously. And I was relieved to hear—I mean, I didn’t know until—”

Octavia babbled a bit. Lyonette just looked up at her. The [Alchemist] stopped.

“How bad was it?”

She hadn’t gotten a chance to ask before. Lyonette paused. She seemed to search for words.

“We were in the city. That was all. We didn’t see any of the fighting. We just saw the aftermath.”

“And was—”

The Stich-Girl got no further. The look in Lyonette’s eyes—in both hers and Mrsha’s eyes—was enough. They stared at Octavia in silence. The [Alchemist] paused. She looked around the empty inn in silence for a minute. She chose her next words carefully.

“I heard—in Celum, that is—that people were complaining that the Players of Celum weren’t putting on performances. Er, does that mean the inn’s…?”

“No one’s putting on performances. Erin told Wesle that. And there’s no point anyways. No one’s coming here.”

“No one at all?”

Part of Octavia wasn’t surprised. But it had been six days. She would have expected someone to stop by, if only for Erin. But she hadn’t understood what Lyonette meant.

“No one can enter the inn. It’s impossible for anyone in Liscor to come here, aside from the Horns, the Halfseekers…and me and Mrsha.”

“What? You mean the door’s locked?”

The [Alchemist] was confused. Lyonette shook her head as Mrsha reached out and tipped the candle, staring at the wax as it ran down one side.

“No. I mean, they cannot enter. Most can’t even leave the city if they want to get to the inn. Erin’s not letting them.”

“You mean—with a Skill?”

Lyonette nodded. Octavia blinked. She could do that? Of course, Octavia knew of Skills that could affect a shop’s popularity—like [Shopper’s Stop], or [Discerning Clientele], which could affect which customers you got or how much business came to you, but physically preventing someone from reaching the inn? That went way beyond what most Skills were capable of. Spells as well.

And no one?  Lyonette just nodded when Octavia asked about that.

“No one. No one who was in Liscor. Or on the walls. Even people like Halrac or Typhenous can’t enter. And the rest…definitely not.”

“You mean, the ones who were there. Who watched and didn’t…”

“Yeah.”

The ones who’d watched the last battle of the Goblin Lord. Six days ago, two armies had fought here. Three, if you wanted to count the last part of the battle. Four if you included Liscor. But the two armies that had fought, one to defend Liscor, and the other to take it, had been Goblins.

The Goblin Lord’s army had advanced on Liscor, forced into the action by Lord Tyrion Veltras and an army of Humans intent on using the battle as a pretext to claim Liscor. They had been stopped and Tyrion’s plans foiled—by an army of Goblins who’d appeared to defend Liscor. Cave Goblins, a tribe opposing the Goblin Lord, the famous Redfangs of the High Passes, and the five Hobgoblins staying at Erin’s inn.

They had fought, placing themselves in the Goblin Lord’s way against impossible odds. For an [Innkeeper]. At her request. They had fought. And they had won.

And they had died. That was all Octavia knew. But it was enough. Enough, because she had seen the five Hobgoblins in Erin’s inn. Seen them, and known that Erin treated Goblins like people. And those people had been wiped out to the last. Not just by Tyrion Veltras, who had attacked both armies when he realized his plan would fail, but by Liscor itself. They had fled towards the city and been cut down. Repulsed by the city they had fought for.

It wasn’t something you heard about. All the [Criers] and [Messages] going back and forth were about the outcome of the battle. Tyrion Veltras challenging the Drakes to combat at the Blood Fields, the political fallout in the north thanks to Magnolia Reinhart. Little about the Goblins.

But here, in this inn, the Goblins were all that mattered. And Erin—Octavia shifted in her chair. No wonder no one from Liscor could come through. They’d watched the battle happen and given only a little aid to the Goblin’s side. And at the end…

“How come I can get through? I didn’t have a problem.”

She pointed that out to Lyonette. The young woman shrugged.

“Erin probably didn’t think of you.”

She elaborated at the hurt look on Octavia’s face.

“There wasn’t anything you could have done. The door to Celum was closed. But everyone else—”

“They really can’t get close?”

Octavia looked towards the door. It was shut, and the lock bar was in place. Windows closed…she wished that Lyonette would have at least opened a few windows. Maybe she was worried about crime at night? Or it could be chilly, true, but she could at least light a fire. It was too dark like this.

Lyonette didn’t seem to share the same opinion. She shook her head.

“They can’t get near. They can’t even get up the hill. Olesm tried for three hours yesterday. He couldn’t so much as take a step. I think Wall Lord Ilvriss could, or maybe Relc or Klbkch or one of the Gold-ranks—but they won’t try.”

“Wow.”

That was all Octavia could say. She looked at Lyonette and then glanced at Mrsha. The Gnoll was carving at the candle with one claw. Quietus.

“So Erin’s…”

“Upstairs.”

“Should I…?”

“If you want. I don’t think it’ll do anything. But I won’t stop you. You want to try?”

Octavia hesitated. But she had come this far and this was the reason she’d come to begin with. So she nodded. Lyonette stood up abruptly. She took the candle from Mrsha and nodded to the stairs.

“She’s in my old room. Mine and Mrsha’s.”

She led the way up the stairs. Octavia followed her, expecting the floorboards to creak. But they didn’t. They were new. She waited for sound. Movement. Anything. But the inn was so quiet it pressed down on her. Lyonette stopped before the first door she came to and knocked on it.

“Erin? Octavia’s here. She’d like to speak to you.”

There was no response. Lyonette knocked again, and then silently pushed the door open. Octavia peeked into the room and saw her.

A young woman was curled up on the floor. Her light brown hair was an untidy mess. She was facing away from them, towards a wall.

“Erin?”

Octavia’s voice quavered uncertainly as Lyonette stood to one side. The [Innkeeper] didn’t reply. Octavia coughed, and then she raised her voice brightly.

“Hey! Sorry to bother you, but uh, I was just in the area—you know, magic door—and I thought I’d say hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. It’s…I heard about what happened. I’m…sorry. But I came by to say that if there’s anything I could do—anything at all? I’m not asking for money. I just came by to say—I—I thought I’d just…”

Her voice trailed off. Octavia stared at the young woman’s back. She didn’t move. She didn’t seem to breathe, until Octavia saw her chest move slightly from behind. She walked forwards.

“Erin? Are you asleep? Can you—”

Octavia stopped. She saw Erin’s face. The girl’s eyes were open. Her hazel eyes stared ahead. Tears ran from her eyes. They dripped down her face. Ran onto her clothing. Erin didn’t move. She didn’t look at Octavia.

It had been six days since the death of the Goblin Lord. Six days since the final siege of Liscor. Six days since the death.

“Erin? I…”

“Erin? Octavia’s here for you. Mrsha’s wondering if you’ll get up.”

“Erin? I’m so sorry. Can I do anything?”

“We’re waiting for you. No one can enter the inn. Erin? Please say something.”

“Erin?”

She didn’t move. She didn’t speak. Not even when Octavia shook her. She blinked and breathed and that was all. Salt and water ran from her eyes. And there was little else there.

The tears wouldn’t stop. They would never stop. Erin curled up in her room and didn’t move. Eventually, Lyonette gave up her entreaties. She looked at Octavia and the two retreated.

“I didn’t know. I thought after six days she’d be at least—”

Octavia trailed off. Lyonette shook her head.

“She’s barely eats. She only eats because Mrsha stopped eating when she did. I thought so too. After six days—she’s lost friends before. But this time…they fought for her.”

“I know. No one’s talking about that. They just say the Goblins had a civil war. Or that they fought each other. No one’s talking about the fact that it was her.”

The two stared back into the room. Erin lay there. Mrsha padded into the room. She circled Erin. She reached out and stroked Erin’s hair. Then she lay next to Erin, silent. Lyonette stared at Mrsha. After a few minutes, the Gnoll child got up and walked back towards them. She reached up and Lyonette lifted her up, hugging her. Octavia watched the two silently. Jealous for a second as she saw Mrsha bury her face into Lyonette’s chest and hug her back.

“Let’s leave her alone.”

Lyonette closed the door. She looked at Octavia as they walked back down the stairs. For some reason she glanced towards the far end of the hall before she walked down. But she said nothing of it.

“She’ll move in a bit. She always does. But until then I can’t get her to do anything. Anyways, she shouldn’t really be up for this. It’s nearly time.”

“Time for what?”

Octavia was still trying to process Erin’s grief. But then she noticed Lyonette reached for the thing at her side. She stopped when Lyonette put Mrsha down in the common room and drew her sword.

It was a straight, steel blade. Unadorned, and unremarkable. The kind you could get from any [Blacksmith]. But Lyonette held it as if she meant to use it. She stared towards the door, then slowly moved towards a table. She placed the sword on the table and pulled up a chair. Then she looked at Octavia.

“They’re coming.”

“Who?”

The [Alchemist] looked at the sword, bewildered. But then she heard a sound. A faint shuffling. A bump. Steps from outside. And then a dull, quiet thump against the door. She jumped.

“What was that?”

Lyonette had just said that no one could come to the inn! So who was that? Octavia stared at the door, but Lyonette made no move to open it. She heard the thump again, louder. Something—someone was bumping against it. Insistently. And then there was another thump, this time from a window right of the door. And then another bump. Another.

Something was outside the inn. Somethings. Someone. And they were…colliding with the inn. Striking the shutters. Then Octavia heard a sigh, and the sound of something hitting the door with a dull, fleshy impact. And it clicked. She backed up, eyes wide.

“The undead.”

Lyonette nodded. She stared at the door as Mrsha huddled next to her. The Gnoll’s hair was standing up, but she didn’t look too afraid. She’d seen this before. Octavia was terrified. Her breath caught, and her eyes grew round as she stepped backwards, towards the door to her shop.

“Don’t worry, they can’t get in.”

“But the undead—”

It had to be them. Octavia was suddenly reminded of a fact of this world. When the dead gather, the undead rise. And while graveyards were purified to ensure the remains of the deceased wouldn’t become undead, there was a battlefield’s worth of the dead outside. And by the sounds of it, zombies were converging on the inn as night fell.

Thump. Thump. Thump. The sounds came from all sides now as the zombies ran into the inn, some attacking it with their arms and heads, others just running into it. And those were just the audible sounds. Octavia imagined hundreds of bodies, silently pressed against the inn, as if they could implode the walls just like that. And maybe they could. This inn was made out of wood, not stone. But Lyonette was focused. Grimly calm.

“Erin’s Skills will keep us safe. Just stay quiet and we won’t attract too many. They can’t do anything to get in. Just make sounds.”

The sound was rhythmic, eerie. And worse because the undead truly didn’t make many sounds. Of course, Octavia had heard the classic zombie groaning parodied to her, but these ones didn’t do that. They just sighed, made small sounds. It was terrifying.

“Are you just going to let them stay here? All night long? What if they find a way in? Where are the other adventurers?”

Octavia was unable to keep silent. She knew both adventuring teams! How could they leave Lyonette, Mrsha, and Erin alone? Mrsha looked up. Her tail was twitching each time something struck the inn. Lyonette pointed towards the door.

“The adventurers? They’re outside.”

Out—

Lyonette nodded.

“The Horns are out there. So are the Halfseekers and all the adventurers. They’re killing them by the thousands each day, but there are over a hundred thousand dead bodies out there. Closer to two hundred thousand, maybe. And more keep rising each day.”

“Two hundred thousand.”

Octavia felt like she was repeating everything Lyonette said. Her brown skin grew pale.

“They can’t get in.”

Lyonette reassured Mrsha and Octavia once more, but Octavia noticed that the sword was bared and never out of Lyonette’s reach. The thumping on the windows and groans grew louder as more undead joined the inn. Then the [Alchemist] heard a crash as something hit the door. Hard. She jumped.

“What was that?

This time Lyonette stood up. She stared at the door as something hit it again, far louder than the zombies. She held up a hand and Octavia and Mrsha were still.

“Ghoul.”

The thing outside rammed the door three times. And then Octavia heard a sound that made her skin crawl. Scuffling. And then the sounds of scratching movement outside. From a window, then higher up.

“It’s climbing.

She looked at Lyonette, terrified. But the [Barmaid] was still calm, if alert. She tracked the thing’s progress up the side of the inn.

“The roof’s sealed. We boarded it up and the Antinium say they’ll begin working on rebuilding as soon as the undead presence lessens.”

Still, Lyonette looked wary as she reached for the sword. The crawling thing outside scraped as it climbed higher and higher—and then Octavia heard a crash and a heavy impact. She looked at Lyonette, but the [Barmaid] was focused on the door. There were more impacts, of a different kind this time, from outside, and then a thump that Octavia felt in her bones. Silence—and then, to the [Alchemist]’s surprise and relief, a voice.

“Lyonette? Are you alright?”

It was Ceria. Octavia vaguely recognized the half-Elf’s voice. Lyonette called out.

“We are. Did you get it?”

“Yeah. It was a Ghoul trying to climb the inn. We got rid of the zombies too. Pisces is keeping his bear Bone Horror back here. Any sign of cracks? Damage?”

“None. We’re fine.”

Octavia heard another voice, muffled. Ceria replied, and then she raised her voice as the sounds of more impacts started up. Someone—the rest of her team probably—was fighting the undead.

“Okay. We’ll be back in an hour. Maybe two. There are more Ghouls tonight. Make sure the windows are closed and locked.”

“Got it.”

Ceria didn’t say anything more after that. Octavia heard faint footsteps, then silence. She looked at Lyonette.

“The Bone Horror’s here. You can’t hear it, but it will guard the inn. We don’t really need it.”

“Bone Horror?”

Octavia said the word uncertainly. She’d heard of such things, but those were higher-level undead. Lyonette nodded.

“Pisces made it. It can handle anything that appears. For now. That’s why the adventurers are trying to burn and kill as many undead as possible.”

Mrsha shivered. So did Octavia.

“Worse things than Ghouls appear?”

“Usually? No. But on a big battlefield? We can get Crypt Lords, Shamblers, and a lot worse in time. It won’t come to that. Liscor’s making sure the bodies are all disposed of.”

“Only Goblin bodies, though, right?. I heard they all died here.”

“Most of them did.”

Lyonette’s eyes were shadowed. She looked upstairs once more. And Octavia was glad that Erin hadn’t come downstairs.

The undead kept rising after that, but the Bone Horror that had been left was defending the inn, by the sounds of the occasionally heavy impacts from outside. Lyonette sat with Octavia and Mrsha, listening maybe. Both she and Mrsha were so grim. Octavia tried to liven things up, but she was no good. In the end, she just sat with them. At some point Lyonette roused herself.

“It’s about time for Erin to come down.”

“She’s coming down? To eat?”

That startled Octavia, given how unresponsive Erin had been. But Lyonette was already going into the kitchen. She came out with, of all things, a little bit of a stew in a bowl, some bread, buttered, and a few Yellats, fried on one side. The meal was warm and hot and it made Octavia realize she hadn’t had a decent meal since…breakfast. Yesterday. She’d just eaten whatever she had since then.

Lyonette noticed the rumbling in her stomach. So she went back and got Octavia another plate like it. The [Alchemist] ate hungrily, noticing Lyonette and Mrsha weren’t eating.

“We had an early dinner.”

And they weren’t much hungry, because Mrsha didn’t even bother trying to steal Octavia’s food. The [Alchemist] polished off her plate and then saw that Lyonette kept glancing towards the stairs. The first plate she’d put out was meant for someone, and sure enough, Lyonette heard a quiet shuffling. And then Erin Solstice walked down the stairs.

“Erin! You’re up!”

Octavia was stunned. She scrambled to her feet, but Erin didn’t so much as look at her. She walked downstairs, slowly, and she was still crying. Less, but her eyes were red and swollen. She looked at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] pointed.

“It’s right here.”

Erin went over to the plate. She took it, and rather than sit, she lifted it and turned right back around. She went towards the stairs, but Lyonette raised her voice.

“He must be in the basement again. I checked his room earlier. He wasn’t there.”

Erin turned towards the trap door to the basement. Octavia got to her feet. She and Lyonette hurried over and helped open the trap door. Erin maneuvered down the stairs, refusing to let them take the plate. She turned, and Lyonette handed her a lantern. Erin looked around. For the first time she seemed to come alive. Her voice croaked.

“Hello?”

Octavia heard a pained note in her voice. She saw a desperate look in Erin’s eye. The [Innkeeper] called out, coughing on her tears. She looked around.

“Hello? Are you there?”

For a second there was naught but silence. Erin looked around, and Octavia thought that if there was one thing keeping her together, even enough to do this much, it was this. Her hand shook on the plate. The lantern light wobbled as it moved across the basement. And then it stopped. A solitary figure was sitting against the back wall. The light illuminated it. Erin called out, desperately, her voice breaking.

And the Goblin opened his eyes.

 

—-

 

He had been dreaming. It was the same dream, played a thousand times. Ten thousand.

Somewhere on a hilltop, a Goblin stood. He stared up at the night sky. The stars shone down on him. The grass was soft underfoot. And he was smiling.

The Goblin was there too. He was there. They were all there. They filled the hill. It had no end. And neither did they. Male and female. Tall and small. Hobgoblin, Goblin. Children. Adults. Warriors and those who had picked up a sword. Cave Goblins. Redfangs. Goblins wearing black armor.

The Goblin Lord. From every tribe, they stood together, looking up. At the twin moons that hung in the night sky. At each other. A breeze blew soundlessly over the hill, making the grass ripple. The Goblin who dreamed could not feel it. But the Goblins looked up. And they walked off the hill and into the sky.

At first it was a handful. And then it was more. The waiting Goblins looked at each other. The Goblin looked around and saw a familiar face.

Headscratcher. Had he known him? It felt like he had. But in this place, all Goblins knew each other. He looked past him and saw a tall Hob crouching next to a Goblin whose eyes shone red. He looked sad, but as he turned, another Goblin walked up the hill. As tall as a legend. His teeth flashed and his red war paint stood out. Garen Redfang stood next to his brother.

Reiss. And Eater of Spears looked back. The Goblin knew him too. The Hobgoblin raised a claw. He spoke a word. And then he vanished.

They were leaving. Garen and Reiss were next. They looked back, straight at the Goblin. And there was a silent moment in which Garen raised his hand and made a fist, and Reiss bowed. Then they too vanished.

Like mist. Like memory, already fading. Headscratcher stared up at the stars. He looked back and more Goblins walked forwards and vanished. He smiled once. Softly. Regrets, sorrow, and a quiet calm ran through that one smile. He reached back and the Goblin reached for him. But Headscratcher just shook his head. He said something.

“Wait.”

And then he turned and walked ahead. The Goblin watched him go. More Goblins were disappearing. The hill was growing emptier. More faces turned back to him, some laughing, others calling out.

Wait.

But how could you wait? They were all going. Spiderslicer was next. Noears shrugged and pointed ahead, clapping his hands. Hobgoblins and children followed. Too many to count.

Tens of thousands of Goblins, walking past them. Vanishing into the air. A river, a torrent. And then a trickle. The last to go was a Hobgoblin who sat on the hill, staring back rather than ahead. He was reluctant. But at last, Shorthilt stood. And the Goblins who remained and watched him were two.

He was missing his sword. Shorthilt grumbled, but there was no help for it. He looked back and reached out. He touched both of them, clasping their arms. Wishing them well. Then, with infinite reluctance, he walked forwards. And he was gone.

And then it was just the last two of them. Pyrite and Numbtongue looked at each other. Which was which? For a moment they didn’t know. They had been everyone for a moment. Every Goblin on the hill. Only now, as the last one left, did they become themselves. They stood together.

Neither one showed the wounds they had taken. But they felt them. Each one, weighing them down. It didn’t hurt like pain. But it was a reminder. And with each second, the wind blew harder. Calling them away. But only one. The two met each other’s eyes.

They had never seen each other. But they knew each other. They knew everything in a moment. And Numbtongue smiled and Pyrite bent and tried to eat the grass.

“Good song.”

“Nice axe.”

That was it. That was all you could say. The two looked at each other. Then they grew quiet and looked up. The sky called them. Both wanted to walk into that oblivion. But they also wanted to stay.

They looked back. At each other. Numbtongue was so very tired. Pyrite lowered his head, and the weight of the world pressed down on him.

“I tried.”

That was all Numbtongue could say. He looked up at Pyrite.

“I tried. We did it. She lived.”

Pyrite nodded. He reached out and squeezed Numbtongue’s shoulder gently. The Hobgoblin wiped at his eyes. Pyrite looked towards the sky.

“Tell her I’m sorry. I’m tired.”

The two turned and began walking together. Off the hill. Higher and higher. At first they walked together. But then one fell behind. The other reached for him.

“Here. Take it with you.”

And they offered their hand. The Goblin reached for it and felt the warmth. He looked up—and he was alone. Alone, he felt himself falling. And then—and then—

He woke up. In pain. In darkness. A light, bright and mortal, hurt his eyes. The Goblin shielded his face.

“Hello? Are you there?”

A female voice, cracked and broken called out to him. He saw a figure standing by the stairs. Saw a lantern’s light. The Goblin tried to sit up. His body felt unfamiliar. Heavy. He looked up as Erin walked forwards.

“Hello?”

Numbtongue looked up. His red eyes flashed in the darkness, lit up by the lantern’s glow. He looked around, but Pyrite was gone. They were all gone. And he was there. Lying in a dirty basement.

The broken guitar lay at his feet. Erin stopped when she saw Numbtongue. Her eyes went to him. She was crying. Numbtongue stared at her. He said nothing. There was nothing to say.

The music was gone.

He was alone.

“Food.”

That was all Erin said. She bent down and put the plate in front of Numbtongue. He could smell it. He didn’t respond. Erin looked down at him.

“I—”

There was nothing to say. She turned away, tears falling. Numbtongue watched her go. He moved his legs.

Painfully. His body wouldn’t move right. There was a scar on his chest. A wound. A spear had gone straight through him. He should be dead. But he remembered a stranger telling him to live.

Live.

He drew his knees up to his chest. Numbtongue slowly began to rock back and forth. He tried to hum, but there was no song in him. No music. So he just sat there, rocking back and forth, staring at the untouched meal. Back and forth. Waiting. But no matter how many times the dream never changed. The memory endured. And Pyrite reached out.

“Tell her I’m sorry. I’m tired.”

The Hobgoblin closed his eyes. But he couldn’t cry. There were no tears. No words. Just him. Alone. So the Hobgoblin closed his eyes and went back there. To that living memory. Fading, faded with each passing second. And he tried to stop them. But they were already…

Gone.

 

—-

 

Night. And then day. The seventh day after the death of the Goblin Lord, a few Drakes gathered for a conference in Liscor’s city hall. They chatted quietly, looking out across the city.

“Cremation’s getting trickier without wood to fuel the fires. We’re taking from our stockpiles, breaking down a few wagons, but we’ve having to use magic rather than wood. The [Mages] are complaining.”

Watch Captain Zevara was speaking with Ilvriss. The Wall Lord was nodding as Olesm quietly wrote down the tallies of last night’s undead suppression by the adventurers and City Watch. Embria was absent; she was still out in the Floodplains, exterminating the zombies and gathering corpses to be burned with her soldiers.

“We have no choice. As for the smell—I know the residents are unhappy, but again, this is a priority task. We’re over halfway done as it stands.”

“That was my opinion as well. There’s not much to do other than rotate the [Mages] and tell the people we’re working as hard as we can.”

Ilvriss nodded.

“These things happen. Cleanup after a battle is never popular, Watch Captain. But I think any level-headed citizens will understand the need.”

“If I find any, I’ll be sure to appreciate that fact.”

The two shared a quiet chuckle. Olesm looked up, and then back down at his work. Ilvriss paused and glanced at the door.

“Ah. Shieldscale. Come in.”

A Drake saluted at the entrance to the meeting room. She strode into the room, walking with military posture. Olesm glanced up at her. Zevara noted the pair of wings on the Drake. She was unfamiliar. Her scales were a bright, almost too-bright blue. She was clearly a soldier and was armed as such. More importantly, Zevara noticed the acrid tang in the air as she drew closer.

If she was right, this Drake had the ability to breathe some kind of weapon—probably acid. That made her an Oldblood Drake, with both wings and a breath weapon. The rarest of all combinations. Zevara couldn’t help but stand a bit straighter as this Drake saluted her and Ilvriss.

“Watch Captain. Wall Lord. I have the official reports from the Walled Cities about the engagement at the Blood Fields. For your perusal.”

She offered a report, copied twice, to Zevara and Ilvriss. They read theirs as the Drake went over and gave Olesm a copy. Ilvriss read with distaste and then shook his head.

“Disgusting. Of course the Humans are calling it a victory. These numbers—and they’re claiming this is the official report? They’ve shaved off numbers.”

“You’re sure?”

Zevara studied the report with dismay. Reading it, you could infer that the losses weren’t that bad. But Ilvriss just looked disgusted.

“I read Salazsar’s report of the battle. We can count. In numbers alone, that damned Veltras won. We pulled back too many of our elites when it was clear Liscor wasn’t in danger. I told them that was a mistake. We sent three [Generals]—good ones, but hardly our best—and paid for it. His soldiers were more elite, and with the nobility and officers he brought—disgusting. And this is what we’re claiming? A ‘partial victory’?”

He tossed his report onto the table. Zevara sighed as she did likewise. She nodded to the Drake, who’d assumed a patient posture, hands folded behind her back.

“Thank you, um…Captain?”

Zevara had to guess, since the Drake wasn’t wearing her military insignia. Ilvriss looked up.

“Ah, that would be Major Shieldscale, Watch Captain Zevara. I think I mentioned her to you?”

Zevara vaguely recalled this particular Drake popping up in conversation a few days ago, as she herself had done. Ilvriss nodded.

“As I said, her lineage is a long-time friend of the family. She’ll be serving as my aide in a more…combative role than my other adjutants.”

“Where are you from, Major Shieldscale?”

“Salazsar, Watch Captain. Born and raised in the gemstone capital.”

Ilvriss winced slightly as the Major replied. Zevara nodded. That was Salazsar for you. She looked at the Wall Lord and he cleared his throat.

“Asrira here came with a detachment bound for Invrisil. When the siege was lifted, she elected to continue on alone while the rest of her unit was recalled. I needed support, and Major Shieldscale is an accomplished warrior who’s served with distinction for over half a decade.”

To Zevara’s knowledge Ilvriss already had nearly a dozen helpers. But she nodded. Wall Lords loved their retinues.

“Does that mean your sojourn in Liscor is coming to a close, Wall Lord Ilvriss?”

She couldn’t think of any other reason he’d be requesting reinforcements. Ilvriss nodded. And Zevara felt a pang. She might actually miss him. For all he had been difficult to work with at the start, it had been very reassuring to have a Wall Lord on her side.

“That’s correct, Watch Captain. I’ve stayed here far too long as it is. Not that there wasn’t need—but I am of Salazsar, and I’ve been away from home for too long.”

“It’s a long way from here to Salazsar, though. Will you be travelling via Pallass?”

“If it can be arranged. They’re still denying me entry, which I have every right to—but I’ll lean on them as much as I need to.”

Ilvriss grimaced.

“At this point I’m almost tempted to make the trip on foot rather than keep negotiating with Pallass. But the Blood Fields have just been fed, which makes a journey south quite unwise.”

“Indeed. Um, I expect the Council will insist on celebrating you before you go. You might want to give them the heads up—or leave before they can arrange anything.”

Ilvriss stroked his chin.

“I could hardly be so rude. And it occurs to me that a funded celebration would do Liscor good. What with…all that has occurred. Things are finally looking up, aren’t they?”

“It seems that way.”

The two Drakes fell silent. Major Shieldscale waited as Olesm continued to work. They looked out across Zevara’s city. And she agreed largely with what Ilvriss had said.

The siege of Liscor was over. Before it had begun, really. But all the stress and fear that had gripped the city was gone, and that was a relief in itself. She’d been preparing to fight to the last to hold Liscor. Now—well, the eastern gate was still destroyed and there were cracks in the wall that would have to be repaired and fortified before the spring rains came again, not to mention the undead still roaming about the Floodplains and the risk of so many bodies rotting…

But it was over. Liscor was safe. And its people were happy.

There had even been a celebration. A small one, but it reflected the mood of the city and that was one of relief. Yes, everything was looking up. Zevara thought about smiling. But it didn’t seem to quite come onto her face when she willed it.

Ilvriss looked speculative rather than in a good mood. He stared across the city as the sun rose, illuminating the bright rooftops.

“Only a few issues left, I should imagine. One of them being the trial. I assume your prisoner hasn’t given you any trouble?”

Trial? It took Zevara a second to remember what Ilvriss meant. Her brows darkened and her tail curled up a bit.

“Oh, the Minotaur? No trouble out of him. We’re preparing for the trial—we’d have done it earlier, but the witnesses needed time to rest and what with the Goblins…but we’ll start the proceedings soon.”

And that would be that. Zevara still had to deal with the dungeon, but she swore to herself that the Raskghar would never trouble the walls again. Nor would they ever reach them, not with the waters gone. In the mud, they’d have as much chance of taking the city—even in the daytime with the gates open—as Zevara had of flying.

“Good, good. I doubt I’ll be there for the trial unless I’m truly delayed, but I’ll provide any written testimony should it be necessary. As for the rest…it only remains…I suppose it’s just the inn.”

Zevara looked up. The quiet scratching of Olesm’s quill went silent for a second. Major Shieldscale kept staring ahead. But the other three Drakes paused. Ilvriss cleared his throat. He turned his case and looked east. The Wandering Inn wasn’t visible from here. But he looked nonetheless. And his tone was…different.

“I don’t suppose there’s been any word from the inn, has there? The doors are…?”

“It’s still closed.”

Olesm replied flatly. Ilvriss glanced at him. He nodded slowly. Cleared his throat again.

“It’s not that I mind, but she does have the one working door to Pallass. And I gather that these plays have attracted a good deal of interest from Liscor’s citizenry, especially now we’re no longer operating in a crisis. There’s talk of enlisting in the ah, acting troupe. It could be a new form of entertainment and revenue for Liscor, which is always to be desired.”

“That would be helpful.”

Zevara glanced at Olesm. But he was working again. She stared at the eastern wall. The inn was closed. Erin Solstice hadn’t been spotted in a week now, and no one could so much as get near her inn. And it wasn’t that Zevara wanted to see her. Her life was far, far easier when she didn’t see that blasted Human. And yet—

Seven days had passed. The city was upbeat, it really was. People were getting back to work, they were enthusiastic about the sun, relieved not to be dead or under siege—it was all great. But rather than call the mood jubilant, Zevara felt the same sensation that seemed to have gripped the city. That of…waiting.

Waiting. What they wanted, what a lot of Liscor wanted, was just to see the doors open. To hear that annoying voice saying something inane, see a bright smile. But the inn was silent. The doors did not open, no matter how long anyone waited.

Yes, Goblins had died. But in a way, they’d saved the day. And yes, bad things had happened. But Liscor had triumphed. It was good, in the end. It was a victory. Everyone knew it. The Human, that crazy [Innkeeper], Erin, would be sad. She might be angry, and she had every right to be. She could be depressed, grieve, but in time, she would return to normal. Liscor has triumphed. All would be well. And everyone knew that.

They were just waiting for her to confirm it.

 

—-

 

On the seventh day, Numbtongue looked up. He reached out and picked up the broken guitar. He looked down at it. Then he tossed it aside and stood up.

He didn’t feel any better. He still felt dead. A ghost. And he still dreamed that he’d see Headscratcher poke his head down from above and tell him to get moving. Hear Shorthilt stomp on the floorboards, or hear the chatter of Cave Goblins. But time had passed. And part of Numbtongue couldn’t even believe in that lie anymore.

It still hurt, too. With every passing second, Numbtongue thought the tears in his heart would open up and swallow him whole. They hurt more than his wounds. But still, he stood.

It wasn’t that he was better. It was just that he couldn’t sit any longer. Seven days he’d sat. It was enough. The pain wasn’t going away from sitting. It never would.

So Numbtongue stumbled forwards. He kicked something by accident, nearly slipped. The plate of food. It overturned and Numbtongue looked at it. He bent to pick it up and nearly fell over. He was dizzy. He hadn’t eaten in…

It didn’t matter. Numbtongue picked up the dishes. He wasn’t hungry. He slowly walked towards the stairs and trapdoor. He could hear voices from above. For a second he paused and hoped. But they weren’t the right ones. Goblins didn’t speak that much, anyways.

“—just disgusting work. It feels like I’m working in a suppression company in Baleros again. Why can’t you get your undead minions to handle all of it, Pisces? Or do that neck-snapping thing and settle things that way.”

Jelaqua was talking to Pisces as she slumped over her table. Lyonette was quietly serving breakfast. The adventuring teams—the Horns of Hammerad and the Halfseekers—were eating quietly. They were subdued. Even Jelaqua, normally energetic, was only partly invested in her conversation. The [Necromancer] she was addressing, Pisces, paused in dabbing his mouth with his sleeve.

“Two reasons. Firstly, because my undead cannot function long without consuming a great deal of mana. They were quite limited in number as well. Secondly, even if I broke the necks of every zombie out there, they would continue to rise. Breaking the bones of the undead stops them for a short time, but nothing short of immolation or pure destruction will—”

“I get it. I was just asking.”

Jelaqua sighed. She tried to smile at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub was eating breakfast quietly.

“Hey there. Sleepy, Mrsha? You’re not racing about.”

The Gnoll looked up and shook her head. Jelaqua’s grin faltered.

“Maybe we should let you run about in Celum?”

No response. Mrsha just went back to eating. Jelaqua looked around. Moore and Seborn, sitting at her table, gave her slow shakes of the head. The Selphid let it drop.

At the other table, Ceria looked at her companions. Yvlon, Ksmvr, Pisces…they were all quiet. A night of fighting had made them tired, but this wasn’t like them. But she couldn’t tell them to snap out of it. It didn’t feel right.

And yet they hadn’t grieved. Not like Erin was. Ceria hadn’t shed more than a few tears. She couldn’t, though she’d known the Goblins. And yet, she couldn’t smile either.

Ceria tried. Yvlon looked up to see Ceria’s attempt at a smile. She stopped eating. Ceria gave up. She looked around, but Erin hadn’t come down for breakfast again. Maybe today was the day to give her a kick and some tough love. She had to snap out of this eventually. How long was she going to be like this? She had to—

The trap door opened. Ceria turned. Her fork fell from her fingers. It clattered on the table. Pisces looked up. Then he turned as well.

The room fell silent. Numbtongue paused as he pushed the trap door up. He stared around. Slowly, he climbed up into the inn. He placed the plate and bowl on the table and looked around.

A red scar stood out on his chest. Half of his body looked…paler. The remnants of lightning. Aside from that, he looked like he had. Numbtongue. But it was Numbtongue. And the others were…

Numbtongue stopped as he stepped out into the light. He had been prepared for something. But this was worse.

It was the stares. All of them, adventurers, Lyonette, Mrsha—they all stared at Numbtongue. They froze, and gazed at him like they’d seen a ghost. That was painful, but it was the second look that cut deeper. Pity. He saw it reflected in their eyes. And he hated them for it.

Pity was even worse.

“Morning.”

Numbtongue could have laughed at the way their expressions changed. He almost did, but he didn’t. He looked to Lyonette.

“Here.”

He offered her the plates and bowl. Lyonette noticed the spilled food.

“Oh. Didn’t you like—”

“Tripped. Not hungry.”

“I can get you something else if you’d—”

“No.”

Numbtongue hated it. The awkward conversation, the painful misunderstandings and imprecise words. That was why he didn’t speak. And the way Lyonette clearly seemed to regret asking about breakfast. As if she should have said something about—about—

Numbtongue hadn’t seen them. He didn’t remember anything. Not after being stabbed. He didn’t know how it had ended. Until Lyonette told them. So he walked towards the door. It was closed.

“Whoa. Hey!”

Jelaqua shot to her feet. She stepped out in front of him. Numbtongue looked at her. Jelaqua gave her a desperate smile.

“Hey! Numbtongue! Why don’t you take a seat? Unless you want to use the outhouse? That’s cool, but uh—why don’t you let us make sure there’s no one outside? Just one second. Moore!”

She snapped. Moore pushed back his chair hurriedly. Seborn was already on his feet. Numbtongue looked from face to face.

“Why?”

“Well—let’s just say it isn’t a good time to go out. Uh, unless you need that outhouse.”

Jelaqua waved her arms at her companions. Numbtongue tried to get around her. She blocked him.

“Hold on. Okay?”

He tried to walk past her, but she held her arm out. The Selphid backed up, and her desperate smile vanished. She took a deep breath.

“There are a lot of…a lot of undead out there. You might be mistaken for one. And it’s unwise to go out anyways. Because…”

She trailed off. Numbtongue waited. Jelaqua looked around. In the end she had to say it.

“Because it’s dangerous. For you.”

Because he was a Goblin. The news hit Numbtongue like a brick in the chest. He staggered, and nearly sat down. Jelaqua reached for him. Numbtongue knocked her hand away.

“Move.”

He brushed past her. Jelaqua half-grabbed for him, and then gave up. Numbtongue reached the door. He found it was barred. He took off the door bar, flung open the door.

And he stopped.

Mud covered the Floodplains. Mud and water. The rains were gone. The grasses dead. It was just mud, as far as the eye could see. Mud, water.

And Goblins.

There they lay. Green bodies. Goblins wearing black armor. Carn Wolves, dotting the ground. Dead. They covered a small part of the Floodplains, really. A large battlefield and then—a stream of bodies fallen as they’d fled towards Liscor. And then broken north, towards the mountains. Dead bodies.

And the undead. They roamed the hills and valleys, sometimes falling, crawling, standing. Lifeless faces, already rotting. Goblins.

Part of Numbtongue wasn’t surprised. Part of him, a dreadful part, wasn’t even shocked by the sight. He was a warrior. He knew what to expect. But the rest of him…hurt.

Just hurt. And Numbtongue was ashamed beyond belief that it didn’t hurt more. But it couldn’t. Seven days had passed. A week. He knew what had happened.

They were dead. He was alive. That was all there was to it.

“Numbtongue?”

The Hobgoblin turned. He saw Lyonette standing in the doorway. The others were standing behind him, staring at Numbtongue or away. None of them knew what to say. As if what they could say mattered. Numbtongue looked at them. Then he walked back inside.

“Uh—”

“Erin.”

The Goblin looked at Lyonette. She blinked and hesitated.

“She’s upstairs. But—”

Numbtongue strode towards the stairs. Anxiously, Lyonette followed him. The Hobgoblin nearly tripped going up the stairs and had to catch the handrail to steady himself. His stomach rumbled. He pushed himself up and ignored Lyonette. He had to see her. He had to know. Was she—

She was there. In the room. Curled up. Weeping silently. Numbtongue stared at her and sagged against the doorframe in relief. She was alive. That was all. They’d done it. They’d—

There was no satisfaction. Erin was alive, but Headscratcher was dead. So was Shorthilt. Rabbiteater and Badarrow? The Cave Goblins were dead. They were all gone. It wasn’t enough. And that was a bitter truth for Numbtongue.

But she was still here. Numbtongue stumbled forwards. Erin didn’t respond, even though she had surely heard him come in.

For a second Numbtongue just looked down at her. He looked at her tears. And he clenched his hand into a fist. And for the first time, the numbness in him began to shift.

“Erin.”

She reacted to the sound of his voice. Erin turned. Slowly. Her eyes widened when she saw him.

“Numb…?”

She coughed. Uncurled painfully. Sat up. She tried to stand and pushed herself up from the mattress. She stood up, wobbling like Numbtongue. She looked at him. And her eyes overflowed.

She’d been crying. But—Numbtongue noticed—Erin’s cheeks weren’t wet. Her eyes were red, but she hadn’t been crying. She was now.

“Numbtongue.”

Erin stepped towards Numbtongue. She halted.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so—so sorry.”

Numbtongue felt a shock run through him. He looked at Erin. She was crying now. But all he felt was anger.

“Why?”

It surprised her. For a second Erin’s tears stopped. She gulped.

“Because I did it. I asked you to—I did this. I’m so sorry. I should never have—”

She broke up, wiping her face. Numbtongue stared at her. He looked at his hands. At his chest. And he was angry.

“We chose to stay. We fought. And we died. This was our choice. Not yours.”

“But I asked—”

Erin wiped at her eyes.

“I’m—I’m sorry. I know you chose. But all of them. Headscratcher. And Shorthilt and…so many.”

Garen. Spiderslicer. Eater of Spears. Reiss. The list rolled endlessly in Numbtongue’s head. A hundred thousand faces flashed before him. And still he did not weep. He looked at Erin, saw her sob once.

Just once. And that was it. Numbtongue looked down at his chest. He touched the red scar of the spear on his heart. Felt the pain. But it was shallow. He dug a nail into it, watched blood start to flow. It wasn’t anything close to real pain.

“Numbtongue!”

Erin saw. She grabbed at his hand. Numbtongue shook her off. He saw her red eyes. But he also saw the truth. She’d stopped crying. Maybe yesterday. Maybe this morning. But whenever it had been, the tears had stopped. They flowed now, but only a few. And in Numbtongue, there was emptiness. Pain, but not enough.

It didn’t hurt enough. Not anymore. Time had already taken the pain away. Numbtongue tried to conjure the desolation, the all-consuming despair and grief he’d felt the first few days. But it was stale. Hollow. He couldn’t cry. And that hurt most of all.

“Don’t. Please. I’m so sorry. If I could do anything—you have to stay here. In your room. If anyone sees you—I won’t let them come near the inn. I promise.”

Erin clung to Numbtongue, hugging him. He looked down at her, feeling her warm embrace. Stay here? He heard her words vaguely, took in the meaning. And he tensed.

Any Goblin could have known what Numbtongue thought in that moment. Any one of them. Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Rabbiteater, Badarrow—or a Cave Goblin, or Reiss. Anyone. But there was no one anymore. No other Goblin to read his unspoken thoughts. No one to know how he felt. So Numbtongue spoke.

“Are you ashamed of us?”

Erin jerked. She froze up and looked at Numbtongue.

“No. Never. Why would you—”

“Because. You. You are here. You want me to stay here.”

Numbtongue reached down. He grabbed Erin’s hands. Squeezed them.

“I should stay here? Hide? We did nothing wrong.”

Nothing. He remembered running with the others. Laughing. Charging together. Erin gulped.

“But if they try to kill you again—”

“Let them. I did nothing wrong. You are crying here. But it doesn’t matter. I—we—deserve better. We did nothing wrong. Why are you hiding?”

He looked at her. Erin struggled for words. Numbtongue turned away abruptly.

“I’m going.”

“Where? Numbtongue!”

She tried to stop him. But in the end, she was weaker than he was. That was one of the reasons why he loved her. Because she was strong while being weak. But she wasn’t strong now. He was disappointed in her. In all of them.

Numbtongue came down the stairs. The adventurers looked at him. One of them—Ceria, stood up.

“Numbtongue. We’re—I’m—so sorry about what happened. What you did was heroic. If there’s anything—”

The same words. Numbtongue gave Ceria a long stare that froze the words on the half-Elf’s tongue.

Sorry. They were sorry. That wasn’t the point! Numbtongue wanted to smash one of the tables. He wanted to rage. But something else burned hotter in him. He looked around. And then he strode for the door.

Numbtongue!

The magic door stood in front of Numbtongue. He plucked Celum’s mana stone from it, tossed it to one side. He reached for Liscor’s stone, placed it on the door. Then he reached for the handle.

Hands grabbed him. Numbtongue turned. Jelaqua had hold of him. So did Yvlon. And Erin.

“Don’t! They’ll attack you!”

“So?”

There was nothing they could do to him that was worse. Numbtongue looked at Erin. She didn’t understand. He reached down and tugged her hands off her arm.

“We won. We did nothing wrong. I will not hide.”

Erin looked up at him, desperately. Numbtongue bent. He looked Erin in the eyes.

“Why are you crying here?

He heard her intake of breath. Then he tore away from Jelaqua and Yvlon. He opened the door. And he ran through into the city.

 

—-

 

Goblin in the city!

“Call the Watch!”

Zevara raced down the street, hearing the shouts ahead of her. Dozens of [Guards] converged on the street where the screams and cries were coming from. She knew, without even having to look what she’d find.

A Hobgoblin stood in the streets of Liscor. Unarmed. Bare chested. Honestly, barely standing on his two legs. Of course, for anyone who hadn’t ever seen a Goblin it was probably a terrifying sight. His sharp teeth, his crimson eyes, the green skin—it was the image of a monster.

And yet, Zevara recognized this one. He didn’t have his guitar. But she knew him. And as she skidded to a stop she threw up a hand.

Hold your ground! Wait for my order or I will rip your tails off with my bare claws!

She screamed at the City Watch who’d surrounded the Hobgoblin, forming a ring of steel around him. And the doorway that led to The Wandering Inn. It was embarrassing, but for a second when she saw it, Zevara’s heart leapt a bit in her chest. But then she covered the feeling with anger and annoyance. What was Erin thinking?

“No one move!”

Another voice rang out, silencing more of the panicked shouts. Liscor’s citizenry had fled the instant Numbtongue had come through the door, but with dozens of the City Watch on the scene and now Wall Lord Ilvriss striding forwards, they returned to stare. The Hobgoblin looked around. He looked—well, confused was the best word for it. He stared at Zevara and then went to looking around the city, completely ignoring the weapons trained on his chest.

“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He’s one of the good Goblins! Aw, damn it—”

A Selphid emerged from the doorway, holding up her hands. Jelaqua Ivirith, in a Human’s body, appeared on the scene. Zevara didn’t recognize her, but the voice and more importantly, the pale body was the key. She glared at the Selphid.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“He opened the door, not us! Don’t shoot!”

“Hold your fire on my order!”

Zevara repeated her instructions just in case more of the City Watch arriving by the moment hadn’t gotten the message. Ilvriss raised his voice.

“And mine. Hold your ground!”

The Drakes and Gnolls shifted, a bit uneasily. Not so much out of fear of the Hobgoblin;  they could see the same thing Zevara could, but at the incongruity of the situation. Here was a Goblin. They killed Goblins. But this Goblin—

They had to get it back through the doorway before more people arrived. Zevara saw more people gathering, drawn by the screams. They stared at the Hob and pointed at Numbtongue. She cursed.

“Where’s Relc?”

“Here.”

Relc walked forwards. Zevara turned, ready to curse at him, but she stopped when she saw he was followed closely by Embria. Relc didn’t seem as upbeat as usual. He stared at Numbtongue.

“A Hobgoblin in the city?”

Embria’s tail lashed. She looked at Zevara.

“We can force him back through the door.”

“That’s my intention. Relc, push the Goblin back and close that door before we have more witnesses. I’ll speak to Miss Solstice—”

“No.”

Relc folded his arms. Zevara paused. Embria stared at her father.

What did you say, Senior Guardsman?”

“I’m not doing it. Find someone else.”

It took a second for Zevara to process what Relc had said. He was refusing? For all he was lazy, egotistic, and undisciplined, he’d never refused an order in his life. She snapped at him.

“You’re a Senior Guardsman under my command. Failure to obey means—”

“I know what it means. I’m. Not. Doing. It. He’s not doing anything wrong.”

Relc looked past Zevara at Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin was just looking around. He stared at the Drakes and Gnolls behind the City Watch. They were staring at him, as warily as he was watching them.

A Goblin. Of course they’d seen the battlefield, if not during the siege than after. They had to know what a Hobgoblin looked like. And they knew what had happened. There was a strange feeling in the air. Not hostility like Zevara would expect. Not fear either, not much. Just…

“Dad! What are you doing?

Embria hissed at Relc. He looked at her.

“I said no.”

“You can’t do that! They’ll court martial you! At the very least you’ll lose your job—”

“I’m not doing it.”

The Watch Captain and Wing Commander looked at Relc. It was Zevara who gave up. She’d investigate this strange change in Relc later. Right now—she looked around.

“Olesm.”

She caught the [Strategist] as he appeared. Olesm stared at the Hobgoblin.

“That’s—Numbtongue. I think.”

“He’s one of Miss Solstice’s Goblins, isn’t he? We have to put him back through the doorway. He could cause a panic—”

“By himself?”

Olesm looked around. Zevara gritted her teeth.

“We can’t have Goblins in the city. You know that. And it’s not Liscor that’s in danger. He’d be in more danger here. Just take a few [Guardsman], push him through. I’ll cover for you. Now—”

There was an argument at the doorway. Zevara could hear voices. And then a familiar shape appeared. She turned in relief, breaking away from Zevara. There she was. Zevara could curse her out, get the Hobgoblin out of sight before someone tried to kill him or a panic started and sort this all out. She raised her voice to bellow.

Olesm looked over as well. His eyes widened. He stood straighter.

“Erin—”

“Human, this is completely—”

The two Drakes broke off. They stared as Erin Solstice came through the doorway. Ilvriss, who might have been about to shout something at her, stopped mid-inhalation. He paused. So did the citizens of Liscor.

They all knew her. The Human girl. The [Innkeeper]. Annoying, strange, full of as many good things as bad things. It wasn’t that they all liked her. Some hated her guts. But they all knew her. In her way, she’d become a part of the city, as well-known as any Senior Guardsman. And they thought they knew her.

But not like this. Erin Solstice walked past Numbtongue as he looked around. Her eyes were red. Tears ran from her eyes. Not even trying to hide it. She kept wiping at her face, but the tears kept coming. She approached Olesm and Zevara, stumbling, barely able to see. The two Drakes backed up. They couldn’t help it.

“Erin?”

Zevara forgot herself for a second. She stared at the girl. And then she looked around desperately. Olesm looked at her, and then Zevara nodded urgently to Erin. He cleared his throat.

“Erin, you’re um, crying.”

She didn’t reply. She was hiccupping. Tears ran down her face, dripping onto her shirt. Zevara coughed. She tried to look anywhere but at Erin. Behind her, Relc and Embria had gone still. Everyone was staring. Zevara began to grow embarrassed for Erin’s sake.

“You should go back to your inn, Miss Solstice. We’ll…settle things without you.”

She tried to urge Erin back towards the doorway. But the Human girl refused to go. She was crying harder now. Sobbing. The sounds forced themselves out of her chest, painful, uncontrollable. Every eye was on her. The Drakes and Gnolls stared. And then they began to look away.

Tears. It wasn’t something you were supposed to do in public. Maybe a few tears. But this? The Drakes could barely stand to look at her. The Gnolls were different, but no less uncomfortable for other reasons.

“Erin—”

Olesm was at a loss. He reached out, but Erin wouldn’t let him take her by the shoulder. Ilvriss strode over. He looked at Erin.

“Miss Solstice. Let me escort you back to your inn. This is clearly not the moment.”

He swirled his cloak, unfastening it and trying to shield Erin with it. This time Erin looked up.

No.

It came out as a sob. Ilvriss paused.

“But you’re—”

No. No, no, no

Erin backed away from him. She was wiping her face. Her nose was running. And she was crying. Crying harder than Zevara could ever remember weeping herself. Except in her room, quietly, as a child. It was a terrible mess.

And everyone was watching. Drakes. Guardsmen. Adults and children. It wasn’t something you’d ever forget. But Erin refused to go back to her inn. She kept crying. Because…because of something Numbtongue had said.

Why are you crying here? Why are you hiding? As if she was ashamed of her tears. As if they were only supposed to be in her inn, in a room, behind closed doors. Because Goblins didn’t understand tears. They didn’t understand embarrassment. But Erin wasn’t embarrassed. Not of feeling sad. So she kept crying. And the tears that had dried up fell once more.

“I—we should deal with the Hobgoblin.”

Zevara backed up, muttering to the others. She tried not to look at Erin. It was so difficult. None of the Drakes around her could manage it. But Erin refused to let her go.

“No! No! He didn’t do anything. Don’t hurt him.”

“He can’t be in the city. It’s a matter of safety.”

“He fought for you! He didn’t do—do—”

Erin started hiccupping. It was almost funny. In fact, Zevara did hear a few laughs from the crowd behind her. She turned and the laughter cut off.

“In regards to the Goblin—”

Ilvriss began, but he stopped at Numbtongue moved. He’d been looking around in silence, ignoring the tableau. Now he stepped forwards.

The City Watch tensed. Numbtongue looked at a dozen spears aimed at his heart. He looked past the armored City Watch, at the people of Liscor. Then he spoke. And his voice was loud in the silence.

“We fought for you.”

The citizens and [Guardspeople] shifted. Numbtongue looked at them. Gnolls and Drakes. Staring at him with fear, contempt, confusion. He shook his head. Looked around the city. Waved an arm.

“All of this. We fought for it. We came. We fought. We died. We fought for you. Why didn’t you let us in?”

A stir ran through the crowd. Numbtongue looked around.

“We came here. You killed us. Why? We did nothing wrong.”

“Goblins attacked Liscor.”

Zevara didn’t hear who said it. Numbtongue shook his head.

“But we fought for you. We did. We fought. Why did we die? For what? For this? For stones and you? For what?”

He shouted. The crowd was silent. Numbtongue looked around.

“We didn’t even know what was inside. We never saw this. We didn’t know. But we fought for you. Goblins attacked Liscor. Goblins defended it. We bled for this place. For what? What was it for?

He had tears in his eyes. A Goblin’s tears. Zevara had no idea they could cry. Numbtongue looked around. He took a step. The spears raised and he stared at them.

“What did I do?

He looked lost. The tips of the spears wavered. The City Watch looked back at Zevara. She bit her lip.

“Lower your weapons.”

“Zevara!”

Embria hissed at her. Ilvriss turned his head. He met Zevara’s eyes. Then he looked at Numbtongue.

“Guardsmen, lower your blades. Clearly you were called here in error. I see no Goblin.”

The City Watch looked at him. Uncertainly, they lowered their arms. Zevara looked at Ilvriss, heart pounding. Numbtongue stared at the Wall Lord. Ilvriss turned.

“This is clearly a mistake. Watch Captain Zevara, if you disperse the crowds, then—”

He broke off as Numbtongue walked towards him. Ilvriss turned back, and he instinctively reached for the hilt of his sword. Numbtongue walked up to Ilvriss. He and the Wall Lord were nearly of a height. The Hobgoblin stared at the Drake.

“Do you see me?”

“What?”

“Do you see me?”

Numbtongue repeated himself, insistently. Ilvriss blinked. Numbtongue raised his voice.

“I’m here. What did I do?”

The Drake’s eyes flickered. He half-turned to looked around. Numbtongue walked in front of him.

“I’m right here. Can you see me?”

Silence. Ilvriss looked at Numbtongue. Then he nodded slowly.

“I see you.”

“What did I do?”

It was the same question. Zevara heard only silence. She bit her tongue. Numbtongue looked around, lost. Then someone answered him.

“You’re a monster. You were born. That’s what you did.”

Relc looked up. His scales were pale. He leaned on his spear. Numbtongue looked at him. The [Spearmaster] looked at him, meeting his eyes. At last, Numbtongue nodded.

“Then monsters saved your city.”

“They did.”

That was all they said. Numbtongue walked past Relc. The City guards began to raise their weapons. But they looked at Zevara and Ilvriss as they did. And neither Drake moved. So instead, the City Watch stood aside.

Numbtongue walked past them. Stumbling. The citizens drew back, some in fear. Others just staring. And for once, they noticed how thin he was. They took in the scar on his chest, leaking blood. They saw his tears. And they parted.

“We should—”

Zevara got no further. Erin followed Numbtongue. She was still crying. Olesm followed her. Ilvriss turned to Zevara. He didn’t say anything. Then he walked away. Zevara hesitated. Then she waved. Slowly, she began to follow Numbtongue and Erin. It was a bright spring day. Noisy in the rest of the city, as people went about their daily lives. But as the Goblin and the Human walked through the city, it grew quiet.

 

—-

 

Goblin.

It was a refrain that echoed through the city. People on the streets panicked. Some grabbed weapons. Others fled. Zevara’s City Watch spread out ahead of Numbtongue, stopping people from doing either. The Hobgoblin stumbled as he looked around.

In another direction, Erin walked. Drakes and Gnolls stopped and stared at her as she passed. And whatever mood they had changed upon seeing her. Erin walked towards the Hive.

“It’s a monster. You’re the City Watch! Do your job!”

Lism hissed at Zevara. Numbtongue stared at him, and then at the stalls. He walked past them, wandering from place to place. Every so often he would stop.

“What’s that?”

“A tavern.”

“What’s that?”

“A butcher’s.”

Someone had to explain to him what all these places were. Numbtongue knew some of the names, but not why. A place to cut up meat. A place to drink a certain type of drink. He came to a large building.

“What’s that?”

“A public bath house.”

He had no idea what that was. So he went inside. The day manager panicked when he saw Numbtongue walking past the steaming pools of hot water. He fought his way over to Zevara.

“You have to take him out!”

“He’s looking around.”

“Yes, but if a Goblin enters the baths, we’ll have to drain the entire thing!”

“Why?”

“It’s a Goblin.

The Drake looked at her as if she was insane. Lism was still arguing, following the [Guardsmen] at a safe distance. One of the Gnolls with a bow and no arrow nocked just stared at Numbtongue as he bent to touch the hot water. The day manager groaned.

“He’s never seen a bath before? He’s tasting the water.”

“That’s a monster for you.”

Lism interjected unhelpfully. A Drake who’d been following the strange procession looked at Lism.

“That’s the same Goblin that lives in the Human’s inn. He was one of the ones who fought for the city.”

“So? It’s a monster.”

“I’ve never heard a monster speak. Or cry.”

“Oh? And I suppose you want to take a bath with that thing? Look at it!”

Lism began to argue with the Drake. Meanwhile, Numbtongue had wandered out of the bathhouse. Zevara left the arguing pair of Drakes behind as a few more people raised their voices.

From bathhouse to an alchemist’s shop. And then the Adventurer’s Guild. Numbtongue stared at it for a long time before going in.

Numbtongue?

Selys had heard what was going on. She still jumped at seeing him. Numbtongue wandered up to the desk. He stared at something on it. Zevara grew pale. So did Selys.

A bunch of Goblin ears were sitting on the desk. Bounties being turned in. The adventurers standing in line turned pale. They’d been out hunting the undead zombies. Numbtongue stared at them. His face barely changed.

“Bounties? Adventurers?”

“That’s—that’s right.”

Selys stared at Zevara. The Drake pointed, and an adventurer swept the ears into a bag of holding. Numbtongue looked at him.

“Ears. How much for Goblin ears?”

“It’s—it’s just to keep count of the undead. They’re zombies. Ghouls. It’s not—”

“How much?”

“A copper coin for a pair. If they’re Hobs, silver.”

Numbtongue looked over at an adventurer. A Human with a scar over one eye. One of Gemhammer, Earlia’s adventurers. He pointed to his eye.

“I got this fighting Goblins.”

Numbtongue pointed to his chest.

“I got this fighting Humans.”

Then he looked back at Selys.

“Ears. Adventurers get paid? Then pay me.”

“For…?”

Selys’ gaze locked on Numbtongue’s ears with everyone else. He shook his head.

“Ears. We killed Goblins. Big army. You saw. Redfangs. Pay me for them.”

Someone laughed. Numbtongue turned to look at them.

“We’re adventurers. That’s what they told me. We killed an army. Give us a bounty.”

Selys looked helplessly around. No one was there to give her any aid.

“I’m sorry Numbtongue. But I can’t—there’s no way we could afford that. Even if we could calculate how many Goblins you killed.”

Numbtongue waited. The Hobgoblin looked around and nodded.

“Okay.”

He walked back towards the door. There he turned.

“Were we adventurers? Or pets? Because we fought the Raskghar. We found them. We fought Goblins. I didn’t see you there.”

He looked around. And then he was gone.

 

—-

 

As a Goblin wandered, Erin walked through the streets. She couldn’t stop crying. Out here, the sadness of it all hit her harder than in her room. Here—she saw Drakes and Gnolls. Laughing, until they saw her. Going about their lives. As if they didn’t care. Well, she cared. And she refused to stop.

They saw her in the street and they stared. Some went up to her ask if something was wrong. Others treated her as if she was doing something illegal. Erin didn’t care.

A fight broke out as she passed. A Gnoll began arguing with a Drake about Numbtongue being in the city. Someone threw a punch. A brawl started after Numbtongue left the Adventurer’s Guild, over a word someone had hurled at his back.

Monster.

Numbtongue wandered. Erin walked towards the Hive. She walked past the Soldiers, who looked at her. She walked through the Hive and the Antinium stopped. She walked into a room filled with symbols drawn in paint on the walls. There she found Pawn.

“Erin—”

“I’m so sorry.”

Erin sobbed as she reached out. She hugged Pawn as Workers and Soldiers gathered around. She hugged him, crying onto his hard body. That was all she said.

“I’m so sorry.”

And.

“Thank you.”

What else was there to say? Pawn held her and trembled. And sometime later, Erin’s tears stopped. But she didn’t. She walked back up into Liscor and found Numbtongue standing by a fountain. Less [Guardsmen] were surrounding him. A brawl had started in two separate streets and a bathhouse was filled with arguing Gnolls and Drakes. Someone was trying to drown Lism.

“Erin.”

She found people she recognized in the street. Halrac and his Griffon Hunt. Erin just went up to the [Scout] and hugged him. Her eyes were wet, but she didn’t cry.

“Why’d they die?”

And Halrac had no answer. He remained very still as Erin hugged him. Gingerly, as if he were afraid she’d break, he patted her once on the back. Revi hugged Erin.

“I’m sorry.”

And Numbtongue looked back and saw Erin embracing Krshia. He looked around as the Gnoll woman came up to him. And he spoke to her, briefly. Then he got up and walked.

Children ran away from him. Children ran up to him. Children threw stones at him and one was spanked and the others were not. Where Numbtongue passed, some Drakes and Gnolls shouted curses. Others argued. Some were silent.

Goblins killed my wife!

A Gnoll struggled to get at Numbtongue. The [Bard] stared into wild eyes.

“Humans killed my family.”

He received only a snarl in response. Numbtongue wandered on.

He wasn’t helping people. Nor was he changing them. Not really. A mob came to lynch him. Relc and Klbkch broke it up with a dozen [Guardsmen]. Zevara counted two dozen brawls stopped by midday. And countless more petty arguments and individual fights.

“It’s turning into a riot. We have to get him out of here.”

She made the call. Numbtongue looked around as the [Guardsman] formed ranks. With shields facing out. Erin tugged him towards the gates. He walked, tripping, half-falling. Stomach rumbling. They led him towards the door and vanished. But the fighting remained.

It was about the Goblins. Some of the people in Liscor spoke up.

“I saw them fighting. Those five Goblins were at the Human’s inn for over a month! They saved our people from the Raskghar!”

“They’re all the same kind. They’re Goblins.

“It was Goblins who defend Liscor.”

“It was Goblins who attacked it.

“Thanks to the Humans!”

“Goblins killed my daughter in the Second Antinium War.”

“Goblins slaughtered my family I will never, ever—”

“I didn’t know a Goblin could cry.”

“I didn’t know Goblins could speak.”

Arguments. Fighting. Zevara stood in her office in the barracks and listened to her city boiling. For some reason, it didn’t bother her. It was familiar.

“Watch Captain, requesting permission to call in off-duty officers and Embria’s [Soldiers]. Some are already keeping the peace, but we are understaffed.”

Klbkch stood behind her. Embria turned.

“It’s familiar.”

He paused.

“What is?”

“This. You know, after the Second Antinium War—before you lot were in the city—the same thing happened. I was just a new [Guardswoman]. But I remember the same thing happening.”

“People drowning each other in the bathhouse?”

Zevara smiled.

“Riots. Fights. Half the city fought the other half. Argued about the Antinium.”

Klbkch was silent for a moment.

“I see. About the reserves. May I call them?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Also, Watch Captain, I realize this is not the moment. But when you have a chance—I have a proposal. I would like to place more Antinium in the City Watch.”

Zevara looked up, surprised. Below, someone crashed into a desk as a fight began in the ranks. From the impact, it sounded like Relc had started it.

“Antinium? But you’re the only Prognugator. That means you’d want to put Workers or Soldiers in the Watch.”

“Yes.”

“Would they be the…special ones?”

Klbkch paused.

“Not necessarily.”

“So you want to put Antinium in the Watch. Workers aren’t equipped for a fight and they have no names. And Soldiers can’t speak.”

“That is correct.”

She mulled it over.

“Granted.”

Klbkch nodded. Zevara turned back to watching the chaos. She kept watching as she saw a group of Drakes fighting with an equally large group of Gnolls before Klbkch led fifteen of her people into the fight. It was chaos. But just what she’d expected, really. And in her head, a Hobgoblin turned to her.

“What did we do?”

And Zevara wondered. She looked to the eastern gates. And she closed her eyes. And she thought.

That was all.

 

—-

 

Numbtongue didn’t know what to think after they made him go back to the inn. Erin was—better. Or maybe she had just stopped crying. She was hugging Mrsha. And speaking. And he was still empty. The anger had guttered out sometime on his long walk. Now he was just tired.

But there was something he had to do. So he got up as the adventurers argued and talked to Erin. After all, they weren’t his friends. Not really. If he had any friend, it was Erin. And she…wasn’t’ so much a friend as something else.

“Lyonette.”

She jumped. It was the first time Numbtongue had said her name. But the Hob was full of firsts. He asked for her sword. She hesitated, and then handed it to him.

“Wait—”

They tried to stop him at the door. But Numbtongue ignored them and none of them could stop him. Not without killing him. He walked out into the Floodplains alone.

It was muddy. There were undead. Numbtongue walked past them. Sometimes he had to fight, but they were zombies. A few Ghouls roamed around. But the adventurers had come out of the inn and handled them. And Numbtongue walked further.

He stopped as he spotted a tall undead among the others. A huge, hulking Hobgoblin, shuffling around lifelessly. Numbtongue stared up at him.

“Eater of Spears.”

The zombie did not react to the name. It turned. Numbtongue stared up at him. It hurt. Not just to see him. But to see what a waste it was. A zombie. If Eater of Spears could have seen himself in death, he would have been offended. At least be a Ghoul! Or a Draug. He would have been pleased to be a Draug, surely. And what a monster of destruction he would have been. But as he was, he was just a zombie. Practically harmless. Numbtongue walked past him as Eater of Spears looked around sightlessly.

He had never met Eater of Spears. He had never talked with him. But somehow, Numbtongue knew what he would have said. Somehow…

It was further up. Past the Floodplains, towards the mountains. Numbtongue climbed, legs trembling despite the food Erin had made him eat. He climbed higher, choosing the surest footholds.

A memory. A Goblin thing. It was a thing of Chieftains. A power of their people. Or a curse. Because a Goblin could remember all the failures, all the triumphs of the past. All the grief.

There he was. Up the hillside, slumped in place. Numbtongue climbed higher. A zombie tripped and tumbled past him. The Hobgoblin gasped with the effort. He could sense the adventurers following him. But for now he was alone.

He reached the place, panting, propping himself up on his sword. He looked down.

A Goblin had died here. A Hobgoblin. One among many. But not the same as the rest. Unlike the others, who had died with their backs to the sky, he was lying on his. He stared up at the sky, a smile on his face. Rot had yet to consume him, but had started.

And he was dead. Pyrite’s chest had been torn open. Fire had burned him. Numbtongue looked down and recalled the face in his dream. He tried to connect it to the face he saw below him. But there was nothing that matched.

Slowly, Numbtongue sat. He looked around, but the battleaxe that Pyrite had wielded was gone. Numbtongue shrugged and reached for something. He fished at Pyrite’s side and pulled at a rough hemp sack. Then he hesitated and reached for the Hobgoblin’s head.

Pyrite’s jaws were closed. It was hard to open them, but Numbtongue saw what he knew was there in the back of Pyrite’s mouth. A glowing blue gemstone. Numbtongue plucked it out and put it in the sack. Then he just sat, watching the adventurers climb towards him.

A memory. He looked down at his hand and felt the warmth. Pyrite stared up at the sky, still smiling. And Numbtongue looked over.

“You did it. Good job.”

Then he looked up. A Ghoul leapt at him. Numbtongue rolled and slashed. The Ghoul staggered as Numbtongue’s sword slashed deep into his shoulder. The [Bard] turned. He saw the Ghoul’s body tense. Something in it told him it would lunge—here. Numbtongue dodged, and the teeth snapped down inches away from his arm. He swung his sword in an arc and the Ghoul collapsed.

“Thanks.”

Numbtongue looked down at Pyrite. Then he stood. He tried to lift the Hob, then just gave up and cut off his head.

 

—-

 

He buried him with the others. There were five graves, on a hill across from the inn. Numbtongue dug the sixth. He said no prayers, spoke no words when he placed the head in the ground and covered it with soil. When it was done, he looked at the markers.

Garen. Noears. Headscratcher. Shorthilt. Reiss. And Pyrite. There were others, but these were the ones he’d found. He looked out and saw Eater of Spears, wandering about. No one had dared end him yet.

Graves. The dead. Liscor. And Erin. Numbtongue sat down. He lay his head back, against Headscratcher’s tombstone. As he did, he noticed a small yellow flower lay on his grave and Shorthilt’s. Numbtongue looked down at it. And he saw a small white Gnoll tending flowers in his mind.

For some reason that made him smile. He closed his eyes. As he did, he rummaged in the sack he’d taken. He pulled something out.

The blue gemstone. Numbtongue felt at it with his claws, then shrugged and put it in his mouth. He bit down, feeling the hard stone resisting his teeth. Hard, harder…

Crack.

Numbtongue opened his eyes. He blinked, took the stone out, and spat out two broken pieces of tooth.

“Ow.”

 

He put the gemstone back in the bag. Maybe he needed to practice. And he needed a pickaxe. Numbtongue closed his eyes again.

 

[Miner Class Obtained!]

[Miner Level 1!]

[Skill – Durable Picks obtained!]

 

The Hobgoblin opened one eye. Level 1. And he’d only thought about it. But it was enough. He didn’t need the class. He had a memory.

How to spot a vein in the mountain. Which spots contained the best gemstones. How to spot a dangerously loose shelf of rock. How to fight. How to dig up grubs.

Knowledge. Numbtongue’s hand twitched. The dirt on Pyrite’s grave blew a bit as the wind picked up. The Hobgoblin looked over at it. He closed his eyes and tried to dream again. But the dream was gone. Only the memories remained. A gift.

Numbtongue closed his eyes, covered his face, and began to cry.

 


Previous Chapter Next Chapter